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  • Is There a Crisis in Jewish Political Culture?
  • Mitchell Cohen (bio)

The answer to the question posed by my title is: yes, a profound crisis. What follows is a tentative, perhaps too-sweeping sketch of its parameters in a partly imaginary configuration. It is a means, I hope, of prompting consternation. Its conclusion entails a conceit for which I ask forbearance.

Imagine a public symposium in which scholars, half a century hence, consider our moment in Jewish political history. They look back to a year that began with the embrace by the Jewish state's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, of Donald J. Trump, president of the country harboring the largest Jewish diaspora community. As it happens, it was also the centenary of the Russian Revolution, which upended Russia, the world, and, of course, the Jews; and of American entry into World War I; and of the Balfour Declaration; and of General Edmund Allenby's entry into Jerusalem.

As our scholars think aloud about 2017, varied difficulties beset the United States, American Jewry, and the Jewish state—troubles stemming significantly, although by no means entirely, from failures of leadership.


What might they address? First, perhaps, whether longer-term developments had crystalized in 2017, in particular a crisis in politically relevant attitudes, values, and behavior. To provide perspective, an [End Page 212] opening talk might be a rereading by a contemporary historian of Jonathan Frankel's work on the advent of modern Jewish politics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Perspicacity, she remarks (following Frankel), compels us to speak in the plural, of political subcultures rather than a single one, all in symbiotic relations with their times, places, and each other. After the cataclysm of the 1881 pogroms, a New Jewish Politics materialized in the tsar's empire. It became evident that established Jewish elites were unable to cope with change. Muddling through was no realistic option. This leadership practiced shtadlanut: plutocratic and theocratic elites were "intercessors" with established powers on behalf of Jews. Some American Jews came to compare their failure with that of Trump-era Jewish leadership.

The post-1881 New Politics did not simply displace stuttering shtadlanpolitik. It called for "self-emancipation," a contrast to the older hope that general reforms initiated by the regime in recent decades—slow liberalization from above—would lead also to Jewish emancipation. The New Politics was "postliberal" and animated by national rather than simply religious senses of peoplehood. It took form in a novel political role for the intelligentsia in combination with the birth of political parties mobilizing mass bases. These eventually took on varied ideological hues—Zionist, Bundist, etc. The older form of leadership did not dissolve, nor did traditional life. Three subsystems—emancipationist (change from above), self-emancipationist (change from below), and traditionalist (change mostly as heaven's prerogative)—interacted and collided, producing "constant adaptation, adjustment, compromise, coalition" among them.1 With mass emigration, diasporas of New Politics took root in New York, London, Palestine, and elsewhere—very different political topographies.


The next paper, by a political scientist, amends the preceding account with an "irony of Jewish political modernization." He notes that his field usually makes "modern" parties a function of democratization in liberal political systems. In seventeenth-century Britain—to use a traditional point of comparison—Whig and Tory factions emerged within Parliament as representatives only of the landed and wealthy, becoming parties (Liberal and Conservative) in the nineteenth century as, step by step, manhood suffrage expanded. More substantive local and national organizations were needed to appeal to an enlarged voting [End Page 213] public. Once working classes could vote, a Labour Party emerged and eventually, in the twentieth century, the Liberals shrank, and Labour and the Conservatives became the chief contestants.

Jewish parties in eastern Europe took shape with no such experiences. The "postliberal" turn created modern institutions—parties—without the parliamentary framework; in this they were comparable to contemporary Russian parties. Jewish parties had no government to gain, but Russian parties hoped for power in—or to seize the power of—the tsar's state. Herzl's Zionist Congress (and some other gatherings) provided a kind of parliamentary arena for (some) Jewish parties, and...


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