The End of the Jewish Left
Political theorist Michael Walzer and others argue about the death of the century-long Jewish-Leftist alliance
There remains to this day a tendency on the Jewish left to take pride in, or at least indulge, the history of Jewish admiration of Communism. Jewish Communists are more often defended as misguided idealists than condemned as accomplices of a murderous totalitarianism. At “Jews and the Left,” however, speaker after speaker agreed that the embrace of Communism by many Jews was a moral disaster. Mendelsohn spoke for many when he declared, “I am not feeling particularly forgiving of Jews who joined the Communist movement.”
If the historical Jewish association with the left has become a source of such profound doubt, it is possibly because the current relationship between Jews and the left is so troubled. One reason for that trouble, of course, is the State of Israel, which over the last 10 years has become the target of automatic condemnation and outright hostility on the left. Ronald Radosh, the author of a recent book about Harry Truman’s role in the creation of Israel, noted that this represents a historical irony, since “Israel couldn’t have been created without the support of the American left.” In particular, Radosh focused on the contributions of the radical journalist I.F. Stone and the Nation editor Freda Kirchwey to the postwar debate over the creation of the Jewish state, noting that by 1948 The Nation had become a “mouthpiece of Zionism.” As Israel has morphed in the leftist imagination from a brave socialist outpost to an imperialist colonizer—a view shared, in what was easily the conference’s most provocative talk, by the Israeli leftist Yoav Peled—this early history has been almost totally forgotten.
Mitchell Cohen, who as co-editor of Dissent has bravely held out against this trend, began the first day of the conference with a presentation on “Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism on the Left,” in which he toured a horizon all too familiar to most of the attendees. “Does the left have a Zionist problem? Yes,” Cohen declared, going on to quote anti-Zionist and quasi-anti-Semitic statements by luminaries such as the American Jewish literary theorist Judith Butler, who has spoken indulgently about Hamas and Hezbollah, and the leading French philosopher Alain Badiou, who as Cohen put it is “obsessed with Jews and Israel.”
Cohen deftly united the two themes of the conference by arguing that the part of the left that is currently anti-Zionist is the same part that “hasn’t learned from the twentieth century”: that is, the left that still indulges in nostalgic reveries about Communism and revolution. On this view, the struggle over left attitudes to Israel carries on an ancient struggle for the soul of the left, which has always vacillated between hostility to Jews, as symbols of the capitalist order, and defense of Jews, as victims of reactionary anti-Semitism. In his speech, the British Marx scholar Norman Geras traced this dualism back to Karl Marx—specifically to Marx’s notorious essay “On the Jewish Question,” which is full of the most vile anti-Semitism, calling Judaism a religion of money and bargaining, and calling for the emancipation of mankind from Judaism. Yet in the same essay, Marx also called for national liberation and self-determination, a call that historically attracted many Jews to the banner of the left.
The problem for the left today is that it has gone over largely—but not, Geras and others insisted, wholly—to the negative view of Judaism as an obstacle to human progress. Israel, Geras held, “has been an alibi for a new climate of anti-Semitism on the left,” a development whose full venomousness can only be seen in Europe. (“I don’t think people here realize,” he said mournfully, “what it’s like to be a Jewish leftist in Britain today,” comparing it to living in a sea of poison.) This is the atmosphere that the Anglo-Jewish novelist Howard Jacobson evoked so powerfully in his recent novel The Finkler Question: one in which hostility to Israel is a reflex and insinuations about Jewish power and the “Jewish lobby” go unchallenged.
If the left in Europe and, increasingly, the United States is so hospitable to anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic ideas, what does that mean for the future of “Jews and the Left”? Michael Walzer explained the historical Jewish affinity for the left as a straightforward matter: “We have supported the people who support us.” The historical insights of the “Jews and the Left” conference suggested that things were never so simple—or mutual. So, when that basic equation no longer holds—if the left are no longer “the people who support us”—will we continue to support them? The “rising generation” of the left will contain its share of Jews, maybe even more than its share; but whether it will be a Jewish left, as it was in the past, is very much in doubt.
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