I’ve explored this question before, though not nearly with the depth that a thinker like Michael Walzer approaches the question. In this Dissent article (yes, I’m catching up with the Dissent copies next to my bed) he explores all the theories. Perspective of a history of cultural marginalism; practical necessity of a tolerant, open, liberal society; The powerful imagery of Exodus and the Passover traditions; The theological triumph of Hillel over Shammai; cultural values underscoring education and intellectualism; philosophies and theologies which do not shy away from ambiguity; communalism of closed communities; social identity; etc.
The end of the article raises a new question to my intellectual experience; namely the concern of Walzer that Jews may become a “banal minority.”
AT THIS point, I would like to make a more personal argument—that of a participant-observer in Jewish diaspora politics—in favor of the survival and continual re-invention of Jewish liberalism.
Writing in the 1950s, Hayim Greenberg warned that American Jews were in grave danger of becoming “merely an ethnic group in the conventional sense of the term. . . no more the Congregation of Israel, but only a group with a long and heroic history, with memories which, when cultivated, can arouse much justified pride (thus still not quite a mere banal minority) but without the consciousness of a specific drama and tension in its life.”
Many critics of diaspora Jewry would go further today and argue that the historic memories, since they are only rarely cultivated, are themselves fading and that we are indeed becoming a banal minority. The Jews are one more interest group, different from the others only in the obvious sense that our interests sometimes conflict with the others’—as is happening in the U.S. in the case of Jews and their relations with American blacks and Hispanics. Such conflicts can impose a certain transient unity on the different groups, but they are unlikely to revive heroic memories.
Walzer goes on to argue that Jewish neoconservatism embraces the interest group reduction, defending “only Jewish interests and not Jewish values,” resulting not only in the near totality of cultural assimilation, but the loss of an history. Food for thought.