Roots of Radicalism

December 1, 2012
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Tony Michels

What explains the prominent and disproportionate role of Jews on the political left? It’s an old question, dating back more than a century, but one that scholars and political commentators continue to puzzle over. For even though the Jewish romance with radical ideologies has waned, Jews continue to lean to the left compared to most other Americans. The majority of Jews still support the Democratic Party as well as a host of social issues, from reproductive rights to environmental protection — despite millions of dollars spent by the Republican Party to disabuse them of these ideas.

Analysts have advanced various explanations as to why the majority of American Jews have been drawn to liberal and radical politics. The most common and persistent one has to do with religion. As a system of beliefs and practices inherently concerned with social justice and ethical behavior, so goes the argument, Judaism has predisposed Jews toward the political left. Reform rabbis were among the first to describe Judaism as a religion of social justice in their Pittsburgh Platform of 1885. A century later, the magazine Tikkun enshrined the kabbalistic concept of tikkun olam on its masthead with the words “to heal, repair, and transform the world.”  Soon thereafter, journalists and historians began to identify tikkun olam as the key idea behind a Jewish tradition of social justice.

Orthodox rabbis have historically ignored the notion of Judaism as a religion of social justice. In 1898, the Orthodox Jewish Congregational Union was more focused on condemning improper conversions to Judaism than rectifying “the labor question,” which defined urban Jewish life between the 1880s and 1930s. Labor organizing and political activism fell to the socialists. During the 1910s, a quarter of a million Jewish workers joined socialist trade unions, the Forverts dominated the Yiddish newspaper market, and the Socialist Party was the favored choice in New York City’s predominantly Jewish electoral districts.

A host of social and economic factors further radicalized Jews. Economic exploitation, usually at the hands of Jewish employers, heightened the appeal of socialism’s class-war message. In a situation where Jews worked mostly with and for other Jews, the potential for interethnic conflict diminished. An important structural factor further strengthened the socialists. Jews dominated the production of readymade clothes, the largest manufacturing industry in New York City. This strategic economic position enabled socialists to wield, via the mighty garment unions, real power — not only inside the Jewish community but also in local, state, and national politics.

Influences from abroad, especially from Russia, played a major role. From the early 1900s to World War I, thousands of Bundists, socialist-Zionists, Mensheviks, and even a few Bolsheviks immigrated to the United States and brought with them preformulated ideologies. In the five years following the war, many young men and women who had been radicalized by years of war, revolution, and pogroms, arrived as part of the final wave of mass immigration. A good many of these postwar arrivals were fervent supporters of the Bolshevik regime and, after settling in America, gravitated to the Communist Party. Like socialists the world over, they were inspired by the first workers’ revolution, but they also viewed the revolution through a specifically Jewish lens. The horrific slaughter of Jews by anti-Bolshevik forces convinced Jewish leftists across the board, and many liberals, that the Red Army was the only thing that stood between Russian Jewry and death. A similar feeling resurfaced during World War II, when, once again, the Red Army assumed the role of protector.

The roots of radicalism among second- and third-generation American Jews are to be found, though, not in Russia directly but in locales such as Harlem, Brownsville, the Lower East Side, and the East Bronx. Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, and other memoirists have eloquently described Jewish neighborhoods, thick with Yiddish-language socialism, as cradles of radical politics. At the same time, harsh external realities — antisemitism, economic depression, and the international threat of fascism — steered many second-generation American Jews toward the left.

Circumstances shifted again during the 1960s, when middle-class Jews flocked to that decade’s social protest movements. Though they had little direct exposure to poverty and antisemitism, young Jews — instilled with liberal values from their parents, Jewish summer camps, and Jewish communal agencies — were disgruntled that the United States failed to live up to its professed values. The conviction that one must not remain silent in the face of injustice, a “lesson” learned from Holocaust commemorations, also informed the consciousness of New Left Jews.

There’s much more — good, bad, and otherwise — to American Jewish politics than abiding attachments to social idealism. But the close relationship between Jews and the left, across decades and generations, is one of the more remarkable features of Jewish political history. If radical and liberal ideologies no longer hold sway as they did in the 1960s, 1930s, or 1910s, they haven’t entirely lost their purchase, either. A majority of Jews — 69 percent — voted for President Obama, and commentators will, once again, try to explain this. They would do well to turn to history.

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Tony Michels is the George L. Mosse Associate Professor of American Jewish History at the University of Wisconsin. He is the author of A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York (Harvard University Press, 2005) and editor of Jewish Radicals: A Documentary History (NYU Press, 2012).

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