For two thousand years, Jews exiled from their homeland and lacking political sovereignty were easy targets for elitist rulers on the right and the pseudo-egalitarian mob on the left. When Emancipation came and Jews exited the ghettos, Jewish self-made pitfalls were no less horrific, as many embraced the trendy “isms” of secular society only to spiritually assimilate and disappear from history. Yet despite the persecutions, on the one hand, and the enticements of some host countries’ cultures, on the other, the Jewish nation lives.
How did Jews politically survive in the lands of their dispersion despite statelessness and dependency? How were the terms of their struggle transformed in the era of official political and social equality that came in the wake of the European eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Emancipation? Tracing this trajectory further, what political strategies emerged in an increasingly secular America, where Jews defined themselves more as a “people” than as a religion? With the creation of Israel and the trappings of a sovereign state, how did power replace powerlessness for the one nation more than any other branded as a pariah?
Though these are weighty questions all deserving book-length answers in their own right, certain basic traits enabled the Jews to master all of these epochal challenges. Ingenuity, inventiveness, improvisation and guile were the skills with which they triumphed over the threatening political environment. When this adaptation succeeded, those Jews who were inventive enough remained alive for another day, not merely as survivors but as actors in God’s plans.
Hebrew University’s Eli Lederhendler described Jewish political behavior in that milieu: “Ideologically, Jews viewed pragmatic efforts to maintain the security and stabilities of their communities as consistent with, and therefore legitimized by, their belief that their own efforts mirrored a divine plan for their people.”
Jews in the lands of their dispersion survived not because of brotherly love or “multicultural” accommodation but also by making themselves useful or by providing needed services. Often they were wards of their rulers. When Jews depended on local gentiles who held power, they used this relationship optimally, whether as artisans in Spain’s Golden Age or as tax collectors in Poland or as bankers in Austria. For their contributions, the trade-off was that Jews were protected by those in power.
But it remained a dependent relationship with Jews never knowing when their powerlessness would be exposed by pogroms, expulsion, or gas chambers. Strategically, Israel’s record among the nations also was marked by improvisation, schemes and feats of daring. Agricultural training programs in third-world Africa, international medical rescue missions, programs of cultural diplomacy, fighting United Nations “Zionism is racism” resolutions and such were designed so that some tacit international political acceptance, i.e., legitimacy, would replace political isolationism.
Despite the rise of nationalistic sentiment in early twentieth-century Europe, liberal Jewish thinkers found this Jewish powerlessness not a vulnerability but a blessing. Ruth Wisse painfully showed in her 2001 essay “The Brilliant Failure of Jewish Foreign Policy ” how pleased they were “with the sense that their ethical national identity had been purified of the dross of politics.”
To these upstanding global citizens, the translation of politics into social ethics represented a giant step in human progress.
Thus, Wisse noted, Hermann Cohen, the main spokesman for liberal Judaism in that period, maintained that with the destruction of the Jewish state in 70 CE and the end of the political center of gravity in Jewish history, “the development of the Jewish religion alone has to be presented as the driving cultural force…. Religion must become politics insofar as it ought to educate the citizens on the duty of love of humanity.”
Similarly, the eminent Russian Jewish historian Simon Dubnow argued that the Jewish nation had reached its high level of humanity as a result of its being removed from national politics for some two millennia. This progress showed that Jews had transcended an “egotistical” dimension of power and could sustain national unity through institutions of culture.
According to Dubnow, “A nationality which lacks a defensive protection of state or territory develops, instead, forces of inner defense and employs its national energy to strengthen the spiritual and social forces for unity.”
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In the modern period, liberalism has served as the Jewish political religion. Whether in the United States or in Israel, taking the liberal side was considered as more moral, more humanitarian, more in sync with the strategy of how a minority can be best accommodated and cultivate goodwill. (Accommodation, as in medieval times, continued as the Jewish political goal.)
Similarly, the intellectual foundation for the 1993 Oslo agreement, where Israel became the first sovereign nation in history to arm its enemy in the hope of gaining security, is found in the naive universalistic vision of Shimon Peres’s The New Middle East. Taking issue with the notion of Jewish national strength as the guarantor of security – the dream of mainstream Zionists before Israel’s founding – Peres argued that “national political organizations can no longer fulfill the purpose for which they were established – that is, to furnish the fundamental needs of the nation.”
In other words, Israel must clean up its act before its Middle East neighbors would concede its legitimacy.
What is the source for this liberal image of good global citizenship? One would expect that those Jews who were committed to group survival, vindicated historically by the costs of weakness, would adopt a more independent-minded, self-interested political model.
The case for the Jewish tie-in with liberal forces in Europe in the wake of the tearing down of the ghetto walls was originally made pragmatically – since liberals were more receptive than entrenched elitists to the extension of rights to newly emancipated folks, including Jews, it made sense to align with them. But according to Boston psychiatrist Kenneth Levin, who studied Jewish powerlessness, Jews failed to distinguish their particular interests from the overall liberal agenda. He writes that in order to diminish their vulnerability Jews tend to identify with more broad and powerful social groups. Their station was supposedly no different from the other fixtures in this new ethnic bandwagon.
The Jews’ attachment to Franklin Roosevelt illustrated such “categorical thinking,” according to Levin. Considering themselves “disadvantaged,” Jews felt at home in Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition. Yet because of that allegiance, Jews hesitated to pressure Roosevelt to rescue their trapped co-religionists in Europe. Rabbi Stephen Wise, American Jewry’s main public figure, took to task Jewish critics of Roosevelt’s laggard rescue efforts.
“[Roosevelt] is still our friend, even though he does not move as expeditiously as we would wish,” declared Rabbi Wise. When the Republican Presidential platform criticized Roosevelt for failing to do enough to save Jews from the raging Holocaust, Rabbi Wise wrote Roosevelt expressing his shame at this “unjust” Republican accusation.
Levin turned to psychohistory to find the bedrock source of this self-defeating Jewish relativism. The Jewish failure to assess political issues from the view of self-interest, Levin argued in his classic work The Oslo Syndrome, “is a reflection of what psychologists call internalization, the process of how we adopt the attitudes of authority figures. An example of this model is how children who are abused blame themselves for their “bad” behavior.
In his review of Levin’s work, Hillel Halkin explained the chain of events that led from the Enlightenment to Jewish self-blame. A class of homegrown Jewish intellectuals, maskilim or enlighteners, came on the scene in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in both Germany and Eastern Europe. Pro-Emancipation non-Jewish intellectuals were the role models for these Jewish thinkers.
Yet since these same European intellectuals were genuinely hostile to Judaism and its practitioners, both the maskilim and the large numbers of Jews who were influenced by them made this hostility their own. From here was born the ego-attacking pathology of Jewish self-blame and self-denigration – a pathology Levin believes lies at the root of a great deal of Jewish politics up to and including the capitulation at Oslo.
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By the mid-twentieth century, the shift to American JCC (Jewish Community Center) Judaism from Synagogue Judaism furthered the shift toward liberalism. In their push to suburbia, Jews were confused as to who they really were – a religion, a people, a culture, or a nation.
Abraham J. Karp observed, “The children of the immigrants wanted to be like Gentiles, without becoming Gentiles, while the grandchildren of the immigrants want to be like Jews, without becoming real Jews.” Parroting the liberal values of openness and choice espoused by opinion elites, Jews felt more secure in their relationship with the larger American melting pot.
In recent years, two factors continued to cement this Jewish affinity for liberalism. Just as with the maskilim of yore, Jews who craved acceptance by liberal intellectuals were forced to conform to the Left’s political agenda, especially its mounting condemnation of Israel’s role as a Palestinian “occupier.” Jewish self-blame, especially on campus, grew as the Left cast the Arabs as victims, a downtrodden status Jews themselves held before Israel defeated Arab aggressors in the 1967 Six-Day War.
In fact, the ranks of self-professed Jews who declared themselves anti-Zionists (and thus recognizable liberals) grew into a movement. Alvin Rosenfeld of the University of Indiana noted that prominent Jewish leftists on campus and in the media have singled out Israel “as a political entity unworthy of secure and sovereign existence…. part of a standard discourse among ‘progressive’ American Jews, who seem to take for granted that the historical record shows that Israel to be an aggressor state guilty of sins comparable to Hendrik Verwoerd’s South Africa and Hitler’s Germany.”
Secondly, as long as Jews saw themselves as besieged and vulnerable, they forged alliances with welfare-state expansionists and secularists, failing to realize that Jewish twenty-first-century political strategies (such as closer ties with Christian evangelicals or supporting faith-based government programs) need not imitate what was taken as fashionable two hundred years earlier.
Regrettably, most Jews still have not caught up with the need for creative political thinking despite the downside of the old utopianism. In Israel, the fantasy persists that the surrender of territory will pacify aggressors committed to Israel’s destruction. In the United States, Jews gave scant recognition to George W. Bush, the most pro-Israel U.S. president in history. He transformed the nature of Middle East political discourse by abandoning the moral equivalence of past administrations. He specifically blamed Palestinian leadership for the terror that undermined peace and refused to even take a phone call from Yasir Arafat.
Yet Jews still gave some three-quarters of their votes in 2004 to Democratic presidential candidate, John Kerry. Similarly, polls showed that Jews, more than other Americans, favored an accelerated withdrawal from Iraq. As such, they failed to see that the ensuing power void and spurring of terrorism that would follow such a retreat would not only signal disaster for American interests but also for the security of Israel.
Differing from most of their co-religionists, those Jews whose identity was more shaped by religion and historical memory showed greater awareness that in the quest for Jewish security there were no permanent allegiances, no permanent opponents, and no sacred political isms. For them, recognizing these realities across the sweep of history meant that in modern times ingenuity and inventiveness represented too weak a survival strategy for the remnant of the seed of Abraham. Political finessing would not succeed against enemies actively planning Jewish destruction. The strategy must be simple and sovereign, pointing to security through strength.
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Political scientists evaluating current American electoral politics cite the “permanent political campaign,” in contrast to political campaigns of yesteryear, which were confined to a limited few months before the set voting date. Now, politicians continuously put forward their telegenic selves and hunt for campaign cash.
Likewise, the campaign for Jewish survival must be seen as always under way. Jewish survival requires an understanding of political institutions and the dynamics of political policy. Failing to understand how these forces are driven will prevent Jews from making smart decisions. For instance, it is not unusual for voters to feel that they are stuck between choosing two unappetizing candidates. Yet by having the right political analytic tools, hidden agendas, corrupt deals, and ideological shallowness can be appraised. By contrast, indifference and naivete cause the community to lose out in optimally defending itself.
Both Jewish self-denigration and Jewish utopianism represent the same bottom line – a Jewish powerlessness that ignores the lessons of history. Wishful thinking and shutting one’s collective eyes will not ameliorate the survival prospects of one of history’s most consistent victims.
While Jewish political self-preservation must remain the chief goal, this is not to minimize the importance of pursuing social justice and involvement in building a better country and world.
This goal of good citizenship is traceable to the Bible. One such example is the account of Jacob sending Joseph to Nablus to inquire as to the welfare of his brothers (Genesis 37:14). Jacob does not confine his request only to human beings, adding, “and the welfare of the flock…”
Why a special request about the status of the sheep? Jewish biblical commentators interpret Jacob’s inquiry into the well being of the animals not as a business request but as a social request. From here is derived the teaching that a Jew must enhance the welfare of any source, human or animal, from which he gains benefit.
Judged comparatively, democratic institutions have an excellent record in meeting the welfare of all their constituents, Jews and non-Jews. As the great American jurist Learned Hand observed in a 1932 speech to the U.S. Federal Bar Association, “Even though counting heads is not an ideal way to govern, at least it is better than breaking them.”
Hopefully, a more politically seasoned Jewry will come to better understand the precarious survival mechanisms for overcoming the daunting challenges that lie ahead.
About the Author: Ron Rubin is professor of political science at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, City University of New York. He is the author of several books including “The Unredeemed” and “Anything for a T-Shirt: Fred Lebow and the New York City Marathon, the World's Greatest Footrace.”
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