Category Archives: Judaism

Romanian Democracy, 1920s–1930s

From A Concise History of Romania (Cambridge Concise Histories), by Keith Hitchins (Cambridge, 2014), Kindle Loc. 2799-2815, 2865-2899:

The 1930s was the decade of crisis for Romanian democracy. The world depression exacerbated existing economic problems and sharpened social tensions and thus gave impetus to those forces hostile to the prevailing parliamentary system. The crisis enhanced the appeal of anti-Semitism among certain elements of society, who used it to rally support for their particular brand of nationalism. Foremost among organizations that made anti-Semitism the ideological core of their new Romania was the Iron Guard, which reached the height of its popularity in the mid 1930s. The accession of Carol II to the throne in 1930 also boded ill for democracy, as he made no secret of his disdain for parliamentary institutions and of his intention to become the undisputed source of power in the state. Nor can shifts in the European balance of power be ignored. The rise of Nazi Germany and the aggressive behavior of fascist Italy combined with the policy of appeasement adopted by the Western democracies encouraged both the declared opponents of democracy and the hesitant in Romania to conclude that the future belonged to the authoritarians. The leading democratic parties themselves seemed to have lost much of their élan of the preceding decade. They proved incapable of withstanding the assault from both within and outside the country and acquiesced in the establishment of Carol’s dictatorship in 1938, an event which marked the end of the democratic experiment in Romania for half a century.

Two parties dominated political life in the interwar period – the Liberals and the National Peasants. The fortunes of the Liberal Party never seemed brighter, as it held power for long periods, especially between 1922 and 1926. The driving force within the party came from the so-called financial oligarchy, which was grouped around large banking and industrial families headed by the Brătianu family and its allies. The intertwining of banking, industry, and political power on such a grand scale was a consequence of the state’s having assumed a crucial role in promoting economic development. Through this remarkable intermingling of business and financial interests and politicians the control of industry, banking, and government inevitably fell into the hands of the same people.

One issue, nonetheless, continued to nurture rightist movements – anti-Semitism. By no means a post-war phenomenon, it could in its modern form be traced back at least to the early decades of the nineteenth century as Jewish immigration into the principalities steadily grew. In the interwar period a leading advocate of action against Jews was Alexandru C. Cuza (1857–1947), professor of political economy at the University of Iaşi. In 1923, he formed the League of National-Christian Defense (Liga Apărării Naţional Creştine), which had as its primary goals the expulsion of the Jews from all areas of economic and cultural life and the education of young people in a Christian and nationalist spirit.

One of Cuza’s most ardent followers, at least initially, was Corneliu Zelea Codreanu (1899–1938), who created his own, more extreme nationalist organization, the Legion of the Archangel Michael, in 1927. Three years later, he established a military wing of the Legion, which he called the Iron Guard, a name that was soon applied to the entire organization. Outwardly, the Guard resembled German and Italian fascism with its uniforms and salutes and its glorification of its leader – the Căpitan – but all this was merely form. The substance of Romanian fascism – the anti-Semitism, the Orthodox Christian (in a distorted form), and the cult of the peasant as the embodiment of natural, unspoiled man – came from native sources. Here, the traditionalist hostility to cosmopolitanism, rationalism, and industrialization found a crude expression. But lacking was an ideology. Guard leaders ignored calls for a Romanian corporate state on the grounds that the appearance of the new man must precede the adoption of programs. Otherwise, they argued, institutions would simply reinforce the existing “corrupt” society. While there was thus a strain of idealism in the Guard’s doctrine, repeated acts of violence and intimidation against opponents revealed at the same time its thuggish nature. When the new head of the Liberal Party and prime minister Ion G. Duca outlawed the Guard in 1933 in order to eliminate the “forces of subversion,” it retaliated by assassinating him. He was succeeded as prime minister by Gheorghe Tǎtǎrescu (1886–1957), the leader of the so-called Young Liberals, who were more tolerant of the extreme right than the mainstream Liberals.

Between the elections of 1931 and 1937 the Iron Guard became a mass movement, rising from 1 to 15.58 percent of the popular vote. Its strongest constituency was young and urban, but it cut across class boundaries, appealing at the same time to peasants and rural clergy, elements of the urban working class and the middle class, and the periphery of society. The leadership of the Guard at this time, its heyday, was formed by university-educated, middle-class intellectuals, but its nationalism appealed to all those who felt alienated by a political and social system which seemed to them to have been created outside and at the expense of “Romanian realities.”

The Iron Guard appealed especially to members of the young generation of intellectuals. Its call for a national rebirth based on the simple, traditional virtues of the Romanian countryside offered salvation from a social and political order that seemed to them corrupt and adrift. They enthusiastically embraced the exhortations of their mentor Nae Ionescu, the spiritual father of the Iron Guard, to experience life, not reduce it to abstract formulas, and they proclaimed themselves the missionaries of a new spirituality. Their mission, as they defined it, was to bring about the spiritual reconstruction of Romania, just as the previous generation had achieved political unity. The Iron Guard seemed to many of them to be the embodiment of the youthful vitality needed to set the country on the way to returning to itself. But Emil Cioran wanted to accomplish just the opposite. In his dissection of modern Romania, Schimbarea la faţă a României (The transfiguration of Romania; 1936), he looked to the Iron Guard to carry out a “creatively barbarian” revolution to save the country from disintegration by substituting totalitarianism for democracy. He praised the Guard for their “irrational merging” of themselves into the nation and for their heroism, which “began in brutality and ended in sacrifice.”

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Initial Soviet Attitudes toward Israel

From Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder (Basic Books, 2010), Kindle Loc. 6369-6392 (pp. 345-346):

After the Second World War, it was much harder for the Soviet leadership to control the mental world of Soviet citizens. Although the apparatus of censorship remained in force, too many people had experienced life beyond the Soviet Union for Soviet norms to seem like the only norms, or Soviet lives necessarily the best sort of lives. The war itself could not be contained within a Fatherland, be it Russian or Soviet; it had touched too many other peoples and its aftermath shaped not just a country but a world. In particular, the establishment of the State of Israel made Soviet political amnesia about the fate of the Jews impossible. Even after the Holocaust, more Jews lived in the Soviet Union than in Palestine, but the latter was to become the national homeland of the Jews. If Jews were to have a national state, would this be a blow to British imperialism in the Middle East, to be supported, or a challenge to the loyalty of Soviet Jews, to be feared?

At first, the Soviet leadership seemed to expect that Israel would be a socialist state friendly to the Soviet Union, and the communist bloc supported Israel in ways that no one else could. In the second half of 1947, about seventy thousand Jews were permitted to leave Poland for Israel; many of them had just been expelled from the Soviet Union to Poland. After the United Nations recognized the State of Israel in May 1948 (with the Soviets voting in favor), the new state was invaded by its neighbors. Its nascent armies defended itself and, in dozens of cases, cleared territories of Arabs. The Poles trained Jewish soldiers on their own territory, then dispatched them to Palestine. The Czechoslovaks sent arms. As Arthur Koestler noted, the weapons shipments “aroused a feeling of gratitude among the Jews towards the Soviet Union.”

Yet by the end of 1948 Stalin had decided that Jews were influencing the Soviet state more than the Soviets were influencing the Jewish state. Spontaneous signs of affection for Israel were apparent in Moscow, and in Stalin’s own court. Muscovites seemed to adore the new Israeli ambassador, Golda Meir (born in Kiev and raised in the United States). The high holidays were observed with enormous fanfare. Rosh Hashanah saw the largest public gathering in Moscow in twenty years. Some ten thousand Jews crowded in and around the Choral Synagogue. When the shofar blew and people promised each other to meet “next year in Jerusalem,” the mood was euphoric. The anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, 7 November 1948, fell during the Days of Awe, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Polina Zhemchuzhina, the wife of the commissar for foreign affairs Viacheslav Molotov, saw Golda Meir that day, and encouraged her to continue to go to synagogue. What was worse, Zhemchuzhina said this in Yiddish, the language of her parents and of Meir’s—in that paranoid setting, a suggestion of national unity among Jews across borders. Ekaterina Gorbman, the wife of another poliburo member, Kliment Voroshilov, was heard to exclaim: “Now we too have our own homeland.”

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Salonica’s Heterodox Modernizers

From Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews, 1430-1950, by Mark Mazower (Vintage, 2006), pp. 74-76:

The Ottoman authorities clearly regarded their [Ma’min] heterodoxy with some suspicion and as late as 1905 treated a case of a Ma’min girl who had fallen in love with her Muslim tutor, Hadji Feyzullah Effendi, as a question of conversion. Yet with their usual indifference to inner belief, they left them alone. A pasha who proposed to put them all to death was, according to local myth, removed by God before he could realize his plan. In 1859, at a time when the Ottoman authorities were starting to worry more about religious orthodoxy, a governor of the city carried out an enquiry which concluded they posed no threat to public order. All he did was to prevent rabbis from instructing them any longer. A later investigation confirmed their prosperity and honesty and after 1875 such official monitoring lapsed. Ma’min spearheaded the expansion of Muslim—including women’s—schooling in the city, and were prominent in its commercial and intellectual life. Merchant dynasties like the fez-makers, the Kapandjis, accumulated huge fortunes, built villas in the European style by the sea and entered the municipal administration. Others were in humbler trades—barbers, coppersmiths, town-criers and butchers.

Gradually—as with the Marranos of Portugal, from whom many were descended—their connection with their ancestral religion faded. High-class Ma’min married into mainstream Muslim society, though most resided in central quarters, between the Muslim neighbourhoods of the Upper Town and the Jewish quarters below, streets where often the two religions lived side by side. “They will be converted purely and simply into Muslims,” predicted one scholar in 1897. But like many of Salonica’s Muslims at this time, the Ma’min also embraced European learning, and identified themselves with secular knowledge, political radicalism and freemasonry. By a strange twist of fate it was thus the Muslim followers of a Jewish messiah who helped turn late-nineteenth-century Salonica into the most liberal, progressive and revolutionary city in the empire.

The juxtaposition of old and new outlooks in a fin-de-siècle Ma’min household is vividly evoked in the memoirs of Ahmed Emin Yalman. His father, Osman Tewfik Bey, was a civil servant and a teacher of calligraphy. Living in the house with him and his parents were his uncle and aunt, his seven siblings, two orphaned cousins and at least five servants. “The strife between the old and the new was ever present in our house,” he recollects. His uncle was of the old school: a devout man, he prayed five times a day, abhorred alcohol, and disliked travel or innovation. For some reason, he refused to wear white shirts; “a coloured shirt with attached collar was, for him, the extreme limit of westernization in dress to which he felt that one could go without falling into conflict with religion … He objected to the theatre, music, drinking, card playing, and photography—all new inventions which he considered part of Satan’s world.” Yalman’s father, on the other hand—Osman Tewfik Bey—was “a progressive, perhaps even a revolutionary,” who wore “the highest possible white collars,” beautiful cravats and stylish shoes in the latest fashion, loved poetry, theatre and anything that was new, taking his children on long trips and photographing them with enthusiasm. He adorned his rooms with their pictures and prayed but rarely.

Esin Eden’s memoir of the following generation shows Europeanization taken even further. Hers was a well-to-do family of tobacco merchants which combined a strong consciousness of its Jewish ancestry with pride in its contemporary achievements as part of a special Muslim community, umbilically linked to Salonica itself. The women were all highly educated—one was even a teacher at the famous new Terakki lycée—sociable, energetic and articulate. They smoked lemon-scented cigarettes in the garden of their modern villa by the sea, played cards endlessly and kept their eyes on the latest European fashions. Their servants were Greek, their furnishings French and German, and their cuisine a mix of “traditionally high Ottoman cuisine as well as traditional Sephardic cooking,” though with no concern for the dietary laws of Judaism.

When the Young Turk revolt broke out in Salonica in 1908, Ma’min economics professors, newspaper men, businessmen and lawyers were among the leading activists and there were three Ma’min ministers in the first Young Turk government. Indeed conspiracy theorists saw the Ma’min everywhere and assumed any Muslim from Salonica must be one. Today some people even argue that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk must have been a Ma’min (there is no evidence for this), and see the destruction of the Ottoman empire and the creation of the secular republic of Turkey as their handiwork—the final revenge, as it were, of Sabbatai Zevi, and the unexpected fulfilment of his dreams. In fact, many of the Ma’min themselves had mixed feelings at what was happening in nationalist Turkey: some were Kemalists, others opposed him. In 1923, however, they were all counted as Muslims in the compulsory exchange of populations and packed off to Istanbul, where a small but distinguished community of businessmen, newspaper magnates, industrialists and diplomats has since flourished. As the writer John Freely tells us, their cemetery, in the Valley of the Nightingales above Üsküdar, on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, is still known as the Selanikliler Mezarligi—the Cemetery of Those from Salonica.

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Salonica’s Muslim-Jewish Syncretism

From Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews, 1430-1950, by Mark Mazower (Vintage, 2006), pp. 72-74:

Most of [Sabbatai] Zevi’s followers—like his right-hand man, the Gaza rabbi Nathan—never did convert [to Islam] and subterranean Sabbataian influences could be found among Jews as far afield as Poland, Italy and Egypt. In Salonica they lingered on for decades and only disappeared after the Napoleonic wars.

HUNDREDS MORE, HOWEVER, did actually follow Zevi into Islam—some at the time, and others a few years later—and by doing so they gave rise to what was perhaps one of the most unusual religious communities in the Levant. To the Turks they were called Dönmehs (turncoats [cf. Turkish döner kebap, Greek gyros for rotisserie meat]), a derogatory term which conveyed the suspicion with which others always regarded them. But they called themselves simply Ma’min—the Faithful—a term commonly used by all Muslims. (In Hebrew, the term is Maminim; in Turkish Mümin. Ma’min was a Salonica derivation.) There were small groups of them elsewhere, but Zevi’s last wife, Ayse, and her father, a respected rabbi called Joseph Filosof, were from Salonica, and after Zevi’s death, they returned there and helped to establish the new sect which he had created. By 1900, the city’s ten-thousand-strong community of Judeo-Spanish-speaking Muslims was one of the most extraordinary and (for its size) influential elements in the confessional mosaic of the late Ottoman empire.

Schism was built into their history from the start. Not unlike the Sunni-Shia split in mainstream Islam, the internal divisions of the Ma’min stemmed from disagreement over the line of succession which followed their Prophet’s death. In 1683 his widow Ayse hailed her brother Jacob—Zevi’s brother-in-law—as the Querido (Beloved) who had received Zevi’s spirit, and there was a second wave of conversions. Many of those who had converted at the same time as Zevi regarded this as impious nonsense: they were known as Izmirlis, after Zevi’s birthplace. Jacob Querido himself helped Islamicize his followers and left Salonica to make the haj in the early 1690s but died during his return from Mecca. As the historian Nikos Stavroulakis points out, both the Izmirlis and the Yakublar (the followers of Jacob Querido) saw themselves as the faithful awaiting the return of the Messiah who had “withdrawn” himself from the world; it was a stance which crossed the Judeo-Muslim divide and turned Sabbatai Zevi himself into something like a hidden Imam of the kind found in some Shia theology. A few years later, a third group, drawn mostly from among the poor and artisanal classes, broke off from the Izmirlis to follow another charismatic leader, the youthful Barouch Russo (known to his followers as Osman Baba), who claimed to be not merely the vessel for Zevi’s spirit but his very reincarnation.

Although they differed on doctrinal matters, the three factions had features in common. Following the advice of Zevi himself, whose eighteen commandments forbade any form of proselytism, they preserved an extreme discretion as a precaution against the suspicions and accusations which they encountered from both Turks and Jews. Even their prayers were suffused with mystical allusions to protect their inner meanings from being deciphered by outsiders.

Over time they developed a kind of mystical Islam with a Judaic component not found in mainstream Muslim life. While they attended mosque and sometimes made the haj, they initially preserved Judeo-Spanish for use within the home, something which lasted longest among Russo’s followers. They celebrated Ramadan, and ate the traditional sweets on the 10th of Moharrem, to mark the deaths of Hasan and Huseyn. Like their cooking, the eighteen commandments which they attributed to Zevi showed clearly the influence of both Muslim and Talmudic practice. (Was it coincidence that eighteen was also a number of special significance to the Mevlevi order?) They prayed to their Messiah, “our King, our Redeemer,” in “the name of God, the God of Israel,” but followed many of the patterns of Muslim prayer. They increasingly followed Muslim custom in circumcizing their males just before puberty, and read the Qur’an, but referred to their festivals using the Jewish calendar. Some hired rabbis to teach the Torah to their children. Although the common suspicion throughout the city—certainly well into the nineteenth century—was that they were really Jews (if of a highly unreliable kind), in fact they were evolving over time into a distinctive heterodox Muslim sect, much influenced by the Sufi orders.

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