Jewish left

The term "Jewish left" describes Jews who identify with or support left wing, occasionally liberal causes, consciously as Jews, either as individuals or through organizations. There is no one organization or movement which constitutes the "Jewish left," however. Jews have been major forces in the history of the labor movement, the settlement house movement, the women's rights movement, anti-racist work, and anti-fascist organizing of many forms in Europe, the United States and modern-day Israel.[1] The Jewish people have a rich history of involvement in socialism, Marxism, and Western liberalism. Although the expression "on the left" covers a range of politics, many well-known figures "on the left" have been of Jews who were born into Jewish families and have various degrees of connection to Jewish communities, Jewish culture, Jewish tradition or the Jewish religion in its many variants.


Enlightenment and emancipation

Jewish leftism arguably has its philosophic roots in the Jewish Enlightenment, or Haskalah, led by thinkers such as Moses Mendelssohn, as well as the support of many European Jews such as Ludwig Börne for republican ideals in the aftermath of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a movement for Jewish Emancipation spread across Europe, strongly associated with the emergence of political liberalism, based on the Enlightenment principles of rights and equality under the law. Because liberals represented the political left of the time (see left-right politics), emancipated Jews, as they entered the political culture of the nations where they lived, became closely associated with liberal parties. Thus, many Jews supported the American Revolution of 1776, the French Revolution of 1789, and the European Revolutions of 1848; while Jews in England tended to vote for the Liberal Party, which had led the parliamentary struggle for Jewish Emancipation[2] — an arrangement called by some scholars “the liberal Jewish compromise”.[3]

The emergence of a Jewish working class

In the age of industrialisation in the late nineteenth century, a Jewish working class emerged in the cities of Eastern and Central Europe. Before long, a Jewish labour movement emerged too. The Jewish Labour Bund – General Jewish Labor Union – was formed in Lithuania, Poland, and Russia in 1897.[4] Distinctive Jewish socialist organizations formed and spread across the Jewish Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire. There were also a significant number of people of Jewish origin who did not explicitly identify as Jews per se but were active in anarchist, socialist and social democratic as well as communist organizations, movements and parties.

As Zionism grew in strength as a political movement, socialist Zionist parties were formed, such as Ber Borochov’s Poale Zion.

There were non-Zionist left-wing forms of Jewish nationalism, such as territorialism (which called for a Jewish national homeland, but not necessarily in Palestine), autonomism (which called for non-territorial national rights for Jews in multinational empires) and the folkism, advocated by Simon Dubnow, (which celebrated the Jewish culture of the Yiddish-speaking masses).

As Eastern European Jews migrated West from the 1880s, these ideologies took root in growing Jewish communities, such as London’s East End, Paris's Pletzl, New York City’s Lower East Side and Buenos Aires. There was a lively Jewish anarchist scene in London, a central figure of which was, perhaps ironically, the non-Jewish German thinker and writer Rudolf Rocker. The important Jewish socialist movement in the United States, with its Yiddish-language daily, The Forward, and trade unions such as the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers. Important figures in these milieux included Rose Schneiderman, Abraham Cahan, Morris Winchevsky and David Dubinsky.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Jews played a major role in the Social Democratic parties of Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary and Poland. Historian Enzo Traverso has used the term "Judeo-Marxism" to describe the innovative forms of Marxism associated with these Jewish socialists. These ranged from strongly cosmopolitan positions hostile to all forms of nationalism (as with Rosa Luxemburg and, to a lesser extent, Leon Trotsky) to positions more sympathetic to cultural nationalism (as with the Austromarxists or Vladimir Medem). Again, it is probable that most of these figures would not have considered themselves to be part of an explicitly "Jewish" left, but the significant number of Jews active in diverse movements and parties "on the left" is relevant.

In Soviets and against fascism

As with the American revolution of 1776, the French revolution of 1789 and the German revolution of 1848, many Jews worldwide welcomed the Russian revolution of 1917, celebrating the fall of a regime that had presided over antisemitic pogroms, and believing that the new order in what was to become the Soviet Union would bring improvements in the situation of Jews in those lands. Many Jews became involved in Communist parties, constituting large proportions of their membership in many countries, including Great Britain and the U.S. There were specifically Jewish sections of many Communist parties, such as the Yevsektsiya in the Soviet Union. The Communist regime in the USSR pursued what could be characterised as ambivalent policies towards Jews and Jewish culture, at times supporting their development as a national culture (e.g., sponsoring significant Yiddish language scholarship and creating an autonomous Jewish territory in Birobidzhan), at times pursuing antisemitic purges, such as that in the wake of the so-called Doctors' plot. (See also Komzet.)

With the advent of fascism in parts of Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, many Jews responded by becoming actively involved in the left, and particularly the Communist parties, which were at the forefront of the anti-fascist movement. For example, many Jewish volunteers fought in the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War (for instance in the American Abraham Lincoln Brigade and in the Polish-Jewish Naftali Botwin Company). Jews and leftists fought Oswald Mosley's British fascists at the Battle of Cable Street. This mass movement was influenced by the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in the Soviet Union.

In World War II, the Jewish left played a major part in resistance to Nazism. For example, Bundists and left Zionists were key in Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Radical Jews in Central and Western Europe

As well as the movements rooted in the Jewish working class, relatively assimilated middle class Jews in Central and Western Europe began to search for sources of radicalism in Jewish tradition. For example, Martin Buber drew on Hassidism in articulating his anarchist philosophy, Gershom Scholem was an anarchist and a kabbalah scholar, Walter Benjamin was equally influenced by Marxism and Jewish messianism, Gustav Landauer was a religious Jew and a libertarian communist, Jacob Israël de Haan combined socialism with Haredi Judaism, while left-libertarian Bernard Lazare became a passionately Jewish Zionist in 1897 but wrote 2 years later to Herzl – and by extension to the Zionist Action Committee, "You are bourgeois in thoughts, bourgeois in your feelings, bourgeois in your ideas, bourgeois in your conception of society.".[5] In Weimar Germany, Walther Rathenau was a leading figure of the Jewish left.

Socialist Zionism and the Israeli left

Main article: Labor Zionism

In the twentieth century, especially after the Second Aliyah, socialist Zionism - first developed in Russia by the Marxist Ber Borochov and the non-Marxists Nachman Syrkin and A. D. Gordon - became a powerful force in the Yishuv, the Jewish settlement in Palestine. Poale Zion, the Histadrut labour union and the Mapai party played a major part in the campaign for an Israeli state, with socialist politicians like David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir amongst the founders of the nation. At the same time, the kibbutz movement was an experiment in practical socialism.

In the 1940s, many on the left advocated a binational state in Israel/Palestine, rather than an exclusively Jewish state. (This position was taken by Hannah Arendt and Martin Buber, for example). Since independence in 1948, there has been a lively Israeli left, both Zionist (the Labour Party, Meretz) and anti-Zionist (Palestine Communist Party, Maki). The Labour Party and its predecessors have been in power in Israel for significant periods since 1948.

There are two worldwide groupings of left-wing Zionist organizations. The World Labour Zionist Movement, associated with the Labor Zionist tendency, is a loose association of the Israeli Labour Party (Avoda), the Habonim Dror Labor Zionist youth movement, the TAKAM kibbutz federation, the Histadrut and the Na'amat. The World Union of Meretz, associated with what was historically known as the Socialist Zionist tendency, is a loose association of the Israeli Meretz party, the Hashomer Hatzair Socialist Zionist youth movement, the Kibbutz Artzi Federation and the Givat Haviva research and study center. Both movements exist as factions within the World Zionist Organization, as well as regional or country-specific Zionist movements; the two roughly correspond to the interwar split between the Poale Zion Right (the tradition that led to Avoda) and the Poale Zion Left (Hashomer Hatzair, Mapam, Meretz).

Apartheid South Africa

South Africa's Jewish left-wing was heavily involved in left-wing causes such as the anti-apartheid movement. The most famous member of the anti-apartheid Jewish left-wing was Helen Suzman. There were also several liberal left-wing Jewish defendants in the Rivonia Trial: - Joe Slovo, Denis Goldberg, Lionel Bernstein, Bob Hepple, Arthur Goldreich, Harold Wolpe and James Kantor. Wolfie Kodesh was another member of the liberal Jewish left-wing associated with Nelson Mandela.

Contemporary Jewish left

As the Jewish working class died out in the years after the Second World War, its institutions and political movements did too. The Arbeter Ring in England, for example, came to an end in the 1950s and Jewish trade unionism in the US ceased to be a major force at that time. There are, however, still some survivals of the Jewish working class left today, including the Jewish Labor Committee and Forward newspaper in New York, the Bund in Melbourne, Australia, or Labour Friends of Israel in the UK.

Meanwhile, the 1960s-1980s saw a resurgence in interest in cultural heritage and ethnic identity, prompting a renewal of interest among assimilated Jews in the West in Jewish working class culture and the various radical traditions of the Jewish past. This led to a growth in a new sort of radical Jewish organisations, interested in Yiddish culture, Jewish spirituality and social justice. For example, in the decade of 1980–1992 one organization, New Jewish Agenda, functioned as a national, multi-issue progressive membership organization with the mission of acting as a "Jewish voice on the Left and a Left voice in the Jewish Community." The Jewish Socialists' Group in Britain and Rabbi Michael Lerner's Tikkun have continued this tradition, while more recently groups like Jewdas and Heeb Magazine have taken an even more eclectic and radical approach to Jewishness. In Belgium, the Union des progressistes juifs de Belgique is, since 1969, the heir of the Jewish Communist and Bundist Solidarité movement in the Belgian Resistance, embracing the Israeli refuseniks cause as well as of the undocumented immigrants in Belgium.

In the U.S. in the last decade, the Jewish vote has gone to Democrats by 76-80% in each election, leading to the reasonable conclusion that the majority of American Jews remain in at least some way more supportive of the liberal to left side of the political spectrum vs. the conservative to right side of the spectrum.

South Africa is also a nation that has had prominent members of the liberal elite Jewish left, most famously in the form of Helen Suzman. However, there have been others in other walks of life, e.g. some of Nelson Mandela's co-defendants in the Rivonia Trial, e.g. Denis Goldberg, Lionel Bernstein and Arthur Goldreich, many of whom were also known for their support for communism.

Contemporary Israeli left

Operating in a parliamentary governmental system based on proportional representation, left-wing political parties and blocs in Israel have been able to elect members of the Knesset with varying degrees of success. Over time those parties have evolved, with some merging, others disappearing, and new parties arising.

Israeli left-wing parties have included:

Notable figures in these parties have included: Meir Vilner, Shulamit Aloni, Uri Avnery, Yossi Beilin, Ran Cohen, Matti Peled, Amnon Rubinstein, and Yossi Sarid.

Further information: see Politics of Israel#Political left

British Jewish left

British Jews have been influential in the left-wing politics of the United Kingdom for many years, especially in the main social democratic/socialist party, the Labour Party, but also in the socially liberal Liberal Democrats.

During the years when the Liberal Party was Britain's main party of the left, two Jews in particular attained high office: Herbert Samuel, who led the Liberal Party from 1930–35, and Rufus Isaacs, the only British Jew to have been created a Marquess. Other notable Liberal Jews of the 1800s and early 1900s included: Lionel de Rothschild, the first Jew to serve as an MP, Sir David Salomons, Sir Francis Goldsmid, the first Jewish barrister, Sir George Jessel, Arthur Cohen, the first Jew to graduate from Cambridge, Samuel Montagu, Sir Edward Sassoon, Leslie Hore-Belisha Edwin Samuel Montagu, Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln, and Sydney Stern.

In the early part of the 20th century, the Liberal Party gave way to the more radical and socialist Labour Party. Leonard Woolf and Hugh Franklin were amongst the figures influential in the early Labour Party, and Jewish MPs like Barnett Janner, Sir Percy Harris and Harry Nathan were amongst the radical Liberal MPs, many of whom switched from Liberal to Labour, economists like Harold Laski and Nicholas Kaldor and intellectuals like Victor Gollancz and Karl Mannheim provided the intellectual impetus for British socialism to take hold. Prominent early Labour MPs included Lewis Silkin, who became a Minister in Clement Attlee's government, Sydney Silverman, who abolished capital punishment in Britain, and Manny Shinwell, one of the leaders of Red Clydeside who later became Secretary of State for War.

At the end of the Second World War, the Labour Party entered government again, and several newly elected Labour MPs were Jewish, and often on the socialist left of the Party, radicalised by incidents like the Battle of Cable Street. Those MPs included Herschel Lewis Austin, Maurice Edelman, and Ian Mikardo, as well as Phil Piratin, one of only four MPs in British history to have represented the Communist Party of Great Britain. Several MPs elected in the 1940s and 1950s went on to be Ministers in Harold Wilson's governments of the 1960s and 1970s: Joel Barnett, Edmund Dell, John Diamond, Reg Freeson, Dora Gaitskell, Myer Galpern, Gerald Kaufman, Harold Lever, Paul Rose, Samuel Segal, Beatrice Serota, Robert Sheldon, John Silkin, Samuel Silkin, Barnett Stross, and David Weitzman. Another prominent Jewish Labour politician in this era was Leo Abse, who put forward the private members' bill which decriminalised homosexuality and reformed the divorce laws in Britain. Robert Maxwell, a Labour MP during the 1964–66 Wilson government, eventually became a leading newspaper publisher when his holding company purchased Mirror Group Newspapers in 1984.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Labour Party experienced significant turbulence with the rise of the entryist Militant tendency (a Trotskyist group led by Ted Grant), and the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SDP) breaking away and forming an Alliance with the Liberal Party (who had two Jewish MPs, Alex Carlile and Clement Freud), later to unite as the Liberal Democrats. One such parliamentary defector to the SDP was Neville Sandelson, and the Keynesian economist Robert Skidelsky also defected. Those Jewish Labour MPs who stuck with the party included: Harry Cohen, Alf Dubs, Millie Miller, Eric Moonman, and David Winnick.

During the late 1980s and 1990s, with the shift away from the socialist left of the party, and during Tony Blair's leadership of the Labour Party, notable senior Jewish politicians included Peter Mandelson, one of the architects of "New Labour", Lord (Peter) Goldsmith, Jeremy Beecham, and Lord (Philip) Gould. Mandelson, party fund-raiser Lord (Michael) Levy and Jack Straw (who is of partial Jewish ancestry)[6] were accused by the MP Tam Dalyell of being a "cabal of Jewish advisers" around Blair.[7] Several of Blair's Ministers and Labour backbenchers were Jewish, including Barbara Roche (née Margolis), Margaret Hodge (née Oppenheimer), Fabian Hamilton, Louise Ellman, Helene Hayman, Oona King, and Gillian Merron. A number of Labour donors during the 1990s and 2000s were also Jewish, including: David Abrahams, Lord (Alexander) Bernstein Richard Caring, Sir Trevor Chinn, Sir David Garrard, Lord (Robert) Gavron, Sir Emmanuel Kaye, Andrew Rosenfeld, Lord (David) Sainsbury, and Barry Townsley, several of whom were caught up in the Cash for Honours scandal.

Under the government of Blair's successor, Gordon Brown, brothers David Miliband and Ed Miliband became members of the Cabinet. Their father was the Marxist academic Ralph Miliband. The brothers differed in their view of the party's future direction, and they fought a bitter leadership election against each other in 2010. Ed Miliband won the election and became the first Jewish leader of the Labour Party. One of Miliband's Shadow Cabinet members, Ivan Lewis, as well as advisers David Axelrod, Arnie Graf, and Maurice Glasman are all Jewish.

Current Jewish Labour politicians include: William Bach, Steve Bassam, Luciana Berger, Michael Cashman, Anthony Grabiner, Ruth Henig, Jonathan Kestenbaum, Jonathan Mendelsohn, Janet Neel Cohen, Meta Ramsay, Catherine Stihler, Andrew Stone, Alan Sugar, Leslie Turnberg, and Robert Winston.

Since the foundation of the Liberal Democrats, several Jews have achieved prominence: David Alliance, the aforementioned Alex Carlisle, Miranda Green, Olly Grender, Sally Hamwee, Evan Harris, Susan Kramer, Anthony Lester, Jonathan Marks, Julia Neuberger, Monroe Palmer, Paul Strasburger, and Lynne Featherstone, who became a Minister in the Coalition government 2010-15.

See also


  1. "The New Left." Jewish Virtual Library. 2008. 6 June 2015.
  2. Geoffrey Alderman (1983) The Jewish Community in British Politics, Oxford: Clarendon.
  3. see Sharman Kadish Bolsheviks and British Jews, London: Frank Cass. (1992, e.g. pp.55-60, 132); Jonathan Hyman Jews in Britain During the Great War, Manchester: University of Manchester Working Papers in Economic and Social History No. 51, October (2001, e.g. p.11). The phrase was coined by Steven Bayme.
  4. Mendes, Philip. "The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Labor Bund." Jewish Currents. Autumn 2013. 8 June 2015.
  5. Gabriel Piterberg (2008), The Returns of Zionism: Myths, Politics and Scholarship in Israel, London: Verso, p.10
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