Most Jews, statistically speaking, are liberal. My grandmother grew up Jewish, and although she spent most of her life working hard to assimilate, she was, in the end, quintessentially a New York Jewish liberal. My father, who did not grow up Jewish (although his brother adopted the identity), was still classified as a Jew when he was admitted to Harvard under the quota system that existed at the time. And while not even culturally Jewish, he retained the liberal Jewish impulses he was raised in.
Dad and I joke about how Bernie Sanders is similarly a quintessential liberal Jew–he grew up around lots of Bernies, and I recognize them from the summer I spent with my grandparents in the ’70s. Some of my grandmother’s friends were communists–Leftists–and what distinguished them from my grandmother was a willingness almost to embrace the oppression of Jews in the service of politics.
My grandmother rejected communism because she saw in Stalin the murderous impulses behind all the rhetoric–many of her friends were drawn in despite them.
The Soviet Union was horrifically antisemitic, yet they accepted this fact not with grace but almost condescension. Of course, they were antisemitic–they were proles who needed to be led, and if being despised by the proles was the price to pay for leading them to the promised land, they embraced the fact that they were hated.
I am no scholar of religion, but my impression is that Jews tend to be liberal because they grew up in an environment steeped in the history of Jews as enslaved people who were freed. I had my Aha! moment after going to my first Seder, which happened in my 30s.
“Now I get it!” I thought. If your identity is bound up with liberation, it makes sense to identify so strongly with the oppressed and even to seek out oppression to vanquish it. Toss in the history of blood libels, pogroms, and the Holocaust, and it would be surprising to find that Jews–especially American Jews who have succeeded so well in our society (and hence probably feel some level of guilt)–wouldn’t seek out others who they identify as oppressed to help them succeed as Jews have.
The tendency can go so far as to be self-defeating.
Woody Allen captured some of the absurdity that arises from this in a scene from Annie Hall. My father and I guffawed when we saw this in the 1970s–it so reminded us of his mother and his childhood–and even nearly 50 years later, it has come up in conversation–just last week, in fact, we laughed about it again while chatting on the phone.
What makes Leftist Jews weird is that they reject their own Jewishness and side with people who hate them. They are enough of a type that there is a disparaging name for them–the self-hating Jew—a Jew whose identity is shaped by rejecting their own Jewishness as shameful.
The New York Times Magazine has a mostly fawning profile of just such a person–a Jewish woman who is deeply involved in the pro-Palestinian movement as spokesman for IfNotNow.
Eva Borgwardt first embraced the Palestinian cause the summer after she graduated from high school. It happened because of Michael Brown. It was August 2014, and in Ferguson, Mo., not far from her family’s well-off St. Louis neighborhood, protests were erupting after Brown was killed by a police officer. At home, Borgwardt had often wondered who she would have been during the civil rights movement. Would she have really stood up for what was right? Now, as the demonstrations for racial justice and against police brutality dominated the news, her mother, a history professor and scholar of human rights law, told her, “This is a ‘Where were you in history?’ moment.”
Instantly you can see that she was longing for a cause, and it is not coincidental that the one she latched onto was similar to the Palestinian one: based on a series of lies. Michael Brown was no innocent murdered without justification. He was a thug who tried to steal a police officer’s gun. The “hands up don’t shoot” narrative was completely invented. But it was tailor-made to justify violence.
In Ferguson, day after day, Borgwardt underwent “a deep reckoning with systemic racism for the first time,” she said. “I was having to realize that in these protests, on the streets, the police are not the good guys. That structures, like the police, that have served me my entire life are literally deadly and designed to oppress people who live in my city. It was nothing I had been exposed to before.”
At the demonstrations, she was confronted by something else: the connection between the fight for racial justice in this country and the movement for Palestinian liberation. There were Palestinians at the rallies, their banners proclaiming, “Palestine Stands With Ferguson” and “Palestinian Lives Matter.” On Twitter, Borgwardt saw that Palestinians were tweeting support from 6,000 miles away, along with advice on how to cope with tear gas fired by the police. That summer, a deadly Palestinian attack and retaliation by the Israeli military in the West Bank led to weeks of warfare between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. “Suddenly,” Borgwardt recalled, “the parallels were so obvious to me. Black Americans facing a militarized police force and Palestinians in the West Bank facing a military charged with policing.”
“The structures that served me” were designed to oppress others–just as the existence of Israel for Jews oppresses Palestinians.
At the time of the Civil Rights movement there was a strong alliance between liberal Jews and Dr. King. Jews marched alongside King.
At the March on Washington in 1963, Rabbi Joachim Prinz was given the slot directly before King took the podium to deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech. “Our ancient history began with slavery and the yearning for freedom,” Prinz, who was expelled from Germany as Hitler laid the groundwork for the Holocaust, told the crowd of more than 200,000. “During the Middle Ages, my people lived for a thousand years in the ghettos of Europe.” There was, Prinz announced, between Jewish and Black Americans, a bond forged by “a sense of complete identification and solidarity.”
That solidarity evaporated long ago, and the strains of antisemitism in the Black Power movement were evident by the late 1960s, as Jews were identified as White and were actually expelled from organizations like the SNCC:
But fissures in the alliance were about to crack wide. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a mainstream civil rights group in the early 1960s, became a key part of the Black Power Movement. In the process, in 1966, S.N.C.C., led by Stokely Carmichael, voted to expel its white staff and volunteers, many of them Jewish, because their involvement diluted Black self-empowerment and stirred distrust. “I was devastated,” Dorothy Zellner, a Jewish activist who contributed artwork for a Black Panther logo, told me. “S.N.C.C. was my life.” Zellner, who is 86, has been a “den mother,” as she puts it, in Jewish Voice for Peace for the past five years.
Dorothy Zellner, too, is clearly that special kind of Leftist Jew attracted like a moth to the flame. Having been rejected by the Black Supremacists, she turned to a group that not only rejects her kind but is homicidal toward Jews. If the Black Supremacists wouldn’t have her, perhaps the Jew-hating Arabs would adopt her as a useful idiot.
How does this happen? What quirk of the mind creates these suicidal Leftist Jews?
One paragraph in the profile stands out to me, as it did to many others.
“Why do people celebrate Christmas? People other than Jesus have birthdays too”
— Bryan Bodner (@bryansbodner) January 18, 2024
“I’ve been to a lot of Passover celebrations, and it’s so weird that the story is only of Jewish subjugation.”
Of course, it is not weird, given that Passover is a Jewish religious holiday. It would be weird if Passover didn’t focus on Jews.
But I think this sentence is a key to understanding the Jews who have embraced the cause of the very people who want their deaths–whose very thought about Jews is one of murderous rage.
Jews, as with every other people who have ever lived, are not immune to the lure of power. Human beings seek to dominate each other because we are fallen, and I have no reason to believe that Jews as a group are any more or less prone to virtue or vice. It’s just that, as a group, they have never been in a position to oppress any other group of people.
Even today, Israel is surrounded by tens or hundreds of millions of people who are sworn enemies who have tried repeatedly to wipe their country off the map. Jewish history is filled with stories of being kicked around by more powerful people.
Due to God’s will or the contingencies of history, their history has never put them in the position of being the dominant instead of the dominated. This fact is baked into their history and even their identity. Even today the total population of Jews in the world is statistically zero–out of over 8 billion people in the world fewer than 16 million are Jews.
That is 0.002% of the world population. The idea that 0.002% of the population could be a world-dominating group of oppressors is absurd. Even if you limit the population difference to the Arab world, Jews represent .03% of the region’s population. They simply can’t dominate everyone; Israel is just hanging on.
What Jews are, though, is a notoriously particular group and hence identifiable as different. They stand out.
The Leftist Jews like Eva Borgwardt don’t just reject the particularism that Judaism embraces–it is notoriously hard to convert to Judaism–one is born into it almost exclusively, unlike Christianity or Islam–they actively hate being identified with it. They can’t escape their Jewishness, but they can reject it and see despising Jews as justice.
I have never thought that criticizing Israel’s policies is inherently antisemitic–Israel’s policies are policies and, hence, open to criticism.
It’s just that it is blindingly obvious that almost everybody criticizing Israel’s policies does so because they hate Jews and want Israel gone. So, while a person of good will might disagree with Israel’s policies, it is almost never the case that people who disagree with Israel’s policies have good will toward the Jewish state. They hate Israel because they hate Jews.
And, let’s face it, today’s Jewish Leftists hate Jews.
I used to joke that the only time my grandmother expressed a belief in God was when she needed to blame Him for something. It is something of a tradition for Jews to rage against God–history, after all, has not been kind to the Jews. Tevye, from Fiddler on the Roof, famously joked “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?”
The Leftist Jew is the embodiment of that desire married to the equally Jewish impulse to atone for one’s sins. They don’t want to be God’s chosen people–they hate the whole idea of it–and they appear to be disgusted by Jews being Jews.
Whatever the reason, the Leftist Jew–not the liberal Jew, whose point of view is easy to understand and sympathize with–is a menace to themselves and their people. Marching next to Martin Luther King Jr. is the apotheosis of liberal Judaism–helping others in whom you see the oppression your people suffered. It is an impulse that I admire greatly and one that has done much good in the world.
Marching next to genocidal maniacs who want your people exterminated? Only a Leftist would even consider it, and a crazy one at that. Most Leftists wouldn’t go so far as to embrace people who hate them.
Unfortunately, Jewish leftists do. They are people who think, at a Passover Seder, that telling the stories of Jewish liberation is oppressive.
I’d love to hear from any Jewish readers who have a different take–after all, despite having (long ago) Jewish roots, I am not a Jew. Have I gotten it wrong? Let me know in the comments.