Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Christian Left and the Jewish Left

Last night I had the privilege of attending a book signing sponsored by San Diego’s Christian Left. Not all Christians are like the radio preachers who spew hate. From 1880 onward America has had a Christian Left with leaders like Eugene Debs, Edward Bellamy, George Howard Gibson, Jane Addams and Norman Thomas. The Christian Left had its origins in the Populist movement of the agrarian South and Midwest; when the People’s Party disbanded, many on the Left embraced Christian socialism.

The American Socialist Party flourished from 1900 to 1920. In America socialists had their roots in Christianity and Judaism as Michael Kazin illustrates brilliantly in his seminal work, American Dreamers. Differences in the party were geographical as well as religious: in the Midwest Christians of European descent thrived and Jewish Socialists flourished on the East Coast and in large urban area. Christians in the political Left like those on the right tended to be xenophobic. Consequently Christian and Jewish socialists didn’t always work well together. Because of the power of nativists the socialist party in America never had a Jewish leader. After the death of Eugene Debs, the Socialist presidential candidate from 1900-1920, the banner was taken up by Norman Thomas, a Presbyterian minister. Since Michael Harrington’s untimely death the party has had no figurehead.

Jews arguably suffered more in the government’s illegal persecution of the Left. Emma Goldman, an American citizen, was deported during J. Edgar Hoover’s Palmer Raids and Jewish intellectuals were targeted by McCarthy.

Despite constant violation of the Christian Left’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech and political affiliation, the movement never died. It can still be found in the denominations that historically dissented from American imperialism: Quakers, Mennonite churches including the Amish, Church of the Brethren and Unitarians. This isn’t to discount individual members of churches that try to steer their denominations in a liberal direction.

In San Diego, one of the epicenters of the military industrial complex, (drones are built here), the Peace Resource Center has organized the anti-war Left for 30 years. While not an expressly Christian agency, PRCSD, the Peace Resource Center of San Diego is supported by the Friends, or Quakers, and Church of the Bethren. In addition to a commitment to pacifism the PRCSD has championed economic fairness by providing meals and support to Occupy Wall Street.

Every anti-war rally in San Diego in recent memory has been sponsored at least in part by PRCSD. This has occasioned some tension between the local Christian and Jewish Left. The Christian Left, like the non-Christian non-Jewish Left, is almost obsessed with Israel’s foreign policy. Jimmy Carter is an emblem of this tension; he’s a liberal who constantly criticizes Israel. Much of what Israel does is heavy handed and wrong, but at some events anti-Semitism is simmering just below the surface. I’ve heard many remarks about “those people,” the Jews.

At the onset of the second war with Iraq, peace rallies in San Diego became contentious because some held signs that read “Israel Out of Palestine,” and “Stop the Slaughter of Palestinians.” Jews and those of Jewish ancestry, myself included, who opposed the war were offended by those banners and stopped marching.

My father was a Presbyterian clergyman who became increasingly involved with political pacifism and served as interim pastor at the Church of the Brethren. His mother was Presbyterian; his father was Jewish. Dad’s dad’s family came to Texas in what’s called the Galveston Movement (Bernard Marinbach’s book by that same title is the definitive source on the movement). Dad’s grandfather had been a cantor at a temple in Frankfurt; ironic considering Dad became a Presbyterian minister. Though he was half-Jewish, Judaism wasn’t a large part of my father’s life.

My father began his career as a fairly traditional pastor. Over the years, disillusion with conservative politics and his experiences as a hospital chaplain changed him. Having a gay son may have challenged him as well. Dad was always growing and maturing.

Dad died in 2004 just before Bush was re-elected; at least he was spared that. Sometimes when I go to a peace rally I think of him. I wonder how he handled insensitive remarks about Jews, considering his own ancestry. Did my father feel the conflict between Christian and Jewish Left the way I do? Was he able to put the differences out of his mind in service of the greater good? If the Left wants to transform the world it’s going to have to work together.

Though I’ve said this elsewhere, Jews aren't unreasonable to expect sensitivity from Christian groups. The Church has an 1,800 year history of anti-Semitism; books like the Gospel of John portray Jews in the worst possible light--- though Jesus was a Jew and a Pharisee. As David Nirenberg has masterfully demonstrated in Anti-Judaism, the church has used Judaism as a foil, an emblem of stubborn materialism. Use of Judaism as a trope for all that is evil has had disastrous consequence for Jews.

Christians should understand that it seems inconsistent to highlight the barbarous foreign policy of Israel while France and Romania’s treatment of the Roma isn’t noted. The Christian Left never criticizes Saudi Arabia for its treatment of women. Why is Israel singled out for special opprobrium?

Much more would get done if the Jewish and Christian Left worked together, and heaven knows there is a lot to do. The military complex is always gearing up for the next war; we must commit ourselves to economic justice and helping others, especially the least powerful among us. Maybe by concentrating on that, petty ethnic and tribal differences will seem unimportant. If we want to save the planet, everyone’s going to have to work together.


  1. There are more and more former Christians and people raised with no religious tradition in the Peace movement. I hope you will take time to address their roles too.

  2. Absolutely. Thanks for calling out the important role of atheists and agnostics in the movement.