Writing in The Forward this past monday, Jay Michaelson announced the “Death of the Jewish Left.” Moriel Rothman-Zecher, a friend and comrade, responded to Michaelson’s article saying, to paraphrase somewhat barbarically, that rumors of the Jewish Left’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. I agree—there are plenty of individuals and organizations that I can think of that do the kind of activism and social justice work that Michaelson seems anxious to eulogize. And working this summer at a left-wing publication, I can attest to the fact that there is no shortage of youthful yidden still fighting the good fight.
Michaelson’s article makes me ask not, “is the Jewish Left really dead,” but instead: “was the Jewish Left ever really alive?” By this I don’t mean to question the existence of many Jews in America who identified with and practiced a distinct brand of left-wing politics. But I do question the connection between prior generations’ Judaism and leftism. Michaelson’s romantic view of what he terms the Jewish Left ignores some important Jewish and left-wing history that I think complicates the story he sketches in The Forward.
One assumption that underlies Michaelson’s argument is that the old “Jewish Left” engaged in leftist politics because it was Jewish, or rather, because of Judaism’s particular philosophical and political tendencies. And that is far from universally true. Particularly in the early waves of immigration to the U.S. (in the late 1800s and early 1900s), the various left-wing ideologies that many Jews adopted were at odds, and often in open conflict, with the traditional Judaism in which they were raised. Many of the streams of Yiddish socialism were adamantly secular, as was Jewish communism. And the anarchists, whose ranks a great number of Jews populated, were expressly hostile to organized religion. Paul Avrich, who was scholar of anarchism and Russian radicalism, includes in his Anarchist Portraits a charming—and slightly frightening—description of the “Yom Kippur Ball”: a musical, sacrilegious, romp intended to offend the stuffy religious authorities. Many of the biggest names in the pantheon of the “Jewish Left” fiercely rejected any connection between Judaism and their politics: Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky, Emma Goldman, the list goes on. For much of American Jews’ history, to join left-wing political movements was to break with Jewish religious tradition, not to bolster it.
The best articulated repudiation of the view that connects the philosophical/religious content of Judaism to leftism comes from an unlikely source: Michael Walzer, the author of Exodus and Revolution, among many other books. In a fantastic lecture called “The Strangeness of Jewish Leftism” that he gave at YIVO’s conference on Jews and the Left in 2012, Walzer (who is responsible for the massive, multi-volume The Jewish Political Tradition) argued that there is nothing in the Jewish tradition that predisposes its adherents to left-wing politics. Jewish participation in leftist movements was the result, mainly, of demographics and societal conditions that made the struggles for human rights, labor, and social justice coincide with the interests of Jewish communities. As Jews in the U.S. are more prosperous and integrated than ever before, it makes sense that the sociological basis for leftism with a Jewish tint is fading, too.
Michaelson neglects to take into account another factor: the particular quality of Jewish identity during the years of mass Jewish participation in left-wing movements. What united Jewish leftists, both in the U.S. and in Europe, during the late 1880s and early 1900s was a shared culture and language that no longer exists. Jewish socialists, communists, and anarchists didn’t worry about finding “Jewish values” that could fit their politics because they didn’t need to. Their leftism was Jewish because it was expressed in Yiddish. They lived in close-knit Jewish communities, they organized predominantly with other Jewish political groups. The phrase “Jewish values” would have been meaningless to them. Judaism was not a value system for them as much as it was an ethnic affiliation—a peoplehood or, according to some Yiddish socialists like my bubbie, even a race.
But the days when anti-clerical and revolutionary sentiment could be inherently Jewish because of the language in which it was expressed are long gone (this is not the case in Israel, where anti-religious screeds are written in the same language as the Bible). Judaism today is typically characterized, particularly by left- and liberal-leaning Jews, as a religion, as a value-system. This makes Judaism more inclusive and sensitive to the dramatic demographic changes that American Jewry has undergone. But it shifts the core of Jewish identity away from common history and heritage. “Jewish values” are also notoriously difficult to define, and even harder to define without a solid background in tradition and texts. It just so happens, too, that the people most likely to embrace left-wing politics today are those least likely to engage with Judaism’s traditional sources.
Walzer’s 2012 lecture caused a bit of stir for suggesting that there was nothing intrinsically leftist or egalitarian or democratic about Judaism. But that shouldn’t be surprising. The many prosperous communities practicing non-leftist and even illiberal brands of Judaism (the ultra-orthodox, religious nationalists, to name just two) aren’t guilty of a flawed misreading of Jewish texts. Like most civilizations or cultures (however you want to define it), Judaism can contain multiple political and ethical strands—the decisions to emphasize specific strands are the results of choices based on prior political convictions.
At the end of the lecture that Walzer gave, he called on left-wing Jews to re-engage with the Jewish tradition, to find the places where Judaism can support and add meaning to left-wing politics. At first this might feel like picking what fits and discarding what is difficult, but it doesn’t have to be. And I think there are encouraging organizations, collectives, and initiatives that are re-envisioning left-wing politics with a distinctly Jewish lens and grappling with the aspects of the tradition that do not and cannot be reconciled with leftist political priors. History does not suggest that the great number of Jews involved in left-wing politics did so because of what they believed about Judaism, religion, or Torah. Other than its culture, which has largely been lost on the younger generations, there was nothing particularly Jewish about the “Jewish Left.” But today, contrary to what Michaelson claims, there is a Jewish Left in a way that there never really was before. There are intentional communities, learning-groups, and individuals working to merge serious commitments to both social justice and Torah. It’s just that sometimes, they’re a little difficult to find.
The small but incredibly influential group of the New York Intellectuals is an important exception to my claim that there was nothing necessarily Jewish about the old “Jewish Left” other than it was comprised of Jews who were also leftists. But I don’t think it is possible to claim that views of the New York Intellectuals represented those of the majority of Jewish leftists, let alone those of the majority of Jews. The example of The New York Intellectuals does suggest, though, that the dwindling numbers of Jewish leftists that Michaelson worries about might not reflect the strength or vivacity of the contemporary Jewish Left. A vocal minority can sometimes be more powerful than an apathetic majority.
Isaac Deutscher’s concept of the “non-Jewish Jew” provides an important explanation of the apparent overrepresentation (relative to the number of Jews in a given population) of Jews in left-wing and avant-garde intellectual movements.