Columns Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

The day I left the Left

Linda Sarsour protests during a rally in Ferguson, Mo. Photo courtesy of Linda Sarsour

I wrote something. Can I ask you to read it?

Here goes.

Our old political comrades today

Back in the 1960s, as I was preparing to go to my first peace demonstration, my father castigated me.

“What if, suddenly, those peace demonstrators decide to turn on the Jews?”

I, in my adolescent naivete, answered him: “They would never do that. Besides, most of them are Jewish.”

Today, I reflect on my father’s truth. The sounds that are coming from the radical left are becoming increasingly disturbing to the Jewish ear, especially to that of the Jewish radical who is finding it difficult not to reject a movement that has already rejected Israel and Jewish concerns.

Many Jewish leftists are feeling betrayed by the same people with whom they marched against United States involvement in Vietnam, for civil rights, the farm workers, and other causes. For many, their reward for their traditional values of concern for the downtrodden has been a stab in the back.

Often, that stab comes from their fellow Jews, who have accepted without question the distortions of the radical Left. I recently heard someone claim that Theodor Herzl was a “Jewish businessman” who “met with Hitler.” The fact that Herzl, a journalist, died when Hitler was fifteen years old seemed irrelevant.

The radical Left has created a paradigm into which all history and ideas must fit in order to be valid. The acts of socialist governments, no matter how heinous, are instantly justified as being for the liberation of the people.

Terror receives instant accreditation.

Evil becomes the exclusive domain of the capitalists. And, because the United States has been wrong in its foreign policy decisions in the past, it presumably stands to reason that its alliances will continue to be evil and self-serving.

The Jewish radical watches, listens, and if he or she can saw through the rhetoric, becomes angry. The Jewish radical is alone. The Jews are alone. The First World doesn’t need them, and the Third World doesn’t want them. The Left has become selective in hearing the truths that it wants to hear.

The Left worries about oppression; what group in the history of the world has suffered so much and so needlessly as the Jews? What group has finally pulled itself up so far as to be able to devote its energies to the aid of other oppressed minorities?

The Left worries about refugees; what is Israel, if not the archetypical haven for refugees, for whom there were no massive student demonstrations when they were needed most?

What nation stands alone among neo-feudalism and reactionary politics in the Middle East, if not Israel? Is the so-called “progressive” Left really going to accept without question the whims of Arab governments?

The outcome of this struggle cannot be good — not for the Jews, Israel, or the Left.

Many Jewish radicals have confronted the dilemmas and have sided with Israel. Others, alas, have decided otherwise.

What the rhetoricians of the Left should have realized is that their distortions would only alienate not only Jews, but others for whom the movement has become little more than folly. For that reason, many Jews have withdrawn all support for the various movements on the Left, even when there are other issues not related to the Middle East that they agree with.

Some will undoubtedly completely forget social action and still others will start a dangerous flirtation with conservatism. The New Left will lose a large base of its support — a base that has aligned itself with liberal politics since the early days of the twentieth century.

I originally wrote this essay for Sh’ma magazine, which is a small journal of independent Jewish thought and engagement. The founding editor of Sh’ma was the amazing Jewish theologian, my teacher and friend, Eugene B. Borowitz, of blessed memory.

I wrote that essay in the wake of the Yom Kippur War — 45 years ago.

I found that essay while cleaning out some old files. At first, I thought that my post-adolescent writings would embarrass me. Now, I see something else — or, I see someone else.

I reach back into time, and I see the tall, lanky, long-haired college sophomore. I had walked with my people through the pain of the Yom Kippur War. During the war, and immediately after, I had heard my fellow students chanting anti-Israel slogans. Even worse: I had heard my own professors deriding Israel for defending herself.

The attack on Israel had come on the holiest day of the Jewish year. It didn’t matter. Because if there was one thing that I learned in the university — the hidden curriculum, the class they don’t require but which is required nevertheless — nothing is holy. No time, no place, and certainly, no texts and no ideas.

This was decades before we used such terms as post-modern, or politically correct, or multi-culturalism. What I witnessed then was a mere dress rehearsal for what would unfold over the decades. I was feeling pangs of betrayal — at the hands of those who were my intellectual, political, and cultural peers and mentors. They had turned on Israel, as my father had predicted.

I am hardly a prophet. But, note: in that essay, I mentioned the rise of “a dangerous flirtation with conservatism” that would emerge after Jewish leftists internalized that betrayal.

That is precisely what happened. That was what gave birth to neo-conservatism — ex-liberals and ex-leftists who had soured on their own allegiances.

Often, because of Israel.

I, that long ago long-haired kid, now have a clean shaven scalp. The beard is gone.

So are the bell bottoms.

I could not have known back then what I know now, and what we know now: that the college campuses have become the fronts of a renewed intellectual war on Israel, Zionism, and on Jewish peoplehood itself.

Since those days, over the past almost half century, I have stubbornly maintained my liberalism.

But, as for the Left — I left it.

Or, it left me.








About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.