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Irving Howe and Secular Jewishness

Gerald Sorin
May 4, 2016

Socialism, Zionism, and Jewish Identity

by Gerald Sorin

From the May-June, 2005 issue of Jewish Currents

Irving Howe-1IRVING HOWE rose from Jewish immigrant poverty in the Depression-ridden East Bronx of the 1930s to become one of the most important public thinkers in America. His journey to renown in the fields of literary criticism, radical politics, and Jewish culture involved three rich and intersecting paths: from sectarian polemicist to broadly humane and erudite man of letters; from Trotskyist revolutionary to democratic socialist; and from what he called in Commentary (October, 1946) a “lost young intellectual: marginal man twice alienated” to what he called in his 1982 memoir, A Margin of Hope, a “partial Jew.”

From his adolescence in the 1930s until the late 1940s, Howe, with admittedly little in the way of “Jewish consciousness,” saw himself as a socialist “citizen of the world,” situated above national or religious parochialism. By the mid-’50s, however, Howe was embarked on a writing career that included, as a crucial component, working with Yiddishists translating and editing Yiddish fiction. Howe’s repossession of Jewish identity, manifest in his turn to Yiddish literature and Jewish themes, was powerfully linked to the Holocaust. He admitted that it had taken several years after World War II for the enormity of the Nazi mass murder of the Jews in Europe to puncture his Marxist beliefs. But there was finally, for him, a recognition of “radical evil,” and a new Jewish self-awareness. In 1954, he dedicated Treasury of Yiddish Stories “To the Six Million,” and, in 1969, in his Treasury of Yiddish Poetry, “To the Yiddish Writers Destroyed by Hitler and Stalin.”

EVEN AS HE ATTEMPTED to rekindle the golden glow of Yiddish culture, however, Howe came to feel that yiddishkayt — for him, a vehicle of secular Jewishness, a personal joy, and a respite from politics — was for the American Jewish world generally a “lost cause.” He also thought that other concepts and behavior patterns around which many American Jews tried to perpetuate Jewish life in secular form were equally not viable. “Holocaustism,” for example, with its emphasis on victimhood was not enough to sustain secular Jewishness with any vitality or, in the long run, any meaning. Nor could Zionism (or post- 1948 “Israelism”) do the job.

Howe’s real hope for the future of Jewish identity rested in the moral impulse of secular Jewishness and its manifestation in political liberalism. In a Commentary symposium, “Liberalism and the Jews,” in January, 1980, Howe denied believing that liberalism was “inherent” in Judaism or that “the Prophets were canny enough to anticipate” his politics. But as a democratic socialist who cared about Jewish values, Howe continued to believe that liberalism was the natural home for Jewish Americans, “insofar as we can ever be at home.”

In World of Our Fathers (1976), Howe’s richly textured portrayal of the East European Jewish experience in New York, he honored a secular Jewishness infused with liberalism and the quest for a better future. The book, in many ways autobiographical, reveals that Howe came to see how important secular Jewishness had been in shaping him and his socialism. Indeed, Howe told the Jerusalem Post Weekly in 1976, World was not only his father’s story, but also “my story, the secular socialist segment of the immigrant community as the sons and daughters moved into the intellectual world.”

Howe’s family, which had never been strictly observant in faith or behavior but whose entire life was informed and shaped by Jewishness, provided a moral context and an “essential goodness of soul” that Howe said (in Dissent, Summer, 1961) was unmatched by anything he ever found outside the Jewish community. In that community, Howe explained, “socialism was not merely politics or an idea, it was an encompassing culture, a style of perceiving and judging through which to structure our lives.”

Sobered by his earlier experience as a Trotskyist, Howe warned against the excesses of secular messianism, but he continued to applaud the thirst for producing a better life on this earth through righteous collective action. He thought that this kind of progressive secular Jewishness was nearly at death’s door, overcome by social mobility and assimilation. And he had no reason to suppose that there would “ever occur a revival of Jewish socialism in quite the form it took during the first decades of the century.” But in 1974, while deeply immersed in his work for World, Howe wrote (in Dissent, Winter, 1974) that “the Messiah has still not come.... The world still cries out with its torments” — and he expressed confidence in “those deep impulsions of value and care that have drawn many Jews toward the liberal-left, regardless of whether it seemed to be in their personal interest.”

GIVEN HOWE’S political outlook, which until the late 1950s was colored by a degree of Marxist universalism, it is not surprising that he had no early enthusiasm for Zionism. In an interview in 1982, he said, “I would be lying if I said I was tremendously excited by the formation of Israel in 1948. It didn’t at first touch me very much.” Howe admitted that his “worn opinions,” his universalist anti-nationalist biases, and his recognition of the “Arab Question” kept him from open joy. Only later did he see, as he wrote in A Margin of Hope, that “being happy about the establishment of Israel, perhaps the most remarkable assertion... a martyred people ever made — didn’t necessarily signify a conversion to a Zionist ideology.”

Especially during and after the 1967 Six-Day War, Howe identified more closely with the Jewish state. Believing Israel’s existence to be threatened by the reawakened militancy of its Arab neighbors, Howe called the preservation of Israel “an urgent moral [and] political necessity.” The Jewish state — “a democratic nation... composed in significant measure of the victims of genocide,” he wrote in Dissent (July-August, 1967) — had faced another intended Holocaust.

His growing Jewish consciousness and his support for Israel were reinforced again when the state came close to defeat and potential obliteration in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Howe’s reactions were “astonishingly intense,” he said in New York magazine (December 24,1973). Something more was at stake than political commitment to a democracy: “Something else and deeper,” he said, “related to... being a Jew.”

There were things about Israel that Howe detested: the Orthodox grip on civil law, the hawkish generals, the Jewish settlements in occupied territory, and the suffering imposed on the Palestinians. But Israel mattered to him, he said, “as a community of human beings, the home of our survivors.” In this sentiment Howe joined even with neo-conservative Irving Kristol. Despite their “deep political differences” both recognized that when much of the world called for “even-handedness” in regard to Israel, the welfare of the Jewish state, surrounded by a half-dozen or more well-armed enemy regimes, was not the world’s primary concern. “Both of us are Jews,” Howe wrote in New York, and we “have lived long enough to recognize a portion of truth in the sour apothegm: in the warmest of hearts there’s a cold spot for the Jews.”

He was responding, he said, “to the tragic experiences of our time, the lessons purchased in blood by my generation.” A time may even come, he predicted, “when it will be necessary,” in the defense of Israel, “to turn to more dramatic and militant methods, perhaps a march on Washington,” bringing with us “the traditional Jewish outcry of gevalt.” In the meantime, there is “the work of politics, pressure, persuasion.”

By 1973, then, Howe appears to have added a dimension of nationalist sentiment to his secular Jewish identity. But even after his first trip to Israel in 1974, he insisted that he had not become an unthinking Zionist, and he remained a critic of many Israeli policies. His attitude, he said often and aptly, was very much like that of many Israelis “who see in a vigorous but responsible criticism [a] token of their commitment to democratic Israel” (Israel, the Arabs and the Middle East, edited by Howe and Carl Gershman, 1972). He persisted in fighting attempts by Jewish leaders in the U.S. and Israel to silence dissenting opinions about those policies. Suppression, Howe warned, would do great damage to Israel’s democratic character and to world Jewry’s rich cultural heritage.

That heritage was very much on Irving’s mind throughout the 1970s, especially as he worked on World. Then, in 1977, a year after the publication of the book, Howe married the Israeli-born liana Weiner. Thereafter, he visited Israel almost every year, liana filled their New York apartment with Hebrew novels and poetry, and sometimes with the Hebrew writers themselves. Howe became an influential promoter of Israeli literature in America and wrote many favorable reviews of Hebrew poets and novelists. In a letter to his longtime friend Marie Syrkin, Howe characterized his relationship with liana, his “lovely Israeli woman,” as “round[ing] out my return” to Jewishness.

IN 1978, during a month in Israel touring the lower Galilee and the kibbutzim, Irving was impressed with the peace movement. “Shalom Achshav seems promising,” he told Syrkin. “The kids running it... some beribboned veterans of the Yom Kippur War” were “hard-headed,” he thought, and free of the apocalyptic “nonsense” that had ruined chances for significant reform in America in the late sixties.

Given his politics, it is not surprising that Howe was sympathetic to Peace Now and felt more of an affinity with the left wing of the Labor Party than with what he called the “dreadful politics” of Likud. Despite his complaints about the Begin government, however, Howe told several friends that if he were 40 instead of 60 and knew Hebrew, he’d probably settle in the Jewish state — “not out of Zionist persuasions,” he wrote to Syrkin, “but just because it’s such a good place... a great achievement.”

Although he deplored “Israel’s excessive use of force in Lebanon” in a June, 1982 New York Times statement (signed by more than seventy Jewish intellectuals, including Howe, Syrkin, Michael Walzer, and Rabbi Joachim Prinz), Howe remained what he called a “warm friend of Israel” and an “open critic” of Begin and Sharon. The Times statement declared its signatories’ proven commitment to the existence of Israel and couched its dissent in an evenhanded tone that distinguished them from Jewish dissidents like I. F. Stone and Noam Chomsky, who had signed much less friendly statements. Nonetheless, Howe and his compatriots took heat from many American Jewish communal leaders, heads of Jewish organizations, and the Jewish press, despite the fact that their position was similar to that of the Labor Party leaders in Israel who joined Peace Now demonstrations and made the anti-Lebanon war protest movement mainstream.

In Israel, the Holocaust was rarely far from Howe’s mind. He had once remarked, in his distinct style of serious joking, that “Israel had become the religion of Jewish-Americans with the Holocaust as its liturgy,” yet in his later years, Howe himself became preoccupied with these issues. In 1985, he wrote to Marie Syrkin that he was off again to Jerusalem where “it sometimes seems... I have more friends... than in New York.” He was looking forward to sitting in the sun, reading, and perhaps writing a little more “in the home of our survivors.” During this trip he wrote his searching and sensitive essay for The New Republic, “Writing and the Holocaust.”

Throughout the intifada that began in 1987 against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Howe voiced his dissent about Israeli policies. Still, he argued that Israel was “surrounded by real enemies and must therefore maintain its military strength (for which American aid is crucial)” (Dissent, Summer, 1988). He was still hopeful that “Israel as a democratic state will finally agree, with all due precautions, to accept the same national rights for the Palestinians that it fought to gain for itself” (Tikkun, December, 1988). At the same time, he was sharply criticalof Yasser Arafat, calling him a “wretched opportunist” who sanctioned terrorism and refused to entertain seriously a recognition of Israel’s right to exist (New York Review of Books, September 29, 1988).

HOWE’S JEWISH IDENTITY continued to reside in critical support of Israel and personal loyalty to Yiddish culture. But his hope for Jewish continuity remained even more firmly rooted in those dimensions of the Jewish experience that “prompted some of us,” as he wrote in Tikkun, “to a certain kind of politics,” the politics of left-liberalism. Time and again, he maintained that political and social liberalism had been, as he wrote in Commentary, “defined as the ‘secular religion’ of many American Jews, the precious salvage from their immigrant and Eastern European heritage, the embodied value of a major segment of Jewish experience.”

He was still creatively entangled in the early 1990s with questions about this “secular religion” and Jewish identity. Leon Wieseltier remembers many breakfasts with him that were taken up with discussions about the “decline of secular Jewishness.” Howe was without nostalgia, Wieseltier said, but not without anguish over the eclipse of Yiddish and of the “world of our fathers.” Even in his last public lecture in 1993, Howe wrestled with the question of Jewish identity, concluding ultimately that the wrestling itself was “the very mark” of that identity.

The “world of our fathers” made us, Howe said. “This is the source of our aspirations and values,” values “that will remain to our very last day.” Since he also predicted that “fifty years from now,” American Jews will still be discussing secular Jewishness and “the problem of identity,” one would like to think that Irving Howe meant more than his, or his own generation’s, “very last day.”

Gerald Sorin emeritus Distinguished Professor of History at the State University of New York at New Paltz, is author of Irving Howe: A Life of Passionate Dissent (NYU Press, 2003), winner of the National Jewish Book Award, and Howard Fast: Life and Literature in the Left Lane (Indiana University Press, 2012), also a winner of the National Jewish Book Award, among other books of history.