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Will Jews Be Part of the New Progressive Movement?

The Editorial Board
September 1, 2008

An Editorial
“To be a progressive . . . means being a partisan — at least for now,” writes the champion liberal economist and New York Times columnist, Paul Krugman, in his insightful book, The Conscience of a Liberal (2007). The restoration of an equitable economy and a decent social safety net, the providing of affordable and efficient healthcare for all, and other innovations that might bring America up to the civilized standards of the European Union, “will require leadership,” Krugman argues, “that makes opponents of the progressive agenda pay a political price . . .”
Such leadership cannot be fashioned by elections alone. The next President, whether he’s a so-called maverick or a so-called messiah, will not be inclined or equipped to undo the predations of the Bush Administration without immense political pressure from below. The machinery for that pressure has been roughly cobbled together over the last few years, declares Krugman, and a progressive movement is emerging that includes parts of the old New Deal coalition, notably organized labor, a variety of think tanks, and novel entities like the “netroots,” the virtual community held together by bloggers and progressive websites. . . What makes progressive institutions into a movement isn’t money, it’s self-perception. Many Americans with more or less liberal beliefs now consider themselves members of a common movement, with the shared goals of limiting inequality and defending democratic principles.
What about the American Jewish community, with its proud history of liberal voting patterns and social activism? Can Jews be counted on as an influential force in this emergent progressive movement? The sad truth is that Jewish organizational ambivalence about the war in Iraq has opened a wide gulf between the Jewish mainstream and the progressive community. The unbounded and illegitimate nature of that war, and the way it’s been used as a crowbar by Bush to force entry for his autocratic conservatism, has most inspired progressive outrage — including among many activist, anti-war Jews — yet Jewish organizations have largely kept their mouths shut.
This reticence about Iraq, along with Jewish neoconservative cheerleading for the war, has produced among some leftists a perception of Jews as vastly influential, hopelessly parochial, and completely wedded to the Israeli right. This perception sometimes combines with an anti-Semitic tone of scorn for Israel and Zionism, which further aggravates Jewish alienation from the progressive mobilization. Such a vicious cycle can only enhance the influence of Jewish neoconservatives, while Jewish progressives stand around in despair.
Our magazine and its parent organization, The Workmen’s Circle, along with our ally, The Shalom Center, are seeking to break this cycle with a conference, “Jews Uniting to End the War and Heal America,” on November 23rd in New York City. (See our back cover ad —and please register and/or contribute!) Speakers include Amy Goodman of “Democracy Now,” Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights, Donna Lieberman of the American Civil Liberties Union, and attorney/activist Elizabeth Holtzman. Prominent leaders of mainstream Jewish organizations will also be present — which is, itself, a breakthrough.
Modesty aside, our effort on November 23rd and beyond is critical to the progressive movement that Paul Krugman has identified, a movement that should not miss out on American Jewish experience, generosity, and political influence as it strives to retrieve America from the damage wrought by George W. Bush. Our effort is equally critical, moreover, to the American Jewish community — for our seeds of continuity will not take root in soil that has been deprived of the nutrients of social justice and social activism.