By Saul Axelrod
It is in the social DNA of most Jewish Americans to support liberal causes. Unlike other American groups, Jewish Americans have remained loyal to the Democratic Party even as their affluence has increased.
Operating under the mandate of tikkun olam, Jews have been at the forefront of almost every social movement in the United States, including the labor movement, the Civil Rights movement and the women’s movement.
But what has been the attitude of the political left toward Jews in America and other countries? The picture is often not pretty.
A founding principle of Karl Marx’s communism was that it was necessary to wrest control of the world’s economy from capitalist Jews. Voltaire may have envisioned a more enlightened world, but his beneficence did not apply to French Jews as he achieved the status of being one of the worst Jew haters of the millennium in which he lived. A recent book, Jewish Radical Feminists, revealed the position of some early feminists that Jews were an oppressing people rather than an oppressed people less than 20 years after the Shoah.
Marx and Voltaire are not contemporaries of people living in recent times, but modern left-wing politics have often been problematic for present-day Jews. A recent issue of the Jewish Exponent revealed the remarkably callous position that President Franklin Roosevelt took toward Jews who were trying to escape Europe in the 1930s and ’40s. American and Western European campuses, led by left-wing protesters, have been filled with an anti-Israel animus that has steadily morphed into a modern-day version of medieval Jew hatred. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) recently made vile remarks denigrating the loyalty of Jewish Americans to their home country yet escaped any censure from the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives. A liberal pundit recently asked Omar if her comments were anti-Semitic and was happy to move on to the next issue when she claimed they were not.
An ongoing conundrum in the Jewish community is the issue of particularism vs. individualism. Do we fight for a few causes or all causes? The left stresses a universalism that might be appealing were all the nations in the world fully committed to the principle.
But that is not the world in which we live; we live in a world where nations have armies, national anthems and flags displaying religious symbols. A short period of universalism might be sufficient to eliminate the already dwindling Jewish life in the Diaspora and in the state of Israel, leaving most other particularisms untouched.
A special irritant to the left wing is the exceptionalism achieved by Jewish people throughout the world. By any reasonable measure, Jews have achieved outstanding outcomes and influence far exceeding their numbers. One would hope that this reality would have enhanced the worldview of the Jewish people. But the opposite has been true, and few actions can make Jewish Americans cringe more than a member of its group extolling the number of Jewish Nobel laureates and National Merit Scholarship recipients.
Undoubtedly, there have been many from the left who have supported Jewish causes. Democratic Presidents Truman, Kennedy, Johnson and Clinton were outstanding in their support of the state of Israel. Feminists Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug stood up for Jewish causes even as many of their colleagues vilified the Jewish people. But the point is that the left has earned no privileged status in its relationship to the Jewish people. Its motives and practices must be scrutinized like that of any other political group. The devotion of many Jewish Americans to left-wing causes has not been dependably reciprocated.
I am not trying to make a case that most Jewish Americans should change their politics from liberal to conservative. People should commit themselves to the political philosophies that are consistent with their humanistic principles. But in the process of doing this, there is nothing wrong with asking the age-old question, “But is it good for the Jews?”
Saul Axelrod is a professor emeritus in Temple University’s College of Education. He lives in Elkins Park.