Last week, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research held an extraordinary conference in New York, with 18 scholars presenting formal papers on “Jews and the Left,” addressing such issues as “present-day understandings of Jewish attraction to the Left in the 19th and 20th centuries,” whether today’s left is “in whole or in part anti-Semitic,” and the relationship between the left and Israel.
The response to these issues — coming from a group of scholars who were largely leftists or liberals themselves — was quite remarkable.
In his “Introductory Remarks,” Prof. Jack Jacobs of CUNY asserted that “the one-time ties between Jews and the left can best be explained by political, economic, and sociological conditions which existed in the 19th century, and which went out of existence in the twentieth” — that Jewish leftism was thus a creation of a time and place that no longer exists, not an enduring reflection of either Jewish religion or Jewish traits.
The uncertain relationship between Jewish leftism and Jewish religion was the theme of Michael Walzer’s keynote address, “The Strangeness of Jewish Leftism.” He listed the various ways in which Jewish leftism and Judaism are inconsistent and noted that Jewish leftism was a historical rejection of both Jewish tradition and traditional Jews. He quoted what he called the “profoundly accurate” observation by Polish poet Czesław Miłosz about many Jewish leftist intellectuals of the 1920s and 1930s:
From general ideas about the equality of men, they drew the conclusion that the past does not count. They were unwilling to take an interest in Yiddish literature or translations into Polish, because they saw it as provincial and inferior, left over from the ghetto, the very mention of which was a tactless blunder. If anyone mentioned the Jews in their presence, they took offense, at once reading racism into the remarks. They tried at all costs to forget who they were.
But one result of forgetting “who they were,” in order to become immediate universalists, was an inability to transmit that culture over generations, in the way traditional Jewish culture reproduces itself each year with its particular rituals and readings. Prof. Walzer called for a re-engagement by Jewish leftists with Jewish tradition, acknowledging the remarkable political achievement of Jewish politics in exile, sustaining a national existence for 2,000 years without sovereignty or territory. He seemed effectively to be proposing a sort of particular Jewish leftism, one he hoped that, unlike the Jewish leftism of the past, “might be strong enough to pass on to our grandchildren.”
But the problem is not only that Jewish leftists left the Jews, but that leftism itself has left them as well. Ron Radosh of the Hudson Institute and PJ Media made a fascinating presentation, entitled “When the American Jewish Left Loved Israel,” reviewing the critical support given to the re-creation of Israel by the Soviet Union, the Nation, and I.F. Stone — whom Radosh called second only to Leon Uris in creating a wave of support for a beleaguered people trying to return to their homeland while opposed by the “true colonial power” of the time (Britain). He closed by noting that such leftist support for Israel is long gone.
These days, the Nation is the source of vitriolic opposition to Israel, and a significant part of the left is not only anti-Israel, but anti-Semitic. Prof. Mitchell Cohen of CUNY, who co-edited Dissent for nearly two decades, said he has gotten indigestion from “what parts of the Left have swallowed without getting indigestion.” He said the left “has a Zionist problem,” and part of it has a Jewish problem as well, and he repeated British novelist Iain Pears’ observation that anti-Semitism is like alcoholism: “You can go for 25 years without a drink, but if things go bad and you find yourself with a vodka in your hand, you can’t get rid of it.”
University of Manchester Professor Emeritus Norman Geras presented a stunning paper, entitled “Alibi Anti-Semitism,” describing the anti-Semitic climate that now affects what he called a “substantial section” of the left, which uses Israel as its “convenient alibi” for views that cannot be regarded as merely critical of particular Israeli policies. His conclusion, which he described as painful for a leftist such as himself — but as “necessary” in light of what his paper described — was this:
It is a moral scandal that some few decades after the unmeasurable catastrophe that overtook the Jewish people in Europe, these anti-Semitic themes and ruses are once again respectable; respectable not just down there with the thugs but pervasively also within polite society, and within the perimeters of a self-flattering liberal and left opinion. It is a bleak lesson to all but those unwilling to see.
University of Chicago Professor Moishe Postone, another leftist scholar, offered “Thoughts on History, the Holocaust, and the Left,” extending some themes he has described elsewhere — that the Jews “have once again become the singular object of European indignation,” with some forms of fascistic Arab nationalism “coded as singularly progressive” in order to provide a form of anti-Semitism “that was ‘legitimate’ for the Left, and was called anti-Zionism.”
Was Jewish radicalism a break with Jewish tradition or a movement inspired by Jewish history? In a historical look at “Jews and Communism in the Soviet Union and Poland,” Brandeis Professor Antony Polonsky juxtaposed two remarks — one by the great Jewish historian Simon Dubnov, and the other from Vassili Grossman’s novel Forever Flowing. In a 1917 speech, Dubnov observed that:
[M]any demagogues came from among us, who joined the heroes of the street and the prophets of power grabbing. They use Russian pseudonyms because they are ashamed of their Jewish origin (Trotsky, Zinoview etc.), but maybe it is their Jewish name which is not genuine, because they have no roots to bind themselves to our people.
Grossman wrote about the “powerful flame of fanaticism” that captured one of his characters — a “sad, sly shopkeeper from the shetl” who had no reason to hate capitalism based on his own circumstances and who caught the flame, perhaps, from the “wisdom” of the Communist Manifesto, or the suffering of “the impoverished people right beside him” — or perhaps something else that extended further back:
Or was it that the smoldering coals were buried deep within his thousand-year inheritance, ready to burst into flame — to do battle with Caesar’s Roman soldiers, to confront the bonfires of the Spanish inquisition, to join in the starving frenzy of the Talmudists, to emerge in the shetl organization for self-defense during the pogroms? Was it the age-old chain of abuses, the anguish of the Babylonian captivity, the humiliations of the ghetto, or the misery of the Pale of Settlement that had produced and forged that unquenchable thirst that was scorching the soul of the Bolshevik Lev Mekler?
Prof. Polonsky ended his paper with a touching reference to the Polish-Jewish poet Stanislaw Wygodzki, who emigrated to Israel in 1968 and whose 1990 interview in a Polish paper was entitled “I Served an Evil Cause.” The poet said he nevertheless still believed in the ideals of “something that was once called Communism” — which he characterized as the rejection of “exploitation, oppression and subjugation.”
For one who heard the two days of presentations at YIVO, however, what was most striking was not the old ideals of the utopian left, or Michael Walzer’s eloquent call for a leftist engagement with Jewish tradition in the future, but the ugly picture of “actually existing” leftism now. Prof. Geras ended his paper with this:
We now know, as well, that should a new calamity ever befall the Jewish people, there will be, again, not only the direct architects and executants but also those who collaborate, who collude, who look away and find the words to go with doing so. Some of these, dismayingly, shamefully, will be of the left.
Rick Richman’s articles have appeared in American Thinker, COMMENTARY, The Jewish Press, the New York Sun, PJ Media, and elsewhere.