Far-Left and Far-Right Politics are Not Good for Yiddish


Early this summer (for the second year in a row), several participants in the annual Helix trip to Eastern Europe contacted Defending History asking to meet with us during their stay here in Vilnius. We promptly replied to each, explaining that one of us would be delighted to speak to the group, even for a very short talk, and gratis, but that we did not feel comfortable with the idea of them meeting us “secretly,” in other words without the agreement of the group’s leadership and/or sponsors.

 Perhaps that was an error on our part, thinking that if several participants would speak up, then the group’s leaders might be inclined to relent and include one of the “dissidents” in town whose opinions on Jewish, Yiddish and Holocaust matters differs from that of the Lithuanian government’s units and operatives dedicated to “managing” Western (and particularly Western Jewish) opinion on these topics. Our Vilnius-based staff includes Milan Chersonski, Geoff Vasil and myself, and, there is plenty of choice from among the other authors who have from time to time participated in Defending History. For those who love Yiddish and Vilna, we can with all our heart recommend Professor Pinchos Fridberg whose beautiful native Yiddish, and robust survivor opinions, can only benefit the participants in this and other “helixes.”

In the event of permission being given by the authors, in due course, we will publish these emails which are testimony to the natural curiosity of honest participants to be exposed to different opinions in the spirit of the very democratic dialogue that the group’s leaders and sponsors no doubt cherish. There might have been some simple misunderstanding. In any case, in future years, all being well, we will happily meet with individual group members or a more formal group.

(Heck, we expect to be shunned by the far-right nationalist crowd here, but pro-Bundist Jewish groups organized from California? Who are they afraid of? More on this below.)

Now, after the trip, we have read (with some dismay) group instructor Mandy Cohen’s write-up, “On the Frontiers of a Divided World: Border Lessons. Reflections after the 2014 Helix Project.” The version that appeared on the website of the sponsoring “Yiddishkayt (LA)” for some reason omits, in the paragraph at the end about the author, the proud connection with the anti-Israel movement’s BDS (=Boycott, Divest, Sanctions), which is trumpeted in the version that appeared in Portside.org where the author’s top-line self-submitted bio highlights that:

“Mandy Cohen is a member of the UC Student Workers’ Union, UAW 2865, whose officers have voted to endorse BDS and the decision will be up for a vote of the full membership this year.”

Incidentally, that version of the article has a “more radical” title: “Border Lessons: Jewish Resources for Resisting Nationalism.” But genuine radicalism is evident from conceptually honest transformative action, not just in proclamations conveniently bewstowed with very different titles on the Yiddishkayt (LA) and Portside.org websites.

Let us hope that Ms. Cohen will have the dignity to stand up long before the vote of the full membership, against the antisemitic demonization of Israel that passes over in silence dozens (or hundreds) of the world’s nations which pursue various policies that may be rejected, resisted and protested. (For democrats of any stripe, it would make some elementary sense to start with countries that do not have a robust free society rich in perfectly legal domestic anti-government discourse.)

It is important because BDS has become the status symbol for a lumpen Jewish Left that is not left at all, but a hodgepodge of Jewish self-hate where “fulfilment” is achieved by winning approval from that part of the antisemitic far left that is obsessed with delegitimizing, demonizing and economically crippling the Jewish state. Sometimes it is trendy and in the self-interest of proponents to try to attach themselves to the causes of Yiddish, the Bund, Jewish Socialism and other things with which they have zilch in common.

For presumptively pro-Yiddish organizations to allow the already weak status of Yiddish to be weakened further by supposedly natural links with the likes of BDS constitutes a profound disservice to the cause of Yiddish language, literature and culture in our times.

Incidentally, were “Helix” participants told that the world’s last Yiddish Bundist periodical appears in Tel Aviv?

What will not go unanswered on these pages is the invoking of the proud, noble and heroic Jewish Labor Bund for such nonsense. Real Bundists live in Israel, among many other places, and few as they are nowadays, continue as loyal citizens and loyal Jews to criticize Israeli policy in a robust and intelligent way. They raise families in Yiddish, and maintain schools in Yiddish and genuinely immerse themselves in the treasures of modern Yiddish literature and culture. Their Yiddishism does not consist of pompous Facebook photos trumpeting themselves as “Yiddish intellectuals” standing on this or that historic spot. To be a Yiddish intellectual, you have to write or produce something intellectual in Yiddish. Same as for French, Spanish or Turkish. The hijack of the NOTION “Yiddish” by the far left in the West is as damaging to the cause as is that of the far right here in Eastern Europe. And that takes us to the next point.

Much less will a gross perversion of the Jewish and Yiddish scene here in Vilnius, Lithuania go unanswered. Both versions of Cohen’s gush about the triumphant visit to the Old Country contain the statement:

“Lithuania is home to both the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, one of the pre-eminent sites for Yiddish scholarship in the world, and to the state policy of teaching the ‘double genocide’ according to which the crimes of Communism are to be given equal status to the crimes of the Nazis.”

It seems that the Helixers did not manage to find out that for the “other eleven months of the year” (outside the lucrative one-month summer course), the institute is tragically a Hollywood set of a cemetery Yiddish culture for naive foreign visitors. Since the institute was purged of those who supported the Holocaust survivor veterans of the Jewish partisans accused of “war crimes” by the state, there have been no term-time courses in Yiddish, no activities in Yiddish, no Yiddish specialists and no Jews among the academic staff. It is a major showpiece of the very far-right Double Genocide industry that Ms. Cohen rightly abhors.

The slightest bit of further research would unearth that the director of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, is not only a non-Yiddish speaker. He is a prime member of the state-sponsored “International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania” which is the prime driver of Double Genocide Holocaust revisionism in Eastern Europe (more here). A slight further effort would rapidly reveal the intimate ties of the now state controlled institute with the state’s far right Double Genocide industry. There are direct links, alas, to the far right’s efforts to trivialize the Holocaust, criminalize survivors who joined the resistance, glorify local Holocaust perpetrators, while opposing LGBT equal rights and free speech on the history of the Holocaust. One of the “Yiddish institute” board members is a right-wing member of the European Parliament where she has trashed each and every piece of LGBT rights legislation, in addition to supporting Double Genocide revisionism that would write the Holocaust out of history as unique event. For those who live in Lithuania, dissenting from Double Genocide violates a law that threatens up to two years imprisonment, and this has silenced many. Surely, a group from open-minded California that aspires to the mantle of the Bund’s grand legacy would wish to investigate such “details.”

Perhaps for the first time in the curious twenty-first century intellectual history of Yiddish, abuse of — and consequent harm to — the language and its proud and tragic heritage by both the far left and far right have (unwittingly to be sure!) figured in Yiddishkayt LA’s “Helix” 2014. Surely nothing could be further from the hopes and wishes of the organizers or the dreams and aspirations of the participants.

We are confident that in the fullness of time and after some contemplation, it will be obvious that the advice from a far-away friend to a pro-Yiddish organization in California to stay clear of both Baltic nationalist state-sponsored institutions and BDS is verily the sterling advice of a true friend! And there may even be a dash of understatement there.

As weak, divided and uncertain as the secular Yiddish world is today, let the central goal, of generating new masters able to write, teach, speak and create in the language itself not be thwarted by the left, the right or even the center…

      חשובע חברים, מיר האָפן צו קענען כאַפּן מיט אייך אַ שמועס אַז איר וועט נאָכאַמאָל זיין אין ווילנע. האָט ניט קיין מורא, זיך דורכשמועסן איז געזונט, אַזוי האַלטן דאָקטוירים. האָט זשע דערוויילע אַ גוט געזונט יאָר.

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