Born Again Communists
Another day, another war. And again a war that I can’t just dissociate myself from by not scrolling the news or logging off. The news reaches me through friends — because even though I’m Russian I’m also Jewish, as are most of my Russian friends.
And the last month of this Israeli carpet bombing campaign has been quite revealing, much more so than the Russian invasion of Ukraine and almost two years of that war. That invasion didn’t create any tension between me and my Russian friends because all of us were equally horrified and opposed it.
October 7 and what followed created a real rift. The people who I knew to be apolitical turned out to be the wildest card. They have been the ones who turned most tribal, experiencing a Zionist conversion moment.
Since the attack I’ve been having these feverish chats with my old Moscow friends. These chats have been draining and exasperating. But they also given me insight into the people who have been turned by this attack —people in the diaspora who have had their world turned upside down, despite never really caring or thinking about Israel before. It’s as if they were sleeper agents that got activated in Israel’s time of need.
For them waking up to the news of “Hamas massacring Jews” — which I always try to correct by reminding them it was “Israelis” and not just “Jews” — was a sign to them that hatred of Jews is real and eternal and that it is on the rise. This act of Hamas violence was ground zero for them. It triggered something deep in their subconscious. It wasn’t something that could be contextualized or understood as part of a larger political and historical process — a process in which Israel has played a dominant role. No, to them this was Jew Hate and nothing else. As for criticism of Zionism? They get whipped up into a frenzy if I bring up the fact that anti-Zionism is different from antisemitism.
And Israel’s indiscriminate carpet bombing of Gaza and the growing number of mass graves and people buried under the rubble? To them these are side effects of the inevitable response to the attacks. Unfortunate but still justified — because “Hamas started this war.” Again, there is no context. Everything would have been fine if October 7th didn’t happen. The status quo that existed before in Gaza — the occupation, the embargo, the horrible conditions, the Israeli attacks — all that is not part of the picture for them. Hamas is itself to blame for this unprecedented Palestinian death toll. Israel is just defending itself. That’s it.
These might sound like tired talking points that the Israeli government uses all the time. But the fact is they are taken for granted and repeated by most Jews in the diaspora — including my own Russian Jewish friends. In many ways it’s understandable. Many Jews who grew up around the lore of antisemitism and the Holocaust are taught to be triggered by any potential sign of it appearing again. It helps that most of them have never experienced real antisemitism and discrimination — let alone life in a ghetto or concentration camp. Antisemtism is abstract to them and yet it’s also the most powerful part of their Jewish identity. So they are easily pushed into fantasy land, fearing that any support for Palestinians rights and any talk about Israel’s occupation following the Hamas attack is coded antisemitism, and that something horrible will happen unless Jews don’t get together and “stand with Israel.”
A friend of mind — let’s call her M — is a prime case study. Ironically enough, we met on a Birth Right trip. We went there in 2008 from Moscow. We were 18 years old and we bonded with a few other people on the trip over our shared rejection of the aggressive Zionist narrative pushed on us by the program. The notion that this Middle Eastern land was our home seemed silly to us pasty Moscow intelligentsia Jews. We were fully integrated and felt at ease with our identities in Russia. In Israel we didn’t feel what they told us we were supposed to feel: this was our real home and Israelis our reel peer group.
Even though we were mostly ignorant about Israel’s history and the reality of Israel’s occupation, we did sense there was a dark side to this happy Jewish home narrative. We saw the checkpoints in Jerusalem and our guides treated it as totally normal and offered no explanation whatsoever. There was also the patriotism and glorification of the military. To us in Russia the army was something to pity and avoid. Yet in Israel the army was presented as normal and cool. And IDF soldiers joined us for a part of our trip with their guns slung across their chests. We were told that we can do Aliyah and join the army, too. How cool, huh? I remember thinking it was a bit bizarre but I didn’t really give it a deep thought. Like most other Jewish tourists I too bought an IDF khaki hoody and even wore it a few times when I got back home.
The main message that we received on the birthright trip was: Don’t assimilate, breed only with Jews! In fact, we were clearly encouraged to find a Jewish partner and mate right there on the trip. That’s why 18 is the minimum age for birthright. It is basically a romantic vacation service for young Jews — with the bill picked up by Israel and wealthy donors in the diaspora.
M and I came back to Moscow unconvinced. We had survived the brainwashing. But now, 15 years later, they finally succeeded with her. M’s reaction to the events of the last month was a sudden realization of how important Israel is to Jews everywhere. Her main fixation is about safety. Israel is necessary and important because it is a safe haven for Jews. Protests against Israel in the wake of its war on Gaza after the October 7 Hamas attack showed her that antisemitism still lives — that mass murder of Jews can start again any time.
M is not unique. I’ve heard similar things from quite a few other Russian Jews — all of whom were unilaterally opposed to Russian’s invasion of Ukraine and the evocation of the neo-Nazi threat to justify it. And yet the evocation of antisemitism and constant statements from Israeli politicians that Hamas is worse than the Nazis to justify their bombing of Gaza is fine with them, and in fact they fully share this sentiment.
My friend K — who is partially jewish and has relatives in Israel — is another example of this activated sleeper agent phenomena. October 7 turned her into an antisemitism alarmist overnight. Since she lives in Germany and went to an art school there, she is surrounded by pro-Palestinian sentiment that is popular among her peers — mostly struggling artists. This has fueled her fears, as she deems the Free Palestine movement to be antisemitic. She feels that she is labelled a “Zionist outsider,” since she doesn’t embrace the movement. The “Zionist outsider” rhetoric is particularly delusional when artists — even really successful ones like Ai WeiWei — have been getting cancelled or threatened by their dealers and wealthy clients for even the most moderate criticism of Israel’s attack on Gaza. It’s pretty clear that people who support Zionism have all the power in the art world. If anything, being a zionist can help your career, not make you an outsider. But she’s completely blind to that, as well as to the fact that Germany actually bans pro-Palestinian anti-war protests and labels them antisemitic even if jewish groups organize them. So her position is perfectly pro status quo and comme il fait.
The delusions keep piling up. Take the talking point that “Hamas is worse than the Nazis.” It is common among my Zionist convert friends who have never had to deal with a real Nazi. Meanwhile, my friend K labels Holocaust survivors and their offspring who take an anti-Israel position as “dangerous left-wing radicals.” When I ask her what’s so dangerous about these people, the answer is: “they justify terrorism.” How did they justify terrorism? Turned out that they didn’t just condemned the Hamas attack but also contextualized it. That was their crime. That’s what made them “pro-terrorist” to my friend.
These arguments I’ve been having for over a month have almost broken my brain. After a month of engaging I had to stop and accept that there is no hope of coming to some sort of consensus. Their’s is a through the looking-glass world. It has its own holistic world view and its own historical (or I’d say ahistorical) interpretation. It isn’t open to discussion or modification. They are very sure about their position — even-though they know next to nothing about Palestine or Israel.
I probed my artist friend K about her knowledge of the region and it turned out that most of her information about Palestine and Israel had come from pro-Palestinian Instagram of a South African jewish artist who is an anti-zionist activist. After October 7 he became the “dangerous radical” in her mind. She then told me that she had read the Bible and that “it says Jews are indigenous to the Land of Israel.” When I asked her if she read any history book about creation of Israel, she called me arrogant and that ended our conversation. I’m “arrogant” because of reading books!
I feel that on a psychological level the genocidal ideation of Israelis and Zionists is an example of transference: the Palestinians hate us and want us all dead — hence we have to eliminate them. Meanwhile, the open racism of Israeli society is completely overlooked and normalized and presented as a defensive reaction of the small and harassed nation.
Military aggression coated in the rhetoric of self defence is not new. But when it’s my friends and my generation falling prey to it — it hits differently.
The only Russian friends who didn’t surprise me are the ones politically minded and left-wing. These are the only Jews I know who aren’t wooed by the tribalism and Jewish nationalism. I think they — like me — didn’t turn tribal because we thought about this issue already and had rejected it long ago. The yelling and panic about antisemitism don’t work on us. We can’t be easily whipped up into a nationalistic frenzy because the universalism we espouse protects us. We don’t need to believe in the supreme victimhood of the Jewish people — a victimhood used to justify violence and victimization of another group — because we have an identity separate from that. We talked about this with Ilya Matveev on the last episode of The Russians.
Despite the failure of the Soviet Union as a socialist utopian project we managed to overcome the natural and almost inherited cynicism towards social justice that is spread deep and wide in our generation. I think if any term could describe me and others that belong to this loose group, “Born Again Communists” would be the most metaphorically accurate. In fact, Yasha and I have been calling ourselves that for a while.
Me and Yasha with Ernest in his home in the Laurel Canyon. November 2023.
Ernest’s self-portrait from the 1940s, now in our private collection.
A few weeks ago, I got to meet a 103 year old artist named Ernest Rosenthal. He’s a Viennese Jew whose family lived near Freud and who was lucky to leave Austria in 1938 and eventually settle in Los Angeles. He escaped the Holocaust by chance. So for him the fear about antisemitism should really resonate — should really hit deep. But he never fell for it. He never became a Zionist and never believed in Israel as a safe haven — not when he was younger and not now. In fact, he was dumbfounded by the whole Zionist project, which to him resembled more of a Nazi idea for a nation state than anything else. He said that he never felt a need to join any group. In fact, he and his parents felt culturally German, and even now he speaks German to his German caretaker. So if there is one, that’s his peer group.
His mind is still clear, even though he experiences occasional brain fog — or as he jokingly told me, “nobrain fog.” He is a living proof that Israel does not need to do this in our name, I mean Jews at large. In fact, what Israel is doing to supposedly protect all Jews, only ghettoizes us in a Zionist identity — an identity that is not enriching but dumbing down, a militaristic blood-and-soil ideology that tries to take Jewish status away from anyone who doesn’t conform to it.
Zionist Jews are obsessed with the idea that Israel is the safest place for Jews in the world. Meanwhile, Israel turned out to be the most dangerous and deadly place for Jews since World War II.
Want to know more? Read Evgenia’s Welcome to the “RuZZkiy Mir”