Modern Jewish politics comprises several overlapping fields of Jewish political activity in the era roughly between the late 18th century and the present. Characteristic of the larger Jewish experience in the modern world, the concepts of “Jewish” and “political” are subject to an immense diversity of competing definitions and interpretations. Nonetheless, in broadest strokes, modern Jewish politics can be understood as the interaction between five types of political activity and five kinds of actors. In this taxonomy, Jewish politics consists of (1) collective mobilization in political movements, both Jewish and non-Jewish; (2) formal self-advocacy and self-representation in domestic, regional, and global political frameworks; (3) legal activism and diplomatic work on behalf of local and distant Jewish communities, especially with regard to issues of citizenship, migration, anti-Semitism, and violence; (4) intellectual and legal projects of collective self-definition within or in opposition to existing conventional categories of modern politics, such as state and nation; and (5) the exercise of political sovereignty in the State of Israel. Each of these spheres in turn is populated by multiple Jewish political actors: (1) individual Jews; (2) Jewish communal groups and legally constituted Jewish substate communities; (3) informal Jewish networks of activists; (4) international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs); and (5) the government of the State of Israel. This essay seeks to map out representative studies and academic resources of all of these different actors and activities, without, however, claiming to present an exhaustive view of any one subject area or topic. The focus throughout is on highlighting works that specifically engage larger questions of Jewish politics from a variety of methodological and ideological viewpoints.
The rapid growth of the field of Jewish political studies is largely a product of the decades since the mid-1970s. Operating under the twin shadows of the Holocaust and the rise of the State of Israel, historians took the lead in foregrounding the study of Zionism and Jewish political responses to anti-Semitism. Often, this work has reflected a deep self-consciousness about the historical impact of renewed Jewish sovereignty. Thus, Biale 1986 and Lederhendler 1989 each offer explicit correctives to the Zionist perception of traditional Jewish society as fundamentally apolitical. Likewise, Schorsch 1994, Yerushalmi 2014 and Elazar 1980 illuminate deeper, longue durée patterns of premodern Jewish meta-politics thrown into question by the dramatic events of the mid-20th century. Reflecting a post-Holocaust sensitivity to the Jewish fate in Europe, Vital 1999 details the centuries-long struggle for Jewish freedom and survival in all its forms, while Diner 2008 seeks to problematize Jewish politics by exposing the European Christian origins of modern Western political thought. Recognizing that the rise of Jewish political movements took place during the age of mass immigration from Eastern Europe to North America and Palestine, Frankel 1981 and Mendelsohn 1993 present important transnational surveys of the emergence of modern Jewish politics.
Biale, David. Power and Powerlessness in Jewish History. New York: Schocken, 1986.
Pioneering account of Jewish political meta-strategies throughout history, challenging the notion that the absence of sovereignty curtailed the possibility of Jewish politics before 1948; written with a critical eye toward post-1967 Israeli political culture.
Diner, Dan. “Ambiguous Semantics: Reflections on Jewish Political Concepts.” Jewish Quarterly Review 98.1 (Winter 2008): 89–102.
Historically informed meditation on the philosophical problem of defining Jewish politics. Highlights the disjunction between the Christian political-theology at the core of modern Western politics and the Jewish diasporic experience.
Elazar, Daniel J. “Some Preliminary Observations on the Jewish Political Tradition.” Tradition 18 (1980): 249–271.
Seminal article in the field of Jewish political studies, framing the topic in terms of the premodern Jewish covenantal model of polity and the consequences of secularization and the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty after 1948.
Frankel, Jonathan. Prophecy and Politics: Socialism, Nationalism, and the Russian Jews, 1862–1917. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
Foundational work in modern Jewish political history, establishing the importance of the transnational dimension of Jewish political movements and the creative interplay between the ostensibly rival ideologies of nationalism and socialism.
Lederhendler, Eli. The Road to Modern Jewish Politics: Political Tradition and Political Reconstruction in the Jewish Community of Tsarist Russia. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Innovative account of the meaning of Jewish politics in the absence of sovereign power and the transformation of communal authority in the encounter with the modern European state.
Mendelsohn, Ezra. On Modern Jewish Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Influential, concise taxonomy of the main trajectories of modern Jewish political behavior across Europe, North America, and Israel. Notable for its tripartite model of Jewish politics in terms of integrationist (liberal), socialist, and nationalist streams.
Schorsch, Ismar. “On the History of the Political Judgment of the Jew.” In From Text to Context: The Turn to History in Modern Judaism. By Ismar Schorsch, 118–132. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1994.
Groundbreaking article challenging the regnant thesis of diasporic Jews as a people without a political history; emphasizes legal status and group cohesiveness as key factors in political consciousness and behavior.
Vital, David. A People Apart: The Jews in Europe, 1789–1939. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Comprehensive political history of modern Jews in the era between the French Revolution and the Holocaust, with excellent contextualization in terms of broader patterns in international diplomacy and politics.
Yerushalmi, Yosef Hayim. “Servants of Kings and Not Servants of Servants: Some Aspects of the Political History of the Jews.” In The Faith of Fallen Jews: Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi and the Writing of Jewish History. Edited by David Myers and Alexander Kaye, 245–276. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2014.
Probing reflection on the centuries-long Jewish pattern of seeking political vertical alliances with medieval monarchs and modern states and its ostensible 20th-century demise.
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