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The Soviet Jews

The Soviet Cage: Anti-Semitism in Russia

by William Korey
Viking, 369 pp., $12.50

Jewish Nationality and Soviet Politics: The Jewish Sections of the CPSU, 1917-1930

by Zvi Y. Gitelman
Princeton, 488 pp., $20.00

Perhaps it is the natural order of things for Jews to be disliked by the members of the majority community among whom they live. A minority, and especially a minority with distinctive physical and social features, is always at risk in this respect: the vulgar masses will readily deride and insult anyone who is at all different, if only as a means to bolster their own sense of superiority and togetherness—unless restrained from doing so by education, social mores, or the law. In Russia there were some extra reasons which made the country particularly prone to widespread anti-Semitism—a superstitious and ignorant peasantry, a nationalistic church, the fact that Jews were by law and by custom maintained as a race apart and actively prevented from assimilating, their distinctive language, clothing, habits, and diet.

Yet how little point there is in trying to find reasons for Russian (or any other) anti-Semitism is shown in a few fascinating pages of Mr. Korey’s excellent new study of current Soviet anti-Semitism. He compares the popular reasons which Russians give for disliking Jews nowadays and under the old regime. One would have thought that fifty-six years of Marxism-Leninism (or whatever it should be called), of “progressive” education, of enforced atheism, of changed social conditions among both Russians and Jews, of the great expansion of assimilation would, at the very least, have led to a change in popular myths about the Jews. Not a bit of it—the reasons for dislike remain virtually the same. The Jews are exclusive and tend to keep to themselves, they are dishonest and manage to exploit others, they shirk their public obligations and feather their own nests, and they avoid physical work if they can.

There are, of course, more exceptional, extreme, and eccentric attitudes. The writer Rozanov maintained that he had reliable information that Jews use the blood of a Christian child for their Passover ceremonial, and half a century or more later, after the Second World War, one of the Soviet refugees interviewed in the course of an interviewing project organized by Harvard claimed to have witnessed this Jewish ceremonial “with my own eyes.”

But it is not the existence of anti-Semitism that matters. What matters is the state of public mores in relation to anti-Semitism, and the extent to which the law of a country will promote the equality of all minorities before the law. Social inequality is of relatively little importance. It matters a great deal if Jews are excluded from education or the professions or are denied protection against insults or even violence; it matters a great deal if they are refused the liberty to speak, teach, or learn Yiddish or Hebrew, if they so wish, or to practice their religious ceremonials. It matters not at all, in my view, if they are refused membership of certain clubs: that is a matter of good taste, and the majority are entitled to behave with bad taste or bad manners if they so wish.

The Russian Jew, or Soviet Jew, today, had or has three inalienable rights if the ordinary standards of Western civilization are to be regarded as applicable to Russia, old or new: the right to assimilate without suffering any kind of discrimination; the right to practice the Jewish faith; and the right to pursue Jewish culture. There has never been any period in the history of Russia when a Jew has enjoyed all these three rights. They are essentially rights which apply specifically to the peculiar position of Jews in Soviet society today—a religious as much as, or even more than, a national minority, without territory of its own, whose members as often as not are not even conscious of Jewishness, or if they are, above all desire to be considered Russians like other Russians.

The Soviet authorities have singled the Jews out for particularly oppressive treatment in the terms of their own nationality laws. On the one hand they deny to the Jews, on different pretexts varying in their degrees of chicanery, the national minority rights of education, language, and culture which they grudgingly concede to other minorities. On the other hand, since 1932, that is to say two years before the setting up of the quite ridiculously unreal Jewish Autonomous Republic of Birobidjan (in which there are very few Jews), they have insisted on the entry “Jew” in the space in the internal passport labeled “nationality.” In this way they have made sure that, for example, a Jew who has been born and bred in Leningrad, is procommunist and atheist, and completely Russian by education and culture, will often be insulted and discriminated against, and no doubt turned into an Israeli nationalist. Such is the stupidity of a socialist police state in dealing with national minorities—a worthy successor of the Imperial police state, which at any rate accepted Jews as equals in all respects if they became converted to the official national religion, but turned many more into revolutionaries.

In the past few years many Soviet Jews, and Jews and non-Jews outside the Soviet Union on their behalf, have been asserting a fourth right, the right to emigrate to Israel. Mr. Korey’s book is indeed primarily devoted to this question, though his balanced and erudite treatment of the problem does not ignore the question of the great majority of Soviet Jews who do not wish to emigrate. Now, from the point of view of Israel and Zionism generally, Jews all over the world are regarded as one people, owing primary loyalty to Israel, and the right to emigrate to Israel from the Soviet Union if one is a Jew becomes quite logical. This is generally the way in which the right is asserted by those Soviet Jews who wish to emigrate.

From the Soviet point of view this demand is regarded as disloyal and anti-Soviet—hence the harassment and persecution of those who apply to emigrate and of their families, the fake trials which have been staged, and the savage sentences. (This sordid chapter of recent Soviet history has been particularly well studied by Mr. Korey.) But actually the right to emigrate from the Soviet Union is in no way peculiar to the Jews. It should apply equally to Jews and non-Jews alike, if the many international obligations subscribed to by the Soviet authorities under United Nations auspices have any meaning whatever—in other words, the Ukrainian from Kiev should have as much right to join his relatives in Toronto as the Jew from Kiev to join his relatives in Tel Aviv. There is therefore no particular need to invoke the Zionist view of Jewry in order to justify the right of any Soviet Jew to emigrate.

The answer to present day questions usually lies in the past, and a recent study by Zvi Gitelman of the early period in the life of Soviet Jewry (1917-1930) is therefore particularly welcome. It is detailed, fully documented, balanced, and scholarly, and should become the standard historical study of this period in the English language for some time to come. The book is concerned mainly with the so-called Jewish sections of the Communist Party whose task it was to transform the overwhelmingly Yiddish-speaking, religiously orthodox mass of Russian Jewry into good Soviet citizens. The fanatically atheist communists who made up the Evsektsiia (as the Jewish sections were called) were 100 percent assimilationists who confidently believed, with the unrealistic optimism which always characterizes the dawn of socialism, that the complete absorption of the Jews into the kind of supranational Soviet life that was destined to supersede outmoded nationalism was only a matter of time.

Meanwhile, for purely practical reasons, Soviet Jews enjoyed a period of relative tolerance under the rule of the Evsektsiia, which they had not enjoyed before, and have not enjoyed since. For one thing, sheer necessity dictated the tolerance of Yiddish schools and culture, a tolerance which survived the liquidation of the Evsektsiia and indeed lasted until the big break in Soviet policy toward the Jews which took place after the war. (In 1926 over 70 percent of Soviet Jews indicated Yiddish as their mother tongue; today the same percentage is at most 17 percent, and possibly smaller.) Again, the policy of encouraging or even enforcing assimilation, which was official Bolshevik policy from the start, was to some extent tempered by the fact that all overt manifestations of anti-Semitism (except such as were actually instigated by the authorities—as happened for example in the campaign against Trotsky at the end of the Twenties) were severely put down. How far this policy was dictated by love of Jews is another matter: the main reason for it was that anti-Semitism and anticommunism were often indistinguishable because of the comparatively large number (much magnified by popular imagination) of Jews active in Soviet official life, and particularly in the security service.

Assimilation, a big decline in the use of Yiddish, and above all the virtual elimination of Jews from positions of any prominence in the Party and the police during the course of the terror of the Thirties all led to a drastic change of policy during and especially after the war. Ever-present anti-Semitism was no longer a menace to the communists, and indeed presented a number of attractions in a police state. The Jews offered a convenient scapegoat in such campaigns as the one that was conducted against so-called economic crimes, in which the overwhelming majority of defendants (at any rate as publicized) were plainly identified as Jews. The intended moral was plain: decent Russians do not cheat and speculate, this is the natural propensity of the Jew.

Indifference to or encouragement of anti-Jewish discrimination became the usual practice in education and in many fields of employment. (Not all—the Soviet authorities and their apologists can always quote impressive percentages of Jews in the arts or the law. How, one wonders, do they know the number of Jews? It would be impossible to calculate this kind of percentage in England.) Again, this discrimination was, and is, no doubt very popular with many non-Jews who are always ready to be persuaded that they are being kept out of their rightful inheritance by a Jewish conspiracy rather than by their own inadequacies.

A new dimension to the whole problem is presented by Zionism and Israel. Anti-Zionism is not new in Soviet practice, though it is of interest to note that the Communist Party seems to have been quite tolerant of Zionists in the early years until (as Mr. Gitelman shows) it was persuaded to persecute them by the zealots of the Evsektsiia. In general, the melancholy lesson to be derived from Mr. Gitelman’s careful study is that much of the style of current Soviet anti-Semitism (vicious pornographic cartoons about immoral rabbis, antireligious vulgarity, and the like) originated in the Evsektsiia. On the other hand, the attempt of the Evsektsiia fanatics to create a secular Soviet Yiddish culture was a dismal failure, as one could have expected. For there are, in truth, only three possible ways of life for the Soviet Jewish minority: complete assimilation; assimilation in most respects, side by side with the pursuit of Jewish religious or Jewish secular culture, or both; and emigration to Israel.

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