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Civic Republicanism: Good for the Jews

The ancient roots of communal liberty

Walt Disney Television/Getty

In 2016, the Jewish magazine Tablet marked the pending Thanksgiving holiday with an essay outlining the Jewish influences on the nation’s great day of civic-minded feasting. In “Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims’ American Jewish Holiday,” Ed Simon reported that Benjamin Franklin had recommended that the American republic adopt as its national seal a portrayal of “Moses in the Dress of a High Priest standing on the Shore, and Extending his Hand Over the Sea, Thereby Causing the Same to Overwhelm Pharaoh.” Simon also noted that “the Puritans from whom Franklin descended had been comparing their own arrival in the New World to the story of Exodus for more than a century.” These colonial settlers, Simon declared, were the “inheritors of a profoundly Judaic vision.”

For the first Puritan exiles in the New World, the connection between their errand into the wilderness and the Mosaic saga was clear. Simon argues that John Winthrop’s 1630 Atlantic passage aboard the Arbella with his flock of Puritans to establish the future Commonwealth of Massachusetts represented the first of many American “enactments” of the Exodus story. The journalist and social critic Jim Sleeper agrees. Sleeper, who is Jewish, was raised in the Massachusetts town of Longmeadow, still populated by descendants of its original Puritan settlers. He grew up to become a student of what he calls the “Puritan-Hebrew synthesis”—a fertile brand of theological inquiry that helped launch the American civic-republican tradition. These early European settlers in the New World, he says, also adopted “Hebraic communal discipline,” as ballast to the relentless Puritan focus on individual salvation.

Sleeper argues that the heirs to Winthrop’s civic-religious vision established a fundamental republican principle as this founding synthesis took hold—namely, a strong belief in the reciprocity of “personal autonomy and communal obligation,” and of “public obligation and inner integrity.” He quotes Winthrop’s admonition to his fellow Arbella passengers: “It is a true rule,” he told them, “that particular estates cannot subsist in the ruin of the public.”

Sleeper laments that the Puritans eventually sacrificed their communal ethic on the altar of commercial greed—a harbinger, he thinks, of many of America’s “present dilemmas.”

Political scientist Daniel J. Elazar has argued that the basic principles of republican government have been immanent in the Judaic tradition from ancient times. Elazar enumerated the Torah’s main requirements for an acceptable Jewish polity: It must be just, pursuing justice as an end in itself; it must provide succor to the less fortunate member of society; and it must be based on the consent of the governed, requiring active participation by its members in the governing process. This last mandate represents the heart of republicanism. Elazar compares Jews to the Swiss, who, he says, “have emphasized individual liberty within the community, not apart from it.” In drawing out this affinity, Elazar was likely referencing Benjamin R. Barber’s pioneering work, The Death of Communal Liberty: A History of Freedom in a Swiss Mountain Canton. Barber posited that classical liberalism’s single-minded emphasis on maximizing individual freedom was an extreme reaction to the oppressive restrictions on individual liberty under feudalism, a system the Swiss never directly experienced. This was arguably also true of the Jews, who often inhabited their own separate ghettos and villages during the Middle Ages.

In his article “Jewish Republicanism”—which focuses on the underlying political philosophy of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding leader—Nir Kedar offers a different twist on the relation between individual freedom and communal solidarity. Ancient republicanism held that humans are political animals, who need cohesive, vibrant political communities in order to thrive, so nurturing the public sphere was the dominant priority. After the modern world embraced the concept of “individual sovereignty,” however, the role of the res publica had to be reconceptualized as the primary means to help citizens realize their individual freedom. This imperative helped democratize a political philosophy that at its origins was more elitist than not—and, in Kedar’s account, Ben-Gurion was a pivotal figure in this modern democratic articulation of older republican ideals. The ultimate purpose of Zionism for Ben-Gurion was not, he argues, simply to create a sovereign Jewish state; rather, such a state was charged with enhancing individual Jews’ ability to achieve sovereignty in their own personal lives. Thus Ben-Gurion gave this advice to the organizers of the socialistic kibbutzim: “The subject of partnership is man, and the kibbutz will succeed only if it manages to cultivate not only the partnership, but the partners as well; and if it always thinks of the individual in the kibbutz ... his uniqueness and individuality.”

These ancient and modern Jewish brands of republicanism—like the Anglo-Hebraic version that took root in the New World—involve an interplay of individual freedom and communal liberty. For Ben-Gurion, Kedar says, the mechanism for integrating them was the state, or mamlakhtiyut. In Ben-Gurion’s usage, that Hebrew term took in the republican concepts of civic consciousness—“the individual’s responsibility to his/her fellow citizens, to the public domain and the common weal”—and civic affinity, a broad recognition of communal imperatives that “do not derive from a primordial attachment” to an ethnic or religious group. Through the model of civic affinity, Ben-Gurion was able to ensure the formal inclusion of Arab citizens in the Israeli polity.

Neither civic consciousness nor civic affinity is thriving in the world today, certainly not in the United States and maybe not so much in Israel either. Sleeper worries that “a liberal capitalist republic must ultimately rely on citizens voluntarily upholding public virtues and beliefs—reasonableness, forbearance, a willingness to discover one’s self-interest in serving public interests—that neither the liberal state nor capitalist markets do much to nourish or enforce.” Civic republicanism, it seems, finds itself at the edge of a precipice—and liberal democracy, which depends on it for sustenance, might not be far behind.