Jew­ish Rad­i­cals: A Doc­u­men­tary History

Tony Michels
  • Review
By – February 6, 2013

Amer­i­can Jews fig­ured dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly in rad­i­cal move­ments (broad­ly speak­ing, social­ism, com­mu­nism, trade-union­ism, and anar­chism) in the late nine­teenth and ear­ly-to-mid twen­ti­eth cen­turies, and even today, still vote dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly the left­er” of the two dom­i­nant par­ties, and are active through­out the left. Tony Michels, a schol­ar of Amer­i­can Jew­ish his­to­ry, in Jew­ish Rad­i­cals, has gath­ered excerpts from mem­oirs, news­pa­pers, and mag­a­zines (often orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten in Yid­dish), and oth­er sources that pro­vide an overview of expe­ri­ences, moti­va­tions, ideas, and con­flicts among the Amer­i­can Jew­ish left of that era.

In his intro­duc­tion, Michels offers some basic his­to­ry, obser­va­tions, and spec­u­la­tion as to why and how these move­ments res­onat­ed with so many Jews, and how Jews came to be so influ­en­tial with­in them. Only a hand­ful of the six­ty-five doc­u­ments deal specif­i­cal­ly with Jew­ish rad­i­cals con­cerned with specif­i­cal­ly Jew­ish issues: the set­tings and names may be Jew­ish, and the lan­guage may be Yid­dish, but most fre­quent­ly, the con­cerns are pure­ly radical. 

Alexan­der Bit­tle­man, a Com­mu­nist Par­ty founder, writes of becom­ing a Bundist (a mem­ber of a rev­o­lu­tion­ary Jew­ish social­ist orga­ni­za­tion) at the time of his becom­ing bar mitz­vah and the con­flict he saw between Judaism and the­ism on the one hand and social­ism on the oth­er. Paul Jacobs, a mid­dle-class Ger­man Jew from the Bronx, writes of the empti­ness of the Reform Jew­ish world in which he grew up in, of becom­ing rad­i­cal­ized in an elite pub­lic high school by his class­mates, and spec­u­lates that one of the uncon­scious rea­sons towards rad­i­cal­ism was that the move­ment pro­vid­ed an atmos­phere in which I could reject being Jew­ish with­out any feel­ings of guilt.”

Phillip Davis, in 1905, tells of his own falling away from reli­gion after com­ing to Amer­i­ca at fif­teen years old, work­ing in sweat­shops, going to Har­vard, and becom­ing a labor orga­niz­er, wit­ness­ing, in the course of his trav­els, the decrepi­tude of ortho­doxy amongst the work­ing class Jews he met, which he attrib­ut­es (through the voic­es of oth­ers) to the influ­ence of the rad­i­cal move­ments and to the demand­ing, dull, con­ser­v­a­tive nature of the religion.

Nathan Ausubel, an edi­tor of a Com­mu­nist lit­er­ary jour­nal, exco­ri­ates Jew­ish rad­i­cals who are igno­rant of and/​or ashamed of Jew­ish cul­ture, writ­ing, “… the Jew­ish intel­lec­tu­al assimi­lationist with Marx­ist pre­ten­tions has drunk deep and dan­ger­ous­ly from the poi­soned well of the anti-Semi­tes.” And in The Sovi­et Union Reap­praised” (1956), the edi­tors of a Jew­ish Com­mu­nist mag­a­zine strug­gle to come to terms with Sovi­et oppres­sion of Jews, and with their own com­plic­i­ty in the oppres­sion by not denounc­ing it while it was at its height. The final seg­ment of the book, a col­lec­tion of mus­ings on Zion­ism from ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry rad­i­cals, shows how var­i­ous Jew­ish Com­mu­nists and social­ists (and one gen­tile) tan­gled with the chal­lenges Zion­ism pre­sent­ed to these ide­olo­gies and movements.

Jew­ish Rad­i­cals con­tains a num­ber of genu­inely inter­est­ing selec­tions, but there is scant acknowl­edg­ment of the grand atroc­i­ties of the Sovi­et Union or its allies in the Com­mu­nist cause (except for the above-men­tioned essay on the Sovi­et Union’s treat­ment of the Jews), and no acknowl­edg­ment that some Amer­i­can Jew­ish rad­i­cals spied for the Sovi­ets, commit­ting trea­son, a sig­nif­i­cant dis­tort­ing omis­sion. Crit­i­cism is lim­it­ed to a cou­ple of accounts of Amer­i­can Jew­ish rad­i­cal vis­i­tors to the U.S.S.R. wit­ness­ing pover­ty and fear of arrest among the cit­i­zens; an arti­cle that men­tions the G.P.U. as hav­ing oper­a­tives in the U.S.; and one about the exe­cu­tion of two Pol­ish Jews by the Sovi­ets. Com­mu­nism and social­ism are cumu­la­tive­ly viewed in an ide­al­is­tic haze which is some­what excus­able for some of the indi­vid­u­als involved, but not for a schol­ar inter­est­ed in truth and jus­tice. Sure­ly there were Jew­ish rad­i­cals who saw the mur­der­ous hor­ror of the U.S.S.R in the teens or twen­ties, or even by the thir­ties? And sure­ly in that light, might not the Com­mu­nist Par­ty involve­ment in the Amer­i­can labor move­ment deserve a clos­er, more crit­i­cal look? Ulti­mate­ly the selec­tions result in a white­wash of rad­i­cal­ism in Amer­i­ca, and among Jews.

Discussion Questions