Myron Perlman, z"l, A Jewish Carpenter with Chutzpah
This piece was originally posted by the American Jewish Peace Archive. Photo is of Chutzpah Jewish liberation collective circa 1977. Perlman is third from left.
Myron Perlman, z”l, a long time social justice activist, passed away in Chicago on December 19, 2017 at age 70. He was an engaging personality and deep thinker known for his gentleness and humor, unwavering political convictions, and heartfelt activism. A carpenter by profession, his son Isaac lovingly referred to him at his funeral as “the philosopher carpenter.” Myron could often be found immersed in a heated political discussion on a ride with the Kibitzer biking group, marching in a demonstration, or using his cabinet making skills to build a neighborhood lending library.
I first met Myron in 1985 at a Chicago chapter meeting of New Jewish Agenda and our paths crossed intermittently over the years. Shortly after starting the American Jewish Peace Archive, Myron and I spoke about post-1967 Middle East peace activism. I was struck by his ability to contextualize his memories into the broader social movement history. We shared a reverence for history and its importance in understanding contemporary societal issues.
Myron’s interest in the impact of class issues on the Jewish community and how anti-Semitism affects rank and file Jews, in particular, came from his working class childhood. “The oppression I experienced,” Myron said, “is what gives me the strength to organize.” His concern with labor issues was reflected in his 30-plus years of union activism with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America. His involvement with the new left group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) had a significant impact on his political orientation.
Myron was a founder and core member of Chutzpah, one of dozens of North American Jewish young adult groups founded in the late 1960s and 1970s that combined activism and consciousness-raising (small group discussions connecting the personal to the political). They addressed a range of issues — from the women’s and gay liberation movements to the Vietnam War to anti-Semitism and Israel. This decentralized movement of young adults included the first American organizational voices to publicly endorse Palestinian self-determination and statehood.
Myron brought to the Chicago-based Chutzpah Jewish liberation collective an interest in learning the range of Jewish left ideologies from the Jewish Labor Bund to Labor Zionism. He was an integral part of the group’s Middle East peace work from its inception in 1971.
The Chutzpah collective, like other such groups at the time, disseminated its ideas in underground (independent) newspapers that were shared across the country. Myron, who identified with the tradition of Jewish working class intellectual scholars, often wrote about class issues. After Chutzpah disbanded in 1981, Myron and several other members, became the core of the Chicago chapter of New Jewish Agenda.
For decades after Chutzpah, Myron continued his political involvement in his union and on the street. He regularly attended demonstrations and political meetings until his untimely passing.
In recent years, Myron had begun to engage with a new generation of activists impressed by his knowledge and life experience. He made many new young friends at the May 2016 intergenerational New Jewish Agenda reunion.
Myron was inspiring, honest, and committed. He was truly a mensch.
Below are edited selections from my June 29, 2016 interview for the American Jewish Peace Archive with Myron Perlman, z”l.
I remember in high school there was one woman who was very Zionist in one of my classes. She would talk about Israel as a place to go live, and it just seemed strange to me. I didn’t understand Zionism as an ideology in grade school or high school.
The politics of the new left around Israel shifted while I was in college. Previously, Israel and the Jews were seen as victims of the Holocaust. After the Six Day War in 1967, I began to hear talk about Israel being an aggressor, like the United States in Vietnam, but it was very vague. In hindsight, Israel — and, by association, Jews in the U.S.–went from being victims to oppressors in the new narrative.
I lived within a commune after college with a man who had been my professor at UIC and was active with SDS. I respected him politically. He was from Pennsylvania and of German background. He knew there were problems in the Middle East, but was really more afraid of the left becoming anti-Semitic and splitting over Israel. His worry really reached me. I thought that if he’s thinking this stuff, maybe I should pay more attention to it.
It appears that young Jews today are being asked the same question. “Are you part of the left or are you part of a group that is progressive “on everything but Israel?”
For those of us who identified with the left, there was pressure to take a position on Israel. It was posed as a question of loyalties: “Whose side are you on?” The pressure was from people who you thought were your partners, your comrades, people involved in movements you supported. I felt very much part of a larger movement against the war, for women’s liberation, black liberation, and gay liberation. So, it felt like the Israel-Palestine issue was forced on me.
Generations before us faced the same situation whether on the left with its commitment to internationalism, or on the right with questions about Jewish loyalty to the states where they resided. Of course, it was never that simple.
The new left also had deep roots in the Civil Rights movement, which began in the South and then percolated into the North. Jews were prominent in the white part of the movement in the South, most often not identifying strongly as Jews per se. When some African-Americans moved from a Civil Rights framework to one of Black Power/Black Liberation, this left very little room for white/Euro Americans, which included most Jews, and reverberated throughout the left.
The larger white new left movement was splitting into many parts as the Vietnam War was winding down, and the antiwar movement was no longer a major unifying focus. It became a time of deep polarization very different from now. It wasn’t the 1% versus the 99% narrative based on class. Rather, it was women versus men, black versus white, youth movement versus white “Amerika.”
Many people on the left were looking very carefully at aspects of their identity. “The personal is political” was a slogan popularized by the women’s movement. So, naturally, Jews began to do the same thing. Those of us who came together to form Chutzpah came out of those movements. We were trying to figure out what our Jewishness meant – and for each of us it meant something different.
Jeffery [Mallow] came from a very secular Labor Zionist and Yiddishist background out of New York. Robbie [Skeist] had come out of the the gay movement and the antiwar movement. All of the women had been involved in the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union. Maralee [Gordon] came out of the antiwar and the countercultural movements and was part of the Seed Collective which put out the alternative newspaper in Chicago.
There was always a tension between the Jewish aspects of our identity and our identity as leftists, women, and members of a larger movement. Our Middle East politics expressed that tension with some who felt closer to internationalism and others connected to Jewish nationalism in what we used to call the “Moishe-Mao spectrum.”
Many times we would discuss an article or leaflet in the group and then send one person from each side of the spectrum to work out a consensus. Chutzpah was small enough, I think-eleven at the most-where you could do that kind of consensus decision-making. Jeffrey was all about Israel’s survival and Robbie was more like there’s got to be a resolution here that includes self-determination for both peoples.They would come back and report and bridge the differences.
At that point, Golda Meir said she was a Palestinian, so there was still this notion that there were no Palestinians; no native peoples on the land… that it was an empty land when Jews arrived. We had to work through stages to change this notion before broaching the subject of two peoples, two states. There are Palestinians… You can talk to Palestinians…You can talk to the PLO…The argument then was you can’t talk to the PLO, because they won’t recognize Israel’s existence. They have to recognize Israel first. Meanwhile, we heard from Israeli activists that under the table contacts were being made, but officially no one could talk to the PLO.
No one at the time was talking about two-state solution. It was la la land and not part of the mainstream discussion in any way, but we said it. I think we came to the decision from a leftist, self-determination for all peoples point of view. We put it out in our newspaper, and our newspaper went out to a lot of places. It really helped people who were ready to think about those issues, mostly people our age.
We were talking about this within synagogues while many American Jewish leaders were saying the PLO is a bunch of killers. They would have all these examples of Palestinian guerrillas killing innocent Israeli children, and that stuff was actually happening. They would ask, “How can you talk to these people who are killers?” Anybody who spoke about peace back then could be accused of betraying Israel, of taking the side of the enemies. It was very nationalist. Basically, it was us or them.
You kept hearing from the Jewish community that everybody must line up behind Israel, because its existence is threatened and we’re going to have another Holocaust. So, we couldn’t just talk about women’s issues in the community or why Nixon was a criminal President without being asked, “What is your position on Israel?”.
The narrative that we all should unite around support of Israel’s foreign policy submerges all kinds of other differences among Jews-class, gender, and sexual orientation, for example. We’re all part of all kinds of tribes. What else do we unite around? What makes me a part of this tribe or not?
In the left community the only big dividing point for us was over the Middle East. Because we saw ourselves as part of many movements for radical change, that meant working with people who had a different position on the Middle East. As progressives we also felt the need to address the latent and blatant anti-Jewish sentiment on the left clothed in anti-Zionist rhetoric and plain old Jew hatred and stereotypes.
I remember at the National Lawyers Guild it was the Jews that would attack us the most when we called for a two-state solution. If you would ask afterwards if they considered themselves Jews, you would usually hear, “No, I’m not a Jew.” When I asked one if he was born a Jew, he responded, “I was brought up Jewish, but I’m not Jewish anymore.” Can you really just drop things about your identity and not understand how it still impacts you? That would really drive me crazy; but I think it was just a way of dealing with anti-Semitism or being different in the United States.
I have met people on the left who are totally outraged about the injustice against Palestinians and don’t do anything else Jewish. They structure their Jewish identity around “Israel is bad.” Then they often go forward and proclaim: “I’m a Jew and I’m against this.” Why do you say things like that trying to prove that there are some good Jews out there? Who are you trying to get to like you? The need to say such things is just the greatest example of anti-Semitism I ever saw.
I know it’s ironic, but I almost feel that the Jews who are the most anti-Zionist are really Zionists in the sense that their Jewish identity still centers around Israel and how it behaves.
Chutzpah would often set up speaking events in Chicago for Israelis whose politics we liked. They were looking for monetary support, in part, but they never got that from us. However, we were able to help them get their word out.
When I thought about it politically, it seemed to me that the best thing Jews could do here was to split the so-called unanimity of the Jewish community, which would dilute the amount of influence the mainstream position had on policy decisions. Thus elected decision-makers wouldn’t be looking over their shoulders afraid of losing votes or financial support or worry about being condemned in The New York Times if that was their frame of reference.
I remember that one of the Israeli speakers said, “If a bus is running down a hill and about to go over a cliff somebody has to put their foot on the brake.” What he meant was that some American Jews by breaking up the consensus over Israel in their community could then somehow influence the U.S. government to put its foot on the brake. It’s very different than trying to build a mass movement in Israel or the United States for peace with the Palestinians.
Early on we organized an event for Israeli journalist Peretz Kidron at the Wobblie (International Workers of the World) Hall on Lincoln Avenue. He was really good. He framed the issue as a people’s war in the Middle East –that the Palestinians very much want to have their own state and the Israelis want to have their own state and until there is some resolution of that, there is no solution of internal issues for the two peoples. This ‘people’s war’ framing –wars of liberation being waged by oppressed nations against imperialist countries — dominated the left discourse at that point.
Some of us in Chutzpah had hoped that the Mizrachi Jews, since they had grown up in Arab lands, could be some sort of a bridge towards the Palestinians, but we never heard Ashkenazi peace activists talk about organizing Mizrachi Jews. As far as I can tell, the modern Israeli left has always been Ashkenazi and from the professional middle class.
When Chutzpah went on our trip to Israel in 1977, we met a couple members of the Israeli Black Panthers Mizrachi social justice group, but that was the only connection I was aware of between peace activists and the greater Mizrachi population. In Israel, the right of center parties were capitalizing on the fact that the Mizrachim were pissed off at the original Ashkenazi leadership. They probably had family stories handed down about being housed in tents in the desert. In hindsight, I can see that class and cultural differences played a big role in the development of the Israeli peace movement and influenced who and where they organized.
When Begin came to power in 1977, everybody was saying that it was because of the Mizrachi Jewish vote. The Mizrachis were described as sort of a populist right back then. When we spoke in synagogues, people would say: ‘Well, I’m progressive. I think there should be a solution. Chutzpah is all fine and dandy, but the Mizrachi Israelis don’t want that.” It became a narrative of blaming Mizrachi Jews, and you got the sense that Israeli peace activists weren’t dealing with it.
In Israel, I remember hearing, “We need an influx of leftist Jews from the United States to help change the situation.” To me that’s kind of ridiculous. You don’t go over there, not speaking Hebrew, jump in and say, “Hey, I’m going to change the world.” I’m afraid that their success in organizing for peace within Israel was very limited.
Jewish peace organizing in the U.S. that centers around Israel has been about trying to convince the elites. By trying to make an impact through a top-down approach, you basically legitimize the existing power relationships in the Jewish community. Wealthy Jews, through their institutions, have the right to make decisions for all American Jews. You don’t talk about the class structure of the American Jewish community, who is making the decisions, or who says that we have to all agree on this issue. That particular model is not about building a Jewish mass movement and is not organizing that I’m interested in being a part of.
Now, honestly, I’m not totally against that approach if it is part of a larger strategy. But I think a successful movement in the US can’t just be built around the Middle East. It has to be around people’s whole lives.
I like the notion of organizing for more democracy in the Jewish community, that there can be more than one viewpoint about Israel is a really good place to begin. But I would broaden it. Democracy — who decides and how — is key to so many other issues and is a very good place to challenge Jewish leaders. I think you’ve got to broaden the legitimacy question to who decides domestic issues. If a movement does come together, it will only be strong overall if it unites around common goals.
I think to be most effective, the political work you do should be where you are, where you live. If I lived in Israel, it would be a totally different story. But even then, who knows?