Commentary Magazine

The Fatal Embrace, by Benjamin Ginsberg

Romancing the State

The Fatal Embrace: Jews and the State.
by Benjamin Ginsberg.
University of Chicago. 248 pp. $22.00.

In The Fatal Embrace, Benjamin Ginsberg, who teaches political science at Johns Hopkins, chronicles the symbiotic relationship that has often developed between Jews and the rulers of the countries in which they have lived. As a minority group with a long and painful history of religious persecution, Jews have historically sought both physical protection and economic opportunity in their lands of residence. At the same time, ambitious kings and sultans, commissars and presidents, have often found Jews to be useful allies and capable advisers, and have accommodated their presence in exchange for service as administrators, tax collectors, financiers, and even soldiers.

Roving over the past thousand years of history, Ginsberg shows Jews attaining positions of power in every kind of regime: in Fatimid North Africa during the 10th and 11th centuries; in Christian Spain from the 11th to the 15th centuries; throughout the Ottoman empire during the 15th and 16th centuries; in the courts of the Hapsburgs, Bourbons, Orléanists, and Bonapartists during the 19th century; among the Bolshevik leadership, in the Weimar Republic, and in the kitchen cabinet of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 20th.

Yet this “embrace” of the state, he contends, has often proved “fatal,” as ascendancy makes Jews a prime target for old hatreds and new antagonisms alike. Inevitably, either a regime will jettison the Jews as soon as it has consolidated its power (thus the Soviet Union became fiercely anti-Semitic even though three of the six members of Lenin’s first Politburo were of Jewish origin and even though Jews were prominent both in the Red Army and in Stalin’s secret police well into the 1930’s); or the forces opposed to a particular regime will seek to undermine it by identifying it as a creation of the Jews (Hitler called Weimar the “Judenrepublik”).

In his discussion of American history in particular, Ginsberg argues that each successive episode of anti-Semitism in this country has closely followed upon an era in which Jews attained positions of authority and influence, first as bankers and financiers, later as lawyers and government bureaucrats. In one telling illustration, Ginsberg recounts how in the 1890’s Theodore Seligman was blackballed by the prestigious New York Union League Club because he was a Jew, even though his financier father, Jesse, had been one of the club’s founding members. Indeed, the early decades of the 20th century became in general a period in which Jews, a powerful force in banking, public finance, and the new industrial order in the post-Civil War years, came to be excluded from private clubs, residential neighborhoods, and elite universities.



According to Ginsberg, the periodic waves of anti-Semitism in America have actually served to perpetuate the “fatal embrace.” “[E]ager to cooperate with any government willing to promise them protection from anti-Semitic attacks, freedom from discrimination, and greater political and economic opportunity,” Jews have naturally looked to reform-oriented politicians. Thus, numerous Jews gained positions of considerable influence and power under FDR: Felix Frankfurter, appointed to the Supreme Court in 1939; Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr.; and a host of lawyers, including Benjamin Cohen, Abe Fortas, and Samuel Rosenman. But this in turn provided fuel to Roosevelt’s opponents, who charged that he was a pawn of his Jewish aides or even—in an extreme instance—that he himself was the descendant of a Dutch Jewish family (the “Rosenvelts”). According to a survey in Fortune cited by Ginsberg, “[more than 100 anti-Semitic organizations were founded between 1933 and 1941” and “roughly a half- million Americans at least occasionally attended anti-Semitic rallies or meetings during this period.”

True, the anti-Semitic attacks failed: Roosevelt never lost a presidential election, and America never experienced a single pogrom. Ginsberg attributes this to the fact that “the regime constructed by Jews and their allies was able to lift the country out of depression, and to mobilize military and police forces with the capacity to crush its enemies at home and abroad.” But neither did anti-Semitism disappear. To Ginsberg, the postwar investigations conducted by the House Un-American Activities Committee were thinly veiled forums for anti-Jewish prejudice.

By the late 1950’s, public displays of anti-Semitism were considered out-of-bounds in America. Nevertheless, Ginsberg believes that to this day the political situation of Jews not only in the United States but in the Diaspora as a whole—everywhere, strangers in a strange land—dictates that they will forever be locked in “fatal embraces” with their host states. Here at home, looking at what he calls a “resurgence of anti-Semitic—sometimes veiled as anti-Zionist—rhetoric in American political discourse,” Ginsberg issues a warning: the contemporary romance of many Jews with the state may once again have dire consequences for the entire American Jewish community.



The Fatal Embrace is an absorbing historical chronicle, but only a lackluster work of political science. To begin with Ginsberg’s working premise, and sticking for the moment with America, it is of course true that Jews have sought to forge a relationship with every President since George Washington; but they have actually been far less dependent upon the federal government than have many other immigrant communities. Relying very little on public assistance, whether in housing, welfare, or employment, they have prided themselves instead on their initiative and self-sufficiency. American Jews may have embraced the state—actually, not so much the state as the society and the political system—but they have never become its wards or its dependents.

More importantly, Ginsberg fails to give proper weight to the exceptional nature of American liberal democracy. Although he acknowledges that anti-Semitism here has never risen to the levels historically quite common elsewhere in the world, he ignores the connection between this fact and the status enjoyed by Jews in the United States. Unlike in medieval Spain or Leninist Russia, American Jews were not “tolerated,” or granted certain privileges at the pleasure of the government-in-power, but, from the very beginning, have been citizens enjoying (in the words of George Washington) “the exercise of their inherent natural rights.” This has not immunized them from prejudice or even hatred, but it marks a fundamental departure from European experience and has forged a radically new orientation to society and state at once.

Ironically, one recent development which may have a more profound effect on American Jews than Ginsberg’s “fatal embrace” is the rise of government-mandated multiculturalism and affirmative action. These policies, which pit minority groups against one another, often in a zero-sum game, are reminiscent of arrangements from the pre-democratic past and could conceivably result in a step backward for American Jews should they come to be treated, in law and custom, less as individuals than as members of a particular group—and a very tiny one at that.

But this is not what Ginsberg has in mind in forecasting a rise in anti-Semitism. He bases his prediction on three trends: the end of the taboo against anti-Semitism within the liberal coalition (Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan); the increasing role of anti-Semitism within the conservative movement (Patrick J. Buchanan); and the renewed linkage of radical populism, racism, and anti-Semitism (David Duke).

While the facts cannot be denied, Ginsberg gives far too much credence to the specter and potential power of extremists like Louis Farrakhan on the one hand and David Duke on the other. Farrakhan has never sought national office, and Duke, despite gaining some popularity in Louisiana, failed miserably as a presidential candidate in 1992. Moreover, while Jesse Jackson and Patrick J. Buchanan have each engaged in anti-Semitic rhetoric over the years, neither is in the mainstream of his political party; what is more, their anti-Semitic outbursts have hurt rather than helped them politically.

To be sure, Ginsberg is not alone in believing that anti-Semitism is reviving in the United States. Last year, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) released a survey which concluded, quite sensationally, that “one in five Americans—or between 35 and 40 million adults—hold views about Jews which are unquestionably anti-Semitic.” The measurement of anti-Semitic sentiment, however, is a very imprecise art, and the ADL’s conclusions have been subjected to a thoroughgoing critique. Ginsberg himself acknowledges that “[m]any surveys suggest that, except among blacks, popular anti-Semitism is still at a relatively low level.”



Perhaps the most glaring weakness of Ginsberg’s book is that after more than 200 pages of analysis, he fails to offer a single alternative to the “fatal embrace.” Would Jews have fared better throughout history if they had ignored their host states? Ginsberg certainly does not suggest so, or recommend that, in the future, American Jews move en masse to Israel. Neither does he propose that they try to live their lives in isolation, like the Amish.

Nor could they, even if they wanted to. Powerlessness is a protection only for those who can count on being ignored. It may work for the Amish, who as Christians (albeit of a quaint variety) can fade quietly into the larger Christian background of America; it will never avail the Jews so long as they remain distinctively Jewish.

And there, finally, is the rub. The American Jewish community may be facing a crisis, but at the moment the crisis is not one of anti-Semitism. With an intermarriage rate of more than 50 percent, the danger facing American Jews today, as Irving Kristol has quipped, is not that Christians want to persecute them but that Christians want to marry them. This is a potentially fatal embrace indeed—but one that Ginsberg, in his obsession with anti-Semitism, fails to notice.

About the Author

Jay Lefkowitz, a lawyer in New York, served as a senior domestic-policy adviser to President Bush in 2001-2003, and previously as a policy aide to Preisdent George H.W. Bush. He is currently the President’s special envoy for human rights in North Korea.

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