Analysis from Israel

There has been a spate of articles recently about how Jews in liberal democracies round the world have moved politically rightward in response to the global left’s increasing antipathy toward Israel. In a handy round-up of the trend over at FrontPage Magazine, Daniel Greenfield cites data showing that in Britain, Canada, Australia and France, a majority of Jews now vote conservative. The one glaring exception, of course, is America – which begs the question why.

Greenfield’s answer is that non-Orthodox American Jews care less about Judaism than their counterparts overseas, and therefore inevitably care less about Israel. And certainly, that’s part of the answer: A 2013 Pew poll showed that Jewish affiliation has declined markedly among American Jews, with only 68% of Jews born after 1980 considering themselves “Jews by religion,” compared to 93% of those born in 1914-27. And among the 32% that define themselves as “Jews of no religion,” a whopping 67% raise their children “not Jewish,” 79% have non-Jewish spouses, 54% say being Jewish is of little or no importance to them, and 55% feel little or no attachment to Israel.

Nevertheless, young Jews in other countries also intermarry more and are less Jewishly identified than their grandparents. So even if the decline has been steeper in America than elsewhere – an assumption for which Greenfield brings no evidence – it’s hard to see that alone as sufficient to explain this political divergence.

What’s missing from Greenfield’s answer, of course, is America itself: the anomalous fact that non-Jewish Americans are overwhelmingly pro-Israel. That certainly isn’t the case in Europe. And as an annual BBC poll shows, it isn’t even true in Canada and Australia, whose current conservative governments are staunchly pro-Israel.

Consequently, Democratic politicians are rarely as anti-Israel as their counterparts overseas, because being anti-Israel is still bad politics in America. Thus, for instance, they routinely support arms sales to Israel, whereas left-wing politicians abroad routinely oppose them. Nor does the American left’s animus against Israel spill over into blatant anti-Semitism as often as it does in, say, Europe. So for now, liberal American Jews still feel as if they can support the left without having to repudiate their Zionism or their Judaism – something that’s increasingly no longer possible overseas.

But even in America, that may not be true for long. As Sohrab Ahmari and Noah Pollak explained in detail in COMMENTARY this month, the Obama Administration and its Democratic cheerleaders have been steadily defining pro-Israel downward. During last summer’s Gaza war, for instance, the administration relentlessly criticized Israel over Palestinian civilian casualties, halted arms shipments in the middle of the fighting and urged Israel to accept a cease-fire dictated by Hamas patrons Qatar and Turkey, all while declaring itself to be unstintingly pro-Israel.

And on American college campuses, the line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is rapidly disappearing. See, for instance, the case of UCLA student Rachel Beyda, who was rejected for a post on the university’s judicial board solely because she was Jewish, until a faculty adviser intervened.

Thus if American Jewish liberals don’t want to go the way of their counterparts overseas – i.e., if they want to be able to continue voting left without feeling that they are thereby sacrificing their Jewish and Zionist identity – they need to mount an urgent campaign to convince their own political camp that any good liberal should also be pro-Israel. That’s far from an impossible case to make, since it has the advantage of being true, as I explained in detail in a COMMENTARY article in March. But conservatives can’t do the job for them; only liberals can persuade their fellow liberals.

And if American Jewish liberals don’t make that case, then in another decade or two, those that still care about Judaism and Israel are liable to find themselves exactly where their British, Canadian, Australian and French counterparts are now: forced to hold their nose and vote conservative, because anything else would be a betrayal of their Jewish identity.

Originally published in Commentary on May 19, 2015

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John Locke, the Bible and Western political tradition

Israel is currently preoccupied with its election campaign and America with its newly divided government, leaving both countries little attention to spare for issues beyond day-to-day politics. But moments of change are excellent times to pause and consider the fundamentals of the Western political tradition. And as a recent contribution to the growing scholarly genre of political Hebraism reminds us, one of those fundamentals is the surprisingly large role the Hebrew Bible has played in Western political thought.

In John Locke’s Political Philosophy and the Hebrew Bible, Yechiel Leiter (full disclosure: a friend and neighbor) convincingly argues that the Bible heavily influenced Locke’s thought. Since Locke’s work, especially his Second Treatise on Government, is widely considered to have significantly influenced America’s founding fathers, this is further evidence that when people talk about America’s “Judeo-Christian” roots, the “Judeo” half is no mere courtesy. Judaism in fact contributed significantly to America’s political traditions.

Nevertheless, this raises an obvious question. Locke and his fellow 17th-century political Hebraists (including John Selden, Hugo Grotius and Thomas Hobbes) were Christians, not Jews. So why, in developing their political thought, did they rely far more on the Hebrew Bible than the Christian New Testament?

In Locke’s First Treatise on Government, for instance, he “quotes the Hebrew Bible more than 80 times,” yet there’s a “near total absence of quotes from the New Testament,” Leiter writes. And even in the Second Treatise, which has fewer biblical quotes, “nothing is quoted with any comparable frequency as the Hebrew Bible.”

Nor are these biblical references mere padding, Leiter argues. Locke uses them to develop several key concepts.

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