In the summer of 1986, the Berlin Wall turned 25. On its anniversary, noting the general measure of grudging acceptance the wall had earned among Germans on both sides, a British journalist wrote that in all likelihood, the wall “will still be there for the 50th anniversary.” That would have been last year, but as we know the wall couldn’t make it another half-decade. Today, then, is the 25th anniversary of perhaps the most significant moment in the life of the wall aside from its construction and destruction: Ronald Reagan’s speech imploring Mikhail Gorbachev to tear it down.
In his own book on the fall of the wall, William F. Buckley wrote—with what one imagines to be a not-insignificant amount of gleeful satisfaction—of the various arguments Reagan’s advisers employed to try to talk him out of those two famous sentences:
The president must not speak those words. They would harm Gorbachev and get in the way of continuing Soviet reforms. And if Reagan used such language, it would harm him. Any demand so importunate, so outrageous and inflammatory, was among other things “not presidential.”
The late Peter Rodman, the erudite and esteemed national security affairs deputy, was one of those aides. In his own account, Rodman admitted that “the whole affair is a vivid example of a president’s possessing a strategic and moral insight that escaped his experts. Reagan’s intuition about Gorbachev was undoubtedly right.”
And that is what was both impressive and misunderstood about Reagan’s speech. He wasn’t there primarily to rile up a crowd, or be some kind of folk hero. Reagan was having a public conversation with Gorbachev. He appealed to the Soviet leader’s better angels–to Gorbachev the revolutionary, the reformer.
A new survey of the Jewish population in the Greater New York area contradicts the conventional wisdom about the subject. It has long been assumed that any portrait of American Jews must tell us a story about an aging, liberal population that is rapidly assimilating. But, as the New York Times reports, the latest results show that the population of the largest center of Jewish life outside of Israel is actually growing. The survey’s estimate of New York City’s Jewish community pegs it at about 1.1 million, with 1.54 million being counted when you include the surrounding suburban counties on Long Island and Westchester (Jews in Northern New Jersey who would also be considered part of Greater New York were not counted). Of even greater import is that the rapid expansion of ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic Jewry are the sole reason for this population growth. By contrast, the numbers of Jews who identity with the heretofore much larger non-Orthodox movements have declined precipitately. The only other sector that is growing is made up of those Jews who reject all the denominations or eschew religion entirely.
If, as the survey tells us, 40 percent of Jews in New York City and 74 percent of all Jewish children are Orthodox, then this must inform our conclusions not only about what American Jews believe but also about its future. When combined with the nearly one-third of Jews who are abandoning Jewish identity altogether, this paints a picture of an American Jewish population that is comprised of two ships passing each other in the night — one becoming increasingly Orthodox and the other on the brink of not being Jewish at all. Because the Orthodox have radically different views on political issues from those of the non-Orthodox as well as generally identifying more thoroughly with Israel, this will inevitably alter the political balance of the community. Though the numbers may be different elsewhere in the country, with about one-third of American Jewry located in Greater New York, there’s little doubt this means the Jewish community of the future will be far less liberal.
It occurred to me, re-reading the item I penned yesterday on Western elites who kowtow to dictators such as Bashar al-Assad, Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh, and Mao Zedong, that the examples I chose were primarily from the left. That is not to suggest the right should get off the hook. During the years, plenty of right-wingers have fallen prey to the charms of “friendly” dictators such as Chiang Kai-shek, Francisco Franco, Augusto Pinochet, the Shah of Iran, Ferdinand Marcos, P.W. Botha, the Saudi royals, and Hosni Mubarak. (Botha admittedly, was elected, but by an electorate comprising only a small minority of the South African population.) Along the way these conservatives have made the same kind of unconvincing attempts to explain away their heroes’ human rights abuses as liberals routinely make for left-wing dictators. Even the genocidal Slobodan Milosevic had a few lick-spittles in a small corner of the American right.
Of course, some dictators are hard to categorize ideologically: Assad is the head of the socialist and secular Baath Party, but also the scion of an Alawite family sect closely aligned with Iran’s theological state. And some conservatives have courted left-wing dictators as much as right-wing ones–one thinks of Nixon and Kissinger clinking glasses with Mao and Brezhnev.