Jewish perspectives on life and liberty

By Keith Kahn-Harris
March 9, 2009

This article is based on an extemporised presentation at the Convention on Modern Liberty, 28 February 2009.

Jews rarely use the term ‘faith’ amongst themselves. Judaism is a practice-based religion in which action is foregrounded rather than belief. While of course Judaism has a core of beliefs and faith in God is part of Jewish theology, faiths and belief tend not to be emphasised when Jews talk about Judaism – even amongst orthodox Jews.

Plenty of religiously practicing Jews have no or only a hazy belief in God. Jewishness is a complex nexus of ethnicity, nationhood and religion and different types of Jews place different levels of emphasis on each of these elements.

For this reason, I, like many other Jews, feel profoundly alienated from debates about atheism and religion – Richard Dawkins and his ilk’s definition of religion fails to capture much of what Judaism is about. But I also feel quite alienated from much faith-based discourse, liberal or conservative.

In order to understand Jews’ relationship to ideas of liberty, it is important to understand that Judaism has both universalist and particularist strands. It is both concerned with humanity as a whole and with Jews in particular.

However, for most of Jewish history it is the particular that has dominated. Jews have generally lived in self-governing communities, often under constant threat of persecution, often second-class citizens. Jews had little ability to influence the wider societies in which they were living, let alone work for social justice.

This situation changed gradually following the dawn of European modernity in the eighteenth century. The gradual emancipation of Jews in European and ‘western’ countries in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, albeit that it was an uneven process with many reverses, allowed Jews to become part of the world as citizens. Jews have adapted and responded to the possibilities of modernity in both particularist and universalist ways:

On the particularlist wing:

• Ultra-orthodox Jews saw emancipation as a threat and sought to reconstruct the ghetto, creating self-sustaining communities and limiting contact with wider society.

• Leaders of many European communities sought to prove themselves to be ‘good citizens’; to show themselves to be model Englishmen/Frenchmen/Germans etc; to be Jewish privately and a citizen publicly.

• Related to the latter strategy was a desire to cleave to the powerful, to ensure Jewish survival by ensuring that Jews had the wealth and political influence to forestall any threat of persecution.

• Those versions of Zionism that seek nothing more than to be a nation among other nations fall into the particularlist category.

On the universalist wing:

• Many Jews sought to go out and change the world, drawing lessons from the Jewish experience of persecution to ensure that no one else would have to suffer oppression. This strand can be found in a number of modern social movements: So Jews were and are active in Marxism and anarchism and played a prominent role in working class anti-fascism. Jews also were prominent in the 1950s and 1960s civil rights movement in the USA. And Jews in the UK have been prominent in the Jubilee 2000 and fair trade campaigns.

• Theologically, it has become common in recent years for Jewish religious leaders, particularly progressive ones, to emphasise Judaism’s prophetic, ethical tradition as embodied in the concept of tikkun olam. The term means ‘repair of the world’ and comes from the kabbalistic tradition. The idea is that the world is imperfect but that it is our duty to help perfect it.

• There is a strand of Zionism that emphasises the need to build an ideal society in Israel – to be a ‘light unto the nations’.

The liberal, universalist tradition in Judaism remains strong – 78% of American Jews voted for Obama. However, in recent years, Jews have come to be increasingly associated with illiberal, particularist ideas. This has some truth to it but needs to be qualified:

• On the one hand, Jews were prominent among the neo-conservatives in the US (and in the UK – see the writings of Melanie Phillip). On the other hand, Jews have also been prominent in the opposition to them (for example, Naomi Klein)

• Right-wing versions of Zionism are increasingly powerful. On the other hand, left wing Zionism and criticism of the occupation are also strong in Israel and the diaspora. Groups such as Rabbis For Human Rights have challenged the oppressive reality of the occupation.

• Jews have at times misused the holocaust and anti-Semitism to try and close down debate about Israel. On the other hand, there is little Jewish support for censorship or blasphemy laws – even Deborah Lipstadt (who famously took on revisionist historian David Irving) opposes laws against holocaust denial.

One of the great problems that Jews face today is that anti-Semitism and fear of anti-Semitism is pushing Jews into the arms of proponents of illiberal positions that they would otherwise resist. There has been a notable rise in anti-Semitic attacks on Jews in the UK and this does not help give Jews the courage to speak out over threats to freedom.

Historically, Jews have been fearful of the state, now fear of anti-Semitism (and for many, sadly, of the Muslim community) is pushing Jews into the arms of the states. The fear of an uncontrolled, anti-Semitic populace is leading many Jews into accepting threats to liberty that they would otherwise oppose.

Jews need reassurance right now that the agenda represented at a conference like this is not a threat to them. Jews represent a powerful resource in promoting liberty, but fear is holding them back.


© Keith Kahn-Harris is a research associate at the Centre for Urban and Community Research, Goldsmiths College. He is the convenor of New Jewish Thought –

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