Dispatches from the Jewish Solidarity Caucus
The association of Jewish identity with leftist politics has long stood as both a mark of pride and a source of anti-Semitic vitriol. The presence and contributions of Jewish women in socialist and labor-based movements have, as with the contributions of women throughout history, been largely denoted as secondary to those of more well-known male activists. Growing up, the accomplishments of women like Rose Schneiderman and Clara Lemlich were summarized in two sentence blurbs in my history textbooks. As a consequence, I assumed the labor movement had largely died, the efforts of Emma Goldman and Pauline Newman a relic of a different time. For these women, their identities as Jewish women were interwoven with their identities as radicals and reformers.
As a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), I have been fortunate to find not only a strong community, but a community of Jewish women and non-binary people who similarly find their identities to be indivisible from their politics. In the hope of highlighting the current efforts of women-identified Jewish radicals in the US, I spoke with several Jewish women in DSA and in the Jewish Solidarity Caucus. I see our work as a resounding reclamation and continuation of a tradition that is vital to our survival.
My own journey of political radicalization (that is, believing that revolutionary means are necessary to bring about change) was nurtured through the Bernie Sanders campaign. It was disheartening to watch Bernie voters demonized during the primaries, as if the issues he raised were a distraction or nuisance. Policies like universal healthcare were painted as noble but unrealistic. The 2016 election left me exhausted and disheartened by the implication that we should ask for less than what is just in the name of bipartisanship and compromise. I committed myself to doing all that I could to ensure Trump would not win, while simultaneously seeking to find a community of leftists to continue the fight. So that November, I joined DSA. I was certainly not alone—the organization reports that over the course of 2017, dues-paying members surged from 8,000 to nearly 28,000 and the midterm elections of 2017 saw many DSA members elected to lower-level government positions.
DSA functions as a collection of organized chapters, all working within their communities to enact socialist reform from the ground up. As an example, many chapters across the country have hosted free brake-light repair events––a direct response to faulty brake lights being a commonly-cited justification by police forces for stopping drivers (particularly people of color). DSA’s organizing strategy has lent itself to the emergence of caucuses and commissions––both unofficial and official––which seek to both hold space and inform DSA as a national organization of specific community needs. One of the founders of the Jewish Solidarity Caucus explained the drive to create such a group: “Socialist Jews in the 21st century deserve something that gives voice to what we are doing now and connects it to our radical past.”
Historically, pockets of socialist Jews in the US were primarily affiliated with larger unions, the Socialist Party of America, and in publications like the Jewish Daily Forward. In the early 1900s, leftist Jewish action was steadily on the rise. The advent of World War I, however, began a fracture and decline of organized socialist groups that would carry through the Red Scare decades later. While Jewish radicalism was hardly snuffed out, a lack of well-established organizations through which to operate drove membership down. Today, groups like the Jewish Workman’s Circle still exist, but many have chosen to shed their historically Socialist affiliation.
Peggy, a DSA member in Washington state, considers Judaism to be a guiding force in how she operates within the group: “…I was originally introduced to Judaism via the Reform movement, which makes tikkun olam (“repairing the world”) and social justice a central tenet. In a lot of ways, radicalism seems to follow naturally from that ... It was frightening watching Trump rise to popularity by galvanizing racists and fascists, without any strong resistance from people in power … Jews know where this kind of xenophobia and hatred leads. Obviously Jewish history also plays a role in my politics … We are a people who has been othered for a long time. Socialism, with its message of equality and solidarity, particularly appeals to people on the fringes of society, and that definitely describes a large subset of Jews throughout history.” Peggy further explained that DSA’s emphasis on work at both the local and national level keeps her inspired as an active member: “Everyone is doing such important local and national work, including advocating for single payer healthcare, fighting for housing equity and even providing disaster relief. DSA has also helped some socialists get elected! It’s exciting and gives me a lot of hope, which is something we need right now.”
Libi, of Minnesota, similarly felt obligated to seek out Jewish leftist groups in the current political climate: “ It was my duty to to vocally reject the politics that were being done in my name as a white person, to vocally reject the right-wing Zionism being done in my name as a Jew, to vocally reject the violent capitalism that prevents the vast majority of us from living flourishing, healthy, safe, happy lives.” She joined DSA and began attending IfNotNow trainings, and getting comfortable with protest as a means of vocalizing anger. “Growing up, I had an intuitive grasp of Judaism’s deep relationship to justice. It’s hachnasat orchim (radical welcoming) … we are bound in one another’s liberation!”
The Jewish Solidarity Caucus is still in its infancy. Arguably its most important function is to connect like-minded radical Jews, within DSA, in the hopes of building a community that transcends geographic boundaries. This is a departure from the previous limitations of Jewish socialist groups that were organized primarily at the local level (such as the International Ladies Garment Workers Union). There is comfort in having access to transnational emotional and political support, especially as we unpack our own oppressions and privileges and may be doing so in an ideologically isolated area. Moreover, the JSC pushes its members and affiliates to grow as organizers, providing space to debate, muse, and learn. As we grow in size, we have been asked to weigh in on issues like the Jerusalem Embassy––providing an opportunity to work as a team on drafting a statement that reflects our shared values.
Libi, discussing the concurrent growth of her political identity and her interest in Judaism, offers a final word: “Exploring socialism has opened my eyes to a rich history of Jewish radicalism and has given me a profound respect and pride for Judaism. Similarly, I see the act of ritual––whether it is a moment of mindfulness on Shabbat or lighting candles and singing on Hanukkah or going through the entire Havdalah ritual with a big group of people––as a radical one. To me, showing up proudly as a Jew, spiritually, culturally, is a radical act.”
How to cite this page
Orlovsky-Schnitzler, Justine . "Dispatches from the Jewish Solidarity Caucus." 7 March 2018. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 16, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/dispatches-from-jewish-solidarity-caucus>.