Was Rosa Luxemburg a self-hating Jew?

A Response to Joseph Telushkin in Tablet magazine and Wesley Pruden in The Washington Times

by Dr Rory Castle Jones

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The two articles in question, in Tablet and The Washington Times

Yesterday, a piece by Joseph Telushkin appeared in the online magazine Tablet entitled ‘Black Lives Matter and Self-Hating Jews’, followed by an opinion piece in The Washington Times by Wesley Pruden with the title ‘The endless war against the Jews’. Both put forth the long-established claim that the Polish-Jewish-German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) was the archetypal “self-hating Jew”. The Times piece was headed by a large photograph of Luxemburg. Although both articles were about the Black Lives Matter movement and Jews who support it, I take issue here with the characterisation of Luxemburg as a self-hating Jew and dispute much of the evidence provided by Telushkin, which is then repeated by Pruden.

In Telushkin’s piece, he begins by describing Luxemburg (whose surname is unfortunately misspelt) as “one of the most famous” self-hating Jews. It is true that Luxemburg has often been labelled as such (from her opponents in the Jewish Bund in the Russian Empire onwards), but the accusation itself is utterly false. Telushkin writes:

“when approached to denounce anti-Jewish pogroms, [Luxemburg] responded with this heartwarming declaration:  “Why do you come to me with your special Jewish sorrows?… I cannot find a special corner in my heart for the ghetto. I feel at home in the entire world wherever there are clouds and birds and human tears.”

This is incorrect. The letter quoted is Luxemburg’s 16 February 1917 letter to her friend, the German-Jewish socialist and feminist Mathilde Wurm (1874-1935), written by Luxemburg in her prison cell during the First World War. Wurm had recommended that Luxemburg read the seventeenth-century Jewish philosopher Spinoza and had apparently written of the “special suffering of the Jews”. Luxemburg, who raised in a religious Jewish home in Warsaw which was nevertheless strongly acculturated into Polish culture and influenced by the Haskala (Jewish Enlightenment), rejected the idea that Jewish suffering was any more (or less) worthy of sympathy than other human suffering. A fuller quote from her letter to Wurm is:

“Above all one must at all times live as a complete human being […] read only the good ones, not such kitsch as the “Spinoza novel” which you sent me. What do you want with this theme of the “special suffering of the Jews”? I am just as much concerned with the poor victims on the rubber plantations of Putumayo, the Blacks in Africa with whose corpses the Europeans play catch […] they resound with me so strongly that I have no special place in my heart for the ghetto. I feel at home in the entire world, wherever there are clouds and birds and human tears.”

Luxemburg was certainly not responding to a request to “denounce anti-Jewish pogroms” as Telushkin claims. Rather, she was expressing her strongly held internationalism and humanism. In reality, Luxemburg was the victim of anti-Semitic attacks throughout her life in both Poland and Germany. She campaigned against anti-Semitism consistently and the party she led, the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL) was in the vanguard of opposition to anti-Semitism in the Russian Empire. This has been documented by the Polish scholar Wiktor Marzec in a number of articles and in my own published articles and doctoral research.

Telushkin also claims that Luxemburg was “indifferent” to the death of her mother and quotes a letter from her father:

“An eagle soars so high he loses sight of the earth below… I shall not burden you any more with my letters.”

Telushkin presumably takes this from Elżbieta Ettinger’s 1987 biography of Luxemburg, which dramatised and rather distorted Luxemburg’s familial relations. In fact, Luxemburg was devastated by her mother’s death, as is clear from numerous letters to and from her closest family and friends. Furthermore, Luxemburg’s mother died in September 1897 and the letter from Luxemburg’s father which Telushkin quotes is from April 1900 and had nothing to do with Luxemburg’s late mother. In fact, it reflected the sadness of an elderly dying man at not being able to see his daughter in his final years. This single letter has unfortunately been misused to present a totally false picture of the relationship between Luxemburg and her father. In reality, she personally nursed him during his final illness and he was immensely proud of his daughter’s achievements. Luxemburg maintained very close relations with all of her family, some of whom remained within the official Jewish community and some of whom left it.

Telushkin is correct in saying that Lenin wrote of Luxemburg as an “eagle”. What he misses is the complexity of the political relationship and ideological differences between Luxemburg and Lenin, which have been the subject of much scholarly attention and discussion. Telushkin then moves straight on to Stalin, implying a link between Luxemburg the anti-Semitic and murderous tyrant. In fact, Stalin purged the Communist movement of ‘Luxemburgian’ ideas, dismissed her democratic socialism, and ruthlessly persecuted and murdered her family, friends and comrades.

I will leave the comments about Marx as a self-hating Jew to others.

The late Professor Robert Wistrich, the eminent scholar of anti-Semitism and Jewish self-hatred, wrote as long ago as 1977 that Luxemburg “does not appear to have suffered from the obvious symptoms of self-hatred”. Nevertheless, the image of Luxemburg as the archetypal ‘self-hating Jew’ remains commonplace. Whatever the rights and wrongs of using this term, it is unfortunate that distortions about Rosa Luxemburg’s Jewish identity remain widespread. Rosa Luxemburg was both a victim and active opponent of anti-Semitism. Her witnessing of the terrible Warsaw pogrom of 1881 as a ten year old schoolgirl was in fact a major factor in her political awakening. Such accusations as those put forth by Telushkin and repeated by Pruden must now be challenged in the light of new research, scholarship and understanding of Luxemburg’s Jewish identity.

Dr Rory Castle Jones was awarded a PhD for his thesis ‘A Study of the Identity, Family, and Background of Rosa Luxemburg 1871-1919’ by Swansea University in 2016. He has written a number of articles on the subject, is a member of the Advisory Board of The International Rosa Luxemburg Society, and is is co-editing the fourth volume of The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg.

rorycastle@hotmail.co.uk

 

About rosaluxemburgblog

I was awarded a PhD in History by Swansea University for a thesis on Rosa Luxemburg (2016). I am currently co-editing the fourth volume of 'The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg' and am a member of the Advisory Board of the International Rosa Luxemburg Society.
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