The End of the Jewish Left
Political theorist Michael Walzer and others argue about the death of the century-long Jewish-Leftist alliance
But if you look at the actual content of the prophets’ message, Walzer points out, its political bearing is not so clear. “Theirs was … a fiercely antipolitical radicalism,” he writes, which had little to say about the power structures of Israelite society. Indeed, one of the themes of In God’s Shadow is that the writers of the Bible were so uninterested in politics that they included remarkably little information about how the Israelites were actually governed on a day-to-day basis—almost everything we can say about the functions of kings, judges, and royal officials is speculative. When the prophets called for justice, they didn’t mean a redistribution of power but a society-wide submission to God: “God’s message overrode the wisdom of men.”
The same thing was even more dramatically true when it came to international politics. Jeremiah, for instance, was active toward the end of the Kingdom of Judah, at a time when that small nation was caught between the empires of Egypt and Babylon. Much of the last part of Kings is made up of the attempts of successive Israelite monarchs to ally themselves with one of these imperial powers against the other. But, as Walzer emphasizes, the prophets simply refuse to accept that this geopolitical problem is a problem at all. If the Israelites trust in God and obey him, all will be well; if God is determined to punish them, nothing they do will avert his justice. “All that he and his fellow prophets have to say in the global arena is ‘the God of Israel, the God of Israel,’ ” Walzer writes, “implying that diplomacy and defense are unnecessary so long as faith remains firm.”
The long-term effect of this usurpation of the public sphere by God, Walzer concludes, was the growth of Jewish messianism. “The secret source of messianic politics is a deep pessimism about the self-government of the covenantal community. … Israel was more often the subject of absolute judgment than of conditional assessment and counsel.” And while Walzer does not say so explicitly, it is easy to imagine what his denigration of messianism means for the modern Jewish radical tradition, which has so often prided itself on holding out for a messianic transformation of human society. If the Messiah is what we demand when we can’t or won’t engage in politics, then the Revolution, too, must be seen as fundamentally antipolitical, a dangerous dream that rests on the abdication of human judgment. The rejection of Revolution as a concept is perhaps the dividing line between liberals and leftists, and Jews increasingly find themselves on the liberal side of that line.
The left’s rejection of Judaism, Walzer concluded in his speech at YIVO, was both “necessary and profoundly wrong.” Necessary, because traditional Judaism did not offer a basis for a social justice movement; but also wrong, because the severance with tradition rendered the Jewish left culturally disoriented and spiritually impoverished.
While a number of speakers at the YIVO conference invoked Isaac Deutscher’s concept of the “non-Jewish Jew”—figures like Trotsky or Rosa Luxemburg, who rejected on principle any definition of themselves or their goals in Jewish terms—both Walzer and Ezra Mendelsohn warned against the idea that identity could be so abstract and universalized. Walzer called instead for a renewed critical engagement with Jewish tradition, including a return to the Jewish calendar and Jewish lifecycle events.
If this represents a kind of retrenchment on the part of the left, it is partly because the Jewish left has lost any certainty that the future is on its side. In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu is the strongest and most popular leader in decades; in both Israel and America, the fastest-growing section of the Jewish population is the Orthodox, a right-leaning group who 50 years ago, Mendelsohn recalled, seemed headed for extinction. Still, political fortunes can always change, and Mendelsohn concluded his speech, and the conference, with a wan prophecy that the Jewish left would return: “Maybe I won’t see it, but my grandchildren will.”
More difficult to accept is the idea that the past, too, no longer belongs to the Left—that its own history is no longer a source of pride but of doubt and even shame. Jonathan Brent, the head of YIVO, set the tone for the conference in his opening remarks, which began by recalling the fate of YIVO—Der Yiddisher Visenshaftlekher Institut (Jewish Scientific Institute)—in World War II Vilna. Zalman Rayzen was one of the original heads of YIVO, the author of a textbook of Yiddish literature. Like so many of his colleagues, he did not survive the war. Rayzen, however, was killed not by the Nazis but the by Soviets, after the Red Army invaded Lithuania in 1940.
Brent, a pioneering historian of the Soviet Union who was responsible for the opening of many Soviet archives after 1989, wanted to emphasize the fact that the Soviet Union—for generations a lodestar of Jewish leftists—was in fact a deadly enemy of Jewish culture. Stalin, whose Red Army defeated Hitler and thus saved the lives of millions of Jews, was also a paranoid anti-Semite, who when he died was preparing a mass purge and deportation of Soviet Jews, under the cover of the so-called “Doctors’ Plot.”
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