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Thursday, June 4 2015
Jewish Conservatism : The Moment is Ripe
Judaism is most at home with conservatism, both as a worldview and as a modern political movement.
I’ve always considered it self-evident that Judaism is most at home with conservatism, both as a worldview and as a modern political movement.
How so? Conservatives can be defined first and foremost as anti-utopians. They tend to think that communities and nations are best organized from the bottom up—in a piecemeal, self-adjusting, idiosyncratic way—rather than from the top down through an all-embracing rationalism imposed by means of social engineering. Accordingly, conservatives pay more attention to means than to ends; tend to trust established elites unless proved ineffectual or corrupt; and value tradition as a time-tested repository of human experience.
To me, all this sounds pretty compatible with Judaism. The normative Jewish political tradition, as outlined by the ancient rabbis in the Talmud, warns against anarchy and chaos, but also against excessive trust in government; stresses that deeds are more consequential than theory, and that the fulfillment of God’s teaching is inextricably entwined with the duty to take care of earthly fundamentals; posits tradition as non-negotiable and yet is ready to amend and adapt many parts of the Torah for pragmatic reasons; and, while never relinquishing the Jewish people’s right to the land of Israel, takes into account the role of what we would now call international law.
Such views went uncontested among Jews for centuries—because they were handed down by the rabbis and because they fit the conditions of life. Surviving as a minority within a frequently hostile majority required a healthy dose of no-nonsense realism. The habit remained in place even after the advent of constitutional regimes: once accorded civic rights, Jews were mainly loyalists, whatever the government in charge, and usually more at ease with moderately-minded conservatives than with the extremes of either right or left.
In many countries, Jews did eventually turn leftward—but often less as a matter of choice than in response to Gentile attitudes and conduct: parties of the right were less welcoming than parties of the left. Dire economic conditions also rendered the growing Jewish proletariat susceptible to the lure of socialist utopianism. Later, as Jews began to climb socially through access to the professions, many tended to adopt modernist or “progressive” attitudes. The rise of Nazism, followed by World War II and the Holocaust, solidified the Jewish attachment to liberal democracy, further confirmed by the birth of Israel in 1948.
But the left moment in Jewish history could not last. Global prosperity gradually extinguished most Jewish poverty in the West, and with it much Jewish social utopianism. Communism, in the form mainly of the Soviet Union, proved radically inhospitable to Jews and implacably opposed to Israel. Eventually, social democrats and liberals would also distance themselves from Zionism, Israel, and even the Jews, dealing a further blow to previous generations’ illusions.
As of today, the majority of Jews in Israel, France, and Britain vote for conservative parties. Even in the U.S., a conservative minority has been growing in numbers and influence. Although two out of three American Jews still define themselves as liberals rather than conservatives, and tend to support, no matter what, the Democrats over the Republicans, there are signs that things may be changing even in this respect. When it comes to Israel’s survival and security, everyone knows that Republicans are now the friendlier of America’s two parties.
Among younger American Jews, most have been to college or are now in college, where it is hard to escape the clamorous anti-Israel and anti-Semitic atmosphere—of which they themselves are targets. Meanwhile, on the positive side of the ledger, Birthright and similar initiatives are reconnecting American Jewish youth with Israel and the Jewish people, even as Chabad and the modern-Orthodox movement provide attractive homes on campus for young Jewish seekers of affirmative purpose.
The moment, in other words, is ripe for an infusion of “the spirit of Jewish conservatism”—perhaps even riper than Eric Cohen imagines. What does it signify, after all, when a conservative Israeli prime minister is invited repeatedly to address the U.S. Congress on the most vital issues affecting both the Jewish state and the entire democratic West, and is received with overflowing warmth and applause? The answer is blowing in the wind.
© Michel Gurfinkiel & Mosaic, 2015
Michel Gurfinkiel is the founder and president of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute, a conservative think tank in France, and a Shillman/Ginsburg fellow at the Middle East Forum.
This article was published by Mosaic as part of a symposium on Jewish Conservatism.
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