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The Uncivil Servant: A Response to Bush’s Broadside

Mitchell Abidor
June 15, 2014
by Mitchell Abidor JEWS!Lawrence Bush complains in his “broadside” post about progressive Jews embracing Jewish identity that “It is only when Jews act as a religious community, or in service of narrow self-interest, that Jews are portrayed as Jews in America. When they act in the name of our finest humanistic traditions, in a univeralist cause, their Jewishness goes unmentioned.” He uses the Mississippi Freedom Summer volunteers, a third of whom he identifies as Jewish, as an example. The first question that arises upon reading this is: In what way should the Jewishness of the Freedom Summer volunteers be identified? Should we say “Andrew Goodman, Jew, came to Mississippi and then...” Why privilege Jews? Should we speak also speak of “Viola Liuzzo, Catholic,” or “James Lawson, a black Methodist influenced by Quakerism”? Is it at all appropriate to define people in this way? And is it of any worth? These were people from varied backgrounds united by a common cause, and there’s just as much justification to say that the murdered Liuzzo was influenced by progressive strains of Catholicism (say, Dorothy Day) as there is to say that Goodman was by Jewish ones: i.e., none. She was a martyr who was Catholic, not a Catholic martyr. He a martyr who was Jewish, not a Jewish martyr. Were, in fact, the Jewish civil right workers working “in the name of our finest humanistic traditions?” Or is that simply a hopeful reading into their actions of what Bush wants to find there — just as some anachronistic leftists have insisted that the uprising in the Ukraine that overthrew the government was a worker’s uprising because that is the framework within which they view things? There is no doubt that the Jewish civil rights workers were viewed by the goons of the South as Jews, and the animus against Mickey Schwerner that would lead to his horrible death was fed by the fact that he was a New York Jew. But did he, or any of the others, act as Jews? Were they motivated by anything in the Jewish tradition? Jewish humanists, like Larry, have read into the Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement a fulfillment of the Jewish humanist tradition. But why not say they were fulfilling the tradition of openness and forward-thinking that is so much a part of the New York geist? In fact, these men and women were motivated by a secular desire for social justice that grew out of their leftism. That it might also be part of a Jewish tradition is purely happenstance. It’s not unlikely that some of the Jews in Mississippi and Alabama were moved by Thomas Merton’s thought (which was vastly better-known than Jewish humanism at the time) making them heirs of Catholic humanism. And enlisting them in a cause they didn’t consider theirs is in no way different from the Mormon Church’s posthumous baptism of non-Mormons, turning us into Latter Day Saints despite ourselves. Similar questions occur to me when I read about the Jews in the French Communist resistance during World War II. Were they Jewish fighters or were they Communist fighters? Were they fighting as Jews, or as workers who were Jews to liberate France? The threat against them was double, but they took up arms as Communists, and died as such: which of them was it who said that he preferred to die for something he chose than for something he had no say in? I’ve been trying to find a simple example of how one can falsely impute Jewish influence to people’s acts, and found one staring me in the face. I am a notoriously voracious reader, as I have written here before, consuming well over 200 books a year. Jews are famously The People of the Book, so it’s obvious that my reading is an expression of that tradition. Which, of course, it’s not. I read for many reasons, but Jewish tradition (which in any case is actually a close reading of a few texts) is not one of them. It’s a false syllogism to say that Abidor is a Jew; Jews are the People of the Book; hence Abidor’s reading is a fruit of his being a Jew. It’s equally false to say that the Jewish humanist tradition is one of justice for all; many Freedom Summer volunteers were Jews; hence, the Jewish volunteers were moved by Jewish humanism. But I want to go further and ask about the Jewish humanist tradition. Is it not a selective and partisan reading of Jewish texts? Is it not a willful seeking within those texts of something that will justify a belief you already have? The vile Jews whom Larry discusses in his article also cite Jewish texts, and do so with every bit as much legitimacy as Jewish humanists do. In fact, Jewish humanism is a late addition to the Jewish world, arriving at the same time as progressive and enlightened ideas in general. Jewish Orthodoxy in its most hidebound forms was the only game in town for millennia. The Jewish humanist tradition Larry holds to is no more legitimate than the anti-humanist tradition that holds sway among many — if not most — believers. Those who identify themselves as Jews but seek nothing within any Jewish tradition — like myself, like most of the Jewish heroes of the left, and, indeed, like most Jews — don’t base their acts on ancient texts. Just as leftists long quoted Lenin to back this position while enemy leftists quoted him in support of that one, those within the confines of Judaism, progressive and reactionary, find themselves in a battle of dueling interpretations. There is another way to be, and that is to adopt a Sontag-ian position and be against interpretation. To say that social justice is good, and to recognize that almost all those Jews we admire put as much distance as they could between themselves and anything with a hint of Judaism about it. So it’s not — or not just — a matter of being repelled by the “Jewish 1%.” It’s matter of finding the whole matter extraneous to our lives. Which doesn’t mean we “forget our roots.” It means that our roots aren’t all we are. Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is the translator and editor of the forthcoming anthology of writings by Victor Serge, Anarchists Never Surrender, as well as the first English translation of Jean Jaurès’s Socialist History of the French Revolution, which will be published by Pluto Press in 2015.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.