Tony Michels on Stephen H. Norwood’s Antisemitism and the American Far Left
In the summer of 1967, American leftists began speaking about Israel in new, jarring ways. The Jewish state had just won a quick but transformative war with Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, resulting in the capture of the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank. A good many leftists sided with Israel, but a growing number reacted against it with levels of vituperation more characteristic of the ultra-right than the traditional socialist left. From 1967 forward, one could hear angry, often outlandish, public pronouncements with growing frequency.
An article in the Students for a Democratic Society’s newsletter counseled Holocaust survivors and their children to leave Israel for “historically more appropriate place[s]” such as “the vicinities of Stuttgart, Liverpool, and Kiev.” The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee’s newsletter accused Israel of indiscriminately slaughtering Arabs and connected this to a long history of Jewish rapaciousness. “[F]amous European Jews,” the newsletter stated, had “long controlled the wealth of many European nations.” The Socialist Workers Party dismissed objections to this calumny as “chauvinist hysteria.” The Maoist Progressive Labor Party labeled Israel a “Nazi state” while the Weather Underground claimed Nazi propaganda owed a debt to “Zionist writings.” An opinion piece in Wayne State University’s student newspaper charged Detroit’s Jews with exploitation of African-American neighborhoods. “If this Jewish Community is an example of what the Arabs are getting from Israel, God save the Arabs,” the editorialist wrote. “Are the Jewish people so arrogant in their so-called superiority that they don’t realize how racist they are?”
Similar condemnations continued over the years, even after Israel evacuated Sinai and Gaza, so that today one can hear professors in respected institutions state as a matter of fact — as if everybody knows this to be true — that Israel has not merely pursued a terrible policy of colonization in the West Bank but has committed genocide against the Palestinian people.
Steven Norwood has sought to uncover the roots of anti-Israel fury deep in the history of the American left, by reaching back to the era between the two World Wars when the left, quite unlike that of today, was constituted by political parties that advanced coherent programs according to one or another version of socialism. Norwood limits his purview to the “far left,” by which he means the Communist Party and Marxist-Leninist offshoots. His frame makes sense inasmuch as the Communist Party constituted the largest left-wing political organization in the 1930s and 1940s. Even so, one may question whether his category accurately reflects the American left at that time. The Socialist Party and anarchists often took positions no less radical — and sometimes more so — than those of the Communist Party during the height of its strength. But Norwood does not explain what distinguished the “far left” from the not-so-far left or why the two should be treated separately, which raises doubts about the scope and argument of his book.
So what did the American left of yesteryear have to say about Jews? In 19th-century Europe, socialists had devoted considerable attention to “the Jewish Question,” a term that referred to a bundle of issues having to do with the legal status of Jews, anti-Semitism, assimilation, and Jewish nationalism. With some justification Norwood depicts the European left as problematic to Jews. A number of prominent socialists, including the young Karl Marx, espoused harsh and at times odious opinions about Jews by holding them responsible for the ills of capitalism. It is also true that the great social democratic parties of Europe failed, prior to the First World War, to adequately challenge anti-Semitism and insisted on the assimilation of Jews into the surrounding nations. But the socialist movement was neither static nor monolithic. Marxists, by 1900, had developed a sophisticated analysis of capitalism devoid of anti-Semitism. Eventually, most socialists came to recognize the full danger of Jew-hatred and many developed friendly attitudes toward Jewish nationalism in its leftist variations.
Jews, as such, were not a political question at the time
Yet, according to Norwood’s cursory and overly selective survey, European socialists handed down an unambiguously ugly legacy to their American counterparts and stoked similar sentiments on these shores. This is not quite true. In the heyday of the Socialist Party in the 1900s and 1910s, the subject of Jews rarely came up. Eugene V. Debs—five-time presidential candidate for the Socialist Party of America—wrote dozens upon dozens of speeches and articles, but “On the Jewish Question” was not one of them. Jews, as such, were not a political question at the time. Yiddish-speaking immigrants were pretty much the only socialists who debated the Jewish situation. Not until the interwar period did European writings on Jews find a sizeable audience on the American left.
This reflected, to a great extent, the ideological influence of the Soviet Union. Unlike the heterodox Socialist Party of the pre-World War One era, the Communist Party always justified its policies in terms of Marxism-Leninism, as determined by Moscow. Furthermore, international events, especially the Jewish-Arab conflict in Palestine and the rise of Nazism, brought Jews to the attention of American leftists more than ever before. This is the point at which Norwood picks up the story.
In August 1929, following a dispute over access to holy sites in Jerusalem, Palestinian Arabs attacked Jews across the country. Among the worst incidents of violence, little children were tortured before being killed. All in all, the riots left more than 130 Jews and 110 Arabs dead, the latter almost entirely at the hands of British police. American Jewish Communists, specifically those affiliated with the party’s Yiddish-speaking organizations, initially denounced the attacks. The daily Morgen Freiheit labeled the riots pogroms — that is to say, inexcusable anti-Semitic assaults. But the Communist Party’s leadership, following Moscow’s orders, reprimanded the newspaper’s editors, who abruptly reversed their position and blamed “Zionist-Fascists” for the disturbances, now redefined as a revolutionary, anti-imperialist uprising. A slew of similar editorials, pamphlets, and rallies followed. Thus began the first anti-Zionist campaign in the history of the American left.
The Communist Party’s position cost it dearly within the immigrant Jewish community, where the party had found much support during the decade. Outrage against the Morgen Freiheit was so great that it almost drove the Yiddish daily out of business. Vendors refused to sell the newspaper, businesses pulled their advertisements, and nearly all of its best writers quit in protest.
Still, the significance, beyond the Jewish community, of the Communist Party’s reaction to the violence in Palestine isn’t clear. Norwood suggests that the Communists’ anti-Zionist rhetoric and apologies for Arab violence foreshadowed the attitudes of radical political groups in the 1960s. He may be right, but he provides no evidence of a connection. He also fails to mention that the Communist position did not reflect that of the entire left or even the far-left. Writing in the Trotskyist newspaper, The Militant, Max Shachtman derided Zionism as an imperialist movement (although he did not go so far as to call it fascist) and blamed it for the violence. Even so, Shachtman scoffed at the claim made by Communists that the Arab revolt had a progressive character. “The reactionary Arab leaders have diverted the nationalist movements of the masses into Pan-Islamic and anti-Semitic channels and out of its natural current against British imperialism,” Shachtman contended. “They are against all Jews as Jews.” In addition to noting the anti-Jewish dimension of the riots, he dismissed as “reactionary” the Arab demand to restrict Jewish immigration. As a revolutionary Marxist, Shachtman stood for the free movement of peoples, especially those as vulnerable as European Jews. His interpretation may be debatable, but one must acknowledge its nuances and the absence of anti-Semitism.
For the sake of perspective, it should be noted that Marxists were not the only people to blame Zionists for provoking the hostility of Arabs. According to The American Hebrew, the English-language Jewish newspaper of record, “The arrogance of the so-called Zionist revolutionists is doubtless a causative factor behind the unhappy Moslem outbreaks against the Jews.” Did The American Hebrew contribute to anti-Jewish animus? It would be ridiculous to say so, and I doubt Norwood would, but he gives us no way to understand anti-Zionism in a more fulsome context. Such lack of perspective — looking beyond the left to include the full political spectrum — mars the book throughout.
Jews faced restrictive quotas, employment discrimination, social segregation, and occasional violence, none of which was the fault of the Communists
The American Communist Party remained wedded to a simpleminded, dogmatic anti-Zionism for close to fifteen years after the events of 1929, but this fact in and of itself does not tell us much. How much attention did the party pay to Zionism overall? Norwood gives the impression that Zionism was a subject of major importance, but, in fact, a host of issues took much higher priority: the Scottsboro boys, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, the Spanish Civil War, Nazism, and Stalin’s Five Year Plan, to cite several examples. Moreover, the Communist Party’s anti-Zionism did not contribute to the development of anti-Semitism in American society, as Norwood implies. During the interwar period, Jews faced restrictive quotas, employment discrimination, social segregation, and occasional violence, none of which was the fault of the Communists.
Yet Norwood writes that Communists “developed policies during the interwar period that were highly detrimental to Jews.” How so? One of the policies he cites was the creation of Birobidzhan, the area in the Soviet Far East designated as the Jewish Autonomous Region (although few Jews lived there). A wrongheaded policy, yes, but belief in a Soviet Jewish homeland deserves no place in a discussion of anti-Semitism. The American Communist Party should be criticized for many sins. It was guilty of sectarianism, duplicity, totalitarianism, espionage, and more, but not anti-Semitism. Some discernment is needed.
To confuse matters further, Norwood’s account suddenly switches directions in the middle of the book, as he spends two chapters chronicling the Communist Party’s move into Jewish communal affairs in the 1940s. This turn in policy, like all others, came from Moscow. Following Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin sought to mobilize Jewish support for the Soviet war effort under the banner of “Jewish unity” against the common fascist enemy. The American Communist Party responded accordingly. It initiated a vigorous campaign against anti-Semitism, championed the development of “progressive Jewish culture,” and reached a rapprochement with Zionism that culminated in full support for the establishment of the State of Israel. “Two, four, six, eight, we demand a Jewish state!” was a chant of Communist demonstrators in 1947.
The American Communist Party was not unique, as nearly the entire left lined up behind Israel. Thus Shachtman’s group of Trotskyists, the Workers Party, determined after careful consideration that Jewish “national aspirations” did not violate Marxist principles. The Workers Party continued to reject Zionist ideology but insisted on Israel’s right to exist, condemned military aggression by Arab states, and criticized the United States’ arms embargo on the region, which it claimed effectively placed Israel at a military disadvantage. All the while, the “Shachtmanites,” like the Communists, affirmed the right of Palestinian Arabs to political independence. The left’s remaining unreconstructed anti-Zionists could be found mainly in the dwindling ranks of the Socialist Workers Party, which was nominally Trotskyist in orientation but headed down a path toward authoritarianism and cult-like behavior that surely would have made the Old Man wince.
Norwood’s discussion of the left’s Jewish turn contradicts the thrust of his book. At the outset, Norwood purports to reveal an unbroken chain of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism but instead shows a major disjuncture. In the shadow of the Holocaust, all but the most dogmatic Marxists confronted the horrors of their historical moment and drew new conclusions. Isaac Deutscher, based in London, expressed a widely shared sentiment within the left on both sides of the Atlantic when he wrote, in 1954,
I have, of course, long since abandoned my anti-Zionism, which was based on a confidence in the European labour movement, or, more broadly, in European society and civilization, which that society and civilization have not justified. If, instead of arguing against Zionism in the 1920s and 1930s I had urged European Jews to go to Palestine, I might have helped to save some of the lives that were extinguished in Hitler’s gas chambers.
To be clear, Deutscher did not convert to Zionism, but rather evolved into what we might call a post-anti-Zionist. Many leftists shared his viewpoint by endorsing the creation of Israel without necessarily accepting Zionism. This post-anti-Zionism often went hand-in-hand with a broader embrace of Jewish identity and culture, seen similarly in the post-war recovery of Yiddish literature. One of Shachtman’s former adherents, Irving Howe, played a part in this revival as an anthologist and critic. His co-edited volume from 1954, A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, was the most accomplished collection of its kind, uniformly praised by reviewers in English and Yiddish alike. The Communist Party’s magazine, Jewish Life, founded in 1946, also played an important role in bringing Yiddish fiction and poetry into English. The collective embrace of Jewish culture, by no means limited to Yiddish literature, alongside the newfound sympathy with Zionism, marked a significant shift in thinking among leftists.
All this is to say that Norwood wrote the wrong book. Instead of trying to show how pre-war Marxists shaped the anti-Israel and anti-Jewish opinions of some New Leftists, Norwood should have explored why American radicals of the 1960s failed to learn from their predecessors. The story is not one of historical continuity, but of rupture, of how the hard-won wisdom of one generation somehow got left behind — or rejected — by the next. But this is not the whole story either. Many New Leftists applauded Israel’s victory in 1967 and embarked on journeys of Jewish self-discovery that took shape as a distinct Jewish left within, and sometimes at odds with, the larger New Left. Then again, many radicals did not think much about Israel and Jews. The war in Southeast Asia, the Cuban revolution, China — these were the dominant international issues in the 1960s and early-1970s.
What requires explanation, then, is the evolution of the left over the five decades since the 1960s. How did it change intellectually and organizationally? How did the subject of Israel grow into an obsession? How did hatred of Zionism, a multifaceted ideology rarely defined but much reviled, become standard? How has it happened that as insistent a critic as Noam Chomsky now finds himself criticized — in anti-Semitic terms, at times — for opposing boycotts of Israel and favoring a two-state solution? Such questions await investigation. Examples divorced from context will not suffice. Needed is a political and intellectual history that accounts for the uneven development of anti-Zionism in various settings and constituencies. This history would have to consider a host of international and domestic factors, trace the transmission of ideas, and recognize the interplay of trends and counter-currents. For even today there are leftists, some who stand on the far end of the political spectrum, who believe in national self-determination for both Israelis and Palestinians, oppose anti-Semitism, and remain sensitive to the complexity of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Such people, although relatively few in number, more faithfully carry forward the legacy of the Old Left than the latter-day anti-Zionists chronicled by Norwood. Their history remains to be written.