Paul Gottfried has a provocative article on Vdare, “A Jewish Conservative Wonders: Is Free Speech Really a Jewish Tradition?” Gottfried examines the leftwing contributions by rabbinical Jews in the United States and traces that history to the mass immigration of Eastern European Jews at the end of the nineteenth century. He contrasts the immigrants from the Pale of Settlement with the earlier Western and Central European Jewish immigrants who never betrayed a hatred of the Christian middle class society in which they had found a home. Some of my own ancestors were among the earlier waves of Jews, as was the bulk of Cincinnati’s Jewish immigrants. Gottfried’s article reminds me of a question that continues to baffle me.
I know little about Jewish history, but I have run into an apparent contradiction that I would like unraveled. From what I have read, the migrations of the 1830’s through the 1860’s resulted, in part, from revolutionary upheavals—aftershocks from the Napoleonic era that resulted in barricades and constitutions. The Europeans who left tended to be middle class liberals who sought a freer life in America. The Reform Jewish movement of Germany—ever a marker of progressive thought—established itself first in Cincinnati as liberal, emancipated German Jews established themselves in the United States. This rabbinical community leant toward secularism and assimilation.
I have also read that Eastern European Jews were far more traditional and religious than their western counterparts, especially in the shtetls. Certainly, when these folks moved to America, they brought Orthodox Judaism with them. They tended to settle in large, industrial eastern cities. The Orthodox rabbinical presence in Cincinnati is minimal, a sign of how “progressive” the earlier German Jews were, in contrast to the vibrant Orthodox communities of New York that developed from the later migrations. Indeed, I have even read that certain Eastern European Jewish groups attempted to correspond with the National Socialists before the Second World War to discuss possible alliances against what the religious Jews saw as the anti-social, destructive anarchism and Marxism of the secular Jewish community. If such is true, these traditional, observant Jewish communities mistakenly thought that the Nazis opposed only the Communism of Jews rather than Jewish blood. They subsequently perished in the holocaust.
How are we to unravel the apparent contradiction? On the one hand, the Jewish Left seems to have populated the earlier German migration, while the Jewish Right seems to have populated the later Eastern European migration. On the other hand, Gottfried’s article and the political activity of the last century point to the reverse. Cincinnati, the homeland of American Reform Judaism, is a town of Jewish Republicans while New York City, a bastion of Hasidism, has been a pinko magnet for generations. What explains this? Were the early liberal Jews, as well as their fellow liberal German Christian immigrants, what Lawrence Auster calls “right-liberals,” who thus were similar in their political and social philosophy as “conservative” Anglo-Saxon Americans? Was the Marxist and anarchist extreme of Eastern European Jews a minority that nevertheless organized well enough to transform their co-ethnics into a reliable leftist block in the new country? Did the Jews who left Eastern Europe “self select,” as traditional and more pious Jews remained? If you know how to make sense of Jewish American politics, please help.