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Posts For: June 12, 2012

“Tear Down This Wall” 25 Years Later

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.

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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.

The other thing Reagan understood better than most was the importance of symbolism. Reagan insisted on keeping the controversial lines in the speech because in his mind he had no choice. As American Ambassador Richard Burt explained, quoted by Romesh Ratnesar, “There’s no way [Reagan] can stand there in front of the wall and not make that statement.”

Reagan’s speech did not bring down the wall, but it was a memorable and vivid expression of what did. And, perhaps as much in retrospect as at the time, it taught the public something about Reagan, the man they thought they had known pretty well after nearly two full terms as president. As Ratnesar retells it, Reagan knew exactly what he was doing at that wall, as evidenced by his exchange with the press on his way to deliver the speech:

“Mr. President,” NBC’s Chris Wallace shouted as Reagan was being escorted back outside, “some of these demonstrators think Gorbachev is more a man of peace than you are.” Reagan stopped and looked back over his shoulder. He said, “They just have to learn, don’t they?”

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The Beginning of the End for Liberal Jewry

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.

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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.

More than 20 years ago, the organized Jewish world was shaken by the results of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey. It painted a sobering picture of an aging and shrinking community, but the number that galvanized discussion about the results was 52 percent. That was the survey’s estimate of the number of Jews marrying outside their faith and constituted a stunning rise above previous studies on the subject. Some experts, including Steven M. Cohen (the leader of the group who conducted the current survey about Greater New York), who later wrote that a more accurate estimate would have put the figure at 41 percent, disputed that figure. But whether it was 41 or 52 percent, there was no longer any doubt about the fact that the American Jews were undergoing a radical change. More to the point, the impact of such a high intermarriage rate as well as other indications that much of Jewry was rapidly assimilating and thereby shedding their Jewish identity, would ultimately lead to a very different looking community in the future.

These numbers scared Jewish organizations badly. But much of the concern was wrongly focused on a symptom — intermarriage — rather than the cause of the problem that was rooted in a communal culture that pinned identity on external factors such as memory of the Holocaust and support for Israel rather than on building identity via education. Nevertheless, the furor about intermarriage was enough to cause Jewish philanthropic groups to begin to focus their efforts more on causes that promoted “continuity,” fearing a future in which a dominant liberal American Jewish identity would find itself on the verge of extinction.

But 20 years later, it is more than obvious that the demographic chickens have already come home to roost for liberal Jewry. As the new study points out, even as the numbers of Orthodox Jews grow by leaps and bounds, Jewish observance is declining among the non-Orthodox. While nearly half of young Jewish adults in the region have a attended a Jewish day school of some kind, most of those who do not identity with a denomination aren’t giving their kids any sort of Jewish education. And it should also be noted that half of the non-Orthodox who marry have a spouse who is not Jewish. Because studies have shown us that the children of intermarriage are far less likely to get a Jewish education or to marry a Jew, the ominous conclusions to be drawn from these numbers are obvious.

The fact that a large proportion of the growing ultra-Orthodox sector is also poor and not connected to the rest of Jewry also complicates efforts to provide Jewish services or to unite these disparate groups into a coherent community.

But above all, this means the Jewish community of the future will be even less politically and religiously liberal. The assumption that Jewish life could be built on a largely secular lifestyle in which liberal politics would provide a substitute for faith was as foolish as the notion that it could persist on identification with the Yiddish language or certain ethnic foods. The assumption that most American Jews will always be secular liberals is a myth that has just been exploded.

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Keep an Open Eye on Dictators

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.

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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.

Mercifully, such excuse-making for dictators is heard less-often on the right since Ronald Reagan ended his support for the pro-American dictators in the Philippines and South Korea, thus committing America to a policy of democracy promotion that has been championed, however inconsistently, by his successors. But as the Arab Spring has spread, there have been some attempts, primarily on the right, to paint in overly rosy hues the deposed or soon-to-be-deposed dictators.

There are certainly legitimate debates to be had about the wisdom and pace of political change in various countries. To recognize the brutality of a regime is not necessarily to support its immediate overthrow or to be blind to the possibility that a lesser evil could be replaced by a greater one. But at the very least, we should be clear-eyed about the nature of the regimes we deal with and not ascribe imaginary virtues to the brutal men who rule countries by terror and force.

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