Why do left-wing Jews who claim to support Israel have such trouble defending the real country of Israel? That question emerges from Todd Gitlin’s essay in Tablet magazine with the provocative title, “How My Father’s Problem With Blacks Mirrors the Left’s Problem With Jews.”
The Left certainly does have a problem with both Jews and Israel. We have seen this displayed most recently by the leftist academic petition in defense of Hamas; scores of Gitlin’s left-wing academic colleagues signed it. It is clear that many of Gitlin’s left-wing academic colleagues continually illustrate their support for Israel’s enemies.
Gitlin himself is not part of our country’s amorphous but large major leftist community. He hails not from that sectarian, far-left group of ideologues, but from what even conservative writer David Horowitz acknowledges is a “decent left,” the democratic socialist and social-democratic editors of Dissent magazine. Yet, in reviewing the past, Gitlin still stands by what was then the position of the hard totalitarian left.
Today, as I hope to show, Gitlin is clearly afraid of being seen as too pro-Zionist, a stance that would quickly alienate him from many of his leftist comrades and would mean abandonment of his belief in universalism, although everywhere it has proved to be a failure.
Let us look first at Gitlin’s problem with his father’s attitude towards African-Americans. He starts by bringing up the famous New York City teachers’ strike led by Al Shanker that took place in 1968. That, along with the left’s opposition to the Vietnam War, is what Gitlin says led his father to become “sourly tribal” and to “sour on all the left’s colorations.” He explains:
As a teacher and administrator in the largest high school in East Harlem, he had felt pincered. Just as New York Jews were increasing their power in the school system, digging out from under the city’s Protestant and Irish- and Italian-Catholic elites, here came the dark-skinned people demanding control— and power over Jewish teachers, whom they saw as white interlopers in their communities. No wonder New York Jews went wild, in 1968-69, charging the community control movement with harboring anti-Semitism — and the teachers went on strike.
Gitlin, like the author of the article he cites in The Nation, believes that the effort for “community control” and the removal of Jewish teachers from predominantly African-American schools was understandable. His father did not. He writes “New York Jews went wild,” a giveaway description that trivializes and ridicules the serious reasons the union called a strike. Clearly, Gitlin’s account of these events reflects his own inability to clearly assess what happened in that historic strike. He ignores the support of the strike by many black teachers who taught in schools other than the ones in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, as well as the leading role in the strike played by Bayard Rustin, the social-democratic civil rights leader. In the book by Daniel Hiram Perlstein, portions of which are available online (pp.82-84), Perlstein tells the story of how Rustin, an advocate of a civil rights-labor coalition, fought against the extremist black nationalism that Todd Gitlin thinks his father should have supported.
As the black nationalist community supported by the Ford Foundation and Mayor John Lindsay was doing its best to fire teachers for no other reason than that they were white, Shanker and A. Philip Randolph broke with the new nationalist sentiment. Shanker decided to call out the UFT membership on strike, which Randolph supported. Rustin argued that so-called community control was the equivalent of the old Southern belief in the pre-Civil War period of “states’ rights” and meant an abandonment of politics to end segregation and a racially based exclusion that fed right into the hands of blacks’ real opponents.
In an interview with The Daily Forward, Shanker’s biographer, Richard Kahlenberg, explains the strike’s legacy:
One of the legacies was an acceptance of the idea of color-conscious hiring and firing. What happened in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, what precipitated the strikes, was really quite extraordinary. You had the community control board in the African-American ghetto of Ocean Hill-Brownsville firing a number of white teachers without cause. Moreover, the local superintendent, Rhody McCoy, had as an end goal an all-black teaching force. This was a huge departure from the classical liberal position, which was that hiring and firing ought to be based on merit and be colorblind. But what happened in Ocean Hill-Brownsville is that large numbers of liberals — white liberals, including many members of the upper-middle class — went along and supported this new notion of color-conscious firing and hiring. And so, in a sense, you had the acceptance of racial preferences, which we continue to live with today.
Does Todd Gitlin really believe that black nationalist leader Rhody McCoy’s attempt to make acceptance of black nationalism an appropriate standard for hiring teachers was correct? Was it really because of “Jewish tribalism” that Al Shanker responded to the racist actions of McCoy by standing up to it? As a supporter of unionism, I think had Gitlin taken the time to rethink his position, he might have reconsidered whether or not he really was on the right side.
As for anti-Semitism, there was much evidence of it among the black radical leaders at Ocean Hill-Brownsville. As John Kifner reported in the New York Times in a 1996 article:
Anti-Semitism surfaced when a black teacher, Leslie Campbell, read a girl’s poem that included a slur toward Jews. (The school system’s underpaid staff was 90 percent white and heavily Jewish.) The United Federation of Teachers reproduced and distributed anti-Semitic leaflets it said were circulating in the schools.
That poem, read on the air in the city’s left-wing radio station WBAI on Julius Lester’s show by black nationalist Leslie Campbell, featured the opening line: “Hey, Jew boy, with that Yamaka on your head,” and went on from there. I remember listening to Lester’s program when it aired, and being shocked. How did this widely known event slip Todd Gitlin’s mind? Sure, the poem was written by a 15-year-old student. But it was read and endorsed by Campbell, who also was proud of the backing of firings of white teachers offered by the Black Panther Party and other radical black nationalist groups.
So on Ocean Hill-Brownsville, Gitlin’s father’s defense of the teachers’ union was the right thing to do, and was not motivated by tribalism. If he really spoke up for apartheid, and I accept Gitlin’s word that he did, and was not simply opposing sanctions or endorsing the Reagan foreign policy, then by that time his father may have taken unwarranted and morally wrong positions. One must remember, however, that to the Left back then, opposition to sanctions was itself considered support of apartheid.
As for Vietnam, isn’t it time for Gitlin to think again about the North Vietnamese agenda and to find out the truth of what happened there? Perhaps he should read the revisionist history of Vietnam by Mark Moyar or this article by Stephen J. Morris.
Next, Gitlin turns to the present day, and addresses what he sees as a progressive Jew’s dilemma. A Jewish speaker’s presentation on how the various organizations Bernard Madoff had sponsored were suffering produces the comment by Gitlin that he should have addressed as well the ethics of the financial industry as a whole. To Gitlin, the speaker’s failure to do this indicates how Jews only care about their own plight and not that of the entire American people. Actually, Gitlin is again wrong. Jewish organizations were collapsing, and it was necessary and important to address what could be done to keep them alive. Hadassah, for example, was facing collapse. But I guess by his logic, the Jewish women’s Zionist group, which funds a major hospital in Israel, was wrong to even have been created. Instead, its founders should have created an organization to help the American working class, perhaps by joining the movement for industrial unionism.
Gitlin accuses this anonymous speaker of engaging in a “delusional luxury.” So, predictably, Gitlin accuses Jews of “prickly tribalism” at the time of the Gaza war in their defense of Israel’s war against Hamas. He gives advice that reveals his moral equivalence:
Disgraces and crimes, committed against Jews as such, in the name of a highly selective go-for-broke “solidarity,” are nothing less than disgraces and crimes — damnable, inexcusable, never to be pardoned even as they are understood. They are not simply collateral spillover from Gaza, though they are surely magnified thereby. The undisciplined emotional responses to such events are dangerous to all sides.
Speaking at a Climate March event, a Jewish woman student tells him that “Jews on the left … feel they undergo special scrutiny nowadays from the anti-Zionist anti-Jewish spectrum.” How should she deal with that? Gitlin’s advice: “rancid hate had to be fought” and she should not be bitter. Back to his father: “My father’s road to bitterness leads over a cliff.”
Now, Gitlin shows how he really does not comprehend how to oppose the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement, so popular in academia and among many left-wing Jews. They are wrong, he argues, because they are the equivalent of a Jew who defends Israel without at the same time endorsing every liberal and leftist cause that Gitlin favors. He tells these BDS supporters:
You’re acting like inverted tribalists, singling out one tribe to demonize. You’ve surrendered to the tribalist recoil, the tit-for-tat temptation, to tell “the other” to go fuck him- or herself (not to put too fine a point on it). I would say to them what I would say to Benjamin Netanyahu: Your self-righteousness is short-sighted, futile, and counterproductive. It offers no vision but endless war and slaughter. It offers the hatred that curdles the hater.
Notice again Gitlin’s moral equivalence. Those who defend Israel without apologies are wrong. I imagine in defending Israel for its defensive fighting during the Gaza war, Gitlin made a statement and tied it together with posturing that Jews must also endorse the Climate March, the cause of the moment, or defend Israel while also criticizing it for being harsh to the Palestinians. And take notice of Gitlin’s allegiance to the other BDS movement — Bibi Derangement Syndrome. If only Netanyahu were not prime minister, Jews could once again defend Israel more easily.
His remarks about Netanyahu shows his failure to comprehend that in Israel, Bibi is regarded as a centrist, and in his actions, he has the support of a majority of Israelis. He carefully treads a course of restraint, ignoring the advice of both the hard right in Likud and the “peace now” posturing of the Israeli left from the newspaper Haaretz to the miniscule isolated leftist political parties. The hard right wanted to conquer and occupy Gaza, while the Left wanted not to respond with great force at all. Netanyahu chose a position of air strikes without a major ground offensive that would once and for all destroy Hamas at the cost of many IDF soldiers’ lives and a permanent occupation putting Israel in a horrendous position.
Gitlin is saying, in effect, that unless Israel’s supporters accept his own perspective, they will not be listened to. In reality, all that Gitlin has written ignores the context of what Israel faces; i.e., Abbas speaks to the UN accusing Israel of “genocide” and he takes steps to bring Israel to trial in the war crimes tribunal, instead of educating his Palestinian constituency that it, too, has to make compromise and accept Israel’s right to exist and do away with the “right of return” if peace is to be established. For Gitlin, the blame lies with Israel all the time.
As for that young woman, he tells us she took his advice. She attended the huge Climate March, which hence makes her support of Israel defensible. The march’s organizers took no position on the Middle East, although many participating carried anti-Israel signs. What if she hadn’t because she opposed much of its demands and agenda? Does Gitlin think that if she had turned out to be a climate change skeptic, she has no right to support Israel? What if she did not agree with other left-wing causes Gitlin favors? This is some standard to uphold that Gitlin demands.
Finally, he tries to show that he really does support Israel; he tells his young comrades that they have to do what the young woman student did: support liberal/left causes in the U.S., and then back Israel. When they attack Israel alone and support the leftist BDS movement, they are, he tells them, reversing the wrong-sided lack of universalism among Jews. He says that they wrongly have an “angry, fervent assurance” when they engage in single-minded attacks only on Israel.
This is the essence of Gitlin’s tepid, half-hearted approach that he believes is how Israel must be defended. Don’t make Israel, he tells them, “a litmus test for the left.” Gitlin does not get it. Indeed, to most of the American Left, especially in academia, attacking Israel is the major cause of our time. It already is their litmus test. That cause is to oppose Israel’s very right to exist, not only to criticize it for actions they consider wrong-headed. Gitlin’s small bubble of an almost non-existent social-democratic Left has no influence whatsoever, even if they do support Israel, of course always with qualifications. And their pronouncements hardly ever make the news.
Instead of this attack on Jews for defending Israel on its merits alone, Gitlin should join those who support Israel in its current fight for acceptance, even if its prime minister is someone he doesn’t like.
Gitlin should have taken his father’s advice to support the striking teachers in 1968, and to defend Israel without reservations or apologies.