The Spirit of Jewish Particularism

Contemporary liberalism is a problem for Jews, but conservatism isn’t necessarily the solution.

April 20, 2015 | Yedidia Z. Stern
About the author: Yedidia Z. Stern is vice-president of research at the Israel Democracy Institute and professor of law at Bar-Ilan University. He is the author or principal editor of 20 books and co-editor (with Avi Sagi) of the journal Democratic Culture.
This is a response to The Spirit of Jewish Conservatism, originally published in Mosaic in April 2015

Israeli Antiquities authority workers at a site in central Israel where a 1,400 year old wine press was found. AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner.

Eric Cohen is right to assert in “The Spirit of Jewish Conservatism” that Judaism and the Jews have a unique role to play in the world. The history of humanity attests to that role. Were it not for the contribution of Judaism—as a religion, nationality, and culture—and for the contributions of Jews as moral leaders, intellectual pioneers, cultural trailblazers, scientists, and producers of wealth and well-being, our world would be totally different, for the worse.

But what is the unique ideology of Jewish civilization? What worldview can be said to drive the Jewish contribution to humanity? Cohen’s ambitious and fascinating essay grapples with these enormous questions. In brief, Cohen points to basic characteristics of Jewish civilization—traits he sums up as “the spirit of Jewish conservatism”—in three areas: family, nationalism, and economics. An appreciation of these characteristics, according to Cohen, may offer a remedy to the internal weaknesses that characterize the Jewish people in our generation.

In what follows I would like to echo Cohen’s concerns for the future of the Jewish people from an Israeli perspective. Whereas Cohen sees the choice for Jews as falling between conservative and liberal preferences and values, I wish to focus on a somewhat different related set of choices: between the values of Jewish particularism and the values of Western liberalism. Our two axes are related but not identical, and for a simple reason: not every Jewish-particularistic preference is necessarily a conservative one.


Whether they live in New York, Jerusalem, or Paris, Jews in free countries exist under the gravitational pull of two civilizational forces: one Jewish and particularistic, and the other Western and liberal (wrongly perceived as “universal”). Each Jew strikes a balance between these two contending forces as he or she sees fit.

In the Diaspora, some Jews choose, by omission or commission, to ignore the pull of Jewish particularism on their lives. They dilute their Jewish identity to such an extent that their offspring may lose any connection to the Jewish people within a generation or two. Our biblical forebears lost the ten tribes; we today are losing significant portions of Diaspora Jewry. While the circumstances of the two cases differ radically, the result for the Jewish people is the same.

In Israel, by contrast, the vast majority of Jews choose to emphasize their Jewishness. Significantly, the most prominent characteristic of Israeli Jewish identity—whether religious or secular, Ashkenazi or Sephardi, rich or poor, immigrant or long-settled—is a natural tendency toward a soft Jewish nationalism and a soft Jewish traditionalism. The various groups in Israeli society are deeply divided on many issues—including crucial questions of religion and state, security and peace, society and economy—and the public arena in Israel rages around these issues constantly. Israelis are even divided over their vision for the state of Israel itself. Nevertheless, almost all of us share a common last name: nationalistic and traditional.

Why do Israelis choose Jewish particularism over “rootless cosmopolitanism”? The answer is two-part: the first general, the second specific. Both touch on the meaning of life.
The general answer pertains to the human condition. People seek to imbue their lives with meaning and purpose. Radical liberalism does not address this basic human need. It guarantees the rights of the individual; “you” and “I” are well protected, but we are like separate atoms moving along independent tracks, revolving around ourselves in a vacuum.

But humans need and look for more: bonds of friendship, fellowship and solidarity, a sense of belonging, a context beyond the family. All of these “ties of belonging,” hard to find in the purely liberal sphere, can be found instead in the sphere of religion and in the sphere of the nation. This is why so many people in today’s world turn to their religion and/or their nation—in Judaism, the two are intertwined—in search of a remedy for the human condition. And it is why predictions that nationalism would dissolve and give way to a flat, globalized world, or that religion would be succeeded by an “enlightened” rationalism, have turned out to be wrong.

The specific answer pertains to the Israeli condition, which places a special premium on just such ties of belonging and identity. To live in Israel is to dwell on the slopes of a volcano. The smell of sulfur fills the air, the ground shakes periodically, and thunder reverberates in the background. These external pressures, however, do not suppress the joie de vivre of Israelis, whose reserves of courage and resilience, aptly underlined by Eric Cohen, draw on the rich mines of Jewish particularism. For Jews in Israel to abandon their Jewish identity would be to court the fate of Samson bereft of his hair.

My eight children have served and will serve in the Israel Defense Forces as Jews and because they are Jews. They and their friends understand the sacrifice demanded of them because they see themselves as part of a Jewish relay race that began with Abraham and will continue until the end of time. My children are not cut out to be warriors; their inclinations lie in totally different directions. But they see their service in the IDF as a form of self-realization because they are living Jewish particularism in the fullest sense of the word.

Those who compare Israelis with the Crusaders; or who classify Israel as an extension of Western colonialism; or who imagine Israeli society to be as flimsy as a cobweb, are mistaken. They ignore the 2,000-year-old hope encapsulated in our national anthem, and the no less ancient prayer recited several times a day by millions of people: “Return in mercy to Jerusalem, Your city.” They miss the infusion of the personal with the national in the declaration that concludes Jewish wedding ceremonies: “If I forget thee O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning.”

Two-thirds of a century after the rebirth of Israel, it is possible to make the following determination with certainty: the Zionist enterprise created a special place for Jews in which the practice of Jewish particularism is natural. There is no need to be ultra-Orthodox or Orthodox to agree on this. It is enough to be an Israeli patriot.


Yet Jewish particularism in Israel faces threats. I see those threats emanating from three fronts.

One front is the world of ultra-liberal values. Thus, for example, in the name of equality, some have argued that Israel should abolish its Law of Return because it applies only to Jews, and that Hatikvah, our national anthem, should be abandoned because it singles out the specifically Jewish return to Zion. On this same front one also finds the advocates of normalcy who wish for Israel to be a state just like all other states, as well as the champions of a new “Israeli” national identity that would supersede and displace its “Jewish” identity. All of these groups are willing to set aside the Jewish heritage of the past in the hope of relieving the felt burden of Jewish existence in the present. Erasing their collective Jewish identity, they seek to replace the particular with the universal (or, more precisely, with contemporary Western culture).

At the same time, however, Jewish particularism in Israel is threatened from the opposite direction, by extremists who so abuse their proclaimed Jewish identity as to cast aspersions on its validity. This threat, which is as great as the threat of ultra-liberalism, takes place on two fronts, corresponding to the two planes of Jewish identity: national and religious.

From time to time, the soft nationalism that is typical of Israelis morphs into hard nationalism. Examples of Israeli ultra-nationalism include certain racist incidents that occurred during last summer’s Operation Protective Edge and continuing violations of the civil rights of Israel’s Arab minority. Beyond its ugliness, extreme nationalism feeds the fires of de-legitimization. It provides Israel’s strategic enemies—in Israel and especially elsewhere—with ammunition in their campaign to deny and nullify Israel’s existence as a Jewish state, based on the false claim that a nation-state cannot provide full civic equality for its national minorities.

The Torah has already clarified the Jewish position on this issue: “One Torah and one code shall there be for you, and for the stranger that sojourns with you.” And the founding documents and laws of Israel confirm the same principle: the Jewish nation-state has committed itself unwaveringly to the prevention of discrimination against non-Jews, and must take every step to live up to that commitment.

And then there is religious extremism. A small but not negligible portion of the religious sector in Israel, seeing its participation in the Zionist enterprise as conditional, would ideally substitute Jewish religious law and rabbinic authority for state law and its institutions. Some of these groups are fed by a messianic, meta-historical vision that colors their perception of reality; when Israeli reality contradicts their messianic view (especially when it comes to determining Israel’s borders), they may abandon their partnership with the rest of Israeli society and in so doing undermine Israel’s precious national unity.


As an American, Eric Cohen lives in an environment in which some Jewish leaders and public figures wish to adapt Jewish particularism to the norms and values of liberalism, thereby diluting Judaism to the point where it will lose its distinctiveness. Against this backdrop, his call to emphasize the uniqueness of Jewish culture is justified. It is similarly easy to understand why he finds it essential to create an alternative that will advance Jewish interests and values—the alternative that he dubs Jewish conservatism.

As an Israeli and a resident of Jerusalem, I live in an environment in which Jewish particularism is a fact of life for the individual, the community, and the public domain. From my perspective,the values of temperate traditionalism and moderate nationalism, the lifeblood of Israeli society, are in need of protection against a loss of identity stemming not only from extreme liberalism but also from extreme forms of particularism that distort those values to their own ends.

As I see it, we must strive to strike a correct balance, measured and proportional, between Jewish-traditional values and Western-liberal values. How can this be done?

On the one hand, liberalism does not have to be atomistic; it does not have to eradicate unique identities and cultures. Quite the contrary: liberalism can and should celebrate the cultural uniqueness of every group. Thus, for example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not necessarily appropriate for adoption by every state. As a “Jewish and democratic” state, Israel is at liberty to include in its future constitution a bill of rights that will express Jewish sensibilities and sensitivities alongside rights that are seen as universal. There is nothing illiberal or anti-liberal in this.

On the other hand, particularism does not have to be extreme; it does not have to eradicate the values of other identities and cultures. On the contrary, particularism can and should celebrate the wide range of options that the world offers and consider whether or not to adopt them on their own individual merits. There is a wealth of human experience that is worth exploring. According to this line of thought, for example, an Israeli bill of rights based solely on the laws of the Torah would fall short of its full potential.

Not only is it possible to strike a balance between these two gravitational pulls on our lives; it is vital that we do so. Without such a balance—we might call it “universal particularism”—both Diaspora Judaism and Israeli Judaism will find it difficult to sustain themselves.