FRANKELY SPEAKING: How did you become interested in this subject?
JACOBS: I became interested in Jews and socialism as a result of my family background. My parents survived World War II in Europe, and arrived in the United States in 1949. When I was a child, my family and I lived in a working class neighborhood in the Bronx where there were a number of Jewish leftists. My mother had, in prewar Poland, been a member of SKIF, the children's movement associated with the Jewish Workers' Bund. She urged me to enroll in a school which was affiliated with the Workmen's Circle. Later, my mother began to work for the Bundist summer camp, Camp Hemshekh. I became acquainted with a number of the leading figures in the Workmen's Circle and in the Bund at an early age, and enjoyed debating political matters with them, and attempting to understand how and why they had arrived at their affiliations. These debates took place while our country was being rocked by the student movement, the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, and the women's movement. My academic interests grew out of the world in which I was born and raised.
FS: Why is your research important?
JACOBS: The topic of Jews and socialism is an important one both because it helps us to understand the evolution of Jewish political opinion in the modern era, and because it has contemporary resonance. The candidacy of Bernie Sanders has led a number of commentators to discuss the links that existed between Jews and socialist movements in earlier generations. The controversy in the British Labour Party right now over the alleged antisemitism of several prominent members of that party suggests that the question of the relationship of Jews to the left remains a lightning rod.
FS: What do you want people to learn from your lectures?
JACOBS: My public lecture in Ann Arbor will be on the Frankfurt School and Israel. I hope to demonstrate that among the influential thinkers associated with the Frankfurt School, those with the deepest knowledge of the Jewish religion were those who had the deepest critiques of the Jewish state. I chose this theme because there will be a distinguished group of scholars at the Frankel Institute next year who will be focused on matters related to Israel, and I am eager to engage in a dialogue with these scholars.
My public lecture in Grand Rapids will present my understanding of why there were so many Jews associated with leftist movements at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, and why this is less common today. I am hoping that this talk, which will take place immediately after our presidential election, will be of interest to a wide audience.
FS: If you had the chance to meet a historical figure, who would it be and why?
JACOBS: I would like nothing better than to meet a figure like Rosa Luxemburg—whose life and work I studied over an extended period of time—to debate with her the positions she took, and to probe whether she agrees or disagrees with the things I have written about her relationship to her Jewish family background.
Jack Jacobs is Professor of Political Science at John Jay College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York.
2016 Padnos Lectures
Sep. 27, 4 pm, 202 S. Thayer St., Ste. 2022, Ann Arbor
"The Frankfurt School on Israel"
Nov. 13, 10 am, Temple Emanuel, 1715 E. Fulton, Grand Rapids
"Jews and the Left Reconsidered"