The Erasure of the American-Jewish Left

Most young American-Jews never learn that in 1909, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union led the first mass strike of women in American history — 20,000 workers took to the streets, organized by and significantly comprised of Jewish socialists. Most young American-Jews are never taught about the “Great Revolt” of 1910, where the Jewish-led Cloakmakers union organized a strike of 60,000 workers, winning substantial improvements in labor conditions. And most American-Jews have no knowledge of the Jewish Labor Bund, the international revolutionary organization that claimed thousands of American-Jewish members. While most Jews today know The Jewish Daily Forward used to be published in Yiddish — many are unaware that it was a self-proclaimed leftist paper, proudly backing the Socialist Party for thirty-five years.

The International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU)

The dynamic and vigorous history of Jewish radicals — socialists, anarchists, communists, and their leftist descendants — has been erased from the collective narrative that American-Jews teach today. In the wake of the Holocaust, the founding of the state of Israel, and the fight against the Soviets in the Cold War, an unprecedented level of importance was placed upon the idea of communal consensus. It was seen as more important than ever for Jews to coalesce and collectively rally against our enemies — real and perceived. While this idea of a “communal tent” sprang in part from positive impulses, it nevertheless has wrought injurious consequences for modern Jewish life. Today, the American-Jewish diaspora fears, and consequently, avoids reckoning with its radical history; such an interrogation would demand revisiting the basic lens through which we’ve conceptualized the past 120 years.

In 1992, historian Howard Sachar, writing in A History of the Jews in America, describes young Jewish radicals as, “impressionable and idealistic…uniquely susceptible to the leagues and alliances…almost any ‘progressive’ movement would have claimed their loyalty.”

Young people indeed led American-Jewish radicalism, just as young people led American-Jewish immigration writ large. About 70 percent of those who arrived between the 1880s and 1920s were between the ages of 14–44, and another 25 percent were under 14. Tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants embraced socialism — organizing unions, attending meetings, conferences, lectures, parades, and social events — strengthening comradeship and their collective political vision.

Over the years, many Jewish scholars, like Sachar, have tried to render the relationship between Jews and socialism as not only obsolescent but illusory. A popular approach has been to say that confused immigrants, aimless and alienated, latched onto whatever ideology they could in order to acclimate to American society. In a sense, these intellectuals contend, leftism was something Jews grew out of as they adjusted to their new host country. William Herberg—an ex-Communist turned proto-neoconservative writer, who served a stint as National Review’s religion editor—first articulated this idea in 1952. Herberg says it was the “spiritual confusion, insecurity, and normlessness” that spurred Jewish leftism, but ultimately, Jews embraced American values “without reservation.” Many prominent intellectuals, such as Moses Rischin and Daniel Bell, have repackaged this storyline over the years.

Irving Howe, the distinguished socialist largely ignored by the Jewish community today, was the one major exception. In World of Our Fathers, the winner of the 1976 National Book Award, Howe writes:

Jewish socialism [has] become a colorful trauma in the process of adjustment, to be stored in the attic of memory, just as religion had been dismissed as a mere sublimated version of unfulfilled historical yearnings or a mere social agency holding in check oppressed masses. In both cases, the explanation explains away too much too easily. The historians refuse to confront Jewish radicalism in its own right.

What would an honest confrontation with Jewish radicalism require? Perhaps most significantly, it would involve disrupting the triumphal narrative that says Jews moved from poverty to achievement and embraced American political liberalism en masse. It would mean challenging the story that says Jews gave up their radical commitments as they became “real” Americans.

In 1914, it was estimated that a majority of the 1,400,000 Jews living in New York were working class and poor. A 1916 survey found over 50 percent of working Jews were employed in factories, tenement apartments, and sweatshops. But by the 1920s, Jews were steadily moving away from blue-collar jobs towards white-collared professions, and by the turn of the 21st century, 53 percent of Jewish men and 51 percent of Jewish women were in professional jobs, compared to only one-in-five among non-Jewish white men and women. Data for adults in the year 2000 also suggests that American-Jews had higher levels of wealth than those raised in other faiths.

This rags-to-riches tale of rising up the economic ladder is the general story young Jews learn today about our immigrant ancestors — we escaped Eastern European persecution and came to America very poor, we worked and studied hard, and ultimately we prevailed despite those anti-Semites who stood in our way.

No doubt, the Jewish political shift from socialism to liberalism was partially grounded in Jewish economic mobility. But such a narrative obscures the reality of the many Jewish individuals who do not fall so squarely into the classic American Success Story, and those who, counter to what Herberg insists, never endorsed American free-market values. As historian Tony Michels documents in A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York:

Historians write a lot about middle-class Jews — their neighborhoods, their synagogues, habits of consumption and so on, but mostly ignore the many Jews who never made it into the middle class or somehow fell from it…American Jewish history has thus been turned into a celebration of winners for whom winning comes easily and without costs. Themes of loss, alienation, ambivalence, disappointment and rebellion — all prominent in American Jewish fiction and autobiography (in Yiddish and English) barely exist in the major works of American Jewish history…In the success story that American Jewish history has become, the radical experience has been made irrelevant.

Take American-Jewish novelist, Anzia Yezeirska.

Anzia Yezeirska (1880–1970)

Yezeirska belonged to a group of Jewish writers who indeed rose out of childhood poverty but never emotionally or politically broke ties with the ranks of the oppressed working class from which they came. (In contrast, many Jews today are far removed from the working class and new immigrant populations.) Yezeirska’s radical politics suffused her fiction; in Salome of the Tenements, published in 1923, Yezeriska harshly critiques the liberal reform movement — settlement houses and the like — which she saw as inherently designed to suppress the poor. Yezeirska was no fan of liberals like Jane Addams and John Dewey, the do-gooders and philanthropists who pioneered these ideas. In one telling scene, Yezeriska’s protagonist, Sonya Vrunsky, watches social workers carry on with “the self-conscious look of virtue in their eyes.”

Jewish socialists, anarchists, and communists did not believe the United States was some wonderful land with boundless opportunities; they saw it as a country full of economic exploitation, its democratic values and capitalist system a blatant contradiction. Moreover, Jewish radicals have always inherently rejected the idea of Jewish unity, or “klal Yisrael.” As Irving Howe puts it, “in a society divided by irreconcilably hostile classes, [radicals] argued, Jewish unity was a chimera that served the interests of the bosses.” To belittle this genuine resentment, or chalk it up to errors made by misguided immigrants, is to disclaim the reality of thousands and thousands of Jews.

A reckoning with Jewish radicalism would also require revisiting the history of Jews and communism — an era that modern Jewish institutions conspicuously avoid today. Many young Jews grow up learning about the admirable work of Jewish activists during the Civil Rights Movement. And rightly so — black and Jewish youth created the initial energy behind the lunch counter sit-ins, Jews comprised at least 30 percent of the white Freedom Riders, and Jews represented a significant proportion of voter registration volunteers throughout the 1960s. Jews lent critical financial support to organizations like the NAACP, national Jewish organizations submitted amicus briefs in support of civil rights to the Supreme Court, and in 1965, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, one of the most important Jewish theologians of the twentieth century, marched proudly in Selma, Alabama alongside Martin Luther King Jr. This heritage we do teach.

But as many historians have shown, most Jews did not engage in civil rights activism at all. A majority remained neutral, and some even actively opposed it — allying with Southern white solidarity groups and withholding financial contributions to Jewish organizations that showed support. Moreover, many of the Jews who did rally for African-American rights espoused left-wing politics, or grew up in households that championed them — the very same radical views that Jewish organizations expelled from their ranks during the McCarthy Era. In the early 1950s, Jewish communities around the nation voted to oust the Jewish People’s Fraternal Order on the grounds that it was just a front for the Communist party. This came at a time when hundreds of leftists or perceived left-sympathizing Jewish public school teachers were fired from their jobs, when some of Hollywood’s finest Jewish actors, directors, producers, and screenwriters were blacklisted from the entertainment industry, and leaders like Mississippi Congressman John Rankin railed freely about all those “Communist kikes.” During the period of rampant redbaiting, the institutional Jewish community actively participated, disavowing radical Jews, cooperating with HUAC, and organizing their own propaganda campaign to demonstrate they were loyal, patriotic Americans.

Of the “Hollywood 10," six were Jewish.

There was, of course, a context for all this. American-Jews had long been associated with subversive and anti-Semitic stereotypes, which justifiably encouraged a defensive culture. In 1908, the New York City police commissioner, Theodore Bingham, published an article entitled “Foreign Criminals in New York” claiming that fifty percent of the city’s criminals were Jewish. With the financial help of Henry Ford, hundreds of thousands of people read “literature” arguing Jews masterminded the Bolshevik Revolution and were plotting to eventually dominate the Western World. The Espionage Act of 1917, the Sedition Act of 1918, and the Lusk Committee of 1919 — all created to investigate subversive behavior — also contributed to the suppressive environment for Jewish leftists. As Michels documents:

From the vantage point of 1920….socialism had made Jews more conspicuous, so much so that many people viewed it as a specifically Jewish trait. Jews may not have been the only radicals in America, but, according to the AFL’s New York director, they were among “the worst offenders.”

Still, this background does not, and cannot justify dismissing Jewish radicals today; with the vastly diminished threat of anti-Semitism, the increasingly rightward drift of American-Jewish leadership, and the growing number of disaffected young Jews—shrouding Jewish leftist history does far more harm than good.

An example of such revisionism can be found by studying the historiography of one of the most important leaders in the Jewish socialist movement, Abraham Cahan. While most young Jews could tell you who Anne Frank or Elie Wiesel was, far fewer would be able to recognize Cahan, even though he spent decades at the forefront of American-Jewish intellectual, political, and cultural life. A novelist, a newspaper editor, and a socialist leader, Cahan devoted himself to rallying other Jews for the revolution.

After the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, Cahan wrote in The Forverts,

There should be no doubt that the capitalist leaders are generally guilty for this, who do all in their power to extract as much profit as possible from their capital even if it costs thousands of lives! On the altar of capitalism, that bloodthirsty idol, which is never quenched with human blood, burned these 149 young lives!

The Jewish community very rarely, if ever, mentions Cahan today, so it was significant that in 2013, the neoconservative journalist Seth Lipsky published a new biography on his life. Although Cahan’s politics drifted somewhat rightward over the course of his lifetime, he remained a radical until the end. Unfortunately Lipsky makes a shoddy attempt to recast Cahan as a watered-down revolutionary, focusing too much on his anticommunist positions and downplaying his lifelong anti-Zionist stance. (In an interview for Tablet Magazine, Lipsky calls Cahan “a titanic, superbly honest, and realistic newspaper man” who “comes to grips” with the idea that Zionism “was in fact on its way to triumph.”) Reviewing Lipsky’s work for The Jewish Review of Books, Sol Stern, a senior fellow for the Manhattan Institute, a self-described conservative think tank, says:

Lipsky shows how Cahan’s radical socialism emanated from his fears about the plight of the Jews — not only those who had made it to America, but also the vast number still suffering in Europe… He was convinced that after the elimination of capitalism there could not be “an economic or political reason for anti-Semitism.” It would take almost half a century for Cahan to disabuse himself of this and other Marxist fantasies.

These condescending interpretations from rightist intellectuals demonstrate the hazards of ignoring Jewish radical history. As D. D. Guttenplan sums up in a scathing critique for The Nation, “Lipsky wants Cahan to be a winner… It’s a shame that [he] seems more eager to recruit [Cahan] than to understand him.”

The past half-century has seen a pronounced increase in efforts to dismiss and denounce Jewish intellectuals who offer unorthodox ideas or levy radical critiques. Jews continued to engage in radical organizing — they were overwhelmingly represented as rank-and-file activists and leaders in the New Left movement that emerged in the 1960s and 70s. Experts estimate that Jews made up between one-third and one-half of all New Left activists on college campuses.

Things started to noticeably change after the Six Day War in 1967, which engendered a more visceral commitment to Israel’s survival for many American-Jews. Fear of a “second Holocaust” grew, and with it American-Jewish solidarity. Political liberalism and Israel solidified itself as the key foundations for the organized community.

Intellectuals who challenged this new consensus were increasingly viewed as a threat. Nathan Glazer, a former Commentary editor, prominently argued in 1971 that Jewish intellectuals displayed “anti-Jewish tendencies” because they often put forth ideas to “maintain prominence and power while Jews and Jewish interests suffer.” Norman Podhoretz went even further, arguing that Jewish radicals were not just self-haters, but actually guilty of “the sin of anti-Semitism.” Glazer and Podhoretz’s ideas deeply influenced Jewish institutional life, with Jewish liberals and Jewish liberal institutions increasingly adopting these unity precepts themselves. As Michael Staub writes in his book Torn at the Roots: The Crisis of Jewish Liberalism in Postwar America, “The various critics of the New Left propounding their views in…Commentary have set the terms of debate for the subsequent decades.”

To reckon with Jewish radicalism today is not to assume its mass revival; much has changed over the past 120 years — historically, politically, and demographically. (Today, the Orthodox community steadily outpaces the rest of the American-Jewish diaspora in population growth, and is a group that heavily votes for the Republican ticket.) Nevertheless, grappling with Jewish leftist history would restore an integral part of Jewish identity to its rightful place within American-Jewish self-conception. It would offer a challenge to leaders who decry communal cultural trends and imminent Jewish demise. It would mean reclaiming a Jewish tradition that binds a commitment to American democracy with a resistance to capitalism, rather than adopting a story that sees the former as dependent on rejecting the latter.

Lipsky’s attempt to efface Cahan’s socialism and opposition to Jewish nationalism highlights something important, and in many ways, uncomfortable: a genuine recognition of the anti-capitalist Jewish tradition would have implications for contemporary debates about American-Jewish life and Zionism. It’s not a coincidence that the erasure of radical history has coincided with the creation of an American-Jewish consensus that was built and maintained in large part to drive a specific politics around Israel. For a time, there were many different but legitimate answers to the question of Jewish-self determination. Satmar Hasidic Jews, leftists, and Zionists all proposed dissimilar, but real choices for American-Jews to wrestle with: human flourishing could be found in the Torah, in a Jewish nation-state, or through the transcendence of the capitalist system. And sometimes Jews opted for a combination of these choices—leftist Zionists, religious leftists, and even religious Zionists have all contributed to our complicated historical tapestry.

What really threatens Jewish institutions now is the possibility that this perceived sense of Jewish unity, of Jewish accord, might fall apart. Yet that tantalizing idea of Jewish unity was always a mythone that grew and flourished through the exclusion and expulsion of select groups of Jewish voices, groups, and movements. This simply cannot, and will not, last indefinitely. More importantly, the collapse of this imagined “communal consensus” does not mean the Jewish people will be left unsafe, or wither away and disappear. Jewish life will probably change—as it is wont to do. But in the long run, liberating the truth will help to create the space for a richer community—one of religious Jews and secular Jews; of radicals, liberals and conservatives; of atheist, queer and intermarried Jews; of Jews with strongly divergent opinions on Israel. It would challenge the idea that the “Jewish community” must live within Jewish day schools, Jewish summer camps, synagogues, and JCCs. (In 1916, only 12 percent of America’s three million Jews belonged to synagogues and fewer than 25 percent received any formal Jewish schooling.) Given the ever-narrowing contours of “appropriate” ways to be Jewish in 2014, it is unsurprising that so many feel alienated and wonder whether they could ever really claim a Jewish identity of their own.

Fortunately, the shaky foundations of consensus are already beginning to crumble. Today, organized bodies like the Conference of Presidents speak for a mere fraction of the constituents they purport to represent, and are increasingly called out for it. College students are organizing against the idea that their actions around Israel and Palestine must be demarcated and approved by groups of unelected adults and donors. A new generation of Orthodox Jews is organizing on the ground, for political causes and conservative candidates that make liberal Jews blush. Other Jews are growing dissatisfied with the Democratic Party and searching for further left alternatives.

As time goes on, these and other factions may even lead to changes within American-Jewish tradition, culture, and politics. How radical is that?