Friday, January 29, 2021

Review of 'One Night in Miami'

Really powerful film about a the night in 1964 when the then Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston, and the time spent together by Clay, Malcolm X, Sam Cook and Jim Brown (an NFL footballer that I hadn't heard of). It's based on a play, and it shows - sometimes it feels very stagey rather than cinematic - but it's still very good. All of the characters get their turn to be thoughtful, intense, and smart. It's more about Black responses to racism than the racism itself, though that's featured too.

One small isn't clear from the end titles that Malcolm X was assassinated by members of the Nation of Islam, rather than by white racists.

Watched on Amazon Prime - it's an Amazon original, though they bought the rights rather than made it.

Review of 'Revolutionary Yiddishland; A history of Jewish Radicalism' by Alain Brossat and Sylvia Klingberg


I got so much more out of this book than I was tell you the truth (and it's my blog, why shouldn't I?) I was prepared for a nostalgic wallow in how great the Bund was, and the tragedy of its eclipse by Zionism. But actually it's much more nuanced and clever than that. It started out as an oral history based on interviews with old lefties in Israel, and in the days when I used to go to Israel I met and enjoyed the company of many people like that...quite a few of them not Zionists, but more or less flushed into Israel or Palestine at the end of WW2. Kibbutz Yad Hannah, aligned with the Israeli Communist Party after some nasty factional splits in the Zionist movement to which it was tied, was a good place to meet people like that, and there was even an old Trotskyist there (and another bloke who had heard Trotsky speak at a rally in Russia).

The authors are fond of the Bund, but not blind to its deficits. Reading this I had a sense that the Bund's glory days were in the early C20th, and that its alignment with the Mensheviks in the post-revolutionary period put it on the wrong side of some important arguments...and as a result lots of its members abandoned it in favour of the Bolsheviks. And in inter-war Poland it seems to have been a regular Second International party, with a modicum of revolutionary rhetoric and iconography but also a bureaucratic form and a reformist agenda. My great-grandfather had been a Bundist, but he returned from Russia in 1923 as a devout Communist, and loved Stalin the rest of his days.

There's an honest recognition that Jews who were drawn to Left Poalei Tzion were, in Russia and Poland, genuine and sincere socialists with a revolutionary orientation, even though the role that Poalei Tzion played in Palestine - in the context of British colonialism, was anything but. Poalei Tzion's position on the national question as it related to Jews was of course Zionist and emigrationist, whereas the Bund was a belated convert to National Personal Autonomy. The Bolshevik/Communist position on this flip-flopped around, from opposing the nationalism of the Bund (and other Jewish socialists groups who wanted to organise Jewish workers) as reactionary, to supporting Jewish nationalism and the establishment of Jewish territorial colonies in the USSR, to eventually supporting the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, with the weird reservation that this was 'too important a task to be left to Zionists'. Sometimes the Communists thought that Jewish workers would be absorbed into the working classes in the countries where they lived (and that this was a good thing) and sometimes they didn't. Getting caught out believing the wrong thing when the line changed - as it did, often - could be fatal.

There's great material on Jews in the Spanish Civil War (my dad had a cousin who died in the Battle of the Ebro, and his father organised collections for 'Arms for Spain', and somehow ended up with a CNT-FAI scarf which is now sadly lost), and on Jewish resistance in the Holocaust. There's a really good chapter on the way that Stalinism screwed its devoted Jewish followers over, again and again, and they kept coming back for more. 

It's a shame there wasn't more about the fourth pillar of the Jewish left, the Fareynikte...the United Jewish Socialist Workers' Party. I know least about this, though reading around the book (Wikipedia articles mainly) you get a feeling for some of the comic opera qualities of factions and splits and mergers, and the way in which all of these groups - including Poalei Tzion, and the Kombund split-off from the Bund, wanted to claim the Third International franchise and demanded that the other groups all be banned. I think the Fareynikte was actually the first group to take up the idea of National Personal Autonomy, which the Bund later adopted. It seems to have left very little trace.

A few things I didn't like...some of the language is impenetrable, particularly at the beginning when they seem to be establishing their academic credentials. Sometimes it might be the translation, though why the translator feels the need to use English words that I have never, ever encountered is a mystery to me. But I'll forgive it, because it's so good overall. A few curious things; one of the writers, Syliva Klingberg, is the daughter of one of the interviewees (his name has been changed) who has spent years in prison in Israel because he spied for the USSR - he was an epidemiologist who ended up working in the Israeli chemical and biological warfare program - and then her husband, like her a member of Matzpen, ended up in prison for allegedly spying for Syria. For a weird contrast, one of the interviewees in the film Madrid Before Hadita, about Jewish volunteers from Palestine in the Spanish Civil War, returns to his kibbutz, is welcomed as a hero (though they had forbidden him to go) and end up deputy head of the Mossad. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Review of "The Reader on the 6.27" by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent

Slightly annoying 'quirky' French novel, about an awkward and introverted man who works in a plant that pulps unsold books to make recycled paper (on which other books are then printed). He lives alone, he has a succession of pet goldfish, he reads aloud on the train from random pages snatched from the pulping machine...get the picture?

It might have made a quirky film like Amelie, only some of the humour is very toilet - he eventually falls in love with an unknown woman toilet attendant in a shopping centre, who he knows only from her writings, via a USB drive that he finds on the train...cue lots of shit jokes about toilet users, which will probably prevent it from being made into that film.

There's an unpleasant air of menace throughout, that ultimately doesn't deliver - the anticipated bad things don't happen, which is at once a relief and a disappointment, as if a trick has been played on the reader. 

Monday, January 25, 2021

The contradictions of Zionism

This post is (yet another one) about Zionism...

...and therefore inevitably fraught.

Some of that comes from the fact that supporters of the Israeli government try to deflect all criticism of Israel and solidarity with the Palestinians by saying that it’s motivated - consciously or otherwise - by hatred of Jews. Some of them actually believe this, and sometimes they say it in bad faith because it’s effective.

And there are people who really are Jew-haters, who don’t care much about Palestinians or what Israel does to them, but use “Zionist” as a code-word for Jew. There’s more of this about than there used to don’t have to go far in to many conspiracy theory websites before you find it...David Icke goes on about “Rothschild-Zionists”, Sandi Adams who spoke at the anti-lockdown rally in Stratford Park hosted material like this on her website.

And some people conclude from this that “it’s better not to talk about Zionism at all, because everyone means different things by it”. But we need to, because understanding the different meanings that are attached to it, and where these have come from, is a first step towards developing a decent politics that can address both Palestine and anti-semitism.

The central contradiction of Zionism

There is a distinction that is often made between the ‘nationalism of the oppressed’ and the ‘nationalism of the oppressor’. Zionism is both, and that makes talking about it more difficult. 

In Israel now Zionism underlies and provides the justification for the oppression of Palestinians, inside Israel ‘proper’ - the internationally recognised borders of Israel from 1967 - and in the territories that Israel has occupied since 1967. (For an in-depth illustration see the  website of B’tselem - an Israeli organisation that describes the situation as ‘a regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea').

It’s considered an extreme left-wing view in Israel to say that Israel should be “a state for all its citizens”. Two years ago the Israeli parliament narrowly passed a law saying that Israel is ‘the nation-state of the Jewish people’...that is, it belongs to all the Jews of the world, whatever their citizenship status. And not to all of its citizens.

Now to most people around the world who believe in democracy this seems weird, but the debate in Israel is about whether it should be a law or not, not whether it’s right. Stuff like this is part of the intellectual and ideological and legal apparatus that enables oppression.

Nationalism of the oppressed: a response to antisemitism

To have productive conversations about Zionism, we need to go back further - and understand the ideology and movement as something that started out as a response to the predicament of the millions of East European Jews, particularly those in the Russian Empire. 

Antisemitism has a very long history in European civilisation - the blood libels (the often-repeated fiction that Jews murder Christian children for their blood), the massacres during the crusades, sinister Jews in art and literature. Jews were expelled from England in 1290 (and other countries in Western Europe at other times). The first immigration act in Britain, the 1905 Aliens Act, was introduced to keep out Jewish refugees from Russia.

The modern version of antisemitism was a mass political movement with its own parties and newspapers, and an explicit ideology that explained what was wrong with the world in terms of the involvement of evil Jews. 

Jewish life in Russia (Russian-governed Poland was the largest population of Jews in the world) was characterized by legal restrictions, state persecution, and organised street violence - the Black Hundreds was a popular Russian antisemitic organisation involved in organising pogroms (state-sponsored anti-Jewish riots that turned into massacres). 

In 1902-3 the Russian secret service forged a document, ‘The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion’, which claimed to be a secret plan for Jews to take over the world and it’s still in circulation today… this is the sort of stuff that Icke and Sandi Adams promote, and is promoted, via Qanon, in the US Republican Party..  

The catalyst for the founding of the political Zionist movement was the 1894 Dreyfus trial in France, which demonstrated to some that Jews would never be accepted as equal citizens by their non-Jewish counterparts.

From the foundation of the Zionist movement in 1897 the mainstream ‘Political Zionism’ sought to get backing from one or more major European powers to help them get a state. Political Zionism argued that the ‘Jewish Problem’ could be resolved by creating a state for the Jewish people and organising the mass migration of Jews to that state. This was referred to as the ‘Normalization of the Jewish People’. From early on the place chosen for that state was to be Palestine, seen as the site of the last time there had been an independent Jewish state. A key slogan was “A land without a people for a people without a land”, which ignored the fact that Palestine was inhabited.

Zionism wasn’t the only kind of Jewish nationalism- there were others like the Sejmists and Jewish Autonomists, and Territorialists; there was the Bund, a Jewish socialist movement that was big in Russia and Poland. In some ways Zionism was similar to the other movements of oppressed nationalities in Europe - the Polish, Czech, Finnish, etc. If history had unfolded differently Zionism might have turned into an interesting footnote in history, like some of the other European settlements in Palestine, or like Marcus Garvey’s  ‘Back to Africa’ movement in the US. And there were other responses to the oppression of Jews - the individual response of migrating to America or somewhere else, for example. Others placed their hopes in the international Communist movement, hoping that the overthrow of capitalism would also put an end to antisemitism.

Nationalism of the oppressor: a colonial movement in Palestine

“Practical Zionism” sought to encourage Jews to migrate to Palestine without waiting for a state, and to establish the nucleus of a new society there. 

This included the creation of communities - sometimes utopian communes with socialist or anarchist characteristics, as well as more conventional businesses, farms and towns. It wasn’t a big success - many more Jews migrated to America than to Palestine; between 1907 and 1914 the comparable figures were 20,000 vs. 1.5 million. 

But Practical Zionism had one important consequence; the Zionists discovered that Palestine was after all inhabited. There were a variety of responses. In general it wasn’t seen as a big problem, partly because they thought there were only a few hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs at most, and millions of Jews would be migrating to Palestine. Some Zionists convinced themselves that the Palestinian Arabs would be pleased once they understood how the creation of a Jewish state would benefit them. 

“Labour Zionists'' thought that it was necessary to create a segregated labour market, with protection for Jewish workers who would otherwise be undercut by low-waged Arab workers - otherwise they wouldn’t be able to persuade Jewish workers to immigrate. They organised unions that called for Jewish-owned businesses to boycott Arab workers, at the same as they tried to persuade those Arab workers to join special Arab-only unions to fight for higher wages. There was a wide spread of opinion, and some socialist-Zionists like the ‘Left Poale Tzion’ and Hashomer Hatzair took the socialism part seriously and tried to make common cause with the Arab workers in Palestine, with very limited success.

After WW1 the British Empire took Palestine away from the Turkish Empire, and the British began to sometimes tolerate and sometimes encourage Jewish immigration into Palestine. 

With the rise of fascism and Nazism in Europe, and other countries closing their doors to Jewish refugees, the pressure to allow Jews into Palestine increased, and the Palestinian Arabs  - who knew that the Zionists were intending to turn their country into a Jewish state - became ever more hostile.
So from early on Zionism had two different aspects, and this is still important now. 

In Europe it was a movement of an oppressed minority, offering national pride and cultural identity. 
In Palestine it acted as a movement and an ideology of colonists, seeking to take over a territory and dominate the local inhabitants. It wasn’t interested in immediate self-government or independence for Palestine because it needed the British Empire to enforce the right of Jews to immigrate - an independent Arab-controlled Palestine would have stopped that. 

The impact of the Holocaust

The Holocaust changed the way that Jewish communities around the world responded to Zionism.

A majority of Europe’s Jews died in the Nazi genocide - two out of three, and many of those who survived were dispossessed, displaced and devastated by the loss of everything and everyone they had known. Before the Holocaust lots of Jews were anti-Zionist or at least not Zionist. Orthodoxy was opposed on the grounds that returning to Erez Yisrael before the coming of the Messiah was sacrilegious. Reform Jews, who were keen to present Jews as a denomination rather than a nationality, were also opposed - as were some successfully assimilated and prosperous Jews, the other kinds of Jewish nationalist, and most Jewish socialists. 

After the Holocaust, the Zionist view that the Jews would never be accepted in the countries in which they lived seemed to have been vindicated. Jews who had never been Zionists, and never became ideological Zionists, nevertheless found themselves supporting the nascent Israeli state in its ‘War of Independence’.  The creation of a state that - unlike the British administration in Palestine - would permit the mass immigration of the displaced Holocaust survivors seemed to have become a matter of urgency.

The brief honeymoon between Zionism one the one hand and the USSR and the international Communist movement on the other made this much easier. The state of Israel was fought for with Soviet and Czechoslovak weapons, Communists across Europe helped Jews breach the British blockade against emigration to Palestine, and Communist-sympathising young Jews volunteered to fight for the newly established state. Isaac Deutscher, the anti-Zionist biographer of Trotsky, regretted that he had opposed Zionism and not tried to persuade more European Jews to migrate to Palestine.

That was then, and Deutscher and his heirs avoided becoming belated converts to Zionism. Every so often the remnants of left Zionism appear to be making a last-ditch stand against what they would like to think of as the ‘betrayal’ of their ideals, but these become progressively intellectually less convincing, and less politically significant and the organisations loyal to these ideas diminish numerically. Some of the opposition to the occupation comes from people who characterise themselves as left or liberal Zionists, but this opposition seems to be forever compromised by ideological acrobatics to distinguish between the nasty things that go on in the Occupied Territories and the ‘democratic’ character of Israel proper.

For most Jews outside Israel, even those who aren’t ideologically or organisationally involved with Zionism, identification with Israel and with the word ‘Zionism’ is part of their personal identity
Most Jews in Britain identify as Zionists, even those who don’t like the Israeli government, oppose settlements and the occupation. People like me, who don’t consider themselves Zionists, are comparatively rare. We don’t know how rare, but we aren’t represented in the Jewish community, and when you start to get embroiled in the arguments between Jews about who represents what, and say things like “not all Jews are Zionists” you are opening up some complex stuff with a long history.

This identification is bound up with a memory of fear and precariousness. The extermination of most of Europe’s Jews happened in my parents’ lifetime, to their cousins. It might seem odd to POC that British Jews, who are mostly white and seem to be safe and privileged, don’t feel themselves to be so...but when I look at the people in rubber boats trying to make it across the Meditterranean or the English Channel, or the columns of refugees trying to cross borders in Southern and Central Europe, I think about my parents’ generation and those who tried and failed to cross borders or seas to escape to safety. 

I grew up Zionist. I went to a state-funded Jewish primary school that was run by a Zionist organisation. The Hebrew that I learned there was the Israeli kind - I didn’t even understand why older people pronounced Hebrew in a completely different way. The songs we sang were Israeli songs, in Hebrew. We celebrated Jewish holidays the way they did in Israel. There were maps of Israel and Israeli flags all over the school...I don’t think there was one British flag or map of Britain. Later on as a teenager I joined a Zionist youth movement, where we went camping, and got off with each other, and sung more Israeli songs and practiced living like a utopian community.

I don’t consider myself a Zionist now… I know too much about the role that Zionism plays in Israel and Palestine, and I don’t think it makes sense for Jews in this country to consider themselves as members of a “Jewish Nation”, even though I can’t think of myself as English either. But I don’t call myself an anti-Zionist either, because of all the stuff that I’ve just been talking about, and because I want to be able to have a conversation with other Jews who have an attachment to the word, and even to Israel, without falling at the first fence.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Review of 'The White Tiger'

Watched this last night - grim, painful to watch despite the colour and drama of India. Reminded me of my own brief visit, which I also found very hard; I can't understand all the people who go there and love it so much in the face of so much cruelty. Very good depiction of the 'The Great Socialist' woman politician, who is a corrupt and greedy as all the other politicians; also of the young, cool, western-educated favourite son of the gangster-landlord family, who thinks he is something special but is really not all that different. 

Watched on Netflix.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Review of 'Mr Holmes'

Period drama, spanning three historical periods, with Ian McKellen in the title role as an aged, infirm Sherlock Holmes suffering from dementia and trying to reconstruct the details of his last, unsuccessful case. Really well done, full of sadness and longing, and also beautiful to look at and well acted. Based on a novel that I think I've read, though I don't remember much about it, which is sort of appropriate, isn't it?

Watched on BBC iPlayer.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Review of 'Instant Family'

American film about adoption, that both recycles and pokes fun at all the stereotypes you've ever come across. There's a couple who decide to adopt because it will be easier than all that icky stuff with giving birth, but then they become emotionally involved with potential adoptee cute babies, but then they end up adopting a latino teenager and her two younger siblings, and the birth mother is crack addict, but...get the picture?

Sometimes actually funny and heartwarming, and with some quite good insights into the system and the motivations of people in it. Other times slapstick dross. And of course 'based on a true story' so you can have pictures of the actual families with the closing credits.

Netflix again.

Review of 'Morning Glory'


Sort of a rom-com...well, it has the form of a rom-com...single woman who is attractive but a bit quirky, loses her job radio producer but then gets a new one as the producer of a failing morning TV show where her counterpart is a handsome (and kind, and and intelligent) hunk. But the romantic dimension is not the real focus of the film, which is more about the tension between the protagonist and a curmudgeonly news reporter who is contractually obliged to become her anchor, only he hates it because morning TV is beneath him as a hard-nosed news reporter. He's played by Harrison Ford, natch, and the less serious but game female anchor is Diane Keaton, which ought to be a warning - not many good films with Diane Keaton in them.

It's not badly done but it's not very interesting either...sort of a corp-com.

Watched on Netflix.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Review of 'Young Adult'

A surprisingly nasty film about a nasty character, who - surprisingly for a mainstream film - neither gets her come-uppance nor is redeemed. Charlize Theron plays the author of young adult fiction who is all but washed-up...her series is remaindered in mall bookshops and won't be continued. And then she gets the idea of going back to her small town (which she despises, having moved to the big city of Minnieapolis) and reconnecting with her teenage love, even though he is now married and with a new baby. 

She runs into people she used to know, and it's obvious that she was really horrible as a teenager, but she has no insight into her behaviour either then or now. She continues to behave horribly, tries to break up the teen-lover's marriage, fails and goes back to Minnieapolis, having crashed into a few lives and road-signs on the way. Like I said, unusually nasty...I hate Hollywood saccharine, but the opposite wasn't enjoyable either.

Watched on Netflix.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Review of Baby Teeth

Rather harrowing Australian film (based on a stage play) about a young girl with cancer, the relationship she strikes up with an unsuitable young man (drug user and sometime dealer), and her parents. Really well done, but sometimes hard to watch - absurdly described as a 'comedy-drama', but few laughs.

Watched on Netflix.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Review of 'Slade House' by David Mitchell

I really, really didn't like this book, even though I am a fan of David Mitchell. Was this an early book that was rejected, and then retrieved from the reject pile after he became successful? Or some sort of contractual obligation book? I don't know, but I do know that it's supernatural-themed (which I don't like), and horror (which I like even less), and formulaic (the same sort of thing, varying slightly, happens in each chapter - which is always set on the last Saturday of October at nine-year intervals. 

The explanation towards the end of what has been happening felt forced and implausible - not only the explanation itself but the mechanism by which the reader was getting it. And there's lots of deception, in which both the victim characters, and the reader, is misled about what's going on - do I like this even less because it feels so much like what's going on in the real world, with confusing misinformation and retraction about everything - the virus, Brexit, and so on? Hard to know, but I do know that I really didn't like it.

David Mitchell is a good writer, and manages to make the occult-codswallop on which the plot hangs feel almost plausible. Some of the place descriptions are particular good, and did rather remind me of the feeling of dreams, but that sort of makes it worse. I didn't want to read this in bed for fear it would turn up in my dreams, which are bad enough as it is.

Monday, January 04, 2021

Review of "Failure of a revolution: Germany 1918-1919" by Sebastian Haffner


This is one of the best books I've read all year. As the title suggests it's an account of the failed German revolution at the end of WW1, and even though we know how it ends it's gripping all the way through. It's also tragic, and bitter, and has sparked a lot of thoughts in me. Firstly, about how hard it is to make a revolution; it's easy to focus on the successes, but most attempts at insurrection fail. This one got further than most - the masses really were on the street, the old order had more or less collapsed, and still it failed...I do wish the Extinction Rebellion "High Command" would read this instead of the pseudo-scientific bollocks from Erica Chenoweh that they wallow in. This shows what happens when a movement is able to create a revolutionary situtation but is neither ready nor willing to seize power; someone else will seize it instead. Here is was the right wing of the SPD, who paved the way for the restoration of the old order (minus the Kaiser). 

Second, about how awful Second International socialist parties could be. The German SPD had become a part of the Willhelmine German Empire, but still postured as a party of revolutionary socialism, red flags and Internationale and all. It had supported the Empire in pursuing the War - almost all its parliamentary deputies had voted for war credits, and its efforts to end the war once it became obvious that Germany would not win an easy victory were half-hearted and pitiful. And its politics during the period covered by this book are heart-breakingly awful, supporting its enemies - the old officer class, the reactionary nationalists, and the conservative forces in society - in massacring the party's working class supporters. In my readings about the 1930s I've generally tended to put the blame on the German Communist Part - the KPD - for not making a united front with the SPD against the Nazis. But reading this book gives me a better understanding as to how hard this would have been, and how deep the hostility must have run. When the KPD said the SPD were 'social fascists', there was some truth to it, at least as far as the leadership is concerned.  Why the SPD rank and file stayed with the party is something of a mystery to me, but I suppose the alternative was largely the Stalin-inflected KPD, which was equally awful in a completely different way.

I read this book in a free download from Libcom, obtained from here.

I heard about it in a review in the LRB, which was ostensibly about another book about Weimar but kept coming back to talking about Haffner, for which I am grateful.

Sunday, January 03, 2021

Review of 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'

Film about Black musicians and singer Ma Rainey in 1920s Chicago, with exploitative recording studio owners, racism, and lots of tension between singer, studio owners and backing band. Derived from a stage play, and with a very stage-y feel to it...lots of dialogue, not all that much happens. 

Watched on Netflix.

Review of The Phantom Thread


Film about a dressmaker to the very rich and his very complex relationship with a young European woman (German?) that he meets at a seaside town where she's working as a waitress. He's very stuffy and posh like his clients, and selfish, childish, and self-obsessed, and encouraged in this by his sister who lives in the huge house (which also contains his business and workshop) and works in the business with him. 

He's brilliantly played by Daniel Day-Lewis. Impossible to describe the relationship without spoiling, but it makes the relationship depicted in The Duke of Burgundy look straightforward.

Was tempted to write this review as if I'd watched the film by mistake, thinking it was The Phantom Menace, but honestly this is much better.

The workshop scenes put me in mind of my grandfather's furrier workshop in Brighton, also full of women sewing, work in progress, fitting dummies and of course heaps of furs, which used to smell wonderful. 

Watched on BBC iPlayer.

Review of 'The Workshop'


French film about a group of somewhat alienated young people who are attending a writing workshop in La Ciotat (town in the south, near Cassis) run by a Parisian woman writer - they seem to be there out of something less than great interest in writing, though one of them wants to be a writer or journalist. They're a mixed bunch - a couple of Muslims, a young black guy, and the central character Antoine, who is a dissaffected white guy who is flirting with the far right. He and his mates fool around with a gun, drink, dance and smoke weed. 

There's a bit of backstory about the town and the workers' struggle to save the shipyard (now hanging on as a repair facility for the yachts of the super-rich).

It's mainly long and a bit slow, but it gradually rachets up the tension and the character development, particularly of Antoine. Well worth watching.

Watched on BBC iPlayer.