Tablet Magazine; original images Wikimedia; Library of Congress
Tablet Magazine; original images Wikimedia; Library of Congress
Navigate to History section

Zionism and Bolshevism

In 1917, two answers to Russia’s ‘Jewish Question’ swept west and helped transform the world

by
Chimen Abramsky
December 17, 2020
Tablet Magazine; original images Wikimedia; Library of Congress
Tablet Magazine; original images Wikimedia; Library of Congress

In a memorable passage, Sir Isaiah Berlin wrote: “A Russian radical of the last century once observed that his country, compared to the West, had a great deal of geography but little history. It might be said that with Jews the opposite pertains: more than enough history, too little geography.”

During the time available to me I shall endeavor to cover some of the main events of the period 1914 to 1919, both in history and in geography, and particularly those of 1917; events which shaped, molded, and changed the course of Jewish history.

The year 1913 finished with the trial of a little known Jew, Mendel Beiliss; the jury, composed of very ordinary Russian and Ukrainian people, found him not guilty of murdering, for ritual purposes, the Christian boy, Andrey Yuschinsky. The revival by the Czarist Government of the medieval blood libel portrayed more than anything else the full decadence of the whole system. The trial in Kiev shook the Russian Jews to their foundation; this time, however, they were not alone. Leading Russian writers, intellectuals, Liberals, and Socialists—and even some Conservatives—denounced the accusation and the way the trial was conducted. World public opinion was horrified that in the twentieth century such barbarous accusations against a whole people could occur, and the Western World condemned Nicholas II himself as the chief culprit for this outrage. Many people in Russia, and outside, were conscious that the Czar gave open patronage to the Union of the Russian People (the “Black Hundreds,” who were chiefly responsible for starting the Beiliss Trial), financed their publications, and, moreover, “he was an honorary member of the Society,” and “wore the party emblem.”

When the verdict was pronounced the leading Jewish advocate of Beiliss, Oscar Grusenberg, summed up the feelings of the Russian Jews: “the jury, in the persons of plain peasants, showed that their feeling of justice stands higher than the views of a great many representatives of the judiciary in their official dress.”

With a touch of irony he added this comment: “Yes, it is a sad joy. They have recognized us that we do not eat human beings.”

The six-million Jews in Russia were afraid that the acquittal of Beiliss might lead to a new outbreak of pogroms against them. The Union of the Russian People and their leader, Dr Dubrowin, the editor of the Black Hundred paper Russkaya Znamia, having failed in the trial, actually threatened to do exactly the same, and was planning accordingly. Dubrowin boasted: “I will press one button and there will be a pogrom in Kiev; I will press another and there will be a pogrom in Odessa.”

Jews were fully aware of the Czar’s hostility towards them, without knowing at that time of the confidential discussions the Czar had with his ministers, although they could guess what he confided to some of them: that he considered it necessary “to teach a lesson to the Jews who raise their heads and who lead the revolution.”

With this sort of downcast mood for the Jews of the Russian Empire, the year 1914 began. Only a handful of politically minded people, belonging to different ideologies, both in Russia and in the West, were so sure as to forecast the outbreak of a world war. Most people had a blind confidence in the statesmen and diplomats, who would, somehow, extricate Europe from the oncoming crisis and prevent the drift to war. In their eyes, war was not at all inevitable.

The economic position of the Jews in Russia was getting worse. Poverty, intense economic competition with non-Jews, and the political insecurity following the Beiliss trial accelerated the tendency among the East European Jews to seek their fortune in the more auspicious environment of America and Canada. In the first seven months of 1914 the number of Jews migrating to America and Canada rose to 149,303 compared with 108,717 for the whole of the previous year, an increase of 40,586 or a rise of nearly 40 percent. For the first time for many years the number of Jews migrating to Palestine also went up. During 1913 and 1914 over 3,000 Jews went to settle there, directly inspired by the Zionist ideal, although the average over the previous eight years was under 2,000.

The Zionists, apologetically, comforted themselves with the words of a famous Zionist, that “before 1914, a couple of million Jews went to America, a mighty stream; but each of them thought about himself or his family. A few thousand went to Palestine, a mere trickle; but every one of them was thinking about the future of our nation.” The Zionist spokesman perhaps did not fully realize that the Russo-Polish Jewish immigrants were engaged, unbeknown to themselves at the time, in a mighty revolutionary process of changing totally the structure of the Western Jewish Communities as well as the character of the Yishuv in Palestine. The Jews in Western Europe and in America were becoming the extension of the Russian Jews, with their traditions and culture, but adapted to the new liberal and democratic traditions they found in the West.

The first eight months of 1914 witnessed the Zionist movement in a low key; the Zionist idea though gaining a few select converts was going through a quiet, yet deep crisis. The circulations of Hebrew publications were dropping and membership of the Zionist organization was not rising. Similarly, the Bund, the Jewish Socialist Party, utilizing the semi-legal conditions prevailing at the time in Russia, was concentrating its efforts on capturing positions in the community organization—the Kehilloth—and its members were more concerned with the expansion of a school system in Yiddish than with the political struggle. Yiddish publications like the Hebrew, were experiencing a financial crisis. The most active group was the “Society for the Spread of Enlightenment and Education among the Jews.” There were even weak attempts to revive the Yiddish theatre, and to launch an entirely new theatre—the Habimah—in Hebrew, but these had to wait for more propitious times, for 1917.

The first part of 1914, up to August, was relatively a very quiet period politically, and the Jewish question was hardly mentioned by any European government. For most people at that time, including Jews, the Jewish question was, and remained, largely a problem affecting East European Jews only. The Western Jews considered themselves fully emancipated. They had gained the right to participate in the lives of modern nations, not representing the collectivity of the Jews, but as individuals, and thereby weakened, for a time, their solidarity with their brother Jews. Even the recent immigrants to England were slowly becoming integrated in the economy of the country, the children were rapidly absorbing the English language and education, and forgetting the Yiddish from their homes. Some Jews were elected to the Parliaments of Germany, Austria, France, Italy, and Great Britain, representing political parties from the Social Democrats to Liberals and Conservatives, and a few Jews even distinguished themselves to serve in the Cabinets of Britain and Italy. In a word, they were elected on tickets of political parties, but not as Jews.

Likewise, many Jews were prominent in literature, music, science, academic life, industry and commerce—this was particularly the case in Germany and Austria. In France, the Dreyfus affair was a matter of the distant past, and even the political right toned down their attacks on the Jews. They were no longer in the limelight. A writer like André Gide could write down his anti-­Jewish sentiments in his private Journals, but publicly he kept quiet. It is probably symptomatic of the times that although Jews were recognized by both society and state, yet many people resented their intrusion into European literature. Yet, Gide’s private remarks have a significance far beyond what he intended, as similar views will reappear publicly later on in Germany and Austria. In his diary, Gide described his impressions of Leon Blum after the two dined together in January 1914. His remarks are typical of certain anti-Semites who tend to make generalizations based on one Jew, be he good, or bad. Blum, for him, is one who “considers the Jewish race as superior, as called upon to dominate after having been long dominated.” For Gide it was abundantly clear “that the virtues of the Jewish race are not French virtues ... and that the contribution of Jewish qualities to literature (where nothing matters but what is personal) is less likely to provide new elements (that is, an enrichment) than it is to interrupt the slow explanation of a race and to falsify seriously, intolerably even, its meaning.” About those Jews who wrote in French, Gide was of the opinion that “it is important to recognize that there is today in France a Jewish literature that is not French literature.” His reflections led him to question why Jews had kept silent for so long, why their entrance to French literature had been only of the most recent past. “Before that they did not have the right to speak,” he mused, “perhaps they did not even have the desire to ... I mean whose eventual aim is the word and the work, and not the effect of that word, its material or moral result. They speak with greater ease than we because they have fewer scruples.” For him, it was crystal clear that “it would be far better, whenever the Frenchman comes to lack sufficient strength, for him to disappear rather than to let an uncouth person play his part in his stead and in his name.”

We have here shades of the German persecution of Heine in the nineteenth century, and the way some German and Austrian writers and musicians looked with hostility at Arthur Schnitzler, Jacob Wassermann, and Arnold Schonberg. Culturally the Jews remained aliens in the eyes of the anti-Semites. The criterion for judgement was not literary but racial. Within a few years the almost private views of a Gide took on different proportions; a violent ant-Semitism was to erupt in Germany and Central Europe, but this was to happen after the interlude of a World War.

If we look at America, we see there a very different picture. The large number of immigrants settled down to a slow process, popularly known there as “Americanization”; a theory of the melting pot which aspired to turn the green immigrants into English-speaking people, breaking down the barriers which separated them from the older layers of earlier immigrants; the ideal set for the immigrants was to aspire to be little Bostonians. At the same time, American Jews began to lay the foundations for the largest philanthropic enterprises known in Jewish history, which soon led to the establishment of the American Joint Distribution Committee, and this in tum helped to reawaken national feelings among the immigrants, and thereby bridging the gulf between them and the old established American Jews of German origin. The latter was possibly in opposition to the ideal of bridging the gulf between the WASPS (the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) and the green immigrants, but con­tradictions are often the essence of history.

This preliminary peaceful period came to a halt with the outbreak of the First World War. Historians strongly disagree on the causes of the war; all, however, agree that the war was one of the most decisive events not only in European, but also in World history, and the consequences which followed it are still acutely felt to the present day: the whole political, economic and social map of the World changed beyond recognition. For the Jews, too, it brought the most profound changes which altered entirely the course of their long history. Hence this period is central in modern times, and without an understanding of the events of these five years, it is almost impossible to grasp what happened to the Jews either as individuals, or as a people.

A wave of patriotism swept through Europe, frequently indistinguishable from crude chauvinism, affecting entire populations. The Socialists in Germany, Austria, France, Italy, and even in Russia, who for years had kept on passing resolutions to prevent the outbreak of a World War, and who were annually debating ways and means of how to stop it, in case it did break out, they too succumbed to the mass hysteria, voted for the war credits, and campaigned for a successful prosecution of the war. Only a handful of people came out against the war; this minority included some assimilated, revolutionary Jews, such as Rosa Luxemburg, Lev Trotsky, Julius Martov, and a few others; a fact largely ignored during the war itself, but which became very significant after the war when anti-Semitism turned out to be a powerful mass movement.

Similarly, the Jews, as citizens and individuals in Western Europe, vied with their neighbors in patriotism. Jews, like non-Jews, rushed to the various armies and fronts, and Jews from different countries were killing each other on the various battle­fields; they were considered, since the French Revolution, and in the language of the Jews of France at the time of Napoleon as “no longer a separate people, but enjoy the advantage of being incorporated with the Great Nation.” The leading German philosopher, Herman Cohen, went to great length to prove that the spirit of Germany and Judaism, Deutschum und Judentum, as he termed it, are almost synonymous, and if he could not prove that both were given on Mount Sinai, at least he delivered this doctrine ex-cathedra from Marburg and Berlin. His views were shared by the brilliant young philosopher, Franz Rosenzweig, and the famous writer Martin Buber.

Even the Russian Jews, who experienced pogroms, blood libels, and ruthless discrimination, were drawn for a time by this wave of patriotic feeling. Conscription applied equally to them as to the rest of the inhabitants of the Empire, but, surprisingly, we find many Russian Jews who were living in France, Britain, and America, returning to Russia to join the army there. Typical of the popular patriotism, which affected many Russian Jews at the time, is the speech to the Duma by the Jewish deputy N.M. Friedman, who declared “in the great enthusiasm which has seized upon the nation and peoples of Russia, the Jews are marching to the battlefield shoulder to shoulder with all the peoples of Russia; there are no forces that can tear the Jews away from their father­land to which they are bound by ties centuries old.”

The small, but very influential, group of Russified Jews became almost lyrical in their new patriotism. The national patriotic enthusiasm of the Russian Jews was shattered, however, by the Czarist policy towards them. Soon after the war broke out the Commander-in­-Chief of the Russian Army, Prince Nicolai Nicolaievich, the uncle of the Czar, ordered the expulsion of over 600,000 Jews from the border areas: they were given twelve to twenty-four hours in which to leave, and were driven either into the Russian interior (where previously they had been prohibited from living) or were congregated in the already overcrowded remaining cities in the Pale of Settlement. The Jews, the majority of whom spoke Yiddish, were accused of being either German spies, or potential spies. In addition, Jewish hostages were now taken by the re­treating Russian army: it must have been the first time in history that hostages of one’s own country were taken. The government banned all publications in Yiddish and in Hebrew, in case the Jews passed secrets through these to the Germans.

The deportees went through a living hell: they had little food, there was an acute shortage of warm clothing, and they encountered a hostile environment in Central Russia, where many Russians saw Jews for the first time. Last, but not least, they were cut-off from outside aid. The Russian Jews, already greatly impoverished, began a major campaign for self-help, and launched the Jewish Committee to aid the refugees (popularly known by the Russian abbreviation of Yekopo-Yevreiski Komitet Pomoschi). It has been calculated that the 600,000 Jews, who were expelled from the frontier areas sustained losses of property to the value of between $350-400 million. It was remarkable that the number of Jews serving on the Russian Front was over ten per cent of the Jewish population, and that the percentage of deportees was strikingly similar. The atrocities perpetrated by the army against the Jewish civilian population provoked many sharp protests from famous Russian writers, musicians, intellectuals, and politicians; among those who signed petitions were world famous writers. Leonid Andreyev, Maxim Gorky, Dimitry Merezhkovsky, the composer Rimsky-Korsakoff, the historian Mikhail Rostovtsev, and the rising politician Alexander Kerensky, who denounced the atrocities from the platform of the Duma.

Maxim Gorky gave a vivid description of the trials and tribulations of the Jews:

In 1915 the most shameful anti-Jewish propaganda was started in the army; all Jews in Poland and Galicia were declared the spies and enemies of Russia. A disgusting pogrom broke out in Molodechno. It has been established that this Jew-baiting originated at headquarters, and, of course, it could not but contribute to the disintegration of the army, in which there were about half-a-million Jews. The people, enraged and blinded by want, were unable to detect their true enemy. If the authorities sanctioned the killing and robbing of the Jews—why not kill and rob them?

Bialik, the national Hebrew poet, gave vent in a satirical poem to the bitterness felt by thousands of Jews both at the brutality of the war and the persecution of the Jews:

Lo Nakhalat akhuzah, lo gag vi’zcl korah—
U’mah kol ha’kharadah? U’mah kol ha’mora?
Lo dinyvelo rakhamin, lo nakam ve’ shilem
Ve’lamah takharishu—Pe simu l’e’ilem!
[No estate, no roof, no ceiling
and what is all the panic? What is all the fear?
No justice no mercy, no vengeance or compensation
and why do you keep silent? You have all become dumb.]

To this day, one is rather astonished that the Polish Jewess, Rosa Luxemburg, was not affected by the events in Russia and Poland. On the contrary, she demonstratively turned away from the vicissitudes of the Jews. In a letter from a Berlin prison, to an intimate friend of hers, she wrote:

Why do you come with your special Jewish sorrows? I feel just as sorry for the wretched Indian victims in Putamayo, the negroes in Africa ... The ‘lofty silence of the eternal’ in which so many cries have echoed away unheard resounds so strongly within me that I cannot find a special corner in my heart for the ghetto. I feel at home in the entire world wherever there are clouds and birds and human tears?

How she could equate the sufferings of peasants in a remote Indian village thousands of miles away, about whom she knew so little and yet not feel sorry for the Jews of Russia and Poland, who were very close to her, is certainly an intriguing puzzle; and it might explain why this extraordinary woman had so few roots in Germany and in Poland. But this is more a subject for the psychologist than for the historian.

The German army, on the other hand, conducted a reasonable policy in the occupied parts of Poland, Lithuania, and White Russia; the army high command allowed Hebrew and Yiddish publications; sanctioned the legal activities of the Zionists, as well as of the Socialist Bund, hoping to encourage a pro-German mood in the population. At the same time, it supported the national aspirations of the Poles, particularly of the P.P.S., and helped the political-military activities of Juszef Pilsudski. In Germany itself, there was an acute shortage of manpower in the factories working for the war. The German menfolk were fighting on the various battlefields; and to help overcome this shortage, the German occupation army forcibly deported over 70,000 Jews from Lithuania, to provide the necessary labor force. These deportees swelled substantially the number of foreign-born Jews in Germany and after the war were themselves to serve as a serious target for German anti-Semites, particularly the Nazis, who accused them of demoralizing the rear and taking away work from Germans.

The atrocities of the Russian army against the Jews provoked a bitter controversy in American Jewry, particularly among many former Russian Jews now living in New York, among whom were the highly respected leader of the Bund, Vladimir Kosovsky, and the editor of the very popular daily paper Forward, Abraham Kahan. They started a campaign among American Jews to urge the American Government to stop supplies to Russia, compel the Czarist Government to change its policy towards the Jews, and give urgent aid to the deportees. The influential American Jewish Committee supported this argument and, furthermore, advocated that America should remain neutral in the war. The Zionists, on the other hand, were campaigning for the active, direct involvement of America in the war on behalf of Britain and France, and accused the other group of being pro-German. The latter denied the accusation, and replied that they wanted their anti-Russian attitude to be understood as a neutral view of the war itself.

Although it must be categorically stated that many Zionists, including Weizmann, felt very uncomfortable at the treatment of Jews in Russia—an ally of Great Britain—yet were prevented from fighting publicly for a change in policy in Russia and, instead, attempted to intervene with the British Government, behind the scenes, to influence the Czarist Government to improve its attitude to the Jews. It was all futile. Needless to say, the Czar did not budge.

It is at this important juncture of history that the “Jewish Question” ceased to be an East European problem and became a major international issue; from this time on it was discussed continuously by governments on both sides of the conflict in the First World War, and formed a central political topic in the deliberations of the British Government. It is at this point that the relatively little known Anglo-Russian Jewish scientist, Chaim Weizmann,—holding no official position in the Zionist Movement—seized the opportunity of presenting to the British Cabinet in a masterful and forceful way, the Zionist case for a Jewish National Home in Palestine. He showed that he had grasped, consciously or unconsciously, the dictum of Machiavelli, that true statesmen must take advantage of “the opportunity which gave them matter to be shaped into what form they thought fit; and without that opportunity their powers would have been wasted, and without their powers the opportunity would have come in vain.”

From 1915 on, the British Government began secret discussions with the Zionists on Palestine. These negotiations were speeded up in 1917, and finally led in November 1917 to the publication of the Balfour Declaration—a full year before the end of the war. This has been masterfully analyzed by the late Mr. Leonard Stein and by many other historians. This is outside my lecture, but it is necessary, however, to see this very important document in the history of the Jews in the context of the time.

For a limited period, at a crucial point during the First World War, the imperial interests of the British Empire and the national aspirations of the Jews coincided. Both agreed that the Ottoman Empire would disintegrate as a result of the war; that Britain would take its place as the leading power in the Near East, although it might have to share this with France as the junior partner. The British would be required to strengthen their position to safeguard the flank of Egypt, namely, by securing Palestine. This could be partially achieved by collaborating with the Jews who wished to build-up Palestine, so that one day—possibly in the near future—it would become a Jewish National Home, subsequently leading to the establishment of a Jewish State. These negotiations were not entirely motivated by sentiments for the sake of the People of the Book—they were taken very seriously, politically, as between equals; each side saw in the Declaration a definitive, political act, binding on both sides. Britain was in urgent need of aid from America. The Zionists offered to conduct a vigorous campaign in America to influence her to join the war, and, with all her industrial might, help to deliver a mortal blow to the Germans and their allies. To do this the Zionists aimed to mobilize the full potential of American Jewry. Lord Robert Cecil, Balfour’s nephew, and himself Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, admitted as early as March 1916: “I do not think it is easy to exaggerate the international power of the Jews.”

In one of his innumerable interviews with the British Government between 1915 and 1917, Weizmann told Cabinet Ministers, that:

if you give us a declaration in favor of Zionism, this declaration will make the Jews of the World understand that you are really friendly, and the friendship of the Jews of the World is not a thing to be blown upon: it is a thing that matters a great deal, even for a mighty empire like the British.

The war dragged on. Victory for both sides became more and more elusive, and the Russian soldiers, hungry for food and short of ammunition; were deserting in their thousands, flocking to St. Petersburg and other big cities. The court in St. Petersburg reeked with corruption; Rasputin was the supreme arbiter of Russian policy and pro-Germans infiltrated the top echelon of the Russian Government. All this led to acute tension in the capital. First, Rasputin was assassinated by the right, and this in turn speeded up the explosion of the February 1917 Revolution in St. Petersburg. The Revolution and its effect on the Jews will be examined later on. The great question dominating Russia and its allies—Britain and France—was whether she could stay in the war, or would she perhaps follow the prophecy made by Marx as far back as 1879, when he said to an English aristocrat, Sir Mountstuart Elphinstone Grant Duff (who wrote down his impressions of Marx), that:

he looks, not unreasonable, for a great and not distant crash in Russia. Marx thought ‘it will begin by reforms from above which the old bad edifice will not be able to bear and which will lead to its tumbling down altogether’, and Marx queried whether the time between: ‘die truppe schisst noch’ and ‘die truppe schisst nicht mehr’ is really so wide.

The mounting antiwar agitation in Russia was deeply disturbing to the Allies; the fact that many Jews took an active part in the Revolution of 1917 led to a profound belief within the British Government that a declaration given by them to the Zionists, favoring the development of a Jewish National Home in Palestine, would mobilize Russian Jewry to work inside Russia to keep her in the war, and thereby prevent her from negotiating a separate peace treaty with Germany. Lord Robert Cecil sent a secret telegram to Mark Sykes informing him that:

Weizmann is going out with full permission to work for a British Palestine. He and James Rothschild are instigating American and Russian Jews to agitate for this consummation.

Later on, the Zionists were considering sending Nahum Sokolov to Russia as an addition to the Russian Zionists who were on the spot and to help strengthen their work there; this brought about an optimistic hope among the staff of the British Foreign Office. The head of the Eastern Department, Sir Ronald Graham, expressed this short-lived mood of optimism: “it is certain that our best card in dealing with the Russo-Jewish proletariat is Zionism” and in another memorandum Graham wrote: “the only means of reaching the Jewish proletariat is through Zionism to which the vast majority of Jews in that country adhere.” Graham pleaded with the Government to speed up the promised Declaration—he declared “it is essential we should do so if we are to secure Zionist political support which is so important to us in Russia at the present moment.”

This was perhaps one of the trump cards that Weizmann and his associates used so brilliantly in overcoming the powerful opposition of the wealthy, assimilated Anglicized Jews, like Edwin Montagu, Claude Montefiore, Lucien Wolf, and others. The British Cabinet became convinced that the Zionists would be able to influence events in Russia in their favor. Weizmann, later on, admitted this, and told a London meeting:

that those politically not educated Jews of Russia, those people who did not know anything about high politics, who did not know how to talk to Cabinet Ministers and Kings, had the right political instinct, and the present state of the world has proved conclusively that their policy was the right policy.

He spelled out in clear terms the sort of opposition the Zionists encountered: “We,” he said, at the same meeting, “a small band of foreign Jews, were faced by all the might and all the prestige and all the bank accounts of those established leaders of the British Community.” In 1919, Weizmann confessed that “it was a gamble because we did not know that England would win.” With historic hindsight, it seems, however, that the anti-Zionist assimilated Jew, Claude Montefiore, was much nearer in understanding events in Russia than either the British Foreign Office or Dr. Weizmann. Between August and October 1917 he argued that “the larger Russian Jewish problem has already been settled,” implying by this that the Russian Jews would not be influencing events in favor of Britain and France, and in any case the ability of the Jews to sway events in Russia was grossly exaggerated. Similarly, Lucien Wolf was advancing the view that the Bund “had at the moment much more political influence than the Zionists.” Fortunately, the Balfour Declaration came just in time. It was issued on 2 November 1917, and by the seventh Lenin and the Bolsheviks were in power.

Three months later, a British War Office expert was reflecting on what might have happened had the Balfour Declaration been announced a few months earlier. Would it have changed conditions in Russia in favor of the War and Britain? He was of the opinion “that it was even possible that, had the Declaration come sooner, the course of the Revolution might have been affected.” Many years later, the famous English diplomatic historian, Sir Charles Webster, was echoing the same sentiments, and almost the same words, when he reflected that “had the Balfour Declaration come sooner the course of the Russian Revolution might have been affected.”

Poets, philosophers, and civil servants are permitted and encouraged to speculate; but poor historians are frowned upon when they pass from historical documents to raise perennial questions, in the manner of Pascal, on the great “ifs” in history. Occasionally one is tempted—even for the sake of amusement—to ask a similar question, from the opposite viewpoint of the War Office expert: had Lenin and the Bolsheviks captured power on 1 November instead of 7 November, would there still have been a Balfour Declaration, and had there not been one, what course would Jewish history have taken?

The year 1917 is the high watershed of European history—including Jewish history. A few weeks before the outbreak of the February Revolution Lenin—little known then in Western Europe—delivered a lecture to a small audience in Zurich on the 1905 Revolution, and for the only time in his life, a note of pessimism might be detected in his views of the coming revolution in Russia. He expected an outbreak of revolution in Europe. “The present grave-like stillness in Europe must not deceive us”; he asserted that “Europe is charged with Revolution, … in Europe, the coming years, precisely because of this predatory war, will lead to popular uprisings under the leadership of the proletariat.” When he came to discuss Russia he had something else to say and nowadays it reads surely as a supreme example of the irony of history:

We of the older generation may not live to see the decisive battles of this coming revolution, … but the youth will be fortunate enough not only to fight, but also to win, in the coming proletarian revolution.

In the course of his lecture, departing from the main subject, he outlined two factors relating to Jews: the participation of Jews in the revolutionary movement, and their treatment by Czarism. This passage is of immense significance, not solely because of Lenin’s subsequent rise to power:

Czarism vented its hatred particularly upon the Jews. On the other hand, the Jews provided a particularly high percentage (compared with the total Jewish population) of leaders of the revolutionary movement. In passing, it should be said to their credit that to this day the Jews provide a relatively high percentage of representatives of internationalism as compared with other nations. On the other hand, czarism knew perfectly well how to play on the basest prejudices of the most ignorant strata of the population against the Jews, in order to organize—if not to lead directly—pogroms—those atrocious massacres of peaceful Jews, their wives and children, which have roused such disgust throughout the entire civilized world.

He expressed the same idea on a number of occasions before the First World War, now it assumed special importance. The Revolution was already knocking at the door, and Lenin would soon be in Russia calling for the overthrow of the Provisional Government. I will return to this later, for here we are only concerned with the effects of the Revolution on the Jews.

One of the first acts of the Provisional Government was to declare a complete amnesty for all who had suffered for political and religious views; freedom of speech, press, and assembly were guaranteed, and it enacted “the abolition of all restrictions based on class, religion and nationality.” There was a revival of publications in Hebrew and Yiddish; and a large number of periodicals in Yiddish, Russian and Hebrew followed in quick succession.”

The renewal of the Hebrew and Yiddish languages followed the appearance of a multitude of political parties, with specific Jewish programs. The chief parties were the Zionists, Poale-Zion, the Bund, Socialist-Zionists, Territorialists, Populist Party, Demo­cratic Party, a number of religious parties, and one even from beyond the fringe—a Jewish egg merchants’ party. Within a short time the Zionists had a paid-up membership of over 140,000, while before the war they had numbered only 36,000. By June 1917, the Bund in particular had a membership of nearly 40,000. Together with the other Zionist groupings, consisting of Zionists, ­Socialists and religious elements, the Zionists could rightly claim that the majority of the Russian Jews followed their lead, at least up until 1918. Together with other political parties, they promoted the idea of organizing a Jewish Congress [an idea partly borrowed from the Zionists-Socialists (S.S.)] to represent all organized Jewish parties, whose aim was to secure national autonomy for the Jews. In their manifesto, the organizers stressed that the Russian Jews: “now face an event which has no parallel in Jewish history for two-thousand years. Not only has the Jew as an individual, as a citizen, acquired equality of rights—but the Jewish nation looks forward to the possibility of securing national rights.”

The Bund renewed its campaign for a cultural autonomy, with Yiddish as the main language, and demanded that “all Jewish institutions must have a purely secular character.”

The Zionists urged the recognition of Hebrew “as the only national language of the Jewish people,” and for a referendum among the Jews on Palestine, stressing the need for “a representation from the Jewish people at the forthcoming Peace Congress at the conclusion of the war.”

Ber Borochov, the outstanding Marxist theoretician of Poale­-Zion, outlined that Zionism must aim to achieve the following three goals:

  • Economically: the concentration of the Jewish masses in Israel;
  • Politically: to receive in Israel a territorial autonomy for the Jewish people;
  • Fulfill aspirations to our own home in Palestine.

The Territorialists and the Zionists-Socialists merged into one party, proclaiming the unity of the Jewish working-class “as an organic part of the extra territorial Jewish nation, and of the international proletariat.”

There now appeared a whole galaxy of brilliant young Yiddish poets who welcomed the two Revolutions of 1917, and became particularly enthusiastic over the October Revolution. They were to play the leading role in Soviet-Yiddish literature for over thirty years, many of them subsequently perished in the terrors of the various Stalin Purges. During the whole of 1917 the two leading Hebrew poets, Bialik and Tchernichovsky, remained silent.

The War on the Eastern front was going from bad to worse. The Bolshevik campaign against the War and the Provisional Govern­ment became sharper, more militant and better organized. Unrest in the army also affected a large number of Jews, many of whom helped to swell the growing number of deserters roaming the cities of Russia—particularly in Petrograd and Moscow. A prominent woman leader of the Bund, then not yet belonging to the left of the party, toured the areas of White Russia, where Jewish mothers demanded that the Bund should help “to bring our sons, brothers, husbands back home.”

Events were moving with lightning speed. To use Lenin’s famous phrase: “whole epochs were compressed into a few days.” Right-wing elements began to circulate rumors that the Jews were responsible for all the troubles at the front; that they were hoarding food; that Lenin was a spy in the pay of Germany and of the wealthy German Jews. The flag of the Bund was torn down by workers from the Putilov factory, where the Bolsheviks were very influential, and remarks were made that Kerensky was a disguised Jew whose real name was Kerenson. People sensed the danger of pogroms against Jews. The smell of putsch or coup d’état, was in the air, with people not knowing whether it would originate from the right, or from the left. Lenin and the Mensheviks, from very opposite points of view, were warning of the dangers of pogroms. Lenin agreed with the Menshevik paper, Rabochaia Gazeta, which pointed out “that the chief tool in the hands of the counter-revolution is the press which is inciting to anti-Semitism and Jew-baiting. That is correct.” Later, the above-mentioned Menshevik paper stated that: “the Jewish population lives through anxious days side-by-side with the growing anarchy in the country, reaction raises its head; it grasps at its favorite means of duping the masses, as the poisoned weapon of an anti-Semitic campaign.”

Some well-known Jews were expressing deeply pessimistic views about the character of the Revolution; they sensed that the spring of liberty might be very short-lived. As early as the middle of April Mark Liber-Goldman, the official Bundist spokesman in the Petrograd Soviet of Workers, Peasants and Soldiers Deputies, said publicly: “I am afraid a time will come when I shall be in prison again and my little daughter will come to see me there.”

From distant London, Ahad Ha’am, the eminent Zionist philosopher and publicist, who followed closely the events in Russia, became increasingly pessimistic, he wrote to his friends that “our so called emancipation in Russia was not to be taken for granted, and that the Jew-hatred would soon break out again.”

As is well known the events took a radically different turn. The Kornilov plot failed. By 7 November 1917 Lenin and the Bolsheviks had seized power. The Lenin Government did certainly include an important group of Jewish revolutionaries. Among them the Foreign Commissar, the President of the Supreme Soviet, the Deputy Chairman of the Council of Peoples’ Commissars, the President of the Petrograd Soviet, and last, but by no means least, the deputy of the newly created secret police, the notorious Cheka. It was the first time that so many Jews had served in one Cabinet.

One of the first acts of the new government was the publication by Trotsky (in his capacity as Commissar for Foreign Affairs) of the secret treaty signed during the war by Britain and France on the division of the Middle East into spheres of influence between those two countries. This well-known treaty is more familiarly known by the names of the signatories—Sir Mark Sykes and Monsieur George Picot. One of the many purposes of the publication was to embarrass the Allies, to show the contradictory promises that were given to the Arabs and, in particular, to show the World the annexationist aims of the Entente. Trotsky wrote a brief introduction in which he deliberately omitted any reference to the Balfour Declaration, but included in it his strictures on Palestine. He wrote: “So two democracies in conjunction with Czarism, which at that period shone with reflected democratic light emanating from the Entente, settled the fate of Constantinople, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and Persia.” “Spheres of influence,” Trotsky defined as “areas of domination, wholly dependent upon the bosses of international capital.”

Though there were many assimilated Jews holding leading positions among the Bolsheviks, it is not surprising that there were very few among them who knew anything about Jews, or could work among them, since the masses of Jewish workers were still under the influence of the Bund. In January 1918, the com­missariat for Jewish Affairs was formed in Petrograd. By this time the Bund had split, its left-wing had joined the Communist Party, and many of its leading members were asked to work among Jews, a field of work with which they were very familiar. One of the important Jewish Communists in this Commissariat, Zorach Greenberg, published the first attack on the Zionists and the Balfour Declaration since the Bolshevik Revolution. He mocked the Zionists as modern believers in a Messiah; that the Balfour Declaration was merely a swindle, a deception for the Jews, and that the Zionists would find in Palestine a growing resistance from the Arabs. In addition to all these points, the spokesman for the Commissariat had to acknowledge “that the Zionists preachers and conscious demagogues exercise an extraordinary influence over the Jewish people, which is duped and misled by the Sermons of the Zionists.”

Furthermore, he admitted that “we witness this remarkable phenomenon that the Revolution is still having little influence in the Jewish world.” A most valuable admission which partly confirmed Weizmann’s statement that the majority of the Jews were then supporting Zionism—the Zionist movement did not break up into fragments like the Bund. But although the Zionists did exercise immense influence over the Jews, they nevertheless had little power capable of wielding any influence on the dramatic events which rapidly unfolded in Russia.

Last, but not least, another proof of the influence and attraction of Zionism came in a dispatch from the British Consul in Odessa, who reported that tens of thousands of Jews marched before the Consul’s house to express their profound gratitude to Britain for the Balfour Declaration. Likewise, a large number of Jews in Petrograd protested to the American Ambassador, as rumors were circulated that President Wilson was reluctant to endorse the Balfour Declaration.

One of the first major documents of policy enacted by the Soviet Government is the Declaration of Rights of the Nations of Russia, signed by Lenin as Chairman of the Council of Peoples’ Commissars, and by Joseph Stalin, in his capacity as the Commissar for Nationalities, paragraphs three and four stated that the Soviet Government would base its activities on the following principles:

  1. Abolition of all national and national-religious privileges and restrictions whatsoever.
  1. Freedom of development for the national minorities and ethnographic groups inhabiting the territory of Russia.

Paragraph four helped to encourage a major split in the ranks of the Bund, since it could be interpreted as being in agreement with the Bund theory of cultural autonomy; but the main contributory factor for the split was, however, the growing campaign by the Bolsheviks to sign a separate Peace Treaty with the Germans. The anti-war attitude of the Bolsheviks had succeeded in increasing sympathy for them in the whole population, including Jews. The split in the Bund brought to the Bolsheviks a group of gifted Jews who later became the spokesmen of Jewish interests in the eyes of the Communist Party and Government. Lenin and the Bolsheviks reversed their earlier opposition to Jewish autonomy, and for the next twelve years a diluted Communist version of the old Bund theory prevailed among Soviet Jews, albeit with a mixture of Soviet-Zionism. The split of the Bund revealed three tendencies within the Jewish Communists: one group advocated breaking down all barriers that separated Jews from non-Jews; a second group stood for the old Bund program, and a third group, consisting of former Territorialists, argued for settling Jews on the land, and providing them with a territorial base.

When the Civil War broke out, the discussion in the Bund (and among the Zionists) assumed an almost academic character, with the Whites and Ukrainian nationalists directing their anger primarily at the Jews. Already, even before the commencement of the Civil War, the Whites, monarchists, conservatives, and Ukrainians began to circulate stories that all the Bolsheviks were Jews, and that the Jews were dominating Russia through Trotsky. Once more the frightening slogan of the Black Hundreds was heard aloud: “Bei Zhidov-spasai Rossia!” (“Kill the Jews-save Russia!”)

In his lecture on the 1905 Revolution, the praise and blessing given by Lenin to the Jews for having produced a large number of revolutionaries, was now turned by the Whites into their principal curse for the Jews. Revolution and Jews became synonymous for them, as later on it was used in the same way by the Nazis and those anti-Semites who were spreading the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Wherever the Whites triumphed, albeit for short periods, thousands of Jews were killed in those places. The principal killing of Jews took place in the Ukraine and White­ Russia. Such massacres reminded one of the terrible persecutions of the Jews in the Ukraine during the period 1648 to 1650, and the like of which was not seen in Europe till the Nazi gas chambers. It has been estimated that about 100,000 Jews were killed during the years 1918 to 1920. Economically the Jews were totally ruined. The Red Army became the defender of the Jews. Jewish boys were volunteering in large numbers to join its ranks, and for many of them it was to defend their families and kinsmen. By that time Trotsky had left the Commissariat for Foreign Affairs, to become the organizer, builder, and chief of the new Red Army.

A highly talented young lyrical Yiddish poet from the Ukraine, David Hoffstein, expressed some of the extremely bitter feelings Jews felt for the Ukraine and the Ukrainians at the time:

ich ken sie shoin fun Jang di brist fun daine mengen, wos unter swite roitlecher (wie alt farzhavert oigen) is shtendik greit sich shtofn mit fardrus, is shtendik greit di wilde hent zehoiden sei warfn oif a kop shlog! Klop!
[I know her from long time ago the breasts of her crowds, which under red shirts, is always ready to stuff with jealousy, is always ready to wave the wild hands; they throw off a head; hit! Knock out!]

The Soviet Government and Lenin were anxious not only to help the Jews against the Whites, but at the same time to prevent the Red Army from becoming infected with the anti-Semitic agitation. For this purpose Lenin made a speech, on a gramophone record, to be relayed to the soldiers of the Red Army, on the urgent need to combat anti-Semitism.

Lenin asserted that, in the past, the “Czar’s police organized Jewish pogroms, in order to divert the attention of the workers from the real enemy of the working masses—capital.” To the recruits of the Red Army, he pointed out that “it is not the Jews who are the enemies of the toilers. The enemies of the workers are the capitalists of all lands. Among the Jews there are workers, and toilers—they are in the majority. They are our brothers, comrades in our struggle for socialism.” The Jews also had exceptions, Lenin stated, namely: “Among the Jews there are Kulaks, exploiters, capitalists just like amongst us all.”

The implication was clear, although it had a double edge: defend the Jewish poor and the workers, but one could, sometimes, also attack rich Jews, not because they were Jews, but because they were considered to be wealthy.

Russia, as everyone knows, was invaded by the armies of fourteen States, and from the other side of the spectrum, from England, Winston Churchill, the prime architect of the intervention in Russia, fully supported the Whites in their struggle against the Bolsheviks. Reports began to appear in the Western press of mass atrocities against the Jews perpetrated by the Whites and the Ukrainian Nationalists. Amid all this, Churchill published in an issue of the Illustrated Sunday Herald of 1920 an article: Zionism versus Bolshevism—A Struggle for the Soul of the Jewish People. This article must surely rank as one of the startling chapters in the rich and colorful life of Churchill. It is a strange mixture of exceptional admiration for some of the qualities of the Jews, as well as a deep loathing for other sorts of Jews, and it includes an extraordinary apology for the pogroms organized by the Whites.

On one hand, the Jews “are beyond all question the most formidable and the most remarkable race which has yet appeared in the world.” But the conflict between good and evil “nowhere reaches such an intensity as in the Jewish race.” Jews were responsible for the benefits of Christianity, but now they may well be responsible for “producing another system of morals and philosophy, as malevolent as Christianity was benevolent, which, if not arrested, would shatter irretrievably all that Christianity has rendered possible.”

In Churchill’s eyes “this mystic and mysterious race has been chosen for the supreme manifestation, both of the divine and the diabolical.” Churchill classified three categories of Jews:

  1. Those who identify with the country where they live and “enter into its national life ... while adhering faithfully to their own religion”;
  1. Zionism offers the sphere to the political conceptions of the Jewish race.
  1. In violent contrast to international communism it presents to the Jews a national idea of a commanding character.

For the third category, for his description of the Communist Jews in Russia he reserved his hatred, his passion, the powers of great rhetoric and, if one may say it, monumental exaggeration, bordering on grand folly. First he outlined their origins:

In violent opposition to all this sphere of Jewish effort rise the schemes of the International Jews. The adherents of this sinister confederacy are mostly men reared up among the unhappy populations of countries where Jews are persecuted on account of their race.

Churchill then proceeded to join the “illustrious” band of people who look and search for conspiracies in history, to join the company of the notorious Nesta Webster, and he thundered:

This movement among the Jews is not new. From the days of Spartacus­ Weishaupt to those of Karl Marx, and down to Trotsky, Bela Kun, Rosa Luxembourg and Emma Goldman, this world-wide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilization ... and now at last this band of extraordinary personalities from the underworld of the great cities of Europe and America have gripped the Russian people by the hair of their heads, and have become practically the undisputed masters of that enormous empire.

To the astonished surprise of many people he went on to apologize for General Denikin and the White Army:

Wherever General Denikin’s authority could reach, protection was always accorded to the Jewish population, and strenuous efforts were made by his officers to prevent reprisals and to punish those guilty of them.

This was in flagrant contradiction to all the available evidence. To counter Communism, loyal Jews were urged by Churchill to help “in building-up with the utmost possible rapidity a Jewish national centre in Palestine.” It is curious—tragic and comic at the same time—that Lenin liked Jews who were revolutionaries, and believed in international assimilation as the solution to the Jewish question, while Churchill liked those “loyal Jews,” who would be nationally inclined, and visualized the salvation for the Jewish people in a National Home in Palestine.

For the poor Jews, the War and the Revolution opened up a number of possibilities, and each one posed almost insoluble dilemmas. On the horizon there began to loom new states arising from the ashes of the Hapsburg, Hohenzollern, and Russian Empires, and these states would breed new, violent nationalisms and hatreds that would threaten the Jews almost with extinction. In the meantime, people had to live, and the Jews were caught between revolution and counter-revolution—what should they do?

A brilliant and sparkling young Russian Jewish writer summed up with consummate mastery the irony of this mood of hope and despair. In a short story by Isaac Babel, entitled Gedali, the hero conducts a conversation with the Revolution:

“I cry yes to the Revolution; I cry yes to her, but she hides from Gedali and her only messengers are bullets ...”
“The Pole has closed my eyes,” the old man says in a barely audible whisper. “The Pole, vicious dog that he is. He takes the Jew and tears out his beard, the cur! And now the vicious dog is getting a beating himself. That’s fine, that’s—Revolution.” And then those who have given the Pole a beating say to me: “Turn your gramophone over to us, Gedali, we’re going to register it.”
“But I love music, madam,” I say to the Revolution.
“You don’t know what you love, Gedali; I’m going to shoot you, and then you’ll know. And I can’t help shooting because I am the Revolution.”
“She can’t help shooting, Gedali,” I say to the old man, “because she is the Revolution.”
“But the Pole did his shooting, kind sir, because he was the counter­-revolution; you shoot because you are the Revolution. But surely the revolution is joy. And joy doesn’t like orphans in the house. Good deeds are done by good men. Revolution is the good deeds of good men. But good men do not kill. So, it is bad men that are making the Revolution. But Poles, too are bad men.”
“Who, then, will tell Gedali which is the Revolution and which is counter-revolution?”

What is the lesson for the historian? Many might well reject Marx’s advice to the philosophers on the task of changing the world. Perhaps they should, however, accept the counsel of Spinoza to philosophers that “their duty is neither to laugh nor to cry, but to understand.”

Reprinted from “War, Revolution and the Jewish Dilemma: An Inaugural Lecture Delivered at University College London” (28 April 1975), with permission of the Abramsky family of London.

Chimen Abramsky (1916–2010) was a book collector and bibliographer of world renown, and, as emeritus professor of Jewish studies at University College London, trained generations of scholars at a time when Jewish studies—the study of Jewish history and culture in all its manifestations—was emerging as an academic subject in its own right.

Support Our Journalism Today

The Jewish world needs a place like Tablet where varying—even conflicting—viewpoints can exist side by side. Our times demand an engagement with big ideas and not a retreat from them.

Help us do what we do.