Women of Valor



Emma Goldman, 1869 - 1940

Goldman's experiences of anti-Semitism, immigration, and factory work—shared by hundreds of thousands of her Jewish contemporaries—shaped her understanding of oppression and prompted her initial activist impulses. "At the age of eight," she recalled in her autobiography, "I used to dream of becoming a Judith and visioned myself in the act of cutting off Holofernes' head to avenge the wrongs of my people."

Goldman's anarchist activities placed her squarely within an immigrant Jewish culture of engagement in radical politics. She recognized, moreover, that her ideals were rooted in a longstanding Jewish tradition that emphasized the pursuit of universal justice, and she spoke movingly of the Jews' "great service to culture and to humanity."

Yet Goldman also believed that religion was inherently repressive; like her comrades, she saw anarchism as standing not only for freedom from government and property, but also for "the liberation of the human mind from the dominion of religion." In addition to expounding upon the dangers of Christian Puritanism, Goldman criticized what she saw as the narrow conservatism of the traditional Jewish community. Although she had a large Yiddish-speaking following, she did not hesitate to take part in events on Jewish holidays to emphasize her rejection of Judaism as a religion.

Envisioning a world in which identification with universal humanity would replace ethnic, racial and religious loyalties, Goldman was highly critical of Zionism. Despite her criticism of the Zionist movement, however, her growing awareness in the 1930s of the "desperate need of millions of people who are slowly being exterminated" made her increasingly sympathetic to Jewish attempts to establish settlements in Palestine, as long as they respected the rights of local inhabitants.

  1. Quotation beginning "At the age of eight" from Emma Goldman, Living My Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1931), 370.
  2. Quotation beginning "great service to culture and to humanity" from Emma Goldman, "The Collapse of German Culture," microfilm edition of the Emma Goldman Papers (Alexandria, VA: Chadwyck Healey, Inc., 1991), reel 55, original at the International Institute of Social History.
  3. Quotation beginning "the liberation of the human mind" from Emma Goldman, "What Anarchism Means to Me," in Anarchism and Other Essays (New York: Mother Earth Publishing Association, 1910), 68.
  4. Quotation beginning "desperate need of millions of people" from Emma Goldman, "Palestine and Socialist Policy," Spain and the World, August 26, 1938.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Women of Valor - Emma Goldman - Religion." (Viewed on April 18, 2014) <http://jwa.org/womenofvalor/goldman/religion>.