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New Left


NEW LEFT, the wave of left-wing radicalism, which attracted many students and other young people in the U.S. and in Western Europe especially in the late 1960s. 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

As mentioned, 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 1960s, 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 1930s, 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 1960s and early 1970s, 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 '60s 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-1960s, 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 1970s, 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 1950s, 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.


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 1960s: 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).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.