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Soviet Anti-Semitism

In response to:

Selling Anti-Semitism in Moscow from the November 16, 1972 issue

To the Editors:

I would like to enter a strong protest against the review of Yuri Ivanov’s Caution: Zionism! by Mikhail Agursky which you headlined “Selling Anti-Semitism in Moscow,” (November 16, 1972)….

1) Agursky has falsified and distorted the contents of the book, and Reddaway has been something less than professional in not checking the English translation against the Russian original. I did, and I discovered that pages 141-164 of the English version of Caution: Zionism! are not in the 1969 Russian book at all, and judging from internal evidence, they were written in 1970, making the English version in fact a second edition, largely for export. Moreover, most of the anti-Semitic aspects of the book are in these pages, indicating that Yuri Ivanov’s anti-Semitism was not toned down in translation, it was intensified. The ordinary reader of NYRB would have difficulty in discovering from Agursky’s review that the major portion of Caution: Zionism! (three chapters out of five) deals not with Soviet Jews but with Zionism, particularly the political Zionism which established and maintains the state of Israel. Any reviewer who was not simply using the book as a springboard for his own ambitions should have dealt with Ivanov’s claim that Zionists collaborated with the Nazis and support West German neo-Nazis (pp. 73-81, 149-151), and with the charge that Israeli policies are racist, as manifested in the issue of who is a Jew (pp. 161-162), in the inferior social and economic position of Israel’s Oriental Jews (pp. 103, 114), in the treatment of Arabs, and in the attitudes of even small children that it is not only permissable but proper to wipe out an Arab village (pp. 37-38, 104-108).

2) It is by no means a foregone conclusion that when Ivanov says “Zionist” he means “Jew,” and a serious reviewer should have dealt with the question of whether to be anti-Zionist (as Ivanov unequivocally is) is to be anti-Semitic. I have devoted most of my career to a study of Soviet religious policy, and I felt that Ivanov was writing in the typical language of Soviet polemics, within an ideological structure which should not tolerate religion and will not tolerate political opposition. Within this rather rigid framework, Ivanov was making two rather interesting points: that the roots of anti-Semitism are economic, and that nationalism preserves anti-Semitism.

3) Agursky was using the review to set forth his own idea that the only solution to the Jewish question in the Soviet Union is for Jews to emigrate to Israel, a position perilously close to the “Black-Hundred” one he says survives in the USSR from pre-Revolutionary times. The Black Hundreds, translator Reddaway to the contrary, were a paramilitary group with a political organization and the tacit support of both the tsar and the Russian Orthodox Church; the Black Hundreds blamed Russia’s miseries on foreigners, particularly the Jews, suggesting that they “go back where they came from.” But Ivanov’s point is that Jews belong where they are found, have no single unified culture (a point also made by the historian Salo Baron), and go off the track completely when they support anything other than communist internationalism.

4) Agursky has also distorted the course of the Russian Revolution. The first two chapters of Ivanov’s book make quite clear that before the Revolution, Zionism was a powerful adversary against the Revolution and competed for the loyalties of the Jewish proletariat. At issue was the question of who should lead the Revolution. The Jews were an important element, because Marxist theoreticians—Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin—agreed that on the basis of territory and language, the Jews were not a nation. Nevertheless, they had to and did play an important part in Soviet nationality policy, a policy Stalin once admitted was only temporary. At this point in time, however, Soviet nationality policy has been all but institutionalized….

Ethel Dunn

Soviet Union, Berkeley, California

Peter B Reddaway replies:

Mrs. Dunn seems anxious to impute dishonorable motives, and implies that Mr. Agursky is “using the book as a springboard for his own ambitions.” The least one might expect to accompany ad hominem insinuations of this sort would be a frank admission that the reprisals for publishing critical writings abroad can be very severe in the USSR, and that Mr. Agursky was therefore showing courage in the face of a considerable risk. But Mrs. Dunn chooses to ignore this: she is not imputing any ambition to achieve martyrdom.

In fact, however, no drastic reprisals have—at any rate as yet—befallen Mr. Agursky. He has simply, along with thousands of other Soviet Jews, been refused permission to exercise one of the most basic human rights and emigrate to Israel. Nonetheless we may at least hope that sooner or later he will get his permission, and that he will then reply to Mrs. Dunn as he sees fit.

In the meantime may I make three brief points? First, NYRB is not, as Mrs. Dunn surely knows, a specialized academic journal, and it is not therefore unusual for it to carry review-articles which focus on a book’s specially interesting aspects and do not aspire to comprehensiveness.

Second, Mrs. Dunn’s description of the Black Hundreds does not in fact differ so very much from my own, and is certainly not a “contrary” one.

And third, Mrs. Dunn is right about the additional pages in Mr. Ivanov’s English edition, and their clear composition in 1970; it is possible that she is right too in judging that on balance they make the English edition more anti-Semitic than the Russian. Such nuances are not easy to measure. Let me record, though, that I was struck by the elimination from the English edition of a phrase rich in racist overtones—“national juices.” Readers may recall how Agursky summarized Ivanov’s views on this point: “The Jews do not have the right to claim as their own any outstanding men and women, since these people were able to develop only by feeding off the ‘national juices’ of other peoples (the Jews having no juices of their own).”

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