Commentary Magazine


Jewish Activists

To the Editor:

I must extend Robert M. Seltzer’s description of Marshall Sklare’s typology of Jewish intellectuals [“American Jews & Their Judaism, March] to include at least one more category.

Sklare had three categories—“assimilationists” like Louis Wirth; “critical intellectuals,” like Judith Kramer, Seymour Leventman, Mark Zborowski, and Elizabeth Herzog; and a third wave, “survivalists,” like Sklare himself. But simply to survive is too passive. . . .

In my book, The Sociology of American Jews: A Critical Anthology, . . . I add one more category—the “activist” Jewish intellectual of the post-1967 era. This perspective combines Jewish scholarship, Jewish survival, and radical activism; what one would call “progressive” in an earlier era.

There is actually a fifth category, but it has become quite marginalized, and that is Marxist-oriented Jewish social scientists and historians, people like Morris U. Schappes and, earlier, Ber Borochov and Moses Hess. It is very difficult to be a Marxist and a Jew and a sociologist. It may well be impossible. But it is not impossible to be an activist Left-liberal Jewish sociologist. And this is the fourth category that I represent and that goes beyond Marshall Sklare’s survivalist perspective, though I do not mean to gainsay Sklare’s singular impact on the field. . . .

Activist sociologists are distinguished by their heightened interest in pluralism, in Jewish sub-communities, and in Jewish “communities of deviance”—the Jewish poor, drug addicts, women, the ultra-Orthodox, Holocaust survivors, Jewish radicals, the homeless. Second, they are more attuned to the nascent Jewish feminist movement and its impact on Judaism and Jewish communal structures. . . . Third, they have a deep interest in religious behavior, synagogue life, educational alternatives, havurot, Jewish fellowship, and new political alliances with blacks, Christians, or Arabs.

While books by the late Irving Howe (World of Our Fathers, 1976) and the late Arthur Leibman (Jews and the Left, 1979) explored the turbulent and sometimes radical immigrant past, new interpretations and studies are necessary among a new generation of Jewish sociologists. Sadly, we are an aging generation and there are few young sociologists going into the field. . . . Not surprisingly, it is the students of Marshall Sklare . . . who are more in the activist mold than in the survivalist. It is with them that a new sociology of Jewry will emerge.

Jack Nusan Porter
Newton Highlands, Massachusetts

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