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17 - Judaism and democracy in America

from Section 3 - Living in America

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 May 2006

Dana Evan Kaplan
Affiliation:
University of Miami
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Summary

In the mid-nineteenth century, the aptly named Know Nothings exempted America’s Jews from their suspicion of Catholics and recent immigrants. The Know Nothings felt that “however repugnant their religion may be, their religion is Republican…. Indeed, the Jews were the first Republican people in the world.” In their view, the Jews posed no threat to American democracy, having conformed their communal life and religious world view to American democratic norms and standards. With no clerical hierarchy or manifest loyalty to a foreign power, the Jews were able to accept and embrace the values of a free republic. Indeed, this Know Nothing author believed that the intrinsic and historic form of Jewish polity was republican, because of the Jews’ affinity for freedom and self-government

Despite the tarnished source, this dyspeptic compliment was correct in pointing out that the vast majority of American Jews had internalized the ethos of American democracy in a thoroughgoing way. Fundamental themes of constitutional democracy such as the derivation of authority from the consent of the governed, equality before the law, and the primacy of rights figure early on in American Jewish communal life and correspondence. The constitutions of early American synagogues, for example, transparently reflect the constitutional norms of the young democracy, often moderating earlier Jewish and republican motifs in favor of democratic egalitarianism. American Jews postulated a unique affinity between Jewish political and social ideals and those of the United States to such a degree that one scholar discerns a “cult of synthesis” as a persistent focus of American Judaism.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2005

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