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2011-2012 Jews & Political Life

How have Jews thought about and acted in politics? What can we learn about political life by comparing Jews to other ethnic or religious groups? The Frankel Institute invites scholars to reconsider Jewish political thought and behavior in sovereign and diasporic conditions. Jewish ideas are largely absent from the academic study of political theory, and political analysis has little place in Judaic studies despite renewed interest in a Jewish political tradition. The theme aims to mitigate these two absences by studying and bringing to light Jewish political ideas and patterns of Jewish political behavior, identifying what they share with other traditions and what is unique to them. Defining politics as “the authoritative allocation of values,” particularly by communities or governments, the Frankel Institute invites scholars to focus on any geographic area and era, and to work with different methods and styles of inquiry. It is hoped that diverse ideas and behavioral patterns expressed in Jewish texts and by Sephardi, Ashkenzi, and other Jews will be explored.
Several significant dimensions characterize “Jews and Political Life”: political thought, political behavior, communal autonomy, and sovereignty. Jews have experienced politics both as a sovereign people and a dispersed minority, as rulers and ruled. Jews often failed politically, but over many centuries they managed to survive through strategies of the weak, especially shtadlones (intercession), exemplified in the Biblical Book of Esther. In the late 19th century new Jewish strategies of mobilization and assertiveness emerged and took the form of political movements such as Bundism and Zionism. What can be learned about Jewish strategies of political behavior when considered in relation to political theory? The Frankel Institute theme year seeks to place these dimensions of “Jews and Political Life” in dialogue.
A third dimension of Jewish political experience is communal autonomy within sovereign states. This is a remarkable example of authority without sovereignty, legitimacy without power. Jews had relatively few instruments of power (the ability to coerce). However, in many places and times Jewish communities that had no power, had authority (the ability to command behavior without using force). As long they paid taxes and met their military and civic obligations, Jewish communities (kehillot) could see to the religious, educational, health and welfare interests of their people. Kehillot developed a panoply of modern institutions: burial societies, communal assemblies, charitable organizations, infirmaries, schools, and the like, presaging the modern welfare state, planting the seeds of self-governance and autonomy, and preserving administrative and organizational skills and habits that were to serve a sovereign state in the mid-twentieth century.
The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the first Jewish state in 1,878 years, launched a new era in Jewish politics. Israel presents unfamiliar challenges to a people that had been defined in large measure and ruled by others over the centuries. What exactly is a “Jewish state:” one with a Jewish majority, one guided by Jewish law (halacha), or where Jewish culture (however defined) predominates? Is it an ethnic state, devoted to the interests of a particular people, or a civic state, which unites people of different ethnicities under a common democratic ideal? Can Israel be a “Jewish state” and still be a democracy, when one of five Israeli citizens is not Jewish?
Scholars are invited to explore thought and experiences that are not necessarily unique to Jews but are closely associated with their historical and contemporary experiences. This exploration can be done by social scientists, historians, literary analysts, philosophers, students of religion, and others. Ideally, fellows would work together so that a cohesive volume on Jews and politics would be produced.

The 2011-12 Institute Annual is available online, and features essays by all of the fellows highlighting their research on "Jews & Political Life".


Gershon Bacon
Bar-Ilan University
"The Politicization of the Hasidic Masses in Poland: The Case of Alexander (Aleksandrow) Hasidim, 1900-1930"

Olena Bagno-Moldavski
Stanford University
"Aetiology of the FSU Jewish minorities' political culture in Israel, Germany and Ukraine"

Miriam Bodian
University of Texas - Austin
"An Argument for Religious Toleration: The Inquisition Defense of a Seventeenth-Century Portuguese Jew"

Mia Bruch
Stanford University
"Theory and Practice: American Jews and the Science of Democracy"

Zvi Gitelman
University of Michigan
"Politics and Perspectives on the Holocaust in the Wartime Soviet Union"

Brian Horowitz
Tulane University
"The Development of Russian Zionism as a Social Movement"

Melissa Klapper
Rowan University
"Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace: American Jewish Women's Pre-World War II Activism"

Benjamin Pollock
Michigan State University
"Esotericism and Enlightenment: Salomon Maimon between Politics and Metaphysics"

Michael Schlie
Indiana University
"Franz Rosenzweig, Leo Strauss, and the End of Political Theology"

Nancy Sinkoff
Rutgers University
"'Last Witness': Lucy S. Dawidowics, the New York Intellectuals, and the Politics of Jewish History"

Andrew Sloin
Earlham College
"Pale Fire: The Jewish Revolution in White Russia, 1917-1929"

Sammy Smooha
University of Haifa
"Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State: The Palestinian-Arab Minority as the Litmus Test"

Kenneth Wald
University of Florida
"The Political Behavior of American Jewry"

Herbert Weisberg
Ohio State University
"The Distinctive Jewish-American Voter"

Lenore Weitzman
George Mason University
"The Politics of Jewish Divorce Law Reform: Agunah Activists in the US, Canada and Israel"