Book chapter

Religious Traditions in Politics: Judaism (2019)

in: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics

Abstract

Lacking sovereignty, a well-developed theology of politics, and a central organizing mechanism, the Jewish political experience is unique among the three Abrahamic faiths. Apart from research on the political content implicit in Jewish scriptures, there has been little scholarship on what Jews do when they engage in political action. Using a contextual framework, this article examines the politics of Jews by reviewing both single-country studies and the few extant cross-national analyses. In considering why Jewish political behavior differs from one place to another, political process theory and Medding's theory of Jewish interests guide the analysis. Medding argued that Jewish politics is primarily a response to threats perceived in the political environment. The ability of Jewish communities to resist such threats depends largely on the rules governing the political environment, the political opportunity structure. Where Jews are a majority and control the rules, as in the state of Israel, they have adopted a regime that prioritizes the Jewish character of the state against perceived threats from the country's Arab citizens. Where Jews are a minority, as in the United States, their ability to control the political environment is limited. However, the political rules of the game embodied in the U.S. Constitution have levelled the playing field to the advantage of religious minorities like Jews. Specifically, by rejecting "blood and soil" citizenship and denying the religious character of the state, those rules provide Jews and other minorities a valuable resource and access to sympathetic allies in the political system. Hence American Jews have been able to counter what they perceive as the major threat to their political interests—a replacement of the secular state by a confessional regime. Focusing on threats, the political opportunity structure, and political context helps to anchor Jewish political studies in research on ethnic political cohesion and to bring such research into the scholarly mainstream.