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32 radical Jews you really need to know

If you’ve ever felt like you’re the only radical Jew in the world, Jewdas is here to let you know you’re not. These are 32 incredible Jewish anarchists, feminists, communists, environmentalists and pacifists to inspire you. And, hey, even if you already know you’re one of many very cool people, here’s a few more heroes to add to your list. They’re in no particular order, but it’s difficult to horizontally organise a webpage.

#32. Emma_Goldman_seatedEmma Goldman kicks off the list. Let’s face it, she was pretty amazing. As an anarchist-feminist living in the USA, Goldman managed to get blamed for the assassination of a president, go to prison twice, take part in the Spanish Civil War, campaign for gay liberation and actually plot the assassination of a major corporate union-buster. In her spare time, she also wrote beautiful polemics.

#31. Rabbi Reuben Zellman is a transgender activist in California, USA. He was the first openly trans man to be accepted for rabbinic ordination.

250px-VladimirMedem#30. Here’s Vladimir Medem. He was a Yiddish-speaking working-class organiser in the Russian Empire. He fought for the right to strike and pioneered the Jewish Labour Bund – a political union for Jews. His ideas still define much of Jewish leftist thought.

#29. clara lemlichClara Lemlich was actually the first person to suggest International Working Women’s Day (8 March). A Ukranian immigrant, she campaigned in American sweatshops for workers’ rights. She battled with disinterested and patriarchal union structures for women’s recognition. She died in a care home, where even in the last days she was trying to organise her carers into a union.

#28. You who live in your warm houses, consider this – what a man was Primo Levi! An anti-fascist chemist and writer, he survived Auschwitz. His books about Jewish resistance to the Nazis, life in concentration camps and post-Holocaust philosophy are beautiful. I commend his words to you.

#27. Oxford’s former Green mayor Elise Benjamin is a climate activist who defies all expectations. She’s a socialist who speaks for the UK Green Party on business issues, a humanist Jew and can be spotted wearing full mayor regalia in tie-dye shirts. Sh’koyach.

#26. Next up, Denis Goldberg. What a mensch. This guy was the only white man to be sent to prison in the Rivonia trial. He was an anti-racist activist and dedicated communist in apartheid South Africa. He was released after 22 years in prison, and carried on campaigning for social justice.denis goldberg

#25. Lily Montagu was a feminist religious leader in the UK. In the 1920s, she helped found the UK’s progressive Jewish movement, which insisted on complete gender equality. She was its global president for 23 years. She was an active trade unionist, a social worker and a children’s rights activist. Basically, she was pretty cool.

#24. Fernando Gerassi was a Turkish artist and activist who fought in the Spanish Civil War. For years, the CIA harassed him to work for them. He never gave in.

#23. sammy davis jrWhat the… Sammy Davis Junior? The jazz singer? He was Jewish? Yes, he was. He converted in 1954 because he was impressed by Jewish resilience. What, and he was a radical too? I guess so. I mean, he had a mixed marriage, was the first black man to sleep as a guest in the White House and joined Jesse Jackson in campaigns to desegregate America and push for economic equality.

#22. Judith Butler, feminist scholar and grandmother of queer theory, gets a special place on this list and in everyone’s hearts. She’s brought amazing ideas to the world about gender, politics and literature. She’s also a pro-Palestinian activist and practising Jew.

US journalist Naomi Klein, columnist for#21. Canadian Naomi Klein came to fame with ‘Windows and Fences’, her experiences of the Battle of Seattle. She cemented it with her books ‘No Logo’ and ‘The Shock Doctrine’ – scathing, rigorous assaults on capitalism, war and human rights abuses. She’s going strong as an environmentalist and anti-oil campaigner.

#20. Milly Witkop was a Ukranian anarchist, trade unionist and anti-war activist. Coming from a 19th Century shtetl, she was lightyears ahead of her time, fighting for housework to be valued, autonomous women’s organisation, a borderless world and an end to fascism.milly witkop

#19. Now we’re into the teens, let’s get a bit philosophical with Hal Draper. He was an American socialist thinker who promoted the idea that socialism could only be brought about from below by workers themselves. Pretty radical, huh?

#18. Abraham Sefarty was a militant Moroccan Jew. He was an anti-colonialist communist sentenced to life imprisonment. He campaigned against French imperialism in Morocco, Moroccan imperialism in Western Sahara and Israeli imperialism in Palestine. All in all, he was a bit of a bad-ass.

abraham sefarty

#17. Felice Schragenheim was a lesbian Jew in Nazi Germany. Her tragic love story with Lilly Wust is now immortalised in the movie, Aimee and Jaguar. She was murdered on a march between two Polish concentration camps.Felice_Schragenheim

#16. Marek Edelman was a Polish cardiologist and socialist. He opposed capitalism and Stalinism, in favour of democratic socialism with the Polish party, Solidarity. In 1943, he led the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, a rebellion of poor urban Jews against the Nazis.

#15. Emma Lazarus was an American poet, anti-racist and pro-immigration activist. Her words are written at the base of New York’s Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”

#14. In 1937, Marcos Chamudes was elected as a socialist ‘Popular Front’ MP in Chile. He is best known as a brilliant photographer, but he was nonetheless dedicated to Judaism and workers’ rights.winona laduke

#13. Shulamith Firestone was one of the originators of radical feminism. Her book, The Dialectic of Sex, promoted feminist revolution.

#12. Winona LaDuke is a Jewish-Native American politician, who ran with Green Ralph Nader for the White House. She campaigns for eco-justice, indigenous rights and environmental protection.

#11. Rebecca Walker is an American feminist writer. The daughter of author Alice Walker and lawyer Mel Leventhal, she writes about race, gender, sexuality and religion.fml-rebeccawalker-marionettlngeri.jpg

#10. A giant among contemporary thinkers, Noam Chomsky is an expert on everything from linguistics to Zionism to cognitive science to Latin-American history. This professor is hailed as one of the great ideologues of libertarian socialism, as well as one of the world’s greatest public intellectuals.

#9. ‘Red’ Rosa Luxemburg was the leader of the German communists. She led the Spartacist uprising in 1919, but it was crushed by militarists, who killed her. She is still one of the biggest influences on modern leftist organising.

#8. Eleanor Marx, daughter of the famous Karl, was a pioneer of the New Unionism in the 1800s. She promoted the modern methods of trade unions, pushed for Jewish autonomous organisation and fought for the rights of migrant workers. Today’s trade unions are indebted to her legacy.

allen ginsberg#7. Allen Ginsberg was one of the great American Beat poets. He railed against capitalism, war and conformity. His poem, ‘Howl’, was the subject of an obscenity trial because it talked honestly about his gay sexual experiences. He won.

#6. Leon Trotsky thinks you’re hotsky. And he was pretty hot himself. This guy led the 1917 Russian Revolution, only to be kicked out by Stalin. In exile in Europe, he came to promote an anti-authoritarian socialism and the idea of permanent revolution. He died in Mexico, by an ice-pick in the head.

#5. Judi Bari was an American environmentalist, who led the Earth First! organisation. She was a member of the anarchist trade union, IWW, and a fierce defender of women’s rights. IN 1990, a bomb was planted in her car – many believe by the FBI – but it didn’t kill her. She died of cancer in 1997.judi bari

#4. Martin Buber was an existentialist philosopher from Germany. He espoused a beautiful worldview that stressed the importance of human relationships. He was an ardent anti-fascist and mystic. He also argued for a binational, spiritual Zionism, in opposition to Herzl’s nationalist Zionism.

#3. Every radical Jew needs to know Khaye Malke-Lifshits (also known as Esther Frumkin). She was the foremost woman in the Jewish Bund. Fluent in Russian, Hebrew and Yiddish, she promoted a fully Jewish, fully socialist, ideology. She initially played a key role in the government of the USSR, but was driven out by Stalin. He put her in a forced labour camp, where she died.

#2. Oh my goodness, I almost forgot about Karl Marx. He was this German guy who did some pretty lefty stuff. Maybe you’ve heard of him? He might have decried religion as the opium of the masses, but his Orthodox rabbinic family were definitely high on the Jewish dope. I think he wrote a book about capitalism or something but it’s really long.

#1. isaiahI’m sorry but I couldn’t resist but put in a Biblical reference. Isaiah finishes this list because it’s important to remember that our religion is founded on radicalism. Isaiah took on the rich and powerful; the corrupt and the hypocrites. So did Moses, Esther, Jonah and a whole host of prophets. They opposed slavery, unbridled wealth, authoritarianism and bigotry. They refused to bow before anyone but G-d. They were the radicals of their age. Don’t ever let yourself believe that Judaism belongs to the right-wingers. It’s ours. It’s for everyone who wants to continue the tradition of changing the world. It belongs to all those who share our radical history of refusing to assimilate to a system that hates people, and to all those who share a radical vision of a world where nobody is oppressed. This is our history. And the better we know it, the stronger we are as we face the challenges of the present.

Someone missing? Add your own in the comments!


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9 thoughts on “32 radical Jews you really need to know”

  1. Here’s a few to be getting on with:

    Bartolmjew Beniowski – Was major in Polish insurrectionary army against Czarist Russia, then came to Britain and became active in Chartist movement around time of Newport rising.

    Osip Piatnitsky – Litvak tailor who took part in jailbreak, became organiser of clandestine literature smuggling for Bolsheviks, leading figure in Comintern till purged and executed by Stalin.

    Rose Witkop (sister of Millie) – prosecuted with her anarchist partner Guy Aldred for providing birth control information to working class women, 1924.

    Leopold Trepper – from Galicia, became communist in Palestine, led wartime “Red Orchestra” spy network for Soviet Union, survived incarceration by both Nazis and Stalinists.

    Jose Aboulker – Algerian Jew, led November 1942 rising against Vichy regime in Algiers which helped open to Allied Operation Torch, landings in north Africa. Went on to organise medical supplies for French Resistance, after war became Communist deputy.

    Henry Curiel – Egyptian Jew, helped found Egyptian and Sudanese Communist parties, in exile supported Algerian and South African struggles, also pioneered links between Israeli peace camp and Palestinians. Watched and probably targeted by more than one intelligence service, Curiel was assassinated in Paris in 1978.

    Henri Alleg – born Harry Salem in London’s East End, 1921, family moved to France, Henri went to Algeria in 1939, dismissed from teaching job under Vichy antisemitic legislation, he joined underground communists. Became journalist, was arrested and tortured by French military in 1950s, his book ‘La Question’ became clandestine best-seller, and Alleg a hero of the independence struggle, but he later had to leave Algeria when the FLN government turned against the communists. .

  2. What about Ruth First and Joe Slovo. Both great fighters against apartheid, she was murdered by a South African secret service bomb, while he ended was head of the paramiltiary wing of the ANC, and ended up as a minister in the first South African government, dying tragically only a few years later from leukiemia.

    Or all the other white defendants in the South African Rivonia Trial; Eric Hobsbawm, giant among twentieth century historians; Ralph Miliband, wonderful teacher and writer of political sociology; Martin Buber, Walter Bnejamin, Hannah Arendt and Susan Sontag among philosophers; Abbie Hoffman among US radical activists…………….

  3. Alex J Goldhill

    Ernest Mandel – Belgian Marxist theorist. Escaped from the Nazi occupation twice after being arrested for resistance activities and survived imprisonment in the Dora concentration camp. Avid supporter of Marxism until his death in 1995.

  4. with all due respect, Felice Schragenheim — who was a very courageous woman — was however not a political radical, and her sexual orientation and going into hiding don’t make her one. Also, speaking about “Polish concentration camps” is kind of offensive. Anyways, Groß-Rosen was on a territory that was German even in 1920.

  5. Daniel NotSuchALeftie

    Judith Butler is not someone I can admire. She is morally cretinous and intellectually dishonest. And that idiot Chomsky is just the apotheosis of the academic who should have stuck with his impressive record inside his specialism and sounds like an obsessive crank outside it. Marx hated everything about Judaism. Have you ever read his critique? And he is responsible for millions of deaths. Generally speaking, this whole list reads like fairy-tale socialism for people who have never heard of gulags, North Korea, East Germany, or talked to those rape-hiding morons in the Socialist Workers’ Party.

    What about AJ Heschel – a leading figure in the American civil rights movement? What about R. Abraham ben HaRambam, the first Jewish Sufi? What about R. Elisha ben Abuya, the famous heretic? Shabbetai Tzvi or Jacob Frank, if you like pervy false messiahs?

    Bob Dylan? Schoenberg? Gene Simmons?

    Anton LaVey? (born Howard Levy) Founder of the “Church of Satan” and author of “The Satanic Bible”.

    Howard Stern?

    Jerry Sadowitz (sets the Jewdar off anyway)

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