Encountering Jewish Power: First Steps in Building the Jewish Political Tradition

by Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

One of the most intriguing issues in the landscape of Jewish experience has to do with “Jews and power.” Do Jews have political power and if so, what are the components of such influence? What does it mean for a minority group to possess power? Where does the State of Israel fit into this equation? How does having this access to key influentials in turn benefit the broader communal enterprise?

Clearly, throughout much of their history Jews were seen as powerless. Yet, in many ways, Jews were able to understand and master the core ingredients of politics which in turn would prepare them to effectively embrace modernity and the contemporary political environment.

Jewish political tradition is based upon what S.D. Goitein has termed “religious democracy.” Those who hold power, according to this idea, function as trustees for both the people and the law.

Selected Principles Associated with Jewish Political Power:

In this brief article I have attempted to extract some of the key principles associated with Jewish political power. These concepts, along with other elements of Jewish political behavior, are more fully described and discussed in my forthcoming book on Jewish power.

  1. In order to create a degree of political legitimacy for Judaism, it was necessary to create the idea of divine election of the Jewish people, thereby placing them at the center of history. In reality, in ancient times the land of Israel was marginal to the primary events of that era. Yet this myth of political power would be a central feature to the survival of Judaism and in establishing the legitimacy of Jews as a nation and people.
  2. The Jewish political tradition is specifically concerned with establishing the proper relationship between those who govern and those who are governed. This concern around relationships is embodied in the principle of covenant that lies at the root of the Jewish political tradition. As Dan Elazar suggested, covenant theory emphasizes human freedom because only free people can enter into agreements with one another. The idea of the Jewish people living independently in their own land represented a central element of this political tradition.
  3. As Elazar would note: Hebrew offered terms for different political systems, each of which focuses on a particular relationship between governors and governed. Within biblical Hebrew we find the idea of “relationships” rather than “states,” where terms such as edah (assembly), malkhut (kingship), mamlakhah (dominion), and kahal (congregation or polity) were employed.
  4. Judaism as a political ideology contains a body of literature designed to provide insights into social behavior and national practice. For example, in the Book of Deuteronomy, we find strict limitations on the power of the king. Correspondingly, instead of proposing a passive or revolutionary style of political conduct, the prophets would introduce a model of political activism in the wake of the destruction of the Temple. Jeremiah offered the following principle: “Build houses, settle down … work for the good of the country to which I have exiled you; pray to the Lord on its behalf, since on its welfare yours depends.” Jews created a political formula which noted that in exchange for accepting the law of the land as the law (dina de-malkhuta dina) they would be able to retain their internal autonomy. As an outcome of this arrangement, Jewish communities constructed a system of internal political sovereignty permitting them to retain a form of self-governance and to preserve the fiction of maintaining the Jewish state in exile.
  5. Jewish political thought would represent a combination of internal sources of legitimacy. The Bible contains no laws that could serve as direct sources for the authority of the Diaspora community. Further, the Talmud devotes minimal attention to political themes, contenting itself with such statements as “the townspeople are at liberty to fix weights and measures, prices and wages and to inflict penalties for the infringement of their rules.” Yet, medieval political theory is based in part on this very passage. Beyond this notion, medieval authorities grounded the power of the community in two other principles: the right of expropriation and the notion of the community as a court. According to the Talmud, a court has the right to expropriate property (hefker bet din hefker). This principle would serve as the basis for communal taxation. By using the metaphor of the rabbinic court and the language of contract, Jewish political theory in the Middle Ages implicitly distanced itself from its biblical basis and in turn, created and sustained as system of governance.
  6. As a result of being a displaced community, Jews learned to creatively access centers of political power wherever they resided. This process of political engagement provided them with the tools and insights related to negotiating their rights and managing their internal affairs and in turn, prepared them for the modern world. Over time, Jews residing in the Diaspora would obtain legal standing. Under Greek law, as an example, Jews were defined as a politeuma, an ethic polity with the right to self-government. Living under the Romans, Jews obtained the status of collegium licitum, namely a legal corporate body.
  7. In order to understand, and at times justify, their political condition, especially during periods of persecution, Jews would need to be able to explain and act on their situation. At times Jewish texts provided a framework of liberation and wholeness. At other moments, messianic figures would offer Jews an escape from reality. Over the course of their history, Jews would construct a range of explanations concerning their political status, inventing stories and allegories as a way to offset their failure to secure their dream of a national renaissance or their inability to secure political access and security wherever they were residing. The Jewish peoples’ limited exposure to national political power and the nature of their political journey would serve to define their social outlook. In the process of facing Jewish exile and persecution, God would become also be seen as a victim of this new condition. In this new theology, beginning with the Second Temple era, God is removed from the arena of politics as noted in the stories of the Maccabees and within the context of the Book of Esther. While the notion of divine punishment was still seen as a legitimate theological principle, this parallel thesis was also emerging. In the sixteenth century, Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel offered a new theological assessment, where the very powerlessness and lack of sovereignty of the Jews must be seen as an unnatural state which can only be maintained by divine intervention. The exile itself provided proof that God continued to choose the Jews and would ultimately redeem them from this unnatural condition by returning them to their “natural place” as a sovereign people in the Land of Israel.
  8. There have been over the course of history a series of transformational moments, as power was transferred to different elites, who would in the process reinvent the Jewish story so as to demonstrate continuity, thereby establishing their credibility and claims to power. The destruction of the Temple dictated a change in the Jewish leadership model, resulting in the transfer of power from priests to rabbis. The rabbis framed a political system which laid the foundations of Jewish life in the Middle Ages.
  9. Movements, divisions, and controversies represented thematic themes within Jewish history; as a result Jews learned to thrive around internal discord and debate. Such tensions, it would appear, served to stimulate creative thinking and foster political activism. Jewish historians would understand such conflicts as preparing Jews for managing social change in the modern era.
  10. For much of their history, Jews dismissed politics as marginal to their understanding of their covenantal relationship with God and His promise of national renewal. As a result power was often defined in spiritual terms rather than in a temporal form. One stream of thinking would suggest that until Zionism emerged as an ideology, Jews would not be seen as the architects or ideologues of their own history, as non-Jews had constructed and defined Jewish existence. Only upon the introduction of the Zionist idea did Jews “return to history” as the primary actors in their story. Under this scenario, Diaspora Jewry was viewed as vulnerable, weak and powerless; employing such a definition of history would serve to strengthen the case for Jewish national renewal.
  11. Among the peoples of Western civilization, Jews were seen as more prepared to encounter the enlightenment and modernity, as they had constructed over the centuries an internal governance system with an array of democratic features which included such elements as acknowledging majority and minority opinions and promoting division of powers. The concept of separation of powers involved an intricate set of power relationships among separate yet linked bodies. Authority and power were distributed among different structures, each of whom had its sphere of jurisdiction, yet all of which were subordinate to the people who empowered them.
  12. There has existed within Jewish history a creative tension between the struggle for national renewal and universal engagement. The condition of modernity created a challenge to the traditional notion of the “chosen people.” The Reform Movement, for example, would redefine the idea of chosenness through its call for social justice. In turn, Mordecai Kaplan would reject the notion of a chosen people, arguing that it is the process of normalization by which a group achieves its chosenness.

Core Principles of Political Engagement:

The following political principles have been extracted from the contemporary experience of the Jewish community and provide some insights into specific political practices:

  1. The Jewish community views its self-interests to be directly tied to how successful it is in accessing and conveying its political agenda; this notion is directly linked to the course of Jewish history, where Jews lacked power and had limited political access. For the first time in 2000 years, Jews have access today to political power, changing the character and substance of Jewish pride and the scope of their political engagement. This investment by Jews in politics is far out of proportion to this community’s percentage of the population with reference to its voting power, financial contributions, the support of political parties and particular causes, and its engagement with civic institutions.
  2. The most effective model of organizing for a small community is to be able to effectively access the elite power structure within the society. American Jewish political activism is tied to influencing key social, political, ethnic, business and cultural elites in the society, who in turn shape and promote policies and attitudes that are viewed as coherent with Jewish interests and American democratic principles. Building personal connections with such influentials represents a critical ingredient toward promoting Jewish political interests.
  3. Aligned with this first principle, the community has established as one of its core axioms that all politics is local, thereby requiring Jewish organizations and their leaders to identify and connect with key political actors and institutions of influence within a community. Based on Jewish history, communal leaders have understood the importance of such connections.
  4. Realizing that politics is about negotiated outcomes, creating coalitions permits the Jewish community and other religious, racial and ethnic groups to support causes as well as public officials that reflect the interests and priorities of the coalition partners. For minorities coalitional arrangements represent an essential feature of their political organizing strategy.
  5. The use of stadtlanim (spokespersons of influence), which served the community throughout the middle ages, continues to be a critical political feature of the community.
  6. Communal politics serves as a barometer of the intensity of engagement with the larger stage of political participation. As an example, one finds competing ideological and policy groups within the Jewish community, such organizations model by their behavior and rhetoric the policy divisions within the broader society. Similarly, Jewish communities outside of Israel mimic Israeli and Zionist ideological positions and movements.
  7. When Jewish interests, or Israeli policies, are not aligned with core American values and policies, there is a greater potential for increased tension, anti- Semitism and anti-Israel activism. Those political forces that have historically opposed Jews and Judaism, now employ the “Israel card” as their vehicle to criticize and marginalize the Jewish people.

The Jewish political playing field encompasses four levels of engagement:

  • Civic Tradition: Actions taken to represent the community within the public square around policy questions of interest to the community but also of vital concern to the welfare of the larger society, i.e. promoting a policy statement on church-state matters.
  • Religious Imperatives: Policy positions taken by the community to reflect its religious principles and ethical standards, i.e. advancing a civil liberties matter or human rights position.
  • Politically Essential: Activities and statements expressing the core interests of the community, i.e. introducing an action in support of a Jewish community in crisis.
  • “Tribal” Obligations: Symbolic actions and roles reflecting the historic and cultural legacy of the community, i.e. securing a resolution for Yom Hatzma’ot (Israel Independence Day).

Some Closing Thoughts:

The “Quest for Power” represents an effort on my part to describe the elements that define the story of the Jewish people’s march through time. Clearly, this research has and will continue to yield other insights into Jewish political behavior.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Jack H. Skirball Campus in Los Angeles. You can find more of his writings at www.thewindreport.