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American Jewry's Outdated Orthodoxy

Irony of ironies, by the closing years of the 20th century liberalism had become the peculiarist religion that separated American Jews from the majority of American gentiles.

With all the stiff-necked obstinacy of their biblical predecessors, American Jews adhered to liberalism in spite of everything. They advocated the black political agenda with religious devotion, in spite of growing black anti-Semitism — indeed in the face of numerous studies showing that American blacks constituted the most anti-Semitic group in the country.

Not only were Jews the only white ethnic group to continue to show sizeable support for affirmative action, even while majorities of Asians, Hispanics (and occasionally even blacks!) opposed it, but Jews also supported the social liberal agenda — including feminism and gay rights — considerably more so than any other group. Never mind that Judaism was absolutely opposed to homosexuality and unambiguous about the roles of men and women — true Jewish tradition had long been displaced among most American Jews by the religion of ''Liberalism as Judaism.''

Perhaps inevitably, there arose at the fringes of the Establishment Liberalism of American Jews a ''Radicalism as Judaism'' twist on the new religion. If socialists and communists were once described as ''liberals in a hurry,'' then the new advocates of ''Leftism as Judaism'' were simply assimilationist Jewish liberals in a hurry, differing from the Liberal Jewish Establishment only in their more extreme radicalism. Like the Liberal Establishment, they argued that Judaism was in fact nothing more and nothing less than fashionable progressive political causes and sentiments. Their political instincts were simply somewhat more extreme than those of the Jewish Establishment.

Soon the world was confronted by a whole family of ''Radicalism as Judaism'' assimilationist institutions, including Tikkun magazine and activist groups like the New Jewish Agenda, the Religious Action Center of the Reform movement, and Jewish environmentalist radicals. These endorsed virtually every political fad to emerge from the secular politically-correct Left, including defense of all forms of sexual perversion; environmentalism in its most anti-rational, paganist-pantheist forms; radical redistributionist programs for America; support for leftist and Marxist movements around the world; and, to a large extent, support for Arab nationalism and anti-Zionism.

Although Jewish ''self-hatred'' has been part and parcel of Jewish Diaspora assimilationism for generations, the term as applied in most cases is misleading. Most Diaspora Jewish assimilationists are more properly described as being indifferent to their Jewishness, not anti-Semitic or hostile to Jews as such. Most do not seek to see Jews killed, injured or persecuted (although there are exceptions), and are generally at least as willing to protect Jews from violence and assault as they are willing to defend dolphins and squirrels and rain forests.

The exceptions to the above observation are to be found among the Jewish radicals of the far left, those who support Arab violence against Jews and, as in the case of MIT professor Noam Chomsky, even defend the views of Holocaust deniers. Thankfully, these most extreme cases are still a tiny minority among Diaspora Jewish assimilationists.

For the first few decades of Israel's existence, Jewish liberal assimilationists generally maintained a minimally pro-Israel ideological position. They supported Israel's rights to defend itself and opposed Arab aggression and terror. They advocated American support for Israel. By and large they did so because there was no conflict between their residual Jewish identity and their liberalism. When forced to make a choice, they would opt for liberalism over Jewish self-interest, as when in 1972 American Jews supported the liberal George McGovern over the non-liberal Nixon (who went on to rescue Israel from destruction in the 1973 Yom Kippur War).

But as support for Israel lost its popularity in non-Jewish liberal circles, support for Israel by assimilationist American Jews also showed signs of wavering. In the 1982 Peace for Galilee campaign by Israel in Lebanon, many American Jewish liberals reacted more as liberals than as self-interested Jews and joined the liberal bandwagon in denouncing Israel, often even endorsing calls for American sanctions against Israel.

During the era of Likud rule in Israel, American Jewish liberals exhibited increasing uneasiness about being seen as pro-Zionist and greater willingness to ally themselves against Israel in public debate. They were rescued, only temporarily, as it turned out, from their ideological dilemma when the Israeli Labor Party veered off to the extreme left after 1992, endorsing most forms of ''political correctness'' and ''progressive'' fads along the way. Once again, assimilationist Jews could avoid making hard choices between their ''religion of liberalism'' and being Jewish.

Going Against The Grain

While the bulk of the American Jewish community, and to a lesser extent other Western Diaspora Jewish communities, was carried away by the new ''religion'' of liberalism, there remained two smaller opposition movements to ''Liberalism as Judaism.''

The first opponents were the Orthodox, who had never substituted liberalism — or for that matter anything else — for traditional Judaism. Orthodoxy had never jettisoned the nationalist aspects of Jewish tradition and identity.

About the Author: Steven Plaut is a professor at the University of Haifa. He can be contacted at steveneplaut@yahoo.com.


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