Jews and Liberal Politics

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

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With good reason, Jews identified anti‑Semitism with the right. This accounted for their interpretation of Nazism as a right‑wing, reactionary movement, despite the fact that the word Nazism stood for National Socialism. In addition, they attributed the rise of Hitler to the economic and social dislocations caused by the Great Depression. A society that provided good housing, jobs, unemployment insurance, health care, and educational opportunities would, they believed, be less immune to anti‑Semitic demagogues. Liberalism was thus a bulwark against anti‑Semitism.

While favoring the amelioration of social and economic problems by a strong central government, the Jewish approach to politics also contained an anarchistic strain. Jews had a deep distrust of authority because established political and social authority had threatened Jewish interests. The Jewish approach to politics was expressed by the rabbi's response in Fiddler on the Roof when asked to compose a prayer for the czar. "Oh God,” the rabbi prayed, "please keep the czar…far away from us."

Jews had a knee-jerk sympathy for dissenters challenging the legitimacy of constituted authority. This was exhibited in the many Jewish members of the American Civil Liberties Union, the distrust of Jews of the police, and their willingness to give the benefit of the doubt to the powerless in any conflict with government or powerful economic interests.

In contrast to the Irish, Jews tended to view politics in terms of social and economic redemption rather than as an opportunity for personal advancement. Largely excluded from the politics of eastern Europe, most Jews did not believe politics was a place where a nice Jewish boy should pursue a career. Jews were influential in postwar American politics as intellectuals, contributors, and voters, but not as politicians. Skeptical toward politicians, Jews are not skeptical toward the political process. For them, it is the means to create a better world.

Whatever its origins, liberalism remained a major component  of American Jewish identity after 1945. The most eloquent postwar defense of Jewish liberalism was Leonard Fein's 1988volume Where Are We? The Inner Life of America's Jews. Fein, the founder of Moment magazine and former professor at Brandeis University, wrote this book at a time when Jewish liberalism was under increasing attack from Jews. Viewing assimilation as unfaithful to American and Jewish tradition, but cognizant that less than ten percent of American Jews observed the traditional commandments of Judaism, Fein argued that only a commitment to economic justice "can serve as our preeminent motive, the path through which our past is vindicated, our present warranted, and our future affirmed.”

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