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The term "Jewish left" describes Jews who identify with or support left wing, occasionally liberal causes, consciously as Jews, either as individuals or through organizations. There is no one organization or movement which constitutes the "Jewish left," however. Jews have been major forces in the history of the labor movement, the Settlement house movement, the women's rights movement, anti-racist work, and anti-fascist organizing of many forms in Europe, the United States and modern-day Israel.
Although the expression "on the left" covers a range of politics, many well-known figures "on the left" have been Jews, for instance, Murray Bookchin, Judith Butler, Noam Chomsky, Eric Hobsbawm, Harold Laski, Karl Marx, Bob Rae, Harold Pinter, Erich Fromm, Naomi Klein and Howard Zinn, who were born into Jewish families and have various degrees of connection to Jewish communities, Jewish culture, Jewish tradition or the Jewish religion in its many variants. It also includes such people as rabbis Michael Lerner and Arthur Waskow, both in their own way religiously devout and culturally identified Jews. It includes as well many secular, cosmopolitan people who nonetheless remain connected to Jewish culture, such as Rosa Luxemburg, Emma Goldman, Rose Schneiderman, Muriel Rukeyser and Susan Sontag. Views regarding Zionism among those either identified or self-identified as being among the Jewish left can be quite varied, and are often independent of their other political and social views.
While there is a slight increase of Jews "on the left" connecting their politics to their spirituality, this is a somewhat new phenomenon, when contrasted with the long history of secular socialist and communist Jewish activist history (e.g., The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring) as well as Jewish anarchist activism which was not only explicitly secular but had from time to time denounced religion. From the late 1880s through the mid-1950s, there was a range of Jewish left newspapers (and other publications) in Yiddish that covered the spectrum of Jewish left-wing political and cultural expression in Eastern and Central Europe, as well as both North and South America, and in Mandatory Palestine's Yishuv, as well as the early years of the State of Israel.
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A range of left-wing values vis-à-vis social justice can be traced to Jewish religious texts, including the Tanakh and later texts, which include a strong endorsement of hospitality to "the stranger" and the principle of redistribution of wealth in the Biblical idea of Jubilee — as well as a tradition of challenging authority, as exemplified by the Biblical Prophets.
In the twentieth century, Jewish theologians — notably Abraham Joshua Heschel, Arnold Jacob Wolf, Arthur Waskow and Mordecai Kaplan, more recently Michael Lerner and Daniel Boyarin — have emphasised these social justice aspects of the religion.
- See also: Anarchism and Orthodox Judaism
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Enlightenment and Emancipation
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a movement for Jewish Emancipation spread across Europe, strongly associated with the emergence of political liberalism, based on the Enlightenment principles of rights and equality under the law. Because liberals represented the political left of the time (see left-right politics), emancipated Jews, as they entered the political culture of the nations where they lived, became closely associated with liberal parties. Thus, many Jews supported the American Revolution of 1776, the French Revolution of 1789, and the European Revolutions of 1848; while Jews in England tended to vote for the Liberal Party, which had led the parliamentary struggle for Jewish Emancipation — an arrangement called by some scholars “the liberal Jewish compromise”.
The emergence of a Jewish working class
In the age of industrialisation in the late nineteenth century, a Jewish working class emerged in the cities of Eastern and Central Europe. Before long, a Jewish labour movement emerged too. The Jewish Labour Bund – General Jewish Labor Union – was formed in Vilna in Lithuania in 1897. Distinctive Jewish Anarchist and socialist organisations formed and spread across the Jewish Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire. There were also a significant number of people of Jewish origin who did not explicitly identify as Jews per se but were active in anarchist, socialist and social democratic as well as communist organizations, movements and parties.
As Zionism grew in strength as a political movement, socialist Zionist parties were formed, such as Ber Borochov’s Poale Zion.
There were non-Zionist left-wing forms of Jewish nationalism, such as territorialism (which called for a Jewish national homeland, but not necessarily in Palestine), autonomism (which called for non-territorial national rights for Jews in multinational empires) and the folkism, advocated by Simon Dubnow, (which celebrated the Jewish culture of the Yiddish-speaking masses).
As Eastern European Jews migrated West from the 1880s, these ideologies took root in growing Jewish communities, such as London’s East End, Paris's Pletzl, New York’s Lower East Side and Buenos Aires. There was a lively Jewish anarchist scene in London, a central figure of which was, perhaps ironically, the non-Jewish German thinker and writer Rudolf Rocker. The important Jewish socialist movement in the United States, with its Yiddish-language daily, The Forward, and trade unions such as the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers. Important figures in these milieux included Rose Schneiderman, Abraham Cahan, Morris Winchevsky and David Dubinsky.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Jews played a major role in the Social Democratic parties of Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary and Poland. Historian Enzo Traverso has used the term "Judeo-Marxism" to describe the innovative forms of Marxism associated with these Jewish socialists. These ranged from strongly cosmopolitan positions hostile to all forms of nationalism (as with Rosa Luxemburg and, to a lesser extent, Leon Trotsky) to positions more sympathetic to cultural nationalism (as with the Austromarxists or Vladimir Medem). Again, it is probable that most of these figures would not have considered themselves to be part of an explicitly "Jewish" left, but the significant number of Jews active in diverse movements and parties "on the left" is relevant.
In Soviets and against fascism
- See also: Jewish Bolshevism
As with the American revolution of 1776, the French revolution of 1789 and the German revolution of 1848, many Jews worldwide welcomed the Russian revolution of 1917, celebrating the fall of a regime that had presided over antisemitic pogroms, and believing that the new order in what was to become the Soviet Union would bring improvements in the situation of Jews in those lands. Many Jews became involved in Communist parties, constituting large proportions of their membership in many countries, including Great Britain and the U.S. There were specifically Jewish sections of many Communist parties, such as the Yevsektsiya in the Soviet Union. The Communist regime in the USSR pursued what could be characterised as ambivalent policies towards Jews and Jewish culture, at times supporting their development as a national culture (e.g., sponsoring significant Yiddish language scholarship and creating an autonomous Jewish territory in Birobidzhan), at times pursuing antisemitic purges, such as that in the wake of the so-called Doctors' plot. (See also Komzet.)
With the advent of fascism in parts of Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, many Jews responded by becoming actively involved in the left, and particularly the Communist parties, which were at the forefront of the anti-fascist movement. For example, many Jewish volunteers fought in the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War (for instance in the American Abraham Lincoln Brigade and in the Polish-Jewish Naftali Botwin Company). Jews and leftists fought Oswald Mosely's British fascists at the Battle of Cable Street. This mass movement was influenced by the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in the Soviet Union.
In World War II, the Jewish left played a major part in resistance to Nazism. For example, Bundists and left Zionists were key in Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
Radical Jews in Central and Western Europe
As well as the movements rooted in the Jewish working class, relatively assimilated middle class Jews in Central and Western Europe began to search for sources of radicalism in Jewish tradition. For example, Martin Buber drew on Hassidism in articulating his anarchist philosophy, Gershom Scholem was an anarchist and a kabbalah scholar, Walter Benjamin was equally influenced by Marxism and Jewish messianism, Gustav Landauer was a religious Jew and a libertarian communist, Jacob Israël de Haan combined socialism with Haredi Judaism, while left-libertarian Bernard Lazare became a passionately Jewish Zionist in 1897 but wrote 2 years later to Herzl – and by extension to the Zionist Action Committee, "You are bourgeois in thoughts, bourgeois in your feelings, bourgeois in your ideas, bourgeois in your conception of society.". In Weimar Germany, Walther Rathenau was a leading figure of the Jewish left.
Socialist Zionism and the Israeli left
In the twentieth century, especially after the Second Aliyah, socialist Zionism - first developed in Russia by the Marxist Ber Borochov and the non-Marxists Nachman Syrkin and A. D. Gordon - became a powerful force in the Yishuv, the Jewish settlement in Palestine. Poale Zion, the Histadrut labour union and the Mapai party played a major part in the campaign for an Israeli state, with socialist politicians like David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir amongst the founders of the nation. At the same time, the kibbutz movement was an experiment in practical socialism.
In the 1940s, many on the left advocated a binational state in Israel/Palestine, rather than an exclusively Jewish state. (This position was taken by Hannah Arendt and Martin Buber, for example). Since independence in 1948, there has been a lively Israeli left, both Zionist (the Labour Party, Meretz) and anti-Zionist (Palestine Communist Party, Maki). The Labour Party and its predecessors have been in power in Israel for significant periods since 1948.
There are two worldwide groupings of left-wing Zionist organizations. The World Labour Zionist Movement, associated with the Labor Zionist tendency, is a loose association of the Israeli Labour Party (Avoda), the Habonim Dror Labor Zionist youth movement, the TAKAM kibbutz federation, the Histadrut and the Na'amat. The World Union of Meretz, associated with what was historically known as the Socialist Zionist tendency, is a loose association of the Israeli Meretz party, the Hashomer Hatzair Socialist Zionist youth movement, the Kibbutz Artzi Federation and the Givat Haviva research and study center. Both movements exist as factions within the World Zionist Organization, as well as regional or country-specific Zionist movements; the two roughly correspond to the interwar split between the Poale Zion Right (the tradition that led to Avoda) and the Poale Zion Left (Hashomer Hatzair, Mapam, Meretz).
Contemporary Jewish left
As the Jewish working class died out in the years after the Second World War, its institutions and political movements did too. The Arbeter Ring in England, for example, came to an end in the 1950s and Jewish trade unionism in the US ceased to be a major force at that time. There are, however, still some survivals of the Jewish working class left today, including the Jewish Labor Committee and Forward newspaper in New York, the Bund in Melbourne, Australia, or Labour Friends of Israel in the UK.
Meanwhile, the 1960s-1980s saw a resurgence in interest in cultural heritage and ethnic identity, prompting a renewal of interest among assimilated Jews in the West in Jewish working class culture and the various radical traditions of the Jewish past. This led to a growth in a new sort of radical Jewish organisations, interested in Yiddish culture, Jewish spirituality and social justice. For example, in the decade of 1980–1992 one organization, New Jewish Agenda, functioned as a national, multi-issue progressive membership organization with the mission of acting as a "Jewish voice on the Left and a Left voice in the Jewish Community." The Jewish Socialists' Group in Britain and Rabbi Michael Lerner's Tikkun have continued this tradition, while more recently groups like Jewdas and Heeb Magazine have taken an even more eclectic and radical approach to Jewishness. In Belgium, the Union des progressistes juifs de Belgique is, since 1969, the heir of the Jewish Communist and Bundist Solidarité movement in the Belgian Resistance, embracing the Israeli refuseniks cause as well as of the undocumented immigrants in Belgium.
In the U.S. in the last decade, the Jewish vote has gone to Democrats by 76-80% in each election, leading to the reasonable conclusion that the majority of American Jews remain in at least some way more supportive of the liberal to left side of the political spectrum vs. the conservative to right side of the spectrum.
Because of the emotional connection many Jews have for Israel, the issue has generated strong passions among left-wing Jews. There is a significant Jewish presence in the disparate political movement known as the "liberal hawks" or the pro-war Left, which is strongly committed to liberal or leftist social policy, while supporting a liberal interventionist, hawkish or pro-Israel foreign policy. (Examples include Joe Lieberman, Christopher Hitchens, many of the contributors to Dissent magazine and many of the signatories of the Euston Manifesto.) At the same time, there is a significant Jewish presence in the pro-Palestinian movement, including Norman Finkelstein, Noam Chomsky, Judith Butler and key UK advocates of an academic boycott of Israel like Stephen and Hilary Rose.
Contemporary Israeli left
Operating in a parliamentary governmental system based on proportional representation, left-wing political parties and blocs in Israel have been able to elect members of the Knesset with varying degrees of success. Over time those parties have evolved, with some merging, others disappearing, and new parties arising.
Israeli left-wing parties have included:
- Progressive List for Peace
- Left Camp of Israel
- HaOlam HaZeh – Koah Hadash
Notable figures in these parties have included: Shulamit Aloni, Uri Avnery, Yossi Beilin, Ran Cohen, Matti Peled, Amnon Rubinstein, and Yossi Sarid.
- Internationalism (politics)
- History of the Jews in Russia and the Soviet Union
- Jewish Bolshevism
- Anti-globalization and antisemitism
- Jewish political movements
- Jewish right
- Jewish anarchism
- Jewish Communist Party (Poalei Zion)
- Independent Australian Jewish Voices
- Independent Jewish Voices
- J Street
- "Progressive Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism"
- Christian left
- List of Jewish American activists
- Jewish feminism
- Geoffrey Alderman (1983) The Jewish Community in British Politics, Oxford: Clarendon.
- see Sharman Kadish Bolsheviks and British Jews, London: Frank Cass. (1992, e.g. pp.55-60, 132); Jonathan Hyman Jews in Britain During the Great War, Manchester: University of Manchester Working Papers in Economic and Social History No. 51, October (2001, e.g. p.11). The phrase was coined by Steven Bayme.
- Gabriel Piterberg (2008), The Returns of Zionism: Myths, Politics and Scholarship in Israel, London: Verso, p.10
- Jews and the workers' movement (Marxist Internet Archive)
- Yiddish language sections of American socialist parties (Marxist Internet Archive)
- Jewish Left-Wing Community
- Faith and Socialism Commission of the Socialist Party USA