Many people have wondered why so many Jews have a predilection toward the Left. I have heard people pose the question bluntly like this: “Jews live like Episcopalians yet vote like Puerto Ricans. Why?” I have heard conservative Jews become irate at their co-religionists’ liberal sympathies. In the Nixon tapes, we hear Richard Nixon berating Henry Kissinger for the tendency of many Jews to find partnership on the Left. And finally, and with the most gruesome results, the Nazis castigated Jews as a group with a special, almost diabolic fellowship with the Bolshevik Revolution. Quite frankly, I think Jews do identify with the Left and that it might be profitable to understand why:
1) We Jews are Idol Smashers
Being a Jew means being an idol-smasher. The first Jew was Abraham. His father’s profession was that of idol-maker. Abraham looked at the assortment of idols that suffused his primitive world, and he ridiculed the BS. He realized that inanimate heaps of wood and stone cannot govern the universe. Abraham, very simply, asked questions, doubted and disparaged blind acceptance of tradition and authority. Accordingly, the sort of person who is very Jewish is the sort of person who shuns reflexive deference toward conventional wisdom and constantly ventures out, on his own, to find that which is really true.
Because Jews tend to ask questions and to doubt, they will question authority. This Jewish proclivity for questioning those in power tends to make Jews more receptive to left of center thought, which is less prone to idly defer to received wisdom.
Ironically enough, the most Jewish of the Jews will often find themselves alienated from their fellow Jews. Because they decry herd-like acceptance of hoary customs and laws, they continually find themselves at odds with their faith.
Consider the issue concretely, in the development of a Jew’s mind: In good Jewish schools, a teacher will tell a group of five-year olds a story. Then the teacher will then ask the students to find the “Kasha,” or inconsistency, in the tale, inculcating the development of a challenging, probing intellect. And the legacy of this sort of education is the very radicalism so often despised.
The most Jewish of the Jews have always chafed at the boundaries of existing knowledge and belief, have always deviated from most Jews and from most other humans, have always been on the outskirts of what was deemed permissible or legal or prudent, and the most Jewish of the Jews have been traitors to their people and leaders of the world: Jesus, Freud, Marx, Spinoza.
2) The Multi-Thousand Year Dialectical Conflict Between Judaism’s Legal and Prophetic Traditions
I don’t want to sound pretentious or obnoxious by using the word “dialectical;” such verbiage was, perhaps, among the favorite words of pseudo-intellectual adolescents just a few years ago. I use the word dialectical because a dialectic, as Hegel described it, is exactly what we have here. A dialectic is this: A phenomenon has within it the seeds of its own antithesis. Example: A) We feel love, B) We get really sick of loving that selfish bastard who hasn’t given squat in return and C) we finally feel hate towards that person whom we had loved. In other words, love created its opposite, hate.
In Judaism, long before the destruction of the second temple, there had been a civil war between the legal tradition and the prophetic tradition. More specifically, the exacting, almost intellectually sadistic and punitive legal tradition had given birth to its antithesis: The full-throated prophetic tradition calling-out for justice and helping the poor. Occasionally, Jacobean strains in the prophetic tradition (Abbie Hoffman) incite a revitalized and furious right: Think of Norman Podhoretz, writing the same thing for thirty years: “I used to be a radical, and people like Norman Mailer and Lillian Hellman were once my friends, but I have finally become a grown-up Jewish burgher with respectably dreary and bourgeois points of view.” In any event, this is how the dialectic played itself out in Judaism between the legal and prophetic traditions.
A big part of Judaism is the Law.
(People often say that the Jewish contribution to civilization has been the law, but, being a lawyer, I don’t understand why the world should love us for having given it the law. To me the Law is a means of using obfuscation, mental machinations and tricky language to shroud the truth and further injustice. I could give you so many examples of the law being used to further injustice that I wouldn’t really know where to begin.
The law is, largely, all about the governance of commercial relations. By contrast, Christianity sometimes is infused with a longing to transcend petty commercial squabbles and rise to a more spiritual plane.
(Of course, I am not saying that Christians are more honest than Jews. After all, no one can beat the Vatican when it comes to playing the capitalist game. In the era immediately preceding the Reformation, suckers all over Europe gave the Church oodles of gold because the Church had a racket known as the sale of indulgences.)
Judaism is suffused with all things commercial. The Talmud, I have been told, seems at times like nothing but an arid treatise on contract law, replete with detailed and comprehensive analyses of every facet and permutation of a case in which a cow, costing x amount of money, fails to deliver milk. Judaism, therefore, in many ways has little to do with the things that we normally think of when we think of religion. It is, supposedly, not much interested in the metaphysical; it is deeply pragmatic and seeks to govern and define all of our day-to-day affairs, many of which are commercial.
Some of us get a little ill when religious study seems just like Law school.
Some of us think that not only the Law, but also that which it tries to protect and manage, namely commercial activity, is also all about lying. After all, what is the essence of the capitalistic act: Taking a piece of dreck worth 10 dollars and convincing a poor shnook that it is really worth 50 dollars.
In any event, the legal tradition of Judaism inspired the prophetic tradition: Damn your legal equivocations and distortions. Take from the rich and give to the poor. The Jewish drive to the left is inspired by the Prophetic strain of Jewish life. Judaism, I have often thought, has some of the biggest and most successful capitalists, and this has birthed our tendency to have the biggest communists, e.g., Leon Trotsky.
3) The Legacy of Pesach (Passover)
One of our cardinal holidays is Pesach, when we commemorate our freedom from slavery. Is it really that very hard to understand why Judaism sparks identification with, or at the very least sympathy for, the persecuted.
In any event, Passover induces sympathy for the oppressed, downtrodden and poor. When I hear some people say that Jewish leftism makes no sense, I tend to think that these people, even if they are observant Jews, have serious deficits of Jewish knowledge.
I must hasten to add that some critics, perhaps more stalwart in progressive politics than I, have taken issue with my discussion of Passover. They noted that many Egyptians, including some who were innocent, were, according to the Old Testament, killed in the course of the afflictions God rained down upon Egypt. These critics have protested that there is something inherently wrong with a holiday that, among other things, celebrates not merely liberation from slavery but also the violent vanquishing of a foe.
In response, I can only say this: We deliberately curb our joy on the Passover Holiday by taking one drop of wine out of our wine glass for each plague visited upon the Egyptians. By doing this our wine does not run over with joy and a certain measure of civilized contrition, at the loss of Egyptian life, is allegedly instilled. Also, in defense of the early Hebrews, I should say that relative to other religions at the time, the Jews were decidedly un-bloodthirsty. After all, in Carthage, toddlers were routinely sacrificed to appease “The Gods.” Finally, I will have to avail myself of something said, I believe, in the course of the Russian Revolution: If you want to make an omelet, you will have to break a few eggs. Dramatic social and political change cannot be effected with the graciousness of a tea party.
4) From the French Revolution until the 1950’s, an era once satirized by the phrase, “Allen Dulles, Henry Luce, GOP hypotenuse”
From the time of the French Revolution until, perhaps, the Sinai crisis of 1956, when the Soviet Union assumed an unequivocally hostile stance toward aggression against Egypt, the left and the Jews were on the same side in almost all European conflicts.
The Church was of course anti-Semitic and the Church was the prime defender of the ancien regime. Through doctrines like the divine right of kings, which held that the King is the King because that is what God wants, Christianity buttressed autocracy and repression. Those who sought to demolish aristocratic privilege tended to despise Christianity because it aided the aristocracy and this engendered a natural sympathy for the Jews among revolutionary factions. Consider Marx’s ode to the Paris Commune: “Compare these Parisians, storming Heaven, with the slaves to Heaven of the German, Prussian, Holy Roman Empire, with their posthumous masquerades, reeking of the Church, of the barracks, of cabbage Junkerdom, and above all, the philistine.” The revolution will not wait for Heaven; the revolution seeks justice now whereas reactionary German Christians will bow down to their masters and believe that their salvation will be had in some heaven that none of us have ever glimpsed.
This alignment between the Left and Jewry continued during the early days of the Bolshevik revolution: An inordinate proportion of Communist agitators were Jews, most of Hungary’s leading Bolsheviks (Bella Kuhn and company) during the post WWI communist insurrection were Jews, Germany’s post WWI Bolshevik revolution was run by the Jewish Pole Rosa Luxembourg, and in the 1930s and 1940’s the Jewish affinity for the left made all the sense in the world because the Left was at war with Fascism and Nazism. For example, during the Nazi occupation of Poland, there were two Polish undergrounds – one for communists and one which was backed by London. The Polish Home Guard, which was aligned with London, for the most part handed Jews over to the Nazis and did nothing to help the Jews during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. By contrast, the Polish Peoples Guard, which was associated with Moscow, sent radiograms to Moscow regarding the uprising and the Red Army bombarded German Positions that were harassing the Ghetto. (I don’t know how this was done because during April of 1943 no Soviet troops were anywhere near Warsaw).
After WWII, London was opposed to the creation of the Jewish state and actively aided the Jordanian and Egyptian armies in attempting to strangle the nascent Jewish homeland. America gave no aid whatsoever to the Jews. Russia, however, supplied Israel with oil and the communist block, particularly Prague, was for the most part Israel’s only source of weaponry. Until 1967, the membership of the Soviet Academy of Science was two-thirds Jewish.
The Jews, very simply, had an alignment with the left that lasted for almost two-hundred years. Such old friendships do not die overnight.
5) Alfred Kazin’s Unmerited Happiness
Many of my elders looked at the supposed savagery of the Jewish radicalism of the 60’s, which is still with us although to a markedly muted degree, and concluded that younger Jews had an almost animalistic, primitive radicalism. They felt revulsion towards the social as well as the political radicalism of the hippies, the drugs, the long hair, and the student strikes that started in Berkeley and sooner or later spread to every good university in the nation.
Many of these young leftist Jews may have seemed anti-Semitic because their exultation of youth was like a kick in the shins to our elders, who were of course Jewish. And some conservative Jews were horrified, noting that such anti-Semitism was especially grotesque so soon after the Holocaust. However, the Holocaust is precisely what made younger Jews so radical in the sixties.
Younger Jews looked at their Jewish-American elders and could only ask: What did they do to try to stop the Holocaust? The answer: in many cases, absolutely nothing. They were far too busy trying to make it in America, trying to conform to White Protestant norms, trying to kiss the asses of the non-Jewish teachers in school, trying to get good grades, trying to become part of what William James called the American National Obsession, worshipping at the altar of the bitch goddess success, to care about anyone but themselves. And this was conservatism and this was capitalism, caring about no one but yourself, and it was conducive to the Holocaust because if Jews had devoted less time to their financial interests, and more time toward their European brethren, more Jews would have been saved. We younger Jews hated our conservative elders because they seemed so self-satisfied with things that were immaterial, they would eat kugel and look at younger Jews and plead for inactivity and passivity and we had contempt for their passivity, which, we reasoned, is why six million died.
I remember when I was very young I, like many other little children, showed an inordinate interest in the oddities and differences in strangers. At times, I spoke about what I saw. My grandmother used to respond to me by saying, “MYOB:” mind your own business. But I thought that minding one’s own business was the primary problem with life. That was why my father had died (he reputedly was choking on his food in a restaurant for several minutes while no one intervened) and that was why six million had died. And so I wanted to shun and shuck all the conformist and conservative behaviors that one might associate with the MYOB mode of behavior.
But I by no means saw this lack of sympathy only in my relatives. This was reflected, for example, in Philip Roth’s novel My Life as A Man, which revolves around, in its opening scenes, a Jewish hotel in the Catskills in the 1940’s. The author shows us a bunch of Jews having a fun-filled time in the summer. And I wonder: What the fuck is so funny if it is 1943 and millions of Jews are facing extermination. And why do the Jews of the novel have such a tolerant view of the Jewish guy who allegedly got out of army duty for fraudulent reasons when it seemed clear that every Jew should have done his duty toward Judaism, and the United States, by willing to fight for Uncle Sam. And I find this lack of care evident in Alfred Kazin’s autobiographical book ‘New York Jew.”
This book, in large measure, is one prosaic ode to the intellect of Alfred Kazin. At the beginning of the book, Kazin recounts his ecstatic happiness in the early 1940s: a great work of his is published and received great criticism, he moves from parochial Brooklyn to cosmopolitan Manhattan, and he is invited to all the really right cocktail and dinner parties where the pampered and erudite guests ferociously argue about Communism and Fascism all hours of the night. And upon reading this, I want to stab Kazin: what was left to be argued about after the Wehrmacht? There was only one thing to do, join the marines, or the Royal Air Force or the Red Army. The extreme radicalism of young, leftist Jews can be traced to an overwhelming revulsion for complacency and passivity in the face of evil.
And so I always wondered what my Jewish elders were doing in 1942. And this is why I became contemptuous of them and this is why I became radical.