The Family Heretic
by Mark Mazower
Other Press, 400 pp., $25.95
Once a familiar political type, the Jewish revolutionary has long since disappeared from the historical stage. Celebrated on the left, exploited as a bogeyman by the right, he (and often she) flourished from the early 19th century to the middle of the 20th. A precursor was the Polish-born Zalkind Hourwitz, who played a walk-on role in the French Revolution. A late epigone was Daniel Cohn-Bendit, aka “Danny the Red,” a leader of the student tumults in Paris in 1968 (today he is a Green member of the European Parliament). In between these opera buffa characters were such major historical actors as Ferdinand Lassalle, Rosa Luxemburg, and Leon Trotsky.
The prominence of Jews among radical leaders and thinkers led the historian Isaac Deutscher to maintain that “[t]he Jewish heretic who transcends Jewry belongs to a Jewish tradition.” A Trotskyist, Deutscher disclaimed belief “in the exclusive genius of any race.” Yet he suggested that Jewish revolutionaries were “in some ways . . . very Jewish indeed. They had in themselves something of the quintessence of Jewish life and of the Jewish intellect.” The conception of Judaism as inherently revolutionary is, of course, nonsense. The same claim has often been made of Christianity, and today we frequently hear it of Islam. The reality is that all three spiritual traditions contain both passive and aggressive streams—sometimes intermingled.