Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 7 No. 1


Superstition and Fanaticism

Dear Editor

As Al Richardson notes in his review of Israel Shahak’s Jewish History, Jewish Religion, Shahak ‘makes no secret of his opposition to Marxism, both in philosophy and as a social theory’. This is one reason why I would suggest that an uncritical acceptance of his views is rather dangerous. Shahak makes many telling points about Jewish religious obscurantism and the sentimentalisation of Eastern European ghetto life by such writers as Sholem Aleichem. However, by focusing on religious ideology as the principal determinant of modern Zionist attitudes, Shahak obscures many important political issues which influenced the creation of the state of Israel. For this reason, he fails to offer political solutions, and it seems to me that any left-winger who attempts to discuss the issue of Israel and the Palestinians in print has a duty to do this.

Shahak’s focus on religious ideology is in my view ahistorical, and tends to misrepresent the context in which such works as the Talmud, Kabbala and Zohar developed. These works arose out of crises of political and religious authority at turning points in the history of the Jewish communities. In the case of the Talmud, during the three centuries after the destruction of the Temple, it represented the reinterpretation of the law by rabbinical Judaism which no longer possessed a state or a centralised priesthood.

The Zohar, although set in first century Palestine, was written in the thirteenth century in Spain at a time when the conflict between Islam and Christianity threatened traditional rabbinical authority as well as the security of the Jewish communities. It represented a return to messianic mysticism at a time of uncertainty, and was distributed on either side of the shifting frontier during the next 50 years or so. It should be remembered that these works, whilst part of the Jewish tradition, are mainly the preserve of the serious religious scholars. Indeed, the study of the Kabbala was even regarded as dangerous for unmarried men under 30!

I also feel that Shahak in his desire to prove the anti-Enlightenment nature of traditional Judaism, tends to ignore the parallel faults of the Christian societies which hosted it. For example, he regards the mediaeval disputations between Christians and Jews as entirely democratic and free, and ignores the fact that they were often followed by persecutions on the part of the Catholic church. He ignores the streak of dark-ages superstition in Christian societies which led to the witch-burning hysteria, which was even carried into Puritan America – something far more sinister than anything I know of in Jewish societies of the time. Finally, there is a tendency to see manifestations of anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe prior to the nineteenth century as innocent examples of peasant jacqueries. Surely the authorities manipulated the situation to their own advantage quite skilfully? The Polish nobility used the Jews as a buffer between themselves and the exploited peasantry. Bohdan Khmelnytsky’s revolt was supported by the Orthodox Church in Ukraine as an attempt to rid Poland of both Jews and Jesuits.

Al Richardson seems to accept Shahak’s thesis in its entirety when he states that it was the ‘superstitious and fanatic’ Jewish population from Poland and Ukraine, ‘that set the tone for the politics of modern Israel’, reproducing ‘a rôle not unlike the Jews in pre-1795 Poland: that of a bailiff to the imperialist oppressor’. What place is there in such a formulation for the real forces that moulded the Jewish populations of Eastern Europe after 1795? The oppressive and discriminatory laws which the Tsarist authorities applied to their Jewish subjects, driving the majority of them into opposition to the autocracy? The industrialisation and proletarianisation of many Jews in Eastern Europe, the growth of modern political movements such as Socialism and Zionism? After all, it was amongst the Jewish workers in the Pale that the Russian Socialist movement gained its first mass following. And, crucially, modern political ideas were transmitted to this population of some six million, not in Polish or Russian, but largely in Hebrew and Yiddish (which was written in the Hebrew alphabet) How does this fit in to Shahak’s crude assertions of superstition and fanaticism?

The reality was that the traditional culture of the Ashkenazi Jews was being utilised to transmit some of the most advanced political ideas of nineteenth century Europe to the Jewish population, which, of any in the world, most formed a compact national mass. Even the early political Zionists were not principally a religious movement, the Hovevei Zion which conducted the first convention in Upper Silesia in 1884 (Zionism being an illegal movement in Tsarist Russia) were classic nineteenth century petit-bourgeois nationalists based amongst the intelligentsia, whilst Herzl was an assimilated Viennese Jew. The Jewish religious authorities in Poland and the Russian Pale played almost no rôle in the formation of this movement. Indeed, right up to the Holocaust, they continued to play their traditional rôle of arbiters between the state authorities and their communities. An echo of this is still found in the fact that certain Orthodox sects still refuse to recognise the Israeli state on religious grounds.

The political factors which led to the formation of Israel were intimately tied up with contemporary political issues: the rise of Nazism, the utilisation of the Jewish question by the Stalinist bureaucracy, the divide and rule policies of British imperialism, and the rôle of the United States in the postwar order. The predominant ideology was Labour Zionism not religious Zionism (which has been a more or less permanent feature of Jewish ideology). The particular rôle of religion in modern Israel derives from the concordat reached between the Labour Zionist establishment and the traditional religious authorities. This ensured the rôle of the religious authorities was backed by the state in such matters as marriage and the determination of right to nationality (there is still no such thing as a civil marriage in Israel). It also ensured that religious groupings had access to state funds and the electoral system, where the Israeli system of proportional representation gives small religious parties undue influence.

This had an important ideological function in uniting together the various elements in the Israeli population, not least the Oriental Jews who flooded into Israel in what has been called the ‘second transfer’. These were entirely immune to the notions of Eastern European Jewish nationalism or redemption through ‘working the land’. Traditional religious ideas became a cement linking populations from widely different socio-economic backgrounds. It has not been fully appreciated that the rise of the Israeli right under Begin relied on the skilful courting of the Oriental population, who were socially excluded by the Labour Zionist establishment. The growth of the religious right also signalled the growing independence of religious parties from the Labour Zionist bloc, and their rôle in providing an ideological justification for the occupation after 1967.

Today, the issue of state subsidies for religious education and the rôle of the religion in determining social behaviour cause important divisions within Israeli politics, second only to attitudes to the ‘Peace Process’. On both these issues, there is a more or less 50–50 split within the Israeli population. You can either dismiss this fact and damn any attempt to build on progress within the Jewish population, or it can be utilised to provide a solution. It seems to me that the danger is that the religious right will be reinforced by the growth of Islamic nationalism amongst the Palestinian population. When Hamas spokesmen talk of Israel as an ‘alien growth’, and reject their language, culture and religion as ‘alien to the region’, we face an insoluble problem of conflicting nationalisms. Whilst the Palestinian side have hitherto been on the receiving end, ethnic cleansing is the only outcome of such positions. It seems to me that there is a crying need for a secular Socialist movement which fights for a Socialist federation between the two peoples.

Yours fraternally

John Laurence

PS: I would recommend Ilan Halevi’s A History of the Jews, Ancient and Modern as by far the best Marxist work covering these issues. It was published by Zed Books in 1987, but I’m not sure if it’s still in print.

Al Richardson replies:

We welcome historical discussion around the issues raised in this letter. I would only make two points at this stage. The ‘witch-hunting hysteria’ was not a product of the European Dark Ages, or even of the high Middle Ages that followed it. During those periods, prosecutions for witchcraft were very rare indeed. Its context is the end of the Middle Ages and the dawning of modern times. It begins in earnest with Kramer and Sprenger’s Malleus Maleficarum, backed by the papal bull Summis desiderantes affectibus towards the end of the fifteenth century. It should also be pointed out that the great influence of the Bund amongst the Jewish population of Eastern Europe made them much less attracted to Zionism than those of a more backward and religious cast of mind.

Updated by ETOL: 30.9.2011