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Jews and the Left: A Conference Report

Bennett Muraskin
June 12, 2012

by Bennett Muraskin

YIVO’s Jews and the Left International Conference (May 6-7) played to a packed house, but it was no celebration. Historian Ezra Mendelsohn, Hebrew University professor emeritus and editor of Essential Papers on Jews and the Left (1997), concluded the conference with a eulogy and not a very favorable one at that. The left in general is in eclipse, he argued, but even in its heyday, it was tainted by communism, in which Jews played an outsized role. As part and parcel of their embrace of Stalinism, Jewish communists pursued a universalist vision that disdained and discarded Jewish tradition, he said. The Jewish left is dead in the U.S., an expired product of a past historical epoch. If there is hope for a Jewish left it is in Israel, where thousands protested last year around the issue of social justice.

Jack Jacobs, professor of political science at CUNY, and one of the organizers of the conference, pointed out that there was more to the Jewish left than Jewish communists, but he too agreed that it was a historical phenomenon and no longer a living entity. He was even more pessimistic than Mendelsohn, seeing no future for a Jewish left in Israel, either. Neither Mendelsohn nor Jacobs mentioned the participation of many Jews in the Occupy Wall Street movement, which had just a few months earlier taken over Zuccotti Park (a few miles south of the Center for Jewish History building that houses YIVO) — and America’s imagination.

The question of whether the contemporary left has turned anti-Semitic due to its negative attitude toward Zionism and Israel was a major theme of the conference. Mitchell Cohen, a professor of political science at Baruch College and former co-editor of Dissent magazine, and Lars Fischer, academic director of the Centre for the Study of Jewish Christian Relations in Cambridge, noted that anti-Semitism on the left was nothing new: Marx identified Jews with predatory capitalism and the Russian populists in the 1880s declared that pogroms marked the emergence of anti-capitalist consciousness among the Russian peasantry. Even the Second International, meeting in 1881, would only condemn “anti-Semitism” in the same breath as “philo-Semitism,” as if the latter was as prevalent as the former.

Of course, the left always advocated full civil rights and political rights for Jews and welcomed Jews to their ranks. But the Stalin era in the Soviet Union, as is well known, ended in spasm of acute anti-Semitism and anti-Semitism remained a negative factor in the Soviet Union and many of the Eastern European communist regimes for most of their existence, especially in Poland in the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War.

What was implicit in Cohen’s presentation, Norma Geras, professor emeritus in politics at the University of Manchester, made explicit. Based on his experience in England, he argued that the left uses anti-Zionism as an “alibi” for anti-Semitism. He claimed that England is rife with leftists who claim that Israeli conduct is the root cause of anti-Semitism and accuse defenders of Israel of acting as agents for a pariah state. But some of his examples of leftist anti-Semitism do not hold up. Lebanese scholar Gilbert Achcar, now teaching in London, has not excused Holocaust denial in the Arab world as Geras claimed, but has characterized it as “the anti-Zionism of fools,” an obvious reference to German socialist August Bebel’s description of anti-Semitism as “the socialism of fools.” Gunter Grass’ controversial poem may falsely accuse Israel of seeking to “snuff out the Iranian people,” but he also called Israel “a country/to which I am and will remain attached.” Grass’ indignation is clearly directed toward what he perceives as Israel’s bellicose attitude toward Iran, not to Israel’s existence. British playwright Caryl Churchill’s Six Jewish Children harshly depicts Israeli Jewish attitudes toward Palestinian suffering, but award-winning dramatist and essayist Tony Kushner and academic journalist and critic Alisa Solomon, wrote: “We think Churchill’s play should be seen and discussed as widely as possible... To see anti-Semitism here is to construe erroneously the words spoken by the worst of Churchill’s characters as a statement from the playwright about all Jews as preternaturally filled with a viciousness unique among humankind. But to do this is, again, to distort what Churchill wrote.”

One can disagree with Achcar and Grass without accusing them of anti-Semitism.

Yet as Moishe Pastore, professor of modern European history at the University of Chicago, noted, as far back as the late 1960s, the New Left tended to romanticize all opponents of U.S. foreign policy, including Arab nationalist dictatorships, and this fallacy has been adopted by some in the anti-globalization movement, who embrace tyrants who mouth “anti-imperialist” and “anti-Zionist” rhetoric. Mitchell Cohen provided the example of Jewish leftists who deem organizations such as Hamas in the Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon “progressive,” despite their religious fanaticism and overt anti-Semitism.

My view is that anyone who advocates hatred of Jews, or claims that they, as a collective entity, are in control of the economy and media, or conflates Zionism with Nazism — or defends those who do — has crossed the line into anti-Semitism.

The most radical anti-Zionist perspective at the conference belonged to an Israeli Jewish scholar, Yoav Peled, associate professor of political science at Tel Aviv University. Zionism, he argued, was indeed a “colonial settler” movement determined to create an ethno-religious state by expropriating the land and displacing the majority native population. The socialism espoused by the Jewish settlers was secondary to a nationalist state-building agenda which required the creation of a Jewish working class. The vaunted kibbutzim were military outposts. With some slight variations, the West Bank settlers are merely repeating the process begun by the “pioneers” of the pre-state period. The only solution, Peled believes, is one state in which Jews and Arabs enjoy equal rights. How this goal can be achieved was left unsaid — and as far as I am concerned, it can’t. But if a non-Jew expressed Peled’s views, I expect many Jewish leaders would unfairly condemn them as “anti-Semitic.”

Ronald Radosh, professor emeritus of history at CUNY and a repentant New Leftist turned conservative, gave an interesting if flawed account of the enthusiastic support American Jewish leftists, including journalist I.F. Stone and editor of The Nation Frieda Kirchwey, gave to the campaign to establish the State of Israel after WWII. This support, Radosh noted, was entirely consistent with the position of the CPUSA at that time. He never bothered to question, however, if that support should have been tempered by an assessment of the harm done to the Arab population by the creation of Israel and its long term consequences for continued military conflict in the region. Nor did he note that as early as 1956, I. F. Stone began to criticize Israeli policies, opposing the Suez War and writing ‚“We dare not treat the Arabs as human dirt, swept out of the land, without dirtying ourselves.” After the Six-Day War in 1967, Stone intensified his criticisms, calling for Israel to return the occupied territories and agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state. It was apparently enough for Radosh to reveal that in the beginning “the American Jewish Left Loved Israel” without any further reflection.

Antony Polonsky, a South Africa-born professor of Holocaust studies at Brandeis University, discussed the role of Jewish communists in the Soviet Union and post-war Poland. Through the 1920s and most of the ’30s, he said, the Soviet Union was a land of opportunity for individual Jews, who were well situated to staff the expanding government bureaucracies and were genuinely loyal to the regime for saving them from pogroms and massacres perpetrated by the Whites and Ukrainian nationalists. As party functionaries, Jews were especially prominent in the secret police until the Stalin-Hitler Pact of 1939, at which time they were purged. In Poland, Jewish communists were also selected for top government posts, including the secret police, from 1944 to 1956, when they, too, were purged. A similar scenario was played out in Hungary in 1919, when an unpopular, Jewish-dominated communist regime briefly took power. To non-Jewish populations already disposed towards anti-Semitic prejudices, the presence of Jews in these capacities lends credibility to charges of “Judeo-Bolshevism” so effectively exploited by Hitler and other anti-Semites.

Harvey Klehr, a professor of politics and history at Emory University and a historian of American communism, claimed that Jews always played a major role in the American Communist policy and grew more visible over time. In the 1920s, he noted, the Yiddish communist Freiheit actually had a larger circulation than the Daily Worker. After the onset of the Great Depression and the rise of Hitler in Germany, Jews became so visible in the party that Jews in leadership decided to Americanize their names. (For example, Sol Auerbach became James Allen, Solomon Regenstrief became John Gates, Gilbert Greenberg became Gil Green and Jacob Liebstein became Jay Lovestone.) At its peak, the CPUSA had close to 100,000 members, 40 percent of whom were Jewish. Yet this was the same party that defended the Arab riots against the Jews of Hebron in 1929, the Stalin-Hitler Pact, and that remained silent during the Soviet anti-Semitic campaign that lasted from 1948 and only ceased with Stalin’s death in 1953. In the 1970s, a much-diminished CP still retained a sizable proportion of Jewish members, while the Soviet Union was persecuting Jews seeking to emigrate.

Klehr (and Mendelsohn) claimed that American Jewish communists “have a lot to apologize for” and they were not in a forgiving mood. But Klehr did not blink an eye when a member of the audience pointed out that Morris Schappes, as editor of Jewish Currents from 1958 until 2000, delivered many sincere mea culpas. I would add that in 1979, Jewish Currents published in pamphlet form a series of articles by Max Gordon, former member of the Daily Worker editorial board, decisively repudiating Stalin and Soviet anti-Semitism. It accurately reflected the stance of the magazine since 1967-68.

Klehr was unwilling to concede that Jewish communists has contributed to social progress in the U.S. Other speakers were, but with the caveat that had the communist parties in the West ever succeeded in taking power, they would have tried to impose the dictatorial Soviet model. This, I believe, is a fair statement.

Tony Michels, an associate professor of American Jewish history at the University of Wisconsin, also discussed the role of American Jews in the CPUSA, but he offered a necessary corrective by recognizing the voices of Jews on the left who opposed communism, including anarchist Emma Goldman, whose book, My Disillusionment with Russia, appeared in 1923, and Jewish socialists who organized campaigns to free Soviet political prisoners in the mid-1920s. Michels could have added that Jews were well-represented in the American Trotskyist movement, which vociferously condemned the Soviet purges of the mid-1930s, and that Jewish socialists in the U.S. joined the outcry over the arrest and execution of Polish Jewish socialists Victor Alter and Henryk Erlich in the Soviet Union during World War II.

To his credit, Michels was the only presenter to reference what Jewish communists accomplished in working-class Jewish communities by establishing Yiddish schools, summer camps and cultural organizations. No one, however, gave sufficient weight to the role of the Jewish labor movement and the leftist fraternal orders, including the communist Jewish People’s Fraternal Order, the socialist Workmen’s Circle, and the Labor Zionist Farband, in creating a profound sense of community and well being among those who benefited from their union contracts, insurance programs, cooperative housing, schools, summer camps, summer resorts, adult educational institutions, Yiddish choruses and enriching cultural programs.

Some of you may have noticed that so far I have mentioned only male presenters. Yes, there were five women presenters, but I largely found their choice of topics to be esoteric.

Barbara Engel, distinguished professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, profiled of an obscure Jewish woman, Gesia Gelfman, who was active in the Russian populist movement of the 1870s and ’80s and, by force of circumstances, was completely alienated from the Jewish community. Deborah Hertz, professor of modern Jewish studies at the University of California at San Diego, profiled the well-known revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, focusing on her personal life and downplaying her self-imposed alienation from the Jewish community. Alice Kessler Harris, professor of American history at Columbia University, spent most of her time on Lillian Hellman, who, she admitted, was minimally Jewish. Harris’ purpose was to exonerate Hillman from the charge that she was a Stalinist. She mentioned in passing that Women’s Strike for Peace, which was critical to the mass movement that banned above-ground atomic testing in the early 1960s and helped initiate the anti-Vietnam War movement, was led by a Jewish woman, Amy Swerdlow, who came from a communist family. Judith Friedlander, professor of anthropology at Hunter College, discussed the role of the New School for Social Research in rescuing Jewish intellectuals from Nazi Germany during the 1930s, and the conflict between some of these intellectuals and younger faculty and students who identified with New Left in the 1960s.

The presentation by a female scholar that most captured my interest was by Riv-Ellen Prell, professor of American studies at the University of Minnesota. She discussed how the Columbia University student strike in 1968 inspired the students of the Jewish Theological Seminary to demand reforms such as ordination of women and the revamping of the curriculum to broaden the scope of Jewish studies. JTS students also engaged in draft resistance and other anti-Vietnam war activities, Prell noted. Whereas the Jews among the Columbia radicals were largely secular, the radical JTS students represented a new generation of religious Jews, followers of progressive theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel and colleagues of radical rabbi Arthur Green, who blended their leftism with precepts drawn from the Prophets, Hasidic teachings, and Kabbalah.

The keynote speech, delivered by Michael Walzer, professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and co-editor of the social democratic journal Dissent, was schizophrenic. Titled “The Strangeness of Jewish Leftism,” it was devoted to disproving that Judaism as a religion explains the affinity Jews have shown in the last two centuries for the left. He argued that the doctrine of the “chosen people,” religious laws requiring Jews to live apart from the Gentile society while at the same time remaining subordinate to Gentile authority, the conservative role of traditional Jewish elites, and the rabbinic emphasis on waiting passively for the Messiah to redeem the Jewish people, all militated against any organic connection between Jewish tradition and leftism. Yet at the same time, he concluded that secular leftist Jews, in rejecting deeply conservative traditions, went too far. They left themselves without a “cultural basis for Jewish life.” After doing a credible job of demonstrating that Jewish tradition was hostile to radical social movements, he recommended drawing on Jewish tradition to create a Jewish left. Gey veys! (Go figure!)

Walzer’s vision for revitalizing Jewish left was actually more religious than cultural. Sounding a lot like Mordecai Kaplan, he called for a “critical engagement with Jewish tradition” with an emphasis on its anti-authoritarian, egalitarian and democratic themes. In practice, this would involve the celebration of Jewish holidays and life cycle events with creative adaptations, an appreciation of the Jewish tradition of justice and active collaboration between the Israeli and Diaspora left. This is a promising agenda, but in private conversation, Walzer stated he did not believe it could be achieved through a secular humanistic approach to Judaism. Although an atheist, he belongs to a prayer group in Princeton and insists that religious ritual is essential to Jewish identity.

Despite his rejection of secular Judaism, Walzer’s views were a refreshing contrast to the gloom and doom prognostications of Mendelsohn, Jacobs, and the rest of the cast. Yet he and all other speakers failed to mention the ongoing efforts to build a religiously-inspired left led by the Jewish Renewal movement and its major personalities, Rabbis Michael Lerner and Arthur Waskow. Since there are organizations and institutions claiming to constitute a “Jewish left,” ranging from Lerner’s Tikkun Community, Waskow’s Shalom Center and the New York-based Jews for Racial and Economic Justice to the Workmen’s Circle, the Jewish Labor Committee, Jewish Currents magazine, and the newly formed Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, weren’t the conference organizers, the keynote speaker and at least some of the presenters duty bound to recognize their existence and offer an assessment of their significance?

The Jews and the Left conference was rewarding, but when it came down to takhlis (brass tacks), it failed to live up to its billing. In the real world, there are still Jewish leftists. Whether they are on the right path is another matter, but to ignore their existence altogether was a shonde (shame).

Bennett Muraskin is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents and conducts our In Memoriam column. His new book, A Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, will soon be available for purchase at the Jewish Currents Marketplace and can meanwhile be acquired at Ben Yehuda Press.

Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer for Jewish Currents, is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman,and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.