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Todd Gitlin 'Defends' Israel: The Contortions of a 'Pro-Israel' Leftist Jew

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.