“Why so many alte kockers? Where is the rising generation?” The grumbler sitting behind me at the conference on “Jews and the Left,” sponsored by YIVO last week at the Center for Jewish History in New York, was not exactly being fair. Any academic conference will attract an older-skewing audience, and for all the gray hair in the seats and on the dais, the YIVO conference did have its share of eager young attendees.
Behind the complaint, however, it was possible to hear a larger, more painful question. For the first two-thirds of the 20th century, from the first immigrant generation through the baby boom, the radical and revolutionary left played a hugely important role in defining how the rest of America saw Jews and how Jews saw themselves. From Mike Gold’s proletarian novel Jews Without Money all the way down to Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, the literature and mythology of American Jewish radicalism has often appeared identical—to a certain audience—with Judaism itself. Even now there are people who revel in bygone lore about the Forverts and the Freiheit, Jay Lovestone and Max Shachtman. But living heirs to that tradition can be hard to find. Somewhat plaintively, my neighbor at the conference—like many of the participants—seemed to be asking, Is there still such a thing as a Jewish left? And if not, ought we to regret it?
The left that was at issue in the YIVO conference had little to do with what we now, in the shrunken spectrum of American political discourse, call the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. A 2005 Pew study found that Jews were the single most liberal religious group in America. Last month, a poll of American Jews showed that 62 percent planned to vote for Barack Obama in November—down from the 78 percent he got in 2008, but still more than twice as much as the 29 percent who said they would vote for Mitt Romney. Depending on your point of view, the still-durable association of Jews with liberalism and the Democratic Party is a source of either pride or bafflement (as in Norman Podhoretz’s plaintively titled Why Are Jews Liberals?).
Looked at another way, however, the softening mainstream liberalism of American Jews can be seen as the feeble remnant of what was once a fiery and uncompromising leftism. Indeed, as historian Tony Michels said at the YIVO conference, the history of American Communism “cannot be understood without Jews.” But the mood of the conference was best summed up in the title of the keynote address, by the political philosopher Michael Walzer: “The Strangeness of Jewish Leftism.” What was once a proud inheritance now seems like a problem in need of a solution. For many Jews, it remains axiomatic that Judaism is a religion of social justice and progress; the phrase “tikkun olam” has become a convenient shorthand for the idea that Judaism is best expressed in “repair of the world.”
In his speech, and in his new book In God’s Shadow: Politics and the Hebrew Bible, Walzer offers a contrary vision of traditional Judaism, which he argues “offers precious little support to left politics”—a truth that he recognized would surprise those who, like himself, “grew up believing that Judaism and socialism were pretty much the same thing.” If a leftist political message cannot readily be found in the traditions of Judaism, it follows that the explosion of Jewish leftism in the late 19th century was actually a rupture with Jewish history, and potentially a traumatic one.
Walzer’s reluctance to associate Judaism too simply with leftist politics, or indeed with any politics, represents a break from his earlier thinking. In his influential 1985 book Exodus and Revolution, for instance, Walzer argued that the Exodus narrative had provided a template for generations of revolutionaries and progressives in Western society, offering a model of how to escape an oppressive past and create a better future. The contrast with his new book could not be sharper. In this work, Walzer reads the Bible with an eye to its explicit and implicit teachings about politics and finds that its most eloquent message on the subject is silence. “The political activity of ordinary people is not a Biblical subject,” he writes, “nor is there any explicit recognition of political space, an agora or forum, where people congregate to argue about and decide on the policies of the community.”
Coming from Walzer, who co-edited a multivolume treatise on “The Jewish Political Tradition,” and who has been one of the leading theorists of mainstream left-liberalism for decades, this emphasis on the antipolitical nature of the Bible is striking. In his YIVO speech, he listed six central features of traditional Judaism that made it a conservative force, including the very idea of Jews as a chosen people—an idea that cannot easily be made to harmonize with universalism and egalitarianism.
Where the Greek tradition made room for public decision-making, Walzer argues, the same space in the Bible is filled entirely by God: All historical and legal initiatives must come from the deity, or appear to do so. In fact, the Pentateuch contains three separate legal codes, in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, which contradict one another in many details and clearly were written by different groups of Israelites at different times. But because of the pious fiction that all these laws came from the same God, it was impossible for the legal deliberations that created them to become public; the lawmakers hid themselves behind a divine facade. They were, Walzer writes, “the secret legislators of Israel,” and as long as legislation remains secret, it cannot be truly political.
The same principle holds true of the later history of the Israelite kingdom. Much of In God’s Shadow deals with the ambiguous status of the prophet in the polity of ancient Israel. When contemporary liberals and leftists want to anchor their beliefs in Jewish tradition, it is to the prophets that they most often turn: the scathing denunciations of Amos and Jeremiah, the messianic vision of Isaiah. “We have a picture in our mind of the people described by Amos,” Walzer writes. “They are, so to speak, the local bourgeoisie,” and Amos speaks for the Israelite proletariat.
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.”
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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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.
Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.