Sunday, March 17, 2024

Donny Gluckstein & Janey Stone - The Radical Jewish Tradition: Revolutionaries, resistance fighters & firebrands

The introduction to Donny Gluckstein and Janey Stone's important new book locates the work exactly in contemporary debates. They make the point that there are two views of Jewish history, the "lachrymose" one (yes, I had to look it up too, it means 'sad or mournful') and one that celebrates the struggles and contributions of Jewish people to the fight for liberation and freedom. In the first, Gluckstein and Stoney argue, "Jews supposedly went to the gas chanbers like lambs to the slaughter", but it is the second that the authors are concerned with here. It is, they write,
an alternative view of modern Jewish history and an alternative solution to perpetual victimhood. We depict Jews not as victims, or a group apart, but as people who have repeatdly fought their oppression, and often in solidarity with other social groups.
The continue:
The lachrymose conception of Jewish history requires suppression of the stories of those partisans and revolutioanies, resistance fighters and firebrands because such stories suggest that Jews have it within their own power to respond to oppression and that others will in fact support them.
Why does this matter? I authors of The Radical Jewish Tradition must have begun writing their work long before the Israeli State began their current assault on Palestine. Nonetheless they write that the "lachrymose conception" of Jewish history is important to the Israeli state, because:
The persecution and expulsion of the existing local Palestininan population, the suppression of democracy in the interest of maintinain the state, the militarisation of society and the declaine of civil society because of the increasing domination of religious zealots - all these issues are subordinated to the idea that in no other way can Jews escape the historical existence of antisemitism and cease to be victims.
The above quotes come from the first two pages of the introduction, and the rest of the book can be see as refuting the arguements made by the Israeli state in this regard. The book is a refreshing and inspiring story of those Jewish radicals who fought antisemitism, racism, oppression and exploitation. Whose ideas and actions shaped the radical movements that we have today, and whose legacy remains important to everyone, not just Jews, who want to fight for a better world. 

Gluckstein and Storey's opening chapters look at what they call the "shaping of modern Jewry" showing how the pogroms and persecutions of the fedual and medieval periods fed into ideas and racism after the arrival of capitalism. The authors write:
The Jewish Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote that 'the family was a network stretching across countries and oceans... shifting between coutnries was a normal part of life'. This feature had once set Jews apart and reinforced their community ties. Now integration into many different countries created a new relationship. Radical Jews brought a sense of living class internationalism to those they interacted with at a local level.
Jewish people moved around the world - to escape persecution or to find new lives for themselves - and when they arrived they fitted into a capitalist world that integrated racism and exploitation. This forced the majority of Jews to become part of the anti-capitalist resistance, and in turn begged the question of how they related to non-Jewish activists, and how non-Jewish workers, trade unionists and radicals related to them. The authors discuss what happened by looking at some key moments in world, and Jewish, history - life under the Tsarist regime and the Russian Revolution, the life of East European Jews in Poland, the experience of working class struggle over jobs, wages and against fascism in East London as well as similar struggles in the United States. Two chapters look at the struggles of Jews and non-Jews in Germany in the run up to the Nazi victory and resistance to the the Holocaust. These two are perhaps the most important, directly challenging the idea that Jewish people were "meek" in the face of the Nazis, and demonstrating the exact opposite. Writing about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April 1943, the authors say:
Defiance pre-dated the advent of the ghetto. We saw how, during the 1930s, the fight against the rising ride of antisemitism had involved Jews and non-Jews in mass struggle. This occurred in many cities and towns throughout Poland but was centred on Warsaw. The alliances that were foged at that time continued through the Nazi occupation and underlay much of the network of help and support that the ghetto inhabitants received. The population who rose up in April 1943 had been mobilising on the streets only a few years earlier in 1938. The memory must still have been there.
In the last two chapters the authors' return to the question of Palestine. Here they make the point that experience of the Holocaust has meant that many of those who fought for radical solutions to antisemitism, became part of a state that systemtically oppressed other groups in the Middle East. Left Zionism in particular "spread ideological confusion" becoming a justification for further horror:
It was a tragedy that those once inspired by the ideas of the left could become part to the forcible displacement of the Palestinian majority from their homes and country. This was the final nail in the coffin of the remarkable phenomenon of mass Jewish radicalism.
Can this tradition be rescued? The authors suggest that yes, it can. But that requires the building of mass movements of solidarity that work on the common interest of working people to fight oppression and exploitation. They say:
We have shown who historically has engaged in the fight against antisemitism. Based in the working class it was left-wing Jews and their non-Jewish comrades who defended the Jewish community against pogroms and won emancipation in Russia. The Revolution created the opportunity on an international scale to end capitalism and its divide and rule policies which bring misery to the oppressed everywhere... Despite attempts to ignore, or deny it, the progressive role of the left, and the working -class basis for it, endures.
Antisemitism, like other forms of racism and oppression benefits no-one but the ruling class. The rich tradition of Jewish radical theory and activism will inspire us to renew and rebuild those links. It is this that can free the oppressed everywhere and build a world of equality and diversity. Donny Gluckstein and Janey Stone's book is a major contribution to this fight. I urge everyone to read it.

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