The Jewish Left, between History and Revelation
The association of Jews with leftist ideas and movements has been a fixture of Western politics for the past 150 years. But is the relationship logical and necessary, or is it historical and contingent? Do Jewish values dictate leftist values, or is this assertion merely a post hoc rationalization? A recent conference at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research addressed these questions and, amid the predictable cheerleading, produced some surprisingly insightful answers.
Many Jews have loved the Left, but it cannot be said that the Left has consistently reciprocated. This problem, philosopher Norman Geras told the conference, goes back to Karl Marx, who employed vicious Jewish stereotypes even as he called for a "moral universalism" that would embrace and emancipate all, including Jews. But Marx's call to emancipate the Jews also entailed emancipating the world from the Jews—and Jews from their own Jewish identity.
Thus, it should have been no surprise, said Jonathan Brent, YIVO's executive director and former editor of the invaluable Annals of Communism, that the Marxist Soviet regime pitted Jews against each other. The Jewish Lazar Kaganovich was one of the Politburo's most brutal enforcers. In June, 1941, Stalin told Lazar that his brother Mikhail had right-wing associations. Lazar offered no defense of his brother but merely phoned Mikhail to inform him. Mikhail committed suicide the same day. Lazar, Brent recounted, did not blink.
Similarly, the Soviets provided early support to Israel, as a means of annoying the West. When Israel declared statehood, New York Communists staged a celebratory rally at the Polo Grounds. The event, said Ron Radosh, former professor of history at the City University of New York, followed the Soviet lead and was fundamentally anti-British. But after 1948, Soviet policy became anti-Semitic at home and abroad. The process would be repeated with other types of leftist universalism, whether Communism, socialism, or internationalism, which demanded that Jews give up their identities and, when they did not, turned on them.
Radosh noted that non-Communist left-wing support was also substantial in the years before Israel's creation. The Nation magazine and its former editor Freda Kirchway exposed the connection between the Nazis and the Mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini, Mufti of Jerusalem; indeed, the affiliated Nation Associates served as a virtual public relations arm for the Jewish Agency. But the contrast with today's Nation magazine—and today's Left—is stark. "Anti-Semitic themes and ruses," Geras summarized the trend on the Left, "are once again respectable; respectable not just down there with the thugs but pervasively also within polite society, and within the perimeters of a self-flattering liberal and Left opinion."
Given Marx's premises, which shape of nearly all leftist thought about the Jews, the history of repeated divorces seems inevitable. But does the Left's inability to live with the Jews discredit leftist ideology itself? This question was not asked.
Historian Moishe Postone offered a different view: The contemporary Left, he said, has turned on the Jews largely because of the crisis of capitalism and modernity. Tracing the path from 1948 to today's global neo-capitalism, he pointed to the Left's "fetishized understanding of global capital." The short version: Capitalism won; Communism lost. The Left was angry and blamed the Jews, including Israel, and the United States.
But would it have been different had the Left triumphed? Soviet anti-Semitism suggests otherwise.
So, what is the answer to the Left's Jewish Question? Political philosopher Michael Walzer presented the puzzle in his keynote speech: There is no straight line between Jews and the Left. Indeed, certain fundamentals of Judaism militate against a relationship: a God that limits human self-determination, a particular chosen people, a fear and sometimes hatred of outsiders, a hostility to political engagement.
Why, then, were so many Jews attracted to left-wing causes? The obvious answer is that the pent-up religious and social energy released by 19th-century Jewish emancipation was redirected into varieties of leftist political messianism. But Walzer took another, unexpected turn. While some rejection of the exilic religion was necessary, he suggested, it was wrong for Jews on the Left to reject everything. Doing so alienated them from their fellow Jews and gave them too little "cultural material" with which to survive.
For Walzer, achieving a "sustainable Jewish militancy" requires reclaiming some of the traditions that were cast off, by returning to the religious calendar, studying texts, analyzing Jewish politics. It also requires embracing the Jewish "justice tradition" and joining with Israeli Jewish leftists in a secular-religious project to make Israel a "light unto the nations."
It is tempting to pick at Walzer's idea. He crafts a strategy for enabling the Jewish Left to survive by re-grafting it to the Jewish community and tradition; but he omits explicit discussion of God and a chosen people, as well as the all-important details of ritual and practice. Moreover, he espouses something like the religiously progressive, intellectually critical, and socially engaged stance of Conservative Judaism circa 1980, in effect proposing a reactionary return to a "vital center"; yet that center did not hold. The religious demands were too great and the values incommensurable; hence, the decline of the Conservative movement and the contemporary Jewish "other-directedness," so trenchantly described by Jack Wertheimer in Commentary, which puts everyone and everything ahead of community and tradition.
But Walzer has raised a real challenge. Are leftist Jews so bereft of the nourishment provided by tradition and community that return would be a spiritual salvation? Is the non-Jewish Left now so hostile to Jews and Israel that these Jews' return to tradition and community is necessary to Jewish survival? Walzer's call is a statement that Jews should survive but also that they cannot survive in the real world without the reinforcement of culture, suffused with history and a sense of belonging. Jewish liberation and revelation—singular, parochial experiences that sealed an intimate bond with God, creating an unbroken tradition—these are the phenomena to which Walzer seeks to rebind the Jewish Left. Wrestling with tradition and, ultimately, revelation lies at the heart of Judaism. Should those on the Jewish Left truly wish to rejoin that contest, they should be made welcome.
So the way for the left is simple. Return to preaching the moral value of do-goodery. Promote volunteering. This alone will not fix the self-imposed problems the left faces by encouraging concepts or behaviour (eg, homosexuality) that clearly contradict Judaism. But it will go a long way towards re-establishing the left's credibility.
Today's left is weak and because of that weakness, it has lost much of its intellectual vigor. But the right while stronger has not gained vigor, but instead has gained more than ample vituperation. Even this very day, alleged by the Israeli police authorities, Haredi extremists, whom nobody will argue are the right's children, desecrated the Yad v'Shem memorial and museum with "anti-Zionist" graffiti. If the left had done the same, it would have been "anti-Semitic" graffiti.
The world must go beyond this bipolar view of left-right when we normally can acknowledge at least four dimensions, while the mathematicians and physicists now theorize on an infinity of dimensions. Perhaps they are mapping out a complex but more accurate perspective of our human reality.
It is on this particular problem that left/right in Israel is bound up in, and speaking of left/right in terms of world politics can only confuse the issue, which is confusing enough without that kind of dubious assistance.
"Racism" occurs most frequently on the right when it comes to the relationship of the settlers to the Arab population in the territories because of the two different legal systems under which the two groups are governed. The Arab population is governed by military and emergency rules and law. The Jews are governed by Israeli civil law. If a Jew harms an Arab, the punishment is inevitably much less severe than if an Arab would hurt a Jew.
Now the presumption of "guilt" borne by every Arab that he or she is potentially a terrorist stands in back of this and many other inequities in this dual legal system. Some Arabs are terrorists or potential terrorists, but most are not. This is the dilemma that Israel has created for itself with its settlement project in the territories. Of course, many of the settlers have an ideology that this land, the occupied territories, is historically Jewish, and much of the sympathy for the settlers stem from this agreement about the history. After all, it is our story.
However, two millenia changes much, and now there is another people that has been in the Land of Israel since the seventh century, and for them, they've always been there while for we Jews, we have always longed to return, but only in the 19th century did our national urge develop and grow into the Zionist movement. So, more than being left or right, we must seek justice and pursue it. That is the task of the government of Israel, but in nearly 20 years since the Oslo Accords, comparatively little has been done while the settlements have been encouraged and they've multiplied, and enlarged.
While it is true that racism exists in Israel, that does not mean that Israel is a racist state, just a state that has some racists here. God, in His infinite wisdom, distributed unpleasant people all over the world, including here, but a nation should not be judged by its unpleasant people. We aspire to look higher.
Were these statements accurate? Were they true? If you can't give an unambiguously positive answer to those two questions, then you have to evaluate what those kinds of statements mean when referring to a highly identifiable group of refugees who have sought refuge within the borders of the State of Israel?
I resent Israel being compared to countries under authoritarian rule whose people can only be examples of what happens when they are encouraged to be prejudiced. Just as those who carried out demonstrations against the African refugees were frightened, the wrong thing for a responsible elected official was to encourage the fear and build on it as a number of such officials did in the case of the unfortunate violence committed to many innocent refugees. Israel is not a racist state, and it is not the policy of Israel, but there are members of the government and of the Knesset who are willing to encourage racism. I hope I have allayed SW's fears about my opinions while he insinuates that I may be speaking from the left. Whether I am left, right, or nowhere is beyond the topic we are discussing.
However, let me just add that the worst racism this world has seen has come from the right, and those elected officials who encouraged and incited demonstrators in "South Tel Aviv" are from the right.
You're shifting meanings as you write, conflating eras of history and even bringing in entire continents' histories to be disposed of with a phrase. If you believe that the conquista was a leftwing plot of some kind, you're reading from a very unique history text. Black people were enslaved in many places to provide working hands for the real conquista. That is hardly a leftwing kind of enterprize.
Part of my effort is to demystify the differences between what is called "left" and what is called "right," but if the enemy is left, we hope that the ally is "right." However, having lived through a great deal of the 20th century, I wouldn't give that assumption a plugged nickel. The interest of the Jewish people and Israel is neither left nor right. As I stated, the terms used in the Israeli context are very arbitrarily contexted as being pro-peace and being pro-continued occupation. Once you leave the circumstances of Israel, the meanings completely change.
In the U.S., two parties, both in favor of what is called capitalism, are adept at using language that gives the American voter the feeling that there is a real fundamental difference between the two, and it is only a matter of what degree of control there is on markets and nothing more.
But "Left" or "Right" is such a quick way of substituting name-calling for thinking, because in nearly every context it is soooo convenient. Based on these assumptions, you chose your soul-mates, even your spouses, and it works until you stumble upon the lie that you're living. Then you have to determine if your soul-mates or spouses are really the people you thought them to be. Let us hope nobody gets disallusioned.
When Labor was in charge of the country from 1948 through 1977 the first of May was a day for parades. The differences between the left and right wing parties are as clear on economic issues as they are with the lands-for-peace issues.
The article doesn't deal with the general justification of Israel or settlements. Your little diatribe against the government of Israel is, in light of your opening line which prompted me to respond a bit embarrassing. You belong to a long line of self-hating Jews.
I will only say that the first people to object to land swaps between Israel and the PA were the Israeli Arabs who you claim are second class citizens and that for years the only three countries in the middle east where the Islamic moment was legal were Jordan, Iran and Israel.
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