Six ‘Rabbis’ for May Day

On we go with our list of “rabbis” for the secular and progressive-minded. May 1 being international labor day, it’s time to roll out some of my favorite Jewish lefties:

3. Joe Slovo
When Joe Slovo died, the Central Committee of the South African Communist Party, of which he was the Secretary General, wanted to put a single word epitaph on his headstone: “Mensch.” The only problem was that it would not be understood by the Party’s African working class rank and file. But it was absolutely true. A nice Jewish boy from Joburg who became the best-loved white person in South Africa because of his unfailing commitment to the liberation struggle, Joe personified for me the idea that the calling of a good Jew in South Africa was to fight for justice for all — the mainstream Jewish organizations in South Africa missed the point, choosing quiet quiescence and occasional quiet pleading in response to some especially noxious instance of anti-Semitism. Joe knew that anti-Semitism in South Africa was part and parcel of the racist colonial order, and the best place to fight it was out in the forward trenches of the national liberation movement. He may have been the movement’s most senior ideologue and one of its top strategists, but when I had the pleasure of meeting him in the late 1980s, we ended up playing Jewish geography.

12. Studs Terkel
Studs Terkel, the great chronicler of America’s story spent his life collecting and amplifying the voices of ordinary Americans on the issues that defined their life and times; it was as if he lived the Brecht poem “Questions from a Worker Who Reads” (Who built the seven towers of Thebes? / The books are filled with names of kings. / Was it kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone? / In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished / Where did the masons go? … Caesar beat the Gauls / Was there not even a cook in his army? Philip of Spain wept as his fleet was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears? etc.) Studs Terkel’s life was spent chronicling the history of our times through the lives of the ordinary people who made it. And that for me captures the very essence of a tradition that gave ordinary people the potential, by teaching them to read and write (albeit for purposes of studying the Torah), to understand and make their own history.

13. Ray Alexander
As a young activist in the liberation movement, I’d come to know of Ray Alexander as a living legend who, as a young immigrant from Latvia had set about organizing women workers in the food canning industry in Cape Town, and had dedicated her life to their struggle. A lifelong communist, she was now living in exile in far-away Lusaka, but maintaing a central role in the leadership of the liberation movement as an active member of the ANC’s Revolutionary Council. When I finally met her, in 1989, I couldn’t believe how this icon of the struggle sounded exactly like my bubba, speaking English with a thick, thick Yiddish accent. She, too, started out in the Zionist movement, and recounts her political evolution in this extensive historians’ interview. I love this tale from her days as a teenager in Latvia in the 1920s: “Earlier, at school, I had been a Zionist with my older sister Getty and brother Isher. I often helped the Zionist organisation with office work. When the Jerusalem University was opened — it was in 1926 — the Zionist organisation made a big celebration of it. They invited our school to send a speaker. I was chosen. I prepared my talk on higher education. I made an observation that we are celebrating the opening of the university in Jerusalem, but if there would be a university opened in Timbuktu we should celebrate it as much. Because wherever a university is opened, it is a big candle to lead to a better understanding between human beings. My teacher in algebra was a very strong Zionist, she did not approve. She came over to me after I finished speaking and she said: ‘How dare you compare Timbuktu to Jerusalem. Do you know where Timbuktu is?’ I said: ‘Yes, it’s in Africa, central Africa.’ I said to her: ‘What’s your objection to Timbuktu ? People are living there too.’ ”

22. Isaac Deutscher
Isaac Deutscher, one-time Polish Yeshiva student, was best known as a Marxist historian and biographer of Leon Trotsky. But what I got from him, in a remarkable essay “The Non-Jewish Jew,” is the notion that the Jewish heretic, the Jew who leaves the reservation (shtetl) curious to make his connection with a wider world, even the Jewish atheist, are in fact an integral part of Jewish history and tradition. He sought the roots of Jewish contributions to wider society’s cultural achievement precisely in the fact that Jews lived on the margins and interstices of nations. Talking of the likes of Spinoza, Heine, Freud and Marx, he wrote “You may, if you wish to, place them in a Jewish tradition. They all went beyond the boundaries of Jewry. They all found Jewry too narrow, too archaic, too constricting…. Yet, I think in some ways, they were very Jewish indeed. They had in themselves something of the quintessence of Jewish life and the Jewish intellect… as Jews, they dwelt on the borderlines of various civilizations, religions and national cultures. They were born and brought up on the borderlines of various epochs. Their minds matured where the most diverse cultural influences crossed and fertilized each other…. Each of them was in society and yet not in it; of society and yet not of it.” It was this condition, he said, that enabled their transcendent thought. But he makes clear that European Jewish communities always produced restless thinkers, like Spinoza, who wandered beyond the closed community, their minds fertilizing and fertilized by a wider world of ideas. That, he says, is in some ways an expression of the universal essence of Judaism’s message — that it applies equally to all of humanity — and its contradiction with the notion of a “chosen” people favored over others by their god.

39. Marek Edelman
There are times, as Nelson Mandela said at his trial, when a people is faced with the simple choice of submit or fight. Marek Edelman recognized that choice, as a young activist of the Jewish Socialist Bund in Warsaw in 1942, and together with others of the left and Zionist organizations, he helped form the Jewish Fighting Organization that organized the heroic (and the word is not used lightly here) uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto against the liquidationist plans of the Nazis. His account, The Ghetto Fights, makes gripping and moving reading, and negates the myth that Europe’s Jews went meekly to the slaughter. He survived the uprising and the ghetto’s liquidation, escaping with assistants from the leftist partisans of Poland’s People’s Army to become a leader of the underground, and eventually participate in a second heroic rising, the 1944 general Warsaw uprising. In the ultimate triumph over Nazi designs, he remained in Poland after the war, and kept fighting the good fight — from 1976 onwards, he became a labor activist, and eventually in 1980 a leader of the Solidarity movement that helped end authoritarian rule in Poland. As he noted of his early affiliations, “The Bundists did not wait for the Messiah, nor did they plan to leave for Palestine. They believed that Poland was their country and they fought for a just, socialist Poland, in which each nationality would have its own cultural autonomy, and in which minorities’ rights would be guaranteed.” And he remained true to that vision.

46. Janet Jagan
For reminding us that you can’t very well be a light unto the nations unless you actually live among the nations — although she’d never put it that way — and also that a Jew’s homeland is wherever he or she chooses to make it. Born Janet Rosenberg in Chicago, she met and married the young Guyanan independence campaigner Dr. Chedi Jagan in her days as a young communist student. The couple moved to Guyana, where they played a leading role in the movement for independence from Britain, spending plenty of time in jail for their politics. And the Caribbean nation repaid her in 1992 by electing her president.

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12 Responses to Six ‘Rabbis’ for May Day

  1. Steve says:

    Two points of order, com (it is May Day after all). Joe Slovo was born in Lithuania, not Joburg and Rae Alexander’s first name is not spelled Ray.

    I remember listening to a radio interview of Joe Slovo some 15 years ago when he asked whether he felt there was some contradiction between being Jewish and Communist (discounting for the moment that the SACP wasn’t really ideologically committed to atheism.) His response was that it was precisely his Jewishness which motivated to fight for equality and justice.

  2. Tony says:

    On the first, I knew that, but “from Joburg” is used collquially in this instance; on Ray Alexander I’ve never actually seen it spelled Rae — on her own book it’s spelled Ray.

    On JS and his Jewishness — yes, I think there was a very easy seamless transition for the unapologetic Jewish boytjies of Johannesburg going out to City Hall on Sunday nights in the late 1930s to fight the Greyshirts in the streets, and their later work in the national liberation movement (when the Greyshirts were in power… I guess nobody told Israel, or else they chose to overlook it…)

  3. david Alexander says:

    I have been enjoying this series.
    Your link to the Ray Alexander interview is dead, at least for my brower —

    But the interview is archived —

    Cheers David

  4. Persian King says:

    Well my personal rabbi is Viktor Frankl. I’ll gladly swap him for all the Zionist trash in the world.

  5. Steve says:

    Tony – I stand corrected. When can we expect the next installment?

    David — thanks for the link. Ray’s integrity, idealism and humility really shines through.

  6. Leah PettePiece says:

    May Day! Or SOS?

    This morning I turned on the TV for news and realized that we are once again facing May Day, the workers day it was once called in the USSR. Already back east some of the “workers” who are here illegally have started their annual rallies, marches and protests hoping to force this country to give Amnesty to millions of illegals who have come here by means other than Immigration. Seems to me that someone should have hung a banner at the White reading, May Day, May Day, the international signal for assistance when a ship or aircraft goes down, instead those of us who are citizens of this great nation will be treated to the displeasure of watching while this day plays itself out on our airwaves!

    Time was in this great nation of ours when we had rules regarding immigration, no one just arrived here with out going through the necessary paper work, nor were they allowed to stay if they somehow came into the country illegally! It is high time that the United States stood up for what is right. We have legal citizens who were born here, worked their entire lives here and now must fight to get their Social Security because the system has been overrun with illegals. If the government does not continue to deport people who come here by unlawful means then we may as well throw in the towel and become Mexicans! The county schools, local medical systems and hospitals can no longer continue to give away free services, it cost each of us who pays taxes one third of our income just to support people who are not here wanting to become citizens. There are many things wrong with the way in which this nation has handled the influx of illegals in particular those who cross the international border between Mexico and the US. One point in particular is the fact that those who support illegal immigration do so under the guise of these illegals doing work that no self respecting citizen would do.

    Let’s just look at that one issue today. Someone recently sent me a movie that was a glorification of the Meixcan workers, it was titled “A Day Without A Mexican” and put these people in the light of “poor, abused and misused immigrants. If you read the laws of this country carefully regarding this issues this is what you will discover:

    The United States set in place rules regarding immigration in the year 1952, and it stated in part the following:. United States immigration law was enacted in order to provide a central control of those citizens of other nations who wish to emigrate to the United States and become citizens, this law refers to the migration of non-residents to the United States those who make appropriate application and entry under the government policies. It further states that anyone who is a citizen of a foreign nation who wishes to enter the United States for the purpose of work, or for the purpose of declaring this country their domicile of choice must obtain Permission in the forms of Visa, or other documents prepared by the person wishing to immigrate and processed through the department of the INS.

    This is and has been a major issue in the past 50 years, in states like California, Nevada, New Mexico and Texas the influx of illegals over time has drastically changed the face of the culture within our own borders. It is not uncommon now in California to hear Spanish more often than English. It has caused a once excellent education system to become the laughing stock of the states around us. Why you may ask? Well, the state in an attempt to” help” these illegals became programs back in the early 70’s to provide education for these children in their own language instead of forcing them into immersion programs that would have kept the main language in this state English. Just yesterday I had a phone call from a solicitor who automatically started off speaking Spanish making the assumption that with a rather strange last name I must be Hispanic. When I voiced my disapproval of the girl, she retorted to me,” Well, you better learn to speak Spanish lady!” and hung up. Just one small example of how those Illegals have taken advantage of the goodness of our nation. By the 1980’s every teacher in California was expected to have some Spanish speaking abilities, once when applying for a job I was asked in Spanish if I spoke the language and when I replied in five other languages I was excused from the interview. It isn’t uncommon either to go up to a clerk in a store and ask something in English only to be told ” No Englase, espanol.” With these few examples I expect you get where I am going with this.

    I am not as someone once said, ” Anti Immigration!” no, I am however against anyone who sneaks across our border and stays here without at least attempting to become legal. Indeed I know many individuals Mexican and other nationals who are very proud of the fact that they learned English, took Citizenship Courses as required by the INS and became legal citizens. However, those good immigrants also took on our nations colors, and are proud to wave the Stars and Stripes.

    Most of the illegals who come here simply do not want to citizens, no rather they want us to conform to them, they wave the flag of Mexico every chance they get, they have no intention of ever becoming citizens of this great nation.

    The United States is literally the only country in the world that allows illegals the chance to become citizens, no other nations has any problem simply deporting those who cross their border illegally.

    In California alone there are two million illegals…most of them are from Mexico or South America. Granted that out of approximately 36 million residents that doesn’t seem like a large number, but when you look at the facts regarding the services that are provided to these illegals by county, state and federal agencies over the course of a year the figure is simply staggering. Not only do these illegals live, work and get medical attention but they also receive free education for their numerous children, they drive on roads that our taxes pay for and at the end of their work day they take home 100% of their paychecks. Is it then any wonder that some of us still believe the only way to enter this nation is through Immigration and Naturalization? Is it any wonder that those of us who work hard to pay our share of taxes feel done to by the illegals? Is it any wonder that we don’t like to drive down the street and see dozens of Mexican flags waving from cars, fences and buildings? Is it any wonder that we still believed that the official language of the United States should be English? No! We would like to take our state back, we would like to be able to not have to fight to get the Social Security we worked for, we would like the government to take a hard stand on this issue before is simply too late!

  7. This is really something I can understand. Thanks for the article I have subscribed to your rss.

  8. Great criticism tony, I appreciated you.

  9. Most of the illegals who come here simply do not want to citizens, no rather they want us to conform to them, they wave the flag of Mexico every chance they get, they have no intention of ever becoming citizens of this great nation.

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