I had the pleasure of reading the book Jewish Radicals by Professor Tony Michels. I was on a quest to learn more about the history of American Jews and in particular, find out more about the roots of social justice and radical politics in our community. Tony’s book was well-organized, readable, and deeply informative about important topics that don’t tend to be front-and-center in our typical Hebrew school curriculum. One thing I took away was that even among the left-wing of the Jewish community, there have always been a wide variety of ideologies. That can certainly be a challenge and it can also be a source of richness and progress. In addition, we often think of our ancestors as more conservative than ourselves, and this book shows that’s not necessarily true. I’m grateful to Professor Michels for the opportunity to interview him via email and below are his insightful thoughts. As befits a Jewish interview, I asked four questions 🙂
1) What was your goal in writing the book “Jewish Radicals”?
My goal was to assemble a variety of documents that could bring readers into the history of Jews and their diverse experiences with the socialist movement, broadly defined. In order to be historically accurate, I wanted to cover as many left-wing perspectives as possible: anarchism, Bundism, socialism, communism, socialist-Zionism, Trotskyism, and other ideologies. At the same time, I didn’t want to tell a history reduced to heroic struggles and victories, which I think is a temptation for many historians of the American left. I wanted to capture the ups and downs, mistakes, ironies, sometimes humorous ironies, and so forth.
2) There seems to be a renewed interest in left-wing politics among young Jews – learning Yiddish, advocating for refugees, even confronting major Jewish organizations in recent months. Do you see a revival of some of the spirit of the activists in your book?
I’m not sure I know enough to answer intelligently. Like you, I have noticed a revival of interest in socialism since, especially since the recession of 2008 and the Bernie Sanders campaign. And I have noticed an interest in the history of the old Jewish labor movement among some Jewish activists today. In the 1960s, Jewish activists expressed a similar interest in the involvement of immigrant Jews in the labor movement and socialism, and that urge to recover the past has been evident in every decade since. The difficult thing is that the history of the left in the U.S. is one characterized by discontinuities. There are connecting threads between generations, organizations, ideas and so forth, but not a great many continuities.
3) What is the greatest misconception American Jews have about their own community’s political past?
Good question. I’d say many Jews don’t understand how widespread sympathy for socialism was between the 1880s and 1930s. I’d also add that many people—I have my own students in mind—seem to believe that all immigrants from Eastern Europe were very traditional and religiously devout, and that secularization came later with Americanized generations. That immigrants were often daring and open to experimentation seems surprising. And finally I’d say American Jews don’t seem to be familiar with the extensive body of writings on Jewish identity and culture, many of them produced by Jewish intellectuals writing in English and Yiddish who thought seriously about what it means to be a modern Jew in America.
4) As a historian, what do you find most rewarding and most challenging about your job?
I enjoy the detective work of uncovering the people, events, and ideas of the past. Studying the past helps me gain an understanding of myself in relation to the world around me, and that’s satisfying. And writing about the past, shaping a story out of whatever information I can find, satisfies a creative urge. One thing I didn’t understand when I started graduate school was that, in a sense, history is a form of creative writing, in as much as it requires imagination to interpret documents—which do not often yield all the information I’m looking for or do so in an obvious way—and get into the minds of the people who produced them. Writing history requires inferences, sometimes speculation, in addition to facts and evidence.