Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Jewish Studies

The Comintern and the Left Poale Zion, 1919-1922

Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Jewish Studies

The Comintern and the Left Poale Zion, 1919-1922

Article excerpt

The early history of the communist movement in Palestine is bound up with two main developments of the international labour movement: one is the rise of the Jewish labour movement in Soviet Russia during the years that followed the October Revolution, and the other is the relationship between the Communists and the Socialist Zionists within the context of the formation of the Third or the Communist International (Comintern). Both aspects, especially the second one, have to be taken into account in order to interpret the different and conflicting tendencies within the communist movement in Palestine during its formative phase. The following paper will focus on these two intertwined aspects. (1)

The Poale Zion in Russia and its Split in 1919

The Russian Revolution of 1917 evoked the following question: could the socialist revolution of Eastern European society solve its Jewish problem? The issue whether an ethnic-religious minority in Eastern Europe should assimilate, or whether it needed national-cultural autonomy, as the General Jewish Workers' Bund of Russia, Poland and Lithuania propounded, was particularly complex. Since the turn of the century a third option gained considerable support: the idea of a Jewish socialist state in Palestine. However, the Bund as well as the Bolsheviks and the Jewish socialists in the two Polish workers' parties--the Polish Socialist Party and the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania--dismissed the Socialist-Zionist way of solving the Jewish question. Nevertheless, from the turn of the century onwards the labour parties had to focus their attention on the competing Socialist Zionist organizations (for details see Kessler 1994:67-85).

In March 1917, the Jews in the Russian empire welcomed the overthrow of Czarism as a great victory that ended their suffering and opened a new era of liberation. One of the very first measures adopted by the provisional government was the suppression of the anti-Semitic legislation of the old regime: a total of nearly 650 laws limiting the civic rights of the Jewish population were abolished (see Trotzki 1982:723). Many Jews had supported the provisional government and thus they did not support the October Revolution. The Soviet declaration of the distribution of the land to the peasants was of little interest for the sizeable majority of the urbanized Jews, who were disconnected from agriculture (see Kessler 1996:417-29, reprinted in Kessler 2005:47-64). Elections to the Jewish community organizations that took place in June 1918 confirmed the considerable dominance of the various Zionist parties and of the Jewish Workers' Bund, which at its Eighth National Conference in December 1917 had expressed its opposition to the October Revolution. (2) The dissolution of the Constituent Assembly on 5 January 1918 by the Bolsheviks had created an irrevocable breach between them and the other leftist parties, which were supported by the majority of the Jews.

During the Civil War, the armies of Denikin and of Wrangel tried to use antisemitism as a weapon in their struggle against the Soviet regime. In this desperate situation the Jews saw in the Red Army their sole hope for salvation, although Red Army soldiers were also responsible for anti-Jewish pogroms, even though their number was relatively small in comparison to anti-Jewish massacres perpetrated by the White armies (see Bunzl 1975:137-38; Baron 1987:181-87). (3) During the Civil War a considerable portion of the Russian and Ukrainian Jews gradually moved from hostility to the October Revolution and the Bolshevik regime to loyalty and even substantial support. It was this shift that initiated the transformation of Jewish socialism, and especially its Zionist current, towards the Bolshevik party and, on an international level, towards the Comintern that was founded in March 1919 in Moscow.

The October Revolution and the Russian Civil War thus caused a marked move to the left among important sections of the socialist Zionists that were part of the World-Wide Federation (4) of Poale Zion (Workers of Zion) founded in 1907. …

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