The Progressive Politics We Need


By Ralph Seliger

Published November 13, 2008, issue of November 21, 2008.
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For 108 years, the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring has represented the best of the American Jewish progressive tradition. The Workmen’s Circle has been a champion of labor, a voice for social justice and a foe of communist totalitarianism. It fought for the freedom of Soviet Jews and for civil rights here at home. Though its roots were Bundist and not Zionist, it joined the American Jewish community’s postwar consensus in support of Israel’s security and well being. Today’s Workmen’s Circle stands forthrightly in support of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the best way to safeguard Israel’s future.

My admiration for the Workmen’s Circle has deep roots. My parents were longtime members; they are buried in a Workmen’s Circle cemetery plot. And for the past two years, I have been personally associated with the Workmen’s Circle through my involvement as a member of the editorial advisory council of Jewish Currents magazine, adopted in 2006 as the group’s official publication.

It is, therefore, in the spirit of friendship that I write.

On November 23, the Workmen’s Circle will host an ambitious gathering in New York, titled, “Jews Uniting to End the War and Heal America,” co-sponsored with the Shalom Center and Jewish Currents. Scheduled speakers include highly respected liberal voices, such as Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, former congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman and Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Still, the conference raises several concerns.

For starters, there is the conference’s focus on Iraq. With Barack Obama as our next president, a phased withdrawal from Iraq is clearly on the table. Yet even an Obama presidency will not result in an immediate end to America’s military presence there. Obama sensibly advocates a gradual and careful removal of American troops from Iraq and an increased military focus on Afghanistan. Mainstream liberals recognize that an abrupt withdrawal of American forces would likely trigger a renewal of bloody inter-communal violence — which would hardly be a progressive outcome. Yet the conference’s very name, its promotional materials (I received a mailing with the words “Stop the War” printed on the envelope) and some of the scheduled speakers suggest an uncompromisingly extreme posture.

One prominent activist scheduled to address the conference, Leslie Cagan, national coordinator for United for Peace and Justice, was regarded highly enough by the Workmen’s Circle to be invited to speak at its annual convention this past summer. While UFPJ is the country’s leading grassroots anti-war umbrella group, it has staked out extreme positions. On Iraq, it demands: “Bring the U.S. troops home now.” And whereas Obama vows to redouble our efforts in Afghanistan, UFPJ darkly warns that “the U.S. war machine tries to distract from its failures by shifting focus from the occupation of Iraq to the war in Afghanistan.”

On Israel, UFPJ’s views are similarly troubling. It consistently blames Israel for the conflicts with its neighbors and has adopted the slogan “Occupation: Wrong in Iraq, Wrong in Palestine.” While it certainly would be a good thing for America to be able to withdraw from Iraq, and for Israel to do the same in the West Bank, the two situations are entirely unrelated — and both defy the simplistic solutions that this slogan would suggest. What’s more, UFPJ does not take a position on whether it supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, leaving the door open to questioning Israel’s right to exist. UFPJ is also an active member of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, which supports boycotts and divestment efforts targeting Israel. With stances like these, one wonders how far the Workmen’s Circle can travel with UFPJ.

Even more disconcerting is the selection of radio host Amy Goodman as the conference’s keynote speaker. The extreme anti-Israel bias of her show “Democracy Now” should be clear to any even occasional listener. For example, Palestinian losses in Israeli attacks on Gaza are covered in graphic detail, while Palestinian attacks on Sderot or other Israeli towns are given short shrift. Her programs in May on the 60th anniversary of Israel’s independence were totally skewed against the Jewish state and stacked with fierce critics of Israel and Zionism.

With our world and our financial system in turmoil, we desperately need an active, mobilized progressive movement — and progressive Jews must make their voices heard. But the Jewish progressive movement we need is one that knows the difference between sloganeering and thoughtful foreign policy, and one that distinguishes between our friends on the liberal left and other “progressives” who never miss an opportunity to point an accusatory finger at Israel. In other words, we need a Jewish progressive movement that is true to the traditions of the Workmen’s Circle.

Ralph Seliger is a New York-based activist, editor and writer.

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