Opinion: Liberalism and the decline of a society’s character


While most American Jews and other liberals believe in the intrinsic goodness and moral superiority of liberal policies, powerful arguments can be made that liberal policies actually diminish a society’s moral character. Many individual liberals are wonderful people, but the policies they advocate tend to make a people worse.

First, the bigger the government, the less the citizens do for one another. If the state will take care of me, my parents, my children and my neighbors, why should I?

This is why Western Europeans, people who have lived in welfare states far longer than Americans have, give less charity and volunteer less time to others than do Americans of the same socioeconomic status. They have been raised to believe the state will and should take care of everyone.

The greatest description of American civilization was written in the early 19th century by a Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville. One of the differences distinguishing Americans from Europeans that he most marveled at was how much Americans — through their myriad associations — took care of one another.

Until President Franklin Roosevelt began the until-now inexorable movement of America toward the European welfare state — vastly expanded later by other Democratic presidents, especially President Lyndon Johnson and his “Great Society” and President Barack Obama with his 2,000 pages of laws governing health care — Americans took responsibility for one another and for themselves far more than they do today. Churches, Rotary Clubs, free-loan societies and other voluntary associations were ubiquitous. As the state grew, however, all these associations declined. In Western Europe, they have virtually all disappeared.

The welfare state citizen’s instinct upon seeing anyone, including one’s own parents or children, in need is to go to the state for help. If you think this makes for morally superior people, people with greater moral character, then our definition of a good person differs.

Second, the welfare state, though often well intentioned, is nevertheless a Ponzi scheme. Conservatives have known this for nearly a century. But now, any honest person must acknowledge it. The welfare state is predicated on collecting money from today’s workers to pay for those who paid in before them. But, today’s workers don’t have enough money to sustain the scheme, and there are too few of them to do so.

As a result, virtually every welfare state in Europe, and many American states, like California, are going broke. For at least a generation, there have not been enough citizens to sustain such a welfare state.

Third, citizens of liberal welfare states become increasingly narcissistic. The great preoccupation of vast numbers of Brits, Frenchmen, Germans and other Western Europeans are how much vacation time they will have and how early they can retire and be supported by the state. Those are the issues over which Western Europeans routinely riot.

Fourth, the liberal welfare state makes people disdain work. Americans work considerably harder than Western Europeans, and, contrary to liberal thought since Marx, work builds character.

Fifth, the more one receives from the state for not working hard, the more selfish he or she becomes. Nothing more guarantees the erosion of character than getting something for nothing. One develops an entitlement mentality — another expression of narcissism. When students at public universities demonstrate, let alone illegally take over college buildings, to demand free or inexpensive education, one sees the selfish fruit of expecting something for nothing.

The very rhetoric of liberalism — labeling every new entitlement a “right” — produces less responsible, more entitled individuals.

Sixth, the bigger the government, the more the corruption. As the famous truism goes, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Of course, businesses can be corrupt. But they are eventually caught or go out of business. The government cannot go out of business. And, unlike corrupt governments, corrupt businesses cannot print money and thereby devalue a nation’s currency, as the current liberal administration in Washington has been doing.

Seventh, the welfare state corrupts family life. Even many Democrats have acknowledged the horrific consequences of the welfare state on the black community. It has rendered vast numbers of black males unnecessary to black females, who have looked to the state to support them and their children (and the more children, the more state support) rather than to husbands. In effect, these women took the state as their husband. Whereas in the past, women sought out men for financial support, the welfare state enables women to stay single and get support from the government. No wonder single women of all races are far more likely to vote Democrat than married women of all races.

Eighth, the welfare state enables its citizens — especially young men — not to mature into responsible adults. I was raised, as were all generations of American men before me, to aspire to work hard in order to marry and to support a wife and children. No more. One of the reasons so many single women lament the prevalence of boy-men — men who have never grown up — is that the liberal state has told men they don’t have to support anybody. They are free to remain boys for as long as they want.

None of this matters to most liberals. Against all this destructiveness, they will respond not with arguments to refute these consequences of the liberal welfare state, but by citing two terms, “social justice” and “compassion,” and by labeling their opponents “selfish” and worse. If you want to feel good, liberalism is awesome. If you want to do good, it is largely awful.

Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) 9 a.m. to noon. His latest project
is the Internet-based Prager University (prageru.com).

Politics of liberal and conservative Jews reverse


Recently, I spoke to Reform rabbinical students in their class on “Jewish Political Tradition.” Which is, exactly, what?

My expertise, I told them, is
politics, not theology. Here was my dilemma: to talk reality or defer to the orthodoxy of Reform Jews, which is to say, political liberalism. (Forget the Reconstructionists, i.e., Jewish Unitarians, who are oxymoronic “religious” secular humanists.) How confusing all this, especially for non-Jews, who are further told that Conservative Jews are somewhere between Reform Jews and Orthodox Jews — sort of like the words “liberal” and “conservative.”

The profoundly influential economist, Milton Friedman, a Nobel Prize winner, championed free market economics. “I am liberal,” Friedman once said to me, explaining that he was a classical liberal, preoccupied with the individual, not the state. And so we have in America this role reversal, where today’s liberals are infatuated with government, except for national security.

And then we have conservatives, who conserve exactly what? Surely, instead, they would uproot the status quo, notably, the failed legacy of the New Deal.

Matters are further complicated, because discussion of values empowers conservatives and threatens liberals. Mythology aside, liberals do not want government to be neutral on values. For example, some liberals promote condoms at public (that is, taxpayer-supported) middle schools.

What then are values for today’s liberals? We are told, tolerance, diversity and an open mind. But they can’t provide even civility at their dominated university campuses, where they shout down speakers who talk about values.

This much I know: the American separation of church and state rejected a church-state but not religion. The founders were steeped in Western civilization and its Judeo-Christian roots. This explains why they invoked God, and some even mastered biblical Hebrew.

Therefore, what informs Jewish political thought? If, as liberals and conservatives agree, we are not a theocracy, then how does one enforce virtue?

Former communist Frank S. Meyer became the conservative theorist for Bill Buckley’s National Review. Born Jewish, converted to Catholicism, Meyer understood from both religious traditions that virtue must be chosen, not compelled. In contrast, the nostalgic Jewish romance with liberalism oddly resembles ancient theocracy. That’s because liberals repudiate limits on government. They would go beyond the Ten Commandments and consequent laws; they would enforce their version of morality.

In sum, as I told these Reform rabbinical students, it is a truism that Judaism instructs us on matters of justice. We may light the world for Jews or even others, for example, that people should voluntarily support charity. That is quite different than liberalism, which would use government forcibly to redistribute wealth.

Liberals are conflicted as they ponder that for much of history, political leaders claimed divine, if not denominational, rule, which most everyone today rejects, except radical Islamists. Perhaps Jewish religious liberals therefore cannot distinguish between government compelled action and private voluntary action. In other words, many liberal Jews who are religious want government to enforce what they consider social justice, rather than for people voluntarily to practice social justice.

A long time ago, I helped engineer the victory of James L. Buckley, elected from the Conservative Party to represent New York. I noticed, then, that Jews who were less affluent and more religious were more open to U.S. Senate candidate Buckley’s election in 1970 and then President Richard M. Nixon’s re-election in 1972.

What did it mean, that we — conservative Republicans — could do so much better, generally, among Jews in, say, Brooklyn or Queens, than, say, among Jews in Long Island or Westchester? Was it that liberal theory was undermined by the real world? For example, Jewish social scientists wanted public housing imposed in Forest Hills (Queens). But local Jewish residents who had worked hard to escape the projects asked Buckley, on his election, to oppose social experimentation in their neighborhood.

Years later, when I returned to California after working in Washington, I saw the same pattern. For example, later in the 1970s, affluent Westside Jews who had their children in private schools supported widespread mandatory busing for Los Angeles public schools. But their San Fernando Valley relatives preferred only voluntary integration tools like magnet schools. By the ’80s and ’90s, Jews in California were split on at least two other issues: illegal immigration and race/gender preferences.

Liberal Jews like Erwin Chemerinsky obsessed about their ancestors in sweatshops in the New York garment district. But Jewish Republican leaders, like former Judge Sheldon Sloan, recent California State Bar president, resented the comparison between Eastern European Jews who went through the system at Ellis Island and today’s (an Orwellian euphemism) “undocumented immigrants,” however hard working, who entered the country illegally and receive taxpayer-funded entitlements.

As for race and gender preferences, Jews with a sense of history (Jewish quotas) and justice (race classification) helped bring about California’s Proposition 209, which prohibited government race and gender preferences in hiring, contracting and education.

And, now, national security becomes the new schism, as many Jews reject Steven Spielberg’s morally depraved “Munich,” in which he equates terrorism with anti-terrorism. It is not surprising that liberals like Spielberg look for endless shades of gray. For all his cinematic genius, he cannot even see contrast.

Good and evil, rather than abortion or homosexuality, is the new values debate that these Reform rabbinical students must confront.


Arnold Steinberg is a political strategist and analyst.

Only democratization can fight Islamists


Natan Sharansky’s June 5-6 Democracy and Security Conference in Prague could reinvigorate the commitment of the United States to support the growth of liberal democracy. If not, the Islamists win a crucial advantage.

There are two basic foreign policy philosophies. The idealist school of thought, which holds that our national interests include the spread of liberal democracy, has a long history in the United States, going back at least to Democratic President Woodrow Wilson. It competes with the realist school, which defines national interests narrowly and elevates stability as the foremost value in international relations. President Bush came to office as a realist, and in a stunning post-Sept. 11 transformation became a hard-core idealist.

However, one can be an inept or ill-served idealist. Bush’s errors have led many to reject the underlying theory. But we can throw out the bathwater of Bush’s mistakes, while keeping the baby of democratization.

Under the influence of Sharansky’s book, “The Case for Democracy,” Bush understood that liberal democracies are rarely dangerous to one another. Therefore, fostering democratization abroad bolsters international security and is in our national interest.

As Bush said in Prague, “Years ago, Andrei Sakharov warned that a country that does not respect the rights of its own people will not respond to the rights of its neighbors. History proves him right. Governments accountable to their people do not attack each other.”

Bush’s rhetoric has been superb, but his follow through has been inconsistent. In Egypt, for example, Bush pressed President Hosni Mubarak for multicandidate presidential elections. But the election was held under restrictive regulations that heavily favored the ruling party, and today, Ayman Nour, who ran against Mubarak, sits in an Egyptian prison.

Former Egyptian political prisoner Saad Eddin Ibrahim said in Prague, “I feel disappointed and betrayed by George Bush. He said that he is promoting democracy, but he has been manipulated by President Hosni Mubarak.”

Worse, Bush apparently has a shallow understanding of liberal democracy, equating it with elections. This is clearly nonsense, considering the elections regularly held in such citadels of liberty as the Soviet Union, Cuba and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

In fact, elections without the requisite foundations of an open society, including the rule of law, independent media and noncorrupt security forces, merely permit the most thuggish elements to seize control. This was grimly demonstrated by the Palestinian election that brought Hamas to power.

Nevertheless, this does not invalidate the idealist theory. It simply implies that nurturing liberal democracy requires patience; elections must come at the end, not the beginning, of the process.

Nor has Bush properly used all the foreign policy instruments at his disposal. Military action must be part of the nation’s toolbox, but economic and political pressure are probably more effective in the long run during an ideological war, such as the current war against Islamism.

Bush should have learned this from Sharansky. After all, the United States didn’t win the Cold War by invading or bombing the Soviet Union. The Jackson/Vannik Amendment, linking trade with free emigration, and the Helsinki accords on human rights did at least as much to topple the U.S.S.R. as NATO’s military strength.

Thus, the final document of the Prague conference includes calls for the following:

  • “Seeking national and international initiatives, in the spirit of the Helsinki accords, that link bilateral and international relations to the question of human rights.”
  • “Exerting pressure through peaceful diplomatic, political and economic means on governments and groups abusing human rights to discontinue their practices.”
  • “Providing incentives, through diplomatic, political and economic means, to governments and groups willing to improve the human rights record in their countries and to embark on the road to democracy.”

Nothing has been as disillusioning, nor given realists so much temptation to say, “I told you so,” as Iraq. There’s plenty to be unhappy about when considering post-liberation Iraq.

Still, the essence of the problem is that the Islamists are fighting back. That shouldn’t surprise us. It would be surprising if they didn’t. It just means, as Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said in Prague, “We have a responsibility to support the forces of freedom not only when it is easy but when it is hard.”

It is time to renew our commitment to liberalization and democratization — it is what the Islamists fear most. Congress should pass comprehensive legislation conditioning relations between the United States and nonliberal democracies on progress toward liberalization. This is not imperialism. It is support for decent values and democracies abroad.

We have the right to condition trade, foreign aid and other goodies on the character of the regime with which we are dealing. If we don’t, we tacitly support the conditions under which Islamism has flourished. Our national interests are at stake.


Paul Kujawsky is a member of the California Democratic Party Central Committee.

Malibu conference on Europe sees threats in ‘multiculturalism’


It was a beautiful Sunday in Malibu, but the 300 people gathered at a Pepperdine University hilltop building had little time to appreciate the sparkling Pacific Ocean.

The scholars, journalists and concerned citizens were there for a conference whose title could hardly be weightier or more ominous: “The Collapse of Europe, the Rise of Islam, and the Consequences for the United States.”

“We did not come here to declare the demise of Europe, whose strength is vital to the future of Western civilization,” said Avi Davis, coordinator of the June 10-11 meeting and executive director of the recently founded American Freedom Alliance, which seeks to promote freedom of conscience among people of faith.

However, Davis and most of the speakers clearly meant “to raise a red flag that in its present state, Europe is too exhausted, too uncertain of its future and too unwilling to defend its basic values against Islamic insurgency.”

Describing the conference as the most concerted intellectual effort to address this perceived danger, Davis said that the venue on the U.S. West Coast indicated that “Europeans either think there is no problem or are fearful of addressing it.”

Instead, impressive numbers of European writers and thinkers from Britain, France, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland and Austria, who seek to “awaken” their countrymen, traveled to Malibu to join their like-minded American colleagues.

At just one of the 15 sessions, titled “Eurabia: Is Muslim Domination of Europe Inevitable?” the panelists included Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a native of Somalia, former Dutch Parliament member and fervent critic of Islam’s treatment of women; Henryk Broder, an influential German Jewish journalist and author of “Hurray — We Surrender,” and Dutch filmmaker Leon de Winter.

They were joined by Americans Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, and Gregory M. Davis, documentary film producer and author of “Religion of Peace?”

Among other well-known speakers at the conference were talk show hosts Hugh Hewitt and Dennis Prager, columnist Mark Steyn and professor James Q. Wilson of Harvard, UCLA and Pepperdine University.

While the “Eurabia” panelists did not give up Europe for lost, their indictments of the Continent’s alleged spinelessness and inaction in the face of escalating Islamic immigration, birthrate and militancy pointed to grave dangers ahead.

According to statistics presented in the conference source book, there are now 6 million Muslims in France, 3 million in Germany and 1 million in both Spain and Holland.

A main culprit in the eyes of most speakers is “multiculturalism” taken to an extreme, in which the self-labeled “victim” is always right, and any criticism of Islamic beliefs or demands is politically incorrect.

“It is a fallacy of multiculturalism that all cultures are equally valuable and must be preserved,” Hirsi Ali declared.

“Whether Muslims will take over Europe will depend on how far we let them go,” Broder observed. “But most [Europeans] don’t know what to do. They prefer capitulation to action.”

Such inertia is due to Europe’s loss of confidence in itself, various speakers agreed, and in a later session, Claire Berlinski, author of “Menace in Europe,” blamed two main factors. One reason is the catastrophic bloodletting of the two world wars; a second is “the death of Christianity,” Berlinski said.

“Christianity gave a framework to European life, and nothing has replaced it,” she said. “Today, less than 10 percent of Europeans are Christian believers and more British people know about Britney Spears than Jesus Christ.”

A recurrent analogy at the meeting was between European appeasement of Nazism in the 1930s and the current lack of resolve to confront radical Islam.

Judging from the question-and-answer exchanges, audience members warmly agreed with the speakers’ viewpoints or found them not forceful enough, but organizer Davis rejected labeling participants as right wing or intolerant.

“We have been occasionally attacked as neocons or even racists, but that is simply not the case,” he said. “This is an academic conference, and we have both liberal and conservative participants.”

“Criticizing another religion is a sensitive issue, but we must break this taboo when our values and traditions are under assault,” Davis emphasized. “We are absolutely committed to freedom of conscience and inquiry.”

The American Freedom Alliance and its associated Council for Democracy and Tolerance plan a follow-up conference in November in Washington, D.C., focusing on the political and legal aspects of the European situation.

Next April or May, a further meeting is expected to be held in a European capital.

For more information, visit http://www.americanfreedomalliance.org

Republican Redux: Jews Going Right?


In a town famous for hot air, the Washington Post made a major contribution over the weekend with an oft-repeated tale of how Jewish voters, concerned about terrorism and Israel, are about to migrate to the greener pastures of the GOP.

Jewish Democrats reacted angrily, saying it was just the usual pre-election GOP spin; Republicans insisted that this time they really do see signs of a dramatic Jewish shift.

Both sides score some points, but their arguments smack more of hope than fact.

In reality, nobody really knows where the big, amorphous center of the Jewish electorate is these days. It seems to be in flux, and there may be tremendous opportunities for the Republicans, but there are also things keeping Jews away from the GOP — particularly the conservative domestic policies of the Republican White House and Congress.

Message for Republicans: Don’t count your kosher chickens before they hatch. If you do, you risk another embarrassment when Jewish voters fail to support your wildly optimistic projections.

Message for Democrats: don’t assume you have the Jewish vote locked up. You don’t; the forces that have caused journalists to rhapsodize about a Jewish political revolution may be exaggerated, but they aren’t just hallucinations.

The problem with predictions about Jewish political behavior is that there is no single Jewish political community. Different factions are moving in different ways — but some factions are more visible than others.

There’s little question Jewish leaders, especially those whose primary focus is Israel, have been turning steadily toward the Republicans for years, and that trend seems to be accelerating.

One reason is that they and their organizations are defending a right-of-center Israeli government and reacting to an administration and Congress, along with their religious right backers, that have been unusually receptive to its policies.

Part of the perceived shift, too, has to do with an increasingly concentrated top Jewish leadership strata — the big-money types who keep Jewish organizations afloat in these perilous times.

That stratum, predisposed to the GOP, is highly visible; they are the talking heads reporters turn to, the organizational voices. But their views may not reflect a broader Jewish community that is much more varied.

The vast majority of American Jews care about Israel, but may not be involved in pro-Israel activism, or belong to Jewish political organizations. For many, Israel is one of many important issues, but domestic issues still take precedence.

The Bush administration’s Israel policy may be pulling top Jewish leaders and single-issue pro-Israel voters into the GOP ranks, but it’s not at all clear the same thing is happening to rank-and-file Jews. In fact, some may be hardening in their liberalism — part of the broader liberal fury ignited by the aggressively conservative domestic policies of this administration and Congress, as well as the Iraq War.

For many, the president’s coziness with Pat Robertson is more significant a factor than his coziness with Ariel Sharon.

That gap between the leaders and the Jewish mainstream is a major reason why the biennial predictions of a sea change in Jewish partisan preferences have just led to disappointment for the Republicans. Commentators are misled because the public voices of the community are more Republican, more conservative; so are most of the pro-Israel activists interviewed by the Washington Post and others.

It’s also misleading because there already was something of a Jewish-GOP revolution during Ronald Reagan’s presidency — but the Republicans blew it with his successor, President George Herbert Walker Bush, and have been struggling to recover ever since.

All of that is good news for the Democrats, but it would be a big mistake to celebrate.

The surging anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism of the political left is barely reflected in the Democratic Party today, but it could be in the future, something that would drive out the Jews in droves. As the debate over the Iraq War grows more bitter, the risks of that happening grow.

It’s not exactly a secret that when Louis Farrakhan comes to town, he’s hosted by a Democratic congressman; increasingly, the Capitol Hill voices most critical of Israel are on the Democratic side of the aisle, although they are a tiny minority.

The Democrats are increasingly interested in winning over the fast-growing Arab-American and Muslim communities, groups ripe for the plucking, thanks to widespread hostility to the Bush administration’s harsh anti-terrorism policies.

And while Jews have been partially immune from the natural shift of white ethnic groups to the right as they gain affluence, that factor is still at work in the community, especially among younger Jews.

Many Jews in the middle are torn between their historic commitment to liberalism and the forces that have pulled so many white, middle-class voters into the Republican camp in recent decades. One result: They’re much more willing to vote for individual Republican candidates, the first stage in shifting party loyalties.

Overall, the picture is of a community in flux, with the potential for a dramatic political shift favoring the Republicans.

But there are also forces pushing in the opposite direction. The 2004 election could be a watershed — or it could be just another occasion for spin, counterspin and dashed hopes when it comes to Jewish voters.

Prager’s Tactics Are Lacking


Dennis Prager uses half of what I said to the L.A. Times and gives the impression that I am one of those awful leftists who are “either morally confused, immoral or lack courage.” Here is the complete quote, which shows that I was describing a dilemma, not my political position: “Liberals are on the side of the underdog. The people who’ve had their cities turned into rubble look like the underdog. There’s embarrassment about being a Jew and a feeling of alienation from the Jewish community, a fear that it’s been taken over by the right wing.” It’s the last phrase that Prager couldn’t repeat without revealing his hidden reason for the attack, so he lies about the real subject of the Times article — that a group of Hollywood Jews are trying to find a way to reach the community, which can only happen in a language the community speaks. The problem for Prager is that artists speak a language he refuses to learn.

Using Wagner’s politics to forever “disassociate artists from their art” allows him to neatly hide from the moral sympathies of the mass of artists, who are not the progenitors of the death camps. Prager declares himself intellectually dead by his own hand, since he reduces art to nothing more than diversion or decoration, and artists to nothing more than mindless children.

But he has to do this, otherwise he would have to live with contradictions, a balance impossible for most conservatives who split the world into good and evil, and especially deny their own contribution to the evil one is fighting. Artists teach nothing if not connection, and connection breeds sympathy, and sympathy sometimes exceeds itself, chesed (lovingkindness) without gavurah (restriction).

But the impulse to unlimited compassion is better than the impulse toward unlimited judgment, else we would not pray every day for God’s mercy. The liberal fantasy is the dream of what might be, like the bounty of a Botticelli spring, and the conservative fantasy is kitsch, cowboy art, nostalgia for a world that never was, with punishment for those who tell the truth about that self-deception.

Prager’s politics may even be Jewish heresy. The Torah is brave enough to recognize our own role in the creation of Amalek while still calling for Amalek’s destruction, but the Torah is braver than Dennis Prager, who has yet to move to Israel with his family, so his children can ride the buses until they’re old enough to join the army, rather like the son of that terrible leftist Michael Lerner.

The right-wingers here who call for the harshest treatment of the Arabs, while keeping their children out of the Israel Defense Forces, are cousins of those rich leaders of Hamas who strap the bombs on the children of the poor, never on their own. Prager gets his courage by proxy, the courage that gives him the right to call me a coward.

While some of us are working carefully and, by necessity, quietly to bring more Jews into the community, Prager’s sermon to the choir, his mocking castigations, his arrogant assumption of moral clarity, contributes nothing — and makes things worse. He drives Jews away.

Michael Tolkin is the co-writer of “Changing Lanes,” named the best picture of the year by Catholics In Media Associates. His most recent novel, “Under Radar,” is published by Atlantic Books.

On Jewish Liberalism–and Power


Several weeks ago, the eminent Harvard sociologist Nathan Glazer, one of the renowned New York intellectuals chronicled in the film “Arguing the World,” came to town for a lecture and seminar at UCLA. The question that Glazer raised in his appearance in Los Angeles reflected the trajectory of his own life, which has moved between the poles of a progressive and a neoconservative political stance: namely, how are the persistent liberal proclivities of American Jews to be explained?

While the connection between Jews and liberal politics made perfect sense in the Golden Age of American Jewish immigrant life, it makes less sense in an age of Jewish affluence and social integration. Should not an increasing level of material comfort incline Jews toward conservative rather than progressive politics?

Notwithstanding the logic of this inference, in the recent presidential elections, Jews voted Democratic (a fair though hardly faultless marker of liberal sentiments) in the same high percentages as they have done traditionally. Moreover, in our own Southern California, Jewish politicians at local and statewide levels tend to be among the most progressive political figures around.

In seeking to explain the apparent anomaly of an affluent and liberal American Jewry, Nathan Glazer followed the path of other scholars by inquiring into the Jewish past. Is there a bedrock liberal foundation at the core of the Jewish tradition, one that predisposes Jews to a progressive political agenda in the present? Glazer suggested that there is not, that Jewish liberalism was but a reflection of “the living interests and values of living Jews,” in his words.

This point has been made in even more systematic fashion by Marc Dollinger, a young historian teaching at Pasadena City College, in his recent book, “Quest for Inclusion: Jews and Liberalism in Modern America.” Dollinger chronicles the contours of American liberal commitment from 1933 to 1975, arguing that the vaunted values of prophetic Judaism — preeminently, tzedakah (charity) and gemilut chasadim (kindly acts) — did not leave much of an imprint on second-, third- or fourth-generation Jews in America. Rather, liberalism was, for them, a strategy of social inclusion, a means by which to push for a tolerant and pluralistic society open to all comers — and hence assure their own integration.

But by almost every measure, Jews have truly arrived in American society. Does that mean that the liberal disposition of Jews will now wane? Despite their Democratic voting preferences, one need not look far to see signs of retreat: the dissolution of the black-Jewish alliance so prominent in the 1960s, the ambivalent posture toward issues such as affirmative action in the 1980s and school vouchers in the 1990s, and the general reticence to embrace the agenda of multiculturalism. Undoubtedly, such a retreat, if it continues, will have serious repercussions for Jews as they seek a place in the evolving political world of Southern California, with its ever-expanding Latino presence.

In thinking of this retreat from liberalism, it is difficult to avoid contemplating a more global cause of it: the assumption of political power by Jews, in the form of the State of Israel, after two millennia of statelessness. In the most immediate instance, the election of Ariel Sharon exposes the gulf between the harsh realities of Israeli politics and core liberal values such as tolerance and respect for human rights. This gulf is hardly narrowed by the equanimity and even enthusiasm with which the organized American Jewish community, including the one in Los Angeles, has received Sharon’s election.

And yet, the question of Jewish power and liberalism extends beyond Sharon. Does political power, by its very nature, incline one toward a conservative rather than a progressive stance? As a historical matter, it can certainly be argued that the absence of political power led Jews in the modern age to adopt liberal, progressive, and radical positions precisely in order to improve, challenge, or overturn the status quo. Now that Jews have assumed political power, have we entered a new conservative era of Jewish politics?

I do not mean to suggest that powerlessness is preferable to power. Such a claim lacks both pragmatic political and moral grounding in the wake of the Shoah. I wonder, for instance, if the best hope for a Jewish state is not to be a light onto the nations, as liberal Zionists from Buber to Brandeis once dreamed. But I do believe that the best hope for a Jewish state lies in not being a light unto the nations, but rather in being a normal society, intent more on assuring its own survival than on tikkun olam (repairing the world).

It is this very issue that stands at the center of a remarkable volume of texts and commentaries titled “The Jewish Political Tradition,” produced by a group of Jewish philosophers and political theorists based at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Animating this group was the desire not only to salvage a liberal Jewish politics, but to root it in the rich sources of the Jewish legal and philosophic traditions. For all the ingenuity of the volume’s commentators (including Los Angeles’ own David Ellenson), the mission of scouring the Jewish past for the roots of a liberal politics, comfortable with power, may be a thankless task. Because political power and a liberal commitment to social change simply may be irreconcilable, especially in the dangerous environs of the Middle East. If so, what will be the fate of our own American Jewish community? Will the momentous assumption of power by Jews in the form of the State of Israel prompt a rethinking or even outright rejection of the historic link between Jews and liberalism? Or have more native forces — economic affluence and neoconservative political currents — already severed the bond? The coming years of Dubya and Arik should provide some very revealing answers.

Modern, Orthodox and Scared


The placard near the escalator of New York’s Grand Hyatt Hotel directed seekers up to the ballroom level for the founding convention of Edah, the fledgling voice of Orthodox liberalism. Stenciled below the arrow in bold blue letters, as if to fortify the fainthearted, was the slogan: “The Courage to Be Modern and Orthodox.”

Upstairs, a crowd of some 1,200 Orthodox Jews — triple the organizers’ expectations — milled about in an atmosphere almost giddy with excitement. After years of retreating before rising religious and political conservatism in the Orthodox community, they had come from across North America to reignite the moderate spirit of what used to be called Modern Orthodoxy.

“It’s an amazing outpouring,” said Rabbi Chaim Seidler Feller, Hillel director at UCLA. “The Modern Orthodox community has come out in droves to cry out, ‘We are here; we can’t be ignored any longer.'”

Edah was formed two years ago to press for greater tolerance and openness in the Orthodox community. Run on a shoestring budget out of a tiny Manhattan office, the group sponsors lectures and seminars and runs a controversial internship program for Yeshiva University rabbinic students. The conference was its debut as a national membership organization.