Jews and Liberal Politics

The post-war politics of American Jews were shaped more by Jewish experience than Jewish tradition.

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The liberal politics of American Jews led to their participation in a variety of left-wing organizations and movements in the post-war period, including feminism, civil rights, and the Democratic Party. The following article ruminates on some of the reasons, historical and contemporary, that the Jewish community in the 1950s and 1960s gave to explain their affinity for liberalism. It is reprinted with permission from A Time for Healing: American Jewry Since World War II, published by The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Sociologists, historians, and political scientists offered various explanations of American Jewish liberalism. In The Political Behavior of American Jews (1956),Lawrence Fuchs argued that liberalism emerged ineluctably from Jewish values, which stressed the importance of charity and social justice. Fuchs's interpretation, as many critics pointed out, ignored the fact that there was no correlation between the intensity of Jewish commitment and liberalism. Jews living in the shtetls of Eastern Europe or in Orthodox neighborhoods in Brooklyn were less liberal than more assimilated Jews. Prominent Jewish leftists were often contemptuous of Jewish tradition and interests.

 

liberal politicsThe explanation of Jewish liberalism as a fulfillment of Judaism also downplayed the fact that Jewish leftism was intensely secular and rejected the Orthodox definition of Jewish identity. It is not surprising that the Jewish socialist labor movement and YIVO [founded in 1925 as an academic institute dedicated to the study of Yiddish and East European Jewish culture] emerged in Vilna, the Jerusalem of Europe, as opposing definitions of Jewish identity in the midst of the most intensely Orthodox Jewish community in eastern Europe.

Another interpretation looked not to Judaism but to recent history to explain this Jewish commitment to liberalism. Prior to the late nineteenth century, the Jewish political orientation in Europe and the Arab lands was passive. Jews feared the state and were detached from political involvement. Since the parties of the left in Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries favored Jewish emancipation and opposed anti‑Semitism, Jews naturally supported the political left and distrusted the political establishment, which was often anti‑Semitic. In addition, the growth in Europe of an urban Jewish proletariat in the late nineteenth century encouraged Jews to look to various forms of socialism as panaceas for their economic and social difficulties

These liberal and leftist political impulses were reinforced when Jews migrated to America. The Forward, the most important Yiddish daily paper, was a socialist journal. It had on its masthead the slogan, "Workers of the World Unite." The political left in America, particularly during the 1930s, identified itself with the interests of what were termed the "urban masses," which included Jews. In addition, the fact that Franklin D. Roose­velt led America into war against Hitler intensified Jewish support for the liberal wing of the Democratic party. Jews, judge Jonah Goldstein jested, had three velts (worlds): die velt (this world), yene velt (the other world), and Roosevelt.

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Edward Shapiro is a Professor of History at Seton Hall University.