I recently attended the first of a three-session course taught by Professor Michael Walzer, and hosted by YIVO. The topic is Jewish political tradition. The first session looked at biblical and historical attitudes toward Jewish engagement with politics. We touched upon Jeremiah and Isaiah, looked at the story of Esther, and concluded with a piece written by a Dutch Jew, beseeching Cromwell to accept the return of Jews to England, and requesting permission for them to worship freely there.
What struck me was how often we—the Jewish people—have been stuck between a rock and a hard place. Always the outsiders, it seems, we have tried every which way to make ourselves needed, indispensible, or even invisible, so those willing to host us would be more willing to do so.
But as I read these various takes on Jewish engagement with politics, I had a queasy feeling that each time, our efforts strip bits of essential humanity from us, even while we try to focus on other, important goals. With the appeal to Cromwell, for example, the author, Menasseh Ben Israel, offers this stunning argument, drawn from the Jewish experience of being cast out of Spain: “…and yet amongst so great a number, there was not found any one man, that undertook to raise a party to free themselves from that most miserable banishment. An evident sign of the proper and natural resolution of this Nation, and their constant obedience to their Princes.”
It is difficult to read these lines and not be pained, or even heartbroken. I don’t minimize what (greater) catastrophe might have followed had the Jews risen up in protest against Spain’s unjust actions. But it is also impossible not to fast forward to more recent history and think of various kinds of communal accommodation, in the face of abuse and torment, all in the hope of trying to prevent something worse. Or even collusion with those in power, wherein we allowed ourselves to be used as “front men” for unjust rulers, whose subjects then came to blame the Jews for their miserable lot in life.
This historic litany leads with a kind of poignant inevitability to Zionism, to self-determination as the ultimate answer to this kind of grateful groveling. Jewish self-rule would of course mean not having to ask permission from Princes, or show to them bottomless obeisance.
And yet, while the ideal of Zionism is an answer to Jewish dependence on the largesse and tolerance of other countries and leaders (inevitably time-limited), even in the one country outside Israel that has been a unique beacon for Jews in modern times—the United States–things are changing. The country that gave us George Washington’s remarkably generous letter to a Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, declaring that bigotry in this new nation will be given no sanctuary, is showing an increasingly ugly face to its own citizens, and to the wider world. It is impossible not to see troubling erosions, both in America’s commitment to tolerance, and in the willingness of some in the Jewish community to pay obeisance to the King-aspirant in the heart of our democracy.
The more things change, indeed…