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American Jewish History 88.3 (2000) 421-422
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The premise of this book is undeniably significant. From Horace Kallen to Robert Reich, Jews have been intellectual architects of American liberalism, often expanding its meaning to cover excluded or forgotten social groups. At the same time, liberal concepts of civic universalism and tolerance toward ethnic minorities have helped deprive anti-Semites of ideological legitimacy and political influence. Both Jews who favored cultural assimilation and those who stressed communal traditions felt at home within a liberal world view they deemed essential to their security and to preserving America's identity as a beacon of inclusive democracy. "What was good for the Jews, they argued, was good for America," writes Mark Dollinger (p. 68).
This wisdom took hold at the beginning of the New Deal and remained persuasive through most of the 1960s. Dollinger's intelligent, if seldom surprising, narrative traces how the American Jewish Committee (AJC), the American Jewish Congress, and a shifting array of other national bodies with impressive acronyms (ACJ, ADL, AJA, CJFWF, JCRC, etc.) consistently supported the New Deal, the United Nations, civil rights bills, an end to racist immigration laws, and, of course, the creation and protection of Israel. On occasion, the organizational big machers chose loyalty to liberal leaders over fealty to their own ideals. Jewish officialdom showed no reluctance to endorse internment of Japanese-Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
The enthusiasm of Jews for liberal ideas and their pragmatic champions in the Democratic party began to fray only in the late 1960s and 1970s, when liberalism itself buckled under the blows of Black nationalists, anti-war radicals, and clashes over affirmative action. In the aftermath, Dollinger points out, most Jews continued to vote for the party of FDR but reserved their political passion for their fellow Jews at risk in Israel and the Soviet Union. This retreat to ethnic self-defense enabled the rise to prominence of neo-conservative voices like those who write for Commentary. Dollinger concludes that "Jewish leaders" who remain stalwart liberals "will have to reconsider many of their assumptions about American life and acculturate to a more diverse political culture" (p. 227).
That bland judgment indicates the limits of his survey. One can turn to Dollinger's book to discover what positions the AJC and its counterparts took on the Rosenberg case or on prayer in schools--and for [End Page 421] sensible reflections on the bearing of such opinions on the dialogue between assimilationists and traditionalists. But a preoccupation with the official views of such organizations--which the author often equates with "the Jewish community"--cannot explain how the Red Scare or public piety affected American Jews and vice versa.
Dollinger seems largely unaware of larger movements and issues that made Jewish liberals (and their radical cousins) such a fractious, passionate, often powerful force in the middle decades of the twentieth century. For him, organized labor warrants mention only when the tiny Jewish Labor Committee takes a stand, the Communist Party only when he discusses civil liberties, and the New Left only when it denounces Israel. Sidney Hillman, Albert Shanker, and Irving Howe don't even make it into his index. Neither does he mention such activist/writers as Betty Friedan and Sol Alinsky who helped refashion liberalism in the decades after World War II into a broader phenomenon than it had been during the Great Depression.
It is famously unfair to criticize an author for what he didn't try to do. But Dollinger announces at the start that his book "chronicles the history of American Jewish liberalism between 1933 and 1975 and asks how such a small ethnic and religious minority grew to such importance in American political life" (p. 4). An answer that depends almost exclusively on the statements of Jewish organization men, whatever their clout and commitment, is bound to be unsatisfying.
Michael Kazin is professor of history at Georgetown...