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Rabbi Lelyveld on the ‘Revolutionary’ Spirit in Jews

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Recently I argued that anti-Zionism might just be the new Zionism for Jewish youth, because it appeals to the same idealistic/prophetic chord in Jewish history that Zionism formerly appealed to. I find some support for my view in an unlikely place, from an important American
Zionist, Arthur J. Lelyveld (the father of the Times’ Joseph). In 1973 Rabbi Lelyveld said (in Congress Biweekly, a publication of the World Jewish Congress) the following
about Jewish activism: 

There must be a Jewish factor operative in motivating them
to enter revolutionary movements. One
could say that the factor is negative, that it’s a result of the marginality of
the Jew or the fact that the Jew has identified himself with the
dispossessed and the wretched of the earth. But my experience leads me to contend that there are positive factors
operating as well. I will offer as an
example Mississippi in 1964. 30% of the young volunteers who
were working in Hattiesburg were Jewish… these youngsters, whom I came to know very intimately, were all
of them unsynagogued. They had rebelled
against the institutions in which they had been brought up. But they were all of them motivated by what I
would call an inherited, environmentally-transmitted, or transmitted by family,
value-sense which is very closely related to something that is not only in the
revolutionary tradition, but that is also in the Jewish tradition, and that is
a very deep concern about the exploitation of man by man and the Jewish values
of compassion and concern for others.

agree with Lelyveld; when I was growing up–largely unsynagogued–we bragged about that high percentage of Jewish freedom fighters who put their lives on the line because of the exploitation of man by man. Since then, Zionists have tried to cast Zionism as an essential element of Jewish identity. But that linkage is eroding; many Jews do not feel nationalistic; many admire the U.S. for the way it lived up to its ideals and desegregated the South even as Israel continues its occupation.

Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of

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