Tag: social justice

“Jewish Radicals” – an interview with Tony Michels

“Jewish Radicals” – an interview with Tony Michels

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.

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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.

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Not everyone will be feasting this Thanksgiving

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, many of us turn our thoughts towards the dinner table. This Thanksgiving, let’s all take a moment to turn our hearts and minds towards those Americans who aren’t fortunate enough to have a turkey on the table and who suffer from hunger.

Today, I’m going to talk about why the United States should take action to end our hunger crisis.

Moral Responsibility

It is our moral responsibility to help the hungry. Many people are not religious and that is their right. But it’s true that many of our moral teachings come from religion. Feeding the hungry is like loving your neighbor. All religions demand we do it.

According to scholar Susan Holman of Harvard University, “[c]are for the poor and hungry was part of Christian worship and service from the beginning. Sunday services in second-century Rome included a collection for the poor, orphans, widows, the sick, prisoners, strangers, and all in need.” Chapters 13.4-13.5 of the Didache declare that regular food collections for both the clergy and the poor must be part of worship. In Catholicism, feeding the hungry is the first of the Corporal Works of Mercy, which every Catholic is expected to perform.

Judaism also speaks to the moral obligation to feed the hungry. In Leviticus, God says that when you harvest the land, you must leave the edges of your field untouched for the poor and the stranger. The Jewish Talmud, or rabbinic commentary, says each Jewish community must establish a public fund to feed the hungry.

Buddhists believe it is moral to feed the hungry. They have established a charitable organization called Buddhist Global Relief, which feeds the hungry around the world. American Buddhists in California, for example, also sponsor walks to raise funds for the hungry every October.

Islamic texts also state that we must feed the hungry. The Prophet Muhammad, the holiest man in all of Islam, said: “He is not a Muslim who goes to bed satiated while his neighbor goes hungry.”

Health and well-being

Hunger damages the health and social well-being of the poor.

According to a study by the Food Research Action Center, food insecurity is linked to obesity in poor women. Researcher Christine Olson of Cornell University also found that because healthier foods are more expensive, America’s hungry have to resort to cheap fast food, which leads to higher rates of obesity and even heart disease.

Dr. Mark Nord of the Department of Agriculture has said that hunger is linked to an increase in type-2 diabetes. The Journal of the American Medical Association has said that due to lack of nourishment, the hungry are more likely to need emergency healthcare, placing a burden on both their pocketbook and the public healthcare system.

Hunger can lead to violence in poor neighborhoods. In Mexico, for instance, when the price of food got too high in 2007, there were massive “tortilla riots” that destroyed and devastated poor communities.

According to a report by the Center for American Progress, “hunger costs our nation at least $167.5 billion due to lost economic productivity, poor education outcomes, avoidable health care costs, and the cost of charity to keep families fed.”

Our Children

Our children suffer terrible consequences from America’s hunger problem. 16.7 million children lived in food insecure households in 2011. That’s 22.4% of all American children. Both New Mexico and the District of Columbia had over 30% of their children living without consistent access to food. That’s more than double the amount of kids who have cancer, ADHD, and diabetes- combined.

In 2011, 47% of all households on food stamps contained children. According to the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, half of all American children will be on food stamps at some point in their lives. During the year 2011, more than 31 million low-income children received free or reduced-price meals through the National School Lunch Program.

Children in food-insecure households are less able to resist illness and are more likely to be hospitalized. Hunger also increases their risk for brain damage, stunting, iodine deficiency, and anemia. According to the organization Share Our Strength’s study, teachers report that hungry kids have higher rates of headaches, stomachaches, and colds, leading to a lack of focus in the classroom and bad grades. 53% of teachers even have had to buy food for hungry kids in their classrooms.

The Center for American Progress calculated that the impact of being held back in school due to hunger resulted in $6.9 billion in lost income for 2009 dropouts.

Time to act

In conclusion, we must do what we can to help us end the hunger crisis. We should donate to organizations like Manna. We should volunteer at a food bank. And we must tell our congressmen to fight for a just economy so people don’t have to worry about having enough to eat on Thanksgiving or any day of the year.

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Economic justice

All too often, progressives, liberals, lefties, do-gooders, whatever you’d like to call us, spend a lot of time arguing with each other about which issues matter the most. For example, Cynthia Tucker argues that “climate change is our most pressing issue.” One could find examples of this on many issues, ranging from gay rights to immigration to racism. One potential reason for this fragmentation is the role of non-profits and foundations in segmenting what are otherwise very connected communities and issues. I’ll save discussion of the roots of the issue for another post, but in this post I’d like to discuss the framework we need to use to bring all these issues together, mobilize the people, and make progress: economic justice.

Economic justice is the most important framework for making progress.

Almost all issues and communities are affected by economic justice. For example, 24% of 18-44 year old lesbian and bisexual women are living in poverty in contrast to only 19% of heterosexual women. A UCLA study found that “gay men earn 10 to 32% less than similarly qualified heterosexual men.” One study of low-income immigrants found that 26% were paid less than the minimum wage and 76% were not paid for overtime. As of August, the unemployment rate for blacks (11.4%) was more than twice that for whites (5.3%). The U.N. has also found that the poor will face the brunt of the effects of climate change. Indeed, the roadblock in the way of passing climate change legislation is economic too: big fossil fuel companies.

Economic justice is effective in mobilizing the people. For example, while many think of the Arab Spring as only a reaction to lack of political freedom, it actually started as an economic movement. Tunisian vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolated when the authorities robbed him of his livelihood by taking his vegetable cart, sparking massive protests. In 2011, Israelis united to take to the streets in record numbers (about half a million people) to protest economic conditions. In the words of student leader Jonathan Levy: “All the non-rich people in Israel, no matter if they’re secular or religious, old or young, reali[z]e that we’ve abandoned some really important battlefields in this country, that is [the] economy, and we only dealt obsessively with security problems.” In the U.S., the Occupy Wall Street movement reignited the issue of economic justice for Americans, with over 7000 people facing arrest to bring this issue to light. The fruits of this movement have been seen in protests inspired by it around the world. For instance, in Hong Kong, the most recent Occupy Central protests came about because people felt that “only very wealthy people can have a voice in politics” and because of the “stark inequality” in the city.

Economic justice is a popular issue. In 2014, Democrats did abysmally at the polls losing the Senate and even more House seats, but economic justice issues did very well. For example, referendums to wage the minimum wage were successful in conservative states: Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota. In Alaska, where Democrats lost their Senate seat, the ballot initiative passed with almost 70% of the vote. While only 14% of Americans have a favorable opinion of Wall Street, 77% of Americans would agree to tax hikes to preserve social security.

Some people would like to divide the issues we face into ever smaller and more separate categories. Listen closely, progressive advocates: we need to recognize that the fight for economic justice is the best way to unite us and achieve our goals together.

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(Martin Luther King Jr. led the March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs, which called not just for civil rights, but also funding for job training, a public works program, and a $2 nationwide minimum wage, a legacy we should remember today)