Yivo Institute Suppresses a Jewish Hero’s Anti-Zionism

The Yivo Institute, which is dedicated to the study of Ashkenazi Jews, has lately reprinted an important attack on the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” The attack was written in 1921 by the great English journalist Lucien Wolf, who showed that the Protocols, then circulating in Europe, were plagiarized fictions aimed at persecuting Jews.

Yivo’s Board of Overseers, chaired by Marty Peretz, has reprinted the cover of Lucien Wolf’s book The Myth of the Jewish Menace in World Affairs. And a handsome cover it is. On the back of the reprint, Yivo presumes to tell Wolf’s biography. It goes on about what a scholar, reporter, and diplomat he was. It says that at Versailles in 1919, he “supported the ‘western’ position that the Jews were not in fact a separate nation, but should be protected as minority citizens of their respective resident countries.”

This vague statement is a dishonest way of treating Wolf’s actual significance in Jewish history: he was an anti-Zionist. For most of his life he fought Chaim Weizmann over the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine—although he demanded equal rights and protection for Jews who emigrated there. Wolf, writes Walter Laquer, in A History of Zionism, looked upon Judaism “as a collection of abstract religious principles, upon east European Jewry as an object of compassion and philanthropy, and upon Zionism as, at best, the empty dream of a few misguided idealists.” Wolf himself wrote the entry on Zionism in the (magnificent) 11th Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1911. (Thanks to my book-collecting mom, I have it right here.) He dismissed Zionism as an “error” by laying out his liberal belief in the modern nation state:

“Under the influence of religious toleration and the naturalization laws, nationalities are daily losing more of their religious character… With the passing away of anti-Semitism, Jewish nationalism will disappear. If the Jewish people disappear with it, it will only be because either their religious mission in the world has been accomplished, or they have proved themselves unworthy of it.”

Yes, Wolf was writing before the Holocaust. But this is what this great Jew believed. Other progressives hold similar views today, including those like myself who are appalled by what a militaristic state Israel is, and by the apartheid policies that I witnessed in Hebron in the West Bank. Indeed some of Wolf’s heirs have called for a binational state in Palestine.

The point here is that those who would insulate Israel from criticism, including Peretz, are misrepresenting Jewish history, in this case to stir up fears of a new antisemitism, and to bash Walt and Mearsheimer while they are at it. If you want to invoke Lucien Wolf’s legacy, do so by honoring his views. And by showing that there is a tradition on the left of critiquing the implications of establishing a Jewish state. (Yivo knows better. It holds Wolf’s papers. And Yivo’s own curators describe Wolf’s anti-Zionist efforts more honestly here.)

One more wrinkle. Wolf believed that Jewish support for a Zionist state would expose Jews in western societies to the charge of dual loyalty. In essence, an issue that is raised by Walt and Mearsheimer’s critique of the Israel lobby, and by the deluded war-fervor of White House neocons like Elliott Abrams, who has written that outside of Israel, Jews “are to stand apart from the nation in which they live.” (This guy makes policy!) Walter Lippmann also had this concern (per Ronald Steel’s bio), which is one reason he did not become a Zionist.

This is the one good thing about Gabriel Schoenfeld’s (vicious) attack on Walt and Mearsheimer in the latest Commentary. Schoenfeld knows, and says, that concerns about dual loyalty were active in the minds of Jews who opposed Zionism, back when. Yivo could honor Lucien Wolf by exploring his concerns—now, when Jews need to recover their progressive tradition.