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Modern Jewish History:
The New Left


Modern Jewish History: Table of Contents | Neo-Fascism | Neo-Nazism


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The New Left was a wave of left-wing radicalism which attracted many students and other young people in the United States and Western Europe, especially in the late 1960's. It had no consistent doctrine and embraced various ideologies, from the Maoist interpretation of Marxism to outright anarchism. The Jewish aspect of the movement was twofold: a disproportionate participation of Jews in the leadership and sometimes also in the ranks, and the issue of Israel and Arab anti-Israel terrorism after the Six-Day War.

- In the United States
- In Western Europe
- In Israel

In the United States

The New Left counted a disproportionate number of Jews among its leaders and rank-and-file activists. In organizations such as the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Congress of Racial Equality, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, as well as in the Free Speech and anti-Vietnam war movements, American Jews pressed for a social reform agenda that valued "participatory democracy" and rejected institutionalized power.

By the late 1960's, Jewish New Leftists clashed with their non-Jewish counterparts. The rise of the Black Power movement alienated Jewish civil rights workers while the anti-Cold War ethos of the New Left turned against the Jewish State, deemed an "imperialist aggressor" after its decisive 1967 victory in the Six-Day War. While some Jewish New Leftists remained active in secular political causes, others translated the tactics and strategies of direct-action protests to particularist Jewish causes.

Sociologist C. Wright Mills first coined the phrase in his 1960 "Letter to the New Left." Mills sought to distance himself from the labor-centered leftist political ideologies of the 1930's, which were subsequently labeled the "Old Left." During the era of the Great Depression and Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, most progressive political activism centered on unionization issues and the rights of workers. Members of the Old Left embraced strategies that sought to realign the United States government's relationship to labor.

At the 1962 SDS conference, Tom Hayden issued the founding document and constitution of the New Left movement, the Port Huron Statement. Named for the town that hosted the SDS meeting, the Port Huron Statement joined Old Left Marxism with contemporary liberal beliefs and the hopeful optimism of a post-war American middle class. It called for "participatory democracy" and pressed for direct action protests against injustices. "We are a people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities," Hayden and his SDS colleagues lamented, "looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit."

New Leftists opened a broad-ranged movement intended to challenge organizational authority and effect new systems of power and governance. They joined the emerging civil rights movement, engaging in direct-action protests they hoped would focus the world's attention on the injustices of southern racism.

In 1964, New Leftists claimed victory at the University of California, Berkeley, where the Free Speech Movement galvanized students, mobilized faculty support, and helped launch a national student-centered political movement. With Congressional passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, New Leftists turned their attention away from domestic issues and focused on United States foreign policy in Southeast Asia. They spearheaded the anti-Vietnam war protest movement, rejecting the Cold War assumptions of mainstream liberal America in favor of an anti-imperialist critique that blamed the United States for much of the world's economic inequality.

In the late 1960's and early 1970's, the New Left fractured beyond repair. Those on the liberal-leaning side of the movement celebrated the successful conclusion of the civil rights movement and the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam by stepping away from political activism. From the other extreme, New Left radical groups such as the Weather Underground Organization pressed for more confrontational strategies that included violent resistance, alienating their one-time political allies.

Though neither Tom Hayden nor most of the earliest New Left founders claimed Jewish ancestry, the movement grew to include a disproportionate number of Jews, including Mark Rudd, Jerry Rubin, and Abby Hoffman. Scholars estimate that Jews constituted between one-third and one-half of the New Left activists on college campuses across the country.

At a time when Jews represented just three percent of the American population and ten percent of those attending college, they constituted a majority of the New Left's most active members. Numerous social scientific studies pointed to strong Jewish influences in the nation's leading New Left groups. At the University of California, Berkeley, Jewish students lit candles during a sit-in protest that coincided with the holiday of Hanukkah. The Oscar-nominated documentary film Berkeley In The '60's features Jewish student protesters leading Israeli folk dancing during a demonstration inside Sproul Hall, the university's main administration building.

During the civil rights movement, American Jews joined a number of local and national organizations including SNCC and CORE. When northern college students ventured south during the 1964 Mississippi summer, between one-third and one-half were Jewish. Jews remained throughout this period the most liberal white ethnic group in the United States, lending their time, money, and political influence to combating Jim Crow.

With Israel's dramatic victory in the 1967 Six Day War, Jewish progressives faced their greatest challenge. The New Left, splintering along racial and ideological lines, grew critical of the Jewish State, equating its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip to the evil imperialist impulses of the United States in the Cold War. Many in the New Left rejected Zionism, labeling it a chauvinistic, even racist, manifestation of nationalism.

At the 1967 Conference for a New Politics held in Chicago, for example, African American delegates pressed for passage of a resolution that characterized the June 1967 conflict as an "imperialist Zionist war." As Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael said at a 1968 convention of the Organization of American Students, "We have begun to see the evil of Zionism and we will fight to wipe it out wherever it exists, be it in the Ghetto of the United States or in the Middle East."

Jewish New Leftists in Berkeley responded by creating the Committee for a Progressive Middle East in March, 1969. The Committee intended to strike a balance between the strident anti-Zionist influences growing with the New Left and the much less critical Zionist voices of Hillel and other Jewish groups. Radical Jewish Zionists, despite their attempts to locate progressive Zionism within the boundaries of the New Left, failed to re-unite Jewish leftists with an ever more radical, and anti-Zionist, movement.

The rise of Black Power also alienated Jews from the New Left, which had, by the mid-1960's, come to locate black militancy in its movement's vanguard. The rise of ethnic nationalism ended the inter-racial civil rights movement of the Martin Luther King, Jr., years. Jews, once valued as liberal America's most committed social reform advocates, faced a Black Power-inspired critique that labeled them white oppressors.

When Jewish New Leftists sought a strategic alliance with Oakland's Black Panther Party, for example, they were rebuffed. As one Jewish New Leftist explained, "Even if I were a superaltruistic liberal and campaigned among the Jews to support the Panthers' program, I would justifiably be tarred and feathered for giving aid and comfort to enemies of the Jews. I would rather it were not this way, but it was you who disowned us, not we who betrayed you." The end of the civil rights movement at home combined with Jewish concerns over the New Left's critique of Israel when, in 1969, Eldridge Cleaver told a New York Times reporter that "the Black Panther Party in the United States fully supports Arab Guerillas in the Middle East."

By the early 1970's, the New Left lost most of its earlier Jewish influence. Jews, weary of anti-Zionism, occasional antisemitism, and the rise of ethnic and racial consciousness, turned inward, applying many of the New Left's political strategies to Jewish communal concerns.

The Soviet Jewry movement, nascent since its founding in the 1950's, enjoyed rapid growth in the years after 1964 when Jewish civil rights workers turned their attention to the plight of their co-religionists in the Eastern Bloc. In San Francisco, Jewish radicals staged a "pray in," emulating the Free Speech Movement's "sit in," to force that city's Jewish Federation Council to increase its support of Jewish education. Other groups such as Jews for Urban Justice and Breira – which counteracted the slogan in Israeli politics ein breira [there is no choice] emerged as well, focusing attention on progressive political issues within the Jewish community.

In the final analysis, the New Left offered Jewish radicals a powerful legacy of both ethnic and religious identity. What began as a univeralist movement for participatory democracy and inter-racial cooperation ended with an impressive campaign for progressive Zionism, stronger Jewish education, and greater focus on Jewish ethnic and religious continuity.

In Western Europe

The West European New Left of the late 1960's differed in two respects from its U.S. counterpart. It lacked the reservoir of supporters among both the black masses and sections of the white population opposed to the war in Vietnam and it was opposed by the entrenched Socialist and Communist parties. The appeal of the European New Left thus tended to be restricted to amorphous groups on the periphery of society. However, the French students' revolt of May 1968 and similar, though less violent, demonstrations in Germany and throughout Europe, proved that under favorable conditions the New Left could act as an ideological catalyst and set into motion events of considerable consequence. Its total rejection of prevailing standards and social structures was echoed in the inarticulate, though widespread, misgivings about the values and workings of the "affluent society" and the "deadness of its culture." This applies to the well-publicized and opinion-forming sector of the New Left. There were, however, particularly in Great Britain, other, near-clandestine groupings that concentrated on disruptive industrial action, as, for example, Tariq Ali's Trotskyist International Marxist Group or the Socialist Labor League, which aimed at the subversion of the trade union and have been more disruptive than the 1968 student demonstrations at the London School of Economics and other British universities.

Whereas the protagonists of the European New Left were young, its ideologues were elderly scholars, such as the French writer-philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and Herbert *Marcuse , a German-Jewish émigré and a cofounder of the Frankfurt Institute of Sociology. In his attempt to harmonize the teachings of Freud with those of Marx, Marcuse totally rejected the basic assumptions and ultimate objectives of the prevailing industrial society. Alienation in work and the repression of basic human drives could be overcome, Marcuse maintained, in a truly democratic and participatory society so organized as to serve essential human needs rather than the requirements of the socio-industrial complex. Since the service of the latter has corrupted mankind, the only hope for its future lies in the classes still untouched by the exigencies of the productive processes, which have become an obsession both under capitalism and Communism. These classes are the students of the industrialized nations and the masses of the developing Third World. From these assumptions it follows that New Left thinking on the Arab-Israel confrontation tends to sympathize with the Arabs as representatives of the oppressed Third World, while regarding the Westernized, technology-oriented Israelis with instinctive hostility. The Marxist rationalization of these feelings runs along arguments well known to Old Left Communists, that Israel and Zionism in general are only the "lackey of American imperialism," etc. Marcuse, however, disassociated himself from this attitude while on a visit to West Berlin shortly after the Six-Day War (1967).

In the Federal Republic of Germany, the New Left's most important protagonist, the SDS (Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund) in 1969 repeatedly disrupted public meetings at which the Israel ambassador was to appear. Later that year New Left terrorists tried to blow up West Berlin's Jewish community hall during a service commemorating the 1938 Nazi pogroms. The revulsion aroused by these activities was criticized by their perpetrators, who, in leaflets, under the headline "Shalom and Napalm," deplored the guilt feelings of the German Left toward the Jews as "neurotic, backward-looking anti-Fascism" disregarding the "non-justifiability of the state of Israel." German New Left leaders, such as Ulrike Meinhof of the left-wing weekly Konkret and Dieter Kunzelmann of West Berlin's Kommune I, joined the Palestinian fedayeen in Amman and inveighed against "bourgeois Germany's Judenkomplex." Except in the universities, the German New Left remained a negligible factor and failed to gain working-class support. Similar tendencies were at work in Italy, where such New Left organizations as Lotta Continua were militantly "anti-Zionist."

In France, in May 1968, the New Left students' revolt led to nationwide strikes, a grave government crisis, and contributed to the eventual resignation of President de Gaulle (June 1969). Among the student leaders were many Jews, such as Alain Krivine, Marc Kravetz, Alain Geismar, and Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who, as "Red Danny," became the figurehead of the uprising. Although their Jewishness did not induce them to follow an independent line on the Arab-Israel conflict, it sufficed to revive antisemitic resentments on either side of the political spectrum. Attacks against the German-Jew Cohn-Bendit and slogans like "France for the French" were once countered by students chanting "We are all German Jews." The French New Left succeeded temporarily in involving the workers in its struggle, but the subsequent leftist (old and new) defeat at the polls ended its role as a significant political factor. Characteristically it was the non-Jew Sartre who opposed the New Left anti-Israel slogans. It is absurd to pretend, he maintained, that "Israel is an imperialist state and that the Arabs are socialists, including their feudal states."

In Israel

In Israel, the New Left remained a fringe phenomenon and those groups which actively identified with the New Left received little support, even in student circles. Maẓpen ("Compass"), which broke away from the Ha-Olam ha-Zeh group in the early 1960's, was especially vocal after the Six-Day War in calling for withdrawal from territories occupied in the war. It never had more than a handful of members and in 1970 these split into three groups.

The Semol Yisra'eli Ḥadash ("Israel New Left," known as Si'aḥ) was founded in 1969. Consisting mainly of students and members of Ha-Shomer ha-Ẓa'ir kibbutzim, it called for a more resolute peace policy on the part of the Israeli government. Si'aḥ was not crystallized as a political party but stressed its nonidentification with the policies of the Rakaḥ Communist Party (see *Communism : Israel).


Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.

M.S. Chertoff (ed.), The New Left and the Jews (1971); N. Glazer, in: JJSO, 11 (1969), 121–32; N. Glazer and L. Fein, in: Midstream, 17:1 (1971), 32–46; Lipset, in: Encounter, 33 (1969), 24–35; P. Seale and M. Mc-Conville, French Revolution 1968 (1968); W. Laqueur, in: Commentary, 47:6 (1969), 33–41; H. Marcuse, Protest, Demonstration, Revolt (1968; translation of his: Das Ende der Utopie). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: V. Gosse, The Movements of the New Left, 19501975: A Brief History with Documents (2004); M. Isserman, If IHad A Hammer… The Death of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left (1987); S. Rothman and S.R. Lichter, Roots of Radicalism: Jews, Christians, and the Left (1996); M. Staub, The Jewish 1960's: An American Source Book (2004); idem, Torn at the Roots: The Crisis of Jewish Liberalism in Postwar America (2002); J. McMillian and P. Buhle (eds.), The New Left Revisited (2003).

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