What an Ambitious New History Gets Right about Jewish Thinkers—and Wrong about America

Reviewing Jonathan Israel’s Revolutionary Jews from Spinoza to Marx: The Fight for a Secular World of Universal and Equal RightsAllan Arkush has much praise for this history of Jews who embraced the Enlightenment and its aftermath. Besides the famous thinkers mentioned in the title, the work also delves into less-studied figures such as Moses Hess, and even obscure ones like the Polish-French defender of Jewish (and black) rights Zalkind Hourwitz. Arkush does, however, detect a blind spot when it comes to America:

Israel himself pauses to note how the American Revolution, which he sees as having been too largely a product of the moderate Enlightenment, “initially made strikingly little difference to the continuing exclusion of Jews from office, political participation and equal civil rights.” He claims that “apart from New York State, . . . all other states retained strict ‘religious tests’ for officeholders requiring avowed allegiance to Christ, thereby wholly debarring Jews from office until well into the 19th century.”

To illustrate this, Israel adduces the case of Pennsylvania, where a Jewish plea for full civil rights was rejected in 1783. He fails to mention that a similar petition met with success a few years later, and that by 1790, the Jews of Pennsylvania had what they wanted. Even more significantly, he overlooks the case of Virginia, where the passage in 1786 of the justly celebrated Act Establishing Religious Freedom, written by Thomas Jefferson, endowed everyone, including Jews, with full civil rights. Moreover, by the end of the 18th century, the constitutions of South Carolina, Delaware, Georgia, and Vermont likewise permitted Jews to hold office.

Israel could argue that in the case of Virginia, at least, it was really “the Jeffersonian (radical democratic republican) tendency in the American Revolution” that made the difference—but that’s not the whole story. The “moderate” Enlightenment seems to have had an emancipatory momentum of its own.

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: American Jewish History, Emancipation, Enlightenment, Jewish history

Recognizing a Palestinian State Won’t Help Palestinians, or Even Make Palestinian Statehood More Likely

While Shira Efron and Michael Koplow are more sanguine about the possibility of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and more critical of Israel’s policies in the West Bank, than I am, I found much worth considering in their recent article on the condition of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Particularly perceptive are their comments on the drive to grant diplomatic recognition to a fictive Palestinian state, a step taken by nine countries in the past few months, and almost as many in total as recognize Israel.

Efron and Koplow argue that this move isn’t a mere empty gesture, but one that would actually make things worse, while providing “no tangible benefits for Palestinians.”

In areas under its direct control—Areas A and B of the West Bank, comprising 40 percent of the territory—the PA struggles severely to provide services, livelihoods, and dignity to inhabitants. This is only partly due to its budgetary woes; it has also never established a properly functioning West Bank economy. President Mahmoud Abbas, who will turn ninety next year, administers the PA almost exclusively by executive decrees, with little transparency or oversight. Security is a particular problem, as militants from different factions now openly defy the underfunded and undermotivated PA security forces in cities such as Jenin, Nablus, and Tulkarm.

Turning the Palestinian Authority (PA) from a transitional authority into a permanent state with the stroke of a pen will not make [its] litany of problems go away. The risk that the state of Palestine would become a failed state is very real given the PA’s dysfunctional, insolvent status and its dearth of public legitimacy. Further declines in its ability to provide social services and maintain law and order could yield a situation in which warlords and gangs become de-facto rulers in some areas of the West Bank.

Otherwise, any steps toward realizing two states will be fanciful, built atop a crumbling foundation—and likely to help turn the West Bank into a third front in the current war.

Read more at Foreign Affairs

More about: Palestinian Authority, Palestinian statehood