Commentary Magazine

Revolutionism & the Jews:1 - New York and Jerusalem

Concerning the participation of Jews, or lapsed Jews, in left-wing politics during the last century, two basic facts stand out: the prominent role they have played at one time or another, and their subsequent disappearance from positions of influence and command. In 19th-century Germany, Jews provided the ideological leadership of the socialist movement (Marx, Lassalle, Moses Hess). Later on, Jews were among the leaders of revolutionary, “centrist,” and “revisionist” parties alike. The leadership of Austrian socialism (“Austro-Marxism”) and Hungarian Communism was almost entirely Jewish, and before World War I there was not a single non-Jew in some East European delegations to the Congress of the Second International. If Jews gradually faded from the top echelons of these movements, it was not just Stalinism or Nazism that was responsible. To cite but one example: most of the founding members of the German Communist party in 1918, including the most prominent among them, were of Jewish origin. Only thirteen years later there was not a single Jew among the hundreds of Communists chosen by the party to run for election to the Reichstag. The prominence of Jews in today’s New Left, after they deserted or were squeezed out of the Old Left, is therefore a phenomenon open to more than one interpretation.

The decisive impact which the French Revolution had on the political sentiments of Jews is so obvious as to need no elaboration here. Typical of a whole generation of young Jews was the case of Ludwig Börne. This “Juif de Francfort,” as his passport described him, was the greatest publicist of his age. He left behind a graphic description of the pre-revolutionary condition of the Jews in his home town:

They enjoyed the loving care of the authorities. They were forbidden to leave their street on Sundays lest they be beaten up by drunks. They were not permitted to marry before the age of twenty-five, so that their children would be strong and healthy. On holidays they could not leave their homes before six in the evening lest the great heat cause them harm. The public gardens and promenades outside the city were closed to them; they had to walk in the fields—presumably to awaken their enthusiasm for agriculture. If a Jew crossed the street and a Christian citizen shouted, “Pay your respects, Jud ‘!” the Jew had to remove his hat; of such measures the intention no doubt was to strengthen the feelings of love and respect between Christians and Jews.

Once the walls of the ghetto came down, some young Jewish intellectuals hastened to dissociate themselves entirely from the pariah people. Others joined the democratic republican forces which had promised to lead the Jews out of degradation. Börne, who migrated to Paris, was attacked by his critics for his anti-Germanism. He replied that he loved Germany more than France, because Germany was the unhappier country, but how could he not admire France, the citadel of liberty?

The economic position of Jews in Central and Western Europe improved rapidly during the first half of the 19th century, but their social and political standing lagged far behind. It was therefore only natural that many Jewish intellectuals should have been in the forefront of republicanism and the radical Left. For although Jewish economic interests might have dictated a certain hostility to socialism, the radical Left stood for a world in which all men would be free and equal. Despite its occasional manifestations of anti-Semitism, the Left offered the Jews an opportunity to be politically active, whereas the parties favoring the established order by and large excluded Jews altogether from their ranks.

It was at this time that the image of the “typical Jewish intellectual” emerged. When such a person discarded his old religious beliefs, wrote Hermann Oncken, Lassalle’s biographer, he turned to the other extreme, to atheism and materialism. Having done away with his own past, he felt no particular respect for Christian traditions either; indeed, he was resentful toward the whole world. For centuries the Jews had been held in contempt, yet they had continued to regard themselves as the chosen people. The emancipation provided, for the first time, a means of releasing this tension.

Georg Brandes (born Georg Morris Cohen), an earlier biographer of Lassalle, was the first to point to one of the more pronounced characteristics of the Jewish intellectual in radical politics: chutzpah, a term he defined as “presence of mind, impertinence, audacity, intrepidity, insolence.” The Jews had been a timid people, forced into subservience; once they felt the impact of emancipation and Kultur, some of them were bound to gravitate toward extremism in politics.

It is usually forgotten, to be sure, that only a small minority of Jews permanently aligned themselves with the party of revolution. The vast majority of European Jewry west of Russia flirted with radical politics only for relatively brief periods in the wake of a widespread revolutionary wave, such as before and during 1848, and on certain occasions later on. Where there was no strong liberal party, or where there was a threat of right-wing anti-Semitism, they gave their vote to the Social Democrats. But a large sector of European Jewry was middle class in character and supported middle-of-the-road liberal and democratic parties—a bit Left of center, but not much. These Jews were patriotic and, to a large extent, conformist; they joined a revolutionary movement only in the face of a government that opposed assimilation and integration. The history of the Jews in the radical movement is therefore largely the history of certain sections of the Jewish intelligentsia, both before and after emancipation.



Various interpretations have been offered to explain the particular fascination exerted by the party of revolution on the Jewish intelligentsia. Of these, the anti-Semitic thesis known as the “ferment of decomposition” has been advanced in different forms in many countries. Briefly, it runs as follows: unable to establish a state of their own, reduced to a marginal, parasitic existence among the peoples of the earth, Jews developed over the centuries an overwhelming destructive urge. Having no fatherland, they wished to deny one to everybody else as well. More extravagant anti-Semites saw a worldwide Jewish conspiracy to subvert the Aryan peoples and to establish Jewish world rule. The more moderate regarded the trend toward radicalism as the unfortunate heritage of an unhappy people, understandable in the light of its past, but dangerous for law and order and the preservation of the traditions and values of non-Jews.

Among Jews, and within the radical parties themselves, the subject was not often discussed. Marx, Lassalle, and many other Jewish socialists completely dissociated themselves from Judaism and Jewry, for both of which they had nothing but contempt. Their choice of revolutionary socialism implied an absolute break with tradition. But it may be wondered if their decision in favor of the radical Left was entirely unconnected with their Jewish origin and heritage. Anti-Semites like Bakunin were not the only ones to think it was not unconnected. A Jewish contemporary of Marx wrote that radical politics was but a new and different manifestation of religion (“one goes to the democratic club, as the religious believer goes to his house of worship”). Deprived of its transcendental character, religion had become politics, with freedom and happiness on earth the secular message of the new messianism. Gustav Mayer, the distinguished historian of German socialism, found the prophets of Israel to be the models of Marx’s faith. He compared Marx’s analysis of early industrial capitalism, with its ravages and inequities, with Isaiah’s denunciations of King Ahab. Léon Blum, writing at the turn of the century, pursued this theme further. Jews, he predicted, would play a central role in the destruction of the old order and the building of the new. Insofar as there was a collective Jewish will, it tended toward revolution. According to Blum, the highly developed critical faculties of Jews were bound to turn against any idea, any tradition, which could not be justified by reason and did not conform with the facts. Where Christ preached love, the Jewish God stood for justice. The combination of reason and justice, in pursuit of a transformation of the social order, spelled socialism.

Not many Marxists held these views; most preferred to believe with Kautsky that to the extent that Jews were affected by messianic aspirations, these led in a reactionary—i.e., Zionist—direction. The attraction of Jews to socialism was to be explained rather by the simple fact that most of them were city dwellers, and as such had the specific qualities required for the progress of humanity. Though small in numbers, the Jews of Western Europe had produced Spinoza and Heine, Lassalle, Marx, and other geniuses. But these spiritual giants became effective forces in the world only after they had broken out of the fetters of Judaism. Their main struggles were carried on outside its sphere, and usually in conscious opposition to it: “The Jews have become an eminently revolutionary force, while Judaism has become a reactionary factor.” Similar views have been expressed frequently on the Left, most recently in an essay, “The Non-Jewish Jew,” written by the late Isaac Deutscher; while the essay does not mention Kautsky by name, it is essentially a paraphrase of his pre-1914 thesis concerning Jews and radicalism.

Jewish revolutionaries striving for the liberation of mankind obviously had no use for Jewish nationalism. Most regarded it as an atavistic throwback, a reassertion of tribalism over universalism, a retreat from internationalist ideals. It is only fair to add that this view of things was by no means limited to the Left; it was part and parcel of the “bourgeois-assimilationist” heritage of the 19th century. The liberal argument against Zionism—voiced, among others, by European and American Reform rabbis—held that divine providence had scattered the Jews all over the world so that they might appear as witnesses to the idea of a God of justice and promote the realization of the prophetic ideal. Jewish revolutionaries accepted this argument as Marx adapted Hegel: they stood it on its head. However, of all the arguments against Zionism (of which there are no doubt a great many) this has been the weakest. Some of the advocates of universalism believed, no doubt sincerely, in what it involved, but for many others it was simply a convenient pretext: “messianic mission” really stood for the fleshpots of Europe and America. A few revolutionaries may have genuinely thought that in view of their vulnerability and rootlessness the Jews were (as Deutscher put it) the natural protagonists of cosmopolitanism and internationalism. But most simply preferred the wider stage of European politics to the narrow confines of the Jewish community.



Several generations after Börne and Marx, yet another explanation was advanced for the Jewish propensity toward left-wing radicalism: that it is an outgrowth of Jewish messianism. This argument has been assailed on the grounds that those who embraced Communism were not, after all, Orthodox Jews, and their move to radicalism was anyway based in part on a wish to dissociate themselves from Judaism altogether. This, however, is not altogether convincing, since there is no reason why the immanent urge for social justice, which for thousands of years found expression in the Jewish religion, could not manifest itself, in a post-religious age, in a secular movement. But the basic assumption, namely that the Jewish religion is somehow more “leftist” in character than others, and that Jews are therefore predestined to join revolutionary parties, does not withstand investigation. The Jewish religion, first of all, is essentially conservative—or at least can be seen to give as much warrant to political conservatism as to any other political tendency. Secondly, the messianic impulse toward eternal peace and social justice has been as clearly evident in other religions. Thirdly, Judaism places strict emphasis on allegiance to a religious-national entity—hardly a prerequisite for cosmopolitanism. It may be only natural for a group that was the victim of persecution for so long to support or sympathize with other oppressed minorities. But this is clearly an insufficient explanation for attitudes that negate the very values of the societies which liberated the Jews in the first place.

One element of revolutionary politics that may have exercised a powerful attraction on Jews is its idealism; another is its abstract character. It is indisputable that whereas Jews have excelled in many fields of human endeavor, their contribution to politics has not on the whole been outstanding. Traditionally they have shown great ability on the level of abstract thought, but politics also involves instinct, common sense, wisdom, and foresight, and in this respect the record of Jewish intellectuals has not been that impressive. Nor have they demonstrated much understanding of the more imponderable factors in national life. This of course has been one of the main failings of the radical Left in general: not one of the ideologists of revolutionary socialism, for instance, foresaw that in our time internationalism would give way everywhere to national socialism—a trend which has had unfortunate consequences for Jewish socialists, for Jewish communities, and for the world in general.

Historically, these Jewish weaknesses are not difficult to explain. It would have been a near-miracle if, after two thousand years of statelessness, Jews had shown political instinct or the responsibility and maturity that comes from centuries-old traditions of statecraft. Individual Jews, to be sure, have devised clever ideological constructions, but invariably these constructions have exhibited every quality but the essential one: they were hopelessly wrong. Those who are appalled by some of the inanities of present-day radical theories about Judaism or Israel would do well to reread the works of some writers of the 1930’s. I refer among other works to Otto Heller’s Downfall of Judaism (1930), in which the author demonstrated in great detail that in Eastern Europe, under Communism, the Jewish question had been solved once and for all, and that anti-Semitism had lost its social foundation. “What is Jerusalem to the Jewish proletariat?” Heller asked. “Next year in Jerusalem! Next year in the Crimea! Next year in Birobidzhan!”

William Zukerman’s The Jew in Revolt (1937), an ambitious analysis of the Jewish situation, makes even stranger reading today. Zukerman attacked in the sharpest terms the various schemes then current for promoting Jewish emigration from Nazi Germany. German Jews, he proclaimed, were deeply rooted in German soil and bound to their country by a thousand spiritual ties: “It is a gross slander on the German Jews, whose love for their fatherland is proverbial, to represent them as being ready to rush away in panic at the first approach of misfortune. . . . After all, the Jews are not the only victims of persecution in Germany today. Why not a wholesale exodus of German Communists, socialists, pacifists, liberals, and Catholics?” Zukerman placed the responsibility for the despicable idea of Jewish emigration from Germany squarely on the fanatical Zionist bourgeoisie: “The fact is that insofar as the exodus plan has now become a popular solution for the Jewish problem, it is due more to a number of Zionist zealots and to a few big Jewish financiers than to the fascists. Of all the paradoxes of our time, this one will probably go down into history as the most curious of all.” But he had no doubt that the Zionist project would fail: “In spite of the brutal Nazi persecution, the bulk of German Jewry will remain in Germany and they will be there long after Hitler is gone. . . . They bear the cross of their suffering with dignity and fortitude as behooves an ancient people that has seen martyrdom and knows that tyranny, no matter how temporarily powerful, cannot forever turn back the wheels of history.”

Zukerman’s thesis, incredible to read today, was nevertheless based on a careful ideological analysis. The Soviet Union, he wrote, had solved the Jewish question “economically, politically, and psychologically,” an end had been put to the scourge of Jew-hatred, and “the very meaning of the word anti-Semitism is rapidly being forgotten.” This shining example signaled the end of the age of liberalism. The Jew, whether or not he approved of everything going on in the Soviet Union, could “do nothing but follow the road shown by the Soviet Union for the solution of the Jewish problem.” The Jew was the “faithful, old, brass-buttoned lackey kicked by fascism down the steps of the palace of capitalism which he did so much to erect and over which he watched devotedly for so many years.” But, Zukerman concluded with Fanonian pathos, adherence to the revolutionary socialist movement would atone for everything; by revolting against the existing order the Jews were revolting also against themselves—“and there is no greater, and morally more cleansing, revolt than this.”



Zukerman was not, I believe, a member of the Communist party. His views, far from being aberrant, were shared, if in somewhat more moderate form, by many well-meaning and apparently sane people. The fact that this was so raises a disturbing question regarding their very instinct for survival. The issue of survival is not one that is likely to perturb today’s Jewish radical, bemused as he is by a world revolution to whose interests the concerns of individual nations have to be subordinated. Seen from this vantage point, Jews are expendable; other nations, after all, have come and gone in history. Trotsky relates in his autobiography that from his earliest childhood nationalist passions and prejudices were incomprehensible and loathsome to him. Rosa Luxemburg wrote to Mathilde Wurm in 1917: “Why do you come with your special Jewish sorrows? I feel just as sorry for the wretched Indian victim in Putamayo, the Negroes in Africa. . . . I cannot find a special corner in my heart for the ghetto.” This, in a way, was an understatement, for, to judge from her writings and speeches, Rosa Luxemburg actually cared less for Jewish victims of persecution than for victims of colonial oppression. But in any event it is difficult to imagine that Lenin, though an internationalist second to none, would have referred with such disdain to “special Russian sorrows.”

Which brings us to Jewish self-hatred, a well-known phenomenon long before Theodor Lessing published his study of the subject in the 1920’s. (To be sure, self-hatred is hardly limited to Jews, and even among Jews it is by no means limited to radicals.) The key to the specific Jewish propensity toward guilt feelings (“it is our fault that we are hated”) has been found by some observers to lie in religious tradition, but since the Jewish religion puts no more emphasis on individual and collective guilt than does Christianity, this explanation remains unconvincing. Modern liberalism, on the other hand, is a guilt-culture par excellence. Nevertheless, whatever its source, the importance of self-hatred for Jewish radicals today should not be exaggerated. It plays a smaller role now than two generations ago in Europe, and historical parallels are likely to be misleading.

The young Jewish radical who supports, at least in theory, Al Fatah against Israel (“a steady patriot of the world alone, the friend of every country but his own”) is not as a rule motivated by self-hatred. Jewishness is for him largely a meaningless proposition; he does not regard himself as part of the community into which he was accidentally born. Hence he is also not a traitor, since one cannot betray what one does not believe in or what one feels no allegiance to. There is admittedly a special cutting edge to the rejection of Judaism and Zionism by the young Jewish radical of our time.1 The Old Left did not feel any special solidarity with the Jewish people either, but having lived through the greatest catastrophe in Jewish history it sensed after 1945 the inappropriateness of a public dissociation from the Jewish community. For the young Jewish radical, on the other hand, Jewish history begins in 1960 or thereabouts, and no such inhibitions apply. In some cases one can clearly discern a simple desire to shock—“the death camps were set up and run by Zionists in cooperation with the Gestapo,” or “the destruction of Israel would benefit mankind.” But existing studies have shown that most young radicals grew up in left-wing homes, without any strong ties to the Jewish community, and hence did not have to rebel against tradition in order to reach their present position with regard to Jews. We can now see that the general process of disintegration that has affected Diaspora Jewry over the last century and more was merely retarded momentarily, but certainly not halted, by Hitler and the Holocaust.




Until fairly recently, most Israelis have been unaware of internal developments in the United States and especially among American Jews. Only during the last year or so have terms like SDS, Yippies, Weathermen, become known outside a small circle of cognoscenti. Members of the Israeli political Establishment visiting the United States usually confined themselves to Washington, where they heard nothing particularly disquieting. They would probably not have believed the truth anyway, for to the generation of Israelis who grew up on Berl Katznelson and shared his contempt for Jews willing to fight the social and national struggle of every people but their own, The Movement of the 1960’s would have appeared totally incomprehensible.

Some of the younger Israelis, however, have been more receptive. Like most small countries, Israel faces the danger of cultural provincialism; there is, especially among the young, a fear of being cut off from the main centers of world culture, and a desire to be up on every single intellectual fad and fashion. Within the limits set by climate and good sense, young Israelis are, not surprisingly, prepared to follow the sartorial fashions of America and Western Europe; they have adopted the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and other exponents and features of the youth subculture. Drugs have made certain inroads, as have movies expressing the new spiritual climate, and students have demanded a greater say in running the universities.

But for the more extreme cultural and political antics of American-Jewish radicalism, Israel does not provide promising soil. There is a small New Left (Smol Israeli Hadash—“Siah”), and a tiny but vociferous quasi-Trotskyite movement (“Matzpen”).2 Many of its members have by now migrated to Europe and the United States—not because they face the gallows or the firing squad, but for sound ideological reasons. The position of a member of “Matzpen” is not unlike that of a Jewish Communist in Mandatory Palestine in the 1920’s or 30’s: once he had reached the conclusion that Jewish Palestine was ab initio imperialist and anti-revolutionary, a “colonialist society” that could not be transformed but must be destroyed, the only logical, sensible, and honest conclusion was to emigrate. The chances for such a person to integrate himself within the Arab national movement, however close he felt to it politically, were minimal.

But on the whole these political and cultural influences do not go very deep and the impact of the marginal groups is limited. There is a world of difference between the mood of the American-Jewish radical intelligentsia and the state of mind of most Israeli intellectuals. It is one thing to engage in the systematic disparagement of “Amerika,” to predict its further decline and eventual downfall, or at the very least to demand a radical reorientation in the scale of national priorities. To hold this view, even to act upon it, does not expose one to the risk of mortal danger, nor is one’s paycheck likely to be affected. Israel, on the other hand, is a beleaguered fortress, its priorities dictated by its enemies. The advocacy of courses of action whose possible effect would be to weaken the state’s defenses is not merely unpatriotic in an abstract sense, but can endanger the very existence of the state and the safety of its citizens.

Israeli patriotism, and the conspicuous lack of guilt feelings among Israeli intellectuals, may strike Americans as strange, if not somewhat offensive. Israelis are still strongly imbued with the pioneering values of the halutzim, values that must seem as outdated and “square” as the tradition of the frontier in American history. For the Israeli, on the other hand, the American-Jewish radical represents the Diaspora Jew par excellence: immature, irresponsible, tormented with sundry imaginary problems, full of verbal revolutionism but no great believer in the unity of theory and practice. When he comes to Israel, the American radical may enthusiastically join a kibbutz, but then find it impossible to adjust to the discipline required of him. It comes as no great surprise to Israelis when American “revolutionaries” leave after a few months declaring that the kibbutz is not radical enough, and proclaiming their intention to return to America, where they will no doubt join the less demanding and more glamorous struggle for liberation as practiced there or—even more likely—become absorbed into the bourgeois society they scorn. To the young Israeli, his American contemporary—restless, neurotic, faddish—is basically unserious, and his ideological critique of Israel more than a little suspect.



Israeli skepticism toward American radicals applies above all to the criticism of Israel’s “failure” to come to terms with her Arab neighbors. The bi-national solution that some American radicals have advanced may indeed be a wonderful concept, but where in the world has it ever worked? Israelis are told that their country should cease being a nationalist-racialist state and should become instead truly socialist and democratic; on this basis, it is argued, rapprochement with the Arabs will become possible. But even if the basic assumption were accepted, namely, that states get along better if they become more alike (a highly doubtful proposition), the opposite course of action would seem to be indicated. To become more like the revolutionary Arab countries Israel would have to introduce a military dictatorship with a one-party system in which civil liberties would no longer be respected and which ideologically would contain an admixture of Islamic, Communist, and fascist elements—a regime, in short, similar to that in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. Perhaps on such a basis some common ground could indeed be found with the Arab states. I myself doubt it, but in any case, who would want to live in such a state? What good does it do to argue, as Noam Chomsky does, that a solution to the conflict can be found once nationalism is overcome, if even the extreme Left wing of the “Arab liberation movement” is intensely nationalist in character and continues to deny the very existence of a Jewish nation in Israel?

Israelis will note the genuine concern behind the advice offered them, but they will as a rule reject it out of hand, not just because they consider it totally removed from reality, but mainly because their “advisers” clearly have no wish to link their own fate with that of the Jewish state. Some Israelis have by now reached the conclusion that they may be better off without a certain type of well-wisher who, affected by the “American disease,” has only negative criticism to offer and who is, moreover, temperamentally ill-suited to a daily life which in most respects is still much harsher than life in the United States.

The estrangement between Israel and certain sections of American Jewry is not a problem to be dismissed lightly. Since the end of World War II, Zionism and the State of Israel have become more dependent than ever on American Jews. While American Jewry has given invaluable political and financial help to Zionism and Israel, only a few American Jews have in fact settled in Israel, much to the disappointment of Israeli leaders. Yet how realistic was the expectation that sizable numbers of American Jews would migrate? Zionists have always entertained a naive belief in the ultimate rejection of the Diaspora; Israeli schoolchildren are taught to this day that life in the Diaspora is both physically unsafe and intolerable for proud, self-respecting Jews, and that sooner or later the “ingathering of the exiles” will take place. On a higher level of sophistication, it is argued in Israel that the “American crisis” (the rise in black anti-Semitism, the breakdown of liberal pluralism, and other social processes) will make assimilation more difficult, if not impossible; that there will follow a new revival of national consciousness among American Jews that will affect hundreds of thousands, if not millions, and lead them toward mass emigration. At the same time, the hope has been expressed that even the New-Left Jew will sooner or later confront the question of his identity and will realize that Israel is the only place where he can live as a human being, free of the pressures and distortions of life in the Diaspora.

It is not easy to understand on what these hopes are based. There is a Jewish problem in America, and it will probably be aggravated in the years to come, partly as the result of the general difficulties faced by American society, partly because of the New Left and other social and political trends. But it may be useful to recall that well before Hitler the Jewish problem in Central Europe was much more acute, yet no mass emigration resulted. Zionist thought has never quite accepted the fact that—a few idealists apart—people leave their native lands only because of extreme economic or political pressure, of the kind that is unlikely to arise in America.3 Even if Jews should be squeezed out of certain professions, there will be openings elsewhere; even if their political influence should decrease, they will not be defenseless—unless a catastrophe should occur that would jeopardize not only American Jews but the prosperity and security of the entire nation.




There has been in Israel much talk of late about the necessity of a “dialogue” with the New Left. Nothing should be done to dampen the enthusiasm of those eager to try their luck, but no one familiar with the problem can feel sanguine about the outcome. Anyone who takes the position that Mao, Fanon, and Guevara are the leading thinkers of the century, that LeRoi Jones is a paragon of socialist humanism, or that the American political system is worse than Nazism, is bound to denounce Israel as a puppet of American imperialism. The thought of The Movement has a certain logic and consistency; once one accepts the basic premises, one cannot stop short where Israel is concerned.

Israelis have heard of groups like “Jews for Urban Justice” and Na’aseh, of Havurat Shalom, ACIID, and the “Free Jewish Universities,” of the Bet Midrash at the University of Michigan and the Jewish Radical at Berkeley. While opposed to the Jewish Establishment, these groups profess a deep commitment to their own Jewishness; some of them claim that they “identify strongly with Israel although not necessarily with her policies.” Their doctrines betray strange and contradictory ideological influences. Some spokesmen, like Arthur Waskow of Washington, advocate a return to the ideas of the Bund (minus Yiddish and other essential planks of that organization), while others claim to have rediscovered Ber Borokhov. (Some sixty years ago Borokhov attempted to formulate a Marxist-Zionist synthesis; he believed that Palestine would be built as the result of “stychic” forces—i.e., objective economic trends which would drive both Jewish capital and the Jewish proletariat toward a Zionist solution.) The Bund played an important role in educating the Jewish masses of Eastern Europe, and Borokhov was a man of considerable intellect and erudition, though not the greatest of political prophets. (He predicted, for example, that the Palestinian Arabs would be absorbed by the Jews as the result of a process of cultural assimilation.) But whatever the past merits of the Bund and Borokhov—and many of their views were mistaken even sixty years ago—their present relevance to American Jewry is roughly comparable to that of the dispute over the use of amulets between Rabbis Emden and Eibeschütz in the 18th century.

Israelis are as distrustful of the professed “commitment” of the Jewish radicals to Israel as these radicals are of the generation of their parents, and on very similar grounds: the perceived discrepancy between their words and their actions. The radicals accuse the Jewish Establishment of hypocrisy, but what does a “strong identification with Israel” mean unless it involves settling in Israel? To get ten semester hours of credit for living six months on a kibbutz is not quite what was understood by the halutzim as “self-realization.” Admirers of Lenin, the committed radicals obviously do not subscribe to his notion of the unity of theory and practice, certainly not in respect to Israel; if they did, they might be led to question the appropriateness of criticizing Israeli policies from MIT or Berkeley. In addition, it is as difficult for these radicals to defend their position against the anti-Israeli New Left as it was for Borokhov’s followers to defend themselves against the Russian Marxists, and not just because the Bolsheviks were the stronger party. Properly speaking, their commitment to a “critical radical political ideology” involves opposition to American foreign policy, not only in Vietnam, but opposition tout court. Some want to see America defeated in the global contest; others simply advocate a drastic reduction of defense spending for a decade or two until the main domestic problems are solved. But at this point commitment to the basic tenets of the New Left clashes with the interests of the survival of Israel, and no ideological legerdemain can dispose of the resulting impasse.

Given the constant geopolitical factors, and Soviet ambitions in the Middle East, the survival of Israel, as of other small nations, depends on a global balance between the two super-powers. If this balance is radically upset, if America is seriously weakened, the Soviet Union will emerge as the predominant power in the Middle East. Such a development has, to put it cautiously, grave consequences for the independence and the very survival of the State of Israel. This is the basic fact of Middle East politics, and there is no getting around it. Any action which upsets the balance of power is bound to strengthen the Soviet Union, and jeopardize the existence of Israel. The anti-Israel faction of the New Left is thus absolutely correct in its criticism of the pro-Israel radicals: once one accepts the basic assumption that the American Establishment is totally evil, that its foreign policy is simply a function of its imperialist, anti-revolutionary character, and that the defeat of America is in the interest of world revolution, one cannot logically make an exception of American policy in the Middle East (unless, of course, one maintains that there is no such thing as the balance of power—which is about as sensible as the attempt to deny the existence of atomic bombs).



Some Israeli students of American-Jewish radicalism have argued that every ideological belief has its Achilles heel and that “one well-placed blow may prove fatal to the whole structure, leaving the believer bereft of his former beliefs with their built-in screening mechanisms. . . . The Achilles heel of the Jew on the Left is the problem of his identity. . . . Only Zionism has created the reality which the left wing aspires to. Only Zionism has made it possible for a Jew to exist without the fact of his Jewishness.”4 Hence the need to persuade the New-Left Jew that Israel is the only place in the world where Jews can lead a fully human existence.

The argument is quite familiar. Seventy years ago Max Nordau wrote about young Jewish intellectuals who had become “cripples within and counterfeit persons without, ridiculous and hateful, like everything unreal, to all men of high standards, new Marranos who no longer have a faith to sustain them.” But America is not Europe, and the New Leftist has a faith to sustain him. Perhaps he will eventually realize through bitter experience that he is not wanted in the struggle for the liberation of other peoples and that by pushing himself into positions of command and authority, he does more harm than good. Nordau, well before World War I, in a remarkable prophetic speech apostrophizing some of the left-wing critics of Zionism, predicted that socialism would bring them the same disappointment as had the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the movement for political freedom: “If we should live to see that socialist theory becomes practice, you’ll be surprised to meet again in the new order that old acquaintance, anti-Semitism. And it won’t help at all that Marx and Lassalle were Jews. . . . The founder of Christianity was a Jew, too, but to the best of my knowledge Christendom does not think it owes a debt of gratitude to the Jews. I do not doubt that the ideologists of socialism will always remain faithful to their doctrine, that they will never become racialists. But they will have to take realities into account. The anti-Semitism of the masses will dictate their policy.” Appeals like Nordau’s have only rarely impressed Jewish revolutionaries, who always pooh-poohed the idea that anti-Semitism was “eternal” (which, to be sure, Herzl and Nordau never claimed), or that it constituted a serious handicap in the struggle for social liberation.

The Zionist conception of the deep-seated vulnerability of the Jewish radical who devotes his life to the liberation struggle of other nations, but who will eventually return to his own fold, was exaggerated even in Nordau’s day. It is, I fear, now very much out of date. Sixty years ago, a young East European Jewish intellectual could drift from Bolshevism or Menshevism to Bundism or Sejmism or Zionism (or vice versa) without great difficulty; he was only half a generation removed—if that—from Jewish tradition. The Jewish radical of the 1970’s is no longer part of that tradition, and I doubt whether this situation can be changed.

Thus the hope that young radicals of this generation will again become “good Jews” is a slender one, comparable perhaps with the hope of a psychoanalyst for the recovery of a patient with a weak ego structure or a serious intellectual deficiency. Individuals may rediscover their Jewish identity and consciousness, but a catastrophe of the magnitude of Nazism would be needed to effect a mass reconversion of people so far removed from Judaism. Jewish radicalism in America is, of course, a form of assimilation, and as such is part of a much wider historical process. The assumption—shared by most (not all) Zionist thinkers—that complete assimilation is not possible has been proved correct in some countries, incorrect in others. Assimilation in the Western world, as I noted, was retarded by the Holocaust, which strengthened Jewish consciousness, created a favorable atmosphere for Zionism among Jews and non-Jews, and made the creation of the State of Israel possible. But the shock has passed; a new generation of Jews and non-Jews has grown up which no longer feels a special obligation or commitment. Even those radicals who express concern for Israel are increasingly preoccupied with American domestic policies.

It can therefore be predicted with reasonable certainty that specifically Jewish preoccupations will gradually be relegated to a lower order of importance in the scale of priorities of many Jewish radicals; they already figure lower than Indochina, pollution, women’s liberation, and the race question, and will no doubt decline even further. This may be all to the good, for the present stance of the Jewish radical is a halfway house, morally and intellectually inconsistent, and thus untenable in the long run. “Committed Jews” who devote almost all their time and energies to acting as catalysts for what they regard as “progress” in a Gentile society will find that their Jewish commitment becomes more and more meaningless and irrelevant. Israel will be an embarrassment to them, and they will want to wash their hands of it. The interests of world revolution, after all, override those of a small country in the Middle East.



The political and social position of American Jewry has for a variety of historial reasons been a good deal less vulnerable than that of European Jewry, but the general crisis affecting America at the present time has dangerous implications for its Jewish citizens. This would be the case even if Messrs. Rubin, Hoffman, Rudd, the Jewish Weathermen and their supporters had never appeared on the scene. The fact that Jews have been prominently associated with declarations and actions abhorred by the majority of Americans provides fuel for a reaction which will be not just anti-Left or anti-intellectual, but potentially anti-Semitic as well. No great demagogic skill would be needed to single out the Jews as the main culprits for the evils which have befallen America in recent times. If this should happen, the New Left may enter history, ironically enough, as a movement which, albeit in an indirect way, delayed the full integration of American Jewry, kindled the dimly shining candle of Jewish consciousness, and (for all one knows) promoted a substantial increase in aliyah to Israel. This would be an example of what Hegel called the cunning of reason. Whether these incidental benefits would be worth the price that would have to be paid is another question.

Of course, it may be argued that despite everything I have said, the outlook for relations between Israel and American Jewry as a whole is brighter than might appear. Perhaps I have stressed too much certain contradictions in Jewish life which prevail all over the globe and which time may assuage if not solve. I have after all been concerned in this analysis with the activities of a relatively small, if highly vocal, sector of American Jews. But while Jewish Maoists support Al Fatah and the PFLP, the number of American immigrants to Israel is increasing from year to year, and the great majority of American Jews support Israel wholeheartedly. All this is undoubtedly true, but it is also true that American Jews today are apprehensive, and justly so, both about Israel and about the security of their own position in American life. And Israelis have cause for apprehension as well, for their fate, as they well know, depends to a great extent on the future of American Jewry. The four decades since Arlosoroff wrote his essay have witnessed an immense advance of American Jews in almost every field; yet at the end of the period the problems besetting them, though different in character, are at least as formidable as ever, and the dangers looming ahead even greater.



1 This point has been made by J. L. Talmon in his recently published book, Israel among the Nations: “The descendants of countless generations of injustice, and the heirs to a most ancient tradition of revolt against it, they feel uncomfortable, while there is so much evil and falsehood around; ‘a little more so’ than their Gentile comrades, because of the great intensity peculiar to their race, and the unquenchable spirit of nonconformism and restless quest which partly at least stems from the lack of a firm Jewish commitment and an anchorage in a vital collective experience. The latter makes the Jewish rebels turn with obvious self-hatred against their own race. Having absorbed the criteria of the detractors of Judaism and never having quite come to terms with their Jewishness—in a positive or negative way—they are unable to take Judaism as it is for granted. They are defying it with standards which can never be met, and attack Israel with ferocious glee for its ‘crimes.’ Ultra-internationalists, they become racists where Jews are concerned.” The phenomenon is not new, but whereas the reaction in the past has usually been in the rationalist tradition, more recently the anarchist-destructive trend has been more pronounced. This “un-Jewish” shift toward irrationalism is an interesting innovation.

2 See Carl Gershman's article, “‘Matzpen’ and Its Sponsors,” COMMENTARY, August 1970.

3 Even Chaim Arlosoroff was no exception. In a long, fascinating essay (“New York and Jerusalem”) published in 1929 he developed the theory that American Jewry, not being rooted in primary production, but over-represented in various marginal professions, was bound to be hit severely by a crisis and by the trend toward concentration and bureaucratization in the American economy (such as the squeezing out of small shopkeepers by the big department stores). Having been told in Cleveland that among 100,000 Polish Americans there were only 30 lawyers as compared with 1,900 among the same number of Jews, he wrote: “When I heard this I said that if a young Jewish lawyer in Vienna named Herzl had not already published the Judenstaat, it would have been written thirty years later by one of his colleagues in Cleveland.” Arlosoroff noted that at the time very few Jews held a prominent place in American cultural life, in the press and literature, but he also pointed to the growing number of young Jews streaming into these professions; sooner or later, he predicted, there would be an outcry about the “complete Judaization” of the press and literature of the country. Arlosoroff erred in attributing paramount importance to the lopsided Jewish social structure; he failed to see that in the country as a whole the numbers employed in agriculture and mining were in fact declining, whereas science and technology—no less productive branches of the national economy which were to provide work for many Jews—were expanding rapidly. Arlosoroff was no Marxist, but in his analysis of the prospects of American Jewry he attributed great significance to economic factors, which he thought would make the Zionist solution inevitable. Events in Germany a few years later showed that anti-Semitism in its most rampant form came to the fore not as the consequence of economic and social competition but as the result of political developments which had their own momentum.

4 Zvi Lamm, “The New Left and Jewish Identity,” Dispersion and Unity, 10, 1970, pp. 64-5.

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