Commentary Magazine


Liberalism & American Jews

American Jews, in their overwhelming majority, are politically rooted in a liberal tradition. That is presumably why, as Milton Himmelfarb has noted, Jews in this country have the economic status of white Anglo-Saxon Episcopalians but vote more like low-income Hispanics. How to explain this anomaly, unique in the American experience? The Irish and the Italians, as they move up the economic ladder, are far more likely to shed the urban-immigrant liberalism of their parents and grandparents, shifting rather predictably to one version or another of suburban conservatism (of which interest-group liberalism is a subspecies). They perceive their interests in a new way, and vote these interests. Such a shift is what a student of sociology would expect. Why has it not happened among America’s Jews? Why are they so different? Is there a single answer that can serve as an explanation?

I think there is—though it is a single answer that is not a simple answer. It has to do with the meaning of that “liberalism” to which American Jews seem so stubbornly attached, a meaning that is itself a special compound of Jewish political history and Jewish religious history over the past two centuries. So powerful is this meaning that it has become, for many Jews, an integral aspect of their self-definition as Jews. There are now some signs that this self-definition is finally eroding in the face of a circumstantial reality that repels its solicitation. But it is interesting to note that Jews who move away from their familiar (and familial) liberalism still tend to describe themselves as “disillusioned,” whereas their Irish and Italian counterparts find such a movement to be natural, not at all traumatic, and not calling for any self-conscious reflection.

To be disillusioned one must have had illusions. The liberalism of the modern Jew is one that has been especially rich in illusions. Obviously, those illusions have been not merely illusions—to retain the loyalty of Jews for so long a time, they had to be nourished by the real, outside world. “Jewish liberalism”—and the term is neither invidious nor inappropriate—is organically connected to a larger non-Jewish liberalism that has tended to dominate the intellectual (even spiritual) life of Western Europe ever since the French Revolution. It is the intensity and obstinacy of the Jewish commitment to this liberalism that is so special.

To this liberalism, and not to another. We are talking about Continental “radical” liberalism, the liberalism that gave rise to the French Revolution and which, stubbornly (if not altogether successfully) resisting opportunities for disillusionment, has remained loyal to the ideals of that revolution ever since. What was liberal about this liberalism was its opposition to monarchy and aristocracy, the ancien régime which was seen as oppressive, corrupt, and decadent. What was radical about this liberalism was the belief that a new order could be constructed, to be governed by a new, “enlightened” state which would be representative of man’s finer instincts, his most elevated thoughts.

By the early decades of the 19th century, this belief began to incorporate a fundamental distrust and detestation of the market economy, which was perceived as incarnating self-interest as the guiding principle of the new social order. Such a focus on self-interest was thought to be inimical to “enlightened” government, which should be the master, not the servant, of social and economic realities. It is this polarity between “enlightened,” powerful, intrusive government and the principle of self-interest as the bedrock of our economic system which is the driving force behind all modern socialism, whether in its social-democratic or Leninist versions.

There is, of course, another liberal tradition with a quite different conception of “liberalism.” This is the Anglo-Scottish-American tradition, represented by such thinkers as John Locke, David Hume, Adam Smith, and the authors of The Federalist Papers. Though this tradition had a certain popularity in Continental Europe prior to the French Revolution, it has always been viewed by Continental liberalism as a mere prolegomenon to the more “authentic” and more radical liberal ideals emerging from the French Revolution.

In Anglo-Scottish-American liberalism, it is an enlightened, civil society that is prized, while government is regarded as a continuing threat to individual liberty—including the liberty to pursue, within a large sphere of action, one’s self-interest. Such individual liberty is the root principle of this new order. In the end, it is whether one regards a “bourgeois” civil society more favorably than an “enlightened” state, or vice versa, that determines whether one leans to Anglo-Scottish-American liberalism or to the radical liberalism of the Continental political tradition.

The difference between the two liberalisms can be fairly described, in quasi-Marxist terms, as the difference between a “bourgeois” and a “post-bourgeois” ideology, exemplified in the. American and French Revolutions respectively. The ideals of the American Revolution were (and are) individual liberty, social and political equality, and representative government. The ideals of the French Revolution stressed economic equality, political community, and a government—freely elected or not—that claimed to represent a sovereign popular will. It is understandable, therefore, that socialist thinkers and socialist movements of the 19th and 20th centuries all looked back to the French Revolution as the appropriate paradigm of what a “real” revolution should look like, while the American Revolution was regarded, if at all, as a marginal event. Leon Trotsky’s magisterial History of the Russian Revolution, for instance, takes the French precedent (or the Jacobin version thereof) as authoritative in explaining the “natural” history of revolutions in general, and specifically of the Russian Revolution in which he played so notable a part. This explains why the drama Trotsky reconstructs is so coherent, so plausible, though also more fictional than real.

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That European Jews should have been legatees of the political ideology of the French Revolution was inevitable under the circumstances that prevailed. They had, properly speaking, no political philosophy or political traditions of their own, after all—even today, and even in the state of Israel, there is no identifiable “Jewish” political thought. They knew nothing of Anglo-American political theory and not much more about the far-off American Revolution. The individualism of Anglo-American political theory, in any case, evoked few echoes—still evokes few echoes—in a communally-oriented Judaism. In addition, and most important, the ideology of the French Revolution, throughout the 19th century, did offer European Jewry tangible benefits of the utmost significance, while the opponents of this ideology were likely to be adherents of an established Christian church and of an established social-political order which, at the very least, discriminated against Jews, or at most totally excluded them from membership in the civil society.

It was the ideology of the French Revolution, incarnated in Napoleon, that liberated European Jewry from confinement in the ghetto. Just how much this may have meant at the time may be grasped from a reading of Martin Buber’s fascinating imaginative reconstructions in his novel, For the Sake of Heaven, in which Orthodox Jews in a Central European ghetto conclude ecstatically that Napoleon is their long-awaited liberating messiah. This same ideology, expressed in the liberal, socialist, and social-democratic movements of the 19th century, succeeded in extending the suffrage to Jews, and in removing legal restrictions on their freedom of movement as well as their economic opportunities. In Eastern Europe, where liberalism of any kind made only a modest impression on anti-Semitic regimes, the commitment of many Jews to this ideology was correspondingly intense. While far from all European Jews situated themselves somewhere on the Left of the political spectrum, a disproportionate number did so. In France and Germany and Italy there was a stratum of conservative and centrist Jewry, assimilated into the national cultures, but many of these Jews eventually converted or simply cast off any religious or ethnic identity.

It was from Continental Europe, and mainly from Central and Eastern Europe, that Jews emigrated to the United States. They brought with them, naturally, their political beliefs. Those political beliefs still dominate the thinking of most American Jews. A recent Los Angeles Times poll reveals that when Jews are asked about the qualities most important to their Jewish identity—(a) a commitment to social equality, (b) religious observance, or (c) support for Israel—the first, a commitment to social equality, turns out to be the most important. This is an odd finding, since an objective observer would see in the American Jewish condition today little reason why social equality should evoke such a passionate commitment. One might think that intermarriage rather than discrimination or exclusion should be regarded as having a greater bearing on “Jewish survival.” But ideas can have a life of their own, and Jewish political attitudes in the 1980’s have a more direct connection with Jewish political thinking in the 1880’s than with current social, economic, or even political realities in the United States.

It must also be pointed out that Jewish immigrants, congregating in the major urban centers, found there a Democratic party—usually dominated by the Irish, themselves earlier immigrants—that was hospitable to their aspirations, personal and ideological. Although the Democratic party was by no means a left-wing party, its liberalism on issues of social reform and its commitment to “balanced tickets” on which Jews were actually (if not all that frequently) elected to office were sufficient to engender Jewish loyalties and establish a Jewish commitment. This was even the case for Orthodox Jews who were largely apolitical and indifferent to contemporary ideologies (including Zionism).

The Republican party in those urban milieus was perceived, correctly, as dominated by Wasps (as we now call them) who were either anti-Semitic or, at the very least, inclined to discriminate socially and economically against Jews. Up to World War II, major corporations hired few Jews and the more affluent suburbs were “restricted” to non-Jews (and, it goes without saying, to non-blacks). The struggle for equality of “civil rights,” led by the liberal wing of the Democratic party, only reinforced the commitment of American Jews to an agenda of liberal reform.

What is puzzling, however, is the way in which the force of this commitment has survived the enactment of the liberal agenda in the postwar years. Even while social and economic discrimination against Jews has declined with a quite unforeseen rapidity, Jews are still haunted by the specter of anti-Semitism among traditional conservative sectors of the society. And even as Jews have become one of the most affluent and upwardly mobile of ethnic-religious groups, their political ideology has remained largely unaffected.

To some degree, this can be explained by the fact that American blacks have not experienced anything like the same success, leading Jews to wonder about the security of their own achievement. To some degree, too, it has resulted from a justifiable skepticism regarding the Republican party’s willingness to accept as permanent the “civil-rights revolution”—a willingness diluted or subverted by the conservative dislike of governmental action in this field. But mainly the ideological loyalty of so many American Jews has been sustained and nourished by a historic change in their religious outlook—a change that reshaped the very conception of what it means to be a “good Jew.”

This change goes back to the early decades of the 19th century and gathered momentum with time. To simplify considerably, it entailed a sharp shift in emphasis from the “rabbinic” elements in the Jewish tradition to the “prophetic” elements.

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One should not exaggerate the tension that traditionally prevailed between these two currents of Jewish religiosity. What today is called “normative Judaism” managed to strike a cautious and generally acceptable balance between them. After all, the high moralism of the biblical Prophets—compassion for the poor and unfortunate, the emphasis on universal peace as a specifically Jewish aspiration—was incorporated into rabbinical teachings, while the Prophets themselves insisted on the importance of observing traditional Jewish law. Prophetic moralism always or almost always stopped well short of antinomianism and messianic enthusiasm, while rabbinic legalism was always (or almost always) deferential to moral sensibilities. Jews prided themselves on being “more moral” than Christians, Muslims, or pagans, and—regardless of individual Jewish behavior—the Jewish religious tradition unquestionably put a greater stress on “good deeds” and “righteous living” than on faith or dogma.

Nevertheless, the tension was there and steps were taken to cope with it. There were undoubtedly incendiary possibilities in the declamations of the Prophets and prudence required that these be minimized. Even today, a student in the yeshiva in his early years never studies the Prophets in isolation from a study of the Pentateuch or the Talmud. And in the synagogue, the Prophets are read on the Sabbath only in the form of a commentary on the non-prophetic books of the Torah. Especially after the advent of Christianity, which can be seen as an antinomian and millenarian outburst within the Jewish prophetic tradition, it was a constant matter of concern to the rabbis that such “enthusiasm” be held in check by a more rigorous focus on lawful and orderly behavior.

After the French Revolution, however, what we today call “prophetic Judaism” acquired an ever-greater vitality and autonomy. This was part and parcel of the emerging messianic sensibility—in matters political, social, and economic—that the Revolution established throughout European society. An era of grand aspirations began. The Israeli historian, the late J.L. Talmon, opens his book, Political Messianism: The Romantic Phase, with the following sentences:

The present inquiry is concerned with the expectation of universal regeneration which animated men and movements in the first half of the 19th century.

No period before or after has experienced so luxurious a flowering of utopian schemes purporting to offer a coherent, complete, and final solution to the problem of social evil.

Expectations of universal regeneration”—and in the foreseeable future, and to be achieved through political and social action! In this way, and in this period, did a secular version of Judeo-Christian messianism enter Western political thought and establish itself there as a rational option for reasonable persons. What made it seem both rational and reasonable was its apparent continuity with the theme of social, political, economic, and (perhaps above all) technological progress which had emerged so powerfully in the previous two centuries. Indeed, it seemed not only continuous with, but a plausible extension of, the idea of progress. Why should progress be so gradual, so intermittent even, so painfully slow? Why not, by deliberate action, hasten the progressive movement toward its predestined end—the universal regeneration of mankind?

Now, “hastening the end” had always been regarded by Jewish and Christian orthodoxy as a dangerous, heretical temptation, one that indigenous messianism made a permanent temptation, and therefore to be guarded against all the more vigilantly. But in a secular version, rooted not in religion but in science and the newly-invented “social sciences,” it escaped such vigilance. Traditional religious orthodoxy was neither confronted nor refuted by the new spirit of this new age, but was ignored and left to “wither away.”

In such a heightened, “progressive” perspective, capitalism—i.e., a society centered around a market economy—posed a problem for Jews. On this matter, the relation between Jews and capitalism, there has been a vast amount of intellectual confusion.

Judaism, as is generally and correctly recognized, is much more a “this-worldly” religion than Christianity. As a result, Jews have never been opposed to or contemptuous of business (or, for that matter, of sex) as a human activity. “Making a living” was always regarded as central to Jewish family life, and while Jewish law imposed some relatively mild inhibitions and prohibitions on commercial activity, there was never any sense of a conflict between the two. Becoming wealthy was similarly regarded as a legitimate, even admirable goal—so long as this wealth was used for benign (usually communal) purposes.

But “business” in specific commercial markets is not “capitalism.” Business is an activity; commerce is an activity; capitalism is an idea, an idea invented in the 18th century. Business proceeds, in one way or another, in all socioeconomic systems above the most primitive level. Capitalism is a prescription whereby business activity is incorporated into a market economy that is the major institution of civil society, an institution that is the source and guarantor of individual liberty.

It is the failure to distinguish between business activity by Jews and the capitalist idea that muddles the thinking and writing of Max Weber and Werner Sombart—and some of our own contemporaries, who are perplexed by the fact that Jews do so well under capitalism while showing so little gratitude to the system. The fact that Jews, for various historical reasons, are adept at business, and the further fact that Judaism does little to frustrate business incentives, means that Jews always manage to do very well in a capitalist society. But it does not follow that Jewish affluence or Jewish prosperity brings with it Jewish contentment—peace of mind, peace of soul. In all existing capitalist societies, Jews have done and do extremely well for themselves. And in all existing societies, Jews—especially younger Jews—are profoundly uneasy about the legitimacy of their own success. The anti-Semitic fantasy in which Jews manage to be simultaneously wealthy capitalists and subversive radicals is but a paranoid inflation of a reality.

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The only exceptions to this generalization are the strictly Orthodox Jews, who isolate themselves from modernity as a whole, and who continue to practice business in a capitalist society while being utterly indifferent to, even willfully ignorant of, the capitalist idea. For them, the religious community is the only authentic sociological reality. This makes them conservative by temperament and inclination, while remaining indifferent to modern conservative ideologies, modern liberal ideologies, or modern radical ideologies.

Jews who are not strictly Orthodox, however, are fully implicated in modernity and its ideologies. For reasons already given, they are most likely to be attracted to that version of liberal ideology spawned by Continental radical-liberalism. This is most obviously the case for secularized Jews, who have been “liberated” from any formal attachment to the Jewish community, and who feel that adherence to such an ideology is an appropriate Jewish response to modernity. They find in the “secular humanism” of this ideology an adequate approximation of the ideals of the “prophetic Judaism” which emerged in the 19th century and has infused itself into all non-Orthodox versions of contemporary Judaism.

There really is such a thing as “secular humanism,” just as there really is such a thing as “prophetic Judaism,” and the connection between the two is deep and strong. Secular humanism, born of the Renaissance, is a form of atheism—one less interested in denying the existence of a divinity, either apart from or immanent in the cosmos, than in affirming the possibility of humanity’s realizing its “full human potential” through the energetic application of high-minded (i.e., moralistic) intelligence. Prophetic Judaism, for its part, is a form of Jewish religiosity, of course, but a distinctly modern form—one less interested in God’s word or Jewish law than in realizing, here on earth, a universalist version of the preaching of the Prophets.

Social and social-democratic movements are all inspired, officially or unofficially, by one version or another of secular humanism. Similarly, non-Orthodox Judaism today is, in varying degrees, inspired by, or infused by, the teaching of the Prophets rather than of the rabbis. In the case of Reform Judaism, such an inspiration was and remains its original raison d’être. In the case of Conservative Judaism, the prophetic teachings are allowed to dominate its secular involvements, even where there is substantial attachment to the law. And in the case of secular Jews, prophetic Judaism merges into secular humanism to create what can fairly be described as a peculiarly intense, Jewish, secular humanism.

It is this combination of secular historical experience and the religious mutation it provoked that accounts for the political predispositions of contemporary American Jews. And not only American Jews. Wherever European Jews (especially East European Jews) have settled—whether it be in Canada, Australia, South Africa, or Latin America—they have located themselves on the Left-of-Center of the political spectrum. This has most obviously and strikingly been the case in Israel, where shreds and tatters of the socialist tradition—and Israel, of course, was originally settled, for the most part, by socialist pioneers—still evoke a kind of pious loyalty, despite the obvious fact that the prevalence of socialist ideas is obstructing the growth of the Israeli economy and that such ideas have no relevance whatsoever to the realities that confront Israeli foreign policy.

Having said all this, however, one must add—perhaps, even, one must conclude—that this situation cannot endure for much longer. After two centuries, the socialist idea, in whatever version, is becoming more and more meaningless, more and more incomprehensible even to its advocates. In practically all countries with self-styled socialist regimes, the movement is away from socialism, in any traditional sense of the term. As concerns economics, the direction of this movement is toward a system in which self-interested economic activity in a freer market plays a greater role. As concerns politics, it is toward a system that is, ideologically, either left-wing authoritarian or right-wing authoritarian or some unstable combination of the two. The promise of a humanistic, democratic socialism, whether as an ideal to be realized or as a goal to be approached, is dissolving into the mists.

This leaves American Jews in a condition of what social psychologists call “cognitive dissonance.” Their political loyalties become more desperate in proclamation, more unbelievable in fact. This is especially the case as the so-called Third World, where socialism is still a much-respected and often official doctrine, evolves toward socioeconomic-political systems that fall outside of any Western category and have in common mainly a hostility to Western liberal civilization, Western religious humanism, and Western secular humanism. It is this hostility that shapes the attitude of those countries toward Israel, perceived (correctly) as an outpost of Western civilization. More and more, a socialist, quasi-socialist, or Left-liberal political outlook sympathetic to social democracy is becoming inconsistent with a concern, which American Jews overwhelmingly feel, for the survival of the state and nation of Israel.

How long this condition of “cognitive dissonance” will continue, and where it will end, is not now foreseeable. Everything will depend on how the Western democracies themselves adapt to this new situation. What is certain, however, is that American Jews, even as they feel more and more “at home” in America (as they do), are going to find themselves among a much larger population of liberal Americans: the ideologically uprooted and dispossessed.

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