"Ian Donovan is a long-time Marxist, currently independent of the putative Marxist organisations, but active in the Left Unity broad left party as well as a signatory to its Communist Platform. This list was issued to encourage others on the left to read about the Jewish question as preparation for a discussion in the near future."

1.    Karl Marx: The Jewish Question (1844)

One of Marx’s earliest published essays. This is in two parts: the first of which ought to be uncontroversial, as in replying to Bruno Bauer it puts forward a simple call for political emancipation of the Jews and freedom of religion. The second part, however, is highly controversial, as it contains passages such as:

“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. On the other hand, if the Jew recognizes that this practical nature of his is futile and works to abolish it, he extricates himself from his previous development and works for human emancipation as such and turns against the supreme practical expression of human self-estrangement.

"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.”


Some characteristic comments from the left on the above:

AWL’s Jim Denham “It is undoubtedly true that ‘On the Jewish Question’ contains some (to contemporary sensibilities) unpleasant formulations that have given some latter-day “Marxists” an excuse to engage in unforgivable anti-Semitism …. But Marx was a person of his time, and deserves to be judged accordingly.” (http://shirazsocialist.wordpress.com/2013/04/28/karl-marx-anti-semite/)
 Jack Conrad: “Biased or uninformed opinion … denounce[es] [part 2 of Marx’s essay] as clear evidence of anti-semitism. …  However, such an assessment is clearly wrong.  Few of Marx’s detractors go to the bother of explaining that he was actually advocating Jewish emancipation.  Fewer still show any appreciation of the fact that it is thoroughly misleading to read post-1945 sensibilities back onto the language of the 1840s.
“By contrast, Hal Draper convincingly shows that Marx was merely following the near-universal practice of his day. One could make the same point about his male-dominated language: i.e. the word ‘man’ is used more or less unremittingly as synonymous with humanity. Ditto, ‘Jew’ is treated as synonymous with usury.” (Fantastic Reality, pp57-58)

What does Hal Draper say about this? In his essay Marx and the Economic Jew-Stereotype (1977) he writes a lot about the characteristic ‘stereotypes’ of his day about Jews, and as JC said, pointed out both that Marx’s usage was the norm for his day, characteristic of both left and right-wing analysts. These had their own particular axes to grind over the Jewish question, from those who favoured emancipation and assimilation of the Jewish population to those, including some originally on the left such as Proudhon and Bakunin, who appear to have slipped into genuine, racist anti-semitism and were hostile to assimilation from that standpoint.

But tellingly, Draper also writes the following:

“But it would be a mistake to believe that the economic-Jew stereotype among the population was merely a reflection of this upper stratum, of the Rothschilds and Foulds. Many or most of the poor Jews also functioned as middlemen – peddlers, hawkers, hand-to-mouth traders and merchants, petty money-lenders – in very direct contact with the poor Christian population, caught in the classic pattern of having to squeeze those below as they were squeezed from above.” (http://www.marxists.de/religion/draper/marxjewq.htm)

In other words, what Draper dismisses as a ‘stereotype’ in the very title and theme of his essay was not a stereotype at all, but a realistic picture. Stereotypes typically involve caricature, taking a characteristic of some members of a targeted group and applying it generally to produce a prejudiced picture in the mind of a wider audience. But if this ‘stereotype’ of Jews is true of ‘most’ of the lower stratum as well as the upper, it is no mere stereotype (i.e. an unfair and oversimplified view) but a widespread characteristic that deserves a materialist analysis. This is what Marx began to do in the second part of ‘On the Jewish Question’. This was a minor part of Marx’s work, the main one being his critique of political economy, and it was left to others to carry it on, but there can be no shying away from analysing real phenomena.  For Marxists to refrain from this means leaving it to others, including those with a barbaric agenda of their own.  Indeed, Draper unintentionally corroborates this further by noting that

“a leading theoretician of Socialist Zionism … Hayim Greenberg, writing in 1942, was disturbed about the use made by Nazi anti-Semitism of the facts of the Jews’ economic role.” (ibid, my emphasis)

In that context, Jack Conrad’s regretful formulation about Marx’s language in part II of The Jewish Question is inappropriately defensive, and amounts to, despite its disclaimer against Marx’s ‘anti-semitism’, a kind of pleading guilty on Marx’s behalf of using prejudiced language – even if it was the norm – and hence a concession to those who demonise Marx as ‘anti-semitic’.

2.    Abram Leon: The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation. (1950)

This is the classic Marxist study of the Jewish question. Beginning in antiquity, it most directly relates to the period from early medieval (Carolingian) times to that of early imperialist capitalism.  Leon’s analysis is of the Jews as a ‘people-class’, whose very survival as a people since antiquity is bound up with their role as the repository of merchant’s capital, commodity distribution and therefore foreign trade in fundamentally feudal society, where the dominant mode of exploitation involved the production of use value, not exchange value. Trade was therefore regarded as a separate activity, outside the social norm, that could best be confined to practitioners of a ’foreign’ religion.

This is somewhat different to the question of usury, which only became dominant among the Jews with the decline of feudalism and the rise of commodity exchange as an increasing norm. This brought the rise of ‘native merchants’ etc., which pushed the Jews to the margins of commodity exchange in the form of usury, which was regarded as a socially odious activity.
Draper wrote about this work:
“Leon’s term for Jewry, the people-class, is an attempt to give scientific form to the social basis of what we have been calling the economic-Jew stereotype.” (ibid)

Though as noted above, this was no mere ‘stereotype’, if it had been its social basis would have been marginal at best. Leon in fact analysed the real situation, and hence did not bother to ‘critically’ analyse Marx’s The Jewish Question. He simply endorsed it without reservation, and elaborated it further:

“In the sphere of Jewish history, in the sphere of universal history, Karl Marx’s brilliant thought points the road to follow. ‘Let us not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion, but let us look for the secret of his religion in the real Jew’. Marx thus puts the Jewish question back on its feet. We must not start with religion to explain Jewish history; on the contrary, the preservation of the Jewish religion or nationality can be explained only by the ‘real Jew,’ that is to say, by the Jew in his economic and social role. The preservation of the Jews contains nothing of the miraculous. ‘Judaism continues to exist not in spite of history, but owing to history’.” (Leon pp72-73)

Leon noted that in the early period of feudalism, the Jews were in fact often highly privileged due to their specialist trading role. Later, as their role shifted to usury, tax-farming, etc., they became exploitative intermediaries that were often hated by the exploited peasantry. On more than one occasion, events that are often regarded as pogroms were in fact peasant revolts against exploitation. In the later feudal period this had a dynamic that led to the Jews retreating into ghettos and/or being driven from country to country as their economic role became increasingly superfluous. This happened at different times in Western and Eastern Europe, so there is quite a complex tapestry of events that needs to be understood. In Eastern Europe, this period of Jewish decline and oppression coincided with the beginning of the decay of capitalism also.

In the early capitalist period, a key achievement of the bourgeois revolutions was the opening up of the ghettos, and a beginning was made to the assimilation of the Jews, the logical outcome of the redundancy of this medieval trading class. However, with the end of the epoch of progressive capitalism, this came to a halt and you had the rise of racialised anti-Jewish sentiment. Leon witnessed the growth of this hatred, and the rise of Nazism, and projected that the Jews would remain pariahs, and that status would only be relieved through the overthrow of capitalism.

Unfortunately Leon did not live to see the foundation of the state of Israel, and thus to be able to analyse the Jewish Question in the post WWII period. He perished in Auschwitz in 1944, at the age of only 26. His writings about history were spot on; his speculations about future developments were not, since Jews are no longer pariahs but have been re-absorbed by later imperialism in a different political situation. But given that his historical analysis was correct, it ought to be possible to pick up the threads from where he left off and, using the same method, analyse the current situation correctly.

3.    Israel Shahak: Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of 3000 Years (1994)

Israel Shahak was one of those thinkers who many, both among Zionists, and some others on the left who share some of Zionism’s prejudices if not its political programme, ought to be inclined to accuse of anti-semitism. Indeed, some of the worst Zionists have done just that. However, this has not been echoed elsewhere, as Shahak, who passed away in 2001, is rather difficult to slander as an anti-semite, as he was a survivor both of the Warsaw Ghetto and Belsen concentration camp. He was also the president of the Israeli League for Human Rights, noted for its courageous defence of Palestinians, from 1970 to 1990.
The above work is ferocious in its critique of the roots of Zionism in Jewish chauvinism and hatred of non-Jews, and is in implicit contradiction with those who view Zionism as just a standard form of colonialism. It is Shahak, and not Gilad Atzmon, who first used the term ‘Jewish ideology’ as a designation for the ideology that really drives Israel. The anti-gentile hatred revealed by Shahak for me explains the particularly vicious character of many Israeli actions against the Palestinians, as well as the hatred evidenced by many of Israel’s supporters overseas against anyone who utters the mildest criticism of Israeli actions. Notably, the remarks of Ronnie Kasrils, the Jewish ANC veteran of anti-apartheid struggles in South Africa, that Israeli actions are qualitatively more brutal than those taken by the apartheid regime against its black population, are explained by this ideology in my opinion.
Shahak also corroborates Leon pretty much on the people class, particularly noting the absence of a Jewish peasantry, and therefore its role in the exploitation of the non-Jewish peasantry under feudal regimes, as central to understanding the social role of the Jews. He also corroborates Leon on the peasant revolts/’pogroms’ referred to earlier, in particular the massive peasant revolt at Khmelnytsky in Western Ukraine in 1648.
This is despite the fact that Shahak is not a Marxist but a liberal and a follower of Karl Popper’s views on the Open Society. This is a short, but shocking book, for anyone who has not broken from the soft-Zionist consensus that we are all brought up with in Western bourgeois societies. It is more shocking actually than the writings of Gilad Atzmon, who is a follower of Shahak, but elaborates and popularises similar views, and is hence easier to read.
Of course this is not a material analysis, but it does contain much material that needs to be critically incorporated into one.
His work on Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel, co-written with Professor Norton Mezvinsky from the US, is also a very powerful work and highly recommended.



4.    Gilad Atzmon: The Wandering Who (2011)


This work, and its author, has been ferociously attacked both by Zionists and by some leftist Jews as anti-semitic. However, this is not unanimous by any means, and it is worth quoting Israel Shahak’s close collaborator and co-author, Norton Mezvinsky on Gilad Atzmon, his book and his works:

“There can be no reasonable doubt that Atzmon’s views are provocative. They can be legitimately questioned and reasonably opposed. It is, however, unfortunate that some antagonists have called Atzmon’s views anti-Semitic and have alleged that he is an anti-Semite. That allegation is untrue! As already stated, such an allegation, coming from the likes of Alan Dershowitz and/or his extreme Zionist colleagues, is not surprising. More unfortunate is that a significant number of people who are actively involved in the struggle against the Zionist character and oppressive actions of the state of Israel have made this same false allegation.

To reiterate, questioning and/or disagreeing fully or in part with Atzmon’s views is legitimate. Labeling his views anti-Semitic, however, is incorrect. Criticizing certain members and certain cultural aspects of the group is allowable and often warranted. A Jewish tradition of internal criticism has existed for at least two centuries, and probably for longer.

I take the liberty to interject a personal reference here. In our book, Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel, Israel Shahak and I are severely critical of individual Orthodox Jews, rabbis and groups, as well as of certain aspects of traditional Judaism. At the congregation I attend regularly in New York City, moreover, I often refer to what I consider to be negative theological positions in some of the religious emphasis of my congregation’s Lubavitch Hassidic tradition. (This is in contrast to the positive theological positions in Lubavitch theology.) While the rabbi, numerous members of the congregation, as well as others firmly disagree with me in regard to what I criticize, they nevertheless do not consider me or my views to be anti-Semitic. We discuss our disagreements in a friendly manner and respect one another. We do not disavow or boycott each other. Again, this is in keeping with certain Jewish traditions.

In The Wandering Who? Atzmon, as previously mentioned, divides Jews into three categories: “1) Those who follow Judaism. 2) Those who regard themselves as human beings that happen to be of Jewish origin. 3) Those who put their Jewishness over and above all their other traits.” Atzmon’s negative criticism is directed against those in the third category. There is no general condemnation of Jews here. This is not anti-Semitism.

Some of Atzmon’s detractors allege that his views must be anti-Semitic, because hardcore anti-Semites utilize his criticism of Jews and Jewish culture in their depictions of Jews generally. Hardcore anti-Semites often use anti-Zionist criticisms of the state of Israel to forge unwarranted anti-Semitic depictions of Jews. For pro-Palestinian activists to use this same technique against Atzmon is shameful.

Another serious allegation is that Gilad Atzmon is a Holocaust denier. That is nonsense, and as such deserves little discussion. Atzmon not only acknowledges the Holocaust; he emphasizes its effect upon him personally and upon Jews in general. He discusses varied reactions to it. He emphasizes the development—unfortunate from his perspective—of a Holocaust religion. He opposes, as do many others, the use of the Holocaust in attempts to garner political and economic support for the state of Israel. This is not Holocaust denial.”  (http://www.wrmea.org/wrmea-archives/507-washington-report-archives-2011-2015/may-2012/11161-gilad-atzmon-and-the-wandering-who.html)

In my view this work contains much informative material about the ideologies that drive Israeli politics and its bourgeois/imperialist supporters in the United States, Western Europe and elsewhere.. Its main focus is on what he, following Israel Shahak, calls ‘Jewish ideology’ and (more in keeping with current Marxist critiques of similar things in other spheres) ‘Jewish Identity Politics’. It is also critical of what he sees as political weaknesses of those who oppose Zionism while accepting aspects of this Jewish Identity politics, as he sees it, and he attributes a lack of effectiveness of solidarity with the Palestinians in the Western nations to this weakness. Some of this material is very cogent and powerful.

Again, this is not a Marxist work. But in the absence of a coherent Marxist analysis of the current world situation and Israel’s real role in it, works like this play a very valuable role in explaining in the sphere of ideas at least, what is actually going on and what drives formations like AIPAC and its relatives to play the role of Israel’s guardians in the wider world.  

Suggested further reading

1.    Shlomo Sand: The Invention of the Jewish People  (2009)

This work deals with some issues that are not entirely new, such as the Khazar/Ashkenazi issue of the likely origin of East European Jews. But it is fundamentally about the project to transform the Jews as they emerged from medieval times (see above) into a body with something resembling a national consciousness. Obviously this feeds into Zionism, however it does appear in some ways to have pre-dated it. See the material on Graetz in particular.

2.     Israel Shahak and Norton Mezvinsky, Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel  (1999)
See earlier.