American Jewish Political Culture and the Liberal Persuasion.

Author:Wald, Kenneth D.
Position:Book review
 
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American Jewish Political Culture and the Liberal Persuasion. By Henry L. Feingold. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2014. xvii + 357 pp.

Having recently read some of Henry Feingold's work on the nature of modern Jewish politics in the United States, I was excited to learn he had just produced a book-length treatment of the topic. Although I was disappointed in places, the book itself is a very good overview of the puzzle that is contemporary Jewish liberalism. Feingold's writing has lost none of its pungency, wit or wisdom, making this a good read regardless of audience.

To explain the distinctive, moderately leftist politics of American Jewry, Feingold emphasizes the New Deal, Zionism, and Holocaust consciousness. In identifying these factors as the pillars of American Jewish politics, Feingold does not differ much from Lawrence Fuchs or Jonathan Woodier. Yet unlike the former, who drew on survey data, Feingold employs a methodology that seeks to penetrate the core of "the American Jewish political psyche, where the secrets of political behavior are buried" (ix). This sounds a great deal like cultural history and he carries it off well.

Feingold sees the New Deal as the critical period when modern Jewish political culture took root. The creation of the welfare state resonated with Jews who had long appreciated the role of government in securing the well-being of the citizenry. Hence Roosevelt's domestic regime did not create but simply consolidated a "pre-existing statist orientation" in American Jewish politics (114). Zionism also contributed to the politicization of American Jews. The idea of a Jewish state was compelling to Jews who envisioned the new homeland as a means of protection and source of Jewish renewal. (This commitment became somewhat anomalous when a particularistic style of Jewishness came to dominate Israeli public life in the late 1970s, conflicting with the universalistic temper of post-war Jewish liberalism.) As if it were necessary given the lachrymose interpretation of Jewish history, the Holocaust imparted a "catastrophe perspective" (later called a "paranoic streak") that continues to instill a sense of urgency about Jewish survival. This triad of concerns subsumes "virtually all the issues and interactions that today form the substance of American Jewish political culture" (xi).

After a long introductory chapter, Feingold turns to his core argument about the deep roots of Jewish liberalism. Echoing Leonard Fein,...

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