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The Tikvah Fund & the Roots of Jewish Conservatism

Tikvah is deepening the American Jewish conversation by offering an alternative, more conservative take.
[additional-authors]
March 16, 2021
Eric Cohen speaking at the 2019 Conference on Jews and Conservatism (Screenshot from YouTube/Jewish Leadership Conference)

The winds of change are blowing hard and fast. Sociologists and economists note both an accelerating pace of change in our modern culture and exponential growth in our technology. Our politics too has veered sharply into an era of increasing instability and national disunity.

The advocates of sober realism and traditional values find themselves recalling the words of respected conservative author and commentator William F. Buckley, Jr. in the mission statement of “National Review.”

It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”

If the rise of academic and media orthodoxy and the flaws of central government planning were of concern to American conservatives in 1955, imagine the alarm bells ringing throughout the land from quarters which question intersectional identity politics, a social media cancel culture, and a progressive agenda that promotes a massive expansion of federal debt, invites illegal immigration, rejects Constitutional first principles, and risks accommodating itself to Chinese imperialism and appeasing Iranian nuclear ambition.

For wisdom seekers across the political aisle seeking to understand Jewish responses to the intellectual and practical challenges of our times, as well as to grapple seriously with Jewish morality, history and destiny, a fast-rising organization has been the Tikvah Fund. It offers  university-level scholarship and educational programs for adults, college students and teens through its Tikvah Online Academy, student seminars, video courses, and publications such as “Mosaic” magazine and the “Jewish Review of Books.”

Recently the organization has expanded its role and relationships in Israel as well, with initiatives that educate Israelis through Zionist conferences and the Hebrew language quarterly journal “Hashiloach” (along with major conservative books translated from English); empower law students with liberty principles; and engage and integrate the Haredi Orthodox community into civic affairs.

At its fourth Jewish Leadership Conference this week, some 2,000 paying online attendees re-engaged with the tension between tradition and freedom and sought to re-connect to the best of political conservatism in the service of the American Jewish future, the nation of Israel, and American national security, prosperity, liberty and virtue.

In his opening remarks, executive director Eric Cohen recalled that the first Jewish seder was “a people-forming” event, and that ever since we have annually gathered to re-affirm our attachments to Jewish peoplehood and mission. Each Passover we gather as “a people-renewing” event, in the belief that “the Jews are an exceptional people, that Jewish civilization is a treasure for the world, that the Jewish state is a heroic moral and political achievement, and that American self-government is a precious inheritance.”

Cohen suggested four additional questions for this Passover:

  1. Will we perpetuate or abandon our core Jewish values?
  2. Will we confront or appease our most zealous enemies?
  3. Will we ensure that Israel is our national homeland and will flourish for all time?
  4. Will new Jewish leaders emerge to carry our traditions forward?

The conference focused on subject areas familiar to Jewish conservatives and their friends and allies. Because mainstream American Jewry leans strongly liberal and progressive, Tikvah is deepening the American Jewish conversation by offering an alternative, more conservative take.

Because mainstream American Jewry leans strongly liberal and progressive, Tikvah is deepening the American Jewish conversation by offering an alternative, more conservative take.

To summarize, here is my own brief overview of the conservative take on a few of the areas covered at the conference:

RELIGIOUS TRADITION

Conservatives note our flawed human nature and the role of ethical monotheism as a basis for our legal codes and social mores (food and sexual ethics, avoiding harm to others in our behavior and speech, etc.).

Torah values, and the 10 Commandments (including keeping the Sabbath) are gifts from the Jews inherited by western philosophy. Hebraism is the study of the Bible as foundational to the American Republic.

Our tradition’s stories of right and wrong and of statecraft in the service of a secure and prosperous society informs today’s citizens. From Abraham, Joseph, Moses and Joshua to Washington, Lincoln, Herzl, Jabotinsky, and Churchill, conservatives respect many heroes of political statesmanship.

The American Enlightenment promoted religious liberty, which allows communities to grow and flourish and individuals to enjoy our God-given natural rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Private property rights and free markets allow us to be co-creators with God and to commit to charity and community in fulfillment of our religious obligations.

AMERICAN INSTITUTIONS

Political sociologists from Alexander De Tocqueville to Robert Nisbet argued that America’s non-governmental “mediating institutions” (religious, educational, social) were critical to building community, civil society, and good neighborliness. The decline of many of these forums has been noted in such books as “Bowling Alone.”

Advocates for school choice and competition seek a pathway for parents and students to force innovation and to find sources of education that work for their families.

The sensitive discussions of “family values” remains of interest to those who note the declining marriage and fertility rates in the United States. Honest debate exists around the role of government in favoring married couples in the tax code or the nuanced discussion of traditional male / female distinctions in a society that allows for alternative lifestyles.

As transmitters of our heritage and as the first teachers of our children, parents play an essential role in our religious communities and our national life.

The 5th Commandment, “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you” is cherished as a guide to the kind of lifetime loyalty that models compassion and respect as pillars of social order.

STANDING BY ISRAEL

Jerusalem, past and present, is the moral capital of Western civilization. Conservatives have been building a deep brotherhood of shared values and shared interests with Christians who have long promoted restorationism — the successful return of the Jewish people to the holy land.

Political Zionism has been uniquely successful, liberating a small Jewish nation to become a light unto the nations and the pride of world Jewry.

The recent diplomatic breakthroughs brokered by the United States between Israel and the U.A.E. and Bahrain, (the Abraham Accords) as well as improved relations between Jerusalem and Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Kosovo all reveal how wrong was the longstanding consensus that peace for Israel ran through Ramallah, and that dramatically improved Arab-Israeli relations were not possible without solving the Palestinian conflict first.

SECURITY

There are many variables that support our personal safety and national security. A growing economy that incentivizes work, social cohesion based on shared attachments to American exceptionalism, equal justice under the rule of law and civil order, secure borders, close diplomatic alliances, and U.S. leadership on behalf of free trade lanes and global human rights.

The lesson of contemporary European history — the absence of Jewish sovereignty and the destruction in the Holocaust — is that Jewish power is required for our self-respect and self-defense. As Israel is threatened, still, by Iranian terror and its proxies Hamas and Hezbollah, its close strategic alliance with the United States remains a pillar of its security.

So too, the United States must remain robustly committed to peace through strength vis a vis a rising China, which has aggressive ambitions for global economic, trade, political, and military dominance.

While we have universalist passions, we are more effective in healing the world if we come from a rooted place of particularism. Long after redemption from Egypt and receiving the law at Sinai, Jews have survived as a people with hard-earned and well-learned practical sensibility. Enjoying the fulfilment of both Herzl’s dream of a Jewish state and the American dream, Jewish conservatives seek to preserve our spiritual and political tradition.


Larry Greenfield is a Fellow of The Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship & Political Philosophy.

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