Remembering Jewish socialism

Over at Mosaic Magazine, there has been a prolonged and fascinating discussion of Jewish conservatism, prompted by an essay by Eric Cohen. This week, 37 new responses are being published. Mine appears here and below.

Jewish conservatism? It’s a sign of our times. Jews have more power than at any time in their history. They enjoy sovereign power in Israel, and they have prospered in America perhaps more than any other minority. These are the best of times for Jews, and no one is better served by the ascendance of (mild) nationalism and (humane) capitalism as universal values. Jewish conservatism champions both; Jewish liberalism would undermine them. Eric Cohen rightly identifies this corrosive liberalism as the preeminent threat to Jewry today.

But in our enthusiasm for the status quo, let us not forget that a century ago, Jews were in a very different state, and that they extricated themselves from powerlessness only through revolution. The Zionist revolution cast aside the millennial traditions of passive pietism; in its most fevered (and productive) phases, it elevated the collective above all else, even above the family. In the pursuit of power, especially over land, it enlisted socialist zeal—and a good thing that it did, for a capitalist mode of settlement would have produced not an Israel, but an Algeria. Cohen may be right that “the ideology of modern socialism surely fails the test of Jewish values.” But without a variety of it, Jewish settlement in Palestine might have had too small a territorial footprint to make for a viable state, and Israel might not have enjoyed the Soviet-bloc support it needed at its birth. Socialism failed everyone—except, at a crucial moment, the Jews.

The point is not to question the contemporary primacy of economic freedom and the family. It is to acknowledge that values ultimately must be judged not by whether they conform to some fixed notion of a Jewish “essence,” but whether they assure that Jews will never again find themselves naked in the world, without the power to defend themselves. For the moment, Jewish conservatism as persuasively articulated by Cohen is the perfect vehicle for the preservation of Jewish power as it is. Jewish left-liberalism, as it is purveyed in America and Israel, would put Jewry in peril. But we cannot know what challenges the future may pose, and whether they will require that Jews become revolutionaries yet again.