Following are the remarks Martín Koppel gave to the April 27 Havana International Book Fair presentation of Pathfinder Press’s new edition of The Jewish Question: a Marxist Interpretation by Abram Leon. The event was held in Old Havana at the Palacio del Segundo Cabo. Koppel, a member of the Socialist Workers Party, is the editor of the Spanish translation of this new edition. Copyright © 2022, reprinted by permission.
It’s a pleasure to share this panel with compañeros and friends here to discuss The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation by Abram Leon. My co-panelists draw on a lot of knowledge based on their work and their experiences here in Cuba and elsewhere.
I’d like to focus my remarks on why Pathfinder Press has published this new edition of the book — in English, Spanish, and French. And how communist workers in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom and other countries are using it broadly as a political, educational tool to reach working people and youth.
As Dave Prince, a leader of the Socialist Workers Party in the U.S., explains in the new introduction, Jew-hatred and the fight against it are central questions for the working class the world over. Abram Leon describes the roots of antisemitism over 2,000 years of class society. He explains how it became and remains intrinsic to capitalist rule.
Reaffirming a programmatic foundation of the communist movement to which he had been won, Leon wrote, “There is no solution to the Jewish question under capitalism, just as there is no solution to the other problems posed before humanity — without profound social upheavals,” revolutionary upheavals. “Unless the deep roots of the Jewish question are eliminated, the effects cannot be eliminated.”
The fight against Jew-hatred is an indispensable part of building revolutionary working-class parties in the U.S. and the world over. Parties capable of leading tens of millions of working people to overturn capitalist rule and take state power. Only along that road can the class exploitation, oppression and unending wars bred by capitalism be ended for all time.
Rise in Jew-hatred today
Today we see a rise in anti-Jewish violence and other attacks on Jews in many countries. They are fueled by growing class polarization, as the economic and social crises of world capitalism multiply. The world order imposed by the victors of World War II, by U.S. finance capital above all, is in decline, wracked by sharpening and explosive ruling-class rivalries.
We see that breakdown today with Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and assault on its national self-determination — on Ukraine’s very right to existence. We see it in the accelerating militarization drive by rival imperialist powers in North America, Europe, Asia and the Pacific. We see it in the two decades of wars that have torn apart countries from Afghanistan to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Libya.
Many of you have read about murderous incidents in recent years, from the shootings in synagogues in Pittsburgh and Los Angeles to the assault on a kosher supermarket in Paris. These have been actions by individuals. Organized fascist-type forces are still very small in the U.S. today.
Anti-Jewish actions are not aberrations, however. And they do not come from ultra-rightists and jihadists alone.
Antisemitism and acceptance of expressions of Jew-hatred are widespread and growing among the left, including among Democratic Party politicians and the liberal media in the U.S. This is often carried out under the cloak of “anti-Zionism.” I’ll mention a few examples:
First, the “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions” campaign to exclude Israeli musicians, athletes and academics from international events and performances, and to boycott Israeli-made products and companies that do business with Israel. This campaign used to be largely confined to university campuses but has now spread much more widely.
In contrast, I should note, here in Cuba there is not a boycott of international sports competitions with Israeli teams and athletes, and there are cultural exchanges with Israel.
Second, the spreading acceptance of the slogan, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” That means free of Jews. It means the expulsion of all Jews from Israel — from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean. That is the proclaimed goal of the reactionary Hamas government in Gaza — the “obliteration” of Israel, as its 1988 Charter declares. And Hamas, as we know, is allied with and armed by the government of Iran.
Third, the widespread antisemitism in the leadership of the British Labour Party, especially under its recent leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Fourth, the refusal of the Democratic Caucus in the U.S. Congress to condemn antisemitic statements by some of its own members.
Members of the Socialist Workers Party in the U.S. and of our sister parties in other countries seek every way possible to reach workers, farmers and young people to present a revolutionary working-class perspective, including the fight against Jew-hatred.
We use this book and others, like the ones on the table outside this room, and the weekly Militant newspaper. We go door to door to meet and talk with workers of all backgrounds and nationalities. We join fellow workers in strikes and other union actions. We participate in demonstrations against anti-Jewish violence and other social protest actions. In election campaigns, the candidates of the Socialist Workers Party reach the broadest audience possible.
Most working people are repelled by Jew-hatred. Many want to discuss where it comes from and what can be done about it. Some are interested in the revolutionary working-class perspective we present, and we encourage them to join us in political activity and to join the Socialist Workers Party.
Record of communist movement
In opening the meeting, the chairperson told you a little about Abram Leon, and you will learn more in the book. Leon was a leader of a revolutionary workers party in Belgium during World War II. He fought for the communist, internationalist course carried out by the Bolsheviks under Lenin’s leadership.
The Bolshevik-led government that came to power in the Russian Revolution of October 1917 put an end to the long history of anti-Jewish pogroms in the former czarist empire. It defended the political rights of Jews and fostered a revival of Yiddish theater, literature, and other Jewish culture. Under Lenin’s leadership, it set an example for the working class worldwide.
Leon was murdered in the Nazi gas chambers at Auschwitz in 1944. But his book was published, first in France in 1946, then in English in 1950 by the forerunner of Pathfinder Press, which has kept it in print ever since. A Spanish edition, long out of print, was first published in Argentina in 1953. And now we have this new edition.
Material roots of Jew-hatred
Leon’s understanding of the Jewish question is rooted in the materialist dialectics and history of class society of Karl Marx. “We must not start with religion in order to explain Jewish history,” Leon wrote. “To the contrary, the preservation of the Jewish religion or nationality can be explained only … by the Jew in his economic and social position.” He examines how that position evolved over two millennia.
Jews were a trading people in antiquity and became a commercial class in feudal society, serving an irreplaceable economic function. For many centuries they were the link between Europe and Asia. As a merchant capitalist class began rising in Europe from the 11th century on, it ruthlessly displaced Jews, unleashing mass persecution and expulsions.
Under modern industrial capitalism and finance capital, Leon explains, the ruling classes take that centurieslong history and twist it to scapegoat Jews and try to divert the masses from the real source of their exploitation and oppression — the capitalist system of production and trade.
Antisemitic demagogues blame “Jewish bankers” for the social inequalities created by capitalism. They try to turn Blacks against Jews, saying that “Jewish landlords” are to blame for high rents in U.S. cities like New York. They falsely assert that powerful Jews control the media and are out to control the world. They claim that a “Jewish lobby” dominates U.S. foreign policy.
Jew-hatred is not just one more form of prejudice. A rise of antisemitism doesn’t come initially from the ruling class. It originates in the insecure middle classes, who in times of acute social crisis fear being ruined and pushed into the working class. We see this today both in ultra-right politics and in the anti-capitalist demagogy of privileged middle-class layers in the U.S.
Only when the capitalists see their rule threatened by a powerful, organized, and politically conscious working class do they increasingly finance and foster fascist gangs, with the aim first and foremost of smashing workers’ organizations and the communist vanguard.
Israel as refuge for Jews
What happened during the last 90 years of imperialist history that made inevitable the creation of Israel as a refuge for Jews? I encourage you to read the book’s introduction for a fuller explanation.
In imperialist Germany in the 1930s, the Nazi party was able to impose its fascist regime without firing a shot. The German Communist Party, under Stalinist leadership, was on an ultra-left course and rejected closing ranks with its Social Democratic rival and forming a workers united front to defeat fascism. As a result, the Nazis crushed the working-class movement and prospects for socialist revolution there.
By the end of that decade Hitler’s regime unleashed what he called the “Final Solution,” the Holocaust. Forty percent of the world’s Jews, 6 million human beings, were slaughtered. That included 90% of the Jews in Poland.
Washington under the Roosevelt administration, London, and other imperialist powers slammed their doors on Jewish refugees between 1933 and 1948. Many Cubans know about the story of the St. Louis, the ship carrying more than 900 Jewish refugees from Germany that was turned away from Cuba, the U.S., and Canada in 1939. The exclusion of Jews by the imperialist powers continued during and after World War II.
Revolutionary opportunities for the working class to take power in Greece, France, Italy, and other countries were blocked by the Communist Parties, which backed Moscow’s line of subordinating the struggles of working people to the effort to extend the wartime alliance with imperialist governments in the name of “peaceful coexistence.”
Under those conditions, Jewish survivors of the Nazi extermination looked to Palestine as a shelter from misery and persecution.
The class struggle takes unexpected turns. The existence and necessity of the Israeli state as a refuge for Jews — established nearly 75 years ago — has been settled by history.
As Dave Prince explains in the book’s introduction, working people and the oppressed everywhere need to recognize that fact and unconditionally support the right of Jews to seek refuge in Israel.
This necessity is underscored today as we see thousands of Jews fleeing Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and seeking sanctuary in Israel. And thousands fleeing Russia to Israel as well.
We also call for the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state on contiguous territory.
The perspective presented in the introduction to this new edition of The Jewish Question is the road that will allow working people throughout the Mideast — Jews, Palestinians, Kurds, Druze, Muslims, Christians — to begin to break down the hate, prejudice, and divisions fostered by the imperialist and local ruling classes alike. To begin to fight together in defense of their common class interests.
On a display here that illustrates the book’s main themes, you’ll see a photo from Haifa, Israel, in May of last year. A group of health care workers is standing in front of the hospital where they work, with signs in Hebrew and Arabic that say, “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies.” That action is still an exception today, but it shows the potential.
Calling for the unconditional recognition of Israel as a refuge for Jews does not mean supporting the Israeli government and its policies, domestic or foreign. Israel is a bourgeois state. It defends the interests of the capitalist ruling class, not of working people, whether Jewish, Arab or others. That class character of the Israeli state undermines even its ability to provide protection for Jews, as the crisis of the imperialist order today becomes more violent.
The revolutionary workers’ movement gives no political support to the government of Israel or capitalist parties there, nor to those in any other country in the region, from Palestine to Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Turkey and Iran.
There are two roads in today’s world: bourgeois and proletarian. The only road forward is one of struggle by working people, independent of all capitalist parties, a road that can lead to growing confidence and consciousness of the need to take power, establish a workers and farmers government, and open the road to socialist revolution.
Fidel Castro’s leadership
Let me conclude by underlining Fidel Castro’s leadership in opposing Jew-hatred.
“I don’t think anyone has been slandered more than the Jews,” Fidel said in a 2010 interview he gave U.S. journalist Jeffrey Goldberg published in the Atlantic magazine. “They are blamed and slandered for everything.”
“There is nothing that compares to the Holocaust,” the Cuban leader said. He was responding to antisemitic statements by the then-president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, denying that the Holocaust ever happened.
Iran’s government, Fidel emphasized, “would better serve the cause of peace by acknowledging the unique history of anti-Semitism and trying to understand why Israelis fear for their existence.”
When Goldberg asked him if the State of Israel has a right to exist, Fidel replied: “Yes, without any doubt.”
Today, Cuba is the only country in the world where Jews do not face discrimination or the threat of violence. That is because working people here, with a revolutionary internationalist leadership, overturned capitalist rule and made a socialist revolution.
As the world crisis of capitalism deepens, the rise of fascist movements is inevitable. It’s a deadly illusion to think we can rely on liberal “democracy” and capitalist parties to protect Jews in the U.S., Europe, the Mideast or anywhere else.
The way forward is to emulate the example of Cuba’s socialist revolution. That is, to build proletarian parties, in the U.S. and other countries, that can lead working people in struggles toward taking state power and joining the fight for a socialist world. That’s the only way to stop the catastrophe for humanity that imperialism is leading us toward.
That’s the battle Abram Leon was part of. I think you’ll find this book a valuable weapon in that fight today.