Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The End of the Jewish Left?

Much of 20th-century history revolves around the embrace of radical politics by Jews.  From revolutionaries in Europe to intellectuals at CUNY, not to mention kibbutzniks in Israel, there was a distinctively (although not especially religious) Jewish voice calling for communism, socialism and suchlike isms.

Even during our youth (spent, mind you, within striking distance of the fabled Lower East Side, home of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory), it was safe to assume that one's Jewish neighbors leaned as far to the left as any of one's neighbors, and generally a bit further.  Given that we were raised in Hippie Paradise USA, that is really quite far to the left.

These days, of course, one can make no such assumptions.  First because, despite the number of European nations that have recently elected Socialist governments in protest against conservative austerity measures, radicalism lacks its erstwhile chic.  And second because Jews today, both in America and Israel, seem to be no less attracted to the the right than to the left.  This is natural enough, in the sense that people in an open society are prone to spread themselves across the political spectrum; there is no pressing reason that Jews, any more than Catholics or chemistry majors, need cluster at one end of the spectrum.

Still, it is a cultural change worth noting.  Adam Kirsch, writing at Tablet, notes it engagingly.  he describes a recent conference entitled "Jews and the Left," and brings together several remarkable propositions made by various presenters.  Most notable is the argument of Michael Walzer, that Judaism considered as a religion is inimical to the exercise of politics; the legal codes are presented as divine fiat, rather than human work-product, while the prophets do not call for decision-making but submission.  This flies in the face of much liberal theologizing, both Christian and Jewish, but is a thesis worth thinking about

Kirsch doesn't mention the neoconservative phenomenon in particular, although its existence is a large part of the narrative.  A late generation of Jewish intellectuals, raised in the radical milieu, converted in early middle age to a rather forceful species of conservatism.  A close look at their spiritual lives might help to support or weaken Walzer's thesis; although the neocons certainly use religion as an instrument of politics, we have never been certain that they are any more personally pious than their opponents.

Kirsch does touch on one of the appalling ironies of Jewish existence, which is that both as radicals and as conservatives, Jews are often required to make a home with their natural enemies.   Communism in Russia was led by a bloodthirsty anti-semite from Georgia; conservatism in the US has a long history of anti-semitism as well, much of it still felt in another Georgia and its neighboring states.  This does not mean, of course, that all Reds or Republicans are anti-semitic; they absolutely aren't.  But if you want to find anti-semitism, those are good places to begin looking.

The essay is worth a look.

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