Jews and the Left

Translation / Interpretation / Caption Text



Yosl Kotler was a master of the stylized grotesque. He was also an extraordinarily accomplished draftsman, able to stretch, shrink and contort a line into an endless kaleidoscope of forms. Kotler is one of the great American artists of modern times, but has never achieved recognition as such. Perhaps because he worked almost exclusively in the Yiddish-speaking milieu, and mainly among Communist circles. Or because he spread his abundant talents in so many directions, including painting, illustration, cartoons, theater design, poetry, fiction, and puppetry. Kotler was fifteen and an orphan when he arrived in America in 1911. He thrived primarily as an illustrator and puppeteer, teaming up with Zuny Maud, an equally multi-talented fellow Bohemian, to create a cult puppet theater in 1925. Kotler was driving to Hollywood hoping to make a puppet movie when he died in a car crash in 1935. His funeral brought 10,000 people onto the streets of New York. Author Herman Gold was another extraordinary Lower East Side character, described by memoirist Reuben Iceland as "the weaver of the weirdest, wildest word plays." In other words, Gold’s stories and Kotler’s artwork are the perfect match.



Analysis / Interpretation / Press / Source



Jews and the Left: A Conference Report

June 12, 2012

by Bennett Muraskin

YIVO’s Jews and the Left International Conference (May 6-7) played to a packed house, but it was no celebration. Historian Ezra Mendelsohn, Hebrew University professor emeritus and editor of Essential Papers on Jews and the Left (1997), concluded the conference with a eulogy and not a very favorable one at that. The left in general is in eclipse, he argued, but even in its heyday, it was tainted by communism, in which Jews played an outsized role. As part and parcel of their embrace of Stalinism, Jewish communists pursued a universalist vision that disdained and discarded Jewish tradition, he said. The Jewish left is dead in the U.S., an expired product of a past historical epoch. If there is hope for a Jewish left it is in Israel, where thousands protested last year around the issue of social justice.

Jack Jacobs, professor of political science at CUNY, and one of the organizers of the conference, pointed out that there was more to the Jewish left than Jewish communists, but he too agreed that it was a historical phenomenon and no longer a living entity. He was even more pessimistic than Mendelsohn, seeing no future for a Jewish left in Israel, either. Neither Mendelsohn nor Jacobs mentioned the participation of many Jews in the Occupy Wall Street movement, which had just a few months earlier taken over Zuccotti Park (a few miles south of the Center for Jewish History building that houses YIVO) — and America's imagination.

The question of whether the contemporary left has turned anti-Semitic due to its negative attitude toward Zionism and Israel was a major theme of the conference. Mitchell Cohen, a professor of political science at Baruch College and former co-editor of Dissent magazine, and Lars Fischer, academic director of the Centre for the Study of Jewish Christian Relations in Cambridge, noted that anti-Semitism on the left was nothing new: Marx identified Jews with predatory capitalism and the Russian populists in the 1880s declared that pogroms marked the emergence of anti-capitalist consciousness among the Russian peasantry. Even the Second International, meeting in 1881, would only condemn “anti-Semitism” in the same breath as “philo-Semitism,” as if the latter was as prevalent as the former.

Of course, the left always advocated full civil rights and political rights for Jews and welcomed Jews to their ranks. But the Stalin era in the Soviet Union, as is well known, ended in spasm of acute anti-Semitism and anti-Semitism remained a negative factor in the Soviet Union and many of the Eastern European communist regimes for most of their existence, especially in Poland in the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War.

What was implicit in Cohen’s presentation, Norma Geras, professor emeritus in politics at the University of Manchester, made explicit. Based on his experience in England, he argued that the left uses anti-Zionism as an “alibi” for anti-Semitism. He claimed that England is rife with leftists who claim that Israeli conduct is the root cause of anti-Semitism and accuse defenders of Israel of acting as agents for a pariah state. But some of his examples of leftist anti-Semitism do not hold up. Lebanese scholar Gilbert Achcar, now teaching in London, has not excused Holocaust denial in the Arab world as Geras claimed, but has characterized it as “the anti-Zionism of fools,” an obvious reference to German socialist August Bebel’s description of anti-Semitism as “the socialism of fools.” Gunter Grass’ controversial poem may falsely accuse Israel of seeking to “snuff out the Iranian people,” but he also called Israel “a country/to which I am and will remain attached.” Grass’ indignation is clearly directed toward what he perceives as Israel’s bellicose attitude toward Iran, not to Israel’s existence. British playwright Caryl Churchill’s Six Jewish Children (sic)* harshly depicts Israeli Jewish attitudes toward Palestinian suffering, but award-winning dramatist and essayist Tony Kushner and academic journalist and critic Alisa Solomon, wrote: "We think Churchill's play should be seen and discussed as widely as possible... To see anti-Semitism here is to construe erroneously the words spoken by the worst of Churchill's characters as a statement from the playwright about all Jews as preternaturally filled with a viciousness unique among humankind. But to do this is, again, to distort what Churchill wrote."

One can disagree with Achcar and Grass without accusing them of anti-Semitism.


* The correct title is: Seven Jewish Children