Fired by ideology and taking action by means of protests, manifestos or even violence, Jews have historically played an important role in fomenting change in the economic, political and social order of the societies in which they live.
One hot day in the summer of 1967, a young, frizzy-haired guy named Abbie Hoffman tried to go into the visitors’ entrance of the building in which the New York Stock Exchange is located. When the guard stopped him, Hoffman said: “We are Jews and you are an anti-Semite who is not letting us in.” The disconcerted guard let Hoffman and his hippie-friends go up to the visitors’ gallery.
At this point the group began its provocative protest: They pulled out stacks of dollar bills and released them into the air over the trading floor and then filmed the traders as they scrambled and grabbed at the bills falling from the sky.
Abbie Hoffman, second from left, and Jerry Rubin. Getty Images
“If there is one image that has ridiculed capitalism, it is this incident. Abbie Hoffman was a genius when it came to that sort of thing. He would stand on a street corner burning dollar bills,” relates historian Dr. Gadi Taub, an expert on the 1960s in the United States.
The popular protest that began on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv on July 14 – the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, marking the beginning of the French Revolution – immediately was referred to as a “revolution,” even before it could begin to change the existing social order in Israel. The young people leading it derive inspiration from a long history of Jewish revolt, aimed at achieving a new order and equal rights for all classes.
Jews have traditionally taken a particular interest in the successes of their people in every generation and in every field of endeavor. This Jewish “bookkeeping” is mostly tendentious and usually ignores the circumstantial and environmental conditions that made these success stories possible. Indeed, for the most part, it prefers to attribute these achievements to the genetic makeup of the Chosen People.
“The list of Jews who have been involved in leading revolutions [since the middle of the 19th century] is very long,” explains Prof. Moshe Zimmermann of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s history department. “When a social group is not satisfied with its situation and feels it cannot change it – it will support a revolution. The Jews were not satisfied because they did not have privileges granted to other sectors and therefore the idea of revolution – whether communist or liberal – was attractive to them.
According to Prof. Moshe Zuckermann, a historian at Tel Aviv University, revolution was not the only option for Jews. They had least two other options.
“One was assimilation,” he explains, “as happened in Germany in the 19th century, and the other was going in the Zionist direction, a possibility that arose at the end of that century. If a Jew did not choose one of those two directions, his remaining alternative was to change the society at large – and therefore became a revolutionary.”
Spring of Nations.
The wave of uprisings that swept the European continent in 1848 was ignited when King Louis-Philippe was deposed that February by the French masses. The events of what became known as the Spring of Nations began in Paris and Vienna, and quickly spread throughout Europe. This was the first time that there was a marked presence of Jewish revolutionaries in the protest and liberation movements. In some cases, there were even rabbis who participated in these movements, as with Rabbi Adolf Jellinek, the chief rabbi of Vienna and brother of the revolutionary Hermann Jellinek.
“Suddenly it was possible to see Jewish names in all kinds of places,” says Dr. Michael Silber of the Hebrew University’s history department, who has researched the period. “In Germany, which was at the time split into dozens of states, Jews took on key roles in founding and leading the liberation movements – for example, Ludwig Bamberger from Mainz, Ferdinand Lassalle from Breslau, Gabriel Riesser from Hamburg and many more. Among those who stood out in Vienna were two young doctors from Hungary, Adolf Fischhof and Joseph Goldmark, brother of the composer Karl Goldmark; in Venice, a Jew, Daniele Manin led the revolution.
Jewish journalists, writers and poets, such as Siegfried Kapper, Heinrich Heine, Ludwig Borne and Leopold Zunz had an important role in shaping the image of the Jewish revolutionary. Jews holding republican and socialist values who joined the revolution naturally aroused the ire of conservative groups. “The conservatives labeled the Jews as enemies, and those who wanted to fight the revolutionary movement used anti-Semitism to spur them on,” explains Zimmermann.
“Jews hardly participated at all in the French Revolution,” notes Prof. Guy Miron, dean of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. “The Jews had a need to rewrite their past to make it suit the present. They identified with the [French] Revolution and therefore tried to make it look as though they were participating in it. In fact, they were a small and marginal group, so this isn’t a Jewish story. But the ramifications of the French Revolution were tremendous for the Jews.”
At that time, there were only about 40,000 Jews living in France, most of them outside Paris. According to Prof. Israel Bartal of Hebrew University, who lectures on the subject of Jews and revolutions, the reasons why the community played a negligible role in the French Revolution has to do with the fact that “in that period the Jews were undergoing a process of integration and were joining non-Jewish cultural and social groups. They were trying to assimilate and not stand out. Beyond that, this was a revolution of the bourgeoisie accompanied by outbursts of activity by unbridled mobs – in many cases with no leadership. For example, members of the petite bourgeoisie, who had no economic standing, participated in the fall of the Bastille, but a question arose of who was leading and running the revolution. In this respect, it is similar to what we are seeing today [with the social protest]: There is something resembling a spontaneous event that no one seems to be controlling,” explains Bartal.
Socialism and communism spread
“Revolutionary activity by Jews reached its peak in 1917-1919, when there were revolutions in Russia, Germany and Hungary,” says Miron. “This occured despite the fact that most of the Jews in Hungary, Germany and Russia were conservative and traditional and were not interested in a revolution.
“The most outstanding revolutionary was Leon Trotsky, whose original family name was Bronshtein.” He was intended to become Lenin’s successor, but was deposed by Stalin.
Like many revolutionaries after him, Trotsky grew up in a relatively wealthy home and at a certain stage left his studies to act against the czarist regime. He spent time in prison, was exiled to Siberia, escaped to London, returned to Russia to join the failed revolution of 1905, went back to London, wandered around Europe – and in 1917 returned to Moscow to join the revolution. He was appointed foreign minister in the first Bolshevik government, and then defense minister and the person in charge of the Red Army in the civil war that later erupted.
Trotsky was surrounded by quite a number of Jews, among whom his brother-in-law, Lev Kamenev, and Grigory Zinoviev stood out. “It is said jokingly,” comments Miron, “that when Lenin would leave the room, Trotsky was able to organize a minyan [prayer quorum].” Later the two of them joined Stalin, Trotsky’s great enemy. Stalin deported Trotsky at the end of the 1920s, and he moved around until settling in Mexico City in the mid-1930s. In 1940 an assassin murdered him with an icepick at Stalin’s behest.
“Trotsky was a brilliant man with big ideas and an impressive ability to get things done. He had many admirers, but also succeeded in gaining many enemies for himself. Within the leadership he was fairly isolated and therefore he was deposed at a relatively early stage,” explains Prof. Ziva Galili, a history lecturer at Rutgers University in New Jersey. A well-known concept associated with Trotsky is “the permanent revolution,” meaning ongoing activism aimed at a worldwide revolution, an idea that influenced a great many young people, including Jews. Indeed, in the interwar period, Jewish communists were among such groups: “revolutionaries who went from country to country and suddenly, for example, you find them in the Spanish Civil War,” explains Bartal.
In Hungary, in another example, Bela Kun, a young man in his 30s, was among the founders of the Soviet Republic in Hungary in 1919. When it collapsed after 133 days, Kun went into exile in Russia, and was killed in one of Stalin’s purges at the end of the ’30s.
“Kun operated within a reality in ferment: Nearly half of the Hungarian journalists were Jewish, as well as the lawyers and doctors – even though they constituted only 5 percent of the population,” Silber explains. “At the end of World War I, Kun seized power in Hungary. He headed a government of 35 commissars, nearly all of them Jewish, and the impression was that a Jewish government really had been created. This led to a wave of anti-Semitism and terror against Jews.”
World War I left behind a Germany dealing with the tough peace conditions of the Treaty of Versailles, public frustration and economic difficulty.
“In Germany there were various revolutionary ‘focal points’ dominated by Jews,” says Miron. “Kurt Eisner led the ‘Bavarian Soviet Republic,’ which briefly ruled in Bavaria. In Munich, there were three attempts at a revolution, all of them were led by Jews and all of them failed.”
Rosa Luxemburg, a Polish-born Jewess, was one of the founders of the Communist Party in Germany. A Marxist theoretician and inspiring figure in such areas as humanism and feminism, she established the Workers’ Cause newspaper, and entered into a fictive marriage with a German socialist – solely in order to participate in the activity of the Social Democratic Party in Germany. However, she refused to participate in the government after the party’s victory, saying that would be a betrayal of Marx’s philosophy and would harm the workers’ struggle. Like other revolutionaries, Luxemburg paid with her life for her activity and her opinions: In 1919 she was assassinated by an extreme rightist organization.
After World War II, Luxemburg was considered to be a national heroine in East Germany and a main square in what was formerly East Berlin is named after her.
“A large part of the Jewish presence in socialist revolutions has to do with Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who spread through the large cities in Europe, and later in the United States and the Land of Israel,” Bartal explains. “Rosa Luxemburg was a Jewish woman from Poland and that is how she was identified in Germany, and yet she was more interested in the fate of the miners in Silesia than in the fate of the Jews.”
Revolutions in the West
“Revolution is a phenomenon that has always swept along Jews in the United States and it is manifested in every period,” says historian Dr. Michael Zakim, of Tel Aviv University. “American Jews were able to choose between two options: to assimilate, or to improve their conditions and ‘repair’ society. Most Jews chose the second option. They arrived in the United States with a collectivist worldview and brought this baggage with them into American liberalism, which is individualistic in nature. They became integrated in the radical socialist parties, in the Communist Party… and in extra-partisan politics, including black civil rights.”
A Jewish immigrant who became a revolutionary in the United States was Emma Goldman, who became known as “Red Emma.” In contrast to Luxemburg, who was motivated by the sprit of communism, Goldman played an important role as one of the architects of anarchist philosophy and of the first wave of feminism in the ’20s.
Goldman was born in 1869 in Kovno, Russia, and immigrated to New York at the age of 25. She was involved throughout her life in many social and political struggles; she wrote about atheism, freedom of speech, militarism, capitalism and more. Her most outstanding contribution was the connection she forged between gender politics and anarchist theory – with an emphasis on sexual liberation. After her death in 1940, memories of her faded. She was rediscovered and accorded recognition only in the 1960s with the revival of the anarchist movement, and in the ’70s with the strengthening of the women’s movement as part of what is known as “the second wave of feminism.”
The Cold War, the closure of Eastern European countries behind the Iron Curtain, and the anti-communist witch hunt in the United States, beginning in 1948, suppressed movements that had a socialist and communist orientation.
“The Jews were not acting out of a sense of discrimination or oppression. If they fell victim to McCarthyism, it was because they were communists and not in the context of their Jewishness,” explains Zakim.
In the 1960s, the fire of revolution was ignited by the Vietnam War and discrimination against blacks, and U.S. Jews participated in various anti-government activities related to these issues.
The wave of protest was distinctly different in nature from what had happened in Europe half a century earlier: Its leaders were children of the World War II baby boom, who became the flower children in the hippie movement. They spread messages of peace and in support of disengagement from materialism and prosperity, and mixed them with mysticism, the need to “return to nature” – and the use of marijuana and hallucinogens.
Says U.S. expert Taub, however, “The hippies were ineffective. They expressed the spirit of the revolution and very much annoyed the middle class – but they maneuvered themselves into the margins.” Indeed, the attempt to transmit somewhat subversive messages by means of provocative activities never solidified into a real revolution.
“At a certain stage the Yippies [politically active hippies] set up a political party and tried to run a candidate for the presidency [in 1968]: a pig named Pigasus,” relates Taub. “That year Hoffman also [made an intentionally provocative announcement] that he and his friends had introduced LSD into Chicago’s water reservoir, and this ended in a massive clash that, from the media perspective at least, worked to the hippies’ benefit. They referred to the violence as ‘a police riot.'”
Another Jew who took part in the colorful ’60s’ protests was Jerry Rubin, a member of the Chicago Seven – a group of activists, including Hoffman, who burst into the 1968 Democratic Party convention in Chicago and were brought to trial on charges of incitement (which were later thrown out ).
Says Taub: “Rubin showed up at the convention totally drugged out, wearing a Revolutionary War uniform and holding an American flag, making a total mockery of the people there. He tried to express the idea that to bring about change, it is not necessary to participate in public discourse, but rather [preferable] to subvert it and create a discourse outside that framework. But in the end, in a democratic country, what determines things is the broad interest of the middle class – and if you don’t move it, you don’t move anything. The hippie movement’s radical display succeeded in making the middle class disgusted with them.” (As for Rubin, by the way, he eventually became a businessman and was one of the first investors in Apple. )
Jews and feminism
According to Taub, the most effective movements emerging from the 1960s were civil rights and feminism. Among the outstanding leaders of the latter were women of Jewish origin like Betty Friedan, whose book “The Feminine Mystique” drew attention for the first time to the despair and lack of fulfillment felt by many women in the world. Friedan founded the National Organization of Women, which used the particularly successful acronym NOW, which aimed to transform women into full, equal partners in American society.
And while these movements took root and the hippies were shocking America, in France, the earth shook in the wake of the students’ revolt. In March 1968 students and intellectuals occupied the administration building of Nanterre University in the outskirts of Paris, under the leadership of Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a 23-year-old Jewish student of sociology who was nicknamed “Danny the Red,” in part because of his hair.
At issue were racial and class discrimination at academic institutions and in French society in general, demands for freedom of speech and movement, and a protest against the ban on students visiting university dormitories of the opposite sex. These issues led to a series of strikes at Parisian universities, which within two months escalated into mass street riots and a standstill in the French economy. The failure to control the widespread riots threatened to bring down the government and even forced President Charles de Gaulle to take temporary refuge at a military base in Germany. Indeed, in the wake of these events France’s National Assembly was dispersed and national elections were held in June, after which the French right came back into power.
As for Cohn-Bendit – the son of German-Jewish parents who escaped the Nazis by fleeing to Paris – he was not the leader of the student revolution for long: While he was on a visit to Berlin [in May 1968], an order was issued prohibiting him from re-entering France because he was considered a “subversive alien” – and he stayed in Germany. He founded a Marxist group called Revolutionary Struggle there and over the years was a public activist; at the end of the 1980s he was appointed deputy mayor of Frankfurt. In 1994 he was elected to the European Parliament, and in 1999 he returned to France to lead the country’s Green Party. Currently he is serving as joint president of the Greens – European Free Alliance group in the European Parliament.
“Basically, Judaism does not accept the cultural and social assumptions around it – and therefore it has an inbuilt revolutionary position,” asserts Rabbi Dr. Yehuda Brandes, who heads Beit Morasha of Jerusalem – The Center for Advanced Judaic Studies and Leadership, and is a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute. “Abraham fought the war of monotheism, Moses set out on a battle against slavery, and the Hasmoneans revolted against the Romans. There is something built in to Judaism that says: ‘We don’t work with the whole world, rather we are against the whole world.'”
According to Brandes, the most prominent, shared cultural element bridging the worlds is language: “Also today,” he explains, “in the context of the current protest [in Israel], in public discourse there is great use of concepts that derive from Jewish tradition and culture, both among the religious and the secular. When we talk about social justice, everyone goes back to the language of our sources – such as ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,’ the prohibition on cruelty to a slave, the obligation to pay fair wages and so on.”
“Jewish revolutionaries for the most part live on the margins of Jewish society and sometimes cut off ties with the community,” notes Prof. Avi Saguy, head of the program for hermeneutics and a lecturer in philosophy at Bar-Ilan University. According to him, tikkun olam (repairing the world ) is a profound Jewish ethos – but a conservative rather than a revolutionary one.
“Tikkun olam is achieved by means of small and normative moves, and it does not effect sweeping change of reality, as the revolutionaries wanted. In Jewish culture there isn’t a perception [of a need for] calling for a total change in reality by human beings. In the Jewish ethos, Moses is not perceived as a revolutionary, but rather as a figure of mediation between God and the Children of Israel, a mediation that is in fact nation-building.”
“To say that in the Jewish genes there is a revolutionary element is utter nonsense,” says Prof. Zimmermann. “The Jews, by virtue of being a minority and because they were a religious group, adopted various types of behavior – which also explains the support for revolutions. The origin of the demand for social justice is indeed rooted in Jewish tradition, but in modern conditions, it can be said that it lies in revolutionary tendencies.”
Zuckermann, too, says there is no connection between the revolutionaries’ Jewishness and their political choices: “The discourse did not revolve around ultra-Orthodox religious Judaism, but rather around the Judaism that emerged in the period of the Enlightenment. From the moment the Jews integrated into the civil society of the 19th century – which, although it declared that they were emancipated, in fact did not accept them – they had a collective interest in changing society. Bourgeois civil society perceived the Jews in a new light: not only in a religious context, but also in socioeconomic one.”
Emanicipation of society
The most significant expression of the separation between the Jew’s social status and his tradition is found in the writings of Karl Marx, whose philosophy had a crucial influence on the revolutionaries of the 19th and 20th centuries. Born in Germany in 1818, Marx came from a family of rabbis but his father converted and became a Lutheran.
“The Communist Manifesto,” which he wrote together with Friedrich Engels, set out the main elements of his school of thought, which would eventually become the ideological foundation for communism. Marx identified the perpetual conflict between the bourgeoisie, as owners of the means of production, and the working class, which is oppressed due to its dependence on those means of production. The state, according to his philosophy, is a tool in the hands of the bourgeoisie, which helps it maintain this power relationship; it exploits the worker as a means for utilizing the means of production and for generating profit.
This stood in contrast to Marx’s own belief, whereby the nature of man is to produce what is necessary for subsistence – not in order to profit. Marx argued that it is the reflection of the relationship between the means of production and those owning them that drives reality; phenomena like religion, morality and philosophy are only derivatives of this.
In his 1844 essay “On the Jewish Question,” one of his early writings, Marx related to the secular status of the Jews in society and characterized them as a people identified with commerce and the accumulation of wealth.
“Let us not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion,” he wrote, “but let us look for the secret of his religion in the real Jew. What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money. Very well then! Emancipation from huckstering and money, consequently from practical, real Judaism, would be the self-emancipation of our time. An organization of society which would abolish the preconditions for huckstering, and therefore the possibility of huckstering, would make the Jew impossible. His religious consciousness would be dissipated like a thin haze in the real, vital air of society …
“We recognize in Judaism, therefore, a general anti-social element of the present time, an element which through historical development – to which in this harmful respect the Jews have zealously contributed – has been brought to its present high level, at which it must necessarily begin to disintegrate. In the final analysis, the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.” There are those who saw in Marx’s sharp words an expression of anti-Semitism and a denial of his Jewish past. However, in general he is perceived as a serious social theoretician, who called for the elimination of religious separatism of any kind and for abolishing economic commerce, on the way to creating an egalitarian, classless civil society.
“Most of the great revolutionaries,” says Zuckermann, “did not relate to their Judaism. People like Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg did not talk about emancipating the Jews from their Judaism, but rather about human emancipation, whereby people need to liberate themselves from social structures that create the oppression of various groups in the society, among them the Jews.”