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I am a liberal.

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I am proud to call myself a liberal. Although, nowadays the term has come to be associated with so many different positions on almost any political, social, or religious issue, I cannot find a more appropriate word to describe myself.

One of my favorite school teachers was a man called Helmut Dan Schmidt. Back in prewar Germany he had been a student of the political scientist Richard Koebner, who had made a study of imperialism. After the war and Koebner’s death, Schmidt collected his papers and edited them into a book that was published in 1964 entitled Imperialism: The Story and significance of a Political Word, 1840-1960. (The authors are given as Richard Koebner and Helmut Dan Schmidt.) The gist of the book is the way a word, a term that was once regarded as positive, constructive, and benevolent came to be regarded as cruel, aggressive, and associated with dominance and cultural and human destruction. In some ways I feel the same thing has happened to “liberalism”.

Growing up in the UK, there were three political parties. The Conservatives were associated with aristocratic, upper-class, snobbish, wealthy, toffee-nosed snobs and nouveaux riches, more often than not anti-Semitic and xenophobic. Upwardly mobile Anglo-Jews desperately wanted to be accepted by them. The Labour Party was the socialist party of the downtrodden and the poor, workers, intellectuals, and the one most Jews felt comfortable with. Although it too had its share of anti-Semites, such as Ernest Bevin, the postwar foreign minister, it also had philo-Semites such as Aneurin Bevan and his wife Jennie Lee, and a significant number of Jewish members of Parliament. These two parties dominated the political scene. There was a small Liberal Party that tried to hold the middle ground but rarely had any impact. Once powerful, now weak. My father used to joke that it was pointless to vote for a party that all of its members of Parliament could turn up in one taxi. It illustrated how politically unattractive the middle ground was and is. My family all voted Labour.

How things have changed. I don’t think any self-respecting Jew could now vote for the Labour Party of Jeremy Corbyn, riddled with anti-Semites and anti-Zionists. The Conservative Party has become by far the more sympathetic to Jews and relatively pro-Israel (though it still instructs the delegation to the UN to avoid supporting Israel in public and can fire a minister for being seen as too friendly towards it). But it is as divided on itself as the Republicans are. Its hard to tell what they want. And the Liberals are still hanging in there, but no one takes them too seriously, and they too have their share of nasty, sick anti-Semites.

In my youth liberalism was the ideology of Hobbes, Locke, Hume, and Adam Smith. It stood for individuality, meritocracy, free trade, wealth, and personal responsibility. But it also had a very strong vein of utilitarianism that was predicated on finding a just, fair way of running society, which both protected and supported trade and wealth, while at the same time seeking to protect the poor, the weak, and the disadvantaged (without overindulgence). In terms of philosophical outlook, it was empirical, scientific, and morally responsible. Its banner was freedom of action and choice, so long as others are protected. In other words, everything my Jewish tradition stood for (in theory, if not practice). The trouble is that extremists, in religion and in politics, are always more passionate, more single-minded, and more determined. The extremes attract dangerous, simplistic totalitarians.

My liberalism was and is open to good ideas coming from either side. Not being a relativist, that everything is just as valid as everything else. But being open to see if some idea or policy works or not. Listen to other points of view, relish debate, and avoid dogma. Socialism, on the other hand, has always been linked to dogmas that included command economies and nationalization, which simply did not stand the test of reality and have nowhere produced a society that is any more free of corruption than capitalism.

Yet unadulterated capitalism without welfare speaks only accumulation, greed, and selfishness. The only place in between was and is liberalism, with its emphasis on individuality and freedoms, as well as moral responsibility and a just society, which would be judged morally on how it treated the weakest of its citizens rather than the strongest or richest or most politically connected. This is where the wealthy who contribute to a better world by tackling specific challenges, rather than ideological ones, come from.

But now in the minds of many, liberalism has come to be associated with dogma, too. Liberal Judaism has come to mean abandoning Jewish practice. Liberalism now means you cannot agree with any kind of nationalism. But I think some nationalism can be good, as well as bad. Liberalism has come to mean you have to be pro-choice, which means you cannot not also be pro-life. I am both. I think abortion may be legitimate under certain circumstances, but I also think the fetus should be regarded with sanctity and respect. I hate capital punishment. But I despise prison systems, except for those who threaten the lives of others. The American justice system fails both sides. I think people should donate organs, but I object to imposing it universally. I hate the very idea of killing animals for food. But I would not dream of imposing my preferences, or indeed my religion, on others. I think the Second Amendment of the American Constitution might have had a purpose to fend off the British army 200 years ago, but now it is clearly detrimental to the lives of thousands of Americans each year.

What is often called Classical Liberalism is in favor of free markets and free choices where they do not impinge on the lives of others. Liberals have come to recognize the importance of welfare for society but strive to avoid dependency. They recognize that without creating wealth, welfare cannot be properly funded. In contrast to the left, liberalism values obligations over rights. In Jewish terms again, it is the distinction between what I can achieve and what I can receive.

The liberal sees government as responsible for protecting its citizens and enabling them, creating the conditions that afford the possibility of fulfilling as many dreams as possible, in whichever way they personally desire that does not detract from others—given that some people simply cannot or will not take advantage of such benefits.

The trouble with the left is that it often seeks to destroy customs, traditions, and differences, either in the name of market efficiency or to pander to vested interests. To give a current example—the perfectly laudable pursuit of autonomy and the recognition of different sexual, religious, racial, and cultural preferences has led to a situation where when one group feels hard done by, it tries to silence or impose its prejudices on others. Democrats fairly and reasonably wanted to remove sexual and religious restrictions. But in so doing, they ended up coercing religious and social sentiments they deemed antipathetic. For example insisting that Catholic adoption agencies cannot discriminate in favor of those who uphold Catholic values. That’s what the Soviets and Maoists tried. The liberal says protect, by all means give rights, but do not impose one set of moral or religious values where another set of individuals’ rights are not being threatened. There is minimum interference and maximum interference. The liberal is in favor of minimum, knowing it is not perfect, but it is the lesser of two evils.

People of color or various ethnic and religious groups can and must legitimately insist on being validated and demand that those whom they live amongst have no right to discriminate. But they are often insisting that anything they perceive as a slight must be eradicated. That cannot be acceptable. Why can’t whites validate their history, warts and all, as much as blacks can and should, with their warts and all? Christians, Muslims, Jews, and the rest? History is predicated on different narratives. What needs to be injected is respect for another narrative, even if it has made mistakes. Who has not in human history?

One of the reasons American society is so confounded by Trump is that he is neither Left nor Right. He can sound like both and neither—perhaps because he does not know himself, for certain. In which case he, too, might be a liberal, if he were cable of thinking that through.

The liberal solution is to try to work towards reconciliation and compromise rather than a fight with a winner-take-all outcome. Engagement rather than conflict. Knowing that there is no such thing as perfection or a solution that pleases everyone. Wherever we look, this seems hard to achieve, but this is what we must strive to do. It is this give-and-take that has enabled humanity to thrive so far, despite the awful setbacks. We fail precisely when one group tries to obliterate another. Perhaps this why the Torah refuses to give its approbation to any one model of governance. We have examples of aristocracy, meritocratic, judges, kings and rabbis and now democracy. None is perfect.

To hell with politics, I often think. Except, we need someone to govern. It doesn’t happen automatically. But why do we humans make such terrible messes of it all? I comfort myself with the thought that I can’t solve everyone else’s problems. But at least I can try to take care of my own.

My Haredi friends like to tell me that those who walk in the middle of the road will get knocked down. I reply that my way I can get a view of the shop windows on both sides of the street. Which is why I so value liberalism, why I am still proud to call myself a liberal…on my terms!

6 thoughts on “I am a liberal.

  1. You are far too nice to compare yourself with Trump. You are nothing like him. He should have never been president in the first place. He should have been in prison for his harassment, rape and any violation of women. There is plenty of evidence on youtube and more serious news articles about his attitude towards women and even his youngest daughter. He admitted himself he does not respect women, bragged about harassing them just because he is rich and gets away with everything. He talked about his daughter as if she was a piece of meat from the moment she was born. I had no idea what kind of man he is until I saw and read everything about that guy. He talked against Mexicans and all Muslims being criminals. Most of the things he said he does himself what crimes against women concern. Even his current wife makes a miserable face being with him. He praised Putin and the pimp from Lolita express. I actually believe all the accusations the women made against him even raping a 13 year-old at the Lolita express. Since he was elected he destroyed as many political relationships as possible besides not keeping his promises which was very disappointing to his voters. He betrayed Israel by telling the Russians (whom he is so fond of apparently) how terrorists smuggle bombs into Israel. There was an article mentioning bombs in laptops. Israel and other democratic countries were most shocked about that. Even the UK has a straint relationship with him from day one. He got rid of Obama care which is like NHS and closed down women’s clinics. Lots of people can no longer have the care they need. The medical care in the USA is very expensive and most people cannot even afford health insurance. I would not be able to either. Even the NHS here in the UK has too many cuts. It must be a complete disaster in the USA especially now. He did so many bad things that I do not even want to hear about it anymore. I even feel sick seeing that man on the internet.
    He is self-confessed chauvinist, sexist, sexual predator and narcissist. He is not liberal at all. I do not know any other politician or famous person who have admitted their crimes in any way. Usually no matter how bad they are they are hiding their true self.
    You may ignore many things but your nothing like him. You are a liberal. I agree with that.
    I think the problem here is that a president the moment they get elected they are like an absolute monarch. They have too much power. Not even a party can discipline a bad president. There are also not enough people to elect most times like the last election. None of them was really appealing to the population. I hope that the next election has better candidates and maybe more. Someone has to tidy up Trump’s mess later on. It is going to be a huge challenge.

  2. Sabine I think you have misread my blog. I cannot find anywhere anything that suggests that I comapre myself to Trump. Heaven forbid. He stands for everything I despise. But so too do most politicians regardless of party. All I do say is that not everything his administation has done is bad.

  3. You said he might be liberal. He is neither left nor right. Then you said you are liberal. That sounded very much like comparing yourself. I am glad you did not mean that. You said several times in your other blocks how popular he is. He is no longer popular as he is shown he is a bad politician himself who does not even keep any of his promises. If anything went right it was not thanks to him but to other people in his party who managed to persuade him to do the right thing for a change. He does not understand politics at all. My mother knows more about it then me and what is going on. She reads political articles all the time. In Europe is he definitely known as the worst president the USA ever had. I don’t want him anywhere near me. I would be terrified.

  4. Local elections are coming up. I am not for Conservative. They have never like the less fortunate rather poor and disabled people like me. They have done a lot of damage for the disadvantage of people who need benefit, support and the NHS and for Europeans who live here since the Referendum and other new rules long before that. I would not be surprised if the British who live in other EU countries might suffer from that, too. Normally the Labour was for the poor. Now I am really confused. You seemed to be saying many parties hate Jewish people all of a sudden and do not care about people at all. Maybe I should go for a small party which has no significance. I can only vote in local election, anyway. I have no British passport.

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