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Isaac Deutscher Redux

Michael Mirer
July 4, 2017


by Michael Mirer

Discussed in this essay: The Non-Jewish Jew, and Other Essays, by Isaac Deutscher. Published in a 50th anniversary edition by Verso, 2017, 176 pages.

WHAT MAKES a Jew a Jew? Are we an ethnic group? Religious? Racial? These questions of identity and politics (if not identity politics) are often answered in terms of exclusion and tribalism rather than a collective identity or common cause. The republication by Verso of Isaac Deutscher’s The Non-Jewish Jew and Other Essays (first published in 1968) is, in this sense, a refreshing intervention into an unending debate. Deutscher’s essays, which range from the autobiographical to the political, do not attempt to cohere into an over-arching argument, yet his clear-eyed sense of purpose and history lends the essays a sense of unity and drive.

Best known for his three-volume biography of Leon Trotsky, as well as his anti-war activism, Deutscher’s commitment to international socialism never seemed to waver, and neither did his sense of himself as a Jew. Rejecting the idea of a Jewish “race” (“Would that not be another triumph for Hitler and his degenerate philosophy?”), Deutscher writes:

[W]hat then makes a Jew?

Religion? I am an atheist. Jewish nationalism? I am an internationalist. In neither sense am I, therefore, a Jew. I am, however, a Jew by force of my unconditional solidarity with the persecuted and exterminated. I am a Jew because I feel the Jewish tragedy as my own tragedy; because I feel the pulse of Jewish history; because I should like to do all I can to assure the real, not spurious, security and self-respect of the Jews.

A socialist Jew is not, particularly to the readers of Jewish Currents, a surprising designation, but Deutscher’s statement illustrates the philosophy that animated his work and the work of so many, particularly before World War II. Born into a khasidic community in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Deutscher grew up, as his wife and editor Tamara Deutscher observes, in a world that “does not exist anymore -- the world so brutally wrecked, tortured, massacred, and obliterated.” This lost world gave a sense of historic possibility to Deutscher in his youth: “We lived in the so-called corner of three Emperors,” Tamara quotes him as saying. “On one side there was Russian Poland, on the other German Poland, and we were set right in the middle of that multi-racial population which constituted the Austro-Hungarian Empire . . . In that year [1918] all three monarchies collapsed and we lived through the landslide of three revolutions.”

Surviving the fall of the empires and the chaos and pogroms that ensued, Deutscher, an impressively precocious intellect, was made a rabbi at the age of 13, only to later abandon his faith, solidifying his commitment to atheism when, at the prodding of an older friend, he ate a ham and butter sandwich while standing on the grave of a rabbi on the eve of Yom Kippur: “I was petrified by the iniquity of my behaviour . . . I half-hoped and half-feared that something terrible would happen; I waited for a thunder that would strike me down. But nothing happened. All was quiet. My companion treated the whole experiment as a huge joke.” The intellectual and political tumult that surrounded Deutscher’s youth, as well as the tutelage and encouragement of his father, who introduced the teenage Isaac to Spinoza, Heine, and Goethe, and wanted his son to abandon his career as a Polish poet to write in German, produced an eloquent and synoptic intelligence that found its home in the international socialist movement. Socialism became the lodestar by which Deutscher could orient himself, and his rejection of nationalism, imperialism, capitalism, and Stalinism, remained paramount and unwavering.

GIVEN HIS ANTI-NATIONALIST beliefs, Israel and Zionism become a particular and persistent problem for Deutscher. In “Israel’s Spiritual Climate,” written in 1954, he describes the tragic circumstances that enabled the creation of the Jewish state. In contrast with Bundists and other anti-Zionist Jews who urged their people to aid the progressive movements of their own countries in the pre-war period, the Zionist movement was comparatively conservative, willing to entrust the future of the Jews to no one else. “In this controversy,” Deutscher writes, “Zionism has scored a horrible victory, one which it could neither wish nor expect: six million Jews had to perish in Hitler’s gas chambers in order that Israel should come to life. It would have been better had Israel remained unborn and the six million Jews stayed alive -- but who can blame Zionism and Israel for the different outcome?” This echoes a statement made earlier in the book (although from an essay, “Who is a Jew?”, written later, in 1966), in which Deutscher describes it as “strange and bitter to think that the extermination of six million Jews should have given such a new lease of life to Jewry. I would have preferred the six million men, women, and children, to survive and Jewry to perish. It was from the ashes of six million Jews that the phoenix of Jewry has risen. What a resurrection!”

These are likely the most controversial statements in the book, and are quiet easily open to misinterpretation, as some will misread them as either affirming the erasure of Jewish identity or expressing the inability of a Marxist thinker to understand the necessity of home and security. It is true that Deutscher does not have much patience for the metaphysical notions of a “chosen people,” nor does he seem to have much nostalgia for the world he left as a teenager (he repeatedly refers to khasidic and other dogmatic religious movements as “medieval”) -- but Deutscher, unlike Trotsky, never believed that his Jewish identity could be shed for the universalism of a socialist dream. What Deutscher does powerfully suggest here is the way that Jewish identity -- and this would include the establishment of the Jewish state -- is as much, if not more, the subject of historical and political events as it is the idea of a culture and a faith. In the lost world from which Deutscher emerged, there may have once been a sense that the progressive secularization of the Jews and the advent of reason would provide for their safety, but, as Deutscher writes, “The goddess of reason was the goddess that failed.”

The compounded tragedy of the state of Israel for Deutscher, then, is not simply the tragedy from which it was born, but the reactionary nature of its being. While Deutscher, who lost his family to the Holocaust, is quite sympathetic to the plight of the European Jews who made up much of the colonizing forces that settled Israel (he likens Jews fleeing the Holocaust to a man jumping out of a burning building), he nevertheless refuses to turn a blind eye to the suffering their actions caused. This is especially clear in his reflections on the Arab-Israeli War, given in an interview with the New Left Review shortly before his death. There Deutscher argues, “From the outset Zionism worked towards the creation of a purely Jewish state and was glad to rid the country of its Arab inhabitants. No Israeli government has ever seriously looked for any opportunity to remove or assuage the grievance. They refused even to consider the fate of the huge mass of refugees unless the Arab states first recognized Israel, unless, that is, the Arabs surrendered politically before starting negotiations.” To read such a statement fifty years later is to be struck by both his principled, anti-imperialist commitment and the regrettable fact that such a statement would be equally, if not more, scandalous to make today.

Again and again, the moral and political vision that animated Deutscher comes through with a refreshing clarity. Noting that the Arab-Israeli conflict could be seen, and dismissed, by “an abstract internationalism” as “equally worthless and reactionary” nationalisms, Deutscher remarks that “The nationalism of the people in semi-colonial or colonial countries, fighting for their independence, must not be put on the same moral-political level as the nationalism of conquerors and oppressors . . . Clearly, Arab nationalism, unlike the Israeli, still belongs to the former category.” Of course, Deutscher himself was the product of his time, and in his critique of “Arab nationalism” he is prone to orientalist statements that can make a modern reader cringe: Arabs are prone, he writes, “to emotional self-intoxication” (as are non-European Jewish populations in Israel, he says). Still, despite -- or more likely because of -- the internationalist lens through which Deutscher operates, he makes it clear that his sympathy is not only with the Arabs and Palestinians but also with the fate of the Jewish people: “We should not allow even invocations of Auschwitz to blackmail us into supporting the wrong cause. I am speaking as a Marxist of Jewish origin, whose next-of-kin perished in Auschwitz and whose relatives live in Israel. To justify or condone Israel’s wars against the Arabs is to render Israel a very bad service indeed and to harm its own long-term interest . . . The ‘friends of Israel’ have in fact abetted Israel in a ruinous course.”

The twin tragedies of modern Jews, for Deutscher, are the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel as a nationalist and Jewish state: the Holocaust, because of its great violence as well as its overwhelming hold on the Jewish imagination; Israel, because it turned away from internationalism and revolution and established itself through a nationalist and colonialist identity that caused immense suffering to others (who were not responsible for the animating tragedy of the state’s creation). Whether or not one agrees with Deutscher, there is no obfuscation here, and it seems likely that Deutscher’s alienation from the policies of both the United States and the USSR, as well as his personal history, allowed him a clarity of vision and commitment to truth that is nothing short of inspiring.

IN THE SHORT ESSAY that closes this collection, “The Jewish Tragedy and the Historian,” Deutscher declares that the future historian of the Holocaust, trying to comprehend the “uniqueness of the catastrophe,” will not be better positioned to understand it than those who lived in the time of the event: “I doubt whether even in a thousand years people will understand Hitler, Auschwitz, Majdanek, and Treblinka better than we do now. Will they have a better historical perspective? On the contrary, posterity may understand it all even less than we do.” The horror of the Holocaust, the “huge and ominous mystery of the degeneration of the human character” it evinces, does not disappear over time. Considering the centrality of the Holocaust in the construction of contemporary Jewish identity, Deutscher’s message is worth attending to. Concluding that “[p]erhaps a modern Aeschylus and Sophocles could cope with this theme,” Deutscher seems to warn against both a failure to attend to the reality of the Holocaust as well as an overreliance on the explanatory potential of history and fact. When faced with the unimaginable horrors of other human beings, Deutscher turns to the tragic poetry of the ancient Greek playwrights, although acknowledging that the task might be beyond even their talents. Similarly, in an essay on Marc Chagall, he writes that in Chagall’s “Crossing of the Red Sea” is “his reconciliation with Jewish history, his surrender to it. He denounces and condemns no one. Over the ashes of Majdanek and Auschwitz he weeps his Kaddish, the great prayer for the dead.”

We may see here the sense in which Deutscher never, and could never, abandon his identity as a Jew -- the solidarity with the persecuted and exterminated -- and could never turn his back on his history, especially once it had been brutally erased from the world. Yet witnessing that brutality did not turn Deutscher towards protectionism, as he saw in the violent enforcement of separation only the continuation of violence and oppression. Hope, rather than revenge, must propel our work for another world.

Michael Mirer is a writer and tutor living in Somerville, Massachusetts. He appeared here recently with “Jewish Identity without ‘Otherness.’ ”