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Reflections on the Antisemitic Content in Öcalan’s The Sociology of Freedom

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We are a group of leftist educators, scholars, and activists who support the Kurdish-led liberation struggle in Rojava and beyond. We write in a spirit of solidarity to raise awareness around the continued circulation of antisemitic words and acts in leftist movements. In the hope of educating about antisemitism, here we present a critique of the antisemitic tropes that are central to two chapters in the recently published book, The Sociology of Freedom, by Abdullah Öcalan (PM Press, 2020). We recognize that our Kurdish comrades are under constant existential threat, and we have grappled with the implications of commenting on this topic. But these ideas were brought to our attention by confused and hurt students and allies, and we cannot remain silent about antisemitic ideas. By stimulating dialogue with comrades who are engaging with Öcalan’s work, we seek to help the international left to better recognize, understand, and combat instances of antisemitism.  

Abdullah Öcalan is the central thinker and leader of the Kurdish liberation movement—an inspiring movement for direct democracy—and his writing plays a key role in the growing international movement that seeks to understand and implement his philosophy. This is why we were surprised and disappointed to find old antisemitic tropes and conspiracy theories in The Sociology of Freedom that distort Jewish histories and cultures across millennia. In particular, the text postulates the existence of a “Jewish ideology” through which Jewish people wield special economic, cultural, and political power — a problem which Öcalan describes as “the Jewish Question” (pp. 222, 237). Even when offering appreciative and admiring comments on supposed Jewish achievements, Öcalan’s text repeatedly falls into unintentional but familiar antisemitic patterns.

Our focus is on Chapter 4: The Question of Freedom and Chapter 8: Democratic Modernity versus Capitalist Modernity. However, the book in its entirety contains many further references to Jews. In Chapter 8’s section Jewish Ideology, Capitalism, and Modernity (pp. 221-238; henceforth Jewish Ideology), Öcalan fully details the central role he believes that Jews play in capitalism and the nation-state. In doing so, he resurrects five classic antisemitic tropes.

Trope One: Jewish power

Antisemitic theories promote the idea that Jewish people possess cultural, religious, financial, legal, and political power disproportionate to their numbers. Öcalan’s text suggests that globally and across centuries, Jewish individuals have coordinated with other Jews to use their supposedly special relationship with money in order to amass power. Jews are seen as coordinating and expanding their political influence, utilizing their alleged intellectual abilities to dominate cultural realms including science, education, philosophy and media. According to Öcalan, “Jewish power of thought has a hegemonic quality” (pp. 133).

At several points Öcalan emphasizes the religious notion of Jews as the “chosen people,” describing it as a “concept of superiority” (p. 229). He suggests that Jewish feelings of superiority led to the Holocaust and will continue to produce “new Hitlers” (29). Indeed, Jews are evidently to blame for their own genocide; since “Jewish ideology” was responsible for the rise of the nation-state, it “ultimately created the perpetrator of the genocide of its own people” (p. 228). “Jewish accumulators of capital,” he claims a page later, “objectively laid the foundations for the genocide that would target the Jewish communities” (p. 229).

For Öcalan, this supposed Jewish power appears as a double-sided coin. On the one hand, Jewish people have used their power to create nation-states, nationalist agendas, and capitalist monopolies. On the other hand, Jews have also used their power to create and orchestrate resistance movements. The long struggle for “democratic modernity” can only succeed if Jews change their ways. The final passage of Jewish Ideology states:

I would like to close this theme by repeating something Karl Marx said: “If the proletariat wants to liberate itself, it must proceed in the knowledge that this is not possible without liberating the world.” I say that if Judaism wants to liberate itself, it must understand that to do so it must necessarily liberate the world, using its strategic ideological and material resources to this end, which above all, includes democratic modernity (p. 238).

Öcalan compares Jews, a tiny fraction of the global population, to the billions of individuals who constitute the global proletariat. The fate of humanity somehow rests on powerful Jews choosing the right path.

Trope Two: Jewish money

 Jewish Ideology presents Jewish people as surviving throughout history by dominating financial domains described alternately as “trade,” “merchants,” “markets,” “banking,” “global economy,” “commodities,” “finance capital” and “monopolies.” He writes:

When I think about the tribe of the Hebrews, two characteristics and survival strategies always come to mind. The first is a special relationship to making money. Jews sought financial influence at certain times and at times attained worldwide supremacy […] There is no other tribe that is as rich and free as the Hebrews (p. 28).

Öcalan addresses “how the relationship of the Jews to money developed, how they turned it into a material force equal to their immaterial influence” (p. 223) throughout Jewish Ideology, repeatedly emphasizing the purported centrality of Jewish money to the emergence of capitalism. Viewing this dominance as obvious, he asks: “So how can we take lightly the leading role of Jewish capital monopolism in both commercial capitalism and industrial capitalism in the modern age and refrain from emphasizing it?” (p. 231).

Trope Three: Jews and the state

Antisemitic claims often cast Jews as a secret cabal controlling state power from hidden places. The Sociology of Freedom goes further, asserting that Jews not only control the nation-state, but in fact created it: “To put it clearly, nation-statism derives from Hebrew tribal ideology, which has been adopted in a modified and adapted form by all other peoples and nations” (p. 228). Not only the modern state of Israel stems from “Hebrew tribal ideology,” but the “core of any nation-state is of a Zionist character” (p. 228).

Öcalan asserts that Jews have “masterfully developed” the nation-state, moving it from its “embryonic state” in “the age of tribes” to the modern era of “decay.” “Judaism brings to light the capitalist nature of modernity. It concretizes and fixes modernity as the nation-state, which constitutes the union of trade, finance, industry, and power monopolies” (p. 231).

Trope Four: Essentializing Jews

Öcalan’s text uses a wide variety of terms for Jewish people interchangeably, in effect casting Jews as a singular and eternal entity. Aside from one mention of Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, the book refers to Jewish people in generic and essentialist terms such as “the Jews,” “Judaism,” “the Hebrews,” and so forth. Jewish people appear simultaneously as a “tribe,” “religion,” and “nation.” Diverse Jewish histories, cultures, religions, ethnicities, and nationalities are reduced to an ahistorical and unified essence. This singular and eternal “unified Jew” was central to the antisemitic “Jewish Question” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century that viewed Jews as a rootless people with a problematic place within the West.

Trope Five: The Remarkable Jew

Antisemitic theories often accentuate Jewish contributions to leftist movements as well as to intellectual, political, scientific, and cultural endeavors. Yet this ostensibly positive view, sometimes called “philosemitism,” can be used to make antisemitic narratives appear objective and balanced. How can a text be deemed antisemitic if it makes positive claims about Jewish people? Historically, antisemitic rhetoric often coexists with genuinely positive beliefs. Öcalan notes:

It would be insufficient and wrong to think of Judaism only in connection to capitalism, modernity, and the nation-state. It also exerted a strong influence on democratic modernity. Even if this influence fails to match that of the power-oriented, statist wing (e.g., the Kingdom of Judah and the State of Israel), there has always been a strong Jewish wing of democratic civilization and modernity (p. 237).

Throughout Jewish Ideology, Öcalan romanticizes such remarkable Jews, describing them as almost magical entities without whom social movements are inconceivable:

What prophetic movement, what fraternity and solidarity of the poor, what utopian, socialist, anarchist, feminist, or ecological movement is conceivable without Jews? Likewise, philosophical schools, scientific and artistic movements, and religious denominations are hardly conceivable without Jews. How far could socialism have developed against capitalism, internationalism against nation-statism, communalism against liberalism, feminism against social sexism, ecological economy against industrialism, laicism against religionism, or relativism against universalism without Jews? (p. 237).

On the surface, Öcalan’s repeated assertion that Jewish people are necessary to the future of social movements seems generous. But that assertion also has a dangerous underside. If Jews have the power to create and destroy liberation movements, it suggests the fate of “democratic civilization” and indeed humanity itself lies in their hands.

Conclusions and further dialogue

Conspiracy theories and false narratives that blame Jewish people or any cultural group for global problems undermine the left’s struggle to create a humane and ecological world. If Jews are seen as possessing the power to control history, then they can be easily blamed for all manner of problems, real or imagined. By repeating false theories of Jewish power, these chapters of The Sociology of Freedom compromise the standing of Jewish comrades in our movements and undermine the safety of Jewish people everywhere. The antisemitic tropes in Öcalan’s book are potentially damaging and dangerous.

We affirm our support for Öcalan’s writings that promote democratic modernity as an alternative in which people live according to principles of direct democracy, ecology, and feminism. We also affirm our support for Kurdish liberation in practice. At the same time, we ask in a spirit of dialogue how leftist communities can address the antisemitic content in Öcalan’s work — rather than ignoring it — while also supporting and building upon his project of an egalitarian, ecological and democratic modernity.

We want Öcalan’s liberatory ideas to have a wide and effective reach. Currently, however, that reach includes the spread of antisemitic assumptions that could turn Jews into targets for violence. Leftists around the world are reading The Sociology of Freedom individually and in study groups. In this context, the antisemitic content in Öcalan’s work presents both a problem and an opportunity. How can we use this text for honest discussions about how and why antisemitism exists in our movements and how to effectively counter it?

While the current conditions of Öcalan’s imprisonment prevent direct communication, individuals in closer contact have expressed interest in bringing our concerns to him, and for that we are thankful. Our hope is that critical attention to the antisemitic tropes repeated in this work will in the long run help strengthen and deepen mutual dialogue and learning across movements. We recognize that our own understanding of Kurdish history is limited, and we hope to learn more through an ongoing process of respectful and critical discussion. We also ask for more careful reflection on the responsibilities that come with publishing a conflicted and contradictory text.

Our main audience is the many English-speaking readers of The Sociology of Freedom. We present the above as a resource to correct factual errors and to supplement any reading of the book. Critical dialogue is always challenging, but our shared principles of universal solidarity, anti-capitalism, and anti-statism will be all the more vital for it.

Signatories

Saladdin Ahmed                     Alan Goodman                      Manuel O’Neill

Sina Arnold                             Chaia Heller                           Peter Staudenmaier

Eleanor Finley                        Steve Henderson                   Blair Taylor

Grace Gershuny                    Mason Herson-Hord             Brian Tokar

Phil Goldman                         Katie Horvath