Toward the end of a long campaign in which Barack Obama spent months trying to reassure Jewish communities that he does not secretly harbor an anti-Jewish agenda, something ironic happened: John McCain tried to tar his opponent by linking him, indirectly, to an organization associated with a particularly Jewish strain of 1960s radicalism.
Bill Ayers, the fugitive activist turned education professor with whom McCain has attempted to link Obama, was a leader of the Weathermen, a leftist organization that advocated the overthrow of the United States government in the 1960s and 1970s. The group was a small revolutionary offshoot of Students for a Democratic Society, a national organization that played a major role in the creation of the student antiwar movement — and that historians estimate was 40-50% Jewish.
Judging from the response to Ayers’s return to the headlines, the legacy of the Weathermen does not rank high on the list of voters’ concerns in 2008. But for some segments of the left and right, intense and sometimes ambivalent feelings about the group are still very much alive — and nowhere is this more true than among the generation of Jewish activists who cut their political teeth in 1960s radical politics.
“They were trying to protest this war and these injustices in a very dramatic way,” said Larry Bush, who was active in the 1970s in Prairie Fire, a political organization with ties to the Weathermen. Bush is now the editor of Jewish Currents, the magazine of the progressive Jewish organization Workmen’s Circle. “That doesn’t mean that they might not have gotten really out of hand. But I have to admit with some embarrassment that as a radical teen I was excited by the bombings.”
For most Americans, these reminiscences likely seem as obscure as the forgotten battles between Trotskyists and Stalinists among leftists of an earlier age. The McCain campaign has called Ayers a terrorist but has barely brought up the Weathermen and its ideology.
“Americans don’t know the difference between socialism and communism,” said historian Michael Kazin, who was briefly a member of the Weathermen before the group engaged in violent action, and has since become a fierce critic. “Palin and McCain have tried to connect Obama to socialist ideas, but I think they’ve probably dropped that because people don’t know what they’re talking about.”
For the people involved, however, much of this history is still incredibly fresh.
“Everybody knew people who joined the Weather Underground,” said Ronald Radosh, a historian of the Cold War and a onetime SDS faculty adviser at the City University of New York who began to drift rightward in the late 1960s. “‘I don’t agree with their tactics,’ people would say, ‘but I like what they’re doing.’”
The Weathermen became the Weather Underground Organization in 1970 when members “went underground,” hiding from the law and disguising their identities while plotting attacks on the government. The group planted bombs outside government buildings and has been accused of attacking government officials.
There were only around 200 Weathermen, and no statistics exist on whether the group was Jewish to the same degree as SDS — but, as in the more mainstream organization from which it broke off, “certainly some of the key people in the Weathermen were Jewish,” Kazin said.
Indeed, Ayers’s wife Bernardine Dohrn, one of the principal leaders of the organization, had one Jewish parent. Other prominent Jewish members of the Weathermen included Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, who were convicted of murder after a 1981 armed robbery; Ted Gold, who was killed when a bomb he was helping to prepare went off accidentally; and Mark Rudd, who spent most of the 1970s underground before he turned himself in to police, in 1977.
The prominence of Jews among the Weathermen has not gone unnoticed since the group has emerged in the news. On David Duke’s Web site, the former Ku Klux Klan head claims that Obama had ties to the organization, which he calls a “Jewish-led communist gang.”
“Nobody else has the guts to pick that up,” said Rudd, who is currently an organizer for a new incarnation of SDS.
Now, 40 years after the formation of the Weathermen, former members of the group and other New Left activists are still arguing about the ideologies of that chaotic time, but also about what led so many Jewish young people to become involved in New Left movements like the Weathermen.
“There are so many different theories,” said Dick Flacks, a sociology professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara who helped found SDS.
Some historians, including Radosh, have argued that the Jewish youth involved in the Weathermen and other radical organizations
were predominantly red-diaper babies continuing a tradition of Jewish leftism inherited from parents and grandparents active in the labor and socialist movements. Another, more subtle theory, says these youngsters rebelled against their parents’ Stalinist orthodoxy by embracing Maoism.
Rudd took issue with that theory in a talk he gave at the New Mexico Jewish Historical Society in 2005. Rudd contended that most of his peers in SDS were nice Jewish kids from the suburbs who bought into the American dream until they made it to elite universities, where they realized that white Protestants still ruled.
Even Philip Roth, a generation older than the student radicals, tackles the question in his classic novel “American Pastoral,” in which a Jewish daughter of privilege becomes a fugitive in a movement much like the Weathermen.
The activists-turned-historians have not reached a consensus about whether the Weathermen’s violent tactics represented a complete betrayal of what had begun as a nonviolent protest movement, or whether they were an understandable — if ultimately unjustifiable —response to the movement’s failure to end the Vietnam War through nonviolent means.
This dichotomy has played out in the current controversy over Bill Ayers. More than 3,000 educators signed a petition recently in support of Ayers, prompting an angry response on the Web site The Daily Beast from Paul Berman, a onetime SDS member who has written extensively about the 1960s.
Interestingly, though, several individuals contacted for comment on this article seemed to have called a tacit moratorium on arguing about the Weathermen. They declined to speak about the group — until after the presidential election.