Progressive Jews wear their partisan allegiances on their sleeves during election season, often taking positions that are so inconsistent with tradition as to cast doubt on whether their values are Jewish at all, or merely secular political dogmas. The most fundamental priorities for those claiming loyalty to tradition should be respect for ancestral values and commitment to religious, cultural and national survival. Instead, progressives espouse views that are hostile to Jewish continuity and often display greater affinity for left-wing anti-Semites, Islamic radicals, and revisionist narratives that deny Jewish history.
Unbalanced criticism of Israel and disrespect for tradition are not authentic Jewish perspectives, but instead betray discomfort with Jewish identity and history. It seems the further removed they become from normative belief and practice, the more progressive Jews seek to fill the spiritual void with secular philosophies and political ideals. In many ways, left-wing politics is just as incompatible with Jewish tradition as so-called Jews for Jesus. Both embrace positions that contravene tradition, and both take advantage of ignorance to promote alien ideologies as authentically Jewish.
The agendas of progressive groups like J Street and the New Israel Fund (NIF) are inconsistent with Israel’s continuity as a Jewish state. Though such organizations may claim affinity for Jewish values, they validate causes and programs that delegitimize Israel and undercut Jewish cultural integrity.
The question is not why such groups exist; indeed, every generation has had its share of accommodators and apologists. The question is why they are accepted by mainstream Jewish liberals whose political sensibilities are not necessarily radical or extreme – though they may differ significantly from those of the Israeli and American orthodox populations. And the answer may lie in the motivations that gave rise to the secular and nontraditional movements in the first place, from their roots in Haskalah and German Reform to their evolution on American soil.
The Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah) arose in eighteenth century Europe with the aim of reforming and modernizing Jewish culture. Though its proponents sought to preserve Jewish identity, their worldly focus conflicted with rabbinic authority and traditional observance. The maskilim produced some positive innovations (including the modernization of colloquial Hebrew and the introduction of Judaic studies as an academic discipline), but they also fostered hostility towards tradition. They rejected the concept of chosenness, often blamed Jewish insularity for perpetuating anti-Semitism, and promoted cultural synthesis with European society. Many of their descendants ended up assimilating within a few generations.
The sensibilities inspired by Haskalah influenced many to abandon traditional observance for political enfranchisement; and many of those who did became involved in radical movements hostile to Judaism. This cultural and religious ambivalence was not limited to the secular movements, but was evident in the earliest days of German Reform.
Starting with the first reform rabbinical conference in Wiesbaden in 1837, the early reformers introduced theological changes that deviated profoundly from traditional thought and practice. They ultimately rejected Talmud, ritual observance, and belief in messianic redemption and the restoration of Zion – core components of traditional Judaism. In proclaiming that “Berlin is our Jerusalem, and the [synagogue] is our Temple,” the German reformers attempted to reconceive Judaism as a mere religious persuasion instead of a multifaceted identity grounded in religion, heritage, and ancestry.
At their Philadelphia Conference in 1869, the American reformers followed suit, articulating their rejection of traditional messianic hope by stating:
The Messianic aim of Israel is not the restoration of the old Jewish state under a descendant of David, involving a second separation from the nations of the earth, but the union of all the children of God in the confession of the unity of God, so as to realize the unity of all rational creatures, and their call to moral sanctification.
This pronouncement was audacious in its denial of the homeland’s centrality to belief and worship and shocking to Jewish national hopes. Their transparent purpose was to make Jews seem less alien to Gentile society by reducing Judaism to a denominational preference instead of an all-encompassing ethnic-religious identity that set them apart.
The American reformers went further at their Pittsburgh conference in 1885, where they denationalized Jewish identity. The “Pittsburgh Platform” attempted to redefine Jewish identity thus:
We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community; and we therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning a Jewish state.
Traditional Judaism always defined the Jews as a nation with unique religious obligations made incumbent upon them through inheritance. The early reformers, however, proclaimed themselves Germans or Americans of “the Mosaic persuasion” to suggest common roots with their Gentile host societies rather than descent from ancestors exiled from the Kingdom of Judea.
The rejection of Jewish ritual law and nationhood constituted a break from normative Judaism and created a spiritual void that the early reformers sought to fill with a belief in Israel’s universal mission as they chose to define it. Although the 1937 Columbus Platform would re-embrace the concept of peoplehood (largely in response to Nazism), reform and secular cultural identity came to reflect progressive ideals that often conflicted with classical Jewish values, historical rights, and national interests.
They also show a naïve willingness to engage Arab and Muslim groups with extremist ties, and a disquieting refusal to acknowledge the Koranic basis for Islamic anti-Semitism. Reform and Conservative rabbis and synagogues have dialogued with such organizations under the guise of ecumenism and tolerance, displaying great ignorance regarding the dissimulative face of radical Islam and the prevalence of civilizational jihad.
They have also validated groups like J Street and the New Israel Fund through the approbation of many of their rabbis, espousing progressive validation of the revisionist Palestinian narrative, which repudiates Jewish history, and blind advocacy for Palestinian statehood, which is premised on a doctrinal refusal to recognize Jewish national claims.
Though the nontraditional movements proclaim support for Israel, their rapport with the Jewish left reflects either confusion over what constitutes pro-Israel commitment or institutional ambivalence. Whatever the case, their exclamations of devotion for Israel would seem to be at odds with their approval of a progressive agenda that promotes Palestinian revisionism and ignores left-wing anti-Semitism. Their credibility is strained by those of their rabbis who endorse J Street – despite its pro-Palestinian bias, support for the Iranian nuclear deal, and lobbying efforts against Israeli interests – and the NIF, which has financially supported Arab-Muslim groups (e.g., Adalah, Mossawa, and the Arab Human Rights Association) that oppose Israel as a Jewish state.
The progressive orientation of American Jewry contrasts sharply with that of the Israeli population, the majority of whom are centrist/conservative/right-wing with only eight percent identifying as leftist, according to recent surveys. Israelis are also more religiously observant, with more identifying as orthodox and much of the secular population maintaining some loyalty to ritual and observance. Jewish identity in Israel is defined not by liberal political affiliation, but by allegiance to religion, nationhood and common history.
And as with other progressive causes, the Palestinian national myth has become a matter of political faith for Jewish liberals, even though it brazenly repudiates Jewish history.
It seems the Jewish soul yearns for something to believe in. But replacing traditional belief with progressive ideology has produced an incongruous dynamic in which ethnic and religious loyalties are considered anachronistic and Jewish history is cast aside in favor of revisionist mythology. Such beliefs will not assure Jewish continuity, but instead will increase the risk of assimilation and cultural extinction.