The Perils of Collective Responsibility

This is a cross-post by Michael Weiss from The New Criterion.

I cannot say if Peter Beinart’s essay in the New York Review of Books has yet become a bar mitzvah present in certain precincts of the Upper West Side of Manhattan. But I do know of an in-joke that’s developed in certain cabalistic political circles which have, for predictable reasons, found that polemic on the supposed failure of the American Jewish establishment wanting in several key respects. The joke takes the form of an email valedictory: “On behalf of all American Jews, I have to go to the bathroom.” “On behalf of all American Jews, I’m flying to Uzbekistan this week.” “On behalf of all American Jews, I’m converting to Catholicism.”

There may be such a thing as a Jewish establishment in this country, and it may be that it is terminally out of touch with the youthful liberal zeitgeist, or suffering from institutional sclerosis, or outfitted with the types of people who think that any criticism of Israel is one more paving stone on the road to a 21st-century Kristallnacht. But the idea–lampooned in that valedictory because exampled in Beinart’s essay–that all American Jews are responsible for the fate of a network of Jewish organizations, much less an entire “establishment,” is as presumptuous and absurd as claiming that all Anglo-Saxons are responsible for the MetroNorth arrivals and departures schedule at Darien, Connecticut.

The Anti-Defamation League is only now growing scandalized by the fact that 1.5 million Armenians were systematically murdered by Ottoman Turks at the close of the First World War. How nice of it to do so. But I and others were saying–at a time when Israeli-Turkish relations were a lot friendlier than they are now–that this dire event did in fact occur and that Abraham Foxman had no right to deny it did on the basis of cynical self-interest or geopolitical calculation. It cost me nothing personally, professionally or metaphysically to make this argument loudly in public–an indication perhaps that some blacklists and conspiracies are better organized than others–and even if it had I should not have claimed to be speaking “on behalf” of anyone except myself.

I bring this up because the charge of Jewish collective responsibility is an inherently fatuous one and yet it is persistent in an era when a 24-hour news cycle is never complete without addressing some real or perceived misbehavior by the state of Israel. In a rather bizarre editorial in the Moscow Times, Russian-American economist Alexei Bayer invokes it in the language of missed opportunities after the May 31 raid of the Mavi Marmara off the coast of Gaza:

It was mostly forwarded mass mailings in English and Russian, explaining why the flotilla was a terrorist provocation, how the blockade runners were al-Qaida and how Israeli soldiers showed exemplary restraint while protecting Israel’s right to exist. As an experiment, I wanted to see whether there was any nuanced view of the situation or sympathy for 1.5 million Palestinians being collectively punished by Israeli actions. Needless to say, I found none.

I’d quite like to know what Bayer’s definition of a “nuanced view” of that situation is. Needless to say, none is forthcoming because the Free Gaza flotilla is not his real subject. His real subject is a long history of barbarism for which he thinks Russian Jews have quite a lot to apologize for:

But whether this fact [that Jews should be blamed for Bolshevik crimes] is de-emphasized, as it was during the Soviet era, or savored as it is now by Russian anti-Semites, it remains true that Leon Trotsky, Yakov Sverdlov, Grigory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev and so many early Bolsheviks who helped Lenin take power in 1917 and ran his repressive regime were Jewish. And so were some of the bloodiest figures in the political police, such as Yakov Yurovsky, who carried out the execution of Tsar Nicholas II and his family; Rozalia Zamlyachka, under whose political command tens of thousands of White Army officers were drowned in Crimea; and Genrikh Yagoda, the odious head of Stalin’s NKVD in the 1930s.

Making lists of Jews is usually not a healthy indication of where a line of argument is headed, but under the present historical circumstances it is anachronistic as well as pointless. One of the central tenets of Bolshevism was the abolition of ethnicity, race and religious affiliation, all of which Russian Czarism exploited to masterful, and ultimately self-destructive, ends in the late 19th century. Imperial quotas on education and professional aspirations and not infrequent pogroms backed by the Kremlin led so many poor inhabitants of the Pale of Settlement to abandon Moses for Marx, move to the big cities, and join the ranks of the radical intelligentsia in the first place. (In this sense, it was not European capitalism but great Russian chauvinism that “emancipated” so many Jews from Judaism, a strange and unexpected fulfilment of one of the old Rhinelander’s more controversial prophecies.) But none of the men cited above would have in any way subscribed to any tribal grouping or claimed to be acting on precepts derived from the Old Testament. When they did befall the crude cudgel of Stalinist anti-Semitism, they did not defend themselves as Jews but as Marxists and revolutionaries betrayed by a counter-revolutionary dictatorship. In other words, the tyranny of Russian Communism proceeds quite nicely without the assumption of the God of Abraham.

There is something distinctly creepy about even having to point this out. Bayer’s paragraph reminds one of Solzhenitsyn’s less distinguished later writings about the true “origins” of Leninism as well as more recent effusions, to which he alludes, from the fascist Nashi element of contemporary Moscow. That political phenomenon isn’t so much backed as it is originated by Putin’s Kremlin.
But coming from a self-described liberal, the charge of Jewish collective responsibility is no more responsible. Not least of the problems with Bayer’s category mistake is that it is hostage to 20th-century geography. What was a Russian Jew in a period that saw Russian borders change dramatically overnight thanks to a new form of imperialism? Doubtless there are plenty of Talmudic scholars alive in Warsaw and Tallinn who, heeding Bayer’s call, ought to feel compelled to atone for the fact that their countries were invaded and annexed by Jewish Bolsheviks. And how easily one can imagine the Polish-born Abraham Heschel wiping his brow after marching arm-in-arm with Martin Luther King, Jr. and thinking, “Finally, I can be forgiven for Trotsky!”

Even taking Bayer’s ostensibly progressive premise as legitimate, he’s still wrong:

While Germany and Russia have much to prove to the world, so do Russian Jews. We could have shown that Bolshevik criminals were not an outgrowth of the Russian Jewry by embracing Western pluralism, democracy and tolerance in the United States and Israel, the two liberal democratic countries where we ended up. Instead, we as a group have retained an us-against-them mentality and have continued to live by the famous Stalin-era dictum: “If the enemy doesn’t give up, he must be destroyed.” All we have done is move from the extreme left to the extreme right of the political spectrum. In Israel, we have created the Yisrael Beitenu party led by Avigdor Lieberman, the current Israeli foreign minister and, arguably, the most radical right-wing figure to hold this post in a Western country since World War II. In the United States, where 85 percent to 90 percent of us invariably vote Republican, it is not the Republican Party that is the problem but the almost North Korean unanimity. We have been put to the test by democracy, and we seem to have failed it.

Avigdor Lieberman is one of the poorest exports from Moldova, but his electoral success is rooted in the fact that his party formerly campaigned on a platform of introducing civil marriage legislation to the Knesset. At present, Russian immigrants to Israel are unable to marry due to draconian religious laws governing matrimony. Indeed, here’s another meretricious instance of forcing collective responsibility onto individuals: If you were born in the Soviet Union and not subject to the rites and rituals of ultra-Orthodox tradition (which would have been next to impossible), you are deemed “insufficiently Jewish” by much of the Israeli rabbinate and are forced to go to Cyprus or some other foreign locale to wed the person you love and have that union considered legally binding in Israel. I said Lieberman’s party was formerly committed to changing all this; that’s because as a coalition partner with the ultra-Orthodox Shas party–source of the Joe Biden/east Jerusalem housing migraine that Benjamin Netanyahu awoke to a few months ago–he has lately found that campaign promise expendable. How long, then, before his single-issue Russian constituency concludes the same about him?

The pettifogging dynamics of Israeli politics to one side, who will seriously maintain that post-Soviet Jewry is locked in a state of ideological paralysis? Here’s another list of names that might interest Alexei Bayer: Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Gary Kasparov, Boris Nemtsov, all of whom would have found themselves on the wrong side of the Nuremberg Laws and Stalin’s postwar paranoia, and yet none of whom can ever be accused of having failed to “embrace Western pluralism”: they’ve just tried to embrace it in Russia itself, a far more forbidding political terrain for dissent or permanent opposition than the United States or Israel will ever be.