The Foun­da­tions of Amer­i­can Jew­ish Liberalism

Ken­neth D. Wald

January 1, 2013

Amer­i­can Jews have built a polit­i­cal cul­ture based on the prin­ci­ple of equal cit­i­zen­ship in a sec­u­lar state. This durable world­view has guid­ed their polit­i­cal behav­ior from the found­ing to the present day. In The Foun­da­tions of Amer­i­can Jew­ish Lib­er­al­ism, Ken­neth D. Wald traces the devel­op­ment of this cul­ture by exam­in­ing the con­tro­ver­sies and threats that stim­u­lat­ed polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion by Amer­i­can Jews. Wald shows that the Amer­i­can polit­i­cal envi­ron­ment, per­me­at­ed by clas­sic lib­er­al val­ues, pro­duced a Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty that dif­fers polit­i­cal­ly from non-Jews who resem­ble Jews social­ly and from Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties abroad. Draw­ing on sur­vey data and exten­sive archival research, the book exam­ines the ups and downs of Jew­ish attach­ment to lib­er­al­ism and the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty and the ten­sions between two dis­tinct strains of liberalism.

Discussion Questions

Wald pro­vides a time­ly, per­sua­sive, read­able, and thor­ough­ly researched expla­na­tion for Amer­i­can Jew­ish lib­er­al­ism and the post-1928 propen­si­ty of Jews to sup­port the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. He argues that a dis­tinc­tive Amer­i­can Jew­ish polit­i­cal cul­ture emerged in the wake of the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion that embraced the sec­u­lar state as the best guar­an­tor of Jew­ish polit­i­cal and social equal­i­ty. This clas­si­cal lib­er­al posi­tion, he shows, has char­ac­ter­ized the Amer­i­can Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty from its infan­cy, con­tin­ues to per­sist notwith­stand­ing changes in Jews’ social and eco­nom­ic sta­tus, and dis­tin­guish­es America’s Jews from Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties else­where, includ­ing con­tem­po­rary Israel. Wald’s ambi­tious and sophis­ti­cat­ed inter­pre­ta­tion, embed­ded in under­stat­ed polit­i­cal sci­ence the­o­ry, super­sedes all pre­vi­ous efforts to explain Amer­i­can Jew­ish lib­er­al­ism, and makes a major con­tri­bu­tion to our under­stand­ing of Amer­i­can Jews’ dis­tinc­tive polit­i­cal behavior.