There is a tragic account of the last moments of Grigori Zinoviev, the veteran Russian Bolshevik leader of Jewish descent who was executed by Stalin in 1936. According to the historian Donald Rayfield, on the journey from his prison cell to the execution cellar, the broken Zinoviev “clung to the boots of his guards and was taken down by stretcher.”
“This scene,” Rayfield continues in his book on Stalin’s crimes, “was re-enacted several times at supper at Stalin’s dacha, the bodyguard Karl Pauker playing the part of Zinoviev—begging for Stalin to be fetched and then crying out, ‘Hear, O Israel’—until even Stalin found the charade distasteful.”
The image of a Jew desperately mumbling the Shema as he prepares to meet his executioner certainly inspires pity, even a Jew like Zinoviev, who spent his entire career building a totalitarian state apparatus that crushed the Soviet Jewish community while at the same time proclaiming anti-Semitism to be the enemy of the workers.
But more than any of this, embedded in this story are deeper lessons about the relationship between Jews and the left that warrant closer attention—irrespective of whether you are someone convinced that the left can be rescued from its present, destructive obsession with a caricature of Zionism, or whether you believe that this same caricature is hard-wired into the left’s worldview.
At the heart of the spectacle in Stalin’s dacha was contempt—not just for Zinoviev as a supposed “traitor,” but also as the embodiment of the feeble, ingratiating Jew who will say or do anything to preserve himself. This anti-Semitic stereotype long predated the period of Communist rule, of course, but its persistence was entirely in keeping with a revolutionary program that regarded any expression of Jewish identity—whether religious, secular, cultural or national—as “counter-revolutionary.”
That is essentially why the Jewish encounter with socialism in most of its forms has been a disaster. In Russia and Eastern Europe more widely, this was true under Lenin, when a special Jewish section of the Communist Party was created for the express purpose of shutting down separate Jewish institutions; and it was true under Stalin and his successors, whose discriminatory campaigns in the name of “anti-Zionism” terrorized Jews—whether or not they were members of the Communist Party—across Russia, as well as in Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Poland and other Warsaw Pact countries.
In the West, while many centrist social democrats have been among the greatest friends of Israel and the Jewish people, the remainder of the left largely incorporated ideological hostilities reminiscent of the Soviet regime. When the “New Left” emerged in the 1960s, its libertarian suspicions of the repressive Soviet society didn’t prevent the adoption of a demonized view of Zionism straight out of the Soviet playbook; some of the movement’s graduates (in Germany, ironically) were even recruited by Palestinian terrorist groups to organize attacks on Jewish and Israeli targets. Meanwhile, in this century, the moderate centrist left, with some honorable exceptions, has been at best passive in the face of a virulent, Soviet-style campaign against “Zionism” that has involved boycotts, harassment and occasional violence not against the Israeli military or government, but directed at ordinary Jews in Western Europe, South Africa and North America.
This recent past matters because the present figureheads of the left are either in denial about it or, in some cases, actually complicit in it. In the United States, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has spoken out against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, but he has never questioned whether a political movement whose core goal is to return Jews to the situation they faced in 1945 should be considered “progressive” in the first place. In France, the leader of the populist left, Jean-Luc Melenchon, is an enthusiastic advocate of boycotting Israel, declaring last week that the French Jewish leadership is composed of unpatriotic “communalists.” In Britain, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn on one day offers an assurance that anti-Semitism has no place in a party that has recorded more than 300 internal anti-Semitic incidents since 2015; the next, he attends a Passover Seder organized by a radical Jewish group that proudly excludes any Jews with basic sympathies for Israel (i.e., most of them) from its events.
At that same Seder, a modified “Haggadah” invited guests to pause and “consider how s**t the State of Israel is.” Such puerile obscenities are, sadly, the price of being accepted as a Jew on the far left. But as relevant history demonstrates, that’s not an aberration of our own time, but entirely consistent with the established patterns of the past.
As comforting as it may be for many Jews to observe the rhetorical and thematic overlaps between biblical prophets and modern-day socialists, the bald truth is that the revolutionaries themselves never saw it that way. Nor, it would seem, do their inheritors.
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.