The teenage boys who performed competitive athletics in the gymnasium in Jerusalem 2,100 years in the past had their circumcisions reversed, because in any other case they wouldn’t have been allowed to play. In the Hellenistic empire that conquered Judea, sports activities have been sacred, the entry level to being an individual who mattered, the last word peak of cool—and sports activities, in fact, have been all the time played within the nude. As one can imagine, historic genital surgical procedure of this nature was excruciating and probably fatal. However the boys did not need to miss out.
I discovered this enjoyable reality in seventh grade, from a Hebrew-school instructor who was instructing me and my pubescent classmates concerning the Hanukkah story—about how Hellenistic tyranny gained a foothold in historic Judea with the help of Jews who went along for the experience. This instructor appeared overly jazzed to talk about penises with a bunch of adolescents, and I suspected he’d made the entire thing up. At residence I pulled a dusty previous guide off my mother and father’ shelf, Quantity 1 of Heinrich Graetz’s History of the Jews. There I found that it was true, and in addition far worse.
In 19th-century educational prose, Gratz noted the “painful operation” boys underwent “to disguise the fact that they have been Judeans.” But then he briskly moved on to an “unscrupulous” Jewish man named Menelaus, whose story was even more perverse. Menelaus, an area energy participant desperate to ingratiate himself with the new regime, provided the tyrant Antiochus 300 skills of gold in trade for appointing him because the high priest in the Jerusalem Temple. Antiochus agreed, which left Menelaus with the slight drawback that he didn’t actually have 300 skills of gold. Menelaus solved this drawback by stealing the Temple’s sacred golden vessels and using them as cost. When his fellow Jews rose up towards him in outrage, Menelaus advised Antiochus that these Jews have been truly working for Antiochus’ Egyptian enemies.
‘Religion is the enemy of staff of all nationalities,’ 1929-1931 (Photograph: Blavatnik Archive)
Dangerous enough, but Menelaus went additional. In response to Gratz, Menelaus not only falsely accused the Jews of treason so as to shield himself, but in addition “maligned Judaism; he stated that the Regulation of Moses was replete with hatred of humanity, for it forbade the Jews to participate in the repasts of other nations, or to point out any kindness to strangers.” Antiochus responded to the menace by bringing his military to Jerusalem, taking up the Temple, and massacring the Jews. Sometime after that, the Maccabees confirmed up. That’s the part of the story we often hear.
The stupid joke about why we rejoice Jewish holidays (“they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat”) hides an unlimited distinction between two of these holidays, which illustrate very totally different variations of anti-Semitism: Purim and Hanukkah. The distinction could not be more related at this time, as Jews all over the world face a rising tide of anti-Semitism whose dynamics are typically simple and typically completely baffling. As I wrestle to know the weirdness, I discover myself returning to dusty previous books.
The Purim story from historic Persia matches nicely into seventh-grade notions of “prejudice”: Dangerous man notices that Jews are totally different and subsequently contaminating the blood-and-soil, so he decides to eliminate them. It resembles what we now think about right-wing anti-Semitism—and it’s the type that American Jews, descended as many people are from survivors of Russian Empire pogroms or the Holocaust, have been taught to recognize.
Hanukkah anti-Semitism, which may rear its head on both the proper or the left, is something quite totally different. It doesn’t demand lifeless or expelled Jews, no less than not at first. As an alternative it calls for the destruction of Jewish civilization. This process requires not lifeless Jews, but Jews who’re prepared to give up whatever particular facet of Jewish civilization is deemed to be uncool.
In fact, Judaism has all the time been uncool, going back to its origins as the planet’s only monotheism, that includes a bossy and unsexy invisible God. Uncoolness is pretty much Judaism’s brand, which is why cool individuals find it so threatening—and why Jews who’re prepared to grow to be cool are completely necessary to Hanukkah-style anti-Semitism’s success. In the days of Antiochus, this sort of anti-Semitism needed these boys who voluntarily underwent painful genital surgery to prove that Jews weren’t the issue—simply the barbarity of Jewish regulation. Through the Soviet era, it wanted proud internationalists to prove that Jews weren’t the problem, simply the repulsive chauvinism of Jewish national id—together with what we now name Zionism.
The Soviets truly went one higher. In 1918, they created a whole branch of their authorities solely for cool Jews, whose paid job was to persecute the uncool ones. This was referred to as the Yevsektsiya, or the Jewish Sections of the Communist Get together, and of their temporary and bloody lifespan, one finds the origins of at the moment’s supposedly novel concept: Jews who are in fact not anti-Semitic (how might they be? they’re Jews!), however simply anti-Zionist. In the middle of not being anti-Semitic and being simply anti-Zionist, the Yevsektsiya managed to persecute, imprison, torture, and murder hundreds of Jews, till their leaders have been themselves purged.
Yevsektsiya-style anti-Semitism, or Hannukah-style anti-Semitism, all the time promises Jews a sort of nobility, providing them the chance to cleanse themselves of whatever the individuals around them happen to seek out revolting. The Jewish traits designated as repulsive differ by nation and time period, however they invariably contradict the precise values that the encompassing tradition has embraced as “common.”
The rationale for that is clear: There’s truly nothing “common” about those specific values, besides the insecurity of the societies hoping to enforce them. Not everyone feels it is crucial to a well-lived life to play sports activities in the nude; not everybody believes that Jesus is the son of God; not everyone agrees that authoritarian central planning is the answer to the world’s ills; not everyone thinks that denouncing one’s ties to an ancestral homeland is a sign of advantage. Jewish particularity exposes the vanity of a society’s self-righteous leaders together with their profound insecurity, their deep worry of any suggestion that there are other ways to be. Those insecure leaders then enlist the assistance of Jews by promising them a benefit badge of universal righteousness. Because of Judaism’s inherent uncoolness, there will by no means be a shortage of Jews prepared to conform.
As a Yiddish literature scholar, I had encountered the Yevsektsiya as a glum footnote in my research. But I found its details only lately in a style just like my seventh-grade discovery of Menelaus, by means of a dusty previous guide—a 1972 volume by the historian Zvi Gitelman, with the ostentatiously boring title Jewish Nationality and Soviet Politics: The Jewish Sections of the CPSU, 1917-1930. It was a historical past of the Yevsektsiya, and the story it reported in arid educational prose could not have been weirder.
The ostensible function of the Yevsektsiya was to spread Communist ideology to Russia’s Jewish plenty, amongst whom there have been few Bolsheviks in 1917. Russia’s Jewish revolutionaries had primarily been Bundists (socialists), Mensheviks or Trotskyists, who did not again the winner, Lenin. As for the vaunted Jewish “plenty,” most have been Yiddish-speakers from small towns, lots of which have been devastated throughout World Warfare I. Such individuals have been a suitably determined proletariat, but the Communist Get together wanted Yiddish-speaking insiders to assist them see the sunshine.
‘We’ll let no one wreck the Five-Yr Plan!,’ 1931 (Photograph: Blavatnik Archive)
At first, there were so few Jews among the Bolsheviks that the celebration had to depend on two Norwegian Jews with dictionaries to create Yiddish-language propaganda. But after the Russian Civil Struggle in 1918-1920 left upwards of 70% of Jews without any common revenue, and after the pogroms of that interval left upwards of 50,000 Jews lifeless, Bolshevism a minimum of provided steady authorities jobs.
Some Jews who joined the Bolsheviks have been real idealists. Some, after the acute anti-Semitic violence of the Civil Struggle, might have unconsciously followed the basic strategy of “courtroom Jews,” cultivating ties to the regime as a approach of protecting the group—and themselves. And a few, aware of the group’s late arrival to Bolshevism, might have needed to show that they have been even better Communists than everyone else. In any case, as Gitelman’s e-book put it, “The Jewish sections [Yevsektsiya] betook themselves to the task of destroying the previous order with a zest that can’t be explained by enthusiasm for Bolshevism alone.”
Destroy it they did. The Yevsektsiya first eliminated the kehillas, or traditional Jewish group organizations in Russia’s cities and cities, by legally abolishing them. When that didn’t work, they burned kehilla workplaces down. Russian Jews on the time could possibly be forgiven for considering that this zeal was merely a part of the new order’s intolerance for faith; in any case, church buildings and mosques have been typically focused, too.
However by 1919, the Yevsektsiya resolved at their annual convention that shutting down conventional Jewish institutions was inadequate. Their mission now was to destroy all Zionist exercise—a category that prolonged from political organizations to sports golf equipment. Nor did the Yevsektsiya drag their ft. Inside a couple of weeks of the conference, that they had efficiently raided the workplaces of each Zionist association in Ukraine and arrested all of their leaders. Elsewhere in the united states, they arrested hundreds extra.
The Yevsektsiya’s subsequent move was to destroy the Hebrew language within the Soviet Union, which they completed by shutting down all faculties that taught Hebrew, no matter their affiliation, and by harassing Hebrew-language artists just like the famend poet Chaim Nachman Bialik and the celebrated actors of the Habima Theatre, all of whom escaped to Palestine. Habimah fled throughout an overseas tour; Bialik, together with different necessary Hebrew writers, obtained exit visas as a favor from Bialik’s good friend, the Russian writer Maxim Gorky.
This anti-Hebrew technique was designed by the Yevsektsiya chief Moyshe Litvakov, who was himself a former Hebrew author and Zionist, and who was once recognized for his monumental personal library of Hebrew books. Litvakov was additionally the editor of Emes, a Yiddish-language model of Pravda, which incessantly ran invented information stories of rabbis who have been sexual predators. Ultimately Litvakov would complain that Emes was “too Jewish.”
The Yevsektsiya arrange new Jewish faculties with instruction in a Sovietized Yiddish with a actually anti-Semitic orthography, by which Yiddish’s many Hebrew-derived words got new spellings that erased these phrases’ historic origins. The faculties, whose curricula included indoctrination on the evils of Zionism, have been spearheaded by a Yevsektsiya chief named Esther Frumkin. A granddaughter and former spouse of rabbis and a daughter of a Torah reader, Frumkin was additionally instrumental in the closure of remaining rabbinical faculties in the united states. When all this proved insufficient to transform the Jewish plenty, the Yevsektsiya even staged show trials on the High Holy Days, during which “witnesses” appeared in costumes to denounce Judaism and Zionism. One such trial was held in the very same corridor the place Mendel Beilis, victim of czarist Russia’s last blood libel, had been tried less than 10 years before of murdering a Christian baby and utilizing his blood to make matzo.
For American Jews who have internalized their grandparents’ tales of Purim-style persecution, this litany of humiliation might sound virtually boring—till we contemplate that it was all enacted by Jews. The Yevsektsiya leaders have been scrupulous about making sure that this deluge of enmity came solely from Jews, so no one would mistake the brand new regime for an anti-Semitic one. Quite the opposite: this relentless campaign was totally nicely intentioned, liberating the Jews from their very own worst qualities. By their lights, the Jews of the Yevsektsiya have been far better Jews than those they mercilessly hunted down.
Gitelman’s ebook doesn’t delineate the grisly ends of most Yevsektsiya leaders, as a result of in 1972 little was recognized beyond the truth that they have been “purged.” Twenty-five years in the past, nevertheless, the opening of Soviet archives revealed the sordid particulars of each individual’s destiny—who by bullet, who by Siberian labor, who by torture, who by a prison hospital’s lack of insulin. (Gitelman and different historians have written many books within the years since, masking these details and far more.) At the time, considered one of my Yiddish academics, musing on the Yevsektsiya’s short-lived reign, questioned aloud about what individuals like Litvakov and Frumkin have been considering as they languished in jail or suffered in gulags till their deaths. Did they ever really feel regret? Did they ever perceive the enormity of their crimes?
Good questions, but now I’ve a unique one. When my seventh-grade Hebrew-school instructor advised me about those boys in the gymnasia of Judea, I used to be baffled as to why anybody would do such a factor. However now, as I think about them along with the Yevsektsiya’s purged leaders and so many others who made comparable decisions, I’m wondering something else: Did they ever, in their lives lived out in ache, discover the integrity they so desperately needed?
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