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Top: Jewish Occupied Governments: United States: Students for a Democratic Society -- The Strong Jewish Influence on New Left in USA


From, Chapter 3, "Radical Jews: The Dilemmas of Marginality," Roots of Radicalism, by Rothman and Lichter, Oxford University Press, New York & Oxford, pages 80-84.

MOST COMMENTATORS on the student movement of the 1960's thought it represented something quite new. Indeed, many argued that it had been brought into existence by the emergence of a "post-industrial society," of which the student Left was the cutting edge. Some of the same observers stressed generational differences.

These young people were seen as the children of liberal upper-middle-class parents who had created a home environment characterized by both affection and democracy. As a result they refused to accept both the authoritarian features of American society and its racism. Rather, they were fighting to democratize America: to synchronize its values with its own aspirations and the requirements of a new epoch. [ See the references in Chapter 2, Roots of Radicalism by Rothman and Lichter, Oxford University Press, New York & Oxford.]

In retrospect it seems clear that the New Left did represent the cutting edge of some very important shifts in American and European society, although not with quite the predicted consequences To stress the newness of the Movement, however, is to miss some key elements in the backgrounds and motivations of its participants.

To begin with, Americans of Jewish background were disproportionately represented among the leadership and cadres of the Movement until the mid--1960's. At the time they constituted under 3 percent of the population of the United States, and about 10 percent of the students at colleges and universities. Yet, they provided a majority of its most active members and perhaps even a larger proportion of its top leadership. They also provided a very significant proportion of the intellectual community's most vocal supporters of the student movement.

Many of these young people came from liberal or radical families. Some of their parents had been quite active on the Left during the 1930's but later toned down their political activities while retaining their basic value orientations. As early as the 1962 Washington peace demonstration, students of Jewish background constituted over 40 percent of those participants whose religious back-ground could be identified. [Frederick Solomon and Jacob R. Fishman, "Youth and Peace: A Psychosocial Study of Student Peace Demonstrators in Washington, D.C.," Journal of Social Issues 20 (Oct. 1964): 54-73.]

Perhaps more significantly, the early SDS was heavily Jewish both in its leadership and its activist cadres. Key SDS leaders included Richard Flacks, who played an important role in its formation and growth, as well as Al Haber, Robb Ross, Steve Max, Mike Spiegal, Mike Klonsky, Todd Gitlin, Mark Rudd, and others. Indeed, during its first few years, SDS was largely funded by the League for Industrial Democracy, a heavily Jewish socialist (but anti-communist) organization. [See Kirkpatrick Sale, SDS (New York: Vintage, 1973), and Arthur Liebman, Jews and the Left (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1979).]

SDS's early successes were at elite universities containing substantial numbers of Jewish students and sympathetic Jewish faculty, including the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Brandeis, Oberlin, and the University of California at Berkeley. SDS leaders were not unaware of their roots. As Robb Ross put it, describing the situation at the University of Wisconsin in the early 1960's,

my impression is that the left at Madison is not a new left, but a revival of the old . . . with all the problems that entails. I am struck by the lack of Wisconsin born people in the left and the massive preponderance of New York Jews. The situation at the University of Minnesota is similar. [Quoted in Liebman, ibid., p.549.]

Fellow SDSer C. Clark Kissinger confirmed Ross's observations in his reply: "As you perceived, the Madison left is built on New York Jews." [Quoted in Liebman, ibid., p.549.]

The same was true elsewhere. When the Free Speech Movement erupted at Berkeley, a majority of the FSM steering committee was Jewish, as was half the membership. During the pivotal sit-in at the Berkeley Administration building, a Chanukah service was conducted, and the Ratikvah was sung [Quoted in Liebman, ibid., , p.68. See also Philip Meyer and Michael Maidenberg, "The Berkeley Rebels Five Years Later: Has Age Mellowed the Pioneer Radicals?" (mimeographed, Feb. 197Q).]

Sixty-three percent of the Chicago radicals studied by Flacks and his associates were of Jewish background. [See Richard Flacks, "The Liberated Generation: An Exploration of the Roots of Student Protest," Journal of Social Issues 23 (July 1967): 52-75.]

Similarly, in Richard Braungart's 1966 survey of leading SDS activists, 60 percent of those whose religious background could be identified were Jewish. [Richard Braungart, "Status Politics and Student Politics," Youth and Society 3 (Dec. 1971): 195-208.]

In Joseph Adelson's early 1960's research into politics and personality at the University of Michigan, fully 90 percent of the radical subjects had Jewish backgrounds .

At many schools, Jewish predominance continued into the late 1960's. In a national survey sponsored by the American Council of Education in 1966-67, the best single predictor of campus protest was the presence of a substantial number of students from Jewish families. [Alexander W. Astin, "Personal and Environmental Determinants of Student Activism," Measurement and Evaluation in Guidance I (Fall 1968): 149-62.]

Schweitzer and Elden reported that approximately 50 percent of California's mid-1960's Peace and Freedom party was Jewish; Berns and his associates found that 83 percent of a small radical activist sample studied at the University of California in the early 1970's was of Jewish background; and Thomas Piazza discovered that, as late as 1971, only 25 percent of non-Jewish freshmen at Berkeley considered themselves to be on the left, compared with 58 percent of Jewish freshmen. [David R. Schweitzer and James Elden, "New Left as Right: Convergent Themes of Political Discontent," Journal of Social Issues 27 (1971): 141-66, and personal correspondence.][Robert S. Berns, Daphne Bugental, and Geraldine Berns, "Research on Student Activism," American Journal of Psychiatry 128 (1972): 1499-1504; Thomas Piazza, "Jewish Identity and the Counterculture," in Robert N. Bellah and Charles Y Glock, The New Religious Consciousness (Berkeley: University of California Press. 1976), pp. 245-64.]

Nationwide, a 1970 Harris survey reported that 23 percent of all Jewish college students termed themselves "far left," compared to only 4 percent of Protestant students and 2 percent of Catholics. [S. M. Lipset, Rebellion in the University (Boston: Little, Brown, 1972), p.86.]

Until very recently, the role of Jewish students in the upheavals of the 1960's was generally underestimated. This seems to have resulted partly from either reticence or simple oversight by those who studied the Movement. For example, Flacks reported that 40 percent of his radical respondents were Jewish, after his original sample had been "adjusted" to obtain better balance. [For the percentages before the sample was adjusted, see Mrs. Erwin Angress. ''Values and Socialization Practices of Jewish and Non-Jewish College Students'' (typescript, n.d.).]

Braungart reported that 40 percent of his sample was of Jewish background, but this figure did not include participants who described both themselves and their parents as atheists. We discovered that a very large proportion of such young people came from Eastern European or German backgrounds. Further analysis revealed that the overwhelming majority of radical students from these countries whose religion or religious background could be ascertained were Jewish.

Jewish influence on the emergence and growth of the student movement extended far beyond its youthful cadres. Especially in its early days, the presence of some liberal supportive faculty members was crucial to the relative success of the movement at a given school. [Roger M. Kahn and William J. Bowers, "The Social Context of the Rank an(l File Student Activist: A Test of Four Hypotheses,-" Sociology of Education 43 (Winter' 1970): 38-55.]

As Ladd and Lipset have shown, Jewish faculty were far more likely to offer that support than were their non-Jewish colleagues.17 Jews played a similar role in creating some sympathy for student activists among the broader public, owing to their key role in the American cultural establishment during the 1960's. [Everett Caril Ladd, Jr., and S. M. Lipset, The Divided Academy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1975), pp. 149-68.]

By the late 1960's, the demographic composition of the student Left had undergone significant changes, as it spread to non-Jewish segments of the population. This marked the beginning of the real generation gap. Radical Jewish students tended to come from liberal if not radical homes. While their parents might express some opposition, often on tactical grounds, they were generally quite supportive. Indeed, many Jewish parents spoke with pride of their "revolutionary" children. During the 1968 Columbia upheavals, Mark Rudd's mother commented: "My revolutionary helped me plant these tulips last November, my rebel." Rudd, in turn, according to the same New York Times story,

speaks of his parents with respect and affection, and they maintain that they are "100 percent behind him," even though they don't agree with all his views. On Mother's Day (during the riotous period at Columbia) his parents went to the Columbia campus and bought a veal parmigiana dinner, which the family ate in their parked car on Amsterdam Avenue. [New York Times, May 19, 1968, p. 1.]

Among non-Jewish radicals the pattern was rather different. Many came from quite conservative families, against whom they were in sharp rebellion. [Sale, SDS, p. 204ff.; Milton Mankoff and Richard Flacks, "The Changing Social Base of the Student Movement," in Philip G. Aitbach and Robert S. Laufer, The New Pilgrims (New York: David McKay, 1972), pp.46-62.]

Further, the SDS grew more receptive to organized political violence as its non-Jewish contingent grew in size and influence. Although Jewish students might engage in some "street violence," they were unlikely to go beyond using their fists, rocks, or clubs. As Sale points out, many non-Jewish members were a rather different breed:

These were people generally raised outside of the East, many from the Midwest and Southwest . . . more violent, more individualistic, more bare-knuckled . . . than that of the early SDSers. They were non-Jewish, nonintellectual, nonurban, from a nonprofessional class and often without any family tradition of political involvement, much less radicalism. [Sale, SDS, p.204.]

Some of them, like Dotson Rader, were openly fascinated by violence, though even Rader grew disturbed by their talk of blowing up members of the "liberal" Establishment. He reports that, in the final days of the Movement, some cadres were not above "ripping off" money ostensibly raised for the cause. [Dotson Rader, Blood Dues (New York: Knopf, 1973), pp. 7ff, 112ff. See also Dotson Rader, "The Day the Movement Died," Esquire 78 (Nov.1972): 130ff.]

And in a few cases, the result was murder barely masquerading as social purpose. Annie Gottleib described one young man who killed a police officer for being a "pig":

But . . . Charlie Simpson is never quite more than just one of those disturbed kids who latched on the ideas of the movement as expressions of their own inarticulate troubles and seized its occasions and excuses for cathartic violence. [Annie Gottleib, review of Charlie Simpson's Apocalypse, by Joe Esterhas, New York Times Book Review, Jan.27, 1974, pp.4-5.]

Thus the student movement in the United States changed somewhat as it spread from its initially Jewish base to a wider constituency. The spread of radicalism (and this particular type of radicalism) to non-Jewish students in the United States certainly did mark a watershed in the American historical experience. However, the radicalism of those young Americans of Jewish back-ground, who were so instrumental in creating the Movement and providing an initial critical mass, was not new. Rather, whatever the ideological differences between them and a previous generation of Jewish radicals, they were part of tradition that began much earlier.

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