The Erasure of the American-Jewish Left

Most young American-Jews never learn that in 1909, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union led the first mass strike of women in American history — 20,000 workers took to the streets, organized by and significantly comprised of Jewish socialists. Most young American-Jews are never taught about the “Great Revolt” of 1910, where the Jewish-led Cloakmakers union organized a strike of 60,000 workers, winning substantial improvements in labor conditions. And most American-Jews have no knowledge of the Jewish Labor Bund, the international revolutionary organization that claimed thousands of American-Jewish members. While most Jews today know The Jewish Daily Forward used to be published in Yiddish — many are unaware that it was a self-proclaimed leftist paper, proudly backing the Socialist Party for thirty-five years.

shit like this is why i spend so much time with yiddish stuff, it opens this whole amazing period of jewish history.

It’s also important to note that a lot of that erasure was the result of both expanded social mobility and employment/educational options post-WWII, which meant that Jews were caught up in the wider tendency of deradicalisation of the white working class that happened in that moment. This tendency on the part of the wider culture to erase the extent to which first-, second-, and even third-generation working-class Jewish immigrants were active in radical left movements isn’t specific to Jews, it’s a thing that a lot of marginalised working-class immigrant communities have in common (how often do we think about Italian Americans as being radical firebrands?), but I think the extent to which American Jews were still heavily marginalised and discriminated against into mid-century was a major factor in why this process began slightly later than for other immigrant groups. (there’s other stuff here to unpack re: how different waves of Jewish immigrants became acclimated, and thus deradicalised, at different rates, and more general thoughts re: how the white working class was turned against radical working-class people of color, but that’s a whole megillah unto itself)

The other major factor was a concurrent demonisation of radical labor/left activists during the second Red Scare, which expressed itself in anti-semitic ways (see: the Rosenberg trial) and encouraged liberals to put more distance between themselves and people who were still identified with the CPUSA and other openly socialist/communist/anarchist groups. Some Jews kept on identifying with radical labor movements- and many ended up becoming central to white solidarity with the civil rights movement, and major players in feminist and other radical social movements- but much of this unbroken tradition ended up being papered over with the co-optation of left political movements during the late 70s through the early 90s, which ended up making David-Horowitz-style neocons and Clintonian Democrats out of red-diaper hippie radicals.

I could say (a lot) more, but what it comes down to is that this erasure isn’t an accident of history and it’s important, when we talk about the semi-forgotten history of Jewish leftism, to also talk about what forces from within and without led to its being forgotten.

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