An American Jewish Identity Crisis

“Jewish life had its renaissance because Israel was born,” Rabbi Marvin Hier recently told my partner Deborah Kaufman and I during an interview for our documentary film Between Two Worlds.

Hier, the neoconservative founder of Los Angeles’ Museum of Tolerance, was trying to convince us that the State of Israel is the center of American Jewish identity:

Do you know that after the Second World War, nobody wanted to look at Jews. They said, “Jews, these are the victims. Who wants to be associated with them? … When Israel thrived, Jewish life in the Diaspora thrived. It’s intertwined. If there’s no Israel, we’ll be back in the doldrums. All of us who walk around here in America, in Beverly Hills, in New York City walking up 5th Avenue and think we’re big machers, that would all go down the drain if there wasn’t a State of Israel, and every Jew should know that.

Rabbi Marvin Hier argues that “Jewish life had its renaissance because Israel was born.”

Hier interweaves the tropes of Diaspora victimization with his justification of Israel as the root of contemporary Jewish identity and power in the United States. It’s a half-truth at best, appealing to American Jewish insecurities about identity and projecting a neoconservative notion that there’s nothing original about the American Jewish experience other than new ways to assimilate or to support Israel.

Insecurities about Authenticity

Hier omits the left-wing history of American Jews because he doesn’t like liberals or the left, but that history is a uniquely American Jewish contribution to Jewish culture. That progressive tradition faces many challenges, but Hier has put his finger on an insecurity about authenticity that many American Jews feel in comparison to their immigrant forefathers or their Israeli cousins.

Over the past year, as we traveled across the country to screen Between Two Worlds, we met many Jews who seemed to feel that in the past, real Jews spoke Yiddish like Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” and in the present, they speak Hebrew like Israel is, who don’t have to prove they are Jewish. They don’t need Birthright tours to shore up the tepid Jewish identity of pale American Jews with an infusion of suntanned Jewish life in Israel.

This insecurity is longstanding, even stereotypical, which means that, like a neurosis, it has some truth, but hides more than it reveals. What Deborah and I saw as we made our film was that American Jewish history—and particularly the American Jewish radical, left, and liberal tradition—seems to oscillate between periods dominated by indigenous influences unique to the United States and representing a rich American contribution to Jewish identity and periods of insecure, and as a result loudly asserted, fealty to foreign political masters—first the Soviet Union and later Israel. Each oscillation has defined a distinct American Jewish take on Jewish identity, culture, and politics.

Radical Culture in the American Jewish Diaspora

In Between Two Worlds, our aim was to picture an American radical and secular Jewish culture that was and is unique, fearless, and persistent, but now threatened.

For those of us who became radicals in the 1960s and 70s, it has been hard to see our parents’ New Deal liberalism as anything more than a derivative and assimilatory impulse of accommodation: At best, a leftover from the big radical feasts of the immigrant socialists. At worst, we thought that even that immigrant radicalism was derivative, something the immigrants already knew in their kishkes when they arrived from the Pale.

But recent historians like Tony Michels have taken a different view, emphasizing that what happened here was new: “Contrary to an old misperception,” writes Michels in his book A Fire in their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York, “eastern European Jews did not import a preexisting socialist tradition to the United States.” In the last decades of the nineteenth century, he writes, immigrant Jewish workers who knew nothing of socialism created a Jewish labor movement here in the United States “years before one emerged in Russia.” He adds, “New York served as a laboratory of political and cultural innovation that influenced eastern Europe in ways historians are just beginning to realize.”

Eli Lederhandler in his book Jewish Immigrants and American Capitalism, 1880-1920: From Caste to Class writes that Jews’ “left-liberal biases seemed to be, at the most, sets of acquired ideas that developed among Jews in the United States after immigration.” It was something new and not to be found in Jewish religious texts, education, or values from Ye Olde Country. And most of all it was the immigrants’ experience as members of an expanding industrial urban working class. “Jewish economic and political behavior… derives mostly from considerations of adaptation, opportunity, and the terms of their encounters with non-Jews,” he writes.

The American Jewish diaspora was unique because of the influences found here and the particular synthesis Jews made as they adapted to these new conditions. Rabbi Hier would dismiss that synthesis as merely Gentile temptation and Jewish assimilation. But Rabbi Irwin Kula of the Center for Learning and Leadership (CLAL) sees such assimilation as the creative process itself. “ Every single tradition was at one time an innovation,” he says, “which means it’s a product of one group of people assimilating the ideas of another group of people, generally, the dominant society, and then reworking with them, and playing with them, and making it their own. There’s no such thing as pure Judaism.”

This fluid view of change threatens the security of received ideas and those who cling to them. It can also gnaw at the self-confidence of those who take the risks of challenging old hierarchies. Tony Michels writes that even the immigrant socialists were in awe of a Russian Jewish intellectual elite. Perhaps as a result, my upwardly mobile parents always told me that their parents were Russians. It was only much later that I discovered that their “Russia” was really Poland, Rumania, and Ukraine.

Russia became even more sacrosanct when it became the Soviet Union, and American Jewish radicalism became increasingly identified with the Communist Party, itself so often a mere fiefdom of Soviet authenticity.

The Rise of Jewish-Identified Left-Liberal Politics

I think many of my ’60s generational cohort viewed our parents’ post-World War II left-liberalism as either a weak suburban echo of real radical idealism or a capitulation to McCarthyite anti-communism, if not both.

A ticket to "Between Two Worlds" from the Jerusalem Film Festival.

In Between Two Worlds, we approach this caricature from the point of view of my mother, Virginia Levitt Snitow. She was a communist in the thirties and early forties when she was a teacher at Wadleigh, a largely African-American public high school in Harlem.

After the war, disillusioned with the Communist Party’s sectarian twists and turns “into a pretzel” as she remembered it, she continued her political activism, but now through a Jewish rather than communist lens. She joined American Jewish Congress, rising to become president of its national Women’s Division in 1965.

AJCongress was a natural second home to these disaffected radicals. Founded at the end of World War I to pursue the Zionist dream, it had at its core and from its conception a rejection of the German-Jewish establishment’s anti-Zionism. AJC became the loudest voice against fascism abroad and anti-Semitism and racism at home, and it was proudly supportive of unions, which also didn’t ingratiate it to the wealthy old guard.

It is likely that many other radical Jews followed the same course as my mother, making the transition from the CPUSA’s ideological rigidity to the political mainstream through Jewish-identified left-liberal politics. The extent of this exodus may be difficult to know, since during the Red Scare, few of these ex-party activists and fellow travelers would have been eager to trumpet their past associations.  Nevertheless, they were doing something new.

Communists in the American Jewish Congress

I would hazard a guess that my mother was probably one of many young Jews who hid her past in order to pursue the same ideals that had once attracted her to communism. In making the film we found evidence for that view in an unlikely place: the FBI.

We obtained some 2,000 pages of FBI files under the Freedom of Information Act about communist infiltration of American Jewish Congress in the years after WW II. Although Virginia was not mentioned, there were clearly many current and former communist groups and individuals in AJCongress after the war. In 1946, the Communist Party’s magazine Political Affairs even recommended an intensification of communist work in AJC and criticized party activists there for “insufficient resistance to Zionist influences, with many instances of failures to present our independent position, and insufficient struggle for Marxist positions and ideology.” The criticism was part of the Communist Party’s sectarian turn away from the Popular Front at the end of the war, further alienating many former sympathizers who now had to create new means to pursue old goals like union and civil rights. There were few models.

The FBI files reveal an internal battle in American Jewish Congress over whether AJC leaders would permit the factionalism by a democratic centralist organization to cripple the organization’s New Deal and Zionist agendas. Several major chapters were purged, and several organized groups close to the Communist Party were expelled in 1949.

At first, as I followed the purge through the FBI’s compilation of position papers by both sides, I assumed that the expulsions were part of the McCarthyite witch-hunt against the weak and marginal communist sect I encountered in the ’60s when we opposed anti-communism in SDS and the anti-war movement. But as I kept reading, I started seeing the internal splits in AJC not as a witch-hunt, but as a faction fight between left-liberal leaders and the still large and influential Communist Party organization that emerged from World War II.

I eventually came to see the primary purpose of the expulsions as a sign of the determination of New Deal labor-liberals in the Jewish community not to become an irrelevant debating society, marginalized by internal squabbling. There was work to be done—supporting the nascent state of Israel, pressing for an equal opportunity employment law, opposing segregation, supporting civil liberties, and opposing anti-Semitic restrictions on Jewish life in the United States and also in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe where Jewish communist leaders were being purged and executed in a wave of Stalin-inspired anti-Semitism.

In discussing the expulsions at the 1949 AJCongress national convention, Women’s Division leader Justine Wise Polier—herself suspected by the FBI of having been a communist and denied a passport on that basis in 1948—told delegates:

Those committed to the extreme leftist or Communist position seek to capture the movement and bend it to support their own faith. We have learned that such efforts must be resisted actively if democracy in Jewish life, the survival of the Jewish people, and the strengthening of American democracy are to be achieved. On this there can be no compromise.

This was a new muscular American Jewish liberalism and a new synthesis of earlier radical roots with the post-war reality. But contemporary right-wing Jewish leaders like Marvin Hier would have us believe that American Jews after the war were mere “victims” and “in the doldrums” rather than on the move to end discrimination in housing and increase the progressive Jewish community’s political influence. Wise Polier and her husband, AJCongress Chair Shad Polier, were not waiting for invitations to the White House. Hier’s neoconservative agenda causes him to dismiss the left-liberal tradition they represented and the important role they played in bolstering the State of Israel, which Hier believes is virtually sui generis.

But Israel in this time was too small and embattled to exert much gravitational pull on American Jewish left-liberal identity. Even if it had, AJC’s leaders would have had no difficulty identifying with their leftwing counterparts among Israel’s founders. Israel’s Declaration of Independence is a document that could have been drafted at AJCongress:

The State of Israel will be open to the immigration of Jews from all countries of their dispersion; will promote the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; will be based on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace taught by the Hebrew Prophets; will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex; will guarantee
full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture; will safeguard the sanctity and inviolability of the shrines and Holy Places of all religions; and will dedicate itself to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

Even after AJCongress expelled Communist groups and chapters, the group still opposed Red Scare demagoguery of McCarthy and HUAC. Individual communists also continued to work in AJCongress and play significant roles.

Communist Party financial operative Stanley Levison was a Vice-President of a New York AJC chapter. An FBI wiretap of a conversation between Levison and several other Communists in a Chicago hotel room in 1954 overheard Levison praising AJCongress for opposing McCarthy and the McCarran-Walter Act, which permitted the deportation of immigrants or naturalized citizens engaged in what were deemed subversive activities. The wiretap led directly to an order from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to reopen investigation of AJCongress. A year later, Levison was to become a top aide to Martin Luther King, Jr. in the wake of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and he still remained involved in AJCongress. (It was Levison who was later wiretapped by the FBI to find out about King’s communist associations).

The Demise of the AJC and Participatory Democracy

Most of this history has been forgotten, or it has been tagged part of civil rights history rather than also an important moment in American Jewish left-wing history.

AJCongress too has been forgotten. The tattered remnant of the group died in 2010 after losing most of its endowment in the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scandal. But the organization had already withered into irrelevance long before by attenuating its democratic internal life. The first strike was the elimination of AJC’s autonomous Women’s Division in the years after my mother’s term. Male leaders called the move “integration,” but my mother bitterly scorned their arguments as “pitter-patter.” She wrote at the time:

“You’ve come a long way, Baby” was used as a manipulative ploy without reference to whether integration itself would be good for the organization, for women, or for changing generational and social needs. Basic to the entire discussion: What is a grassroots organization and do we want it?

The answer from the men and the next generation of AJC leaders was a resounding no. What followed was the successive elimination of regional offices that served local members and developed new leaders. I had been on the Northern California regional board shortly before it was closed down in 2001 by the national organization, which had come under the control of a few large donors who weren’t interested in the pesky leftwing, feminist, and anti-war politics of semi-autonomous local groups.

Once one of the largest Jewish organizations in America—Zionist at the core, anti-Hitler, pro-union and civil rights, internally democratic, and resolutely secular from its founding after World War I, the dying of American Jewish Congress was a case study in the elimination of internal Jewish community democracy.

There were many reasons for that demise. Fewer left-liberal American Jews felt the necessity of working through an explicitly Jewish organization. For civil liberties, there was the ACLU; for unions, there was now the AFL-CIO; for civil rights, there was SCLC, SNCC, and CORE; for youth engagement, there was SDS and anti-war movements; and for Zionism, the State of Israel itself. But these reasons should not obscure the fact that more conservative leaders were actively undermining left-wing voices like my mother’s. Ultimately, for many younger Jewish radicals, AJCongress becoming a laughing stock when its Chair Jack Rosen—honored with the nickname “Rosey” by President George W. Bush—compared France to the Vichy government and called for a boycott of the Cannes Film Festival in 2002. It was that moment when the horror of September 11 sparked absurdities like the call by some members of Congress to rename French fries “Freedom Fries.”

AJCongress was sadly not an exception in this shuffle toward oblivion. Other wealthier and more elite Jewish organizations became the representatives—even the playthings—of mega-donors who were increasingly conservative because they were wealthy individuals themselves and because AJCongress and other groups began to focus almost exclusively on Jewish defense against anti-Semitism and support for Israel. These were now the core issues rather than the universalist Judaism of earlier leaders like Rabbi Stephen Wise, the Poliers, and AJC President Rabbi Joachim Prinz.

Now we can see the results. In almost all Jewish organizations today, participatory internal democracy is passé. Where are the Jewish organizations that, like the old American Jewish Congress, hold regular national conventions at which representatives of local chapters elect the national leaderships? Today, American Jewish organizations both on the right and the left are ruled by donor-boards. AJC’s particularly American Jewish synthesis of a hurly-burly democracy and left-liberal Zionism is largely a thing of the past.

Rabbi Irwin Kula shares his thoughts on Judaism's place in American politics with the filmmakers.

Is Judaism Intrinsically Radical?

In Between Two Worlds, we end our segment about my mother’s secret past as a communist and her transition into Jewish politics with a debate of sorts among several activists and scholars.

New Israel Fund CEO Daniel Sokatch describes the seemingly eternal battle for a Jewish-liberatory morality and the radical, prophetic tradition:

I will unabashedly argue that the founding texts of Judaism embrace at their core this notion that for the Jew in the world, the obligation is to be, as the prophet Isaiah says, the repairer of the breach.

Rabbi Irwin Kula says the texts aren’t so clear as Sokatch and many of us hope:

What I’ve learned from studying Jewish history, and what I’ve learned from watching how America has unfolded politically, is that the only thing I can say for sure is that Judaism doesn’t have a specific politics. Judaism’s job as a spiritual tradition, is to undermine and destabilize anybody’s political position that’s become too absolute.

And historian Tony Michels dismisses essentialist arguments for the left-liberalism and radicalism of American Jews:

I don’t believe there’s anything intrinsic in Judaism that lends itself to radicalism. I think radicalism has been a product of particular times and places in Jewish histories, and we can see that in the fact that in some countries, radicalism was not an important part of Jewish life and in others it was.

It is possible, perhaps necessary, to agree with all of them in order to start thinking about a future of an American Jewish left that integrates grassroots politics, left-liberal organizing, and agitation for a progressive Israel. But many young Jews we talked to feel a new form of that old insecurity and inauthenticity.

Young Jews Resist a Pull to the Right

The arguments young Jews hear for Jewish radical identity in America often seem based in a nostalgia that boils all the complex specificity of Jewish left history down to debates over whether American Jews will continue to vote Democratic, a far cry from the radical convictions earlier generations derived from their specific circumstances.

Those young Jews also face a different Jewish reality in America. It’s been two or three generations since the large majority of American Jews were working class. The liberalism they hear from their parents is more about freedom of lifestyle than class conflict. The creed of American Jewish Congress is a thing of the past. Recent polls show most Jews have become less sympathetic to unions and economic equality. Our social justice organizations do fine work, but they are swimming against the tide of class, not with it.

They are also resisting the pull to the right from Israel, which like the Soviet Union for an earlier generation now exerts such powerful traction on American Jewish politics that large donors feel they have to ship young Jews to Israel for an infusion of Jewish identity. Perhaps, Israel’s tent city movement was a sign that a new relationship could emerge, but the Israeli radical movement is also swimming upstream.

For the first time, it isn’t inconceivable for American Jews to vote Republican in large numbers. It won’t be necessary for U.S. Jews to go as far as Canadian Jews, who for the first time ever voted in a majority for the Conservative Party in the 2011 Canadian federal elections. The demise of AJCongress’s muscular left-liberalism, which would not brook either democratic centralism or control by a few moguls, allows Rabbi Hier and other Jewish neocons to distort Jewish left, radical, and liberal history wholesale. Even the New Deal itself has become a target, with Rabbi Hier recently producing a movie disparaging AJCongress co-founder Rabbi Stephen Wise and President Roosevelt as virtually complicit in the Holocaust by failing to bomb the train tracks to the camps. His film is so riveted by its effort to discredit Jewish left-liberalism that it barely mentions that the U.S. was at war with Germany at the time. For Hier, World War II was an incidental sidelight to the Holocaust.

What we found making Between Two Worlds and in traveling around the country with the film over the past year is that Israeli nationalism and the needs of Israeli foreign policy have displaced progressive Jewish politics.

Many of us won’t give up the fight for a progressive Israel and a left-wing Jewish ideal of America, even if the history and the logic of nationalism sometimes seem to be leaving us behind.

But circumstances are changing yet again, and young American Jews now face the challenge of a new depression. In Between Two Worlds, we suggest that as in the past, their answers will come from the radical will to assimilate ideas and adapt them to their environment just as their great-grandparents did 100 years before. That synthesis will not come from entitled and self-satisfied tribalists like Marvin Hier who police the borders of Jewish American identity and define what can and cannot be said about Israel-Palestine. If it comes at all, it will come from the margins where adaptation and imagination rule. It might help us and the next generation of American Jews to remember and understand the rise and fall of American Jewish Congress as part of a proud and unique contribution to American Jewish identity on the left.

Alan Snitow is a documentary filmmaker and journalist whose films include Between Two Worlds, Thirst, Secrets of Silicon Valley, and Blacks and Jews. Prior to his founding Snitow-Kaufman Productions, he was news producer for KTVU-TV, and news director for Pacifica Radio KPFA-FM.
tags: Israel/Palestine, Judaism, US Politics   
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5 Responses to An American Jewish Identity Crisis

  1. cosmopolite July 27, 2012 at 8:37 pm

    “Do you know that after the Second World War, nobody wanted to look at Jews. They said, ‘Jews, these are the victims. Who wants to be associated with them?’”

    Flatly wrong. At that time, Jews commanded enormous sympathy.

    ” … When Israel thrived, Jewish life in the Diaspora thrived. It’s intertwined. If there’s no Israel, we’ll be back in the doldrums. All of us who walk around here in America, in Beverly Hills, in New York City walking up 5th Avenue and think we’re big machers, that would all go down the drain if there wasn’t a State of Israel…”

    The good rabbi has put the cart before the horse. Israel survived thanks to very substantial financial and other assistance from the North American Diaspora.

    If the Zionist enterprise were to fade or fail, the Diaspora would continue as it did for nearly 19 centuries after the Roman destruction of the second temple. But if the Diaspora fails, then Israel will gradually find itself friendless. And fail for certain.

  2. Ivor Middleton February 26, 2013 at 9:06 am

    Cosmopolite: “Flatly wrong. At that time, Jews commanded enormous sympathy.”

    It would be nice to think that, but most refugees were turned away from the US and the UK. Palestine was not their first choice.

    The existence of Israel owes a good deal to antisemitic supporters within the US and the UK of a Jewish state. That makes Israel look more like a symptom, not a solution.

    There was sympathy, but perhaps it was not as enormous as we would like to think.

  3. Jack Kessler March 25, 2014 at 8:28 am

    Could there be a connection between the Left’s and Tikkun’s persistent animosity toward Israel and your never getting any political traction in the United States?

  4. Jack Kessler March 25, 2014 at 8:30 am

    I wonder if hitching the party of love and understanding to a cause dedicated to destroying their neighbors might be both a poor idea and not likely to succeed?

  5. Andrew Stergiou February 14, 2015 at 9:31 pm


    In so much that it can be contrived on good grounds that much of the Jewish left is composed of the many turncoats David Horowitz, Max Shachtman, Jay Lovestone, Roy Cohn etc as duplicitous nationalists (Karl Kautsky) which fought on both sides of many wars foremost exemplified by WWI where 5,000 troops died for the Kaiser, and so many for the British and the Balfour perhaps it can be said in their favor that they never were able to buy as JP Morgan bragged he could hire one half of the working class to fight the other half if it were not for the intrigues of the Bernie Maydoff’s of this world whose theft in larceny of billions seems to exemplify the capitalist ruling class not the Jewish people , as the capitalist ruling class steals trillions in one big Ponzi scheme.

    Where if I stole that sought of money I too could afford such influence afforded JEWISH RIGHT-WING MAMZERS.

    So what is the reason why is the Jewish community always discussing such obscure figures withing the framework of its community? Where the mind Fs of orthodoxy deny ordinary working class Jews as much as anyone else? and attempts to have us jump threw hoops as if we were trained seals in their circus?

    With “613 commandments given in the Torah at biblical Mount Sinai” and revisionists changed to by “seven rabbinic commandments instituted later for a total of 620″ “365 Negative Commandments and 248 Positive commandments” when I think they as human being could be considered NONSENSE.

    Where there should be no obligation to discuss matters with such questionable people, who exist as one big intelligence, that has no respect expect for money and power where thy argue that the egg should be opened at one angle or another with out fundamental distinction?

    Where Jewish youth are siphoned off to unwanted wars and rewarded with a stagnant world of perpetual conformity, regulated non-conformity, and again NONSENSE, and more NONSENSE in what ultimately exists solely to to finance and support the military industrial complex and profiteers.

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