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How Did Liberalism Become Judaism?
By Steven Plaut
Beyond simple persecution, the Diaspora Jews have long suffered from serious psychopathologies, and in particular a sort of assimilationist self-hatred. While the early Zionists were rebelling against the religious authorities in Eastern European communities, it became clear fairly quickly that Zionism was also a rebellion against the tendencies by many assimilationist Jews to advocate national self-destruction. The Jewish socialist and communist Left in Eastern Europe, but also many Jewish liberals elsewhere, promoted radical assimilationism, where Jews would cut themselves off altogether from their Jewish culture and roots and assimilate aggressively into the surrounding majority cultures of the Russians, Poles, Hungarians, etc.
Theodore Herzl came from an assimilated home. He was a strong advocate of such constructive assimilationism, before his internal struggle that later led him to advocate Jewish nationhood. Western Jewry was dominated by a strange sort of assimilationism that first emerged long before World War II, although it had precedents and included elements taken from German Jewish enlightenment and German Reform Judaism. The latter had long advocated the denationalization of Jewish identity. In a nutshell, the innovation of German (and later American) Reform Judaism was that the Jews should "define themselves away" as a national entity; in its place they would self-define as ethnic-national members of the majority nations in their countries of residence, but with their own religion.
In other words, Germans of the Mosaic tradition, Hungarians practicing Judaism, Russians of the Hebrew faith. Such an innovation appealed to the mindset and instincts of the non-Jewish majorities in many countries and was believed by Jews to be the key to their social and political acceptability.
After all, most of Europe had accepted the idea, ever since the Thirty-Years War and strengthened during the Napoleonic Era, that different religious groups could coexist within a national entity, indeed within the same ethnic "people".
Most European countries had Catholic and Protestant groups co-existing, usually where the latter were divided into several religious subgroups. Eastern Europe was a dizzy religious patchwork, especially in the Habsburg empire. So were Prussia, Switzerland, the Netherlands, England, Scotland and France. What could be more natural than the idea that the Jews would join these heterogeneous societies as yet another religious group, no different from citizens of these states professing other religions, and with no national-ethnic bonds with coreligionists in other lands?
German and Austrian Jews would be no more tied to one another than, say, French, Scottish and Dutch Calvinists, or Swiss and Finnish Lutherans, or Irish and Croatian Catholics. The de-emphasizing of the national aspects of Jewishness was accompanied among the non-Orthodox by religious adaptation, reformation, and dilution as well. In order to make Jewish religious observance more palatable to the Protestant majorities around them, Western non-Orthodox Judaism, especially German and American Reform Judaism, underwent a process of substantial dilution, accompanied by adopting some of the symbols and practices of Protestantism: such as organs and choirs in synagogues, "confirmations", "Protestantization" of the function of Rabbis, even adoption of some Protestant melodies and prayer wordings.
Up to a point, the innovations worked, especially in the English-speaking world. Acceptance of Jews was never as widespread, anti-Semitism never so delegitimized or destigmatized, as in the English-speaking countries in which non-Orthodox Judaism flowered.
Beginning in the 1930s, but accelerating from the 1950s, there came a new manifestation of "Americanized" non-Orthodox Judaism. Not only would Jews be transformed into a denationalized segment of the general national ethnic majority, practicing a sanitized and palatable "in" version of Judaism. But Judaism itself would be recast as part and parcel of the new political thinking gaining popularity in the West, the wave of liberalism. American Jews - the main Diaspora community surviving World War II - would advance themselves in Western society and promote their acceptance to an ever greater extent by allying themselves with liberal political causes, indeed would largely take over the leadership of American (and to a lesser extent non-American) political liberalism.
There emerged a new form of Jewish assimilationism, the "Liberalism-as-Judaism" form of pseudo-Judaism. Especially in the United States, this "school of thought" held that Judaism was nothing more nor less than the American liberal political agenda, including the advocacy - in the name of Judaism and "Prophetic Ethics" - of liberal fashionable political ideas. The beginnings of this were in the New Deal era, when American Jewish support for Franklin D. Roosevelt was nearly unanimous. It continued after World War II.
The "Liberalism as Judaism" School argued that all of Judaism and Jewish tradition could be boiled down into a search for civil "justice" and secular "freedom". Since it was axiomatic, in the eyes of Jewish liberals, that the liberal political agenda was synonymous with justice, freedom, and righteousness and that the opponents of liberalism were evil and unjust, "Judaism" itself could be conscripted in the cause of promoting liberal partisanship.
In the era when liberalism meant civil rights, anti-poverty programs, basic social welfare "Safety Net" programs, etc., that is from the 1930s through the 1960s, such a set of axioms seemed plausible to a great many. By aligning themselves with the forces of progress and enlightenment, Jews would promote their own acceptance and reputation, at least among the thinking progressive majority of Americans.
They would join the "good" Americans in their struggle for a better society. It would be a society in which Jews were appreciated and honored as comrades in arms in the battle for freedom, a society of general tolerance in which Jews would be amongst those tolerated.
Numerous institutions developed in the American Jewish community devoted to the new "Liberalism as Judaism" orthodoxy. The raison d'etre of the many Jewish Community Relations Councils was first and foremost to pursue the liberal political agenda, to conscript organized Jewry behind liberal social programs and civil rights. The community "federations" also pursued liberal causes, and often operated as the Jewish analogue to Christian charity groups, funding general community hospitals and social services. The Jewish weeklies that formed the main communications network of American Jews, generally owned and published by the "federations", were invariably liberal.
The "defense organizations," such as Bnai Brith, American Jewish Congress, and the American Jewish Committee, originally founded in large part in order to battle against anti-Semitism, joined the struggle for
Liberalism and often devoted the bulk of their resources and energies to the promotion of liberal causes. Large parts of the Reform and Conservative synagogue movements, and to a much smaller extent some Orthodox as well, jumped on to the "Liberalism as Judaism" bandwagon. Many Reform and Conservative Rabbis devoted their weekly synagogue sermons to the advocacy of liberal causes. "Social action" committees abounded in synagogues and other Jewish community institutions, where "social action" meant only one thing - the liberal political agenda.
From the start, there were of course problems with the formula of "Liberalism as Judaism," that is, with the assertion that the essence of Judaism is nothing other than moral sentiments that may be conscripted in support of liberal ideological fads.
The first problem was that if one accepts this assertion literally, there is no reason at all for anyone to remain Jewish. Surely, Jewish tradition speaks nobly and highly of the search for justice and peace, but so does virtually every other religious or non-religious humanist tradition. After all, like that famous old advertisement for eating Levy's Rye Bread, you don't have to be Jewish to be a liberal. There were plenty of folks advocating liberal causes and civil rights who ate pork, prayed in churches or not at all, celebrated Christmas, etc. So if the whole point of Judaism was thought to be to inspire liberalism and devotion to "social justice", Judaism was superfluous. There were far easier ways to express and advocate liberalism and social justice.
Thus what had begun as a mass public relations scam and as a sort of play-acting by insecure Western Jews seeking a method for making themselves appear more acceptable to the non-Jewish majorities surrounding them quickly metamorphosed into an avenue for assimilation. For the new generations of Jews growing up in Western freedom and tolerance, there was little if any reason to retain their Jewishness. As secularism and higher education spread, approaching universality for Jews, religiosity diminished in general among the educated classes in which Jews were concentrated. Once national identity and ritualistic observance were abandoned, there was little - if anything - to motivate retention of Jewish identity, whether religious or secular.
The result was rampant assimilation. By the 1970s large segments of the non-Orthodox Jewish community in America (and to a somewhat smaller extent the non-Orthodox in other Western countries) had for all intents and purposes assimilated and ceased to be [performing] Jews. They no longer regarded themselves as Jewish in any meaningful way. They had no formal ties with any Jewish institution, religious, cultural, political, nationalist or otherwise.
This was especially notable among the young Jews in America. Intermarriage rates crossed the 50% barrier. Jews whose Jewishness plays some dominant role in their self-definition and life are a small fraction of that number. Assimilated American Jews do not define themselves as Jewish in a purely religious or national sense.
With astronomical intermarriage rates, complete assimilation for the non-Orthodox is now simply a matter of time, and sufficient time has already transpired to have eliminated much of American Jewry altogether.
So the "party line" or public relations formula for Western Jews has long been that they are nothing more than a religious minority, having jettisoned claims to constituting a Jewish "nationality" or ethnic-nation.
The non-Orthodox then diluted the religious content and separateness of their religious activity and communities. And to top it all off, the "party line" now decreed that the divine role assigned to the Chosen People was nothing more nor less than to promote political liberalism.
The American "Jewish political agenda" was the liberal political agenda. Indeed both were increasingly synonymous, from the 1960s onward, with the official political agenda of the Black establishment. It was the "Jewish interest" to advance Black interests, making America more equal, tolerant and free; as part of the bargain, this would end up protecting Jews and suppressing anti-Jewish bigotry as a side-effect.
If the "Liberalism as Judaism" party line served as the catalyst for Jewish assimilationism, from the 1970s onward it suffered from other problems as well. First, there was never any real American consensus that "progress, freedom and justice" were synonymous with the liberal political agenda. This was a Jewish delusion going back to the 1930s.
From the 1970s onwards, liberalism itself was largely discredited in the United States among the non-Jewish majority. There were many reasons for this. Liberalism had become more and more extreme and divorced from the American mainstream. Anti-Americanism had become the main motivating force of the campus radical Left in the 1970s and 1980s, and liberalism seemed to coddle the radicals.
The civil rights movement was supplanted to a large extent among Black Americans by racist paranoia, radicalism and Afro-Fascism, even among much of the educated Black middle class. Liberalism seemed more and more preoccupied with things most Americans regarded as wacky or immoral, such as animal rights, homosexuality and radical feminism. Liberalism was increasingly associated with affirmative action and quotas, which never enjoyed the support of more than about 30% of Americans. It was also associated with a sort of national isolationism and quest for unilateral disarmament. And at the same time, conservatism enjoyed an intellectual revival.
In addition, liberalism was increasingly discredited by the failures of applied liberal political programs and liberal social engineering. Affirmative action had enraged the American majority. The unpopularity of liberal isolationism became most apparent during the Gulf War. Liberal fads in education were increasingly blamed for the dismal situation in American public schools. Liberal social welfare programs were being identified more and more in the American mind with destruction of the family, crime, illiterate school children, and sociopathological behavior.
If in the 1950s it seemed axiomatic that liberalism and the striving for freedom and justice were one and the same, it certainly was not so by the 1980s. Conservatives had their own program for freedom and justice that was regarded as credible by large segments of the American public, most dramatically in the Reagan years. The "Liberalism as Judaism " party line of the Jewish community was proving more and more anachronistic.
Liberalism was evolving into little more than a parochial manifestation of Jewish peculiarity and provinciality, an endangered species outside the Jewish and Black communities. Judaism was still being conjured up by the "Liberalism as Judaism School" as religious artillery support for programs that were no longer regarded as just or moral by the majority of Americans, programs whose costs often outweighed their benefits, programs increasingly discredited by social science.
But the support by the Jewish Establishment for liberalism had never been based upon any serious study of social science methodologies and tools of analysis, but rather upon self-righteousness, compassionate posturing, and the appealing to smug moral highmindedness. Jewish community leaders and liberal Rabbis from all religious streams had no training whatsoever in policy analysis, economics, statistics or accounting. Their liberalism was based on making themselves feel righteous and accepted, not on resolving real-world problems.
As long as Intellectual America was united in regarding liberalism as just and right, there was no problem. But American Jews had a uniquely vested interest in the preservation of liberalism, having intentionally misdefined it as being synonymous with "Jewish values".
By the late 1980s, American Jews and American Blacks were the only ethnic groups within America still endorsing (by majorities) liberalism. In the case of American Blacks, this was due to their continued belief that liberalism serves Black self-interest. In the case of American Jews, it was due to their anachronistic assimilationist self-definition. Liberalism was becoming the peculiarist religion that separated the Jews from the 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 and Afro-Fascism, indeed in the face of numerous studies showing that American Blacks represent the most anti-Semitic (and also the most racist) ethnic group in the country. Jews were the only White ethnic group to continue to show massive support for affirmative action, often supporting it even while majorities of Asians, Hispanics, and occasionally even Blacks, opposed it. Jews tended to support the "social liberal agenda" more so than any other group, including feminism and gay rights. This was ironic, as there could be nothing less unambiguous in true Jewish tradition than total opposition to homosexuality. But true Jewish tradition had been displaced by "Liberalism as Judaism", and the Jewish assimilationists and liberals were sticking to their guns, still devoted to their new "religion" with blind obstinacy.
At the fringes of the Establishment Liberalism of American Jews there arose the "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 nor less than fashionable progressive political causes and sentiments. Their political instincts were simply somewhat more radical and wacky than those of the Jewish Establishment.
There emerged a whole family of "Radicalism as Judaism" assimilationist institutions, including Tikkun magazine and its satellites, activist groups like the New Jewish Agenda, the radical Religious Action Center of the Reform synagogue movement, Jewish environmentalist radicals, and radical activist groups within the Reconstructionist movement. 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 extreme and anti-rational paganist-pantheist forms, radical redistributionist programs for America, support for far-Leftist and Marxist movements around the world, and - to a large extent - support for Arab nationalism and anti-Zionism.
Jewish "self-hatred" has been part and parcel of Jewish Diaspora assimilationism for generations. But for most assimilating Jews, the term is misleading. Most Diaspora Jewish assimilationists are more properly described as indifferent to being Jewish, not anti-Semitic or hostile to Jews as such. They are simply not interested in being Jews. 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 this observation are usually the self-hating Jewish radicals of the far Left, the Noam Chomskys, those who support Arab violence against Jews and may even defend Holocaust deniers.
These people do indeed hate Jews and Judaism. But they are a tiny minority among Diaspora Jewish assimilationists.
Jewish liberal assimilationists also 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 any residual Jewish identity they might feel and their liberalism. When forced into a choice, they could still opt for liberalism over Jewish self-interest. American Jews supported the pro-Arab liberal George McGovern over the non-liberal Nixon (who then went on and rescued Israel from destruction in the 1973 Yom Kippur War).
They would also continue to endorse affirmative action even while it was clearly being used to discriminate against Jews in admissions and hiring non-White minorities were getting "compensated" for being victims of discrimination in the past, but Jews were both past victims and current victims of ethnic quotas and preferences.
But as support for Israel lost its popularity among non-Jewish liberal circles, the 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 showed increasing uneasiness about being pro-Zionist and increasing willingness to ally themselves against Israel in public debate.
And the radical assimilationist wing of "Leftism-as-Judaism" had long taken pleasure in its Israel-baiting, in showing solidarity with Arab nationalism and in its anti-Zionism, in some cases rationalizing and justifying Arab atrocities against Israeli Jews. The more moderate "Liberal as Judaism School" was rescued from its ideological dilemma when the Israeli Labor Party sheered 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.
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 was the Orthodox community, which 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. The Orthodox were by and large unapologetic Jews, unwilling to dilute their tradition and undergo partial-Protestantization of their religious practice.
In many cases they were also non-liberal and especially non-PC, opposing radical feminism and gay rights. They were and are a small fraction of the total number of Americans of Jewish ancestry, although a far larger percent (possibly even a majority) of those Jews who today still unambiguously identify themselves as Jews.
The other, even smaller, minority was the Zionist movement. Zionists by definition rejected the attempt by assimilationists and "reformers" to jettison Jewish national identity. While Zionists ranged in terms of religiosity from the Orthodox to the radical-secularist anti-religious, they were united in their celebration of Jewish nationality, especially in its main manifestation - Jewish statehood in Israel. Thus, Zionism is necessarily and quintessentially a negation of the assimilationist "Liberalism as Judaism" orthodoxy that dominates American (and other Western) Jewry.
Zionism must necessarily play an Opposition role to liberal pseudo-Judaism within the Diaspora. Zionism is in essence the movement of Jewish national survivalism, and so must negate Jewish assimilationism and the pseudo-religion of "Liberalism as Judaism".
from theMay, 1998 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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