Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Don’t Know Much About History: Jewish Radicalism

In honor of David Kelsey’s post on the Social-Democratic/Liberal Divide, I’ve decided (tangentially) to offer a brief history of Jewish involvement in radical, revolutionary movements in the United States in the 20th Century. Initially I had written a post rooted in Elijah’s radicalism and viewing our tradition of political dissent through a biblical lenses, charting a course historically, highlighting Jewish involvement in the socialist revolutions in Russia, arguing that radical activism was often a double-edged sword. Then I realized that I was (A) no longer in college and (B) no one would read a dissertation-length blog post. So I’m leaving the political marginalization of the prophetic voice and international Jewish radicalism for another day.

The United States has witnessed four phases of Jewish radicalism:

(1) 1914-1936 saw the heyday of Jewish socialism, especially in labor unions (e.g., International Ladies Garment Workers Union)

(2)1936-1956 The Old Left, born in Popular Front against Hitler, reflected an image of Jewish romance with the Soviet Union. The Soviet alliance with Hitler hurt Jewish ties to socialism, but did not break them. Cracks in Jewish involvement began in earnest when Stalinist mistreatment was revealed and the Rosenbergs, icons of Old Left, were executed. The Old Left faded away (effectively died) with the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956.

(3) 1960-70 The New Left appears sharply, although it has roots in the Old Left. Its expression is the anti-war movement and the rebellions on college campuses, but it dies a quick and ignominious death with the extremism of the Weathermen (1970), who express their radicalism through blowing up buildings. For the next ten years, the Left hibernates.

(4) 1980-2000 Tikkun Magazine, first published in 1987, the Shalom Center in Philadelphia, and the Nuclear Freeze Movement in the 1980s all reflect a broader Jewish agenda in leftwing causes.

This involvement in radical leftwing politics never represented a majority view, but rather a small number of Jews who, nonetheless, were disproportionately represented in each of these movements: in the 1930s (the heyday of Jewish radicalism) 25% of the 80,000 members of the Communist Party were Jewish; Jewish districts on the Lower East Side gave 30% of their votes to socialist party; when Henry Wallace ran for President in 1948, he received 1 million votes, 35% of whom were Jewish (and in New York, 50% of his voters were Jewish). This disproportionate representation in radical movements makes Jewish radicalism highly visible and informs our Jewish historical memory.

So who are the new New Jewish Left? My hat’s off to David Kelsey, Orthodox Anarchist, and Sholom Der Apikoires.

For anyone looking for this information in detail, let me know and maybe this post will herald a new series of postings on Jewish political involvement. Aren’t you excited? Please, try to contain yourself. You’re embarrassing me.

(Thanks to Steven Bayme and Jonathan Sarna, from whom I learned my Jewish American History.)


harley said...

Or is that American Jewish History?

BabyTyrone said...

Thank you, I've been looking for a concise expression of this historical fact to bring to the attention of my ever-rightward-drifting family (who seem to believe that they are standing still political while I grow more and more wingnut radical as a result of my 'indoctrination' in the rarefied liberal air of graduate studies.)

As a grandchild of Wobblies and a great-grandchild of Jewish European anarchists I used to assume that a commitment to radical politics was an integral part of mainstream Jewish identity -- and that the basic conservatism of the yeshiva culture in which I was raised was an historical aberration. But my recent travels through other communities as well as current political events have caused me to think that either I have been deluding myself and I have always been the aberration, or that there has been a significant change in the political outlook of American Jews as a whole over the past several years. Is this something you have felt as well?

Another thing: I'm a big folk music fan, and its hard not to notice at the festivals that the core audience for the music, often politically radical, is almost half Jews. I found it intruiging to notice at one such festival this summer that, because the music itself is so heavily influenced and inflected by a series of Christian traditions (gospel, spiritual, Irish song, etc.), the Jewish folk singers and Jewish folk fans were very heavily invested in the image Jesus as a long-haired Jewish hippie with a radical political message.

Anonymous said...

It's interesting that for some of us who descend (in part) from socialists, we don't see our past as all that radical, because of the very reasonable demands that were at the core of protests and successful legislation. You know, suffrage, overtime, child labor laws, fire escapes. Even the Neocons soften their tone a bit when discussing these socialist accomplishments.

Of course, mistakes were made, and lip service paid to radicalism. But the socialists generally bravely stood up to the Commies. While this is not how your average person remembers the socialists, for those of us in touch with our roots, our long war with the far-Left is a source of tremendous pride.

Sholom said...

I look forward to reading your dissertation-length post. Would you be willing to e-mail me the draft?
Your "four phases" looks at the history of Jewish radicalism in the United States primarily from a socialist/communist perspective. I feel that, as a political philosophy, anarchism is not left-wing per se. Rather, that in its critique of current hierarchical systems of governance, anarchism transcends the traditional view of the right/left political binary; as expressed in Alex Jones's rant on A Waking Life.

Sholom said...

Oh yeah, ummmm, you missed this guy.

Ariel Beery said...

Unfortunately I beg to differ regarding your historical break-down.

Jewish labor involvement started way earlier than 1914--and the radical history of Jewish labor involvement has a much more twisted an complex history than the one you portray. Yes, there was the clash of the Socialists and the Communists, and the Old and New Left, but today's claimants of the term radicalism are much more rancid. Many of today's self-described radicals are no more than fellow travelers that have regressed the Left back to Soviet-era norms of censorship and self-righteousness.

My own youth movement, Hashomer Hatzair, might not have arrived on this soil until 1923, but once we arrived we joined up with the ranks of two generations of socialist activists, many of which rallied around the Forward, which was founded in 1897 and was based out of the Lower East Side. These were proud Jews, some of them proud Zionists, who understood the importance of solidarity, of social democracy, and of opposing the stifling reactionary tendencies of Soviet-style radicalism.