Jews and the left

JVL Introduction

In 2017 a book of essays was published under the title Jews and Leftist Politics: Judaism, Israel, Antisemitism, and Gender edited by Jack Jacobs.

It is priced at £90 (£85.50 on the Kindle!). Furthermore, no more than ten libraries in the UK appear to hold a copy.

It is a shame it is beyond the reach of the overwhelming majority of those who might want to read it, so we’re publishing some information about it here. We also give links to some talks based on the materials in it, available on Youtube.

Its central focus is on why Jews have been so prominent historically, on the left and in left-wing organisations. Explanations revolving around  supposed characteristics of Jews, Jewish religious ideas, and the marginality of  Jewish populations have all been suggested. These are put up for scrutiny here.

Yivo, established in 1925 in Wilno in the Second Polish Republic as the Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institute. Based now in Manhattan, it is an organisation that preserves, studies, and teaches the cultural history of Jewish life throughout Eastern Europe, Germany and Russia.

In May 2012 it hosted a conference on Jews and the Left , together with the American Jewish Historical Society

Out of this conference a book emerged, Jews and Leftist Politics, published in 2017 and launched at the Yivo Institute.

It was introduced by Jack Jacobs a Yiddish American scholar of the Bund and of Jewish radical currents more generally. A summary of his introduction is given on the publisher’s website:

Jews played highly visible roles, over an extended period, in the leadership of leftist movements – including socialist, communist, and anarchist organizations – around the world. In the first half of the twentieth century, significant numbers of Jews were also evident in the rank and file of specific left-wing political parties. In addition to participating in general leftist movements, Jews in Eastern Europe created and fostered a number of distinctive Jewish socialist parties with tens of thousands of members. Why were so many Jews sympathetic to left-wing causes? Explanations revolving around the purported characteristics of Jews, the impact of Jewish religious ideas, and the marginality of the Jewish population have been expounded by prominent scholars. However, there is reason to question both of the first two of these explanations. At the present time, left-wing ideas no longer hold the same degree of attraction for Jews as they did one hundred years ago. The relationship of Jews to the left was historically contingent, specific to political, historic, and economic conditions that prevailed between the late-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries in Europe, and that impacted upon Jewish political opinion in the United States and other countries that received large numbers of Jewish immigrants from Europe.

The keynote at the original conference was a talk by Michael Walzer called “The Strangeness of Jewish Leftism”. Here is his own summary of that talk:

I have tried to think about what a keynote address should be like, and in line with my sense of what is appropriate here, I will talk about a subject that occurs first in the story of Jewish leftism, both logically and chronologically. My subject is the difficult, problematic relation of Jewish leftism to the religion of the Jews. We (leftists) started from the religious world – there was no other place – and it was not an easy start.

Many people have pretended that it was easy; they try to find reasons for the Jewish predilection for left politics in Judaism itself: Pesach as a celebration of national liberation, Hanukka as a celebration of religious freedom, the prophets as social critics and advocates of social justice, tzedakah as a commitment to the most vulnerable members of society. There is something to say in favor of this view of our religion, but not enough to explain Jewish leftism. Certainly the holidays, in their Orthodox versions, carry a message very different from the one we were taught in Reform and liberal–left households: Pesach celebrates a liberation at the hand of God and God alone; the people of Israel did nothing to free themselves; this was a liberation without human agency, which is the absolutely essential feature of any left politics (of any politics, actually). And the leaders of the Maccabean revolt were religious zealots; they were opposed indeed to the imposition of an imperial, Hellenistic religion; they fought for the freedom to impose their own orthodoxy on their own people; they were closer in spirit, I dare say, to the Taliban than to the Labor Zionists. The prophets, in the texts we love to quote, were magnificent social critics and advocates of social justice, but there are many texts that we do not love to quote. And the practice of tzedakah in the old kehillot, which certainly made for a kind of welfarism, did not interfere at all with the oligarchies that ruled in each kahal. In fact, traditional Judaism offers precious little support to a left political orientation.

Hence the strangeness of Jewish leftism, for which centuries of religious life did not prepare us.

All the material from the 2012 conference in available on Youtube (search for “Jews and the Left”). Here we would like to draw particular attention to Michael Walzer’s presentation from 2012; and Jack Jacobs’s presentation at the 2017 conference which reflects closely his introduction the book.

For information, we also present the contents list from the book (a mixed bag, as a glance will show), and would draw particular attention to a fantastic essay in it by Samuel Farber on Isaac Deutscher. This is available online on the New Politics website: “Deutscher and the Jews: On the Non-Jewish Jew – An Analysis and Personal Reflection”.


Introduction  by Jack Jacobs


1 – The Strangeness of Jewish Leftism by Michael Walzer,


2 – The Dualisms of Capitalist Modernity: Reflections on History, the Holocaust, and Antisemitism by Moishe Postone

3 – Marxism’s Other Jewish Questions by Lars Fischer


4 – Socialist Zionism and Nation Building by Anita Shapira

5 – Delegitimation of Israel or Social-Historical Analysis? The Debate over Zionism as a Colonial Settler Movement by Yoav Peled

6 – Does the Left Have a Zionist Problem? From the General to a Particular by Mitchell Cohen


7 – Jews and Communism in the Soviet Union and Poland by Antony Polonsky

8 – Jews and American Communism by Harvey Klehr


9 – Gesia Gelfman: A Jewish Woman on the Left in Imperial Russia by Barbara Alpern Engel

10 – Manya Shochat and Her Traveling Guns: Jewish Radical Women from Pogrom Self-Defense to the First Kibbutzim by Deborah Hertz

11 – The Gender of Jews and the Politics of Women: A Reflection by Alice Kessler-Harris,


12 – Gershom Scholem and the Left by Steven E. Aschheim,

13 – The Romantic Socialism of Gustav Landauer by Michael Löwy,

14 – Martin Buber between Left and Right by Uri Ram


15 – The Soviet Union, Jewish Concerns, and the New York Electoral Left, 1939-1944 by Daniel Soyer

16 – Jews and the Left at the New School by Judith Friedlander

17 – Deutscher and the Jews: On the Non-Jewish Jew – An Analysis and Personal Reflection by Samuel Farber