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  • Introduction, The Jewish 1968 and its Legacies
  • Ari Y. Kelman (bio), Tony Michels (bio), and Riv-Ellen Prell (bio)

Sensing that 1968 was a critical, but underexplored, turning point in the reenvisioning and reimagining of Jewish life in the United States, we organized a conference on "The Jewish 1968 and its Legacies." Fifteen scholars gathered at Stanford University on February 15–16, 2015, to discuss the impact of that pivotal year on American Jewish historiography, feminism, Zionism, politics, and religion.

We argued that 1968 marked a turning point in the development of American Jewish culture, politics, and religion; we called it "the Jewish 1968" in order to reference both that iconic year of worldwide youth protest, and the particular Jewish dimensions of it. We were especially interested in the ways in which both the year 1968 and the era of which it was a part launched the unraveling of the Jewish liberal consensus identified by historian Arthur Goren in his article "A Golden Decade for American Jews: 1945–1955."1 Though his article has been challenged on the grounds that the period was more complex and somewhat less golden than he claimed, it nevertheless laid out a strong case for a public consensus about American Jewish life in the decade following World War II.2 We suggested that American Jewish baby boomer activists, who were deeply involved with various aspects of Jewish life, were among the most important catalysts for those changes.3 They created a surge of activity that set into motion innovations that, over subsequent decades, transformed Jewish life. These activists did not create ideas, activities, and organizations as a systematic program. Nor was the American counterculture, which they embraced, uniform and coherent.4 Rather, their innovations came from a fertile engagement [End Page 1] between the counterculture with which they deeply identified, and the Jewish milieus in which they grew up. The era's complex politics, psychology, sexuality, theology, and spiritual practices all shaped how they reimagined their Jewish lives, communities, and cultures.

We were mindful that many historians view 1967, because of Israel's victory in the Six-Day War that June, as a crucial turning point in Jewish history with different significance for the various Jewish communities of the world. Its importance for American Jews is often associated with moving Zionism to the center of American Jewish life and a new, emergent expression of Jewish identity linked to Jewish nationalism. We wanted to explore the significance of 1968 as a marker of the emergence of a Jewish youth movement that was built on the rejection of the dominant formulations of Jewish life by the postwar generation. How, if at all, did the global youth revolution also significantly change Jewish life? While debates persist among historians about the precise impact of all of the events that lined up in 1968, most would nevertheless agree it constituted a watershed, as young activists and radicals challenged the power and authority of many global powers, leading to both political and cultural repression and change.5

Zionism was one of the conference's most important examples. Following the Six-Day War, Zionism became central to Jewish life in the United States, but in complex and contradictory ways. On one extreme, Radical Zionists revived the Marxist tradition in Zionism through the lens of the New Left. Its place in Zionist history is often overlooked, if not forgotten, but it was a powerful force for Jewish activists and the emergence of the peace movement. On the opposite end, the Jewish Defense League (JDL) merged the right-wing nationalism of Revisionist Zionism with the styles and postures of Black Power. That fusion was deeply disturbing, but also remarkably compelling to many young Americans. Although most rejected his political program, JDL's charismatic leader Meir Kahane's evocation of "identity politics" and "ethnic pride," resonated powerfully in this era. We were interested in exploring [End Page 2] the ways that these expressions of Zionism emerged and developed in light of the youth movement.6

With respect to religion, young Jews experimented with and participated in the larger turn to spirituality among American youth. Sometimes subsumed under the label of "Renewal," the new Jewish spirituality...


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