Secular Jews and Pacifism by Bennett Muraskin

(adapted from “Jewish Secularism” in Peace, Justice and Jews: Reclaiming Our Tradition (2007), edited by Murray Polner and Stefan Merken)

"Merely to be gentle is not yet to be good...If pacifism is purely a blend of lemonade and empty rhetoric, it cannot be what democrats believe it should be: the active unconditional resistance of human reason. It is imperative to distinguish between struggle and war."

Ernst Bloch (1885-1977)

Growing up as a red diaper baby and a secular Jew during the 1960s and 70s, I was not too keen on pacifism. The major milestones of progress, I was taught, were violent revolutions—the French and especially the Russian. We admired the Red Army both for its success in the Civil War that brought victory to the Bolsheviks and in World War Two. Because of its role in defeating the Nazis, the lefty Jewish teachers in my Yiddish shule (school) depicted it as the savior of Western Civilization in general and the Jewish people in particular. Our heroes were the volunteers of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, who fought Franco’s fascist armies in Spain, and the Jewish resistance fighters who led the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The partisan hymn, Zog Nit Keynmol (Never Say) inspired us with hope and courage. One line proclaimed that it “was sung with weapons in hand.

”The Marxism I embraced in my youth preached class struggle and the necessity of violent revolution. Although we had already rejected the Soviet model, many of us saw Red China or Cuba as beacons of socialism. Neither nation was shy about glorifying military prowess. During the Vietnam War, we ardently supported the National Liberation Front, admiring its fighting skills against overwhelming American firepower. Our romance with violence reached its peak with the emergence of the Black Panther Party in the mid 1960s. The Panthers openly glorified armed resistance to police aka “pigs” and used an automatic weapon as one of its symbols. We signified our solidarity by chanting “Revolution has Come; It’s Time to Pick Up the Gun.”

I was aware of the role of pacifists in the anti-war movement, especially A.J. Muste and David Dellinger, but they could not hold a candle in my imagination to Che Guevara, spreading revolution throughout South America through guerilla warfare. I admit to not even knowing of the existence of the Jewish Peace Fellowship during that era, and I am fairly certain that I was typical of radical Jewish youth.

I have come to the conclusion that secular Jews of East European ancestry have not played a significant role in the pacifist movement or in support of the pacifist cause. The Encyclopedia of the American Left has numerous entries about secular leftist Jews and the institutions they founded or led, but only two Jewish names appears in its entry on "Pacifism"---poet Allen Ginsberg and Paul Goodman. Ginsberg was a child of East European immigrants, but his pacifism derived from his Buddhism. Maurice Isserman has a chapter, "Radical Pacifism," in his book, If I Had a Hammer…The Death of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left. He discusses the role of Norman Thomas, A.J. Muste, Bayard Rustin, David Dellinger etc., but the only Jew he names is the very unconventional Paul Goodman.

It is true that a disproportionate number of white civil rights activists were progressive secular Jews. One of them, Stanley Levison, became a close advisor to Martin Luther King. Yet King's non-violence came from the Christian tradition and from Gandhi, a Hindu. Nor did these Jews typically articulate a Jewish ethic for their activism. Theodore Bikel was the exception in this regard. During the civil rights era, he once sang a Yiddish socialist song (lyrics by Zhitlovsky) in the original and in his own English translation to a mass meeting held in a Black church in Birmingham Alabama.

Why this under-representation among pacifists, when East European Jews and their descendants were so over-represented on the left in general? Secular Jews in Eastern Europe were rebels against the Jewish religious establishment. The rabbis' secret to Jewish survival was, of course, adherence to Jewish law, but just as important, submission to Gentile power. As long as Jews did not cause trouble for Gentile rulers, they would be allowed to regulate their own affairs. Should anti-Semites threaten the Jewish community, the tried and true strategy was to appeal to the highest Gentile authorities and seek their protection, often through bribery. If Jews kept their heads down and rolled with the punches, they would outlast their enemies and in God's good time, the Messiah would arrive and return Jews from exile to the Land of Israel. This was the traditional Jewish version of "pacifism" that secular Jews rejected. It appeared as an excuse for passivity.

In place of religion, the most politically active among secularized East European Jews adopted either socialism or Zionism. The former, with its emphasis on class struggle and social revolution had no use for pacifism. Jewish socialists opposed "capitalist" and "imperialist" wars, but not class war. It was impossible to convince them that the tyrannical anti-Semitic Czarist regime could be toppled by non-violent means. Zionists sought to create a new Jew---a pioneering nationalist---who would settle a new land and be willing to defend it against the native population. Their heroes were Jewish warriors: the Maccabees and Bar Kochba. Pacifism was the last thing on the Zionist agenda.

There were exceptions among the Zionists, but they tended to be German in origin. Two out of the three most prominent Zionist advocates of Jewish pacifism (and Arab-Jewish equality) were religious humanists: Martin Buber (1878-1965), who initially supported Germany in World War I and Rabbi Judah Magnes (1877-1948), who opposed it from the beginning. Buber came from Germany; Magnes was the American-born child of Polish and German immigrants. The best known German Jewish pacifist by far, Albert Einstein (1879-1955), "religious" only in Spinoza's sense of the term, vigorously condemned World War I, but like the others supported the Allied war effort in World War II.

Perhaps the best known East European Jewish Zionist pacifist was A.D. Gordon (1856-1922), the spiritual father of the kibbutz movement. An immigrant from Russia who came to Palestine in 1904, he personally advocated co-operation with the Arab population. However, his embrace of the "conquest of labor" provoked Arab resistance by insisting that Jewish employers hire only Jewish workers. His beloved kibbutzim barred Arabs and were often built on the site of former Arab villages.

Non-Zionist or anti-Zionist Jewish pacifists from Eastern Europe or of East European origin, include the religious Natan Hofshi (1889-1980) and the secular Toma Sik (1939-2006), both active as advocates of non-violence and conscientious objection in Israel, and American violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999). But more typically, Jewish pacifists were German Jews or of German Jewish origin---social activist Lillian Wald (1867-1940), Marxist humanist philosopher Ernst Bloch (1885-1977), anarchist, martyr and intimate of Martin Buber, Gustav Landauer (1870-1919) and the German born Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery (1923-)---all secular Jews. The anarchist Gentile Rudolph Rocker (1873-1958), who learned Yiddish, lived among Jewish workers and became the charismatic leader of Jewish anarchists in England and the US, was also from Germany.

Why did most pacifist Jews come from Germany? Was it the influence of the Haskalah or Jewish Enlightenment that originated with the German Jew Moses Mendelssohn who was inspired by his encounter with European liberalism? Or perhaps their affinity for the Christian pacifist tradition within Central Europe begun by the 16th century Anabaptists and continued by their Mennonite descendants? Many German Jews, including Buber and Einstein, were familiar with Christianity and fascinated by the personality of Jesus, who can legitimately be considered a pacifist.

I have long wondered what is there in Jewish tradition to sustain leftist secular Jews in their anti-war or pacifist positions. The Torah itself is a very militaristic text: The ancient Hebrews are on a mission from God to conquer Canaan by force and are explicitly commanded to exterminate the native inhabitants. The subsequent books of the Jewish Bible are in a similar vein. Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings are full of violence and warfare. The Prophets provide many lofty sayings, including the famous one from Zechariah 4:6 --"Not by might nor power, but by My spirit saith the Lord"--- but the Prophets' dedication to peace was highly conditional. If the Jews obey God's laws, as interpreted by the prophets themselves, swords will be beaten into plowshares and nations will study war no more, but if the Jews disobey, plowshares will be beaten into swords and God will exact horrific punishment. Selective quotation is a tricky business that, in my opinion, should be approached with great caution.

I plead guilty myself to being influenced by prophetic literature. I entitled my book of biographies of secular/humanist progressive Jews Let Justice Well Up Like Water, a quote from Amos 5:24, but I believe that the Prophets were more authentically committed to social justice than to peace and more committed to stamping out pagan beliefs than to social justice. For example, Jeremiah advocated submission to the Babylonians, not out hatred for war, but out of a conviction that foreign conquest was necessary to punish the Jews for their sins. Above all, the Prophets were fanatical in their insistence on religious conformity and, therefore, terrible role models for progressive Jews.

Talmudic sources are ambiguous at best. The Talmud is so massive that diverse and conflicting opinions on a seeming infinite variety of subjects abound, but the sad fact is that the prevailing rabbinic opinion was that the injunction to "love your neighbor as yourself" did not apply to non-Jews. The famous quote that concludes Schindler's List and appears in so many books about Judaism, "Whoever kills one soul is as if he destroyed mankind. Conversely, whoever saves one soul is as though he has saved the whole world" is actually the less authoritative version of Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 and Talmud Sanhedrin 37a. Both add the words "in Israel," after "soul," thereby limiting its scope to Jews only. Jewish law (Halakha), the preponderance of the Talmud, does not treat non-Jews with respect.

Agada, the non-legal portions of the Talmud, consisting mainly of folklore, as well as the folklore that comprises much of the Midrash are a more fertile source for progressive humanistic ideals, including pacifist ones. For example, the earliest invocation to tikkun olam comes from Agada, in particular Pirkey Avot, a tractate from the Mishna in which Rabbi Tarfon says: "It is not your obligation to complete the task [of perfecting the world], but neither are you free to desist [from doing your part.]" Hillel's familiar ethical maxims (What is hateful to you do not do to your fellow etc.), so fundamental to humanistic values, come from the same source. Aaron, Moses brother, is highly praised as a peace maker.

If there is any Jewish sage who could be cited for his unequivocal pacifism, it would be Yohanan ben Zakkai, the rabbi who opposed continued resistance to Rome during the 68-72 CE rebellion that resulted in massive bloodshed and the destruction of the Second Temple. He faked his death so he could be smuggled out of Jerusalem, besieged by Roman armies. He then obtained Roman approval to establish a rabbinic academy. His non-violent approach, rather than the fanatic belligerence of the Jewish rebels, is often credited with ensuring the survival of the Jewish people. Hans Kohn (1891-1971) grew up in Prague and lived in Paris, London and Palestine before making his way to the US in 1933. A critical scholar of modern nationalism, he joined Magnes and Buber in advocating a bi-national state in Palestine. Kohn claimed to draw inspiration from Yohannan ben Zakkai's pacifism in advocating international cooperation as an alternative to war.

Two books of the Bible, Ruth and Jonah, stand out for their messages of respect and compassion for the non-Jewish "other," an essential precondition for peace and justice. In fact, they are among the very few books of the Bible where no one is killed by God or man.

The Moabites are reviled in the Torah, but in the Book of Ruth, these putative enemies of the Jewish people welcome a Jewish family fleeing famine. Contrary to Jewish law, the two sons in this family married Moabite women, one of them Ruth. When they died, Ruth chose to return to Judah with Naomi, her mother in law. By affirming her love for the Jewish people, Ruth was accepted as a Jew. No indoctrination or conversion ceremony was required. And she did not become just any Jew, but the great grandmother of King David.

Jonah is a reluctant prophet who flees from God rather than accept an assignment to preach repentance to the Assyrians of Nineveh. To make his escape, he boards a ship, but God sends a storm to cause a shipwreck. The non-Jewish sailors seek to save Jonah and only agree to throw him overboard when Jonah insists. The whale or big fish swallows him and spits him out at Nineveh. In short order, the people of Nineveh repent and God forgives them, but Jonah is upset because he fancied himself a prophet of doom. God answers: "And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left (referring to the children) and many beasts as well!" Here God extends his compassion to non-Jews, men, women and children, who prove capable of moral redemption. There is no other book of the Bible where non-Jews are depicted so favorably, where God concerns himself with their fate and where He uses peaceful persuasion, rather than threats and violence, to teach a lesson in universal human dignity.

Drawing on the Yiddish tradition, my favorite source of humanistic values, I have found two folktales that clearly embrace the concept of non-violent civil disobedience:

The story is told that the leading men of the community were unsatisfied with the work of the caretaker of Rabbi Yoshe-Ber's rabbinical court in Brisk. They held a meeting and decided to fire the caretaker. Then they gave the task of dismissing him to Rabbi Yoshe-Ber, but he refused.

"Why not, Rabbi?" the community leaders asked. "You're the rabbi and he's your employee."

"I'll tell you," Rabbi Yoshe-Ber replied. "Since you read and know the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, you know that when the Blessed Name commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, we find that it is written that He Himself spoke as follows: 'Take now thy son, thine only son...' But when He commanded Abraham to spare Isaac, God sent an angel, as it is written, `And the angel called unto Abraham...'

This poses a question. Why was it that the Blessed Name did not send an angel at the beginning? The answer is that He knew very well that no angel would have accepted the assignment. Each of them would have said, 'If You want to command death, You had better do it Yourself.'"

Yiddish Folktales ed. by Beatrice Silverman Weinreich, Pantheon Books, 1988

And one on the lighter side:

To a rabbinical school in Old Russia, the military came in search of recruits. The entire student body was drafted.

In camp, the students amazed their new masters by their marksmanship on the rifle range. Accordingly, when war broke out, the Yeshiva youths were ordered en masse into the front lines.

Shortly after the contingent arrived an attack began. Far in the distance, in No Man's Land, an advancing horde of Germans appeared. The Czarist officers called out, "!"

But no fire was forthcoming.

"Fire!" yelled the officers. "Didn't you hear? Fire, you idiots, fire!"

Still nothing happened.

Beside himself with rage, the commanding officer demanded, "Why don't you fire?"

One of the youths mildly answered, "Can't you see...there are people in the way. Somebody might get hurt!"

A Treasury of Jewish Folklore ed. by Nathan Ausubel, Crown Publishers, 1948

I included these stories, as well as others from Agada and Midrash, in my book, Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, 2001, which I wrote for the express purpose of introducing secular Jews to the humanist elements in Jewish tradition.

Where are the secular Jewish pacifists and anti-war activists in the US today? Howard Zinn became a pacifist after serving as a bombardier in World War Two. Noam Chomsky may not identify himself as a pacifist, but his anti-war record is distinguished. Yet I would argue that their Jewishness is peripheral to their public life.

Grace Paley (who I include because she just died in August 2007), the short story writer and child of East European immigrants, described herself as a "combative pacifist" and was involved with the pacifist organizations such as the War Resisters League and the Quaker American Friends Service Committee. In keeping with her Jewish commitments, she also joined the progressive Jews For Racial and Economic Justice and subscribed to Jewish Currents magazine. Her anti-war credentials were impeccable. Bikel is still with us, a strong voice for peace and reconciliation in Israel/Palestine, active in Meretz USA.

Of the three explicitly secular Jewish organizations in North America, the Workmen's Circle, the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations and the Society for Humanistic Judaism, the first two have long demonstrated strong anti-war commitments, extending to support for a two-state settlement in Israel/Palestine and opposition to the US invasion of Iraq.

All three draw on humanistic elements in both the socialist Yiddish and left Zionist traditions. Yiddish writer I.L Peretz's poem, Ale Mentchen Zaynen Brider (All Men are Brothers), put to the melody of Beethoven's Ninth symphony, the Bundist unity song, Ale Brider (All Brothers) and Yiddish poet Avrom Reisen's inspirational Dos Naye Leed (The New Song), along with the Hebrew Bashana Haba'ah (Soon the Day Will Arrive), Hiney Ma Tov (Oh, How Good), derived from Psalm 133:1 and Lo Yisa Goy (Vine and Fig Tree), derived from Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:4, are frequently heard at their gatherings.

Jewish Currents, a magazine sponsored by the Workmen's Circle and edited by Lawrence Bush, represents the intellectual and literary legacy of the secular Jewish left. As the combined voice of the Workmen's Circle and former Jewish communists, it is broadly sympathetic to a pacifist agenda. And progressive Jews of all persuasions work together in organizations like B'rit Tsedek v'Shalom, Americans for Peace Now and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice.

I still cannot say that I consider myself a pacifist. On a case by case basis, however, I find myself having a harder and harder time justifying war. Some wars start out looking "good," but the "cure" turns out at least as bad as the disease. For example, in the case of Kosovo, the war launched by NATO in 1999 succeeded in stopping the Serbs from expelling Albanians, but resulted in Albanians expelling Serbs. Furthermore, the NATO bombing of Belgrade did far more harm to civilians than the Yugoslav government or military. The US invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11 appeared to me to be justified at the time, but now I have my doubts. The classic "good war," World War Two, which I still think was necessary, ended with the incineration of over 200,000 Japanese civilians and involved other grave war crimes committed by the anti-fascist coalition.

In Israel/ Palestine, a complete cessation of violence on both sides, as part and parcel of a comprehensive negotiated two-state solution, may sound utopian, but in the final analysis is the only rational alternative to more suffering and misery.

At the end of the day, secular Jews are also secular humanists and subscribe to the Humanist Manifesto III drawn up by the American Humanist Association:

Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships. Humanists long for and strive toward a world of mutual care and concern, free of cruelty and its consequences, where differences are resolved cooperatively, without resorting to violence. The joining of individuality with interdependence enriches our lives, encourages us to enrich the lives of others, and inspires hope of attaining peace, justice, and opportunity for all.

Its Yiddish counterpart, the poem Dos Naye Leed, mentioned above, is also clearly compatible with pacifist ideals:

And though delayed may be the day when love and peace join hands, Yet it will come, for it must come, no dream; it's our command.

I hear the song of mighty throngs, the song of peace in chorus. And each voice sings, as each note rings: "The sun is rising for us."

And end to night, the world grows bright with hope, with joy and giving. I hear the sound, it's all around: "To courage, strength and living!"

(Translation by Hershl Hartman)

Stalin once said that you cannot make an omelet without breaking some eggs and many Jewish communists once justified his repressive policies on that basis. However, I believe that leftist secular Jews have long reject the idea that the peaceful ends justify violent means. In order for our goals to be justified, the means to achieve them must also be justified, which is a strong argument for pacifism, or if not pacifism, then resorting to violence only in self-defense and only as the last resort.