The Politics of Nonassimilation: The American Jewish Left in the Twentieth Century.

Author:Mendes, Philip
Position:Book review

The Politics of Nonassimilation: The American Jewish Left in the Twentieth Century. By David Verbeeten. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2017. 229 pp.

From approximately 1830-1970 (and particularly between 18901950), an informal political alliance existed between Jews and the political Left. This was never an alliance of all Jews and all Left groups. But it was an alliance between key sections of the Left and key sections of politically active Jews at various times and in various places.

Historians typically attribute this Jewish-Left association to a number of key factors, including that Jews were victims of both class and ethnic oppression; an implied association between Jewish religious and cultural values such as tzedakah (charity), tikkun olam (repairing the world) and socialist philosophy; the concentration of Jews in urban communities given that socialism was primarily an urban rather than rural or peasant phenomenon; the strong emphasis on education and intellectual training within the Jewish religious tradition that may have made Jews more receptive to ideas of social and political reform; and the fact that Jews were a global tribe and, as wanderers, had a much less parochial view of the world than other nations who were limited by national boundaries, cultures and traditions.

A new book by Canadian researcher David Verbeeten proposes a new explanation for the ongoing Jewish-Left connection. He argues that Jewish Leftism serves as a means of preserving a secular ethnic Jewish identity in the face of external pressures to assimilate. He demonstrates that Jews in America have enjoyed unprecedented upward mobility since the early twentieth century as reflected in access to higher education and professional occupations, and equally that antisemitism has significantly declined. Yet paradoxically, despite their growing affluence and acceptance, they have continued to stand up for oppressed groups such as the proletariat, African Americans, and even, ironically, the Palestinians.

Verbeeten attempts to explain this sociological contradiction by exploring previously neglected case studies from three generations of left-wing Jews in America. The first generation, that of the mass wave of early twentieth century Eastern European immigrants, is examined through the memoirs of Alexander Bittelman, a prominent theorist and founder of the American Communist Party (CPUSA). Bittelman was born in the Ukraine in 1892 and moved to New York...

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