The Future Belongs to Jewish Liberal Universalism, Rosh Hashanah 5770

On this Rosh Hashanah, it is time for Jews, religious and secular, to connect around a forward-looking agenda that does not deny our past.

To a superficial observer, it may seem that Jewish Liberalism is in retreat. In Israel it has lost its political presence in the Knesset after the failure of the Camp David Summit in 2000 and the second intifada. In the U.S., AIPAC has been a tremendous support for Israel, but has been bogged down by its commitment to support Israeli policies, whether wise or foolish, constructive or opposed to Israel's long-term interest.

But this does not reflect reality of Jewry worldwide. In the U.S., 78 percent of Jews have voted for Obama and his multilateral, Universalist program. In Israel, a solid 60+ percent of Jews show a clear preference for the two-state solution and its recognition of universal human rights. This Liberal-Universalist consensus cuts across many lines; secular and religious, orthodox and reform, Holocaust survivors and youngsters rally around this idea.

Jewish Liberal Universalism is under-represented politically because by temperament it abhors collectivism. As opposed to its competitors, it values individual creativity and critical discourse over party lines. Hence it is politically less organized and less vocal than those who oppose it. The problem is, as a recent New York Times article on J Street, the new liberal Jewish lobby, argued, that 8 percent who are highly motivated and rally around a single cause of religious nationalism can be more vocal and effective than 92 percent who are individualist liberals, who want to be creative and productive rather than spend our lives in political maneuvering.

But now it is time to mobilize. We all want to be proud of being Jews and we want our Jewishness to be in harmony with our Universalist principles. Israel has been an audacious, creative and energetic society, and its creative potential is only increasing. The overwhelming majority of Israel's new generation of entrepreneurs that has propelled Israel's economy into the age of high-tech are liberal-universalist in outlook, and they are willing to do what it takes to help Israel into a new age of peace, justice and prosperity.

For complex reasons, this creativity is not reflected in Israel's political processes. Like most young democracies, Israel is still in the throes of the fight for its identity; unlike most democracies it has gone through this process under conditions of existential threat and military conflict, burying many of its youngsters as a result of many wars. Fear is not an easy emotion to overcome, and Arab rejectionism, which is now waning, has not been helpful.

While it has lost political ground lately, Jewish Liberal Universalism has never lost its voice, its presence and its state of mind culturally, socially and economically. In Israel it has always produced the greatest thinkers, writers and artists. Israeli thought and literature has been dominated by liberal humanist voices, beginning with the generation of Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem and Shmuel Hugo Bergman, through that of Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua and Aharon Appelfeld and continuing through a younger generation, including most famously David Grossman and Meir Shalev. The same holds true for musicians from Daniel Barenboim, who promotes peace, to Idan Raichel with his creative approach to world music.

Jewish Liberal Universalism is a worldwide phenomenon. The American-Jewish tradition of Liberal thought is grand, ranging from Lionel Trilling and Philip Roth to Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner. Britain has given the world one of the greatest proponents of liberalism in the twentieth century, Isaiah Berlin. France has a proud lineage of Jewish humanist thinkers, many inspired by Emmanuel Levinas. Today, thinkers like Bernard-Henri Levy, Alain Finkielkraut and Benny Levy show how liberal thought, unflinching support of Israel can be combined with warm, engaged criticism of Israel's policies since 1967.

Jewish liberal Universalism is often accused for denying the history of Jewish suffering. Nothing could be further from the truth. Writers like Aharon Appelfeld and Yoram Kaniuk, historians like Saul Friedlander and Yehuda Bauer, filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Claude Lanzmann have created works that will commemorate the Holocaust forever. But their work is not meant to keep us in the throes of the past, nor to politicize the Holocaust, but to help us to remember, to grieve and move into a new future.

It is time for Jews, religious and secular, in Israel and the Diaspora, to connect around a forward-looking agenda that does not deny our past, but believes that we Jews are part of the world at large; that cares for our own kin, but is no less involved in issues that plague the whole of our planet. It is up to us liberal-universalist Jews to create this new agenda.

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Previous blog entries by Carlo Strenger:

  • Why Israel's left has disappeared

  • One-state solution is a blueprint for a nightmare

  • A pragmatic vision for Israel's Left: A reply to Benny Morris