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Ken Livingstone, Lenni Brenner, and Historical Distortions: A Case Study

This is a guest post by Paul Bogdanor

Ken Livingstone thinks that Lenni Brenner, an American Trotskyist, is the definitive source on everything to do with Zionism. He has believed this for decades. And in all that time, it never occurred to Livingstone to check Brenner’s “facts” and sources.

Below is an example of Brenner’s methods as a “historian.” Reproduced is a passage from Brenner’s Zionism in the Age of the Dictators, the Bible of Livingstone’s anti-Zionism.

Almost every factual statement in the quoted passage is false or misleading.

The heading under which this passage appears is “The Zionist Alliance With Anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe” [1]. As an example of this “alliance,” Brenner refers to Simon Petliura’s Ukrainian secessionist government, the Rada, which was set up during the Russian Civil War.

Here is the passage:

The local Zionist leadership was therefore forced to turn to the nationalists as possible allies. In the Ukraine that meant Simon Petliura’s Rada (Council), which, like the Zionists, recruited on strictly ethnic lines: no Russians, no Poles and no Jews…

The Rada was based on village schoolteachers and other language enthusiasts, steeped in the “glorious” history of the Ukraine… Nationalist ideology reinforced the “Christ-killer” venom which was poured into the illiterate rural masses by the old regime. Anti-Semitic outbreaks were inevitable in such an ideological climate, but the Zionists were taken in by promises of national autonomy, and rushed into the Rada. In January 1919 Abraham Revusky of the Poale Zion took office as Petliura’s Minister for Jewish Affairs. Meir Grossmann of the Ukrainian Zionist Executive went abroad to rally Jewish support for the anti-Bolshevik regime.

The inevitable pogroms started with the first Ukrainian defeat at the hands of the Red Army in January 1919, and Revusky was compelled to resign within a month when Petliura did nothing to stop the atrocities. In many respects the Petliura episode destroyed the mass base of Zionism amongst Soviet Jews. Churchill lost his gamble: Trotsky, not Weizmann and not Revusky, was to win the soul of the Jewish masses. [2]

Brenner’s message is clear: the Zionists collaborated with a virulently reactionary Ukrainian regime, the Petliura government, responsible for atrocities against Jews, therefore the Trotskyists, not the Zionists, were and are the real allies of the Jewish masses.

Let’s unpack this astonishing passage, one factual assertion at a time.

In the Ukraine that meant Simon Petliura’s Rada (Council), which, like the Zionists, recruited on strictly ethnic lines: no Russians, no Poles and no Jews.

The Rada “began negotiations with the non-Ukrainian minorities. A constitution, drafted for presentation to the Provisional Government, included the appointment of three vice-secretaries for nationality affairs (Jewish, Polish, and Russian); publication of all laws in Yiddish, Russian, and Polish, as well as Ukrainian; and representation of the minorities in the Central Rada and its derivative organs.” [3]

The Rada was based on village schoolteachers and other language enthusiasts, steeped in the “glorious” history of the Ukraine… Nationalist ideology reinforced the “Christ-killer” venom which was poured into the illiterate rural masses by the old regime. Anti-Semitic outbreaks were inevitable in such an ideological climate…

The Ukrainian Rada was dominated by socialist parties. It came to power on a platform of full Jewish emancipation. [4]

… but the Zionists were taken in by promises of national autonomy, and rushed into the Rada. In January 1919 Abraham Revusky of the Poale Zion took office as Petliura’s Minister for Jewish Affairs.

As early as November-December 1917, the Zionists sought permission to form defensive units to prevent pogroms, but were thwarted by the socialists. When the Rada broke with the Bolsheviks and declared independence from Russia in January 1918, all Zionist parties abstained. Institutions formed by the Rada’s Jewish Provisional Parliament were boycotted by the Zionist parties. Revusky of Poale Zion was appointed to the Rada’s Ministry for Jewish Affairs because all other Zionist parties refused to supply a candidate. [5]

Meir Grossmann of the Ukrainian Zionist Executive went abroad to rally Jewish support for the anti-Bolshevik regime.

Grossman went abroad to inform world opinion about the Bolshevik invasion of the Ukraine and appeal for help. While abroad, he created aid organisations for Ukrainian Jews. [6]

The inevitable pogroms started with the first Ukrainian defeat at the hands of the Red Army in January 1919, and Revusky was compelled to resign within a month when Petliura did nothing to stop the atrocities.

Revusky wanted to stay in office pending a successor but on January 25-6, 1919, his Zionist faction, Poale Zion, formally announced its opposition to the Rada, forcing him to resign under threat of expulsion from the party. [7] The most serious pogroms took place months later, in May and August-September 1919. [8]

In many respects the Petliura episode destroyed the mass base of Zionism amongst Soviet Jews.

The Zionists routed all other Jewish parties in Ukrainian elections during the years of the Rada. [9]

… Trotsky, not Weizmann and not Revusky, was to win the soul of the Jewish masses.

Despite receiving hundreds of reports of anti-Jewish violence by his own Bolshevik troops, Trotsky did nothing at all to defend Jews and made no mention of the pogroms either in public or in private. [10] Instead he protested to the Politburo that there were too many Latvians and Jews in the Bolshevik secret police. The secret police were then banned from appointing Jews to leading posts and ordered to execute some Jews for propaganda reasons. [11]

The picture painted by Brenner is one of reactionary Ukrainian pogromists gaining the full collaboration of the Zionists. But the facts are as follows: the Ukrainian nationalists came to power on a socialist and inclusive platform; but the Zionists anticipated pogroms and tried to prevent them, while boycotting the government blamed for the subsequent atrocities. Brenner’s brief treatment of these events is a tissue of distortions and falsehoods.

Brenner is a propagandist, not a historian, and only a fool or a knave would rely on his books.

Endnotes

[1] Lenni Brenner, Zionism in the Age of the Dictators (Lawrence Hill Books, 1983), p. 13.

[2] Ibid., pp. 13-14.

[3] Henry Abramson, “Jewish Representation in the Independent Ukrainian Governments of 1917-1920,” Slavic Review, Vol. 50, No. 3, Fall 1991, p. 543.

[4] Ibid., p. 543.

[5] Ibid., pp. 543-7.

[6] “Meir Grossman,” Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2nd ed., Vol. 8, pp. 100-1.

[7] Zosa Szajkowski, Communication, Jewish Social Studies, Vol. 32, No. 3, July 1970, p. 257.

[8] Richard Pipes, Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime (Fontana Press, 1995), p. 106.

[9] Abramson, “Jewish Representation in the Independent Ukrainian Governments of 1917-1920,” pp. 545-6.

[10] Pipes, Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime, p. 104.

[11] George Leggett, The Cheka: Lenin’s Political Police (Clarendon Press, 1981), pp. 262, 413n79.