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YIVO Conference on “Jews and the Left”

Last week, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research held a remarkable conference on “Jews and the Left,” convening an international group of scholars — largely from the left — to deliver formal papers on the subject. The conference has been covered by Tablet Magazine (Adam Kirsch), The Forward (Eitan Kensky), Newsday (Cathy Young) and American Thinker (me).

As Eitan Kensky wrote, “one of the most intriguing aspects of the conference was the extent to which the participants who self-identify with the left agreed with the view that it had indeed betrayed the Jewish state.” Adam Kirsch noted that “speaker after speaker agreed that the embrace of Communism by many Jews was a moral disaster” from a historical standpoint.

But perhaps most striking was the number of speakers acknowledging the current moral disaster that infects a substantial part of the left. The paper presented by Norman Geras, professor emeritus of the University of Manchester and a man of the left – “Alibi Anti-Semitism” – concluded:

It is a moral scandal that some few decades after the unmeasurable catastrophe that overtook the Jewish people in Europe, these anti-Semitic themes and ruses are once again respectable; respectable not just down there with the thugs but pervasively also within polite society, and within the perimeters of a self-flattering liberal and left opinion. It is a bleak lesson to all but those unwilling to see…. We now know, as well, that should a new calamity ever befall the Jewish people, there will be, again, not only the direct architects and executants but also those who collaborate, who collude, who look away and find the words to go with doing so. Some of these, dismayingly, shamefully, will be of the left.

There is, of course, a difference between leftism and liberalism, and the reference to the “Left” in the title of the YIVO conference was to the former rather than the latter. But both reflect, in differing degrees, the historical phenomenon described by Norman Podhoretz in Why Are Jews Liberals? – the creation of a replacement religion based on the siren songs of utopianism and universalism. Michael Walzer’s keynote address acknowledged that the left had failed to appreciate the political achievements of traditional Jews – ones Ruth Wisse brilliantly explicated in Jews and Power.

When YIVO publishes the conference papers – which will be well worth reading – it will be worthwhile reading Podhoretz and Wisse at the same time.


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