American Jewish Liberalism Revisited: Two Perspectives: Exceptionalism and Jewish Liberalism. (Point/Counterpoint)

By Dollinger, Marc | American Jewish History, June 2002 | Go to article overview

American Jewish Liberalism Revisited: Two Perspectives: Exceptionalism and Jewish Liberalism. (Point/Counterpoint)


Dollinger, Marc, American Jewish History


Milton Himmelfarb's famous quip that Jews earn like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans continues to reflect popular understandings of American Jewish political culture. Despite a meteoric rise up the economic ladder, Jews have cast their votes for liberal candidates more often than any other white ethnic group. Franklin D. Roosevelt, revered for his willingness to open government to Jews, received 90 percent of the Jewish vote during the 1944 election. Generations later, far less popular liberal presidential candidates George McGovern and Walter Mondale still enjoyed an American Jewish majority in their respective runs for the White House. In a story well known to most American Jews, northern rabbis, communal leaders, and college students journeyed to the South during the 1960s in support of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, vision of a colorblind society.

In many ways, American Jews proved exceptional in their political beliefs and social activism. No other American ethnic group connected the fate of African Americans to its own national identity. American Jews comprised the majority of white activists in the struggle for racial equality, while national civil rights organizations counted Jews among their most important leaders and funders. Even as political programs such as affirmative action alienated other white northern urban ethnic groups, most American Jews remained in the liberal fold, resisting the appeal of Richard Nixon's "Silent Majority" and the rise of neoconservatism.

Yet, despite the strong connection between Jews and liberalism, the exceptionalist argument oversimplifies American Jewish political culture. It all too often assumes a dialectic that tends to conflate Jewish political behavior into one of two seemingly opposite extremes: exceptional or typical. It deprives American Jewish politics of much of its dynamism, fails to account for important differences among Jews, and sometimes casts an an historic net over a rich variety of experiences. It also tends to assume that Jewish conservatism looms as the only alternative to Jewish liberalism, an argument that fails to consider the unique ways in which many different American Jews have charted political courses at odds with classical terminology.

While historians have done well in their documentation of the American Jewish love affair with Franklin D. Roosevelt and the impressive show of Jewish support during the civil rights movement, few have focused their lenses on stories that challenge the historiographic status quo. Only recently have scholars disputed exceptionalist thinking by turning our attention to underexplored moments in American Jewish political history.

Our study of the most popular era in American Jewish historiography, World War II, must include an examination of Jewish attitudes toward Japanese American internment. While some individual Jews on the West Coast protected the property of their incarcerated neighbors, almost every national Jewish organization resisted that sort of exceptionalist behavior. With the president's signature on Executive Order 9066, most Jewish leaders either remained silent or offered support for this egregious act of civil injustice. In the wake of Pearl Harbor, and without traditional liberal allies, Jewish organizations accommodated to a war culture that left little room for dissent.

The study of local Jewish history also poses a vexing problem for advocates of the exceptionalist argument. Community studies often reveal a Jewish political culture at odds with national leadership norms. In San Francisco, Jews quickly joined the political mainstream, an environment relatively free of antisemitic discrimination and receptive to Jewish officeholders. The anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism enjoyed great support in the City by the Bay, while Jewish Republicans won election to the United States Congress.

Many southern Jews challenged exceptionalist assumptions during the civil rights movement.

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American Jewish Liberalism Revisited: Two Perspectives: Exceptionalism and Jewish Liberalism. (Point/Counterpoint)
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