In considering the problem of Judaism, I am probably expected to set out with an exact definition of what I…
The essay below was first published in 1908-9 in the Jewish Comment and was reprinted in 1999 in a collection of Friedlaender’s English essays, published under the title Past and Present by the Ark Publishing Company in Cincinnati. Much in the present essay remains surprisingly cogent today—Israel Friedlaender’s fears for the survival of the Jewish identity in America have not been borne out though the fears still continue to be echoed; but neither have his hopes for American Jewry been fulfilled. However, his analysis is still very pertinent, especially now that his prophesy of American Jewry’s primacy has come true, though from causes he could not have anticipated.
Originally published under the tide, “The Problem of Judaism in America,” this essay is given here in shortened form with a few minor changes in syntax that were necessitated by the omissions.—Ed.
Instead of reverting to the trodden roads of the past, I find sufficient courage in my heart to venture upon the slippery paths of the present and to take up a subject which is, or ought to be, uppermost in the mind of every thinking Jew: the problem of Judaism in America. . . .
In considering the problem of Judaism, I am probably expected to set out with an exact definition of what I understand by the term “Judaism.” But . . . definitions are irksome in general, because they represent the delicate attempt to reduce the phenomena of living, palpitating reality to a dead, stationary formula, and doubly irksome when applied to phenomena which bear the stamp of spirituality on their “ism.” . . .
It will, however, suffice for our purposes if I say, vaguely perhaps, but briefly, that Judaism represents the sum total of those inner characteristics, as instincts, sentiments, convictions, and ideals, which are to a lesser or larger degree common to the individuals of the aggregate known as the Jewish people. If the Jews, or Jewry, represent the ethnological, or physical, appearance of the Jewish people, Judaism may be said to represent its spiritual, or psychological, make-up; in other words, Jewry constitutes the body, Judaism the spirit, or the soul, of the Jewish people. As the soul of the individual, so the soul of a nation is in itself invisible. It finds its visible expression in a certain manner of life, such as customs, habits and ceremonies, and in a certain spiritual productivity, such as literature, art and the like—in short, in the two spheres, which, taken together, form what we call the culture of a nation. . . .
The problem of Judaism would then consist in the fact that the soul, or spirit, of the Jewish people, as manifested in its culture, has in modem times shown symptoms of decay of so alarming a nature as to make us fear for its continued existence. The beginning of this decay is obviously coincident with the beginning of Jewish emancipation, that is to say, with the moment when the Jews left the Ghetto to join the life and the culture of the nations around them. . . .
In Italy, which in times gone by presented one of the finest and brightest phases of Jewish culture, which only two generations ago was still able to produce a personality so profoundly and genuinely Jewish as S. D. Luzzato, and to present American Jewry in our own generation with a man like Sabato Morais, the founder of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America—in Italy, the condition of Judaism at present is one of utter stagnation, and Jewish scholarship . . . is now represented by a few descendants of the Galician Ghetto.
In France, where centuries ago Talmudic Judaism found its most brilliant expounders, Judaism is but a lifeless and, we need scarcely add, an unsuccessful imitation of French Catholicism. Its tiny stream of Jewish life is almost exclusively supplied from the Ghetto of Alsace, where the Jews still speak their own dialect, and has been replenished in recent years by newcomers from Russia.
In German Jewry, the heart of the Jewish people in times of old and its brain in modern times, once celebrated for her saints and martyrs, and later renowned for her scholars and writers—in German Jewry, we stumble on all sides against indifference and apostasy, and her intellectual productivity shows an appalling decline. The decay of German Jewry would be far more tangible were it not powerfully counteracted by the immigration from the Russian and Polish Ghetto, and, to an extent not in the remotest suspected by outsiders, by the influence of the now Prussian, but formerly Polish, province of Posen, where Jewish life has still preserved many a genuine feature of Polish Judaism. . . .
In England, Jewish emancipation, owing to the intensely religious spirit of the English nation, gave at first the promise of a genuine modem Jewish life. But this promise has not been fulfilled. The decomposition of English Jewry, being effectively checked by the conservative tendencies of England and the stream of Jewish immigration from Poland, proceeds much more slowly than elsewhere, but proceed it does, and no one perhaps is more pessimistic about the future of Judaism in that country than are, to judge by their public utterances, the leading English Jews themselves.
Far more striking and far more painful to record is the effect of modem conditions on Judaism in those countries where the Jews are still isolated and lead; or have till recently led, a genuinely Jewish life. We only have to point to the sudden change in the status of Judaism which has taken place before our very eyes in Hungary, to the terrible decay of Judaism in Galicia and—I say it with a feeling of particular pain—to the frightful ravages in Jewish life and thought caused by the mere glimmer of emancipation in Russia, to realize what Judaism may expect from freedom and the influences of the surroundings.
So far the Old World. As for the New, [the situation] . . . is scarcely different. To be sure, people who are content to tap the surface can easily point to the tremendous growth of American Judaism, to the ever increasing number of Jewish congregations and institutions. But these people seem or wish to forget that this development is the direct or indirect product of the Ghetto, for which this country deserves no credit whatsoever. The expansion of American Judaism is not an organic growth from within, but a mechanic addition from without. Its gain, to use a Biblical simile, is the gain of one who puts his earnings into a bag with holes. As long as the earnings exceed the holes, the bag seems constantly to swell. But no sooner will the earnings have stopped than the bag will begin to shrink and will finally collapse. The disintegrating influence of American conditions on Jewish life and productivity can be demonstrated most palpably in that section of American Jewry which has for a sufficient length of time been exposed to the life and liberty of this country, and in which the extent of de-Judaization stands in exact proportion to the amount of freedom enjoyed by it. This process of de-Judaization is visible enough among the Children of the Ghetto and, to a far more appalling extent, among the Grandchildren of the Ghetto.
An experienced Jewish minister of New York City, who has for more than a quarter of a century closely watched the marvelous growth of Jewry in that largest Jewish center ever known in history, summed up some time ago, for purposes quite different from those pursued in this paper, the Jewish potentialities of the newly arrived population in the striking dictum: “What will our second and third generation be a quarter of a century hence? American? Yes. Jewish? Perhaps.” . . .
Thus, wherever our gaze turns, we witness the same spectacle, the decomposition of Judaism, of Jewish living and Jewish thinking, under the influence of freedom. No amount of high-sounding phraseology can deceive us as to the meaning of this terrible truth. Judaism which was able to subsist and even to develop in the narrowness and darkness of the Ghetto is cut off in its very strength when brought out into the airy expanse of modem life. Judaism which stood out like a rock amidst the storms of hatred and persecution is melting away like wax under the mild rays of freedom. . . .
The problem of the Jews, of the physical misery of our nation, engages the heart and the hand of every Jew with a spark of Jewish consciousness or Jewish sentiment in him. Powerful organizations grapple energetically, and more or less successfully, with this problem. But most of us utterly ignore the problem of Judaism, the problem of our spiritual misery. The majority of modernized Jews still swear by the panacea of Jewish emancipation, and pin all their hope and faith on the political, economic, and social advancement of the Jews. Their policy may be summed up in the words of the Prophet: “When thou wilt deal thy bread to the hungry and bring the poor that are cast out to thy house, when thou wilt see the naked that thou wilt cover him, and thou wilt not hide thyself from thine own flesh, then shall thy light break forth as the dawn, and thy cure shall spring forth speedily.”
They are blind to the fact that the dawn of the Jews is the dusk of Judaism; that the nearer the problem of Jewry reaches its solution, the more complicated and the more dangerous becomes the problem of Judaism; that the more emancipated, the more prosperous, the more successful the Jews become, the more impoverished, the more defenceless, and the more threatened becomes Judaism, the only reason and the only foundation of their existence. And while our heart is aroused over the martyrs that fell by the hands of violent mobs, we witness with indifference the disappearance of that for which they became martyrs. . . .
Having stated the nature of the problem we must now try to search for a solution; but none seems to be forthcoming. We are on the horns of a dilemma: Either return to the Ghetto, or complete absorption. Tertium non datur! But of the two openings, the one is impossible, the other unacceptable. For we may recognize as clearly as possible the preserving influences of the Ghetto; we may, when made to shiver in a cold, big world, affectionately dream of its lowly roof, its narrow walls, its cheering fireside, its peaceful atmosphere; but the Jews who have lived and grown in freedom can as little go back to the Ghetto as the grown bird can return to its eggshell. As for complete absorption, there are thousands among us—in itself the surest symptom of our decay—who coolly or even longingly look forward to this possibility. But those of us who still feel the stream of Jewish life rolling through their veins, who are dominated and actuated by Jewish sentiment and Jewish thought, to whom Judaism is the breath of their nostrils and the fountain of their life, are struck with a terror that no words can describe at the mere possibility of their spiritual death. . . .
But is there really no escape from this frightful dilemma? . . .
Were it proved by the facts of our history, with its unparalleled store of experience, that union between Judaism and freedom is impossible, then our fate would be sealed, and all our protests and agonies would be of no avail. All that we should have to do would be to lie down in our shame, to wrap ourselves in our ignominy, and to await with deathly stupor the verdict of nature.
But, happily enough, our history does not prove it impossible.
To be sure, the period in Jewish history preceding the era of emancipation was one of isolation, but this period was in its turn preceded by another, which was one of freedom. The great and glorious Jewish-Arabic period deals a deathblow to the dilemma besetting the problem of Judaism, and is in itself an overwhelming proof and shining example of the compatibility of an active participation of the Jews in the life and culture of the nations around them, with a strong, vigorous, genuine development of Judaism.
The amount of freedom enjoyed by the Jews of the Arabic epoch was in no way inferior to that of our own. The Jews took an honorable and energetic part in the economic, social, and political development of the Eastern as well as the Western Califate. . . . We find Jewish merchants, Jewish financiers, Jewish dignitaries of high standing; and Jewish viziers and ministers of States are more frequently to be met with there than in our own times. The association with the culture and spiritual influences of the age was just as close and intimate.
The Jews made themselves the possessors of all the intellectual achievements of Arabic civilization, with an eagerness and rapidity which reminds us vividly of our own days, and which found a curious echo in the outcry of a fanatic of the early part of that period, which sounds quite familiar to our own ears. “Every day,”—thus runs this lamentation which, characteristically enough, has a Karaite for its author and is written in Arabic, the language of the new culture—‘every day we commit a number of sins and make ourselves guilty of a great many transgressions. We mix with the Gentiles around us and imitate their doings. Our chief aim is the study of the Arabic language and its philology, on which we lavishly spend our money, while we leave aside the knowledge of the holy tongue and the meditation in the commandments of the Lord.” The intimate acquaintance of the Jews with the religion of Islam and its highly developed theology may be inferred from the fact that the religious terminology of the Jewish thinkers is largely patterned after that of the Mohammedan dogmatists. . . . The close connection of Judaism with the philosophy of the age, which, rooting in Greek thought, was far from favorable to positive religion, is illustrated by the fact that Aristotle was to the Jews of that period “the Philosopher” and was put on a level scarcely inferior to that of the Jewish Lawgiver.
Yet the very same age saw a development of the Jewish spirit and Jewish culture so many-sided, so fascinating, and so rich in results as never before or after in the lands of the exile. No department in the spiritual treasury of our people remained untouched by the loving care of its sons. Bible, Talmud, Hebrew literature, Hebrew poetry and philosophy, Jewish philosophy, and everything that constitutes the pride of the Jew found their greatest and most brilliant representatives in that period, and the profound attachment to Judaism went hand in hand with a noble enthusiasm for everything noble outside of Judaism. Hasdai ibn Shaprut, the powerful diplomat of Cordova, was not only a generous supporter of every manifestation of Jewish learning, but took himself a most profound and stimulating interesting in the rise of Hebrew philology in Spain. Samuel ibn Nagdela, the Prime Minister of Granada, guided not only the affairs of the State, but also the studies in the Beth Hamidrash, where he delivered lectures on the Talmud, and he is celebrated in Jewish history both as a Talmudic scholar and a Hebrew poet. Solomon ibn Gabirol, who summed up the philosophy of the age in an Arabic work which profoundly influenced medieval Christian philosophy, is one of the greatest poets of our nation in its sacred tongue. Moses Maimonides, who is a living expression of the whole Arabic culture of the age, is at the same time the greatest scholar and thinker of post-Biblical Judaism, and while in his philosophical standard work, written in Arabic, he “guides the perplexed” of his time in the paths of Aristotelian philosophy, he leads in his religious code the large mass of his people “with a strong hand” to the sources of Judaism. Everywhere we witness harmony and beauty, a full growth of Judaism under the benign rays of freedom and culture. . . .
There is nothing in modern life or culture which is more opposed and more dangerous to Judaism than were the conditions of the great Jewish-Arabic period. Modem Christianity possesses no more attraction for the adherents of Judaism than did the highly developed Mohammedan theology of that age, and modem thought is no more irreconcilable with the Judaism of the twentieth century than was the philosophy of Aristotle with the Judaism of the twelfth. But in confronting Judaism with the culture of the surrounding nations we must present it as it is, in its true shape and size, and not as a caricature. It was the fatal mistake of the period of emancipation, a mistake which is the real source of all the subsequent disasters in modem Jewish life, that in order to facilitate the fight for political equality, Judaism was put forward not as a culture, as the full expression of the inner life of the Jewish people, but as a creed, as the summary of a few abstract articles of faith, similar in character to the religion of the surrounding nations. . . .
We only need recall the truism—almost We too trivial to be repeated—that there is no exact equivalent for the term “religion” in Hebrew, or point to the well-known fact that, despite the aptitude of the Jewish mind for theological intricacies, the Jews were never reconciled to the idea of formulating a creed, to realize that Judaism is far more than a mere faith and that it is essentially different in its origin and structure from Christianity and similar religions. Forced onto the Procrustes’ couch of a religious denomination, and stripped of all those elements that bore special relation to the people that produced it, Judaism was crippled in its vital functions and rendered unfit to meet and to resist the new conditions. Jewish living had to be sacrificed for the sake of emancipation. The beliefs of Judaism had to be refashioned so as to purge them of their intimate connection with the Jewish national aspirations. The progress of Judaism was no more an organic development from within, but a mere series of mechanical changes dictated by considerations from without.
The whole structure of Judaism was thus turned top to bottom. Judaism became a church, the rabbis became priests, and the Jews became a flock, not quite as tractable perhaps, though quite as ignorant as other flocks. The Jewish education of the children, which formed the cornerstone of Biblical and Talmudic Judaism, dwindled down to Sunday-school experiments, and the children of Israel often enough know of Judaism and their people no more than what they are told by Israel’s enemies. Jewish scholarship, which to an unequalled extent was the possession of the rank and file of our nation, gave place to widespread ignorance, and the name Am Haaretz, which in olden times disqualified a Jew for the humblest social position, almost became a title of honor. All those intellectual activities of Judaism which could not be pressed into the mould of theology, though of enormous value for the cultivation of the Jewish consciousness—activities which in Biblical times produced the Song of Songs and in the Middle Ages gave birth to a highly developed literature and poetry—were thrown out of Jewish life, or in the best case confined to the cabinets of a few scholars.
Thus the modem Jew, while partaking of the fullness of modem culture, was made to starve within the precincts of Judaism. He satisfied his highest tastes and desires outside the Jewish camp, while in Judaism he only perceived a few colorless doctrines which could be had elsewhere, and a few cold liturgical ceremonies which seldom appealed to him. He was often forced to ask himself, “Why am I a Jew?”—a question which in its very form implies a negation, and which to our profound shame was and still is heard from official representatives of Judaism in the pulpit. . . .
If Judaism is to be preserved amidst the new conditions; if, lacking as it does all outward support, it is still to withstand the pressure of the surrounding influences, it must again break the narrow frame of a creed and resume its original function as a culture, as the expression of the Jewish spirit and the whole life of the Jews. It will not confine itself to a few metaphysical doctrines which affect the head and not the heart, and a few official ceremonies which affect neither the head nor the heart, but will encircle the whole life of the Jew and give content and color to its highest functions and activities.
Perhaps two illustrations derived from historical facts, the one belonging to the Jewish-Arabic period, the other to our own age, will bring out more clearly than can any abstract exposition the different results of these two different conceptions of Judaism.
There is scarcely any civilization in which poetry, the rhythmic sentence and the rhymed word, occupies so prominent a place as in Arabic civilization and in the cultures dependent on it. All classes and occupations worshiped with equal devotion at its shrine. The starving nomad of the desert, the prince on the throne, the frivolous comedian and the grave scholar, all loved and practiced the art of rhyme . . .
When the Jews came in contact with Arabic culture, the only poetry they had created outside of the Bible was the so-called Piyyut, a more or less uncouth form of poetry which merely served liturgical purposes. But the Judaism of that period, which embraced all that had any connection with Jewish life, soon took cognizance of the new factor. It introduced the form and spirit of Arabic poetry into the Hebrew language, and the medieval Hebrew poetry, the richest after the Biblical, sprang up, singing not only of God, His land, and His people, but also of matters far less divine—of wine, woman, and all the moods and passions of the human heart. Moses Maimonides, who from his high metaphysical observatory looked down upon poetry as a meaningless waste of time, indignantly protested against the use, or abuse, of the sacred tongue for contents of so frivolous a nature. But there can be no doubt that the secular Hebrew poetry, however slight its connection with Jewish religion, had as much share in attracting and attaching to Judaism the beaux esprits of the period as had Maimonides’ metaphysics in keeping within the precincts of Judaism the philosophical sceptics of the age.
And now for our own time. There is scarcely anything in modem life which is so characteristic an expression of the soul of a people and so apt to arouse the emotions of its members as is music. The language of the angels, as it has been styled, has now become a means of expression of the whole of humanity. There is no nation, whether standing on the lowest or the highest rung of the ladder of civilization, which does not enshrine its joys and sorrows, its memories and hopes, in song and tune. The Jews have been blessed with an exceptional gift for this divine art. They have as composers and performers enriched the musical repertoire of almost every nation. Dozens of Jewish musicians, though keeping their Judaism in strict incognito, arrive every season in this country. But modern Judaism, which has curtailed its functions down to those of a creed, has no room for the talents of its children. And while even the hapless Ghetto has been able to breathe forth its woe in strains peculiar to it, modem Judaism, with all its freedom and prosperity, is deprived of this sweetest of arts, and even in its places of worship has to depend on the talents of non-Jews.
Such a Judaism of freedom and culture as advocated above will not be a mere reproduction of the Judaism of the Ghetto. It will have to take in and digest the elements of other cultures, and will seek and meet new conditions and interests. This modem Judaism will evolve from the Judaism preceding it, as did Talmudic Judaism from Biblical, philosophical Judaism from Talmudism, Mysticism from Jewish philosophy, Hasidism from Rabbinism. It will develop and be modified along the lines of its history, prompted by inner necessity, not by dictation from without.
While the Judaism of isolation accentuated the ceremonial side of Jewish life and crystalized itself by a natural process into an Orah Hayyim—a “Mode of Living” (as the ceremonial part of the Shulhan Arukh is entitled)—the modem phase of Judaism will probably tend to emphasize more strongly its cultural aspects. While it will endeavor to preserve all those features of Jewish practice which give shape as well as color and vigor to Judaism, it will develop and call forth all those powers of the Jewish spirit which will be apt to supplement or counteract the influences of modern life. It will give full scope to our religious genius, but will also foster all other departments of the Jewish intellect. It will develop our literature, create or preserve Jewish art in all its functions, stimulate and further Jewish scholarship, so as to make it a powerful factor in the strengthening of the Jewish consciousness. It will reorganize and put on a firmer basis the Jewish education of our children, who are the pledge of our future, and thus create the basis and soundingboard for all other Jewish activities. . . .
If such a Judaism, presenting a harmonious union between the culture of the Jewish people and that of the other nations, is possible in the Dispersion—and that it is possible is convincingly shown by our history—the only place where it has a full chance of realization is America. For America—this even the Zionist, who works and hopes for the establishment of a center of Jewish culture in its native land, will freely and readily admit—America is fast becoming the center of the Jewish people of the Diaspora. Jewish history teaches us that, despite the centrifugal forces of the Dispersion, Judaism was seldom without a center, and that this center, following the wanderings of Jewry, moved from place to place. The Jewish center shifted from Palestine to Babylon, from Babylon to Spain, from Spain to Poland and Russia. It is now shifting before our very eyes to this country. . . .
There is no thinking Jew outside of America whose eyes are not turned towards this country as the center of Judaism in the nearest future. America presents a happy combination of so manifold and favorable circumstances as have seldom, if ever, been equalled in the history of the Diaspora. It has the numbers which are necessary for the creation of a cultural center. It possesses the economic prosperity indispensable for a successful spiritual development. The freedom enjoyed by the Jews is not the outcome of emancipation, purchased at the cost of national suicide, but the natural product of American civilization. The idea of liberty as evolved by the Anglo-Saxon mind does not merely mean, as it often does in Europe, the privilege of selling new clothes instead of old, but signifies liberty of conscience, the full, untrammelled development of the soul as well as the body. The true American spirit understands and respects the traditions and associations of other nationalities, and on its vast area numerous races live peaceably together, equally devoted to the interests of the land. The influx of Jewish immigrants in the past and present brought and brings to these shores the enormous resources of the Ghetto, and presents American Jewry with a variety of Jewish types which will be of far-reaching significance in its further development. In short, this country has at its disposal all the materials necessary for the upbuilding of a large, powerful center of Judaism. . . .
But it is to be hoped that the American Jews will not be forgetful of the task—as gigantic as it is honorable—which lies before them. He who feels the pulse of American-Jewish life can detect, amidst numerous indications to the contrary, the beginnings of a Jewish renaissance, the budding forth of a new spirit. The Jews of America, as represented in their noblest and best, display larger Jewish sympathies, a broader outlook on Jewish life, a deeper understanding of the spiritual interests of Judaism than most of their brethren of the Mosaic persuasion in the lands of assimilation and emancipation. The type of the modem American Jew who is both modem and Jewish, who combines American energy and success with that manliness and selfassertion which is imbibed with American freedom, is becoming a species, while in other countries the same characteristics are to be met with in but a few exceptional individuals. The American Jews are fully alive to the future of their country as a center of Jewish culture. They build not only hospitals and infirmaries, but also schools and colleges; they welcome not only immigrants, but also libraries; not only tradesmen and laborers, but also scholars and writers. . . .
To be sure, we are only at the beginning. . . . The dead capital which we constantly draw from the Ghetto will have to be made into a working capital to produce new values. We first of all have to lay our foundation: to rescue the Jewish education of our future generation from the chaos in which it is now entangled. But we are on the right road. The American Jews will take to heart the lesson afforded by modem Jewish history in Europe. They will not bury Judaism in synagogues and temples, nor imprison it in charitable institutions. They will work and live for a Judaism which will compass all phases of Jewish life and thought; which will not be a faint, sickly hot-house plant, but, as it was in the days of old, “a tree of life for those who hold it fast, bestowing happiness on those who cling to it.”
But will a Judaism that does not confine itself to synagogues and hospitals, but endeavors to embrace the breadth and depth of modem life, leave sufficient room in the heart of the Jew for the interests and demands of his country, or, to put it into the mold of a current formula, is Judaism, and a Judaism of the kind advocated above, compatible with Americanism?
The people who thus anxiously inquire betray a poor conception of human psychology. They seem to think that the souls of men are like those cheap musical slot-machines which can only play a single tune. The human soul is characterized not by uniformity but by variety. The higher a human type, the more multifarious its interests, the more manifold its activities, the more varied its affections. That a full and successful participation in all phases of American life is reconcilable with a deep attachment to Judaism in all its aspects is sufficiently warranted by the historical precedent of the Jewish-Arabic period.
To be sure, in blending Judaism with Americanism, the edges and corners will have to be leveled on both sides. Compromises will be unavoidable. But the happiest of marriages is a series of mutual compromises. These compromises may not be exactly identical with those of the Jewish-Arabic era. . . . But these compromises will never be such as to obliterate or mutilate the character of either party. Judaism and Americanism will not be intersecting, but concentric circles. In the great palace of American civilization we shall occupy our own comer, which we will decorate and beautify to the best of our taste and ability, and make it not only a center of attraction for the members of our family, but also an object of admiration for all the dwellers of the palace.
There is an old rabbinic saying to the effect that after the destruction of the Temple the gift of prophecy passed over to children and fools. But prophecy as a matter of hope, the prediction of the future not as it will be, but as it ought to be, is indispensable for all those who have, or desire to have, a clear conception of their duties towards the coming generations.
When we thus try to penetrate the mist that encircles the horizon of the present, a vision unfolds itself before our mind’s eye, presenting a picture of the future American Israel. We perceive a community great in numbers, mighty in power, enjoying life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: true life, not mere breathing space; full liberty, not mere elbow room; real happiness, not that of pasture beasts; actively participating in the civic, social, and economic progress of the country; fully sharing and increasing its spiritual possessions and acquisitions; doubling its joys, halving its sorrows, yet deeply rooted in the soil of Judaism; clinging to its past, working for its future; true to its traditions, faithful to its aspirations; one in sentiment with their brethren wherever they are, attached to the land of their fathers as the cradle and resting place of the Jewish spirit . . . not a horde of individuals, but a set of individualities, adding a new note to the richness of American life, leading a new current into the stream of American civilization; not a formless crowd of taxpayers and voters, but a sharply marked community, distinct and distinguished, trusted for its loyalty, respected for its dignity, esteemed for its traditions, valued for its aspirations, a community such as the Prophet of the Exile saw it in his vision: “And marked will be their seed among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples. Everyone that will see them will point to them as a community blessed by the Lord.”
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Cedars of Lebanon: Can Judaism Survive in Free America?
Must-Reads from Magazine
Not a departure but a partial return to the norm.
President Trump’s address to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday stuck to the core themes that have defined his foreign policy since he took office. The ideological cocktail was two or three parts John Bolton, one part Steve Bannon. From his national-security adviser, Trump absorbs the traditional GOP hawkishness and sovereigntism that forms the cocktail’s base. Meanwhile, distinct traces remain of the ex-Breitbart chief’s harder-edged populist nationalism. Call that the modifier.
The main elements of the cocktail blend smoothly in some areas but not in others. Boltonians are wary of liberal, transnational institutions that seek to restrain U.S. power, and they aren’t shy about sidestepping or blowing past those institutions when national interest demand it. Bannonites detest the transnationalist dream even more intensely, though their hatred extends to mutual defense treaties and trade agreements that GOP foreign policy has historically welcomed.
Both camps, moreover, claim to have shed the illusions that they think got Washington into trouble after 9/11. They don’t believe that all of human history tends toward liberal democracy. “We are this,” they say to non-Western civilizations, “and you are that. You needn’t become like us, but don’t try to remake us in your image, either.” The Boltonians might pay some lip service to Reaganite ideals here and there, but as Bolton famously wrote in these pages: “Praise democracy, pass the ammunition.”
That’s where the similarities end. The Bannonites don’t share the Boltonian threat assessment: Vladimir Putin’s encroachments into Eastern Europe don’t exercise them, and they positively welcome Bashar Assad’s role in Syria. Boltonism favors expansion, Bannonism prefers retrenchment, if not isolation. Boltonism in its various iterations is the default worldview of the key national-security principals; not just Bolton himself but also the likes of Nikki Haley and Mike Pompeo. Bannonism is where I suspect the president’s own instincts lie.
It is hard to assess fully how these tensions are playing out in American foreign policy in the age of Trump. But one intellectual temptation to guard against is the tendency to view every move and every piece of rhetoric as a crazy Trumpian violation of the Eternal and Immutable Laws of American Strategy. In the main, Trump’s foreign policy appears alarming and discontinuous only to those who forget how far Barack Obama departed from mainstream, bipartisan foreign-policy traditions.
Bashing or withdrawing from UNESCO and the Human Rights Council because anti-Semitic, anti-Western “jackals” have taken these bodies hostage? That’s straight out of the Reagan-Bush-Daniel Patrick Moynihan playbook.
Ditto for rejecting the universal jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court because it would mean ceding American sovereignty to “an unelected, unaccountable, global bureaucracy,” as Trump put it Tuesday. Successive American administrations, including President Bill Clinton’s at various points, have opposed the creation of a world court that could be used by the “jackals” and their transnationalist allies to legally harass U.S. policymakers and soldiers alike.
Nor was there anything uniquely Trumpian, or uniquely sinister, about the decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Legislation enacted by Congress more than two decades ago had required the State Department to recognize Jerusalem and move the American Embassy, and as the president noted in his speech, peace is “is advanced, not harmed, by acknowledging the obvious facts.” The move also reinforces the sovereigntist idea that a nation’s decision about the location of its embassy is not open to scrutiny by foreign busybodies.
Nor, finally, does praising imperfect but valuable allies somehow take Trump beyond the pale of respectable American policy. Trump’s support for Riyadh, Warsaw, and Jerusalem is a course correction. For years under Obama, Washington neglected these powers in favor of the likes of Tehran.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t some wild elements to Trump’s foreign policy. For those who came of age in the shadow of certain postwar certainties, it will never be easy to hear the commander in chief threaten tariffs against various rivals and partners from the podium at Turtle Bay. And if Obama disrespected allies with his policies, Trump does so with his rhetorical outbursts against allied leaders, especially in Western Europe, and his bizarre refusal to directly criticize Vladimir Putin.
That’s that irrepressible Bannonite modifier in the cocktail, though the color and flavoring are all Trump’s own.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
A blow for sanity.
At some point earlier this year, America’s sources inside the Kremlin went dark. U.S. officials who spoke to the New York Times about their dangerous new blindness said they didn’t believe that their formerly reliable sources had been neutralized. Instead, their spies went into hiding amid a newly aggressive counter-espionage campaign from Moscow. The Times sources offered a variety of theories to explain what could have spooked their assets, but the most disturbing among them was the fact that the Republican-led House Intelligence Committee had exposed a Kremlin-connected FBI and CIA source as part of a campaign of unprecedented disclosures regarding America’s intelligence gathering process.
The disclosure that compromised a U.S. informant is only one in a seemingly endless cascade of classified information that Republicans claim must be revealed to the public if we are ever going to get to the bottom of the sprawling conspiracy that was put together to prevent Donald Trump from becoming president. The president’s allies in Congress have appealed to previously unused methods to reveal confidential House Intelligence Committee memos and even highly secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants, but none of it has satisfied Donald Trump or his defenders. There is always another document to release.
Last week, President Trump publicly ordered his Justice Department to declassify the redacted portions of a FISA warrant targeting Trump campaign advisor Carter Page, related FBI interviews, and text message sent by former FBI Director James Comey. These documents were supposedly related to the special counsel’s investigation into his campaign, even though he confessed that he had “not reviewed them.” Of the investigation, the president said, “This is a witch hunt.” The move satisfied many in Congress who insist that the president’s own Justice Department is persecuting him, but Trump confessed that he had ordered the declassification at the behest of his ardent supporters in conservative media such as Lou Dobbs and Jeanine Pirro.
Trump’s order triggered a brief review of the most sensitive aspects of the intelligence he was prepared to declassify, and it seems that this information was sensitive enough that Trump’s advisers were able to convince him of the need to reverse course. And so, he did. On Friday, Trump announced that he would not allow the release of documents that “could have a negative impact on the Russia probe” and would jeopardize American relations with its key allies. And though he reserved the right to disclose these documents in the future, they would not be forthcoming anytime soon.
Trump’s allies in Congress were crestfallen. Three members told Fox News Channel’s Catherine Herridge that they were “blindsided” and “demoralized” by Trump’s about-face, but the president made a sober and rational decision. Not only has the withholding of these documents avoided the appearance of interference with Robert Mueller’s probe, but the president has also preserved America’s intelligence-sharing relationship with what he described as “two very good allies” that objected to the declassification.
Trump’s defenders in Congress who are inclined to flog the “deep-state” conspiracy theory should not be so disconsolate. According to ABC News’ sources, the documents Trump was prepared to disclose—just like documents before them—contained no smoking gun. Their sources insist that the documents and communications at issue would not have confirmed the suspicion among some observers that the FBI’s probe into the Trump campaign was based on the intelligence provided by former MI6 agent Christopher Steele. Instead, they would have confirmed that the investigation into Trump’s campaign began well before the FBI’s receipt of the “Steele dossier.” And when these disclosures failed to satisfy those who are most invested in nursing Trump’s persecution complex, there would be demands for more declassifications and more disclosures.
Conservatives with a healthy mistrust of federal agencies and the prevailing political culture within them may scoff at skeptics who are not eager to see U.S. intelligence documents sloppily released to the public. There are, after all, valid questions about the FISA Court’s oversight and the extent to which Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights are protected in counter-intelligence investigations that long predate Carter Page’s travails. But the interagency process and the oversight of appropriate redactions are designed to protect American intelligence assets and the assets of U.S. allies. It is all intended to preserve the integrity of U.S. sources and the methods they use to keep Americans safe.
If the Democratic Party was demanding these unprecedented disclosures with no regard for the geopolitical fallout and national-security risks they could incur, Republicans, you could be certain, would be raising hell. And they would be absolutely right to do so.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
RIP Paulina Płaksej.
It’s only Monday evening, which means Americans face another full week of political and cultural squalor. For an antidote, consider Paulina Płaksej, who died Sunday, aged 93. Our former COMMENTARY colleague Daniella Greenbaum broke news of Płaksej’s death on Twitter, which alerted me (and many others) to her inspiring life and that of her family, Polish Catholics who fed, hid, and rescued Jews during the Holocaust.
Zachariasz and Bronisława Płaksej, Paulina’s parents, moved from Lviv, Ukraine, to Kałusz before the outbreak of the war. There, Zachariasz worked as an accountant at a local mine and developed warm relations with the area’s Jews. Toward the end of 1941, when the Nazis forced the Jews of Kałusz into a newly created ghetto with an eye toward their extermination, Zachariasz and his family “acted as couriers, smuggling notes in and out of the ghetto,” according to the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous. Soon, assisting persecuted Jews became the family’s main business.
It helped that they resided on the outskirts of town. As Paulina later recounted, “we lived in seclusion and not in the center of the town, so it was very convenient for us. We were surrounded by gardens, orchards, the river was flowing nearby, and there was a slaughterhouse not far away. The Germans rarely visited this place, so our life was peaceful…” Even before the creation of the ghetto, Jewish children would stop by the Płaksej home for a bowl of hot soup and a brief respite from the cruelty of daily life under occupation.
Her father, Paulina recalled, “was a very religious person, and he believed that you should always help a man, your fellow creature, as our religion has it. The Jewish victim was not simply a Jew, but your fellow, a human being, wasn’t he?”
The Płaksejs took extraordinary risks to that end, creating an underground pipeline from the Kałusz ghetto to safety for Jews targeted for liquidation:
The first family to escape [the ghetto] was Sara, Solomon, and their son, Imek. They temporarily hid at Paulina’s house. When it became too dangerous for them to stay there, Zacharias found a safer place for them to hide. He brought Sara, Solomon, and Imek to a trusted friend who was already hiding Jews in a bunker beneath his barn. Later, another Jewish woman, Rozia, escaped from the ghetto and sought out the Plaksej family. They also brought her to the farmer’s bunker. Paulina regularly brought whatever food and supplies were needed. Sara, Solomon, Imek, and Rozia, along with thirteen other Jews, stayed in this bunker for over a year. To this day, the identity of the farmer is not known.
In 1944 Miriam, another inhabitant of the ghetto, learned that the Germans planned to liquidate the ghetto and deport or murder the inhabitants. Miriam asked Zacharias to save her two-year-old daughter, Maja. Zacharias contacted Miriam’s former maid and arranged for her to come rescue Maja. The maid brought a horse and cart, and the Jewish police helped smuggle the little girl out of the ghetto. The maid told her neighbors that this little girl was her daughter who had just returned from living with her grandparents.
Miriam was in one of the last groups of Jews to be deported to Auschwitz. As her group was marched to the train, Miriam quickly took off her armband and joined the crowds in the street. She went straight to the Plaksej house asking for help. They hid her in their wardrobe for a number of months. Zacharias obtained forged papers for her and took her to another village where she would not be recognized as a Jew. There she was picked up as a Pole and sent to a German farm as a forced laborer. After the war, she returned to the maid’s house, picked up her daughter, and reunited with her husband. Due to the efforts of Paulina and her family, all of the Jews they helped survived the war.
The State of Israel in 1987 recognized Paulina and her parents as Righteous Among the Nations. May we never forget these stories, and may we all strive to follow in their footsteps, even and especially amid our contemporary squalor.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Podcast: Kavanaugh and Rosenstein.
Can you take what we say about the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh seriously considering we’re conservatives and he’s a conservative? Are we defending him because we are genuinely discomfited by how insubstantial the allegations against him are, or are we doing so because we agree with him ideologically? We explore this on today’s podcast. Give a listen.