10 December 2020

A Response to Cummings and Shoikhedbrod: Towards Decolonizing the Jewish Question?


Igor Shoikhedbrod’s reviews of Shlomo Avineri’s and Enzo Traverso’s works on the “Jewish Question”2have sparked a meta-review by Jordy Cummings, who accuses Shoikhedbrod of misrepresenting Traverso.3 Shoikhedbrod and Cummings are invested in these debates and texts for their relevance to contemporary politics, including the recent resurgence of anti-Semitism. The Jewish Question asks how Jews, as a community (or communities) of people who faced (and face) discrimination and disenfranchisement in different spheres, were and are to emancipate themselves. Here, I offer some questions as a meta-meta-review of sorts, insofar as the discussion veers into examining Zionism (Jewish statehood) as a possible response to the question. I offer that their framing of the Jewish experience, the specificity of the “figure of the Jew,” remains bounded by the European experience. Palestine and Palestinians barely figure, and if they do the specificity of their struggle is ignored, and, importantly, so is the meaning of actually-existing Zionism as a form of settler-colonial apartheid in the formation of Jewish identity in Europe and North America—and perhaps more broadly. This leads to a particularism or provincialism in both of their writings. Their discussion of identity and emancipation could be better served by an expanded worldview.

Shoikhedbrod reads Avineri and Traverso to contend with the question of Jewish identity and emancipation as articulated by Marx in his 1843 essay, “On the Jewish Question,” and to think through its relevance to the question of identity and emancipation today. Shoikhedbrod is somewhat equidistant from both Avineri and Traverso. He disagrees with Avineri’s embrace of Zionism as emancipatory and rejection of proletarian internationalism—the idea that working people must transcend their particularities (e.g., nationality) to create a political unity because they hold common class interests. Yet, Shoikhedbrod is also skeptical of Traverso’s embrace of internationalism, because here it appears more like assimilationism which wants to transcend particularities by dissolving them. He is also skeptical of Traverso’s rejection of Zionism, especially its socialist variants, because here Traverso equates Zionism with colonialism. Thus, Shoikhedbrod expresses his sympathy with a certain kind of Zionism, but ultimately comes out against nationalism in general, in part because statehood in the form of Israel has nevertheless not succeeded in emancipating the Jews from discrimination or prejudice. It remains unclear who, exactly, these Jews are.

Cummings asserts that Shoikhedbrod is an “anti-anti-Zionist,” analogous to Jean-Paul Sartre’s adopted position of “anti-anti-Communism.” That is, Sartre had serious problems with the ruling Communist Parties, but he was also—and perhaps more so—skeptical of the anti-Communists and the reactionary bases of their critiques. Cummings sees Zionism, in all its variants, as being a colonial enterprise. I think Cummings is correct, on which more below. The prefix of “socialism” may have made for a Zionism with a human face, but it was still a chauvinistic project predicated on displacement and dispossession of an indigenous people, specifically, Arabs.

It is perhaps in response to this question about the legitimacy of Zionism that Shoikhedbrod points to Avineri’s diplomatic manoeuvres at UNESCO against a Soviet delegate—raising a little remembered article that Marx wrote on matters in the Ottoman Empire.4Marx asserted that of all groups in Jerusalem, the most poorly treated were the Jews, who constituted the majority of its residents at the time. Here Shoikhedbrod echoes Avineri’s Marxological gesture toward some of the premises of Zionism—Jews have always (at least since the 1850s) been a majority in Jerusalem: even Marx recognized this fact. There is a fundamental question for Shoikhedbrod, one Cummings does not contend with: do Jews as a nation not have a right to statehood? This concern exists in a dialectical tension with Shoikhedbrod’s ultimate disagreement with any form of nationalism being emancipatory, which is why he returns to Marx’s universalism.5

Some of what I have laid out above has to be excavated from or read into what Shoikhedbrod has written—by way of a symptomatic reading, if you will—and perhaps for this reason, Cumming’s critique often exceeds what Shoikhedbrod himself may actually believe, and could perhaps show greater consideration for the specificity of what Shoikhedbrod has written (as opposed to what he has not). I am sympathetic to Cumming’s substantive claims, if not his method of attack, but perhaps diverge in terms of his claims’ underspecified nature. Again, despite the discussion of contemporary politics, both Cummings’ and Shoikhedbrod’s framings remain particularistic, or rather, provincial, insofar as they remain bounded by Europe (and Russia). Cummings certainly gestures toward the broader world, and for that, incorporating a wider worldview is more damaging to Shoikhedbrod’s position.

Do Jews not have the right to statehood? Shoikhedbrod is no fan of nationalism, so his implied question must be understood: Do Jews not have the right to statehood, just like every other oppressed nation? I think to pose the question in this way is to engage in equivocation and a misreading of the specificities of different sequences of nationalism. Not all nationalisms are the same, despite formal resemblances, nor can they be, and if Marxism has a problem it is its attempt to apply conceptual apparatuses from European nationalisms to the rest of the world. This is a problem that has been confronted by many Marxists in the Third World and that is unavoidable given the history of imperialism from which these nations emerge.6

The thinking around nationalism in Europe was that there are “naturally” existing nations7 that deserve their own states, i.e., that the “political and national unity should be congruent”—the rulers of the political unit should not belong to a nation other than the majority ruled.8 And so it is worth asking from the jump if Jews constitute such a nation. But this may be beside the point, since we know from the historiography of nationalism that nationalist movements seeking states create nations out of diverse communities, more often than some entity resembling a coherent nation creates a state – to use one of Joseph V. Stalin’s examples, the Italian nation was formed from “Romans, Teutons, Etruscans, Greeks, Arabs, and so forth.” (Zionism certainly fits the bill insofar as it has sought to forge a unitary Jewish nation-state out of a diverse set of communities.) But in the logic that emerges to justify European nationalisms, all nations must have their own states in order to avoid—or at least to mitigate—the discrimination and prejudice that is attributed to being rootless, stateless.

Let’s accept the European principle and apply it to Jews, that Jews were a nation who deserved, for the sake of argument, a state. (Let us be clear, however, that this was not the majority opinion amongst politically engaged European Jews in the early twentieth century.) In that case, Jews certainly ought to have a state. But not in Palestine. The nationalisms in Europe bear greatest resemblance to anti-colonial nationalism when we can speak of an attempt at separation from an empire, e.g., Poland’s independence from Russia, Austria and Prussia. But establishing a Jewish state in Palestine meant making Palestinians pay the costs of Jewish emancipation from European oppression. Jews may feel some kind of spiritual attachment to the land of Palestine, which is fine, no Arab politics has ever denied that spiritual attachment—the spiritual claim is not, however, a political one. The question is how that translates into a political right to displace an actually existing indigenous population of that land. This is not merely a cultural question or one of identity, the struggle over the land entails political and economic conflict and violence. That, in turn, reshapes identity and culture.

This is also why it is insufficient to speak of the figure of the Jew now (and therefore of anti-Semitism also), as perhaps Cummings does, without talking about the “figure of the Palestinian.” The entry of Jews into whiteness needs to be understood not only in relation to dynamics of upward mobility or ethno-racial dynamics in Europe and North America, but also to the colonization of the Palestinians. Jews did get over some form or aspect of discrimination and prejudice, but not merely through their statehood, as such, but through colonialism in Palestine that marked their entry into the comity of whiteness.

But this entry to whiteness is even more complex: Ashkenazi Jews from Europe, a minority within Israel, are socially, politically and economically dominant compared to the majority Mizrahi Jews of Arab origins and it is the Ashkenazi aspiration to whiteness that has driven Zionism. Mizrahis have experienced de-Arabization, a process in which they have by and large participated, to act white—meaning to act like Ashkenazis.9 Much of the virulent anti-Arab discourse in Israel comes from Mizrahi Jews10— they are to identify not as Arab Jews but Jews who just happened to be in Arab lands.11 Meanwhile, and one would say ironically if it were not so predictable, Ethiopian Jews are at the bottom of this Israeli Jewish pecking order, their skin colour an ultimate barrier to their entry into any kind of whiteness and even Jewishness12—they continue to be severely marginalized in Israel.13

And so Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews share, albeit differentially, in aspiring to whiteness, brought together by the settler-colonial project of Jewish nationalism in Palestine, one of dispossession and dislocation that is by definition anti-emancipatory. Or, rather, it imbibes a similar kind of self-delusionary narrative of liberty and emancipation that is the hallmark of US nationalism: we are the true defenders of liberty, having set the foundation for it through genocide, ethnic cleansing and subjugating othered populations as labour reserves (and later, when we have no need for their labour, a more protracted genocide).

That is exactly what Zionism has been, and, Cummings is right to note, it has been so in all its variants. Shoikhedbrod raises the question of “socialist” Zionism, saying to Traverso that perhaps here is something worth being more sympathetic with. But this is insufficient. Cummings is correct to point out that much of European socialism was racist, chauvinist and colonialist (it is also worth noting this is still the case)14. The groups that went on to form the Third International broke with those who became contemporary social democrats, not merely on the question of war nationalism, but crucially also on the question of colonialism. V.I. Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, even Karl Kautsky to his credit, saw no room for colonialism in the socialist movement.15 But there it was, and there it continues to be today, albeit disguised in humanitarian concerns and/or a cultivated ignorance of the dynamics of imperialism.16 The specificity of communism as a separate trend in the working-class movement has to be understood as being, from its birth, anti-colonial.

And this is why Isaac Deutscher’s quotation, “As long as a solution to the problem is sought in nationalist terms both Arab and Jew are condemned to move within a vicious circle of hatred and revenge,” is not as prescient as Shoikhedbrod would have it, but rather obtuse, for two reasons.17

The first is that one set of hatreds is based on an aspirant white supremacy, it is racist in the structural sense, the other is based on being subject to colonialism, ethnic cleansing and a protracted genocide. To equate these two is disingenuous. It is like equating the hatred that comes out of the German/Nazi ideology of the Übermensch (the master race) with the hatred that drove Jewish and/or Soviet resistance to German invasion and occupation.18 Recognition of Zionism as settler-colonialism would help Shoikhedbrod in nuancing his misplaced admiration for Avineri’s anecdote and reference to Marx’s recognition of a Jewish majority in Jerusalem in the 1850s—though Marx did note that those Jews were “not natives, but from different and distant countries.” Avineri notes that the “Soviet Union does not exist anymore, but the Jewish majority in Jerusalem does.” But for the Zionist this means erasing the backstory. How did the Jews get there? How did they maintain their majority in Jerusalem? Does a majority in a city entail the legitimacy of an ethnically exclusive minority rule over all of Palestine and Palestinians? Again, it is the very European logic of racial supremacy by dint of conquest that Zionism (and Avineri) channels, both in its stated aims and in its omissions.

This leads us to the second reason why Deutscher’s quotation is obtuse. Writing in 1954 while on a trip to Israel, his skepticism of Zionism was premised on both the nation-state and nationalism being obsolete, and so as obsolete for the Jews as for the Arabs. Incidentally, the USSR initially, and very wrongly, supported the formation of Israel in 1948. That by 1976 the USSR’s position appears to have shifted has less to do with any fidelity to Marxology and more to do with the real and actual movement of anti-colonial national liberation struggles which asserted the centrality of decolonization and national liberation to the moment. This was not nationalism as particularism.

Rather, it is through the particularity that the generality was to be achieved, something Frantz Fanon points out when he says that, “National consciousness, which is not nationalism, is the only thing that will give us an international dimension.”19 But what does national consciousness here mean? Is it the same conceit as the European one, that there exists a naturally existing nation that seeks a state? This notion has been attempted in South Asia, with Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India, or Mazdoor Kisan Party leader Ishaq Muhammad’s attempt to provide an alternative to Muslim nationalism, in the wake of the separation of Bangladesh, by arguing that West Pakistan had a natural cultural unity20 (I should note that these sets of arguments are far more complex than simply asserting that cultural unity entails an identity of cultures). But, at least as far as Nehru was concerned, there was a certain “derivativeness” to this discourse insofar as it entailed an appeal to the logic of the colonizer to recognize that we, too, are nations who deserve independence.

For Fanon the kind of historical justification was beside the point, “a national culture is not a folklore.” Rather, the question was one of constructing anew a sense of unity that would incorporate and not supersede differences, and not just at superficial culture day events, rather than seeking to incorporate them under the sign of any naturally or even historically given cultural unit. To the extent that there was a cultural unity to be forged, it was to be entirely new, borne of the anti-colonial struggle for freedom; and the pre-condition for national consciousness was the question of political and economic sovereignty.

A recognition of this problem of filling in the abstract borders of newly decolonized states with the content of a homogenous nation also led to internationalist projects in the form of pan-Africanism, pan-Arabism, and so on. Interestingly, these were at times far more serious attempts at political interdependence than those exhibited by states ruled by communist parties (in the Far East they almost all fought with each other at various times). More recently Adom Getachew has argued that anti-colonial national liberation entailed “worldmaking”—forging “juridical, political, and economic institutions in the international realm that would secure non-domination.”21 This is also clear when the Palestinian leader George Habash says the road to Jerusalem lies through all the other Arab capitals, Palestinian national liberation has no choice but to be internationalist.22

But no such incarnation of internationalism is evident in anything the Zionist project has ever put forward. On the contrary, Israel’s internationalism has always identified with imperialism and whiteness, including in apartheid South Africa and in facilitating the near-genocide of indigenous campesinos in Guatemala. Israel is an aspirant part of Europe, somewhat inconveniently located amidst (or rather, on top of) Arabs, just as Mizrahi Jews were somewhat inconveniently located in other Arab lands.

Zionism is not a reaction to the poor treatment of Jews in Palestine under the Ottomans, and here to rely on one thing Marx wrote at the end of a rather long piece of journalism is insufficient: let us actually engage in the historiography of the Ottoman Empire from which we learn that even the valence of discrimination against Jews there was not straightforwardly comparable to what was happening in Europe. Rather, Zionism is a reaction to the poor treatment of Jews in Europe and Russia, but which takes its discontent to “the Orient”. It is why Zionism is indefensible, and it is why any ongoing discussion of the Jewish Question has to be reconfigured in light of the Palestinian Question. I have also suggested that Zionism, because it is colonialism, has played a role in enabling Jews to enter into whiteness—although this whiteness remains a contested terrain both inside and outside of Israel. If one wants to assess the adequacy of Zionism and entry into whiteness as a response to the Jewish Question, it is surely worth interrogating phenomena like anti-Semites in the West who are also ardent supporters of Israel. Yet, one also needs ask its victims, the Palestinians, how well it functions to do that.

Noaman G. Ali is assistant professor of political economy at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, with research interests in agrarian studies and peasant struggles, the political economy of development, and discourses of regime types. He also hosts the podcast, Introduction to Political Economy. His research has been published in Rethinking Marxismand the Journal of Agrarian Change.Follow him on Twitter: @noamangali



  • 1. This write-up has benefited from feedback from Rabia Ashraf.
  • 2. and
  • 3.
  • 4. Avineri’s story is available here:
  • 5. Here also comes Shoikhedbrod’s second move in his reading of Avineri, which is to understand that Marx’s universalism is informed not only by a distant yet studied consideration of the Jewish question but also through some degree of engagement with actual Jewish politics, at least in Germany. As far as that goes, it is an interesting addition to the historiography of Marx’s Marxism.
  • 6. For a fairly comprehensive overview, see Robert J.C. Young’s Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction (2016, Wiley-Blackwell).
  • 7. While a “nation” implies a political community, this does not always take the form of a state – for example, the Kurds identify as a nation yet they are split across four states (Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran). The nation as a phenomenon defies definition, and I think that few have managed to do worse (or better) than Josef Stalin’s 1913 definition, “A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.” Any one or more of these conditions could be missing and a nation could still be considered a nation, for which Benedict Anderson’s classic definition is useful: “an imagined political community—and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” See Imagined Communities (1983, Verso).
  • 8. Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism (1983, Basil Blackwell).
  • 9.
  • 10. See
  • 11. See for example:
  • 12.
  • 13. See
  • 14. See for example:
  • 15. See
  • 16. See, for example, Max Ajl’s criticisms of the Green New Deal and other forms of socialist eco-modernism in the Global North:
  • 17. Quoted in
  • 18. As Aimé Césaire notes and it is well worth recalling, Nazism was an application to Europe of “colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the ‘coolies’ of India, and the ‘niggers’ of Africa”—and we must add the Indigenous of the Americas. See Discourse on Colonialism (2001, Monthly Review Press).
  • 19. Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (1963, Grove Press), p. 247.
  • 20. See Ishaq Muhammad, “Culturally, West Pakistan is a Natural Unit,” in Circular no. 24, c. 1972. The Circular was the monthly internal bulletin of the Mazdoor Kisan Party (Workers Peasants Party) in Pakistan.
  • 21. Adom Getachew, Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-determination (2019, Princeton University Press), see also Vijay Prashad, The Darker Nations (2007, The New Press) and Young cited above.
  • 22.