Jewish Anarchisms

A review of Anna Elena Torres and Kenyon Zimmer (eds.), With Freedom in Our Ears: Histories of Jewish Anarchism (Urbana/Chicago/Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2023).

Books on anarchism and Judaism always tickle my interest. I’m not Jewish, but maybe it’s an Austrian thing – once you start to reflect on the country’s political history, there is now way around the strong Jewish heritage, its influence on early-twentieth-century political radicalism, and, tragically, the horror of the Holocaust.

The latest release I had a chance to look at was With Freedom in Our Ears: Histories of Jewish Anarchism, edited by Anna Elena Torres and Kenyon Zimmer. It’s an anthology based on two academic conferences. Admittedly, this is not my favorite format, as the contributions to academic conferences and related anthologies are often randomly thrown together under a catchy title that seldom keeps its promise.

With Freedom in Our Ears suffers from some of the related problems. It is, for example, unclear why certain individuals get their own pieces, while many other potential candidates don’t. It is also unclear why certain countries receive quite a lot of attention – Russia and the USA, in particular – while others don’t. Puzzling in this context is the almost complete absence of anarchism in Israel, save some comments in the editors’ conclusion. It also seems that a chance was missed to add an updated piece on radical Jewish culture in Buenos Aires, although the editors stress its significance in the book’s introduction. (The main texts on the subject available to English speakers, Juan Suriano’s Paradoxes of Utopia: Anarchist Culture and Politics in Buenos Aires 1890–1910 and Jose C. Moya’s article “The Positive Side of Stereotypes: Jewish Anarchists in Early-twentieth-Century Buenos Aires” both date from the beginning of the century.)

Luckily, enough contributions are very good standalone pieces, so – provided a general interest in the subject – you’ll find going through the collection worthwhile. Unsurprisingly, my personal favorite was “Jewish Anarchist Temporalities” by Samuel Hayim Brody, as it addresses Jewish anarchism in early-twentieth-century Germany, touching on the contents of PM’s unofficial Landauer/Mühsam/German Revolution trilogy.

I enjoyed both the editors’ introduction and conclusion. In the introduction, they discuss what the study of anarchism in relation to Judaism actually means. Are we looking at Jews who happened to be anarchists? Are we looking at specifically Jewish forms of anarchism? Are we looking at Jewish features in anarchism? Torres and Zimmer take a broad approach: “The contributions to the volume reflect this diversity, with some chapters focusing on individuals and groups for whom Judaism or Jewish culture and identity were central to their self-conceptions and ideas, and others for whom Jewishness was clearly secondary.”

With Freedom in Our Ears is quite different from another recent anthology on anarchism and Judaism, There Is Nothing So Whole as a Broken Heart: Mending the World as Jewish, edited by Cindy Milstein (reviewed on this blog). While Milstein’s book provides an overview of contemporary expressions of Jewish anarchism(s) in North America, With Freedom in Our Ears is more scholarly and historical. One approach doesn’t top the other, they go together well. If you have enough time at hand, you should look into both.

Gabriel Kuhn

(September 30, 2023)