Introduction to Exploring Identity Politics

I first got introduced to identity politics growing up during and after the Holocaust. For large numbers of Jews at that time the murder of one out of every three Jews on the planet Earth who were alive in 1940 was a trauma that not only shaped our lives  and consciousness, but was also then passed on to the next several generations. God had failed to show up and save the Jews. Much of the rest of the world failed to intervene to save Jews. The U.S. turned away refugee ships and most of the countries of the world were unwilling to open their doors to Jewish refugees who were often forced to return to countries dominated by the Nazis, from which they were soon sent to their deaths.

Equally traumatic for many was the gross failure of the communist parties of the world to stand up to overtly challenge the way rising fascist movements that used anti-Semitism as a central part of attracting  support. During the Second World War there were frequent stories of Jews escaping the ghettos of Europe and fleeing to become part of partisan resistance forces, only to find that their partisan allies were themselves filled with hatred of Jews, and in some cases actually turned on their Jewish members. After the War, those communist movements then turned on their Jewish members more systematically, often expelling them from their leadership positions or even from the party itself, while the international leader of the communist movement, the Soviet Union, implemented discriminatory practices against their own Jewish population.

No wonder, then, that Zionism became the Jewish identity politics that most attracted new members in the 2nd half of the 20th century. Zionism itself was a multi-dimensional movement with communists and socialists insisting on the importance of tying Jewish liberation to the liberation of all humanity, but slowly losing most of their credibility as surrounding Arab oligarchs sought to prevent the Jewish people from exercising the same national independence that other states had already achieved for their citizens, and a radical nationalism among Palestinians refused to allow Jews seeking some place to live to come to Palestine when it was a Jewish minority was escaping the real persecution of fascist regimes, and the Palestinian allies in Britain enforced this boycott of Jews by refusing to allow ships carrying Jewish refugees to land in Palestine. Those socialist and communist Zionists who maintained an insistence that Jewish identity politics must be placed within a larger context of support for the liberation of all peoples lost its plausibility in face of a world that had been so hostile to Jewish survival.

Yet, as I grew up I came to understand that the logic of our Identity Politics was also leading in a very destructive direction. In the course of creating our own state we caused hundreds of thousands to lose their homes, and these Palestinians were joined in exile by tens of thousands of others who lost their homes in subsequent Israeli wars.

And when I joined with fellow progressive Jews, Palestinians and our non-Jewish allies to criticize Israeli treatment of Palestinians, I found that our criticisms were dismissed as anti-Semitism.

The text above was just an excerpt. The web versions of our print articles are now hosted by Duke University Press, Tikkun’s publisher. Click here to read an HTML version of the article or to download the PDF version.

Tikkun 2018 Volume 33, Number 1/2:16-19

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun, co-chair with Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue-Without-Walls in San Francisco and Berkeley, California. He is the author of eleven books, including two national bestsellers—The Left Hand of God and Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation. His most recent book, Embracing Israel/Palestine, is available on Kindle from and in hard copy from He welcomes your responses and invites you to join with him by joining the Network of Spiritual Progressives (membership comes with a subscription to Tikkun magazine). You can contact him at
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