Jews Lament the Left at NYC Conference

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Given the hardscrabble and embattled existence of the Jewish masses in Eastern Europe and their precarious situation in Central Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a substantial Jewish affinity toward the Left, including the radical Left. This natural affinity was carried to the United States via the great migration of European Jews from the 1880s until immigration was sharply restricted by the quota system imposed in 1924. The sizable minority of Jews involved with the American Communist Party was discussed extensively on Sept. 20, 2011 at New York’s YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.
YIVO followed up with a conference on “Jews and the Left” on May 6-7, 2012. A professor of political science at John Jay College and the CUNY Graduate Center, Jack Jacobs–an authority on the Eastern European socialist political party and secularist Yiddish cultural movement known as the Jewish Labor Bund— chaired the conference’s steering committee. His introductory remarks addressed what had drawn Jews to the radical Left, rejecting not only long-discredited racialist explanations (such as offered by the early 20th century sociologist, Robert Michels) but also the “idea that Judaism per se is intrinsically progressive….” His explanation was first formulated in The Non-Jewish Jew by Isaac Deutscher (a noted biographer of Leon Trotsky), that the Jews’ social marginality as a vulnerable minority group “enabled them to rise in thought above their societies, above their nations, above their times and generations, and to strike out mentally into wide new horizons….” Jacobs elaborated as follows:
…. The marginality of Jews in Central and Eastern Europe–signaled by the lack of opportunity for Jews in major institutions in Czarist Russia, poor living and working conditions not only in Eastern Europe but also in the U.S., the explicit anti-Semitism of right-wing political movements, and … the relative openness of left-wing movements, led some Jews in areas such as the Russian Empire, Galicia, and the U.S. to affiliate with the political left.

He concluded (perhaps darkly), having earlier noted rightward trends among Jews in Israel, the U.S. and France, that “The dramatically altered conditions in which most Jews live in the twenty-first century have resulted in very different Jewish political constellations.”
A number of speakers were former activists and most were academics who had identified with the Left in the past and continue to sympathize to varying degrees. Still, it was a conference on the Left rather than of the Left. Some of the participants were conservative. Sparks flew only once, at a panel entitled “Israel, Zionism, and the Left: Past and Present,” which I’ve written about at the blog of Dissent magazine and at the Partners for Progressive Israel Blog. An article in The Jewish Daily Forward by Eitan Kensky, a Harvard doctoral student in Jewish Studies, found more points of contention than I had, yet I’d agree with him that mainstream American liberalism (of the sort associated with the Democratic Party today) was not part of the “Left” being discussed and criticized.
I was puzzled that keynote speaker Michael Walzer–a political philosopher at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. and co-editor of the social-democratic journal Dissent–emphasized the conservative aspects of Judaism. He had previously written on the liberationist impulses of the Jewish tradition in Exodus and Revolution (a theme which Michael Lerner had also tapped into in the 1980s) and he has noted the social welfare practices of autonomous Jewish communities over the centuries. Adam Kirsch discusses Prof. Walzer’s presentation in more detail in a well-informed overall analysis in the online magazine, Tablet. Another critique of the conference I recommend is Bennett Muraskin’s piece at the website of Jewish Currents magazine; among Muraskin’s probing observations is that Walzer and “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.” This was Prof. Walzer’s email response when I questioned his talk:

At the YIVO conference, I was trying to imagine what Judaism looked like to the first generations of emancipated Jews [after Jews were granted civil rights in most of Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries]. Working on “The Jewish Political Tradition” volumes, I have read widely, with the help of my colleagues, in the legal literature of medieval and early modern Jewry and, a little less widely, in the philosophical literature. I haven’t found much indication that the prophetic arguments for social justice play a large role in these literatures. And, of course, the reconstruction of the holidays as celebrations of national liberation and religious freedom come much later. Yes, there was material in the tradition with which a left politics could be defended, but there was also an awful lot to overcome — and as we see in today’s orthodox and ultra-orthodox communities, there still is. Why does the secular left have such difficulty responding to the religious revival — not only among the Jews, but also among Christians, Muslims, and Hindus? That is the big question that I am groping for ways to address.

Rosa Luxemburg (

Some of the presentations, particularly in one panel on the New Left and ’60s counterculture, conveyed an upbeat and nostalgic tone. But most depicted the bitter fate that many Jews on the Left experienced — both at the hands of reactionary forces and from comrades on the Left who were antisemitic. The session on “Jewish Women on the Left” was especially enlightening and poignant. We learned of the short difficult life of a virtually unknown Russian-Jewish anarchist executed by the Czarist authorities; and that the martyred Polish-German revolutionary leader, Rosa Luxemburg, rejected her Jewishness in harsh terms even as her closest friends were Jews. Many friends of the assimilated American-Jewish writer, Lillian Hellman, were described as “casual antisemites,” but it was ably argued that she did not deserve her reputation as a lifelong Stalinist, and it was claimed that she had not played the major role widely assumed in rejecting Meyer Levin’s version of the Diary of Anne Frank for being “too Jewish.”
Another speaker whom I interacted with during and after the conference was Prof. Harvey Klehr of Emory University. In collaboration with John Earl Haynes, he had mined Moscow archives after the fall of the Soviet Union to document the role of American Communists in espionage. I questioned him on his remark at the end of his talk on “Jews and the American Communist Party” that Jewish Communists had much to “apologize” about. His response, via email, was as follows:

I do think that some Jewish leftists, particularly the Communists and ex-Communists and many of their sympathizers and allies, owe apologies to the Jewish community and to a number of individuals for any number of positions and issues. …
Throughout its history the CPUSA was willing to sacrifice Jewish interests for the sake of the CP. Whether it was the 1929 pogroms in Palestine [when the destruction of the Jewish community of Hebron and other mob violence was justified as resistance to imperialism], the Nazi-Soviet pact, the Yiddish writers [murdered by Stalin], Ehrlich-Alter [the Soviet imprisonment during WWII of Polish Bund leaders Henryk Erlich (who committed suicide) and Victor Alter (who was executed)], Jewish emigration [blocked]—they defended and apologized for tyranny and mass murder. And it was frequently Jewish communists who took the lead.
The most egregious examples involve the Rosenbergs. A significant portion of the Jewish left… accepted the argument they had been railroaded. People like Ron Radosh [who discovered that Julius Rosenberg actually was a Soviet agent] were denounced as traitors and CIA agents for arguing that they had been Soviet spies. Suddenly, after more than sixty years of telling lies, Morton Sobell owns up to being a spy. Did he apologize to the people to whom he had lied? To the people whom he and his supporters had defamed? Hardly, I’ve read and seen videos of meetings where he continues to be applauded as some kind of martyr. The Schneirs admitted they had been wrong but insisted they had no apologies to make and no regrets. For decades a segment of the Jewish left perpetuated the slander that the US government had cold-bloodedly executed two innocent Jews. Some mea culpas are in order.

Klehr’s judgment is harsher than mine, but I understand it. I happen to think that the Rosenbergs (especially Ethel) should not have been executed, but Julius was guilty of espionage and his wife was an accomplice. The history of the American and international Left is tragic for the ways in which thuggish and murderous regimes duped so many otherwise honest and idealistic people into providing selfless support. Desperate for a more just and accepting world, Jews were among Stalinism’s most piteous victims.

NYC's Center for Jewish History, conference site and home of YIVO.

Disillusionment with the Left was a recurring theme of the conference, not only over the historical meanderings of the Stalinists that often betrayed Jewish (as well as other humane) interests; it was also over today’s disproportionate preoccupation of so much of the international Left with the misdeeds (both real and imagined) of Israel and Zionism. Still, I found Hebrew U. professor emeritus Ezra Mendelsohn’s mournful tone annoying in his summation at the end, but some of his pronouncements are worth noting. He found fault with a “destructive universalism”–“identifying with everyone who isn’t you”–and a Jewish leftist romance with Communism, defending it when it was “an engine of murder.”
But he also deplored the “triumph of the anti-Enlightenment” in Israel today, with the increasing strength of ultra-Orthodox and ultra-nationalist forces. His hope for a new self-affirming “Jewish Left” (rather than “Jews on the Left”) lies in Israel with the revived movement for social justice there.
All in all, it was a stimulating two days for someone like myself, indulging my multiple addictions to history, politics and matters of Jewish identity.