T. Mitchell: Jewish ‘abolitionists’ (J Street)

T. Mitchell: Jewish ‘abolitionists’ (J Street)

Inspired by his attendance at the J Street conference last week, this posting from independent scholar, Dr. Thomas Mitchell, draws parallels between the historical development of Jewish/Zionist peace groups and the evolution of the anti-slavery cause in the United States:

The progress of the Jewish peace movement, which began here in the 1980s, can be compared with an earlier American political movement—the antislavery movement. The antislavery movement went through three distinct phases characterized by different political parties. For purposes of alliteration I shall dub these the “pioneer,” “pragmatic,” and “power” stages.

The pioneer stage was the longest, lasting from the creation of the abolitionist movement in the early 1830s to the creation of the Free Soil Party in August 1848. Tired of being lied to by professional politicians from the two main parties, the abolitionists created their own political party, the Liberty Party, in 1840. But because they were Evangelical Protestants rather than professional politicians they tended to be self-righteous and overtly religious rather than pragmatic. The Liberty Party presidential candidate received about two percent of the vote in the 1844 election.

In the Jewish peace movement, the pioneer stage began with the creation of Americans for Peace Now in the early 1980s and also with input from predecessors of Meretz USA, especially Americans for Progressive Israel/Hashomer Hatzair. But the equivalent of the Liberty Party was Brit Tzedek V’Shalom.

In the next phase, the pragmatic stage, a figure from the Liberty Party, Salmon P. Chase, frustrated by the lack of political instinct among the Liberty men, started corresponding with antislavery figures from the two main parties. In August 1848, he effected a merger of the antislavery wings of the Massachusetts Whig Party and the New York Democratic Party with the Liberty Party and individuals across the North. Three months later, the Free Soil Party nominee, former President Martin Van Buren, received 14 percent of the vote in the North (10 percent nationally). The party also elected eight members of Congress and helped to elect four others from the Whigs.

But two years later, the Compromise of 1850, a compromise settlement on slavery issues between the two geographic sections, seemed to put an end to slavery. The Free Soilers atrophied and were reduced to four and then three congressmen, although they also managed to elect two senators. The New York Democrats, over half of the Free Soil Party, returned to their former party. The Free Soilers were little more than the core of former Liberty men by the next presidential election.

The power stage began in May 1854 with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which nullified the Missouri Compromise of 1820. This led to an upsurge of antislavery and anti-Southern sentiment in the North. This sentiment led to the merger of the Free Soilers and antislavery Northern Whigs to form the Republican Party in July 1854. The Whig Party disappeared over the next two years as its members joined either the Republicans or the nativist anti-Catholic Know Nothings in the Northeast. In 1856, by astute maneuvering that split the Know Nothing party in two, the Republicans became the natural successor to the Whigs and the opposition party.

Six years later, the Republicans were in the White House and controlled the Congress. Because of the foolishness of the Southern secessionists, the antislavery movement finally had a legal justification to seek an end to slavery in the South rather than merely an end to its expansion.

J Street’s successful conference was the equivalent of the 1848 election, in that the Jewish/Zionist peace movement is embarking upon its “pragmatic” stage. It is now dependent on outside factors to determine if it will be able to reach the third stage (“power”). These factors depend largely on developments in the Middle East—among the Palestinians and Israelis: Can the Palestinians develop a united pragmatic leadership? Can the Israeli center-left recover? Can Obama win a second term? These factors will determine the length of the second phase and if it moves into the power stage.

By | 2009-11-02T14:33:00-05:00 November 2nd, 2009|Blog|0 Comments

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