President Barack Obama addresses thousands at the opening session of...

President Barack Obama addresses thousands at the opening session of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's (AIPAC) annual policy conference Sunday, March 4, 2012, in Washington. Credit: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

A conference at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in lower Manhattan last weekend addressed a topic that, for all its historical ramifications, is acutely relevant today: Jews and the left.

The Jewish community in the United States and in Europe has traditionally identified with left-of-center politics -- an allegiance increasingly strained by the left's animus against Israel. Can this marriage be saved, and should it be? Is a new anti-Semitism on the rise?

Are attacks on "the Israel lobby" a code for bigotry, or a legitimate concern about the influence of groups such as AIPAC? What does this mean for the upcoming national election?

The often-contentious, sold-out event showed there are no simple answers, and many painful questions.

As CUNY professor emeritus Ronald Radosh pointed out in a panel Sunday morning, the left was not always anti-Israel. In the late 1940s, both before and after the founding of the Jewish state in 1948, most of the left -- including Communists -- strongly embraced it. I.F. Stone, the iconoclastic left-wing journalist and author of the 1948 book, "This Is Israel," was a passionate Zionist. Freda Kirchwey, editor of The Nation magazine from 1933 to 1955, wrote in 1947 that the Jewish community was "the only democratic community in the feudal Middle East" and could help spread democracy through the region.

Radosh opined that "Kirchwey would be saddened, if she was alive today, by the vitriolic opposition to Israel from the pages of The Nation" -- including claims that Israel is an apartheid state. Today, he said, attacks on Israel have become "the anti-Semitism of fools," allowing people to spew anti-Jewish venom without being openly anti-Semitic.

This theme was echoed by other speakers: British commentator Norm Geras, professor emeritus at the University of Manchester, said that "Israel is being made an alibi for a new climate of anti-Semitism on the left."

Yet where does one draw the line between covert Jew-bashing and legitimate criticisms of Israeli policies -- such as the occupation of the West Bank, to which most conference speakers noted their opposition?

Baruch College political science professor Mitchell Cohen stressed the gray areas: "To say that it's not a good idea to put ultrareligious settlers in occupied territories is not anti-Semitic. To hold Israel alone to certain standards of conduct in warfare and deny it a right to self-defense is crossing over into infected territory."

The question of double standards came up repeatedly. Geras observed that Holocaust denial coming from Muslims or Arabs has sometimes been excused "as an expression of impatience with Western pro-Israel bias," while Jews who support Israel are seen as a sinister lobby when they act collectively.

University of Chicago historian Moishe Postone offered fascinating insights into the left's anti-Israel turn, noting that Palestinian self-determination "has come to be defined as the central anti-colonialist struggle." He suggested that the failure of communism has driven many disoriented leftists to seek new causes and embrace anti-Western ultranationalist movements, mistakenly treating them as left-wing.

The civil rights of Palestinians are, of course, a real issue. But they cannot be addressed by delegitimizing and demonizing Israel.

Whither Jews and the left, then? Most conference speakers still strongly identified with left-wing politics. Keynote speaker Michael Walzer, co-editor of Dissent magazine, asserted that such leftist ideals as an expansive welfare state and social justice for downtrodden groups have strong roots in the Jewish experience.

One may question whether these ideals in their traditional form are viable today: Welfare statism may be economically unsustainable; support for oppressed groups can morph into divisive identity politics. But those are topics for healthy debate in a modern society.

Rooting out creeping anti-Jewish bigotry on the left would be an important step toward elevating intellectual discourse. The YIVO conference was a welcome move in that direction.

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and the website RealClearPolitics.