Jewish Anarchism

"god is just dog spelled backwards" - thecollective 1.8

From The Institute for Anarchist Studies

by Shane Burley

A Review of No Masters But God, by Hayyim Rothma, (Manchester University Press, 2021)

If anarchists know Jewish history at all, it is likely the role of Jewish radicalism in the political battles of the early 20th century. Jews made up huge portions of the anarchist and socialist movement as Ashkenazi immigrants flooded New York City’s Lower East Side or London’s East End, working with other immigrant communities on factory floors, building up anticapitalist newspapers, and pushing the labor movement in an even more revolutionary direction. The Jewish participation in radical movements became such a cliché that the role of “Jewish communism” became foundational in the myths of the far-right, particularly in the violence of the Third Reich or the post-war white nationalist movement. The real Jewish story did not need conspiracies or flights of eugenic fancy: Jews were an oppressed class and so they participated at higher rates in movements to remake society. Jewish labor unions were the core of the Socialist Party, which created its own Yiddish speaking section. As of 1938, about thirty-two percent of surveyed Americans believed Jews to be more radical than the rest of America.[1] In Britain, Jews made up a sizable portion of the Communist Party of Great Britain, organizing antifascist committees to fight the British Union of Fascists, where the interests of Jews and the interests of the working class East End were often synonymous.[2] Jews were so important in these early struggles that anarchist figures like Rudolph Rocker, though not Jewish himself, still learned Yiddish so he could communicate with the vanguard of this new groundswell.

While most radicals are familiar with the stories of Jewish anarchists like Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, they know them as Jewish ethnics, not as propagators of the tradition of Judaism. Jewish anarchism and socialism emerged from the secularizing wave of Jews who were leaving the shtetls, the village communities that they had lived in for centuries in Eastern Europe, and finding their way into cosmopolitan urban centers. This process was called the haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, where newly emancipated Jews, now working towards legal citizenship in 19th century Central Europe, were discovering what it meant to be Jewish in this entirely new context. This was the historical era when race science began to dominate imperial thinking, and Jews went from being a nation defined by religion to one defined as an ethnic group. This was part of what was so distinctly lethal about modern antisemitism: Jews were accused of malevolence in their genes; no conversion was possible.


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