Death of the Jewish Left

There's Reason To Think Liberalism of American Jews Fading Fast

Lost Icon: The enduring picture of Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Martin Luther King, Jr.
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Lost Icon: The enduring picture of Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Martin Luther King, Jr.

By Jay Michaelson

Published June 23, 2014.
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For as long as contemporary American Jews can remember, our community has voted liberal, marched radical, and, to varying degrees, found ourselves on the left side of the political spectrum. But for those who favor this state of affairs, recent shifts in Jewish culture and identity offer reason to worry.

First, Jewish solidarity with other oppressed groups appears to be on the wane. Two generations ago, Jews, racial minorities, and other disfavored groups were all excluded from the same country clubs, professional associations, and schools. We didn’t have to work very hard to see the links between racism, anti-Semitism, and classism; they were shoved in our faces.

Now, however, Jews have far less “outsider” consciousness than even two decades ago. While anti-Semitism still exists, it is largely on the fringe, even as anti-immigrant, Islamophobic, and other biases rise in the mainstream. We can still imagine what it’s like to be on the wrong side of power and privilege — but for more and more of us, it is an imaginative rather than experiential reality.

Still, sociologists have noted, Jewish liberalism seems uniquely untethered to economics. As a group, we vote against our economic interests more than any other slice of the American pie. Some of this is cultural. According to the old joke, our immigrant ancestors knew three worlds: the alte veldt, the neue veldt, and Roosevelt. Politics is social, and these ties are strong.

But they are also frayed. Neo-conservatism — basically, Jewish conservatism — has now existed for half a century. Organizations like the Republican Jewish Coalition, Commentary magazine, and the Tikvah Fund have labored to create a Jewish conservative culture, and they have largely succeeded. It no longer feels goyish to vote Republican.

And what about those Jewish values, like tikkun olam and the ethical injunctions of the Torah, including paying fair wages and communal redistribution of wealth? They are too flexible. For every liberal value Bend The Arc might find in Scripture, conservatives can cite texts that emphasize “free enterprise” (anachronistically, but still), not to mention occupation and ethnocentrism. The Passover story may be one of liberation from bondage, but these days, Tea Partiers feel “bound” by the regulatory state.

Anyway, how many Jews even know these texts? As Jewish literacy and identity grow thinner, the resonance of these Jewish values diminishes.

In addition to the decline of these three historic sources of Jewish liberalism — oppression, identity, and values — there are new trends pushing Jews rightward.

First, money. Imagine you’re a Jewish billionaire with money to spend. The more liberal and universalistic you are, the more likely you’ll spread the money wide: some to Jewish causes, perhaps, but some to medicine, art, progressive charities, and so on. The more particularistic you are the more likely you’ll give more to your tribe. Thus without any malice, Jewish philanthropy tends toward the particularistic — and overall, that means right-wing politics in Israel and the United States.

And then there’s the money that’s meant to convert us: magazines, fellowships, academies, and websites funded by neo-conservatives to promote a neo-conservative agenda. Because it’s bad form for one newspaper to call out others, I will refrain from specifics here. Suffice to say the Republican/neo-con kiruv operation is the largest intra-Jewish proselytization this side of Chabad.

Second, Jewish demographics are changing. American Jews are growing more Orthodox, as a matter of percentage, and Orthodox Jews have voted and given conservative for a century now, bucking the wider Jewish trends. Meanwhile, the Jewish Left is rapidly turning into the Jews who left. Progressive Jews are naturally more likely to assimilate: We’re less parochial, less interested in us/them binaries, less ethnocentric. We value diversity and multiculturalism — and so, percentage-wise, we not only marry out but educate out, when it comes to raising our kids.

And finally, there is Israel. Israel used to be a liberal cause, but for 47 years has been denying the most basic of civil rights — citizenship — to millions of people. This is not something liberals can support, even as conservatives insist that the occupation is necessary for security, that there’s no Palestinian peace partner, or whatever. Whatever the details of this or that political moment, Israel has gone from being a liberal cause to being, at best, a mixed one.

Meanwhile, the hard Left has been moving further left, especially on Zionism. As Israeli conservatives redefine Zionism to mean Revisionist Zionism, with its subjugation of non-Jews and emphasis on strength and militarism, it’s become harder and harder for liberals to defend it. Yes, there’s J Street — but even it is demonized by the Right. On the hard Left, anti-Zionism is now the default assumption.

And it’s easy to see why. It’s not because of anti-Semitism; it’s because Israel is an American-supported, nuclear-armed, anti-democratic occupier. Once again, liberals and conservatives may hasten to explain why all this is necessary and not Israel’s fault. But at a certain point, those of a more leftward orientation don’t buy these explanations.

Is there a future for the Jewish Left? There are reasons to be hopeful — but ultimately I’m not persuaded.

To be sure, there are enclaves. Social Justice is a powerful Jewish organizer. The Reform movement, which tends to the liberal, is stronger than it has been in years. And there are exciting Jewish liberal and further-left communities and organizations around the country. The energy in these pockets of Jewish liberalism is infectious and full of hope.

But if we’re data-driven, rather than inspired by anecdotes, these are exceptions, not the rule. Amidst an awesome Jews for Racial & Economic Justice party, or on an AJWS trip, it can sure feel as though the tide is turning. But in the grim office of the statistician, the waves look more like eddies against the current.

I think what might really save the Jewish Left is, in fact, the Jewish Right. Republicans have moved so far rightward in recent years that many of Ronald Reagan’s principles — let alone Eisenhower’s — would be left of the party line today. You can love capitalism and still be way to the left of the American center right now. We live in a new Gilded Age, with a wealth gap to rival Brunei’s, and with corporate power at its zenith. And yet the flood of corporate-sponsored conservative media insists that we’re on the verge of socialism. This doublespeak energizes the resentful Republican base, but it might also drive moderates to the left. Or so a liberal might hope.

And of course, when writing or reading a Jeremiad, it’s important to remember that it’s always been five minutes to midnight. Name your cause, and you’ll find someone saying that it’s doomed. I take more than a grain of salt with any ruminations such as these.

Yet it would be a loss if the Jewish Left were to wither. Judaism and Jewish community provide a significant reservoir of power, ideology, identity, and community. When yoked to a politics of liberation, rather than selfishness, Judaism calls on our better nature, prodding and sometimes compelling us to curb the all-too-human tendencies toward the closing of the heart. Some would say this makes us soft. But thousands of years of history strongly suggest the opposite.

Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor to the Forward.


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