Hayyim Rothman

Fear and distress: War in the thought of Peter Kropotkin and Harav Avraham Heyn

Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921) was one of the foremost theorists of the classical anarchist movement – a figure whose writings continue to be taught and read today, by activists and historians alike. As it did for all people of his ilk, WWI constituted a profound challenge; not simply on account of its unprecedented violence, but also because it represented a counterproof to long cherished beliefs of the international left – contrary to expectations, the working classes of nations at war largely sided against one another and with the war efforts of their own countries, in spite of suppositions about international labor-solidarity. The Manifesto of the Sixteen, which Kropotkin penned and which was later released in 1916 as an open letter signed by fifteen other prominent anarchists, represents his response both to this disappointing reality and, more broadly, to the larger crisis posed by German militarism and the need to neutralize it.

In essence, the Manifesto of the Sixteen is a document affirming principled commitment to peace. By that, I mean that in it Kropotkin affirms his general opposition to militarism and to all “aggression between peoples,” but at the same time acknowledges that peace is neither possible nor desirable when it strengthens the hand of aggressors. In this context, he asserts that calls from the international left for an immediate cessation of hostilities would undermine the values that the left stands for.

To begin with, Kropotkin highlights the fact that plans for Germany’s invasion of neighboring countries had long been under development, and that they had not been enacted earlier for strategic reasons only: military preparations were not sufficiently complete to ensure success. While, he admits, it is possible that the German people “let itself be deceived” in 1914, and that at the outset they earnestly believed the country to be acting in self-defense, ample time had passed for them to realize that, in fact, it had been a war of aggression from the start.

He then argues that had the German people made this realization and translated it into critique of and resistance to their own government and its policies, then there would be some grounds for peace talks. However, he lamented, there was no evidence of such an awakening. On the contrary, he points out, the vast majority of the German population, of all classes and ranks, enthusiastically supported the war — small-scale riots over food scarcity notwithstanding.

Kropotkin acknowledges that German diplomats had proposed terms for peace, but counters on two grounds. First, these terms were so severe as to guarantee they could not be accepted, which is taken to imply that they were not actually intended to bring the war to an end, but to sow discord within the allied populations and weaken their resolve to continue the fight. Second, by dictating the terms of peace Germany aimed to strengthen its position for future military operations. In other words, Kropotkin argues that the Germans authorities had weaponized talk of peace, and that to ignore this, to indulge them, would only increase the real threat they posed.

Thus, Kropotkin concludes – as a “partisan of peace” and an advocate for the “fraternity of peoples” – as follows:

To speak of peace while the party who, for forty-five years, have made Europe a vast, entrenched camp, is able to dictate its conditions, would be the most disastrous error that we could commit. To resist and to bring down its plans, is to prepare the way for the German population which remains sane and to give it the means to rid itself of that party. Let our German comrades understand that this is the only outcome advantageous to both sides and we are ready to collaborate with them.

In sum, there are two salient points here. One, that true peace is not merely an agreement on paper. It has much to do with the attitudes of the populations involved. Because the German people were not victims of a tyrannical government forcing war upon them against their will, but enthusiastic supporters of German militarism, Kropotkin held that there was simply no grounds for peace until the latter could be decisively crushed. Two, that peace talk has many functions, and that not all of them are peaceful. If talk of peace is used in the service of war, then it is just another weapon. Kropotkin argued that to lend such cynicism credence is both to strengthen the aggressor and therefore to ensure further conflict, and also to undermine “sane” elements within the population who would otherwise be empowered to establish a better regime. Therefore, Kropotkin supported the Allied war effort — not in opposition to, but in the name of his values.

While the Manifesto of the Sixteen was written over a hundred years ago, I believe these conclusions remain relevant today. As as anyone not guilty of selective ignorance is aware, Hamas is a well-funded and internationally recognized terrorist organization that makes apologies neither for the explicitly genocidal goals included in its manifesto, nor for the brutal proof of its intention to meet those goals as demonstrated by the atrocities of the so-called “black Sabbath” of October 7 – atrocities that Hamas representatives have, in televised interviews with the international press, promised to repeat ad infinitum. Hamas, therefore, neither seeks peace nor pursues it. It pursues total war, and what it ultimately wants cannot be given; humanity itself militates against it. Recent experience has shown, moreover, that Hamas has not treated ceasefires as steps on the way to peace but, rather, as opportunities to prepare for more war. In other words, Hamas has weaponized these ceasefires. As such, international calls for a cessation of hostilities do not serve the cause of peace but, rather, the interests of a murderous regime bent on destroying any and all hopes for peace. I take the parallel to Kropotkin’s understanding of German machinations during WWI to be self-evident.

As Kropotkin argued further, popular resistance would have constituted grounds for peace talks even in spite of the unrepentant militarism of the German government – the assumption being that the German people could overthrow their leaders, forming a new regime with which such talks could bear real fruit. Yet, as Kropotkin noted, there was no such resistance – on the contrary – and, therefore, no grounds for peace talks. I would argue that the same applies here. It must not be forgotten that Hamas was democratically elected by the people of Gaza – and if Palestinians have proven nothing else over the past century, they are capable of rising up if they feel motivated to do so. There has been no such uprising in Gaza because, while the population may balk at the sacrifices they are forced to make for it, there is broad support for Hamas’ ideology and its methods – a fact gruesomely testified to by the celebratory air in Gaza on October 7, as documented by a plethora of videos shared across social media platforms. For this reason too, then, there are no grounds for peace talks.

Undoubtedly, there are “sane” people in Gaza – to use Kropotkin’s turn of phrase – who wish to prosper side by side with their Jewish neighbors, but I agree with Kropotkin’s tragic conclusions vis-a-vis the German masses during WWI, and contend with him that these people will not be able to act in the name of a better Palestinian future until Hamas is utterly destroyed and its genocidal ideology is thoroughly discredited – not only by Palestinians, but also, and even especially, by the global community, which has made endless apologies for it and, therefore, empowered the worst actors. There is no better future so long as Hamas remains part of the picture. Like Kropotkin, I say this not in spite of humanistic values, but because of them.

With this in mind, I would like to consider a parallel train of thought expressed by Rabbi Avraham Heyn (1877-1957), one of the figures I studied in my book, No Masters but God: Portraits of Anarcho-Judaism. Son of Rabbi Perets Heyn – a prominent Habad hasid with the unique distinction of having encountered every rebbe of that dynasty from Schneur Zalman of Liadi through Yosef Yitshak Scheerson – Avraham Heyn embarked upon his intellectual career amidst the Beilis trials, one of the more prominent modern instances of the ancient blood libel. In an essay entitled Judaism and Blood, Heyn went beyond disputing the obvious ridiculousness of this antisemitic canard, opening a discussion of the value of human life in general from a Jewish perspective – a discussion that he carried forward for the rest of his life, and which led him to embrace a form of anti-statist pacifism akin to that promoted by Leo Tolstoy.

That being said, Heyn qualified his pacifism in a manner that Tolstoy did not – a manner that I find far more responsible and that places him closer to Kropotkin’s way of thinking as elaborated above. Heyn upholds the biblical principle expressed in the verse “do not stand over your brother’s blood (Leviticus 19:16)” – namely, that one is obligated to save innocent life, even if that means taking the life of an attacker. As Heyn understood it, to spare the life of the latter when taking it is necessary in order to save the life of a potential victim, to stand by while innocent blood is shed, is to desecrate life in the name of sanctifying it – a twofold affront to religion and to human decency.

In one of his lectures on the recently-read parasha of Vayishlah, published posthumously in the third volume of Bemalkhut ha-Yahadut, Heyn articulated this nuanced position. As the parasha begins Jacob prepares for a fraught reunion with his brother, Esau, who is approaching with an army in tow. We are told that, upon learning this, Jacob was “frightened and distressed (Genesis 32:8).” Attending to the seemingly needless repetition, R. Yehuda b. Ilai explained that Jacob was frightened lest he be killed, and distressed lest he have to kill others (Genesis Rabba 66). Heyn held this twofold fear to exemplify Jacob’s inner essence: his conviction as the absolute sanctity of all human life, not only his, but also that of his enemies (a core conviction that, according to Heyn, constitutes also the inner essence of Jacob’s descendants and of the Torah they uphold). Jacob, Heyn writes, is “the antipode of the sword,” a claim that he, elsewhere, interprets along truly radical lines – as I elaborate in my book, Heyn believed that the idea that human life is sacred commits the Jewish people to abhor violence in all of its forms (the brutal violence of armed conflict obviously being included). And yet, here in this parasha, Jacob prepares for battle – apparently contravening his own most cherished values. Why? Here is Heyn’s answer:

Jacob entered the fray, not in contravention of his convictions as to the sanctity of being, but on account of them – not “in spite of this,” but “because of this.” He did not enter in the name of scepters and crowns, but in the name of human life in the literal sense, [as it is written] “lest he [Esau] come and strike me down, mothers and children alike (Genesis 32:12).” To hand yourself over to your murderer is worse than to kill him, your fellow. It is written “who is to say that your blood is redder than his (Sanhedrin 74a)” – it [his, your neighbor’s blood] is so holy and true because you see that your blood is red. Because you are primarily and uniquely responsible for your own life. Your soul is entrusted into your hands. You have the obligation to protect your life. You are called to account if you do not guard your own blood, as the Rambam writes “he who murders himself is subject to the death [at the hands of heaven] (Hilkhot rotseyah ushmirat nefesh 2:2).”

Thus, Jacob entered the fray out of necessity, out of compulsion. But he did so “frightened and distressed,” wishing neither to kill nor to be killed (Bemalkut Ha-Yahadut, volume 3, pp. 62-63).

If I may permit myself to paraphrase Rabbi Heyn, respect for human life in general is predicated on respect for one’s own life, the lives of his loved ones, and the life of one’s own people (seeing as Jacob’s family then comprised am Yisrael in its entirety). If one does not value his own life, broadly construed, one cannot truly value the lives of others. Therefore, when one’s life is threatened it is necessary to defend it, not simply as a matter of self interest, but in the name of the sanctity of life itself – even if that means taking life. As Heyn goes on to contend, this reticence is not weakness, but the greatest strength. Jacob earns the name Israel, because he wrestles with and subdues Esau’s guardian angel – if material weapons are provisional necessities of battle, the war is won only when the spirit of Israel, respect for the absolute sanctity of human life, overcomes the spirit of Esau, who “lives by the sword.” Only then can the brothers truly reconcile, each returning to his place in peace.

I present these insights – both Kropotkin’s and Heyn’s – then, as a twofold challenge. On the one hand, to acknowledge both the true threat that murderous ideologies like those promoted and practiced by Hamas represent to peace and progress, and to take responsibility for the real world implications of what confronting them and their bearers means: war and everything that implies. On the other hand, to do what must be done with Jacob’s “fear and distress,” with appropriate gravity – in the name of peace and progress. Hamas must go. There is literally no hope for a better future for either side of this conflict so long as they remain in power.

About the Author
Hayyim Rothman is an independent scholar specializing in Jewish political theology. After receiving his doctorate in philosophy from Boston College (2016), he served as a Fullbright post-doctoral fellow in the department of Jewish thought at Bar Ilan University (2018-2020). He is the author of No Masters but God: Portraits of Anarcho-Judaism (2021) and an editor of Aharon Shmuel Tamaret’s Knesset Yisrael ve-Milhamot ha-Goyim (2021). Hayyim is currently working on a second collection of studies in Jewish religious anarchism.