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Liberalism and Judaism
By Larry Fine
Jews have always been on the liberal side of the political spectrum, but lately there has been a move to the conservative side. What is the reason for this switch? Perhaps just as important why is it that Jews have traditionally been viewed as being Liberal?
The reason that so many Jews equate liberalism with all things good is a simple matter of historical freedom. Long before the French revolution, Europe was ruled by various kings and the pope. The pope gave credence to the kings and the kings utilizing the credence that the pope gave them, backed the pope. The life of the Jew before the French revolution was one of discrimination, intimidation, indignation, repression and poverty. The church had insured that the Jews were to be either kept in a ghetto, forbidden to work in 'Christian' occupations, forbidden to own land, or of course forbidden to have social intercourse with the Christians. When the Jews became a big prosperous, they were either forced to leave, forced to pay exorbitant taxes, or became victims of a pogrom, which served to reduce the Jews to penury. All of this was from hatred of the Jews and fear that they would influence the simple Christian to abandon his faith.
The Jew had little freedom and little protection under the law. They were a target for unscrupulous monks and priests who would on occasion rouse up the local ignorant masses to plunder the Jews and in doing so, make a bit of profit by carting away the Jews property.
It was Napoleon and the French revolution in the early 1800's that changed all of this. The liberal values that the French had introduced had changed the manner in which nations were governed. It promoted non religious education for the masses and broke the power of the land owner. It brought into the world the concept of representative government made up of the people and not the rule of kings. The French gave liberty and equality to all of its citizens. Through war and conquest, Napoleon spread the concept of liberty and equality through out many of the countries that were formerly under the influence of the pope. Napoleon even arrested the pope, overthrowing and reforming old kingdoms as he marched eastwards. This threw the pope and the church into panic.
For the Jews, Napoleon was a God-send. They were released from their ghettos, from the discrimination and were allowed to compete in the new free market. It did not take long for the Jews to understand that the new revolution gave them the freedom they needed, wanted and desired. From that moment on, the Jews became the champions of all liberal movements; advancing the banner and acting as champions of the 'new' Western life style.
This has been true now for almost two hundred years. It has been the liberals that have given the Jews the chances to excel, the ability to live a free life, and to be an equal in society.
However, there is a subtle change brewing. We can now see that some of the standard liberal causes have been turning anti-Semitic. As long as the Jews had no home land, it was the liberal standard that benefited the Jews. Once the Israeli homeland was founded and granted a great measure of security, the liberal eye, with much help from the Arab propaganda presenting themselves as 'underdogs' have begun to cast the Jew, and especially the Israeli, in the role of a demonic oppressor. As any one with eyes and a clear mind can see that the Arab governments, whether in Gaza or in the Palestinian administered lands, encourage and support terror and indiscriminate killing of Jews, yet portray themselves as the misfortunate objects of Israeli aggression. It is the liberal feelings that accept this as truth against the reality that causes many liberals to leave the liberal causes.
What is painful for liberal Jews is to see how the various international human rights groups that are liberal leaning have castigated Israel for defending themselves and even more so have failed to blame the Arab governments for not curtailing the inherent hatred in their educational system towards the Israeli Jews and their covert support for terrorist attacks. Add to this the turnabout by the Christian religious groups who perceive the Arabs as their new enemies, and Israel as their partner in fighting the Islamic threat. What were once our enemies, the religious Christians, have now become our friends; and what were once our friends, the liberal causes and groups, have now become our enemies and critics.
This is reflected by the subtle changes in the once un-stated slogan, "Judaism is Liberalism" being phased out and replaced by "Israeli causes are Judaism". Many conservative and reform temple groups are experiencing a subtle change of direction, which is indeed healthy and brings both the Jews in the exile and those in Israel together.
The prognosis for liberalism to take a regain a prominent place in Jewish thought seems to be slim. Even the Supreme Court in Israel which prides itself on its liberal thought is coming under more criticism for its seemingly overly extreme liberal values which discriminate against the Israeli Jew and for the benefit of the Arab. What the future will bring is never clear, but as a sign of the times, the liberal Meretz political party has taken a tremendous loss in its supporters. Even the mainstay Labor party, built on liberal dreams of a land in which the Jew and Arab would labor side by side to create a Middle-Eastern utopian state, has been cut down drastically in size. Every poll shows that the conservative right side of Israel is gaining simply because dealing in a liberal manner with the Arabs has not brought peace. This is apparent in spite of the various attempts to call for renewed peace talks and to re-invigorate the de-facto dead peace initiatives.
What the future may bring is unknown, but for certain the trend today in most Jewish organizations is to take a two-step distance from liberal causes.
from the May 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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