'A Certain Type of Liberalism': Minority Rights in Jewish Liberal Discourse, 1848-1948
Jews, Liberalism, Antisemitism: A New History, eds. Abigail Green and Simon Levis Sullam (Palgrave Press, Forthcoming)
23 Pages Posted: 3 Jan 2019 Last revised: 23 Dec 2020
Date Written: December 19, 2018
The image of liberalism's approach to Jewish collective identity has long been defined by one simple sentence uttered during the French Revolution: "The Jews should be denied everything as a nation, but granted everything as individuals." Scholars assume that claims to citizenship and formal legal equality in Europe and North America required that Jews relinquish group identities in order to become individual liberal citizens. But an intriguing alternative tradition of Jewish collectivist liberalism flourished from roughly 1848 to 1948. Over the course of that century, a vigorous Jewish political discourse developed in Eastern Europe about the nature of group rights, individual rights, and the character and possibilities for modern liberalism. This liberal group-ist discourse spread into Western Europe and North America through various networks and political projects. There its proponents engaged in a running debate with other Jewish proponents of individualist liberalism.
That intra-Jewish argument lies at the root of the more familiar ideological controversies associated with the reception of Zionism and socialism in the precincts of Western Jewry. Its recuperation therefore helps explain a number of persistent puzzles of Jewish political history. Among them we might note the following: Why did so many self-professed Western Jewish liberals reject the ideological suppositions of Zionism before and after World War I and yet endorse the practical aims of Jewish settlement in Palestine? How did post-World War I American, British, and French Jewish elites justify national minority rights for Jews abroad in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Palestine even as they vigorously disavowed the existence of a distinct Jewish ethnic or national identity at home? Why did some Jewish observers view the ascent of human rights after World War II as a crowning achievement for international liberalism while other voices at the time condemned human rights as a harmful blow to the intertwined causes of Jewish freedom and modern liberalism? As these questions suggest, retrieving this discourse promises to shed new light on the elusive imbrications of Jews, liberalism, and Jewish liberalism in modern political history.
Keywords: liberalism, minority rights, Zionism, group libel, antisemitism, legal history
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation