The Jewish Left, between History and Revelation

By Alex Joffe
Monday, June 11, 2012

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. 

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