Between approximately 1830 and 1970, an informal political alliance existed between Jews and the political Left.
This was never an alliance of all Jews and all Left groups. But it was an alliance between key sections of the Left and key sections of politically active Jews at various times and in various places.
Both partners to this alliance were motivated by a combination of pragmatic self-interest and idealism or altruism.
This engagement of Jews with the political Left arguably reached its peak between approximately 1890 and 1950 covering almost the whole of Europe including massive engagement with the Spanish Civil War, the English-speaking world, Latin America, and even key countries in the Arab Middle East and North Africa.
Why the Jews?
One significant explanation for this Jewish-Left association is that Jews were victims of both class and ethnic oppression. Indeed, many Jews were poor, and a large number of Jews – whether middle or working class – were victims of persecution.
But equally some would question why the Jews, and why not instead the Armenians who were massacred by the Turks, or the Black Americans who had been forced into slavery, or the millions of other exploited workers and peasants around the world?
Another contributing factor is the implied association between Jewish religious and cultural values – such as Tzedakah and Tikkun Olam – and socialist philosophy. Many Jewish socialists were influenced by traditional Jewish values and teachings, and regularly used biblical and Talmudic symbols and analogies to analyse contemporary events. Yet the Biblical tradition is ideologically ambiguous, and few religious Jews joined the political Left.
Other contributing factors were the concentration of Jews in urban communities, given that socialism was primarily an urban rather than rural or peasant phenomenon, and the strong emphasis on education and intellectual training within the Jewish religious tradition that may have made Jews more receptive to ideas of social and political reform.
Probably the key factor is that Jews were a global tribe, a wandering people, the asylum seekers of the time. As wanderers, they had a much less parochial view of the world than other nations who were limited by national boundaries, cultures and traditions. Most people at that time did not even venture outside their own region let alone country, and were bound by narrow tribal or national loyalties. Jews were more likely to develop a universal vision because Jews were an international people per se.
Their universalism gave them a wider vision of what a perfect world for all humanity might entail. And as they moved around from Russia to Cuba to South Africa to Palestine, they recreated the same diverse Left-wing groupings that had existed in their former country – Bundist, Communist, Labour Zionist, socialist or social democratic, and even Anarchist and Trotskyist.
Additionally, Jews provided the genuinely internationalist faction within the workers movement. Jewish workers of the world did unite, and actively collaborated with their family members and friends and comrades in many other parts of the world who shared a common political culture, and mostly spoke the same Yiddish language. Their multi-lingual skills and transnational connections enhanced the global production and distribution of socialist propaganda and theory, and were so often effectively utilized to advance the purposes of the revolution.
Yet, there were always tensions between Jewish universalism, which implied that international human welfare would take precedence over specific Jewish concerns, and Jewish particularism, which prioritized Jewish well-being.
How Jewish were these Leftists?
So often historians refer to the unsympathetic comments of one or two famous Jewish revolutionaries such as Trotsky or Rosa Luxemburg, and suggest that all Jewish radicals were self-hating or at least non-Jewish Jews. But in fact, the large mass of Jews who became Bundists or Left Zionists or joined universal Left parties or movements actively integrated their Left and Jewish identities.
Prominent left-wing figures such as Leon Blum in France and Eduard Bernstein in Germany maintained their connections with the Jewish collective, and thousands of Jews voted for social democratic parties in Great Britain, Australia and much of Western Europe, or alternatively supported liberal parties as in the United States. Equally, identities were fluid, and some moved from particularist Jewish to universal identities, and others shifted back from internationalist to more Jewish-identifying activism.
Why did the alliance break apart?
The most obvious factors in the decline of this Jewish-Left alliance are the key chronological events of the Holocaust, the formation of the State of Israel and the onslaught of Soviet anti-Semitism. The Holocaust decimated the breeding grounds of Jewish radicalism in Eastern and Central Europe and destroyed the faith of many Left-wing Jews in universal ideas, given the failure of the great workers movements of Europe to combat Nazi anti-Semitism.
In contrast, the creation of Israel provided Jews with a positive alternative source of protection in the form of a strong Jewish state where any persecuted Jews could potentially find refuge. Additionally, Israel reframed the domestic political agenda of many Jews from the protection of minority rights where they were living to the defence of the Jewish homeland through the establishment of pro-Israel advocacy or lobby groups.
The revelations of Soviet anti-Semitism in the early- to mid-1950s ended the dalliance of many Jews with Communism, including the attraction to the proposed Jewish national homeland in Biro-Bidzhan which had earlier been widely viewed as a possible alternative to Palestine.
All these factors, along with the dramatic post-1945 decline in Western anti-Semitism, the overwhelming middle classing of Jews in the West, the post-1967 emergence of Left-wing anti-Zionism sometimes converging with anti-Semitism, the decline of the political Left in Israel and the end of the wandering Jew phenomenon, combined to reshape both internal Jewish politics and outsider perceptions of Jewish politics.
Why then were Jews so heavily involved in the New Left of the 1960s?
Jews were disproportionately involved in the 1960s student movement known as the New Left, particularly in the United States, Australia, Britain and France. Some of the key factors that contributed to this prominence included the significant number of Jewish students at key universities that were at the forefront of student activism, the impact of left-wing family backgrounds on many Jewish students, the general influence of Jewish cultural values and experiences based on a synthesis of universalistic social justice beliefs with secular Jewish values and morality, and the impact of the Holocaust which generated a passionate abhorrence for racism and injustice.
The Jewish student radicals incorporated the whole spectrum of Jewish identity, from those who either rejected or expressed ambivalence about their Jewishness to those whose radical and Jewish commitments were closely aligned.