Fathom: Why did you write Jews and the Left: The Rise and Fall of a Political Alliance?
Philip Mendes: Growing up as a working-class child in the overwhelmingly middle-class Jewish community of Melbourne I saw little evidence of political radicalism. By the age of 15, I was a committed socialist, but would have found it hard to identify more than one other person in my year at the private Jewish school of Mount Scopus College that shared these views. I had no knowledge of any tradition of Jewish leftism until I entered Melbourne University in 1982, and read outstanding books by authors such as Arthur Liebman, Percy Cohen and Robert Wistrich. So began my life-long obsession of documenting, analysing and critiquing the history and politics of the Jewish relationship with the Left.
F: What are the key findings of your book?
PM: From approximately 1830-1970, an informal political alliance existed between Jews and the political Left. This was never an alliance of all Jews and all Left groups; but it was an alliance between key sections of the Left and key sections of politically active Jews at various times and in various places. Both partners to this alliance were motivated by a combination of pragmatic self-interest and idealism or altruism. This engagement of Jews with the political Left arguably reached its peak from approximately 1890-1950 covering almost the whole of Europe including massive engagement with the Spanish Civil War, the English-speaking world, Latin America, and even key countries in the Arab Middle East and North Africa.
One significant explanation for this Jewish-Left association is that Jews were victims of both class and ethnic oppression. Indeed, many Jews were poor, and a large number of Jews – whether middle or working class – were victims of persecution. But equally, some would question, ‘Why the Jews? And why not instead the Armenians who were massacred by the Turks? Or the black Americans who had been forced into slavery, or the millions of other exploited workers and peasants around the world?’
Another contributing factor is the implied association between Jewish religious and cultural values such as Tzedakah, Tikkun Olam and socialist philosophy. Many Jewish socialists were influenced by traditional Jewish values and teachings, regularly using Biblical and Talmudic symbols and analogies to analyse contemporary events. Yet the Biblical tradition is ideologically ambiguous, and few religious Jews joined the political Left. Other contributing factors were the concentration of Jews in urban communities, given that socialism was primarily an urban rather than a rural or peasant phenomenon, along with the strong emphasis on education and intellectual training within the Jewish religious tradition that may have made Jews more receptive to ideas of social and political reform.
Probably the key factor is that Jews were a wandering people, the asylum seekers of the time: as wanderers, they had a much less parochial view of the world than other nations who were limited by national boundaries, cultures and traditions. Most people at that time did not even venture outside their own region, let alone country, and were bound by narrow tribal or national loyalties. Jews were more likely to develop a universal vision because Jews were an international people per se. As they moved around, from Russia to Cuba, from South Africa to Palestine, they recreated the same diverse left-wing groupings that had existed in their former country – Bundist, Communist, Labour Zionist, socialist or social democratic, and even Anarchist and Trotskyist.
Additionally, Jews provided the genuinely internationalist faction within the workers movement. Jewish workers of the world did unite, and actively collaborated with their family members, friends and comrades in many other parts of the world who shared a common political culture, mostly speaking the same Yiddish language. Their multilingual skills and transnational connections enhanced the global production and distribution of socialist propaganda and theory, and so were often effectively utilised to advance the purposes of the revolution.
F: But how ‘Jewish’ were these leftists?
PM: So often historians refer to the unsympathetic comments of one or two famous Jewish revolutionaries such as Trotsky or Rosa Luxemburg, and suggest that all Jewish radicals were self-hating, or at least non-Jewish, Jews. But in fact, the large mass of Jews who became Bundists or left Zionists or joined universal left parties or movements actively integrated their left and Jewish identities. Prominent left-wing figures such as Leon Blum in France and Eduard Bernstein in Germany maintained their connections with the Jewish collective, and thousands of Jews voted for social democratic parties in Great Britain, Australia and much of Western Europe, or alternatively supported liberal parties as in the USA. Equally, identities were fluid, some moving from particularist Jewish to universal identities, others shifting back from internationalist to more Jewish-identifying activism.
F: Why did this alliance decline?
PM: The most obvious factor is the key chronological events of the Holocaust, the formation of the State of Israel, and the onslaught of Soviet anti-Semitism. The Holocaust decimated the breeding grounds of Jewish radicalism in Eastern and Central Europe, and destroyed the faith of many left-wing Jews in universal ideas given the failure of the great workers movements of Europe to combat Nazi anti-Semitism.
In contrast, the creation of Israel provided Jews with a positive alternative source of protection in the form of a strong Jewish state where any persecuted Jews could potentially find refuge. Additionally, Israel reframed the domestic political agenda of many Jews from the protection of minority rights where they were living to the defence of the Jewish homeland via the establishment of pro-Israel advocacy or lobby groups. The revelations of Soviet anti-Semitism in the early-mid 1950s ended the dalliance of many Jews with Communism, including the attraction to the proposed Jewish national homeland in Biro-Bidzhan which had earlier been widely viewed as a possible alternative to Palestine.
All these factors, plus the major post-1945 decline in Western anti-Semitism, the overwhelming middle classing of Jews in the West, the post-1967 emergence of left-wing anti-Zionism sometimes converging with anti-Semitism, the decline of the political Left in Israel and the end of the ‘wandering Jew’ phenomenon combined to reshape both internal Jewish politics and outsider perceptions of Jewish politics.
F: Why were Jews so heavily involved in the New Left of the 1960s?
PM: Jews were disproportionately involved in the 1960s student movement known as the New Left, particularly in the USA, Australia, Britain and France. Some of the key factors contributing to this prominence included the significant number of Jewish students at key universities that were at the forefront of student activism, the impact of left-wing family backgrounds on many Jewish students, the general influence of Jewish cultural values and experiences based on a synthesis of universalistic social justice beliefs with secular Jewish values and morality, and the impact of the Holocaust which generated a passionate abhorrence for racism and injustice. The Jewish student radicals incorporated the whole spectrum of Jewish identity: from those who either rejected or expressed ambivalence about their Jewishness, to those whose radical and Jewish commitments were closely aligned.
However, the Jewish contribution to the New Left had remarkably little long term influence on mainstream Jewish political culture because there was arguably no specific Jewish political context to their involvement in this universalistic movement. Rather, it was driven solely by universalistic concerns relating to black civil rights or opposition to the Vietnam War.
F: Why did the Left turn against Israel after the 1967 Six Day War?
PM: This sea change reflected five principal factors: a) the Jewish military victory destroyed the post-Holocaust taboo concerning public criticism of Jews; b) the generational change in the Left, from those who viewed Nazism and the Holocaust as defining political events to younger activists who were most influenced by the evils of America’s intervention in Vietnam; c) the emergence of an independent Palestinian national movement in the form of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) which cloaked its nationalism in progressive rhetoric; d) the intensive anti-Zionist campaign conducted by the Soviet Union and associated Communist parties around the world; and e) the fact that Israel’s ongoing occupation of Arab territories and suppression of Palestinian national aspirations provoked legitimate criticism from all groups on the Left.
This criticism was not identical to criticism of Israel per se, and was increasingly shared by many Jews and Israelis. There remains a massive difference between the majority of Left groups which favour a two-state solution and reject the West Bank settlement project, and the minority of anti-Zionist fundamentalists who negate Israel’s very existence. The latter is substantively different from the earlier pre-1948 Left tradition of anti-Zionism which opposed Zionism as a political movement on theoretical grounds.
F: Was this alliance good or bad for the Jews?
PM: On balance, it was a positive. To be sure, the Left never completely rejected popular anti-Semitic stereotypes, nor was it unconditionally supportive of Jews. The Left also remained reluctant to recognise Jewish national aspirations, failed to fully understand the national and religious prejudices (as opposed to social or economic factors) that fuelled anti-Semitism, and mostly assumed erroneously that both anti-Semitism and the Jews as a distinct group would disappear with the triumph of socialism.
But the alliance of some Jews with the political Left included significant achievements. Movements of the political Left were generally more likely to support Jewish aspirations for equality than movements of the political Right. With some exceptions, Left groups did not incite or participate in violence against Jews, did not call for Jews to be excluded from particular trades or professions or broader national life and culture, and did not argue that Jews should be collectively expelled or sent to Palestine. In contrast to the Right, they openly included a significant number of Jews both in their leadership and amongst their rank and file members. Particularly after 1945, all Left groups supported the right of Jews to establish a national homeland in Palestine. But there were sharp disappointments along the way, particularly for those Jews wedded to international Communism. These included the Communist support for the 1929 anti-Jewish riots in Palestine, the 1936-38 Stalinist show trials – which targeted many Soviet Jews – the 1939 Soviet-Nazi Pact, and Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaign of 1948-53 which adversely affected Jews throughout the Eastern Bloc. Sadly, many Jewish-identifying Communists were among the leading apologists for a number of these actions by the Soviet Union, which proved itself to be an enemy rather than a friend of the Jews. Those left-wing Jews not already disillusioned were later confronted by the Soviet Union’s support for the Arab states during the 1967 Six Day War, and the 1968 anti-Jewish campaign in Communist Poland. Many younger Jews drawn to left-wing ideas by the Vietnam War were alienated by the pro-Palestinian position adopted by much of the New Left. For some progressive Jews, including myself, the final betrayal came as recently as 2000-2003 when sections of the Left celebrated the suicide bombings of the Second Palestinian Intifada.
F: Is there likely to be a revival of the Jewish-Left connection?
PM: No. The Left today no longer supports objective Jewish interests. Left groups today do not view Jews as a vulnerable or oppressed group, and do not prioritise the struggle against anti-Semitism. Crucially, the structural factors which drew many Jews historically to the Left no longer exist. Few Jews experience political oppression by right-wing regimes, and most Jews sit comfortably in middle or even higher income categories. Jews form an influential and sometimes powerful group with substantial access to politics, academia and the media. They do not rely on the Left to defend their interests and well-being.
Nevertheless, it would be wrong to say that all or even most Jews have shifted to the right. Few Jews hold socially conservative positions on issues such as abortion and feminism, and there is a growing universalisation of Jewish teachings and values, including the lessons of the Holocaust, in support of social liberal perspectives. Contemporary Jewish political choices seem to be fluid, and reflect values as well as narrower economic interests.