English Literature » Maxim Gorky » Russia and the Jews

Russia and the Jews by

From time to time—more often as time goes on!—circumstances force the Russian author to remind his compatriots of certain indisputable, elementary truths.

It is a very hard duty:—it is painfully awkward to speak to grown-up and literate people in this manner:

“Ladies and gentlemen! We must be humane; humaneness is not only beautiful, but also advantageous to us. We must be just; justice is the foundation of culture. We must make our own the ideas of law and civil liberty: the usefulness of such an assimilation is clearly demonstrated by the high degree of civilisation reached by the Western countries, for instance, by England.

“We must develop in ourselves a moral tidiness, and an aversion to all the manifestations of the brute principle in man, such as the wolfish, degrading hatred for people of other races. The hatred of the Jew is a beastlike, brute phenomenon; we must combat it in the interests of the quicker growth of social sentiments and social culture.

“The Jews are human beings, just like others, and, like all human beings, the Jews must be free.

“A man who meets all the duties of a citizen, thereby deserves to be given all the rights of citizenship.

“Every human being has an inalienable right to apply his energy in all the branches of industry and all the departments of culture, and the broader the scope of his personal and social activities, the more does his country gain in power and beauty.”

There are a number of other equally elementary truths which should have long since sunk into the flesh and blood of Russian society, but which have not as yet done so.

I repeat—it is a hard thing to assume the rôle of a preacher of social proprieties and to keep reiterating to people: “It is not good, it is unworthy of you to live such a dirty, careless, savage life—wash yourselves!”

And in spite of all your love for men, in spite of your pity for them, you are sometimes congealed in cold despair and you think with animosity: “Where then is that celebrated, broad, beautiful Russian soul? So much was and is being said about it, but wherein does its breadth, might and beauty actively manifest itself? And is not our soul broad because it is amorphous? And it is probably owing to its amorphousness that we yield so readily to external pressure, which disfigures us so rapidly and radically.”

We are good-natured, as we ourselves express it. But when you look closer at our good-naturedness, you find that it shows a strange resemblance to Oriental indifference.

One of man’s most grievous crimes is indifference, inattention to his neighbour’s fate; this indifference is pre-eminently ours.

The situation of the Jews in Russia, which is a disgrace to Russian culture, is one of the results of our carelessness, of our indifference to the straight and just decrees of life.

In the interests of reason, justice, civilisation, we must not tolerate that people without rights should live among us; we would never have tolerated it, if we had a strong sense of self-respect.

We have every reason to reckon the Jews among our friends; there are many things for which we must be grateful to them: they have done and are doing much good in those lines of endeavour in which the best Russian minds have been engaged. Nevertheless, without aversion or indignation, we bear a disgraceful stain on our consciousness, the stain of Jewish disabilities. There is in that stain the dirty poison of slanders and the tears and blood of numberless pogroms.

I am not able to speak of anti-Semitism in the manner it deserves. And this not because I have not the power or the right words. It is rather because I am hindered by something that I cannot overcome. I would find words biting, heavy, and pointed enough to fling them in the face of the man-haters, but for that purpose I must descend into a kind of filthy pit. I must put myself on a level with people whom I do not respect and for whom I have an organic aversion.

I am inclined to think that anti-Semitism is indisputable, just as leprosy and syphilis are, and that the world will be cured of this shameful disease only by culture, which sets us free, slowly but surely, from ailments and vices.

Of course, this does not relieve me of the duty to combat in every way the development of anti-Semitism and, according to my powers, to preserve people from getting infected by it. The Jew of to-day is dear to me, and I feel myself guilty before him, for I am one of those who tolerate the oppression of the Jewish nation, the great nation, whom some of the most prominent Western thinkers consider, as a psychical type, higher and more beautiful than the Russian.

I think that the judgment of these thinkers is correct. To my mind, Jews are more European than the Russians are, because of their strongly developed feeling of respect for work and man, if not for any other reason. I admire the spiritual steadfastness of the Jewish nation, its manly idealisms, its unconquerable faith in the victory of good over evil, in the possibility of happiness on earth.

The Jews—mankind’s old, strong leaven,—have always exalted its spirit, bringing into the world restless, noble ideas, goading men to embark on a search for finer values.

All men are equal; the soil—is no one’s, it is God’s; man has the right and the power to resist his fate, and we may stand up even against God,—all this is written in the Jewish Bible, one of the world’s best books. And the commandment of love for one’s neighbour is also an ancient Jewish commandment, just as are all the rest, “thou shalt not kill” among them.

In 1885 the German-Jewish Union in Germany published “The Principles of the Jewish Moral Doctrine.” Here is one of these principles: “Judaism teaches: ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’ and announces this commandment of love for all mankind to be the fundamental principle of Jewish religion. It, therefore, forbids all kinds of hostility, envy, ill-will, and unkindly treatment of any one, without distinction of race, nationality and religion.”

These principles were ratified by 350 rabbis, and published just at the time of the anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia.

“Judaism teaches respect for the life, the health, the forces and the property of one’s neighbour.”

I am a Russian. When, alone with myself, I calmly scrutinise my merits and demerits,—it seems to me that I am intensely Russian. And I am deeply convinced that there is much that we Russians can and ought to learn from the Jews.

For instance, the seventh paragraph of the “Principles of the Jewish Moral Doctrine” says: “Judaism commands us to respect work, to take part by either physical or mental labour in the communal work, to seek for life’s goods in constant productive and creative work. Judaism, therefore, teaches us to take care of our powers and abilities, to perfect them and apply them actively. It, therefore, forbids all idle pleasure not based on labour, all idleness which hopes for the help of others.”

This is beautiful and wise, and this is just what we Russians lack. Oh, if we could educate our unusual powers and abilities, if we had the will to apply them actively in our chaotic, untidy existence, which is terribly blocked up with all kinds of idle clack and home-spun philosophy, and which gets more and more saturated with silly arrogance and puerile bragging. Somewhere deep in the Russian soul—no matter whether it is the “master’s” or the muzhik’s—there lives a petty and squalid demon of passive anarchism, who infects us with a careless and indifferent attitude toward work, society, people, and ourselves.

I believe that the morality of Judaism would assist us greatly in overcoming this demon,—if only we have the will to combat him.

In my early youth I read—I have forgotten where—the words of the ancient Jewish sage—Hillel, if I remember rightly:

“If thou art not for thyself, who will be for thee? But if thou art for thyself alone—wherefore art thou?”[1]

The inner meaning of these words impressed me with its profound wisdom, and I interpreted them for myself in this manner: I must actively take care of myself, that my life should be better, and I must not impose the care of myself on other people’s shoulders; but if I am going to take care of myself alone, of nothing but my own personal life,—it will be useless, ugly and meaningless.

This thought ate its way deep into my soul, and I say now with conviction: Hillel’s wisdom served me as a strong staff on my road, which was neither even nor easy. It is hard to say with precision to what one owes the fact that one kept on his feet on the entangled paths of life, when tossed by the tempests of mental despair, but I repeat—Hillel’s serene wisdom assisted me many a time.

I believe that Jewish wisdom is more all-human and universal than any other, and this not only because of its immemorial age, not only because it is the first-born, but also because of the powerful humaneness that saturates it, because of its high estimate of man.

“The true Shekinah—is man,” says a Jewish text. This thought I dearly love, this I consider the highest wisdom, for I am convinced of this: that until we learn to admire man as the most beautiful and marvellous phenomenon on our planet, until then we shall not be set free from the abomination and lies that saturate our lives.

It is with this conviction that I have entered the world, and with this conviction I shall leave it, and in leaving it I will believe firmly that the time will come when the world will acknowledge that

“The holy of holies is man!”

It is unbearably painful to see that human beings who have produced so much that is beautiful, wise and necessary for the world, live among us oppressed by unfair laws, which in all ways restrain their right to life, work and freedom. It is necessary,—for it is just and useful—to give the Jew equal rights with the Russians; it is imperative that we should do so not only out of respect to the people which has rendered and is constantly rendering yeoman service to humanity and our own nation, but also out of self-respect.

We must make haste with this plain, human reform, for the animosity against Jews is on the increase in our country, and if we do not make an attempt to arrest the growth of this blind hatred, it will prove pernicious to our cultural development. We must bear in mind that the Russian people have hitherto seen very little good, and therefore, believe all the evil things that man-haters whisper in their ears. The Russian peasant does not manifest any organic hatred for the Jew,—on the contrary, he shows an exceptional attraction for Israel’s religious thought, fascinating for its democratic spirit. As far as I can remember, the religious sects of “judaizers” exist only in Russia and Hungary. In late years, the sects of “Sabbathists” and “The New Israel” have been developing rather rapidly in our country. In spite of this, when the Russian peasant hears of persecutions of Jews, he says with the indifference of an Oriental:

“No one sues or beats an innocent man.”

Who ought to know better than the Russian peasant that in “Holy Russia” the innocent are too often tried and beaten? But his conception of right and wrong has been confused from time immemorial, the sense of injustice is undeveloped in his dark mind, dimmed by centuries of Tartardom, boyardom, and the horrors of serfdom.

The village has a dislike for restless people, even when that restlessness is expressed in an aspiration for a better life. We Russians are intensely Oriental by nature, we love quiet and immobility, and a rebel, even if he be a Job, delights us in but an abstract way. Lost in the depth of a winter six months long, and wrapt in misty dreams, we love beautiful fairy-tales, but the desire for a beautiful life is undeveloped in us. And when on the plane of our lazy thought something new and disquieting makes its appearance,—instead of accepting and sympathetically scanning it, we hasten to drive it into a dark corner of our mind and bury it there, lest it disturb us in our customary vegetative existence, amidst impotent hopes and grey dreams.

In addition to the people, there is also the “populace,” something standing outside of social classes and outside of culture, and united by the dark sense of hatred against everything surpassing its understanding and defenceless against brute force. I speak of the populace which thus defines itself in the words of Pushkin, our great poet, who himself suffered so cruelly from the aristocratic populace:

“We are insidious and shameless,
Ungrateful, faint-hearted and wicked;
At heart we are cold, sterile eunuchs,
Traducers, born to slavery.”

It is mainly this populace that is the bearer of the brute principles, such as anti-Semitism.

The Jews are defenceless, and this is especially dangerous for them in the conditions of Russian life. Dostoyevsky, who knew the Russian soul so well, pointed out repeatedly that defencelessness arouses in it a sensuous inclination to cruelty and crime. In late years there have appeared in Russia quite a few people who have been taught to think that they are the finest of the wheat, and that their enemy is the stranger, above all—the Jew. For a long time these people were being persuaded that all the Jews are restless people, strikers and rioters. They were next informed that the Jews like to drink the blood of thievish boys. In our days they are being taught that the Polish Jews are spies and traitors.

If this preaching of hatred will not bring bloody and shameful fruits, it will be only because it will clash with our Russian indifference to life and will disappear in it; it will split against the Chinese wall, behind which our still inexplicable nation is hidden.

But if this indifference be stirred up by the efforts of the hatred preachers,—the Jews will loom up before the Russian nation as a race accused of all crimes.

And it is not for the first time that all the troubles of Russian life will be blamed on the Jew; time and again was he the scapegoat for our sins. Only recently he paid with his life and goods for the help he rendered us in our feverish struggle for freedom. I think no one has forgotten the fact that our “emancipatory movements” strangely wound up with anti-Jewish riots.

When the many-raced populace of Jerusalem demanded the death of the defenceless Jew, Christ, Pilate, believing Christ innocent, washed his hands, but allowed him to be put to death.

How then will honest Russian men and women act in Pilate’s place? Their judgment is awaited.

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