My favorite book was one that belonged to my mother — about the Russian revolution, the one hundredth anniversary of which we mark this week.
When I was in my teens, my mother told me she had once been afraid of that book. As a student at Queens College in the early 1940s, she had flirted with Communism. Even years later, she lived in fear that authorities would come into our home, and see that book, and destroy my mother’s life and career.
In those days, the admiration for Communism was very “Jewish.” It was not only my mother; it was also my grandfather, and other relatives as well. And maybe yours, as well.
That said: in the contest for “most lethal ideology in history,” Communist wins.
The international death toll from Communism is somewhere between 85 million, and 100 million.
Let us begin with Stalin. Stalin’s victims totaled more than 30 million people. In the 1930s, Stalin provoked an infamous famine in Ukraine; between seven and ten million peasants died.
Let us remember as well: while it is true that the Soviet Union originally supported the state of Israel, that support vanished within a few years.
In fact, Stalin waged war against the Jews, and against Judaism – as he had waged war against all religions.
In 1983, I made a trip to what is now the former Soviet Union.
The sole purpose of my trip was to spend time with Jewish refuseniks — Jews who had applied for permission to leave the Soviet Union and to emigrate to Israel – and who had been refused that permission.
I and another colleague spent our time teaching Hebrew, and teaching Torah, and teaching Jewish history – all of which would win you a one way ticket to the gulag.
There were two “off itinerary” things that I did.
First, in Leningrad (St. Petersburg), I visited the Museum of Religion and Atheism, which was housed in a former cathedral. The sole purpose of this museum was to show how ridiculous and evil religion was.
The second: a visit to Dom Knigi, the house of books, Moscow’s equivalent of Barnes and Noble. There, I saw an entire display of posters — that depicted Israeli soldiers, with stars of David on their helmets, walking over Palestinian corpses.
That was how deep, and how normal, Jew-hatred was in the former Soviet Union.
Let us move to Red China.
During the first twenty years of Chinese Communism, between 6 million and 10 million people were killed. Tens of millions of so-called “counterrevolutionaries” languished in prisons or camps. Perhaps 20 million perished there.
And, let’s add: 10 to 20 percent of the inhabitants of Tibet.
Let us move to Cambodia, under the regime of Pol Pot.
Pol Pot turned Cambodia into one large concentration camp. Perhaps you remember the movie, The Killing Fields, the story of the Cambodian writer, Dith Pran.
Husbands were separated from wives; parents were torn away from children. Village leaders told people whom to marry and how to live. Those who disobeyed were killed. Children informed on their parents.
Let us leave Asia, and come to this hemisphere.
I am referring to Cuba.
We do not know how many people died in Cuba because of Fidel Castro — anywhere from 35,000 to 141,000.
The Castro regime was deeply anti-Zionist and anti-Israel. Cuba trained Palestinian fighters.
And yet, Castro was not anti-Semitic. Neither was Cuban Communism anti-religious.
If you go to the Patronato, the main synagogue/Jewish community center in Havana, you can look at the bulletin board — there you will see a photograph of a Hanukkah party. In that photograph, the children are dancing.
And who is dancing with them? Castro.
But, let me get back to my mother.
Why was Communism so attractive to so many Jews?
It seems clear to me.
Both Judaism and communism have the same mental map.
Judaism says: we were slaves in Egypt; we got out; the Jewish task is to make sure that all people are free from their own Egypts – and when we get to that time and place, the messianic age will come, and history will be complete.
Communism says: the workers were slaves to the capitalist system; the workers can create a revolution that will free them from those chains; and when that revolution spreads throughout the entire world, we will abolish the class system; we will wipe out hunger and poverty, and history will be complete.
It has not worked.
These are the words of the Jewish thinker, Will Herberg.
The Marxist religion was in part illusion, and in part, idolatry. In part, it was a delusional utopianism that promised heaven on earth. In part it was a sentimental optimism about the goodness of human nature. In part, it was an amoral cult of power at any price. There could be no question in my mind. As a religion, Marxism had proven itself to be bankrupt.
If I had a dollar for every time that someone said to me: “Rabbi, wouldn’t you say that religion has been responsible for an untold number of deaths in this world?” – I would be a wealthy man.
And yet, imagine two piles of bodies.
The first is a pile of bodies – of all those who died in the name of religion.
The Crusades? Probably about two million victims.
The Spanish Inquisition? Perhaps three thousand victims.
I am neither making excuses — nor am I making light of this trail of blood.
But now, the second pile of bodies – the victims not of religion, but of regimes that committed themselves to the eradication of religion.
I ask you to compare the piles of bodies.
In the American calendar, there is Memorial Day. In the Jewish calendar, there is Yom ha Shoah.
What we do not yet have, and what we need, is a new kind of memorial day – for the victims of Communism.
In fact, as we commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, let us admit to ourselves – that perhaps the finest and most meaningful way that we can remember this moment in history – is to remember its victims.
RNS columns are direct-published opinion pieces. They are not always edited and reflect the views only of the author.