Jewish-leftist activism didn’t go into a coma following early labor struggles and wake up in the era of Trump. Each stage of fights for American social justice has had explicitly Jewish flanks. In the era of Martin Luther King Jr., for example, there were the likes of Jews for Urban Justice.
The JUJ was based out of Washington D.C. in the 1960s and ‘70s— the first leftist Jewish group of its kind in that era. Anti-racist, anti-war, often anti-Jewish establishment, the group ruffled feathers straddling the worlds of radical activism and Jewish community.
In 1970, JUJ issued a sort of manifesto entitled “The Oppression and Liberation of the Jewish People in America.” The document is simply amazing— especially if you’re plugged in with leftist ideology and rhetoric— a prime example of “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” It talks not only about social justice but identity politics, and the tenuous status of Jews in the United States:
Even in America, where the ‘carrot’ has been used by the ruling class with perhaps the greatest subtlety in Jewish history to dissolve Jewish peoplehood or render it unthreatening, there remains a Jewish people. But the issue still arises: should this continue? Would it still be desirable for there to be a Jewish people after a democratic transformation of American society? Is it desirable for radicals to identify themselves as Jews and assume the worthwhileness of Jewish peoplehood in the present, when they are organizing for that transformation?
We say yes.
It’s all great stuff. So for someone who was fighting the good fight back in the country’s legendary days of progressive activism, what does the landscape look like now?
“The Jewish community had been accepted into sort of mainstream America,” says Rabbi Arthur Waskow. “Now, it’s not so clear.”
Waskow became involved with JUJ following the assassination of Martin Luther King. Waskow was already a leftist activist, but not engaged Jewishly before that point.
“The only Jewish practice I’d kept as a grownup was the seder,” he said. Dr. King was killed a week before Passover, and Waskow was spending his time running supplies into the black community (there was theoretically a curfew for all of the D.C. area, but the police didn’t bother to enforce it for whites). And on the night before the first seder, Waskow he walked past the army to get to seder.
“This is Pharaoh’s army on the streets,” he recalls thinking. “The seder had always been serious to me but it had never been explosive or volcanic.”
He wrote his thoughts on modern-day oppression into a Haggadah that the following year the JUJ used to create their first “freedom seder,” one of their most famous communal actions as an organization.
“The Freedom Seder was to assert that Jews were not part of the American mainstream should not be, didn’t want to be,” he says.
From that point on, Waskow engaged in activism with a stronger intersection with his Jewish identity, eventually writing books on the subject and becoming a Renewal rabbi. These days, he heads his progressive non-profit, The Shalom Center.
In the weeks following Charlottesville, American Jewish identity has newly been called into question. Does this mean Jews are unsafe? Are opposition groups like antifa suspect as well? What does this mean for other groups targeted by Neo-Nazis?
Quoth the manifesto, back in 1970:
In taking up the ways in which the American empire has oppressed the Jewish people, we must address two political issues: First, has the Jewish people been uniquely oppressed, or are some of the oppressions we shall describe identical with those of other peoples? Secondly, has the Jewish people been oppressed from outside by the American empire, or has the Jewish people distorted and oppressed itself?
While Waskow fears for Jewish safety lately, he is hopeful that the recent rise of the alt-right will bring back the historic partnership between two marginalized groups: Jewish and African Americans.
“I think there’s the beginnings of a real connection that hasn’t been here for a really long time,” he says. He’s also excited, because he sees more active Jewish leftists than ever before in his lifetime.
And violence and anti-Semitism on the left?
“Anti-Semitism on the left is really profoundly connected to the behavior of the Israeli government,” says Waskow. “That becomes a kind of mal-definiton of what it is to be Jewish and invites what can easily slip into anti-Semitism.”
Waskow even thinks the hugely diverse range of opinions about Israel/Palestine in the Jewish left is a good thing, since it’s an overall increase in the conversation from the 1970s.
As for violent protestors, Waskow says he hasn’t seen any on the Jewish left, but wishes that nonviolent activism, like in his younger days, were more in the spirit of Purim: “I think that violence needs to be a bit more creative than it has been in the last couple of months in dealing with the Brown Shirts on the streets,” he said, insisting that satire and cleverness are the way to go rather than “descending into counter-violence.”
Fundamentally, what resonates about the JUJ manifesto is an insistence that Jews are unique to the American narrative, which means we have to resist the urge to be melted down into its mold: “The most important oppression imposed on the Jewish people by the American empire directly has been the pressure by the empire to split the seamless wholeness of Jewish life-thought-action into fragments.”
American has defined Jewishness as ‘religious,’ or sometimes as ‘ethnic’— ruling out the self-governing policy and economy of the traditional Jewish communities. For set-governing Jewish communities would have been indigestible blocks to the political, ideological, and economic hegemony of the empire at home.
And so, a veteran leftist like Rabbi Waskow calls for unity with people of color, compassion for the white working class, criticism of the Israeli government (but not necessarily anti-Zionism), to be crucial in continuing to resist this hegemony. But is it a sign of stagnation, or even regression, that the JUJ’s aims fifty years ago still seem to apply to modern Jewish liberals? Waskow, seeing more conversations about the left more in the mainstream, looks back at Passover to the key of the continuation of the struggle.
“Every year in a very powerful way— eating, talking with family, with friends— every year we look in the mirror and we see runaway slaves. Us. I think that goes very, very deep.”
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Gabriela Geselowitz is a writer and the former editor of Jewcy.com.