In 1960, Jews numbered roughly 3% of Americans. Of the six presidents that Students for a Democratic Society elected in its brief life of electing personages so designated, only two were Jewish. No precise figures exist for the whole membership, or, for that matter, other radical groups of the ensuing years, or, more particularly, the 59 individuals who gathered at a United Auto Workers camp in Port Huron, Mich., half a century ago, in June 1962, to issue the most influential manifesto that ever came from the student left. But by rough guess, something like one-third or one-half of those at Port Huron were Jews. To try any greater precision would put us into the realm of a joke that might start out, “How many Jews were there at Port Huron?” before heading for the punch line, “I don’t know about Jews, but quite a few were Jewish.”
Still, when I was president of SDS in 1963 and counted heads around the table at a national meeting, for sociological reasons of my own, I was struck by the fact that only a small minority — I no longer remember how many — were New Yorkers or Jews, let alone both. I took this as a positive sign that the organization wasn’t ghettoized, that it could lay claim representatively to its grand ambition: to represent a whole American generation. “Diversity,” we’d say today.
But it was no accident that two of the three whites murdered by white racists during the Freedom Summer of 1964 were New York Jews, for statistically it would have been remarkable if at least one out of three civil rights workers traveling together in a car had not been a Jew.
The manifesto that emerged from the gathering on Lake Huron did not mention the word “Jew” or “Jewish,” or “Nazi” or “Hitler,” but contains a line stating that “the horrors of the twentieth century, symbolized in the gas-ovens and concentration camps and atom bombs, have blasted hopefulness.” And it ends, “If we appear to seek the unattainable, it has been said, then let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable.”
In other words, the document was haunted — in tone, sometimes through the words themselves and also between the lines — by past and future apocalypses; in other words, by Hitler past and by the fear of extinction future. The two were entwined to make up a Möbius strip of dread.
In identifying what was ultimately at stake, the Port Huron Statement was sometimes explicit: “Our work is guided by the sense that we may be the last generation in the experiment with living.” Overall, in 1,000 ways, the movement’s moral imagination was dogged not only by a sense of what could happen, but also by knowledge of what had already happened.
Among ourselves, we talked about refusing to be “good Germans.” The moral imperatives that vivified the New Left rested on two intertwined understandings: that genocide was now conceivable and that resistance was the only honorable course. It was important to win — this was the strategic face of the movement — but it was also important not to be “complicit.”