The crucial but underrated gift of being ‘a people apart’

Many liberal Jews don’t want to know about Jewish exceptionalism because it runs smack into the cardinal precepts of liberal dogma—universalism, the rejection of cultural singularity and the eradication of difference as “discrimination.”

A Star of David pointer over the first word of the book of Genesis. Credit: Odelia Cohen/Shutterstock.
A Star of David pointer over the first word of the book of Genesis. Credit: Odelia Cohen/Shutterstock.
Melanie Phillips
Melanie Phillips
Melanie Phillips, a British journalist, broadcaster and author, writes a weekly column for JNS. Currently a columnist for The Times of London, her personal and political memoir, Guardian Angel, has been published by Bombardier, which also published her first novel, The Legacy, in 2018. To access her work, go to:

Distressingly, more and more Jews are turning against Israel and recycling anti-Jewish narratives.

This is particularly true in America, where the majority of Jews support the Democratic Party, which has largely signed up to “intersectionality,” the dogma of overlapping systems of presumed prejudice based on race, gender and class.

Earlier this year, David Bernstein, the former head of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, launched the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values.

This aims to counter the core of intersectionality—critical social justice theory—that divides the world into oppressors and oppressed along Marxist lines. This theory also places Jews squarely in the oppressors’ camp, holding that they are not worthy of self-determination or permitted self-definition.

Bernstein is so worried by the embrace of this dogma by liberal Jews and the way it has captured mainstream Jewish organizations that he wants a “strategic reset” for the Jewish community.

In an essay for eJewish Philanthropy earlier this month, he wrote: “Aligning ourselves too closely with the progressive movement, especially insofar as such alignment requires conformity to its pieties and credos, gives succor to an ideology that will ultimately harm us. Many of the civil rights causes supported by the progressive left are no longer consonant with Jewish interests and values.”

Some of the reasons why so many American Jews have been sucked into this fetid swamp are obvious. The “progressive” side of politics, whose support by so many diaspora Jews dates back to their forbears in Eastern Europe, has been almost wholly radicalized by Marxist ideology.

The desire to bend to the prevailing winds has always characterized the majority of Diaspora Jews since they believe that this will afford them protection. So in America, they now bend themselves to a prevailing culture that itself mandates coerced conformity.

However, this trend has a more profound cause. This is that so many American Jews have turned away from religious Judaism.

Far worse, they claim that “social justice” ideology embodies Jewish values when it actually negates them by promoting selfishness, injustice and gross abuses of power. They thus reveal that they don’t know what Judaism actually is.

Someone who understands far better than most this terrible trajectory is Ruth Wisse, emeritus professor of Yiddish literature at Harvard, and a tireless defender of Israel and the Jewish people.

Her newly published memoir, Free as a Jew, charts the devastating disintegration of academia which she witnessed at first hand. In her two decades at Harvard, she watched in mounting horror as reason, scholarship and freedom of expression were steadily extinguished by intersectional ideology.

She watched this regime transform the universities from being the crucible of reason, enlightenment and cultural renewal into engines of irrationality, hatred and Western destruction.

She also grasped that anti-Israel and anti-Jewish attitudes were intimately involved in this cultural onslaught. As she writes:

“All tyrannies, I realized, were not anti-Semitic, but all anti-Jewish ideologies are anti-liberal. … Defense of Israel had become the Maginot Line against the enemies of our freedom, and as coalitions of grievance gained intersectional force in the media, the academy, and in the streets, I saw that line buckling before my eyes.”

Even more distressing was the prevalence of liberal Jews who were going along with these ideologies. “The loss of Jewish and liberal moral self-confidence, which is the inevitable by-product of anti-Jewish and anti-liberal politics, is the surest sign of civilizational decline,” she writes.

She thought these trends were becoming embedded not so much through direct tyranny as a culture of capitulation and pusillanimity.

When in 2001 Harvard’s new president, Larry Summers, became embroiled in a controversy about affirmative action, he came under sustained attack from anti-Zionists who, when he opposed the Israel boycott they were promoting, made his Jewishness an issue.

After a professor of African and African-American studies led a campaign labeling Summers a Zionist-racist opponent of free speech, the Harvard president was ousted.

Critically, however, what upset Wisse even more was Summers’s supine failure to defend himself properly against this onslaught, and the refusal by his colleagues to come to his defense—paving the way for subsequent such witch-hunts.

Among the academics who enabled Harvard’s capitulation to anti-Semitism and the corruption of academia were Jews. As Wisse remarks: “For every self-respecting Jew and honest liberal prepared to resist this deterioration, there were ten ready and willing to allow it, and several to fire it up in hopes of reaping its rewards.”

At the heart of such Jewish spinelessness is a desire to fit in. This is what has led so many American Jews to declare, under the banner of tikkun olam (“repair of the world”), that the social-justice agenda embodies Jewish values.

But as Wisse’s friend Hillel Halkin wrote in 2008: “Judaism has value to such Jews to the extent that it is useful, and it is useful to the extent that it can be made to conform to whatever beliefs and opinions they have even if Judaism had never existed.”

In other words, liberal Jews have ruthlessly appropriated—and grievously distorted—what they thought was of most value to them in their Jewish heritage while discarding whatever was onerous or inconvenient.

And what they have discarded, in the name of universalism, is the very essence of Judaism—that the Jewish people are necessarily different and set apart from all other peoples and cultures. For the key feature of Judaism is that its universal application is based upon its unique particularism.

This complex point was wonderfully articulated by Britain’s former chief rabbi, the late Jonathan Sacks, who died a year ago this week and is still most deeply missed.

He taught that, unlike political ideologies based on either the state or the individual, Judaism promotes neither power nor rights. It stands instead for covenantal morality based upon justice, stewardship and compassion. These values, which are unconditional and non-negotiable, lay the essential groundwork for a civilized society.

The paradox of Judaism is that this universally applicable lesson is the result of the Jews’ belief that they are a unique “kingdom of priests” set apart and charged with a Divine mission to live by the moral principles laid down in Mosaic Law.

As Lord Sacks wrote in his book, A Letter in the Scroll, the Jewish principle of diversity and equal respect is founded upon the belief that the Jews themselves were chosen to be set apart—“the people who are called on to be different, to show that for God, difference matters.”

Many liberal Jews, however, don’t want to know about Jewish exceptionalism because this runs smack into the cardinal precepts of liberal dogma—universalism, the rejection of cultural singularity and the eradication of difference as “discrimination.”

Such Jews crave instead to conform. They keep their heads well below the parapet; they are mealy-mouthed in defending Israel (when they aren’t attacking it); they resist anything that makes them stand out from the crowd.

Ostensibly opposing difference, they can’t acknowledge that the tikkun olam they have turned into their creed means supporting the cultural sectarianism of identity politics that divides and ultimately destroys society.

So they tell themselves that it’s somehow a Jewish value to support the anti-white, anti-west, anti-Jewish racists of Black Lives Matter or—obscenely—to say kaddish for Hamas terrorists killed by Israel Defense Forces in Gaza.

Ruth Wisse manages to be such a clear and resolute voice in defense of the Jewish people because she not only understands that the Jews are a people apart, but also, in her lonely and unflinching stand embodies it herself.

Those who do likewise find that, while they might gain respect from the wider world, they come under venomous attack from Jews who try to deny they are different. In so doing, such Jews are—tragically—denying Judaism itself.

Melanie Phillips, a British journalist, broadcaster and author, writes a weekly column for JNS. Currently a columnist for “The Times of London,” her personal and political memoir, “Guardian Angel,” has been published by Bombardier, which also published her first novel, “The Legacy.” Go to to access her work.

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