Like the Passover story, the celebration of Hanukkah reminds us that people can overcome great obstacles and achieve great things if they have a vision of a better society and build movements that challenge the conventional ideas of their day.
Election results and public opinion polls reveal that among white Americans, Jews have consistently been the most liberal and progressive ethnic and religious group. In 1920, when only 3 percent of Americans voted for Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party candidate for president, Jews gave him 38 percent of their votes. In 1932, when Franklin Roosevelt defeated Herbert Hoover for president with 57 percent of the popular vote, 82 percent of Jews supported FDR. In 1960, John F. Kennedy squeaked out a victory over Richard Nixon, getting barely more than 50 percent of all votes, but among Jews, it was no contest, with JFK garnering 82 percent of their votes. In 2008, Barack Obama bested John McCain by a 53-46 margin, but he won the Jewish vote 78-22.
Despite the prominence of a small number of Jews in the Trump administration – including Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, son-in-law Jared Kushner, and policy aide and alter-ego Stephen Miller – few Jews are conservatives or Republicans. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote against Donald Trump by 48 to 46 percent, but Jews favored Clinton by 71 to 23 percent. In the 2018 midterm elections that swept in a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, Jews led the “blue wave,” giving Democrats 79 percent of their votes.
A 2012 survey found that 81 percent of Jews, compared with only 48 percent of all Americans, favored same-sex marriage should be legal. In the same survey, 93 percent of Jews believed that abortion should be legal in contrast to 53 percent of all Americans.
More than most other demographic groups – and particularly white Americans – Jews overwhelmingly disapprove of President Donald Trump’s handling of most policy issues, including family separations at the Mexican border (78 percent), treatment of DACA recipients (74 percent), guns (74 percent), the Mueller Report (73 percent), building the border wall (71 percent), taxes (70 percent), Supreme Court nominations (69 percent), health care (69 percent), and banning immigration from certain Muslim-majority countries (66 percent). Seventy-one percent of Jews disapprove of Trump’s handling of the upsurge of anti-Semitism in America, a trend that the President himself has provoked by consistently expressing anti-Semitic stereotypes and encouraging the rise of white nationalist hate groups.
Voting is the most basic of political activities, but social change happens only when people participate in activist movements that influence how people think and vote. Throughout American history, Jews have played and continue to play a disproportionately large role in the key social justice movements – as organizers and activists, politicians and jurists, and thinkers, artists, journalists, playwrights, poets, and novelists.
In 1900, anyone who advocated for women’s suffrage, laws protecting the environment and consumers, an end to lynching, the rights of workers, a progressive income tax, or old-age insurance was considered a dangerous dreamer or a dangerous radical. Today such ideas are taken for granted. The radical ideas of one generation have become the common sense of the next.
Jews were among leaders and rank-and-file activists in all the great movements of the past century — labor, civil rights and civil liberties, feminism, environmentalism, gay rights and the crusade against militarism – that have made America a more humane, democratic and inclusive country.
Consider Rose Schneiderman, a fiery socialist union organizer. She was on the front lines of the Progressive Era battles against slums and sweatshops. So were settlement house pioneer Lillian Wald, Rabbi Stephen Wise and lawyer Louis Brandeis (later a Supreme Court justice), whose writings and legal activism helped tame the growing power of corporate monopolies. Victor Berger, an Austrian immigrant and in 1910 the country’s first Socialist congressman, introduced the first bill to provide old-age pensions. Eventually, the idea was adopted in 1935 when President Franklin Roosevelt created Social Security.
Jewish social activism helped spearhead the early civil rights movement as well. In 1909, Joel Spingarn was a founder and then long-term president of the NAACP. Julius Rosenwald of Sears & Roebuck was a pioneer in the new field of progressive philanthropy. He endowed Jane Addams’ Hull House and Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, funded more than 5,000 schools for African Americans in the rural South, and supported the Highlander Folk School, a Tennessee-based training center for labor and civil rights activists.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, labor leaders Sidney Hillman, David Dubinsky, Rose Pesotta, and Ralph Helstein led battles for workers’ rights and economic reform, while composers Yip Harburg (“Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” and “Over the Rainbow”) and Aaron Copland (“Fanfare for the Common Man”), artist Ben Shahn and playwright Clifford Odets (“Waiting for Lefty”) gave shape to radical ideas that caught the public’s imagination.
During the 1960s, Allard Lowenstein, along with African-American organizer Bob Moses, created the Freedom Summer project, which brought more than 1,000 college students to the South to register black voters. About half of the white volunteers were Jews. Many of them — including Barney Frank, Heather Booth and Vivian Rothstein — pursued careers in activism and reform that have lasted into the 21st century. Two of them – Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman – died at the hands of extremist segregationists.
Lowenstein, along with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, journalist I.F. Stone, critic Noam Chomsky and other Jews, gave voice to the rising tide of anti-Vietnam War sentiment. Jews constituted at least one-third of the early leaders of Students for a Democratic Society, the leading campus anti-war organization.
Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem, Judy Chicago, and Andrea Dworkin were at the forefront of second-wave feminism. San Francisco activist Harvey Milk, poet Alan Ginsberg, scientist Frank Kameny, writer Larry Kramer, and Edie Windsor (plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage) helped catalyze the gay rights movement. A 1970 Time cover story called scientist Barry Commoner the “Paul Revere of ecology.” Saul Alinsky inspired several generations of community organizers. Jews in the arts and the academy — including playwright Arthur Miller, filmmakers Sidney Lumet and Stanley Kramer, TV producer Norman Lear, folksingers Bob Dylan, Peter Yarrow, Theo Bikel, and Phil Ochs, writers Grace Paley, Adrienne Rich and Studs Terkel, and social critics like writer Paul Goodman, Lenny Bruce, historian Howard Zinn, and Harvey Kurtzman (founder of MAD magazine) — gave voice to movements of dissent.
Today, when Jews represent less than two percent of the nation’s population, a new generation of Jewish progressives is extending this activist tradition. The individuals listed below are deeply rooted in today’s movements for social justice. Some of them are directly involved in the Jewish community, but most of them work for unions, community organizing and environmental groups, and other issue advocacy organizations, or serve in public office as allies and activists within government.
I have focused on organizers and activists, rather than writers, journalists, entertainers, artists, musicians, and academics, even though they make critically important contributions to progressive movements. Any history of contemporary progressivism would be incomplete without reference to opinion-shapers like Kate Aronoff, Dick Flacks, Eric Foner, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Michelle Goldberg, Amy Goodman, Jacob Hacker, Janis Ian, Sarah Jaffe, Naomi Klein, Jonathan Kozol, Paul Krugman, Tony Kushner, Robert Kuttner, Sarah Leonard, Nelson Lichtenstein, Harold Meyerson, Phranc, Francis Fox Piven, Sarah Silverman, Jill Soloway, George Soros, Jon Stewart, Evan Rachel Wood, and David Zirin.
I don’t pretend this is a comprehensive list. These are people I know, or know about. They represent a wide spectrum of activism, but there are tens of thousands of other Jews who could be included on others’ lists. These are a few of my favorite Jews:
1. Nan Aron is founder and president of the Alliance for Justice, which fights for federal court appointees who respect civil rights and civil liberties
2. Ady Barkan, a veteran activist and publicist for progressive causes, has become well-known as a fighter for Medicare for All after he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (A.L.S.), a disease that slowly takes away nearly every physical function while keeping the mind intact, and confined to a wheelchair. Politico called him “the most powerful activist in America.”
3. Jeremy Ben-Ami is president of J Street, the leading organization within the American Jewish community committed to challenging Israel’s rightward shift.
4. Medea Benjamin is the co-founder of the human rights group Global Exchange and founder of the women-led peace group Code Pink that uses create civil disobedience and humor to challenge corporate and government decision-makers around issues of militarism and the environmental crisis.
5. Rabbi Sharon Brous founded IKAR, a progressive Los Angeles synagogue, in 2004, to attract unaffiliated Jews alienated from the mainstream Jewish community. Brous and IKAR have helped spark a revival of interest in Jewish spirituality, inter-faith ties, and political activism.
6. Heather Booth has been an organizer since the civil rights, anti-Vietnam War and women’s movements of the 1960s. She created JANE, an underground abortion service started before Roe, and founded the Midwest Academy, a training center for social change leaders and organizers. She has been a key strategist and activist in movements immigrant rights, voting rights, bank reform, marriage equality, tax reform, and health care reform. She is the subject of the recent documentary “Heather Booth: Changing the World.”
7. Dan Cantor was described in New York magazine as the “model of a grassroots political boss” for his role as Executive Director of the Working Families Party (WFP) of New York, a progressive third party established in 1998. Under his leadership, WFP led successful campaigns to reform New York’s Rockefeller Drug Laws, maintain access to affordable mass transit, and raise New York’s minimum wage. The WFP has helped elect progressive mayors, state legislators, city council members and members of Congress.
8. Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, led a major transformation of the union into a more militant, inclusive, and effective organization. Under his leadership, UTLA won major educational victories in 2019 following a week-long strike that catalyzed widespread support by building bridges with community and faith-based groups, parents and students in the country’s second-largest school system.
9. Donald Cohen, founder of In The Public Interest, which works with unions, community groups, and local governments to challenge privatization, develop progressive policy ideas, and improve the effectiveness of progressive government
10. Stosh Cotler is the CEO of Bend the Arc, a Jewish social justice group, which has led the Jewish resistance to the Trump administration.
11. Janice Fine, spent more than 20 years as a community, labor, and electoral organizer before joining Rutgers University’s labor studies faculty. She is a co-convener of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice, and works closely with many national and local immigrant rights, labor, and community organizing groups.
12. Lew Finfer, a Boston-based community and tenants rights organizer since 1970, is currently executive director of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network, a network of faith-based community organizations that has won significant victories around economic, housing, and racial justice. He has led successful campaigns around rent control, redlining, health care, paid family leave and the minimum wage.
13. Jacob Frey served on the Minneapolis City Council before being elected Mayor in 2017. A college track star and a lawyer by training, Frey provided legal aid to tenants who lost their homes after a tornado struck Minneapolis in 2011. The next year he organized the first Big Gay Race, a 5K charity race to raise money for Minnesotans United for All Families, a political group organizing for marriage equality. On the City Council, he drafted the city’s minimum wage law and paid sick leave ordinance, led an effort to require landlords to provide tenants with voter registration information, and sponsored an ordinance requiring polluters to pay fees based on the amount of pollution they produce in order to fund green jobs. As mayor, he has dramatically increased city funding for affordable housing and pushed for a comprehensive zoning reform plan to allow three-family homes in the city’s residential neighborhoods, abolish parking minimums for all new construction, and allow high-density buildings along transit corridors, making Minneapolis the first major city to end single-family zoning and confront the city’s segregation, high housing costs, and sprawl.
14. Leah Fried, an organizer with the United Electrical Workers union, along with local union president Armando Robles led 240 workers to illegally occupy their Chicago workplace in 2008 after their employer, Republic Windows and Doors, abruptly told them that it was shutting down the factory, denying employees severance and vacation pay they had earned. The workers formed and incorporated New Era Windows, a worker-run cooperative, and raised the funds needed to buy the machinery from their former employer and keep producing windows under the new arrangement. It remains open for business.
15. Andrew Friedman is co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy, a national network of local and state community organizing groups with 53 affiliates in 34 states that organize campaigns to advance a pro-worker, pro-immigrant, racial and economic justice policy agenda nationwide.
16. Marshall Ganz, the son of a rabbi, joined the Southern civil rights movement before serving as the organizing director for the United Farm Workers union. He teaches community organizing at Harvard, serving as a guru for activists around the world. He was the architect of Obama’s 2008 grassroots election campaign
17. Jackie Goldberg’s activism started with the Free Speech Movement at UC-Berkeley in 1964. After teaching in public schools, she won seats on the LA school board, LA City Council, and California state legislature, serving as an effective advocate for progressive causes, including spearheading battles for a living wage and responsible development. After a decade hiatus in public office, she was elected to the school board again in 2019.
18. Robert Greenwald, an award-winning TV and movie director, founded the nonprofit Brave New Films in 2000 to use documentary films to educate and mobilize for progressive causes. Its films have tackled such topics as Fox News, immigration, mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex, Walmart, the NRA, the Koch brothers, racism, and voter suppression.
19. Leah Greenberg and Ezra Levin co-founded Indivisible soon after Trump was elected president in 2016. Their on-line handbook for progressives soon mushroomed into a nationwide movement of volunteer activists, with over 6,000 chapters, devoted to mobilizing voters around progressive issues and candidates.
20. Ilyse Hogue, CEO of NARAL-Pro-Choice America, a leading women’s rights organization. She previously worked at MoveOn.org, the Rainforest Action Network, and Media Matters for America.
21. Eddie Iny is the organizing director for OUR Walmart, a nationwide grassroots organization of Walmart employees, which has successfully pushed the nation’s largest private employer to raise based pay from $7.25 to $11 an hour, institute paid family leave, and improve conditions for pregnant employees.
22. Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah, the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, which raises awareness and engages in direct action to protect human rights in the United States and Israel.
23. Madeline Janis, organizer and founder of the LA Alliance for a New Economy and Jobs to Move America, has for over 35 years been on the inside and outside of local and state government, working to create high road, equitable economic development.
24. Cameron Kasky, a survivor of the tragic shooting in 2018 at Marjory Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, is a founder of March for Our Lives and Never Again MSD, organizations that advocate for stronger gun control.
25. Larry Kramer is an iconic gay rights activist, playwright, and co-founder of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. He helped start the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) in 1987, an influential direct action protest organization that is widely credited with raising awareness of HIV and AIDS-related diseases. Among his many plays are The Normal Heart (1985) and The Destiny of Me (1992).
26. Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum is the spiritual leader of New York’s Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, the largest LGBTQ synagogue in the country. She joined CBST in 1992, at the height of the AIDS crisis, and has become a powerful voice on social justice issues within the Jewish and LGBTQ communities.
27. Larry Krasner, a veteran radical defense attorney, won a surprise victory to become Philadelphia’s District Attorney with a mission to end mass incarceration and the criminal justice system’s racism.
28. Sheila Kuehl, a former child actress (Zelda on “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis”), co-founded and served as managing attorney of the California Women’s Law Center. In 1997, she became the first woman to be named Speaker pro Tempore of the California State Assembly, just three years after becoming the state’s first openly gay legislator. In the legislature, she sponsored successful bills to establish paid family leave, protect victims of domestic violence, establish nurse to patient ratios in hospitals, and prohibit workplace discrimination on the basis of gender and disability and led the campaign for a statewide single-payer health care system. She is currently one of five elected members of the powerful Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors which serves over 10 million people, where she has fought to reduce homelessness and to establish LA County’s first affordable housing trust.
29. Brad Lander spent over a decade as a community organizer and neighborhood planner before being elected to the NY City Council, where he co-founded its Progressive Caucus. He has fought successfully to protect freelancers from wage theft, give fast-food workers a fair workweek, and make sure Uber/Lyft drivers earn a living wage, improve public transit, challenge the NYPD’s discriminatory practices, combat school segregation, and expand affordable housing. Through #GetOrganizedBK, he brought Brooklyn residents together to stand up to the Trump administration’s bigotry, corruption, and injustice. He serves as chair of Local Progress, a national network of over 800 progressive local elected officials in 45 states.
30. Stephen Lerner has spent three decades unionizing hundreds of thousands of farmworkers, garment workers, and other low-wage workers. He was the architect of SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign, a nationwide campaign that led to dramatic improvements in the wages and conditions of mostly immigrant service workers. He is currently a fellow at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative and working with unions and community organizing groups to expose and change the lax regulations and unsustainable practices of private equity firms.
31. Rabbi Joshua Levine-Grater served congregations in the greater New York and Los Angeles for 17 years before shifting gears and become the executive director of Friends in Deed, a local, religious-based non-profit addressing homelessness and poverty in Pasadena. He serves on the board of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.
32. Yonah Lieberman, Emily Mayer, and Simone Zimmerman are founders of If Not Now, a movement to end the American Jewish community’s support for Israel’s occupation of Arab territories, including their criticism of Birthright tours of Israel for young American Jews.
33. Ruth Messinger is a former NY City Council member and Manhattan borough president, who served as president of (and current ambassador for) the American Jewish World Service, which has provided about $400 million to support thousands of social justice organizations in the developing world to reduce poverty, amplify the voices of poor and persecuted minorities, defend the land and water rights of indigenous communities most affected by climate change, and advance sexual health and rights for women, girls and LGBT people.
34. Karen Nussbaum co-founded 9to5, an organization to address the concerns of women office workers in 1973. That group inspired the 1980 film “9 to 5” starring Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton and Lilly Tomlin. She founded a vision of SEIU devoted to organizing office workers and during the Clinton administration directed the Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau. In 2003 she co-founded and still directs Working America, the community organizing arm of the AFL-CIO, dedicated to giving non-unionized workers a voice in such issues as raising the minimum wage, paid family leave, and health care reform.
35. Eli Pariser, was executive director of MoveOn from 2004-2009 and has been a pioneer in figuring out how technology can be utilized to promote progressive movements. He is currently a fellow at New America.
36. Rabbi Jonah Pesner is director of Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center, which mobilizes Jews around immigration, health care, voting rights, gun control, civil rights, poverty, Islamophobia, LGBTQ equality, environmental justice and other social justice issues.
37. Jane Ramsey, for over three decades, led the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, leading struggles against poverty, racism and anti-Semitism in partnership with Chicago’s diverse communities. She is now a consultant to nonprofit advocacy groups and a member of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
38. Cong. Jamie Raskin served in the Maryland state legislator before his 2016 election to Congress. Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Tribe called Raskin, who taught law at American University for a quarter-century, “the best constitutional lawyer in all of Congress.” In 2008 he started Democracy Summer, a program to teach political activist skills to 16-to-22-year-olds. As a member of the Judiciary Committee, he’s played an important role in the current impeachment fight.
39. Hillary Ronen was an immigrant rights lawyer before being elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, where she’s been a strong advocate for tenants’ rights, public transit, and environmental justice. She led the successful fight for a tax on big business to fund affordable housing, a ballot measure approved by 60% of the voters.
40. Steve Rosenthal has been described by the New York Times as one of the Democratic Party’s “smartest and most influential strategists” and by the Washington Post as, “one of the party’s best-known voter turnout specialists.” He began his career in the labor movement as an organizer with the Communication Workers of America, served as Associate Deputy Secretary of Labor under Secretary Robert Reich in the Clinton administration, founded America Coming Together (one of the largest voter mobilization campaigns in Democratic Party history), and served as political director of the AFL-CIO. He is currently president of The Organizing Group, which works with unions and other progressive organizations to increase voter turnout.
41. Amy Rutkin, chief of staff for Cong. Jerrold Nadler, has been a key behind-the-scenes architect of the Democrats’ impeachment strategy.
42. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) has sparked a grassroots upsurge and changed the national debate with his two presidential campaigns, putting democratic socialism on the political map.
43. Cong. Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois) has been one of the most progressive members of Congress since she was elected in 1998, after serving for eight years in the Illinois State Assembly. During the previous 20 years, she was a community organizer, serving as program director of Illinois Public action and director of the Illinois State Council of Senior Citizens. In Congress, she has been deeply involved in the fight to protect women’s reproductive freedom, supports a single-payer health care system, opposed the Iraq war, and has been a leader on issues of consumer safety, opposition to U.S. military, and LGBT equality.
44. Amy Schur, the organizing director of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, spearheaded the successful campaign for statewide rent control and just-cause eviction law in 2019, and building the power of the tenants’ rights movement
45. Marilyn Schneiderman, longtime union organizer, is currently director of the Center for Innovation in Worker Organization at Rutgers University, which conducts research and sponsors workshops to strengthen the influence of community organizations, worker centers, and labor unions. She previously directed the National AFL-CIO’s Department of Field Mobilization and served as executive director of AVODAH, a national Jewish social justice organization.
46. Leah Simon-Weisberg has been on the front lines of the housing crisis for over a decade. She is the Directing Attorney of the Tenant Rights Program at Centro Legal de la Raza in Oakland, working closely with community organizers to fight rent increases and evictions. She’s worked with Tenants Together, the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, and other groups to challenge bank foreclosures and predatory lending, drafted rent control and other laws for Bay Area cities, and serves as an elected member of Berkeley’s Rent Board.
47. Daniel Sokatch is CEO of the New Israel Fund, the largest funder of grassroots activist groups in Israel that promote Arab-Jewish cooperation, human rights, LGBT rights, and democratic change and oppose the Occupation and violation of Palestinian rights.
48. Gloria Steinem is a feminist icon and founder of MS magazine, the Coalition of Labor Union Women, and the National Women’s Political Caucus.
49. Becky Wasserman is the director of Government Relations for the Service Employees International Union. She previously worked for J Street and the American Jewish World Service and was President of the United States Student Association for two years. She serves on the boards of Local Progress and the Center for Community Change.
50. Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.7 million-member American Federation of Teachers since 2008, has pushed to improve education standards, raise teachers’ salaries, and challenge efforts to allow teachers to carry guns in schools.
Peter Dreier is the E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012).