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The Jewish Council to Combat Fascism and Anti-Semitism – A History

October 17, 2010 – 4:22 pm45 Comments

Former Czech communist leader, Rudolf Slánský, at his trial in 1952. The trial was part of a vicious anti-Jewish campaign implemented by Stalin.

By Philip Mendes

The Rise and Fall of the Melbourne Jewish Council to Combat Fascism and Anti-Semitism, 1942-1970

Historical research is often motivated by, and influenced by, the interests and perspectives of the researcher. When I first began writing on the history of the Jewish Council in 1987, I was newly active in the Australian Jewish Democratic Society, and highly excited at the prospect of a revived Jewish Left in Australia. It seemed to me at that time that historians had treated the Council unfairly, and that the poor reputation of the Council had also carried over onto the contemporary Jewish Left. Hence I was keen to achieve some sort of historical rehabilitation of the Council in order to potentially also influence a more sympathetic approach to the latter-day Jewish Left.

Twenty-three years later the vantage point seems very different. As most of you know, I was effectively politically purged by the Jewish Democratic Society over seven years ago for my critical statements on Palestinian political culture and violence, and I have become rather sceptical about the role that Jewish Left groups play in the Jewish community. I actually see a number of parallels between the Council’s failures on Soviet anti-Semitism, and the erroneous contemporary approach of some within the Jewish Democratic Society to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

But putting aside my personal views, the common theme throughout my research has been the challenge faced by Jewish Left groups in reconciling their Jewish and Left interests, concerns and alliances. This is certainly not to argue that Jewish and Left identities are mutually exclusive. In reality, the synthesis of Jewish ethnic and left wing political identity is a complex and grey area, but I would argue that unless Jewish Left groups display a core solidarity with most other Jews the “Jewish” aspect of their title becomes irrelevant.

It seems to me that the Council managed these different interests relatively effectively until at least 1948 and to some extent till early 1952. But once the issue of Soviet anti-Semitism loomed large in 1952-1953, the Council unequivocally prioritized its Left loyalties over its Jewish loyalties. This choice effectively doomed the Council in the eyes of the Jewish mainstream, and relegated the Council to the political margins for the remainder of its existence.

The left-wing Jewish Council to Combat Fascism and Anti-Semitism was formed in 1942 to counter the growth in anti-Semitism associated with pre and post-war Jewish immigration, and the impact of Nazism. Leaders of the Council advocated an activist and high profile approach to fighting anti-Semitism, rather than the traditional low-key, inconspicuous strategy favoured by the established Anglo-Australian Jewish leadership. By 1948, the Council had become the official public relations representative of the Victorian Jewish Board of Deputies (VJBD).

The Council was always influenced by the Communist Party and its sympathisers, but in its early years enjoyed broad communal support reflecting two key factors. The first and arguably key factor was the united Jewish support for the Soviet Union following the German invasion of June 1941. This united front was to last until at least the end of the war, and was also reflected in the almost universal Jewish support for the establishment of Israel. The Council’s pro-Israel activism in 1948 – which matched the Soviet Union’s then pro-Israel position – was highly influential in promoting a sympathetic perspective within the broader Australian Left.

The second factor was that the Council provided a sophisticated and effective response to local manifestations of anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, the Council’s approach to anti-Semitism was slanted from the very beginning by its concern with combating fascism as well as anti-Semitism. This dual emphasis accurately reflected the Jewish political experience in much of Central and Eastern Europe whereby the Left was generally viewed as an ally and sympathetic to Jewish concerns, and the Right (including even mainstream conservative groups) was generally viewed as the enemy and hostile to Jewish interests. Many of the founders of the Council were political refugees with first-hand experience of Nazism and fascism, and were strongly influenced by these experiences.

However, the local application of this strategy was always going to be problematic given that the Left-Right split in Australian politics did not neatly fit this model. There was little tradition of conservative anti-Semitism in Australia, and it was actually a conservative government that first admitted a significant (if still inadequate) number of Jewish refugees in the late 1930s. There was also a significant history of Australian philo-Semitism emanating from non-Left sources including particularly the churches.

From 1948 onwards, the Council became involved in a series of public disputes and controversies that progressively undermined its support in the Jewish community. These conflicts reflected growing unease over the Council’s alliances with left-wing groups in the context of the beginning of the Cold War. Further tensions were stoked by the Council’s anomalous position within the structure of the Jewish community – acting as an official representative of the elected Jewish roof bodies – yet still retaining its organizational independence and right to advocate the views of its own membership. This situation could only continue so long as the Council continued to broadly represent the plurality of views within the Jewish community.

Between 1948 and 1953, Stalin implemented a vicious anti-Jewish campaign. The remnants of Yiddish culture in Moscow were eradicated, the leaders of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee were murdered, and virtually all prominent Jewish artists, scientists, and intellectuals were purged. Stalin’s anti-Jewish obsession culminated in the Czech Slansky show trial of November 1952, and the Doctors Plot of January 1953. The Prague trial involved charges of high treason against fourteen leading Communists including the former Party Secretary-General, Rudolf Slansky. Eleven of the accused were of Jewish origin, and the trial was distinguished by its explicit anti-Jewish character.

The Soviet Doctors Plot of 1953 involved the arrest of six prominent Jewish doctors who were accused of plotting to kill Stalin and other Soviet leaders. The doctors were alleged to have acted on behalf of the international Jewish aid organisation, Joint, to conduct espionage and terrorist activities in the Soviet Bloc.

The emergence of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Bloc countries confronted the Jewish Council with a serious political dilemma. The Council believed that Left and Jewish interests were complementary, and that its struggle against anti-Semitism in Australia was dependent on the cooperation of Left and progressive groups. Confronted with increasing evidence of anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, the Council held to the position that anti-Semitism and Communism were a contradiction in terms. According to the worldview of the Council, any suggestions to the contrary reflected either temporary aberrations arising from the continuing existence in Eastern Europe of popular pre-communist prejudices, or, alternatively, manifestations of Cold War propaganda.

When pressed, the Council emphasized the alleged subtle difference in Communist rhetoric between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. The Council acknowledged that the Soviet Bloc was hostile to Zionism and the State of Israel, and argued that this hostility could be attributed to the Zionist movement’s alignment with the West in the Cold War. However, the Council consistently denied that any anti-Jewish manifestations per se were involved.

The Slansky Trial of November 1952 and the Doctors Plot of January 1953 provoked the Council into an even more thorough defence of the Soviet Bloc.

The ECAJ responded in March 1953 by formally excommunicating the Council and other Jewish Left groups that had defended Soviet anti-Semitism. They argued that the Council’s views on this issue had demonstrated that it was controlled by a communist or pro-Soviet, rather than Jewish agenda.

The Council never regained its previously high profile and status within the Jewish community. Its mainstream critics painted the post-1953 Council as a small, marginal, and generally despised left-wing group surviving only on past memories and continued antagonisms.  But a more complex analysis of Jewish identity would suggest that the Council was motivated by both left-wing concerns and Jewish concerns.

Many long-term Council activists were not formally or informally aligned with the Communist Party, and were principally driven by Jewish concerns. On the issue of Soviet anti-Semitism, however, those whose first loyalty was political rather than Jewish were able to hold sway. They were able to do so by highlighting the views of friends of the Council on the political Left who rejected accusations of Stalinist anti-Semitism, and downplaying or discrediting the views of Jewish groups such as the Zionist movement who affirmed the truth of these accusations.

It seems to me that this is also the key challenge for Jewish Left groups today. When Jewish and Left interests and alliances clash over Israel, which voices do they principally listen to? Do they highlight the voices of those on the broader Left who have long-standing sympathies with the Palestinians, or do they give equal or greater credence to the views of Jewish groups who have long-standing sympathies with Israel? Is their solidarity with other Jews in Israel or elsewhere limited only to other left-wing Jews, or does it extend to all Jews regardless of class and political belief?

This is an edited version of a paper Dr Philip Mendes presented to the Australian Jewish Historical Society forum at the Jewish Museum on 7 October 2010

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