Diaspora Anarchism

This is a review of There Is Nothing So Whole as a Broken Heart: Mending the World as Jewish Anarchists (AK Press, 2021), edited by Cindy Milstein.

When I heard about this book, I was very excited, although I’m not Jewish. Why? I come to the topic from a different angle. Both of my grandfathers fought in World War II in the German Wehrmacht. One returned from the war in 1943. His own story was that he had disobeyed an order. Relatives suggested that he had gone mad. Who knows? The other grandfather returned in 1947 after three years in a POW camp in the Colorado desert. He never held any grudges. War was war and all sides had to do what they had to do.

Cindy Milstein describes in There Is Nothing So Whole as a Broken Heart how neighbors helped her clean out her parents’ house after the parents’ passing. The neighbors were startled by finding “a Jewish thing in the family room.” When, some twenty years years ago, I helped clean out the house of relatives who had recently passed away, I found a “Bund Deutscher Mädel” membership card in the bedside drawer.


Cindy Milstein also relates a story about a German woman she regularly conversed with at a public bath in an unidentified US city until, one day, the German woman remarked that, in the locker room, it was “hot as a gas chamber.” The brutal truth is that for someone who spent most of his youth in rural Austria the comment appears fairly harmless. This tells you a lot about the environment I grew up in.

In 1986, former UN general secretary Kurt Waldheim was a candidate in Austria’s presidential election. He was trailing in the polls, until accusations arose of him having been involved in the killing and deportation of Jews while serving as an aide-de-camp in Bosnia during World War II. Waldheim won the election by a comfortable margin. The Austrian public objected to the World Jewish Congress, which was driving the case against Waldheim, “meddling with internal affairs.”

Not only conservatives were to blame. Within the postwar German-speaking left, the boundaries between antizionism and antisemitism were indeed blurry. For some radical leftists, Jewish community centers were legitimate targets in their protests against the occupation of Palestine.

Things started to change in the early 1990s. German reunification and a rise in xenophobic sentiments made all forms of nationalist politics suspect, including those of national liberation movements. Rifts in the once close collaboration between German and Arab militants also changed perspectives on the Middle East conflict. One of the outcomes was the now notorious phenomenon of the “Antideutschen,” who puzzle leftists worldwide with their “pro-Israel” stance. The phenomenon is a complex one, but it suffices to say that I have nothing to do with it. I dislike antideutsche politics and the entire subculture that comes with it: the music, the drugs, the clothes. In the context of the German-speaking left, I remain a pretty traditional “Anti-Imp” (for “antiimperialist”), as one started to call the main adversaries of the Antideutschen. Yet, being all too familiar with its historical, cultural, and psychological background, the antideutsche phenomenon is far less outlandish to me than to most international leftists.


Regardless of one’s position, everyone in the German-speaking left was affected by these debates. Except for die-hard dogmatists and leftists who might have indeed been antisemites, everyone, antiimperialists included, recognized the importance of more knowledge about Jewish culture, the Shoa, and the British Mandate of Palestine. Now, politics driven by guilt are usually bad politics (Antideutsche are a prime example, even if they’ll hate me for saying it). Yet, guilt can motivate you to learn things. In that sense, it doesn’t do much harm.

Besides, not feeling any guilt does not necessarily make your politics better. In Sweden, where I have been living for the past fifteen years, antisemitism is a non-issue within the left. Whenever someone raises it, they are instantly accused of trying to undermine the Palestine solidarity movement. Any meaningful debate ends before it has even started.

To their credit, in January 2018, the Center for Marxist Social Studies organized a talk about antisemitism and the left after an attack on the synagogue in Gothenburg and antisemitic chants at pro-Palestine rallies (not something that could, perhaps, be construed as antisemitic – it was more like “Kill the Jews”). That night, a number of young Jews opened up about how alienated they felt within the the Swedish left. The response was muted. When a young woman, very politely, pointed out that it might not be ideal to organize an event about antisemitism on a Friday evening, the answer was that leftists would not pay attention to “religious holidays,” and that was that. Regardless, it was a good evening and I met great people.


Looking at Austrian history, it becomes obvious how gigantic the loss caused by the Third Reich was, beyond the unfathomable human suffering itself. An essential part of the country’s cultural heritage was destroyed. In 1938, around 200.000 Jews lived in Austria, most of them in Vienna, where they made up over 10 percent of the population. In 1945, when World War II ended, none were left. In the following years, only a fraction returned. It took decades for a Jewish community to be established again. Today, the Jewish population is estimated at around 15.000 people.

In the late nineteenth century, the “Fin de siècle,” Vienna was hailed as Europe’s artistic and intellectual center. Out came the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud, the symphonies of Gustav Mahler, the poetry of Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the satire of Karl Kraus, the novellas of Stefan Zweig, the legal philosophy of Hans Kelsen. Jews played a quintessential role in leftist politics, too. Many of the leading Austromarxists, who, in the 1920s, were trying to carve out a path between reformist social democracy and revolutionary Bolshevism, came from Jewish families. So did the country’s most renowned anarchist, Pierre Ramus (born Rudolf Großmann).

All the while, antisemitism was rife in Austria. Many Jews converted to Christianity and became, as they were called, “assimilated Jews.” Among them Viktor Adler, the “father of Austrian social democracy.” Others swept their Jewish background under the rug. Julius Deutsch, chairman of the antifascist workers’ militia Republikanischer Schutzbund, grew up poor in a Jewish home in Vienna’s working-class quarters. Exiled during World War II, he was one of the few Jews to return to Austria immediately after the war had ended. In 1960, he wrote a 460-page memoir, in which he does not mention his Jewish background once. Many Jewish socialists from Austria also found exile in Sweden, where they made a new home. Today, their children and grandchildren often have to rediscover their Jewish heritage, as it was never discussed, sometimes not even mentioned, within the family.


It has been a common feature for Jewish radicals, anarchists included, to keep their Jewish identity “out of their politics.” But circumstances often caught up with them. There are many examples, from Gustav Landauer feeling compelled to comment on the “Beilis Trial” of 1913, to Emma Goldman voicing her opinion on Jewish emigration to Palestine in the 1930s, to David Graeber addressing the 2019 antisemitism debate in the British Labour Party.

The first Jewish anarchists I met were members of the “Upper Galilee Anarchist Brigade.” I visited them in the far north of Israel in 1996. Some became instrumental figures in the formation of Anarchists Against the Wall a few years later and remain among my dearest friends.

My visits to Israel led to many interesting encounters. One morning, I joined a diverse group of Israelis and “Internationals” to travel to a Palestinian olive farm in the West Bank – we were to serve as human shields, so that the Palestinian families could harvest their trees without being harassed by Jewish settlers. On the train, I chatted to a young Israeli punk whose Polish grandparents had died in the Holocaust. He seemed genuinely moved that the two of us could be sitting next to each other, heading to a solidarity action and enjoying each other’s company. I felt much more awkward when, on another occasion, a young Israeli seemed disappointed that my grandfathers had “only” been in the Wehrmacht and not in the SS, which, it seemed, would have made an even better story.


So, after much explanation for my interest in Jewish radicalism (thanks for bearing with me), let me finally turn my attention to There Is Nothing So Whole as a Broken Heart.

In the original call for submissions, Cindy Milstein wrote: “This is a call for stories crafted by trans-inclusive rad feminist, queer, and/or feministic Jewish anarchists to be woven together into the fabric of an edited anthology in book form.” In Milstein’s words, the aspiration was “to illustrate … a queered anarchx-Judaism.” I understand that the book does not exclusively consist of responses to the call, but this gives you a good idea about its contents.

With more than thirty texts as well as artwork spread out over roughly 400 pages, it seems impossible to do the diversity of the book justice in a review. There are personal and reflective essays, poems, drawings, tales from radio programs, musings on radical Jewish calendars, and even a “Klezmer Playlist for a Revolt Against Fascism.” I do not want to highlight particular pieces, as it would be unfair to the many I cannot mention. The contributions provide a fascinating insight into contemporary (radical) Jewish culture, (re)interpretations of Jewish identity, and political activism in an ever more complicated world.

Almost all contributors are from North America. This is no great surprise, even if I would have loved to see projects such as Jewdas represented. The nerd in me would have also wished for more historical references. The Bund gets a few mentions, and so does Emma Goldman, but not the Yiddish Freie Arbeiter Stimme, one of the longest-running anarchist periodicals in history (1890-1977); not Martin Buber, whose mystical anarchism and ideas for a “binational” Israel were way ahead of his time (and, indeed, of ours); not Buenos Aires as a hub of Jewish anarchism in the early twentieth century; not Gustav Landauer, Erich Mühsam, Mollie Steimer, Milly Witkop, or other highly influential figures in the history of anarchism; not the anarchist influences on the kibbutz movement (documented in James Horrox’s A Living Revolution); not the likes of Sam Dolgoff and Murray Bookchin, who have left their mark on contemporary anarchism in the US and far beyond.

However, there is nothing more annoying than criticizing a book for what it’s not. There Is Nothing So Whole as a Broken Heart is a celebration of Jewish anarchism at a specific time and a specific place, and, as such, it is groundbreaking. Hopefully, it can inspire many similar publications in the future.

Feeling overwhelmed by the volume’s richness, allow me to end this review with one of the many great passages you’ll find in its pages. I chose a paragraph from the text “Of Performing Mitzvahs and Toppling Kings” by Stephen Gee, but I could have chosen one from pretty much any of the others:

“To remember these practices, history, culture, and teachings is to remember that Judaism is old indeed. Perhaps, after nearly six thousand years, after ruling a mighty kingdom and being cast into diaspora, after being made refugees and nearly wiped out, and arguing among ourselves about all of it the whole time, a kind of consensus arose within Judaism. That for a people to survive, they must be able to adjust and reinterpret themselves at times. That there is no one right way to be Jewish, just as anarchism teaches us that there is no one right way to live. The important part is that we each get to choose for ourselves. For what is anarchism but the universalization of Hillel the Elder’s ancient wisdom to do unto other what you would have done unto you?”

Gabriel Kuhn

(February 28, 2021)