Norm Geras, writing in the Jewish Chronicle yesterday:
It is not difficult to understand the long affinity that has existed between Jews and the left. Common traditions of opposition to injustice, the commitment within liberal and socialist thought to ideals of some sort of equality, opposition to racist and other similar types of prejudice – these things have long served to attract Jewish people to organisations and movements of the left, and they continue to do so.
This is awkward territory. The same supposed affinity for socialism is part of anti-Semitic discourse among some parts of the far right. It’s also, I think, awkward to try to suggest virtues are characteristic of racial or ethnic groups, since the general attribution of characteristics to ethnic groups is a hallmark of racial prejudice.
What’s more, injustice and equality mean different things to liberals and socialists, so you can’t group them together. Liberalism is essentially individualism, whereas socialism is essentially a collectivist philosophy. I suspect Norm is referring principally to the socialist interpretation of these words.
But let’s go with it anyway. Let’s say that Jews have historically been drawn to the socialist left. Why might that be?
And let’s exclude the notion that Jews are any more drawn to justice and equality than other people, instead saying they are more drawn than many groups towards collectivism. Why?
Jews have a shared collective experience. In many ways it’s a very bad collective experience. It’s one of being singled out for hatred, in many parts of the world, often for religious reasons by Christians and Moslems, for many centuries.
But that has thrown Jews back onto each other. Jewish communities are very close and mutually supportive. They are also, in my experience, very welcoming to outsiders who don’t exhibit signs of Jew-hatred. Jewish culture has had to be collectivist, whatever people might have wanted under other circumstances, and socialism is just a broader political expression of that reality.
This tallies with the notion that we seek rationalisations for our predispositions in politics. That is, political philosophy doesn’t guide people to conclusions, rather it justifies the ones they have already reached.
This would also explain the tendency some people have to be socialist in youth, growing less so as they get older. Normally this is seen in terms of youthful idealism and a cynicism and self-interest as one gets older and acquires more. Instead you could see youthful socialism simply as a quest for a political system that mirrors the communism of the family home and the authoritarianism of school – the environments young adults are most used to.
And it would explain why people become less socialist as they gradually get used to the more fragmented, individualistic adult world. It is a process of getting accustomed, not a calm analytical investigation, that leads people to change because this is how predisposition changes. As that develops, so the rationalisations we select for the politics we already have change too.