The real mystery of the Dead Sea Scrolls is a consequence of the perishability of parchment and papyrus
The real mystery of the Dead Sea Scrolls is a consequence of the perishability of parchment and papyrus. Since the 19th century, the Middle East has yielded up wave after rich wave of literary, legal, annalistic, and cultic materials, many of them in hitherto unknown languages. Through them it became possible to reconstruct, sometimes in vivid and surprising detail, the variegated ancient world before, behind, and around the Bible. The texts from this world were generally written on clay tablets or incised in steles. When unearthed by the archeologist’s spade, they might often be chipped or cracked or broken, but the solid material of inscription sufficed to carry into the present these precious messages from a past three or four millennia removed. From ancient Israel proper, we have innumerable names on seals, fragments of writing or writing exercises on shards of pottery, and one continuous version of the Priestly Blessing in a silver filigree ornament, but the consecutive literature of the culture was committed to scrolls made of locally manufactured parchment or often (as the Israeli scholar Menahem Haran has persuasively argued) of papyrus imported from Egypt. These materials, alas, like the acid-impregnated paper of many of the books on our own library shelves, were destined to be turned into dust by time’s inexorable chemistry. Thus, the oldest integral manuscript of the Hebrew Bible goes back only to around 1000 C.E., nearly twelve centuries after the writing of the latest biblical book, Daniel, and nearly two millennia after the composition of the earliest biblical texts.
It is against this background that the accidental discovery in 1947 by a Bedouin boy of ancient Hebrew scrolls in a cave overlooking the northwestern edge of the Dead Sea set off a firestorm of scholarly and then popular interest that has still not abated. Over the past year, the Dead Sea Scrolls have again been in the news week after week, for reasons I will summarize, in front-page articles, editorials, op-ed pieces, and passionate letters to the editor. In the heated atmosphere of journalistic coverage, the scrolls have been described as “the greatest archeological find of the 20th century,” which is a perhaps defensible but certainly debatable proposition. More accurately, they have been called “the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times,” for it is chiefly manuscripts, as I have indicated, that have not come down to us from the written records of the ancient world. The bone-dry climate of the Dead Sea region and the protection of many of the scrolls in sealed earthenware jars had proved to have the most fortunate, perhaps unique, preservative effect. Who wrote these manuscripts, what they might have to say, and, above all, what is their intrinsic value as spiritual or literary productions are matters that very much remain to be resolved.
In order to understand the great hullabaloo over the Dead Sea Scrolls in the fall of 1991, it will be necessary to retrace briefly the often told story of the initial acquisition of the scrolls and their subsequent history of jurisdictional entanglements. The first Bedouin finders brought seven complete scrolls to Bethlehem and sold them for a pittance to a Christian-Arab dealer in antiquities. He in turn conveyed four of these to the Metropolitan of the Syrian Jacobite Church in Jerusalem, and sold the other three clandestinely to Eleazar Sukenik, an archeologist at the Hebrew University, in the very heat of battle between Israelis and Arabs in 1948. In 1954, Metropolitan Samuel took his four scrolls with him to the United States and placed a discreet advertisement for their sale in the Wall Street Journal. Yigael Yadin, Sukenik’s son, and himself on the way to becoming a distinguished archeologist, acquired the Metropolitan’s scrolls for $250,000 through the cover of an intermediary (Samuel would hardly have sold them knowingly to an Israeli). Thus the seven original scrolls, all subsequently published, came under Israeli jurisdiction.
Meanwhile, in the most literal sense, no stone was left unturned in the Qumran region where the first find was made. By the early 1950’s, extensive archeological digs were initiated under the direction of Pére Roland de Vaux of the Dominican Ecole Biblique in Jordanian-controlled East Jerusalem. (Until 1967, it must be remembered, the Qumran region was in Jordanian hands.) In one cave alone, Cave 4, 800 scrolls and fragments were discovered. At the same time, the Bedouins, now realizing there were objects in these honeycombed cliffs with a high market value, searched the caves surreptitiously, removing scrolls and scraps of writing, much of which made its circuitous way to the scholars, but some of which may conceivably still be sitting in the safes of antiquity dealers anywhere in the Middle East, waiting for the moment when the price is right.
Most of the scrolls, then, were deposited in the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem, essentially under de Vaux’s authority. Beginning in 1953, an international team of just seven scholars was assembled to decipher, edit, and publish the scrolls. Most of them were Catholic and there were no Jews. Given the political divisions of the time, it would have been unthinkable to invite Israeli participation, and in any case, Père de Vaux, a member of the fascist Action Française during his youth in France, was both anti-Zionist and frankly anti-Semitic. As a result of the conquest of East Jerusalem in June 1967, the Rockefeller Museum came under the jurisdiction of the Israel Antiquities Department. But its director, Avraham Biram, was loath to interfere with the arrangements made by the existing team of researchers, perhaps fearing a public uproar or diplomatic incident. He insisted only on a necessary modification of nomenclature—that the words “of Jordan” be stricken from the title of the publication series, Discoveries in the Judean Desert of Jordan. Meanwhile, the pace of publication was slowing from respectable to scandalous: the fifth volume of the scrolls appeared in 1968; a sixth volume did not see the light of day until 1977. I shall return to the issue of delay, which has been at the center of the current controversy.
In 1985, John Strugnell of Harvard, a British-born convert to Catholicism and a member of the team since the 1950’s, was appointed head of the international editorial committee, succeeding Père Benoit of the Ecole Biblique who had taken over after Pére de Vaux. This appointment set the fuse for the recent explosion. Strugnell, according to the testimony of those who have worked with him, is a brilliant and engaging, or at least amusing, person. He brought onto the team its first Jewish member, Emanuel Tov of the Hebrew University, who had been his student at Harvard, and he also has consulted closely with the talmudist Ezra Sussman on technical issues of Jewish law raised by one of the scrolls. But Strugnell is also an anti-Zionist and a doctrinal if not emotional anti-Semite, and in recent years he has had serious problems with alcoholism and emotional instability. All this surfaced spectacularly in the fall of 1990 in an interview Strugnell gave in one of his weaker moments to the Hebrew daily Ha’aretz, in which he openly declared his contempt for Judaism as a religion and his belief that the Jews should put an end to their collective existence by converting to the true faith.
In the ensuing scandal, Strugnell, who needed hospitalization for psychiatric care, was forced to resign his post by Amir Drori, the man who had taken over the Israel Antiquities Department in 1988 and transformed it into the Antiquities Authority, an entity with more far-reaching powers. Emanuel Tov was appointed as the new editor-in-chief of the scrolls project. Some deference was still given to the international committee, which designated Père Emile Puech of the Ecole Biblique and Eugene Ulrich of Notre Dame as co-editors, but it was clear that the Israelis were now calling the shots. Drori, moreover, an archeologist, a retired general, and a decided activist as an administrator, had taken another step toward assumption of responsibility two years earlier by appointing a three-man Israeli scrolls advisory committee consisting of Magen Broshi, curator of the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum where the seven original scrolls are housed, and Jonas Greenfield and Shemaryahu Talmon, both eminent Hebrew University authorities on the scrolls and on Hebrew and Aramaic philology. Broshi held some 40 half-day meetings with his advisory committee during its first two years of operation. He also insisted that each scholar assigned to editing a scroll be given an unambiguous deadline, with 1997 set as the date for submission of all materials and 2000 as the date for the completion of publication. These energetic steps have by and large been ignored in the recent outcry over the withholding of the scrolls.
The leather-lunged cheerleader of the outcry is Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, a stylish mass-circulation bimonthly that publishes excellent short articles by leading scholars accompanied by sumptuous photographs. Shanks had begun in the mid-80’s to issue a series of clarion calls for the rapid publication of the rest of the scrolls and the immediate granting to all scholars of access to the texts. Understandably, when the Strugnell scandal broke a year ago, Shanks was quick to turn a spotlight in his magazine on the latest shame of the scrolls committee. Anti-Semitism apart, the image of a disheveled Strugnell in his cubicle in the Ecole Biblique filing vital documents for the scrolls project in empty beer cartons did not inspire confidence in the custodial scruples of the team he directed, and he himself over the years had published precious little of the material with which he had been entrusted. The Israeli authorities meanwhile insisted that the project was now proceeding with all deliberate haste. This contention by no means satisfied Shanks, who sponsored a maneuver that decisively pushed the long-guarded scrolls into the public domain.
In early September 1991, Shanks announced that the Biblical Archaeology Society, which he chairs and which is the publisher of his magazine, was about to issue the first of a series of volumes called A Preliminary Edition of the Unpublished Dead Sea Scrolls. The text had been prepared by Ben-Zion Wacholder, a professor of Talmud at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, working together with Martin G. Abegg, Jr., a graduate student and computer specialist, and it is a peculiar artifact of the age of high technology. In 1960, a privately circulated concordance had been prepared of the unpublished Qumran texts; a few years ago it was printed in a very small edition. Using the concordance, which cites not merely single words but the complete clauses in which they appear, Wacholder and Abegg were able with the aid of a computer to generate whole texts. “Whole texts,” however, is something of an exaggeration, since the one volume (Hebrew only) that has appeared is made up entirely of fragments, most of them fewer than ten lines, and often defective lines at that. The exclusive subject of the fragments is a system of rotation of priestly celebrants, hardly a topic that will revolutionize our understanding of Jewish visions of reality around the time of Jesus.
In any case, the Shanks-Wacholder-Abegg publication elicited cries of piracy and theft from a number of established scrolls scholars. One undeniable criticism was that this was a shaky if not shady way to establish a text, and that even if the computer extrapolations were dependable, the 1960 concordance in many respects was not. But the barn door had been kicked open, and everything that had been locked inside rapidly galloped out.
Within a few weeks, the Huntington Library of San Marino, California announced that it would make available for the use of all scholars the complete set of photographs of the scrolls which it had in its possession. (The photographs had been made in 1980 as a safeguard against destruction of the texts in war or other disaster.) The Israeli authorities at first grumbled and issued vague threats of taking legal action; but, accepting the inevitable, Emanuel Tov announced on October 27, 1991 that duplicate sets of the photographs—at the Rockefeller Museum, Oxford University, the Hebrew Union College, and the Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center at Claremont College—would be available for the free use of scholars, with permission to quote limited portions of the scrolls but “for personal research only and not for the production of a text edition.” Hershel Shanks called this “a subterfuge for controlling access.” Three weeks later, on November 20, his moment of triumph came. Two scholars, Robert H. Eisenman of California State University at Long Beach (more about him presently) and James M. Robinson of Claremont College, announced that a lawyer representing an anonymous benefactor had presented them with a set of 1,787 photographs of all the scrolls. These had been taken some years earlier by an Arab photographer, Najib Albina—how, it is not clear, but evidently not through the good offices of the international scrolls committee. The attorney of the anonymous benefactor, however, assured everyone that no legal prerogatives had been violated. Shanks’s Biblical Archaelogy Society announced it was preparing to issue a two-volume facsimile edition of all the scrolls for $195, well within the research allowance of even the most modest scholar. The Dead Sea Scrolls were now fully public.
This twisted chain of events spanning 44 years, with its clandestine transfers of texts and photos, its shadowy benefactors and anonymous advertisements, its mixture of painstaking scholarship and flamboyant alcoholism, looks like a cross between the Marx Brothers and John Le Carré. Observers overly fond of spy stories and inattentive to the elements of inadvertent farce in the Qumran capers have been receptive to conspiracy theories to explain the withholding of the scrolls. (It is, by the way, not even clear how much has been “withheld”: Israeli authorities claim as much as 80 percent of the materials has already been published; some critics put the figure at only 25 percent. Percentages are likely to be misleading because much of what remains consists of tiny fragments, not in any sense “books,” and some of these duplicate one another.) Edmund Wilson, in his still beautifully readable and on the whole balanced popular account of the Dead Sea Scrolls (1957, revised edition 1969), was one of many who set the stage for conspiracy theories by suggesting that the Qumran material might be threatening to Judaism by undermining the authority of the Masoretic text of the Bible—in fact, hardly a major vested interest of non-fundamentalist Jewish scholarship—and to Christianity by compromising the uniqueness of Jesus and his messianic role. By now, however, most scholars have concluded that the doctrines of the Qumran sectarians have only an indirect and by no means causal connection with the rise of Christianity, though Robert Eisenman is a notable exception in this regard.
Two young journalists, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, unfortunately have swallowed Eisenman’s theories whole, virtually becoming his publicists, in their new book, The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception.1 Their account reflects that vision of the sinister machinations of Rome which has repeatedly flourished in English-speaking countries ever since the Reformation. Although they are right that the scrolls have been for the most part in Catholic hands and that several of the editors have also been outspoken anti-Semites, they make the highly implausible claim that Vatican authorities have secretly controlled the whole project, suppressing essential scroll material because it would have an “explosive” effect on Christian faith. Even so vehement a critic of the scrolls committee as Hershel Shanks has aptly noted in a review of Baigent and Leigh (Biblical Archaeology Review, November-December 1991) that the many Catholic scholars involved in Qumran work, including one at the Pontifical Biblical Institute, betray no evidence of this alleged bias, and that several of them have actually been vocal in demanding the prompt release of the unpublished texts.
The sheer withholding of documents unfortunately encourages fantasies that they contain portentous information. At the far end of this continuum of response shared by Baigent and Leigh, sensational weekly tabloids like the Sun and the Canadian Weekly World News have been announcing that the unpublished scrolls will reveal: proof of life after death, a miracle cure for AIDS and cancer, the date of the end of the world, the invasion of earth by extraterrestrials in the biblical era, and, what is sure to throw the Vatican iconographers for a loop, the physical appearance of God. (“Though the description is sketchy, the scrolls say He has fiery green eyes, flowing brown hair, and stands 9 feet tall,” we are told by Kathryn LaRocque of the Weekly World News, who appears to have devoted too many television hours to watching the Incredible Hulk.) Even the sober editorialist of the New York Times, in applauding the publication of the Wacholder-Abegg volume, piously intones that we as a civilization must have all the scrolls for “what they say about the common roots of Christianity and rabbinic Judaism.” In fact, what the scrolls tell us about either Christianity or rabbinic Judaism is more marginal than many have imagined, and it is unlikely that world-shaking revelations will emerge from the texts yet to be published.
The snail’s pace of publication after the early 1960’s has certainly been disgraceful, even granting the immense difficulties of piecing together thousands of tiny fragments and reconstructing defective texts. But this slowness is almost entirely attributable to the institutional vices of academic life, of which laymen may have no adequate notion, and not to a secret plot. The original seven scholars were given assignments to prepare critical editions of specific texts. As is the common academic practice with manuscript materials, they regarded these materials as their private scholarly property until the actual publication. Working with that academic inner calendar which measures time not in months or years but in sabbaticals and jubilees, many of them lingered for decades over their texts. Scrolls were parceled out to their graduate students as dissertation topics—academic work is, after all, a form of intellectual entrepreneurialism—while established scholars not associated with the team were often refused access. An original editor with one of the largest hoards of texts, the Paris-based J. T. Milik, does not even answer his mail.
The claim of members of the scrolls committee that time is needed in order to prepare “definitive” editions of the texts is unconvincing. Of course, no one wants to encourage harum-scarum scholarship, and one can anticipate that with total access even more foolish things will be written about the scrolls than have been written in the past. But everywhere in humanistic scholarship, even for far more recent and intelligible texts, the idea of the definitive edition has proved a will-o’-the-wisp: one generation’s reconstruction generally requires redoing a couple of generations later. The Israeli authorities were surely remiss in failing to intervene during their first 21 years of jurisdiction over the scrolls. In the last three years they have begun at last to force oil into the frozen gears of the project, and the new chain of sensational developments, whatever the exaggerations it has encouraged, has had the salutary effect of jolting the project into the forward motion it should have achieved decades ago.
But what, after all, is the importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls? Above all, they provide ancient testimony to the life of a crucial period in Western cultural history about which our knowledge is full of yawning gaps bridged by shaky conjecture. In the early years after the discovery, there were a few dissenting scholars who argued that the texts were late, or forged; but there is now virtual unanimity about their antiquity, based on paleographic and linguistic analysis, carbon-14 dating, and minute attention to the veiled historical references of the documents. The oldest manuscripts may go back as far as the late 3rd century B.CE (and this, of course, does not preclude the possibility that a few of the texts are copies of still older compositions). The religious commune—yahad—at Qumran was probably established around the middle of the 2nd century B.CE. and continued until 68 C.E., the time of the arrival of the armies of Vespasian and Titus in the Dead Sea region. Though some texts may have originated close to this later date, the compositions that most directly reflect the life of the sect (The Manual of Discipline, The Damascus Covenant, The War Scroll, The Thanksgiving Hymns) were in all likelihood written between the beginning and the middle of the last pre-Christian century. The probability of this early dating argues strongly against the sundry sensationalistic proposals that the literature of the sect refers to Jesus, to his brother James the Just, or to Paul.
Three categories of materials have been unearthed at Qumran, all of keen interest to specialists in the period, but only one of which is likely to engage the attention of the layman. At least portions of all the books of the Hebrew Bible have been found, except for Esther, with a complete Isaiah among the first seven scrolls. Several books of the Apocrypha were also discovered in the Qumran library. Finally, there is a variety of hitherto unknown compositions, many, but perhaps not all, reflecting the ritual and communal life and doctrines of the sectarians.
The biblical manuscripts are obviously of first importance in understanding the history of the biblical text. In many instances they represent manuscript traditions that diverge from that of the Masoretic text, though one cannot assume that the versions of the sectarian scribes are automatically and invariably more authoritative than those that were later consolidated in the Masoretic text. The books of the Apocrypha are precious finds because they provide Hebrew and Aramaic originals of works previously known only through Greek, Latin, and other translations. They also offer some indication of what were the extra-canonical texts in circulation at the time, at least among Jewish readers of this particular religious bent.
It is, however, to the third category of material, original compositions, that the general public looks for revelations. Their nature and provenance are still a scholarly battleground, though there is a consensus view, which I will try to summarize, not presuming to rush in with an independent judgment where specialists fear to tread.
From the contemporaneous account of the historian Josephus, it is conventional to divide Palestinian Jewry around the turn of the Christian era into three important religious trends: the Pharisees, essentially the founders of the revolutionary movement in law and theology that became rabbinic Judaism; the Sadducees, the priestly and aristocratic party who were strict constructionists on biblical doctrine; and the Essenes, a group that, according to Josephus (who claims to have been briefly a member of the sect), was ascetic, pietistic, and separatist. Given the Essenes’ sectarian practices and the indications in several ancient sources that they had a commune in the Dead Sea area, most scholars from the beginning have been prepared to identify the Qumran group with the Essenes. This view still seems the most plausible one, though of late, as I shall explain, it has been refined and complicated.
Challenges to the consensus are vehement but unconvincing. Robert Eisenman imagines that several of these texts are the polemical work of the first generation of Jewish Christians, followers of Jesus who still insisted on the punctilious observance of Jewish law. In Eisenman’s reading of the Habbakuk Pesher and other scrolls, a figure called the Righteous Teacher of the Qumranites is James the Just, while one called the Preacher of Lies is Paul, who abrogated Jewish law. Apart from the improbably late dating of the texts required by this piece of cryptography, it is based on some dubious philological claims. To cite one crucial instance, the designation Preacher of Lies, matif hakazav, is translated “Pourer Out of Lying” and is said to evince “baptismal imagery.” It is true that the etymological root of matif is a verb meaning “to drip” (not “to pour”), but the term is already firmly lexicalized in the Bible in the sense of preacher, making Eisenman’s contention extremely far-fetched.
In a less fanciful vein, the University of Chicago scholar, Norman Golb, has recently argued (American Scholar, Spring 1989) that the Dead Sea Scrolls were not written at the Dead Sea and are not sectarian productions. He points to various pieces of evidence that contradict the consensus view. The ruins at Qumran show the presence of a military garrison, though the Essenes were supposed to have been pacifists. Women were buried there, though the commune was supposed to have been celibate. His contention is that refugees from the Roman onslaught against Jerusalem brought with them a collection of texts that covered the whole spectrum of literary productivity of lst century Jewry. While Golb is surely right in saying there is no reason to assume that every Qumran text was actually composed at Qumran, there are two lines of special pleading in his argument. He must insist on striking ideological disparities among texts where the continuities of outlook and sensibility, whatever the incidental discrepancies, are impressive. Second, from the absence of any Pharisean or early Christian documents in this supposedly eclectic collection of Jewish texts he is compelled to conclude that rabbinic Judaism and Christianity “did not yet exist as movements,” which is surely allowing an initial premise to dictate a conclusion in the face of evidence that argues against it.
There will no doubt be still other theories, for the archeological evidence, like that of the manuscripts, is ambiguous. Roland de Vaux was sure he had uncovered the remains of a “monastery” with a scriptorium, a conclusion questioned by Golb and also by a pair of Belgian archeologists who have reexamined de Vaux’s work and think that the structure at Qumran may have been a luxurious “winter villa” to which members of the Sadducean aristocracy repaired. Whatever the actual nature of the building above the caves, and whether or not the character of its use may have been changed radically in 68 C.E., there appears to be a more complicated if less dramatic link betwen the Dead Sea denizens and the Sadducees. This is a view persuasively argued by Yakov Sussman in an important new article in the Hebrew quarterly Tarbits (no. 59, 1990).
Sussman finds that where principles of halakhah, Jewish law, emerge in the scrolls, they stand consistently in opposition to the halakhah of the Pharisees and in consonance with the rulings represented as “Sadducean” by the heirs of the Pharisees in the Talmud. Sussman proposes that the Essenes were a breakaway group originating among the Sadducees. They vehemently objected, he suggests, to the aristocratic worldliness of the Sadducean priesthood while they clung to the strict constructionism of the Sadducees’ approach to biblical law and thus fiercely opposed the relative flexibility and the popular character of the Pharisees’ new legal system. Later talmudic tradition amalgamated the Sadducees and the separatist Essenes into a single Sadducean halakhah, which it roundly rejected.
This image of the Qumran sectarians Intransigently fighting their fellow Jews on two different fronts at once certainly accords with the quality of spiritual ferocity that marks most of the scrolls that have been published. However valuable these documents may be as evidence of the nature of Jewish sectarianism toward the end of the Second Temple period, the sectarians themselves are hardly the sort of ancestors whom either Jews or Christians would want to rush to claim, and in terms of the evolution of religion, they actually represent a dead end, not a nourishing source of either Judaism or Christianity. There were not very many of them—the number of graves suggests a limit of 200 at one time, as against a probable several thousand urban Essenes—and in their retreat to the Judean wilderness they were akin to those American sectarians who periodically follow some spiritual leader to an isolated spot in the mountains of Montana or Oregon to await the imminent end of the world.
Perched on the rim of history, looking out toward the End, the Qumran sectarians were scarcely equipped to engage moral life or the political realm with any nuance or complexity. Apocalyptic thunder drums through many of their texts. The world is divided uncompromisingly into the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness. The former are few, indeed are limited to the sectarians themselves, and they alone will be spared the terrible divine wrath that is about to descend. Truth itself is conceived as an esoteric matter to be concealed from all but the elect: the master of the commune “shall conceal the teaching of the Law from men of falsehood, but shall impart true knowledge and righteous judgment to those who have chosen the way.” The preapocalyptic moment in which the sectarians constantly live dictates a draconian code of morality and spiritual surveillance and a strictly hierarchical order that make rabbinic Judaism look almost libertarian and democratic by contrast. The Qumran texts are imbued with a brooding sense of sinfulness, a revulsion from the very carnality of human existence. Here, for example (in my translation), are three lines that appear with variations several times in The Thanksgiving Hymns:
I am a creature of clay, compact of water,
The secret of nakedness, the source of pollution,
The crucible of iniquity and the fabric of sin.
Especially because the term for nakedness, ‘ervah, is the one that refers to forbidden sexual parts, and the word for pollution, nidah, alludes to menstruation, the lines project an almost Augustinian sense of disgust at coming into the world from the shameful hidden parts of a woman’s body.
Much has been made of the literary character of the scrolls, without sufficient warrant. Yigael Yadin once claimed of The Thanksgiving Hymns that no one who did not read them in the Hebrew could conceive the poetic magnificence of these psalmotic compositions. As a student of biblical poetry, I would concur that it is exciting to have at our disposal several dozen new Hebrew poems in the biblical mode, but I must also say that in most respects this is derivative, epigonic verse. Here and there one encounters an arresting image or line, but for the most part the poems are pastiches of biblical poetry, repeatedly taking the urgency of the supplication psalms—Lord save me, my enemies encompass me—and coloring it with the crude emotional hues of apocalyptic ressentiment.
In general, there is a disquieting note in the relation of the sectarian writers to Hebrew textuality and the Bible. They were not, after all, building a new edifice on the foundation of the Bible like their adversaries the Pharisees, but rather sustaining through literary pastiche and apocalyptic fulmination the illusion that they were still living at the heart of the biblical destiny in all its Davidic and Aaronite glory, that they were continuing to write the Bible. Shemaryahu Talmon has drawn a trenchant distinction between the sectarians and the rabbis precisely in these terms in his recent The World of Qumran from Within:
(Proto) rabbinic Jewry viewed the biblical era as a closed chapter and their own times as being profoundly different from that preceding age. In contradistinction, the Covenanters [at Qumran] perceived themselves as standing within the orbit of the biblical era and their community as the rejuvenated embodiment of biblical Israel: they were the “righteous remnant” whom God had spared when He delivered Judah and Jerusalem to the sword of the Babylonians. . . .
Such an orientation toward history through the reliving and extension of sacred texts encourages megalomaniacal self-importance and contempt for others as well as a kind of hallucinatory relation to present events. A particularly scary and symptomatic document of this mentality is The War Scroll. Although scraps and tatters of images drawn from Roman military practice float through the text, its choreography of confrontation between the forces of light and darkness is not really anchored in historical time. As Talmon has said of the sectarians in general, this is a piece of writing “suspended in limbo between the real and the visionary stage of history.” The scroll’s long list of “orders of battle,” with its catalogues of trumpets and banners and weapons ornamented in silver and gold, is really a continuous act of incantatory word-magic. It is not through political action or social institution or legal initiative that this writer copes with the quandaries and terrors of life under the Roman empire but rather through the sheer exalting sonority of Hebrew words steeped in biblical memories. It is hardly surprising that nothing that would live on in history ever grew in this rocky ground overlooking—spiritually as well as literally—a slate-gray sea of salt.
A Wisdom poem discovered in Cave 4 offers a particularly instructive illustration of the relation of the Qumran literature to its biblical antecedents because it derives so explicitly from one biblical poem, Proverbs 7, with additional borrowings from a related poem in Proverbs 5. The text from Cave 4 has been dated paleographically to the 1st century B.C.E., though some scholars think the original composition may be older. It is quite possible that only a couple of centuries separate it from Proverbs 7, but a world of imaginative difference stands between the two poems. The biblical text is a warning cast in narrative form about the dangers of the seductress. The speaker is a worldly Mentor who addresses a vulnerable “lad.” After an initial exhortation, he represents the seductress in the tricky twilight shadows waiting in the streets to pounce on her sexual prey:
She seizes him and kisses him,
impudently she speaks:
“I had to make peace-sacrifices,
today I fulfilled my vows.
So I came out to meet you,
to seek your presence, and I found you.
With coverlets I’ve spread my couch
dyed cloths of Egyptian linen.
I’ve sprinkled my bed
with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon.
Let’s drink our fill of love till dawn,
let’s revel in love’s delights.
For the man is not at home,
he’s gone on a far-off way.
The purse of silver he took in his hand,
at the full moon he’ll come back home.”
She draws him aside with all her talk,
with her smooth speech she lures him. . . .
The result, of course, is disastrous. “An arrow splits his liver”—evidently a reference to venereal disease—and the Mentor concludes in a formal exordium by warning all young men not to “stray on her paths.//For many are the victims she has felled/numberless all she’s killed.//Through her house are the ways to Sheol,/going down to the chambers of death” (my translation). This is, of course, not a very cheerful view of the pleasures of a one-night stand, but the poet has a keen eye for the alluring sensuous textures of seduction—all those imported luxury items, the bedclothes from Egypt and the fragrant spices from the East—and the seductress herself is a vivid figure, assuring the presumably hesitant young man that her husband is off on a business trip and won’t be back for a couple of weeks, since the action, as an earlier line implies, takes place in the dark of the moon.
What does the poem found at Qumran make of this material? Just like the seductress of Proverbs 7 (in the sequence of lines leading up to the section I have quoted), the wicked woman of this text lingers about the city squares, her eyes glancing lasciviously. Here is how she is represented in the body of the poem:
She is ever prompt to oil her words,
and she flatters with irony,
deriding with iniquitous l[ips]. . . .
Her clothes are shades of twilight,
and her ornaments plagues of corruption.
Her couches are beds of corruption
and her [. . .] depths of the pit.
Her inns are couches of darkness,
and her dominions in the midst of the
night. . . .
For her ways are ways of death,
and her paths are roads of sin,
and her tracks are pathways to iniquity,
and her byways are rebellious
Her gates are gates of death. . . .
None of those who enter will ever return. . . .
[Translation by Geza Vermes]
My excerpting spares the reader some of the flood of sheer synonymity that gives the poem whatever momentum it has. Beginning on the purely verbal level, there is virtually no independent invention in this biblicizing poem: it is all strung together out of overlapping phrases taken from Proverbs, with an occasional locution from one of the Prophets. As literature, the poem is purely derivative. As an expression of the moral imagination, it reflects an even steeper decline from its model in Proverbs. For nothing can happen in the world of this poem. The witty narrative of Proverbs 7, like the enlivening persona of its Mentor, is entirely absent. The seductress is no longer a vivid human figure moving in a familiar medium of social institutions and material culture but an abstract emblem of hateful evil. She may even be, as Geza Vermes has suggested, an allegorical representation of false doctrine. In any case, she is evoked linguistically through that incantatory use of synonymity characteristic of many of the Qumran texts. If in Proverbs there is sometimes an intimation of imagistic association between “the pit” (Sheol) and the vaginal cavity of the seductress, in the Qumran text that link becomes an obsessive equation. Note in the lines quoted the repetitive insistence on corruption in whatever touches the body of the seductress—her ornaments and her bed—and in the following two lines, the sense of some radical awfulness lurking beneath the woman’s skirts: “Her legs go down to work wickedness,/and to walk in wrongdoings.//Her [. . .] are foundations of darkness,/and a multitude of sins in her skirts.” The seductress of Proverbs has been recast in the darkly brooding tones of “the secret of nakedness, the source of pollution” that we encounter in The Thanksgiving Hymns.
There is no question that a good deal more is now known about a pivotal moment in Jewish history through the Dead Sea Scrolls. We have even learned instructive things about the evolution of the Hebrew language, its orthography, and the way it may have been pronounced around the turn of the Christian era. But the popular fascination with the scrolls that has been sustained for over four decades and the inordinate hopes for a grand revelation from these scraps of parchment betoken one of the great modern illusions—that if only we could take within our grasp the material substance of the past, if only we could empty out all the contents of its buried time capsules, we might touch an ultimate secret of origins, understand in a new and illuminating way how we came to be what we are. Whatever the wealth of historical testimony discovered in the Qumran texts, and perhaps still to be discovered, we will almost certainly not find in them any such truth of origins. By the time the sectarians fled their Dead Sea dwelling in 68 C.E., the early Christians (chiefly Paul) and the early rabbis had already taken decisive steps toward creating supple new systems of belief and religious practice out of the texts and ideas of the Hebrew Bible—on the one hand, a bold synthesis of monotheism with the mythic power of the mystery cults and a translation of theological universalism into a universalism of religious constituency; on the other hand, a refashioning of biblical doctrine as an intricate and developing system of law, based on learning, and, at least in principle, accessible to all Jews.
Against these achievements, whose power is still palpably projected from that turbulent era to ours, the writings of the Qumran sectarians seem narrow and rigid and shrill. They withdrew from the teeming city to a rock-strewn desert, hearkening to the voice of their master and awaiting the destruction of their enemies. The air they breathed was an atmosphere of hypnotic words that insulated them from the changing winds of history. The texts they left behind will continue to be intriguing objects of scrutiny but can offer scant sustenance for us who live in the unfolding movement of historical time.
1 Summit, 268 pp., $20.00.
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How Important Are the Dead Sea Scrolls?
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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.