Gertrude Himmelfarb and the Connection between Religion and Liberty

March 30 2023

Reflecting on the legacy of the late historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, Yuval Levin explains her attraction to the Victorian historian and thinker Lord Acton, who was the subject of her first book:

[Himmelfarb] found Acton and other leading Victorians particularly instructive regarding what she termed “the paradox of liberalism”—the idea that, in prioritizing individual liberty above all other political goods, modern liberalism threatened to undermine the moral foundations of individual liberty, and therefore of its own strength.

Acton was a keen student of this problem, and he understood it to be rooted in an ideal of the individual that had its merits but was frequently taken too far. His answer was not to abandon liberalism but to insist that it be tethered to traditional religion, to the benefit of both. “The liberals wanted political freedom at the expense of the church,” Himmelfarb wrote, “and the traditional Catholics wanted the church at the expense of political freedom. Acton knew that in a non-Catholic state the church’s freedom could only be guaranteed by a free society so that people who wanted religious freedom needed to be friends of genuine liberal freedom.” But he also knew that they needed to insist that religious freedom was a fundamentally communal freedom, and therefore that liberal societies must be made aware of more than individual liberties and prerogatives.

Over more than 70 years of engaging and careful scholarship, Gertrude Himmelfarb not only enabled us to know the Victorians far better; she also made it possible for us to answer the ever-present fear of irrevocable decline with a model of the replenishment of moral capital—and so of the possibility of renewal. A historian with moral clarity and purpose, her influence will continue to reverberate for as long as liberalism’s future depends upon its friendly critics.

Read more at Religion and Liberty

More about: Gertrude Himmelfarb, Religion and politics

In the Aftermath of a Deadly Attack, President Sisi Should Visit Israel

On June 3, an Egyptian policeman crossed the border into Israel and killed three soldiers. Jonathan Schanzer and Natalie Ecanow urge President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to respond by visiting the Jewish state as a show of goodwill:

Such a dramatic gesture is not without precedent: in 1997, a Jordanian soldier opened fire on a group of Israeli schoolgirls visiting the “Isle of Peace,” a parcel of farmland previously under Israeli jurisdiction that Jordan leased back to Israel as part of the Oslo peace process. In a remarkable display of humanity, King Hussein of Jordan, who had only three years earlier signed a peace agreement with Israel, traveled to the Jewish state to mourn with the families of the seven girls who died in the massacre.

That massacre unfolded as a diplomatic cold front descended on Jerusalem and Amman. . . . Yet a week later, Hussein flipped the script. “I feel as if I have lost a child of my own,” Hussein lamented. He told the parents of one of the victims that the tragedy “affects us all as members of one family.”

While security cooperation [between Cairo and Jerusalem] remains strong, the bilateral relationship is still rather frosty outside the military domain. True normalization between the two nations is elusive. A survey in 2021 found that only 8 percent of Egyptians support “business or sports contacts” with Israel. With a visit to Israel, Sisi can move beyond the cold pragmatism that largely defines Egyptian-Israeli relations and recast himself as a world figure ready to embrace his diplomatic partners as human beings. At a personal level, the Egyptian leader can win international acclaim for such a move rather than criticism for his country’s poor human-rights record.

Read more at Washington Examiner

More about: General Sisi, Israeli Security, Jordan