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The New International, January 1943

Karl Minter

Whither Zionism? Whither Jewry?

Discussion Notes on the Theology of Zionism


From The New International, Vol. IX No. 1, January 1943, pp. 23–26.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Two types of criticism were directed at me after publication of the article Jewish Colonization in Palestine. Both are equally devoid of the acumen necessary for clear political analysis. They are both striking in the absence of dialectic thinking:

One argument claims an inconsistency: Minter opens his article by expressing his “sympathies” toward Zionism and then systematically refutes each and every “progressive” point in the program of Zionism. A similar inconsistency is discovered from the other side: The program of Zionism proves reformist to the marrow; yet Minter continues to lend support to these illusions.

The same error permeates the criticism of both sides: form is confused with content. Do I have to be a de Gaullist to be for French independence? Do I have to align myself with Chiang Kai-shek in order to fight for the liberation of China? Or do I have to endorse the program of civil disobedience for the reason that I want to see an India free from Great Britain? On the other hand, do I reject the struggle for democratic demands because the liberals divert it into the royal road to parliamentary cretinism? Who among us is against the right of self-determination despite past experience with the reformist content, sometimes outrightly reactionary, of shallow nationalism? It is because we are for the liberation of France, of China, of India, because we are for every democratic demand, that we subject all forms of bourgeois liberalism to a devastating critique.

How idle though is the declaration of the right of self-determination without favoring the concrete steps that will lead to the realization of this principle. Lenin, in his time, granted the complete and immediate right of secession as its concrete application. That was after October, after the Bolsheviks had seized state power. But the struggle for self-determination, even under the rule of the bourgeoisie, can be fruitful to a certain limited degree. The following was said by Lenin on the topic:

The assertion that the right of nations to self-determination cannot be achieved within the framework of capitalism may be understood either in its absolute economic sense, or in the conventional, political sense.

In the first case the assertion is fundamentally wrong in theory. First, in this sense, it is impossible to achieve such things as labor money, the abolition of crises. etc., under capitalism. But it is entirely correct to argue that self-determination of nations is likewise impossible ...

In the second case, this assertion is incomplete and inaccurate, for not only the right of nations to self-determination, but all the fundamental demands of political democracy are “possible of achievement” under imperialism, only incompletely, in a mutilated form and as a rare exception (for example, the secession of Norway from Sweden in 1905) ... It implies that it is necessary to formulate and put forward all these demands, not in a reformist, but in a revolutionary way ... (The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination, Lenin, Selected Works, Vol.V, pp.268-69.)

The only integration of nationalism and socialism lies in the incorporation of the explicit demands for self-determination into the program of revolutionary socialism. An evaluation of the progressive or reactionary content of Zionism can therefore not be based on the avowed inconsistencies discovered in Minter’s article accompanied by an a priori answer of either: “The social revolution will solve the Jewish problem anyhow; Zionism under imperialism is a utopia; so why bother?” Or: “Nationalism is basically a progressive movement and self-determination a revolutionary demand which even socialists fight for; hence, we are doing our share for socialism by fighting for it along the national front.” Neither side tells us of the how and why. Neither has understood or perhaps even read Lenin.

To evaluate Zionism in relation to the Jewish problem will be the purpose of this essay. A priori conclusions will be opposed by painstaking analysis. I wish to point out only one difficulty: Zionism as a mass movement of Jews, exists, so far, only in theory. Unlike other national movements, Jews still dispute among themselves whether they exist as a nation or a sect, or even whether they exist at all. Thus in dealing with this difficulty, I shall be forced to examine somewhat exhaustively the theories behind the Zionist movement and to a certain degree base my conclusions on them rather than on a purely pragmatic examination of facts.


The Basis of the Jewish Problem

Our inquiry into the history of anti-Semitism will unfortunately deal only with generalities, with the typical. We have tried to sum up its history as a uniform development of all its parts. This has in reality led to certain inaccuracies and false emphases, since the history and character of the Jewish problem in each country will show marked and not altogether unimportant deviations from the typical. Yet, for the sake of an all-encompassing treatment, limited in space as it is, these errors are left standing so as not to obscure what is fundamental.

The historical roots of the Jewish problem lie in their landlessness. But landlessness is not its cause. The cause must be sought in a disturbing factor in the immediate surrounding environment. Landlessness has its potential and latent dangers and weaknesses; yet only when an aggravating situation threatens to disturb the unstable equilibruim are these potentialities transformed into reality.

Let us say the diagnosis of a patient reveals the unequivocable result: cancer. In tracing the family tree it is found that a high percentage of the ancestry was afflicted with the same ailment. Does that explain to us the cause of the cancer? No! Medicine is still confronted with this riddle. Hereditary influences may make for a certain susceptibility, a weakened resistance, but other factors must first break through the defenses to cause an outbreak of the disease.

All that is established by the factor of landlessness is the susceptibility of the Jews to persecution, their inability to defend themselves, which in turn aggravates the original Jewish problem. In the case of the Jew, though, we are somewhat better informed than are our medical authorities on cancer, historians having time and again pointed out the dynamic factors determining the relation between the Jewish and Gentile “worlds.”

Once the proper place of the landlessness is established, we will test this thesis, without, however, going into the causes which originally singled out the Jew as the scapegoat of history. If landlessness or dispersion implies nothing else but susceptibility (to persecution), then how does it happen that throughout the centuries of persecution, the only permanent factor that could be found was the universal dispersion of the Jewish people? During that time ancient Rome disintegrated; the guild system arose and declined; the stagnated feudal system gave way to the revolutionary capitalist mode of production. In other words, we stand today in the last stage of class society which 2,000 years ago, when Jewish dispersion was first inaugurated, was still in its immature forms. This is, as we shall presently see, not a refutation but a confirmation of our thesis.

Jews Under Feudalism

The Jewish problem under feudalism was not the same as it is under capitalism, even though its external forms might not have changed basically. Neither is the anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union merely a hangover from capitalism; it too can be explained on the basis of the degeneration of the Soviet Union; there are definite features which can only be explained through a proper understanding of the symptoms of its decay. The Jewish problem must be understood primarily in terms of economics. This does not exclude the influence of other factors but it provides us with the skeleton.

Under feudalism, the Jews fulfilled a special economic function, namely, they provided the merchants and later the money lenders. This does not mean that all Jews engaged in these two fields; nor does it necessarily mean that a majority of the Jews performed these functions. Its exact meaning is that those Jews in usury or commerce were dominating the attitude of the Jews toward the outside world and also determining the attitude of the outside world toward the Jews. The rest of the Jews were either artisans depending primarily upon Jewish patronage or they turned to agriculture, whence, like the “ten lost tribes of Israel,” they were often assimilated without a trace. Those who did not fit into one of these three categories were insignificant in number. Hence, already in the days prior to a capitalist economy, money proved itself a dominant element in the Jewish community.

Prior to the Crusades, and long after, the Jews not only enjoyed equal rights but actually were bestowed with special privileges. These privileges were of course, at the bottom nothing else but unwilling courtesy extended to a sorely needed creditor. On other occasions, it was tolerance to a stranger. They were accorded tolerance since the political power that the Jews wielded was far out of proportion with their financial power. Why then did not the Jews usurp the political power of Europe as well while the rest of Jewry mingled with the masses? This would have indeed reduced the whole Jewish problem to merely that of antagonisms; but we are apt to forget that class antagonisms often reveal themselves in a veiled form, especially during the formation of classes, and that conflicts among the various sections of one class are also a common historical phenomena to be dealt with.

The new political (of course, also economic) factor that now entered the scene in full force was the Catholic Church. Through its increased influence and the break-up of the Mark community, the Jews were an alien element – by their financial power and by their worldly ambitions – threatening to undermine both the nobility as a class and the ideological stranglehold of the Church. The whole struggle against the Jewish financial might was converted into a religious crusade against the “Killers of Christ.” Jews were forced to live in ghettos, when crowded they began to assume that peculiar economic structure that to some degree still marks them today. Their commercial functions were assumed by Christians.

Jews were the midwife of capitalism. That does not mean capitalism could not have arisen without their aid. Yet their international connections, their accumulated capital from trade and usury, reliance on money rather than barter, etc., all aided in the development of the prerequisites for capitalism. They were practically invited to Poland during the tenth, eleventh and twelfth centuries, when they fulfilled all and more of the above-mentioned functions.

The Struggle for Equality

Before capitalism could break the bonds of feudalism, the restrictive measures of feudalism, especially the feudal autocracy, had broken the backbone of Jewish commercial strength. Guilds, to which the element of unscrupulous gain was relatively uncommon, early excluded Jews. We have already mentioned the activity of the Church and the nobility. Hence, rising capitalism found in the Jewish community a great reservoir of potential strength that had not been tapped. In its progressive and revolutionary epoch, capitalism set in motion the creative elements among the Jews, just as it did among other strata of the population. To do this the Jews had to be emancipated politically and this the political revolutions of capitalism proceeded to do. Let no one think that equality was automatically bestowed upon the Jews. Jews, side by side with the liberals of other nationalities, carried on an exhaustive political struggle. Wherever the liberal elements were strongly entrenched, Jews enjoyed equal rights; wherever reaction triumphed, restrictive anti-Jewish measures resulted.

Today, however, the economic basis of anti-Semitism is no longer the same. Political emancipation, once accomplished, is gradually being superseded by cut-throat competition between the Jewish and non-Jewish capitalists, between the Jewish and non-Jewish petty bourgeoisie, and finally by competition among sections of the proletariat. Capitalism has become thoroughly reactionary and the agony of this declining capitalism are the birth pains of modern anti-Semitism.

I emphasize “modern,” for anti-Semitism is as old as the ages. However, to imply that present anti-Semitism is merely a carry-over or a backslide of the Dark Ages is absolutely fallacious. Each generation makes history; but not all over again, starting from a vacuum; rather, it builds on the traditions of past generations. Capitalism in agriculture (Europe mostly) did not abolish the system of rents; it merely adapted it to its own needs. The old forms remained but now they were the embodiment of capitalist exploitation which had displaced the feudal order. Similarly, modern anti-Semitism is no longer based upon the threat of Jews to usurp the power of the nobility and undermine the authority of the Church. While it draws upon the strength of old prejudices which had arisen under feudalism, the attraction of these prejudices could only be upheld if new antagonisms could be kindled. And they could be kindled on the basis of the declining capitalistic order. New content was thus given to old forms. As long as capitalism exists the Jewish problem is an integral part of it.

Why was the Jew such a convenient scapegoat? Capitalism had somewhat transformed the economic structure of Jewry. Once freed of restrictions and segregation, they entered the economy en masse as merchants, small capitalists and members of the liberal professions. Wherever opportunity was lacking, the Jewish proletarian took form; the small Jewish store owner always on the brink of proletarianization arose beside him. Also the tailor, the baker, traditionally typical of the ghetto, now proceeded to serve gentile customers.

The Jews entered capitalism with few bounds of traditional occupations. This does not mean that there were absolutely no occupational traditions passed on from father to son, but Jews did not have peasants who were by feudal law and family tradition joined to the soil; craftsmen were still largely influenced by the tradition of the guilds. Remembering that the overwhelming majority of the population at that time lived on the farms and the Jews were city-bred or townspeople, this difference of tradition, which has economic roots, becomes quite obvious. And the most deep-rooted Jewish economic traditions of the time were commerce and usury, both emphasizing the lack of tradition, for they know no other code but the search for the highest amount of profit and gain.

As a population adopted to the needs of capitalism, the Jews were in a sense ideal. Unfettered, they flocked into those fields that promised the greatest possible security in the shortest possible time. Where others derived influence and respect from birth the Jews derived it almost solely from money. Thus pecuniary gain became the compensation for all those fears derived from the threat of return to the insecurity of the Middle Ages. And this search for security characterizes the overwhelming majority of Jews. Some seek it through small enterprise, others in their superior education; some urge loosening of the Jewish communal ties; some advocate complete assimilation. They are opposed by the Zionists, territorialists and the Orthodox. Finally there are those who, through unity with the proletariat, aim at the emancipation of the world in order to emancipate themselves.

Economic Basis of Anti-Semitism

As members of the liberal professions and owners of small enterprises, Jews very soon collided with other members of this strata. Making use of a political weapon for the economic struggle, competition took on the external form of a struggle between the Jewish and the Gentile middle classes. This limited itself with slogans such as: “Do Not Buy from Jews.” There was no solidarity in either camp, and the Jews especially were very weak.

Much more vicious was the anti-Semitism which resulted from the class conflict between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The more brutal forms of anti-Semitism usually set in after the real power of the Jewish middle class was already on the decline. Its members were frantically on the brink of an abyss, trying to avert complete annihilation. Hence, the general psychological motives underlying Jewish economic activity, as outlined above, asserted themselves in pronounced ways. The Jew, as the most typical embodiment of the capitalist outlook, were those who in retail, in small business, came into day-to-day contact with the masses. The modern proletarian feels the impact of the petty “Jewish chiseler” more strongly than that of the boss of a large concern who is hidden from him through a long chain of hired functionaries. This is cleverly exploited, and, in addition to the destruction of the Gentile middle class and the competition of the workers among themselves, causes the main wrath of the workers, students, middle classes and unemployed to be directed into anti-Semitic channels.

It is quite false, however, to designate all Jews as middle class. The Jewish middle class made itself conspicuous because the number of its representatives among the middle classes of a country is far out of proportion with their representation among the population as a whole. Jewish proletarians in great number are to be found everywhere, but they are generally permeated with a psychology strangely reminiscent of the petty bourgeoisie. As outlined previously, his path is usually the one leading to the speediest “security,” so he thinks, away from the proletariat.

This situation also aggravates anti-Semitism. Where competition for the more highly paid jobs is keen, reactionaries, seizing upon these points of friction, can easily fan the flames of open anti-Semitism.

Certain generalities established, we shall briefly sum up the concrete plight in which the Jews find themselves today. We are all too familiar with the desperate situation of the Jewish people in the Axis nations. Somewhat obscured in the wake of all the recent war problems is the situation of Jews in the United Nations. True enough, Milton Mayer’s article in the Saturday Evening Post last spring caused nation-wide indignation, yet the comments clearly indicated that the protests were more concerned with the immorality of his statements at a time when Jewry under Axis domination was suffering so greatly, than in pointing out the true situation of Jews in America.

The transition to a war economy has accelerated combination and concentration of American capital. Many Jewish retailers have been displaced. Similarly, with the contraction of consumers’ industries, many Jewish traveling salesmen became jobless and the New York garment workers can also count on a sharp curtailment of their work. On the other hand, the expansion of heavy industry for war has temporarily relaxed the restrictions against the Jews in that field. The net result is a greater normalization of the economic structure of the Jews, i.e., a better balance in the relation of numbers between Jewish proletarians and non-proletarians. In fact, this relation, making the necessary allowances, is quite normal.

Ruppin states:

“Many Jews, especially of the second generation, left this work (clothing, fur industry) and went into clerical and commercial employment and the independent professions, but the Jews in America are much more employed in industry than the Jews of any other country..”

Without minimizing the still existing weaknesses in this country, we present the following two tables:

Occupational Distribution of New York’s Gainfully Employed in 1937

Pct. of the
Total No.
of Jews
in this trade


Total No.
in Trade

Industry, including handicraft and home industry









Public Utility









Public Services



Independent Professions



Places of Amusement



Domestic and Personal Service



Other Occupations










Estimate for Jews Over the Whole World, 1938








Industry and Handicrafts



Trade and Transport



Public Service and Independent Professions    



Casual Labor and Domestic Service



Pensioners, Persons of Independent Means



Other or Unknown Occupations



(Ruppin: Jewish Fate and Future)

The anomalies that remain are the concentration of the Jews in a few large cities in large communities, their unduly large proportional representation in certain specialized trades, and their absence, for all practical purposes, from agriculture.


What, then, is unique in the situation of the Jews? Is it that they are the only landless nation? Many Jews vehemently deny the existence of a Jewish nation and among them are some of the most orthodox adherents of the Jewish religion and refugees from Nazi terror. Furthermore, the Gypsies, like the Jews, have survived centuries of travels, scattered through the world and without a homeland. Yet their problem is fundamentally different. Is it the undue concentration in certain economic fields? The scattered Armenians over Europe, the Christian Arab in Palestine, the Chinese merchants all over Eastern Asia, the Germans in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Bohemia – is their concentration in commerce less unique than that of the Jews? Frequently, analogies between the economic structures of these various groups have been drawn, yet no one has been possessed of the sophism necessary to establish an identity between the problems of the groups mentioned and the Jewish problem.

Theories that attempt to deduce the Jewish problem from the fact that the Jewish group is either a nation, or a religion, or a separate economic category, or marked with an aggressive nature characteristic of its anthropological origin, etc., are not only inaccurate but deal in abstractions and totalities. Behind them is nothing more than the thinly veiled endeavor of philosophy to sneak into social problems. The social problem is distorted to fit the world view, and thus the existence of the social problem serves primarily to advance the propaganda of the philosophical school behind which, usually, certain interest groups hide. This is not the espousal of pragmatism in preference to Marxism. Criteria in Marxism, by its very nature as a class science, is relative. The Jewish problem in its present form is the result of a sequential complex of historical phenomena, a maze of interlocking and peculiar circumstances whose final product we witness today. If in the brief historical sketch of the history of the Jewish problem prime attention is given to the economic factor, it is only because political economy is the anatomy of civil society even though it is not everything.

(To be continued)

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