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What is Jewish (If Anything) about Isaiah Berlin’s Philosophy?

Department of History, Stanford University, 450 Serra Mall, Building 200, Stanford CA 94305, USA
Religions 2012, 3(2), 289-319;
Submission received: 23 March 2012 / Revised: 28 March 2012 / Accepted: 31 March 2012 / Published: 13 April 2012


This paper has two central aims: First, to reappraise Isaiah Berlin’s political thought in a historically contextualized way, and in particular: to pay attention to a central conceptual tensions which animates it between, on the one hand, his famous definition of liberalism as resting on a negative concept of liberty and, on the other, his defense of cultural nationalism in general and Zionism in particular. Second, to see what do we gain and what do we lose by dubbing his philosophy Jewish. The discussion will proceed as follows: after describing the conceptual tension (Section 1), I will examine Berlin’s discussion of nationalism and explain why comparisons between him and Hans Kohn as well as communitarian interpretations of him are incomplete and have limited merit. I will continue with a brief discussion of Berlin’s Jewishness and Zionism (Section 3) and explain why I define this position “Diaspora Zionism”. The two concluding sections will discuss Berlin’s place within a larger Cold War liberal discourse (Section 5) and why I find it problematic to see his political writings as part of a Jewish political tradition (Section 6).

1. Introduction

“No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine.” So, at least, asserted the seventeenth-century English metaphysical poet John Donne in one of his most famous meditations, giving birth to a metaphor numerous subsequent authors and commentators have not tired of citing. At least one inhabitant of the British isle, Sir Isaiah Berlin (1909–1997), must have agreed full heartedly with Donne: “I am a social being in a deeper sense than that of interaction with others,” Berlin wrote in his seminal essay “Two Concepts of Liberty” (1958). “I am not disembodied reason. Nor am I Robinson Crusoe, alone upon his island.” What I, the island, really am, Berlin asserted, has much to do with my relation to the continent or other islands in the archipelago:
For am I not what I am, to some degree, in virtue of what others think and feel me to be? When I ask myself what I am, and answer: an Englishman, a Chinese, a merchant, a man of no importance, a millionaire, a convict—I find upon analysis that to possess these attributes entails being recognized as belonging to a particular group or class by other persons in my society, and that this recognition is part of the meaning of most of the terms that denote some of my most personal and permanent characteristics. […] It is not only that my material life depends upon interaction with other men, or that I am what I am as a result of social forces, but that some, perhaps all, of my ideas about myself, in particular my sense of my own moral and social identity, are intelligible only in terms of the social network in which I am (the metaphor must not be pressed too far) an element.
Being “me” and being with others need not become polarized. What I am is intimately tied to the larger collective I see myself as part of. Moreover, Berlin added: the lack of thereof, the feeling of islandish insulation and isolation, the sense I lack proper recognition from others is what prompts me to complain of lack of freedom. Put otherwise, as much as we are free agents, the very way we ascribe meaning to our identity and our sense of freedom depends on our interaction with others, not on what eighteenth century moralists called “moral sentiments” and capacity to be empathic towards others, but on a more prosaic fact: that we must have an audience and interlocutors, for without it vita contemplativa becomes an asylum, and without an audience and a reference group, without this daily interactive experience with others, we would never be able to transcend our alienating individualistic isolation.
“Two Concepts of Liberty,” originally delivered as Berlin’s inaugural lecture as Chichele professor in social and political theory at Oxford University, enjoyed a remarkably rapid process of canonization. Not long after its publication it came to be considered a landmark text in liberal thought, generating ever since a mass industry of commentary and interpretation, and, one might add, an interesting mixture of praise and condemnation. Criticizing excessive individualism, needless to say, was not the kernel of Berlin’s essay. Its two main tasks were to come up with a more precise definition of the term liberty and, secondly, to do so by formulating a conceptual dichotomy separating a positive (and potentially totalitarian) understanding of freedom from a negative (liberal and humane) understanding of the same concept. On the face of it, Berlin’s task was to apply the tools of analytic philosophy on a key concept in political thought, notorious for embracing the utmost heterogeneity of meanings. In a way, one may argue, the essay emerged from Berlin’s deep “philosophical” concern about improper usage of language. And indeed, much of Berlin’s effort becomes easier to understand when we take into consideration the fact he began his academic career as an analytic philosopher of language. Like many others (including Quentin Skinner and other members of the Cambridge School of intellectual history who criticized Berlin for being a sloppy in his methods as historian of ideas), Berlin admired the work of John L. Austin, who posed the same question—How to Do Things With Words?—in the title of his most influential work, showing that “performative utterances” are, in fact, types of acts and that they operate, in a sense, in the world [2].
Yet, to elucidate the meaning of such heavily charged words as liberty, cannot be seen a politically “neutral” act, for the analysis reveals itself as a critique of ideologies. To understand, like Karl Manhheim did in Ideology and Utopia, that “the same word, or the same concept in most cases, means very different things when used by differently situated person,” is one thing [3]. To show that one party holds the truthful definition of the word, while the other party abuses and distorts it, is already something else. And what Berlin sought to do was exactly this: to differentiate what he considered to be the “correct”—i.e., liberal—understanding of the word liberty from the way it was, in his opinion, misunderstood, misused and eventually abused by Nazi and Soviet regimes. This, he made it clear, was not divorced from the realities of his day. Showing what we do with the word liberty allowed him to address the charged ideological landscape of his own time and place. Unsurprisingly, it automatically made “Two Concepts” also into a statement of Cold War Liberalism. Leo Strauss, for instance, recognized it instantaneously. “Berlin's comprehensive formula,” he wrote, “is very helpful for a political purpose—for the purpose of an anti-communist manifesto designed to rally all anti-communists [4]." More dismissive, Ernst Gellner had an even harsher verdict: Berlin, he was reported saying, was nothing but “The C.I.A’s J. S. Mill [5].”
And indeed, in retrospect it is a hard not to see “Two Concepts” as an essay heavily shaped by ideological concerns of the day. But if so, why was it important for Berlin to criticize excessive individualism in this context? Negative liberty, he argued in the same essay, requires certain “frontiers,” separating the private sphere from the public one, and assumes the existence of demarcation that secures a secluded space “within which men should be inviolable.” Why at the very same time did he want to dissociate freedom from that isolated, “island” mentality in which the wants, needs and freedoms of the individual are placed ahead of a sense of social belonging? This question has grave implications about our understanding of Berlin’s political philosophy in particular and liberal thought in general. Given the fact individualism, that “symbolic catchword of immense ideological significance,” as Steven Lukes called it [6], was so often seen as the organizing principle of Liberalism, it is quite surprising to find one of the foundational texts of twentieth century liberal thought containing such a fierce rebuff of that feature of modernity. Berlin’s critique of individual-centered Liberalism demands us to put the conventional reading of Berlin under scrutiny. All too often he is identified as belonging to a group of Cold War refugee liberals who were highly skeptical of any form of collectivism, considered it highly susceptible to authoritarian abuses, and who, as a general rule, preferred to think of society as the outcome of individual projects. If that is indeed the case, why was he insisting that we must go beyond individualism, that liberal political theory should acknowledge humans’ need for association, fraternity, and communal solidarity? And why at the time when nationalism was seen by virtually all leading Cold War liberals as a menace and as the mirror opposite of Liberalism was he defending the politics of recognition and an idea of nationality that seemed as mirror opposite of all that a true enlightened liberal should cherish? Was Berlin simply impossibly inconsistent? Or should we, alternatively, come up with a more nuanced and rich re-appreciation of Cold War Liberalism in general, and the role of Jewish intellectuals in it in particular?
These seemingly abstract, theoretical questions were inherently tied with Berlin's personal life story and particular secular and quintessentially national sense of Jewishness. In his later writings and interviews Berlin talked about his Jewishness more freely, revealing an even more surprising reliance on ethno-national language and metaphors. “When I go to Israel I feel free, I do not feel that I am in a foreign country,” he told Ramin Jahanbegloo. “In Israel I don't particularly feel a Jew, but in England I do. I am neither proud nor ashamed of being good Jew. I am as I am, good or bad. Some people have dark hair, others have blonde hair, some people are Jews as some people are Welsh. For me being a Jew is like having two hands, two feet, to be what one is. Israel is a country where I have a natural affinity with the inhabitants [7].” How could it be, asks historian Pierre Birnbaum, that Berlin found such “naturalist, essentialist conception of Judaism, Herder-like to an extreme that almost seems to fall into the category of biological” what is Liberalism [8]? Birnbaum was not reading between the lines. Karl Popper was equally bewildered after Berlin wrote to him in February 1966 that he “want[s] to claim Herder as pioneer of anti-behaviorist anti-fideist naturalist value/fact distinction [9].” Berlin did exactly this in his essays on Vico and Herder and Popper could not understand why his Oxford colleague would take that dark road which takes him away from the universalistic vision of a rational Open Society he considered the presiding spirit of Liberalism. Berlin made his references to Herder, to be sure, not only quite explicit, and drew a clear line connecting Jewish nationalism with the father of volksgeist:
I think that it is true to say that there are certain basic needs, for example—for food, shelter, security and, if we accept Herder, for belonging to a group of one's own—which anyone qualifying for the description of human being must be held to possess. These are only the most basic properties; one might be able to add the need for a certain minimum of liberty, for the opportunity to pursue happiness or the realization of one's potentialities for self-expression, for creation (however elementary), for love, for worship (as religious thinkers have maintained), for communication, and for some means of conceiving and describing themselves, perhaps in highly symbolic and mythological forms, their own relationship to the environment—natural and human—in which they live.
If that is the case, was Berlin indeed a herald of Liberalism and of the free choice of individuals or an ethno-nationalist apologist in disguise? To be sure, anyone trying to reconcile Berlin's negative-freedom-based Liberalism with his identitarian claim and writings in defense of nationalism is bound to face some grave conceptual tensions. A number of interpreters and political philosophers identified this tension, but only a few tackled it head-on [11]. Their writings on Berlin allowed them to address more general normative questions such as whether one can reconcile liberal freedoms with the value of national belonging and national self-determination, and whether pluralism and cultural nationalism are compatible or mutually exclusive and more. Some even hinted, directly or indirectly, that understanding what liberal nationalism is has clear implications for anyone searching for an imaginative but not utopian normative horizon that may help the state of Israel confront its internal challenges. Predictably, because in a majority of cases these interpretations were dominated by normative considerations they encouraged readers to think about Berlin’s thought in a rather decontextualized way.
I have no intentions of going down that alley. The interpretive role of the intellectual historian, I believe, is neither to address today’s quandaries nor to rescue lost authorial consistency from a thinker whose ideas seem puzzlingly erratic. We need to identify the nodal points of friction and cracks that make Berlin’s philosophy less consistent yet also more complex than previously assumed, and our main effort should not be directed at attempting to solve them. What we need is to explain historically how these tensions came into being and how Berlin’s texts were, in fact, responses to these predicaments and dilemmas. To reiterate: precisely because the aim of this essay is to reassess conceptual tensions and understand them against their historical background, I find it vital to emphasize what this essay shall not do: It will not try unearthing a well-hidden key idea that, if only brought to light, would make Berlin’s philosophy seem surprisingly systematic and consistent all of a sudden, and it will not use Berlin as a jumping point to raise a general normative and political debate about the merits and possibility of liberal nationalism in general or liberal Zionism in particular. What this essay calls for is, first, an understanding of Berlin in his own terms and, second, a more historically-grounded understanding of the inner tensions which characterize his of writings.
A long answer to the questions raised above requires us to examine Berlin's intellectual biography and to see the way in which these conceptual tensions emerged and developed over time. This was done by me elsewhere and will be not repeated here [12]. To examine chronologically the intricate relationship between “life” and “thought,” however, is not the only way in which one can address these questions. A shorter, concise answer to some of the above questions can be offered if we put the theoretical tensions and cracks at the center of our discussion. I will do so by introducing and elucidating one of the conceptual tensions (but not necessarily the only) I find central to Berlin’s thought: the relationship between his conceptions of freedom and Jewish nationality, culminating in what I call Diaspora Zionism. It should be clarified that Diaspora Zionism, is not a term used by Berlin himself but a concept I coined in order to interpret his position. It is, in other words, a hermeneutic device as well as a descriptive category I employ when contextualizing Berlin’s thought. And, as any term “imported” into and “imposed” on Berlin, it calls for scrutiny.
Our discussion will proceed as follows: we shall examine some of Berlin’s views on nationality/ism and explain why comparisons between him and Hans Kohn as well as communitarian interpretations of him are incomplete and have limited merit (Section 2). We shall continue with a brief discussion of Berlin’s Jewishness and Zionism (Section 3) and explore the links which tie his conception of freedom to his Diaspora Zionism (Section 4). The two concluding sections will discuss Berlin’s place within a larger Cold War liberal discourse that was described as “negative Liberalism” or “Liberalism of Fear” (Section 5) and why I find it problematic to see his political writings as part of a Jewish political tradition (Section 6).
Together, these will allow me to also to address a more general question which the title of this paper alludes to, namely what is Jewish (if anything) about this kind of political philosophy? Here again, we can offer a long and short answer. The short answer would be: nothing. It would be wrong and misleading to label Berlin’s philosophy “Jewish” or “Hebraic,” and it would be quite difficult to place in what recent authors describe as a “Jewish political tradition.” In the concluding Section I will give the reasons why. At the very same time, I argue, we cannot ignore Berlin’s Jewishness. It was for him a major (although not the only) generator of predicaments that, eventually, were addressed through text and theory.

2. Nationality/Nationalism: Good, Bad or Ugly?

One of the most striking features of the way in which Western Europe re-invented itself after the two catastrophic total wars is the way in which it shed a legacy of strong statism and replaced blood-thirsty nationalistic chauvinism with more-or-less pacifist politics of conscious animated by a spirit of collaboration, striving towards a peaceful, federalist unification. West Germany was the epitome of that transformation. As Konard Adenauer declared in 1952: “The people must be given a new ideology. It can only be a European one [13].” A superficial, bird’s-eye-view of that remarkable transformation is bound to raise the question which historian James Sheehan asked in his recent book—where have all the soldiers gone [14]? Away with the chauvinistic rhetoric of national glory, and goodbye to the military parades, welcome nonviolent commercial competitiveness and guilt-ridden moralität.
Yet, as much as the rhetoric changed, practices and foundational ideas remained active. Next to and inseparable from the rise of a European “civilian state,” Sheehan reminds us, there was also a not less remarkable decolonization process during which, between 1940 and 1980, more than eighty of the European power’s overseas possessions—inhabited by about 40% of the world’s population—became independent states [15]. Nor was the Wilsonian principle of self-determination abandoned. The presumption that there is an ineluctable link between peoples and nations remained, and still is, the governing principle of international politics. What could be a better illustration of this if not the formula “We the Peoples of the United Nations…” with which the preamble of the UN Charter (1945) opens [16]? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to suggest, then, that exactly because this was the fundamental mode of political argumentation accompanying the demise of Western colonialism, describing emancipation through a national prism and language was, in fact, never off the agenda? In the postwar world nationalism, thus, encapsulates a paradox. It signifies all that was pathological, zealous, abnormal about the European mind and led Europe to its abyss. At the same time, this was still the only genuine way in which political movements, seeking to gain support and international legitimation, could present their demands.
Berlin recognized this paradox. “There is no need to emphasize the obvious fact that the great majority of the sovereign states represented at the Assembly of the United Nations today are actuated in a good deal of their behavior by strong nationalist passions, even more than their predecessors of the League of Nations,” he wrote in 1978 in “Nationalism: Past Neglect and Present Power,” his most famous essay on the subject [17]. Nationalism was, he argued, probably the strongest animating force in modern European history: what started with German and Italian strives for self-rule turned quickly into the dominant trend of European politics and by 1919—into a universal principle. It was a fantastic illustration of the power of ideas, he believed, the way in which an apparently abstract theory of sovereignty shaped maps, stirred wars, and changed the very way in which people think of themselves. Yet, this was hardly an essay of an apologist seeking the rehabilitate nationalism. Nationalism, Berlin stated, was “the elevation of the interests of the unity and self-determination of the nation to the status of the supreme value before which all other considerations must, if need be, yield.” What stirred nationalist movements was a “pathological inflammation of wounded national consciousness,” a sense of superiority and xenophobic hatred of others—whether these were internal minorities or neighboring nations [18]. On other occasions he reiterated this denunciation: “Nationalism is an inflamed condition of national consciousness which can be, and on occasion has been, tolerant and peaceful,” he declared in 1991 [19]. What nationalism “simply means,” he explained to Ramin Jahanbegloo, is “that we say to ourselves that nobody is as good as we are, that we have a right to do certain things solely because we are Germans or Frenchmen [20].” This was not an idea Berlin developed at an old age or one which appears only in his strictly historical essays. “[N]ationalist, communist, authoritarian, and totalitarian creeds of our day,” he wrote in “Two Concepts”, are “[s]ocialized forms” of “the positive doctrine of liberation [21].” The ideology of nationalism rested on a far-fetched theory, which, like many other autocratic regimes, molested the idea of liberation, taking it way beyond any ethically justifiable standard.
Nonetheless, this “positive,” intense “pathological inflammation,” Berlin insisted, should not be equated with the natural sense of collective fate and solidarity, from normal patriotism, and even from that modest sense of pride one derives from a sense of difference which distinguishes his social group from that of others. Nationalism, the bigoted and relatively recent ideology of severe and fanatical particularism, should be distinguished, in other words, from the everlasting need of humans to belong to collectives:
The need to belong to an easily identifiable group had been regarded, at any rate since Aristotle, as a natural requirement on the part of human beings: families, clans, tribes, estates, social orders, classes, religious organizations, political parties, and finally nations and states, were historical forms of the fulfillment of this basic human need.[…] Common ancestry, common language, customs, traditions, memories, continuous occupancy of the same territory for a long period of time, were held to constitute a society [by all major European thinkers]. This kind of homogeneity emphasized the differences between one group and its neighbors, the existence of tribal, cultural or national solidarity, and with it, a sense of difference from, often accompanied by active dislike or contempt for, groups with different customs and different real or mythical origins; and so was accepted as both accounting for and justifying national statehood.
What makes the “need to belong” a central notion in Berlin’s political philosophy is the fact it stands at the point of intersection at which his visions of Liberalism and nationalism meet, rendering both more complex than they appear at first glance. And not less important: the distinction between nationalism and need to belong provided the theoretical kernel for Berlin’s diaspora Zionism. The following quote, taken from Berlin’s 1975 lecture entitled “The Achievement of Zionism,” exemplifies this:
Nationalism often means the pathological condition of national consciousness when, for some reason, it becomes diseased and aggressive towards others. But in the Jewish case, all I mean is awareness of oneself as a community possessing certain internal bonds which are neither superior nor inferior but simply different in some respects from similar bonds which unite other nations. It does not preclude holding a large area of ideals in common with everyone else. This is the normal national consciousness defined by philosophers like Herder.
Anyone familiar with Hans Kohn’s East/West dichotomy, contrasting the “illiberal, ethnic Eastern” nationalism with the “liberal, civic Western” forms of nationalism, can probably recognize the faint echoes of the famous typology in Berlin’s words. In his 1944 magnum opus, The Idea of Nationalism, Kohn promoted a binary view of nationalism, famously arguing that “[w]hile Western nationalism was, in its origin, connected with the concepts of individual liberty and rational cosmopolitanism current in the eighteenth century, the later nationalism in Central and Eastern Europe and in Asia, early tended towards a contrary development [24].” It is hard to underestimate the impact this typology had on the subfield of nationalism studies [25]. Nor is the similarity with Berlin entirely coincidental: after all, like the anti-totalitarian Kohn, Berlin was also part of this Olympic gathering of intellectuals who treated nationality and nationalism, to use a witty remark by Ernst Gellner, as table wine, “- i.e., good for you if taken in moderation, but harmful if used in excess [26].” Kohn’s theories were informed, as Adi Gordon shows, by his own involvement with Zionism and personal life story, and, secondly, were conjoined with his apprehensive anti-totalitarianism, culminating, eventually, in a rather unquestioning Americanophile type of Cold War Liberalism [27].
So maybe what explains the fact that Berlin provides us with so many different accounts of nationalism/nationality has to do with the fact he was thinking through a Kohnian prism about the problem of nationalism? David Miller, who sought to expound the apparent inconsistence of Berlin’s accounts of nationalism, considered the comparison to Kohn a possible “quick-fix solution” to the problem. For can we not rescue Berlin from accusations of theoretical sloppiness by arguing that although he never acknowledged it explicitly in none of his writings, Berlin was “in practice working with a distinction between ‘benign’ and ‘malign’ forms of nationalism, a distinction that runs roughly parallel to the more familiar distinctions between ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ or ‘civic’ and ‘ethnic’ nationalism [28]”? Miller swiftly aborts this line of interpretation, and rightly so. For the Kohn-Berlin resemblance is, in fact, a rather superficial one. Kohn took his geographical distinction way too seriously, describing liberal nationalism as characteristic for the area west of the Rhine (the so-called “West” minus Germany), whereas ethno-nationalism ideology was typically found east of the same river. A proud yekke (German-Jew), Kohn tended to believe that the real source of the nationalist menace was the intellectual ground laid by mediocre members of eastern intelligentsia groups, coming from societies that were not fully modernized, and therefore ill-prepared and unsuited to receive and use properly the national ideas. Nowhere in Berlin’s writing do we find such a rigid geo-political demarcation. As an expert on Russia, and as someone who grew up in the multiethnic Riga, where German high-bourgeoisie culture was mixed with Russian imperial one, he could not accept such a simplistic mirror dichotomy. For Berlin there was sure a problem in the way Fichte and his German Idealist comrades thought of the national spirit, but Herder—a villain in Kohn’s eyes but one of Berlin’s heroes—wasn’t viewed by Berlin as a thinker of “the East,” but as a prophetic anti-Kantian Lutheran who, while spending his most productive years in the Baltic area, in Berlin’s hometown, came to understand the real value of diversity and pluralism. A book review, as well as few sporadic comments found in his letters, suggests that Berlin may have appreciated Kohn’s rhetorical abilities, but did not think highly of him as a theoretician [29]. The Kohnian distinction of east-ethnic and west-civic nationalism, in sum, could not be seen as parallel to the Berlinian distinction separating nationalism from the need to belong.
Political scientists, and particularly those writing during the 1990s, at the height of the Liberalism versus communitarianism debate, thought to address the same conceptual tension using this conceptual prism. For wasn’t Berlin, arguing that "who I am" cannot be defined in isolation from my class, ethnicity, religion or membership in tradition or community, doing the same thing communitarians were doing when arguing humans are social animals whose apparently “private” identity is "encumbered" by their social roles [30]? The best way to understand the peculiar way in which this Berlinian notion of “the need to belong” stands vis-à-vis his own notion of negative liberty is to think of it, as philosopher Axel Honneth put it, as an “unhealthy tension” between liberal and communitarian strands in Berlin’s thought:
In a nutshell Berlin is simultaneously a wholehearted liberal and a wholehearted communitarian, without being aware of the instability to which this synthesis inevitably leads. […] Whereas the idea of negative freedom represents the epistemological consequence of the critique of rational monism, the idea of freedom as cultural belonging represents something like the normative precondition under which cultural pluralism can exist in a justified way.
Honneth was not the only one to read Berlin’s notion of the need to belong through a communitarian prism. Yael (“Yuli”) Tamir, one of Berlin’s last doctoral students, spoke of a “strange alliance” between Berlin the liberal and the Berlin who stressed the problematic nature of retaining one’s identity within the liberal framework. Tamir, in fact, considered her Doktorvater a forerunner of the later discussions that “gather under the banner of the ‘politics of identity’ or ‘the politics of recognition’ [32].” In this sort of reading the great liberal becomes a critic of Rawlsian-inspired liberal individualism and social atomism, a strong believer that no man is an island and that liberals’ Achilles’ heel is their tendency to overlook the particular and the concrete in the name of the universal and the abstract. There is also a hermeneutic side, so-to-speak, to this notion of belonging. “When men complain of loneliness,” Berlin argued in his autobiographical essay “The Three Strands in My Life,”
what they mean is that nobody understands what they are saying: to be understood is to share a common past, common feelings and language, common assumptions, the possibility of intimate communication—in short, to share common forms of life. This is an essential human need: to deny it is a dangerous fallacy. To be cut off from one's familiar environment is to be condemned to wither.
There is more than a grain of truth to these interpretations. The trouble with these communitarian readings of Berlin, nonetheless, is that they impose on him a vocabulary, theoretical framework, concepts and sensibilities that were not available to him at the time he was formulating his own ideas. “I fear that being about to reach the age of 80…I doubt if I shall ever turn into a communitarian,” he told Beata Polanowska-Sygulska in 1989. “I don't think I am an isolated island, but I think that relationships in an archipelago are more human and morally and politically preferable to coral reefs with little organisms squeezed all together [34].” To understand these naturalistic metaphors, the recourse to Herderian notions of organic “natural” collectivity, and the selective embracement of volkish discourse, Berlin should be read, I believe, as a thinker standing astride a fault line that in itself developed historically during the 1930s and 40s, a fault line which separated Zionism from Liberalism. With one leg rooted in each political tradition, Berlin was motivated to philosophize politically precisely because the combination generated a dilemma; and when this dilemma, I argue, is contextualized historically, what is “Jewish” about Berlin’s philosophy becomes much clearer.

3. Jewish Normalization and Its Discontents

It is hard to pinpoint, however, a specific moment or event that pushed Berlin closer to Zionism. He was brought up in a family of Zionist sympathizers (his first childhood memory was of the wedding of his aunt Evgenia to Yitzhak Sadeh, the future architect of the Palmach) [35], and Berlin always assumed there was an obvious connection between his East-European-Jewish background and his decision to support this form of nationalism [36]. The fact Berlin also had the Hassidic blueblood running through his veins, being a direct descended from the Schneerson dynasty whose sons led the Habad movement, also had some impact. Not because it pushed him towards religiosity of any sort—quite on the contrary—but because it implanted in him a strong feeling of close kinship which he admitted having only occasionally, in intimate circles. As Berlin’s father’s memoirs evidently demonstrate, at Berlin’s household traditional, observant Jewry was not far away from the bourgeois house’s doorstep, and being un-religious never meant eager assimilationism nor did it contradict preoccupation with ancestral roots and much pride in the family status [37]. There was, of course, a dissonance between the patina of grandeur that enshrouded the family in Riga’s Jewish community and the way Jewishness turned into a signifier of otherness once the family moved to England and young Berlin, as many sons of émigré families, was placed at the forefront of acculturation pressures and expectations. Yet, what Berlin’s early biography bestowed in his is a pre-theorized, instinctive sense that being a Jew had much to do with a feeling that one is part of a clan or an extended meshpuche (family). Not that Berlin was always bragging about his Jewishness. Bryan Magee, the great popularizer of philosophy in Britain, recalled Berlin’s self-dismissive descriptions of his younger self as a “fat little Jew” or a “dark, ugly little Jew” which would seem utterly un-politically correct in today’s more sensitive society [38]. Nevertheless, they hint at an important aspect: a conscious awareness of one’s inerasable, non-ignorable Jewishness, which provided fertile ground for ethno-national conception of identity to propagate.
This biographical backdrop also made Berlin quite dissimilar from many prominent German-Jewish intellectuals who were brought up in highly assimilated families. Some of them, Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem being probably the most famous examples, had their Zionist awakenings during interwar years if not even earlier, as part of what historian Steven Aschheim described as a radical “post-Bildung” revolt against parental liberal ethos [39]. Others, like Hannah Arendt and, according to some accounts, also Sigmund Freud, argued that it was only the vicious anti-Semitism of the 1930s that forced them, quite brutally, to start thinking of themselves as part of a Jewish collective [40]. As Peter Gay, Freud’s biographer and ardent defender of the vehemently anti-clerical circles of the French enlightenment put it once, “Only Hitler made me into a Jew and, it turned out, not a very good one [41].” Nothing of this kind can be said of Berlin. His Jewishness was not “situational,” in the sense that it was, first and foremost, part of a peculiar and unavoidable situation in which he found himself, willingly or unwillingly. We have enough sources, including accounts from others in his surrounding, to establish with great certainty that from a very early stage of his life Berlin had an acute sense of his Jewish otherness, and that this conscious only accentuated by immigration and acculturation in Britain. Boldly put, he did not need a Hitler to become aware that Jewishness, including others’ responses to it, shaped his life in significant ways, and to develop a sharpened, hyper-sensitivity to the relationship between Jewishnness and status—both the gradations of status within Anglo-Jewish community, and the standing of Jews in the larger societies in which they found themselves.
Most famously, Berlin also repeatedly emphasized the fact that he had been mesmerized by Chaim Weizmann, the charismatic President of the World Zionist Organization, who, like Berlin, was also acutely aware of his Otherness—not only as a Jew within Gentile society, but also as an Ostjude folks-mensch who felt himself better attuned to the heartbeats of the Jewish masses than the members of the “Grand Duke” families, who had traditionally governed Anglo-Jewry [42]. The chemist from Manchester was subsequently seen by Berlin as the great synthesizer, able to take the best in Eastern “authenticity” without falling into rigid traditionalism, and combine it with European culture and science, without assimilating. In later years Berlin would become a central memory agent, helping to promote Weizmann’s legacy through lectures, publications, by promoting the activities of Yad Weizmann, the Weizmann Memorial Fund, which published Weizmann’s papers, and more. Weizmann, Berlin wrote, was the first genuinely free Jew in the modern world. What is the working definition of freedom behind this assertion still requires our elucidation.
But Weizmann merely pushed Berlin more in a direction he was already moving towards. By the time the two met, sometime during the winter of 1938, Berlin had already been exposed to Zionist ideology and rhetoric, thanks mainly to the influence of his family as well as that of the Polish-born historian Ludwik vel Niemirowski (1888–1960), better known in England as Lewis B. Namier. Lewis Namier is important for purposes of our discussion because he was one of the key importers of the Zionist normalization discourse to the English-speaking world [43]. Namier’s working definition of the concepts normality and normalization was taken from the Zionist lexicon and was described vividly in the introduction he wrote in October 1933 to the English translation of Arthur Ruppin's Die Soziologie der Juden (originally published two years earlier, in 1931) [44]. Normality, according to Namier, described a condition of “a nation rooted in its own soil…attachment to home and country [which] give a man the strength to fight [45].” Namier's definition was drawn directly from Ruppin, whose analysis rested upon several basic sociological-normative premises. Two of them were, in Ruppin’s words, that “normally everyone belongs to the community with which he feels closest united in language, culture, customs, and habits,” and secondly, that there is “a peculiar mentality which distinguishes [the Jews] from the other European nations [46].” The strong conviction that only attachment to their ancestral homeland would cure the Jews of their pathological and abnormal condition motivated Namier’s political Zionism. What echoed behind Namier's and Ruppin's conclusions alike was, among other things, Ferdinand Tönnies’ sociological typology that distinguished the “healthy” feelings of warm, intimate togetherness that characterize the organic communal Gemeinschaft existence from the cold, “rational" and subsequently alienated individuality of members of modern civil society, the Gesellschaft (1887) [47]. Following Ruppin's Zionist sociology and developing it, Namier stressed the abnormal quality of this condition to diagnose the condition of world Jewry as a whole. The following excerpt exemplifies this:
Our position in the world in anomalous, difficult, often ambiguous… [W]e must now undergo a fundamental process of economic re-orientation, but we have neither the resources of a State nor the place wherein to effect it…[O]ur foremost endeavor should be directed towards fighting 'Luftmensch' - this untranslatable term describes men without solid ground under their feet, without training or profession, without capital or regular employment, living in the air, and it would almost seem, on air…
The radical component in Namier's Zionism was his firm belief that this diseased condition characterized the condition of all Jews in the Diaspora - that is, not only those living in Russia or Poland or under oppressive regimes that deprived their Jewish minority of enlightenment and emancipation. Thus, the accusation of a “Galuth mentality” enabled Namier to mock also the leadership of Anglo-Jewry for being weak, “assimilationist” and too eager to please the Gentiles. Writing in 1933, as thousands of Jewish-German refugees began to flee Germany, Namier did not need to explain what he meant when describing the failure of assimilation. For him, “the question which the Jews must now ask themselves”—that is, all Jews living in the Diaspora—“is whether they can and should assume responsibility for bringing Jewish children into the world of the Galuth, to face a fate which seems to become worse every year [49].” Exactly because German Jewry was the most conspicuous vanguard of modernization among the Jews, this Jewish community, more than any other, epitomized for him a deep structural and moral flaw.
Berlin embraced the normalization discourse, and would employ very similar ideas in the postwar years. The Cold War context should also be taken into consideration here, for much of his writings on the subject were highly critical of the Isaac Deutscher-inspired idea of the “non-Jewish Jew [50],” mocking Jewish communists who were eager to embrace the utopian idea of a classless cosmopolitan post-revolutionary world in which they would finally be unchained from their embarrassing ethno-national origins. His disgust at extreme assimilationism was far from being “politically correct,” to use the colloquial American expression, and in his essays on Jewish and Zionist issues he would describe this social trans-cultural practice using terms such as self-alienation, self-denial, and even the highly problematic notion of Jewish self-hatred [51]. Berlin’s Lucien Wolf Memorial Lecture of December 1957 on Moses Hess provides a good example of this [52]. Another example can be found in his 1968 essay on Disraeli and Marx in which, when criticizing assimilationist tendencies, he argued:
[I]t is a well-known neurosis in an age of nationalism in which self-identification with a dominant group becomes supremely important, but for some individuals, abnormally difficult… The baptized Jewish intellectual, still regarded as racially a Jew by his fellows, could not hope to be politically effective so long as nationalism remained a problem for him. It had somehow to be eliminated as an issue…[This explains why] Marx identified himself with a social force, the great international class of the disinherited workers, in whose name he could thunder his anathemas.
The discourse of Jewish normality and abnormality went, therefore, hand in hand not only with Berlin’s understanding of cultural nationalism and the need to belong, but also with his strong Cold War anticommunist beliefs. And if one reads carefully Berlin’s discussion of what he defined as “The Search for Status”—the title of the sixth section in his magisterial “Two Concepts of Liberty”—one finds Berlin arguing that “[t]he lack of freedom about which men or groups complain amounts, as often as not, to the lack of proper recognition,” once again defending—in liberal terms—the idea of belonging. What is significantly different about Berlin, when compared to Namier and other advocates of the Jewish normalization discourse, is that Berlin never accepted the notion of shlilat ha’galut, the negation of exile, and the historical teleology it entailed. And it was for that reason that his approach towards Zionism could be best labeled Diaspora Zionism.

4. The Diaspora Zionist

To thoroughly understand Berlin’s Diaspora Zionism we must briefly consider the way in which Berlin perceived liberty as an opportunity concept. I borrow the term opportunity concept from Charles Taylor and Tom Baldwin [54]. Definition of freedom as an “opportunity concept,” regards it as a condition in which one is hindered by the minimum possible constraints that may limit the range of choices available. “The more avenues man can enter, the broader those avenues, the more avenues that each opens into, the freer they are,” argued Berlin. Although Negative Freedom and the “opportunity concept” are not identical, the emphasis placed on the absence of obstacles because it guarantees the free exercise of choice is crucial to our argument. In this sense, free choice and opportunity are one of the preconditions for achieving Berlin's cherished, correct and liberal negative liberty. “Political choice,” Berlin wrote in later years, “[is a condition in which] there are as many doors open for me to walk through as can be opened—freedom from interference, Negative Freedom [55].”
Interestingly, the place in which we find the first use of freedom as an opportunity concept is Berlin’s 1951 essay “Jewish Slavery and Emancipation,” which, in fact, is a bold pro-Zionist manifesto. The essay, originally published at the Jewish Chronicle, was written as part of an open debate Berlin had with Arthur Koestler. Writing what would be the far reaching implications of the foundation of the State of Israel on world Jewry, Koestler offered a rigid “either-or” formulation, according to which from 1948 every Jew has to decide whether he wants to remain in Europe—in which case he must assimilate and shed his particularist, dissimilative features—or immigrate to Israel and become an active member in the new Jewish republic. Berlin was outraged. It is an idea, argued Berlin, which took Jews back to square one. Not only did it not help promote Zionism but quite the contrary: it eliminated the novel contribution it had made to world Jewry in general: the possibility of every individual to choose how and where to live. And it is in this context that we find Berlin using for the first time a conception of freedom as an opportunity concept:
The creation of the State of Israel has rendered the greatest service that any human institution can perform for individuals—has restored to Jews not merely their personal dignity and status as human beings, but what is vastly more important, their right to choose as individuals how they shall live—the basic freedom of choice, the right to live or perish, go to the good or to the bad in one's own way, without which life is a form of slavery, as it has been, indeed, for the Jewish community for almost two thousand years.
This formula did not contradict Berlin’s anti-totalitarian convictions: while, he argued, the essential feature in totalitarianism was its “denial to human beings of the possibility of choice,” Zionism had altered the life circumstances for all Jews, by creating a situation in which the Jew as an individual has several possible courses of actions that he may choose from, not a single path he must walk through.
The meaning of having more choice was that one enjoyed greater freedom. If there was a Zionist achievement, that was the heart of it.
By presenting such an argument Berlin had made a claim that is political as well as philosophical, one that neither extreme Zionists in the 1940s nor republican / neo-Roman theorists like Quentin Skinner and Phillip Petit today [57] would willingly accept. It is based on the idea that living in a state of social or political dependence does not automatically restrict our options and thereby limit our freedom. Berlin's understanding of Weizmann's Zionism was based on similar principles: the creation of a Jewish national home is a noble cause worth fighting for because it would enable every individual Jew to choose freely, for the first time in modern history, whether he wishes to continue living among non-Jews—as Berlin himself chose to do—or to live as a member of a Jewish community and take a part in Jewish communal life. Weizmann himself was displeased by the fact that Berlin decided not to become an Israeli, but the notion that the creation of a Jewish State was a necessity, and the hope that it would also guarantee the emancipation of non-Zionist Jews, was an idea that both Berlin and Weizmann held. Ironically, what made Zionism “kosher” is the fact that it was transforming the notorious “Jewish Question” from a collective and national problem into a personal and existential dilemma of the Jewish individual.
This formula is what I call Diaspora Zionism. I use the prefix diaspora to emphasize the dissimilarity between Berlin’s Zionism and what we may “Palestino-centric Zionism,” by which I refer to the view that does holds that sooner or later all Jews would and should make Aliyah (immigrate to Israel) and make themselves Israelis. What the Zionist thinkers called “the negation of Galut” is absent in Diaspora Zionism. There is no historical teleology or secular Messianic imperative that emerges from this Zionism, according to which a mass voluntary migration of all Jewish communities in the Diaspora should accompany the establishment of a Jewish State. Fulfillment of the Zionist dream, in other words, did not, in Berlin’s view, contradict the continued existence of Jewish life outside the sovereign Jewish state. He never saw Diaspora communities as inferior types of Jewish existence, nor thought that they should disappear sooner or later. Nevertheless, unlike the Diaspora Nationalism of Simon Dubnow, or even the Bundist blend of Marxism and nationalism, Berlin's idea was compatible with traditional Zionism, accepted its basic axioms and was not its ideological competitor.
In a way, it was a post-1945 version of what is known in earlier Zionist history as Gegenwartsarbeit or “avodat ha'hoveh” (lit. “work of the present times”), neatly summarized in a slogan coined by the noted Polish-Zionist activist Yitzhak Grünbaum: Zionism opposes the Exile (galut), but does not oppose the existence Diaspora (golah). Furthermore, it is a manifest aim of the national movement not only to organize all Jewish masses in the East and Central Europe as a national minority and lead them, but also to strengthen Diaspora communities, promoting their “cultural, material, and political” wellbeing, which would eventually help them contribute to the creation of a sound national life in the land of Israel. It was an optimistic, early twentieth-century vision of liberal nationalism. It wished to promote minority rights and not only mass migration, to bring about a more liberalized, democratic type of collective life to the Jews. Famously, the Helsingfors Zionist conference of December 1906 accepted this idea and made it part of the official Zionist ideological platform [58]. Needless to say, the idea was not alien to the young Chaim Weizmann and the other members of the short-lived democratic faction, as to many East and Central European Zionist activists who believed that Jewish nationalism would go hand in hand with progressive politics and greater liberalization. Nevertheless, historical context once again should be mentioned. It should be noted that the condition of Jews in 1906 was quite different to that of the post-1945 and post-1948 world, and I doubt whether we can find a direct genealogical route—in the Foucaultian sense—connecting Berlin to the Gegenwartsarbeit advocates.
Interestingly, the formulation of freedom as an opportunity concept, which we find dominant feature in Berlin’s Zionist writings, predates “Two Concepts.” While it would not be until 1958 that he would use a term such as “negative freedom,” the philosophic formula juxtaposing choice, liberty and nationality appears as soon as October 1951 [59]. Without this essential component one cannot appreciate fully what Berlin means by the term “negative freedom.” The journey that famously ended with “Two Concepts,” in short, begun because postwar Zionism, demanding Jews to choose between immigration and assimilation, created an impossible either-or situation to which Berlin felt compelled to reply. Read historically, not as canonical texts addressing eternal questions but as attempts to solve these dilemmas, we can thus reappraise Berlin’s philosophy in a fresh, unconventional way.

5. Cold War Liberalism: In Search of a Definition

Was the acceptance of basic Zionist axioms compatible with the central tenets of Cold War Liberalism? And if so, can we characterize Berlin’s political philosophy as Jewish? Both questions are immensely tricky to answer. The problem with the first question is that it assumes the existence of a single coherent, theoretical statement of anything called “Cold War Liberalism.” What makes the second question no less challenging is that it raises an even more fundamental concern regarding the way we use the adjective “Jewish” to label certain theories, philosophical approaches, and intellectual orientations. The two last sections of this paper will address these two questions.
Recent years witness a revival of scholarly interest in Cold War Liberalism. But what were the exact contours of this strand of Liberalism and what were its distinctive features? We can offer a preliminary list: no doubt, anti-utopianism, coupled with an ambivalent and a highly pessimistic appreciation of modernity as a whole, were hallmarks of postwar intellectual discourse in the western side of the iron curtain. The need to come in terms with nihilistic practices of a new type and scale, with the gulag and the concentration and extermination camp, with political ideologies that proved horrifyingly effective in mobilizing, controlling, displacing and butchering masses, became themes looming large in the works of novelists, artists and political thinkers, and in particular in the work of those political thinkers that cultural and geographical displacement was part of their personal experience. Moreover, the proximity of influential political thinkers to policy makers and their active involvement in postwar planning, together with some successful attempts of the CIA to create institutions, journals and forums—the Congress for Cultural Freedom and Encounter magazine being two famous examples—that would help bring together an international caucus of intellectuals who were willing to collaborate under the anti-totalitarian banner, cannot allow us to ignore the existence of a transatlantic republic of letters, shaped by and reacting to the bipolar world order after 1945.
Nevertheless, there is no apparent reason that we should accept without further inspection the common assumption that there was, to use a fashionable tag, such a thing as a “Cold War consensus [60].” Prominent liberal public intellectuals operating, roughly, between the 1950s and 1980s, were not products of a single intellectual assembly line, nor did they ever produce a programmatic manifesto which constituted a certain Cold War “liberal school” whose adherents were expected to accept and comply with. The Cold War was long enough, and stretched over such a vast areas of the globe, that it allowed members of several generations, coming from different backgrounds (not all necessarily suffering directly from the same political menace), to intermingle and exchange ideas. We should be alarmed if Cold War Liberalism would become a catchphrase that permits analytical discrepancy or, worst, promote the superficial view that all liberal-minded thinkers in the English-speaking world reacted to the horrors of the first half of the century in the exact same way. Scheming through secondary literature dealing with Anglo-American intellectuals from the period—not to mention high-journalism and public discourse which evokes the names of Cold War thinkers to address contemporary predicaments—today’s brightest students, born after the breakup of the so-called Cold War consensus, remain baffled. They find it almost impossible to identify any significant theoretical divergence which sets apart the a staunch anti-communist socialist like George Orwell from a cosmopolitan like Karl Popper or to identify those features which make both different from a lurid conservative like Michael Oakeshott. Correspondingly, when moving to the other side of the Atlantic pond, Cold War Liberalism is used so loosely that it wipes out any difference between libertarians who found their inspiration in the Austrian School of Mises and Hayek from thinkers who were interwar “Leftists” —whether supporters of the New Deal or much more radical Marxists and Trotskyites—who may have changed their views by the 1950s but still considered themselves sympathizers of social-democratic progressive politics. Even if Cold War Liberalism is used pejoratively, to describe what Michael Kimmage aptly called “the conservative turn,” a greater nuance is still required [61]. This is especially true of the Jewish members of this cohort: to a certain extent both Henry Kissinger’s dogmatic “international realism,” Lionel Trilling’s fictional anti-communism, Leo Strauss’s critique of modern relativism, and Norman B. Podhoretz neoconservatism were symptoms of that turn. But were they arguing the same thing? Certainly not. Even conservative thought comes in many varieties.
Furthermore, as much as anti-totalitarianism was a universalist ideological theme, it was not a exclusively liberal stance. Weren’t the critiques of positivism and totalitarianism more effectively disseminated by the Frankfurt School and the admirers of postwar Critical Theory? Marcuse’s fusion of Freud and Marx was not less anti-totalitarian than Berlin’s utter rejection of anything Marxist, and when popularized, in somewhat vulgarly simplistic way, by the revolting students in 1968, it could bestow them with a sense they were fighting for greater liberty against an oppressive totalitarian machine. But there are even trickier gray areas, and those require us to be more accurate in defining what we mean by liberalism. For was Hannah Arendt a Cold War liberal in the same sense, let us say, as Karl Popper, Isaiah Berlin, Jacob Talmon or Raymond Aron were? Arendt produced what is undoubtedly one of the most eloquent statements of anti-totalitarianism as soon as 1951, and so many of her now-canonical philosophical writings from that stage onwards were informed by this anti-totalitarian sensibility. Yet, wouldn’t it be more accurate to locate the solution she offered to this modern disease in her admiration and attempt at revival of ancient republicanism? It is not a coincidence that her neo-Aristotelian ideals of humanity as constituted by active civic life, her vision of direct participation in a pre-Hobbesian body-politic, provided some of the inspiration to J. G. A. Pocock, one of the pillars of the Cambridge School of intellectual history, as he himself admitted in a usually ignored footnote crediting Arendt in The Machiavellian Moment, his classic study of a cross-Atlantic republican tradition [62]. This theory, as I suggested earlier, is offered to us as a civic humanist alternative to Liberalism, thus a characterization of Arendt as liberal should, as a minimum, be considered questionable.
A comparison with Berlin clarifies these problematics: Berlin has run out of patience with Arendt’s virtue politics very quickly, prior to the publication of Arendt’s controversial Eichmann book. When asked to review an earlier book of hers Berlin simply refused: “I found it absolutely unreadable,” Berlin wrote to philosopher Morton White, adding a list of qualifications proving that in fact he read the book quite thoroughly: “all the rot about Greeks not liking work and the Jews liking it and men being alienated first from God and the Renaissance and now from mother earth itself—the desire to go to the moon being a deep metaphysical anxiety for flight from one's roots and origins—that is in the first forty pages—I found absolutely awful [63].” Not less savage was her dismissal by him in a conversation with political thinker Bernard Crick. “There is nothing there to put simply. Fairy gold, Crick, fairy gold. Metaphysical free-association' [64]". This was not simply personal, ad hominem animus. Finding his inspiration in Benjamin Constant—“that cold, perceptive independent, civilised Swiss,” as he described him once—Berlin found the nostalgic admiration of the “liberty of the ancients” alien to the entire edifice of liberal thought as he understood it [65]. When “Two Concepts of Liberty” was reprinted in 1969 and included in Four Essays on Liberty, Berlin credited Constant in the volume’s introduction and what could be a more symbolic homage to Constant than the fact Berlin chose a quote from one of Constant essays as the motto for his introduction [66]. The reliance on Constant’s famous distinction between modern and ancient conceptions of freedom allowed Berlin to make what he considered to be a principal anti-totalitarian claim: that modern politics shall not be redeemed from the totalitarian threat by salvaging pre-modern notions of direct participatory democracy. There was no way back, and modern republican restorative attempts, whether the one offered by Rousseau or that of Arendt, run the risk of collapsing into authoritarianism, not to rescue us from it. It is no wonder, then, that in later years, when he was asked by Ted Honderich to write an entry on “liberty” for the Oxford Companion to Philosophy, he fused Constant’s temporal dichotomy between ancient and modern liberties with his own conceptual division of liberty into positive and negative variants. Negative liberty, he argued on that occasion, is not a natural, universal concept since its theoretical foundations lie in the idea “that there is a province of life—private life,” and this, he argued, is an essentially a modern idea [67]. In fact, Berlin’s own bifurcation of the concept of liberty had such an enormous impact on historians of political thought that contemporary Constant scholars fight the tendency to accept Berlin’s interpretation and see the two theories as almost identical. Interestingly, even a careful scholar like Quentin Skinner could not resist the urge of coupling the two, presenting both, in his 1997 Inaugural Lecture as Regius Professor as two spokesmen of the same ideal of individual liberty [68]. It is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss what is problematic about this rather decontextualized equation. What is important to mention is that all too often the label Cold War Liberalism flattens out these types of nuance differences. To highlight them is vital, not because doing so will provide our students with a sound example of close reading of political texts, but because awareness of these minor differences challenge the very way Cold War Liberalism is used as an analytic category. Boldly put, we need to come up with more exact definition of the term and to use intellectual history more rigorously, to check dilettantism.
One tentative solution, offered by Jan-Werner Müller of Princeton University, is to treat the label Cold War Liberalism not as a term denoting a specific philosophic credo but as signifying a “particular sensibility.” This sensibility, Müller suggest, could be best described using the phrase “Liberalism of Fear,” coined in 1989 by the Harvard political theorist Judith N. Shklar [69]. Müller was not the first to suggest that there are areas of overlap between Berlin’s and Shklar's “negative” Liberalisms. Paying tribute to his colleague and friend, the moral philosopher Bernard Williams (1929–2003) also suggested shortly before his death that Shklar’s apt phrase, which describes not a theory nor a system but “a certain style of liberalism,” captures quite concisely the type of Liberalism Berlin and, in fact, he himself, held dear [70]. So what is exactly Liberalism of fear? Shklar cherished the idea that liberals should focus their energy first and foremost on preventing political misjudgment and abuse of power, culminating in cruel violence and terror. Like Lord Acton, who held that political power tends to be corrupting and could be too easily abused by men who have access to it, Shklar’s basic assumption was pessimistic: “every page of political history,” she wrote, “[justifies the assumption] that some agents of government will behave lawlessly and brutally in small or big ways most of the time unless they are prevent from doing so [71]". This Liberalism, in other words, is concerned primarily with avoiding the worst, rather than achieving the best. For Williams this quality made this Liberalism distinctively different from the Liberalism of Locke or J. S. Mill, not only because it was much more pessimistic than their natural rights oriented Liberalism, but it is a Liberalism that is shaped fundamentally by the horrors of the twentieth century. It is a Liberalism of those who remember the horror of modern warfare and say “never again,” it is “a response to these undeniable actualities and therefore concentrates on damage control.” And most importantly: this sensitivity, Müller suggests, is not idiosyncratic but identifiable in diverse thinkers such as Berlin, Popper, and Aron. If so, we might as well use it as a platform for comparison. At last we have the shared working assumptions and normative common denominator that allow us to speak with more precision about Cold War liberal thought and to draw demarcation lines to distinguish it from other theories that populated the idea market at the time.
Müller’s suggestion to use Shklar’s memorable phrase as an interpretive prism makes much sense: like the other protagonists discussed in this issue, Shklar’s biography resembled that of other children of the turbulent century. Like Berlin, Shklar was also born in Riga to Jewish parents who fled the Soviet Union when she was thirteen. She hailed the Anglophone philosophers for replacing utopianism with skepticism as a method of thinking about political philosophy, and did not hide the fact the political theory she produced was tinted by her and her family’s personal experiences of displacement and what might as well be described as traumatic rejection of statism and totalitarianism [72]. If so, as I suggested elsewhere, we may paraphrase Müller and describe Cold War Liberalism as resting on two kinds of fear: First is the fear from utopia, fear "of ambitious programs advanced by those who felt absolutely certain in their convictions and sure about their political prescriptions [73]"; and second is the fear from fear itself, that is the understanding that the intimidation and terror of citizens—i.e., the creation of a situation in which masses submit themselves to the yoke of political authority out of panic from the possibility of being sent to a gulag, a concentration camp, or any other Kafkaian penalty colony—is a extremely forceful and dangerous motivating force that should be morally condemned [74].
Yet, this is far from a definitive solution. This will be neither the time nor the place to reiterate all of Shklar’s arguments and provide a systematic comparison between her and other Cold War liberals, but we can put our finger at some troubling concerns. Even when he put Shklar next to her Oxonian colleague we will find clear chronological and conceptual gaps that set them apart. They were, after all, representatives of two different generations, with Berlin being almost two decades older than Shklar. We must also not forget that unlike Berlin who was responding to Stalinism and the Thaw Generation, Shklar, quite ironically, introduced her memorable phrase exactly when the Cold War draw to its close. Maybe, given this context, it would be more instructive to comprehend Shklar as a thinker who wished to examine critically what is dead and what is alive in the liberal philosophy that she swallowed as a student during the 1950s [75]? There also problems with the assumption that “negative” “fear politics” are the real crux of Cold War liberal discourse. To assume that positive values, even if only latent ones, were entirely absent from Cold War Liberalism, would be a oversight. As Michael Walzer once pointed out a-propos Shklar: whether explicitly or implicitly, most liberals ultimately do defend numerous positive values and endorse specific norms or behaviors (“entrepreneurship” being one example) that are not universal but, in fact, depend on particular cultural customs and standards [76]. And as Katrina Forrester reminds us in a recent essay, overemphasis put on Shklar’s notion of fear encouraged commentators, erroneously, to ignore the sophisticated, “positive” discussions of politics of hope her writings offer and to produce, through what she calls reductio ad Hitlerum, a cliché, superficial image of negative Liberalism [77]. Similarly, as we have seen, there is no way we can reduce Berlin’s complex philosophy to a single notion of negative liberty. He may be aptly described as a liberal of fear, but this cannot help us in understanding what made his eagerness to rehabilitate Herder and defend nationality. A comparison between Berlin and Popper reveals even more problems with Müller’s thesis. For while Popper, as Malachi Hacohen showed exceptionally well, was moving towards a new form of rigidly anti-nationalist cosmopolitanism, Berlin was unwilling to follow the same road. Popper admired the Enlightenment, and Berlin—fascinated by the Enlightenment’s critics. Popper dismissed Zionism as a form of atavism and neo-tribalism, while Berlin was an admirer of Weizmann and Moses Hess, busy condemning assimilationists and defending the state of Israel. Were these components of Berlin thought informed by the "particular sensibility" put under the banners negative politics and Liberalism of fear? Doubly so. They were maybe distinctive, making him different, if not even eccentric, when compared to a large number of his contemporary colleagues. But these were fundamental and indispensable ideas, informing Berlin’s pluralism and liberalism alike, without which any interpretation of his philosophy would remain incomplete. In sum, as much as the description of postwar Liberalism as based on fear may help us appreciate the similarity we find in the analysis of the destructive and potentially authoritarian symptoms of utopianism in the writings of Cold War liberals, it says very little about the difference we find in the “positive” proposals the same intellectuals put forward when asked to construct the postwar civil society or offer a normative horizon that would guide its heralds.
We are back, then, to square one: critical appreciation of totalitarianism and fear from it may have united the Cold Warriors, but their dreams about a better future made them very different. If we want to avoid using slack narratives that make use of vague notions like “the spirit of the age,” we must treat such models with extreme caution. Biography is important, but it would be simply wrong to assume that traumatic memories, post-Holocaust pessimism, or what Ira Katznelson referred to as “intellectual desolation,” pushed all thinkers in the same direction [78]. Similarly, a recurring leitmotif we find in diverse thinkers is not necessarily indicative of the “positive” ideas they considered fundamental. The comparative dimension is immensely important, but not because it allows us to identify points of resemblance and to construct a unifying definition, but also because comparisons reveal dissimilarities and, in this case, show that Cold Warriors, in fact, differed significantly in their visions of the future. We need to come up with an explanatory framework that would also acknowledge the internal political divisions within the liberal and anti-totalitarian camp. And this requires greater nuance and finer tuning than some of today’s discussions allow.
We are still in search of a definition. Or, alternatively, we should do what a large number of historians of the Enlightenment did long time ago: understand that their subjects took part in a trans-national republic of letters and in that sense constituted, collectively, a cosmopolitan scholarly network; yet, at the same time, that there is no “core principle” or a single “idea of Enlightenment,” but that the same scholarly network reveal variances and dissimilarities and actually breaks up, along national, philosophical, religious and political fault lines, into plural Enlightenments.

6. A Jewish Tradition of Political Thought?

Does Judaism or Jewishness constitute one the fault lines along which Cold War Liberalism breaks up? Can Berlin’s political philosophy—given its unique, distinctive features and its author’s biography—be justifiably labeled a Jewish political tradition? I doubt it. Neither biography nor the highly knotty uses of the concept of “tradition” justifies such labeling.
Let us take it one step at a time. If biography matters so much, and given the centrality of Jewishness to Berlin’s own sense of identity, why not describe his ideas as “Jewish”? The answer is quite obvious: because it would be an absurd reductionism of one’s “thought” to one’s “life.” I doubt, for instance, if the musical proclamation of the American pop singer Janis Joplin in her famous ballad—“freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”—would be significantly reappraised and understood differently were we to mention the fact that she was born in Texas to a Church-attending family. In that sense Joplin’s vision of liberty is not different from Berlin’s: the mere fact that he was a Jew from Riga and a direct descendant of the Zemah Zedek, the Third Lubavitcher Rebbe, cannot, in itself, explain why he reached the conclusion that liberty, properly understood, should be defined as an absence of constraints on the individual. Neither will it be accurate to see Berlin as a Jewish philosopher in Martin Buber or Emmanuel Levinas’ sense, to take two well-known examples, were Jewish philosophers: his thought did not imbibe Talmudic ideas or dress in modern clothes concepts that we may define as essentially “Jewish.” Even a thinnest decorum of Jewish proverbs, aphorisms, rabbinic maxims and wise sayings we sometimes find in the writings of secular Jewish authors is absent from Berlin's prose. Quite the contrary, Berlin acquired a taste for British wit, and for much of his intellectual career had no intentions to encrust his elegant prose with what his non-Jewish interlocutors might have dismissed as moeurs des savages. What is commonly called Yiddishkeit was not his ornament of authenticity.
This is not only a question of style, but also one of content. There is no strong philological evidence to suggest that Judaism offered Berlin a storage house of ideas from which he could borrow theories, concepts and vocabulary. To clarify: I do not wish to argue that there is no such thing as “Jewish political tradition.” In an impressive multi-volume collaborative project Michael Walzer, Menachem Lorberbaum and others analyze with much detail and bring sources that, they argue, constitute a two-millennia old “Jewish political tradition [79].” What originated in the Bible and the Talmud, these authors show, continued with midrashic literature, legal responsa, and shaped also numerous modern treatises, pamphlets and philosophical essays that have been written by intellectuals who drew on this long tradition of Jewish literature. Equally ambitious is David Biale’s recent attempt to describe a tradition of Jewish secular thought, including a 350-years-old political tradition, stretching, roughly, from Spinoza to David Ben-Gurion, his secular admirer. In this case a trans-generational dialogue emerged as religious notions—such as that of God’s election of Israel—were recast into various modern, “non-revelationist” theories, whether in a pseudo-scientific form of race, or through modern notions of nation and state [80]. In all the above cases, when we use the term tradition we assume the existence of trans-historical intertextuality, and not the fact the authors who produced these texts were Jews. To identify this intertextual relationship means to show how one text built its meaning on or ideas, signs, symbols, idioms, narratives and meanings that were introduced in prior texts, or at least to at least that it alluded to them. Walzer, defining the boundaries of the Jewish political tradition, is quite explicit on this issue:
What makes this body of work a distinct and more or less unified tradition, and what marks its limits, is its intertextuality. A long series of writers have addressed political questions by referring themselves to the same authoritative texts and to the critical events on which these texts are focused: the exodus from Egypt, the Sinai revelation and covenant, the winning of the land, the establishment of the monarchy in the time of Saul and David, and then the conquests and revolts, the wars and civil wars, that brought destruction, loss, and exile. And the same writers, despite their radical dispersion and the absence of all modern means of communication, refer endlessly to one another, agree and disagree with each other’s interpretations of both texts and events. Reference and cross-reference constitute the tradition.
Analogously, what justifies the use of the adjective “Jewish” to describe secular Jewish thought in the case of Biale’s study is the fact we can show that early and late modern non-observant Jewish authors did not simply ignore pre-modern Jewish religious texts ideas, but in fact had a somewhat dialectic relationship with them, and they sought to use them even if only to bestow new meaning in them. Using metaphoric language, Biale describes these older notions “like genes that required the social and political environment of modernity before they could be expressed,” and as “providers of the dominant mentalité—the language and particular flavor—of that secularism when modern forces caused it to emerge [82].” These biological metaphors are not problem-free. Yet, they are meant to illustrate a similar idea. What makes a certain textual tradition “Jewish” is not the biography—or biology—of the authors but the way they used ideas originating in Jewish religious literature to address modern social and political problems. For unless we provide clear and convincing signs of intertextuality that constitutes the conceptual frame we call “tradition” what we will be left with is a theory that rests too heavily on a priori concepts which bends our interpretation in the sense that it forces us to situate an individual text within a larger frame we construct in hindsight, mostly informed by opaque teleological assumptions [83].
This methodological detour brings us back to Berlin’s case. For what is at the stake here is not the question how we define the paradoxical term “Jewish secular culture” but according to what criteria we draw the border between authors who were part of a Jewish tradition of philosophizing about politics and other authors who were Jews writing about politics but were not contributing to this endless process of “reference and cross-reference” and, to use Walzer’s words, “opted out of the referential system.” The Berlin case illustrates these problematic questions: taking his first steps as an independent scholar as a British analytical philosopher, Berlin always stressed his mistrust of anything which is “metaphysical” and “non-empirical,” and on one occasion even defined himself as “tone deaf” when it came to theological language and religious modes of thinking [84]. Subsequently, his understanding of sovereignty, power and politics was essentially modernist, not “Hebraic.” Therefore, the suggestion that he is part of a Jewish political tradition stands on very thin ice. We can always speak of “non-Jewish Jews” to include Freud, Marx, Rosa Luxemburg and Trotsky in this tradition, as Isaac Deutscher famously tried to do, or quote the saying attributed to Heine, according to which “since the Exodus, freedom has always spoken with a Hebrew accent [85].” But aren’t we running the risk of producing de-contextual clichés rather than historical interpretations? Only through close reading of the texts, only through careful analysis that identifies such intertextual connections, can we speak intelligibly of an ongoing, continual discourse and a genealogy (in the Nietzschean sense) of certain political conceptions and theories. The alternative is an utterly a-historical, fictional construct which provides no convincing explanation why texts produced in different times and places should be connected and under a single rubric.
Examining Berlin’s intellectual interlocutors we also find an interesting mix of Jews and non-Jews. But here again, we mustn’t privilege Jewishness too quickly: in his political thought we find a splendid eclectic mixture of ideas absorbed from distinct thinkers, such as Benjamin Constant, the British idealist philosopher and historian Robin George Collingwood, the hawkish Zionist Namier, the Viennese anti-positivist philosopher Karl R. Popper and many others. Of the above only Popper and Namier qualify somehow—if one speaks in strict Halachic terms—as Jews, although both were born and raised in a quintessentially assimilated family that was remote from its ethno-religious roots. Namier may have pushed Berlin to think more seriously about sovereignty, community and soil, but this was not based on ideas either one of them found in Jewish texts as much as in sociological and political theoretical texts produced in Europe of the nineteenth and twentieth century. Popper was even more alienated from his Jewishness. He refused to identify himself as a Jew, alluded to no Jewish text in his writing and considered Zionism to be nothing but a petrified form of Jewish racialism that was both stupid and wrong [86]. Popper, for sure, is the last thinker to be included in the traditions Biale, Walzer and others wish to portray, and even the inclusion of Namier in it would require us to demonstrate startling conceptual flexibility which runs the risk of analytical overstretching. Not so much because of the biographies of the two, as due to the nature and content of their writings.
Yet, there is an alternative way to provide an account of Berlin’s Jewishness. This can be done not by labeling his philosophy Jewish, nor by squeezing him into the confined box the phrase Jewish (secular or religious) political tradition denotes. This can be done if Jewishness would be located in the realm of the context, not the text. Or, more precisely: by seeing Berlin’s Jewishness as generator of questions and problems, not of answers and solutions. Robin George Collingwood wrote eloquently quite long ago about a historical logic of questions and answers reminding us that the meaning of a given proposition is always relative to the question it answers [87]. Later on, Hans Georg Gadamer, paying homage to Collingwood in his monumental Wahrheit und Methode (Truth and Method), suggested returning to a logic of question and answer which he found as a source of inspiration and a means to understanding an historical text [88]. Drawing freely on these hermeneutic approaches, we can offer a contextualized reading of political philosophy if the texts are read as answers to a question, dilemma or problem that emerged, in specific historical circumstances and due to unique conditions, outside the text. As I this essay showed, Berlin's opportunity concept crystallized and took shape out of the personal dilemmas, existential doubts and ideological queries he experienced in the 1940s, and especially those related to his Jewish identity and ambivalent love affair with Zionism. Some of the definitive distinctive characteristics that provide Berlin’s liberal thought its unique flavor emerged from these personal predicaments, and it is from this specific historical context that his attempt to provide a philosophical defense of Jewish nationalism that would be compatible with the central tents of Cold War Liberalism emerged. Jewishness and Jewish nationalism yielded problems and created challenges we, as intellectual historians, can use to contextualize one’s thought. In Berlin’s case, these were questions that he could not disregard or flout. Consequently, a large number of his key texts reveal attempts to come to terms with these questions, with various degrees of success. Ironically or not, the answers to the Jewish questions were found in a peculiar mixture of Herder and Mill, not the rabbis. We may have not explained how to solve the tension between liberty and community, but we are now at least able to understand why Berlin believed so strongly that political philosophy cannot ignore the fact that, at the end of the day, no man is an island.


This paper was originally presented at the symposium “Jewish émigrés and the shaping of the postwar culture” in memory of Lilian Furst (1931–2009) on April 3, 2011. I would like to thank Prof. Malachi Hacohen, the organizer of the symposium, for his invitation, kind hospitality and valuable comments. Additional thanks are due to Daniel Bessner, Julie Mell, David Weinstein, Adi Gordon, Udi Greenberg, Ofer Ashkenazi, Rivka Weisberg and Henry Hardy.

References and Notes

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  74. "Systematic fear" and "institutionalized cruelty" were the terms used by Shklar to describe this sort of fear. Shklar. “The Liberalism of Fear.” 11.
  75. Shklar submitted her PhD dissertation, written under Carl Friedrich, in 1955. It served as the basis for her first book, After Utopia; the decline of political faith. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957.
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