Messianic Troublemakers: The Past and Present Jewish Anarchism
Jesse Cohn

This essay is based on a lecture given in March, 2002. An earlier version appears on the Research into Anarchism Forum website.

It had an amazing scent, the anarchic flower
when I was young it flashed out of books and genealogies
and with a hand eased by the thwack of hope
I offered it to the world and you . . .
Meir Wieseltier, "The Flower of Anarchy" (translated from the Hebrew by Shirley Kaufman)

It’s a bright May Day in Paris, 1926, a quarter after two in the afternoon. A middle-aged watchmaker named Samuel Schwartzbard, a veteran of the French Foreign Legion and the Red Army, is waiting outside the Chartier restaurant on Rue Racine. A man with a cane, a former foreign dignitary now living in exile, steps out of the restaurant.

Schwartzbard approaches him and calls out in Ukrainian: “Are you Mr. Petliura?”

The man turns.

“Defend yourself, you bandit,” shouts the watchmaker, drawing his pistol, and as Petliura raises the cane in his right hand, Schwartzbard shoots him three times, shouting, “This for the pogroms; this for the massacres; this for the victims.”

Thus Samuel Schwartzbard (1866-1938) – Shalom, as he was also called – assassinated General Simon Petliura, former leader of the independent nation of Ukraine, who between 1919 and 1921 had ordered a wave of pogroms which had taken the lives of sixty thousand Jews, including most of Schwartzbard’s own family. Escaping to Romania at the age of nineteen, Schwartzbard had since traveled, fought, written poetry, studied, and eventually fallen in with a crowd of like-minded expatriate Jews in Paris.

There were so many of them.

Exemplary vagrants, these Hebrews (from the Akkadian word khabiru, “vagrant”): Alexander Berkman (1870-1936), Mollie Steimer (1897-1980), Senya Fleshin (1894-1981), Leah Feldman (1899-1993), V. M. “Voline” Eichenbaum (1882-1945), the notorious Emma Goldman herself (1869-1940). Russian Jews who had fought with Nestor Makhno’s peasant rebellion in the Ukraine; or German Jews; or American Jews of Russian-immigrant parentage deported to Red Russia, which had no use for them either – too dangerous, too quick to catch on, too Red to be trusted – then deported to Germany, then . . . here. Exemplars of galut, of exile as a condition and even a vocation, they were habitual border-crossers, trespassers. They believed in the nation but not in the State; they knew the Spirit in their bodies but rejected the Law. Iconoclasts par excellence – Messianic troublemakers. Their banner was empty of images, like God – black, not blank; not a tabula rasa but as if all the words of denunciation, rejoicing, mourning, defiance, prophecy, had somehow been crammed together into this anti-image: the black flag. These are my spiritual ancestors: Jewish anarchists.

Anarchists are back in the news today -- not only in the ubiquitous protests/uprisings/street festivals that spring up wherever the WTO, IMF, World Bank, or G-8 meet, but also up and down the scar that runs the length of the West Bank, between the Israeli magen david and the Palestinian tricolor, a puzzling negation of all the options on offer. But few know the rich history of Jewish anarchism, and the long tradition of struggle that it represents.

For example, the "Anarchists Against The Wall" initiative, part of the latest wave in post-Zionist activism, is, ironically, born of the same world as Zionism itself. In the face-offs between young Israeli anarchists and baffled Israeli riot cops, there is an echo of the tsimmes between Theodor Herzl, founding father of establishment Zionism, and fiery journalist Bernard Lazare (1865-1903), an early defender of Alfred Dreyfus from his antisemitic persecutors:

“Anarchist!” Herzl shouted.

“Bourgeois!” replied Lazare.

One forgotten footnote of history is that, for all his success as an organizer, Herzl’s statist/capitalist vision didn’t animate as many of the early Jewish settlers in Palestine as did Lazare’s. “We must live once again as a nation,” Lazare declared, “or more closely like a free collectivity, but only on the condition that the collectivity not be modeled after the capitalistic and oppressor states in which we live.” Martin Buber, echoing the sentiments of his anarchist friend Gustav Landauer (1870-1919), agreed: if there is to be such a thing as a Jewish nation at all, it can’t be like a goyische nation, with “cannons, flags, and military decorations”; it would have to be a kind of horizontal federation of little self-organizing communities, similar to the de facto Jewish government in effect in Poland and the Pale of Settlement during the nineteenth century. A decade or so later, these little communities started to spring up in Palestine: they were called “kibbutzim.” Svoboda! exulted a Russian immigrant to an interviewer at Rishon-le-Zion in 1905: Freedom! “This is a land without order and authority,” he declared. “Here a man can live as he pleases.” And for the next two decades, most of the kibbutzniks agreed with him.

(Today in Israel, the language is slightly different. In the words of a leaflet written by “the Anarchist Communist Initiative” and distributed by “Israeli National Traitor Anarchists”: Two States for Two Nations – Two States Too Many!)

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Top Image: Still from film The Free Voice of Labor: The Jewish Anarchists Lower Image: Bernard Lazare (1897) (

April 2005

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From previous issues:

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