Statesmanship, Not Politics, Needed in Situation Facing Jews in Russia, Says Dr. Morgenstern, Giving
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Statesmanship, Not Politics, Needed in Situation Facing Jews in Russia, Says Dr. Morgenstern, Giving

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In this statement to the Jewish Daily Bulletin, Dr. Julian Morgenstern, president of the Hebrew Union College, gives an explanation of his views on the Russian situation, an explanation called forth by the “Morgenstern-Richards correspondence” on Russia:

In a general way we know what conditions in Russia are today. No doubt the reports which we receive contain considerable exaggeration and misrepresentation. But even with proper discount for this, unquestionably conditions there are unhappy and alarming in the extreme. A ruthless campaign against religion is being conducted. Its goel is the extinction of all religious belief and practice, primarily in Rus ###### throughout the world. Its goal is the extinction of all religious of the past, a delusion, a fallacy, contrary to reason which acts as an opiate upon men’s minds and lulls them into a state of semi-insensibility and passive submission to conditions of social and economic inequality and oppression such as existed in Czarist Russia, and such as, according to Bolshevik theory, obtain in all countries and under all governments except their own From this tyranny and enslavement the Bolsheviks would free the human race by destroying religion utterly. Manifestly this is a campaign of the masses, and particularly of the younger and more aggressive and radical element among them. Manifestly too it is supported by the Soviet government. It is directed against Christianity, Judaism and Islam alike, and also against the minor sects of Protestanism and other faiths which have gained a weak foothold in Russia.

Undoubtedly, too, Judaism is affected by this anti-religious campaign more than any other religion, for in the main they are matters of faith and ritual practice and comformity, while Judaism is all this plus something more, something vaster a way of life. It is therefore the entire life of Judaism and of the Jew in Russia which is affected and endangered. The situation could hardly be worse. And yet it is worse, made infinitely worse and more tragic and horrible by the sad fact that the most bitter persecutors of Judaism and of the Jews who conform, or seek to conform to it, are Jews themselves, the Yevseks, and that they seem to take a fiendish delight in the persecution of their fellow-Jews and in the desecration of all that which they, or at least their fathers, once held sacred.

Certainly our feelings are outraged by these conditions, this program and this manner of carrying it out. For all this fanaticism and persecution we can have only unqualified condemnation and infinite loathing. I am sure that not even my most eager and bitter crities will now misunderstand me or fail to comprehend and to admit where my strong sympathies lie. The question is, what can be done; or explicitly, what can we do, we Jews, here in America, living in social and political security, and in comparative ease, comfort and economic abundance?


The first impulse is to protest, to protest against these wrongs and iniquities, all the more iniquitous because committed in the name of freedom of thought and of human salvation, to protest against the Soviet government which can condone, and even approve these iniquities, to protest as Jews and as Americans, and to employ all possible pressure to bring our American fellow-citizens and our American government to protest with and for us. Unquestionably to protest in this manner is the most natural and instinctive thing to do. And not impossibly something is to be gained from public opinion thus aroused—something, perhaps; but I fear not much. I have in mind the nation-wide protest-campaign last fall after the Palestine atrocities and the meager and pitiful results therefrom. Nevertheless it is not at all improbable that I would have joined in a general, representative, dignified and formal protest, had I been invited to do so—which I was not. But I must admit that I would have had serious misgivings. I have little faith in protests, and least of all in the present case. On the one hand, I fear that a protest now, no matter how general and vigorous, even one into which our government might be drawn, can help but little. And on the other hand, I fear that it might even make matters worse for our brethren in Russia, that it might only irritate the Soviet government and the Yevseks and encourage them in their stubborn adherence to their vicious program.

Even more, I have the feeling that a protest such as this, a protest of which we may be fairly sure in advance that it will have little helpful effect, is not much more than a gesture, a grandiloquent and self-satisfying gesture, by which we relieve ourselves of pent-up feelings of indignation and salve our consciences by saying, “Now we have protested, what else remains that we can do?”


Finally, I must say frankly that I am suspicious of this general protest and of the various local protest meetings scheduled to follow. I have had one good lesson in Jewish politics by a very competent teacher, and I have learned a great deal in this one lesson. Protesting publicly and formally, with resolutions all drawn up in advance, and the guileless public, just as naive as I was myself two months ago, expected, after the speeches are all made, to sign on the dotted line, and then go home and sit quietly and ask no questions, but to feel proudly that it has expressed its united will and now something must happen, all this is no doubt good politics, and especially good Jewish politics—for the good Jewish public likes to make and hear speeches and to protest and to persuade itself that thereby it is helping its oppressed brethren. It is all good Jewish politics and designed to win the approval of the Jewish masses in America and their endorsement of its advocates and spokesmen. It is politics, yes,—but is it statesmanship? And again I ask, in the present tragic situation confronting our brethren in Russia, Palestine, Poland and other lands, do we not need, not Jewish politics, but Jewish statesmanship, statesmanship of the highest order?

I myself make no pretense to statesmanship. I have as yet had no lesson in that. Nor am I authorized, nor do I presume, to speak for any Jewish wing, group, organization or institution. Let this be clearly and unequivocally understood. I speak only for myself and voice only my own personal views. And before I can formulate my thought upon any subject or situation I must first endeavor to analyze it, to understand its causes and effects. A careful diagnosis must always precede even the most modest and hesitating suggestion of a curse.


In the present situation in Russia this is not difficult—for those who truly wish to understand it. Let me say once more and in advance, so that my views and sympathies may not be again misunderstood and misinterpreted, I condemn the Yevseks unqualifiedly and am horrified by the fiendishness of their policies, their program and the methods by which they seek to carry this out. But I may no more indulge myself in the opiate of joining with the present mass hysteria against them than may the physician dealing with a dread and loathsome disease. On the contrary, I think I can understand them quite well, not sympathetically, of course, but objectively, even as the physician studies and understands disease.

They are fanatics, bigots in the extreme, as are all their Bolshevik comrades. But why not? Conditions have made them such, and they could not well be aught else. Centuries of oppression, of denial of human rights, of enslavement of body, mind and soul by a selfish, tyrannical government and an equally selfish, tyrannical church made the masses of the Russian people what they were up to fourteen years ago, ignorant, superstitious, callous, culturally backward, a powerful, lumbering creature in chains, a Golem perhaps, exploited cruelly by its master and hating this master bitterly, gradually growing more and more conscious of its power and of its superiority to its master in this respect, and cherishing wild ideas of the destruction of its master and of all that government and society which this master seemed to typify. What little real knowledge came to this creature was gathered in the main surreptitiously and was, of course, ill digested and resolved itself into crude, extravagant, fantastic theories of radicalism, anarchism, nihilism, destruction and eventual reorganization of ilfe, society and government upon a new scale and in accordance with a new principle and standard. At last the creature arose in its power and crushed its cruel master completely; and then, feeling itself no longer merely a creature, but now a man, it proceeded to realize its dreams, its ideals, its theories. The result we see before us, a revolution like, yet infinitely more vast, more cruel, more fanatic, more horrible than the French Revolution—and the end is not yet.


And, now with a change of figure, we on the outside are powerless to interfere, to check the course of the conflagration. Our puny, distant efforts to extinguish the fire will but fan the flames still higher. We can only watch, with fear and fellow-suffering snatching at our hearts, watch and wait until the raging fires of fanaticism shall have burned themselves out, and hope and pray, and perhaps have faith in the lesson which history, repeating itself, might suggest, that something may survive to salvage, something which may even again eventuate in a precious boon for mankind, a new and higher and better social order. Certainly we dare not hope for the complete and speedy failure of the experiment and the overthrow of the Soviet government; for that might well mean the restoration of Czarism, something infinitely worse. Then the whole struggle would in time have to be fought through once more. We can only hope and pray that very speedily experience, common sense and growing, tested knowledge may come into their own, and the present era of destruction and ruin yield to one of construction and social progress.


Within this peculiar setting we can readily understand the Yevsek movement, if we will. Doubly the victims of oppression, Judaism and the Jew stood practically still culturally for four hundred years. His language, his dress, his habit of thought, his outlook upon life and the world, his conception and practice of religion experienced but a minimum of change and advance during all these centuries. A significant reform movement, healthy in its foundations and rich in its promise, began in Russia a little over a century ago. Had it been allowed to evolve naturally and normally it would undoubtedly have achieved much, and Judaism and Jewry in Russia and adjacent lands would have experienced its full, beneficent efforts. But circumstances and unfavorable environment and internal suspicion and reaction checked this movement and {SPAN}narr#wed{/SPAN} its influence. Then to the masses Zionism came and brought a buoyant hope and a stimulating, life-sustaining vision. To some, however, Zionism either did not appeal deeply or it seemed a mere palliative. For with the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, or even some time before, atheism, extreme, aggressive, virulent and anti-Jewish, began to manifest itself upon a large and steadily increasing scale. It was the expression of a rabid, resentful, destructive hatred of everything that had characterized the old regime of oppression, even of those very institutions and forces of old life which had been themselves victims of that oppression, hatred of Judaism and of Jewish separatism, of nationalism and Zionism, of the Hebrew language and literature and of every characteristic creation of Jewish life and culture. It is of course fanaticism, cruel, uncompromising, raging.

Yet there is no reason, just because the Yevsek movement is ruthlessly inimical to all the things which we hold sacred and dear, and because we must combat it relentlessly, and because too its protagonists seem to be actuated by fiendish and resentful cruelty, that we should profess not to understand what we may easily understand, and to deny to the Yevseks all qualities of sincerity and idealism, and to impute to them only the lowest and most repellant of human motives, cowardice, selfishness, subserviency and a sadistic cruelty and thirst for destruction. They are Jews like ourselves, and the forces which drive them forward, even though along a strange and errant path, must be much the same as those which animate us, above all the hope for a truer, richer life and happier social adjustment. They represent a movement in Judaism so extreme that for the present, we must admit they have taken themselves completely outside of Judaism. But the pendulum will swing backward; it always does, so history teaches, even in Jewish history and that again and again, and the fires of Yevsek fanaticism too will burn themselves out at last.


Extremes are meeting today in Russia, and especially extremes within Judaism there, the extremes of the old, dignified, sanctified, but unprogressive orthodoxy, and of the new, ultra-modern, intolerant Yevsek fanaticism. If only conditions in Russia had been normal for the last few centuries, or even for the last century, and Judaism had been permitted to enjoy a natural growth and a steady adaptation to modern life, knowledge and culture, if only the reform movement, begun under the influence of Haskala, had been allowed to work itself out steadily and progressively, this appalling Jewish tragedy, one of the most sorrowful in all our tragic history, would surely have been averted.

And this suggests the only possible eventual means of terminating the tragedy, a true, reform movement within the ranks of Russian Jewry. I am pleading not for the introduction of American Reform Judaism into Russia. I am surprised that even my bitterest and most vindictive critics should have attributed such a foolish, impossible thought and purpose to me. I ask them to believe that this was the thing farthest from my mind. I am pleading for a true reform from within, a reform which must be and will be the creation of Russian Judaism and Russian Jewry themselves, and which will bring them completely abreast of the modern world in all aspects of life and thought and of religious, social and economic theory and practice. The extremes, so far apart at present, must meet at last, through natural growth, mutual understanding, exchange of ideas and realization of common fate, hope and purpose. A healthy, creative, unifying reform must come into the theories and practice of both extremes. There is no other solution of the problem; nor will the laws of history and human existence permit aught else.

Now what can we do to aid and expedite this solution? Here is one of the saddest parts of the great tragedy, that, eager to do so much, we here in America can actually do so little. We are in the unhappy position of having to watch a loved one, racked by a devastating, torturing disease, suffer and writhe in agony, with naught that we can do except to speak an occasional word of cheer and guidance and helpful counsel, which may encourage the patient to resist and to help himself as much as possible. Shrieking aloud, and summoning the neighbors to shriek with us, will avail little, if anything.


The one concrete thing we can do in this grave crisis is to provide, to the utmost of our ability, the food which the patient needs and can assimilate. We may not let him perish for want of such nourishment. Translated into practical terms and plain language, this means that we must labor and sacrifice to the utmost for the economic well-being and rehabilitation of our brethren in Russia, and thereby also for the economic rehabilitation and well-being of the Russian people and nation. Religious fanaticism and oppression cannot thrive in the midst of economic prosperity. That makes always for responsibility, conservatism and steady, systematic, constructive progress. Whenever economic stability shall come to Russia, then fanaticism and persecution will cease automatically, and a new era of freedom and progress for all, our brethren included, will begin. Perhaps if our American government could be induced, even through Jewish persuasion, to recognize the Soviet government, and to bring to bear upon it and its policies the influence and pressure of a friendly power, something, even much, might be accomplished. It is indeed a counsel of desperation; but has anything better been proposed?

Meanwhile we stand upon the threshold of the new six million dollar campaign of the Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Palestine. Through it we can solve completely neither the Jewish problem in Russia nor the Jewish problem in Palestine. But through it and through our generous support of it, now and for all the years in which this may be needed, we can contribute mightily to the eventual solution of these problems. That is the one concerte, worthwhile thing we can do now in the present crisis. But in it we dare not fail. It calls for a united front by a loyally united Israel. Aught else is faithlessness to our brethren, to our tradition, to Judaism.

These are my views upon the present Jewish situation in Russia, rather forced from me against my will. Even now they are offered hesitatingly and humbly, but nonetheless sincerely and in the spirit of sympathy and helpfulness. I trust that they may be received in this same spirit.

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