The last 100 years: “Jewish involvement in Communism is an anti-semitic conspiracy theory”
Today: “Well ok, sure the Bolsheviks were Jewish, but they didn’t have a choice”
While even Vladimir Putin has repeated some myths, Jews were highly represented in establishing Soviet rule — and they didn’t have much choice in the matter
Of all the many loaded issues tied to the bloody history of Jews in the former Soviet Union, none is as sensitive today in that part of the world as their role in the 1917 revolution that brought the communists to power.
The outsized prevalence of Jews in the ranks of the revolution that broke out a century ago on November 7 has remained a mainstay of anti-Semitic vitriol in the area.
During the Holocaust, it served as a pretext for the murder of countless Jews across Eastern Europe by self-proclaimed enemies of communism and Russia. And it’s still being used today to incite hatred against local Jews, including among devout Christians who were persecuted by the anti-religious Soviet authorities.
Living in religious societies that by and large feel victimized by communism or its effects, many Russian-speaking Jews and their leaders have either remained silent on communism or downplayed the Jews’ role in it.
It’s a logical strategy, given the rhetoric of senior politicians like Peter Tolstoy, the deputy speaker of the Russian parliament. At a January news conference, he blamed Jews with interfering in a plan to relocate a church in Saint Petersburg. Tolstoy said Jews use their positions in the media and government to continue the work of ancestors who “pulled down our churches” in 1917.
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“For many years, neither Jews nor the authorities wanted to open up the subject, which became the stuff of myths for the ultranationalists, neo-Nazis and other anti-Semites,” said Boruch Gorin, chairman of Moscow’s Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center. “But now the time has come to look at the facts.”
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Jews in the top echelon of the Communist Party during its early days in power included Yakov Sverdlov, its executive secretary; Grigori Zinoviev, head of the Communist International; press commissar Karl Radek; foreign affairs commissar Maxim Litvinov; as well as Lev Kamenev and Moisei Uritsky.
“The observant Jews thought in 1917 that the communists would allow them to extend Jewish life, the Zionists thought the revolution would advance their goals and there was a feeling of liberation,” Gorin said.
But it’s not like Russian Jews ever really had a choice.
“At a time when the Red Army had posters denouncing anti-Semitism, the monarchists fighting for the czar had posters disseminating [anti-Semitism] as a pillar of what they were fighting for,” he said. The exhibition includes such posters.
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During the Holocaust, the alignment of many Jews with the communist cause was cited as justification for wholesale slaughter by collaborators with the Germans. They resented not only communism but Russian domination in countries across Eastern and Central Europe.
The Jewish role in communism is used by anti-Semites to justify the Holocaust.
Zsolt Bayer, a co-founder of Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party, last year wrote in an op-ed: “Why are we surprised that the simple peasant whose determinant experience was that the Jews broke into his village, beat his priest to death, threatened to convert his church into a movie theater — why do we find it shocking that 20 years later he watched without pity as the gendarmes dragged the Jews away from his village?”
The exhibition goes on to explore how the hopes for Jewish emancipation through communism were ultimately dashed, making some Jews prominent perpetrators of repression and turning many other Jews into victims.