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A ’60s Meshugeneh

In his roiling narcissism, prophetic insight, personal misdeeds, refusal to acknowledge change in himself and in American society, and his habit of putting things in boxes, Jack Nusan Porter speaks for a generation of radical Jews and all the contradictions inherent in their situation

Jonah Raskin
May 24, 2021
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

In America, Jews have been radicals and radicals have been Jews for as long as there has been a United States. Both Judaism and patriotism have shaped their beliefs and actions. The radical American Jew has been a Marxist, a Trotskyite, a Maoist, a union organizer, a civil rights activist, an environmentalist, a feminist, and a follower of Tom Paine, Emma Goldman, and Rosa Luxemburg. Yet, mention the name Jack Nusan Porter to Jews who were ’60s activists, and are still somewhere left of center, and they’ll say, as they did to me, “Who?” When I asked Todd Gitlin, the author of The Sixties—the pivotal text on the era of rebellion, rock ‘n’ roll and marijuana—if he recognized the name Jack Nusan Porter or the “Jewish Student Movement,” he told me, “The name strikes a very dim bell, but I can’t place it, or him.” Even lefty Jews who are also Zionists don’t recognize the name.

Jack Nusan Porter is a modern-day radical Wandering Jew, who has by his own calculations remained true to the ideals he held in the 1960s when he denounced imperialism and oppression and embraced SDS, the Black Panthers, and the national liberation movements of the era. In an essay titled “Jewish Radicalism,” which is collected in The Radical Writings of Jack Nusan Porter, the author exclaims, “true radicals never sold out.” He also tells readers that he’s “a real estate consultant and developer.” So, has he sold out or not? A capitalist with socialist values, he explains at the very end of this anthology, “We all make compromises in life.”

Porter has idiosyncrasies, but the paradoxes in his life are the paradoxes of a great many ’60s radicals who are also Jewish, and who want to believe they’re true to their youthful selves when they were dedicated to the revolution. Like many Jews who were lefties in the ’60s, Porter can be apocalyptic, messianic, and self-absorbed. Like them, he tends to self-aggrandize, exaggerate, and embellish.

The Radical Writings represents Porter’s attempt, perhaps the last in his lifetime, to assign himself a pivotal role in history as one of the founders in the 1960s of the “Jewish Student Movement.” Two times in the book, Porter tells the same story about a meeting with an Israeli from the Ministry of Education. In Porter’s recollection, he told the Israeli that Martin Buber had “an enormous influence on the Jewish student movement and that that movement, in turn, had a great impact on the American Jewish community.” The Israeli turns to Porter and says, “What impact? What movement?” Porter adds, “He had hardly heard of it, and as for any impact, he thought it was nil. How quickly memories fade! Or is it that knowledge simply is not passed on?”

If Porter toots his own horn loudly and calls himself a “genius” he ought to be forgiven. After all, Hillel the Elder said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me.” Hillel added, “But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” (Porter offers the quotation from Hillel in the introduction to this anthology of his writings.) Two decades ago, he became a rabbi, though sometimes, curiously, he neglects to include that information about himself. Indeed, in the biographical sketch at the back of The Radical Writings of Jack Nusan Porter, he says nothing about the fact that in 2001 he was “ordained a rabbi by an Orthodox Vaad in New York City,” and served congregations from Massachusetts to Florida. In 2012 he ran unsuccessfully for Congress as a write-in candidate.

The above information can be found on his Wikipedia page, which also states that he is the vice president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars. Wiki also says he’s the author of more than two dozen books, including The Jew as Outsider, originally published in 1982 and reissued online in 2018 by Cambridge University Press.

Porter himself is an outsider among outsiders who has positioned himself between Karl Marx and Marshal McLuhan and between Martin Buber and Herbert Marcuse. For most ’60s radicals, the key events at the end of the decade were the Tet Offensive by the Viet Cong in 1968 and the assassinations of MLK and RFK that same year. For Porter, the key event was the Six-Day War in 1967. The Israeli-Arab War, he writes, “awakened an entire generation to the possibility that Israel could be destroyed.” He calls it the “jolt” that a generation needed. In 1967, American radicals were, by and large, thinking of the Vietnamese, not Israelis and Arabs.

In an essay from the mid-1970s, he acknowledges that the “Jewish liberation movement” was “very small” in numbers and adds that size “is not essential to the success of a social movement.” Abbie Hoffman said much the same thing about the Yippies. When asked how many prankster/comrades he had at the height of the counterculture, he said, “Enough.”

The Radical Writings of Jack Nusan Porter provides readers with the opportunity to read, study, and perhaps understand a little-known American Jew who has aimed to bridge his own brand of Zionism with his affinity for the Palestinian people and his embrace of democratic socialism. Like many ’60s lefties, Porter is big on “contradictions.” In the essay “Revolution and Rebellion in Film,” he writes, “the key that unlocks the door that answers the questions that explain America can be put into one simple word: contradictions.” Mao and Maoists have often said the same thing. Maoists might call Porter a walking, talking contradiction.

Born Nusia Jakub Puchtik in Ukraine in 1944, Porter was a “Displaced Person” for a year before coming to the U.S. His name was Americanized after he arrived in his adopted country. As a young man, he lived in Israel and belonged to the Kibbutz Gesher Haziv. His Ph.D. is from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. (If he’s little-known, that’s in part because he wasn’t in Berkeley or New York during the ’60s.) Over the past 50 years, he has taught at half a dozen universities in the U.S., including Boston University, Boston College, Emerson, and Harvard.

While he has received accolades and awards from the American Sociological Association and other scholarly organizations, he has not carved out an academic home for himself, nor has he been granted tenure. Call him an independent scholar who has tried to follow in the footsteps of Morris U. Schappes, who served as his mentor, and who published Porter in Jewish Currents, a magazine that was once widely read by a segment of American Jews. Porter’s 1992 interview with Schappes, which is included in this anthology, is as timely and as trenchant as ever.

For a short while, Porter belonged to the Jewish Defense League (JDL). He writes about that experience in “My Secret Days and Nights in the Jewish Defense League,” in which he concludes that when he cut his ties to the organization he felt “a palpable disgust.” He has been a man of powerful feelings who insists that feelings ought to be as valid as ideas.

In “The Impact of Jewish Radicalism” he argues that the “Jewish Left” has helped to bring about “the acceptance of feeling as being of equal importance to logic and reason.” Maybe so, but Jews don’t deserve all the credit for the elevation of feelings. The women’s movement and modern psychology also helped to elevate the heart. When he writes in “The Origins of the Jewish Student Movement,” that with the rise of Black Power, “Jews were no longer welcome in the Black movement,” he neglects to say that it wasn’t just Jews who were unwelcome, but all whites. Abbie Hoffman abandoned the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and with Jews such as Jerry Rubin and Paul Krassner created the Yippies, who morphed into the Youth International Party.

In an essay from 2020 titled “The Future of Israel,” which comes near the end of his book, Porter argues that if you love Israel, “you have the right to criticize.” He suggests that today Israel is threatened from within its own borders more than from perceived enemies from outside. “Can Israel survive internally from its own contradictions?” he asks. It’s a question he doesn’t answer, though he adds, “Israel and the U.S. face not only their own extinction but also the extinction of our entire planet.” A certain internationally renowned Swedish teenager might agree with him.

Porter tackles the thorny issue of Jewish “self-hate” and argues in the 1985 essay “Self-Hatred and Self-Esteem” that “self-hatred should be regarded as a subcategory of self-denial.” He adds that “almost every human being” has some degree of self-denial. That essay is still worth reading 45 years after it was first published, though what is probably most provocative today is the distinction he makes between the “Jewish Radical” and the “Radical Jew.” Porter calls himself a “Radical Jew.” He means that he is first and foremost a Jew and second a radical. “Jewish Radicals,” in his view, are American lefties like SDS’s (and Weatherman’s) Mark Rudd and Bernardine Dohrn, and the Yippies’ Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Is this hairsplitting? It could be regarded in that light.

More than 50 years after the birth of the “Jewish Student Movement” and the publication of Jewish Radicalism, an anthology co-edited with Peter Dreier in 1973, one might ask why read Porter today? Is he deserving of a substantial chapter in the history of the American Jewish left, or is he a footnote? To answer that question, one might start at the back of The Radical Writings with Porter’s most recent work, rather than at the start of the book with, say, “The Negro, The New Left, and the Hippy” [sic], a piece from 1967 that hasn’t aged well.

In his recent work, Porter writes about “progressive politics,” “whiteness,” Donald Trump, whom he accuses of using “the whip of xenophobia and misogyny,” and Bernie Sanders who, he says, “appeals to our better instincts.” In my view, Porter tends to be overly optimistic and a tad delusional. “For the most part most Americans are sympathetic to democratic socialism,” he writes in the 2020 essay, “Building a Jewish Radical Movement.” He adds, “The specter of socialism and Communism no longer scares off the younger generation.”

One wonders what Porter would say about the 74,223,251 Americans who voted for Trump, or about the rise of QAnon and the popularity of right-wing conspiracy theories that have posited Hillary Clinton’s participation in a child porn ring in the basement of a Washington, D. C., pizza restaurant. In fairness to Porter, one might add that, while he sees a revival of progressive politics in the careers and the recent campaigns of Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar, he also points to the rise of antisemitism and the noxious influence of “political correctness” on college campuses and elsewhere.

Porter’s role as a sometimes-prophet is clearest in an essay from the 1970s that was published soon after Nixon’s reelection. “The same economic, social, and political forces that elected a Republican president also contribute to the rise of right-wing, neo-fascist extremism,” he wrote.

Radical Writings is mostly organized by theme rather than by chronology, which makes it difficult to judge whether his thinking has evolved or remained the same. In a 2020 essay titled “The End of Zionism,” the author takes a rare, though most-needed moment to pause and to reflect on some of the cultural and political shifts that have affected him. “At Harvard, where I have been affiliated since 1982, I have to be very careful,” he explains, “especially around Black students and especially around Black women” and say nothing “that smacks of ‘harassment’ and ‘insensitivity.’”

For the record, Porter is no longer “affiliated’ with Harvard. In 2009, according to the blog Failed Messiah, he was arrested, charged with sexual assault and found guilty. The verdict was later expunged from the record. That arrest and verdict is a stain on his life and his thought.

What I also find troubling is Porter’s habit of creating boxes and categories. As a critical thinker, he understands their limitations, but as a sociologist, he views boxes as his bread and butter. He churns them out in essay after essay: “radical Zionists,” “Socialist Zionists,” “Jewish heretics,” Jewish Rebels “from within” and Jewish Rebels “from without.” Porter calls Moses and David Ben-Gurion rebels from within. He suggests that Bob Dylan and Jerry Rubin belong under the rubric of the rebel from without. Porter himself seems to be simultaneously an inside/outside rebel who likes to dismantle systems and then put them back together again.

When the Polish-born rabbi and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with MLK in Alabama in 1963, was he inside or outside? When Allen Ginsberg wrote his brilliant poem Kaddish for his mother, Naomi, a Jewish émigré from Russia, where did he stand vis-à-vis Judaism? What about Abbie Hoffman, who was born and raised a Jew, and who invited comparisons with a Jew named Jesus when he went to the New York Stock Exchange in 1967, tossed dollar bills from the visitors gallery to the floor below, and watched stockbrokers scramble for the money? Three years later, Hoffman taunted Judge Julius Hoffman in Yiddish during the Chicago conspiracy trial and likened the courtroom to a Nazi oven.

America is a place that Porter says is “without question” a “little crazy.” If so, then Porter himself is also a little bit meshuga. He’s also a lovable meshugeneh who ought to be better known than he is as a sociologist, a prophet, and a dialectician. The Radical Writings of Jack Nusan Porter is the perfect place to get to know him.

Jonah Raskin, professor emeritus at Sonoma State University, is the author of 14 books, including biographies of Jack London, Allen Ginsberg, and Abbie Hoffman.