Karl Marx and Jerusalem

Karl Marx and Jerusalem

Prof. Shlomo Avineri is a well-known figure in Israel, a top academic political scientist who also served as Director-General of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a senior diplomat in the 1970s.

He has just written a fascinating little piece about how, in 1976, he used a 1854 quote from Karl Marx to counter a Soviet-led effort at the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to condemn and expel Israel for the alleged crime of “Judaising” Jerusalem – a claim which is still raised frequently today. (Its interesting how many of the themes raised in current campaigns aimed at demonising Israel have their origins in Soviet pro-Arab propaganda of the 1960s and 1970s.)

Here’s Avineri’s account of the quote and its origins:

When the Crimean War broke out in 1854, pitting Russia against the Ottoman Empire and its European allies, Karl Marx was working on Das Kapital in the British Museum Reading Room. Meanwhile, he eked out a meager living writing for Horace Greeley’s radical New York Daily Tribune. Most of these articles were pure journalistic hackwork, but a few of them reflect Marx’s sophisticated historical insight.


Although the Ottoman Empire at that time stretched far into Eastern Europe, the intricacies of its internal politics and social conditions were little known even to informed Western European readers. In faraway America, people knew even less, and this gave Marx an opportunity to write a lengthy article on the subject, published in the Daily Tribune on April 15, 1854. Marx describes the complex ethnic and religious demography of the Ottoman Empire and dwells at some length on the conditions of the minority communities living under Muslim rule…

Because the Crimean War started with a religious dispute centered on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, Marx devotes a paragraph to the city and its population. He begins by stating that its “sedentary population numbers about 15,500 souls, of whom 4,000 are Mussulmans [Muslims] and 8,000 Jews.” He goes on to say that “the Mussulmans, forming about a quarter of the whole, consisting of Turks, Arabs, and Moors, are, of course, the masters in every respect.” After this dry recitation of facts, what follows is somewhat surprising. Marx goes on:

“Nothing equals the misery and the suffering of the Jews of Jerusalem, inhabiting the most filthy quarter of the town, called hareth-el-yahoud . . . between the Zion and the Moriah . . . [They are] the constant objects of Mussulman oppression and intolerance, insulted by the Greeks, persecuted by the Latins [Catholics], and living only on the scanty alms transmitted by their European brethren.”

He points out that the Jews of Jerusalem are not natives, but hail from different and distant countries, “and are only attracted to Jerusalem by the desire of inhabiting the Valley of Jehoshaphat and to die on the very place where the redemption is to be expected.” Marx concludes:

“Attending their death, they suffer and pray. Their regards turned to that mountain of Moriah where once stood the temple of Lebanon, and which they dare not approach; they shed tears on the misfortune of Zion, and their dispersion over the world.

To anyone familiar with Marx’s venomous portrait of Judaism in his early essay “On the Jewish Question,” not to speak of his many uncomplimentary comments about individual Jews (fellow socialists such as Ferdinand Lassalle included), his words here will come as a surprise. That the only place in all of Marx’s writings in which he expresses some empathy for Jews…

While Marx was of course not reporting from personal experience, but reflecting the sources he consulted, his description of those sources is significant for two reasons. First and foremost, as Avineri notes, it confirms again that, historically, the claims about Israel “Judaising” a Jerusalem which is rightfully an Arab city are absurd. As I documented in a “Scribblings” column last December, Jerusalem is a city which has had a Jewish majority since at least the middle of the 19th century – well before Zionism existed – according to all sources of the period (including those used by Karl Marx) and a Jewish plurality for even longer. Israel did not create a Jewish Jerusalem, it has existed for centuries – though of course the Arab and Muslim heritage of the city must also be acknowledged, respected and preserved.

But there is another point here in this quote which Avineri does not call attention to – and it relates to the treatment of Jews in Arab lands. As AIJAC’s Colin Rubenstein noted in an editorial last year, there is a view being adopted in some quarters that the vehement antisemitism today sometimes coming out of the Middle East is simply a modern reaction to Zionism and Israeli policies, with no roots in the region’s traditions. Moreover, this view says, the Jews of the Arab world were generally perfectly happy and had nothing to complain about before the advent of Zionism.

Arab nationalists and Islamists like to make these claims this both because they do not like to admit that traditional Arab and Muslim societies were in any way imperfect and because it serves their political goal of advocating Israel should be dissolved or destroyed to be able to argue Israel’s Jewish population will be perfectly happy living under Palestinian or Muslim rule. Some Westerners adopt this view out of sympathy for anything Palestinian advocates say, but most do so because it makes the idea of Israeli-Palestinian peace seem much easier. If the region’s tradition is one of happy Jewish-Muslim cooperation, then it seems obvious that establishing a Palestinian state along-side Israel will guarantee peace – no need to worry about the terms of recognition of Israel, or extremists continuing to target Israel after a deal is signed, or any argy-bargy about what sort of security arrangements Israel needs. Thus, adopting this view not only feels “sophisticated” and appreciative of the genuine achievements of Arab civilisation in its medieval heyday, it also facilitates wishful thinking about the prospects for peace.

But as I demonstrated in this post last year, quoting contemporary eyewitness accounts of the situation of Egypt’s Jews in the 1830s, this supposedly “sophisticated” view is actually simplistic and largely incorrect. At that time, before any hint of Zionism, the evidence is clear that Egyptian Jews were, as I wrote, “despised and hated, subject to arbitrary beatings and other abuses at any time by Muslim individuals, and also to frequent persecution and ‘exemplary’ execution by the state.” Avineri’s quote demonstrates that no less an authority that Karl Marx attests that similar hatred and discrimination was applied to the majority population of Jerusalem by the dominant non-Jewish minority – “the masters in every respect”. He writes that “Nothing equals the misery and the suffering of the Jews of Jerusalem,” and “[They are] the constant objects of Mussulman oppression and intolerance, insulted by the Greeks, persecuted by the Latins [Catholics]…” And Marx can hardly be accused of excessive sympathy for either Jews or Zionism.

This is more evidence, if any is needed, that the situation of Jews in Cairo in the 1830s was not an exception, but part of a wider regional phenomenon where treatment of Jews varied a great deal both from place to place as well as over time, but was freaquently quite bad. (Or Avi-Guy reproduces some individual stories about the Jewish communities of Egypt, Morocco and Syria in the early 20th century in her latest blog post here).

There is a core of truth to the claim that, in the Middle Ages, Middle Eastern Jews were often better treated than their European counter-parts. However, this absolutely does not mean that local forms of antisemitism, rooted in established local traditions, were not endemic to the region, nor that what we today would call the human rights of Jews were largely respected in that part of the world before Zionism came along.

Tzvi Fleischer