There are some commentators on North American Jewry, largely neo-Cons such as Norman Podhoretz and Ruth Wisse, who are puzzled by the persistent liberalism of their fellow Jews. Why should Jews in the United States who “earn like Episcopalians, vote like Puerto Ricans,” is the question raised by this now somewhat dated quip.
The neo-cons complain that American Jews have not become a conservative interest group, protecting their money and supporting Republican candidates; you know, the one’s who oppose health care, gun control, taxes, gay rights, abortion and the like and who, not incidentally, give unquestioning support to the demands of the Israeli government.
Prof. Michael Walzer of Princeton University, is perhaps America’s most distinguished political theorist and a long time editor of the social-democratic journal Dissent, has recently answered the neo-cons and supplied all of us with a thought provoking analysis of the issue. Any summary cannot due justice to his nuanced article, which appears in the October issue of Dissent www.dissentmagazine.org/online.php?id=304
However, in outline, Walzer argues that American, and more broadly Diaspora Jewry, is attached to the liberalism of economic freedom and social justice, a liberalism committed to civil liberties, pluralism and the welfare state.
Walzer maintains that this liberalism was the product of post-ghetto “emancipation in exile,” for in this more open society the Jews discovered that their security and their opportunities would be furthered “in a liberal state and a liberal society.” He acknowledges that this liberalism was rooted in self-interest, yet it nevertheless gave rise to idealism. In the open society Jews helped to fashion the central ideologies of liberalism, such as meritocracy and pluralism, both of which were “in a significant sense Jewish ideologies,” and, I would add, have served us well. Moreover, through the western world, Jews have been and are among the leading proponents of change in more autocratic states and in the front row of reformers defending open societies in the United States, Canada, the U.K., etc.
As for social justice, the other major component of liberalism, Walzer looks, in part, to our religious roots. Every Passover reminds us that “we were slaves in Egypt,’ and our haggadas link this to all who suffer oppression. He also stresses the historic element that communities in exile “had to be little welfare states.” Even today our broad network of community welfare institutions is unparalleled and Jewish “giving” is basic to our communal life and identity.
Essentially, Walzer is making the case that Diaspora Jewry depends, for its very existence, on maintaining liberal values. Interest groups, by their very nature are transient and subject to the centrifugal forces of American life. To forsake liberalism would mean the sacrifice of our past and loss of collective values it provides us. He concludes that like liberalism, Judaism is based on values which can never be fully realized. Liberal values can sustain us “because values are only partially realized and always in need of commitment and courage.”
Walzer’s essay has prodded my thinking about the relationship between a liberal Diaspora and an increasingly illiberal Israeli society. To be sure the generation of Israel’s founders was also nurtured on that liberalism and social democracy of exile. However, the values of post 1967 Israel have understandably changed, as a traditional nationalism fashions its own culture, no longer in exile, but in a state of its own. It is a state based on a strong military, the rule over another people and new waves of immigration. Israel has, necessarily, absorbed illiberal cultures – a generation of Russians reared under Communism, the unfortunates of North Africa, and the products of religious authority. These currents have now resulted in a new government which stands opposed to civil liberties, and minority rights while fostering one of the most unequal societies in the world. It is no longer the country of Ben Gurion, Rabin, the kibbutz, a nation which basked in the admiration of much of the world.
My point is, of course, that liberal Diaspora values and the values of a conservative, nationalist Israel are in conflict. This can be seen in the disillusionment of many younger North American Jews with Israel. The recent successful J Street conference was only one of the healthier signs of this reaction, attracting large numbers of young people, to an organization which advocates a critical Zionism, as opposed to a blind allegiance. Perhaps the generation of their parents will ignore this cognitive dissonance, as American Jewish liberalism confronts a very new kind of illiberal Israel. Most American Jews are barely aware of the great changes that have taken place in Israeli society and thus may ignore the differences. It will be interesting to watch how this conflict of values will play itself out.