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Jews and Anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe
K. J. Hahn
Public opinion throughout the world has been surprised, irritated and shocked by the continuous re-appearance of anti-semitism in eastern European countries. Of course, different reasons are always given for new forms of discrimination, or open persecution of Jews. However, the underlying phenomenon, which gives all forms of anti-Zionism, and anti-Israel policy its specific colour and accent, is easily recognizable in the traditional anti-semitic reactions which spring up with far greater ease than might be imagined from outside Judaism.
This fact is all the more inexplicable that communism and socialism, the dominant ideologies in these countries, were always opposed to racial discrimination, just as they were opposed to social discrimination. It is no less lamentable that, after the persecution of the Jews by Stalin, and the extermination of six million Jews by the national-socialist regime, anti-semitism should reappear, not only as the reaction of a handful of individuals who will never change their ideas, but as the official attitude and policy of governments, authorities and party organizations. This emotional, irrational and, in some respects, even mysterious tendency to consider Jews responsible for fundamental errors, and even national crimes such as high treason, without the clear evidence of proofs, demands an explanation. The reasons given for traditional anti-Semitic feelings in a particular country are certainly valid for the new form of anti-semitism, but, today it is necessary to take a deeper look into history and evolution, particularly that of eastern European society. The observations which follow are only meant as a modest contribution to reflection on a subject which needs much more study and consideration.
The starting point for the new anti-semitic reactions in eastern European countries was the Israel—Arab conflict. For purely political reasons, the communist regimes sided with the Arab states, and, with ruthless opportunism, attacked Israel. Some of the Arab states, with their feudal structures, were farther removed from communist ideology than Israel, yet this latter country, socially the more advanced, had never suppressed the communist party as Arab states had done in theirs. The consequence was that Jews in eastern European countries who sympathized with Israel were considered to be enemies of the official policy, of the regime, of communism as such.
It is evident that such a hasty conclusion pointed to inner feelings of distrust, which, hitherto had been, as it were, controlled by the communist ideological solidarity. At the first opportunity, old reactions reappeared, traditional reflexes began to function seeking fresh reasons for taking a critical stand against the Jews. Zionism, therefore, was only the external motive for attacking them. It was not difficult to find other reasons which showed even more dearly to what an extent a traditional pattern of antisemitic judgement was still present in what I should be prepared to call the political subconscious. Thus, Jews were considered guilty of participation in the intellectual and student movements in Poland in 1968. For the first time since Hitler, the Jewish names of Czech intellectuals of Jewish origin were given in the Russian Press, printed in parentheses next to their adopted Czech name. Their Jewish origin was pointed out when they were being attacked for their sympathy for, and collaboration with Dubcek.
Here we meet a typical form of anti-semitic reaction in eastern European countries: the communist propaganda machine classified all Jews under the pejorative term of "cosmopolitan", in exactly the same way as National Socialists had depicted Jews as belonging to an international conspiracy directed against the German nation. The second element is the fact that the Jews were considered untrustworthy, unstable and undisciplined intellectuals who would undermine the structure of a sound and stable society or regime.
One is inclined to think of the common prejudices which were at work here. These external manifestations of eastern European anti-semitism have another significance and another origin. The Jews of eastern Europe had been living cut off from surrounding society. They formed a ghetto, in the fullest meaning of the word, a special community, completely separated and distinguishable from the others. Religiously, of course, there was not the contact with non-Jews that is found in western countries; ethnically the Jews differed much more from the non-Jewish population than in southern or western Europe. In the traditional way of life — habits, clothing, and so on, they were different, and, due to their profound religious consciousness, they wanted to remain different. The knowledge of being the people of election had a specific sociological effect on their self-imposed isolation from the outside world.
This state of isolation was, furthermore, developed into a closed community by the fact thatthe Jews did not enjoy all the rights of other citizens, and, in particular, they were not allowed to exercise the professions. Public functions, military service, admission to universities, and, in some places, even the ownership of land, were forbidden them. They had to concentrate their activities on handicrafts, commerce, finance, and, due to their strong religious training, and the original gifts of their nation, they developed a very high, perhaps forced, standard of intellectual life. In the mostly agricultural societies of Poland, Hungary, Russia and Rumania, therefore, .hey held important positions in a middle class which historically had never been intellectually strong in these countries. (In the nineteenth century, the farmer population of Poland was eighty percent of the whole, and the remaining twenty percent of the intellectual, bourgeois class was almost completely destroyed or expelled, by the twentieth century communist regime).
It is, therefore, understandable that the Jews held an ambivalent position in these societies. They suffered from discrimination, but they were important: they were poor, but due to their ability in certain professions and their high intellectual standard, they had great influence. They were different, "alien", but, even so, they were important. This paradoxical situation led to outbursts of hatred and discrimination. In western societies, the Jews succeeded in forming open communities as in Holland or Germany at the end of the nineteenth century. This was, in part, due to their religious secularization and liberalism and led to assimilation. In eastern Europe, the distinction, the being different and alien continued. Only the converted Jew was an exception. He could escape this social automatism, by disappearing as a Jew, but this did not change the situation as such.
It is a fact that this traditional form of social and culturally conditioned anti-semitism filtered into the new situation created by the communist regime in eastern European countries. At the beginning of socialism, the secularized, liberal, unreligious Jews in these countries voluntarily joined the new movement, because it defended hich were objects of Christian workers and ght for their rights in exactly as the intellectual, middle class or class Jews. The national-socialist per-ion which came later was a profound shock to many Jews. They had wanted to belong to a strong, united community which would be able to protect them for ever against such an eventuality. The communist liberation movement in eastern Europe had presented itself as such an impressive protective and liberating force. As a result of social discrimination, nazi persecution and the subsequent liberation by the Red Army and the communist movement, many Jews took up the cause of communism as a sincere contribution to the liberation of mankind from any kind of oppression. Many of them had the Church in mind, too, because traditional mistrust of Jews, even anti-semitism, was not rare even among the clergy.
This evolution resulted in giving the Jews a new and important role in society. They were accepted and assimilated as never before, due to their wholehearted participation in the construction of a communist society, where social, religious and, of course, racial discrimination had ceased to exist. But, this was only in appearance. Soon it became clear that the old experiences, traditions, standards of living and thinking had certainly not disappeared from the minds of the people. The non-communists, the anti-communists, the believing Christians resented the fact that the Jews had such a strong role in the communist regime. Later Hitler's propaganda of a Jewish dominated communist world echoed this resentment. Nobody took the trouble to explain or to understand this evolution. As has already been said, it was clear that the minority group of Jewish intellectuals played an important part in the workers' movement, and it was only after the initial period that these workers began to wonder why the Jews occupied important posts in the movement, in the party and in the state. Once more, the "difference" was felt and resented as it had been in previous centuries. In such a situation, the Jews were sandwiched, so to speak, between the non-communists in these societies, who considered them responsible for the bolshevization of the country, and the communist rank and file who wanted to have leaders from their own ranks.
This situation became much more difficult as soon as the Stalinist regimes developed their inhuman methods, the paralyzed marxist orthodoxy, the bureaucracy which created a new form of "alienation", which, according to Marx could be possible only under captalism. It was, of course, the intellectuals who felt the full force of such an inhuman regime, and who started to develop a new interpretation of Marxism. It is only natural that the same Jews, so sensitive to oppression through bitter experience, and, in these countries, with more intellectuals than in the official leading groups, were the first to feel the need to change this frozen bureaucratic system. It is, therefore, logical to find a number of important Jews among the reformers. Once more they became the butt of criticism and hatred from both sides — the anti-communists and the communists. And when, through the influence of their families and other Jews who had been dispersed throughout the world by Hitler and communism, they were more successful than ordinary citizens in leaving communist countries, or even emigrating to Israel, this gave rise again to resentment.
The fact that, in this way, traditional forms of anti-semitism remain alive, and anti-semitic reactions constantly recur, may be explained also by the special character of communism's closed ideological system. It can be assumed that antisemitism, like any other form of social prejudice, develops easily and rapidly in any closed system where cliches circulate easily and are accepted unquestioningly. Prejudice thrives on lack of human encounter and dialogue.
A glance at the history of eastern European countries in recent centuries shows a striking separation between Christian and Jewish communities, from the cultural and spiritual aspects. True universalism, which should be an essential mark of Christianity, gave way to the interests of a group or of a nation. Today, in the strictly controlled and manipulated society of communist states, this dialogue is most difficult, and prejudices can be used as instruments for political aims. So, the conclusion is reached that communist regimes today do make unhesitating use of old reactions for new political purposes. As long
as the cruel experiences of centuries are not fully examined in a Christian ecumenical spirit as befits a free society, it is to be feared that such anti-semitic phenomena will never disappear completely. This should serve as a serious warning for other societies.