The Contemporary Relevance of Early 20th Century Orthodox Jewish Anarchy
The Jewish people, warned Isaac Steinberg in the 1950s, risked abandoning its ‘historic fate’ and becoming ‘like the rest of them, like the ruling nations of the West’. He was bewailing the fact that, in his eyes, the creation in Israel of a political state had altered the moral foundations of Jewish life. ‘Jewish spiritual tradition’ he said, had never ‘allowed itself to be misled by states and rulers, by political and financial power, by physical force and armed might.’
Isaac Steinberg, Yitzhak Nahman Steinberg to give him his full name, was a lawyer, a radical and a political leader. He was a pious and observant Jew but not one who allied himself with organised orthodoxy. Rather, he was a libertarian socialist for whom the struggle for social and political justice was an integral part of being Jewish. He has been described as ‘a brave fighter for ethical socialism, liberty of thought and Jewish existence’. A former Israeli president described him as the ‘saint of the Revolution’.
Steinberg is one of ten people, all men, who the Israeli academic, Hayyim Rothman, writes about in his recent book No Masters but God: Portraits of Anarcho-Judaism. As the title suggests, all ten are united by their early 20th century anarchist outlook.
Anarchy today is usually regarded as lawless, chaotic and disruptive. It is deemed wholly incapable of playing any sort of role in modern politics. It wasn’t always so; in early 20th century Russia anarchy was a serious political option; one which maintained that the State was not, as was generally assumed, the guardian of people’s welfare and security. Instead society’s problem was the State itself; its very existence and the laws and constraints it imposed held people back, stopping them from fulfilling their true potential. Yaakov Meir Zalkind described authority as the source and origin of all social suffering and injustice; humanity could only be free when liberated from the stewardship of the state. Anarchy as a political theory is incompatible with our world view today, but it was taken seriously in revolutionary circles a century ago.
Men like Zalkind and Steinberg were not eccentrics on the fringes of society. Steinberg had briefly been a member of the Soviet government in 1917, serving as Folks-Commissar of Justice on behalf of the Socialist Revolutionaries. He resigned his post when his party split with the Bolsheviks and he fled Russia after being imprisoned and then targeted for assassination. He spent ten years lecturing on ‘spiritual’ as opposed to ‘state Judaism’ in Britain before settling in the United States where he edited a Yiddish language newspaper. His older contemporary, Zalkind, had spent some years as the rabbi in Cardiff before falling out with the British Jewish establishment. He moved to London, involved himself in political activity and in the 1920s revived and edited the Yiddish anarcho-communist weekly Arbeter Freynd in London’s East End.
Religious Jewish anarchists had a somewhat different outlook from their mainstream counterparts. Anarchy is necessarily opposed to religion; it sees formal religions as just another expression of authority. But the people who Hayyim Rothman writes about were all observant and committed Jews. For them anarchy was the authentic expression of Judaism. The problem they all had was how to integrate the ethical messages of Judaism- the messianic visions of the prophets and their tirades against corruption and injustice- with the authoritarian nature of Jewish law.
The answer lay in God. Like their secular counterparts their project was to abolish the sovereignty of the state. Unlike their secular counterparts, the religious Jewish anarchists aspired to a society under the sovereignty of God. Faith would come to the fore, but not in the form of organised religion. There was no place in the Judeo-anarchist worldview for ‘neurotic piety’, as Aaron Tamaret, another of Rothman’s thinkers described it. The servitude and oppression that the State imposed would give way to the life affirming strength that only true faith can bestow.
They might sound evangelical but these people were not religious evangelists trying to convince the masses that the Kingdom of God was nigh. Nor were they a movement. They shared similar attitudes but they were not all of one mind. Few of them even knew or communicated with each other. Their common interest was to rid the world of the tyranny of the state. How this was to be done appears to have been, for most of them, a question of philosophy rather than practical action.
It was Zionism that drew their conflicts and dilemmas into sharpest focus. They had all formulated their ideas in pre-war Europe, during the years when the campaign for a Jewish homeland was on the political agenda. Many Zionists shared their vision of a Jewish polity organised on socialist lines; indeed it was already happening, the first kibbutz was established as far back as 1910. Fewer supported their call for a Jewish national home in which statehood served no purpose; a cultural and spiritual centre having no need of an authoritarian government.
The idea of a self-governing Jewish State, in the eyes of these anarchist thinkers, devalued the standing of Jews and the nature of Judaism. The aspiration for Jewish statehood, to trace a line of continuity back to the last independent Jewish polity 2,000 years earlier, implied that the intervening years had been wasted, a period of marking time while waiting for national restoration. And the Zionist representation of the ‘new Jew’, the strong, pioneering, confident, good-looking Israeli, suggested that there was some truth to the historic stereotypes of Jews as ugly, weak and degenerate outcasts. In contrast, for the Judeo-anarchists the Jewish experience since the beginning of their exile had brought out the best in Jews. They argued that by remaining apart, by refusing to submit to the values of the people among whom they lived, by not extolling the rule of kings and tyrants, Jews for the last 2,000 years had been the true revolutionaries. The new opportunity to create a spiritual centre for Jewish life would lead to the summit of Jewish history. In contrast, the threatened creation of a political state would negate all that had happened. It would open the door to corruption, autocracy and the defamation of traditional Jewish values.
The anarchist argument against a Jewish political state was not the same as that put forward even today by those rejectionist orthodox groups who campaign against Israel. Their opposition to a Jewish state is that they do not see it as divinely mandated; the messianic age has not dawned and until it does there can be no end to exile. It is a parochial view that has no relevance outside the Jewish world. The Judeo-anarchist opposition to a Jewish state was of a different nature altogether, it belonged to a universalist vision that opposed the idea of all states, not just for Jews. Tellingly though, while the religious rejectionists are still active and vociferous today, Judeo-anarchism has faded from view. The youngest thinker in No Masters but God was Natan Hofshi who died at the age of 90 in 1980.
Anarchic aspirations for a Jewish spiritual and cultural homeland guided solely by the hand of God were idealistic and noble. Nowadays we might say they were naïve. Of course, they were not to know that the Shoah would change everything; that their dreams, hopes and closely argued philosophies would be shattered by reality. There was no place for anarchically minded, anti-militarist Jewish libertarians in 1948 when Israel fought the War of Independence. Pacifist arguments in the shadow of the Shoah, in the face of a war for existence, cut no ice with the Zionists then, any more than they do now.
Anarchy is no longer a viable political position and its ideas are rarely put forward in a Jewish or Zionist context. But the warnings expressed by the Judeo-anarchists have begun to resurface, albeit in other contexts and expressed differently. Israeli society today is polarised across several planes; over religion, over the nature of democracy, over the very nature of the State and its aspirations. The all-but-forgotten religious Jewish anarchists may have been idealistic, unrealistic or even naïve. But that doesn’t mean their voices should go unheard.