Orthodox Judaism and Fascism Revisited

The past three months have made support for Donald Trump much harder to understand. Undergoing both the travails of the COVID-19 virus and the racial tensions unleashed by the terrible murder of George Floyd, America desperately needs a unifying and compassionate voice of leadership. Instead, President Trump spends his time tweeting invective against critics, including news reporters, state governors, Colin Powell, Jim Mattis, and others, only pausing to brag about the outstanding job he is doing or to establish his toughness (he was only “inspecting” the bunker). In truth, everyone should have realized the truth about Trump long before the current crisis; the ultimate narcissist cares only about himself and his image.

Liberal Jews find right-wing Jewish support for Donald Trump inconceivable and a moral travesty. I sympathize with their frustration, but would like to criticize a seriously misguided response to such support. In order to unravel the mystery of Orthodox backing for Trump, some progressives happily adopted a theory published over a year ago online which claimed a link between Orthodox Jewry and fascist parties dating back to the 1920s. Since a minimum of research reveals that this theory is false on every level, we can only assume that the current toxically charged atmosphere encourages endorsing positions portraying others in the darkest light, even when basic fact checking exposes the erroneous nature of those positions.

In an online essay in Tablet Magazine (“Anti-Semitism and Orthodoxy in an Age of Trump” 3/12/19), Eliyahu Stern, Associate Professor of Modern Jewish Intellectual and Cultural History at Yale University, asserts that Orthodox Jewish organizations have not condemned the demonization of Jews found among white nationalists and he provides an explanation for this surprising phenomenon. Orthodox attitudes to anti-Semitism were formed in the interwar period when politics offered a stark choice between right-wing fascism and left-wing communism. According to Stern, the Orthodox chose to align with the right, seeing the left as a greater threat to traditional spiritual values. Stern further claims that Orthodoxy did not view secular progressive Jews as legitimately Jewish, so that the negativity of the right towards such “Jews” was not perceived as problematic anti-Semitism.[1]

Stern cites three essential supports for his position; a letter that Orthodox leaders wrote to Hitler in 1933, Agudah’s aligning with Josef Pilsudski’s nationalist government in Poland in the late 1920s, and some harsh statements against secular Jews from Rabbis Elhanan Wasserman and Yisrael Meir Kagan. Does the evidence truly support his thesis? For a historian to fulfill his mandate, he must read sources accurately and fairly and provide the historical context necessary for deeper understanding. Stern fails enormously at both tasks.

Historical context is crucial for understanding the letter to Hitler. The letter was sent in October 1933, the same year the Nazis took power and before Auschwitz, the Einsatzgruppen, Kristallnacht, and the Nuremberg Laws. The full evils of the Nazi regime were not yet known or anticipated, so we should not see the letter writers as trying to make friends with known promoters of genocide. At the same time, the boycott of Jewish businesses begun in April 1933 seriously threatened the livelihood of German Jewry. The letter should be read as the weak attempt of a community desperate to achieve some modus vivendi with the government in order to enable survival.

Stern writes that the Orthodox leaders “went out of their way to stress” their “structural similarities” to Hitler’s positions. In support, he cites the following line from the letter: “We seek a Lebensraum within the Lebensraum of the German people.” This German term for “living space” was used by the Nazi party to justify their territorial expansion and ethnic cleansing. If the Orthodox rabbinate applied the term to their own needs, it sounds as if they identified with the Nazis. However, this is only a partial quote that fully distorts the original intent. The entire citation reads: “We require a Lebensraum within the Lebensraum of the German people, and a chance to practice our religion and our calling in safety and without being vilified.”[1] In context, it is clearly not any kind of identification with Nazi ideology, but only a desire to live a life of physical and spiritual security in Germany. Usage of the term “Lebensraum” is purely tactical. The other appearance of the word Lebensraum in the letter removes any doubt.

As a result of these legal and actual restrictions, tens of thousands of German Jews have suddenly been deprived of their livelihood. The livelihood of tens of thousands of others has been destroyed as an indirect result. While the removal of Jews from the civil service, the liberal professions, and commerce ought logically to have led to the deliberate redirection of Jewish manpower into various trades and into agriculture, that is, if the Jews were to be left with any Lebensraum at all, no such efforts by the government can be detected. (Shapiro, 231)

Lebensraum here refers to the Jewish community’s desire to make a living and survive, not to a commonality with Nazi ideology.

The rabbinic letter does attempt to find some shared space with the German authorities by stating that the Orthodox community has always opposed atheistic materialism. Orthodox Jewry and the German government both oppose the communist project. In Stern’s words, “Orthodox leaders sought to find common ground with Hitler by demonstrating their own virulent hatred for left-wing and progressive Jews.” However, no basis for this characterization can be found in the letter. One can strongly oppose communist ideology without hating progressive Jews and no such “virulent hatred” exists in this missive.

Perhaps the worst aspect of Stern’s distortions is his presenting this letter as reflecting something unique to the Orthodox. Since he has clearly read Marc Shapiro’s book on R. Yehiel Yakov Weinberg, where this letter was first published and translated, he should be well aware of the falsehood of that claim. Downplaying the anti-Jewish nature of the new government was common practice among almost all Jewish German groups. Outside of Germany, the non-Orthodox London Jewish Chronicle also held out hope that the Nazi government would acquire a sense of responsibility. According to Shapiro, “It was actually the separatist Orthodox Der Israelit which expressed the most caution of all the German Jewish papers” (Shapiro, 111) Furthermore, Shapiro writes that “the separatists distinguished themselves from other segments of German Jewry by at least recognizing that there was a possibility that the government was intent on a total removal of Jews from all aspects of German life” (Shapiro, 137) In the accompanying note, Shapiro adds: “Such an awareness is not apparent in the letters sent to Hitler by either the Zionistsche Vereinigung fur Deutschland or the Reichsvertretung.” The latter was a Jewish umbrella organization founded in September 1933. In a 1935 letter not cited by Shapiro, the Reichsvertretung even requested of Minister of Defense Werner von Blomberg that Jews be allowed to participate in the Wermacht, the armed forces of Nazi Germany.[2] Given that Stern has read Shapiro, why does he portray the Orthodox letter to Hitler as expressing an ideological compatibility unique to Orthodoxy? In sum, Stern both fails to provide context and does not accurately describe the Orthodox letter.

Turning to the Polish example, Stern writes:

The German rabbis’ position was reaffirmed by the leaders of the Polish branch of the Agudath Israel party who aligned themselves with Pilsudski’s nationalist union. As historian Gershon Bacon notes in study of early 20th-century Orthodox politics, “the Agudath-Sanacja alliance stemmed from perceived common values and ideologies.”[3]

This is misleading on many levels. First of all, Agudah aligned with Pilsudski in the 1920s before the Nazis achieved power. It is incorrect to say that the Polish Jews “reaffirmed” the German rabbis’ position since the Nazis were not in their minds in the slightest when they made the decision to cast their lot with Pilsudski. More importantly, though Pilsudski was right wing and not a huge fan of democracy, he was not a racist or against minorities. Supporting him has nothing in common with supporting Nazis.

Again, Stern ignores parts of a work that do not support his thesis. Bacon does mention ideological commonality between Pilsudski and the Orthodox but he also writes about far more pragmatic considerations. “Aguda regarded an alliance with those in power as a matter of principle based on Bible and Talmud and justified by long historical experience” (Bacon, 111). “The second ongoing theme in Aguda’s political stance was a stress of realism, a realism which it might be added, carried a tinge of pessimism as to what Jews could reasonably expect to achieve in Polish politics” (Bacon, 230). In other words, Jews who were used to positions of political weakness relied on good relations with the government, irrespective of whether that government was left or right wing, to protect their communal interests. This reflects the old strategy of shtadlanut, employed by Jews for centuries. From this perspective, aligning with Pilsudski is primarily a pragmatic maneuver with little ideological overtones.

Daniel Kupfert Heller’s recent Jabotinsky’s Children: Polish Jews and the Rise of Right Wing Zionism provides additional context for understanding Jews who aligned with Pilsudski. Fascism at the time did not have the same negative context it has for moderns in general, and modern Jews in particular, as it was associated with Mussolini who did not promote anti-Semitism. Eastern European parliamentary democracies were struggling and the newly independent Polish state was “plagued by political corruption, factionalism, legislative gridlock, and violence”.[4] “In the first eight years of Poland’s existence, fifteen governments collapsed, wreaking havoc on the young country’s miserable economy” (ibid).

The factors above offer enough incentive for any Polish citizen to support Pilsudski’s coup; Jews has even more reason. One of the most popular Polish parties of the early 1920s was the National Democratic movement, also known as the Endecja. They were anti- Semites who “accused Jewish merchants and shopkeepers of exploiting the Polish peasantry, depriving Poles of jobs in towns and cities, and accelerating the moral corruption of Polish society” (Heller, 8). In contrast, see Heller’s description of Pilsudski. “His relatively tolerant approach to the country’s national minorities, as well as his determination to prevent public outbursts of violence, including anti-Semitic riots, proved a welcome respite from the previous years of democracy” (ibid). Given all of this, it is hardly surprising that many Jews backed Pilsudksi. In fact, Heller shows that the most enthusiastic backers, and the ones who most identified with Polish nationalism, were Jabotinsky’s Betar supporters. The Agudah, in contrast, were primarily trying to “protect the interests of Poland’s Orthodox Jews” (Heller, 144). Agudah’s support of Pilsudski does not indicate ideological sympathy with fascism or the extreme right. Stern leaves out important background once again; he also misrepresents the meaning of a political alliance.

Finally, we turn to his third support, the writings of the Orthodox rabbinate. No doubt, R. Elhanan did write some extremely harsh things against secular Jews. In Stern’s account:

Wasserman employed the category of Amalek to describe leaders of the Yevsektsiya, the Jewish section of the Communist Party, as well as Zionists residing in Palestine (most of whom were then aligned with the left) and around the world. He advised his flock “to physically fight against them with arms. To prepare oneself to kill.”

The quote is certainly quite harsh, yet the matter merits a closer look. R. Wasserman explicitly states (alluded to in passing by Stern) this his analysis only applies to the leaders of the Yevsektsiya and not to their many more innocent followers. Thus, this citation fails to support his thesis because R. Wasserman did not apply his harsh verdict to the overwhelming majority of secular Jews. Secondly, Rabbi Aryeh Klapper pointed out to me that Stern likely mistranslates R. Wasserman. In rabbinic writings, the Hebrew original, mesirat nefesh le’harigah, always means a readiness to be killed and not to kill.[5] That is the way the term is used in the 19th century by both R. Shlomo of Radompsk (See Tiferet Shelomo on the Holidays, Sefirat Haomer), and R. Zadok Hakohen of Lublin (See his Poked Ikarim, no. 4). If so, R. Wasserman did not promote violence against the Yevsektsiya leadership either.

In addition, Stern does not offer adequate context for R. Wasserman’s remarks. Zvi Gitelman’s Jewish Nationality and Soviet Politics: The Jewish Sections of the CPSU, 1917-1930 helps fill this lacunae. In Gitelman’s account, the Yevsektsiya violently suppressed the Jewish religion, Zionism, the Hebrew language and non – Communist organizations. They abolished kehilot (Jewish community structures) and heders (Jewish schools), appropriated capital assets, staged show trials against traditional Judaism, imprisoned some of the rival leadership, and sent some of them off to Siberia. Sometimes, their efforts caused loss of life. “When a forcible seizure of the Minsk synagogue was attempted, two Jews were killed, and in a similar incident a rabbi in Odessa met the same fate.”[6]

To make matters worse, the Yevsektsiya were more zealous than their gentile colleagues. The ban on Zionist activity in the Ukraine was put into effect on the initiative of Jewish Communists (Gitelman, 273). The campaign against Hebrew was their idea and not that of the Soviet government (Gitelman, 279). Seeing the extent of their aggression towards Judaism, a non – Jewish Communist remarked: “It would be nice to see the Russian Communists tear into the monasteries and holy days as the Jewish Communists do to Yom Kippur” (Gitelman, 304). Given the above, it makes sense that R. Wasserman would harbor very negative feelings towards the Yevsektsiya and think that, ideally, religious Jews should defend their values and physically confront those trying to destroy houses of worship.

Stern also cites R. Yisrael Meir Kagan, knows as the Hafetz Hayyim, as stating that secular Jews are not Jewish. Stern certainly knows enough to realize that this does not reflect the mainstream Orthodox position. As Rabbi Yehuda Amital, long time Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshivat Har Etzion writes: “So a Jew can define himself as secularist, a Jew can define himself as non-religious, a Jew can even change his religion-for all that, he remains a Jew.”[7] In the oft cited words of the Talmud, “Even though he sins, he remains a Jew” (Sanhedrin 44a). Moreover, R. Kagan himself sometimes struck other notes. Towards the end of his work Ahavat Hessed, he cites the idea that we do not know today how to offer proper rebuke and, as a result, no longer have the right to hate the sinner.

Even if we assume that Stern portrays the thought of R. Wasserman and R. Kagan accurately, why should these two thinkers define the totality of Orthodoxy? Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz, referred to as the Hazon Ish, was the most prominent Haredi leader in Israel after the War of Independence. In several passages and for a variety of reasons, he argues that harsh statements in Jewish traditional texts against the irreligious do not apply to contemporary secularists. According to the incisive analysis of Prof. Aviezer Ravitzky, R. Karleitz denied any value to collectivist secularist ideologies such as Zionism but he did develop a more positive approach to individual secularists.[8]

The entire conversation thus far remains within the more separatist Haredi orbit. If we turn to the National Religious community in Israel and the Modern Orthodox community in America, the gap between Stern’s presentation and reality grows much larger. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook famously celebrated the idealism of secular Zionists and viewed their approach as a necessary corrective to flaws within Orthodox society. He described the socialist desire for justice and equality as a profoundly religious impulse.  Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik developed a theory of two Jewish covenants, one of fate and one of destiny. While only religious Jews partake of the latter, all Jews can excel regarding the former if they empathize with the plight of fellow Jews and attempt to alleviate their suffering.[9] The bulk of twentieth century Orthodox thought does not spew hatred against secularists or leftists. Quite the contrary; it attempts to develop a more positive outlook and orientation towards all Jews. Stern’s third support continues his pattern of misquotation, lack of context, and one sided presentation.

Even if Stern had not made all of the errors we have catalogued, his thesis remains unsubstantiated. When trying to evaluate the causes of a phenomenon, one cannot point to a series of events from almost a century before without showing that these trends continued in the intervening decades. This is especially so during such a volatile period of history. Among other things, the Holocaust and the founding of the state of Israel happened during the interim years and they certainly influenced the Jewish community in dramatic fashion. Are there any texts or trends between 1935 and 2016 that indicate Orthodox Jewish identification with fascism or White supremacists? If not, we should look elsewhere to understand Orthodox Trump supporters.

In addition to all of the above, Stern’s basic opening premise is false. An August 22 2017 statement by the RCA (Rabbinical Council of America), one of the largest organizations of Orthodox rabbis in the world, states:

We add our voices to yours in condemning these manifestations, supporting those in political and religious leadership denouncing them, and call on all leaders and people of good will and faith to name and reject unequivocally and without qualification the views and actions of White supremacists, neo-Nazis, the alt-right, and their supporters.

An August 16, 2017 statement by the RCA includes the following:

The Rabbinical Council of America, the leading organization of Orthodox rabbis in North America, condemns any suggestion of moral equivalency between the White supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville and those who stood up to their repugnant messages and actions. “There is no moral comparison,” said Rabbi Elazar Muskin, president of the RCA. “Failure to unequivocally reject hatred and bias is a failing of moral leadership and fans the flames of intolerance and chauvinism.

A critic might claim that the RCA mostly represents the Modern Orthodox community but the Haredi world differs. Hamodia, the newspaper associated with Agudath Isarel, reports the following statement after Charlottesville:

We seem to be at a very fragile moment, “Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, told Hamodia. “On a certain level there was violence that was instigated on both sides, but even if that’s the case, this was a rally organized by white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups to promote racist and anti-Semitic philosophies, which is dismaying and frightening…For the Jewish community this is a wake-up call that there is a tremendous amount of hatred and danger for the Jewish People.

Zwiebel’s identifying violence on both sides is inexcusable but he certainly does not identify with White supremacist groups nor does he say that their anti – Semitism is not a problem since it is directed against left wing Jews. Apparently, Orthodox rabbis are quite willing to condemn White supremacists.

In sum, Stern portrays two isolated, and possibly misunderstood, rabbinic statements as the Orthodox norm, he select certain passages from Shapiro and Bacon when other passages in those very books contradict his thesis, he never explain the historical background necessary to appreciate the events he describes, and he distorts and misinterpret citations. Given the skewed nature of the analysis, I think one can safely posit that a serious animus drove this research. Though we cannot definitively say what motivated this poor scholarship, perhaps those who understandably cannot stomach Trump come to mistakenly view all Jewish Republicans as insane or immoral and adopt unreasonable theories about them. Segments of the Orthodox community certainly deserve criticism for excessive Trump support but it is a complete fabrication to say that they have a century – long affinity with groups on the extreme right. We would be well served if everybody moved beyond simplistic polarization and thought about political opponents more charitably and in a balanced fashion.

[1] Marc B. Shapiro, Between the Yeshiva World and Modern Orthodoxy: The Life and Work of Rabbi Jehiel Jacob Weinberg (Littman Library: Oxford, 2007), 233.   

[2] The latter appears in The Holocaust in Documentation ed. Yitzhak Arad et. al (Yad Vashem: Jerusalem, 1978), 63 [Hebrew].

[3] The Bacon quote is found in Gershon C. Bacon, The Politics of Tradition: Agudat Yisrael in Poland, 1916-1939 (Magnes Press: Jerusalem, 1996), 266.

[4] Daniel Kupfert Heller, Jabotinsky’s Children: Polish Jews and the Rise of Right Wing Zionism (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 2017), 7.

[5] The citation is found in Elhanan Wasserman, A Collection of Essays Volume One (Jerusalem, 2000), 264 [Hebrew].

[6] Zvi Y. Gitelman, Jewish Nationality and Soviet Politics: The Jewish Sections of the CPSU, 1917-1930 (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1972), 306.

[7] Yehuda Amital, “A Torah Perspective on the Status of Secular Jews Today,” Tradition 23:4 (Summer 1988), 3.

[8] Aviezer Ravitzky, Freedom Inscribed: Diverse Voices of Jewish Religious Thought (Am Oved Publishers, Tel Aviv, 1999), 229-232 [Hebrew].

[9] For a summary of the approaches of Rabbis Kook and Soloveitchik, see Ravitzky, 237-246.

About the Author
Rabbi Yitzchak Blau is a rosh yeshiva at Yeshivat Orayta and also teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum. He is an associate editor of the journal Tradition and the author of Fresh Fruit and Vintage Wine: The Ethics and Wisdom of the Aggada.
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