The Foun­da­tions of Amer­i­can Jew­ish Liberalism

Ken­neth D. Wald

By – June 15, 2020

The polit­i­cal behav­ior of America’s Jews has been among the great­est anom­alies in Amer­i­can polit­i­cal his­to­ry. In con­trast to oth­er eth­nic groups which have moved to the right polit­i­cal­ly as they have ascend­ed the eco­nom­ic and social lad­ders, Jews have large­ly remained wed­ded to the left-of-cen­ter pol­i­tics of their par­ents and grand­par­ents. Ken­neth D. Wald’s provoca­tive book seeks to answer this conun­drum — why Jews, one of America’s most afflu­ent and upward­ly eth­nic groups, have con­tin­ued to vote against what would appear to be their class inter­est. Wald is a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus in polit­i­cal sci­ence at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Flori­da, and the stronger parts of his book are derived from the find­ings of oth­er social sci­en­tists rather than his own for­ays into Amer­i­can Jew­ish history.

One prob­lem faced by those seek­ing to explain the rela­tion­ship between Jews and lib­er­al­ism is defin­ing lib­er­al­ism. Wald argues that, Amer­i­can Jews have attrib­uted their suc­cess to polit­i­cal cli­mate steeped in clas­sic lib­er­al­ism.” The clas­sic lib­er­al­ism” of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, which looked askance at activist gov­ern­ment, has lit­tle in com­mon with twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry lib­er­al­ism. For the first half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, self-pro­claimed lib­er­als focused on such eco­nom­ic objec­tives as strength­en­ing labor unions and farm coop­er­a­tives, advanc­ing social wel­fare leg­is­la­tion, insti­tut­ing steeply high­er tax­es on the wealthy, and increas­ing the size and scope of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. Since the mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry and on, this eco­nom­ic lib­er­al­ism has been sup­ple­ment­ed by a social lib­er­al­ism, espous­ing equal treat­ment of homo­sex­u­als, affir­ma­tive action in behalf of aggriev­ed eth­nic and racial groups, abor­tion on demand and oth­er fem­i­nists objec­tives, the strict sep­a­ra­tion of church and state, and pro­tect­ing the environment.

Thus, one won­ders what Jews mean when they describe them­selves as lib­er­als to poll­sters. For Wald, it large­ly involves a com­mit­ment to the polit­i­cal val­ues and prac­tices enun­ci­at­ed in the Unit­ed States Con­sti­tu­tion which cre­at­ed a sec­u­lar state, as well as a con­comi­tant revul­sion from a politi­cized Chris­tian­i­ty which has sur­faced at var­i­ous times since 1789, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the 1980s with the appear­ance of the Chris­t­ian Right. The promi­nence of the Chris­t­ian Right with­in the Repub­li­can Par­ty, he claims, renewed Jew­ish fears that the Unit­ed States was going to be defined in reli­gious terms and that Chris­t­ian val­ues were going to be imple­ment­ed in pub­lic pol­i­cy.” Wald is undoubt­ed­ly cor­rect that these fears of being mar­gin­al­ized in a Chris­t­ian Amer­i­ca inten­si­fied the Jew­ish com­mit­ment to lib­er­al­ism, but it does not explain the com­mit­ment of Jews to eco­nom­ic and social lib­er­al­ism pri­or to the 1980s. One sus­pects that his dis­taste for the Chris­t­ian Right influ­enced his read­ing of Amer­i­can Jew­ish his­to­ry and is respon­si­ble for his dis­missal of oth­er inter­pre­ta­tions of Amer­i­can Jew­ish politics.

Cer­tain­ly there are oth­er foun­da­tions” of Amer­i­can Jew­ish lib­er­al­ism besides the deter­mi­na­tion to elim­i­nate all bar­ri­ers to equal par­tic­i­pa­tion in the pub­lic sphere. Wald is cer­tain­ly cor­rect that Jews are attract­ed to the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty because they see it as an advo­cate of the sec­u­lar state and clas­si­cal lib­er­al val­ues.” But they are attract­ed by the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty for oth­er rea­sons as well. It is char­ac­ter­is­tic of Wald’s approach that there is only a brief men­tion of Jew­ish social­ists in Amer­i­ca and no men­tion of the impor­tance that social­ism played in the lives of many Jew­ish immi­grants from cen­tral and east­ern Europe. Nor does he men­tion the social­ist Jew­ish Dai­ly For­ward, the most impor­tant Amer­i­can Yid­dish news­pa­per and the for­eign lan­guage news­pa­per with the largest cir­cu­la­tion in Amer­i­can history.

Anoth­er prob­lem in explain­ing the pol­i­tics of America’s Jews is delin­eat­ing Jew­ish inter­ests.” It is ques­tion­able whether Jew­ish inter­ests can be equat­ed sole­ly with civic equal­i­ty and the sharp sep­a­ra­tion of church and state. America’s Jews, Abba Eban once famous­ly quipped, are a peo­ple who can’t take yes” for an answer. Anti­semitism and the Holo­caust still loom large in their psy­ches, and their inter­ests encom­pass­es deeply felt emo­tion­al con­cerns derived from cen­turies of per­se­cu­tion as well as more mun­dane polit­i­cal mat­ters. It should not be sur­pris­ing that many Jews con­tin­ue to see them­selves as a poten­tial­ly belea­guered minor­i­ty, or that they iden­ti­fy their fate with that of oth­er immi­grant, racial, sex­u­al, and eco­nom­ic minorities.

Edward Shapiro is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry emer­i­tus at Seton Hall Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of A Time for Heal­ing: Amer­i­can Jew­ry Since World War II (1992), We Are Many: Reflec­tions on Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry and Iden­ti­ty (2005), and Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brook­lyn Riot (2006).

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.