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SDS, Reviving

Lawrence Bush
June 1, 2007

The Jewish Presence among Students for a Democratic Society

by Paul Buhle
It could have been predicted: The first college activist of the revived Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) volunteering to become a national organizer, one Joshua Russell, is Jewish, a graduate of Brandeis in May, 2006. As also could have been predicted, there was no money in the treasury and the decision to establish the national organizer position was postponed. Russell instead set out to create new chapters in the Bay Area, traveling and organizing in the traditional mode — by the seat of his pants.
Here is his story: Josh grew up, deeply Jewish but without a radical relative in sight, in suburban southern Connecticut. Wallingford, Connecticut also happened to be a KKK capital (or kapital, perhaps), and Josh engaged in his first protest action in high school, against a visiting white supremacist. The police prevented the students from entering the public library legally to protest. Josh steadily gravitated toward the well-known Jewish homelands of the Lower East Side and Brooklyn. “When I was young,” he says, “I often hopped on the train to New York City and started making friends with folks who lived very differently from the people in my town.”
He had developed a feeling for SDS based on history reading, even before enrolling at Brandeis. “I loved the idea of intergenerational organizing and dialogue, I loved that we were going to build a post-issue participatory network to share skills, strategy and ideas.”
Like me some forty years earlier, Josh was waiting, in effect, for SDS to happen.
There are currently 246 registered chapters of the reviving SDS, 46 of them on high school campuses. (The complete list, along with many other resources, photographs and news releases, can be viewed at SDS’ website). I consider myself fortunate to be serving as an avuncular observer and close supporter for this 21st-century youth movement. I am thereby positioned to observe at close range a new Jewish generation of socialistic radicalism taking shape. The crises of empire, rooted in the catastrophic rule of the Bushies, are undoubtedly the moving force for the latest leftward trend of youth. But the overbearing presence of neoconservatives eager for war, wealth and imperial power, and placing their own claim upon the Jewish community, has been an influence as well. At the very least, these neocons represent something to be against.
How will it all work out for these young idealists, so many of whom are Jewish? Frankly, I don’t know. What I do know is that, as in the 1960s, SDSers are now exercising disproportionate influence on campuses, large and small. They are trying to find themselves, make friends (sometimes lovers), determine what they feel they should do, learn what they can do, and explain it all to their families.
The last point has particular significance for me. Youngsters join SDS naturally enough via the web, the new political communications system. On the subject line, “Where did you hear about us?” they mention friends, other websites and so on, but almost as often they write that they learned about SDS from their textbooks, their teachers — or their parents.
From its inception in 1960, SDS was Jewish by a proportion so considerable that early SDSers usually shied away from exploring its significance, at least in public. There were many “red diaper babies,” children of the predominantly ex-communist left, including many offspring of public school teachers who had been blacklisted during the McCarthy period. A significant minority of this original SDS generation went to Camp Kinderland, and would have been at least familiar with the names of Morris U. Schappes and Itche Goldberg if not actually mentored by them.
A far larger number were the children of mainstream liberal Jewish professionals who had been steadily advancing within the prosperous America of the 1950s and early 1960s but who retained a deep recollection of Jewish-American hopes of the 1930s and ’40s for a post-capitalist world of peace.
Heavily Jewish SDS needed its gentiles in the early years — the charismatic Irish-American Tom Hayden in particular — and in a small way, as a newcomer to SDS in 1965, I was one of them: I joined at a downstate Illinois campus that autumn, and was elevated almost immediately into the role of spokesperson and master of ceremonies at local peace rallies. Why? As a fellow member of the chapter (later a Hebrew school teacher, and still later, after a stroke, a limo driver) explained to me thirty-odd years later, while driving me to a talk at the Brookline, Massachusetts Jewish Community Center, the overwhelmingly Jewish membership of the Chicago chapter, on a campus 99 percent Christian, needed to put a Gentile face on their ideas. They didn’t even need to discuss the decision, as he recalled to me.
Young Jews decreased as a proportion of SDS as it grew from a few thousand to about 20,000 actual members and a campus following of at least 100,000 in its final, catastrophic year of 1969. But while decreasing proportionally, they remained pivotal. As I experienced it, Jewish men and women were very often the ones who came to campus with political skills and self-confidence, not to mention an inclination toward radical theory that most activists found intimidating or, still more often, uninteresting.
One local variant, on the hyperactive University of Wisconsin campus in Madison, added something else to my experience. The children of the working-class and lower middle-class Jewish activists who had become bitterly disillusioned with Soviet communism and American communist leaders nevertheless retained their parents’ commitment to peace and, above all, to racial justice. Male and female, these youngsters were “tough Jews,” effective day-to-day organizers, but also in the front lines against brutal police and heavily armed National Guardsmen. It was a moment of Jewish history to remember, recalling for me strikes, partisan uprisings, and other past occasions of Jewish heroism and self-sacrifice.
One Jewish old-timer, in one of the stirring interviews I conducted for the Oral History of the American Left archive, housed at the Tamiment Library of New York University, observed to me that his grandfather was a religious Jew who had become a socialist, his father was a communist, he himself was a Trotskyist, and his daughter was an ardent New Leftist and feminist. No parent enjoys generational rebellion, exactly, but in the logic of flow, there was a deeper purpose often hidden to participants: Each generation revealed new truths hidden from the previous one.
In gentile families of the New Left, the political break within families would be even more severe. The young radical would be distanced, emotionally, psychologically, even physically, whereas in the Jewish-American world, parents might disapprove, but another relative might see himself or herself reflected in the youngster and might help ease the family quarrel (though by no means always, of course). One student of mine from a decade ago, speaking of her campus political work to her grandmother, saw the aged lady go back into a closet of personal items and draw out a red ribbon that she had been given as a member of the Bund in Russia, in the 1910s. She had waited a long time for her granddaughter to ask the important questions.
Jewish issues themselves were complicated during the SDS years, no question about it. Israeli political leaders, for example, overwhelmingly favored the American role in Vietnam, as did leading Jewish institutional opinion within the U.S. On the other hand, Jewish-American popular opinion was overwhelmingly opposed. A New York teachers’ strike led by Albert Shanker added oil to the flames. So did evidence of African-American anti-Semitism, and the union’s overreaction to it. (A few years later, Shanker successfully demanded the purging of a teaching guide to Black history because it offered a sympathetic page on Malcolm X.)
Not since the 1930s and the days of movie moguls versus screenwriters had Jewish views been so divided. Jewish opinion was not only divided. The counterculture, with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin in the altogether symbolic leadership of a non-movement, threw in the faces of the Jewish middle class their hard-won accomplishments and their acceptance (or what they believed was their acceptance) in mainstream America. When Hoffman uttered curses in fractured Yiddish at Judge Julius Hoffman, he was channeling Lenny Bruce in the rejection of respectability gained through moral compromise.
The role of Jewish singers and musical impresarios, starting with Bob Dylan and Holocaust survivor Bill Graham but spreading to a thousand local bands and musical protest scenarios, would be legendary. Even the critics (such as Jon Landau, son of a blacklisted public school teacher) were cut from the same cloth. The trend of the youth culture went with the rebels, for a crucial moment.
Now we are ten years further down the line from when my student received her red ribbon; her grandmother is gone, almost certainly, along with her living memories of the Bund. Current undergraduates are struggling with the reality of global warming; the horror of the invasion of Iraq and the no-less-considerable horror of its consequences for the region; the conflict of Palestinians and Israeli Jews; and so many other issues. I suppose I could ask, in a profoundly practical sense and as a professor in his final years of classroom work, what can I give these struggling undergraduates? More important, what resources can they gather for the lifetime of political and personal life ahead for them?
Predictions are unreliable. But I see youngsters in my classes, and in SDS, identifying as Jewish not only by virtue of either religion or Israel but also, in large numbers, based on their visions of social justice, of a better world in which Jews can live as Jews — as equals, not superiors — with a new sense of global possibility.
That, for me, as an aging devotee of Jewish secularism and Jewish idealism, is sufficient. In their indubitably Jewish and leftwing future, my hope rests.
Paul Buhle teaches Jewish film, “The Sixties” and other subjects at Brown University. His latest work is the three-volume anthology, Jews and American Popular Culture (Praeger/Greenwood).

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.