One: The Present ConditionThe question Norman Podhoretz asked in his 2009 book—Why Are Jews Liberals?—seems only more consequential after President Obama’s two terms in office. The Obama years were unsettling for Jewish conservatives on many fronts. The Iran nuclear deal, the broader American retreat from the Middle East, and the delegitimation of Israel at the UN left the Jewish state in a weaker geopolitical position. Many religious Jews worried that an activist judiciary and administrative state might eventually force traditional Jewish schools and synagogues to accommodate progressive practices like same-sex marriage or else lose their tax-exempt status. The continued expansion of the progressive welfare state and the intolerant culture of political correctness seemed like a direct assault on core conservative beliefs.
Viewed historically, the Jewish devotion to liberal politics has deep and understandable roots. Jewish immigrants to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw liberals as the best defenders of Jewish rights. Liberals cared for the poor, including the Jewish poor. Liberals fought against social prejudices and privileges, including unjust barriers to Jewish advancement. And liberalism’s secular understanding of American democracy offered Jews (and many other religious and ethnic subgroups) a pathway to American normalcy.
In economic and social life, Jews soon succeeded in myriad spheres: business and media, politics and culture, law and academia. As the 20th century progressed, they ceased being outsiders and became a part of the American establishment. And along the way, Jews began to assimilate—with intermarriage rates moving steadily up from 17 percent of all Jews married before 1970 to 58 percent of all Jews married since 2005. As the majority of Jews integrated further into American society, the religious, cultural, and social distinctiveness that once defined their Jewish identity often weakened or disappeared. It turned out that the real threat to the American Jewish future, as Irving Kristol quipped decades ago, “is not that Christians want to persecute them but that Christians want to marry them.” And this problem—the crisis of Jewish continuity—has only gotten worse.
As Jews ascended and assimilated within American life, American liberalism morphed into the new progressivism: less hospitable to traditional religion, more committed to sexual and cultural liberation, less confident in America’s leadership role in the world, and more tolerant of those who would see the homeland of the once-powerless, once-stateless Jewish people as a colonial oppressor. Even as many Jews were becoming increasingly post-Jewish—treating their heritage as a weak form of multicultural affiliation, not a life-shaping web of attachments, traditions, and values—their commitment to American liberalism persisted. While the partisan balance of the Jewish vote remained fairly steady from Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama, with a supermajority of Jews supporting the more liberal candidate, the meaning of the Jewish vote gradually changed. Many Jews once voted for liberals out of a deep conviction that liberalism served real Jewish interests, both at home and abroad. Today’s Jewish liberals are typically progressives first, and Jews very much second.
In a 2015 speech celebrating Jewish Heritage Month, President Obama praised American Jews for their leadership in the great liberal struggles of the modern era. From “women’s rights to gay rights to workers’ rights,” Obama declared, “Jews took to heart the biblical edict that we must not oppress a stranger, having been strangers once ourselves.” He then proceeded to explain that supporting the Iran nuclear deal and making territorial concessions to the Palestinians served true Israeli interests, and he strongly implied that opposition to this agenda would only undermine the Jewish people’s proud claim to be at the vanguard of progressive values. And the Jews in the audience at the Adas Israel Synagogue applauded.
But many Jews did not cheer.
A distinct part of the Jewish community in the United States opposes the progressive agenda, in whole or in part, both culturally and politically. Roughly 22 percent of American Jews voted against Obama in 2008; 30 percent voted against Obama in 2012; 24 percent voted for Donald Trump in 2016. This more conservative bloc now makes up a significant minority, and its numbers are likely to grow in the years ahead, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of self-identified American Jews.
Two: Who Are We?The most identifiable and most rapidly expanding group of Jewish conservatives are Haredi, Hasidic, and right-leaning Modern Orthodox. These traditionalists believe that the progressive worldview is a threat to “Torah values.” At present, roughly 10 percent of all American Jewish adults are Orthodox, while an estimated 27 percent of all Jewish children are being raised in Orthodox homes. According to the 2013 Pew report, the Orthodox community (especially the Haredi) has virtually no intermarriage, as compared with a 72 percent intermarriage rate among non-Orthodox Jews since 2000. They have a high birth rate: 4.1 children per couple vs. 1.7 for non-Orthodox Jews. And they have a high retention rate of preserving serious Jewish commitment in their children. In short: Orthodox Jewry is growing, while non-Orthodox Jewry is shrinking.
Pew’s research also found that Orthodox Jews lean 57 percent Republican and 54 percent conservative, compared with 18 percent and 16 percent among non-Orthodox Jews. In certain major Orthodox centers—from Brooklyn’s Borough Park to Wickliffe, Ohio, from Lakewood, New Jersey, to Monsey, New York— the Jewish vote is even more heavily skewed toward Republicans in national elections. According to Pew, Orthodox Jews resemble white Evangelical Christians on several key cultural and political indicators. All in all, the most committed and fastest growing sector of American Jewry is now among the most conservative voting blocs in the country.
These religious Jewish conservatives are joined by other conservative-leaning Jewish subgroups. Jewish émigrés from the former Soviet Union and their American-born children—a population now numbering roughly 750,000 people—tend to be anti-statist, free-market, and staunchly Zionist. Seventy-seven percent of Russian Jews in New York voted for George W. Bush in 2004, and 65 percent voted for John McCain in 2008. Per Samuel Kliger, Director of Russian Affairs at the American Jewish Committee, a pilot study suggested that the Russian Jewish community voted about 70 percent for Donald Trump in 2016, a notable counter-trend to the general American Jewish community.
Many American Zionists—religious and secular alike—now believe that American progressivism in general and the Democratic Party in particular are bad for Israel, and that American military and political leadership is essential for preserving stability in the Middle East. Pro-free-market Jews, who celebrate the idea of American meritocracy, reject how progressivism stigmatizes economic success, and they oppose the high levels of taxation that are necessary to sustain the progressive welfare state.
In short, while the vast majority of self-identified Jews today are still politically liberal, the “Judaism vote” (i.e., those most committed to Jewish practice and Jewish continuity) and the “Zionism vote” (i.e., those most committed to Israeli national sovereignty) are increasingly conservative. And while many secular Jewish conservatives may not affiliate strongly with their own Jewish heritage, their conservative persuasion, if cultivated, could lead some of them to deepen their bond with more traditionalist Jews who share many of their political ideas and values. For while a progressive worldview leads many (if not all) Jews beyond Judaism, conservative ideas may offer a natural pathway back toward Jewish commitment. Like Judaism itself, conservatism still honors the importance of fidelity to tradition, communal obligation, and the role of religion in sustaining a moral society.
Taken together, Torah conservatives, Zionist conservatives, and free-market Jewish conservatives could create a formidable new coalition of American Jews who stand athwart progressivism yelling stop in a unified Jewish voice and for distinctly Jewish reasons.
In building this coalition, Jews might learn something from the evolution of American conservatism itself. Like many other great political movements in history, postwar conservatism began by clarifying what it opposed: statism at home, Communism abroad, and the radical culture of the 1960s that was beginning its long march through America’s institutions. Yet out of this opposition movement, American conservatism developed, over time, a positive governing agenda, and it expanded the moral and political imaginations of those involved. Many religious conservatives came to recognize the importance of economic liberty; many libertarian conservatives came to see the value of traditional communities; and many conservatives who appreciated small-town American life came to understand the necessity of American power in trying to preserve a civilized world order.
In a similar spirit, one could imagine a new Jewish conservative movement that unites various existing Jewish sub-groups around a positive agenda: pro–religious liberty, supportive of the traditional family, in favor of school choice, allied with Israel in a dangerous world, and tough-minded in the global fight against anti-Semitism. Such a movement would seek to advance ideas and policies aimed at strengthening Jewish continuity in the United States. And it would aim to contribute the best Jewish thinking, with the full weight of the Hebraic tradition behind it, to the revitalization of American conservatism itself. So far, very little work has been done to articulate this broader Jewish conservative agenda, to bring these disparate Jewish factions together, and to create a new set of institutions that speak for Jewish conservatives in a serious way. This is the challenge—and opportunity—that Jews face in the current era.
Three: The Jewish Defense of Religious FreedomThe American Jewish agenda rightly begins with the defense of religious freedom, an idea that unites lovers of liberty and traditional communities of faith into a common political cause. And if there is a place where the sacred texts of the American founding and the political history of the Jewish people most vividly come together, it is in George Washington’s famous letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport:
It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
In America, Jews were free to create and sustain religious communities of their own distinct sort—“to sit in safety under [their] own vine and fig tree,” as Washington put it—while still possessing the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of American citizenship in full. To be sure, the Jewish experience in America was filled with frustrations, hardships, and long periods of social discrimination. American Christians have not, in their hearts or in their private institutions, always welcomed their Jewish neighbors. And yet from the beginning, the American polity has almost always preserved an inviolable sphere of Jewish liberty. (General Ulysses S. Grant’s infamous Order 11, expelling Jews from certain areas of the embattled American South, is a remarkable and very brief exception, almost immediately overturned by Abraham Lincoln.) The powers of government were not used to prohibit the practice of Jewish life; and Jews were not asked to sacrifice their beliefs or identity to participate in the civic life of the nation.
While Jews are still the religious minority most victimized by hate crimes, they are, astonishingly, also the most beloved religious group in America, outranking Catholics, Protestants, Evangelicals, Buddhists, and Muslims, according to a 2017 Pew survey. Many Americans admire Jewish success and creativity; and the overwhelming majority of religious Christians see modern Jews as a sacred remnant of God’s chosen people, worthy of respect (and even reverence) for who we are as Jews. Yet many Jews remain concerned that America is still one misstep away from becoming a “Christian nation.” The ideological syndrome Milton Himmelfarb described in 1966, when he observed that “Jews are probably more devoted than anyone else in America to the separation of church and state,” persists in the liberal Jewish mind as if Christian power were the greatest threat to Jewish flourishing. This wasn’t true half a century ago, as Himmelfarb explained, and it is even less true today.
In reality, traditional Jews, Christians, and other faith communities now face a shared cultural and political threat: a transformed understanding of “the separation of church and state,” which seeks to impose the acceptance of progressive mores (such as same-sex marriage, gender fluidity, and sexual liberation) by force of law. Until recently, a broad majority of Americans maintained a basic respect for religious liberty. Progressives sought the freedom to live in accordance with their own values (they demanded “choice”) and they sought recognition and support for those values from the state (they demanded “equality”). In many arenas—such as abortion and more recently same-sex marriage—the progressives won the legal battle. But they were also willing, at least in their understanding of America’s political and civic order, to respect the private freedom of religious communities to live in accordance with their own traditional values. Back in 1993, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which sought to prevent the courts from allowing undue restrictions on the free exercise of religion, passed Congress by a near-unanimous vote. Today, most progressives see the RFRA and its state analogs as archaic, and they see the religious freedom that these laws were enacted to protect as “code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, [and] Christian supremacy,” as Martin R. Castro, the chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, wrote in 2016.
For many progressive activists, it is no longer enough to normalize progressive values within the culture, and it is no longer enough to legalize progressive social practices. The ultimate aim, as Jonathan Last explained in a 2015 Weekly Standard essay, is assimilation: to demand that every American institution adopt the new morality as its own, and to treat any opposition to post-traditional norms and lifestyles as a form of religious backwardness so dangerous to the public good that it requires activist legal intervention to eradicate it.
The issue here is not only or ultimately about same-sex marriage, transgender rights, or other current controversies. It is about defending the freedom of religious communities to live religious lives, and the need to oppose the idea that the progressive state should have the power to decide which communities have a place (or no place) in American society. Same-sex marriage has been one of the legal clubs used to advance this larger agenda, and the progressive strategy is both sophisticated and incrementalist: First, use the courts to establish that same-sex marriage is a national right (this has already been achieved). Then require private companies to participate in the commerce of these ceremonies—this is being done now, through lawsuits such as those trying to force Christian bakers to write congratulatory notes on cakes for gay weddings. Then require churches and synagogues to permit same-sex marriage or else lose their tax-exempt status—this is already being promoted by myriad progressive activists and was explicitly mentioned as a possibility in Obergefell v. Hodges, the case in which the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. When asked during oral arguments whether such a ruling could allow the administration to strip tax-exempt status from religious institutions, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli confessed that “it’s certainly going to be an issue.”
From here, one can imagine the next possible steps. Require ministers and rabbis to perform same-sex marriages or else lose their license to perform weddings at all; then treat the teaching of traditional morality itself as an offense to public conscience, and use this principle as the basis to prohibit religious groups from gaining official recognition at public universities and to restrict the accreditation of religious schools that teach “unenlightened” values. Along the way, the idea is to empower the state—and especially the courts—to act as the ultimate judge of religious practice and principle, and to decide whether it should be indulged, marginalized, or outlawed entirely. This includes Jewish practices, such as circumcision and the ritual slaughter of animals, that have already been targeted in certain American cities and outlawed in parts of Europe.
Recent legal cases affecting specifically Jewish concerns should only heighten Jewish awareness of the perils. New York City has sued ultra-Orthodox Jewish business owners for requiring dress codes to enter their stores, and has also attempted to shut down women-only separate swimming hours in community facilities, a reasonable accommodation made to Orthodox sensibilities in a heavily Hasidic neighborhood of Brooklyn. In Abeles v. Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (2017), the Fourth Circuit upheld the suspension of a government employee after she took time off on Passover, ruling on such weak grounds that the plaintiff’s counsel has cautioned that such a precedent could mean that “no employee with a bona fide religious duty is safe from arbitrary after-the-fact punishment for religious observance.” And in Ben Levi v. Brown (2016), the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a claim of discrimination by a Jewish inmate who had been denied religious study time in prison, allegedly because the warden believed his request contradicted the demands of Jewish tradition. As Justice Samuel Alito explained in his dissent, this refusal inappropriately ceded to the state the power to evaluate the legitimacy of a particular Jewish religious practice:
Even assuming that [the warden] accurately identified the requirements for a group Torah study under Jewish doctrine—and that is not at all clear—federal courts have no warrant to evaluate “the validity of [Ben-Levi’s] interpretations.” . . . The State has no apparent reason for discriminating against Jewish inmates in this way. . . . [T]he Court’s indifference to this discriminatory infringement of religious liberty is disappointing.
Of course, Jews are not the main target in the new progressive campaign to redefine religious freedom. Evangelicals and Catholics are the big game, and we have already seen the lengths to which progressive activists are willing to go to impose their will on Christian florists, Catholic nuns, and Evangelical student groups. But traditional Jews are in the same cultural and political situation as traditional Christians—and perhaps even more vulnerable because of our diminutive size and our communal failure to recognize the threat. And Jews can uniquely contribute to the public debate on religious freedom by speaking with the moral authority of a small but proud people who once suffered under the oppressive weight of Old-World establishments that treated Jewish life as “unenlightened” and “backward,” and who thus have a special appreciation for the blessings of true religious freedom.
It is a mistake to believe that the Republican victory in 2016 will automatically reverse these efforts to refine and shrink the scope of religious liberty in America. Activist judges are still in power in many lower courts across the country, and troubling precedents in recent religious-liberty cases may yet prevail at the state and local levels. A secularist ideology still dominates in our crucial cultural institutions, including schools and universities, museums and the media, entertainment, and now in many large public corporations. And even many Republicans are not eager to confront a progressive elite that threatens all cultural opposition with the charge of backwardness and bigotry. America thus stands at a critical moment in the religious-freedom debate—a timeout, and yet still a tipping point. And Jews should play their part in “proclaiming liberty throughout all the land” (to borrow a phrase from Leviticus, inscribed as a precious reminder on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia).
Concretely, Jewish conservatives should encourage the judiciary to restore the American tradition of religious freedom and roll back the progressive overreach of the Obama years. They should help pass laws, at the federal and state level, that protect the freedom of religious institutions—schools, synagogues, and seminaries—to determine their own educational, ritual, and communal lives without the threat of litigation and without fear of losing their tax-exempt status. They should create a multi-denominational Jewish version of organizations like the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Becket Fund, leading defenders of those whose religious rights have been challenged, standing ready to defend any potential breach of Jewish liberty. And they should develop a training program to educate communal leaders so that if and when judicial and political progressivism goes back on the march, they are prepared to protect their Jewish interests and values as effectively as possible.
Orthodox Jews surely have the greatest stake in this debate, and their crucial allies will be religious Christians and other traditional faith communities. But regardless of their political or cultural orientation, all Jews have good reasons to support this religious-freedom agenda. No Jewish friend of liberty—secular or religious—should tolerate the establishment of a progressive state that restricts the free self-determination of religious communities. And no Jewish friends of Jewish unity should stand idly by as their fellow Jews are treated as illegitimate, and as the Jewish schools and synagogues down the block are potentially threatened by a punitive progressive state simply for believing what Jews have believed for millennia.
Four: The Jewish Defense of the FamilyImportant as it is, the preservation of religious freedom is simply the political precondition for creating and sustaining strong Jewish communities. As Yuval Levin argued last year in First Things, it is in “the institutions and relationships in which we learn to make virtuous choices—in the family, the school, the synagogue and church, the civic enterprise, the charitable venture, the association of workers or merchants or neighbors or friends—that the fate of our experiment in moral freedom will be decided.” The defensive task of protecting our religious institutions from new legal infringements cannot replace the deeper work of building and sustaining a vibrant Jewish culture. And this cultural undertaking necessarily begins, for Jews and for everyone, in the family.
The original Jewish story is a tale of a founding family, summoned to establish a righteous way of life as a corrective to the pre-Abrahamic world of disorder, decadence, despair, and destruction. In the Hebraic worldview, the gift of a child is the Creator’s greatest gift; honor thy father and mother is one of the Bible’s central commandments; educating one’s own children is a sacred parental duty. Abraham and his descendants believe they have an important mission to fulfill, and that mission is carried out by transmitting a covenantal way of life to their children.
The Hebrew Bible does not romanticize family life—indeed, quite the opposite. It vividly portrays sibling rivalries, family breakdowns, sexual perversions, and much-needed redemptions. As commentators ranging from Nachmanides to Leon Kass have explained, the stories of Genesis show us the fragility of family life by illustrating how it goes wrong. The Jewish tradition that codifies the moral guidelines for forming and sustaining families—including the elevation of monogamous marriage and the preservation of certain sexual taboos—is designed to moderate the passions of bodily existence and to awaken us to the difficult responsibilities and transcendent joys of fulfilling our roles within the drama of the generations as husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, daughters and sons.
In the current cultural environment, this traditional understanding of the family has been severely weakened. Out-of-wedlock births in America have skyrocketed to over 40 percent; only 46 percent of American children grow up in a traditional family; and 34 percent of children today are living with an unmarried parent. In 2010, Pew research found that only 30 percent of Millennials included a successful marriage as one of their most important life goals, while 39 percent of Americans overall believed marriage was obsolete. A 2011 Pew study found that only 57 percent of Generation Xers and 53 percent of Millennials believed that children needed a mother and a father to grow up happily—an opinion that cuts against all serious sociological research, which demonstrates that children reared in intact two-parent families are happier, more successful, and more civically responsible. The rising generation has grown up in a culture that promotes sexual freedom and devalues the unique significance of marriage, and, as Charles Murray and others have discussed, the dark consequences of family breakdown have hit America’s lower classes the hardest. Most American Jews, alas, seem to have accepted or embraced the new morality. A 2016 Gallup poll reveals that 25 percent of Mormons, 47 percent of Evangelical Protestants, and 59 percent of Catholics believe that having a child out of wedlock is “morally acceptable,” while a remarkable 68 percent of American Jews believe this to be the case. In other words: The majority of American Jews have rejected the Jewish idea of the family, at least in their moral-cultural outlook if not necessarily in their own private family lives.
This devaluation of the traditional family has also contributed to a decline in birthrates throughout the modern West. The only advanced democracy in the world with a birthrate far above replacement is Israel. The Jewish state still believes in the family because Israel still believes it has a purpose: to serve as the national homeland of the Jewish people and the spiritual center of Jewish civilization. The rest of the West—with America as a partial exception—is ensuring its own decline by choosing, person by person, lifestyle by lifestyle, not to have children. In so doing, entire nations and civilizations are gradually declaring that they have no enduring legacy to preserve or distinct heritage to transmit. And tragically, non-Orthodox American Jews have among the lowest birthrates of any sub-sector within American society, well below the levels necessary to maintain their communities into the future.
This two-headed crisis—family breakdown leading to social dysfunction, and demographic decline leading to civilizational suicide—has the same cultural root: the elevation of the “sovereign self,” as Simone de Beauvoir put it, who pursues a life without duties, sacrifices, or the cultural pressure to accept the supreme adult responsibility of rearing the young. Yet very few of our political and religious leaders, including most mainstream American conservatives, seem willing to speak about or confront this crisis. The hesitancy of our leaders is understandable. Ministers and politicians alike fear offending those who have been unable to form families of their own, those who have chosen against family life in the name of personal freedom or professional ambition, those whose families are scarred by divorce, those of differing sexual orientations. Others believe that the moral transformation of mainstream culture is now so deep that nothing can really be done to restore traditional family life within society at large. And so the majority of America’s leaders remain largely silent about America’s greatest problem. Even those who recognize the crisis are often too reticent, too intimidated, or too defeatist to confront it.
Yet this capitulation to the decline of the family is a grave mistake—for Americans and for Jews alike. The strength of American society rests on the integrity of its families. And the only way to preserve and strengthen Jewish life is to restore the idea of the Jewish family—large, thriving, immersed in Jewish traditions—as a cultural norm that reaches beyond the Orthodox community alone. The first step is regaining the moral self-confidence to defend traditional family life against those cultural forces that reject it: to celebrate monogamous marriage as a moral ideal, to celebrate large families as the heroic nurseries of our national and religious heritage, to celebrate mothers and fathers who sacrifice their own freedom to raise up their own replacements, and to dispute the notion that being “inclusive” requires accepting every lifestyle as equally praiseworthy.
In the effort to reinvigorate a family-centered conservatism, Jewish thinking and Jewish activism have much to contribute. At a deeper cultural level, Jews can explain how the life-cycle family rituals—brit (circumcision), bar mitzvah, chuppah (wedding), and Kaddish (mourning)—embody a deeper teaching about intergenerational responsibility that is relevant to every American in search of meaning and purpose in life. At a communal level, Jews can provide a model for support of family life. They can show how married couples in crisis are actively helped by congregants and rabbis; how large families are supported with tuition breaks at religious schools; how aging parents are cared for at or close to home rather than hidden out of sight and out of mind. And at a policy level, Jews should advocate for pro-family social policies, including targeted tax cuts that ease the burden on parents; child-care policies that respect rather than penalize parents who reduce their work hours to care for their children; and opposition to euthanasia and assisted suicide, which devalues the elderly and the sick in the false name of compassion. In becoming public voices for strengthening the American family, Jews may find a moral purpose that would only strengthen their commitment to Judaism itself. And by standing together with the nation’s strongest communities of faith—Catholics, Evangelicals, Mormons, and others—they can help renew and reform America’s cultural fabric.
At the same time, Jews need to address head-on the greatest threats to the modern Jewish family: the normalization of intermarriage and the high costs of Jewish education. There is obviously no easy answer to the communal challenge of intermarriage, which concerned Jewish leaders have lamented for decades. Among the Orthodox, intermarriage is still prohibited and roundly criticized, since in their view only united Jewish families can sustain, model, and transmit a Jewish way of life to their children. And this taboo, while sometimes painful in particular cases, has largely preserved a culture of Jewish in-marriage. Among more liberal denominations, the increasing rates of intermarriage have opened up a more welcoming approach toward intermarried couples. Some progressive Jews are now embarrassed by the very idea of opposing intermarriage at all, seeing it as a form of discrimination no different from opposing interracial marriage; others aim to keep intermarried families within the Jewish fold by embracing them; and still others seek a middle ground, by promoting conversion of the non-Jewish spouse before or after marriage, and speaking honestly to young Jews in love about the tensions that often arise within intermarried families.
Yet for Jews who have little knowledge of their majestic Jewish heritage, intermarriage is not a revolt or a heresy; it is simply a natural extension of their normal American upbringing. Various educational and outreach efforts—such as Birthright programs, Chabad on Campus, and Jewish camping—have unquestionably had some positive effects on Jewish identity and commitment. But it is too much to expect that such initiatives will reverse the cultural assumptions about love and marriage that young, non-observant Jews have internalized from birth to college. Ultimately, the only enduring answer to the crisis of Jewish continuity is acculturation to Jewish life at an early age. And part of the genius of traditional Jewish culture is getting young adults to behave with more wisdom in forming families than their limited age and experience could ever allow them to have acquired on their own. The crucial question, therefore, is whether a growing percentage of non-observant Jews might become inspired to give their young children a serious Jewish education, and whether any substantial portion of American Jews can afford to do so. Fortunately, for the economic dimension of the problem, there may be a political answer.
Five: A Jewish Education AgendaIn his classic story “Eli the Fanatic,” Philip Roth recounts the clash of two cultures: that of an Old-World yeshiva with 18 orphans from the Holocaust, and that of the highly assimilated suburban Jews and non-Jews who conspire to shut down the yeshiva, because it threatens their sense of enlightened, refined, and successful modern life.
“Someday, Eli, it’s going to be a hundred little kids with little yamalkahs chanting their Hebrew lessons on Coach House Road, and then it’s not going to strike you as funny?”
“Eli, what goes on up there—my kids hear strange sounds.”
“Eli, this is a modern community.”
“Eli, we pay taxes.”
Well, in communities across America, we now have hundreds of thousands of little kids chanting Hebrew lessons in Jewish day schools of myriad shapes and sizes. And according to every serious study, the most reliable guarantor of Jewish perpetuation in America is providing young Jews with such an intensive Jewish education. Yet at present, close to 90 percent of Jewish day-school kids come from Orthodox families. While those affiliated with the Conservative and Reform movements still constitute the majority of American Jewry, about 18 percent and 35 percent respectively, non-Orthodox schools account for only 13 percent of all day-school enrollment, and that number continues to drop. The Solomon Schechter schools connected to the Conservative movement are closing at an unfortunately rapid rate, and Reform students make up a mere 1.5 percent of all those enrolled in day schools. All in all, of the more than 1 million non-Orthodox school-age children, it is estimated that merely around 3 percent are enrolled in full-time Jewish schools. So how did we get here, and what can we do?
Like nearly every other immigrant group, most Jews came to America in search of economic opportunity, and the key to Jewish self-improvement was education. In the early decades of the republic, schooling was more communal, less centralized, less formal, and more sectarian. As the historian Jonathan Sarna explains:
In the colonial and early national periods of American Jewish history, most Jews—their numbers never exceeded a few thousand—studied in either common pay (private) schools that assumed the religious identity of their headmaster; or in charity (free) schools supported by religious bodies with financial support from the State. In 1803, New York’s only Jewish congregation, Shearith Israel, established a charity school under its own auspices named Polonies Talmud Torah. The school enjoyed equal footing with Protestant and Catholic schools in the city and received state aid—a reminder that American Jews understood the relationship of religion and state differently in those days than we do today.
During the 1800s, the American model—and the Jewish-American model—changed dramatically. As immigrants from around the world poured into the country—especially Catholics, but also Jews—the more established (and predominantly Protestant) elements of American society worried about the threat of rival subcultures to American civil society. A growing public-school movement sought to “Americanize” these new ethnic communities, and thus to assimilate the children of immigrants into the language, mores, and opportunities of America. In reality, many of these public schools initially sought to advance a Protestant agenda, with Catholics as their main target. Many Catholic communities resisted, creating a network of private religious schools supported by communal charity and run by the diocese system. Most Jews embraced the public-school model, seeing it as a gateway to the upper ranks of American society in the merit-based professions long prohibited to them in the Old World. Various efforts were made, at the Jewish communal level, to supplement public schooling with Hebrew school in the evenings and on the weekends. But in aggregate, and especially over the past many decades, this supplementary model proved to be a weak instrument of Jewish continuity.
Over time, many Jews came to see support for public schools as itself a Jewish cause. With gratitude, Jews appreciated the opportunity that public schooling had provided their working-class ancestors, and, like hawks, they stood guard to ensure that every hint of religion—such as prayer in schools—was removed from the once-Protestant and now thoroughly secular culture of public schools. At the same time, the small but more traditional sector of the Jewish community came to fear that American Jews were quickly losing their Jewish identity; that they lacked any real knowledge of Jewish history, ritual, and culture; and that they felt no obligation to marry fellow Jews and hand down a Jewish way of life to their future children. This sense of crisis deepened after the Holocaust, and the drive to do something different—to create a new model of Jewish schooling—received an infusion of energy from Old-World survivors who came to America to rebuild traditional Jewish life. And so, while day schools had previously existed as minor institutions in the Jewish community, the modern Jewish day-school movement gained steam in the 1950s and 1960s.
Today’s Jewish day schools come in a variety of forms, ranging from Haredi yeshivas that spend most of their educational time on Talmudic learning, to modern Orthodox day schools that combine traditional Jewish literacy with modern secular education, to pluralistic and nondenominational Jewish academies that add Jewish culture and modern Hebrew to a curriculum and social environment that otherwise try to replicate America’s suburban public schools.
The day-school movement is remarkable, fragile, and disappointing all at once. Through entirely private communal initiative, dozens of day schools are now thriving across the country, and the Jewish families enrolled in such schools often organize their whole lives to send their kids there. Yet the high cost of paying for Jewish schooling is now straining many committed Jewish families. (Dark Jewish humor treats day-school costs as the most effective form of birth control for observant Jews.) The average annual cost of a day-school education, K–12, is about $15,000 per child; in certain areas (especially New York and Los Angeles) high-school tuitions can approach $40,000 annually. And as Aryeh Klapper argued in a provocative essay in Jewish Ideas Daily a few years ago, the two-parent/all-hours work life that is often required to finance such an education means that mothers and fathers often have less energy and less time to engage (Jewishly or otherwise) with their own children. Within the schools themselves, the challenge of trying to balance Jewish studies and secular studies, all at an affordable cost, often results in accepting middling academic standards in both.
At the same time, the high cost of Jewish day schools is an impediment to attracting less observant Jews. While the overall day-school population has grown over the past few decades, due largely to the natural growth of the Orthodox community, the percentage of non-Orthodox students in day schools has fallen, as noted above, even as graduates of outreach programs like Birthright have now entered their child-rearing years. In facing these high tuition costs, many committed Jews still find a way to make it work. Yet the broader Jewish community—including that subset of American Jews that might be open to Jewish schooling, if it were available, affordable, and comparable in quality to a normal American suburban school—never really considers it.
Various communal organizations have tried to address the affordability problem. They have founded low-cost “blended schools” that use more technology and hire fewer teachers, they have capped tuition at a fixed percentage of family income, and they have sought larger contributions from private philanthropy. These efforts are all noble. But ultimately, the costs are just too high to change the basic equation. Most Jewish parents will simply not pay twice—first in obligatory real-estate taxes that support the public-school system and then in optional private tuitions to send their children to Jewish schools. So they send their children to public schools. And as the strain on existing day-school families continues to grow, the downward pressure on birthrates and on educational quality will only intensify.
The best strategic answer to the “tuition crisis” is to reestablish the principle that public dollars should be available to parents who wish to send their children to religious schools. Even suggesting this idea gives many progressive Jews a nervous breakdown. One writer in the Forward recently suggested that school-choice programs are part of a larger agenda
to re-Christianize America and to replace the melting pot or gorgeous mosaic of our current secular society with an imagined America of a hundred years ago: white-dominated, Christian-dominated, traditional in values and orientation. . . . Of course, some foolish Orthodox Jewish organizations have signed on to “school choice” initiatives, since they promise a short-term financial windfall for Orthodox Jewish schools—as if a few dollars thrown to them will not be drowned out by a thousand times as many poured into Christian schools. These fools are modern-day Esaus, exchanging the birthright of American democracy for a bowl of voucher porridge.
The Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel—our “modern-day Esaus”—have indeed become strong advocates for seeking public dollars to help defray the costs of religious schooling. So far, these lobbying efforts have focused primarily on seeking the funds that Jewish schools are already entitled to by law, which means relatively small amounts of public money for ancillary services like security, technology, and busing, and somewhat larger amounts of money for special-education services. Such advocacy should continue, and it has helped existing day schools in a real way. But these small victories should not distract Jews from waging a broader political campaign for educational choice. As a matter of social justice, religious taxpayers are entitled to some portion of the public purse to support the education of children in their own religious communities. And at a deeper cultural level, American civil society would become only further impoverished if its communal web of religious schools weakened, withered, and closed down.
In his satiric caricature, Philip Roth presents two diametrically opposed cultural alternatives: an Old-World Judaism, alien to American society, and an assimilated Jewry that sheds its Jewish heritage in the name of American convention. But in truth, as conservatives understand, the flourishing of the American project depends on the “little platoons”—families, traditional communities, and religious schools—that are best equipped to educate young men and women in the moral virtues necessary for citizenship. They are, as Edmund Burke put it, the “first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.” In the 1800s, one could understand the powerful case for the public-school movement as the best way to create a shared American culture. Yet today, American civil society needs religious schools as a cultural counterweight and living alternative to secular America. The Jewish case for educational liberty should be advanced in these large civilizational terms: not merely as a matter of economic necessity or economic justice, but as a battle for the future of American democracy itself. And it should be combined with a reinvigoration of the case for American federalism—the idea that different states and localities should have maximal freedom to craft their own distinctive social contracts, including a variety of funding models for public, private, and religious schools. This would allow true American diversity to flourish.
For many years now, the school-choice battle has been waged primarily as a means of liberating underprivileged minorities from failing public schools, and of introducing much-needed competition into a public-school system that often functions as a failed and self-protective monopoly. These are powerful arguments, and this effort has so far achieved some real but limited successes in certain cities and states across the country. But the school-choice movement should no longer remain simply a rescue mission for impoverished and neglected children. It should be advanced, too, as a rescue mission for America’s essential communities of faith. In practical terms, this will involve policy changes at both the state and federal levels—including education tax credits, which allow families to allocate a portion of their taxes toward private- or religious-school scholarships; state funding for secular studies at religious schools; public charter schools (including Hebrew-language schools) that could work in sync with private religious education; and school vouchers for families living in areas where the public-school system is failing. The ultimate aim should be to get the same per child allocation for religious schools as for public schools, creating a truly competitive and diverse market for educating the young.
Jews have much to gain if this educational revolution advances in a serious way. But Jews also have much to give in explaining why this revolution matters, for we know firsthand how different our communal fate looks when our children receive a serious religious education versus when they do not. American Christians now face the same challenge—the problem of cultural continuity—that Jewish communities have struggled with for decades. And in this case, what is “good for the Jews” is also good for American society as a whole. The future of American civilization depends on whether our society can marry together the renewal of traditional communities and the reinvigoration of American patriotism. Religious schools play an essential role in performing this civilizational work, and only the public purse can ensure that these citizen-forming institutions have a long-term future.
Six: Israel and AmericaThroughout the modern era, enemies of the Jewish people have accused them of possessing a dual identity and often treated them as disloyal outsiders to the nations in which they lived. In response, some Jews cast away their Jewish heritage in pursuit of acceptance by the dominant culture. They sought to be “normal” and willingly shed or reformed their Jewish identity in an effort to become true patriots of other nations. Other Jews fiercely rejected the various national cultures that rejected them. They sustained, often under duress, a distinctly Jewish way of life. They believed, often in spite of their inferior material conditions, in the moral, theological, and civilizational exceptionalism of the Jews. And some clung to the dream of national restoration in their own ancestral homeland: Zion.
Modern Zionism, the late-19th-century movement advocating the political reestablishment of the Jewish nation, gathered support only slowly in the American Jewish community. Most establishment Jewish leaders of the early 20th century saw Zionism as a challenge to their identity as Americans, and most Jews were focused on realizing for themselves the blessings of American liberty. They had no reason—and little desire—to flee to Palestine. The Zionist movement only gained greater sympathy among American Jews when Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis—arguably the most prominent American Jew of his generation and one of the leading figures of the progressive movement—agreed to lead it in 1914. Less than a decade earlier, Brandeis had declared that there was “no place” in our nation for “hyphenated Americans . . . [including] Jewish-Americans.” But over time, he changed his mind:
My approach to Zionism was through Americanism. In time, practical experience and observation convinced me that Jews were, by reason of their traditions and their character, peculiarly fitted for the attainment of American ideals. Gradually it became clear to me that to be good Americans, we must be better Jews, and to be better Jews, we must become Zionists.
American Jews do indeed possess two intertwining identities, and they should not shy away from or apologize for it. We are the carriers of two remarkable stories—the Jewish story and the American story. We are the inheritors of two great civilizations—one ancient and one modern. And we should take pride in the fact that many of the American Founders found moral and political inspiration in the Hebrew Bible—and especially the Exodus story of founding a new nation, delivered from tyranny and devoted to the ideals of liberty and justice.
Yet the Zionist project does present American Jews with a serious political challenge: What does it mean to be a Jewish-American patriot living outside of Israel? Do American Jews have any special responsibility for the Jewish state? What are the terms of the larger America–Israel relationship, and what are the legitimate aims of the American pro-Israel movement?
Over the years, the meaning of Israel in American political life—and the practical geopolitical relationship between the two nations—has seen a series of dramatic changes, upheavals, redefinitions, and reassessments. In the era between World War II and the 1967 war, the American debate over Israel was shaped by two basic paradigms: the “moral” and the “realist.” The “moralists” treated American support for Israel as an ethical obligation of the highest order. Jews had been destroyed and displaced in the Holocaust and deserved a homeland; the Israeli founders were scrappy rebels fighting for a noble cause, just like the American Founders; Jews were God’s chosen people; the Jewish return to Zion was divinely ordained. The Christian Zionist movement, with roots that go back to before the American founding, was essential in advancing this worldview.
The “realists,” by contrast, weighed America’s posture toward Israel like any other geopolitical relationship: Given the socialist leanings of many Israeli founders, would Israel sympathize with the Soviet Union in the Cold War? Given the ongoing conflict with its Arab neighbors, would American support for Israel undermine our access to Arab oil? Would the Arab–Israeli conflict create instability in the Middle East that would burden American power? From Truman to Eisenhower to Kennedy to Johnson, the relative weight of the pro-Israel moralists and the generally Arab-leaning realists oscillated. And the question of Israel was not yet a conventional left–right issue in American politics: The moral defenders of Israel came from both the secular left and the Christian right, and the realist skeptics about Israel came in both Democratic and Republican forms.
In the 1967 war, Israel demonstrated its strength to the world in the face of another looming assault by its annihilationist enemies and took possession of greater Israel for the first time—including the Old City of Jerusalem. After that, the America–Israel relationship took on two additional dimensions. On the one hand, America had clearly become Israel’s crucial and most committed superpower ally, defending the Jewish state on the international stage and supplying Israel with the weapons and resources it needed to defend itself. At the same time, a new ideological movement began to take shape—one that intensified after the Israel–Lebanon War in 1982—that denounced Israel in moralistic terms as an occupier, a fascist state, and a denier of Palestinian rights. This way of thinking found its ideological home largely on the American left and had its first prominent sympathizer in President Jimmy Carter. It also began to gain traction among certain American Jews, who now believed that Israel itself was the main impediment to their dreams of peace in the Middle East, and that Israeli nationalism (embodied in the right-wing Prime Minister Menachem Begin) was an affront to their own more cosmopolitan values.
For decades, the aim of the mainstream pro-Israel movement in America has been to preserve the bipartisan consensus on American support for Israel. In this view, success is measured primarily by the continuation and expansion of virtually unanimous congressional support for military aid to the Jewish state and by the shared rhetorical support of Democrats and Republicans for the special U.S.–Israel relationship. There were obviously clear differences between Carter’s Israel policy and that of Reagan, George H.W. Bush’s Israel policy and that of Clinton, George W. Bush’s policy and that of Obama. But despite these policy differences, the focus on maintaining a bipartisan consensus has largely prevailed. Congressional support for Israel funding remained a joint effort; stump speeches and state addresses referred easily to the uniqueness of the U.S.–Israel relationship; leaders in both parties pledged their support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and Israel enjoyed remarkably high popularity among the American public.
Beneath the bipartisan surface, however, a deeper rift was taking shape. The left-wing assault on Israel became both more vehement and more influential within the Democratic Party, while the political right became more unified in believing that America and Israel have the same values, the same interests, and the same enemies. While President Obama worked assiduously to put “daylight” between his White House and Israel, his administration benefitted greatly from the prevailing myth that there was still little actual difference between Republican friends of Israel and Democratic friends of Israel. Administration actions were often rationalized rather than publicly opposed by many Jewish leaders. These rationalizations persisted even after President Obama had engineered a deal that effectively legalized Iranian nuclear development and funneled billions of dollars in cash to a nation that sponsors terrorism around the world and pledges to wipe Israel off the map. And in the perfect anti-Israel send-off, the Obama administration took the unprecedented step of refusing to veto UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which declared Judea, Samaria, and East Jerusalem as illegally occupied and thus left Israel vulnerable to international sanctions and boycotts.
The struggle within the Democratic Party over Israel seems to have two basic camps. On one side, a shrinking establishment still celebrates its friendship for Israel, still decries the most egregious anti-Israel actions such as UN Resolution 2334, and yet displays little willingness to fight for Israel’s interests against enemies within its own party. On the other side, there are progressives, who are now openly hostile to Israeli sovereignty and sharply critical of Israeli behavior. At the grassroots level, the progressives seem to be winning. Shortly before passage of the 2016 UN Resolution, a Brookings poll found that 60 percent of Democrats supported penalizing Israeli construction in East Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria through economic sanctions “or more serious actions,” while 55 percent of Democrats believed that Israeli influence on American foreign policy was too high, and that Israel was a “burden” to the United States.
As Democratic sympathy for Israel weakens, Republican support for Israel only strengthens. A February 2017 Gallup poll found that 81 percent of Republicans have a “totally favorable” view of Israel (compared with only 61 percent of Democrats), and 82 percent of Republicans sympathize more with Israel than with the Palestinians, with only 6 percent claiming more affinity for the Palestinian cause. The Republican platform, already deeply supportive of Israel, became even stronger in 2016, with additional provisions that “reject the false notion that Israel is an occupier,” oppose boycott efforts against all Israeli-controlled territories, and reject any imposition of terms by outside parties regarding the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
For Jewish conservatives, the current political moment is an opportunity to redefine the policy aims and guiding strategy of pro-Israel activism. They should continue to press hard against the Iran nuclear deal, advocating for American withdrawal if possible, swift action at any sign of Iranian intransigence, and strong American opposition to counter Iranian aggression and subversion across the Middle East. Jewish conservatives should call on America and Israel to re-visit the “memorandum of understanding” that now defines American military aid to the Jewish state, seeking to expand Israeli autonomy in developing its own military capabilities, so long as it does not transfer American military technology to American enemies. They should make the case for anti-boycott measures that counteract the recent UN resolution, and they should push America to demand fundamental changes in the governance structure of the UN or else withdraw American funding and support.
They should applaud any measures to defund the corrupt Palestinian Authority, whose school curricula teach Jew-hatred and promote terrorism, and whose government continues to reward and celebrate the murder of Israeli innocents. They should advocate for the official recognition of Jerusalem as the eternal capital of the Jewish state. They should push to strengthen a new regional alliance between America, Israel, and those Arab states that seek real political stability and economic cooperation, which might create a new and more favorable environment for negotiating a practical political arrangement with the Palestinians. And at the deepest level, they should explain why the America–Israel relationship is a mutually beneficial partnership of two sovereign nations, not a client-state relationship in which American generosity serves a needy Jewish state. Israel is an important strategic ally: a counterweight to Iran’s hegemonic ambitions, a warrior against destabilizing terror, a leader in developing invaluable new technologies, and a nation that has never asked or needed American soldiers to die on its behalf.
In the political fights over Israel, the Jewish left—led by organizations such as J Street and even more radical groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace—has adopted a very different approach, arguing that Israel should embody the loftiest progressive ideals, both in its social policies at home and in its relations with its neighbors. In this view, to be “pro-Israel” means demanding that the Jewish State “take risks for peace,” plead guilty to an allegedly aggressive and illegitimate “occupation,” and cede territory to an oppressed Palestinian population. And it means using American power to pressure Israel in this progressive direction. The Israel they love—their version of a light unto the nations—is an Israel that acts like a lamb in a world of wolves and that sheds its national past in favor of a new Hebrew-speaking universalism.
Jewish conservatives should offer a very different vision. In the current political environment, it is easy to forget that in the 1950s, when National Review was founded, many American conservatives looked upon Israel—and the Jews—with skepticism and even hostility. Leo Strauss, the great political philosopher, was so annoyed by this conservative animus that he wrote a letter to the editor in 1957 suggesting a rather different understanding of the new Jewish state:
Israel is a country which is surrounded by mortal enemies of overwhelming numerical superiority, and in which a single book absolutely predominates in the instruction given in elementary schools and in high schools: the Hebrew Bible. Whatever the failings of individuals may be, the spirit of the country as a whole can justly be described in these terms: heroic austerity supported by the nearness of biblical antiquity. A conservative, I take it, is a man who believes that “everything good is heritage.” I know of no country today in which this belief is stronger and less lethargic than in Israel…[T]he founder of Zionism, Herzl, was fundamentally a conservative man, guided in his Zionism by conservative considerations. The moral spine of the Jews was in danger of being broken by the so-called emancipation, which in many cases had alienated them from their heritage, and yet not given them anything more than merely formal equality; it had brought about a condition which has been called “external freedom and inner servitude”; political Zionism was the attempt to restore that inner freedom, that simple dignity, of which only people who remember their heritage and are loyal to their fate are capable. . . . It helped to stem the tide of “progressive” leveling of venerable, ancestral differences; it fulfilled a conservative function.
In this spirit, Jewish conservatives should defend the Jewish nation as a heroic enterprise, one that resurrected Jewish civilization in the ancient homeland of the Jewish people and created the most modern, most democratic, most civilized state in the Middle East. In an era when conservatism in general is trying to reinvigorate the moral case for nations, the Jewish state should be advanced as a model to emulate—a country that all true friends of the democratic West should appreciate.
For over the long term, American support for Israel will depend on whether a majority of Americans—and hopefully a majority of Jews—see Israel as an exceptional nation, with a significance in the American moral imagination far greater than the small, contested piece of land it occupies in a bloody region that many Americans would often rather ignore. In the American mind, Israel should symbolize the founding city of their own biblical heritage, and it should remind Americans of the moral, spiritual, and physical toughness that is necessary to defend American civilization against its most determined enemies. Norman Podhoretz, in his classic 1982 Commentary essay “J’Accuse,” said it best: “The Bible tells us that God commanded the ancient Israelites to ‘choose life,’ and it also suggests that for a nation, the choice of life often involves choosing the sacrifices and horrors of war. The people of contemporary Israel are still guided by that commandment and its accompanying demands. This is why Israel is a light unto other people who have come to believe that nothing is worth fighting or dying for.”
Seven: The Jewish Fight Against Anti-Semitism
The Podhoretz essay was written in the aftermath of the Lebanon War, in direct response to a torrent of ideological assaults on the modern Jewish state in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and elsewhere. He borrowed the title of Emile Zola’s famous broadside about the Dreyfus affair in late-19th-century France—J’Accuse—to make a clear and powerful point: The new attacks on Israel were so vehement, so willing to abuse and distort the facts, and so apologetic toward Israel’s death-seeking enemies, that the political disease of anti-Semitism had clearly taken root. Anti-Zionism had become the new anti-Semitism of the enlightened elite. And its home was now on the American and European left.
The perverse hatred of the Jews has taken many forms throughout history. Christians once despised the Jews for theological reasons; ethnic supremacists blamed the Jews for allegedly defiling their national purity; socialists attacked the Jews for supposedly controlling all wealth; capitalists vilified the Jews for their involvement with socialism; agrarians scapegoated the Jews for supposedly destroying their economic and cultural way of life; and on and on it goes. In general, what binds these disparate hatreds together is the use of “the Jews” as fuel for ideological passions that have nothing to do with us at all. When reason fails, and when reality fails to satisfy, the Jews are always there as props to mobilize the masses and explain away the misery. In this way, as Jean-Paul Sartre explained in his classic essay “Anti-Semite and Jew,” hating Jews becomes a positive morality: a way of healing the world by assaulting and removing the Jews who infect it.
In general, America has never succumbed to the vilest forms of anti-Semitism, and the American Jewish experience has been far more welcoming than that of any other diaspora in history. Yet social discrimination against American Jews existed in earlier eras, and the persistent fear of anti-Semitism has long played a significant role in shaping the mindset of the American Jewish community. Many American Jews—or their forebears—had fled varying forms of state and popular persecution, whether in 19th-century Germany, 20th-century Eastern Europe, or in the dark days leading up to the Holocaust. Shaped in the fires of anti-Semitism, Jewish political and cultural ambitions in America focused on achieving civic equality and physical security. Fighting anti-Semitism became a central aim of many communal organizations, first among them the Anti-Defamation League. And believing that anti-Semitism was predominantly associated with a majority-Christian society—which it had been in Europe, Russia, and in a far more limited fashion in the United States—many Jews sought to protect themselves by adopting various secularist ideas. These included the rejection of cultural particularism, the “separation of church and state,” and the expansion of government power in the struggle against discrimination.
To this day, many American Jews reflexively associate anti-Semitism with the “Right.” And without question, the “neo-Nazi” and white-supremacist strains of anti-Semitism exist in America, and occasionally their sick adherents act out against the Jews. But these perverse philosophies have no broad institutional base and no representatives in American political office. They are fringe movements.
Leftist anti-Zionism, by contrast, has permeated every corner of academia and now has powerful adherents in high political office. The ideological preconceptions of our self-proclaimed sentinels against anti-Semitism, always looking for right-wing monsters to decry, often blind them to the far more dangerous ideological threat now facing the Jews: the simultaneous rise of progressive Israel-bashing and Islamic Jew-hatred.
The vanguard of this new political assault is the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. BDS is a global effort, linked to radical Islamic terror groups, that pressures churches, companies, trade associations, and universities to divest from Israel and from companies that do business with Israel. In the European Union, there is now a requirement to label goods imported from Judea and Samaria in order to deter their sale. In early 2016, the Obama administration suddenly issued guidelines for enforcing a never-enforced Oslo-era trade directive mandating the special labelling of goods made in the West Bank. And while the economic effects of the BDS movement have thus far been dubious, the false narrative on which this campaign is based has been toxic for young American Jews, especially during college.
That universities are the main setting of this anti-Israel campaign should hardly come as a shock. In both the United States and Europe, many Middle East studies departments have long been funded by multimillion-dollar donations from the Arab world, which takes advantage of the existing academic culture of identity politics to advance anti-Zionist and often anti-Western ideas. And despite various efforts to promote “Israel studies” as a more even-handed alternative, the intellectual balance of power remains firmly on the anti-Israel side. The rising prominence of “intersectionality”—a doctrine linking together all perceived injustices against recognized victim classes—is expanding the perverse alliance between progressive “social justice” activists and radical Islamic groups. The irony here, given the record of many Islamic political organizations when it comes to the treatment of minorities, women, and homosexuals, seems entirely lost on the progressive activists themselves.
In 2015 and 2016, the AMCHA Initiative conducted surveys of more than 100 campuses in the United States and found strong correlations between BDS activity and anti-Semitic attacks, including the destruction of Jewish property, the suppression of speech, and the physical assault of Jewish students. A 2016 Brandeis study on “Hotspots of Antisemitism and Anti-Israel Hostility on Campus” similarly found that the presence of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a BDS advocacy group, was one of the strongest predictors of “perceiving a hostile climate toward Israel and Jews.” While many within the mainstream American Jewish community have mobilized against BDS, a number of prominent Jewish groups are still unwilling to confront its Islamic roots, and many progressives remain blind, accommodating, or actively supportive of the anti-Israel agenda.
In the face of this progressive confusion and complicity, Jewish conservatives should develop a more hard-headed approach to anti-Semitism animated by Jewish self-respect. For as Ruth Wisse has explained, anti-Semitism is almost always about something else, some other political sickness, some ideological project in which the Jews are just a prop. Islamic radicals use the Jews as fuel for their jihadist project; European progressives use the Jews as a distraction from the obvious failure of UN-style internationalism; Euro-fascists use the Jews as scapegoats for the tragic decline of European culture. And the only way for Jews to combat this political assault, Wisse argues, is to “go on offense,” attacking the attackers rather than simply defending ourselves.
While anti-Semites are a clear and present danger to Jews, the Jewish battle against anti-Semitism presents its own moral perils. In the progressive mind, the struggle against anti-Semitism is often universalized into a campaign against all hatreds, all prejudice, and all forms of discrimination. Rather than focusing on the concrete threats to modern-day Jews and how to confront them in the real world, they pursue a utopian goal that paradoxically tarnishes all forms of ethnic, national, and cultural particularism, since loving one’s own too much is the first step toward diminishing “the other.”
In positioning the fight against Jew-hatred within this oppressor-oppressed paradigm, Jews risk turning themselves into just another member of the victimhood choir, and they risk putting victimization itself—rather than the spiritual, intellectual, and moral riches of the Jewish tradition—at the center of Jewish identity. Indeed, Holocaust remembrance is already considered the most personally significant aspect of “Jewishness” for the majority of American Jews, far outweighing Jewish literacy, support for Israel, or ritual observance. And when the psychic strain of standing up for Jewish interests and Jewish values becomes too much, some Jews come to blame themselves for other people’s hatreds; they apologize for Jewish “misdeeds” and Israeli “aggressions”; or they sever any outward signs or inward connection to Jewish identity at all. In the end, the result is the same: When Jews come to see themselves as simply victims or simply aggressors, they are no longer able to stand up for themselves as Jews.
Without question, Jews should continue to mobilize on campus against those who attack them and against administrators who mistreat them. They should encourage the continued struggle against the BDS movement. They should prepare to absorb European Jews, in America or Israel, who are fleeing anti-Semitism in ever larger numbers. They should cultivate their philo-Semitic allies worldwide. And they should decry right-wing anti-Semites and left-wing anti-Semites with equal vigor. But in the end, the only real answer to the permanent plague of anti-Semitism is Jewish pride: the enduring belief that Jews have a special purpose in the world, a sacred heritage to preserve, and a heroic history to continue. Without this moral self-confidence, the Jews will diminish themselves, and the anti-Semites will win without even firing a shot.
Eight: A Call to Action
In weighing their political and moral condition, American Jews should not overestimate their own importance. We remain a small people, and American political and cultural life hardly depends on which road American Jews choose for themselves, whether conservative or liberal, religious or secular. And while America remains the second-largest Jewish community in the world, the primary center is Israel, which is the fullest realization of Jewish national aspirations, and now the demographic, cultural, and intellectual heart of world Jewry. And while Jews and Israel are frequently at the center of world events, we would make a grave error if we believe that the current clash of civilizations—and the struggle among world powers—will turn on our actions alone. It will not.
Yet while Jews will not dictate the future of the West, the fate of the West may mirror the fate of the Jews. If the American Jewish community assimilates out of existence—or is forced to embrace an extreme version of Rod Dreher’s “Benedict option,” isolating itself entirely from American culture and society—then there is good reason to fear that all traditional communities of faith in America will suffer a similar fate. If Israel is severely attacked by a nuclear-armed Iran—or one of its terrorist proxies—then there is good reason to fear that the West will have failed to contain the broader threat of nuclear proliferation among radical groups. If anti-Semitism continues to poison so many progressive and Islamic minds—and to bring them together in common cause—then there is good reason to believe that Western culture as we know it is truly over. As go the Jews, so goes the West. And while Jews cannot save the West, they serve Western civilization best when they stand up for themselves.
The primary Jewish responsibility today—and the greatest gift that Jews can offer the world—is to defend Jewish civilization against its many detractors, at home and abroad. American Jews have a crucial role to play in this great project, both in sustaining vibrant Jewish communities in the United States and in strengthening American support for the Jewish state. To succeed, Jews will need to reform their political philosophy. For far too long, the “political stupidity of the Jews,” as Irving Kristol provocatively put it, has undermined Jewish interests, Jewish values, and Jewish continuity. The progressive worldview has long since turned against Israel, turned against traditional religion, turned against the very idea of national pride—and so Jews should oppose progressivism itself, even if they identify with certain specific positions within the liberal worldview.
Fortunately, there is some reason for hope that a new coalition of Jewish conservatives can redefine the political and cultural direction of American Jewry in the years ahead. Orthodox Jews of various stripes—Modern, Haredi, Hasidic,—are growing rapidly in number, supporting many conservative causes, and becoming more prominent in the broader Jewish community. Russian Jews, hardened by their memory of life under Soviet totalitarianism, are generally strong Jewish nationalists and vigorous opponents of American statism. The Obama legacy has further clarified that conservatives, not progressives, are now the true friends of the Jewish state, and hopefully this reality will one day set in among centrist Jews who are passionate Israel activists. And for some Jewish conservatives with little connection to or knowledge of Judaism, conservative ideas may be a pathway back to their forgotten Jewish heritage, at least for those who seek a deeper grounding for their conservative worldview and a sane cultural alternative in which to raise their children.
What Jewish conservatives need, if they ever hope to unite as a group and expand their influence, is a positive agenda: a set of ideas and arguments about how best to strengthen Jewish resolve against both our internal weaknesses and our external enemies. Such a worldview—a new Jewish conservatism, animated by a genuine love and concern for the whole Jewish people—is waiting to be born out of the sources of the Jewish tradition itself, out of the hard-won experiences of Jewish history, and out of the wisdom of conservative thinking that most Jews have for too long neglected. And today, more than ever, such an agenda is both urgently needed and may actually have the political chance to be heard.
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Jewish Conservatism: A Manifesto
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Exactly one week later, a Star Wars cantina of the American extremist right featuring everyone from David Duke to a white-nationalist Twitter personality named “Baked Alaska” gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a statue honoring the Confederate general Robert E. Lee. A video promoting the gathering railed against “the international Jewish system, the capitalist system, and the forces of globalism.” Amid sporadic street battles between far-right and “antifa” (anti-fascist) activists, a neo-Nazi drove a car into a crowd of peaceful counterprotestors, killing a 32-year-old woman.
Here, in the time span of just seven days, was the dual nature of contemporary American anti-Semitism laid bare. The most glaring difference between these two displays of hate lies not so much in their substance—both adhere to similar conspiracy theories articulating nefarious, world-altering Jewish power—but rather their self-characterization. The animosity expressed toward Jews in Charlottesville was open and unambiguous, with demonstrators proudly confessing their hatred in the familiar language of Nazis and European fascists.
The socialists in Chicago, meanwhile, though calling for a literal second Holocaust on the shores of the Mediterranean, would fervently and indignantly deny they are anti-Semitic. On the contrary, they claim the mantle of “anti-fascism” and insist that this identity naturally makes them allies of the Jewish people. As for those Jews who might oppose their often violent tactics, they are at best bystanders to fascism, at worst collaborators in “white supremacy.”
So, whereas white nationalists explicitly embrace a tribalism that excludes Jews regardless of their skin color, the progressives of the DSA and the broader “woke” community conceive of themselves as universalists—though their universalism is one that conspicuously excludes the national longings of Jews and Jews alone. And whereas the extreme right-wingers are sincere in their anti-Semitism, the socialists who called for the elimination of Israel are just as sincere in their belief that they are not anti-Semitic, even though anti-Semitism is the inevitable consequence of their rhetoric and worldview.
The sheer bluntness of far-right anti-Semitism makes it easier to identify and stigmatize as beyond the pale; individuals like David Duke and the hosts of the “Daily Shoah” podcast make no pretense of residing within the mainstream of American political debate. But the humanist appeals of the far left, whose every libel against the Jewish state is paired with a righteous invocation of “justice” for the Palestinian people, invariably trigger repetitive and esoteric debates over whether this or that article, allusion, allegory, statement, policy, or political initiative is anti-Semitic or just critical of Israel. What this difference in self-definition means is that there is rarely, if ever, any argument about the substantive nature of right-wing anti-Semitism (despicable, reprehensible, wicked, choose your adjective), while the very existence of left-wing anti-Semitism is widely doubted and almost always indignantly denied by those accused of practicing it.T o be sure, these recent manifestations of anti-Semitism occur on the left and right extremes. And statistics tell a rather comforting story about the state of anti-Semitism in America. Since the Anti-Defamation League began tracking it in 1979, anti-Jewish hate crime is at an historic low; indeed, it has been declining since a recent peak of 1,554 incidents in 2006. America, for the most part, remains a very philo-Semitic country, one of the safest, most welcoming countries for Jews on earth. A recent Pew poll found Jews to be the most admired religious group in the United States.1 If American Jews have anything to dread, it’s less anti-Semitism than the loss of Jewish peoplehood through assimilation, that is being “loved to death” by Gentiles.2 Few American Jews can say that anti-Semitism has a seriously deleterious impact on their life, that it has denied them educational or employment opportunities, or that they fear for the physical safety of themselves or their families because of their Jewish identity.
The question is whether the extremes are beginning to move in on the center. In the past year alone, the DSA’s rolls tripled from 8,000 to 25,000 dues-paying members, who have established a conspicuous presence on social media reaching far beyond what their relatively miniscule numbers attest. The DSA has been the subject of widespread media coverage, ranging from the curious to the adulatory. The white supremacists, meanwhile, found themselves understandably heartened by the strange difficulty President Donald Trump had in disavowing them. He claimed, in fact, that there had been some “very fine people” among their ranks. “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville,” tweeted David Duke, while the white-nationalist Richard Spencer said, “I’m proud of him for speaking the truth.”
Indeed, among the more troubling aspects of our highly troubling political predicament—and one that, from a Jewish perspective, provokes not a small amount of angst—is that so many ideas, individuals, and movements that could once reliably be categorized as “extreme,” in the literal sense of articulating the views of a very small minority, are no longer so easily dismissed. The DSA is part of a much broader revival of the socialist idea in America, as exemplified by the growing readership of journals like Jacobin and Current Affairs, the popularity of the leftist Chapo Trap House podcast, and the insurgent presidential campaign of self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders—who, according to a Harvard-Harris poll, is now the most popular politician in the United States. Since 2015, the average age of a DSA member dropped from 64 to 30, and a 2016 Harvard poll found a majority of Millennials do not support capitalism.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party of Donald Trump offers “nativism and culture war wedges without the Reaganomics,” according to Nicholas Grossman, a lecturer in political science at the University of Illinois. A party that was once reliably internationalist and assertive against Russian aggression now supports a president who often preaches isolationism and never has even a mildly critical thing to say about the KGB thug ruling over the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.
Like ripping the bandage off an ugly and oozing wound, Trump’s presidential campaign unleashed a bevy of unpleasant social forces that at the very least have an indirect bearing on Jewish welfare. The most unpleasant of those forces has been the so-called alternative right, or “alt-right,” a highly race-conscious political movement whose adherents are divided on the “JQ” (Jewish Question). Throughout last year’s campaign, Jewish journalists (this author included) were hit with a barrage of luridly anti-Semitic Twitter messages from self-described members of the alt-right. The tamer missives instructed us to leave America for Israel, others superimposed our faces onto the bodies of concentration camp victims.3
I do not believe Donald Trump is himself an anti-Semite, if only because anti-Semitism is mainly a preoccupation—as distinct from a prejudice—and Trump is too narcissistic to indulge any preoccupation other than himself. And there is no evidence to suggest that he subscribes to the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories favored by his alt-right supporters. But his casual resort to populism, nativism, and conspiracy theory creates a narrative environment highly favorable to anti-Semites.
Nativism, of which Trump was an early and active practitioner, is never good for the Jews, no matter how affluent or comfortable they may be and notwithstanding whether they are even the target of its particular wrath. Racial divisions, which by any measure have grown significantly worse in the year since Trump was elected, hurt all Americans, obviously, but they have a distinct impact on Jews, who are left in a precarious position as racial identities calcify. Not only are the newly emboldened white supremacists of the alt-right invariably anti-Semites, but in the increasingly racialist taxonomy of the progressive left—which more and more mainstream liberals are beginning to parrot—Jews are considered possessors of “white privilege” and, thus, members of the class to be divested of its “power” once the revolution comes. In the racially stratified society that both extremes envision, Jews lose out, simultaneously perceived (by the far right) as wily allies and manipulators of ethnic minorities in a plot to mongrelize America and (by the far left) as opportunistic “Zionists” ingratiating themselves with a racist and exploitative “white” establishment that keeps minorities down.T his politics is bad for all Americans, and Jewish Americans in particular. More and more, one sees the racialized language of the American left being applied to the Middle East conflict, wherein Israel (which is, in point of fact, one of the most racially diverse countries in the world) is referred to as a “white supremacist” state no different from that of apartheid South Africa. In a book just published by MIT Press, ornamented with a forward by Cornel West and entitled “Whites, Jews, and Us,” a French-Algerian political activist named Houria Bouteldja asks, “What can we offer white people in exchange for their decline and for the wars that will ensue?” Drawing the Jews into her race war, Bouteldja, according to the book’s jacket copy, “challenges widespread assumptions among the left in the United States and Europe—that anti-Semitism plays any role in Arab–Israeli conflicts, for example, or that philo-Semitism doesn’t in itself embody an oppressive position.” Jew-hatred is virtuous, and appreciation of the Jews is racism.
Few political activists of late have done more to racialize the Arab–Israeli conflict—and, through insidious extension of the American racial hierarchy, designate American Jews as oppressors—than the Brooklyn-born Arab activist Linda Sarsour. An organizer of the Women’s March, Sarsour has seamlessly insinuated herself into a variety of high-profile progressive campaigns, a somewhat incongruent position given her reactionary views on topics like women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. (“10 weeks of PAID maternity leave in Saudi Arabia,” she tweets. “Yes PAID. And ur worrying about women driving. Puts us to shame.”) Sarsour, who is of Palestinian descent, claims that one cannot simultaneously be a feminist and a Zionist, when it is the exact opposite that is true: No genuine believer in female equality can deny the right of Israel to exist. The Jewish state respects the rights of women more than do any of its neighbors. In an April 2017 interview, Sarsour said that she had become a high-school teacher for the purpose of “inspiring young people of color like me.” Just three months earlier, however, in a video for Vox, Sarsour confessed, “When I wasn’t wearing hijab I was just some ordinary white girl from New York City.” The donning of Muslim garb, then, confers a racial caste of “color,” which in turn confers virtue, which in turn confers a claim on political power.
This attempt to describe the Israeli–Arab conflict in American racial vernacular marks Jews as white (a perverse mirror of Nazi biological racism) and thus implicates them as beneficiaries of “structural racism,” “white privilege,” and the whole litany of benefits afforded to white people at birth in the form of—to use Ta-Nehisi Coates’s abstruse phrase—the “glowing amulet” of “whiteness.” “It’s time to admit that Arthur Balfour was a white supremacist and an anti-Semite,” reads the headline of a recent piece in—where else? —the Forward, incriminating Jewish nationalism as uniquely perfidious by dint of the fact that, like most men of his time, a (non-Jewish) British official who endorsed the Zionist idea a century ago held views that would today be considered racist. Reading figures like Bouteldja and Sarsour brings to mind the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner’s observation that “the racialization of the world has to be the most unexpected result of the antidiscrimination battle of the last half-century; it has ensured that the battle continuously re-creates the curse from which it is trying to break free.”
If Jews are white, and if white people—as a group—enjoy tangible and enduring advantages over everyone else, then this racially essentialist rhetoric ends up with Jews accused of abetting white supremacy, if not being white supremacists themselves. This is one of the overlooked ways in which the term “white supremacy” has become devoid of meaning in the age of Donald Trump, with everyone and everything from David Duke to James Comey to the American Civil Liberties Union accused of upholding it. Take the case of Ben Shapiro, the Jewish conservative polemicist. At the start of the school year, Shapiro was scheduled to give a talk at UC Berkeley, his alma matter. In advance, various left-wing groups put out a call for protest in which they labeled Shapiro—an Orthodox Jew—a “fascist thug” and “white supremacist.” An inconvenient fact ignored by Shapiro’s detractors is that, according to the ADL, he was the top target of online abuse from actual white supremacists during the 2016 presidential election. (Berkeley ultimately had to spend $600,000 protecting the event from leftist rioters.)
A more pernicious form of this discourse is practiced by left-wing writers who, insincerely claiming to have the interests of Jews at heart, scold them and their communal organizations for not doing enough in the fight against anti-Semitism. Criticizing Jews for not fully signing up with the “Resistance” (which in form and function is fast becoming the 21st-century version of the interwar Popular Front), they then slyly indict Jews for being complicit in not only their own victimization but that of the entire country at the hands of Donald Trump. The first and foremost practitioner of this bullying and rather artful form of anti-Semitism is Jeet Heer, a Canadian comic-book critic who has achieved some repute on the American left due to his frenetic Twitter activity and availability when the New Republic needed to replace its staff that had quit en masse in 2014. Last year, when Heer came across a video of a Donald Trump supporter chanting “JEW-S-A” at a rally, he declared on Twitter: “We really need to see more comment from official Jewish groups like ADL on way Trump campaign has energized anti-Semitism.”
But of course “Jewish groups” have had plenty to say about the anti-Semitism expressed by some Trump supporters—too much, in the view of their critics. Just two weeks earlier, the ADL had released a report analyzing over 2 million anti-Semitic tweets targeting Jewish journalists over the previous year. This wasn’t the first time the ADL raised its voice against Trump and the alt-right movement he emboldened, nor would it be the last. Indeed, two minutes’ worth of Googling would have shown Heer that his pronouncements about organizational Jewish apathy were wholly without foundation.4
It’s tempting to dismiss Heer’s observation as mere “concern trolling,” a form of Internet discourse characterized by insincere expressions of worry. But what he did was nastier. Immediately presented with evidence for the inaccuracy of his claims, he sneered back with a bit of wisdom from the Jewish sage Hillel the Elder, yet cast as mild threat: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” In other words: How can you Jews expect anyone to care about your kind if you don’t sufficiently oppose—as arbitrarily judged by moi, Jeet Heer—Donald Trump?
If this sort of critique were coming from a Jewish donor upset that his preferred organization wasn’t doing enough to combat anti-Semitism, or a Gentile with a proven record of concern for Jewish causes, it wouldn’t have turned the stomach. What made Heer’s interjection revolting is that, to put it mildly, he’s not exactly known for being sympathetic toward the Jewish plight. In 2015, Heer put his name to a petition calling upon an international comic-book festival to drop the Israeli company SodaStream as a co-sponsor because the Jewish state is “built on the mass ethnic cleansing of Palestinian communities and sustained through racism and discrimination.” Heer’s name appeared alongside that of Carlos Latuff, a Brazilian cartoonist who won second place in the Iranian government’s 2006 International Holocaust Cartoon Competition. For his writings on Israel, Heer has been praised as being “very good on the conflict” by none other than Philip Weiss, proprietor of the anti-Semitic hate site Mondoweiss.
In light of this track record, Heer’s newfound concern about anti-Semitism appeared rather dubious. Indeed, the bizarre way in which he expressed this concern—as, ultimately, a critique not of anti-Semitism per se but of the country’s foremost Jewish civil-rights organization—suggests he cares about anti-Semitism insofar as its existence can be used as a weapon to beat his political adversaries. And since the incorrigibly Zionist American Jewish establishment ranks high on that list (just below that of Donald Trump and his supporters), Heer found a way to blame it for anti-Semitism. And what does that tell you? It tells you that—presented with a 16-second video of a man chanting “JEW-S-A” at a Donald Trump rally—Heer’s first impulse was to condemn not the anti-Semite but the Jews.
Heer isn’t the only leftist (or New Republic writer) to assume this rhetorical cudgel. In a piece entitled “The Dismal Failure of Jewish Groups to Confront Trump,” one Stephen Lurie attacked the ADL for advising its members to stay away from the Charlottesville “Unite the Right Rally” and let police handle any provocations from neo-Nazis. “We do not have a Jewish organizational home for the fight against fascism,” he quotes a far-left Jewish activist, who apparently thinks that we live in the Weimar Republic and not a stable democracy in which law-enforcement officers and not the balaclava-wearing thugs of antifa maintain the peace. Like Jewish Communists of yore, Lurie wants to bully Jews into abandoning liberalism for the extreme left, under the pretext that mainstream organizations just won’t cut it in the fight against “white supremacy.” Indeed, Lurie writes, some “Jewish institutions and power players…have defended and enabled white supremacy.” The main group he fingers with this outrageous slander is the Republican Jewish Coalition, the implication being that this explicitly partisan Republican organization’s discrete support for the Republican president “enables white supremacy.”
It is impossible to imagine Heer, Lurie, or other progressive writers similarly taking the NAACP to task for its perceived lack of concern about racism, or castigating the Human Rights Campaign for insufficiently combating homophobia. No, it is only the cowardice of Jews that is condemned—condemned for supposedly ignoring a form of bigotry that, when expressed on the left, these writers themselves ignore or even defend. The logical gymnastics of these two New Republic writers is what happens when, at base, one fundamentally resents Jews: You end up blaming them for anti-Semitism. Blaming Jews for not sufficiently caring enough about anti-Semitism is emotionally the same as claiming that Jews are to blame for anti-Semitism. Both signal an envy and resentment of Jews predicated upon a belief that they have some kind of authority that the claimant doesn’t and therefore needs to undermine.T his past election, one could not help but notice how the media seemingly discovered anti-Semitism when it emanated from the right, and then only when its targets were Jews on the left. It was enough to make one ask where they had been when left-wing anti-Semitism had been a more serious and pervasive problem. From at least 1996 (the year Pat Buchanan made his last serious attempt at securing the GOP presidential nomination) to 2016 (when the Republican presidential nominee did more to earn the support of white supremacists and neo-Nazis than any of his predecessors), anti-Semitism was primarily a preserve of the American left. In that two-decade period—spanning the collapse of the Oslo Accords and rise of the Second Intifada to the rancorous debate over the Iraq War and obsession with “neocons” to the presidency of Barack Obama and the 2015 Iran nuclear deal—anti-Israel attitudes and anti-Semitic conspiracy made unprecedented inroads into respectable precincts of the American academy, the liberal intelligentsia, and the Democratic Party.
The main form that left-wing anti-Semitism takes in the United States today is unhinged obsession with the wrongs, real or perceived, of the state of Israel, and the belief that its Jewish supporters in the United States exercise a nefarious control over the levers of American foreign policy. In this respect, contemporary left-wing anti-Semitism is not altogether different from that of the far right, though it usually lacks the biological component deeming Jews a distinct and inferior race. (Consider the left-wing anti-Semite’s eagerness to identify and promote Jewish “dissidents” who can attest to their co-religionists’ craftiness and deceit.) The unholy synergy of left and right anti-Semitism was recently epitomized by former CIA agent and liberal stalwart Valerie Plame’s hearty endorsement, on Twitter, of an article written for an extreme right-wing website by a fellow former CIA officer named Philip Giraldi: “America’s Jews Are Driving America’s Wars.” Plame eventually apologized for sharing the article with her 50,000 followers, but not before insisting that “many neocon hawks are Jewish” and that “just FYI, I am of Jewish descent.”
The main fora in which left-wing anti-Semitism appears is academia. According to the ADL, anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses doubled from 2014 to 2015, the latest year that data are available. Writing in National Affairs, Ruth Wisse observes that “not since the war in Vietnam has there been a campus crusade as dynamic as the movement of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel.” Every academic year, a seeming surfeit of controversies erupt on campuses across the country involving the harassment of pro-Israel students and organizations, the disruption of events involving Israeli speakers (even ones who identify as left-wing), and blatantly anti-Semitic outbursts by professors and student activists. There was the Oberlin professor of rhetoric, Joy Karega, who posted statements on social media claiming that Israel had created ISIS and had orchestrated the murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. There is the Rutgers associate professor of women’s and gender studies, Jasbir Puar, who popularized the ludicrous term “pinkwashing” to defame Israel’s LGBT acceptance as a massive conspiracy to obscure its oppression of Palestinians. Her latest book, The Right to Maim, academically peer-reviewed and published by Duke University Press, attacks Israel for sparing the lives of Palestinian civilians, accusing its military of “shooting to maim rather than to kill” so that it may keep “Palestinian populations as perpetually debilitated, and yet alive, in order to control them.”
One could go on and on about such affronts not only to Jews and supporters of Israel but to common sense, basic justice, and anyone who believes in the prudent use of taxpayer dollars. That several organizations exist solely for the purpose of monitoring anti-Israel and anti-Semitic agitation on American campuses attests to the prolificacy of the problem. But it’s unclear just how reflective these isolated examples of the college experience really are. A 2017 Stanford study purporting to examine the issue interviewed 66 Jewish students at five California campuses noted for “being particularly fertile for anti-Semitism and for having an active presence of student groups critical of Israel and Zionism.” It concluded that “contrary to widely shared impressions, we found a picture of campus life that is neither threatening nor alarmist…students reported feeling comfortable on their campuses, and, more specifically, comfortable as Jews on their campuses.” To the extent that Jewish students do feel pressured, the report attempted to spread the blame around, indicting pro-Israel activists alongside those agitating against it. “[Survey respondents] fear that entering political debate, especially when they feel the social pressures of both Jewish and non-Jewish activist communities, will carry social costs that they are unwilling to bear.”
Yet by its own admission, the report “only engaged students who were either unengaged or minimally engaged in organized Jewish life on their campuses.” Researchers made a study of anti-Semitism, then, by interviewing the Jews least likely to experience it. “Most people don’t really think I’m Jewish because I look very Latina…it doesn’t come up in conversation,” one such student said in an interview. Ultimately, the report revealed more about the attitudes of unengaged (and, thus, uninformed) Jews than about the state of anti-Semitism on college campuses. That may certainly be useful in its own right as a means of understanding how unaffiliated Jews view debates over Israel, but it is not an accurate marker of developments on college campuses more broadly.
A more extensive 2016 Brandeis study of Jewish students at 50 schools found 34 percent agreed at least “somewhat” that their campus has a hostile environment toward Israel. Yet the variation was wide; at some schools, only 3 percent agreed, while at others, 70 percent did. Only 15 percent reported a hostile environment towards Jews. Anti-Semitism was found to be more prevalent at public universities than private ones, with the determinative factor being the presence of a Students for Justice in Palestine chapter on campus. Important context often lost in conversations about campus anti-Semitism, and reassuring to those concerned about it, is that it is simply not the most important issue roiling higher education. “At most schools,” the report found, “fewer than 10 percent of Jewish students listed issues pertaining to either Jews or Israel as among the most pressing on campus.”F or generations, American Jews have depended on anti-Semitism’s remaining within a moral quarantine, a cordon sanitaire, and America has reliably kept this societal virus contained. While there are no major signs that this barricade is breaking down in the immediate future, there are worrying indications on the political horizon.
Surveying the situation at the international level, the declining global position of the United States—both in terms of its hard military and economic power relative to rising challengers and its position as a credible beacon of liberal democratic values—does not portend well for Jews, American or otherwise. American leadership of the free world, has, in addition to ensuring Israel’s security, underwritten the postwar liberal world order. And it is the constituent members of that order, the liberal democratic states, that have served as the best guarantor of the Jews’ life and safety over their 6,000-year history. Were America’s global leadership role to diminish or evaporate, it would not only facilitate the rise of authoritarian states like Iran and terrorist movements such as al-Qaeda, committed to the destruction of Israel and the murder of Jews, but inexorably lead to a worldwide rollback of liberal democracy, an outcome that would inevitably redound to the detriment of Jews.
Domestically, political polarization and the collapse of public trust in every American institution save the military are demolishing what little confidence Americans have left in their system and governing elites, not to mention preparing the ground for some ominous political scenarios. Widely cited survey data reveal that the percentage of American Millennials who believe it “essential” to live in a liberal democracy hovers at just over 25 percent. If Trump is impeached or loses the next election, a good 40 percent of the country will be outraged and susceptible to belief in a stab-in-the-back theory accounting for his defeat. Whom will they blame? Perhaps the “neoconservatives,” who disproportionately make up the ranks of Trump’s harshest critics on the right?
Ultimately, the degree to which anti-Semitism becomes a problem in America hinges on the strength of the antibodies within the country’s communal DNA to protect its pluralistic and liberal values. But even if this resistance to tribalism and the cult of personality is strong, it may not be enough to abate the rise of an intellectual and societal disease that, throughout history, thrives upon economic distress, xenophobia, political uncertainty, ethnic chauvinism, conspiracy theory, and weakening democratic norms.
1 Somewhat paradoxically, according to FBI crime statistics, the majority of religiously based hate crimes target Jews, more than double the amount targeting Muslims. This indicates more the commitment of the country’s relatively small number of hard-core anti-Semites than pervasive anti-Semitism.
4 The ADL has had to maintain a delicate balancing act in the age of Trump, coming under fire by many conservative Jews for a perceived partisan tilt against the right. This makes Heer’s complaint all the more ignorant — and unhelpful.
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Review of 'The Once and Future Liberal' By Mark Lilla
Lilla, a professor at Columbia University, tells us that “the story of how a successful liberal politics of solidarity became a failed pseudo-politics of identity is not a simple one.” And about this, he’s right. Lilla quotes from the feminist authors of the 1977 Combahee River Collective Manifesto: “The most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.” Feminists looked to instantiate the “radical” and electrifying phrase which insisted that “the personal is political.” The phrase, argues Lilla, was generally seen in “a somewhat Marxist fashion to mean that everything that seems personal is in fact political.”
The upshot was fragmentation. White feminists were deemed racist by black feminists—and both were found wanting by lesbians, who also had black and white contingents. “What all these groups wanted,” explains Lilla, “was more than social justice and an end to the [Vietnam] war. They also wanted there to be no space between what they felt inside and what they saw and did in the world.” He goes on: “The more obsessed with personal identity liberals become, the less willing they become to engage in reasoned political debate.” In the end, those on the left came to a realization: “You can win a debate by claiming the greatest degree of victimization and thus the greatest outrage at being subjected to questioning.”
But Lilla’s insights into the emotional underpinnings of political correctness are undercut by an inadequate, almost bizarre sense of history. He appears to be referring to the 1970s when, zigzagging through history, he writes that “no recognition of personal or group identity was coming from the Democratic Party, which at the time was dominated by racist Dixiecrats and white union officials of questionable rectitude.”
What is he talking about? Is Lilla referring to the Democratic Party of Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and George McGovern? Is he referring obliquely to George Wallace? If so, why is Wallace never mentioned? Lilla seems not to know that it was the 1972 McGovern Democratic Convention that introduced minority seating to be set aside for blacks and women.
At only 140 pages, this is a short book. But even so, Lilla could have devoted a few pages to Frankfurt ideologist Herbert Marcuse and his influence on the left. In the 1960s, Marcuse argued that leftists and liberals were entitled to restrain centrist and conservative speech on the grounds that the universities had to act as a counterweight to society at large. But this was not just rhetoric; in the campus disruption of the early 1970s at schools such as Yale, Cornell, and Amherst, Marcuse’s ideals were pushed to the fore.
If Lilla’s argument comes off as flaccid, perhaps that’s because the aim of The Once and Future Liberal is more practical than principled. “The only way” to protect our rights, he tells the reader, “is to elect liberal Democratic governors and state legislators who’ll appoint liberal state attorneys.” According to Lilla, “the paradox of identity liberalism” is that it undercuts “the things it professes to want,” namely political power. He insists, rightly, that politics has to be about persuasion but then contradicts himself in arguing that “politics is about seizing power to defend the truth.” In other words, Lilla wants a better path to total victory.
Given what Lilla, descending into hysteria, describes as “the Republican rage for destruction,” liberals and Democrats have to win elections lest the civil rights of blacks, women, and gays are rolled back. As proof of the ever-looming danger, he notes that when the “crisis of the mid-1970s threatened…the country turned not against corporations and banks, but against liberalism.” Yet he gives no hint of the trail of liberal failures that led to the crisis of the mid-’70s. You’d never know reading Lilla, for example, that the Black Power movement intensified racial hostilities that were then further exacerbated by affirmative action and busing. And you’d have no idea that, at considerable cost, the poverty programs of the Great Society failed to bring poorer African Americans into the economic mainstream. Nor does Lilla deal with the devotion to Keynesianism that produced inflation without economic growth during the Carter presidency.
Despite his discursive ambling through the recent history of American political life, Lilla has a one-word explanation for identity politics: Reaganism. “Identity,” he writes, is “Reaganism for lefties.” What’s crucial in combating Reaganism, he argues, is to concentrate on our “shared political” status as citizens. “Citizenship is a crucial weapon in the battle against Reaganite dogma because it brings home that fact that we are part of a legitimate common enterprise.” But then he asserts that the “American right uses the term citizenship today as a means of exclusion.” The passage might lead the reader to think that Lilla would take up the question of immigration and borders. But he doesn’t, and the closing passages of the book dribble off into characteristic zigzags. Lilla tells us that “Black Lives Matter is a textbook example of how not to build solidarity” but then goes on, without evidence, to assert the accuracy of the Black Lives Matter claim that African-Americans have been singled out for police mistreatment.
It would be nice to argue that The Once and Future Liberal is a near miss, a book that might have had enduring importance if only it went that extra step. But Lilla’s passing insights on the perils of a politically correct identity politics drown in the rhetoric of conventional bromides that fill most of the pages of this disappointing book.
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n Athens several years ago, I had dinner with a man running for the national parliament. I asked him whether he thought he had a shot at winning. He was sure of victory, he told me. “I have hired a very famous political consultant from Washington,” he said. “He is the man who elected Reagan. Expensive. But the best.”
The political genius he then described was a minor political flunky I had met in Washington long ago, a more-or-less anonymous member of the Republican National Committee before he faded from view at the end of Ronald Reagan’s second term. Mutual acquaintances told me he still lived in a nice neighborhood in Northern Virginia, but they never could figure out what the hell he did to earn his money. (This is a recurring mystery throughout the capital.) I had to come to Greece to find the answer.
It is one of the dark arts of Washington, this practice of American political hacks traveling to faraway lands and suckering foreign politicians into paying vast sums for splashy, state-of-the-art, essentially worthless “services.” And it’s perfectly legal. Paul Manafort, who briefly managed Donald Trump’s campaign last summer, was known as a pioneer of the globe-trotting racket. If he hadn’t, as it were, veered out of his gutter into the slightly higher lane of U.S. presidential politics, he likely could have hoovered cash from the patch pockets of clueless clients from Ouagadougou to Zagreb for the rest of his natural life and nobody in Washington would have noticed.
But he veered, and now he and a colleague find themselves indicted by Robert Mueller, the Inspector Javert of the Russian-collusion scandal. When those indictments landed, they instantly set in motion the familiar scramble. Trump fans announced that the indictments were proof that there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians—or, in the crisp, emphatic phrasing of a tweet by the world’s Number One Trump Fan, Donald Trump: “NO COLLUSION!!!!” The Russian-scandal fetishists in the press corps replied in chorus: It’s still early! Javert required more time, and so will Mueller, and so will they.
A good Washington scandal requires a few essential elements. One is a superabundance of information. From these data points, conspiracy-minded reporters can begin to trace associations, warranted or not, and from the associations, they can infer motives and objectives with which, stretched together, they can limn a full-blown conspiracy theory. The Manafort indictment released a flood of new information, and at once reporters were pawing for nuggets that might eventually form a compelling case for collusion.
They failed to find any because Manafort’s indictment, in essence, involved his efforts to launder his profits from his international political work, not his work for the Trump campaign. Fortunately for the obsessives, another element is required for a good scandal: a colorful cast. The various Clinton scandals brought us Asian money-launderers and ChiCom bankers, along with an entire Faulkner-novel’s worth of bumpkins, sharpies, and backwoods swindlers, plus that intern in the thong. Watergate, the mother lode of Washington scandals, featured a host of implausible characters, from the central-casting villain G. Gordon Liddy to Sam Ervin, a lifelong segregationist and racist who became a hero to liberals everywhere.
Here, at last, is one area where the Russian scandal has begun to show promise. Manafort and his business partner seem too banal to hold the interest of anyone but a scandal obsessive. Beneath the pile of paper Mueller dumped on them, however, another creature could be seen peeking out shyly. This would be the diminutive figure of George Papadopoulos. An unpaid campaign adviser to Trump, Papadopoulos pled guilty to lying to the FBI about the timing of his conversations with Russian agents. He is quickly becoming the stuff of legend.
Papadopoulos is an exemplar of a type long known to American politics. He is the nebbish bedazzled by the big time—achingly ambitious, though lacking the skill, or the cunning, to climb the greasy pole. So he remains at the periphery of the action, ever eager to serve. Papadopoulos’s résumé, for a man under 30, is impressively padded. He said he served as the U.S. representative to the Model United Nations in 2012, though nobody recalls seeing him there. He boasted of a four-year career at the Hudson Institute, though in fact he spent one year there as an unpaid intern and three doing contract research for one of Hudson’s scholars. On his LinkedIn page, he listed himself as a keynote speaker at a Greek American conference in 2008, but in fact he participated only in a panel discussion. The real keynoter was Michael Dukakis.
With this hunger for achievement, real or imagined, Papadopoulos could not let a presidential campaign go by without climbing aboard. In late 2015, he somehow attached himself to Ben Carson’s campaign. He was never paid and lasted four months. His presence went largely unnoticed. “If there was any work product, I never saw it,” Carson’s campaign manager told Time. The deputy campaign manager couldn’t even recall his name. Then suddenly, in April 2016, Papadopoulos appeared on a list of “foreign-policy advisers” to Donald Trump—and, according to Mueller’s court filings, resolved to make his mark by acting as a liaison between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government.
While Mueller tells the story of Papadopoulos’s adventures in the dry, Joe Friday prose of a legal document, it could easily be the script for a Peter Sellers movie from the Cold War era. The young man’s résumé is enough to impress the campaign’s impressionable officials as they scavenge for foreign-policy advisers: “Hey, Corey! This dude was in the Model United Nations!”
Papadopoulus (played by Sellers) sets about his mission. A few weeks after signing on to the campaign, he travels to Europe, where he meets a mysterious “Professor” (Peter Ustinov). “Initially the Professor seemed uninterested in Papadopoulos,” says Mueller’s indictment. A likely story! Yet when Papadopoulus lets drop that he’s an adviser to Trump, the Professor suddenly “appeared to take great interest” in him. They arrange a meeting in London to which the Professor invites a “female Russian national” (Elke Sommer). Without much effort, the femme fatale convinces Papadopoulus that she is Vladimir Putin’s niece. (“I weel tell z’American I em niece of Great Leader! Zat idjut belief ennytink!”) Over the next several months our hero sends many emails to campaign officials and to the Professor, trying to arrange a meeting between them. As far we know from the indictment, nothing came of his mighty efforts.
And there matters lay until January 2017, when the FBI came calling. Agents asked Papadopoulos about his interactions with the Russians. Even though he must have known that hundreds of his emails on the subject would soon be available to the FBI, he lied and told the agents that the contacts had occurred many months before he joined the campaign. History will record Papadopoulos as the man who forgot that emails carry dates on them. After the FBI interview, according to the indictment, he tried to destroy evidence with the same competence he has brought to his other endeavors. He closed his Facebook account, on which several communications with the Russians had taken place. He threw out his old cellphone. (That should do it!) After that, he began wearing a blindfold, on the theory that if he couldn’t see the FBI, the FBI couldn’t see him.
I made that last one up, obviously. For now, the great hope of scandal hobbyists is that Papadopoulus was wearing a wire between the time he secretly pled guilty and the time his plea was made public. This would have allowed him to gather all kinds of incriminating dirt in conversations with former colleagues. And the dirt is there, all right, as the Manafort indictment proves. Unfortunately for our scandal fetishists, so far none of it shows what their hearts most desire: active collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.
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An affair to remember
All this changed with the release in 1967 of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and Mike Nichols’s The Graduate. These two films, made in nouveau European style, treated familiar subjects—a pair of Depression-era bank robbers and a college graduate in search of a place in the adult world—in an unmistakably modern manner. Both films were commercial successes that catapulted their makers and stars into the top echelon of what came to be known as “the new Hollywood.”
Bonnie and Clyde inaugurated a new era in which violence on screen simultaneously became bloodier and more aestheticized, and it has had enduring impact as a result. But it was The Graduate that altered the direction of American moviemaking with its specific appeal to younger and hipper moviegoers who had turned their backs on more traditional cinematic fare. When it opened in New York in December, the movie critic Hollis Alpert reported with bemusement that young people were lining up in below-freezing weather to see it, and that they showed no signs of being dismayed by the cold: “It was as though they all knew they were going to see something good, something made for them.”
The Graduate, whose aimless post-collegiate title character is seduced by the glamorous but neurotic wife of his father’s business partner, is part of the common stock of American reference. Now, a half-century later, it has become the subject of a book-length study, Beverly Gray’s Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation.1 As is so often the case with pop-culture books, Seduced by Mrs. Robinson is almost as much about its self-absorbed Baby Boomer author (“The Graduate taught me to dance to the beat of my own drums”) as its subject. It has the further disadvantage of following in the footsteps of Mark Harris’s magisterial Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (2008), in which the film is placed in the context of Hollywood’s mid-’60s cultural flux. But Gray’s book offers us a chance to revisit this seminal motion picture and consider just why it was that The Graduate spoke to Baby Boomers in a distinctively personal way.T he Graduate began life in 1963 as a novella of the same name by Charles Webb, a California-born writer who saw his book not as a comic novel but as a serious artistic statement about America’s increasingly disaffected youth. It found its way into the hands of a producer named Lawrence Turman who saw The Graduate as an opportunity to make the cinematic equivalent of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Turman optioned the book, then sent it to Mike Nichols, who in 1963 was still best known for his comic partnership with Elaine May but had just made his directorial debut with the original Broadway production of Barefoot in the Park.
Both men saw that The Graduate posed a problem to anyone seeking to put it on the screen. In Turman’s words, “In the book the character of Benjamin Braddock is sort of a whiny pain in the fanny [whom] you want to shake or spank.” To this end, they turned to Buck Henry, who had co-created the popular TV comedy Get Smart with Mel Brooks, to write a screenplay that would retain much of Webb’s dryly witty dialogue (“I think you’re the most attractive of all my parents’ friends”) while making Benjamin less priggish.
Nichols’s first major act was casting Dustin Hoffman, an obscure New York stage actor pushing 30, for the title role. No one but Nichols seems to have thought him suitable in any way. Not only was Hoffman short and nondescript-looking, but he was unmistakably Jewish, whereas Benjamin is supposedly the scion of a newly monied WASP family from southern California. Nevertheless, Nichols decided he wanted “a short, dark, Jewish, anomalous presence, which is how I experience myself,” in order to underline Benjamin’s alienation from the world of his parents.
Nichols filled the other roles in equally unexpected ways. He hired the Oscar winner Anne Bancroft, only six years Hoffman’s senior, to play the unbalanced temptress who lures Benjamin into her bed, then responds with volcanic rage when he falls in love with her beautiful daughter Elaine. He and Henry also steered clear of on-screen references to the campus protests that had only recently started to convulse America. Instead, he set The Graduate in a timeless upper-middle-class milieu inhabited by people more interested in social climbing than self-actualization—the same milieu from which Benjamin is so alienated that he is reduced to near-speechlessness whenever his family and their friends ask him what he plans to do now that he has graduated.
The film’s only explicit allusion to its cultural moment is the use on the soundtrack of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” the painfully earnest anthem of youthful angst that is for all intents and purposes the theme song of The Graduate. Nevertheless, Henry’s screenplay leaves little doubt that the film was in every way a work of its time and place. As he later explained to Mark Harris, it is a study of “the disaffection of young people for an environment that they don’t seem to be in sync with.…Nobody had made a film specifically about that.”
This aspect of The Graduate is made explicit in a speech by Benjamin that has no direct counterpart in the novel: “It’s like I was playing some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people. I mean, no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up.”
The Graduate was Nichols’s second film, following his wildly successful movie version of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Albee’s play was a snarling critique of the American dream, which he believed to be a snare and a delusion. The Graduate had the same skeptical view of postwar America, but its pessimism was played for laughs. When Benjamin is assured by a businessman in the opening scene that the secret to success in America is “plastics,” we are meant to laugh contemptuously at the smugness of so blinkered a view of life. Moreover, the contempt is as real as the laughter: The Graduate has it both ways. For the same reason, the farcical quality of the climactic scene (in which Benjamin breaks up Elaine’s marriage to a handsome young WASP and carts her off to an unknown fate) is played without musical underscoring, a signal that what Benjamin is doing is really no laughing matter.
The youth-oriented message of The Graduate came through loud and clear to its intended audience, which paid no heed to the mixed reviews from middle-aged reviewers unable to grasp what Nichols and Henry were up to. Not so Roger Ebert, the newly appointed 25-year-old movie critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, who called The Graduate “the funniest American comedy of the year…because it has a point of view. That is to say, it is against something.”
Even more revealing was the response of David Brinkley, then the co-anchor of NBC’s nightly newscast, who dismissed The Graduate as “frantic nonsense” but added that his college-age son and his classmates “liked it because it said about the parents and others what they would have said about us if they had made the movie—that we are self-centered and materialistic, that we are licentious and deeply hypocritical about it, that we try to make them into walking advertisements for our own affluence.”
A year after the release of The Graduate, a film-industry report cited in Pictures at a Revolution revealed that “48 percent of all movie tickets in America were now being sold to filmgoers under the age of 24.” A very high percentage of those tickets were to The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde. At long last, Hollywood had figured out what the Baby Boomers wanted to see.A nd how does The Graduate look a half-century later? To begin with, it now appears to have been Mike Nichols’s creative “road not taken.” In later years, Nichols became less an auteur than a Hollywood director who thought like a Broadway director, choosing vehicles of solid middlebrow-liberal appeal and serving them faithfully without imposing a strong creative vision of his own. In The Graduate, by contrast, he revealed himself to be powerfully aware of the same European filmmaking trends that shaped Bonnie and Clyde. Within a naturalistic framework, he deployed non-naturalistic “new wave” cinematographic techniques with prodigious assurance—and he was willing to end The Graduate on an ambiguous note instead of wrapping it up neatly and pleasingly, letting the camera linger on the unsure faces of Hoffman and Ross as they ride off into an unsettling future.
It is this ambiguity, coupled with Nichols’s prescient decision not to allow The Graduate to become a literal portrayal of American campus life in the troubled mid-’60s, that has kept the film fresh. But The Graduate is fresh in a very particular way: It is a young person’s movie, the tale of a boy-man terrified by the prospect of growing up to be like his parents. Therein lay the source of its appeal to young audiences. The Graduate showed them what they, too, feared most, and hinted at a possible escape route.
In the words of Beverly Gray, who saw The Graduate when it first came out in 1967: “The Graduate appeared in movie houses just as we young Americans were discovering how badly we wanted to distance ourselves from the world of our parents….That polite young high achiever, those loving but smothering parents, those comfortable but slightly bland surroundings: They combined to form an only slightly exaggerated version of my own cozy West L.A. world.”
Yet to watch The Graduate today—especially if you first saw it when much younger—is also to be struck by the extreme unattractiveness of its central character. Hoffman plays Benjamin not as the comically ineffectual nebbish of Jewish tradition but as a near-catatonic robot who speaks by turns in a flat monotone and a frightened nasal whine. It is impossible to understand why Mrs. Robinson would want to go to bed with such a mousy creature, much less why Elaine would run off with him—an impression that has lately acquired an overlay of retrospective irony in the wake of accusations that Hoffman has sexually harassed female colleagues on more than one occasion. Precisely because Benjamin is so unlikable, it is harder for modern-day viewers to identify with him in the same way as did Gray and her fellow Boomers. To watch a Graduate-influenced film like Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming (1995), a poignant romantic comedy about a group of Gen-X college graduates who deliberately choose not to get on with their lives, is to see a closely similar dilemma dramatized in an infinitely more “relatable” way, one in which the crippling anxiety of the principal characters is presented as both understandable and pitiable, thus making it funnier.
Be that as it may, The Graduate is a still-vivid snapshot of a turning point in American cultural history. Before Benjamin Braddock, American films typically portrayed men who were not overgrown, smooth-faced children but full-grown adults, sometimes misguided but incontestably mature. After him, permanent immaturity became the default position of Hollywood-style masculinity.
For this reason, it will be interesting to see what the Millennials, so many of whom demand to be shielded from the “triggering” realities of adult life, make of The Graduate if and when they come to view it. I have a feeling that it will speak to a fair number of them far more persuasively than it did to those of us who—unlike Benjamin Braddock—longed when young to climb the high hill of adulthood and see for ourselves what awaited us on the far side.
1 Algonquin, 278 pages
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“I think that’s best left to states and locales to decide,” DeVos replied. “If the underlying question is . . .”
Murphy interrupted. “You can’t say definitively today that guns shouldn’t be in schools?”
“Well, I will refer back to Senator Enzi and the school that he was talking about in Wapiti, Wyoming, I think probably there, I would imagine that there’s probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies.”
Murphy continued his line of questioning unfazed. “If President Trump moves forward with his plan to ban gun-free school zones, will you support that proposal?”
“I will support what the president-elect does,” DeVos replied. “But, senator, if the question is around gun violence and the results of that, please know that my heart bleeds and is broken for those families that have lost any individual due to gun violence.”
Because all this happened several million outrage cycles ago, you may have forgotten what happened next. Rather than mention DeVos’s sympathy for the victims of gun violence, or her support for federalism, or even her deference to the president, the media elite fixated on her hypothetical aside about grizzly bears.
“Betsy DeVos Cites Grizzly Bears During Guns-in-Schools Debate,” read the NBC News headline. “Citing grizzlies, education nominee says states should determine school gun policies,” reported CNN. “Sorry, Betsy DeVos,” read a headline at the Atlantic, “Guns Aren’t a Bear Necessity in Schools.”
DeVos never said that they were, of course. Nor did she “cite” the bear threat in any definitive way. What she did was decline the opportunity to make a blanket judgment about guns and schools because, in a continent-spanning nation of more than 300 million people, one standard might not apply to every circumstance.
After all, there might be—there are—cases when guns are necessary for security. Earlier this year, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe signed into law a bill authorizing some retired police officers to carry firearms while working as school guards. McAuliffe is a Democrat.
In her answer to Murphy, DeVos referred to a private meeting with Senator Enzi, who had told her of a school in Wyoming that has a fence to keep away grizzly bears. And maybe, she reasoned aloud, the school might have a gun on the premises in case the fence doesn’t work.
As it turns out, the school in Wapiti is gun-free. But we know that only because the Washington Post treated DeVos’s offhand remark as though it were the equivalent of Alexander Butterfield’s revealing the existence of the secret White House tapes. “Betsy DeVos said there’s probably a gun at a Wyoming school to ward off grizzlies,” read the Post headline. “There isn’t.” Oh, snap!
The article, like the one by NBC News, ended with a snarky tweet. The Post quoted user “Adam B.,” who wrote, “‘We need guns in schools because of grizzly bears.’ You know what else stops bears? Doors.” Clever.
And telling. It becomes more difficult every day to distinguish between once-storied journalistic institutions and the jabbering of anonymous egg-avatar Twitter accounts. The eagerness with which the press misinterprets and misconstrues Trump officials is something to behold. The “context” the best and brightest in media are always eager to provide us suddenly goes poof when the opportunity arises to mock, impugn, or castigate the president and his crew. This tendency is especially pronounced when the alleged gaffe fits neatly into a prefabricated media stereotype: that DeVos is unqualified, say, or that Rick Perry is, well, Rick Perry.
On November 2, the secretary of energy appeared at an event sponsored by Axios.com and NBC News. He described a recent trip to Africa:
It’s going to take fossil fuels to push power out to those villages in Africa, where a young girl told me to my face, “One of the reasons that electricity is so important to me is not only because I won’t have to try to read by the light of a fire, and have those fumes literally killing people, but also from the standpoint of sexual assault.” When the lights are on, when you have light, it shines the righteousness, if you will, on those types of acts. So from the standpoint of how you really affect people’s lives, fossil fuels is going to play a role in that.
This heartfelt story of the impact of electrification on rural communities was immediately distorted into a metaphor for Republican ignorance and cruelty.
“Energy Secretary Rick Perry Just Made a Bizarre Claim About Sexual Assault and Fossil Fuels,” read the Buzzfeed headline. “Energy Secretary Rick Perry Says Fossil Fuels Can Prevent Sexual Assault,” read the headline from NBC News. “Rick Perry Says the Best Way to Prevent Rape Is Oil, Glorious Oil,” said the Daily Beast.
“Oh, that Rick Perry,” wrote Gail Collins in a New York Times column. “Whenever the word ‘oil’ is mentioned, Perry responds like a dog on the scent of a hamburger.” You will note that the word “oil” is not mentioned at all in Perry’s remarks.
You will note, too, that what Perry said was entirely commonsensical. While the precise relation between public lighting and public safety is unknown, who can doubt that brightly lit areas feel safer than dark ones—and that, as things stand today, cities and towns are most likely to be powered by fossil fuels? “The value of bright street lights for dispirited gray areas rises from the reassurance they offer to some people who need to go out on the sidewalk, or would like to, but lacking the good light would not do so,” wrote Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. “Thus the lights induce these people to contribute their own eyes to the upkeep of the street.” But c’mon, what did Jane Jacobs know?
No member of the Trump administration so rankles the press as the president himself. On the November morning I began this column, I awoke to outrage that President Trump had supposedly violated diplomatic protocol while visiting Japan and its prime minister, Shinzo Abe. “President Trump feeds fish, winds up pouring entire box of food into koi pond,” read the CNN headline. An article on CBSNews.com headlined “Trump empties box of fish food into Japanese koi pond” began: “President Donald Trump’s visit to Japan briefly took a turn from formal to fishy.” A Bloomberg reporter traveling with the president tweeted, “Trump and Abe spooning fish food into a pond. (Toward the end, @potus decided to just dump the whole box in for the fish).”
Except that’s not what Trump “decided.” In fact, Trump had done exactly what Abe had done a few seconds before. That fact was buried in write-ups of the viral video of Trump and the fish. “President Trump was criticized for throwing an entire box of fish food into a koi pond during his visit to Japan,” read a Tweet from the New York Daily News, linking to a report on phony criticism Trump received because of erroneous reporting from outlets like the News.
There’s an endless, circular, Möbius-strip-like quality to all this nonsense. Journalists are so eager to catch the president and his subordinates doing wrong that they routinely traduce the very canons of journalism they are supposed to hold dear. Partisan and personal animus, laziness, cynicism, and the oversharing culture of social media are a toxic mix. The press in 2017 is a lot like those Japanese koi fish: frenzied, overstimulated, and utterly mindless.
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Review of 'Lessons in Hope' By George Weigel
Standing before the eternal flame, a frail John Paul shed silent tears for 6 million victims, including some of his own childhood friends from Krakow. Then, after reciting verses from Psalm 31, he began: “In this place of memories, the mind and heart and soul feel an extreme need for silence. … Silence, because there are no words strong enough to deplore the terrible tragedy of the Shoah.” Parkinson’s disease strained his voice, but it was clear that the pope’s irrepressible humanity and spiritual strength had once more stood him in good stead.
George Weigel watched the address from NBC’s Jerusalem studios, where he was providing live analysis for the network. As he recalls in Lessons in Hope, his touching and insightful memoir of his time as the pope’s biographer, “Our newsroom felt the impact of those words, spoken with the weight of history bearing down on John Paul and all who heard him: normally a place of bedlam, the newsroom fell completely silent.” The pope, he writes, had “invited the world to look, hard, at the stuff of its redemption.”
Weigel, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, published his biography of John Paul in two volumes, Witness to Hope (1999) and The End and the Beginning (2010). His new book completes a John Paul triptych, and it paints a more informal, behind-the-scenes portrait. Readers, Catholic and otherwise, will finish the book feeling almost as though they knew the 264th successor of Peter. Lessons in Hope is also full of clerical gossip. Yet Weigel never loses sight of his main purpose: to illuminate the character and mind of the “emblematic figure of the second half of the twentieth century.”
The book’s most important contribution comes in its restatement of John Paul’s profound political thought at a time when it is sorely needed. Throughout, Weigel reminds us of the pope’s defense of the freedom of conscience; his emphasis on culture as the primary engine of history; and his strong support for democracy and the free economy.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the pope continued to promote these ideas in such encyclicals as Centesimus Annus. The 1991 document reiterated the Church’s opposition to socialist regimes that reduce man to “a molecule within the social organism” and trample his right to earn “a living through his own initiative.” Centesimus Annus also took aim at welfare states for usurping the role of civil society and draining “human energies.” The pope went on to explain the benefits, material and moral, of free enterprise within a democratic, rule-of-law framework.
Yet a libertarian manifesto Centesimus Annus was not. It took note of free societies’ tendency to breed spiritual poverty, materialism, and social incohesion, which in turn could lead to soft totalitarianism. John Paul called on state, civil society, and people of God to supply the “robust public moral culture” (in Weigel’s words) that would curb these excesses and ensure that free-market democracies are ordered to the common good.
When Weigel emerged as America’s preeminent interpreter of John Paul, in the 1980s and ’90s, these ideas were ascendant among Catholic thinkers. In addition to Weigel, proponents included the philosopher Michael Novak and Father Richard John Neuhaus of First Things magazine (both now dead). These were faithful Catholics (in Neuhaus’s case, a relatively late convert) nevertheless at peace with the free society, especially the American model. They had many qualms with secular modernity, to be sure. But with them, there was no question that free societies and markets are preferable to unfree ones.
How things have changed. Today all the energy in those Catholic intellectual circles is generated by writers and thinkers who see modernity as beyond redemption and freedom itself as the problem. For them, the main question is no longer how to correct the free society’s course (by shoring up moral foundations, through evangelization, etc.). That ship has sailed or perhaps sunk, according to this view. The challenges now are to protect the Church against progressivism’s blows and to see beyond the free society as a political horizon.
Certainly the trends that worried John Paul in Centesimus Annus have accelerated since the encyclical was issued. “The claim that agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and the basic attitude which correspond to democratic forms of political life” has become even more hegemonic than it was in 1991. “Those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it” increasingly get treated as ideological lepers. And with the weakening of transcendent truths, ideas are “easily manipulated for reasons of power.”
Thus a once-orthodox believer finds himself or herself compelled to proclaim that there is no biological basis to gender; that men can menstruate and become pregnant; that there are dozens of family forms, all as valuable and deserving of recognition as the conjugal union of a man and a woman; and that speaking of the West’s Judeo-Christian patrimony is tantamount to espousing white supremacy. John Paul’s warnings read like a description of the present.
The new illiberal Catholics—a label many of these thinkers embrace—argue that these developments aren’t a distortion of the idea of the free society but represent its very essence. This is a mistake. Basic to the free society is the freedom of conscience, a principle enshrined in democratic constitutions across the West and, I might add, in the Catholic Church’s post–Vatican II magisterium. Under John Paul, religious liberty became Rome’s watchword in the fight against Communist totalitarianism, and today it is the Church’s best weapon against the encroachments of secular progressivism. The battle is far from lost, moreover. There is pushback in the courts, at the ballot box, and online. Sometimes it takes demagogic forms that should discomfit people of faith. Then again, there is a reason such pushback is called “reaction.”
A bigger challenge for Catholics prepared to part ways with the free society as an ideal is this: What should Christian politics stand for in the 21st century? Setting aside dreams of reuniting throne and altar and similar nostalgia, the most cogent answer offered by Catholic illiberalism is that the Church should be agnostic with respect to regimes. As Harvard’s Adrian Vermeule has recently written, Christians should be ready to jettison all “ultimate allegiances,” including to the Constitution, while allying with any party or regime when necessary.
What at first glance looks like an uncompromising Christian politics—cunning, tactical, and committed to nothing but the interests of the Church—is actually a rather passive vision. For a Christianity that is “radically flexible” in politics is one that doesn’t transform modernity from within. In practice, it could easily look like the Vatican Ostpolitik diplomacy that sought to appease Moscow before John Paul was elected.
Karol Wojtya discarded Ostpolitik as soon as he took the Petrine office. Instead, he preached freedom and democracy—and meant it. Already as archbishop of Krakow under Communism, he had created free spaces where religious and nonreligious dissidents could engage in dialogue. As pope, he expressed genuine admiration for the classically liberal and decidedly secular Vaclav Havel. He hailed the U.S. Constitution as the source of “ordered freedom.” And when, in 1987, the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet asked him why he kept fussing about democracy, seeing as “one system of government is as good as another,” the pope responded: No, “the people have a right to their liberties, even if they make mistakes in exercising them.”
The most heroic and politically effective Christian figure of the 20th century, in other words, didn’t follow the path of radical flexibility. His Polish experience had taught him that there are differences between regimes—that some are bound to uphold conscience and human dignity, even if they sometimes fall short of these commitments, while others trample rights by design. The very worst of the latter kind could even whisk one’s boyhood friends away to extermination camps. There could be no radical Christian flexibility after the Holocaust.