Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The End of the Jewish Left

Political theorist Michael Walzer and others argue about the death of the century-long Jewish-Leftist alliance

“Why so many alte kockers? Where is the rising generation?” The grumbler sitting behind me at the conference on “Jews and the Left,” sponsored by YIVO last week at the Center for Jewish History in New York, was not exactly being fair. Any academic conference will attract an older-skewing audience, and for all the gray hair in the seats and on the dais, the YIVO conference did have its share of eager young attendees.
Behind the complaint, however, it was possible to hear a larger, more painful question. For the first two-thirds of the 20th century, from the first immigrant generation through the baby boom, the radical and revolutionary left played a hugely important role in defining how the rest of America saw Jews and how Jews saw themselves. From Mike Gold’s proletarian novel Jews Without Moneyall the way down to Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, the literature and mythology of American Jewish radicalism has often appeared identical—to a certain audience—with Judaism itself. Even now there are people who revel in bygone lore about the Forverts and the Freiheit, Jay Lovestone and Max Shachtman. But living heirs to that tradition can be hard to find. Somewhat plaintively, my neighbor at the conference—like many of the participants—seemed to be asking, Is there still such a thing as a Jewish left? And if not, ought we to regret it?

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