Perplexed, Part I
My father alerted me to a piece by Adam Kirsch in Tablet Magazine on the troubled relationship between Jews and the Left. Kirsch’s article is bad. But I am not in the mood to write a rant. I have been thinking lately that there is too much enthusiasm for caustic debunking on the Left, and not enough energy directed to other forms of critique. I will try, therefore, to address the stupidity of Kirsch’s article sympathetically. There might be something useful about thinking with his historical narrative, however irritating it might be. And, to paraphrase the Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids theme song, I might just learn a thing or two.
Why me? On the one hand, I am interested, professionally, in the history of the US Left. I am working on a PhD in US labor history and working-class culture. And I am a Marxist, which means, in practical terms, that I try to maintain fidelity to the insights of Marx and Engels and their descendants in the Western Marxist tradition, that I spend a good deal of time trying to deepen my understanding of Marx’s critique of political economy, and that I try to learn about about how capitalism works and reflect on how we might imagine a different way of organizing the world.
On the other hand, I am interested, personally, in the history of Jews, having grown up as one. To maintain the two interests is to continually face the question posed by Kirsch: what happened to the historical connection between Jews and the Left? And, in a more self-centered key: why, given the long history of Jewish participation in early 20th century and New Deal-era left-wing social movements, and why, given the preponderance of Jews among the “red diaper babies” who founded the New Left and wrote so many of my favorite books and taught so many of my favorite classes, why, given all this Lefty-Jewish/Jewish-Lefty codependence, was my own youth so devoid of lessons in leftism, so hostile to imaginative affiliation with the Jewish trade unionist and revolutionary political past?
Rick Perlstein writes that, coming of age among right-wing Jews in Milwaukee in the 1970s, he had to learn from books that American Jews were liberals. Similarly, I only discovered the Jewishness of US leftism in monographs and journal articles. I made friends later in life whose grandparents sang them “The Internationale” in Yiddish. Like acquaintances who smoke weed with their parents, or families who hot tub together, such stories still seem to be impossibly fantastical and not a little disconcerting.
As a kid, I always knew that my affluent Jewish relatives in the US were liberals, although liberals of a highly aspirational variety, who sent their kids to prep schools and sailed boats and navigated the world of the American aristocracy. My Jewish friends’ parents in Toronto–a town still ruled, in the 1980s, by a WASP elite and pseudo-British intellectual culture– ranged from centrists to neoconservatives. As a 10 year old, I was mocked by my friend Jeffrey’s father for my passionate hatred of Ronald Reagan. Although I don’t recall the details, I would guess that my youthful iconoclasm chafed against my friend’s father’s sense of propriety for reasons unrelated to matters Jewish. In the mid-1980s, such a dispute may actually have been about trickle-down economics, or the invasion of Granada, or the horrific personages of Robert Bork and C. Everett Koop. Only a few years later, there would have been no ambiguity regarding what we were fighting about. A Left-identfying whippersnapper and a middle-aged opthamologist yelling at each other about politics across a suburban swimming pool could only be arguing about one thing: Israel. So we are forced to confront the question that Kirsch strategically fails to ask throughout his essay: Is Israel what happened to the Jewish/Left alliance?
The answer, I think, is no. The emergence of an Israel-focused political ideology in North American Jewish life, and the concomitant shaping of the mainstream Jewish imagination by hardline Zionism, are effects of changes that were already well underway before 1967 (year zero, according to most historians, of the new passion for Israel among North American Jews). These changes were products of the absorption of Jews into the rarefied halls of American whiteness, the fracturing of historic Jewish-African American alliances, and new articulations of Cold War ideology. The significance of these changes, I would argue, lies in their contribution to the creation of new mutations at the level of mentality, and in particular the emergence of what Norman Geras described as “the contract of mutual disregard”–a novel social contract in which empathy and obligation to the other is replaced by the exclusive investment in self-interest– that may or may not be appropriately linked to that economic and political doctrine called “neoliberalism.”
The worst manifestations of American Israel worship speak to the moral scandal at the heart of “the contract of mutual disregard.” But Israel was in many ways a late arrival to the scene. The worst aspects of AIPAC/hasbara ideology–those against which Jewish leftists rebel, not out of some pathological reflex for self-hatred or incipient mental illness, but because leftists are, by and large, motivated by concern for human suffering and guided by a moral compass that regards complicity with evil as the most profound existential danger–were rehearsed in the withdrawal of proper human sentiment vis-a-vis the suffering of African Americans and the urban poor (accomplished, ideologically, in various victim-blaming discourses and scientific racism revivals, from the 1960s until the present day); the naturalization of white supremacy and Western European vainglory regarding the superiority of the white cultural tradition, manifest in anti-affirmative action, anti-busing, and “culture wars” campaigns; and the unquestioning acceptance of the political authority of the US state as the key to survival in the apocalyptic confrontation with “Evil Empires,” old and new.
Those who are familiar with the recent history of the US will recognize that many of these ideas are associated with a small cluster of Jewish intellectuals: the “neoconservatives” who turned against leftism in the 1960s, elaborated a series of despicable policy perspectives in think tanks and privately funded journals in the 1970s, and won the ear of the Reagan administration in the 1980s. But, as Earl Shorris noted in his Jews Without Mercy (1982), nothing could be further from the Jewish tradition than the heresies against compassion and solidarity with the poor and despised authored by Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter, and Iriving Kristol. In large part, the neocon synthesis was meant to appeal to the WASP masters of the universe who had been perfecting the attack on empathy for several centuries. (Parenthetically: Is Marx anywhere more Jewish than in his focused rage at the sociopathic apologists for capital Andrew Ure and Nassau Senior?)
In this light, we can see that Kirsch’s appeal to the authority of Michael Walzer, who laments the dissonance between the Jewish scriptural tradition and the tenets of modern leftism, is perfectly backwards. It is modern conservatism, not leftism, that squares awkwardly with Jewish sensibilities. This is not to say that leftism and Judaism are particularly compatible: radical political ideologies tend towards secularism and cosmopolitanism. The European Jews who built so much of the US Left were, for the most part, those who regarded their migration from the shtetl to the New World as a welcome liberation from obligatory religious participation.
But to recognize that the Jewish/Left connection has hinged on an open, experimental, dialectical attitude towards human destiny–and thus a principled disregard for abstract obligations to preserve the past in the future–in no way weakens the integrity of our thesis that the weaponized indifference of contemporary conservatism and the neo-fascist extremism of Avigdor Lieberman and Shaul Mofaz (and, for that matter, Alan Dershowitz) are antithetical to traditional Jewish commitments. Along these lines, I think that Norman Finkelstein probably has the most lucid analysis of the current moment in Jewish American politics: Jews, overwhelmingly committed to liberalism, are increasingly turned off by the hardline pro-Israel/AIPAC project, and will steadily withdraw their loyalty unless there is a significant philosophical shift vis-a-vis the human rights of Palestinians.
I conclude on an uncomfortable note of harmony with Kirsch’s pessimistic take on the fate of the Jewish/Left alliance: there is no guarantee that rejection of the current line will mean a revival of Jewish leftism. That’s because much of the behavior apotheosized by the neocons has corroded, if more subtly, mainstream Jewish worldviews. Having profited from whiteness, US Jews are, by and large, reluctant to critically examine why the Jewish and African-American experiences began to diverge so radically after World War II . We are too invested in myths of meritocracy and have been poisoned by racism (particularly, of late, anti-Arab racism). We have been disfigured by our fealty to foreign policy “realism.”
Something profound gets lost when one signs on to reactionary fantasies, investments, and frames: something that can only be recovered by honest and often painful self-reflection, and by concrete commitments in the real world, commitments that might feel, in the short term, like losses and sacrifices. In the long term, such an engagement with social justice would feel, I think, like a return to our roots. After all, the paranoid assets- and opportunity-hoarding, the propensity for drafting racial demonologies in the name of subjugation and exploitation, and the horrors of militarized masculinity: these are the inventions of those who only recently stopped pulling our beards. When we voice such sentiments in regard to Israel, the AIPAC and hasbara flunkies try to change the subject: “Why don’t you ask about human rights in Zimbabwe?” “Try living in Saudi Arabia!” “We’re nice to affluent white gay tourists!” The message of these responses: “Don’t care about what you care about!” “Your sympathy is perverted!” “Stop caring, for fuck’s sake!” In response to such heresies against our long tradition of empathy and obligation to the other, we might conclude by misappropriating the insult hurled by Eric Alterman at his antagonists in a recent debate on Israel-Palestine and BDS in The Nation: good luck with that.