Commentary Magazine


The Utopian Dilemma, by Murray Friedman

The Golden Age & After

The Utopian Dilemma: American Judaism And Public Policy
by Murray Friedman.
Foreword by Michael Novak. Ethics and Public Policy Center, distributed by Seth Press. 115 pp. $12.00; paper $7.95.

Out of his many years of service in professional Jewish life, Murray Friedman has written this small book about American Jewish organizations and the public policies they advocate. In its modest way it is a first, for the policies pursued by the organized Jewish community are seldom exposed to critical public discussion.

Friedman's high-flown phrase, the “utopian dilemma,” is his way of describing a long-standing tension in organized Jewish life between the impulses which inspirit many professionals and the demands of democratic politics. In its religious form, Jewish utopianism, rooted in the prophetic ideal of social justice, was built into the institutions of Reform Judaism from its earliest days in the 19th century, when rabbinic spokesmen often justified the very existence of Jews and Judaism in terms of a mission to the Gentiles. Secular and secularized Jews pursue a more earthly version of utopianism, with commitments not only to social justice but to radical change (though they too are not above invoking the biblical prophets as a kind of warrant for their ideas).

Friedman believes that Jewish utopianism received a big boost in the two decades after World War II, which witnessed a dramatic decline in anti-Semitism in the United States and the official abolition of racial segregation and discrimination. At this distance, it is difficult to say to what degree these successes came about because of a confidently expanding economy whose need for talent broke down exclusionary barriers, and to what degree they came about as a result of social policies consciously pursued by, among other forces, the institutions of the organized Jewish community. One thing is clear, however: those two decades, in retrospect, constituted a golden age, not only for Jews but for most Americans in pursuit of equal opportunity.

Unfortunately the golden age soon turned into an age of anxiety. Perhaps the most salient of the social, cultural, and political changes which Friedman charts in the post-1965 era was the transformation of the civil-rights movement: black leaders and their organizations shifted emphasis from the goal of equal opportunity to the quest for equality of result, race-conscious quotas were introduced in employment and university-admissions procedures, and anti-Semitism among blacks rose even as anti-Semitism among white Americans was declining.

Overshadowing these domestic changes were international changes. After the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel confronted hostility not only from its old enemies, the Soviet bloc and the Arab countries, but also from the Third World. Even some Western democracies, dependent upon Arab oil, became “neutral,” and in international liberal opinion Israel's name lost a good deal of its former luster.

Yet despite this turnaround in domestic and foreign affairs, the organized Jewish community, so Friedman tells us, in large part continued and still continues to pursue past policies and strategies, which no longer correspond to the altered circumstances of American life. He therefore concludes his survey of the current state of affairs with a prescription: American Jews ought to resolve their “utopian dilemma” by finding and striking a better balance between their goal for a better society and their concern for the welfare and security of the Jewish community.

_____________

Friedman thus enters what is by now an old debate over what, in the realm of public policy, is good for the Jews. He himself characterizes the conflict as one between universalists and particularists, with universalists believing that Jews most eloquently express their “mission” by embracing causes that transcend “narrow” Jewish interests, and particularists believing that integrity demands the defense in the first instance of Jewish interests and goals. Ever since the 18th century, when politics first intervened in Jewish affairs to decide the civic status of Jews in the European nation-states, universalists and particularists have taken different sides on the big political questions, the former with the liberals or the Left, the latter with the conservatives or the Right. That has been the distinctive pattern of Jewish political behavior for the last two hundred years, in czarist Russia, interbellum Poland, and the Western democracies.

In this light, what occurred during the golden age of the postwar years in the United States was an exception, a period of extraordinary political consensus among American Jews. The creation of Israel and its continuing need for Jewish support fostered solidarity to a degree seldom experienced before or after by a people notorious not only for their individualism but for their downright quarrelsomeness. That solidarity was strengthened even more by the revelations of Soviet anti-Semitism and Stalinist terror, which utterly discredited the few remaining leftist apologists in the Jewish community.

Since the mid-60's this Jewish solidarity has been unraveling, and American Jews have reverted to their more accustomed state of divisiveness. The issues (cited by Friedman) which divide the Jewish community include welfare programs, racial quotas, black-Jewish relations, abortion, prayer in the public schools, national defense, East-West relations, even American policy toward Nicaragua and South Africa. Israel itself, though it still commands the love and devotion of most Jews, has also become a subject of division and, since the war in Lebanon, of divisiveness.

_____________

One surprising and significant sign of the current divisiveness is the public return of the Left to Jewish communal life. In the last five years or so, several new organizations have been established ranging from the moderate Left to the far Left. There is, for instance, a new philanthropy called the Jewish Fund for Justice, which, according to its spokesman, “offers American Jews a Jewish context for expressing our traditional Jewish passion for social justice.” It strives to combat “poverty” and “injustice” in the United States and has already made grants to Navajo Indians and inner-city, slum-rehabilitation projects. Several new organizations critical of Israel have also surfaced. One is the American-Israeli Civil Liberties Coalition, another the American-Israeli Council for an Israeli-Palestinian Peace.

The return of the Left, in a form startlingly reminiscent of the 30's, is most visible in the New Jewish Agenda, an organization founded in 1980 which now claims a membership of several thousand across the country. It has been described in a newspaper article as “a hodgepodge of Old Leftists, New Leftists, liberals, gays, feminists, and nuclear freezers.” For its own part, the New Jewish Agenda identifies itself as “progressive.”

Although the New Jewish Agenda started out to “work for change” (as the saying has it) from outside the Jewish community, it has, true to the tradition of the Old Left, switched tactics and decided also to burrow from within. By now its chapters have been admitted to membership in local Jewish federations or community councils in Los Angeles, Detroit, Kansas City, New Haven, Ann Arbor, and Santa Fe. The first plank in its national platform, adopted in 1982, deserves to be quoted not only for its echoes of times past but also for its remarkable conception of who constitutes the American Jewish community:

We call for the full empowerment of all Jews. Our communal institutions must involve those whose needs have been consistently disregarded: our elders, Jews with disabilities, the poor, Lesbians and Gay Men, Jews not living in nuclear families, Jews of color, Jews by choice, those of mixed marriages and recent immigrants.

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But the return of the Left is only one, albeit a highly significant, sign of the break-up of the Jewish consensus. Dissatisfaction with the current condition of the organized community has been expressed from other directions as well: there is, for example, a conservative group called the National Jewish Coalition, and there has been a rise of single-purpose institutions like the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee and the rapidly proliferating network of Jewish Political Action Committees. Nor is this wholly to be wondered at. Nowadays political realignments are occurring within both of our political parties and among the voting public at large, and such realignments are bound to affect Jewish institutional life as well. We are now just at the beginning of a process of change, and we are in Murray Friedman's debt for explicating the issues, and the interests, that are at stake in this process.

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