What’s Left of the Jewish Left?
Adam Kirsch reports in Tablet on the recent YIVO conference “Jews and the Left,” held at the Center for Jewish History in New York. Among the presenters was England’s Norm Geras, of Normblog, who spoke on “Alibi Anti-Semitism,” an essential consideration of how much political rhetoric critical of Israel, particularly the anti-Zionist variety, is a covert form of anti-Semitism. The keynote speaker was Dissent’s Michael Walzer, long a voice of great distinction on “the left,” who addressed “The Strangeness of Jewish Leftism.” Cathy Young of Newsday, in her conference roundup summed up Walzer’s message as one asserting that “leftist ideals …have strong roots in the Jewish experience.” Kirsch’s take, considerably lengthier, and closer to the title of Walzer’s presentation, is in the title of his article, “The End of the Jewish Left.” As Kirsch reports it, Walzer’s argument seems profoundly misguided, while Kirsch’s presentation, like so many others on this topic, is supremely confused.
Kirsch offers of Walzer,
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.
An argument like this presents a peculiarly limiting and distorted notion of what constitutes the traditions and history of a culture. The argument very quickly received a deeply insightful response from a commenter at Tablet, a response so good, in fact, that Tablet took formal notice of it. Wrote commenter YoDoe, rejecting the limited identification of Jewishness with the Bible and the biblical era,
[E]ven identifying Rabbinic thought as the true core of Jewish experience misses the gap between the world of scholars and the world of life experienced by ordinary Jews of Eastern Europe.
Jewish leftism is a popular response to goyish oppression in Russia, Poland and elsewhere. It is also a response to Rabbinic oppression expressed through strictures that were partially embraced… but also rejected, ignored, and worn smooth by practice.
Jewish leftism is based in the memory of the lived cultural experience of Jews in poverty and deprived civil rights for hundreds of years. That’s what forms the soul of Jewish leftism.
So even Rabbinic thought, which, unlike “the bible”, is the authentic philosophical expression of Judaism, is not necessarily the authentic expression of the cultural knowledge of the Jews as a people across historical time in recent centuries.
Jews know what it is like to be an excluded minority, or did until recently. It was essential to the Jewish experience. It kept us, some of us, alive to the pain of others.
History, culture, and tradition do not become frozen in time. It is actually an archly conservative belief and contention that they do. We see it in orthodox or fundamentalist expressions of all religious faiths, even in forms of dress and practice. (“Walzer called instead for a renewed critical engagement with Jewish tradition, including a return to the Jewish calendar and Jewish lifecycle events.”) Of course, religious notions of origins, divine words, and eschatology provide the natural foundation for such unchanging response to the world. Politically reactionary, frequently xenophobic nationalism expresses these same impulses. Founder deification, as we now see it in American conservatism, and originalist notions of political relations and Constitutional interpretation, like literal readings of scripture, offer the same hallowed ground of the past beyond which one need not think and respond to time and change in order to live comfortingly in one’s own mind if not the world. In this regard (and it is a multifaceted subject) what we see is not “the left” departing from alliance with Jews – a significant and disturbing phenomenon – but one manifestation of the Jewish experience losing, sadly, its vital connection to the experience of which YoDoe so eloquently wrote.
What a strangely unexpected and fruitless turn for such a valued thinker to take.
Surrounding this report is Kirsch’s confused commentary on what I have here placed in quotation marks: “the left.” Any meaningful consideration of political tendencies simply must address the blunt instrument that is our political labeling and observe at all important points of distinction that very practice of distinguishing. What is “the left” of which Kirsch writes? The communist left? The anti-totalitarian left, of which Walzer (and Geras) has been such a notable representative? The postcolonial Marx-inspired, but not necessarily avowedly communist left? The readers of The Nation, Noam Chomsky, and Slavoj Zizeck? Jerry Brown? Corey Booker? Any Democratic candidate for President? “Liberals”? Paul Begala? Max Blumenthal?
Who and what are we talking about here? Among these many names and tendencies there are worlds of difference. Only the rabid right cannot see them.
Kirsch makes honest attempts to observe a basic distinction, at one point describing Walzer as a voice of “mainstream left-liberalism,” at another point writing of “liberals and leftists” and even observing,
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.
This is, indeed, boldly put, a crucial distinction. But if Jews are on the “liberal” side of the line, what is the crisis on the left? Writes Kirsch,
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.
And what was this “fiery and uncompromising leftism”?
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.
It is worth noting that this tendency of which Kirsch write crosses all religious boundaries on the left. But we see here conceptually what Kirsch a great many times in his article does verbally, in referring without distinction more generally to the “the left.” If Jews are increasingly on the liberal side of the line that would separate them from revolutionaries, and the history of revolutionary support is what Kirsch describes above, then what is to lament? Is that totalitarian rationalizing left the “Jewish left” that is ending? Well good, if that’s true – and I am doubtful it is – but then this crisis is not a crisis.
By the end Kirsch is wondering,
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”?
Well, if it is the left that perpetually offers theorized excuses for totalitarianism, and now anti-Zionism, it means not much of a future. Good. But why would anyone else have wished for such a future, and what is there to lament?
A problem for Jews (and others) regarding what I will here call the anti-totalitarian left, is a failure to find designation in Kirsch because of the sloppy nomenclature. Peter Beinart for example. I don’t mean Peter Beinart personally, but what he currently represents. Peter Beinart is a liberal, not necessarily a reliable thinker, but a liberal nonetheless. Yet the skewed anti-Zionist perspective of the farther left – the postcolonial theorizing left- has infected his vision of Israel-Palestine, its history and daily calculus. This infection is the problem for Israel and the left: an observant, Zionist Peter Beinart, and many like him, sharing perspectives with a scurrilous Max Blumenthal and countless anti-Zionists, trafficking in similar ideas, and failing to feel discomfort and understand the reasons why he should.