February 22, 2020

The Frankfurt Exchange, Part 3: Herbert Marcuse and Erich Fromm’s differing views on Israel

Jack Jacobs is a professor of political science at John Jay College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. He is the author of On Socialists and 'the Jewish Question' after Marx (1992) and Bundist Counterculture in Interwar Poland (2009), and the editor of Jewish Politics in Eastern Europe: The Bund at 100 (2001). Professor Jacobs received his PhD from Columbia University, where he served as assistant professor of political science. He was a Fulbright Scholar at Tel Aviv University in 1996–1997, and was also a Fulbright Scholar at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute in 2009. Professor Jacobs' work has been translated into French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Russian and Yiddish.

This exchange focuses on Professor Jacobs’ book The Frankfurt School, Jewish Lives, and Antisemitism (Cambridge University Press, 2014). Parts one and two can be found here and here.

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Dear Professor Jacobs,

You devote a very large part of the book to the serious differences of opinion between members of the Frankfurt school on the issue of Israel. Most notably, you contrast the views of Herbert Marcuse, who publicly supported Israel’s right to exist and to defend itself, with those of Erich Fromm, who had a very different take on the matter.

In rounds one and two we established that this group of thinkers consisted of people of Jewish origin who had to find refuge in America from Nazi Germany, and that understanding and combatting Antisemitism was a huge part of their life’s work.

Now, Israel is not an issue to which they devoted as much time and effort as they did to Antisemitism – it wasn’t really a major focus of their research. Yet about a third of your book is dedicated their views on Israel.

What did Israel signify to these thinkers? What do their internal disagreements about Israel tell us about their thought?

I’d like to thank you again for doing this exchange.

Yours,

Shmuel.

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Dear Shmuel,

I, in turn, thank you for inviting me to participate in this exchange. I appreciate it. 

It is certainly true that the members of the Frankfurt School did not devote as much time or space to Israel as they did to antisemitism. But the issue of Israel is of great importance because it allows us to see that Jewish matters continued to impact in significant ways on specific members of the first generation of Frankfurt School theorists in the last decades of their lives. On the one hand: the attitudes of theorists like Marcuse and Fromm towards the State of Israel were affected by their Jewish origins. On the other hand: the distinctions in the attitudes of these writers towards Israel are best explained by the differences in their relationships to Judaism and/or to their Jewish family backgrounds.

Herbert Marcuse’s family, Herbert himself insisted, was integrated into German society, and, by his account, his upbringing was no different than that of other German upper-middle class youth. Herbert received only a minimalistic Jewish education and evinced no interest, as a young man, in either Judaism or Jewish affairs.    

When asked, decades after he had left Germany, how he defined himself as a Jew, Marcuse replied: “I am Jewish by tradition and culture, but if culture includes dietary laws and the Bible as holy writ then I can’t be classified in that way … I’ve always defined myself as a Jew when Jews were unjustly attacked.” He was, in other words, as George Mosse would likely have put it, a “German Jew beyond Judaism”.      

Marcuse’s Jewish background played an important role in the development of his position on Israel. In the summer of 1967, shortly after the Six Day War, Marcuse noted “You will understand that I have personal, though not only personal, feelings of solidarity and identification with Israel… I cannot forget that for centuries the Jews belonged to the persecuted and oppressed; that not too long ago six million of them were annihilated… When finally a place is to be created for these people where they will not need to fear persecution and oppression, that is a goal with which I must declare my sympathy.” 

Several years later, Marcuse travelled to Israel. Marcuse explicitly noted during that trip that he did not understand the New Left as contesting the right of the State of Israel to exist as a sovereign state, and also stressed that “As a Jew, I have the right to criticize the Government of the Jewish State”. 

Erich Fromm, on the other hand, who had grown up in an Orthodox milieu and who was far more learned about Judaism than the other members of the Frankfurt School, was also the most critical of the continued existence of Israel post-1948, and never visited the Jewish state. Unlike Marcuse’s family, the Fromms were strictly observant throughout the period of Erich’s childhood and adolescence. Fromm was active in Jewish organizations in his teenage years and as a young man. He studied Talmud, and other Jewish religious texts, over a period of years. In the mid-1920s, as Fromm became ever more intensely interested in and involved with psychoanalysis, he underwent a process of secularization. Long after he had ceased to observe Jewish religious law, or to intensely study Jewish religious texts, however, Fromm continued to be deeply affected by those from whom he had learned about Judaism.

What, then, were Fromm’s views on Israel after the establishment of the State? As early as 1950, Fromm wrote that “[t]he claim that the state is a fulfillment of… Jewish messianic hopes is not only unjustifiable but contradicts the most fundamental principles and values of Jewish tradition.” Fromm was a harsh critic of Israel in his later years, and, in 1976, explicitly proclaimed “I am against the idea of a state as such”.

Other key members of the Frankfurt School did not agree with Fromm’s position – but also staked out positions which differed from those of Herbert Marcuse. Both Max Horkheimer and Leo Lowenthal expressed views on Israel which were, in important respects, between those of Marcuse on the one hand and those of Fromm on the other.  

I conclude: there was, in the case of key members of the Frankfurt School, something of an inverse relationship between knowledge of Judaism and attitudes towards the existence of Israel. Fromm, the Critical Theorist with the strongest grounding in Judaism, was also the theorist most inclined to continue to doubt the desirability of the State in the post-Holocaust era. Marcuse, the least Jewishly knowledgeable of those Critical Theorists I have discussed, was also least inclined to continue to raise fundamental questions about the State. Horkheimer and Lowenthal occupied a middle position. They were more familiar with Judaism than Marcuse was, but less familiar with Judaism than Fromm. Unlike Marcuse, both were uneasy about the relationship between Israel and (specific) Jewish religious traditions. Unlike Fromm, on the other hand, they most definitely did not oppose the continued existence of the Jewish state at any point after its creation.      

There were a number of sharp and cross-cutting differences among the members of the Frankfurt School in the post-Holocaust era. Matters pertaining to Israel were by no means the cause of the fissures which were manifest in the post-Holocaust era among the members of what had at one point been a circle of thinkers. But the issue of Israel was an emotionally significant one for all of these theorists and suggests that their Jewish family backgrounds impacted upon them in a revealing manner even in their final years of life.

Sincerely,

Jack.