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“Abolish Child Slavery”: Two Jewish girls on a Labour Day parade in New York City, c.1909

A few years ago, when Michael Barnett was driving to synagogue, he noticed that the banner declaring support for Israel outside had been replaced by one reading “Save Darfur”. Why concern for the security of the Jewish state had been superseded by the welfare of a distant region with no obvious connection to the Jews in the hierarchy of this community’s priorities aroused Barnett’s interest.

A political scientist at George Washington University with an interest in humanitarianism, Barnett recognised that this occurrence at one synagogue reflected rather well the prevailing mood in the American Jewish community, and set out to investigate its causes and what it signified. The result is a book about the foreign policies of American Jews.

To be clear, this is not, as one might have expected, a book about Jews in American foreign policy: names like Kissinger and Albright, Morgenthau and Podhoretz, Elliot Abrams and Dennis Ross, among the leading Jewish practitioners, scholars and influencers of American foreign policy, go all but unmentioned. Instead, “Jewish foreign policy” for Barnett is “the attempt by Jewish individuals and institutions to mobilise and represent the Jewish community for the purpose of protecting Jewish interests and advancing a vision of global justice inspired by Jewish political and religious thought.”

Barnett presents a historical survey of developments in American Jewish cultural and political life that pertain to the community’s attitude to events beyond American borders. The notable episodes in this survey include the settlement and acculturation of Jewish immigrants in the latter half of the 19th century; the surge of American Zionism in the first half of the 20th century; the American Jewish view on the League of Nations and minority rights, reaction to the Holocaust, and involvement in the United Nations and human rights in that same period; the campaign to free Soviet Jewry in the 1970s; the vacillating relationship between American Jewry and the State of Israel; and the current American Jewish interest in social justice and tikkun olam (“repair of the world”). The book does not break new ground in terms of research, but it usefully brings together important episodes in American Jewish history.

The two aforementioned purposes of American Jewish foreign policy occupy Barnett throughout his study: the protection of Jewish interests (what he calls “the Jewish Problem” of potential harm to Jews by non-Jews); and advancing a vision of global justice (what he calls “the Jewish Question” of the relationship between Jews and the world). The first reflects a more particularist or “tribalist” or “nationalist” stance, which is a more conservative politics; the second speaks to a more universalist or “prophetic” or “cosmopolitan” approach, which is more leftist. Both have always been present in American Judaism, hence Barnett speaks of the “foreign policies” of American Jews. But he does argue — rightly — that American Jewish foreign policy “is more cosmopolitan than tribal”.

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