“The identity of American Jews has two parts. The first part is that they are Jews, and as Jews they see themselves as tied up with world-wide Jewry in a community of fate. … The second part is that they are Americans. Every Jewish community is profoundly shaped by its country.” Michael Barnett, Professor of International Affairs and Political Science at George Washington University, talks to the Social Trends Institute about his new book.
What motivated you to write this book? After all, your work is associated with international humanitarianism, not American Jews and Israel.
This is a book that I am, in many ways, unqualified to write, but I felt that my own “outsider” status to the topic might give me a novel perspective. I know my way around the Middle East and Zionism; I actually had a previous career in the international relations of the Middle East. But I don’t have an intimate knowledge of American Jewish life, American Jewish political organizations, or American Jewish history, all the things you would seemingly need to know to write a book like this. So it was something of a leap for me, and I suppose a leap of faith for the reader.
But the basic guiding question of the book – how a political community defines its obligations to those outside the community – is one that comes straight from global ethics. There are normative answers to this question: how should we relate to strangers? And then there are answers that derive from practical ethics: how do we relate to strangers? One of the striking features of international humanitarianism is that there has been a change regarding whose stories of suffering we care about – three centuries ago, we cared only for our religious brethren, our family, the townspeople, and other intimates. Today, however, we are now expected to care for everyone; principles of humanity translate into principles of impartiality. That said, we are still quite human and play favorites and have variegated attachments.
This question – how do our felt obligations change historically – has been a guiding question of my research on humanitarianism. And it is one that I have asked of religious communities as they try to relieve the suffering of others. Consequently, asking these questions of American Jews was straight out of the “humanitarian research playbook.” How do American Jews understand and balance their obligations to Jews and non-Jews? Like all political communities, for American Jews this is a deeply historical question that changes because of global and national circumstances.
Photo by AP via Jews For Justice for Palestinians
How did you come up with the book’s title?
I wish I could take credit for the title, but a close friend suggested it after hearing me describe the argument, and it seemed to do such a fabulous job of capturing the most important points of the book.
This is a book about how American Jews engage the world. How they engage the world, and how they think that they should engage the world, is very much influenced by their political identity as American Jews. The identity of American Jews has two parts. The first part is that they are Jews, and as Jews they see themselves as tied up with world-wide Jewry in a community of fate. They see themselves as sharing a common history, as having a shared present and future, and as having obligations to the welfare and protection of Jews living in distant lands. The second part is that they are Americans. Every Jewish community is profoundly shaped by its country. German Jews are different from Israeli Jews are different from American Jews. And one reason why American Jews are different is because America was the first country in the world that did not necessarily treat the Jews as different. Jews in America faced anti-Semitism and discrimination, and often felt like outsiders and with anxiety about their future, but America was the “golden land.” America preached values of equality, liberty, freedom of conscience, separation of church and state – the sorts of values that are cherished by Jews (and other minorities) who have experienced hatred on the basis of their perceived differences.
American Jews are one part American and one part Jewish, which suggests that American Jews are torn between principles of universalism and particularism. The themes of universalism and particularism are prominent in Judaism and Jewish history – are Jews a light unto nations or are they a people apart? These themes also have political dimensions: on the one hand there are forms of cosmopolitanism that preach an inclusive humanity and that commonality is more important than difference, and there are forms of nationalism that preach difference over commonality. All Jewish communities have felt these tensions. But for most of Jewish history it didn’t really matter what the Jews thought, because the non-Jews treated them as different. All this began to change with the enlightenment, and Christian society began to imagine that Jews might become national citizens. This development was particularly pronounced in the United States, where Jews always had rights of citizens.
The consequence of this American experience is that American Jews tended to emphasize universalism and cosmopolitanism over particularism and nationalism. Toward that end, they drew from those parts of the Jewish tradition, like the prophets, that emphasized a common humanity and the historic role of the Jews in helping to produce a world of peace and justice. And they were suspicious of those interpretations of Judaism and Jewish history that emphasized that the Jews were “chosen” and a “people apart.”
The identity of American Jews, this affection for cosmopolitanism and universalism, accounts for American Jewry’s strong preference for ideologies of inclusion, fairness, and justice. It is not that American Jews are overwhelmingly affiliated with the Democratic Party; they also are attached to values of equality, liberty, availability of opportunities, and anti-discrimination. They also tend to be suspicious of those political movements that represent “tradition” and “America first,” because these tend to be code words for a white, Christian America.
How does their American identity shape how American Jews engage the world?
Here is the link to “foreign policy.” When I talk about foreign policy, I do NOT mean such things as a Jewish lobby or some world-wide Jewish conspiracy. What I mean is that American Jews organize as a way to protect Jewish lives and promote Jewish values abroad. Part of American Jewish foreign policy is the fight for Jewish security, and especially when it is threatened. We see this when American Jews try to defend Jewish lives in Russia, support Israel, and tried in vain to save European Jewry.
The other part of American Jewish foreign policy, though, is the attempt to promote values of equality, nondiscrimination, liberty, and other values that American Jews associate with American and Jewish values. Consequently, American Jews have been closely associated with support for international organizations such as the United Nations, have been on the forefront of international human rights, and have occupied leadership roles in various peace and pacifist organizations.
Your book is deeply historical, yet you write that it is by studying the past that we can better understand the present and future. Can you elaborate?
I actually began my research with a much more contemporary question: is the relationship between American Jewry and Israel changing? This is a matter of considerable debate in the United States and Israel. So I started looking into whether it is changing and why. What I quickly realized, though, was that this debate was not new, but rather existed at other times as well, it just had different expressions. The American Jewish struggle between universalism and particularism has been around since the 19th century, and so too has the struggle over cosmopolitanism and nationalism. Today it is formed around the debate about Israel and how Israel fits into American Jewry’s cosmopolitanism and universalism. A century ago it was more generally about the relationship to an inchoate Jewish nationalism. But the basic issues were the same – what is the significance of a Jewish people that demands to be recognized as a distinct political community and wants to feel itself just like everyone else. But the central point is important: American Jews have balanced the tension between cosmopolitanism and nationalism in different ways historically. There is no resolution, it is an ongoing and highly unstable negotiation.
You argue that how Jews balance the demands of cosmopolitanism and nationalism affects their attitudes toward Israel. How so?
American Jews, for reasons owing to American political culture, are prone toward universalism and cosmopolitanism. They favor ideologies of inclusion and humanity. Zionism and Israel, though, do not easily fit into that cosmopolitan sensibility. Zionism and Israel, after all, are expression of Jewish nationalism and particularism. There are certainly strands of Zionism that draw from the prophetic tradition and see Jewish nationalism as progressive and helping foster new forms of international peace and justice. However, the dominant strands of Zionism emphasize the distinctiveness of the Jewish people and the on-going relentlessness of anti-Semitism.
American Jews, though, have favored an “Americanized” Zionism, one that emphasizes Zionism’s more universalizing characters and qualities. A century ago, for instance, American Zionism did not advocate a separate Jewish state, but rather a binational state, where Jews and Arabs could live together and under the same rule of law. It was only after 1933 that American Jews quickly abandoned this possibility and embraced the idea of a State for the Jews. Importantly, American Jews were able to see Zionism and Israel as consistent with their American values, and part of a progressive tradition of Judaism, so long as it embraced fundamental values such as democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. American and Israeli values were kindred spirits. So, there was no contradiction between being an American and being a Zionist.
But today we hear about how American Jews are falling out of love with Israel. How does your account help us understand this development?
The first thing to note is that there is considerable debate about whether American Jews are in fact any less pro-Israel than they ever have been. They certainly have more concerns with Israeli policies, but it is not clear if that makes them any less pro-Israel. Right now in the United States there are a lot of Americans who are outraged by the policies of the Trump administration, and they would probably say that they are opposed precisely because of their love for America. So, we have to be careful about how we ask the questions and the limits of the evidence.
That said, I do argue that American Jews are becoming increasingly distant from Israel for reasons that have to do with their fear that Israel’s values no longer represent their own. American Jews are dedicated to democracy, but Israeli democracy has been in trouble for a while. American Jews like their nationalism civic, where all citizens are equal. But Israel is a Jewish state, which means that Jews have a privileged position, not in terms of political and civil rights, but certainly in many other areas of rights. American Jews are champions of a strict separation of the church and state, but as a Jewish State, Israel guarantees that religious authorities have considerable say over public life. And, the Jewish religious authorities are primarily Orthodox, and have used their positions to marginalize non-Orthodox Judaism, which is practiced by the vast majority of American Jews. Israel’s human rights record is pretty good if you look at how it treats its citizens, but is less so when it comes to the Palestinians. These fears of American Jews have become more and more part of reality with Israel’s creeping annexation of the occupied territories. If annexation happens, it is not clear how American Jews will react. How can they demand equality and rights and democracy in the United States, and do so on the grounds that these are universal human values, and yet turn a blind eye when it comes to Israel?
How has the election of Trump affected these tensions?
In two ways. One, they have increased them. This Israeli government has made no secret of its disdain for the previous Obama administration, and its welcoming stance toward the Trump administration. But American Jews had strongly positive views of Obama, and Trump got the smallest percentage of the Jewish vote of any modern Presidential candidate. The reason for the American Jewish opposition to Trump is no mystery – he traffics in rhetoric and policies that are quite sympathetic to, if not directly from, the white nationalist playbook. Minorities don’t do well under chauvinism and ideologies of difference, and American Jews fear what happens if white nationalism becomes more mainstreamed. Trump’s values, in short, do not appear to be the values of most American Jews. And the fact that the Israeli government openly supports an American administration that most American Jews oppose creates considerable tensions.
This relates to a second source of tension. There is a growing sense among American Jews that they are being asked to choose between their safety and values and those of Israel. Many Jewish establishment organizations have either made their peace with Trump or have decided to keep their dissent quiet. And they do so because they want to encourage Trump to take a pro-Israel stance. Not just any pro-Israel stance, but a pro-Israel position that encourages settlement expansion and an inevitable annexation. Consequently, many American Jews see the Trump administration as working in ways that are directly harmful to Israel’s democratic character and potentially allied with anti-Semitic movements in the United States.
But the real tension is that many of these American Jewish establishment organizations are unwilling to oppose the vilest rhetoric of the Trump administration because they want to support Israel. One interpretation of this choice is that American Jewish establishment organizations have decided to privilege Israel’s “security” over the security of American Jews. It is not unusual to hear more and more members of the American Jewish community, and particularly those from the progressive wings, argue that the American Jewish establishment has completely abandoned its role of protecting American Jews. I don’t know if the Trump administration is driving a growing wedge in the American Jewish community, but certainly the choices of the American Jewish establishment are.
Michael Barnett is Professor of International Affairs and Political Science at the George Washington University. Republished with permission from the Social Trends Institute.
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