The Choice

The Second Coming by W B Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

On Jewish Communists

I am the only socialist in my family. My granddad might still call himself one, but, in reality, his own material struggles and money fetish have left him a socialist of the heart and capitalist of the head. There is no doubt about where his heart lies, however. He met his own beloved wife at a British Communist Party social event in the East End in the late 1940s.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the Jewish East End was solidly communist. Jews were at the vanguard of the struggle against fascism both at home (against Mosley’s ‘Blackshirts’) and abroad (both in Spain and then, of course, in the Allied fight against Nazi Germany).

For many Jews, the ideological commitment to communism ran deep – deep enough to give their lives. For many others, communist affiliation was primarily a strategic position to take in the face of fascism. According to the historians, most Jews at that time seemed to have identified themselves more as ‘Jewish Communists’ rather than ‘Communist Jews’. For them, communism constituted not a means to reach out to the world beyond, but to protect themselves from a threatening world outside.

The dilemma

Seventy years on, and, whilst socio-economic developments have dispersed and diluted Jewish communities and cohesion, a core of religious and/or culturally conservative Jews remain, understandably proud of their traditions and heritage. For them, the parochial East End world remains internalised. Their friends are all fellow Jews, the media and culture they consume reinforce their worldview. However, now a similar combination of capitalist crisis and fascism threatens their world, and, unlike their parents and grandparents before them, the choice they face is not straight-forward.

This past Saturday, the English Defence League held a march in Bournemouth. In response, the anti-fascists, led by trade union Unite, held a counter-demonstration to stop their progress. Ahead of their march, the EDL produced this hate-filled, intentionally provocative video ahead of their march.

The march was planned to go past or near the local synagogue. I suspect that the vast majority of the congregation did nothing other than hurry straight home. However, whilst in the 1930s and 1940s, their affinities would have been anti-fascist, paradoxically, their instinctive self-interest today lies not with the anti-fascists, but with the fascists of the EDL!

The EDL is staunchly pro-Israel. In contrast, the anti-fascists clearly stand in solidarity with the long-suffering Palestinian people against the Israeli state. This amazing video vividly captures this remarkable political dilemma. 3 minutes in, we see a religious Jew making a speech at an EDL rally. 6 minutes in, we see Hassidic Jews standing against the EDL, with the anti-fascists, and denouncing the fascism of the Israeli state!!

‘Dilemma? What dilemma!?’ would be the predictable response of most conservative British Jews, ‘We are in support of Israel, not of the EDL! We can’t help it if these thugs support Israel too!’ That may be true. Yet, as the EDL-aligned Jewish man in this video shows, capitalist crisis can bring together strange bedfellows…

The ‘centre cannot hold’

The British capitalist state, indeed global capitalism, is in profound crisis. While the richest prosper, most people are suffering from historic falls in living standards. Real wages have already fallen around 15% from 2008 levels. Most of the government’s austerity cuts are yet to be implemented. When the next market crash hits, there is the real possibility for a further huge drop in living standards, even for economic collapse.

Graph taken from Michael Robert’s blogpost entitled ‘UK: cost of living crisis continues’

The recent rapid rise of extremist parties and politicians across Europe shows again that during capitalist crisis ‘the centre cannot hold’, and that the supposed ‘best’ indeed ‘lack all conviction’.

The choice

Whether they like it or not, the Jews of Europe face a choice. They can endeavour to maintain ever more abstracted ideological, cognitive constructions in an effort to preserve their current worldview and sense of self. These false cognitive constructions are founded on deep-rooted myths about the Jewish people: as a pure race; as ‘chosen’ by God; as the ‘light of the world’; as perennial victims of jealous, godless enemies. Maintaining such constructions will necessitate ‘the worst’ thoughts and acts of ever-increasing ‘passionate intensity’ that will inevitably lead them into alliance with fascists against the supposed enemies of Islam and, ultimately, socialism.

The alternative – one being embraced by ever-growing numbers of Jewish people – begins with challenging and reconstructing one’s ideology, one’s identity, one’s very self. This is a difficult and painful process, but it is one not just of deconstruction, but of ultimate reconstruction. There is an alternative heritage to claim – one of radical, ‘other-regarding’ Jewish history; of the proud and important role that Jewish people have played in human history in the struggle for freedom and justice for all people. What we might call Yad Vashem’s ‘Righteous Among Nation’s in reverse is an awe-inspiring list indeed! It would include such luminaries as Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Judith Butler, Naomi Klein, Albert Einstein, Frances Fox Piven…and my new hero, Hedy Epstein!

The Second Coming

We are all born into random places, times, and social groups. We are all told that our god is the true god, that our food is the best food, that our culture is the richest culture. We are all right. We are all wrong.

E F Schumacher once said that ‘everything can be seen directly except the eye through which we see’. The violence of genocide is only possible through dehumanisation of the other, and dehumanisation of the other is only possible through uncritical eyes.

The ‘Second Coming’ is nigh! The ‘rough beast’ in his twenty-first century guise crashes through Bethlehem and on to Gaza. Once more, propelled by capitalist crisis, barbarism looms large.

My call is in no way for any Jewish person to give up their cultural or religious practices. Yet, all Jewish people do now face a choice. We can choose to remain uncritical and, according to a logic of self-regarding self-preservation, ally with the fascists. Alternatively, we can, via a process of self-discovery and reconstruction, proudly recognise the vital role that other-regarding Jewish people have made to the struggle for universal freedom and justice, and to ally with those groups who have always fought, and continue to fight, against anti-Semitism but also against prejudice, oppression, and hate of any kind. In this way, Jewish people can continue to make a major contribution toward building peaceful and equitable multi-religious/ethnic and, therefore, truly socialist societies.

This article was published on the Column F website here

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