While protesting the Vietnam War and apartheid, Todd Gitlin became the prototypical radical of the 1960s because he also questioned the legitimacy of the groups he helped build.
Gitlin’s Jewish profile reflected the prophet-in-his-own-land reputation he cultivated, which initially alienated him from his academic contemporaries. He was a staunch critic of Israeli rule over the West Bank but he criticised his fellow leftists for trying to make Israel a pariah.
Todd Gitlin, a Voice and Critic of the New Left, Dies at 79
Gitlin, who was 79 years old, passed away on Saturday in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. In December, he had a major heart attack that left him hospitalised with kidney failure.
As president of Students for a Democratic Society in 1963, when he was barely 20 years old, Gitlin oversaw student rallies throughout the rest of the decade against the Vietnam War, South African apartheid, and for civil rights at home.
Even though he was born and reared in New York City, Gitlin went on to earn degrees from Harvard, the University of Michigan (where he earned a master’s in political science), and the University of California, Berkeley (where he earned a PhD). He was a professor at Columbia University when he passed away.
Although he claimed he never intended to leave the radical movement, he eventually found his niche as a historian of the events that moulded his country. In 1995, he wrote “The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked by Culture War,” which became well renowned for its defining line: “While the right has been busy conquering the White House, the left has been marching on the English department.”
His thesis was that the left, in its pursuit of identity politics, had lost sight of the underlying inequalities that had inspired revolutionary hopes in the 1960s.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, founder of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia, knew Gitlin from their time spent together in Students for Democratic Society. “His legacy was that you could do research in a way that was not an ivory tower, you could help people understand the power and structure of the country you were living in and do something about it,” Waskow said.
Gitlin viewed the media with scepticism, claiming that it kept Americans tied to the false beliefs propagated by the corporate state. He made this claim about the classic situation comedy series from the 1950s, “Ozzie and Harriet,” and it has stuck with me ever since.
In a interview, he recalls shuddering while watching “The Big Chill,” the blockbuster movie from 1983 that commercialised and sanitised his generation’s experience, while everyone else around him adored it.
To him, the media’s toxic influence reached its zenith with the election of a reality TV celebrity to the presidency, and he found himself making connections he would never have considered before in an effort to dismantle Donald Trump’s legacy.
In 2016, Gitlin participated in an Anti-Defamation League task committee that looked into the threats of violence against journalists covering Trump’s election.
As early as last year, he and Bill Kristol, a Republican who has since turned on Trump but who is still ideologically conservative, led the charge on an open letter signed by liberals and conservatives warning of the danger Trump posed to democracy.
For his part, Kristol praised Todd as “a smart, courteous, and shrewd co-conspirator” on Twitter.
According to Waskow, Gitlin has an aversion to the Freedom Seder because of its emphasis on identity politics. Waskow penned the piece after the killing of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, and it made its debut at a civil rights seder in 1969, which has since become a symbol of the Jewish social justice movement.
He didn’t get it,” Waskow Explained.
He reasoned that it would serve to divert attention away from the more fundamental issues facing American society. He saw it as an attempt to distract people from what he considered as the systemic problems plaguing American society by appealing to their Jewish identity.
In spite of this, Gitlin felt a strong pull toward his Jewish heritage, especially as it manifested itself in a fondness for the state of Israel.
In 2011, at a conference hosted by the magazine Dissent, he passionately described his ambivalence with the Jewish state.
When Gitlin was Growing Up,
“Israel was an emotion wrapped in an idea,” he explained. My default state of mind was one of relief, because I felt like I’d been dragged through a doorway to deliverance the moment I was born into the Jewish state.
He grew up singing Israel’s national song, “Hatikvah,” which he described as “much more vibrant and ecstatic” than America’s “The Star-Spangled Banner.” This experience left an impression on him, and he claimed he still feels a strong connection to Israel today.
When he heard that Egyptian soldiers had crossed the Suez Canal in 1973, he broke down in tears and went to a synagogue he had never visited before in San Francisco. “I knew intensely, painfully, that if the state of Israel was going to be annihilated, I wanted to accept the news among Jews,” he said.
When I heard the news that the United Nations General Assembly had passed the now-famous “Zionism equals racism” resolution, written in Orwellian duckspeak, in 1975 while driving in San Francisco, I swore aloud my revulsion that, in a world of nations, all of which are founded on mythic ideas with various downsides, one in particular should have been singled out for condemnation. Over my dead body!” I boasted, saying that Israel would not be destroyed.
When he heard that Israel was terrorising innocent Palestinians, his feelings of sympathy for Israel only deepened.
Israel is “A Nation to which, Like it or not,
I am fastened, where people I love and admire carry on an immensely, grievously difficult struggle for decency against tall odds,” she writes. “Today, the state of Israel feels to me like a personal trauma, a huge, heartbreaking disappointment, a world-historical opportunity forgone, a danger to the Jews, a burden.”
Gitlin spent the following decade straddling the fence between condemning and justifying Israel’s occupation in the West Bank. He supported a boycott of settlement goods in 2016, and he opposed a boycott of Israeli academics in 2014.
Gitlin was a sociable author, surrounding his readers with compassion even as he lashed out at what he saw as their logical flaws. Sally Rooney, a young Irish novelist who refuses to have her work published in Israel, was the target of his criticism in a November essay he wrote for The Forward.
He began by expressing his astonishment at her conversation skills and her ability to bring to life what he called “the harms of class,” adding, “No contemporary writer has gotten under my skin as you have.”
He Explained That He was Shocked by Israel’s Behaviour but Could not back Her Boycott.
In his essay, he argued that “the freedom of literature is the enemy of the locked-up intellect.” To paraphrase, “your art is a great testament to the spirit that attempts to think its way out of imprisonment and gropes its way toward a more beautiful world.”
According to his companion Jo-Ann Mort, he was shocked to learn that Israel was being compared to South African Apartheid, as he had been a leader in the protests against that system in the 1960s.
During an interview, Mort said that the movement to boycott, divest from, and penalise Israel (BDS) was illogical because “there are two conflicting claims” to the land at issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Mort, a communications consultant for many leftist parties and movements, wrote a Facebook post in respect to Gitlin, saying, “In my little world of left-wing Zionism, he was an important voice of tenacity and honesty.”
Mort remarked in the interview that those on the American left who have a strong connection to Israel will miss Gitlin terribly.
There aren’t many people with her “status as a public intellectual,” she remarked, so “the loss is real.”
Laurel Ann Cook, Gitlin’s third wife, his sister Judy Gitlin, and his three stepchildren all outlived him.