Avraam Benaroya - Biography

Avraam Eliezer Benaroya (1887–1979) was a Bulgarian Narrow socialist, leader of the workers' movement in the Ottoman Empire and founder of the Communist Party of Greece.

Benaroya was born to a Sephardi Bulgarian Jewish family in Vidin. He was raised in Vidin by a family of small merchants. A polyglot, Benaroya learned to speak six languages fluently. He studied at the University of Belgrade Faculty of Law, but did not graduate, becoming rather a teacher in Plovdiv. Here Benaroya became a member of the Bulgarian Social Democratic Workers' Party (Narrow Socialists) and published in Bulgarian his work The Jewish Question and Social Democracy. After the Young Turk revolution of 1908 he mooved as a socialist organizer to Salonika. He founded here a group called Sephardic Circle of Socialist Studies and was in connection to the Bulgarian left-wing faction active in the city called People's Federative Party (Bulgarian Section), as well as to some Bulgarian narrow socialists, who worked there. Benaroya's influence grew, as he argued that any socialist movement in the city must take the form of a federation in which all national groups could participate.

תוכן עניינים

The Fédération Socialiste Ouvrière

Idealistic and pragmatist at the same time, in Thessaloniki he played a leading role in the creation, in 1909, of the mainly Jewish Fédération Socialiste Ouvrière (Workers' Socialist Federation, or simply, in Ladino, Federacion. The organization took this name because, built on the federative model of the Social Democratic Party of Austria, it was conceived as a federation of separate sections, each representing the four main ethnic groups of the city: Jews, Bulgarians, Greeks and Turks. It initially published its literature in the languages of these four groups (i.e. Ladino, Bulgarian, Greek and Turkish, respectively) but in practice the two latter sections were under-represented if not nonexistent. The democratic Federacion soon became, under Benaroya's leadership, the strongest socialist party in the Ottoman Empire. It created combative trade unions, attracted important intellectuals and gained a solid base of support among Macedonian workers while cultivating strong links with the Second International. From 1910 to 1911 Benaroya edited its influential newspaper, the Solidaridad Obradera, printed in Ladino.

Unlike other parties which were organised on ethnic lines, as a cross-community group the Federacion was allowed by the Ottoman authorities. A prominent Bulgarian member, Dimitar Vlahov, was a socialist MP in the new Ottoman parliament until 1912 dominated by the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) party. Indeed, its leaders initially supported the Young Turks, and Benaroya participated in the "Army of Freedom" march on Istanbul to help put down the Countercoup of 1909. Alarmed by the growing power of socialist groups, the CUP subsequently launched a crack down, under which Benaroya was jailed.

The Federacion and the labour movement in Greece

In the aftermath of the incorporation of Thessaloniki into the Greek state, Benaroya resisted the attempts to impose ethnic divisions in the city. Opposed to the First World War, Benaroya and another Jewish socialist were exiled for two and a half years at the island of Naxos.In contrast to most of the prominent socialists in the pre-1913 Greece who followed Eleftherios Venizelos, Benaroya and the Federacion, adhering to its internationalist ideals, mobilized for neutrality. As this happened to the same policy as pursued by King Constantine and his militaristic entourage, this led to the loss of support for Federacion in Macedonia.

From 1915 onwards the Federacion was buoyed by the popular reaction to the war. Both monarchist and Venizelist policy actually assisted the emancipation and the radicalization of the left, and Benaroya, keeping equal distance from both established political groups, was quick to turn the situation to advantage. In the 1915 general elections Federacion sent two deputies representing Thessaloniki to the Greek Parliament, while it lost by only a few votes for a third seat. It already had strong links with internationalist groups and organizations all over Greece and abroad; from them the Socialist Workers Party was to spring up in due time. However, another socialist faction, headed by the future Prime Minister Alexandros Papanastasiou, who sided with Venizelos in foreign affairs, also had deputies elected in the same election.

Papanastassiou and other reform-minded socialists strongly supported Venizelos' liberal brand of nationalism. Benaroya and the Federacion, on the other hand, were influenced by Austromarxists such as Victor Adler, Otto Bauer and Karl Renner, who, sensitive to matters national, searched ways to utilize socialism as a cohesive force for the decrepit Habsburg Monarchy; they elaborated the principle of personal autonomy, according to which national consciousness should be depoliticized and become a personal matter. Modern states should be based on free association and allow self definition and self organization of ethnicities in cultural affairs, while a mixed parliament, proportionally representing all nations of the realm, should decide on economic and political questions. The Federacion traced the origins of its federative position in Balkan authors of the Enlightenment like Rhigas Velestinlis, and stressed that the forthcoming peace should exclude any change of borders or transfer of populations. The Socialist Workers' Party, that was created under Benaroya's initiative near the end of the First World War, followed closely the Federacion's theses on national self-determination, and wanted to transform the Greek state into a federation of autonomous provinces that would safeguard the rights of minorities and participate in a federative Republic of the Balkan peoples.

Jewish Ethnic Activism

Benaroya was interested in the Jewish Question since the beginning of his career and made efforts to promote Jewish causes throughout it. His first book was The Jewish Question and Social Democracy while once in Thessaloniki he founded a group called the Sephardic Circle of Socialist Studies. He also played a leading role in the creation, in 1909, of the mainly Jewish Fédération Socialiste Ouvrière. Afraid of what the resurgent Greek self-confidence behind the Megali Idea could mean for Jews in Greece and Asia Minor he actively labelled the campaign imperialist and helped organise anti-war riots among Thessaloniki's Jews. He envisaged a modern state free from ethnic divisions where Jews could exist un-persecuted and free, retaining their religion. Benaroya was always very interested in combating anti-Semitism and after 1922 he focused his action on Thessaloniki's Jewish community.

Benaroya approaches the Democratic Union

After a historic meeting with Venizelos, Benaroya's tactical abilities resulted in the birth of the Socialist Labour Party of Greece and the General Confederation of Greek Workers, which helped unite Greek workers.

Government persecution of the new movement led to a general strike in 1919. Subsequently social and political polarization, as well as the prestige of the newborn Soviet Union, strengthened the radicals and before long the party was affiliated to the Leninist Third International. The Labour Centre of Salonica, another creation of Benaroya's, which united more than twelve thousand workers of all nationalities, a good part of them Jews, became the focus of radical socialism. The fall of the Venizelos government and the war in Anatolia fuelled even more dissent, leading to anti-war riots. In the wake of these developments Benaroya, thrown in prison again, as well as most of the leading members of the party, were marginalized by the radicals. On the other hand moderate socialists under Alexandros Papanastasiou started preparing their own revolution: their primary aim was now to overthrow the Greek monarchy.

In 1922 the Greek army was defeated by the Kemalists and a military revolution ensued that deposed King Constantine. The new government undertook many reforms, notably the distribution of big estates to peasants, but after a general strike, workers were violently suppressed. A little later, in December 1923, Benaroya, who preferred social-democratic organizational models and opposed Bolshevisation, was expelled from the Communist Party of Greece and was obliged to quit the editorship of Avanti. Afterwards he focused his action on Thessaloniki's Jewish community, and participated in a splinter group that—with help from Papanastassiou, then Prime Minister—tried unsuccessfully to split the Communist Party. At that time he and Papanastassiou agreed on the need for reforms and not revolution, and on the priority of abolishing the monarchy. An equally urgent imperative, though, was combating the racism and anti-Semitism.

Benaroya remained politically active after 1924 but as he stayed outside the principal political formations of the left, the communists and Papanastassiou's socialists, his capacity for action was increasingly restricted. In Thessaloniki he had a difficult life, especially after the Liberals' nationalist turn, by the end of the 1920s, and the repeated coups d' État of 1935 that destroyed the Republic as well as the hopes of the democratic left. In the 1940s he lost a son in the war against Mussolini, survived the German concentration camps, and led a small socialist party after his return to Greece. He went to live in Israel in 1953, to Holon where he ran a small newspaper kiosk. He died in 1979, aged ninety two, in utter poverty.


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