Ber Borochov

By Mitchell Abidor

As was the case for the rest of the Zionist movement, Ber Borochov’s heavily Marxist socialist Zionism sought the normalization of the Jewish condition. This thirst for normalization is hardly to be wondered at when we look the history of the Jews in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The trauma of the Dreyfus case had famously converted the assimilated Viennese journalist Theodore Herzl to believe the Jews had no place in societies where they were a minority. The same case had driven the French anarchist litterateur Bernard Lazare to a similar belief. Lazare’s Jewish re-awakening was even more radical that Herzl’s, for he had previously written a book on anti-Semitism that placed the blame for it on the actions of the Jews. The France of the Dreyfus Affair led him to make a 180 degree turn.

But the Dreyfus Affair is only the best-known of the events that struck the Jews of the period. Anti-Semitism was so strong a political movement that the mayor of Algiers was elected on an anti-Semitic platform; pogroms swept the Pale of Settlement in tsarist Russia leading to massive emigration, and the Beilis case of 1911 revived the medieval blood libel charge. Borochov, in a 1905 article, spoke of the fate of the Jews of Morocco, victims of riots in 1903. Wherever there were Jews their situation was precarious, and Zionism posited a straightforward solution to the problem: Jews should leave the world of oppression and form their own society, free from non-Jews and thus free from anti-Semitism.

Borochov’s quest for Jewish normalization took a radically different tack from that of bourgeois Zionists. For Borochov the solution wasn’t simply a matter of finding a land where Jews could be free from oppression. The “anomalous state of the Jewish people” he spoke of was not only national, it was class based, and it was only through socialism that the Jews could be freed. But the Jews could not wait for socialism to sweep the world and free them, rather they had to build a socialism of their own in a society of their own

It is here that Borochov’s inverted pyramid enters. Unlike other peoples, among Jews the working class, instead of occupying the largest place in society’s pyramid, occupies the smallest one. Cut off from the soil, from manual labor, “in Jewish contradistinction to that of all other nations, the proportion of human labor far exceeds the natural elements involved.” So he described Jewish economics as a “luft” (air) economics, and “Jewish life is ‘luft’ life.” “The Jewish economic structure is malformed because of its remoteness from nature... we have no territory of our own, hence we are by necessity divorced by nature.”

This unnatural society could only be done away with “when the conditions of production prevailing in Jewish life” were done away with, and this could only occur as a result of the installation of a Jewish socialism, the fruit of a class struggle carried out by Jewish workers against a Jewish bourgeoisie. According to Borochov a true Jewish bourgeoisie could no more develop in the Diaspora than could a Jewish proletariat, so Zionism became for Borochov the means by which the scene of Jewish history could shift.

The Borochovian series was thus: The hatred of Jews was inevitable, and as a marginal people their economic status in the Diaspora would be forever anomalous; Jews thus had to have their own nation where a working class and bourgeoisie would develop which would lead ineluctably to the class struggle and inevitably to socialism.

The land of the future Jewish socialist society could only be Palestine, and not because it had once been the home of the Jewish people: “We do not claim that Palestine is the sole or best territory; we merely indicate that Palestine is the territory where territorial autonomy will be obtained. Our Palestinism is neither theoretical nor practical, but rather predictive.” This, too, had rigid ties to the political millennium: “Political territorial autonomy in Palestine is the ultimate aim of Zionism. For proletarian Zionism, this is also a step toward socialism.” A socialism that wouldn’t exclude the Arabs resident in Palestine, since they had common class interests.

Borochov is often cited as an inspiration of the kibbutz movement, and though the movement shared elements of Borochovian thought, in particular the need for Jews to assume a place closer to nature, the very idea of the kibbutz, where socialism is built on one plot of land, is a denial of class struggle, which was the key to Borochovism.

Borochov stood outside the Zionist mainstream in several ways. Unlike those who settled in Palestine, Borochov did not reject Yiddish has a “jargon” as so many Zionists and Western Jewish snobs did. He considered it “a unique living organism, unbound in its creative freedom.” Most interestingly, he applied his Marxist Zionism to the history and vocabulary of the language: “The poverty from which it suffers results from social and psychological causes. Wandering about on the streets for generations, dragging along at fairs, it was not privileged to be bred in chancelleries and refined in universities. For this reason, Yiddish is poor in scientific ideas and lacks a sophisticated legal and political terminology. Most significantly, Yiddish was severed from nature as were its people, hence the dearth in names of minerals, plants, and animals.”

Borochov, though believing that full life as a Jew and a worker was possible only in Palestine, did not for this reason turn his back on the Jews of the Galut (Diaspora). Contempt for Jews of the Diaspora, for their intellectualism, their softness, their estrangement from the realties of labor and the land, has been a staple of Yishuv and later of Israeli life. Borochov realized that the settlement of the Jewish homeland was a long term project, and insisted that, “we must assume that a large part of the Jewish people, including a part of the proletariat, will always remain in the Galut as an ordinary national minority. For that reason we include in our program, along with territorial demands, the demand for the maximum protection of our national needs in the Galut. Explicitly, this means national political autonomy for the Jews in all Galut lands.” The smug self-satisfaction of the Yishuv Zionists as they witnessed the destruction of Western Jewry would have been unthinkable to him.

His concern for the Jews of the Diaspora was also remarkably prescient. Zionism has been attacked for its ignoring of the Sephardim of the Arab lands and the East. It is undeniable that the heart of Zionism beat in Poland and Russia, and little concern was shown for the Jews of the Arab world. Borochov in his 1905 essay on “Questions of Zionist Theory” took a close look at the lot of the Jews of the East, and predicted with remarkable accuracy their fate. Speaking of colonized Morocco he said that the “progress” (he was after all a man of the nineteenth Century) brought by the imperial powers, could only “arouse the hostility of the Moroccan masses, who hate everything foreign or European[.]..Will nationalist hatred not be directed against the defenseless Jews because it cannot be directed against the well-protected predators of Europe,” he asked? And would the authorities “not be pleased to divert the national passions away from themselves to the line of least resistance?” The history of the final fifty years of the lives of the Jews in the East was written by Borochov before they occurred.

Criticizing the Labor Zionism of Borochov, his vision of a socialist Palestine, his near mechanistic vision of how events would unfold is hardly worth the effort: history has done that for us. What is of lasting value, though, is his portrait and explanation of the Jewish class structure in the Diaspora. In 1916 he was already writing that, “In England, where Jews founded a large modern needle industry, Jewish labor is displaced by Gentile girls. In America, too, Jews are losing control of the needle trade of which they were founders. Gradually, step by step, they are being eased out of their jobs in the American needle industry by the influx of Italians, Poles, Lithuanians and Syrians.” The existence of a Jewish working class in the nations they emigrated to, France, Canada, Argentina, and of course the US, was as Borochov said, of short duration. More important than their being eased out of the working class was the Jewish ascent from it, as the second generation re-entered the “luft economy” Borochov wanted to put an end to. Neither Zionism, nor Borochov, nor history has found a way to change that.