The Jesse Alexander Myerson account (in the Village Voice) of the Jewish transition to conventional suburban materialism from left wing universalism and participation in the labor and civil rights movement is indeed instructive for what it tells us about the culture that gave rise to Bernie and a whole generation of New Leftists in the sixties. This was a cultural movement whose roots lay in the Communist party and its sympathizers in the 1930’s, thus heavily influenced by the struggles of the labor movement. But its Jewish members also found in this culture a secular religion that preserved much of the collective identity of their immigrant parents while allowing them to assimilate.
We should bear in mind that many of these first generation American Jews became educated with the hope not of moving to the suburbs as professionals but working in Roosevelt’s New Deal and fighting for social progress. So yes, Myerson is right that the Jewish CIO leaders, many of whom were former or even current members of the Communist Party, helped to prepare the way for the Civil Rights movement. For instance Moe Foner of 1199 was in touch with Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders like Bayard Rustin preparing the 1963 March on Washington. What we should bear in mind however is that Foner and other New York labor leaders were able, through compromises with the CIO, to escape the general persecution of leftists in the McCarthy era by finding a base in the New York City labor unions.
Elsewhere, notably in Washington D.C., not a single leftist remained in the government. In general, the chilling effect of the anti-communist movement of the post-war era should not be underestimated. It succeeded in eroding the vibrant culture that was created by Communist, socialists and fellow-travelers in the 30’s and 40’s–think, Pete Seeger, whose national hit recording of Tzena Tzena with the Weavers did not protect him from being blacklisted or from investigation for “Un-American activities.”
Throughout the era of protest against the war in Vietnam, the shadow of anti-Communism did not leave us. Ironically, Jewish identity and the support of Israel increasingly provided a safe alternative free of the threat of social opprobrium or even persecution. Yes, there were fundamental splits and anxieties that arose between Blacks and Jews. Furthermore, persecution of Jews in the Soviet Union and Poland, anti-Zionism as part of anti-imperialism, changed the picture in ways that placed impossible strains on the progressive coalitions of an earlier era. Put simply, left wing identity could no longer be safe, popular, and part of the general ambiance of Jewish assimilation.
The fact that Bernie marched through the era of conformity, anti-Communism, and materialism to maintain an identity as a democratic socialist without the fear of anti-Communist stigmatization or need to belong to a more respectable form of Jewish identity is one of the extraordinary features of his character. He seems to have preserved in amber some basic tenets of mid-twentieth-century secular Jewish leftism with its emphasis on labor and civil rights struggles, undeterred by those fraught moments in progressive history where these coalitions fell apart.
Listening to Bernie, you would think there was never a McCarthy. There was never a bloody battle over imperialism and Zionism between members of the anti-war movement on the steps of the Wisconsin Student Union in Madison, in June 1967. Now students in Madison are cheering for Bernie, who simply won’t allow those moments in our history to defeat the need he perceives to recover an original, purposeful socialist agenda that will bring American workers into the safety their counterparts in Europe have enjoyed since World War II. But I think the biggest obstacle Bernie overcame, and will face again if he is nominated, is that of American anti-Communism.
Reclaiming our heritage requires facing up to more than the problems in Israel–the ones here at home are pretty daunting. So let’s not forget why Zionism, Jewish nationalism, was a safer identity for many, even liberal, American Jews, the religious and the successful secular professionals alike: seeing oneself as a victim of aggression is a more comfortable identity than feeling culpable of supporting inequality, greed, imperialist wars, and racism. And no one can accuse you of being Un-American.