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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2007
Number 66
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Revisiting Jewish Radicalism:

An Examination of the Writings of Jack Nusan Porter
Reviewed by Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

Jewish Radicalism (Grove Press) and The Jew as Outsider (University Press of America) reflect the writings and intellectual interests of its principal writer and editor, Jack Nusan Porter. Both books address the question of Jewish marginality. Similarly, both volumes were previously published. This marks the 30th anniversary of the first book and the 20th anniversary for the second. While the materials from both texts are drawn from earlier periods, the core discussion about Jewish radicalism has a sustaining value. The publication, Jewish Radicalism was co-edited by Porter and Peter Dreier. This volume contains some thirty-five essays extracted from the writings of “Jewish radicals” covering materials from such elements as the Jewish left and right, the Zionist socialist camp, the Jewish feminist movement, and the Jewish countercultural world. This collection incorporates the most significant works of David Twersky, M.J. Rosenberg, Arthur Waskow, J.J. Goldberg, Mary Gendler, and Hillel Levine among others of that time period.

While Jewish Radicalism incorporates the core ideas and significant writers covering the period of the 1960s and 70s, to have included literature of the next generation of radical Jewish politics would have provided a major contribution in this edition. Had Porter and Drier incorporated for example the thinking of Michael Lerner and other writers from Tikkun Magazine, the post-Zionist thought of Benny Morris and his circle, and the reflections of the Jewish neo-cons, including Richard Perle, William Kristol, Elliot Abrams, and Charles Krauthammer, this would have added immeasurably to this work allowed both the editors an opportunity to compare two generations of Jewish activists.

In the second volume, The Jew as Outsider, Porter has devoted his research to the study of marginality and its impact on Jewish intellectual and social activism. In the end for Porter, Jewish marginality is tied to emancipation. While he concedes that this state of being may not healthy, he states: “It can lead to a neurotic division of the soul and mind. Yet out of this neurosis can emerge a richly creative contribution to society.” Clearly for some in the radical camp Judaism was a liberationist ideology that could be employed as a roadmap for social change, yet for others it was seen as yet another appendage of Western culture that had been co-opted by the political establishment for its own ends. As a result for Porter radicals came in various forms, those that he would describe as “insiders” whose politics were carried forward within a Jewish context, while others would be identified as “outsiders” rejecting Jewish ideas and institutions, and in the process seeking to revolutionize the larger society.

While some of the essays address specific subject-matter from a 1970s perspective, including his work on the Jewish single adult, the framework of this article offers some helpful insights into questions associated with Jewish identity formation and options for serving and meeting the needs of unaffiliated Jews. A second example rests with his essay entitled “The Jewish Upper Class” which is in part drawn from Porter’s two year experience teaching at an exclusive school which he labels as “Parkhurst College.” Here the reader is introduced to both the sociological literature on how the wealthiest Americans behave and in turn, how American Jews have constructed their own status levels based on their family’s country of origin and socio-economic patterns.

Of particular interest within this volume is Porter’s retracing of the emergence of Jewish contributions to the field of sociology, and more directly his literature review pertaining to research on Jews and anti-Semitism. Here, this volume moves from examining the narrower focus on radicalism to a broader understanding of the study of group social behavior.

While clearly times have changed and, more directly, the social and political standing of Jews has also undergone a significant transition. The “voices” of dissent which once forced the community to be particularly self-critical in examining its priorities and politics also seems to have dissipated, leaving a vacuum in the quality of discourse that occupies the Jewish political center. The radical politics of the 60s and 70s that shaped the general dialogue around political choices within American society as well as the internal arguments over Jewish public policy concerns have not been replaced with a new brand of engagement. Jews who occupied the center stage of many of these key movements including feminism, the anti-war camp, and social activism are today for the most part absent from the political barricades, not that one can identify a culture of dissent that is significant within our society. In lieu of constructing movements of social dissent, one finds today pockets of social activism among Jews as the expression of their personal engagement with religious and social values. Mitzvah days, fundraising events, educational and cultural programs have seemingly replaced the barricades and picket lines.
Stephen Windmueller is director of the School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles and is a contributing editor.

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