In my previous article I outlined the several reasons why the Jewish left is in an existential crisis, my goal in this piece will be to provide a potential solution to this problem, a solution which preserves the role of Jewish leftism in the Jewish community.
We should keep in mind a few things: first, that there is nothing inherently left-wing about either Judaism or Jews. For every admirable progressive stance in the Torah, there is at least one other egregiously regressive instance. Why, then, did Jews in America become so overwhelmingly left-wing? In short, because Jewish immigration to America coincided with an explosion of radical left-wing activity, and moreover, that the left promised an end to discrimination and bigotry, including anti-semitism, along with economic liberation. For the proletarian Jew in Russia, in Britain, and in America, this was a promise to eradicate the two main sources of misery he encountered every day. Whether Bundist, Communist, Social-Democratic, or Socialist-Zionist, all movements in the left proposed different solutions to solve the commonly-agreed upon problems of anti-semitism and economic inequality Is it no wonder then, that out of self-interest, millions of Jews joined socialist parties, became organizers in industrial unions, subscribed to socialist media, and passed on these acquired left-wing and radical values to their children, just as they did other Jewish traditions?
Fast-forward to today, and the situation has changed markedly. Diaspora Jews have, by and large, achieved economic prosperity. Anti-semitism has waned, and what’s left of it is typically addressed by both left and right. Thus, there is no impetus for Jews as a group to be left-wing, and the fact that Jews are in fact left-wing can best be described as force of habit, a relic of earlier times. And while old habits may die hard, given enough time, they will die, if no new reason arises to perpetuate it. This then, is the question the Jewish leftist must tackle: in this day and age, why should a day and age, why should a Jew be left-wing?
To answer this question, we cannot rely on purely “universalist” reasons. Appeals to Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), caring for the other, and similar appeals may be nice, however they rely on a fundamental altruism, or putting others before yourself. While we as humans might consider ourselves generous and sensitive to the well-being of others, we will fight harder for an idea, for a movement, with which our own interest, well-being, and future is intertwined with its success.
The visceral, “selfish” reasons to be left-wing are many. However they vary from place to place, with a strong demarcation between Israel and the Diaspora (in this piece I will focus on Diaspora Jews in America). Paradoxically, Israel, despite it’s right-wing Jewish population, has the largest raw potential for Jewish leftism. It is the only place with a true Jewish working class, as opposed to professional class, meaning that traditional left-wing appeals to economic self-interest would likely have the greatest staying power. Israel also has a poverty rate of over 20%, higher than any Western country. Thirty-one percent of children in Israel, or almost 800,000 live in poverty. Given such jarring figures, it is not only fair, but necessary to ask, “is this Zionism”? Did we build a nation only for one in three children to live in poverty inside it? If we must be poor, why be poor in Israel rather than Russia or Morocco or Germany? And of course, poverty is far from the only left-wing issue that must be brought up. As Israel’s media continues to be concentrated in the hands of a few magnates, and as oligarchs have greater say in economic affairs as labor protections and the social safety net are slowly crushed, the same question arises, “is Zionism for this?”And we are in the right here. For Zionism to be legitimate, it must be for all Jews, not just Sheldon Adelson, Yitzchak Tshuva and Nony Moses.
To organize a Jewish left in the Diaspora, particularly in America, the question is more difficult to answer, due to different economic conditions and a more diffuse Jewish community. On the other hand we start with a stronger left-wing base, even if at the moment it is directionless. We would do well to note the high poverty rate particularly among elderly Jews, including Holocaust survivors. Given the high rates of college attendance by young Jews, the issue of usurious student loans may well be salient. We must also challenge established Jewish institutions when they make decisions deleterious to Jewish communities, for example when it comes to allocation of funds. The Jewish left will also be helped by a stagnating economy that is driving down salaries in professions such as medicine and law, both professions where we as Jews have been told we could look forward to a prosperous life if we only worked hard enough. Finally, we might serve as a bridge for left-wing Jews turned off by internal dynamics in the Jewish community, to re-engage with Jewishness.
What of relations with other left-wing groups, many of whom might be hostile, particularly regarding questions of Israel and Zionism? We cannot rely on fraternal relations of decades past to guarantee a common future. We must show we must demonstrate the benefits of working with us, of the added manpower, enthusiasm, and vibrant thought. All of these we must first cultivate independently, to show we are a force to be reckoned with, and a potentially powerful ally. Whether we succeed in winning sympathy and alliance from established left-wing movements will depend on two factors: whether an attitude of mutual self-interest can develop, and if we can develop a radical-left Jewish narrative that will elicit respect from the international left.
And what of relations with Jewish left-wing movements that might describe themselves as non-Zionist or anti-Zionist? Here it is important to distinguish between these groups and older movements from which they might claim descent, such as the Bund. For while the Bund placed ordinary Jews at the center of their political program, and were committed to the continuation of the Jewish people, these concerns are by and large irrelevant to such groups today. As such, any such collaboration with these groups can be assumed to be unproductive in achieving our primary goal. This being said, if such an organization appeared that considered the survival of the Jewish left to be of critical importance, proposed sensible measures to combat negative trends, and committed to working within the larger Jewish community rather than confining themselves to the margins, there should not necessarily be a ban on cooperation on issues relating to the Jewish community, provided that such efforts do not jeopardize our own goals.
And what should our movement do? Quite simply, it must establish itself as providing the Jewish community with the best source of Jewishness. We should set up our own “Hebrew schools”, though of course they must go beyond Hebrew lessons and shallow conceptions of what being Jewish means, rather they must explain our shared history, the shared struggle that each and every Jew is a part of, our shared future, and perhaps most importantly, we must be able to answer the question “Why should one be a Jew?” And of course, this curriculum must be suffused with ideology- we must show why a Jew should be left-wing. Similarly, we must set up our own summer and winter camps, where an atmosphere of Jewish leftism is pervasive. Most importantly, these resources must be available to ordinary Jewish families. Even now, many non religious families (including mine), send their children to Orthodox day camps, simply because they were the only affordable option. We must find a way to make our programs available to all Jewish families, regardless of income. In addition, we must find ways to financially aid poor Jews, particularly the elderly, so they can live their lives in dignity. Through these and many other actions, we must establish ourselves as a pillar holding up the community.
If these challenges seem daunting (and indeed they are), consider what will happen otherwise. The peripheral “mantle” of the community (which also happens to be disproportionately liberal-leaning) will gradually dissolve, leaving behind a numerically small but influential core consisting of ideologically committed, and politically right-wing members. The Jewish community of our grandchildren will largely spring from this core. Without concerted efforts of Jewish left-wingers now, the Jewish community will be conservative until the historical stars align for yet another revolutionary transformation in the Jewish community, an event which might not take place for centuries. Until then, there will be no mass movement for the political and economic rights of ordinary Jews, against threats from both within the community and outside. Shall we wait this long?