A much-hailed statement, signed by dozens of rabbis and Jewish scholars, evades the faiths' profound differences.
One of the most remarkable cultural developments of the past half-century has been the growth of interfaith dialogue. Members of religious communities that, on principle, had long avoided communication with each other are now in regular discussions characterized by mutual respect, and the discussions not infrequently involve precisely the points of theological difference that had long precluded contact.
Among the many positive consequences of these exchanges has been a dramatic shift in the Christian teaching about Judaism. The classical view, with its roots in the New Testament, portrayed Judaism as at best a preparation for the full and final truth of the Christian Gospel. In this account, the Jews, by killing their own messiah, had become the enemies of God, and were punished accordingly throughout the generations. As the Jewish crowd cries to Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect, in the Gospel according to Matthew, “His blood be on us, and on our children.”
In this Christian understanding, what was entailed for the Jews was not only the loss of God’s favor—and thus the elevation of a new chosen people, represented by the Church—but also the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and exile from their promised land. Not that the Jews themselves were to be destroyed: on the contrary, at least from the time of Augustine in the early 5th century C.E., the continued existence of the Jews in a state of degradation was seen as proof of Christianity’s truth. “The Jews, against whom the blood of Jesus Christ calls out,” Pope Innocent III wrote in 1208, “ought not to be killed, lest the Christian people forget the Divine Law,” but “as wanderers they ought to remain upon the earth, until their countenance be filled with shame.”
As the classical Christian view would have it, Judaism had become obsolete. Its adherents, missing the meaning of their own practices, concentrated fruitlessly on external rituals at the expense of genuine faith. Seeking salvation in their own works rather than in the mystery of divine grace, Jews had become ever more deeply entangled in petty legalism and lacked the means to draw closer to the God Who had sent His only begotten son for their salvation and for the salvation of the world.
The relationship between these theological teachings and Christian treatment of the Jews over the centuries is highly complex. On the one hand, as I have suggested, the Church generally frowned on violence against the Jews. On the other hand, persistent accusation, recrimination, and defamation took their toll, often paid in blood. For a chilling instance of the link between theology and incitement, one need look no farther than Martin Luther’s pamphlet, Of the Jews and Their Lies (1543):
First, their synagogues . . . should be set on fire, and whatever does not burn up should be covered or spread over with dirt so that no one may ever be able to see a cinder or stone of it. And this ought to be done for the honor of God and of Christianity. . . . Secondly, their homes should likewise be broken down and destroyed. For they perpetrate the same things there that they do in their synagogue. For this reason they ought to be put under one roof as in a stable, like gypsies.
There is, to be sure, a difference between what Luther advocated and what his German compatriots put into action four centuries later, under Hitler. Whereas traditional Christian theology inspired the Protestant reformer, the Nazis were motivated by modern racism: they sought not the conversion of the Jews but their unqualified annihilation, and to this end the beliefs of the intended victims were irrelevant. Nonetheless, it strains the historical imagination to claim that nearly two millennia of Christian demonization of Judaism and the Jews played no role in laying the groundwork for the Final Solution.
In the wake of the Holocaust, many Christian groups, both Catholic and Protestant, have engaged in a soul-searching reexamination of the “teaching of contempt” (in the phrase of the French historian Jules Isaac) that long dominated their thinking about the Jews. They have often done so, moreover, with the help of Jewish interlocutors. The result has been a series of statements that reverse, or at least severely limit, the classical theology. In most cases, these statements have affirmed the family connection of Judaism and Christianity, acknowledging both the Church’s indebtedness to Judaism (especially for the set of scriptures it received from the Jews) and the continuing validity of the older tradition. In some instances, apologies have been proffered for the long history of anti-Jewish persecution, including the Holocaust. Especially moving have been the images of Pope John Paul II—a successor to Innocent III and a long line of other despisers of the Jews—politely visiting the Great Synagogue of Rome and praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty.
How has this change in Christian attitudes been greeted by Jews? As a political and cultural matter, needless to say, it has been warmly welcomed, if with occasional signs of wariness. But what has been slower in coming—and what many Christians, after a painful reevaluation of their own tradition, have been most eager to receive—is a considered historical and theological response. Are the regrets of Christians accepted, or do Jews think that Christianity inherently leads to anti-Semitic persecution? Will Jews acknowledge that the two communities are members of the same larger spiritual grouping, or do they see Christians as an alien group, little closer to them in belief and practice than Hindus or Buddhists?
In the early 1990’s, an interfaith center in Baltimore called the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies assembled a group of Jewish academics to answer such questions and to consider more broadly the significance of Christianity’s new openness to Judaism. From these ongoing consultations there finally emerged, late last year, “A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity,” titled Dabru Emet (“Speak the Truth,” after the words of Zechariah 8:16). Written by four highly regarded professors of Jewish studies—Tikva Frymer-Kensky of the University of Chicago, David Novak of the University of Toronto, Peter Ochs of the University of Virginia, and Michael A. Signer of the University of Notre Dame—the statement was signed by some 170 other rabbis and Jewish scholars, and published in the New York Times and several other venues. It has since attracted numerous other signatories and a great deal of attention, most of it extremely positive.
Though Dabru Emet covers a wide range of complex issues, it is not a lengthy work. After two introductory paragraphs describing the recent sea change in relations between Christians and Jews, it consists of eight theses of one sentence apiece, each of which is then followed by a short explanatory paragraph. The theses, in order, read as follows:
- Jews and Christians worship the same God.
- Jews and Christians seek authority from the same book—the Bible (what Jews call “Tanakh” and Christians call the “Old Testament”).
- Christians can respect the claim of the Jewish people upon the land of Israel.
- Jews and Christians accept the moral principles of Torah.
- Nazism was not a Christian phenomenon.
- The humanly irreconcilable difference between Jews and Christians will not be settled until God redeems the entire world as promised in Scripture.
- A new relationship between Jews and Christians will not weaken Jewish practice.
- Jews and Christians must work together for justice and peace.
As the authors and signatories of Dabru Emet acknowledge, their brief and necessarily incomplete statement is but a “first step” toward a new Jewish understanding of Christianity. Still, one may wonder how useful a start it represents.
Dabru Emet suffers from one of the great pitfalls of interfaith dialogue as it has come to be practiced over the past several decades. Given the history of religiously inspired contempt and animosity, it is inevitably tempting in such exercises to avoid any candid discussion of fundamental beliefs and to adopt instead the model of conflict resolution or diplomatic negotiation. The goal thus becomes reaching an agreement, in the manner of two countries that submit to arbitration in an effort to end longstanding tensions or of a husband and wife who go to a marriage counselor in hopes of overcoming the points of contention in their relationship. Commonalities are stressed, and differences—the reason, presumably, for entering into dialogue in the first place—are minimized, neglected, or denied altogether. Once this model is adopted, the ultimate objective becomes not just agreement but mutual affirmation; the critical judgments that the religious traditions have historically made upon each other are increasingly presented as merely the tragic fruit of prejudice and misunderstanding.
In Dabru Emet, this imperative to find common ground is perhaps most evident in the earnest and anodyne platitude with which the document concludes. “Jews and Christians,” we are told, “must work together for justice and peace”—a stand that has no doubt provoked dismay among those bent on working apart in the service of injustice and war. But the overriding need to affirm similarities infects more substantive parts of the statement as well.
Consider the finely crafted paragraph explaining the thesis that Nazism was not “a Christian phenomenon.” Here we find the forthright qualification that not only individual Christians but Christianity itself did play a role in making the Holocaust possible. At the same time, the statement recognizes that some Christians resisted the Nazis and many more have in the ensuing years repudiated the traditional anti-Semitism out of which Nazism partly grew.
The problem comes with the speculation that “If the Nazi extermination of the Jews had been fully successful, it would have turned its murderous rage more directly to Christians.” This assimilates Jews and Christians much too readily. The Nazi war against the Jews was based on race; to the murderers, whether the victims believed in Judaism in any sense was not pertinent, and people of Jewish ancestry who were altogether secular or who had converted to Christianity were sent to their deaths alongside their most observant kinsmen. For Christians without Jewish ancestors, by contrast, it was hardly difficult to avoid the genocidal scrutiny of Nazi Germany. Only those few believers who spoke out against the regime were in any danger.
In suggesting that Christians, too, were intended victims of the Holocaust, the authors of Dabru Emet falsely put them in the same boat with Jews—or, to be more precise, on the same train to Auschwitz. To say the least, this is taking the interests of interfaith solidarity too far.
If the statement is shaky on history, things go from bad to worse in those sections of it that touch on theological questions.
“Christians,” we are given to understand, “can respect the claim of the Jewish people upon the land of Israel.” The modal verb in this thesis gives a lot of wiggle room. Since many Christians do in fact respect the Jewish claim (while others do not), who would deny that they “can”?
What this assertion seemingly means to tell Christians is that they should support Israel. In particular, it applauds those who embrace the Jewish state “for reasons more profound than mere politics.” The question, however, is what those reasons are. The only one stipulated here is that “Israel was promised . . . to the Jews as the physical center of the covenant between them and God.” But what about those Christians, hardly few in number, who support Israel because they see the ingathering of the Jewish exiles as a necessary prelude to the second coming of Jesus and the conversion of all Israel to Christianity? Do the Jewish authors of Dabru Emet welcome the views of these Christians as well, or is there something deeply problematic in their theology? On this they are awkwardly silent.
The same flaw can be seen in the assertion that the fundamental disagreement between Jews and Christians “will not be settled until God redeems the entire world as promised in Scripture.” In this case, the authors simply assume that Christianity will be a participant in the events of the last days. But the two traditions have historically envisioned those events in ways that are not only different but incompatible. Why should Jews—as Jews—affirm as a matter of belief that the Church will survive until the final redemption?
The reverse question is easy for many Christians to answer. As Paul insists in the New Testament, the Jews have not been utterly rejected by God but remain “beloved because of the patriarchs [Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob]. For the gift and the call of God are irrevocable.” This affirmation, however, is pro-Jewish without being pro-Judaism. Its point is that God bears with the Jews despite the failure of so many of them to become Christians. “A hardening has come upon Israel,” the apostle writes, “until the full number of the Gentiles comes in [to the truth of Christianity], and thus all Israel will be saved.”
In recent years, Christians have made these ideas the basis for a positive evaluation of Judaism, and it is understandable that the authors of Dabru Emet should feel the need to reciprocate. But the relationship is not symmetrical. For classical Judaism, there is no covenant between God and the Church—no parallel, that is, to Paul’s belief in the irrevocable “call” of the Israelite patriarchs. Dabru Emet’s suggestion that the Church will survive until God finally redeems the world thus seems like a thin imitation of Christian doctrine, contrived for purposes of dialogue but without real foundation in Jewish thought.
Dabru Emet moves to only slightly more secure ground when, in another of its eight theses, it asserts that “Jews and Christians accept the moral principles of Torah.” But how many Christians ask themselves, “Are my morals in line with Torah?” They are more likely to ask, “What would Jesus do?” (hence “WWJD” on bumper stickers, T-shirts, etc.). In fact, Christianity has usually considered Jesus’ moral principles to be superior to those of the Torah, an improvement or radicalization and not just a restatement. Consider these examples from the Sermon on the Mount:
You have heard that it was said [in the Decalogue], “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you: if a man looks on a woman with lust, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” [Exodus 21:24]. But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. If someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other one to him as well.
There is, of course, vastly more to the relationship between Christian morality and the Torah than the Sermon on the Mount indicates. And, with respect to these specific cases, we must not neglect to mention that the rabbis, too, viewed lust negatively, or that the Torah forbids vengeance and grudge-bearing. In fact, in its rabbinic interpretation (and arguably in the written Torah as well), the principle of “an eye for an eye” means monetary, not physical, compensation.
Even so, these passages show that alongside the theological debate between Christians and Jews there is a moral debate as well, and that historically, Christians have generally seen Jesus as instituting a new ethic at odds with that of the Hebrew Bible. In addition, they have not infrequently been critical of the law itself—of “commandments”—as a vehicle of the moral imagination, preferring instead love or the Spirit, what the Epistle to the Hebrews (following Jeremiah) calls laws written upon the heart. Thus, even when the substantive morality of Christians and Jews is the same, the principle of derivation often is not.
A more appropriately worded thesis in tune with Jewish sources would have invoked not the Torah as a whole but the seven commandments—prohibitions against murder, robbery, sexual immorality, etc.—that constitute the Noahide laws, the basic norms that the talmudic rabbis thought incumbent upon Jews and Gentiles alike. To the extent that Christianity promotes adherence to these commandments, a longstanding Jewish tradition maintains, it aids its believers in attaining a proper relationship with God. In rabbinic parlance, it helps them merit “a share in the world-to-come.” But, amazingly, the Noahide laws go unmentioned in Dabru Emet (unless the “moral principles of Torah” are a garbled reference to them). Even more amazing, in a statement written by Jewish theologians, is the absence of the words law and commandment themselves.
Still more fundamental is the partiality of vision that allows the statement’s authors to declare that both faiths “seek authority from the same book,” known to Jews as the “Tanakh” (a Hebrew acronym for the three sections of the Jewish Bible) and to Christians as the “Old Testament.” This awkward gloss on how the two traditions refer to the “same book” already points to the problem. Christians do not refer to the Old Testament alone as the Bible, and Jews, for their part, do not consider the New Testament to be biblical in any way.
Nor do the dissimilarities end there. The Old Testament of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches includes Jewish books that never attained canonical status in rabbinic Judaism. The order of the two collections also differs in revealing ways. In its current form, for example, the Tanakh ends with the Persian emperor Cyrus’s decree in Chronicles that Jews may return to their homeland, where God has charged Cyrus to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. The Old Testament, by contrast, ends with the prophet Malachi’s prediction that God will send the prophet Elijah “before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord”—an arrangement that makes a nice bridge to John the Baptist’s heralding of Jesus in the New Testament.
Even if we assume that Jews and Christians use “the same book,” Dabru Emet still skirts essential points. For the Tanakh and the Old Testament are, in major ways, subordinate to other elements in their respective traditions. In Christianity, the true meaning of the Jewish scriptures is thought to have been revealed in and by Jesus; thus, the idea that the Jews misread their own Bible. Paul could not be more explicit:
Therefore, since we have such hope, we act very boldly and not like Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the Israelites could not look intently at the cessation of what was fading. Rather, their thoughts were rendered dull. . . . To this day, in fact, whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their hearts, but whenever a person turns to the Lord the veil is removed.
Paul does indeed cast his argument as an exegesis of an event in the Jewish scriptures, but he does not simply “interpret the Bible differently,” as Dabru Emet blandly puts it. Rather, he delivers a broadside against the very way the Jews approach the Bible—that is, non-christologically. The statement’s observation that “we each take away similar lessons” from our Tanakh/Old Testament, while not altogether untrue, fails to mention that on certain fundamental points, the lessons “we” take away are not only different, they are mutually exclusive.
In their paragraph about the Bible, the authors of Dabru Emet also passed up an opportunity to correct one of the most common Christian misconceptions about Judaism—namely, that the Bible is its sole authority. They could have done so by pointing to the centrality of the oral Torah, that is, the Mishnah and subsequent rabbinic teaching. Did they refrain out of the (perhaps unconscious) recognition that this would have profoundly undermined their simplistic claim that the two communities appeal to “the same book”?
As it happens, some ancient Jewish affirmations of the critical importance of the oral Torah parallel Christian claims on behalf of the Gospel:
When the Holy One blessed-be-He said to Moses [Exodus 34:27], “Write down [these commandments, for in accordance with these commandments I make a covenant with you and Israel],” Moses asked that the Mishnah be put into writing. Since the Holy One blessed-be-He foresaw that the nations of the world would translate the Torah, read it in Greek, and say, “We are Israel,” and up to this point the scales are equally balanced [between Jewish and Gentile claimants to the status of Israel], the Holy One blessed-be-He said to the nations, “You say that you are My children. What I know is that those who have My secret with them—they are My children. And what is it? It is the Mishnah [teaching] which was given orally.”
Here, the key element is not the common Scripture but that which is not shared, God’s “secret,” the means, that is, for arbitrating between rival readings of the same text.
Dabru Emet is not wrong to draw attention to common scriptures and “similar lessons.” The problem is that it reduces what is not common to mere differences of opinion—as if the two traditions make no truth claims. This easygoing relativism profoundly impedes any sophisticated understanding of the two millennia of Jewish-Christian dialogue and dispute over the meaning of Scripture. A more accurate statement would note that it is precisely the points of commonality that make disputation over the differences inevitable—at least within communities committed to the idea of religious truth and not simply to the theological equivalent of “I’m OK, you’re OK.”
Let me illustrate the point with one of the “similar lessons” that Dabru Emet thinks Jews and Christians derive from their common “Bible”: “God established a covenant with the people Israel.” That covenant is first announced to Abraham in Genesis 15, following a report that the childless future patriarch has exhibited trust in God’s unlikely promise to grant him innumerable progeny. The key verse (v. 6) reads, “And because he put his trust in the Lord, He reckoned it to his merit.” Two chapters later, God again announces the covenant with Abraham, only this time ordaining that it shall have a sign, the mandatory circumcision of Jewish males. Only several generations later is a covenant made with Israel at Mount Sinai under the leadership of Moses.
Early in his career, Paul, the “apostle to the Gentiles,” found himself confronted by Jewish followers of Jesus who insisted that non-Jews entering the new religion undergo circumcision and carry out the other commandments of the Torah. Given the example of Jesus himself, a Torah-observant Jew, this was not an unreasonable demand. In seeking to oppose it, Paul turned his exegetical genius to the chronology of covenants in the Torah.
Taking up Genesis 15:6, Paul construed it to mean that God considered Abraham righteous even before he became circumcised, and purely on the basis of his faith. Faith, that is to say, could substitute for the commandments of the Torah. In Paul’s own words at the end of his career, “It was not through the Law that the promise was made to Abraham and his descendants that he would inherit the world, but through the righteousness that comes from faith.”
At first glance, this may look like a quarrel of only peripheral relevance to Judaism, since the immediate issue concerns circumcision and Torah-observance, neither of which Judaism requires of outsiders. The rub is that, in Paul’s thinking, Abraham serves as a model not only for Gentiles or Christians but for all who wish to belong to Israel:
For not all who are of Israel are Israel, nor are they all children of Abraham because they are his descendants; but “It is through Isaac that descendants shall bear your name [Genesis 21:12].” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but that the children of the promise are counted as descendants.
Just as it is faith rather than circumcision that enables a man to attain the lofty status of Abrahamic descent, so it is faith rather than birth that determines who truly belongs to Israel.
The faith of which Paul speaks, moreover, is not some vague existential stance but faith in Jesus. This was the very point that Paul’s Jewish kinsmen, to his great disappointment and annoyance, had not accepted, preferring instead their Torah and its commandments:
What then shall we say? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have achieved it, that is, righteousness that comes from faith; but that Israel, who pursued the law of righteousness, did not attain to that law? Why not? Because they did it not by faith, but as if it could be done by works. They stumbled over the stone that causes stumbling, as it is written [Isaiah 28:16]: “Behold, I am laying a stone in Zion that will make people stumble and a rock that will make them fall, and whoever believes in Him shall not be put to shame.”
Abraham is today often called the common father of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Here, however, he serves a key role in advancing the quite specific claim that the Gospel has replaced the Torah (which, properly interpreted, always pointed to it) and that the Church (though Paul sometimes vacillates on this point) has replaced the Jewish people, Abraham’s natural descendants.
Not surprisingly, the traditional Jewish theology of Abraham moves in an altogether opposite direction. Two centuries before the emergence of Christianity, the idea had already appeared that Abraham observed norms only disclosed later, in the time of Moses—in other words, that he practiced Sinaitic religion even before Sinai. As the Mishnah, compiled about 200 C.E., would later put it, “We find that our father Abraham carried out the whole Torah before it had been given.” Whether by design or not, this view undercuts the Pauline use of Abraham as an object lesson in the sufficiency of faith at the expense of specific norms. In the rabbinic interpretation, the Pauline opposition between an Abrahamic and a Mosaic dispensation dissolves.
Much is at stake theologically in a dialogue grounded in these ancient sources. When, as in Dabru Emet, the two disputants are depicted as simply different and therefore out of each other’s way, everything that is at stake is made to evanesce. Elsewhere the statement affirms that “Christians know and serve God through Jesus Christ and the Christian tradition” while “Jews know and serve God through Torah and the Jewish tradition,” thereby achieving the desired comity by marking out friendly spheres of influence: Jesus Christ for the Christians, Torah for the Jews. Radically changed in the process is what both Jesus Christ and Torah have traditionally meant to those who embraced them.
Finally, at the foundation of Dabru Emet’s theology, there is the claim that “Jews and Christians worship the same God.” Historically, this view would not have met with much dissent among Christians. However much Christian orthodoxy may have deemed Jewish modes of worship to be obsolete, it early on anathematized the belief that the God of the Church was a higher (and thus different) God from that of the Jews and their scriptures.
But here—as generally in Jewish-Christian relations—asymmetry reigns, and simple reciprocity is a dangerous course. For their part, Jews have not always been convinced that Christians worship the same God. Maimonides, for example, the great Sephardic legal authority and philosopher of the 12 th century, explicitly classifies Christianity as idolatry, thus forbidding contact with Christians of the sort permitted with practitioners of other, non-idolatrous religions. Even in the medieval Ashkenazic world, where a very different view of Christianity obtained, some authorities interpreted the monotheistic affirmation of the Shema, the mandatory daily declaration of Jewish faith, as an explicit denial of the doctrine of the Trinity.
The issue is even more basic than the familiar questions of whether Jesus was the messiah and whether the Torah is still in effect or has been superseded by the Gospel: it is a question of the identity of God Himself. For traditional Christianity sees Jesus not only as a spokesman of God, in the manner of a Jewish prophet, but also and more importantly as an incarnation—the definitive and unsurpassable incarnation—of the God of Israel. In the words of the Nicene Creed (recited liturgically in Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and many Protestant churches to this day), Jesus is “true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father. Through him all things were made.”
Participants in Jewish-Christian dialogue often speak as if Jews and Christians agreed about God but disagreed about Jesus. They have forgotten that in a very real sense, orthodox Christians believe Jesus is God.
The disturbing tendency to hide from inconvenient differences that is evident throughout Dabru Emet may help to explain the defensive tone of the statement’s most curious thesis. “A new relationship between Jews and Christians,” the authors assure us, “will not weaken Jewish practice.” Given the practical and theological positions articulated in the rest of Dabru Emet, worries over the maintenance of a separate Jewish identity—worries the authors here (anxiously?) dismiss—would seem to require a more convincing response.
One need hardly be an advocate of interfaith hostility to observe that two communities that feel an instinctive repugnance toward each other are unlikely to form an amalgam, whether through acculturation or intermarriage. By the same token, communities that have largely overcome their animosity and moved to mutual respect, as Jews and Christians have done to a significant extent in the United States, must look elsewhere for such reinforcements to group identity as existed under the older and more contentious arrangement. Under any conditions, the risks are higher for the smaller community—that is, the Jews. They are especially high if Jews and Christians really do stand in the relationship described by Dabru Emet.
For the thrust of this statement is to make the two communities look as alike as two peas in a single religious pod. Both, we are told, pray to “the same God,” appeal to “the same book” (from which they “take away similar lessons”), and abide by the same “moral principles”—in fact, the “moral principles of Torah.” Moreover, both were the targets (if with a difference in chronology) of the Nazis’ “murderous rage,” and both can now appreciate God’s gift of the Land of Israel to the Jews. Although the statement mentions disagreements and asks that they be respected, it is hard to come away from it without feeling that the nearly two thousand years of Jewish-Christian disputation were based on little more than the narcissism of small differences.
Is it mere coincidence that the recent rapprochement between Jews and Christians has been accompanied by soaring rates of intermarriage, and by a striking acceptance of this demographic calamity on the part of many Jewish organizations? If, as we are now told, the commonalities between the two religions really are so basic, and so encompassing, why indeed should intermarriage, or for that matter conversion to Christianity, be resisted as strenuously as their tradition has long enjoined Jews to do?
None of this need deter anyone from “speaking the truth” about the relationship of Jews and Christians as he sees it. But for the authors and signatories of Dabru Emet to assert that their version of this truth poses no hazards to Jewish practice and identity is not just wishful thinking; it is whistling in the dark.
Dabru Emet is available online at www.icjs.org/what/njsp/dabruemet. html. For a collection of essays in support of the statement and its approach, see Christianity in Jewish Terms, edited by Frymer-Kensky, Novak, Ochs, Signer, and David Fox Sandmel (Westview Press, 438 pp., $30.00).
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How Not to Conduct Jewish-Christian Dialogue
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Their coming-and-going polka—now you see ’im, now you don’t—consumed the first 10 days of March. One week Cohn was in the driver’s seat of U.S. economic policy, steering his boss into a comprehensive overhaul of the tax code and preparing him for a huge disgorgement of taxpayer money to repair some nebulous entity called “our crumbling infrastructure.” The next week Cohn had disappeared and in his place at the president’s side Navarro suddenly materialized. With Navarro’s encouragement, the president unexpectedly announced hefty, world-wobbling tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. At first the financial markets tumbled, and nobody in Washington, including the president’s friends, seemed happy. Nobody, that is, except Navarro, whose Cheshire-cat grin quickly became unavoidable on the alphabet-soup channels of cable news. It’s the perfect place for him, front and center, trying to disentangle the conflicting strands of the president’s economic policy. Far more than Cohn, the president’s newest and most powerful economic adviser is a suitable poster boy for Trumpism, whatever that might be.
So where, the capital wondered, did this Navarro fellow come from? (The question So where did this Cohn guy go? barely lasted a news cycle.) Insiders and political obsessives dimly remembered Navarro from Trump’s presidential campaign. With Wilbur Ross, now the secretary of commerce, Navarro wrote the most articulate brief for the Trump economic plan in the months before the election, which by my reckoning occurred roughly 277 years ago. (Ross is also Navarro’s co-conspirator in pushing the steel tariffs. They’re an Odd Couple indeed: Navarro is well-coiffed and tidy and as smooth as a California anchorman, while Ross is what Barney Fife might have looked like if he’d given up his job as Mayberry’s deputy sheriff and gotten a degree in mortuary science.) The Navarro-Ross paper drew predictable skepticism from mainstream economists and their proxies in the press, particularly its eye-popping claim that Trump’s “trade policy reforms” would generate an additional $1.7 trillion in government revenue over the next 10 years.
Navarro is nominally a professor at University of California, Irvine. His ideological pedigree, like the president’s, is that of a mongrel. After a decade securing tenure by writing academic papers (“A Critical Comparison of Utility-type Ratemaking Methodologies in Oil Pipeline Regulation”), he set his attention on politics. In the 1990s, he earned the distinction of losing four political races in six years, all in San Diego or its surrounding suburbs—one for mayor, another for county supervisor, another for city council. He was a Democrat in those days, as Trump was; he campaigned against sprawl and for heavy environmental regulation. In 1996, he ran for Congress as “The Democrat Newt Gingrich Fears Most.” The TV actor Ed Asner filmed a commercial for him. This proved less helpful than hoped when his Republican opponent reminded voters that a few years earlier, Asner had been a chief fundraiser for the Communist guerrillas in El Salvador.
After that defeat, Navarro got the message and retired from politics. He returned to teaching, became an off-and-on-again Republican, and set about writing financial potboilers, mostly on investment strategies for a world increasingly unreceptive to American leadership. One of them, Death by China (2011), purported to describe the slow but inexorable sapping of American wealth and spirit through Chinese devilry. As it happened, this was Donald Trump’s favorite theme as well. From the beginning of his 40-year public career, Trump has stuck to his insistence that someone, in geo-economic terms, is bullying this great country of his. The identity of the bully has varied over time: In the 1980s, it was the Soviets who, following their cataclysmic implosion, gave way to Japan, which was replaced, after its own economic collapse, by America’s neighbors to the north and south, who have been joined, since the end of the last decade, by China. In Death by China, the man, the moment, and the message came together with perfect timing. Trump loved it.
It’s not clear that he read it, however. Trump is a visual learner, as the educational theorists used to say. He will retain more from Fox and Friends as he constructs his hair in the morning than from a half day buried in a stack of white papers from the Department of Labor. When Navarro decided to make a movie of the book, directed by himself, Trump attended a screening and lustily endorsed it. You can see why. Navarro’s use of animation is spare but compelling; the most vivid image shows a dagger of Asiatic design plunging (up to the hilt and beyond!) into the heart of a two-dimensional map of the U.S., causing the country’s blood to spray wildly across the screen, then seep in rivulets around the world. It’s Wes Cravenomics.
Most of the movie, however, is taken up by talking heads. Nearly everyone of these heads is attached to a left-wing Democrat, a socialist, or, in a couple of instances, an anarchist from the Occupy movement. Watched today, Death by China is a reminder of how lonely—how marginal—the anti-China obsession has been. This is not to its discredit; yesterday’s fringe often becomes today’s mainstream, just as today’s consensus is often disproved by the events of tomorrow. Not so long ago, for instance, the establishment catechism declared that economic liberalization and the prosperity it created led inexorably to political liberalization; from free markets, we were told, came free societies. In the last generation, China has put this fantasy to rest. Only the willfully ignorant would deny that the behavior of the Chinese government, at home and abroad, is the work of swine. Even so, the past three presidents have seen China only as a subject for scolding, never retaliation.
And this brings us to another mystery of Trumpism, as Navarro embodies it. Retaliation against China and its bullying trade practices is exactly what Trump has promised as both candidate and president. More than a year into his presidency, with his tariffs on steel and aluminum, he has struck against the bullies at last, just as he vowed to do. And the bullies, we discover, are mostly our friends—Germans, Brazilians, South Koreans, and other partners who sell us their aluminum and steel for less than we can make it ourselves. Accounting for 2 percent of U.S. steel imports, the Chinese are barely scratched in the president’s first great foray in protectionism.
In announcing the tariffs, Trump cited Chinese “dumping,” as if out of habit. Yet Navarro himself seems at a loss to explain why he and his boss have chosen to go after our friends instead of our preeminent adversary in world trade. “China is in many ways the root of the problem for all countries of the world in aluminum and steel,” he told CNN the day after the tariffs were announced. Really? How’s that? “The bigger picture is, China has tremendous overcapacity in both aluminum and steel. So what they do is, they flood the world market, and this trickles down to our shores, and to other countries.”
If that wasn’t confusing enough, we had only to wait three days. By then Navarro was telling other interviewers, “This has nothing to do with China, directly or indirectly.”
This is not the first time Trumpism has shown signs of incoherence. With Peter Navarro at the president’s side, and with Gary Cohn a fading memory, it is unlikely to be the last.
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Review of 'Political Tribes' By Amy Chua
Amy Chua has an explanation for what ails us at home and abroad: Elites keep ignoring the primacy of tribalism both in the United States and elsewhere and so are blindsided every time people act in accordance with their group instinct. In Political Tribes, she offers a survey of tribal dynamics around the globe and renders judgments about the ways in which the United States has serially misread us-and-them conflicts. In the book’s final chapters, Chua, a Yale University law professor best known for her parenting polemic Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, focuses on the clashing group instincts that now threaten to sunder the American body politic.
As Chua sees it, “our blindness to political tribalism abroad reflects America at both its best and worst.” Because the United States is a nation made up of diverse immigrant populations—a “supergroup”—Americans can sometimes underestimate how hard it is for people in other countries to set aside their religious or ethnic ties and find common national purpose. That’s American ignorance in its most optimistic and benevolent form. But then there’s the more noxious variety: “In some cases, like Vietnam,” she writes, “ethnically blind racism has been part of our obliviousness.”
During the Vietnam War, Chua notes, the United States failed to distinguish between the ethnically homogeneous Vietnamese majority and the Chinese minority who were targets of mass resentment. In Vietnam, national identity was built largely on historical accounts of the courageous heroes who had been repelling Chinese invaders since 111 b.c.e., when China first conquered its neighbor to the south. This defining antipathy toward the Chinese was exacerbated by the fact that Vietnam’s Chinese minority was on average far wealthier and more politically powerful than the ethnic Vietnamese masses. “Yet astonishingly,” writes Chua, “U.S. foreign policy makers during the Cold War were so oblivious to Vietnamese history that they thought Vietnam was China’s pawn—merely ‘a stalking horse for Beijing in Southeast Asia.’”
Throughout the book, Chua captures tribal conflicts in clear and engrossing prose. But as a guide to foreign policy, one gets the sense that her emphasis on tribal ties might not be able to do all the work she expects of it. The first hint comes in her Vietnam analysis. If American ignorance of Chinese–Vietnam tensions is to blame for our having fought and lost the war, what would a better understanding of such things have yielded? She gets to that, sort of. “Could we have supported Ho [Chi Minh] against the French, capitalizing on Vietnam’s historical hostility toward China to keep the Vietnamese within our sphere of influence?” Chua asks. “We’ll never know. Somehow we never saw or took seriously the enmity between Vietnam and China.” It’s hard to see the U.S.’s backing a mass-murdering Communist against a putatively democratic ally as anything but a surreal thought experiment, let alone a lost opportunity.
On Afghanistan, Chua is correct about a number of things. There are indeed long-simmering tensions between Pashtuns, Punjabs, and other tribes in the region. The U.S. did pay insufficient attention to Afghanistan in the decade leading up to 9/11. The Taliban did play on Pashtun aspirations to fuel their rise. But how, exactly, are we to understand our failures in Afghanistan as resulting from ignorance of tribal relations? The Taliban went on to forge a protective agreement with al-Qaeda that had little if anything to do with tribal ties. And it was that relationship that had tragic consequences for the United States.
Not only was Osama bin Laden not Pashtun; he was an Arab millionaire, and his terrorist organization was made up of jihadists from all around the world. If anything, it was Bin Laden’s trans-tribal movement that the U.S. should have been focused on. The Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance was based on pooling resources against perceived common threats, compatible (but not identical) religious notions, and large cash payments from Bin Laden. No American understanding of tribal relations could have interfered with that.
And while an ambitious tribe-savvy counterinsurgency strategy might have gone a long way in helping the U.S.’s war effort, there has never been broad public support for such a commitment. Ultimately, our problems in Afghanistan have less to do with neglecting tribal politics and more to do with general neglect.
In Chua’s chapter on the Iraq War, however, her paradigm aligns more closely with the facts. “Could we have done better if we hadn’t been so blind to tribal politics in Iraq?” she asks. “There’s very good evidence that the answer is yes.” Here Chua offers a concise account of the U.S.’s successful 2007 troop surge. “While the additional U.S. soldiers—sent primarily to Baghdad and Al Anbar Province—were of course a critical factor,” she writes, “the surge succeeded only because it was accompanied by a 180-degree shift in our approach to the local population.”
Chua goes into colorful detail about then colonel H.R. McMaster’s efforts to educate American troops in local Iraqi customs and his decision to position them among the local population in Tal Afar. This won the trust of Iraqis who were forthcoming with critical intelligence. She also covers the work of Col. Sean MacFarland who forged relationships with Sunni sheikhs. Those sheikhs, in turn, convinced their tribespeople to work with U.S. forces and function as a local police force. Finally, Chua explains how Gen. David Petraeus combined the work of McMaster and MacFarland and achieved the miraculous in pacifying Baghdad. In spite of U.S. gains—and the successful navigation of tribes—there was little American popular will to keep Iraq on course and, over the next few years, the country inevitably unraveled.I n writing about life in the United States, Chua is on firmer ground altogether, and her diagnostic powers are impressive. “It turns out that in America, there’s a chasm between the tribal identities of the country’s haves and have-nots,” she writes, “a chasm of the same kind wreaking political havoc in many developing and non-Western countries.” In the U.S., however, there’s a crucial difference to this dynamic, and Chua puts her finger right on it: “In America, it’s the progressive elites who have taken it upon themselves to expose the American Dream as false. This is their form of tribalism.”
She backs up this contention with statistics. Some of the most interesting revelations have to do with the Occupy movement. In actual fact, those who gathered in cities across the country to protest systemic inequality in 2012 were “disproportionately affluent.” In fact, “more than half had incomes of $75,000 or more.” Occupy faded away, as she notes, because it “attracted so few members from the many disadvantaged groups it purported to be fighting for.” Chua puts things in perspective: “Imagine if the suffragette movement hadn’t included large numbers of women, or if the civil-rights movement included very few African Americans, or if the gay-rights movement included very few gays.” America’s poorer classes, for their part, are “deeply patriotic, even if they feel they’re losing the country to distant elites who know nothing about them.”
Chua is perceptive on both the inhabitants of Trump Country and the elites who disdain them. She takes American attitudes toward professional wrestling as emblematic of the split between those who support Donald Trump and those who detest him. Trump is a bona fide hero in the world of pro wrestling; he has participated in “bouts” and was actually inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013. What WWE fans get from watching wrestling they also get from watching Trump—“showmanship and symbols,” a world held together by enticing false storylines, and, ultimately, “something playfully spectacular.” Those on the academic left, on the other hand, “are fascinated, even obsessed in a horrified way, with the ‘phenomenology’ of watching professional wrestling.” In the book’s most arresting line, Chua writes that “there is now so little interaction, commonality, and intermarriage between rural/heartland/working-class whites and urban/coastal whites that the difference between them is practically what social scientists would consider an ‘ethnic difference.’”
Of course, there’s much today dividing America along racial lines as well. While Americans of color still contend with the legacy of institutional intolerance, “it is simply a fact that ‘diversity’ policies at the most select American universities and in some sectors of the economy have had a disparate adverse impact on whites.” So, both blacks and whites (and most everyone else) feel threatened to some degree. This has sharpened the edge of identity politics on the left and right. In Chua’s reading, these tribal differences will not actually break the country apart. But, she believes, they could fundamentally and irreversibly change “who we are.”
Political Tribes, however, is no doomsday prediction. Despite our clannish resentments, Chua sees, in her daily interactions, people’s willingness to form bonds beyond those of their in-group and a relaxing of tribal ties. What’s needed is for haves and have-nots, whites and blacks, liberals and conservatives to enjoy more meaningful exposure to one another. This pat prescription would come across as criminally sappy if not for the genuinely loving and patriotic way in which Chua writes about our responsibilities as a “supergroup.” “It’s not enough that we view one another as fellow human beings,” she says, “we need to view one another as fellow Americans.” Americans as a higher ontological category than human beings—there’s poetry in that. And a healthy bit of tribalism, too.
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Then again, you know what happens when you assume.
“Here is my prediction,” Kristof wrote. “The new paramount leader, Xi Jinping, will spearhead a resurgence of economic reform, and probably some political easing as well. Mao’s body will be hauled out of Tiananmen Square on his watch, and Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize–winning writer, will be released from prison.”
True, Kristof conceded, “I may be wrong entirely.” But, he went on, “my hunch on this return to China, my old home, is that change is coming.”
Five years later, the Chinese economy, while large, is saddled with debt. Analysts and government officials are worried about its real-estate bubble. Despite harsh controls, capital continues to flee China. Nor has there been “some political easing.” On the contrary, repression has worsened. The Great Firewall blocks freedom of speech and inquiry, human-rights advocates are jailed, and the provinces resemble surveillance states out of a Philip K. Dick novel. Mao rests comfortably in his mausoleum. Not only did Liu Xiaobo remain a prisoner, he was also denied medical treatment when he contracted cancer, and he died in captivity in 2017.
As for Xi Jinping, he turned out not to be a reformer but a dictator. Steadily, under the guise of anti-corruption campaigns, Xi decimated alternative centers of power within the Communist Party. He built up a cult of personality around “Xi Jinping thought” and his “Chinese dream” of economic, cultural, and military strength. His preeminence was highlighted in October 2017 when the Politburo declined to name his successor. Then, in March of this year, the Chinese abolished the term limits that have guaranteed rotation in office since the death of Mao. Xi reigns supreme.
Bizarrely, this latest development seems to have come as a surprise to the American press. The headline of Emily Rauhala’s Washington Post article read: “China proposes removal of two-term limit, potentially paving way for President Xi Jinping to stay on.” Potentially? Xi’s accession to emperor-like status, wrote Julie Bogen of Vox, “could destabilize decades of progress toward democracy and instead move China even further toward authoritarianism.” Could? Bogen did not specify which “decades of progress toward democracy” she was talking about, but that is probably because, since 1989, there haven’t been any.
Xi’s assumption of dictatorial powers should not have shocked anyone who has paid the slightest bit of attention to recent Chinese history. The Chinese government, until last month a collective dictatorship, has exercised despotic control over its people since the very founding of the state in 1949. And yet the insatiable desire among media to incorporate news events into a preestablished storyline led reporters to cover the party announcement as a sudden reversal. Why? Because only then would the latest decision of an increasingly embattled and belligerent Chinese leadership fit into the prefabricated narrative that says we are living in an authoritarian moment.
For example, one article in the February 26, 2018, New York Times was headlined, “With Xi’s Power Grab, China Joins New Era of Strongmen.” CNN’s James Griffiths wrote, “While Chinese politics is not remotely democratic in the traditional sense, there are certain checks and balances within the Party system itself, with reformers and conservatives seeing their power and influence waxing and waning over time.” Checks and balances, reformers and conservatives—why, they are just like us, only within the context of a one-party state that ruthlessly brooks no dissent.
Now, we do happen to live in an era when democracy and autocracy are at odds. But China is not joining the “authoritarian trend.” It helped create and promote the trend. Next year, China’s “era of strongmen” will enter its seventh decade. The fundamental nature of the Communist regime in Beijing has not changed during this time.
My suspicion is that journalists were taken aback by Xi’s revelation of his true nature because they, like most Western elites, have bought into the myth of China’s “peaceful rise.” For decades, Americans have been told that China’s economic development and participation in international organizations and markets would lead inevitably to its political liberalization. What James Mann calls “the China fantasy” manifested itself in the leadership of both major political parties and in the pronouncements of the chattering class across the ideological spectrum.
Indeed, not only was the soothing scenario of China as a “responsible stakeholder” on the glide path to democracy widespread, but media figures also admonished Americans for not living up to Chinese standards. “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks,” Tom Friedman conceded in an infamous 2009 column. “But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages.” For instance, Friedman went on, “it is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power, and wind power.” The following year, during an episode of Meet the Press, Friedman admitted, “I have fantasized—don’t get me wrong—but what if we could just be China for a day?” Just think of all the electric cars the government could force us to buy.
This attitude toward Chinese Communism as a public-policy exemplar became still more pronounced after Donald Trump was elected president on an “America First” agenda. China’s theft of intellectual property, industrial espionage, harassment and exploitation of Western companies, currency manipulation, mercantilist subsidies and tariffs, chronic pollution, military buildup, and interference in democratic politics and university life did not prevent it from proclaiming itself the defender of globalization and environmentalism.
When Xi visited the Davos World Economic Forum last year, the Economist noted the “fawning reception” that greeted him. The speech he delivered, pledging to uphold the international order that had facilitated his nation’s rise as well as his own, received excellent reviews. On January 15, 2017, Fareed Zakaria said, “In an America-first world, China is filling the vacuum.” A few days later, Charlie Rose told his CBS audience, “It’s almost like China is saying, ‘we are the champions of globalization, not the United States.’” And on January 30, 2017, the New York Times quoted a “Berlin-based private equity fund manager,” who said, “We heard a Chinese president becoming leader of the free world.”
The chorus of praise for China grew louder last spring when Trump announced American withdrawal from an international climate accord. In April 2017, Rick Stengel said on cable television that China is becoming “the global leader on the environment.” On June 8, a CBS reporter said that Xi is “now viewed as the world’s leader on climate change.” On June 19, 2017, on Bloomberg news, Dana Hull said, “China is the leader on climate change, especially when it comes to autos.” Also that month, one NBC anchor asked Senator Mike Lee of Utah, “Are you concerned at all that China may be seen as sort of the global leader when it comes to bringing countries together, more so than the United States?”
Last I checked, Xi Jinping’s China has not excelled at “bringing countries together,” unless—like Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam—those countries are allying with the United States to balance against China. What instead should concern Senator Lee, and all of us, is an American media filled with people suckered by foreign propaganda that happens to coincide with their political preferences, and who are unable to make elementary distinctions between tyrannical governments and consensual ones.
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Marx didn’t supplant old ideas about money and commerce; he intensified them
rom the time of antiquity until the Enlightenment, trade and the pursuit of wealth were considered sinful. “In the city that is most finely governed,” Aristotle wrote, “the citizens should not live a vulgar or a merchant’s way of life, for this sort of way of life is ignoble and contrary to virtue.”1 In Plato’s vision of an ideal society (the Republic) the ruling “guardians” would own no property to avoid tearing “the city in pieces by differing about ‘mine’ and ‘not mine.’” He added that “all that relates to retail trade, and merchandise, and the keeping of taverns, is denounced and numbered among dishonourable things.” Only noncitizens would be allowed to indulge in commerce. A citizen who defies the natural order and becomes a merchant should be thrown in jail for “shaming his family.”
At his website humanprogress.org, Marian L. Tupy quotes D.C. Earl of the University of Leeds, who wrote that in Ancient Rome, “all trade was stigmatized as undignified … the word mercator [merchant] appears as almost a term of abuse.” Cicero noted in the first century b.c.e. that retail commerce is sordidus (vile) because merchants “would not make any profit unless they lied constantly.”
Early Christianity expanded this point of view. Jesus himself was clearly hostile to the pursuit of riches. “For where your treasure is,” he proclaimed in his Sermon on the Mount, “there will your heart be also.” And of course he insisted that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
The Catholic Church incorporated this view into its teachings for centuries, holding that economics was zero-sum. “The Fathers of the Church adhered to the classical assumption that since the material wealth of humanity was more or less fixed, the gain of some could only come at a loss to others,” the economic historian Jerry Muller explains in his book The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought. As St. Augustine put it, “Si unus non perdit, alter non acquirit”—“If one does not lose, the other does not gain.”
The most evil form of wealth accumulation was the use of money to make money—usury. Lending money at interest was unnatural, in this view, and therefore invidious. “While expertise in exchange is justly blamed since it is not according to nature but involves taking from others,” Aristotle insisted, “usury is most reasonably hated because one’s possessions derive from money itself and not from that for which it was supplied.” In the Christian tradition, the only noble labor was physical labor, and so earning wealth from the manipulation of money was seen as inherently ignoble.
In the somewhat more prosperous and market-driven medieval period, Thomas Aquinas helped make private property and commerce more acceptable, but he did not fundamentally break with the Aristotelian view that trade was suspect and the pursuit of wealth was sinful. The merchant’s life was in conflict with the teachings of Christianity if it led to pride or avarice. “Echoing Aristotle,” Muller writes, “Aquinas reasserted that justice in the distribution of material goods was fulfilled when someone received in proportion to his status, office, and function within the institutions of an existing, structured community. Hence Aquinas decried as covetousness the accumulation of wealth to improve one’s place in the social order.”
In the medieval mind, Jews were seen as a kind of stand-in for mercantile and usurious sinfulness. Living outside the Christian community, but within the borders of Christendom, they were allowed to commit the sin of usury on the grounds that their souls were already forfeit. Pope Nicholas V insisted that it is much better that “this people should perpetrate usury than that Christians should engage in it with one another.”2 The Jews were used as a commercial caste the way the untouchables of India were used as a sanitation caste. As Montesquieu would later observe in the 16th century, “whenever one prohibits a thing that is naturally permitted or necessary, the people who engage in it are regarded as dishonest.” Thus, as Muller has argued, anti-Semitism has its roots in a kind of primitive anti-capitalism.
Early Protestantism did not reject these views. It amplified them.3 Martin Luther despised commerce. “There is on earth no greater enemy of man, after the Devil, than a gripe-money and usurer, for he wants to be God over all men…. Usury is a great, huge monster, like a werewolf …. And since we break on the wheel and behead highwaymen, murderers, and housebreakers, how much more ought we to break on the wheel and kill … hunt down, curse, and behead all usurers!”4
It should therefore come as no surprise that Luther’s views of Jews, the living manifestation of usury in the medieval mind, were just as immodest. In his 1543 treatise On the Jews and Their Lies, he offers a seven-point plan on how to deal with them:
- “First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools .…This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians …”
- “Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.”
- “Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.”
- “Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb… ”
- “Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. For they have no business in the countryside … ”
- “Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them … ”
- “Seventh, I recommend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow.… But if we are afraid that they might harm us or our wives, children, servants, cattle, etc., … then let us emulate the common sense of other nations such as France, Spain, Bohemia, etc., … then eject them forever from the country … ”
Luther agitated against the Jews throughout Europe, condemning local officials for insufficient anti-Semitism (a word that did not exist at the time and a sentiment that was not necessarily linked to more modern biological racism). His demonization of the Jews was derived from more than anti-capitalism. But his belief that the Jewish spirit of commerce was corrupting of Christianity was nonetheless central to his indictment. He sermonized again and again that it must be cleansed from Christendom, either through conversion, annihilation, or expulsion.
Three centuries later, Karl Marx would blend these ideas together in a noxious stew.
The idea at the center of virtually all of Marx’s economic writing is the labor theory of value. It holds that all of the value of any product can be determined by the number of hours it took for a laborer or laborers to produce it. From the viewpoint of conventional economics—and elementary logic—this is ludicrous. For example, ingenuity, which may not be time-consuming, is nonetheless a major source of value. Surely it cannot be true that someone who works intelligently, and therefore efficiently, provides less value than someone who works stupidly and slowly. (Marx anticipates some of these kinds of critiques with a lot of verbiage about the costs of training and skills.) But the more relevant point is simply this: The determinant of value in an economic sense is not the labor that went into a product but the price the consumer is willing to pay for it. Whether it took an hour or a week to build a mousetrap, the value of the two products is the same to the consumer if the quality is the same.
Marx had philosophical, metaphysical, and tactical reasons for holding fast to the labor theory of value. It was essential to his argument that capitalism—or what we would now call “commerce” plain and simple—was exploitative by its very nature. In Marx, the term “exploitation” takes a number of forms. It is not merely evocative of child laborers working in horrid conditions; it covers virtually all profits. If all value is captured by labor, any “surplus value” collected by the owners of capital is by definition exploitative. The businessman who risks his own money to build and staff an innovative factory is not adding value; rather, he is subtracting value from the workers. Indeed, the money he used to buy the land and the materials is really just “dead labor.” For Marx, there was an essentially fixed amount of “labor-power” in society, and extracting profit from it was akin to strip-mining a natural resource. Slavery and wage-labor were different forms of the same exploitation because both involved extracting the common resource. In fact, while Marx despised slavery, he thought wage-labor was only a tiny improvement because wage-labor reduced costs for capitalists in that they were not required to feed or clothe wage laborers.
Because Marx preached revolution, we are inclined to consider him a revolutionary. He was not. None of this was a radical step forward in economic or political thinking. It was, rather, a reaffirmation of the disdain of commerce that starts with Plato and Aristotle and found new footing in Christianity. As Jerry Muller (to whom I am obviously very indebted) writes:
To a degree rarely appreciated, [Marx] merely recast the traditional Christian stigmatization of moneymaking into a new vocabulary and reiterated the ancient suspicion against those who used money to make money. In his concept of capitalism as “exploitation” Marx returned to the very old idea that money is fundamentally unproductive, that only those who live by the sweat of their brow truly produce, and that therefore not only interest, but profit itself, is always ill-gotten.
In his book Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, Jonathan Sperber suggests that “Marx is more usefully understood as a backward-looking figure, who took the circumstances of the first half of the nineteenth century and projected them into the future, than as a surefooted and foresighted interpreter of historical trends.”5
Marx was a classic bohemian who resented the fact that he spent his whole life living off the generosity of, first, his parents and then his collaborator Friedrich Engels. He loathed the way “the system” required selling out to the demands of the market and a career. The frustrated poet turned to the embryonic language of social science to express his angry barbaric yawp at The Man. “His critique of the stultifying effects of labor in a capitalist society,” Muller writes, “is a direct continuation of the Romantic conception of the self and its place in society.”
In other words, Marx was a romantic, not a scientist. Romanticism emerged as a rebellion against the Enlightenment, taking many forms—from romantic poetry to romantic nationalism. But central to all its forms was the belief that modern, commercial, rational life is inauthentic and alienating, and cuts us off from our true natures.
As Rousseau, widely seen as the first romantic, explained in his Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences, modernity—specifically the culture of commerce and science—was oppressive. The baubles of the Enlightenment were mere “garlands of flowers” that concealed “the chains which weigh [men] down” and led people to “love their own slavery.”
This is a better context for understanding Marx’s and Engels’s hatred of the division of labor and the division of rights and duties. Their baseline assumption, like Rousseau’s, is that primitive man lived a freer and more authentic life before the rise of private property and capitalism. “Within the tribe there is as yet no difference between rights and duties,” Engels writes in Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State. “The question whether participation in public affairs, in blood revenge or atonement, is a right or a duty, does not exist for the Indian; it would seem to him just as absurd as the question whether it was a right or a duty to sleep, eat, or hunt. A division of the tribe or of the gens into different classes was equally impossible.”
For Marx, then, the Jew might as well be the real culprit who told Eve to bite the apple. For the triumph of the Jew and the triumph of money led to the alienation of man. And in truth, the term “alienation” is little more than modern-sounding shorthand for exile from Eden. The division of labor encourages individuality, alienates us from the collective, fosters specialization and egoism, and dethrones the sanctity of the tribe. “Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist,” Marx writes. “Money degrades all the gods of man—and turns them into commodities. Money is the universal self-established value of all things. It has, therefore, robbed the whole world—both the world of men and nature—of its specific value. Money is the estranged essence of man’s work and man’s existence, and this alien essence dominates him, and he worships it.”
Marx’s muse was not analytical reason, but resentment. That is what fueled his false consciousness. To understand this fully, we should look at how that most ancient and eternal resentment—Jew-hatred—informed his worldview.
The atheist son of a Jewish convert to Lutheranism and the grandson of a rabbi, Karl Marx hated capitalism in no small part because he hated Jews. According to Marx and Engels, Jewish values placed the acquisition of money above everything else. Marx writes in his infamous essay “On the Jewish Question”:
Let us consider the actual, worldly Jew—not the Sabbath Jew … but the everyday Jew.
Let us not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion, but let us look for the secret of his religion in the real Jew.
What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money [Emphasis in original]
The spread of capitalism, therefore, represented a kind of conquest for Jewish values. The Jew—at least the one who set up shop in Marx’s head—makes his money from money. He adds no value. Worse, the Jews considered themselves to be outside the organic social order, Marx complained, but then again that is what capitalism encourages—individual independence from the body politic and the selfish (in Marx’s mind) pursuit of individual success or happiness. For Marx, individualism was a kind of heresy because it meant violating the sacred bond of the community. Private property empowered individuals to live as individuals “without regard to other men,” as Marx put it.
This is the essence of Marx’s view of alienation. Marx believed that people were free, creative beings but were chained to their role as laborers in the industrial machine. The division of labor inherent to capitalist society was alienating and inauthentic, pulling us out of the communitarian natural General Will. The Jew was both an emblem of this alienation and a primary author of it:
The Jew has emancipated himself in a Jewish manner, not only because he has acquired financial power, but also because, through him and also apart from him, money has become a world power and the practical Jewish spirit has become the practical spirit of the Christian nations. The Jews have emancipated themselves insofar as the Christians have become Jews. [Emphasis in original]
He adds, “The god of the Jews has become secularized and has become the god of the world. The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew. His god is only an illusory bill of exchange.” And he concludes: “In the final analysis, the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.” [Emphasis in original]
In The Holy Family, written with Engels, he argues that the most pressing imperative is to transcend “the Jewishness of bourgeois society, the inhumanity of present existence, which finds its highest embodiment in the system of money.” [Emphasis in original]
In his “Theories of Surplus Value,” he praises Luther’s indictment of usury. Luther “has really caught the character of old-fashioned usury, and that of capital as a whole.” Marx and Engels insist that the capitalist ruling classes, whether or not they claim to be Jewish, are nonetheless Jewish in spirit. “In their description of the confrontation of capital and labor, Marx and Engels resurrected the traditional critique of usury,” Muller observes. Or, as Deirdre McCloskey notes, “the history that Marx thought he perceived went with his erroneous logic that capitalism—drawing on an anticommercial theme as old as commerce—just is the same thing as greed.”6 Paul Johnson is pithier: Marx’s “explanation of what was wrong with the world was a combination of student-café anti-Semitism and Rousseau.”7
For Marx, capital and the Jew are different faces of the same monster: “The capitalist knows that all commodities—however shabby they may look or bad they may smell—are in faith and in fact money, internally circumcised Jews, and in addition magical means by which to make more money out of money.”
Marx’s writing, particularly on surplus value, is drenched with references to capital as parasitic and vampiric: “Capital is dead labor which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks. The time during which the worker works is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labor-power he has bought from him.” The constant allusions to the eternal wickedness of the Jew combined with his constant references to blood make it hard to avoid concluding that Marx had simply updated the blood libel and applied it to his own atheistic doctrine. His writing is replete with references to the “bloodsucking” nature of capitalism. He likens both Jews and capitalists (the same thing in his mind) to life-draining exploiters of the proletariat.
Marx writes how the extension of the workday into the night “only slightly quenches the vampire thirst for the living blood of labor,” resulting in the fact that “the vampire will not let go ‘while there remains a single muscle, sinew or drop of blood to be exploited.’” As Mark Neocleous of Brunel University documents in his brilliant essay, “The Political Economy of the Dead: Marx’s Vampires,” the images of blood and bloodsucking capital in Das Kapital are even more prominent motifs: “Capital ‘sucks up the worker’s value-creating power’ and is dripping with blood. Lacemaking institutions exploiting children are described as ‘blood-sucking,’ while U.S. capital is said to be financed by the ‘capitalized blood of children.’ The appropriation of labor is described as the ‘life-blood of capitalism,’ while the state is said to have here and there interposed itself ‘as a barrier to the transformation of children’s blood into capital.’”
Marx’s vision of exploitative, Jewish, bloodsucking capital was an expression of romantic superstition and tribal hatred. Borrowing from the medieval tradition of both Catholics as well as Luther himself, not to mention a certain folkloric poetic tradition, Marx invented a modern-sounding “scientific” theory that was in fact reactionary in every sense of the word. “If Marx’s vision was forward-looking, its premises were curiously archaic,” Muller writes. “As in the civic republican and Christian traditions, self-interest is the enemy of social cohesion and of morality. In that sense, Marx’s thought is a reversion to the time before Hegel, Smith, or Voltaire.”
In fairness to Marx, he does not claim that he wants to return to a feudal society marked by inherited social status and aristocracy. He is more reactionary than that. The Marxist final fantasy holds that at the end of history, when the state “withers away,” man is liberated from all exploitation and returns to the tribal state in which there is no division of labor, no dichotomy of rights and duties.
Marx’s “social science” was swept into history’s dustbin long ago. What endured was the romantic appeal of Marxism, because that appeal speaks to our tribal minds in ways we struggle to recognize, even though it never stops whispering in our ears.
It is an old conservative habit—one I’ve been guilty of myself—of looking around society and politics, finding things we don’t like or disagree with, and then running through an old trunk of Marxist bric-a-brac to spruce up our objections. It is undeniably true that the influence of Marx, particularly in the academy, remains staggering. Moreover, his indirect influence is as hard to measure as it is extensive. How many novels, plays, and movies have been shaped by Marx or informed by people shaped by Marx? It’s unknowable.
And yet, this is overdone. The truth is that Marx’s ideas were sticky for several reasons. First, they conformed to older, traditional ways of seeing the world—far more than Marxist zealots have ever realized. The idea that there are malevolent forces above and around us, manipulating our lives and exploiting the fruits of our labors, was hardly invented by him. In a sense, it wasn’t invented by anybody. Conspiracy theories are as old as mankind, stretching back to prehistory.
There’s ample reason—with ample research to back it up—to believe that there is a natural and universal human appetite for conspiracy theories. It is a by-product of our adapted ability to detect patterns, particularly patterns that may help us anticipate a threat—and, as Mark van Vugt has written, “the biggest threat facing humans throughout history has been other people, particularly when they teamed up against you.”8
To a very large extent, this is what Marxism is —an extravagant conspiracy theory in which the ruling classes, the industrialists, and/or the Jews arrange affairs for their own benefit and against the interests of the masses. Marx himself was an avid conspiracy theorist, as so many brilliant bohemian misfits tend to be, believing that the English deliberately orchestrated the Irish potato famine to “carry out the agricultural revolution and to thin the population of Ireland down to the proportion satisfactory to the landlords.” He even argued that the Crimean War was a kind of false-flag operation to hide the true nature of Russian-English collusion.
Contemporary political figures on the left and the right routinely employ the language of exploitation and conspiracy. They do so not because they’ve internalized Marx, but because of their own internal psychological architecture. In Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi, the talented left-wing writer, describes Goldman Sachs (the subject of quite a few conspiracy theories) thus:
The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it’s everywhere. The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money. In fact, the history of the recent financial crisis, which doubles as a history of the rapid decline and fall of the suddenly swindled dry American empire, reads like a Who’s Who of Goldman Sachs graduates.
Marx would be jealous that he didn’t think of the phrase “the great vampire squid.”
Meanwhile, Donald Trump has occasionally traded in the same kind of language, even evoking some ancient anti-Semitic tropes. “Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special-interest friends, and her donors,” Trump said in one campaign speech. “This election will determine if we are a free nation or whether we have only the illusion of democracy, but are in fact controlled by a small handful of global special interests rigging the system, and our system is rigged.” He added: “Our corrupt political establishment, that is the greatest power behind the efforts at radical globalization and the disenfranchisement of working people. Their financial resources are virtually unlimited, their political resources are unlimited, their media resources are unmatched.”
A second reason Marxism is so successful at fixing itself to the human mind is that it offers—to some—a palatable substitute for the lost certainty of religious faith. Marxism helped to restore certainty and meaning for huge numbers of people who, having lost traditional religion, had not lost their religious instinct. One can see evidence of this in the rhetoric used by Marxist and other socialist revolutionaries who promised to deliver a “Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.”
The 20th-century philosopher Eric Voegelin argued that Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire had stripped the transcendent from its central place in human affairs. God had been dethroned and “We the People”—and our things—had taken His place. “When God is invisible behind the world,” Voegelin writes, “the contents of the world will become new gods; when the symbols of transcendent religiosity are banned, new symbols develop from the inner-worldly language of science to take their place.”9
The religious views of the Romantic writers and artists Marx was raised on (and whom he had once hoped to emulate) ran the gamut from atheism to heartfelt devotion, but they shared an anger and frustration with the way the new order had banished the richness of faith from the land. “Now we have got the freedom of believing in public nothing but what can be rationally demonstrated,” the writer Johann Heinrich Merck complained. “They have deprived religion of all its sensuous elements, that is, of all its relish. They have carved it up into its parts and reduced it to a skeleton without color and light…. And now it’s put in a jar and nobody wants to taste it.”10
When God became sidelined as the source of ultimate meaning, “the people” became both the new deity and the new messianic force of the new order. In other words, instead of worshipping some unseen force residing in Heaven, people started worshipping themselves. This is what gave nationalism its spiritual power, as the volksgeist, people’s spirit, replaced the Holy Spirit. The tribal instinct to belong to a sacralized group took over. In this light, we can see how romantic nationalism and “globalist” Marxism are closely related. They are both “re-enchantment creeds,” as the philosopher-historian Ernest Gellner put it. They fill up the holes in our souls and give us a sense of belonging and meaning.
For Marx, the inevitable victory of Communism would arrive when the people, collectively, seized their rightful place on the Throne of History.11 The cult of unity found a new home in countless ideologies, each of which determined, in accord with their own dogma, to, in Voegelin’s words, “build the corpus mysticum of the collectivity and bind the members to form the oneness of the body.” Or, to borrow a phrase from Barack Obama, “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
In practice, Marxist doctrine is more alienating and dehumanizing than capitalism will ever be. But in theory, it conforms to the way our minds wish to see the world. There’s a reason why so many populist movements have been so easily herded into Marxism. It’s not that the mobs in Venezuela or Cuba started reading The Eighteenth Brumaire and suddenly became Marxists. The peasants of North Vietnam did not need to read the Critique of the Gotha Program to become convinced that they were being exploited. The angry populace is always already convinced. The people have usually reached the conclusion long ago. They have the faith; what they need is the dogma. They need experts and authority figures—priests!—with ready-made theories about why the masses’ gut feelings were right all along. They don’t need Marx or anybody else to tell them they feel ripped off, disrespected, exploited. They know that already. The story Marxists tell doesn’t have to be true. It has to be affirming. And it has to have a villain. The villain, then and now, is the Jew.
1 Muller, Jerry Z.. The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought (p. 5). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
2 Muller, Jerry Z. Capitalism and the Jews (pp. 23-24). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
3 Luther’s economic thought, reflected in his “Long Sermon on Usury of 1520” and his tract On Trade and Usury of 1524, was hostile to commerce in general and to international trade in particular, and stricter than the canonists in its condemnation of moneylending. Muller, Jerry Z.. Capitalism and the Jews (p. 26). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
4 Quoted approvingly in Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. “Capitalist Production.” Capital: Critical Analysis of Production, Volume II. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, trans. London: Swan Sonnenschein, Lowrey, & Co. 1887. p. 604
5 Sperber, Jonathan. “Introduction.” Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. New York: Liverwright Publishing Corporation. 2013. xiii.
6 McCloskey, Deirdre. Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 142
7 Johnson, Paul. Intellectuals (Kindle Locations 1325-1326). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
8 See also: Sunstain, Cass R. and Vermeule, Adrian. “Syposium on Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures.” The Journal of Political Philosophy: Volume 17, Number 2, 2009, pp. 202-227. http://www.ask-force.org/web/Discourse/Sunstein-Conspiracy-Theories-2009.pdf
9 Think of the story of the Golden Calf. Moses departs for Mt. Sinai to talk with God and receive the Ten Commandments. No sooner had he left did the Israelites switch their allegiance to false idol, the Golden Calf, treating a worldly inanimate object as their deity. So it is with modern man. Hence, Voegelin’s quip that for the Marxist “Christ the Redeemer is replaced by the steam engine as the promise of the realm to come.”
10 Blanning, Tim. The Romantic Revolution: A History (Modern Library Chronicles Series Book 34) (Kindle Locations 445-450). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
11 Marx: “Along with the constant decrease in the number of capitalist magnates, who usurp and monopolize all the advantages of this process of transformation, the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation and exploitation grows; but with this there also grows the revolt of the working class, a class constantly increasing in numbers, and trained, united and organized by the very mechanism of the capitalist process of production.”
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Review of 'Realism and Democracy' By Elliott Abrams
Then, in 1966, Syrian Baathists—believers in a different transnational unite-all-the-Arabs ideology—overthrew the government in Damascus and lent their support to Palestinian guerrillas in the Jordanian-controlled West Bank to attack Israel. Later that year, a Jordanian-linked counter-coup in Syria failed, and the key figures behind it fled to Jordan. Then, on the eve of the Six-Day War in May 1967, Jordan’s King Hussein signed a mutual-defense pact with Egypt, agreeing to deploy Iraqi troops on Jordanian soil and effectively giving Nasser command and control over Jordan’s own armed forces.
This is just a snapshot of the havoc wreaked on the Middle East by the conceit of pan-Arabism. This history is worth recalling when reading Elliott Abrams’s idealistic yet clearheaded Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy After the Arab Spring. One of the book’s key insights is the importance of legitimacy for regimes that rule “not nation-states” but rather “Sykes-Picot states”—the colonial heirlooms of Britain and France created in the wake of the two world wars. At times, these states barely seem to acknowledge, let alone respect, their own sovereignty.
When the spirit of revolution hit the Arab world in 2010, the states with external legitimacy—monarchies such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait—survived. Regimes that ruled merely by brute force—Egypt, Yemen, Libya—didn’t. The Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria has only held on thanks to the intervention of Iran and Russia, and it is difficult to argue that there is any such thing as “Syria” anymore. What this all proved was that the “stability” of Arab dictatorships, a central conceit of U.S. foreign policy, was in many cases an illusion.
That is the first hard lesson in pan-Arabism from Abrams, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The second is this: The extremists who filled the power vacuums in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and other countries led Western analysts to believe that there was an “Islamic exceptionalism” at play that demonstrated Islam’s incompatibility with democracy. Abrams effectively debunks this by showing that the real culprit stymieing the spread of liberty in the Middle East was not Islam but pan-Arabism, which stems from secular roots. He notes one study showing that, in the 30 years between 1973 and 2003, “a non-Arab Muslim-majority country was almost 20 times more likely to be ‘electorally competitive’ than an Arab-majority Muslim country.”
Abrams is thus an optimist on the subject of Islam and democracy—which is heartening, considering his experience and expertise. He worked for legendary cold-warrior Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson and served as an assistant secretary of state for human rights under Ronald Reagan and later as George W. Bush’s deputy national-security adviser for global democracy strategy. Realism and Democracy is about U.S. policy and the Arab world—but it is also about the nature of participatory politics itself. Its theme is: Ideas have consequences. And what sets Abrams’s book apart is its concrete policy recommendations to put flesh on the bones of those ideas, and bring them to life.
The dreary disintegration of the Arab Spring saw Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood, which after a year was displaced in a military coup. Syria’s civil war has seen about 400,000 killed and millions displaced. Into the vacuum stepped numerous Islamist terror groups. The fall of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya has resulted in total state collapse. Yemen’s civil war bleeds on.
Stability in authoritarian states with little or no legitimacy is a fiction. Communist police states were likely to fall, and the longer they took to do so, the longer the opposition sat in a balled-up rage. That, Abrams notes, is precisely what happened in Egypt. Mubarak’s repression gave the Muslim Brotherhood an advantage once the playing field opened up: The group had decades of organizing under its belt, a coherent raison d’être, and a track record of providing health and education services where the state lagged. No other parties or opposition groups had anything resembling this kind of coordination.
Abrams trenchantly concludes from this that “tyranny in the Arab world is dangerous and should itself be viewed as a form of political extremism that is likely to feed other forms.” Yet even this extremism can be tempered by power, he suggests. In a democracy, Islamist parties will have to compromise and moderate or be voted out. In Tunisia, electorally successful Islamists chose the former, and it stands as a rare success story.
Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood took a different path in Egypt, with parlous results. Its government began pulling up the ladder behind it, closing avenues of political resistance and civic participation. Hamas did the same after winning Palestinian elections in 2006. Abrams thinks that the odds of such a bait-and-switch can be reduced. He quotes the academic Stephen R. Grand, who calls for all political parties “to take an oath of allegiance to the state, to respect the outcome of democratic elections, to abide by the rules of the constitution, and to forswear violence.” If they keep their word, they will open up the political space for non-Islamist parties to get in the game. If they don’t—well, let the Egyptian coup stand as a warning.
Abrams, to his credit, does not avoid the Mesopotamian elephant in the room. The Iraq War has become Exhibit A in the dangers of democracy promotion. This is understandable, but it is misguided. The Bush administration made the decision to decapitate the regime of Saddam Hussein based on national-security calculations, mainly the fear of weapons of mass destruction. Once the decapitation had occurred, the administration could hardly have been expected to replace Saddam with another strongman whose depravities would this time be on America’s conscience. Critics of the war reverse the order here and paint a false portrait.
Here is where Abrams’s book stands out: He provides, in the last two chapters, an accounting of the weaknesses in U.S. policy, including mistakes made by the administration he served, and a series of concrete proposals to show that democracy promotion can be effective without the use of force.
One mistake, according to Abrams, is America’s favoring of civil-society groups over political parties. These groups do much good, generally have strong English-language skills, and are less likely to be tied to the government or ancien régime. But those are also strikes against them. Abrams relates a story told by former U.S. diplomat Princeton Lyman about Nelson Mandela. Nigerian activists asked the South African freedom fighter to support an oil embargo against their own government. Mandela declined because, Lyman says, there was as yet no serious, organized political opposition party: “What Mandela was saying to the Nigerian activists is that, in the absence of political movements dedicated not just to democracy but also to governing when the opportunity arises, social, civic, and economic pressures against tyranny will not suffice.” Without properly focused democracy promotion, other tools to punish repressive regimes will be off the table.
Egypt offers a good example of another principle: Backsliding must be punished. The Bush administration’s pressure on Mubarak over his treatment of opposition figures changed regime behavior in 2005. Yet by the end of Bush’s second term, the pressure had let up and Mubarak’s misbehavior continued, with no consequences from either Bush or his successor, Barack Obama, until it was too late.
That, in turn, leads to another of Abrams’s recommendations: “American diplomacy can be effective only when it is clear that the president and secretary of state are behind whatever diplomatic moves or statements an official in Washington or a U.S. ambassador is making.” This is good advice for the current Oval Office occupant and his advisers. President Trump’s supporters advise critics of his dismissive attitude toward human-rights violations to focus on what the president does, not what he says. But Trump’s refusal to take a hard line against Vladimir Putin and his recent praise of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s move to become president for life undermine lower-level officials’ attempts to encourage reform.
There won’t be democracy without democrats. Pro-democracy education, Abrams advises, can teach freedom-seekers to speak the ennobling language of liberty, which is the crucial first step toward building a culture that prizes it. And in the process, we might do some ennobling ourselves.