|DE AMERICA LATINA|
|Y EL CARIBE|| |
|VOLUMEN 5 - Nº 2|
|JULIO - DICIEMBRE 1994|
Identidades en América Latina (II)
The Last Battles of Old-World Ideologies in
the Race for Identity and Communal Power:
Communists vs. Bundists vs. Zionists in
This essay describes the ideological conflicts and disputes within the
Ashkenazi community in Mexico City from 1938 to 1951, spurred by various
party-like communal organizations and their leaders attempting to gain
control of as yet undefined parameters of political life. I undertake to show
the process by which a pattem of political unidimensionality took root in this
community and discuss the consequences of such a political reality. In other
words, political conflicts exist in all societies, and there is always someone
that becomes a winner while another may become a loser. However, not all
confrontations produce either/or situations. In fact, in most cases, especially
in societies that incorporate democratic values, the loser is not expected to
just disappear. Neither is it expected - regardless of the desires of the
competing agents- that he or she should alter his/her views and be prepared
to align with the new power structure and the groups that maintain it.
However, in the case analyzed here, this is precisely what evolved. When
Communists, Bundists and others lost to Zionists, the political fights between
these party-like groups had clearly become fights for control - who could
speak, what could be said, and how should it be said -, foreclosing, so to
speak, all non-aligned options. This was not just a matter of language. There
was a clear attempt to impose a pattem of total allegiance to the dominating
party. Zionism, becoming the central political power in Eretz Israel and
aiming to secure support in the Diaspora, pursued political exclusivity in the
community without the choice of political and cultural diversity that might
have been expected given the history of the community and Diaspora
conditions, which differed from the Israeli ones. In other words, once a group
won, there were no concessions made to any of the losing contenders, no
matter what and whom they represented, so that a process of political and
cultural unidimensionality remained the only available option in this
community that had seen diversity and plurality in abundance. The newly-
defined political line of behavior became the essential test for measuring
loyalty to the ethnic group.
University of Maryland
Political contention in this community had existed since its inception in the
early 1900s, when the Sephardic Jews from Aleppo and Damascus welcomed
the incoming Ashkenazim and incorporated them into their rudimentary
organized society. For a time, there were even many examples of mutual
assistance and coordinated religious activities between the groups. However,
these cooperative years were short-lived. By the end of the second decade of
the century, differences in religious practice1 and the feeling, on the part of
the Ashkenazim, that Mexico provided an open forum for variegated political
expression eventually drove them apart. The Ashkenazim had arrived in
Mexico with various degrees of political awareness, that they articulated into
political platforms drawn from the European experience according to which
they defined themselves. Mexico seemed to offer them the possibility of a
there-dimensional life: economic opportunities, intellectual exchange, and the
pioneering experience of control over their lives. Ashkenazim and Sephardim
separated organizationally; each began to explore new constructs of political
expression that would reflect their own historical experience and their own
views of their socio-political conditions.2
Georg Simmel's seminal concept of conflict3 seems to describe quite
adequately the patterns of interaction that occurred in this small community.
However, since the political confrontations and battles that the Ashkenazim
entered into during the 1940s-1950s caused the profound modification of
their political structure, disciplining the community towards a process of
unprecedented political unidimensionality, it is not enough to account for the
period simply in terms of the phenomenon of conflict itself, even if one takes
into consideration the centripetal and harmonious quality of conflict
(Vareinigung) that is often a concomitant outcome of confrontations.4
Therefore, the clashes that are dealt with here, and their consequences, are
presented, instead, as part of the political arena, reflecting the new patterns of
thought that marked Ashkenazi Zionist efforts to give permanent, definitive
shape and direction to their social structure.
Although the dramatic changes of this period may be approached from a
number of angles,5 here they are regarded as conflicts between political
groups - political parties - aiming to determine a winner. Again, this did not
mean the attainment of a dominant position by a group that was to be
challenged routinely within a democratic framework; neither was it a
temporary amalgam of all political views under the leadership of one party,
promoting a kind of political average. Rather, it resulted in the consolidation
of one group as the only "authentic" representative of Jewish interests. All
along, contenders sought to obtain from their audiences support for their
world views and, in so doing, to legitimaze their social interpretations and
definitions of the situation. Communists, Bundists and Zionists endeavored
to be recognized as the true representatives of the community. Eventually,
however, it became a combativeness for exclusive representation of the
community. And that meant a dramatic change in the political life of this
The Jewish community in the 1940s exhibited a political structure which
was far from determined, where the rules of the political game were still being
negotiated, and where definitions of Jewish loyalty remained open and
varied.6 In 1939, for instance, the newly-formed Tzentral Komitet, an
organization created to guard against defamatory activities in the country,
attempted - as a multi-sector representative body- to step into the role of
central communal power. It was felt that given the plurality of organizations
that existed, a central body would be useful for coordinating communal life.
The Tzentral Komitet failed, however, for reasons that cannot be addressed
fully here, to centralize control, as did the Hilfs Fareyn, and the Congregation
Nidkhei Israel. Whether it was the religiously orthodox Nidkhei Israel or the
socialist Hilfs Fareyn, each entering the contest with its own, entirely different
style and agenda of priorities for the survival and continuity of the
community, no one ever suggested that a single group could represent all
varieties of Jewish thought; no one sensed, either, that a single group was
soon to be the only legitimate representative of the community. A major
change took place in the decade of the '40s, when the race to centralize the
political power structure between the different organizations that existed
revealed the possibility of establishing clear boundaries concerning the
acceptable defmitions of Jewish communal loyalty; and it is in the practical
translation of there new limitations that specific participant-contestants were
either accepted or rejected from the political arena of the community. For the
first time, groups were to be excluded from the activities of their social
It stands to reason that, if there was such competition for centralizy and
control, this was due to the existence of an institutional network comprising
numerous minor organizations of diverse ideological persuasion, each of
which sought control over the others. We do not have a complete list, but we
can assume that there were many such organizations,7 as distinct from other
specifically cultural groups that participated in the political life of the
community. In such a heightened ideological context, with so many ideas and
ideologies being flaunted in public forums,8 gaining control of the network
was no simple matter. For one organization to dominate the others, it
required enforcing compliance and obedience, which not only had to be
justified, but also had to be socially forged. With the Second World War at
the beginning of the decade and the creation of the State of Israel at the end,
we encounter external forces that finally exhausted for some groups some of
the political alternatives available, while fomenting others as real possibilities.
In the face of changes, which would only become clearer in the '50s, after the
establishment of the State of Israel, the need for formal structuring of the
community became more pressing and, in 1957, the Kehillah was created; a
new central institution to fulfil that purpose. There is no doubt that even
though power and control were attractive to all the groups, it was direction
that was at stake. In other words, the outcome of the local conflicts did not by
themselves restructure the local Jewish political scene; by narrowing the
viable political alternatives within the community, it eventually became
possible to establish a central defining group that attempted successful
control over the entire communal landscape.
In the story of how this carne about, three variables should be kept in mind.
I begin by studying the groups that formed and functioned as political nuclei-
Bundists, Communists and Zionists- and trace their development as they
exchanged views about the political reality. Next, I take into account the
background of national politics. President Cárdenas (1934-1940) had leftist
sympathies and, during his administration, selected ideas of this type
flourished and took root institutionally. By the 1950s, with the onset of the
Cold War, this trend was blatantly reversed.9 Both situations had an effect on
the contending Jews. Finally, I consider the Jewish presence on the
international scene during the period beginning with the Second World
War and the Holocaust, and ending with the establishment of the State of
Israel. These changes in social reality, more dramatic and profound than in
any other period of Jewish history, had enormous consequences and affected
all Jews. Certainly the tiny enclave examined here was no exception.
Given our protagonista, their dialogue, and their fluctuating status and
prestige, the resulta attained are somewhat unexpected. Following the internal
logic of their contentions, one would expect the winner to be determined first
and foremost on the basis of each group's merits. However, perception of
what was meritorious in a group changed in accordance with the external
influences of political events. Less able to react instantaneously to change, the
leaders of the groups assimilated and reacted to the external variables that
affected them slowly and belatedly, so that even though they were aware of
these changes, the actual results appeared to "surprise" them too.
Without a doubt, Jewish Communists had the upper hand at the beginning
of the period in question. For a very small group of activists (we lack exact
statistics), they nonetheless commanded extensive visibility, prestige and
public support, though other political groups attacked them. The most
systematic onslaught and threat to their position came from the Bundists,
who managed to dethrone them and drive them from the political scene, but
not win. Nevertheless, even if the Bundists did remain their most formidable
enemy, they were ineffectual in themselves. Zionists, on the other hand, were
far more effective at playing their cards politically. For a time, they were
strong allies of the Communists; in fact, Mexico is the first country in which
such collaboration affected non-Jewish Communist circles as well.10
However, when the balance of international forces changed during the Cold
War, and with the establishment of the State of Israel, most communal
sympathizers distanced themselves from the popular Communists, including
leftist Zionists, who retreated in the face of a losing battle but felt strong
enough to ride on their own. Thus, with the help of an "unexpected" change
in the international scene, they managed to upstage all other contestants and
gain popular support. The Bundists, who had contributed so much towards
change, were left to search for coalition partners. The outcome of the conflicts
was determined, then, not only by the intrinsic merits of each group, but by
the way in which international events affected the existential, material and
ideological resources of the political contenders. Hence, the "unexpected"
result. The winners then sought to incorporate the idiosyncratic group
formations within the community into an institutionalized structure.
While not strictly parallel, there are significant similarities between the
goings on in the political life of the Ashkenazim in Mexico and the political
scene in Mexico in general. Just as there was an openness towards leftist ideas
in Mexico at large, so was Communism enjoying a surge of popularity in the
community. In both cases, the situation of the groups was not consolidated,
but it certainly allowed them the possibility of attempting to participate as
major players in the political scene.
For those Jews who carne to Mexico with the feeling that here was a
country in which the world order was being modified without eradicating
Jews and democracy, Mexico seemed like paradise. President Cárdenas was
coping with the enormous shake-up that societies everywhere had experienced
because of the international economic crisis of the previous decade.
Cárdenas's answer to strikes and agrarian revolts was labor and land
reform.1 But the overtures he made to left-wing groups and their ideas were
never meant as an open and free hand for either Socialists or - in particular -
Communists.12 The Communist Party of Mexico was created in 1919 and
enjoyed a better relationship with Cárdenas than with other presidents, but
their relationship was never a "love" story; at best, a courtship of sorts. Even
though the Communist Party had long stayed away from government
workers'organizations, which were too attached to the government for their
taste, they did get close to the new C.T.M.13, and this, despite the fact that it
indicated a change in their policy, all the more significant given the shaky
start of their relationship with President Cárdenas: in 1934, at the beginning
of his presidency, they had accused him of being too closely linked to Calles, a
fact that antagonized the President and turned him against them. Because
Communists never aligned with the government completely, a slow process of
enforced detachment began in 1936: first, they were expelled from the
C.T.M.; then, in 1937, they were expelled from the Partido Nacional
Revolucionario, the official party. Although Communists would later make
a new attempt at what they called a policy of "unity at any price," they
nevertheless protested Cárdenas's response to Soviet policy regarding Finland
and his having welcomed Trotsky to Mexico. This prompted Cárdenas, in the
last days of his administration, to authorize massive arrests of members of the
Communist Party.14 The breach was never repaired.
While it is hard to make a case for the direct influence of the Mexican
political system on communal politics, it is certainly possible - and easier- to
argue that the Mexican political exchanges of the '40s created a context in
which the Jewish left could develop. Although by the 1940s Communists were
being persecuted, it did not affect those Jews who defined themselves as such,
since they were active in a separate body, having been denied acceptance to
the "cells" of the official Communist Party. Given the importance attached to
social issues in the country, as the restoration of certain rights, land, etc.
shows, and the fact that these had not just been granted to certain groups but
were the result of conflict, confrontation and consolidation,15 leftist ideas
enjoyed an established and acknowledged respect in the Jewish community,
so that the pronouncements and ideological interpretations of the Commu-
nists enjoined prestige in the community. The left had room to maneuver.16
With an openness that the context allowed, the Jewish left were in the mid-
'30s and '40s perhaps the most vocal of the Jewish groups. Loosely identified,
they encompassed Socialists, Communists, some Anarchists, Territorialists
and intellectuals sympathetic to Socialist issues. Their central purpose was to
examine and translate, for their audience, the activities of the USSR from a
In the '20s, when the Nacional Communist party was a fresh organization
less than a decade old, some contact had existed with Jewish Communists.17
In fact, in the purges of 1929, some Jews were also expelled from the country
or sent to the "Islas Marías," a prison off the mainland, depending on the
national or residential status of the "offenders."18 That contact was not
renewed, however. When some sympathetic Jews attempted, in 1928, to offer
support for the Stalinist Soviet project of Birobidzhan, which designated the
province in eastern Siberia a Jewish homeland, as had been the case with
Crimea sometime earlier, Communist Jews in Mexico comprised too small a
group to organize separately. Then the purges of '29 left their group
shattered. Nothing much happened in the way of reorganization during the
maximato period, as the years 1928-1934 are known in Mexico, with the
presidencies of Emilio Portes Gil, Pascual Ortiz Rubio, and Abelardo L.
Rodríguez. Mexico had broken off relations with the Soviet Union and any
activities which were defined as subservient to the USSR were looked upon as
unacceptable and not tolerated. Nevertheless, the Jewish left managed to stay
active through the local press and continued to express their views of the
possibilities that Socialism and Communism held for Jews. In the '30s, the
national Communist Party reorganized. Though Jews were never incorpo-
rated, those that defined themselves as Communists remained "local",
following indirect guidelines. For example, the Cárdenas regime offered
asylum to Trotsky, but the Jewish community did not have much to do with
him, with the exception of some interviews that he gave to some of their
journalists.19 The painter Diego Rivera and others who had petitioned for the
asylum were expelled from the Communist Party for doing so. Jewish
Communists followed the official line too, and so took little interest in him.
Between 1934 and 1946, the Cárdenas and Avila Camacho regimes
provided a favorable political climate for the left20 and things began to
change substantially. Jewish Communists reorganized (1934) officially with a
group called Gesbir: Gezelshaft far Birobidzhan. This time they were more
successfu1.21 They promoted their ideas through lectures and publications,
and maintained basically friendly relations with other left-wing Jews, even
with the Bund. By supporting a Communist platform, the Bund hoped to
bypass old differences between the groups and forge new productive links
between them. In their formative years (1890s), it must be remembered, all
Jewish Socialists started out sharing the views expounded in Wir Sind keine
Juden, Sondern Jiddisch-sprechende Proletarier. Eventually, the more
nationalistic among them formed the Bund, while the internationalists
joined the ranks of the Communists, determining the stance that bitterly
separated these two groups in later years. The Second World War reawoke
strong animosities and the conflict between the Bundists and the Communists
was exacerbated by the resurgence of nationalism.
The USSR was respected in those years in most progressive intellectual
circles, and Socialist groups in the community were, for the most part, active
devotees. Almost in every aspect of their work, they exalted the USSR as
being on the threshold of a new social world.22 Its appeal to a broad base of
support and its effort to embrace a variety of ideologies made the Communist
platform appear as the most influential, sophisticated, and dedicated to the
community, more than any other practical movement. Notwithstanding the
seeming prestige of the Communists, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939
violently shook intellectual circles. It created massive confusion within leftist
groups and signalled the beginning of the end of Communist hegemony in the
community. Too many questions arose, even among their followers: was it
possible that the enemies of fascism had made an open agreement with Hitler?
Was Stalin the leader the Communists would have everyone believe, or was
there a thick cover-up obscuring his true political intentions? Distress,
astonishment and, confusion were the paralyzing emotions that surfaced when
no explanation was forthcoming; there was much disappointment and
disillusionment at the fact that politics subsumed principles. Even Commu-
nists were not satisfied with what increasingly appeared to many anti-fascists
as an indefensible policy.
In order to counter widespread public remonstrance and to appease their
loyal constituency, Jewish Communists organized a simulated trial of USSR
policy a few months later, on July 31, 1940. It was held in the I.L.Peretz Club
and was very well attended.23 The all-Communist panel attempted to justify
the pact. Presented as an exchange between a defense lawyer who followed the
Stalinist position (Boris Rosen),24 a prosecutor (Dr. Moisés Lisker),25 and an
arbitrator (the late Mexican philosopher Dr. Eli de Gortari), the trial was
intended to appease the disenchanted left. Despite their intentions, the
discussion brought to the fore the political/ethical questions and demands for
accountability that had become such a dilemma for the Communist
platform,26 and, finding themselves unable to provide adequate explanations
for Stalinist policy, they only aggravated their cause. Lisker's support of the
Communists, for instance, diminished - true to the role he had assumed in the
trial. Instead of securing a consensus, the already fragile equilibrium of the
"left" was further eroded.27 The action had unintended consequences.
Although Bundists were the most vocal accusers and persistently demanded
an explanation from the Communists, similar outbursts occurred worldwide.
In response, a new concerted effort was launched by Communist central
policy-makers to repair the severed relationships,28 but the pact had rendered
the Communists helpless; exactly where things went wrong would only
become clear years later. Abrogation of the pact afforded some of the
disaffected activists a means of returning to the Communist fold but, for
others, it was all over.
After the Second World War, the left continued to work to bolster its image
and secure adherents. Attempting to sidestep the hurdles erected by the pact,
Communists created first the Jewish League for the Soviet Union (1942), and
then, in 1945, changed it to Folks Lige, in an effort to make the platform
accessible to all groups in the community.29 This change of name no doubt
was also prompted by the need to continue the fight against fascism, in which
Jews had an obvious stake,30 as much as by the desire for a wider and
stronger political base. Many Bundists, Zionists and Communists cooperated,
and most of these who defined themselves as "progressive" were active to a
degree.31 Not only was this group distinctive for its relatively large cultural
output, but it was also notorious for sending packages, money and other
material resources in support of the Red Army.
The then president of the Yidishe Folks Lige, Mordkhe Korona, stressed the
need for such a widened platform.32 At the inauguration ceremonies,
representatives from 20 organizations were present: among them were the
Nidkhei Israel Congregation, the United Zionist Organization, the Tzentral
Komitet, the Histadrut (representatives of the General Federation of Labor in
Israel), and the representatives of the Jewish World Congress (the voluntary
Jewish body representing communities throughout the world).33 The most
unexpected source of support for the Communists, however, which enabled
them to retain their centrality a little longer, carne from the strong alliance at
that time between Communists and Zionists, particularly left-wing Zionists.
The Communist monthly Fraivelt had been turned into a weekly and become
an open forum for Zionists like Zevulun Berebiches, Chaim Lasdeisky,
Kalmen Landau, Avner Aliphas and Mordkhe Korona.
The Bund, though, remained distant.34 The estrangement between the Bund
and the Communists had been essentially disguised by the fact that both
groups in Mexico were small and needed each other as audience and
constituency. But, at the first opportunity for an outbreak, such as the
aforementioned pact, differences surfaced. The official break occurred after
the execution of Bund's leaders Victor Alter and Henrik Erlich, accused of
spying, in the USSR in 1941, after they had escaped from Nazi-occupied
Poland. World Bundist outrage was enormous. Local Communist justifica-
tion further inflamed Bundist animosity: "We do not believe that Erlich and
Alter were killed as criminals, but rather as activists-fighters who were against
the Soviet regime; the Soviet Union did not commit a murderous act, rather
they defended their interests and ideology."35 For the Bundists, the
acceptance and justification of these deaths revealed the degree to which
local Jewish Communists had become blind to USSR policy. The Bund felt
that the fate of European Jewry was secondary for the Communists, far less
important than the much-praised achievements of the Red Army. Moreover,
the Bund distrusted on the whole the politics and diplomacy of the USSR,
therefore the uncritical reverence which these Communists manifested for the
USSR was intolerable to them. After this incident, Bundists systematically
sought to discredit what appeared to them as unquestioning Communist
positions adopted with respect to Jews in the Soviet Republics.36
Soviet Jewish leaders, actor Shloime Mikhoels and poet Itzik Fefer, visited
Mexico, the U.S., Canada and England in 1943 on behalf of the Jewish Anti-
Fascist Committee, an organization monitored by the Soviet government,
with the aim of strengthening the waning but much needed support.37 The
broad recognition these leaders received in Mexico on the part of their .
colleagues, some Zionists, and even some government representatives, makes
it unclear who the target of their efforts was; perhaps they were geared
towards everyone. One can assume, in any event, that any support was
welcome. Within the community, this Communist-Party initiative was
welcomed by many. Jews mostly saw it as an effort by Jewish Communists
to justify Soviet policy towards Jews and to help sustain the eroding
sympathy for the Soviet government. But it is obvious that the aim of these
messengers was far more comprehensive.
One very clear purpose of their visit was to highlight what Soviet leaders
defined as the beneficial aspects of Soviet policy towards Jews. The USSR's
willingness to make specifically Jewish issues, even nationalistic Jewish issues,
a central concern, sharply contrasted - they held - with the claims made by
other countries - and there were not many - concerning their interest in
protecting Jews and their needs. The support given to Mikhoel's and Féfer's
work by the Soviet Ambassador to Mexico, Constantin Umanski, lent
credibility to these claims. A distinguished diplomat, previously Ambassador
to the US, and a Jew, he became a kind of liaison between Jews, Jewish
Communists, Mexican Communists and world governments.38 With his clear
political authority, skills, linguistic tools and ethnic ties, he was able to reach
diverse audiences, and was especially popular with the Jewish community.
Umanski certainly contributed to promoting and sustaining Jewish faith in
Soviet policy. He also helped to forge a genuine link between Jews with
The collaboration between Jewish Communists, other intellectuals and the
Zionists was not limited to the use of a common press.40 Many activities were
shared. Umanski was a much sought-after guest at Jewish communal public
meetings. It should be noted that during the Mikhoels and Fefer visit (which
Umanski attended), not only Communists hosted the visitors. Zionists were
at the forefront of the activities, too. An open reception was organized at the
Zionist Tarbut school, with 45 presidents from diverse organizations present.
Ambassador Umanski addressed the meeting.41 Another meeting, with
similar attendance, took place with 30 distinguished Mexican and Latin
American artists, including the painter Chávez Orozco, the playwright
Alfonso Gómez de la Vega, the poet Pablo Neruda, the composer Carlos
Chávez, the philosopher Alfonso Reyes, and others. The Tzentral Komitet,
the most general and representative organization at the time, received the
guests separately. Jews tried to make it a Jewish event, while Mexicans
regarded it as a Soviet-Mexican exchange. Regardless of the success of each
group in appropriating the event, its ample visibility and the interest it awoke
dramatically illustrate the importance and widespread acceptability of the left
at the time. However, despite the prolonged centrality and visibility that they
enjoyed, the Communists in the long run were not able to secure a widespread
and stable following.
The break between Communists and Bundists in 1941 had a dramatic effect
on the Communists, though the full extent was disguised in the first few years
of their conflict by a series of alliances and political relationships that tended
to obscure the larger context. Communists repeatedly received boosts of
energy; the above-mentioned connection with left wing-Zionists, one of
many, was beneficial to both parties in that one attained recognition for the
goals of the USSR, while the other gained a forum to express their views and
canvass for recognition as well.
A second source of energy carne from the exiled European Communists,
mainly German and Austrian Jews and non-Jews, who ended up in Mexico in
those years as temporary guests.42 In 1942, these refugees formed the
Bewegung Freies Deutschland (Movement for a Free Germany). Although the
Mexican government had distanced itself from the Soviet Union during what
some Mexicans called the "Wall Street influence" period, things changed
when Mexico joined the Allies in the war in 1942, and the two countries
reestablished relations some time later. The impact of this group of refugees
was particularly felt by the Ashkenazim because of their contact with the Jews
among them. Refugees found it easier to establish contacts within the
community either as members of the minority that shared common interests
or as spokesmen for certain communal issues that local Jews were otherwise
unable to articulate. Often, these Jewish refugees were guests at communal
activities. Introduced as "Jewish writers in foreign languages," they
participated in internal discussions about Jewish continuity and goals. Egon
Irving Kish, Andre Simon and Dr. Leo Zuckerman conferred with such local
activists as Kalmen Landoi, Jacobo Glantz, Abraham Golomb and Zevulun
The refugees, Communists, and leftist-Zionists created a sort of network,
energetically and spiritedly exchanging public and ideas. Refugees, including
Paul Meyer, Bruno Frei, Otto Katz and Theodore Balk, took part in
communal activities and some even contributed to the Jewish organ of the
Bnei Brith, Tribuna Israelita. These activists shared not only a Marxist-
Leninist ideology, but also an interest in the practica] tactics of the
international Communist movement, particularly its efforts to broaden its
support by developing "popular fronts."44 These sophisticated and
internationally renowned intellectuals also helped the community by
articulating for them the need for general concern over the responsibility
that Germany had incurred towards the Jews over Nazi policies, as well as the
idea that Jews, as a minority, deserved the right to express themselves
The most important "broker" in this relationship between the Jewish
sectors and the Communist refugees in exile was Leo Katz (1892-1954). Very
well connected among the refugees, he was deeply versed in Jewish culture,
history and language.45 He also knew Yiddish, an advantage that allowed him
close contact with the activities of the community, as well as access to the
Yiddish press.46 With his distinguished career in the German, Austrian and
French Communist parties, Katz became a natural link between the two
groups in Mexico. Finding himself a grown man in a vibrant environment,
concerned not just with the public cause but suddenly also with issues imbued
with a Jewish context, seems to have awakened in him an awareness -
apparently dormant, or absent, in his exiled Jewish colleagues- of the political
potential of his Jewishness. Jewishness, which up to that point had been for
him, as for his colleagues, a subtext of his thought, was now at the forefront
of his thinking, an active point of referente to which his other political ideas
had to relate. Katz, in many ways, is paradigmatic of the atmosphere of the
time for these Jews; a time when Jewish issues became the prism through
which international politics could be understood.47 More than any of the
others, Katz intervened in internal communal affairs that affected other
areas, too. Very much involved in the local Jewish press, he was concerned
with many communal problems, some of which seemed very far from his
earlier preoccupation with anti-fascism. He confronted people in the
community over educational issues, and discussed others concerning cultural
continuity, etc. He was the only one of the Jews in this group who, after
leaving Mexico, seemed to retain a fast bond with Israel and with Judaism,
that nearly superseded his previous Communist activities.48
In the meantime, the Bund did not stand by in silente. The press served as a
forum for their exchanges. By splitting away from the Communists, the Bund
forfeited the chance of sharing a common platform and, though it had its own
journal, it soon discovered that it could not build an equally wide
membership. Communist centrality was rooted in the stability of their
international contacts and left-Zionist support for the international political
discourse in which they participated. The Bundists failed to rouse a
comparable socialist base locally, in much the same way as the local
Communists had trouble widening their membership. Thus, while one group
celebrated, the other felt it was being ousted from the ideological discourse
central to political debate and discussion.
The Bund systematically attacked Jewish Communists and Communism.
Much of it seemed irrelevant to the Communists, who seldom responded and
mostly continued to praise and highlight the actions of the Soviet army.
However, something changed with the intervention of an "outsider," not so
much with respect to the internal political dialogue, but marginal in terms of
Communist thinking generally. Communists started to retaliate and turned
the disagreements into outright war. Avraham Golomb (1888-1982), a
renowned pedagogue, writer and ideologue, then director of the Yidishe Shule
in Mexico, decided to engage in the political discourse at the time by publicly
raising his objections to the specific treatment of Jews and Judaism in the
Soviet Republics.49 He published two letters from a colleague and friend from
Rumania.50 Non-aligned personally since expounding his own political
ideology, which he sought to implement through the school system, Golomb
was recognized as a man of stature and standing not just by this community,
but among a larger group of people worldwide who knew him and respected
his goals. However, by advocating his own notions of Jewish continuity and
survival, he was detracting from the Communist agenda, as well as from
specific Jewish Communist loyalties. Until he attacked Communism,
Communists did not attack him and, in fact, they often praised him.51 Once
he intervened, however, a response seemed imminent. Communists gained
legitimacy through their direct response to his criticism. Golomb was
immediately seen by Communists as the "enemy", and the Bund seized the
opportunity to highlight their friendship with him, polanzing the situation
further. The Communist response carne from a powerful figure, who felt
himself to be an equal match for Golomb: Leo Katz saw this as an
opportunity, not so much to defend the Soviet position, but to discredit
Golomb. When he became vituperative in his attack of Golomb's ideas,52
Golomb remained silent and temporarily withdrew from these communal
political confrontations. Nevertheless, he still managed to deliver a dramatic
blow to the Communists, whose position continued to come under attack.53
Still without a defined following, the Bund intensified its attack, turning
also against the Zionists on the left, who were forced to re-examine the
meaning of their coalition with the Communists.54 The Bund exposed
inconsistencies in Zionist ideology and activity. Bundists were appalled, for
example, by the apparent disingenuousness of the question that occupied the
Zionists: "Where should we help: Palestine or Poland?." For the Bund -
within the context of the war- the question revealed the Zionists' lack of a
sense of proportion; it posed an altogether false dilemma. As they saw it,
European Jewry was already sequestered by the question itself. Zionist
political interests and intentions were focused clearly and uncompromisingly
on Palestine; for Polish Jewry, they only "shed a tear" and "offered a
Kaddish."55 Was this a real interest in Jewish future? Dr. Nahum Goldman, a
Zionist who fought openly for supporting Diaspora Jewry within Zionism,
was criticized for doing too little and too late. He visited Mexico, together
with Rabbi Stephen Wise, to find solid communal support, but the tension
did not disappear.56
Zionism in Mexico had organized its base around the Keren Kayemet, the
National Fund, whose activities centered on festival celebrations and
commemoration ceremonies, which gave them an opportunity to collect
money for Eretz Israel. It was a form of support that allowed the public a less
formal commitment, while educating it in the process.57 The Zionists also had
been trying to unite their diverse organizations within a federation, under
what the press reported as the Ben-Gurion Plan, put forward in April 1937.58
Left-wing Zionists like Mordkhe Korona, Avner Aliphas, Kalmen Landau,
and others, all worked with the Communists publishing in Fraivelt.59 But
there was one factor that helped the Zionists overcome the negative
consequences of their Communist associations. In contrast to the Commu-
nists, Zionists had representatives in most, if not all, communal organiza-
tions; teachers, writers, journalists, professionals, and activists, all
contributed to and used the services of the community. This involvement
and interaction became increasingly useful as the community absorbed
Zionist ideology, and Zionist positions and principles gained prestige. In an
adequate environment, these scattered seeds could grow and flourish.
The Bund, however, ridiculed the Zionists' links with others as crassly
political in intent; the association of "Zionists, with Reform Rabbis of the
USA, the wealthy Jews and the progressive Communists"60 betrayed their
deceitfulness, the Bundists argued. Their criticism, however, failed to
undermine the relationship that these organizations had forged with each
other. The Bund continued to denounce the Communists for their supposed
trickery with regard to Bundists in their country, Zionists, or, for that matter,
Jews in general. Why would an Ana Berkovna need to became, for example,
Ana Borisovna in Russia? Was this not subtle pressure to change ethnic
Jewish identity? How could Zionists interpret Communist policy as pro-
Zionist? Or, was it that Zionists also did not stand for all Jews?61
Criticism of the Communists came from other quarters, too. Though
Mexico had few Jewish anarchists, the movement's spokesman was a
distinguished man, of much integrity, who had arrived in Mexico in 1926
after taking part in a notorious anarchist struggle in the United States in
1918.62 Jack Abrams distrusted Communists as much as they did him. In the
midst of the controversy that raged in the '40s, he added his contention that
the USSR was not, as Communists claimed, the ideal society. Neither was the
upheaval of Western society due to strikes and disagreements: "Do not
believe in this silence, [he exhorted his readers], jail is not a cemetery," he
quoted from a Russian prison song.63
Among the Communists, not all types of Zionism found favor. When Dr.
Nahum Goldman and Baruch Tzuckerman, major Zionist leaders from the
World Jewish Congress, visited Mexico, their failure to address the problems
of Soviet Jewry showed, many argued, their distinct lack of interest and
support for Zionism everywhere.64 Communists felt that this lack of support
from the General Zionists - the group and ideology that eventually became
dominant- was something they had to come to terms with. In their criticism,
Communists resented what they saw as an essential characteristic of Zionism,
which permeated its ideology and showed itself clearest in the Zionist position
towards the USSR: making the link that they harbored not an ideologically
"organic" relationship but, rather, an opportunistic one. The Communists
went on to reject the support they received from the Jewish orthodoxy, which,
as far as they were concerned, was essentially of the same type as they
understood Zionist support to be: sympathetic to Communism and its causes
only as long as it gave them an outlet for expressing their outrage and desire
for vengeance stemming from the war.65
If, within the prism of these competing forces, one is able to discern the
alliances - some weaker, some stronger- between key groups, one can just as
well see the deep-seated enmities that, by weakening these relationships,
eventually rendered them powerless. No one group was fully committed to
another. Communists had a relationship with left-wing and other Zionists,
but not with the main stream of a movement they later censored. Bundists
were critical of Communists as well as Zionists, and moreover were unable to
secure a majority for themselves. Communists, in turn, criticized Bundists. At
all times, the shortcomings of each group's ideological position were made
public. All were aware of the possible sources of contention between the
others. There was fierce competition for the support of the masses, which
implied the need for detachment from the others; but, since control over the
masses was still in dispute, the coalitions held so long as individual groups
were willing to gamble on the relative benefits to be derived from them. The
fact that each group was so adept at picking fault with the other, while
maintaining the relationship at the same time, enabled them to make a final
break when that became necessary, as was the case of the Zionists with
respect to the Communists.
The Communists, with their Folks Lige actively claiming to represent the
community at large, were the first to experience difficulty in retaining that
power. After 1945-46, Communists began to perceive that their ability to
exert control over the social landscape was limited, and they were then
overtaken by fear of being displaced from their central position. The
communal solidarity for which they had fought so determinedly, and which
they had guarded with such fervor, was dissolving, or rather, shifting sectors.
However, the Communists' understanding of the forces at play was limited. It
was difficult for them to identify the source of the problem; to do so would
have required making some concessions to the changing political reality and
negotiating with the challenging groups. Instead, as a first step, Communists
sought justification by elaborating criticism which focused mostly on the issue
of communal representation. They criticized local communal organizations
for not being "cemented," and for failing to institute "democracy." The
criticism was now centered on the internal structure of the community. But,
since they had never raised these issues before, it would appear that they were
interested less in democracy per se than in some political mechanism that
could secure the shaky future of the organization.
The Communist journal Fraivelt repeatedly publicized the achievements of
the'Red Army, especially the achievements of Jews in the military field. At the
same time, from 1943, Communists claimed, the journal always aimed to
"respect all Jewish positions even when not in accordance with the Soviet
Union [and] to be a non-partisan organ, with a platform against Fascism."
All these arguments attempted to further the political designs of the
Communists to be part of a larger unity and yet still retain control. Fraivelt
presented itself as a "synthetic approach to all Jewish life," as the
representative of what it felt was at the forefront of Jewish needs. In
support of this point, the early experiments of Crimea and Birobidzhan were
often cited, as well as other government initiatives that protected Jewish
culture and survival.
Communists, from afar, believed that the structure of Soviet society had
changed, and with it, Jews had changed too. They used the metaphor of the
stereotype "hump" of the Jews, and argued that, as a social characteristic, it
was gone: "It is not surprising that the Jew in Russia has stopped missing a
personal country. Can one want another mother when one has a perfect one?
This could only occur when one has a stepmother, as is the case everywhere in
the world but not in the USSR. Further, even the Jews of Palestine feel that
whatever they want to achieve, the Russian Jews have achieved already."66
Later, Hirsh Minski, a contributor to Fraivelt, attempted to articulate the
differences between Zionism, Communism and Bundism, and the goals of the
Folks Lige. Drawing heavily on Golomb's work, he differentiated between the
three major political parties on the basis of their positions with respect to the
external political condition of Jews; but, since Golomb had been the only one
to address the internal political and cultural quandary of Jews, Minski hoped
that a combination of Communism and Golombism would allow the Lige to
focus not only on Eretz Israel Jews or European-Polish Jews, but on
American and Soviet Jews, who also needed support for their continuity, as
Further attacks carne from the Bund, who publicized the liquidation of
Zionism in Rumania.68 The attacks became more frequent and more acute;
more direct and more daring. Then, something happened. The old alliances
started to crumble and each group began to bleak away. It was no longer a
confrontation between the Bund and the Communists. The Bund now
attacked the left-wing Zionist alliance with the Communists and the General
Zionists. Communists, in turn, protested what they called the Bund's lack of
"political vision." They also went on to criticize the larger Zionist body and
local Zionists in particular,69 although they did see a fundamental link with
the Zionist cause. After all, it was a movement joining in the attempt to rid
the world of the last bleak forces of fascism. But not all that Zionists stood for
internally was either desired or accepted; neither did it offer, according to
them, full options for all Jews. As for the Zionists, they rejected the Bund's
strong interest in localism. Thus, all the alliances weakened and the groups
became politically vulnerable. However, because of the international changes
whereby Zionism was emerging as the most vocal and most powerful agent
for Jews in world politics, it was becoming not only clear but imperative that
the community needed to establish a central body that could interact and deal
with the changing demands of the new political reality. In the midst of such
structural demands, coupled with the general feeling of vulnerability, the
attacks between the groups turned lethal and stakes were at their highest.
For the first time, the Bund openly demanded that the general community
impose a ban on Communists and that it stop tolerating their organization.70
Limited censorship had been applied before; however, these had been specific
cases of authorities with limited impact, in search of an as yet undefined
ethnical centrality.71 The Bund sensed that the atmosphere was rige for a new
attempt to define centrality, and acted upon their sense that the emergente of
a unifying factor could he1p create and solidify a defined institutionalized
structure. They also may have been hoping for some direct political rewards.
In any case, the action of the Bund turned out to be politically timely and
In the end, the community did unite and allowed the Communists to lose,
but not because of the anti-Communist demands of the Bund or of anyone
else's attacks. Communists lost ground because Zionists found them, as a
group, to be too far out of line. And a very particular line was at issue: an
invisible line of attachment, bonding and loyalty was forming the new roots
of Jewish communal relations; other factions accepted or supported the
Zionist position, and its developing structure helped enforce the new
boundary. When Soviet support for Israel eroded, parallel feelings were
expressed by local Jewish Communists. In 1951, during a dispute in the
Tzentral Komitet over the Communists' position on this issue, local
Communists sided with the Soviet Union and proceeded to attack the
imperialism of the USA.72 Discontent had grown after Communist leaders of
the community were denied visas to the USA because of their affiliation. It
was, after all, the Korean War period. Increasingly frustrated, the
Communists banded together Israel, the USA, and the unsympathetic local
communal structure as enemies. It was this that precipitated their downfall,
for the response of the community was to apply to them, in turn, the Cold
War attitude,73 thus sealing the future of the Communists in this community.
They were immediately ousted from the joint organizations and, with no
place in the political arena, abandoned the scene altogether. They left.
How was it that the Zionists established hegemony? No confrontation had
given any group a clear victory. Sensibilities were changing and Jewish ideas
and affiliations were shifting with them. In the process, the left lost; of all the
contending forces, only the Zionists offered the prospect of real change.
Still, the bitter exchanges between the groups had not fallen on deaf ears.
The ideological attacks of the Bund, if they failed to win supporters for their
own cause, educated the public and tempered their enthusiasm for the
Communists. Bundists never stopped protesting what they called the Mouble
standard" of the Communists: their criticism of the Nazis and yet their silence
over the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact; their praise of Zionism while supporting
the Arabs, etc.
The Communists retaliated by raising issues that the Bund, in turn, had
trouble refuting. They claimed that the Bundist defense of vanquished Polish
Jewry was empty politically and ideologically.74 They further suggested that
Bundist positions were short-sighted and unable to deal with the political
crises of war. Communists and Zionists afke criticized the Bund for their
fixation on the war issues.75 The Bundists, in turn, criticized all pro-Soviet
organizations for their detachment from Jewish concerns and for failing to
pursue agendas that actively furthered Jewish interests. They felt that the
Communists used the Marxist paradigm to understand the Second World
War, while selling out with respect to the Jewish question.76 Ideology
controlled most explanations, the Bund contended, while the realities of
history were all too often denied or ignored. Drained from all the political
fighting, only Zionism benefitted. Although linked at one time to
Communism, their locus of action was Eretz Israel, which ideologically and
geographically now offered a new sphere of action.
For the Communists, the Folks Lige was weakening. The refugees had
returned to Europe after the war, most of them to work in regimes that
ultimately contributed to their premature and unnatural death.77 The support
of the USSR for the new State of Israel was eroding in theory and practice,
and most Communists followed suit. Such behavior, however, alienated the
vast majority of the community, even those least politicized; limits to
communal political toleration were being enforced. Communists lost the
undefined coalition with the left-wing Zionists, and even some of their own
supporters abandoned them. Attacks against the new Jewish state after the
Holocaust were not about to be permitted, particularly when no other
political "solutions" seemed to have worked.
The birth of the State of Israel was a balm for the suffering survivors of the
war, and a dream come true for most Jews. More than anything else, the
founding of the State of Israel offered the most independent political solution
available to Jews, regardless of the inevitable and possibly irreconcilable
ideological differences between them. The "Jewish street" in the community
was in a mood of intense and heartfelt euphoria; the very existence of Israel
signified absolute legitimization of Zionist work and activity. With the
founding of the State itself, gains acquired from previous struggles could and
would be integrated into the local institutionalization process.
Zionism had become the most effective political vision and now it had also
become a reality, the power of which began to be recognized. Zionists became
the undisputed winners in the struggle that gave all Jews an international
political victory. Locally, however, they were unorganized and unprepared to
cope with their newly-achieved recognition. There was no single Zionist
organization fit to take over the direction of the community; there were just
prestigious Zionists. Even after the creation of Israel, there was not one
communal organization able to coordinate the celebration arrangements.78 In
1948, two days after the proclamation of the new State, a pro-Palestine
committee was formed, filling the vacuum and helping to organize the
festivities for the event.79
With the consolidation of power, Zionists now took charge. The Bund
conceded victory to Zionism before anyone else. No matter what short-
comings remained, they felt that Zionists provided a viable answer to Jewish
reality at the time.80 Other groups followed. One major consequence had a
lasting impact on the political rules of this community: exclusive political
thought was now the norm. Whether due to the vulnerability of recent gains,
or to the abuse of the newly-achieved power, a type of unidimensional
thought was being promoted, permitted and fostered. Yet the new reality of
the State of Israel coexisting with the conditions of the Diaspora remained in
theoretical and practical terms contradictory; from the point of view of the
local community, this Diaspora required the articulation of new ideologies.
And there were not forthcoming. Local Jewry, despite its support, happiness
and dependence on the new State, never proposed to dismantle itself and
remained a minority in another state. That condition needed addressing; and
even though the supreme result of 1948 affected them, their choice to remain
in the Diaspora, however, left many issues that needed to be attended. Yet
they lacked the parameters to comprehend this reality from the perspective of
the community. Zionists were not interested or able to promote that process.
The political unidimensionality that was starting to take over presented itself
in terms of a fundamental cultural and political alienation, with all the
problems that such a condition implies.
Very soon, the first signs of this condition became apparent to the local
Jews, and although it was clear that a new ideological agenda needed to be
defined, they remained unequipped to address its political consequences,
unable to confront and work on their condition as a minority.
The UN vote for the State of Israel, for instance, showed 10 abstentions,
and Mexico was one of them. The seemingly silent posture of the government
spoke loudly and affected Jews there more than it appeared to at first. As one
Jew analyzed the abstention in the press:
"It hurts me as a Mexican Jewish citizen. What hurts me is not
so much the abstention from voting, as the added flattery that
was given in the declaration, when the Mexican representative
De Colina had so much to say in this world forum about the
goodness of the Syrian-Lebanese citizens and only a few, cold
statements about his Mexican Jewish citizens. We, Mexican
Jewish citizens, think and we are sure that we have helped along
very much in the local economic development of the last 25-30
years. De Colina should know all this. It is our fault that we did
not disseminate more information about our community."81
After four decades of productive exchange, nothing had altered the
ambivalence of the Mexican Government towards Jews; not the Holocaust,
not the State of Israel, and not the local productive Jewish citizens. The fact
of the "moral necessity" of the State of Israel had not been understood or
agreed upon by the Mexican Government.82 The reasoning for the Mexican
abstention revealed less the supposed neutrality of the government, than it did
the thoughts about Jews that it still harbored.83
Jews did accept, almost as a prerequisite, the "moral necessity" of the State
of Israel. It was becoming an undisputed fact politically. However, the way in
which this fact was worked into their local political thinking left no room
either for dissension or for a shift of emphasis in the priorities of Jewish
communal life without risking the possibility of being labeled and treated as
disloyal. The Communists had become the most patent example of this.
Local concerns did not disappear. Since the winning group's ideology failed
to address philosophically and politically local issues, which are always an
important register of political efficacy, these become only the subtext of the
perpetual efforts of dominant groups to retain power and control. The price -
the sociological inability of communal leaders, as of the general minority, to
understand their social condition- would become clearer only years later.
Specific differences in ritual, in the administrative policies of the cemetery, made for great
tension. See Cimet de Singer, Adina, The Ashkenazi Community in Mexico, A Dialogue among
Ideologies, Ph.D. Dissertation, Columbia University 1992, Ch.3.
See Susanne Langer's suggestion of how a social agent acts upon his social context, using "the
common dimensions of [his/hers] experience," in Douglas, Mary, "The Idea of Home: A Kind
of Space", Social Research, Vol. 58, No. l, Spring 1991, p. 291.
Simmel, Georg, On Individuality and Social Forms (Chicago, 1971), pp. 70-95.
Ibid., p. 72.
Cimet de Singer, Adina, op cit., specifically, Ch. 5.
One should remember that the Kehila Ashkenazi carne into being only in 1957; and it is with
this institution that the structuring of the community takes full form.
The conllicting figures we can offer come from observations made by contemporaries in the
Jewish press about their own communal network. In 1945, it is suggested that there are over
20 organizations; see Fraivelt, Jan.-Feb., 1945, p. 55. Abraham Golomb counted 58
organizations in the late '50s, while arguing for the need for a central Kehillah. In a report to
the Executive Committee of the World Jewish Congress, Kate Knopfmacher mentions about
40 organizations; American Jewish Archives, Hebrew Union College, H231.
This refers to public meetings, lectures, discussion groups, etc. Unfortunately, the only
available records of the political climate of the period are the local newspapers published in
Yiddish and the memoirs of occasional activists, some of whom I have interviewed, and
others who have been questioned by the local research team that just recently produced an
Oral History Library, under the direction of the Amigos de la Universidad Hebrea de
Jerusalén and the Institute of Contemporary Judaism of the same University. See Testimonios
de Historia Oral, Judíos en México (Mexico, 1990). From reading the local Yiddish press, one
gets a clear impression of the tremendous variety and complexity of all Jewish ideologies and
their nuances, as they interacted through their representative groups in Mexico.
Since the Mexican Revolution of 1910, there has been an important nucleus of leftist thought
in the country, from the anarchist brothers Flores Magón, to socialists like Antonio I.
Villareal, Manuel Sarabia, Lázaro Gutiérrez de Lara, etc. For an overview of this history, see
Historia General de México, Vol. 2, Cosio Villegas, Daniel, et al., especially, Ulloa, Berta, "La
lucha armada, (1911-1920)," (Mexico, 1988).
Bankier, D., "Los exiliados Alemanes en México y sus vínculos con la comunidad Judía
(1942-1945)," Judaica Latinoamericana (Jerusalem, 1989).
Hodges, Donald and Gandy, Ross, Mexico 1910-1982, Reform or Revolution? (London,
1983); Ralsky de Cimet and Lerner de Sheinbaum, El Poder de los Presidentes, (Mexico,
1976); Zapata, Francisco, Ideología y Política en América Latina (Mexico, 1990).
Whether the Revolutionary heritage of 1910 is understood as populism or socialism, the left
was never reduced to a single group activity in the country. By the time of the government of
Alvaro Obregón, one can distinguish several left-wing groups affecting the political
structuring of the country: Partido Nacional Agrarista, Conferencia Nacional Agraria
(1923), Partido Laborista Mexicano (1919), Confederación de Obreros Mexicanos,
Confederación General del Trabajo (1921), Partido Comunista, etc. It was the CROM that
first gained support from the government and then the CTM. See Delgado de Cantu, Gloria,
Historia de México, Formación del Estado Moderno (Mexico, 1991), pp. 232-245. The first
major shake-up specific to Communists in general that also affected Jewish Communists
came with President Calles in 1929, when, after President Obregón's assassination, Calles
faced unrest in the country and was unable to secure an easy political transition. During a
rebellion staged by General Escobar, the Communist party first sided with Calles and then
followed their international line, changing their position of support. All dissidents were
persecuted. Communists were arrested, expelled, or even made to disappear. See Historia
General de México, op. cit., Meyer, Lorenzo, "El Primer Tramo del Camino," pp. 1192-1194.
C.T.M. is the Confederación de Trabajadores Mexicanos, a body linked to the official
government party formed in 1936.
Lorenzo, Meyer, op. cit., p. 1255. See also, Delgado de Cantu, Gloria, Historia de México,
Formación del Estado Moderno (México, 1991).
Ralsky de Cimet and Lerner de Sheinbaum, El Poder de los Presidentes, pp. 100-101.
There was also a kind of "delayed action" on Communists in the Communisy, since their loss
of favor was not linked to specific practical actions such as that of the non-Jewish
Communists in Mexico.
The Communist Party in Mexico was created in 1919 as a result of the iniciative of the
Comintern, and with support from the older Partido Socialista Mexicano.
Though after the Mexican Revolution Mexico had many political parties - in 1929 there were
more than a thousand-, these were not parties in the modern sense. Each was a small
following of a leader, cacique or notable, that disappeared as soon as the leader disappeared
or lost power. Calles's attempt to create the Partido Nacional Revolucionario in 1928 was a
way of limiting the splintering of forces into mini-parties. The only political party that
survived these changes was the Communist Party, which in any case remained marginal.
When, in 1929, in the midst of the Escobar rebellion, the Communist Party withdrew its
support of the government following international guidelines, the government of Calles took
brutal measures against their political move. See Meyer, Lorenzo, "La Encrucijada," in
Historia General de México, Vol. 2, El Colegio de México (Mexico, 1988), pp. 1212-1218.
Maguidin, Shmuel, interview Oral History, 1990.
The left in Mexico should not be identified with Communist thought only. There were always
a variety of positions. The CROM, Confederación Regional de Obreros Mexicanos, had very
difficult dealings with the Communist Party, who often complained of their relationship with
the government but faced better.
They published the journal Oifboi, but also took upon themselves to publish works of their
members, such as Jacobo Glantz's "Fonen un Blut," poems about the antifascist Spanish
For a parallel between this Russophilia and that of English and American intellectuals during
the '30s, see Coser, L., Men of Ideas, A Sociologist's View (New York, 1970), pp. 144, 234-
236; Wood, Neal, Communism and British Intellectuals (New York, 1959); Howe, Irving, and
Coser, L., The American Communist Party (Boston, 1957); Webb, Sidney and Beatrice, Soviet
Communism: A New Civilization (New York, 1941). For a very new book and analysis of the
reaction of the American government once it felt the "infiltration" of these intellectuals in the
American University, see Diamond, Sigmund, Compromised Campus, The Collaboration of
Universities with the Intelligence Community, 1945-1955 (New York, 1992).
The club was located in Tacuba 15, the building that housed most of the Jewish organizations
of the time.
Rosen was then a young activist of the League, who eventually became editor of the
Communist journal Fraivelt.
Lisker had belonged to the young Gesbir and was now active in the League. His profession
was medicine, but he also had a command of languages. He was used as translator for the
Soviet-Jewish envoy in Mexico, the actor Mikhoels and the poet Fefer.
Rosen spoke on "The bourgeois-democracy that engendered the fascist monster and the
Soviet democracy that will bury them both;" Lisker spoke on " Marxism and Stalinism; not
only two different concepts, but really antithetical ones," and De Gortari moderated with a
speech on "Stalin's thrust of the USSR and the International towards Socialist triumph."
Interview, Rosen, Oral History.
The same occurred in the United States, but research needs to investigate the path the break
followed there. See Der Hamer, New York, Aug. 1939, p. 15; Sept. 1939, Oct. 1939, especially
the articles by M. Katz. It seems that Communists rejected the more general Socialist
publication, Yidishe Kultur, because it did not allow them to justify the Pact. The publication
defined itself as non-partisan. Dr. Zitlovsky, Dr. Mokduni, Y. Opatoshu, B.T. Goldberg,
Peretz Hirshbein and H. Leivik all resigned; the journal survived as a Bundist publication for
a short time. See Sept.-Oct. 1939, Nos. 9-10.
Bankier, David, "Los exiliados Alemanes en México y sus vínculos con la comunidad Judía
(1942-1945)," in Judaica Latinoamericana (Jerusalem, 1988), p. 84.
Fraivelt, Aug. 24, 1945. This article by Kalmen Landoi recounts the change from Lige farn
Sovietn Farband to the Folks Lige. The change of name contained in itself part of their
This statement must be read with caution. See Stille, Alexander, Benevolence and Betrayal,
Five Italian Jewish Families under Fascism (New York, 1991), especially Ch. 1, which
describes the Ovazzas of Turin as a fascist Jewish family, not an unusual choice for some Jews
in that area.
Goldberg, B.T., Fraindt, Feb.-March, 1963, pp. 15-16. See also Fraivelt, April 6, 1945, p. 6.
The opening of the new offices of the Folks Lige in Paseo de la Reforma 503 was celebrated
on 21 January 1945, Fraivelt, Jan.-Feb., 1945, pp. 52-55. The premises boasted pictures of
Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin and President Avila Camacho. In the Fraivelt office was a picture
of Khaim Zitlovsky. The reading room was adorned with pictures of Yiddish writers Mendele
Moikher Sforim, Sholem Aleikhem, Peretz and Sholem Asch; and the boardroom had
pictures of Shloime Mikhoels and Itzik Fefer. Though the group wanted to stress their non-
partisan posture, it is obvious that their leanings were clearly Communist.
Ambassador Umanski was also present then and delivered what was to be his last public
speech before his untimely death.
Forois, 1940, pp. 13-14, 20.
Fraivelt, No. 45, 1943, p. 20.
Forois, Nov. 1949, No. 100. Moishe Kulbak, Maks Erick, Zalman Reizin, etc. were all killed.
See also Forois, Jan. 1944, No. 20, p. 15.
It is thought today that Mikhoels was brutally killed, on Stalin's orders, in 1948; so was
Fefer, who had been a KGB agent for a time.
There is no doubt that Umanski was considered a useful diplomat by his government.
Eventually, he became prisoner of his own "qualities," which made him so useful at the time.
When Jews were suspected of anti-Soviet behavior by Stalin, they were soon purged. There is
suspicion, though unconfirmed, that Constantin Umanski's death on 25 January 1945, in a
plane crash on Mexican territory, was in fact an assassination. There is another version, in
which this story is explained as an accident. Mexico had purchased old World War 1 planes
from the USA; two other planes had crashed, and so did the one Umanski used, almost at
take off, on what became an aborted trip to Central America.
He is quoted as aiming to unite "from Rabbi to Zionist" and all others; Fraivelt, July 23,
1945, p. 3.
Fraivelt, Feb. 1944, pp. 7-8.
Fraivelt, Jan. 1944, pp. 13-14. (It is said that he understood Yiddish well.)
It is useful to remember that Mexico had also given asylum to Spanish refugees at the time of
the Falangist-Republican confrontation (1939). Mexico also sold arms to the Socialist-
minded Republicans and acted as an intermediary so that others could do the same; Delgado
de Cantu, Gloria, op. cit., p. 310. Abrams obtained visas in Mexico that allowed other
anarchists to join him, as Mollie Steimer, Senya Fleshin, and others did; see Polenberg,
Fighting Fights (New York, 1987), pp. 360-362. There were also 29 Polish Jewish refugees
accepted in Mexico; see letter of Knopfmacher, Kate, ibid.; for an earlier view of the issue in
Latin America, see Avni, Haim, "Latin America and the Jewish Refugees: Two Encounters,
1935 and 1938," in Elkin and Merkx, The Jewish Presence in Latin America (Boston, 1987),
Fraivelt, Nov. 16, 1945, p. 2.
Bankier, op. cit., p. 84.
Katz collected material for a history of Jews in the Middle Ages, that he did not manage to
He wrote for the Morgn Fraihait, was chief editor in Paris of the Naye Prese, and, in Mexico,
worked for the Fraivelt. He wrote his books in German, two of which were translated into
Yiddish during his stay in Mexico (1940- 1949): Nekome (N.Y., 1946) and Zrie Tzait (Mexico,
1949), translated also as Seedtime, for which he received extraordinary reviews in 1947, in the
USA, in The New Yorker, as well as in the Saturday Review of Literature, the Chicago Sun,
Atlantic Monthly, etc.
Vinietzky, Der Veg, Feb. 22, 1958.
Interview with Prof. Friedrich Katz, son of Leo Katz.
See my analysis of Golomb, "The Ideology of the Outsider: Ideologue, Writer and Pedagogue
Abraham Golomb", in The Ashkenazi Jewish Community in Mexico, pp. 196-207.
Forois, Dec., 1947, p. 14; p. 18.
Fraivelt, April 6, 1945, p. 5, for an article of extreme praise of Golomb's work.
Katz was, in tum, attacked by the Bundists for sabotaging the memorials for Alter and
Erlich; Forois, Dec. 1947, p. 17.
For Golomb, the problem did not end with this exchange. It lingered and penetrated his
schoolwork later on; see Cimet de Singer, op. cit., Ch. 5.
The coalition was not limited to leftist Zionists, though. There was apparent religious
cooperation with the Communists, since Rabbi Yosef Rafalin published a Shana Tova
greeting in Fraivelt. The Bund also protested against any such coalition; Forois, Oct. 1948, p.
19. It is interesting to note that in the opening ceremonies of the Folks Lige, three national
anthems were played: the Mexican, the Hatikvah and the Soviet, and their respective flags
were displayed; Fraivelt, Jan.-Feb. 1945, p. 54.
Forois, July-August, 1944, pp. 8-9.
Forois, July-August, 1944, p. 7. This time, the attack went so far as to question the legitimacy
of Zionist leadership: "Why are you [Goldman] speaking for all Jews? ...Zionists feel they
represent all !". Kate Knopfmacher, representative of the World Jewish Congress in the early
'40s, suggests, in a report filed in the U.S. central body, that Dr. Alcalay should also
accompany Dr. Wise and Dr. Goldman, as Sephardim in Mexico would see it as an honour
and that might improve fundraising considerably among that sub-Cmmunity. See
KKL Bulletin, No. 7, Sept. 1930-31; No. 9, 1931; 1936.
Dulcin, Leibl, Farn Folk, Aug. 1937, p. 12. There were a host of Zionist organizations in
Mexico; see Austri-Dan, Di Tzionistishe Bavegung in Meksike (Mexico, 1957).
See, for instance, a sample of the support Fraivelt offered to Zionists, such as the propaganda
they ran for a protest meeting against British policy in Eretz Israel, Oct. 19, 1945, p. 1.
Forois, May 1948, p. 11; see also July 1949, p. 11.
Zacharias, Yosef, Forois, Dec. 1947; Kahan, Salomon, Forois, June, 1949, p. 13.
See Polenberg, Richard, Fighting Faiths, the Abrams Case, the Supreme Court, and Free
Speech (New York, 1987).
Forois, Feb.-March, 1947, p. 38; January, 1948, p. 13. Abrams used to contribute to the
newspaper Di Shtime, as did Golomb, Rubinshtein, Dukhovich, Austriyak.
Fraivelt, Aug.-Sept. 1944, p. 5. Goldman had published a brochure in 1919, "The these
demands of the Jewish people," covering issues such as the right of Jews to Palestine, minority
rights in the Diaspora and civic equality for Jews. He worked for German Jewry and Eretz
Minski, Hirsh, Fraivelt, August-Sept., 1944, p. 6; Farn Folk, 1936, 1937.
Fraivelt, Nos. 4-5, 1943, p. 23.
Fraivelt, Dec. 21, 1945, p. 5; June 21, 1946, p. 4; May 24, 1946, pp. 4-5, 7.
Forois, No. 86, March 1949, p. 15.
Minski is cynical about the international role that local Zionists pretended to play; he attacks
Leib Dulcin, Dr. Adolfo Fastlich and Yosef Tchornitzky. See Fraivelt, May 25, 1945, p. 4.
Forois, Sept. 1949, pp. 13, 15.
Cimet de Singer, op. cit., "Definition of Viable Political Alternatives," pp. 120-132.
Oral History interview of Boris Rosen, 1989.
In the US, McCarthyism pervaded society, blacklisting individuals and organizations. See
Diamond, Sigmund, Compromised Campus, The Collaboration of Universities with the
Intelligence Community, 1945-1955 (New York, 1992).
Fraivelt, Jan. 1944, pp. 50-53; March, 1944, p. 38; May-June 1944, pp. 33-36. One must point
out that the Bund in Europe could not always be criticized as "politically" empty, since, as a
movement, they were the first to promote and fight in self-defense against pogroms; besides,
Zygelboim's work was more active than his suicide would let us think. See Penkower, M., The
Jews were Expendable (Chicago 1983), Ch. 4.
Bundists did, on occasion, speak of despair and suicide, but, essentially, agreed and asked to
go "back to life," to "build hfe." However, ideologically speaking, they had no vision of how
to do it. Forois, No. 25, June 1944, p. 9; Nov. 1947, pp. 2-3. Indeed, as mentioned above, one
of their leaders, S. Zygelboim, in despair about the world's indifference to the Jewish plight,
committed suicide in London, in 1943. Commemorations were held on the anniversary and
these were often boycotted by Communists. Zygelboim had left the underground in 1943 to
represent the Bund at the exiled National Council of Polish Government in London.
The ghetto uprising, for instance, was portrayed in Fraivelt as a step taken by Nubjected
people" and influenced by the "the historical battle of Stalingrad," Fraivelt, April 1944, pp.
Bankier, ibid- Forois, Sept. 1949, p. 15. Leo Katz went to Israel in 1949 for a time, but left for
health reasons. He moved to Vienna, where he died.
There were plenty of Zionist organizations in Mexico, since the Kadima (1925) was organized;
Kapai (1927-33), Keren Kayemet (1926), Poalei Tzion, League for Workers of Israel, Pioneer
Women, Noar Hatzioni, Naie Tzionistishe Organizatzie, etc. Committees of Pro-Palestina
Hebrea were opened as of 1943 in Cuba, Uruguay and Mexico, headed by distinguished
personalities, in an attempt to gain the support of the gentile world for the Zionist cause. As
for internal organization, less was achieved; though major figures came to the community,
most efforts were geared to fundraising. See the case of Keren Hayesod leaders A.S. Yuris and
Manuel Gravier in Avni, Haim, "The Origins of Zionism in Latin America, in Elkin and
Merkx, The Jewish Presence in Latin America (Boston, 1987).
K.K.L., 50 años, 1980, p. 43.
Forois, Feb. 1948, p. 13.
Forois, Dec. 1947, p. 17. It is worth noting that, in 1937, with protests against the partition of
Palestine in the League of Nations, President Cárdenas supported political Zionism.
The concept of the "moral necessity" of the State of Israel is Emil Fackenheim's. See The
Jewish Return into History in the Age of Auschwitz and New Jerusalem (New York, 1978), p.
The vote of Mexico in the UN on the "Zionism equals Racism" formula is a further and more
eloquent remnant of this old posture. The Mexican position was reversed by President Salinas
de Gortari in the 1992 vote.