The (Jewish) left has lost any certainty that the future is on its side
The Israeli left has collapsed in the last decade. But the right, despite its successes, is dying, too, brought down by Russian-imported maximalism and American-imported political consultants.
By Liel Leibovitz, Tablet magazine
Anyone following Israeli politics is likely, at some point, to come across the following brief history of the past decade: After the collapse of the 2000 Camp David talks—a catastrophe generated, depending on one’s worldview, either by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s inflexibility or by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s incompetence—the majority of Israelis drifted rightward, and the left, once a robust voting bloc, melted into thin air.
The demise of the Israeli left is a fact. Together, Meretz and Labor—formerly the twin pillars of the Zionist left—currently hold 11 Knesset seats, four fewer than Avigdor Lieberman’s ultra-right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party. But these numbers don’t tell the whole story. Ignored by most political commentators is the strange and unexpected death of the Israeli right. And like all good thrillers, this one, too, is a murder mystery.
At first glance, pronouncing the Israeli right dead sounds like a bit of sophistry. The current governing coalition, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is widely regarded as the most stringently conservative in Israel’s history. Since being voted into office in 2009, it has, among other achievements: de facto outlawed the public commemoration of the Nakba, the Palestinian narrative of the events that led to Israel’s establishment in 1948 and to the expulsion of nearly three quarters of a million Arabs from their homes; passed a bill requiring new immigrants to swear a loyalty oath to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, a stroke of legislation that mainly targets Palestinians from the West Bank who wish to marry Israeli Arabs and become Israeli citizens; enacted the anti-boycott bill; and threatened to establish official committees of inquiry targeting human-rights and civil-rights nonprofits. But this busy résumé hides the fact that the political and ideological leviathan that shaped so much of the country’s character for its first five decades has been supplanted by a new and foreign political culture that would have been utterly unrecognizable to Israelis even a decade ago.
One major influence on that culture arrived in Israel from Russia after 1989, along with the million or so immigrants who made aliyah after the collapse of the Soviet Union. While it is never wise to speak of a culture as if it were inalterable and hereditary, it is not much of a stretch to suggest that, to the extent that Russian political culture can be discussed, it is a ghastly oppressive enterprise. This is, after all, a nation that has spent much of the past millennium stumbling from one oppressive autocracy to the next. The majority of Russia’s population lived, until as recently as 1861, as serfs. As Richard Pipes, professor emeritus of history at Harvard and a former Soviet expert, suggested in a recent essay in Foreign Affairs, given the Russians’ iron-fisted history, they have traditionally expected their leaders to begroznyi, a word that, applied to Czar Ivan IV, was improperly translated as “terrible” but really means “awesome.” This, Pipes wrote, explains why a 2003 survey found that 22 percent of Russians supported democracy, while as many as 53 percent actively disliked it. Pipes called this phenomenon, still very much in force today, a flight from freedom, and he explained it had much to do with Russia’s perception of itself as a country under permanent siege. The prominent newspaper Izvestiya, he noted, captured this spirit perfectly when it described Russians as “living in trenches,” surrounded by enemies.
It takes a very small leap of imagination to see how perfectly this mentality translates into Hebrew: In Israel, aspiring politicians born in the former Soviet Union found that talk of trenches and enemies made for stellar political currency.
The most renowned example of this new autocratic style is, of course, Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s current foreign minister. The Moldovan-born politician started his career as Netanyahu’s assistant; within less than two decades, he surfaced as his former boss’s most valuable political partner and, some say, puppet master. Lieberman’s path to power was simple: Whereas most other right-wing politicians spoke sotto voce about ideological opponents, he favored incendiary statements. The Israeli left, he told a radio interviewer in 2007, was responsible for all the nation’s woes. Appearing on television that same year, he compared a prominent civil rights group to concentration camp capos. He snubbed or humiliated foreign dignitaries who would not play by his protocol, refusing, for example, to meet with the former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva when da Silva chose to skip the customary visit to Theodor Herzl’s grave. While most Israeli pundits saw such acts as petty and harmful to Israel’s standing in the world, most Israeli voters think Lieberman isgroznyi: In mock elections held in Israeli high schools in 2009, a majority of students said they would vote for Lieberman.
But Lieberman is far from alone. Nearly every one of the current government’s repressive bills was sponsored by politicians who immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union. The Nakba law, for example, was sponsored by the Moscow-born Alex Miller of Yisrael Beiteinu. The anti-boycott bill was the brainchild of Ze’ev Elkin of Likud, who emigrated from Ukraine. The bill to form official committees of investigation targeting the left, defeated last week in the Knesset, was formed by Faina Kirschenbaum, also from Ukraine. The list goes on.
Even some staunch Likudniks have been appalled by the Russification of the Israeli right. Most vocal among them was Reuven Rivlin, the speaker of the Knesset and one of the party’s most prominent figures. A day after the anti-boycott bill passed, the chairman took the unlikely step of criticizing the parliament he himself headed. His ire was reserved for his colleagues on the right; they, he argued, are a disgrace to the legacy of Vladimir (Ze’ev)Jabotinsky, the founder of revisionist Zionism and the ideological founding father of Israeli conservatism.
“I stand ashamed and mortified before my mentor, Jabotinsky, for not having succeeded in protecting the individual, whom he likened to a monarch, against the parliamentary fists of the majority,” Rivlin wrote. “It might have been hoped that in an era in which Jabotinsky’s followers are scattered across the whole political spectrum, from the coalition to the opposition, things would be different. But in the absence of an ideological backbone, it appears that even the deep commitment to democracy and individual freedoms of those who call themselves his successors is conditional. It is the State of Israel that is compelled to pay the price of political interests that supersede national interests.”
Other Likud stalwarts were equally horrified. Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, for example—the son of Eliyahu Meridor, a former Likud Member of Knesset and close confidant of former Prime Minister Menachem Begin—gave repeated interviews in which he called several of the legislative initiatives brought forth by Lieberman and his associates “very dangerous.” Lieberman wasted no time: Meridor, he told the Israeli media, was a “fineschmecker,” a derogatory Yiddish term for an elitist dandy.
And, as American legislators are learning, once politics becomes a zero-sum game, it is very hard for moderate and mindful legislators to thrive. Ze’ev Elkin, the author of the anti-boycott bill, is a great example. When former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon abandoned the Likud to form Kadima, he was searching for a token settler to add to his new parliamentary faction as a nod to his former supporters in the settler movement who had largely abandoned him in light of his commitment to withdraw from Gaza; he found Elkin. In Elkin’s native Ukraine, the young politician had been known as a capable and committed Zionist activist. After emigrating to Israel in 1990, he excelled in his academic studies, earning degrees in both mathematics and history. When interviewed by Sharon’s associates, he expressed views that were right-of-center, but he stood out as a pragmatic, fair-minded, and soft-spoken individual, a perfect choice for Kadima’s trans-ideological aspirations. Elected to the Knesset in 2006 as a member of Kadima, Elkin soon realized that the winds were blowing away from Sharon’s centrist platform. In 2008, he quit Kadima and joined the Likud. Within a few years, he learned that the only way to survive in a perpetually rightward-moving political universe was to move even further to the right. This, claim some who have long known Elkin, is what’s really behind the anti-boycott bill he sponsored. Aviad Friedman, the Sharon aide who recruited Elkin to politics, told the Israeli daily Maariv last week that “the anti-boycott bill may be good for Elkin when he faces off his rivals in the Likud, but it is very bad for Israel, and I think that deep inside, Ze’ev Elkin knows this well.”
The ideas of the Russified Israeli right find a clear reflection in current Russian political culture, down to the details of the bills that Russian-born Israeli politicians sponsor in the Knesset. In his 2004 State of the Union address for example, Vladimir Putin, then Russia’s president, announced his intention to investigate non-profit human rights organizations “obtaining funding from influential foreign or domestic foundations.” Accepting international funding is standard operating procedure for many nongovernmental organizations the world over, but Putin’s speech insinuated that those who criticized the government and profited from foreign funds were disloyal to Russia and somehow dangerous. Within a few years, Putin and his henchmen have succeeded in creating an environment in which it is nearly impossible for NGOs to operate successfully, thereby severely crippling the possibility of a robust political opposition. Faina Kirschenbaum’s proposal to investigate left-wing NGOs, and her allegations that the foreign funds some of those NGOs receive—lawfully and transparently—are a sign of nefariousness, are a page out of the Putin playbook.
The blame for the death of the Israeli right, however, lies not only with Russia but with the United States as well. Orchestrated mainly by Netanyahu, a parade of American political consultants began marching into Israel’s electoral battlefields in the 1990s, changing what was previously a cantankerous but civic-minded political culture into a toxic terrain of secrets and lies familiar to anyone who has grown up on American campaign ads. Take a look, for example, at this extended ad for Labor from 1988. Even in the midst of mad inflation and shortly after the breakout of the first Palestinian intifada, the party’s leaders, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, used their on-screen time to calmly address potential voters, offering up the key points of their political plans, sitting at a desk.
By 1996, political ads looked a lot scarier—the ominous voice-overs, the allegations that political opponents are not just wrong but dangerous: They’re staples of a particular style of campaigning introduced to Israel by the American Arthur Finkelstein, the spin-master Netanyahu had hired. Finkelstein had made his political fortune in the United States by applying simplistic tags to the mostly liberal candidates he’d helped unseat. New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, in his catchy formulation, was “too liberal for too long,” and the 1992 Democratic candidate for Senate in New York, Robert Abrams, was “hopelessly liberal.” Both men lost despite overwhelming odds in their favor—Cuomo to George Pataki, Abrams to Alfonse D’Amato. Liberals lost, too: Finkelstein had helped turn the very term “liberal” into a bad word.
In 1996, Finkelstein was recruited by Netanyahu to run a rather hopeless campaign. Rabin, the popular leader of Labor, was assassinated a year prior to the election by a right-wing fanatic whose act was preceded by months of vehement demonstrations featuring signs portraying the elderly prime minister wearing a Nazi officer’s uniform. Netanyahu, the leader of the opposition, was severely criticized after Rabin’s death for fanning the flames of hatred and failing to denounce the violent language and imagery favored by his supporters. To make matters worse, Netanyahu’s opponent was Shimon Peres, Rabin’s closest political ally and co-recipient with him of the Nobel Peace Prize. Early polls predicted an easy victory for Peres. This was when Netanyahu called in Finkelstein.
The American adviser applied the same tactics that worked so well stateside, but he turned up the heat considerably. He orchestrated ads showing the aftermath of suicide bombings. He devised numerous spots showing Peres with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, accusing Peres of blindly succumbing to Arafat’s schemes. Most memorable was his leading slogan: “Peres will divide Jerusalem.” It was false; as prime minister, Netanyahu signed on to the very same peace accords that Peres and Rabin were committed to, and none of them advocated the de-unification of Israel’s capital. The slogan was scary, and it worked wonders: Netanyahu won by slightly less than 1 percent.
Finkelstein’s engagement was the first time an American consultant was so deeply involved in an Israeli campaign, but it wasn’t the last—nowadays, many Israeli politicians, left and right, hire Washington’s brightest minds to orchestrate their quests for power. In less than a decade, Israeli political culture, once staid in a C-SPAN sort of way, has become a horror film, with ads and jingles featuring fear, loathing, and blood.
It is, of course, naïve to expect any political culture to remain unchanged and free of outside influence. But when a transformation as massive as the one that has swept the Israeli right in the last five or 10 years occurs, it is time to stop and recalibrate. Old-time Israeli right-wingers like Dan Meridor and Reuven Rivlin are far more likely to see eye-to-eye these days with Meretz’s Nitzan Horowitz, say, than they are with Elkin and other members of Likud.
A few weeks ago, when the anti-boycott bill passed into law, I walked to my bookshelf and pulled out a volume. It was my wedding present from my father, a book bound in thick, rich leather, on its cover a copper emblem featuring the map of Israel crossed by an outstretched hand grasping a rifle and the words rak kach, meaning “only this way.” It was the emblem of the Irgun, the paramilitary organization that fought to expel the mandatory British regime from pre-state Palestine. The book’s author was the Irgun’s last commander in chief, Menachem Begin. It was inscribed to my great-grandfather, Chaim Leibovitz.
“Let justice be the cornerstone of Israel,” Begin wrote in Hebrew, “established with labor, with tears, with suffering, with battle, with blood.”
If only the same spirit still guided the Israeli right.
Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine.
Cover of Der Hammer, American Yiddish Socialist magazine, 1932
Jews, the Left and the Rest
How Political History Shapes Today’s Jewish Narratives
By Eitan Kensky, Jewish Forward
15.05.12/issue of May 25, 2012.
On September 10, 1964, sociologist and former journalist Daniel Bell opened a conference at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research on “Jewish Participation in Social Progress Movements,” with a lecture on “Ideology and Social Movements.” Four years earlier, Bell argued in his landmark book, “The End of Ideology” (Free Press), that politics in the 1950s were no longer driven by internal class divisions but were instead shaped by American foreign policy toward Russia. At YIVO he explained that ideology enters social movements when they emerge “in a combat posture” to oppose a corrupt ruling power. Four years later, college campuses in New York and across the country exploded with anti-Vietnam protests and student takeovers; civil rights gave way, in part, to Black Power and America experienced the rise of the New Left. Ideology had taken only a short break.
On May 6 and 7, YIVO held a new conference on “Jews and the Left.” The sold-out event, co-presented by the American Jewish Historical Society, brought together an international group of scholars to discuss the history and repercussions of Jewish involvement in leftist political movements. There were many excellent presentations on anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, anti-Semitism and leftist theory and Jews and communism in the 20th century, among other topics.
Surprisingly, the audience’s reactions were as significant as the proceedings themselves. The visceral, and frequently contentious, responses to the papers from multinational and multigenerational listeners demonstrated the challenges of incorporating the left into larger narratives of Jewish history and in resolving Jewish political divisions over Israel.
Although the event was not a sequel to 1964, the earlier conference was never out of mind. YIVO Executive Director Jonathan Brent opened the proceedings with an audio clip of Max Weinreich greeting the attendees in Yiddish, and Hebrew University of Jerusalem history professor Ezra Mendelsohn pointedly mentioned during his concluding remarks that he had been among the youngest speakers in 1964.
Spiritually, however, the two conferences were far apart. At the earlier gathering, it was clear what Jewish workers’ movements, as well as Jewish socialist and anarchist groups, had fought for. The conference took place in the Carnegie Recital Hall (now Weill Recital Hall) and at the YIVO Auditorium at 1048 Fifth Avenue, the former dining room of socialite Grace Wilson Vanderbilt. These buildings were monuments to an ideology that held, as Andrew Carnegie memorably phrased it in “The Gospel of Wealth,” that the man of wealth was “the mere agent and trustee for his poorer brethren… doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves.” Jewish workers were not cared for by “men of wealth,” however, and instead fought for higher wages through trade unions and later built cooperative housing projects to give their members affordable housing. These, too, mark the city.
But in 2012, less than four years after a global financial meltdown, in the crowded main auditorium of the Center for Jewish History, on West 16th street in Manhattan, the goals and accomplishments of the post-’64 Left, including the New Left, were uncertain. Questioners challenged the speakers’ views from both the left and the right, with the audience cheering their rebuttals. The widely divergent attitudes were inseparable from personal and family histories, and audience members repeatedly drew on their autobiographies to explain their political positions. Comments were prefaced with statements like, “My wife is a red diaper baby,” and, “I was in Paris during the ’68 riots.” Questioners repeatedly asked if the left had betrayed Israel. The phrasing made clear that they already had answers in mind.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the conference was the extent to which the participants who self-identify with the left agreed with the view that it had indeed betrayed the Jewish state. Mitchell Cohen, professor of political science at Baruch College, established a distinction between anti-Zionism as legitimate protest of state actions and anti-Zionism as sublimated anti-Semitism, indicating that much of the current discourse falls into the latter category. Moishe Postone, professor of history at the University of Chicago, gave a Marxist critique of anti-Zionism, which, he explained, has become a “fetishized form of anti-capitalism,” meaning that people attribute to Israel and Jews all the negative effects of capitalism. This, he made clear, is racism pure and simple, and a fundamental flaw in leftist theory and practice. (And this was not offered as a criticism of the Democratic Party. Whatever “the left” meant at this conference — and it frequently stayed an abstraction — it did not refer to mainstream American liberalism.)
Mendelsohn’s closing remarks typified this contested legacy of the left. His speech was ruminative and elegiac, marking the closing of an era rather than the closing of a conference. He pointed to real historical achievements, yet also to the left’s troubling history of supporting corrupt communist movements in the name of national liberation. He described the Jewish left as “a good chapter in our history, but one which is gone.”
But questioners also drew on their own involvement with contemporary activism to challenge Mendelsohn. One spoke of her recent experiences as a community organizer as evidence of a living Jewish left; another called on her experiences at Occupy Sukkot and Occupy Simchat Torah. Earlier in the conference, questioners pointedly asked Tel Aviv University political science professor Yoav Peled about the Israeli J14 tent protests when he dismissed the relevance of leftism in Israel. Neither Mendelsohn nor Peled accepted the idea that these were real leftist movements. Perhaps that’s because the nature of the left is changing — moving away from the ideological positions of both the New and Old Left, toward community organizing and work for basic economic and social justice.
Jack Jacobs, professor of political science at John Jay College and chair of the conference steering committee, concluded his introductory remarks by raising as an open question what effect the historic involvement with leftist causes will continue to have on the contemporary American Jewish community. Here, in the audience’s reactions, was his answer: emotionally charged memories and experiences that make it difficult to see the left as an academic subject but that simultaneously leave open the possibility of revival.
So those looking for a resurgent Jewish left had reason to be hopeful. A line running through the conference, from the papers of Cohen and Postone to Michael Walzer’s keynote lecture and Mendelsohn’s closing reminiscences, was the argument that future Jewish involvement in leftist politics would hinge on building another New Left, one more open to religion and spirituality, more defined by advocacy for social justice than by opposition to Zionism. What exactly this new leftism might look like is still an open question, but representatives of a possible vision were in the audience, trying to make themselves heard.
Eitan Kensky is a doctoral candidate in Jewish studies at Harvard University.
American left has turned from Israel
By Cathy Young, Newsday
A conference at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in lower Manhattan last weekend addressed a topic that, for all its historical ramifications, is acutely relevant today: Jews and the left.
The Jewish community in the United States and in Europe has traditionally identified with left-of-center politics — an allegiance increasingly strained by the left’s animus against Israel. Can this marriage be saved, and should it be? Is a new anti-Semitism on the rise?
Are attacks on “the Israel lobby” a code for bigotry, or a legitimate concern about the influence of groups such as AIPAC? What does this mean for the upcoming national election?
The often-contentious, sold-out event showed there are no simple answers, and many painful questions.
As CUNY professor emeritus Ronald Radosh pointed out in a panel Sunday morning, the left was not always anti-Israel. In the late 1940s, both before and after the founding of the Jewish state in 1948, most of the left — including Communists — strongly embraced it. I.F. Stone, the iconoclastic left-wing journalist and author of the 1948 book, “This Is Israel,” was a passionate Zionist. Freda Kirchwey, editor of The Nation magazine from 1933 to 1955, wrote in 1947 that the Jewish community was “the only democratic community in the feudal Middle East” and could help spread democracy through the region.
Radosh opined that “Kirchwey would be saddened, if she was alive today, by the vitriolic opposition to Israel from the pages of The Nation” — including claims that Israel is an apartheid state. Today, he said, attacks on Israel have become “the anti-Semitism of fools,” allowing people to spew anti-Jewish venom without being openly anti-Semitic.
This theme was echoed by other speakers: British commentator Norm Geras, professor emeritus at the University of Manchester, said that “Israel is being made an alibi for a new climate of anti-Semitism on the left.”
Yet where does one draw the line between covert Jew-bashing and legitimate criticisms of Israeli policies — such as the occupation of the West Bank, to which most conference speakers noted their opposition?
Baruch College political science professor Mitchell Cohen stressed the gray areas: “To say that it’s not a good idea to put ultra-religious settlers in occupied territories is not anti-Semitic. To hold Israel alone to certain standards of conduct in warfare and deny it a right to self-defense is crossing over into infected territory.”
The question of double standards came up repeatedly. Geras observed that Holocaust denial coming from Muslims or Arabs has sometimes been excused “as an expression of impatience with Western pro-Israel bias,” while Jews who support Israel are seen as a sinister lobby when they act collectively.
University of Chicago historian Moishe Postone offered fascinating insights into the left’s anti-Israel turn, noting that Palestinian self-determination “has come to be defined as the central anti-colonialist struggle.” He suggested that the failure of communism has driven many disoriented leftists to seek new causes and embrace anti-Western ultranationalist movements, mistakenly treating them as left-wing.
The civil rights of Palestinians are, of course, a real issue. But they cannot be addressed by delegitimizing and demonizing Israel.
Whither Jews and the left, then? Most conference speakers still strongly identified with left-wing politics. Keynote speaker Michael Walzer, co-editor of Dissent magazine, asserted that such leftist ideals as an expansive welfare state and social justice for downtrodden groups have strong roots in the Jewish experience.
One may question whether these ideals in their traditional form are viable today: Welfare statism may be economically unsustainable; support for oppressed groups can morph into divisive identity politics. But those are topics for healthy debate in a modern society.
Rooting out creeping anti-Jewish bigotry on the left would be an important step toward elevating intellectual discourse. The YIVO conference was a welcome move in that direction.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and the website RealClearPolitics.
Political theorist Michael Walzer and others argue about the death of the century-long Jewish-Leftist alliance
By Adam Kirsch, Tablet magazine
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.
Jews for Sarah Palin hope to recruit Michael Walzer
Princeton professor Michael Walzer has been trending conservative for some time. But we guess it’s time to officially welcome him on board. Only problem is, today’s Jewish Left are definitely on steroids with Obama in the WH. And in America, much of the Jewish Left is religiously motivated. Still, Walzer is always enlightening.
(Introduction to the above debate on the Jews for Sarah website)