Leaving Famed Liberalism Behind, Jews Around the World Drift to the Right

As Jews have increasingly peopled the upper classes of Western society in recent decades, their movement toward political conservatism has been growing.

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A man wearing a kippa outside Lyon's synagogue. (illustrative)
A man wearing a kippa outside Lyon's synagogue. (illustrative)Credit: AFP
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

In his 1989 book “Modernity and the Holocaust,” the Jewish-Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman discussed the extraordinary role Jews played in the emergence of Western modernity. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Jews were considered to be the standard-bearers of revolutionary Bolshevism, but at the same time representatives of establishment liberal democracy. In economic terms, the Jew was considered to be socialist and capitalist alike, and also stirred resentment for belonging to a rootless elite or, alternatively, a filthy barbarian rabble. This perceived duality was an element in the rise of modern anti-Semitism. However, according to Bauman, that situation no longer applies toward the end of the 20th century.

In contrast to the circumstances before World War II, when the Jews of Eastern Europe were considered impoverished hagglers, in contemporary Europe and America there has been a mass movement of the Jews toward the upper middle class. Far from being a minority on the margins of society, the Jews are identified distinctly with economic and political power. That change also brought about a transformation in the Jews’ political profile. Bauman cites scientific studies showing that the Jews are today “generally conservatives,” no longer radicals or revolutionaries.

The Jews’ love affair with the left began in the early 19th century and peaked in the first half of the 20th. Personified by such figures as Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky and Kurt Eisner, it stemmed from the powerful desire of young Jews to destroy a world in which they were the victims of discrimination and exclusionism. At the same time, as the political philosopher Hannah Arendt noted, leaders of labor movements were in many cases the sons of Jewish millionaires. Thus, the holiday table during Jewish festivals was sometimes peopled by a capitalist who employed hundreds of workers – and his revolutionary anarchist son.

The 1960s saw the rise of a new wave of Jewish leftists such as “Danny the Red” (Daniel Cohn-Bendit) and Abbie Hoffman. Their particular motivation as Jews was to rebel against the world that had perpetrated the Holocaust. In addition to the famous individuals, millions of Jews in the United States, Europe and Israel supported socialist movements that were revolutionary to one degree or another.

Polish-born Rosa Luxemburg stands on a stage with her fair dress and hat during a meeting of the Social Democrats, addressing the comrades in Stuttgart, Germany, 1907. Credit: AP

However, as Bauman observes, this constellation has changed completely. Indeed, in the period since 1989, the processes he describes have become more extreme. Generally speaking, Jews are no longer moving toward the upper classes – they have long since been part of them. In parallel, the movement of Jews toward political conservatism is growing. Studies conducted in recent years show that Jews in France, Germany, Britain and Australia now tend to vote for the right more often than for the left. In Argentina, where the Jews were once identified strongly with the left, the leadership of the community last year backed the right in its attempts to topple President Cristina Kirchner. Even in Canada, where the Jews were known as an amazingly liberal community, 52 percent of Jewish voters opted for the conservatives in the last election.

In Europe, some Jewish community leaders have recently opposed the absorption of refugees, particularly from the Middle East. Terrorist attacks carried out by supporters of the Islamic State at Jewish institutions naturally contribute to the strengthening of the rightward tendency among Jews everywhere. Josef Schuster, the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said early this year that there will be no choice but to limit the entry of refugees of Arab origin – thereby positioning himself to the right of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

In other countries, Jews are increasingly moving toward the extreme right. In a recent article in the Jewish-American weekly Forward, journalist Ari Paul described the efforts of the far right in Europe to recruit Jews in order to acquire legitimacy. Activists of the anti-Muslim organization Pegida, in Germany, frequently hoist Israeli flags and speak in the name of a “Judeo-Christian heritage,” which they say is under threat from Islam. At present, only a minority in European Jewish communities support the extreme right, but even that trend would have been considered inconceivable a decade or two ago.

The picture is more complex in regard to the political profile of Jews in the United States. American Jews saliently tend to support the Democratic Party and to hold views considered liberal on such issues as gay rights, redistribution of wealth and greater government involvement in the economy. They are also more likely to be secular than members of almost any other ethnic group in the U.S., according to sociologist Steven Cohen. This year, the prominent candidacy of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries put a socialist Jew at center stage – a throwback to the glory days of the Jewish left.

Right-wing Jewish commentators in the United States express frustration with the political views of some of their fellow Jews. The conservative blogger Daniel Greenfield termed American Jews “the last leftist Jews in the world” and called on them to get in step with their brethren in Israel and Europe. “Israeli, British, Canadian and Australian Jews [are] standing together while liberal Jews in America sit through venomous leftist panels muttering spitefully about Israel becoming isolated,” he wrote.

Bernie Sanders. American Jews might be the world's the last leftist Jews. Credit: Lucas Jackson, Reuters

Nonetheless, over the past decade, researchers began to identify a gradual movement of American Jews toward more conservative views. Now the continuation of that trend – namely, the Jews’ rapprochement with the right – depends largely on the success of Donald Trump, support for whom is revealing anti-Semitic currents among the American right.

It goes without saying that Israel is playing a major role in the Jews’ rightward turn. Because Israel has become the standard-bearer of the struggle against international law (as concerns, for example, the International Criminal Court) and has forged an alliance with right-wing forces in the United States and Europe, Jews are also identifying with those frequently pro-Israel elements. But it would be simplistic to argue that the world’s Jews are being “dragged” by Israel into the arms of the right. It stands to reason that they know what they’re doing.

This situation also has implications for the self-perception of the remnants of the Israeli left. At least since 1967, this group has described the occupation of the Palestinians and the settlement enterprise as a betrayal of the universal values espoused by Judaism. According to that perception, the Jewish majority in Israel, as conceived by the Israeli left, is depicted as a backward tribe of right-wingers who are sullying the good name of distinguished humanist Jews such as Spinoza, Freud and Einstein. But what’s to be done, given the fact that many Jews in Israel and around the world today are tending toward conservatism and the right? The academic left clings to an ideal image of abstract Jews in the style of philosopher Judith Butler and activist Naomi Klein. But in practice, such types are found mainly in the narrow corridors of liberal American universities.

A few years ago, I attended a discussion in which Israeli left-wingers pondered how to mobilize world Jewry for the struggle against the occupation and the erosion of democracy in the Jewish state. Left-wing Israeli academics who taught around the world shared their experiences about their encounters with Jewish communities in the Diaspora. Very quickly a gloomy picture emerged: There is no one to talk to. The affluent Jews in the Diaspora don’t lack for sources of information about developments in Israel; nevertheless, they do not wish to be persuaded by Israeli political activists about the crimes of the occupation. In fact, by their devoted support for Israel’s governments, they are responsible for the protraction of the political situation in the Jewish state, no less than the average Israeli citizen.

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