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The truism that Jews historically have been disproportionately represented in the Left is more the material of Woody Allen films than a topic of conversation in the movement. At the same time, the actions of the Israeli state and settlers, the debates of what constitutes anti-Semitism and the visible presence of some reactionary Jews in the US political mainstream often obscure the rich history of Jewish radicals and radicalism. Difficulties have been replicated within many Jewish communities where disputes rage over Zionism, religion, and gender. Many activist Jews face a dichotomy: either one is Jewish or a radical, each with its own set of implicit assumptions. But what of the majority of Jewish radicals, who strive to combine both their Jewish heritage and their radical commitments without apology or explanation?
Two and a half years in the making, Young Jewish and Left interviews two dozen Jewish activists, organizers, writers, artists, and agitators about politics and practice. Israel and Palestine feature prominently in the hour-long documentary, but it is not simply or primarily a discussion of Zionism. Indeed, one of the film’s greatest strengths is the recognition that being Jewish is not equivalent with and does not revolve around Israel. As a result, the film sparks conversations about a range of topics: Zionism and the Left, queerness and race, culture and assimilation, anti-Semitism and spirituality, gender and class, and beyond. Featuring exciting political conversation, intriguing archival footage, and good music, Young Jewish and Left is bound to create debate and action.
The film is above all a challenge—to both Jewish and leftist communities, and the points where those communities intersect or diverge. It pulls no punches, acknowledging the deep history of anti-Jewish oppression alongside the barbarities of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. The film celebrates the profound legacy of resistance among Jews, and criticizes the reactionary elements in Jewish communities, from the occupation to assimilation, patriarchy and homophobia. It also calls the Left to task for generally lacking an understanding of Jewish history or culture.
Among the interviewees in the film include people raised within radical Jewish families and communities, as well as those who were raised in mainstream or apolitical families. The interviewees are overwhelmingly queer and/or women. There are Jews from working class and poor backgrounds, as well as those from the middle class. There are direct action anarchists, union organizers, Palestine solidarity activists, and transgender performance artists. It also includes Jewish people of color (Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews) from India or the Middle East, as well as multiracial Jews, challenging the misconception that all Jews are white or of European descent and challenging Eurocentrism in Jewish communities and religious practices.
The documentary deals powerfully with Jews and their relationship to Israel and Palestine. This film jumps into it within the first five minutes and returns to it repeatedly throughout, criticizing the ways anti-Zionist Jews are attacked as “self-hating” while separating being Jewish from support for Israel. Several interviewees challenge Israel for oppressing Palestinians, hurting Jews (by making a militarized state stand in for a complex identity), and primarily benefiting and being maintained by US corporations.
Clearly, the film is unafraid to grapple with difficult issues—and could, in fact, be longer to have more time devoted to such complex questions. Still, it covers an impressive amount of terrain. At the heart of the movie is the notion of how a spiritual and cultural identity can coexist with political solidarity. This point comes across throughout the film, particularly via repeated discussion of the Rosenbergs, Jewish radicals executed in the 1950’s for their alleged ties to the Soviet Union. An older interviewee says that one of his earliest memories was of the Rosenberg execution and his mom noting that they were killed on Shabbas—a warning to other Jewish radicals. Bay area organizer Harmony Goldberg recounts organizing a Passover “Seder in the streets” to connect the exodus story to the Rosenberg execution to the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal to all resistance struggles. “Jewish people need to stand in solidarity with oppressed people today and draw on the history of resistance that we have and the history of oppression that we face to make that connection,” she says.
A particularly powerful part of the film juxtaposes one activist in his sixties and another in his thirties, each talking about the radical Haggadot (Passover prayer book) they made, thirty-four years apart, to celebrate Jews passionately resisting Pharaoh’s army, whether manifest in slaveholders in ancient Egypt, police in Black communities, or the IDF in Palestinian communities.
Given the name, it is surprising that the film doesn’t deal directly with age and includes several older Jews. However, it clearly prioritizes the voices and experiences of Jews under 40. By incorporating older activists, by including young Jews who connect their politics to their family histories of organizing, by tracing developments in Jewish radicalism, Young Jewish and Left provides a moving and palpable legacy of Jewish involvement in struggles for justice.
The filmmakers—each with years of experience in pro-feminist, anti-racist, labor, anti-war and queer organizing—are clear on the documentary’s political objectives. Chameides says in the film that “while we’re working to heal the world, we’re also working to build communities that are supportive of all our identities and that helps sustain the work that we do.”
The bonds and strains of family, community, and history resonate clearly throughout the film, with several interviewees discussing the ways they combine religious and spiritual traditions with political responsibilities. As Emily Nepon, a Philadelphia activist and organizer of the 2003 queer anti-imperialist Purim cabaret Suck My Treyf Gender, explains, “We’re doing this work not in spite of, but because of being Jewish. Our Jewish culture is about resistance to tyranny, and I want to celebrate that, beyond calling out my people as oppressors. I want to be able to call out the super-powerful and beautiful things about the culture that I come from.”
Young Jewish and Left
IRIT REINHEIMER AND KONNIE CHAMEIDES
(Video in the Villages, 2005)