May 24, 2010

Liberalism is a form of "middle class secular messianism"

From Liberalism and Zionism, by Benjamin Kerstein. It's a reaction to Peter Beinart's, The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment.

...It should be noted first that, ideologically speaking, Zionism is not necessarily opposed to liberalism; it does, however, assert that liberalism, in and of itself, is not enough. It is not enough to provide safety and security for the Jewish people, let alone the kind of cultural and political renaissance that Zionism sought to create. It is not a coincidence that Theodore Herzl was moved to found political Zionism by the Dreyfuss trial in France and the rise of organized political anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria. What drove Herzl—originally a liberal not unlike Beinart himself—was the realization that liberalism was failing, and inevitably would fail completely. The promise of liberalism in that era was that, if the Jews became good liberals, they would be left alone to pursue happiness as best they could. "But I do not think," Herzl wrote ominously, "that we will be left alone." For Herzl, the promise of liberalism, which for him was much as it is for Beinart, could only be realized for the Jews within the framework of a Jewish state.

That liberals then and liberals now find this uncomfortable should not be overly surprising. Liberalism has always been, generally speaking, a form of middle class secular messianism; an edifying millennialism for those with much money and many guns between them and reality. Once everyone becomes liberal, liberalism has always assumed, we will all be happy. Beinart, not unlike his predecessors, clearly believes more or less the same thing. Zionism asserts that not only will the Jews not be happy under liberalism and liberalism alone, but they will not even be capable of surviving the depredations of the modern world. For that, a stronger force is needed; namely, national independence and political sovereignty. Of course, there is a strongly messianic element to Zionism as well, especially in its religious form, but it is a competing and different messianism than that of liberalism. Liberalism asserts that for the Jews to be good and free, they must become liberal. Zionism asserts that for the Jews to exist at all, let alone be good and free—or liberal for that matter—they must first have a Jewish state.

It is worth asking what, one hundred or so years after Herzl, the verdict of history has been in regard to liberalism and the Jews. ...

Of course neither Kerstein nor Beinart will touch the possibility that the story is true, and the Jews might actually be God's Chosen People. I'd say that's the most parsimonious explanation for a lot of things we've seen over, oh, say, the last 2,000 or 3,000 years...

Posted by John Weidner at May 24, 2010 10:00 AM
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