In late April of this year, a weird treason trial took place in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, which deserved…
Following Stalin’s death and the abrupt repudiation of the Moscow “doctors’ plot,” it was (and still is) widely presumed that Soviet Russia, as part of a modification of her hitherto intransigent attitude, had called off the anti-Semitic campaign which reached its high point in the Prague trials of Rudolf Slansky and other “Zionist conspirators.” Unhappily, recent events in Czechoslovakia, Rumania, and Hungary, as here reported by Peter Meyer, show that the present reality is of quite a different order than these hopeful beliefs.
In late April of this year, a weird treason trial took place in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, which deserved more than the few lines it got in a late city edition of the metropolitan newspapers. Here was no routine operation of the totalitarian justice-mill such as the outside world has become inured to, those daily court proceedings in Communist countries in which some poor devils confess to espionage and sabotage in the service of Wall Street. These victims were no “mere” workers who failed to fulfill their norms, peasants who did not deliver enough grain, clergymen or believers who opposed the Gleichschaltung of their community, or citizens who let slip a few words of criticism. The defendants in this case had belonged to the highest circles of Slovak Communism. One of them, Gustav Husak, had been the Premier of Slovakia’s semi-autonomous cabinet. With him in the dock were his Minister of the Interior, Daniel Okali; Minister of Education, Laco Novomesky, a poet and the best-known Slovak Communist writer; and the Minister for Religious Affairs, Laco Holdos, who was a member of Communism’s “Spanish aristocracy,” having fought under GPU orders in the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. The fifth defendant, Ivan Horvath, was the former Czechoslovakian envoy to Hungary. All had been members of the Central Committee of the Communist party of Czechoslovakia or of its Slovak branch.
Except for Holdos, who was of working class origin, all of these men had been radical Slovak intellectuals who joined the Communist movement in their student days. They had gathered around an avant-garde magazine, Dav (“The Masses”), which demanded the “national” as well as the “social” liberation of the Slovak people. “Social liberation” was a circumlocution for Communist rule, but “national liberation” meant Slovakia’s independence from the Czechs, within, however, the framework of some Communist world federation. On orders from Moscow, the Czechoslovak Communist party had supported the slogan of Slovak independence from the middle 20’s on; such slogans were always handy sticks with which to belabor the “imperialists,” among whom pre-war Czechoslovakia, allied with France, was numbered.
In spite of this appeal to Slovak nationalism, two-thirds of the Slovak electorate voted against Communism in the last free elections before the Communist coup of 1948. Following the coup, there was an abrupt change of line and Slovak “separatism,” even in the form of the mildest aspirations toward autonomy, was denounced as treasonable. The ideological leader of Slovak Communism, Foreign Minister Vlado Clementis, was the first Communist of prominence to be purged in Czechoslovakia. This was in March 1950; the man who brought about his fall was the then omnipotent Secretary General of the Communist party, Rudolf Slansky. But soon the purge veered about and Slansky himself was swept up in it. Ironically, the “Slovak nationalist” Clementis and the “radical internationalist” Slansky were tried together at Prague in proceedings whose violently anti-Semitic character shocked the world, and were executed by the same hangmen at the end of 1952.1
Husak, Novomesky, and their present codefendants had played the part of repentant witnesses in the Slansky trial. Their crime had been Slovak nationalism and they were considered Clementis’ rather than Slansky’s accomplices. They all come from Catholic or Protestant families; none is a Jew.
The greater the surprise, then, when Radio Bratislava and the Czechoslovak press, in a communiqué on the trial, accused these defendants of the same crime for which Slansky and his fellow “traitors” (all but three, Jews) had been hanged—furthering a Jewish conspiracy. They had neglected to check Zionist activities and they had failed to punish subversive elements described as “Zionists,” “Jewish capitalist smugglers,” “Jewish Gestapo agents,” and “agents of the Joint.” Okali, the former Minister of the Interior, was accused of having helped two Zionist leaders to escape the country and of having stopped an investigation into the traitorous activities of the local branch of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. To quote from the prosecutor’s summation:
The defendant Okali, in his capacity as Slovak Commissar of the Interior, supported and protected groups of Zionists and their organizations in Czechoslovakia, and prevented the exposure of their collaborationist and subversive activities, although he was fully aware that they were a faithful instrument and bulwark of Western imperialism and its plans of expansion, aimed at the People’s Democracies and the Soviet Union.
In his “confession,” Okali was obliged to denounce the “Zionists” not only as agents of the U. S., but also as creatures of the Gestapo and the Slovak puppet government of Father Tiso. Slovak Jews, thousands of whom perished in the gas chambers, were thus depicted as the henchmen and agents of their very murderers.
Not only political Zionism but the mere fact of emigration (which Communist Czechoslovakia had permitted up to 1949) was denounced as a crime; merely to have tolerated it was treason. Said the prosecutor:
In full agreement with the treacherous aims of the subversive conspiratorial center, Okali and other defendants allowed several Zionist leaders, among them Winterstein and Weiss, to escape punishment and lead an organized flight of Zionists and Jewish capitalists with their properties from the country.
For these and similar crimes, Okali was sentenced to eighteen years in jail; his boss, Husak, received a life sentence; and the three other defendants received sentences of twenty-two, thirteen, and ten years respectively.
So conspicuous was the trial’s Jewish emphasis that many European press comments pointed to this as its most important feature. The Neue Zürcher Zeitung commented on April 27 and 28:
A really sensational surprise is the revival in full strength of the anti-Semitic leitmotiv of the Slansky trial. . . .
The punishing of non-Jewish defendants for allegedly protecting Jews is new, and one can easily understand the catastrophic consequences this will have for the situation of Jews in Czechoslovakia. . . .
The London Jewish Chronicle wrote on April 30:
In tone and substance the [Czechoslovak] broadcast was provocatively anti-Jewish, much more prominence having been given to the charges of the pro-Zionist activities of the prisoners than to other parts of the indictment against them.
It may perhaps be said that the Bratislava trial was a purely local affair in which provincial officials mechanically rehashed the old charges of the Slansky trial. We are certain to hear this objection from those who cling to any charitable interpretation of Communist crimes to shield their own anxiously maintained complacency.
The Bratislava charges, however, were no mere rehash of old accusations. One important feature of the Slansky trial was eliminated, another was given added emphasis. The Prague trial had been conducted against a “Zionist-Titoist” subversive center; in Bratislava, not a word was said about Titoism, which no longer figures as a charge in the show trials and propaganda blasts of any of the satellite countries. But the denunciation of “Zionism” and “Jewish capitalists” figured very large indeed. There was nothing routine and perfunctory about these calculated assaults on the Jews in the Bratislava trial. They must have been made as the result of a policy decision. The Neue Zürcher Zeitung cannot be far from the truth when it assumes that this decision was made in Moscow.
Does this mean that Moscow is now taking up the anti-Semitic campaign where it had abandoned it after the death of Stalin? This would be an inaccurate way to describe matters. For, in spite of all the wishful thinking to the contrary, Moscow never abandoned its anti-Jewish campaign.
In April 1953, when the allegations against the Moscow Jewish doctors were dismissed and the Soviet State Security Minister Semyon D. Ignatiev was sent packing for fomenting “national enmities” and “racial hatred,” a wave of relief swept the Jewish communities of the West. A projected protest conference of Jewish organizations in Switzerland was abandoned with a haste that did not allow for any serious consideration of the facts; everywhere the indignation that had been gathering against the persecution of Jews was allowed to dissipate itself. The desire to be reassured about the situation of the Jews behind the Iron Curtain seized on the Soviet Union’s resumption of diplomatic relations with Israel in July 1953; on the fact that a number of prominent leaders of Jewish origin like Kaganovich in Russia, Minc and Berman in Poland, Rakosi in Hungary, and Chisinevski in Rumania continued in their posts; and the failure of the long awaited trial of Ana Pauker to take place.
A whole array of ominous signs and outright acts of persecution went unnoted: except for the nine Moscow doctors not one victim of the anti-Jewish measures was released and rehabilitated; Zionism continued to be a criminal offense; hundreds of Zionists and other Jewish leaders continued to languish in jail; all Jewish communal activities and any kind of authentic Jewish cultural endeavor were proscribed; emigration was forbidden, all attempts to cross the borders illegally being punishable by death; the wild charges that had been leveled against Jewish leaders all over the world in the Slansky trial were not retracted, but on the contrary repeated with ever greater violence; and the existence of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy against the Communist regimes remained an article of faith for all Soviet and satellite Communists.
Zionism, as well as every kind of Jewish communal activity, was marked down for liquidation; every Jew was suspected of being a member of the criminal Zionist conspiracy. Israel was permitted to reopen its embassy in Moscow and to sell the Soviet government lemons and oranges which it resold to its subjects at an immense profit; but the leaders of the Jewish state, after as before, remained “agents of imperialism” ready and eager to commit the blackest crimes; any past contact with them was treasonable on the face of it. Communist propaganda continued to incite the Arabs against the Jewish “bulwark of imperialism” in the Middle East. Communist leaders of Jewish ancestry, although ardent anti-Zionists, continued to be “liquidated” for “Zionism.”
Nor did the Soviet leaders trouble to veil their anti-Semitic activities and agitation from the world. On April 16, 1953, two weeks after the release of the Moscow doctors, Czechoslovak Foreign Minister Vaclav David, answering an Israeli complaint in the Political Committee of the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York, upheld all the charges against Israel and Zionism that had been made at the Slansky trial, and again accused Zionist and other Jewish organizations of being hotbeds of American-sponsored sabotage and espionage. When Israel’s delegates objected to this, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Vishinsky charged them with slander. In Czechoslovakia, the press continued the anti-Semitic campaign unabated, taking care only to label all Jews as “Zionists.”
Nor did the attack remain merely verbal. On May 26, 1953, four Czechoslovak diplomats stood trial in Prague. Three of them were Jews: Richard Slansky, brother of Rudolf, Edvard Goldstuecker, former Czechoslovak minister to Israel, and Pavel Kavan, former attaché of the Czechoslovak embassy in London. Richard Slansky and Goldstuecker were sentenced to life imprisonment, Kavan to twenty-five years. The charges brought against the defendants in this “little Slansky trial” were the same as in the big one: participation in the worldwide Zionist conspiracy. Goldstuecker was accused of having been Slansky’s liaison man with the statesmen of Israel, Kavan his contact with the Western imperialists.
A few months later, two Israeli citizens were sentenced in Prague on these same counts: Mordecai Oren, leader of the pro-Soviet wing of the left Socialist Mapam party and a member of the Knesset, received fifteen years in prison; his cousin, Simon Orenstein, a former commercial attaché of the Israeli legation in Prague, got jail for life. Oren, who had always been ardently pro-Communist, was arrested in December 1951 when visiting Prague. The organizers of the frame-up had apparently needed at least one genuine member of a Zionist organization to give some color to their characterization of the Slansky group as “Zionist.” After being held incommunicado for almost a year, Oren was produced as a witness in the Slansky trial and dutifully “confessed.” After the trial he disappeared back into jail, and thirteen diplomatic representations by Israel seeking permission to communicate with him remained without result. Finally in November 1953 a brief statement informed Israel that Oren had been sentenced in August and Orenstein in October in secret proceedings.
On January 29, 1954, seven more accomplices of Slansky were tried in Prague: Marie Svermova, Jarmila Taussigova, Mikulas Landa (Landau), Bedrich Hajek (Karpeles), Ervin Polak, Vitezslav Fuchs, and Hanus Lomsky (Gabriel Lieben). All were former party secretaries; Polak had been a high official of the secret police. Six of the seven were Jews, Lomsky-Lieben being the son of a famous rabbi. The only non-Jewish defendant, Marie Svermova, was accused of having been the mistress of the Jewish “traitor” Otto Sling, executed with Slansky in December 1952. Svermova received a life sentence, the other defendants forced labor terms from fifteen to twenty-five years.
Except for Oren and Orenstein, who had been pro-Communist Zionists, all the “Zionist conspirators” were men with lifelong anti-Zionist and anti-religious records. Their only connection with things Jewish was their “racial origin” and perhaps their childhood memories. Associating such people with “Zionism” served only one purpose: to remind the public that they were Jews and to identify Jews—all Jews—with foreign-directed subversion.
The Bratislava trial of April 1954 introduced a new stage. It showed that even non-Jews could be labeled pro-Zionist and used to foment anti-Semitism. The idea was not as original as it seemed. The Nazis also used to speak of Judenknechte; though somebody whom the Nazis hated hadn’t even a drop of “Jewish blood,” he could still be denounced as a “lackey of the Jews.” The East German Communists, as a matter of fact, imitated this Nazi practice as early as January 1953 when they charged the “pure Aryan” Communist leader Paul Merker with having served the Zionist cause by collaborating with anti-Nazi Jews during his emigration.
Every two or three months the Czech and Slovak people were reminded of the “Zionist crimes” by further trials and the “Slansky gang” was made responsible for all the hardships and rigors of life under Communism. President Antonin Zapotocky repeatedly asserted that most of the country’s economic difficulties had been caused by the sabotaging efforts of the Slanskyites. A recent congress of Czechoslovak writers blamed them for the low level of contemporary Czech literature.
This campaign was by no means limited to Czechoslovakia, but embraced a number of the satellite states. In Hungary, in March 1954, Gabor Peter, the former chief of the secret police, and Gyula Decsi, the former Minister of Justice, were tried for “crimes against the State and People.” Gabor Peter received a life sentence, Gyula Decsi nine years. Both were of Jewish origin and had been arrested at the time of the Moscow doctors’ affair. The former police chief was accused of having helped Jews flee Hungary. His other crimes, though many, were not made public. It was common knowledge, however, that he had organized the mass deportation of Hungarian Jews from the cities. This tormentor of the Jews was now denounced as a “Jewish conspirator.”
A month later, simultaneously with the Bratislava show, another public trial took place in Bucharest. The chief defendant here was Lucretiu Patrascanu. He was a Communist of long standing and a lawyer who had defended Ana Pauker in the 30’s. During the war, he had been in a concentration camp; when he was freed he helped to execute the coup that deposed Dictator Ion Antonescu, signed the 1944 armistice agreement which opened Rumania to Soviet troops, and was Minister of Justice in the first postwar cabinets. He took a prominent part in Andrei Vishinsky’s coup overthrowing the democratic Rumanian government and delivering the country over to the Communists. Nevertheless, in 1948 he was forced to resign and disappeared from the political scene. He was arrested soon afterwards and spent a number of years in prison. Now he was hailed before a tribunal and accused of having been an agent of the Gestapo, the Rumanian fascist secret police, and the American legation. He was sentenced to death and executed.
It was remarkable that none of Patrascanu’s ten co-defendants had ever been among his intimate friends. They had evidently been “associated” with him only for the purposes of the show trial. Since it is the Politburo that decides who shall be a “traitor,” the composition of the amalgam provides us with some clues as to Communist policies. Now at least five of Patrascanu’s ten co-defendants were of Jewish origin. All had been members of the Communist party, and some of them officials of the secret police as well. One of them, Remus Koffler, was executed; four others—Emil Kalmanovic, Herbert Silver, Jacques Berman, and Harry Brauner—received jail sentences ranging from twelve years to life.
It is clear from these proceedings in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Rumania that it is now standard operating procedure for the Communist leaders to give the trials of their purged colleagues an anti-Semitic emphasis. “Protecting Zionist conspirators” and “helping Jewish capitalists to carry off the country’s wealth to Israel” have now become regular features of most indictments in the political trials behind the Iron Curtain.
The effects of this incessant stigmatization of “Jewish traitors” and their protectors can easily be imagined. Even those who lend no credence to a lying anti-Semitic propaganda are intimidated by the inescapable conclusion that helping Jews, any Jews, may prove to be a serious criminal offense.
Those who think to find some consolation in the fact that the victims of the show trials are Jewish Communists who in many cases themselves persecuted the Jewish people, should remember that for each “prominent” victim, hundreds of obscure citizens are demoted, thrown out of their jobs, or deported without trial. No Communist purge is ever aimed at individuals alone. These individuals always stand for a “suspect,” “dangerous,” “hostile” group. The never ending trials against “Zionist traitors” mean quite simply that the Jews have become such a group, to be isolated, “rendered harmless,” and finally “liquidated.”
Behind the screen of public and semipublic prosecutions, a systematic terror campaign is in fact being conducted against thousands of authentic members of Jewish communities and hundreds of their former leaders. These leaders, many of them Zionists, had been driven from their positions in the Jewish communities and organizations in 1948 and 1949, in the great “ideological campaign” that followed Ilya Ehrenburg’s notorious anti-Zionist article in the Moscow Pravda. Only a few were fortunate enough to be able to emigrate to Israel legally, or to flee across the borders.
The majority of the Jewish leaders were forced to remain behind the Iron Curtain and were soon arrested on some flimsy pretext. They were accused of “organizing illegal emigration” during the short period when Communist authorities did everything in their power to get as many Jews as possible out of the country. They were charged with corrupting” officials who considered a small gratuity theirs as a matter of right. They were arrested for “foreign currency manipulations” set on foot by the same authorities who were now prosecuting them. Their contacts with the Israeli legations and Jewish philanthropic organizations, which the organizing and financing of the emigration made necessary, were now evidence of treason and espionage.
Hundreds of these Zionist and religious leaders have been languishing in the jails of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Rumania for years. It is the shame of the world Zionist movement and of the Jewish communities in the West that no campaign has been organized to arouse world opinion to secure their release during all these years.
Now these men are being tried and sentenced. But where the fallen Communist leaders were tried in a blaze of publicity, the trials of the real Zionists are conducted in camera. Relatives of the accused, however, are sometimes admitted, and knowledge of the draconic sentences meted out is apparently allowed to trickle down to the local Jewish population, probably for purposes of intimidation. It takes some time for the reports to reach Austria, West Germany, or Israel, so that our knowledge of the proceedings is necessarily incomplete. But what we know points to an all-pervasive terror.
In August 1953, nine former leaders of the Jewish communities in Czechoslovakia were secretly tried in Prague. One of the defendants was sentenced to death, this later being commuted to life imprisonment; eight co-defendants received sentences up to twenty-three years in jail.
In Slovakia, about a hundred former active Zionists were concentrated in a Bratislava prison awaiting trial. This was reported last fall; we do not know how many of these trials have since taken place.
In Hungary, Bela Denes, a leader of the Socialist Mapai party, was arrested in 1949 and tried with several co-defendants, for organizing “illegal emigration” to Israel; he was sentenced to three years in prison. After serving his full sentence, he was kept in jail for two more years. Henrik Galos, a former secretary of the Zionist Federation, was deported from Budapest and interned in a rural place. In 1953, he was re-arrested and tried again, together with Denes, on the very same charges of pre-1949 Zionist activity. In this case, however, protests abroad, especially in Austria and Switzerland, were voiced early and strong enough to stay the hand of the persecutors. According to reports from Hungary, Denes and Galos were acquitted. But they have not been allowed to leave Hungary and their fate is unknown.
Other Hungarian Jews were not so lucky. Georg Schay, leader of the youth organization Habonim, was sentenced to five years. Judith Steiner, a former employee of the Israeli legation in Budapest, received a four year sentence. Abraham Kornitzer, a former leader of Agudath Israel, was tried for “inciting Jews to emigrate”; we do not know what his sentence was.
The Jewish leaders arrested in 1949 were not the only victims. After they had been purged from their posts in the communities, the Communists had imposed their own creatures on the Jewish organizations. Most prominent among these were Lajos Stoeckler, who became the president of the religious community, Dr. Laszlo Benedek, the director of the Jewish hospital, and Jozsef Andras (Adolf Fisch), the head of the community education department, a man so servile that he proposed to rewrite the Bible in conformity with the Communist line. In 1953, after the arrest of the Moscow doctors, the Stoeckler clique, too, was arrested. They were not released after the Moscow reversal, and there were reports from Budapest saying that Stoeckler had received ten, and Benedek eight, years in jail.
But the climax of terror was reached in Rumania. Last August already, a secret trial was conducted in Bucharest in which the defendants were accused, among other things, of being imperialist agents for having helped to shelter British parachutists from the Gestapo during the war. This trial was remarkable for the fact that the defendant Edgar Kenner refused to confess—he reminded the court of his sufferings in fascist jails and stoutly defended his Zionist convictions. He was sentenced to fourteen years at forced labor; his four co-defendants received sentences from ten to fifteen years.
In another trial, Jean Littman and Mme Susanne Benvenisti, leaders of the Rumanian section of the World Jewish Congress, were accused of having accepted foreign money to carry on Zionist activities and finance emigration; they were sentenced to fifteen and ten years respectively in jail.
In the spring of 1954, the secret trials reached such numbers as to constitute a mass terror. Not less than one hundred Jewish leaders were tried and sentenced in one month. In one trial, A. L. Zissu, a well-known writer and former chairman of the Jewish party, and Mishu Benvenisti, the former president of the Zionist organization, received life sentences, while Mme Mella Jancu, former chairman of the Jewish health organization, Moshe Weiss, a leader of the Zionist youth, and the journalist N. Moshkowitz were each sentenced to twenty years.
A second trial was held of twenty-two members of the left-wing Socialist youth organization Hashomer Hatzair. Its leader, Armand Frank, defended his Zionist convictions and declared: “You have tortured and killed many of our members in your dungeons. This crime will never be forgotten. . . .” He was sentenced to twenty years, his comrades receiving like sentences.
In a third trial, forty defendants were arraigned, among them six women. Some of these defendants were Dr. Cornel Jancu, a well-known physician and leader of the General Zionists; Bernard Roehrlich, a former president of the Zionist organization; Leon Itzkar, a former director of the Palestine Foundation fund; Dr. Theodor Loewenstein, a well-known historian; Dan Eshanu, a leader of the Zionist Socialists. The roster reads like a Who’s Who in Rumanian Jewry.
The increasing indications of a co-ordination of the anti-Jewish drives in many of the Communist countries is evidence that the Slansky trial was no mere aberrant manifestation of “anti-Semitism in one country.” Czechoslovakia was simply the locale which Moscow chose for its first venture into official anti-Semitism.
We now have new evidence to confirm this deduction. According to information supplied by the MVD officer Nikola Khokhlov, who was sent to the West to murder a Russian emigré and surrendered to American authorities in Western Germany in February 1954, a discussion of the desirability of instituting an anti-Semitic campaign began in high Soviet circles as early as 1951. One of the first victories of the anti-Jewish faction was a purge of Jews from high positions in the secret police. Khokhlov’s immediate superior, the police general Leonid Alexandrovich Eitingen, a Jew, was one of the first to be demoted and arrested. The leader of the anti-Semitic faction, Semyon D. Ignatiev, became Minister of State Security, and later prepared the case against the Moscow doctors.
After Stalin’s death, when Beria had recovered for a time his supremacy over the secret police, Ignatiev was transferred out of his security post into the party secretariat, and then relieved of all his duties. After the fall of Beria, however, he was rehabilitated. At the same time, Khokhlov now tells us, General Eitingen was re-arrested and executed. The anti-Semites have definitely won.
Ignatiev became the Secretary General of the Communist party in the Autonomous Republic of Bashkiria and was elected to the Supreme Soviet. Nothing speaks more clearly for the determined continuation of the Soviet anti-Semitic campaign than this public rehabilitation of the man who, according to official statements by the Soviet government, was responsible for extorting false confessions in order to foment racial hatred.
It is interesting to note that the anti-Semitic course was adopted “collectively,” after a debate in the highest party and secret police circles. Of course, the decision, when it was taken, must have been approved by the Khoziain. Undoubtedly, Stalin directed the plot against Beria of which the doctors’ affair was a part.
But many writers continue to insist that Soviet anti-Semitism was a personal whim of the dictator’s, like his aversion to Shostakovich’s music. They remind us of Stalin’s rude joke, dating back to pre-revolutionary days, about a little pogrom of the Menshevik faction (with its large number of Jews) of the Russian Social Democratic party being a good idea; they interpret Stalin’s anti-Semitism as an envious response to the intellectual superiority of Trotsky and the other brilliant Jewish intellectuals who played so large a role in the early years of the Russian revolution. All this would imply, of course, that anti-Semitism was an accidental feature of recent Soviet policy which was bound to vanish with the Great Dictator’s death.
It did not. The continuation of the Soviet anti-Semitic campaign under Malenkov and Krushchev is proof, if proof is needed, that the persecution of Jews has as its root cause not one individual’s resentment, but raisons d’état as they are understood by a totalitarian regime. Stalin, after all, persecuted other minorities as well, among them the Georgians, toward whom he harbored no particular aversion.
Stalin was no Russian chauvinist by personal inclination. It was the inner logic of the totalitarian system that forced him, after a long evolution, to decree that the “bourgeois nationalism” of the minorities, all minorities, was subversive of the imperialist aims of the Soviet regime, while Russian chauvinism and xenophobia were forces that could be made to serve the aims of Communist expansion. His famous statement following the defeat of Germany in 1945, that the Great Russians were the leading nationality of the Soviet Union, made clear his recognition that the survival and expansion of the Soviet empire required giving the Great Russians the leading role. The fight against “cosmopolitanism,” which is only another word for internationalism, and against “bourgeois nationalism,” which means the nationalism of non-Russian nationalities, followed more or less inevitably.
The Jews became a special target of this attack because they are, as it were, “cosmopolitans” and “bourgeois nationalists” at the same time. Their religion is “cosmopolitan,” i.e., universal; so were the original revolutionary aspirations of individual Jewish radicals—it was internationalism that led so many Jews into the Russian Social Democracy. But they are also “nationalists” according to the Soviet usage of this word; that is to say, their feelings of group solidarity are strong and ardent, Jews having been taught the value of such solidarity by the experience of centuries.
A totalitarian regime cannot tolerate any sort of group bond—be it only one of mere personal sentiment and affection—that is not subordinated to the purposes and hierarchy of the totalitarian order. It is bad enough when a Ukrainian feels a love and sympathy for other Ukrainians that might interfere with his blind submission to the masters of the empire. But what must these rulers think of the ties of Jewish fellowship, which reach across the borders of the Soviet empire to every part of the world?
A Soviet Jew is likely to have relatives and friends in one or another of the capitalist imperialist countries. What does it matter that he has been forced to break all relations with them and to profess indifference or hatred toward all things Jewish? Were not Jews throughout the world, however assimilated to their milieus, shaken to the depths of their being by the Jewish catastrophe under the Nazis, which was a matter of indifference to the rulers of Soviet empire? Could one really rely upon them if considerations of high policy should lead the Soviet Union to some new version of the Soviet-Nazi pact, or to the promotion and instigation of a massacre of Jews in Israel by the Arab “movement of national liberation”? Would not one Jew help another to escape persecution and starvation, even if the other Jew were criminally fleeing from the “socialist” or “people’s democratic” fatherlands? Did not the Soviet Jews, after decades of isolation and Communist indoctrination, greet the foundation of the State of Israel with ill-concealed rapture? Would not 90 per cent of all Jews, if emigration were allowed, instantly fly from the Soviet paradise?
Reading the records of anti-Jewish trials, one is impressed by the absurdity of the charges and the flimsiness of the so-called proofs, the cynical demagogic appeals to the lowest prejudices. But this is not the whole story. Occasionally one also feels that to a certain extent the prosecutors believe what they are saying. They do not of course believe that Slansky, Geminder, or Merker were Zionists, that the treacherous Zionist plots they constantly refer to actually exist, that there really is a kind of Council of the Elders of Zion presided over by Bernard Baruch, Henry Morgenthau, and David Ben Gurion. What they do believe is perhaps best expressed by the words that a Jew is a Jew, that (he feels himself in some sense or another bound up with the fate of his fellow Jews and of “world Jewry,” and that this represents a danger to a regime whose first commandment is: “Thou shalt have no other gods before the Soviet Union and the Leader (or, as at present, Leadership) of its Communist party.”
Democratic society tolerates a diversity of beliefs, traditions, emotional attachments, and group ties and solidarities. Totalitarian society cannot. As Soviet Communism became totalitarian, its original recognition in principle of the rights of Jews, as of other minorities, has changed into outright persecution and anti-Semitism. Any Jewish illusion, any Jewish appeasement of Communism is, as the period after Stalin’s death again shows, as unrealistic and hopeless as appeasement in general, and perhaps more so.
1 See this writer’s “The Jewish Purge in the Satellite Countries,” Commentary, September 1952; and “Stalin Follows in Hitler’s Footsteps,” January 1953.
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Has Soviet Anti-Semitism Halted?The Record Since Stalin’s Death
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Exactly one week later, a Star Wars cantina of the American extremist right featuring everyone from David Duke to a white-nationalist Twitter personality named “Baked Alaska” gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a statue honoring the Confederate general Robert E. Lee. A video promoting the gathering railed against “the international Jewish system, the capitalist system, and the forces of globalism.” Amid sporadic street battles between far-right and “antifa” (anti-fascist) activists, a neo-Nazi drove a car into a crowd of peaceful counterprotestors, killing a 32-year-old woman.
Here, in the time span of just seven days, was the dual nature of contemporary American anti-Semitism laid bare. The most glaring difference between these two displays of hate lies not so much in their substance—both adhere to similar conspiracy theories articulating nefarious, world-altering Jewish power—but rather their self-characterization. The animosity expressed toward Jews in Charlottesville was open and unambiguous, with demonstrators proudly confessing their hatred in the familiar language of Nazis and European fascists.
The socialists in Chicago, meanwhile, though calling for a literal second Holocaust on the shores of the Mediterranean, would fervently and indignantly deny they are anti-Semitic. On the contrary, they claim the mantle of “anti-fascism” and insist that this identity naturally makes them allies of the Jewish people. As for those Jews who might oppose their often violent tactics, they are at best bystanders to fascism, at worst collaborators in “white supremacy.”
So, whereas white nationalists explicitly embrace a tribalism that excludes Jews regardless of their skin color, the progressives of the DSA and the broader “woke” community conceive of themselves as universalists—though their universalism is one that conspicuously excludes the national longings of Jews and Jews alone. And whereas the extreme right-wingers are sincere in their anti-Semitism, the socialists who called for the elimination of Israel are just as sincere in their belief that they are not anti-Semitic, even though anti-Semitism is the inevitable consequence of their rhetoric and worldview.
The sheer bluntness of far-right anti-Semitism makes it easier to identify and stigmatize as beyond the pale; individuals like David Duke and the hosts of the “Daily Shoah” podcast make no pretense of residing within the mainstream of American political debate. But the humanist appeals of the far left, whose every libel against the Jewish state is paired with a righteous invocation of “justice” for the Palestinian people, invariably trigger repetitive and esoteric debates over whether this or that article, allusion, allegory, statement, policy, or political initiative is anti-Semitic or just critical of Israel. What this difference in self-definition means is that there is rarely, if ever, any argument about the substantive nature of right-wing anti-Semitism (despicable, reprehensible, wicked, choose your adjective), while the very existence of left-wing anti-Semitism is widely doubted and almost always indignantly denied by those accused of practicing it.T o be sure, these recent manifestations of anti-Semitism occur on the left and right extremes. And statistics tell a rather comforting story about the state of anti-Semitism in America. Since the Anti-Defamation League began tracking it in 1979, anti-Jewish hate crime is at an historic low; indeed, it has been declining since a recent peak of 1,554 incidents in 2006. America, for the most part, remains a very philo-Semitic country, one of the safest, most welcoming countries for Jews on earth. A recent Pew poll found Jews to be the most admired religious group in the United States.1 If American Jews have anything to dread, it’s less anti-Semitism than the loss of Jewish peoplehood through assimilation, that is being “loved to death” by Gentiles.2 Few American Jews can say that anti-Semitism has a seriously deleterious impact on their life, that it has denied them educational or employment opportunities, or that they fear for the physical safety of themselves or their families because of their Jewish identity.
The question is whether the extremes are beginning to move in on the center. In the past year alone, the DSA’s rolls tripled from 8,000 to 25,000 dues-paying members, who have established a conspicuous presence on social media reaching far beyond what their relatively miniscule numbers attest. The DSA has been the subject of widespread media coverage, ranging from the curious to the adulatory. The white supremacists, meanwhile, found themselves understandably heartened by the strange difficulty President Donald Trump had in disavowing them. He claimed, in fact, that there had been some “very fine people” among their ranks. “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville,” tweeted David Duke, while the white-nationalist Richard Spencer said, “I’m proud of him for speaking the truth.”
Indeed, among the more troubling aspects of our highly troubling political predicament—and one that, from a Jewish perspective, provokes not a small amount of angst—is that so many ideas, individuals, and movements that could once reliably be categorized as “extreme,” in the literal sense of articulating the views of a very small minority, are no longer so easily dismissed. The DSA is part of a much broader revival of the socialist idea in America, as exemplified by the growing readership of journals like Jacobin and Current Affairs, the popularity of the leftist Chapo Trap House podcast, and the insurgent presidential campaign of self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders—who, according to a Harvard-Harris poll, is now the most popular politician in the United States. Since 2015, the average age of a DSA member dropped from 64 to 30, and a 2016 Harvard poll found a majority of Millennials do not support capitalism.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party of Donald Trump offers “nativism and culture war wedges without the Reaganomics,” according to Nicholas Grossman, a lecturer in political science at the University of Illinois. A party that was once reliably internationalist and assertive against Russian aggression now supports a president who often preaches isolationism and never has even a mildly critical thing to say about the KGB thug ruling over the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.
Like ripping the bandage off an ugly and oozing wound, Trump’s presidential campaign unleashed a bevy of unpleasant social forces that at the very least have an indirect bearing on Jewish welfare. The most unpleasant of those forces has been the so-called alternative right, or “alt-right,” a highly race-conscious political movement whose adherents are divided on the “JQ” (Jewish Question). Throughout last year’s campaign, Jewish journalists (this author included) were hit with a barrage of luridly anti-Semitic Twitter messages from self-described members of the alt-right. The tamer missives instructed us to leave America for Israel, others superimposed our faces onto the bodies of concentration camp victims.3
I do not believe Donald Trump is himself an anti-Semite, if only because anti-Semitism is mainly a preoccupation—as distinct from a prejudice—and Trump is too narcissistic to indulge any preoccupation other than himself. And there is no evidence to suggest that he subscribes to the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories favored by his alt-right supporters. But his casual resort to populism, nativism, and conspiracy theory creates a narrative environment highly favorable to anti-Semites.
Nativism, of which Trump was an early and active practitioner, is never good for the Jews, no matter how affluent or comfortable they may be and notwithstanding whether they are even the target of its particular wrath. Racial divisions, which by any measure have grown significantly worse in the year since Trump was elected, hurt all Americans, obviously, but they have a distinct impact on Jews, who are left in a precarious position as racial identities calcify. Not only are the newly emboldened white supremacists of the alt-right invariably anti-Semites, but in the increasingly racialist taxonomy of the progressive left—which more and more mainstream liberals are beginning to parrot—Jews are considered possessors of “white privilege” and, thus, members of the class to be divested of its “power” once the revolution comes. In the racially stratified society that both extremes envision, Jews lose out, simultaneously perceived (by the far right) as wily allies and manipulators of ethnic minorities in a plot to mongrelize America and (by the far left) as opportunistic “Zionists” ingratiating themselves with a racist and exploitative “white” establishment that keeps minorities down.T his politics is bad for all Americans, and Jewish Americans in particular. More and more, one sees the racialized language of the American left being applied to the Middle East conflict, wherein Israel (which is, in point of fact, one of the most racially diverse countries in the world) is referred to as a “white supremacist” state no different from that of apartheid South Africa. In a book just published by MIT Press, ornamented with a forward by Cornel West and entitled “Whites, Jews, and Us,” a French-Algerian political activist named Houria Bouteldja asks, “What can we offer white people in exchange for their decline and for the wars that will ensue?” Drawing the Jews into her race war, Bouteldja, according to the book’s jacket copy, “challenges widespread assumptions among the left in the United States and Europe—that anti-Semitism plays any role in Arab–Israeli conflicts, for example, or that philo-Semitism doesn’t in itself embody an oppressive position.” Jew-hatred is virtuous, and appreciation of the Jews is racism.
Few political activists of late have done more to racialize the Arab–Israeli conflict—and, through insidious extension of the American racial hierarchy, designate American Jews as oppressors—than the Brooklyn-born Arab activist Linda Sarsour. An organizer of the Women’s March, Sarsour has seamlessly insinuated herself into a variety of high-profile progressive campaigns, a somewhat incongruent position given her reactionary views on topics like women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. (“10 weeks of PAID maternity leave in Saudi Arabia,” she tweets. “Yes PAID. And ur worrying about women driving. Puts us to shame.”) Sarsour, who is of Palestinian descent, claims that one cannot simultaneously be a feminist and a Zionist, when it is the exact opposite that is true: No genuine believer in female equality can deny the right of Israel to exist. The Jewish state respects the rights of women more than do any of its neighbors. In an April 2017 interview, Sarsour said that she had become a high-school teacher for the purpose of “inspiring young people of color like me.” Just three months earlier, however, in a video for Vox, Sarsour confessed, “When I wasn’t wearing hijab I was just some ordinary white girl from New York City.” The donning of Muslim garb, then, confers a racial caste of “color,” which in turn confers virtue, which in turn confers a claim on political power.
This attempt to describe the Israeli–Arab conflict in American racial vernacular marks Jews as white (a perverse mirror of Nazi biological racism) and thus implicates them as beneficiaries of “structural racism,” “white privilege,” and the whole litany of benefits afforded to white people at birth in the form of—to use Ta-Nehisi Coates’s abstruse phrase—the “glowing amulet” of “whiteness.” “It’s time to admit that Arthur Balfour was a white supremacist and an anti-Semite,” reads the headline of a recent piece in—where else? —the Forward, incriminating Jewish nationalism as uniquely perfidious by dint of the fact that, like most men of his time, a (non-Jewish) British official who endorsed the Zionist idea a century ago held views that would today be considered racist. Reading figures like Bouteldja and Sarsour brings to mind the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner’s observation that “the racialization of the world has to be the most unexpected result of the antidiscrimination battle of the last half-century; it has ensured that the battle continuously re-creates the curse from which it is trying to break free.”
If Jews are white, and if white people—as a group—enjoy tangible and enduring advantages over everyone else, then this racially essentialist rhetoric ends up with Jews accused of abetting white supremacy, if not being white supremacists themselves. This is one of the overlooked ways in which the term “white supremacy” has become devoid of meaning in the age of Donald Trump, with everyone and everything from David Duke to James Comey to the American Civil Liberties Union accused of upholding it. Take the case of Ben Shapiro, the Jewish conservative polemicist. At the start of the school year, Shapiro was scheduled to give a talk at UC Berkeley, his alma matter. In advance, various left-wing groups put out a call for protest in which they labeled Shapiro—an Orthodox Jew—a “fascist thug” and “white supremacist.” An inconvenient fact ignored by Shapiro’s detractors is that, according to the ADL, he was the top target of online abuse from actual white supremacists during the 2016 presidential election. (Berkeley ultimately had to spend $600,000 protecting the event from leftist rioters.)
A more pernicious form of this discourse is practiced by left-wing writers who, insincerely claiming to have the interests of Jews at heart, scold them and their communal organizations for not doing enough in the fight against anti-Semitism. Criticizing Jews for not fully signing up with the “Resistance” (which in form and function is fast becoming the 21st-century version of the interwar Popular Front), they then slyly indict Jews for being complicit in not only their own victimization but that of the entire country at the hands of Donald Trump. The first and foremost practitioner of this bullying and rather artful form of anti-Semitism is Jeet Heer, a Canadian comic-book critic who has achieved some repute on the American left due to his frenetic Twitter activity and availability when the New Republic needed to replace its staff that had quit en masse in 2014. Last year, when Heer came across a video of a Donald Trump supporter chanting “JEW-S-A” at a rally, he declared on Twitter: “We really need to see more comment from official Jewish groups like ADL on way Trump campaign has energized anti-Semitism.”
But of course “Jewish groups” have had plenty to say about the anti-Semitism expressed by some Trump supporters—too much, in the view of their critics. Just two weeks earlier, the ADL had released a report analyzing over 2 million anti-Semitic tweets targeting Jewish journalists over the previous year. This wasn’t the first time the ADL raised its voice against Trump and the alt-right movement he emboldened, nor would it be the last. Indeed, two minutes’ worth of Googling would have shown Heer that his pronouncements about organizational Jewish apathy were wholly without foundation.4
It’s tempting to dismiss Heer’s observation as mere “concern trolling,” a form of Internet discourse characterized by insincere expressions of worry. But what he did was nastier. Immediately presented with evidence for the inaccuracy of his claims, he sneered back with a bit of wisdom from the Jewish sage Hillel the Elder, yet cast as mild threat: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” In other words: How can you Jews expect anyone to care about your kind if you don’t sufficiently oppose—as arbitrarily judged by moi, Jeet Heer—Donald Trump?
If this sort of critique were coming from a Jewish donor upset that his preferred organization wasn’t doing enough to combat anti-Semitism, or a Gentile with a proven record of concern for Jewish causes, it wouldn’t have turned the stomach. What made Heer’s interjection revolting is that, to put it mildly, he’s not exactly known for being sympathetic toward the Jewish plight. In 2015, Heer put his name to a petition calling upon an international comic-book festival to drop the Israeli company SodaStream as a co-sponsor because the Jewish state is “built on the mass ethnic cleansing of Palestinian communities and sustained through racism and discrimination.” Heer’s name appeared alongside that of Carlos Latuff, a Brazilian cartoonist who won second place in the Iranian government’s 2006 International Holocaust Cartoon Competition. For his writings on Israel, Heer has been praised as being “very good on the conflict” by none other than Philip Weiss, proprietor of the anti-Semitic hate site Mondoweiss.
In light of this track record, Heer’s newfound concern about anti-Semitism appeared rather dubious. Indeed, the bizarre way in which he expressed this concern—as, ultimately, a critique not of anti-Semitism per se but of the country’s foremost Jewish civil-rights organization—suggests he cares about anti-Semitism insofar as its existence can be used as a weapon to beat his political adversaries. And since the incorrigibly Zionist American Jewish establishment ranks high on that list (just below that of Donald Trump and his supporters), Heer found a way to blame it for anti-Semitism. And what does that tell you? It tells you that—presented with a 16-second video of a man chanting “JEW-S-A” at a Donald Trump rally—Heer’s first impulse was to condemn not the anti-Semite but the Jews.
Heer isn’t the only leftist (or New Republic writer) to assume this rhetorical cudgel. In a piece entitled “The Dismal Failure of Jewish Groups to Confront Trump,” one Stephen Lurie attacked the ADL for advising its members to stay away from the Charlottesville “Unite the Right Rally” and let police handle any provocations from neo-Nazis. “We do not have a Jewish organizational home for the fight against fascism,” he quotes a far-left Jewish activist, who apparently thinks that we live in the Weimar Republic and not a stable democracy in which law-enforcement officers and not the balaclava-wearing thugs of antifa maintain the peace. Like Jewish Communists of yore, Lurie wants to bully Jews into abandoning liberalism for the extreme left, under the pretext that mainstream organizations just won’t cut it in the fight against “white supremacy.” Indeed, Lurie writes, some “Jewish institutions and power players…have defended and enabled white supremacy.” The main group he fingers with this outrageous slander is the Republican Jewish Coalition, the implication being that this explicitly partisan Republican organization’s discrete support for the Republican president “enables white supremacy.”
It is impossible to imagine Heer, Lurie, or other progressive writers similarly taking the NAACP to task for its perceived lack of concern about racism, or castigating the Human Rights Campaign for insufficiently combating homophobia. No, it is only the cowardice of Jews that is condemned—condemned for supposedly ignoring a form of bigotry that, when expressed on the left, these writers themselves ignore or even defend. The logical gymnastics of these two New Republic writers is what happens when, at base, one fundamentally resents Jews: You end up blaming them for anti-Semitism. Blaming Jews for not sufficiently caring enough about anti-Semitism is emotionally the same as claiming that Jews are to blame for anti-Semitism. Both signal an envy and resentment of Jews predicated upon a belief that they have some kind of authority that the claimant doesn’t and therefore needs to undermine.T his past election, one could not help but notice how the media seemingly discovered anti-Semitism when it emanated from the right, and then only when its targets were Jews on the left. It was enough to make one ask where they had been when left-wing anti-Semitism had been a more serious and pervasive problem. From at least 1996 (the year Pat Buchanan made his last serious attempt at securing the GOP presidential nomination) to 2016 (when the Republican presidential nominee did more to earn the support of white supremacists and neo-Nazis than any of his predecessors), anti-Semitism was primarily a preserve of the American left. In that two-decade period—spanning the collapse of the Oslo Accords and rise of the Second Intifada to the rancorous debate over the Iraq War and obsession with “neocons” to the presidency of Barack Obama and the 2015 Iran nuclear deal—anti-Israel attitudes and anti-Semitic conspiracy made unprecedented inroads into respectable precincts of the American academy, the liberal intelligentsia, and the Democratic Party.
The main form that left-wing anti-Semitism takes in the United States today is unhinged obsession with the wrongs, real or perceived, of the state of Israel, and the belief that its Jewish supporters in the United States exercise a nefarious control over the levers of American foreign policy. In this respect, contemporary left-wing anti-Semitism is not altogether different from that of the far right, though it usually lacks the biological component deeming Jews a distinct and inferior race. (Consider the left-wing anti-Semite’s eagerness to identify and promote Jewish “dissidents” who can attest to their co-religionists’ craftiness and deceit.) The unholy synergy of left and right anti-Semitism was recently epitomized by former CIA agent and liberal stalwart Valerie Plame’s hearty endorsement, on Twitter, of an article written for an extreme right-wing website by a fellow former CIA officer named Philip Giraldi: “America’s Jews Are Driving America’s Wars.” Plame eventually apologized for sharing the article with her 50,000 followers, but not before insisting that “many neocon hawks are Jewish” and that “just FYI, I am of Jewish descent.”
The main fora in which left-wing anti-Semitism appears is academia. According to the ADL, anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses doubled from 2014 to 2015, the latest year that data are available. Writing in National Affairs, Ruth Wisse observes that “not since the war in Vietnam has there been a campus crusade as dynamic as the movement of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel.” Every academic year, a seeming surfeit of controversies erupt on campuses across the country involving the harassment of pro-Israel students and organizations, the disruption of events involving Israeli speakers (even ones who identify as left-wing), and blatantly anti-Semitic outbursts by professors and student activists. There was the Oberlin professor of rhetoric, Joy Karega, who posted statements on social media claiming that Israel had created ISIS and had orchestrated the murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. There is the Rutgers associate professor of women’s and gender studies, Jasbir Puar, who popularized the ludicrous term “pinkwashing” to defame Israel’s LGBT acceptance as a massive conspiracy to obscure its oppression of Palestinians. Her latest book, The Right to Maim, academically peer-reviewed and published by Duke University Press, attacks Israel for sparing the lives of Palestinian civilians, accusing its military of “shooting to maim rather than to kill” so that it may keep “Palestinian populations as perpetually debilitated, and yet alive, in order to control them.”
One could go on and on about such affronts not only to Jews and supporters of Israel but to common sense, basic justice, and anyone who believes in the prudent use of taxpayer dollars. That several organizations exist solely for the purpose of monitoring anti-Israel and anti-Semitic agitation on American campuses attests to the prolificacy of the problem. But it’s unclear just how reflective these isolated examples of the college experience really are. A 2017 Stanford study purporting to examine the issue interviewed 66 Jewish students at five California campuses noted for “being particularly fertile for anti-Semitism and for having an active presence of student groups critical of Israel and Zionism.” It concluded that “contrary to widely shared impressions, we found a picture of campus life that is neither threatening nor alarmist…students reported feeling comfortable on their campuses, and, more specifically, comfortable as Jews on their campuses.” To the extent that Jewish students do feel pressured, the report attempted to spread the blame around, indicting pro-Israel activists alongside those agitating against it. “[Survey respondents] fear that entering political debate, especially when they feel the social pressures of both Jewish and non-Jewish activist communities, will carry social costs that they are unwilling to bear.”
Yet by its own admission, the report “only engaged students who were either unengaged or minimally engaged in organized Jewish life on their campuses.” Researchers made a study of anti-Semitism, then, by interviewing the Jews least likely to experience it. “Most people don’t really think I’m Jewish because I look very Latina…it doesn’t come up in conversation,” one such student said in an interview. Ultimately, the report revealed more about the attitudes of unengaged (and, thus, uninformed) Jews than about the state of anti-Semitism on college campuses. That may certainly be useful in its own right as a means of understanding how unaffiliated Jews view debates over Israel, but it is not an accurate marker of developments on college campuses more broadly.
A more extensive 2016 Brandeis study of Jewish students at 50 schools found 34 percent agreed at least “somewhat” that their campus has a hostile environment toward Israel. Yet the variation was wide; at some schools, only 3 percent agreed, while at others, 70 percent did. Only 15 percent reported a hostile environment towards Jews. Anti-Semitism was found to be more prevalent at public universities than private ones, with the determinative factor being the presence of a Students for Justice in Palestine chapter on campus. Important context often lost in conversations about campus anti-Semitism, and reassuring to those concerned about it, is that it is simply not the most important issue roiling higher education. “At most schools,” the report found, “fewer than 10 percent of Jewish students listed issues pertaining to either Jews or Israel as among the most pressing on campus.”F or generations, American Jews have depended on anti-Semitism’s remaining within a moral quarantine, a cordon sanitaire, and America has reliably kept this societal virus contained. While there are no major signs that this barricade is breaking down in the immediate future, there are worrying indications on the political horizon.
Surveying the situation at the international level, the declining global position of the United States—both in terms of its hard military and economic power relative to rising challengers and its position as a credible beacon of liberal democratic values—does not portend well for Jews, American or otherwise. American leadership of the free world, has, in addition to ensuring Israel’s security, underwritten the postwar liberal world order. And it is the constituent members of that order, the liberal democratic states, that have served as the best guarantor of the Jews’ life and safety over their 6,000-year history. Were America’s global leadership role to diminish or evaporate, it would not only facilitate the rise of authoritarian states like Iran and terrorist movements such as al-Qaeda, committed to the destruction of Israel and the murder of Jews, but inexorably lead to a worldwide rollback of liberal democracy, an outcome that would inevitably redound to the detriment of Jews.
Domestically, political polarization and the collapse of public trust in every American institution save the military are demolishing what little confidence Americans have left in their system and governing elites, not to mention preparing the ground for some ominous political scenarios. Widely cited survey data reveal that the percentage of American Millennials who believe it “essential” to live in a liberal democracy hovers at just over 25 percent. If Trump is impeached or loses the next election, a good 40 percent of the country will be outraged and susceptible to belief in a stab-in-the-back theory accounting for his defeat. Whom will they blame? Perhaps the “neoconservatives,” who disproportionately make up the ranks of Trump’s harshest critics on the right?
Ultimately, the degree to which anti-Semitism becomes a problem in America hinges on the strength of the antibodies within the country’s communal DNA to protect its pluralistic and liberal values. But even if this resistance to tribalism and the cult of personality is strong, it may not be enough to abate the rise of an intellectual and societal disease that, throughout history, thrives upon economic distress, xenophobia, political uncertainty, ethnic chauvinism, conspiracy theory, and weakening democratic norms.
1 Somewhat paradoxically, according to FBI crime statistics, the majority of religiously based hate crimes target Jews, more than double the amount targeting Muslims. This indicates more the commitment of the country’s relatively small number of hard-core anti-Semites than pervasive anti-Semitism.
4 The ADL has had to maintain a delicate balancing act in the age of Trump, coming under fire by many conservative Jews for a perceived partisan tilt against the right. This makes Heer’s complaint all the more ignorant — and unhelpful.
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Review of 'The Once and Future Liberal' By Mark Lilla
Lilla, a professor at Columbia University, tells us that “the story of how a successful liberal politics of solidarity became a failed pseudo-politics of identity is not a simple one.” And about this, he’s right. Lilla quotes from the feminist authors of the 1977 Combahee River Collective Manifesto: “The most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.” Feminists looked to instantiate the “radical” and electrifying phrase which insisted that “the personal is political.” The phrase, argues Lilla, was generally seen in “a somewhat Marxist fashion to mean that everything that seems personal is in fact political.”
The upshot was fragmentation. White feminists were deemed racist by black feminists—and both were found wanting by lesbians, who also had black and white contingents. “What all these groups wanted,” explains Lilla, “was more than social justice and an end to the [Vietnam] war. They also wanted there to be no space between what they felt inside and what they saw and did in the world.” He goes on: “The more obsessed with personal identity liberals become, the less willing they become to engage in reasoned political debate.” In the end, those on the left came to a realization: “You can win a debate by claiming the greatest degree of victimization and thus the greatest outrage at being subjected to questioning.”
But Lilla’s insights into the emotional underpinnings of political correctness are undercut by an inadequate, almost bizarre sense of history. He appears to be referring to the 1970s when, zigzagging through history, he writes that “no recognition of personal or group identity was coming from the Democratic Party, which at the time was dominated by racist Dixiecrats and white union officials of questionable rectitude.”
What is he talking about? Is Lilla referring to the Democratic Party of Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and George McGovern? Is he referring obliquely to George Wallace? If so, why is Wallace never mentioned? Lilla seems not to know that it was the 1972 McGovern Democratic Convention that introduced minority seating to be set aside for blacks and women.
At only 140 pages, this is a short book. But even so, Lilla could have devoted a few pages to Frankfurt ideologist Herbert Marcuse and his influence on the left. In the 1960s, Marcuse argued that leftists and liberals were entitled to restrain centrist and conservative speech on the grounds that the universities had to act as a counterweight to society at large. But this was not just rhetoric; in the campus disruption of the early 1970s at schools such as Yale, Cornell, and Amherst, Marcuse’s ideals were pushed to the fore.
If Lilla’s argument comes off as flaccid, perhaps that’s because the aim of The Once and Future Liberal is more practical than principled. “The only way” to protect our rights, he tells the reader, “is to elect liberal Democratic governors and state legislators who’ll appoint liberal state attorneys.” According to Lilla, “the paradox of identity liberalism” is that it undercuts “the things it professes to want,” namely political power. He insists, rightly, that politics has to be about persuasion but then contradicts himself in arguing that “politics is about seizing power to defend the truth.” In other words, Lilla wants a better path to total victory.
Given what Lilla, descending into hysteria, describes as “the Republican rage for destruction,” liberals and Democrats have to win elections lest the civil rights of blacks, women, and gays are rolled back. As proof of the ever-looming danger, he notes that when the “crisis of the mid-1970s threatened…the country turned not against corporations and banks, but against liberalism.” Yet he gives no hint of the trail of liberal failures that led to the crisis of the mid-’70s. You’d never know reading Lilla, for example, that the Black Power movement intensified racial hostilities that were then further exacerbated by affirmative action and busing. And you’d have no idea that, at considerable cost, the poverty programs of the Great Society failed to bring poorer African Americans into the economic mainstream. Nor does Lilla deal with the devotion to Keynesianism that produced inflation without economic growth during the Carter presidency.
Despite his discursive ambling through the recent history of American political life, Lilla has a one-word explanation for identity politics: Reaganism. “Identity,” he writes, is “Reaganism for lefties.” What’s crucial in combating Reaganism, he argues, is to concentrate on our “shared political” status as citizens. “Citizenship is a crucial weapon in the battle against Reaganite dogma because it brings home that fact that we are part of a legitimate common enterprise.” But then he asserts that the “American right uses the term citizenship today as a means of exclusion.” The passage might lead the reader to think that Lilla would take up the question of immigration and borders. But he doesn’t, and the closing passages of the book dribble off into characteristic zigzags. Lilla tells us that “Black Lives Matter is a textbook example of how not to build solidarity” but then goes on, without evidence, to assert the accuracy of the Black Lives Matter claim that African-Americans have been singled out for police mistreatment.
It would be nice to argue that The Once and Future Liberal is a near miss, a book that might have had enduring importance if only it went that extra step. But Lilla’s passing insights on the perils of a politically correct identity politics drown in the rhetoric of conventional bromides that fill most of the pages of this disappointing book.
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n Athens several years ago, I had dinner with a man running for the national parliament. I asked him whether he thought he had a shot at winning. He was sure of victory, he told me. “I have hired a very famous political consultant from Washington,” he said. “He is the man who elected Reagan. Expensive. But the best.”
The political genius he then described was a minor political flunky I had met in Washington long ago, a more-or-less anonymous member of the Republican National Committee before he faded from view at the end of Ronald Reagan’s second term. Mutual acquaintances told me he still lived in a nice neighborhood in Northern Virginia, but they never could figure out what the hell he did to earn his money. (This is a recurring mystery throughout the capital.) I had to come to Greece to find the answer.
It is one of the dark arts of Washington, this practice of American political hacks traveling to faraway lands and suckering foreign politicians into paying vast sums for splashy, state-of-the-art, essentially worthless “services.” And it’s perfectly legal. Paul Manafort, who briefly managed Donald Trump’s campaign last summer, was known as a pioneer of the globe-trotting racket. If he hadn’t, as it were, veered out of his gutter into the slightly higher lane of U.S. presidential politics, he likely could have hoovered cash from the patch pockets of clueless clients from Ouagadougou to Zagreb for the rest of his natural life and nobody in Washington would have noticed.
But he veered, and now he and a colleague find themselves indicted by Robert Mueller, the Inspector Javert of the Russian-collusion scandal. When those indictments landed, they instantly set in motion the familiar scramble. Trump fans announced that the indictments were proof that there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians—or, in the crisp, emphatic phrasing of a tweet by the world’s Number One Trump Fan, Donald Trump: “NO COLLUSION!!!!” The Russian-scandal fetishists in the press corps replied in chorus: It’s still early! Javert required more time, and so will Mueller, and so will they.
A good Washington scandal requires a few essential elements. One is a superabundance of information. From these data points, conspiracy-minded reporters can begin to trace associations, warranted or not, and from the associations, they can infer motives and objectives with which, stretched together, they can limn a full-blown conspiracy theory. The Manafort indictment released a flood of new information, and at once reporters were pawing for nuggets that might eventually form a compelling case for collusion.
They failed to find any because Manafort’s indictment, in essence, involved his efforts to launder his profits from his international political work, not his work for the Trump campaign. Fortunately for the obsessives, another element is required for a good scandal: a colorful cast. The various Clinton scandals brought us Asian money-launderers and ChiCom bankers, along with an entire Faulkner-novel’s worth of bumpkins, sharpies, and backwoods swindlers, plus that intern in the thong. Watergate, the mother lode of Washington scandals, featured a host of implausible characters, from the central-casting villain G. Gordon Liddy to Sam Ervin, a lifelong segregationist and racist who became a hero to liberals everywhere.
Here, at last, is one area where the Russian scandal has begun to show promise. Manafort and his business partner seem too banal to hold the interest of anyone but a scandal obsessive. Beneath the pile of paper Mueller dumped on them, however, another creature could be seen peeking out shyly. This would be the diminutive figure of George Papadopoulos. An unpaid campaign adviser to Trump, Papadopoulos pled guilty to lying to the FBI about the timing of his conversations with Russian agents. He is quickly becoming the stuff of legend.
Papadopoulos is an exemplar of a type long known to American politics. He is the nebbish bedazzled by the big time—achingly ambitious, though lacking the skill, or the cunning, to climb the greasy pole. So he remains at the periphery of the action, ever eager to serve. Papadopoulos’s résumé, for a man under 30, is impressively padded. He said he served as the U.S. representative to the Model United Nations in 2012, though nobody recalls seeing him there. He boasted of a four-year career at the Hudson Institute, though in fact he spent one year there as an unpaid intern and three doing contract research for one of Hudson’s scholars. On his LinkedIn page, he listed himself as a keynote speaker at a Greek American conference in 2008, but in fact he participated only in a panel discussion. The real keynoter was Michael Dukakis.
With this hunger for achievement, real or imagined, Papadopoulos could not let a presidential campaign go by without climbing aboard. In late 2015, he somehow attached himself to Ben Carson’s campaign. He was never paid and lasted four months. His presence went largely unnoticed. “If there was any work product, I never saw it,” Carson’s campaign manager told Time. The deputy campaign manager couldn’t even recall his name. Then suddenly, in April 2016, Papadopoulos appeared on a list of “foreign-policy advisers” to Donald Trump—and, according to Mueller’s court filings, resolved to make his mark by acting as a liaison between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government.
While Mueller tells the story of Papadopoulos’s adventures in the dry, Joe Friday prose of a legal document, it could easily be the script for a Peter Sellers movie from the Cold War era. The young man’s résumé is enough to impress the campaign’s impressionable officials as they scavenge for foreign-policy advisers: “Hey, Corey! This dude was in the Model United Nations!”
Papadopoulus (played by Sellers) sets about his mission. A few weeks after signing on to the campaign, he travels to Europe, where he meets a mysterious “Professor” (Peter Ustinov). “Initially the Professor seemed uninterested in Papadopoulos,” says Mueller’s indictment. A likely story! Yet when Papadopoulus lets drop that he’s an adviser to Trump, the Professor suddenly “appeared to take great interest” in him. They arrange a meeting in London to which the Professor invites a “female Russian national” (Elke Sommer). Without much effort, the femme fatale convinces Papadopoulus that she is Vladimir Putin’s niece. (“I weel tell z’American I em niece of Great Leader! Zat idjut belief ennytink!”) Over the next several months our hero sends many emails to campaign officials and to the Professor, trying to arrange a meeting between them. As far we know from the indictment, nothing came of his mighty efforts.
And there matters lay until January 2017, when the FBI came calling. Agents asked Papadopoulos about his interactions with the Russians. Even though he must have known that hundreds of his emails on the subject would soon be available to the FBI, he lied and told the agents that the contacts had occurred many months before he joined the campaign. History will record Papadopoulos as the man who forgot that emails carry dates on them. After the FBI interview, according to the indictment, he tried to destroy evidence with the same competence he has brought to his other endeavors. He closed his Facebook account, on which several communications with the Russians had taken place. He threw out his old cellphone. (That should do it!) After that, he began wearing a blindfold, on the theory that if he couldn’t see the FBI, the FBI couldn’t see him.
I made that last one up, obviously. For now, the great hope of scandal hobbyists is that Papadopoulus was wearing a wire between the time he secretly pled guilty and the time his plea was made public. This would have allowed him to gather all kinds of incriminating dirt in conversations with former colleagues. And the dirt is there, all right, as the Manafort indictment proves. Unfortunately for our scandal fetishists, so far none of it shows what their hearts most desire: active collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.
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An affair to remember
All this changed with the release in 1967 of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and Mike Nichols’s The Graduate. These two films, made in nouveau European style, treated familiar subjects—a pair of Depression-era bank robbers and a college graduate in search of a place in the adult world—in an unmistakably modern manner. Both films were commercial successes that catapulted their makers and stars into the top echelon of what came to be known as “the new Hollywood.”
Bonnie and Clyde inaugurated a new era in which violence on screen simultaneously became bloodier and more aestheticized, and it has had enduring impact as a result. But it was The Graduate that altered the direction of American moviemaking with its specific appeal to younger and hipper moviegoers who had turned their backs on more traditional cinematic fare. When it opened in New York in December, the movie critic Hollis Alpert reported with bemusement that young people were lining up in below-freezing weather to see it, and that they showed no signs of being dismayed by the cold: “It was as though they all knew they were going to see something good, something made for them.”
The Graduate, whose aimless post-collegiate title character is seduced by the glamorous but neurotic wife of his father’s business partner, is part of the common stock of American reference. Now, a half-century later, it has become the subject of a book-length study, Beverly Gray’s Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation.1 As is so often the case with pop-culture books, Seduced by Mrs. Robinson is almost as much about its self-absorbed Baby Boomer author (“The Graduate taught me to dance to the beat of my own drums”) as its subject. It has the further disadvantage of following in the footsteps of Mark Harris’s magisterial Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (2008), in which the film is placed in the context of Hollywood’s mid-’60s cultural flux. But Gray’s book offers us a chance to revisit this seminal motion picture and consider just why it was that The Graduate spoke to Baby Boomers in a distinctively personal way.T he Graduate began life in 1963 as a novella of the same name by Charles Webb, a California-born writer who saw his book not as a comic novel but as a serious artistic statement about America’s increasingly disaffected youth. It found its way into the hands of a producer named Lawrence Turman who saw The Graduate as an opportunity to make the cinematic equivalent of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Turman optioned the book, then sent it to Mike Nichols, who in 1963 was still best known for his comic partnership with Elaine May but had just made his directorial debut with the original Broadway production of Barefoot in the Park.
Both men saw that The Graduate posed a problem to anyone seeking to put it on the screen. In Turman’s words, “In the book the character of Benjamin Braddock is sort of a whiny pain in the fanny [whom] you want to shake or spank.” To this end, they turned to Buck Henry, who had co-created the popular TV comedy Get Smart with Mel Brooks, to write a screenplay that would retain much of Webb’s dryly witty dialogue (“I think you’re the most attractive of all my parents’ friends”) while making Benjamin less priggish.
Nichols’s first major act was casting Dustin Hoffman, an obscure New York stage actor pushing 30, for the title role. No one but Nichols seems to have thought him suitable in any way. Not only was Hoffman short and nondescript-looking, but he was unmistakably Jewish, whereas Benjamin is supposedly the scion of a newly monied WASP family from southern California. Nevertheless, Nichols decided he wanted “a short, dark, Jewish, anomalous presence, which is how I experience myself,” in order to underline Benjamin’s alienation from the world of his parents.
Nichols filled the other roles in equally unexpected ways. He hired the Oscar winner Anne Bancroft, only six years Hoffman’s senior, to play the unbalanced temptress who lures Benjamin into her bed, then responds with volcanic rage when he falls in love with her beautiful daughter Elaine. He and Henry also steered clear of on-screen references to the campus protests that had only recently started to convulse America. Instead, he set The Graduate in a timeless upper-middle-class milieu inhabited by people more interested in social climbing than self-actualization—the same milieu from which Benjamin is so alienated that he is reduced to near-speechlessness whenever his family and their friends ask him what he plans to do now that he has graduated.
The film’s only explicit allusion to its cultural moment is the use on the soundtrack of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” the painfully earnest anthem of youthful angst that is for all intents and purposes the theme song of The Graduate. Nevertheless, Henry’s screenplay leaves little doubt that the film was in every way a work of its time and place. As he later explained to Mark Harris, it is a study of “the disaffection of young people for an environment that they don’t seem to be in sync with.…Nobody had made a film specifically about that.”
This aspect of The Graduate is made explicit in a speech by Benjamin that has no direct counterpart in the novel: “It’s like I was playing some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people. I mean, no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up.”
The Graduate was Nichols’s second film, following his wildly successful movie version of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Albee’s play was a snarling critique of the American dream, which he believed to be a snare and a delusion. The Graduate had the same skeptical view of postwar America, but its pessimism was played for laughs. When Benjamin is assured by a businessman in the opening scene that the secret to success in America is “plastics,” we are meant to laugh contemptuously at the smugness of so blinkered a view of life. Moreover, the contempt is as real as the laughter: The Graduate has it both ways. For the same reason, the farcical quality of the climactic scene (in which Benjamin breaks up Elaine’s marriage to a handsome young WASP and carts her off to an unknown fate) is played without musical underscoring, a signal that what Benjamin is doing is really no laughing matter.
The youth-oriented message of The Graduate came through loud and clear to its intended audience, which paid no heed to the mixed reviews from middle-aged reviewers unable to grasp what Nichols and Henry were up to. Not so Roger Ebert, the newly appointed 25-year-old movie critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, who called The Graduate “the funniest American comedy of the year…because it has a point of view. That is to say, it is against something.”
Even more revealing was the response of David Brinkley, then the co-anchor of NBC’s nightly newscast, who dismissed The Graduate as “frantic nonsense” but added that his college-age son and his classmates “liked it because it said about the parents and others what they would have said about us if they had made the movie—that we are self-centered and materialistic, that we are licentious and deeply hypocritical about it, that we try to make them into walking advertisements for our own affluence.”
A year after the release of The Graduate, a film-industry report cited in Pictures at a Revolution revealed that “48 percent of all movie tickets in America were now being sold to filmgoers under the age of 24.” A very high percentage of those tickets were to The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde. At long last, Hollywood had figured out what the Baby Boomers wanted to see.A nd how does The Graduate look a half-century later? To begin with, it now appears to have been Mike Nichols’s creative “road not taken.” In later years, Nichols became less an auteur than a Hollywood director who thought like a Broadway director, choosing vehicles of solid middlebrow-liberal appeal and serving them faithfully without imposing a strong creative vision of his own. In The Graduate, by contrast, he revealed himself to be powerfully aware of the same European filmmaking trends that shaped Bonnie and Clyde. Within a naturalistic framework, he deployed non-naturalistic “new wave” cinematographic techniques with prodigious assurance—and he was willing to end The Graduate on an ambiguous note instead of wrapping it up neatly and pleasingly, letting the camera linger on the unsure faces of Hoffman and Ross as they ride off into an unsettling future.
It is this ambiguity, coupled with Nichols’s prescient decision not to allow The Graduate to become a literal portrayal of American campus life in the troubled mid-’60s, that has kept the film fresh. But The Graduate is fresh in a very particular way: It is a young person’s movie, the tale of a boy-man terrified by the prospect of growing up to be like his parents. Therein lay the source of its appeal to young audiences. The Graduate showed them what they, too, feared most, and hinted at a possible escape route.
In the words of Beverly Gray, who saw The Graduate when it first came out in 1967: “The Graduate appeared in movie houses just as we young Americans were discovering how badly we wanted to distance ourselves from the world of our parents….That polite young high achiever, those loving but smothering parents, those comfortable but slightly bland surroundings: They combined to form an only slightly exaggerated version of my own cozy West L.A. world.”
Yet to watch The Graduate today—especially if you first saw it when much younger—is also to be struck by the extreme unattractiveness of its central character. Hoffman plays Benjamin not as the comically ineffectual nebbish of Jewish tradition but as a near-catatonic robot who speaks by turns in a flat monotone and a frightened nasal whine. It is impossible to understand why Mrs. Robinson would want to go to bed with such a mousy creature, much less why Elaine would run off with him—an impression that has lately acquired an overlay of retrospective irony in the wake of accusations that Hoffman has sexually harassed female colleagues on more than one occasion. Precisely because Benjamin is so unlikable, it is harder for modern-day viewers to identify with him in the same way as did Gray and her fellow Boomers. To watch a Graduate-influenced film like Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming (1995), a poignant romantic comedy about a group of Gen-X college graduates who deliberately choose not to get on with their lives, is to see a closely similar dilemma dramatized in an infinitely more “relatable” way, one in which the crippling anxiety of the principal characters is presented as both understandable and pitiable, thus making it funnier.
Be that as it may, The Graduate is a still-vivid snapshot of a turning point in American cultural history. Before Benjamin Braddock, American films typically portrayed men who were not overgrown, smooth-faced children but full-grown adults, sometimes misguided but incontestably mature. After him, permanent immaturity became the default position of Hollywood-style masculinity.
For this reason, it will be interesting to see what the Millennials, so many of whom demand to be shielded from the “triggering” realities of adult life, make of The Graduate if and when they come to view it. I have a feeling that it will speak to a fair number of them far more persuasively than it did to those of us who—unlike Benjamin Braddock—longed when young to climb the high hill of adulthood and see for ourselves what awaited us on the far side.
1 Algonquin, 278 pages
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“I think that’s best left to states and locales to decide,” DeVos replied. “If the underlying question is . . .”
Murphy interrupted. “You can’t say definitively today that guns shouldn’t be in schools?”
“Well, I will refer back to Senator Enzi and the school that he was talking about in Wapiti, Wyoming, I think probably there, I would imagine that there’s probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies.”
Murphy continued his line of questioning unfazed. “If President Trump moves forward with his plan to ban gun-free school zones, will you support that proposal?”
“I will support what the president-elect does,” DeVos replied. “But, senator, if the question is around gun violence and the results of that, please know that my heart bleeds and is broken for those families that have lost any individual due to gun violence.”
Because all this happened several million outrage cycles ago, you may have forgotten what happened next. Rather than mention DeVos’s sympathy for the victims of gun violence, or her support for federalism, or even her deference to the president, the media elite fixated on her hypothetical aside about grizzly bears.
“Betsy DeVos Cites Grizzly Bears During Guns-in-Schools Debate,” read the NBC News headline. “Citing grizzlies, education nominee says states should determine school gun policies,” reported CNN. “Sorry, Betsy DeVos,” read a headline at the Atlantic, “Guns Aren’t a Bear Necessity in Schools.”
DeVos never said that they were, of course. Nor did she “cite” the bear threat in any definitive way. What she did was decline the opportunity to make a blanket judgment about guns and schools because, in a continent-spanning nation of more than 300 million people, one standard might not apply to every circumstance.
After all, there might be—there are—cases when guns are necessary for security. Earlier this year, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe signed into law a bill authorizing some retired police officers to carry firearms while working as school guards. McAuliffe is a Democrat.
In her answer to Murphy, DeVos referred to a private meeting with Senator Enzi, who had told her of a school in Wyoming that has a fence to keep away grizzly bears. And maybe, she reasoned aloud, the school might have a gun on the premises in case the fence doesn’t work.
As it turns out, the school in Wapiti is gun-free. But we know that only because the Washington Post treated DeVos’s offhand remark as though it were the equivalent of Alexander Butterfield’s revealing the existence of the secret White House tapes. “Betsy DeVos said there’s probably a gun at a Wyoming school to ward off grizzlies,” read the Post headline. “There isn’t.” Oh, snap!
The article, like the one by NBC News, ended with a snarky tweet. The Post quoted user “Adam B.,” who wrote, “‘We need guns in schools because of grizzly bears.’ You know what else stops bears? Doors.” Clever.
And telling. It becomes more difficult every day to distinguish between once-storied journalistic institutions and the jabbering of anonymous egg-avatar Twitter accounts. The eagerness with which the press misinterprets and misconstrues Trump officials is something to behold. The “context” the best and brightest in media are always eager to provide us suddenly goes poof when the opportunity arises to mock, impugn, or castigate the president and his crew. This tendency is especially pronounced when the alleged gaffe fits neatly into a prefabricated media stereotype: that DeVos is unqualified, say, or that Rick Perry is, well, Rick Perry.
On November 2, the secretary of energy appeared at an event sponsored by Axios.com and NBC News. He described a recent trip to Africa:
It’s going to take fossil fuels to push power out to those villages in Africa, where a young girl told me to my face, “One of the reasons that electricity is so important to me is not only because I won’t have to try to read by the light of a fire, and have those fumes literally killing people, but also from the standpoint of sexual assault.” When the lights are on, when you have light, it shines the righteousness, if you will, on those types of acts. So from the standpoint of how you really affect people’s lives, fossil fuels is going to play a role in that.
This heartfelt story of the impact of electrification on rural communities was immediately distorted into a metaphor for Republican ignorance and cruelty.
“Energy Secretary Rick Perry Just Made a Bizarre Claim About Sexual Assault and Fossil Fuels,” read the Buzzfeed headline. “Energy Secretary Rick Perry Says Fossil Fuels Can Prevent Sexual Assault,” read the headline from NBC News. “Rick Perry Says the Best Way to Prevent Rape Is Oil, Glorious Oil,” said the Daily Beast.
“Oh, that Rick Perry,” wrote Gail Collins in a New York Times column. “Whenever the word ‘oil’ is mentioned, Perry responds like a dog on the scent of a hamburger.” You will note that the word “oil” is not mentioned at all in Perry’s remarks.
You will note, too, that what Perry said was entirely commonsensical. While the precise relation between public lighting and public safety is unknown, who can doubt that brightly lit areas feel safer than dark ones—and that, as things stand today, cities and towns are most likely to be powered by fossil fuels? “The value of bright street lights for dispirited gray areas rises from the reassurance they offer to some people who need to go out on the sidewalk, or would like to, but lacking the good light would not do so,” wrote Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. “Thus the lights induce these people to contribute their own eyes to the upkeep of the street.” But c’mon, what did Jane Jacobs know?
No member of the Trump administration so rankles the press as the president himself. On the November morning I began this column, I awoke to outrage that President Trump had supposedly violated diplomatic protocol while visiting Japan and its prime minister, Shinzo Abe. “President Trump feeds fish, winds up pouring entire box of food into koi pond,” read the CNN headline. An article on CBSNews.com headlined “Trump empties box of fish food into Japanese koi pond” began: “President Donald Trump’s visit to Japan briefly took a turn from formal to fishy.” A Bloomberg reporter traveling with the president tweeted, “Trump and Abe spooning fish food into a pond. (Toward the end, @potus decided to just dump the whole box in for the fish).”
Except that’s not what Trump “decided.” In fact, Trump had done exactly what Abe had done a few seconds before. That fact was buried in write-ups of the viral video of Trump and the fish. “President Trump was criticized for throwing an entire box of fish food into a koi pond during his visit to Japan,” read a Tweet from the New York Daily News, linking to a report on phony criticism Trump received because of erroneous reporting from outlets like the News.
There’s an endless, circular, Möbius-strip-like quality to all this nonsense. Journalists are so eager to catch the president and his subordinates doing wrong that they routinely traduce the very canons of journalism they are supposed to hold dear. Partisan and personal animus, laziness, cynicism, and the oversharing culture of social media are a toxic mix. The press in 2017 is a lot like those Japanese koi fish: frenzied, overstimulated, and utterly mindless.
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Review of 'Lessons in Hope' By George Weigel
Standing before the eternal flame, a frail John Paul shed silent tears for 6 million victims, including some of his own childhood friends from Krakow. Then, after reciting verses from Psalm 31, he began: “In this place of memories, the mind and heart and soul feel an extreme need for silence. … Silence, because there are no words strong enough to deplore the terrible tragedy of the Shoah.” Parkinson’s disease strained his voice, but it was clear that the pope’s irrepressible humanity and spiritual strength had once more stood him in good stead.
George Weigel watched the address from NBC’s Jerusalem studios, where he was providing live analysis for the network. As he recalls in Lessons in Hope, his touching and insightful memoir of his time as the pope’s biographer, “Our newsroom felt the impact of those words, spoken with the weight of history bearing down on John Paul and all who heard him: normally a place of bedlam, the newsroom fell completely silent.” The pope, he writes, had “invited the world to look, hard, at the stuff of its redemption.”
Weigel, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, published his biography of John Paul in two volumes, Witness to Hope (1999) and The End and the Beginning (2010). His new book completes a John Paul triptych, and it paints a more informal, behind-the-scenes portrait. Readers, Catholic and otherwise, will finish the book feeling almost as though they knew the 264th successor of Peter. Lessons in Hope is also full of clerical gossip. Yet Weigel never loses sight of his main purpose: to illuminate the character and mind of the “emblematic figure of the second half of the twentieth century.”
The book’s most important contribution comes in its restatement of John Paul’s profound political thought at a time when it is sorely needed. Throughout, Weigel reminds us of the pope’s defense of the freedom of conscience; his emphasis on culture as the primary engine of history; and his strong support for democracy and the free economy.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the pope continued to promote these ideas in such encyclicals as Centesimus Annus. The 1991 document reiterated the Church’s opposition to socialist regimes that reduce man to “a molecule within the social organism” and trample his right to earn “a living through his own initiative.” Centesimus Annus also took aim at welfare states for usurping the role of civil society and draining “human energies.” The pope went on to explain the benefits, material and moral, of free enterprise within a democratic, rule-of-law framework.
Yet a libertarian manifesto Centesimus Annus was not. It took note of free societies’ tendency to breed spiritual poverty, materialism, and social incohesion, which in turn could lead to soft totalitarianism. John Paul called on state, civil society, and people of God to supply the “robust public moral culture” (in Weigel’s words) that would curb these excesses and ensure that free-market democracies are ordered to the common good.
When Weigel emerged as America’s preeminent interpreter of John Paul, in the 1980s and ’90s, these ideas were ascendant among Catholic thinkers. In addition to Weigel, proponents included the philosopher Michael Novak and Father Richard John Neuhaus of First Things magazine (both now dead). These were faithful Catholics (in Neuhaus’s case, a relatively late convert) nevertheless at peace with the free society, especially the American model. They had many qualms with secular modernity, to be sure. But with them, there was no question that free societies and markets are preferable to unfree ones.
How things have changed. Today all the energy in those Catholic intellectual circles is generated by writers and thinkers who see modernity as beyond redemption and freedom itself as the problem. For them, the main question is no longer how to correct the free society’s course (by shoring up moral foundations, through evangelization, etc.). That ship has sailed or perhaps sunk, according to this view. The challenges now are to protect the Church against progressivism’s blows and to see beyond the free society as a political horizon.
Certainly the trends that worried John Paul in Centesimus Annus have accelerated since the encyclical was issued. “The claim that agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and the basic attitude which correspond to democratic forms of political life” has become even more hegemonic than it was in 1991. “Those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it” increasingly get treated as ideological lepers. And with the weakening of transcendent truths, ideas are “easily manipulated for reasons of power.”
Thus a once-orthodox believer finds himself or herself compelled to proclaim that there is no biological basis to gender; that men can menstruate and become pregnant; that there are dozens of family forms, all as valuable and deserving of recognition as the conjugal union of a man and a woman; and that speaking of the West’s Judeo-Christian patrimony is tantamount to espousing white supremacy. John Paul’s warnings read like a description of the present.
The new illiberal Catholics—a label many of these thinkers embrace—argue that these developments aren’t a distortion of the idea of the free society but represent its very essence. This is a mistake. Basic to the free society is the freedom of conscience, a principle enshrined in democratic constitutions across the West and, I might add, in the Catholic Church’s post–Vatican II magisterium. Under John Paul, religious liberty became Rome’s watchword in the fight against Communist totalitarianism, and today it is the Church’s best weapon against the encroachments of secular progressivism. The battle is far from lost, moreover. There is pushback in the courts, at the ballot box, and online. Sometimes it takes demagogic forms that should discomfit people of faith. Then again, there is a reason such pushback is called “reaction.”
A bigger challenge for Catholics prepared to part ways with the free society as an ideal is this: What should Christian politics stand for in the 21st century? Setting aside dreams of reuniting throne and altar and similar nostalgia, the most cogent answer offered by Catholic illiberalism is that the Church should be agnostic with respect to regimes. As Harvard’s Adrian Vermeule has recently written, Christians should be ready to jettison all “ultimate allegiances,” including to the Constitution, while allying with any party or regime when necessary.
What at first glance looks like an uncompromising Christian politics—cunning, tactical, and committed to nothing but the interests of the Church—is actually a rather passive vision. For a Christianity that is “radically flexible” in politics is one that doesn’t transform modernity from within. In practice, it could easily look like the Vatican Ostpolitik diplomacy that sought to appease Moscow before John Paul was elected.
Karol Wojtya discarded Ostpolitik as soon as he took the Petrine office. Instead, he preached freedom and democracy—and meant it. Already as archbishop of Krakow under Communism, he had created free spaces where religious and nonreligious dissidents could engage in dialogue. As pope, he expressed genuine admiration for the classically liberal and decidedly secular Vaclav Havel. He hailed the U.S. Constitution as the source of “ordered freedom.” And when, in 1987, the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet asked him why he kept fussing about democracy, seeing as “one system of government is as good as another,” the pope responded: No, “the people have a right to their liberties, even if they make mistakes in exercising them.”
The most heroic and politically effective Christian figure of the 20th century, in other words, didn’t follow the path of radical flexibility. His Polish experience had taught him that there are differences between regimes—that some are bound to uphold conscience and human dignity, even if they sometimes fall short of these commitments, while others trample rights by design. The very worst of the latter kind could even whisk one’s boyhood friends away to extermination camps. There could be no radical Christian flexibility after the Holocaust.