Why Are Jews Liberal? (An Alternative to Norman Podhoretz)

Why Are Jews Liberal? (An Alternative to Norman Podhoretz)

Michael Walzer: The Real Reason Jews Are Liberals

JEWS STAND to the left on the American political spectrum. In my lifetime, the range of the Jewish vote for Democratic presidential candidates has run from around 65 to 85 percent; liberal/left third party candidates–Henry Wallace, John Anderson, Ralph Nader–also get disproportionate numbers of Jewish votes; financial contributions are even more lopsided. Every left movement from union organizing in the 1930s to the civil rights and anti-war movements of the sixties to the anti-apartheid campaign of the eighties to MoveOn in 2004 and 2008 has been disproportionately Jewish. And this tendency isn’t apparent only in national politics; it is apparent locally in school board elections, bond issues, tax referenda, and so on. And it isn’t true only in the United States, but also throughout Western Europe. A recent leader of the Tories in the UK was Jewish, but most Jews vote for Labor; and Jewish intellectuals in France have long been prominent among the country’s socialists.

We know this is true, and it continues to be true despite predictions from Jewish neoconservatives that there is going to be a big shift. Maybe so, but it isn’t apparent yet. What explains the liberalism of the Jews?

So as to begin without controversy, I will define liberalism simply and conventionally. Liberal politics is characterized by two sets of commitments: first, to individual freedom, civil liberty, the separation of church and state, religious toleration, and a pluralist society; second, to social justice, the welfare state, and the idea of mutuality or solidarity that, however attenuated in the modem world, underlies welfarist commitments. The relevant liberalism is that of the New Deal and the Great Society. In theoretical terms, it is the liberalism of John Stuart Mill and John Dewey, not of Adam Smith (as he is usually understood) or of Herbert Spencer or Frederick Hayek or Milton Friedman. It is strongly individualist but not libertarian. Now, how do Jews relate to these two commitments—to liberty and to justice? Most Jews have supported both, and for a long time. But the Jewish connection to the two is not the same.

Historically, the religious culture of the Jews is no more a liberal culture than is that of Catholics, say, or Muslims. Within the tradition, to be sure, there was always room for disagreement–as between the schools of Hillel and Shammai (“These and these are the words of the living God”) or, centuries later, between the followers and the critics of Maimonides, or between the rabbis of Germany and Spain.1 But the available room was always limited. Differing interpretations of biblical and talmudic texts abounded, but serious dissent from the central doctrines of the tradition, theological or philosophical heresy, even individual waywardness, were not typically tolerated. The split with the Karaites and the excommunication of Spinoza suggest in different ways the limits of toleration. In general, the autonomous communities of medieval and early modem Jewry were closed communities, their orthodoxy fairly rigid in conception (though nowhere near as rigid as contemporary orthodoxy) and rigidly enforced. The communities derived whatever coercive powers they possessed from the autocratic regimes of the gentiles, feudal or absolutist in character, and they tended to reproduce internally many of the features of autocratic repression. Thus, efforts to describe the kahal as the source, or one of the sources, of democratic politics may be useful as apologetics, but they are not historically persuasive.

Still, this was a premodern autocracy and never very efficient; it was mitigated by the smallness of the communities and the mobility of their inhabitants; nor did Christian or Muslim rulers yield all that much power to their Jewish subjects. Hence the persistence of messianic ferment and the appearance and reappearance of personal, pietistic, mystical, even ecstatic religiosity: the dissidence of dissent was never absent from the traditional Jewish communities.

But liberalism as we know it today is, among the Jews, a product of emancipation–or, more precisely, of emancipation in exile. This did not so much free the Jewish communities as free individual Jews from the Jewish communities and from the orthodoxy they defended. Breaking down ghetto walls, emancipation also broke apart the authority structure that had prevailed within the ghetto. It opened the way for denominational Judaism, that is, for many different versions of Jewish identity, and it also opened the way into the non-Jewish world.

But then the newly emancipated Jews discovered that they could remain free only in a state where emancipation was general; they could only make their way in a society where careers are open to talents, discrimination is barred, private life and personal choice are protected, and religion is not “established.” In other words, Jews were only able to remain free and make their way in a liberal state and a liberal society. Otherwise, they would be emancipated from orthodoxy only to be victimized by anti-Semitism, which must often have seemed to be the orthodoxy of the gentiles. Jews are liberals, then, from self-interest, but to say this is not to denigrate our commitment. Self-interest is a powerful root from which all sorts of idealisms can grow.

Emancipation in exile means that Jewish life is organized on strictly voluntarist principles. There is no corporate autonomy, no coercion, no taxation, no religious courts with official jurisdiction. Jewish identity is a choice; synagogues and centers, brotherhoods and sisterhoods, congresses and federations–all these are voluntary associations. Liberalism permits these associations to exist, even to flourish (if they can), and since the liberal state does not demand a total commitment, it overlooks whatever dilution of political allegiance Jewish life in exile involves. And so it is not only for the sake of individual advancement but also for the sake of collective survival that the Jews need a liberal politics. They want to make their way and prosper, not only as individuals but also as a group. The central ideologies of contemporary liberalism–meritocracy (equality of opportunity), which opens careers to individual men and women, and pluralism, which permits groups to organize freely–are therefore, in a significant sense, Jewish ideologies.

Of course, assimilated Jews can adopt any political positions they please–short, perhaps, of Christian fundamentalism. They can move toward right-wing nationalism; they can move toward far-left authoritarianism. These two positions, and many others, are available to Jews-in-disguise, passing, on their way to some alternative identification.

But Jews who retain a sense of the experience of exile–of the vulnerability of every exilic settlement–don’t have such an extensive range of choices. American communitarianism is almost certainly not good for these Jews, since its protagonists, who look back nostalgically to the early republic in the years before the great immigration, might not be all that tolerant of the Jewish countercommunity (the focus, still, of intense loyalties).4 Nor would right-wing nationalism, which is more openly hostile to the immigrant tradition and historically intolerant of difference in all its forms, make for a politics likely to accommodate Jewish Jews. Both these political tendencies suggest a stark alternative: assimilation or exclusion. Jews who want to be Jews, however they understand that peculiar state of being, and who want to be Americans (however they understand that), must defend the open society and the civil liberties and pluralist politics that make it possible.

ALL OF this is not to deny that liberalism itself has often been a strategy for individual assimilation–even, in a largely liberal society, an obvious strategy. But it is also a strategy that leaves options open for other Jews who have other ends in mind, including collective survival and affirmation. There are many ways to assimilate, but only liberalism permits, under modem conditions, the uneasy balance that so many Jews want to sustain: between engagement in the larger world and commitment to community and to their own versions of Jewishness.

Emancipation brings many such versions, religious and secular, whereas the traditional communities were set against pluralism: there could not be more than one Torah. Yet, as I’ve said, arguments about the meaning of that one Torah were a constant feature of Jewish life, and these arguments have left their mark on emancipated Jews. They have made the Jews famously argumentative. This too presses them toward liberalism, first because the style of liberal politics is also a Jewish style: skeptical, questioning, inconclusive; and second because only liberalism guarantees the continuing openness necessary to arguments about—and now to differing versions of—a common Jewishness.

This last point needs further clarification: while the Jewish tradition was not liberal in substance, it was (sometimes) close to liberal in its cast of mind. There were indeed canonized and authoritative texts, but never a single hierarchy of authoritative interpreters claiming to be God’s representatives and able to make that claim good. There was no Jewish pope, not even a local archbishop. So “another interpretation” was always possible, which, though it might not have equal legal standing (the law was determined by a majority of leading sages), might nonetheless achieve equal intellectual standing. The preservation of dissenting views was an important feature of the tradition, and this suggests a tolerance for disagreement, a readiness to live with ambiguity, a sense of mutual respect at least among the educated elite. All these are also features of liberal political culture. With emancipation, this correspondence of style was reinforced by a correspondence of interest. Since Jews are always an ambiguous element in the larger society, and now a divided element as well, they find the tolerance of ambiguity not merely familiar but necessary.

It follows that if Jews need a tolerant and liberal regime, they are also likely to be found among the defenders of such regimes. Jews have indeed been prominent in revolutionary movements, most often in illiberal and autocratic states, but given an established liberalism, the great mass of Jews, very sensibly, will support it. For reasons having to do with social justice, theirs will often be a critical support–aimed, however, at enhancing rather than undermining liberal politics. A recent history of the Jews in Weimar Germany describes a book published in Munich in 1928 with the subtitle “Jewry as a Conservative Element.” The author argued, rightly, that German Jews were overwhelmingly committed to conserving the Weimar republic. Almost all of them voted either for the centrist Democratic party or the Social Democrats. It was a doomed, but not an unintelligent politics. Nor has anything that has happened since, for all that has happened since, made it into an unintelligent politics. Liberal emancipation, liberal universalism: this is the particularism of the Jews, at least of the Jews in exile.

WITH REGARD to social justice, the story is a somewhat different one, for the Jewish commitment to justice is substantively connected to Jewish religious culture and to the experience of exile before as well as after emancipation. The connection goes all the way back to the first “exile,” bondage in Egypt, and to the legal and moral code that came out of that experience. Jews are reminded of it at every Passover seder, and it is wise not to underestimate the importance of that celebration. Nowadays Eugene Debs’ famous line–“so long as one man is in prison, I am not free”–may seem to be an exaggerated and rather pompous claim. Still, many Jews grew up believing that so long as there were slaves in Egypt, any Egypt, the Jews were among them. This may have been a seder argument, but it had its everyday uses.

The prophetic books reaffirm the values of the Exodus story: indeed, no other body of literature is so likely to press people who take it seriously toward an identification with the poor and oppressed, and toward a suspicion not so much of wealth or power as of the moral complacency and arrogance that commonly accompany them. And suspicion also has its everyday uses.

The Bible is a radical book, but radicalism of that sort, a literary sort, can always be repressed through interpretation, overwhelmed by erudition, constrained by legal enactment. There is another and more practical feature of Jewish experience that underpins the commitment to the welfarist side of liberalism: the internal life, the social and moral character, of the diaspora communities. Throughout the history of their exile, the Jews have been a people set apart; therefore a people bound together. A special kind of solidarity was forced upon them. Sometimes, of course, it was resisted (one can find in medieval responsa occasional expressions of a radical individualism, at least in economic matters). Sometimes it was evaded. Still, solidarity was the mark of Jewish communal life over a long period of time. And it cannot be the case that this experience of living together in tightly knit and relatively autonomous communities in hostile or uncertain environments for almost two thousand years has left no impress on Jewish political culture.

The story of those communities lies well beyond my reach here; it is a rich and varied one that belies the claim that the Jews have no political (as opposed to “spiritual”) history from the defeat of Bar Kokhba to the triumph of Ben-Gurion. Indeed, to understand Jewish politics, it is important not to disparage the diaspora: it was in exile that Jewish political sensibilities were decisively shaped, for better and worse, across a wide range of issues.

What needs to be stressed here is the extent to which the exile communities were–because they had to be–little welfare states or welfare societies, whose members, for all their quarrels, were deeply committed to one another. The range of communal provision was very wide (though different in different times and places). It included distributions of food and clothing, care for orphans and widows, dowries, hostels for travelers, ransom for captives (a major claim on communal funds over many centuries), public physicians and midwives, and, perhaps above all, schools. In the l430s, a synod of Spanish rabbis proposed the creation of something close to a full-scale compulsory public school system. What justice meant to those rabbis is perhaps best revealed here, concretely, in their proposal to transfer funds from rich to poor school districts, an issue that continues to be argued about today.

At a time when the value of participation is so much discussed and participants in the associational life of civil society are constantly counted, it is also worth pointing out that the number of people serving the community as officials and agents of distribution was very large–a significant proportion of the members, in fact–if only because the communities were very small. Though the vocabulary of the time was of course totally different, such communities could well be termed participatory welfare states.

It is true that many of the features described above are duplicated in the histories of various non-Jewish communities, with the likely exception of the ransom of captives and the extraordinary stress on education. But there is a greater intensity of commitment in the Jewish diaspora, one that was sustained under more difficult conditions over a longer period of time. Even wealthy Jews, because of persecution and the fear of persecution, were caught up in a kind of general insecurity that is today considered the lot only of the poor. As a result of such insecurity, many Jews developed a deep understanding, widely shared, that a certain proportion of one’s income, one’s time and energy too, belonged to the community as a whole as a condition of everyone’s survival and well-being–and also as a matter of justice. Widely shared, of course, does not mean shared by everyone: once again, this understanding was often resisted and evaded; and to escape its consequences may well have been one motive for conversion or, later on, assimilation. Nevertheless, it is a visible presence in Jewish history.

The maxim “do not separate yourself from the community,” whatever it meant to Hillel, came in medieval and early modern times to require engagement and mutual responsibility. This “community” was never conceived as an association of equals: it was marked by hierarchies of learning and wealth. But the learned were not allowed anything remotely resembling an ivory tower (and, of course, there was neither monasticism nor celibacy among the Jews: these two most radical forms of intellectual separatism were barred). And the wealthy were required to yield some portion of their wealth to pay for communal necessities and to rescue indigent or endangered members of keneset yisrael. Thus, “justice” is perhaps best understood, in principle, as mutual concern and commitment.

To some extent, this exilic view of justice (it obviously has biblical roots, as any reader of Deuteronomy will realize) has itself survived, outlasted emancipation, and even been transferred to the secular non-Jewish communities in which most diaspora Jews now participate. Obviously there is nothing necessary about this transfer; some Jews continue to concern themselves only with their fellows as if they still lived in the ghetto and had nothing to do with the secular world. But such a transfer must nonetheless be assumed, if only as an explanation for the fact that American Jews today give away a significantly greater proportion of their wealth than do other Americans–not only to Jewish causes, but to other philanthropies as well (libraries and universities, for example). They also contribute considerably more than their fellow citizens to political parties and movements. This may be partly “protection money,” especially for those Jews who sense that the diaspora is still a precarious place; the buying of protection is an old diaspora practice. But political giving in contemporary Western democracies is also a kind of secular zedakah, an expression of commitment and responsibility.

The Jewish readiness to support the welfare state, to pay for it, and to participate in it expresses the same kind of values transferred from their own to the larger community. But perhaps “transfer” is not the correct word here, since the liberal welfare state permits Jews (and other religious communities too) to join in secular welfarism while still maintaining their own communal welfare system. Hospitals, orphanages, day-care centers, old-age homes, family services, schools: the range of Jewish provision is wide and impressive, and it is supported not only with private but also with public funds, in the form of matching grants and subsidies. The radically enclosed communities that once provided the basis for such communal welfare have vanished, but the commitment has survived, binding individual Jews simultaneously to the larger political community and to the Jewish people.

The readiness to give away one’s money is today an expression of Jewish identification. But communal activists give time and energy too (fundraising, which requires both, is still mostly volunteer work). Even today there is a participatory richness in Jewish life that has a clear political carryover. People have to learn how to give their money away–there are judgments involved–just as they have to learn the skills and commitments that politics require. It is clear that this kind of learning has gone on and continues to go on in many post-emancipation Jewish communities. One has only to read the names of the student leaders of this or that political protest, on one American campus after another, to see that these communities, “thin” as their culture sometimes is, continue to produce, in disproportionate numbers, young men and women committed to social justice–even in other communities.

AT THIS point, I would like to make a more personal argument–that of a participant-observer in Jewish diaspora politics–in favor of the survival and continual re-invention of Jewish liberalism.

Writing in the 1950s, Hayim Greenberg warned that American Jews were in grave danger of becoming “merely an ethnic group in the conventional sense of the term. . . no more the Congregation of Israel, but only a group with a long and heroic history, with memories which, when cultivated, can arouse much justified pride (thus still not quite a mere banal minority) but without the consciousness of a specific drama and tension in its life.”

Many critics of diaspora Jewry would go further today and argue that the historic memories, since they are only rarely cultivated, are themselves fading and that we are indeed becoming a banal minority. The Jews are one more interest group, different from the others only in the obvious sense that our interests sometimes conflict with the others’–as is happening in the U.S. in the case of Jews and their relations with American blacks and Hispanics. Such conflicts can impose a certain transient unity on the different groups, but they are unlikely to revive heroic memories.

Contemporary Jewish neoconservatism can be seen as an effort to embrace this interest group status and then, since it is after all a considerable comedown from the Congregation of Israel, to recoup some pride by insisting on a fierce defense of Jewish interests. But not all that much pride can be recouped, it seems to me, since this is mostly a defense of our interests against people who are weaker than we are, and since it is a defense of our interests in the narrowest sense–incomes, professions, careers. Of course, interests sometimes have to be defended, and sometimes fiercely. But if we defend only Jewish interests and not Jewish values, if we lose the sense of ourselves as a historic community, a community of shared values, then we have lost too much. We should protect the positions we have won in the secular world, but the collective pronoun “we” refers to a people, and not just a collection of persons, and if we want to maintain that reference we must protect something more than our own interests.

Interests are entirely future-oriented; values are rooted in a collective past. But these two necessarily go together: without a commitment to the past, the orientation to the future won’t work; there won’t be a future for us. Individuals will drift away precisely because or insofar as our interests are recognized and accommodated in the larger political community–the very success of the interest group is also its dissolution.

That is the real danger that confronts Jewish life in the diaspora: not renewed persecution or collective disenfranchisement but social acceptance and individual success. These are good things; who would reject them? Certainly, I am prepared to defend the politics of self-defense that makes them possible. But they have nothing to do with the meaning of Jewishness, only with the material interests of the Jews. The danger is that identity and commitment will not outlast the narrow urgencies of interest. A community of values, by contrast, can sustain itself for a very long time, if only because values are only partially realized and always in need of commitment and courage. For this reason, we would do well to make social justice one of the tests, not only of our liberalism, but also of our Jewishness. I don’t mean to say that Jews can survive as Jews only by committing ourselves to justice; there are other necessary commitments. But we can, I think, give ourselves a reason to survive: a “specific drama,” in Greenberg’s words, in which we still have a part to play.

Michael Walzer is co-editor of Dissent.


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