Jesse Cohn
Messianic Troublemakers: The Past and Present Jewish Anarchism, p.3

Nonviolent resistance to evil is always hard, and in a situation where even peaceful assemblies can be met with brutal repression – as in Homestead or Budrus (where Gil Na'amati, an anarchist and kibbutznik, was shot by IDF forces in 2003) – it may become all but impossible. Still, Landauer spoke for many when he wrote in 1907: One can throw away a chair and destroy a pane of glass; but . . . [only] idle talkers . . . regard the state as such a thing or as a fetish that one can smash in order to destroy it. The state is a condition, a certain relationship among human beings, a mode of behavior between men; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently toward one another . . . We are the state, and we shall continue to be the state until we have created the institutions that form a real community and society of men. We are the state. We do it to ourselves, all of us, all the time, by obeying much and resisting little, by settling for a piece of the pie in exchange for our dignity, by accepting subordination in exchange for domination over the even less fortunate. If this ugly tangle of social relationships is “the state,” then all the gaudy regicides in the world can’t buy us our freedom. Revolution, these anarchists argued, begins in our hearts and in the space between us. Among the anarchist books translated into Hebrew and circulated in Jewish Palestine by the 1920s was Peter Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid, which argued that the dominant concept of Western politics, Thomas Hobbes’s vision of the “state of nature” as a “war of all against all,” was a scarecrow designed to justify the existence of the authoritarian state. Just as “natural” as competition for survival, Kropotkin argued, was cooperation for survival. Anarchism, in Goldman’s words, it is “the philosophy of a new social order based on liberty unrestricted by man-made law; the theory that all forms of government rest on violence, and are therefore wrong and harmful, as well as unnecessary.”

Unnecessary? Hard to tell that to a Jewish mother in Haifa or a Palestinian mother in Jenin. In the absence of a Hobbesian state with a legal monopoly on violence, what protects us from those beasts, our neighbors? With all the fences and checkpoints gone, what’s to keep them from getting at us?

From an anarchist perspective, the hard truth is that aggressive forms of Arab nationalism, like the aggressive Jewish nationalism personified by Ariel Sharon, is rooted in an entire system of social relations that will have to be undone and reconstructed. “Antisemitism,” (and by extension, the anti-arabism of right-wing Jewish zealots) predicted Voline on the eve of the Shoah,:

will disappear when the vast human masses, at the end of their sufferings and misfortunes, and at the price of atrocious experiences, comprehend, finally, that humanity must, on pain of death, organize its life on the sane and natural basis of cooperation, material and moral, fraternal and just, that is to say, on a truly human basis.

In today's terms, take away the endless supply of recruits – young men with no money, no security, no water, no jobs, no hope – and the suicide bombings will eventually stop. Stop the flow of fear and money into the politico-religio-economic machine, and the Likudniks will be out of a job. Refocus everyone’s attention on arranging the real business of life, the common good, and the fundamentalist zealots will see attendance go down in mosque and synagogue alike.

Easier said than done – but it happened in the kibbutzim. Fractious, hard-headed, kibbutznikim managed to get it together anyway. As one sociologist of the kibbutz has noted, having done away with “any objective foundation for the traditional hostile relations” – dog-eat-dog marketplace competition, hierarchies of power and status, the war of each against all – the kibbutzniks found they had lost any need for the state. As a result, “aggressive manifestations are restrained, and the collective conscience becomes the primary force determining man's way of life . . . Life is conducted without the need for formal sanctions: work is done without a supervisor, morality does not need to be defended by priests, judges and policement. Mutual aid is transformed into the highest law of life, and cooperation between comrades is the only guarantee . . .” These folks had indeed translated Kropotkin’s anarchist vision into Hebrew.

Kibbutzim are, to an extent, exercises in utopia, and so it is no surprise that the discourse of Jewish anarchism frequently takes a spiritual, messianic turn, as in Gershom Scholem's Kabbalistically-informed reading of anarchism as bringing about messianic consciousness. Shortly after leading Jewish sweatshop workers to victory in a 1912 strike, as Rudolf Rocker later recalled,

as I was walking along a narrow Whitechapel street, an old Jew with a long white beard stopped me outside his house, and said: “May God bless you! You helped my children in their need. You are not a Jew, but you are a man!” This old man lived in a world completely different from mine. But the memory of the gratitude that shone in those eyes has remained with me all these years.

Most Jewish anarchists, like the gentile Rocker, were staunchly atheist; they rejected the established religion of their fathers and mothers for the same reason that they rejected the established institutions of power and money – because they felt it was irrational. They believed that rational persuasion and education could overcome the irrational reign of force, and they had no conception of faculties that might lie beyond reason. At the same time, as rationalists, they yearned for a great ideal to embrace, for what even Noam Chomsky (a rationalist’s rationalist) has called a “spiritual transformation.” They were moralists, deeply motivated by ethical questions, incensed by injustices. They carried a very Jewish sense of righteousness, and rejected the idea of a life organized in pyramids of power and status, with a few Pharoahs on the top and masses of slaves underneath.

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Image: Gustav Landauer

April 2005

Neurotic Visionaries & Paranoid Jews
April 7, 2005

Jews on Stage
Dan Friedman

Out of Bounds
Angela Himsel

Masoretic Orgasm
Hayyim Obadyah

Messianic Troublemakers: Jewish Anarchism
Jesse Cohn

The Hasidim
Hila Ratzabi

Jay Michaelson

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From previous issues:

Are the Ten Commandments Really Carved in Stone?
Joel Shurkin

To Ohio and Back
Avi Steinberg

Hasidism and Homoeroticism
Jay Michaelson