Pesach is Calling to Us: Towards a Renewed Jewish Anarchism

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Written with the Passover holiday in mind, this piece analyzes the history of Jewish anarchism and how it might influence a new generation in today’s context. 

Pesach (Passover) is once again upon us. For thousands of years we have celebrated our escape from slavery. Pesach is a story passed through the generations, perhaps the most critical and important story in Judaism. Our world is a product of the stories we tell and those we do not tell. The stories of resistance that we keep and pass down as well as those stories that we lose, form our perception of what is possible. Stories and myths are part of Tikkun Olam, which means ‘the repair of the world,’ – collecting all of the broken shards of creation through creative resistance, healing and transformation. It is literally the healing and transformation of the world. More than any other time of the year, Pesach is a time for active resistance— such as the famous Warsaw Ghetto Uprising which took place on the second night of Pesach. Pesach calls for us, as Jews, to be a part of the uprisings against this poisonous world and all of the harm it manifests on every living creature.

We live in a broken world. The Jewish resistance we discuss tonight is not merely one of the past but an ongoing work. The Egypt we speak of is not a geographical place or nation state, but Mitzrayim: the narrow places. Our exile is not from a land, but from a place of wholeness. Traditionally, the seder ends with the the vow, “Next year in Jerusalem!” After thousands of years in the Diaspora, wandering in countries which were occasionally safe harbors but more often nightmares, the dream of Jerusalem was more than just the city itself.

It is the dream of autonomy, safety and self-determination. Jerusalem comes from the same root as the word “shalom” which is often translated to mean “peace” but which also means “wholeness.” So when we say “Next year in Jerusalem!” we are not calling for a literal return to Israel, but to a place of wholeness. This Pesach, we are calling for anarchist Jews all over to remember that to be Jewish is to descend from 2,000 years of anti-state resistance; to be Jewish is to descend from the Sicarii, the first cloak-and-dagger men who violently opposed the ruling class; to be Jewish is to descend from ghettos and prisons all over the Diaspora, from which our ancestors attacked policemen, fascists and guards to demand their freedom.

Shabbat, a Weekly Anti-Capitalist Practice

This year, the first night of Pesach falls on Shabbat (Shabbos). Shabbos is the most frequent Jewish holiday, occurring every Friday evening at sundown through Saturday evening at sundown. Shabbat is a time when Jews are traditionally forbidden to work, touch money, or use any type of technology. There are so many ways to practice Shabbos. There are the seemingly endless and particular laws of course, such as not leaving the house with food in your mouth, and not tearing your toilet paper, but the essence of a non-religious Shabbos practice is to spend that time living outside the alienation of civilization. The early Jewish anarchists of the United States would hold Shabbos services in public places and would replace prayer with poems of struggle. The act of refusing to do the tiniest bit of work and the refusal of touching money or making any financial transactions is an act of defiance in a culture that is deeply rooted in consumption.

When all we see in public spaces are people constantly engrossed in iPhones, it is important to step back and engage – not with pop culture and social media – but with the people we care about. We don’t follow laws written down in an ancient book, or even go to synagogue, or desire to be in a ‘homeland’ where Jewishness is everywhere. We are Jews and we desire a land that feels like home. We want to touch and smell and taste every inch of the land that is our home. We want to know the animals and the plants and the stories of both. We want an unmediated relationship with the ground and the air and the lives around us. This is what we seek on Shabbos.

The Power of the Jewish Diaspora

There is a long history across the world of Jewish resistance to the state, to capital, and to fascism. The Jewish Diaspora began in 70CE with the destruction of the second temple, though anti-semitism had already been targeting Jews for hundreds of years before the Diaspora began. From 70CE until 1948, Jews have been stateless; targeted, harassed, abused and murdered in every place we have found ourselves for 2,000 years. Never having the protection of the state and the constant threat of Gentile violence served to socially position Jews as defenseless, segregated and humiliated. The Gentile world saw Jews as an ethnic group that was both a poison to their society, to be restricted and controlled, and as a tool to maintain class divisions. The fracturing of Jewish identity and the rise of anti-Jewishness caused the Jewish Diaspora to spread across the world, where they lived in fear of the next disaster.

In this constant state of subjugation, a rich and diverse tapestry of Jewish resistance formed. The turn of the 20th century was the height of Jewish anarchism. For anarchist Jews, anarchism was inseparable from Jewishness, because their Jewishness separated them from society. They lived apart from Goyim, studied apart, spoke a different language than the goyim; their Jewishness was always in the forefront, defining the spaces they lived in and moved through. Our Jewishness no longer keeps us separate from the Gentile society around us. Jewishness has been assimilated—and though “assimilation” means different things for Jews who are white than it does for Jews-of-color—our “Jewishness” itself is no longer the cause of separation. We as Jews (of all colors) are no longer forced to live apart from a goyish society; we no longer speak Jewish languages on a broad scale, away from Goyish ears.

Jewish anarchists must now ask ourselves a difficult question: As anarchists who do not believe in god, disavow hierarchies and rules, and distrust organized religion, how do we relate to our Jewishness? As Jews, how do we live anarchist and antifascist lives while finding inspiration in the stories of our ancestors?

Jewish anarchism was once a vital part of anarchist struggle, particularly in Europe— over half the international Brigad in the Spanish Civil War were Jews! But before WWII, there is an important history of Jewish anarchism in the United States as well. In today’s leftist and anarchist circles, antisemitism (including internalized antisemitism) often surfaces, frequently couched in anti-Israel rhetoric. As anarchists, we are against the state of Israel. As anarchists, we disavow all nations. We think that the inherent racism and fascist government of the state of Israel must be opposed. But in 70 shorts years, that colonialism has essentially erased 2,000 years of Jewish antifascism and vibrant Jewish anti-state resistance. Not wanting to associate with Israel and unsure how to relate to religion, anarchist Jews have distanced themselves from their Jewishness. And yet there are still so many Jews drawn to anarchist and other radical and liberatory struggles. We do not believe this is a coincidence. Jews make up only 2% of the population of the United States, but seem to often make up a larger percentage than that in anarchist and radical spaces. Merely by holding a Yiddish banner or shouting “Daloy Politzey! (Down with the Police!)” in the streets, you can watch anarchist and antifascist Jews begin emerging from the crowd to connect with you. There is something about our histories, our ancestors and our generational trauma that draws many Jews to these struggles, regardless of how much an individual has interacted with their Jewishness throughout their life.

We believe that there are so many connections to be found between Jewishness and our anarchist ideals, as well as countless actions by radical Jews that can inspire. We want a renewed Jewish anarchism to arise from the Diaspora, and for Jews once again to become a threat to the state, and to fascism. Not just as Jews who happen to be anarchists and antifascists, but specifically as Jewish anarchists, and Jewish antifascists. Let our Jewishness once again be inseparable from our politics and our resistance.

What is the Diaspora? The Diaspora is certainly more than simply the time period between the destruction of the temple and the birth of Israel as a nation-state. “Diaspora” comes from the Greek word for “scattering.” There is great power within the Jewish diaspora. We have known this strength for a long time without truly understanding it. Jewish anarchism is both an expression of and a participant within the diaspora. Yet, arguing for a diaspora is not simple for an anarchist. Diasporas are usually nationalist forces; they are composed of a people who both have a national identity and who have been exiled from their homeland. While the Jewish diaspora in exile is vastly diverse, it is all wrapped in a common desire to return “home”… a desire contained and sustained by nationalist tradition. This is a troubling predicament for Jewish anarchists whose anarchism predicates their opposition to nations of any kind. How can we relate to our diaspora from an internationalist viewpoint–one that not only does not recognize borders, but actively disrespects and transcends them?

A (short and incomplete) History of Jewish Resistance

The Sicarii were a group of Jewish cloak-and-dagger men (the first recorded cloak-and-dagger men in the world) that acted in the decades before the destruction of the second temple, from approximately 6CE to 70CE. The Sicarii violently opposed the Roman occupation of Jerusalem by hiding daggers in their cloaks, assassinating people in broad daylight and then disappearing amongst the populace. In this way, the Sicarii remained very dispersed and were able to avoid detection for many decades. Although the Sicarii did kill Romans, the majority of people that they assassinated were ruling-class Jews who collaborated with the Romans. There is an interesting connection between the tactic of dispersal practiced by the Sicarii, and the dispersal of Jews throughout the Diaspora. The Sicarii fell to the Romans when they congregated at Masada, and were able to be surrounded. Israel, too, is a congregation of Jews in one place, surrounded by borders, and Jewish resistance within Israel is thus much easier to control and manage than a dispersed resistance that transcends borders. In an unpublished article titled “Suggestions for a Dispersed and Ghostly Anarchist Bund,” the authors make an argument for a modern Jewish anarchism. The Sicarii’s success was their method of attack which utilized the crowd as a means to disappear. Similar to the plight of modern Jews of the diaspora, who are mostly assimilated, Jews can easily blend in and remain unseen to the enemy. We are not arguing for assimilation. Rather, “we are advocating dispersal. Not just a dispersal within a territory, but dispersal within a people. This also does not mean leaving behind the networks of solidarity often found in ghettos for this is often the lifeblood of not only people, but of revolt.”

In 1903, in response to pogroms and the daily conditions of life in the Pale (an area outside the cities of Czarist Russia in which Jews were forced to live apart from society) where The Black Banner emerged, a large anarchist group that consisted of mostly poor, Yiddish-speaking Jews who wanted an end to the state, the Czar, and society. An open letter to Yiddish-speaking factory workers in Vilna read: “אַראָפּ מיט פּראָוואָקאַטעורס און שפּיאָן! אַראָפּ מיט די באָורגעאָיסיע און די טייראַנטן! לאנג לעבן טעראָר קעגן בורזשואזע געזעלשאַפט! לאנג לעבן דער אַנערקאַסט קאַמיון!”  That is, “Down with provocateurs and spies! Down with the bourgeoisie and the tyrants! Long live terror against bourgeois society! Long live the anarchist commune!” Through attacks on banks, bombings of police stations, and assassinations of political figures, The Black Banner fought not only for Jewish autonomy, but for freedom for all living under the Czar. As anarchists, they opposed all systems of imprisonment, including the tyranny of class and ethnic violence.

The Black Banner and other anarchists of Bialystok waged a war on the police and the government for several years. In 1904, Nissan Farber stabbed the owner of a spinning mill, while walking to shul on Yom Kippur. On October 4th, Farber threw a bomb into a police station, injuring many cops and killing himself. Nissan Farber’s decision to stab the owner of the mill outside the Shul on Yom Kippur, the day of forgiveness, the holiest day of the year, was no coincidence. What does it mean to take our holiest day and subvert it in this way? As Jews we are asked to forgive on this day, but as Jewish anarchists, we know that there are actions that are unforgivable. Our practice of forgiveness on Yom Kippur is only strengthened by understanding where this line is.

Over the course of 1905-06, Bialystok had seven police chiefs, most of whom were either killed or wounded by Jewish anarchist bombs or bullets. Because of this, the police refused to enter Surazh Street, a neighborhood stronghold of Jewish anarchists. On February 21 1905, a police chief was killed by a bomb, and another was wounded by another bomb on June 8. The violence inspired notable governmental anti-Semites to plot a pogrom that began by paying a peasant to dress as a jew and throw a bomb into an Orthodox procession. For several days there was absolute terror. Between June 14 and 16 1905 almost 90 people were murdered, and another 80 injured by. However, if it weren’t for self-organized Jewish self-defense units, the numbers of casualties would have been far far greater.

The pogroms that plagued the Russian Empire pushed many Jewish anarchists to action. Sholem Schwartzbard, a Jew from Bassarabia, was an anarchist, a watchmaker, and a Yiddish poet. Between 1919-20, Symon Petliura, an infamous antisemite and Director of the Ukrainian National Republic, organized pogroms that took the lives of 35,000 to 50,000 Jews. Schwartzbard lost 14 family members in a 1919 pogrom. During that pogrom Schwartzbard was an infantryman in an anarchist brigade that fought and lost to Petlura’s army. After disbanding, Schwartzbard bore witness to the horrific aftermath of that pogrom, and was haunted by those images for the rest of his life. After fleeing Russia for France, Schwartzbard heard that Petlura had been exiled to Paris. On May 25, 1926 by the Gibert bookstore, Schwartzbard approached Petlura on the street and asked if he was Symon Petliura. To this Petliura raised his cane in acknowledgement and was met by Schwartzbard’s gun, which was unloaded into Petliura. Later, Schwartzbard stated: “When I saw him fall I knew he had received five bullets. Then I emptied my revolver. The crowd had scattered. A policeman came up quietly and said: ‘Is that enough?’ I answered: ‘Yes.’ He said: ‘Then give me your revolver.’ I gave him the revolver, saying: ‘I have killed a great assassin.’ […] When the policeman told me Petliura was dead I could not hide my Joy.” Schwartzbard was later tried by a French court and found innocent. To win his case, he proved that he was acting out revenge on behalf of Jews.

Vitka Kempner was a Jewish partisan from the Vilna ghetto. As a woman, she was able to dress as a non-Jew and run weapons and supplies in and out of the ghetto. It was in this way that the Jews of the Vilna ghetto were able to manufacture mines. On July 8, 1942, when Vitka Kempner was only 19 years old, she dyed her hair blond, snuck out of the ghetto and placed a mine on the railroad where a train carrying Nazis was due to approach later that morning. Vitka disappeared and the train came upon the mine, causing the mine to explode and killing over 200 Nazi soldiers on board the train.

The 43 Group was a group of British Jewish antifascists who fought in WWII, only to return home to find an ever growing fascist presence in Britain. The 43 Group aimed to never let the fascists have a platform to speak. In Britain at that time, there were up to 40 fascist meetings a week. The 43 group broke up as many meetings as possible, beating the fascists with clubs made of folded newspapers, bricks and rocks. At times members of the 43 Group would infiltrat the meetings to start fights within their membership, sometimes successfully ending meetings due to infighting. The blackshirts (fascists) called them the “fucking hard case East End Yids.”

Towards a Renewed Jewish Anarchism

Jewish antifascism is not a new thing, but Jewish antifa has not been a threat in the United States since the turn of the 20th century. What does a renewed Jewish antifascism look like in today’s world? As we’ve seen, from the chants of “Jews will not replace us” and “This city is run by Jewish communists” in Charlottesville, to the sentiments witnessed by Patrik Hermansson, a gay swedish anti-racist who spent a year infiltrating UK and US based alt-right hate groups, who said: “People spoke of sending all Jews to Israel and then nuking it,” antisemitism is alive and well in today’s fascist movements.

Fascists are using such antisemitic language as if they are posturing to hide their fear of what we are capable of. We know who our enemies are, as we have for the past 2,000 years. But for most of the past 2,000 years, Jews were not assimilated. What does is mean, now that we’ve been forcibly and violently assimilated into goyish culture, to be anti-assimilationists?

For white Jews, if we are to be antifascists we must also be anti-whiteness. [Editor’s Note: The authors here mean to be against the caste system of race; white supremacy, not against white people as people.] We must ask ourselves, “how do we become traitors to “whiteness?”” How we as Jews use this legacy of courageous, militant resistance is up to each individual. Will you ignore it, brush it off as a historical legacy with no application today, or will you let this history inspire you as we scream out “Daloy Politzey!,” find each other in the streets and spread the fires of Jewish revolt once again?


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