5 December 2022|Dr. Thomas Jeffrey Miley
Some burned themselves alive in protest of his capture. He is the sun around which the Kurdish people revolve. His persecution is the incarnation of the suffering of his people. Abdullah Öcalan is the leader of the Kurds. Chained to the rock of Imrali, for over two decades now. Held in inhumane conditions, a regime of intense isolation, and yet his will to resist remains intact. They cannot break him. He took advantage of his defence to elaborate a five-volume Manifesto for a Democratic Civilization. A complex work in which he would sketch an account of the rise of hierarchy and a dialectic of resistance, the dynamic and conflictive opposition between capitalist modernity and the alternative of democratic modernity. His stature as an intellectual would now seem entrenched. The voice of his people, crying out loud despite all attempts to silence him.
But now, from the Institute of Social Ecology, some of Bookchin’s followers have raised the red flag of antisemitism. Let us examine the section on “Jewish Ideology, Capitalism, and Modernity” in the third volume of his manifesto, The Sociology of Freedom, since this text is one of the main bases for the allegations brought against Öcalan (pp.221-238).
He begins this section by emphasizing that Judaism constitutes “a fundamental source of culture with roots in the Middle East but having a major influence on the whole world” (p.221). He distinguishes this claim from both “an overblown glorified view that the Jews are a power that rules the world,” and from a view “that demonizes Judaism, making it the scapegoat for all evil” (p.222).
He turns to hone in on the effect of the scattering of the Jewish diaspora around the world that “began after the second destruction of the temple in Jerusalem around 70 CE,” noting, in passing, the deeper history dating back to Abraham’s exodus from Urfa, which, incidentally, is the same place in which Öcalan himself was born. He further sketches the impact of the main events depicted in the Holy Scripture, stressing in particular the monumentality of the undertaking of the compilation of the Holy Scripture itself – “to have a book was an event of great historical significance,” he claims (p.222). However, he argues that Judaism’s impact on the history of civilization would be amplified most significantly “as a result of diaspora and migration” (p.222). He sketches, in this vein, the “division into Sephardim in the East and Ashkenazim in the West” (p.222).
All of this would seem rather descriptive and uncontroversial. But then the matter becomes more complicated, when Öcalan next addresses “the relationship of the Jews to money” (p.223). He argues that the material conditions in which the diasporic communities found themselves required “a strategic effort at the level of material culture,” and “constant resistance.” As a result, “in Judaism, religion and money have become two indispensable resources that unite in the goal of liberation” (p.223). This emphasis on religion and money, he claims, allowed the Jews to resist, unlike thousands of other tribes who disappeared. Without such resources, he insists, to survive, “you have to either be in the desert like the Arabs or in the mountains like the Kurds” (pp.223-224). The claim that the Jews have a special relationship to money could be considered an antisemitic stereotype, we can suppose, but let us see where he takes the argument next.
He turns to focus on the destruction of Rome, claiming that “[i]n light of the Jewish roots of the very first Christian, Jesus of Nazareth, the role of a wing of the Jews in the decline of Rome is indisputable” (p.224). He refers to Christianity “as a strategic spiritual force,” more concretely, as “a major strategic spiritual offensive of the Jewish diaspora,” through which this community took their “revenge for the double destruction of the temple” (p.224). As such, according to Öcalan, Judaism, through its offshoot, Christianity, can be attributed a decisive role in the fall of Rome. Like Nietzsche, then, Öcalan here treats Christianity as but an extension of Judaism, though the matter becomes more complex as his argument unfolds.
Öcalan next attributes to Western Judaism an important role in “the founding of cities (the first European revolution from the tenth century onward) and the creation of markets around them” (p.224). The Jews’ alleged special relation to money, he claims, proved here to be “of strategic importance,” giving them a role “in the government of the new emerging states” (p.224). What’s more, he continues, with “the spiritual conquest of Europe – its Christianization,” which was completed by the tenth century, the indirect role of Judaism, as the first Abrahamic religion, was amplified. Even if, at the same time, the Jews in Europe found themselves, vis-à-vis their Christian offshoot, “increasingly cornered.” As a result, Öcalan contends, “[f]rom pagan tribal Europe to the times of Hitler and even until today, people have claimed that the spiritual power of the Mosaic faith and the financial power of Judaism is behind its main problems and crises” (p.224). He mentions in this regard the forced ghettoization of the Jews, first declared via the Third Lateran Council of 1179.
He next goes on to argue that the disproportional presence of Jews among the rich and the intellectuals “inevitably led to envy, contradictions, and conflicts.” Against the backdrop of ghettoization, as “a harbinger of future developments,” the Jews “developed new strategies and tactics,” including “conversion and the secular-laicist movement,” both of which were “to have profound consequences” (p.225).
This brings him to point to the Masonic lodges, which he considers the “first secular-laicist movement,” and to mention the role of “the great Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza” as “the mastermind of the first great secular-laicist philosophical awakening” (p.225). He makes an interesting remark, in passing, about how laicism “can itself quickly become a dogmatic antipode” (p.225).
Before pursuing “the description of Judaism in the era of the nation-state,” he turns to “address the extremely influential and interesting events in the Middle and Far East” (p.225). He begins by remarking that in Iran, Arabia, North Africa, and even East Africa, “Judaism has always been a force not to be underestimated” (p.225). He characterizes the Islamic awakening as an event in which “the Arabs pursued, among other things, their own trade and power monopolies opposing Jewish monopoly,” an alleged fact which he goes on to claim “underlies the ideological and material conflict with Jews and Judaism” (p.226). He further mentions “the involvement of Jews in the emergence of a number of oppositional currents, particularly in Iran and Mesopotamia” as a subject “worthy of more research” (p.226). This he follows with a reference to “the founding of the Jewish state of the Turkic Khazars on the northern shores of the Caspian Sea,” related to the so-called Seljuk movement, in which, according to Öcalan, “Judaism played a role … that should not be underestimated” (p.226). After which, he also refers to the role of the Jews in Anatolia, where, like the Greeks, the “Jews were involved in founding many cities” (p.226). He notes in this regard the settlement in several waves of migration by the Jews expelled from Spain. He considers them to have been firmly anchored in their influence in both the Seljuk and Ottoman sultanates.
More generally, he stresses “the large number of Jewish intellectuals, writers, thinkers, ideologues, and scientists,” which he claims is “connected with the intellectual leadership for which they always felt a need” (p.227). Though this line of argument may depend upon a stereotype of sorts, its tone and tenor seems, if anything, more philosemitic than antisemitic in orientation. However, Öcalan’s account becomes perhaps more objectionable when he turns to discuss the role of Judaism in the era of the nation-state.
Öcalan refers to the conflict in the sixteenth century between the two great powers of Spain and France, on the one hand, against England, the Netherlands, and the Ottomans, on the other, noting the hostility of the former to the Jews, compared with their relative safety in Izmir, Amsterdam, and London. The link with London as a center of Jewish activity, he claims, continues to this day. He, furthermore, insists that it was in this century in which “the construction of the nation-state began in England” (p.228). This leads him to a discussion of “nation-statism,” which he, controversially, claims “derives from Hebrew tribal ideology, which has been adopted in a modified and adapted form by all other peoples and nations” (p.228).
Though Öcalan highlights that this claim is his “personal interpretation,” he explicitly relies on the accounts of Werner Sombart and R.G. Collingwood to buttress his point of view. The first of these, the editors kindly inform us, had replied to Weber’s argument about the elective affinity between Protestantism and the rise of capitalism, by postulating an even closer affinity with Judaism. The second of these, again the editors clarify, had written in 1938-39: “Modern Germany thus stands officially committed to the same error which infected ancient Jewish thought, and which Paul exploded – the error of regarding a given community’s historical function as bound up with its biological character, i.e. with the common pedigree of its members – and thus persecutes the Jews because it agrees with them. Intellectually, the Jew is the victor in the present-day conflict (if you can call it that) in Germany: and this explains why the victims of this persecution take it so calmly” (p.385, n.27).
In his own words, Öcalan insists that “the modern capitalist state, organized on the basis of Hebrew tribal ideology presents itself as a nation-state;” furthermore, that “the core of any nation-state is of a Zionist character;” and, indeed, in sum, that “the nation-state is the state form that Judaism has taken as its model in capitalist modernity” (p.228). Moreover, he continues, “with the nation-state, [Jewish ideology] has ultimately created the perpetrator of the genocide of its own people” (p.228). Öcalan is in fact firm in his insistence that “every nationalism is Zionist” (p.228).
This is the crux of Öcalan’s argument, for which he stands accused of anti-semitism. He goes on to state, even more bluntly, that “the Jewish accumulators of capital … objectively laid the foundations for the genocide that would target the Jewish communities,” though he nevertheless adds that these “were not aware of what was going on and cannot be blamed for it” (p.229). Despite this addendum, it would appear that with this formulation, he comes close to blaming the victim.
Öcalan further emphasises the importance of the “belief that Jews are ‘the chosen people’,” and he indicates that “this concept of superiority has always carried with it the potential for conflict with other societies” (p.229). Such a potential would be countered through the development of strategies of protection, most specifically with “money and weapons” (p.230). Here again he returns to the strategic positioning of “Jewish financial and ideological strength” from the time the capitalist world-system “began its hegemonic rise from the sixteenth century onwards in Western Europe” (p.230). More specifically, he points to the alleged fact that “Jewish traders and bankers were numerous at all the major marketplaces, stock exchanges, and fairs, starting with London and Amsterdam” (p.230). He goes on chastise the classical political economists, as well as Marx, for barely dealing “with the ethnic and national origins of capital accumulation” (p.230). Indeed, according to Öcalan, it is wrong “to constantly rant that capital has no religion, belief, or nationality” (p.230).
Öcalan pursues this line of argument by insisting on “the strategic position of Jews in commercial, industrial, financial, media, and intellectual capital monopolies” in the world system of capitalist modernity (p.231). Indeed, he insists that in all three pillars of capitalist modernity, which he enumerates as capitalism, industrialism, and the nation-state, the important role of the Jews is beyond doubt. This leads him to address certain “conspiracy theories” about “secret Masonic lodges that rule the world, meeting of the Bilderbergers or meetings in Davos,” and the like. He claims to have “no love” for these kinds of conspiracy theories. Even so, he contends, “they contain assertions that are partly true” (p.232).
Öcalan argues that there is a dialectic pulse between capitalist modernity and democratic modernity, “which is a wider historical and social reality.” According to him, the Jews occupy a well-situated strategic role in the former, whereas in the latter the they “have lost much of their strategic strength” (p.232).
Öcalan goes on to refer to the work of Immanuel Wallerstein on The Modern World System, to emphasise the importance of the nation-state model, which, he claims, was implemented first in England, and proved crucial in establishing England’s superiority over France. He further insists that in this historic confrontation, “Jewish monopolies made effective use of the nation-state model” (p.232). He also asserts that that this basic alliance would resurface on multiple occasions, albeit in different configurations, in subsequent confrontations against Germany’s hegemonic claim, and then against Russia. He even mentions the prospect of a potential Chinese bid for hegemony, which he suggests will be forced to confront another version of this same alliance. He then points to the UN, noting that its headquarters is in New York, before insisting that it “operates under the leadership of the same alliance, or at least that it does not make any decisions without the agreement of the alliance” (p.233).
Having thus sketched the arc of Jewish influence on the world system of capitalist modernity, Öcalan next turns to address briefly the subject of “Anatolian Jewry.” He contends that the Jews “played a major role in the founding of the Republic of Turkey and its rapid transformation into a nation-state,” by essentially repeating “the role they had played in the seventeenth century in the Netherlands and England” (p.235). According to Öcalan, “the Jews accepted Anatolia as their Jewish home before turning to Israel (pp.235-236). This tendency only faded in significance after the foundation of Israel. Even more fundamentally, he insists, to understand the region requires a correct analysis of “the role Jews plated in developing the divine and secular hegemonic dogmas that were established over the Turks and over all peoples of the Middle East” (p.236).
Before concluding his remarks on Judaism, Öcalan turns to address what he considers the Jewish contribution to the counterhegemonic thrust of democratic modernity. He emphasises that “[e]ven 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 was always been a strong Jewish wing of democratic civilization and modernity” (p.237). In this vein, he poses the question, “[w]hat prophetic movement, what fraternity and solidarity of the poor, what utopian, socialist, anarchist, feminist, or ecological movement is conceivable without Jews?” (p.237). The same question he, furthermore, poses in relation to “philosophical schools, scientific and artistic movements, and religious denominations,” all of which, again, are “hardly conceivable without the Jews” (p.237). Indeed, he claims that nearly all of the struggles of democratic modernity against its dialectical counterpart of capitalist modernity have been inflected and influenced by the contributions of Jews, including the struggles of socialism against capitalism, “internationalism against nation-statism, communalism against liberalism, feminism against social sexism, ecological economy against industrialism, laicism against religionism, [and] relativism against universalism” (p.237).
Öcalan thus concludes that, “[c]learly, Judaism is important for both worlds of modernity” (p.237). He indicates that his analysis is intended to highlight a third way, one which avoids what he considers to be dual dangers in the analysis of the historical role of Judaism in the dialectical pulse between capitalist modernity and democratic modernity – either to treat Jews as “God’s chosen community” or to “ascribe to them a scapegoat role” (p.237). He ends with a reference to Marx and Engels from the Communist Manifesto, about the proletariat’s role as a universal class, whose liberation would necessarily entail the liberation of the whole world. Likewise, Öcalan insists, “if Judaism wants to liberate itself, it must understand that to do so it must necessarily liberate the world” (p.238).
It is perhaps unfortunate that Öcalan ignores Marx’s own assessment of the Jewish question. For the young Marx would employ many of the very same tropes in his analysis, and has also often been accused of harboring antisemitic sentiments on the grounds thereof. The fact that Marx himself came from a Jewish background is of course a relevant distinction, rendering Marx’s positionality certainly different from that of Öcalan. Even if it should be clear that Öcalan addresses the Jews as a Kurd, and seems to assume a natural affinity between the plights of the two oppressed nations. Just as Öcalan attacks Kurdish nationalism for its complicity with capitalist modernity, so too does he attack the “Zionist” contribution to capitalist modernity. The intent is to render a balanced account, but one that emphasises and includes a ruthless criticism of the insidious ways in which capitalist modernity has imposed its hegemony over the alternative of democratic modernity. Even in the traditions of the oppressed nations, Öcalan contends, the implication in the logic and dynamics of capitalist modernity has heretofore been hegemonic.
The group associated with the Institute for Social Ecology accuses Öcalan of perpetrating antisemitic tropes associated with exaggerated claims about Jewish money, power, and the state, and of essentializing Jewish people along the way. Such accusations are not to be taken lightly, especially given the influence that Öcalan has on the contours and content of the democratic confederal project advanced by the Kurdish Freedom Movement. As we have seen, perhaps the most polemical assertions made by Öcalan rely upon the works of Werner Sombart and R.G. Collingwood. More generally, his interpretive framework is shaped by a long tradition on the left, rooted in the works of Marx himself, most prominently, and widespread among the milieus of national liberation movements among which the Kurdish Freedom Movement originated and developed. It is, after all, these milieus which were formative for Öcalan’s worldview. The experience of guerrilla training of the PKK in the Bekka Valley alongside the Palestinian movement cannot be forgotten in this regard. Nor, for that matter, should the role of the Mossad in the abduction of Öcalan in Nairobi be ignored, in accounting for the hermeneutic he applies to the so-called “Jewish question.”
We have elsewhere elaborated our own critique of Öcalan’s tendency to essentialize different ethnic groups, and in the process to ignore the prevalence of hybridity, while covering over liminal perspectives. The impulse is of course understandable. If Turkish nationalism’s central claim is that the Kurds have never existed, Öcalan counters this claim by asserting that the Kurds have always existed, for thousands and thousands of years. Thesis, antithesis – reminiscent of Sartre’s interpretation of the negritude movement – whereby the dialectical synthesis might just be a vision of the Kurds as situated at the vanguard of the struggle for freedom in Turkey and even beyond.
Such contextualization of Öcalan’s thought in general, and in relation to the thorny subject of antisemitism in particular, seems required. His texts need to be translated, which is more than a matter of simply finding the right words. His plight, and that of the Kurds, needs to be situated precisely in the unfolding of the terminal crisis of capitalist modernity. Given the Kurds’ location, as a stateless people divided by the boundaries of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, they find themselves occupying one of the main epicentres of the geopolitical machinations of inter-imperialist rivalry, at the crossroads, and in the crosshairs.
The Kurds are fond of saying that their only friend is the mountains, and it is indeed the mountains of Qandil which have provided the cover for their ongoing armed struggle against NATO’s second biggest army. The Kurdish Freedom Movement has never been defeated, nor for that matter co-opted. Though the same cannot be said for the Kurds in Iraq, perhaps especially the followers of Barzani. Öcalan’s thoroughgoing critique of the limits of nationalist consciousness, similar in many ways to Fanon’s famous chapter on the same subject in The Wretch of the Earth, is directed fundamentally against the neo-colonial project embraced by Barzani and his acolytes, in which the KRG has played the role of a pawn for the USA.
The affinity between the Kurdish project in Iraq and the Zionist project in Israel-Palestine is something of which Öcalan seems well aware. And indeed, Öcalan has argued for the suitability of a democratic confederal way forward out of the disastrous impasse of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – he proposes not a one-state solution, nor a two-state solution, but instead, a no-state solution, and an arrangement that provides institutionalised guarantees for Jews and Palestinians alike.
It is quite curious that the group from the Institute of Social Ecology has nothing to say about Öcalan’s proposal in this regard. For his treatment of the so-called “Jewish question” cannot be separated from the broader attempt to provide metanarrative underpinnings for the project of democratic confederalism as a viable and desirable alternative to capitalist modernity. Öcalan’s no-state solution for the conflict in Israel-Palestine would seem both original and timely, and its democratic credentials rather difficult to challenge. It would appear incumbent upon anyone attempting to evaluate Öcalan’s reflections on Judaism or Jewishness to address this dimension of his analysis. Less accusations of antisemitism be met with counter-accusations of Zionism, and the calls for critical dialogue be drowned out by dual dismissals.
Dec 3-5, 2022
Dr. Thomas Jeffrey Miley
Lecturer of Political Sociology
Fellow of Darwin College
The University of Cambridge
Thomas Miley firstname.lastname@example.org