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
Must-Reads from Magazine
Progressives can’t remodel the country through politics—and it’s making them miserable.
The liberal malaise that has followed Trump’s shocking victory is a by-product of the left’s unreasonable expectations. Many liberals and progressives were encouraged to see Barack Obama as messianic and to understand his politics as emancipatory, and they fell for it. But political shifts in America just aren’t that radical, and never have been—even though that’s what the flimflam men who run American politics always promise.
Delusions about what big election victories can achieve are nurtured by the politicians who stand to benefit from the passion of those who are swayed by their portentous prognostications. (“This is the most important election of our lifetime,” says the party that needs to win to come back from defeat.) And they are husbanded by the commercial enterprises—paid consultants, super PACs, single-issue peddlers, cable networks—that profit from them. But the vows they make—primary among them the vanquishing for eternity of the bad guys on the other side—cannot be fulfilled, or cannot be fulfilled enough to satisfy the voters who are seduced by them. This is a problem for both sides of the ideological divide.
At the moment, what we’re living through is disillusion on the part of progressives, and on a grand scale. A consensus has begun to form on the politically engaged left that the day-to-day work of American politics—meaning what happens in government and in public service—is simply unequal to the challenges that plague our country. This follows, in turn, the same sort of consensus that rose among conservative voters in 2015 and 2016 that led to the rise of the insurgent Trump candidacy.
Fewer and fewer Americans see the grinding work of passing legislation and formulating policy as anything other than a sham, an act, a Washington con. This view encourages frustration and, eventually, fatalism. The conviction that the political process cannot address the most relevant issues of the day is paralyzing and radicalizing both parties. It is also wrong.
THE LIBERAL SOUNDTRACK OF DAILY LIFE
People on the american left have reason to be happy these days. Boilerplate liberalism has become the soundtrack to daily American life. But they’re not happy; far from it.
Superstar athletes don’t stand for the National Anthem. Awards shows have become primetime pep rallies where progressive celebrities address the nation on matters of social justice, diversity, and the plague of inequality. This year’s Academy Awards even featured the actress Ashley Judd’s endorsement of “intersectionality,” a once-abstruse pseudo-academic term meant to convey that every kind of prejudice against every victimized minority is connected to every other kind of prejudice against every other victimized minority. These are the outwardly observable signs of a crisis facing the liberal mission. The realization that the promise of the Obama era had failed predated Donald Trump’s election, but it has only recently become a source of palpable trauma across the liberal spectrum.
These high-profile examples are just the most visible signs of a broader trend. At the noncelebrity level, polls confirm a turning away from conservative social mores altogether. In 2017, Gallup’s annual values-and-beliefs survey found a record number of Americans approving of doctor-assisted suicide, same-sex relations, pornography, both sex and childbirth out of wedlock, polygamy, and divorce.
Then there’s the ascension of supposedly advanced attitudes about religion, or rather, the lack of religion. In 2017, Gallup pollsters asked Americans: “How important would you say religion is in your own life?” A record low of 51 percent answered “very important,” while a record high of 25 percent said “not very important.” San Diego State University researcher Jean M. Twenge found that twice as many Americans said they did not believe in God in 2014 than was the case in the early 1980s. And a 2015 Pew poll revealed that “younger Millennials” (those born between 1990 and 1996) were less likely to claim religious affiliation than any previous generation.
Finally, a 2016 Harvard University survey found that, among adults between ages 18 and 29, 51 percent did not support capitalism. Positive views of socialism have been rising almost inexorably, even as a 2016 CBS/New York Times survey found that only 16 percent of Millennials could accurately define socialism.
But today’s progressive activist isn’t content with cultural domination; he’s after something grander. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in a memorandum dated March 2003:
“The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change the culture and save it from itself.”
The election of Obama seemed the moment at which the central liberal truth could finally be given shape and form and body. It didn’t quite work out as progressives hoped.
The first bill President Obama signed into law in 2009, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, was sold to progressives as a visionary effort to root out workplace discrimination. In fact, all it did was relax the statute of limitation on holding firms liable for discriminating on the basis of sex and race—a fine-tuning of one part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Yet the “pay gap” persisted, and Obama and his administration spent the next seven years hectoring the private sector over it. They claimed that the figures showing that women in aggregate earned less than men in aggregate demonstrated that the entire society was somehow in violation of the spirit of the law. But the real source of this gap—as Obama’s own Bureau of Labor Statistics confessed—was individual behavior patterns that led women, on average, to work fewer hours than men over the course of their lives. “Among women and men with similar ‘human capital’ characteristics,” BLS economist Lawrence H. Leith wrote in 2012, “the earnings gap narrows substantially and in some cases nearly disappears.”
Similarly, in 2013, Obama credited his Violence Against Women Act with steep declines in rates of reported sexual assault. “It changed our culture,” he said. “It empowered people to start speaking out.” But this legislation did not change the culture. Many women continued to endure abuse at their places of work, with that abuse treated as just a consequence of doing business. The behaviors revealed by the #MeToo movement in the national outing of abusive men in positions of power had been addressed in law long ago, and long before Obama signed the Violence Against Women Act. The stroke of his pen did nothing to change the culture.
ObamaCare is another example of an exercise in cultural engineering that has failed to take. The Affordable Care Act wasn’t only a health-care law; it was an effort to transform society. The law’s true goal was a “culture of coverage” that would foster a new “norm” in which health coverage was an “expected” part of the social contract, according to California Health Benefit Exchange board member Kim Belshe. But once again, the political process failed to match the transformative ambitions of the progressive activist class. A late 2016 survey conducted by the American College of Emergency Physicians found that tighter doctor networks as well as higher deductibles and co-payments meant people were cutting back on doctor visits—the precise opposite of the law’s philosophical objectives.
Donald Trump and his GOP majorities in Congress could not overturn the ACA (though they did manage to get rid of its mandatory aspect). But ObamaCare’s preservation has not prevented the health-care left from sinking into gloom. This is because the politicians who pursued these reforms set unrealistic expectations for what they could achieve. These are not blinkered ideologues, but they are in thrall to a grandiose idea of what politics should be and out of touch with what politics actually is: a messy, narrow, often unsatisfying project of compromise and incrementalism.
Some left-of-center thinkers have addressed this penchant for overreach and its consequences. “Our belief in ‘progress’ has increased our expectations,” lamented the clinical psychologist Bruce Levine in 2013. “The result is mass disappointment.” He reasoned that social isolation was a product of American institutions because, when those institutions resist reform, “we rebel.” That rebellion, he claimed, manifests itself in depression, aggression, self-medication, suicide, or even homelessness and psychosis. What can you expect when the problem is the system itself?
Progressives have come to believe that America is beset with difficulties that must be addressed if the country is to survive—but they recognize that the difficulties they diagnose are extraordinarily hard to deal with in conventional political terms. Income disparities. Sexual and racial inequities. The privileges and disadvantages associated with accidents of birth. Such matters increasingly dominate the agenda of leftist politicians because they preoccupy the minds of their voters and donors. But what can be done about them? Great Society legislation in the 1960s—the farthest-reaching effort to reorder and reframe our country along social-justice principles—was designed to extirpate these evils. It is clear that today’s progressives are convinced we have not progressed very far from those days, if at all. This can lead to only one devastating conclusion, which is that the United States is a structurally oppressive nation. The system is the problem.
For the left, no problem is more hopelessly systemic than racism. It is powerfully attractive to believe that because some American institutions were forged in racial bias, the country is forever soiled by discrimination and white supremacy. Economics, politics, education, criminal justice—all are soiled by what Harvard professor Derrick Bell has said was an indelible stain on American life. Bell’s theories have been amplified by celebrated literary figures such as Ta-Nehisi Coates. “White supremacy is neither a trick, nor a device, but one of the most powerful shared interests in American history,” he recently wrote. You can understand why exasperated activists might conclude that devoting themselves to a Sisyphean torment is not the best use of their time. “I cannot continue to emotionally exhaust myself,” wrote the British journalist and feminist speaker Reni Eddo-Lodge in 2014. In a 2016 Washington Post op-ed, Zack Linly concurred. “I’ve grown too disillusioned to be relieved and too numb to be frustrated. I’m just tired.”
Violence, too, is seen as systemic. Acts of small-scale and mass violence are the result of many factors in American life. The individual who commits those heinous acts is often a secondary concern to activists on the left. For them, the problem rests in our militaristic national character, which is foremost exemplified by a pathological devotion to guns. As a recent headline at the New Republic put it: “America’s Gun Sickness Goes Way Beyond Guns.”
What about substance abuse? “It became clear to us that there is something systemic going on,” said Steven Woolf, director of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center on Society and Health, on the issue of substance-abuse-related deaths in America. And poverty? “Poverty is systemic, rooted in economics, politics and discrimination,” reads the Southern Poverty Law Center’s guideline for elementary-school teachers. Its lesson plan is explicitly designed to convey to students that “poverty is caused by systemic factors, not individual shortcomings.” Corruption? According to Fordham University Law School professor Zephyr Teachout, when the courts find that corporate entities have much the same free-speech rights as individuals, “corruption becomes democratic responsiveness.” Obesity and diabetes are systemic too, according to TakePart magazine’s Sophia Lepore, because they stem from the industrial world’s “increasingly commercialized food supply.”
When faced with this constellation of systemic challenges, progressives are left with a grim conclusion: We are impotent; change on the scale that is necessary is out of reach. Instead of practicing “the art of the possible,” they have made a totem of the impossible. The activists who are consumed by these phenomena have come (or are coming) to the conclusion that the political process cannot resolve them precisely because the oppression is a feature, not a bug, of the system. It is logical, therefore, for them to determine that engagement in traditional forms of politics is an exercise in naiveté.
Indeed, under this set of beliefs, legislative incrementalism and compromise seem like detestable half measures. Mistaking deep-rooted and immensely complex social and cultural circumstances for problems government can solve blinds participants in the political process to the unambiguous victories they’ve actually secured through compromise. This is a recipe for despair—a despair to which certain segments of the right are not immune.
LIBERAL DESPAIR TRUMPS CONSERVATIVE DESPAIR
By the time donald trump’s presidential candidacy sprang to life, dejected voices on the right had concluded that the country’s leftward drift constituted an existential emergency.
In late 2015, the author and radio host Dennis Prager devoted most of his time to mourning the “decay” of absolute moral categories, the blurring of gender distinctions, the corruption of education, and the dissolution of the family, all while blaming these conditions on a wrecker’s program. In the fall of 2016, the Claremont Institute published a piece by Republican speechwriter Michael Anton (under a pseudonym) in which he postulated that the United States was all but doomed. He compared the republic to United Airlines Flight 93, the plane that went down in a Pennsylvania field on 9/11, and its political and bureaucratic leadership to the suicidal Islamist hijackers who killed everyone on board. Four days before the 2016 election, the Heritage Foundation’s Chuck Donovan declared America in decline in almost every way and blamed a “dominant elite who thrive on the dissolution of civil society.” These catastrophists agreed on one thing: The time for modesty and gradualism was over.
The issues that most animate these conservatives are significant, but they are only indirectly related to conventional political matters. Disrespect for authority figures in law enforcement, the accessibility of pornography, assimilation rates among immigrant groups, the bewildering exploits on college campuses, and the ill-defined plague of “cultural Marxism”—these are widespread social trends that resist remedy from the inherently circumspect political process.
Also like those on the left, some conservatives have come to embrace their own forms of fatalism about the American system. “We need a king,” wrote the Hoover Institution’s Michael Auslin in 2014, “or something like one.” Auslin theorized that such a figure would liberate the presidency from weighing in on polarizing social issues, thereby lubricating the gears of government. Reflecting on the disillusionment and pessimism of his big-thinking peers in the middle of the Great Recession, the libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel declared, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” Patrick J. Buchanan devotes at least one column a month to the virtues of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism. Why? Because, as he wrote in January 2018, “Nationalism trumps democratism.”
Intellectuals like Buchanan and Anton have a profound weakness for extremism; it is one of the grave dangers posed by the life of the mind. William Butler Yeats and Ezra Pound found much to admire in how nationalists detested moderation. For Yeats, the “love of force” was a visionary trait. Pound, of course, literally became a fascist and rooted for America’s destruction. These perverse judgments on the right were nothing next to the seductive power of leftist totalitarianism. George Bernard Shaw was a Stalinist convinced of the virtue of eugenics and murderous purges. Theodore Dreiser became infatuated with the Soviets’ brutal adaptation of social Darwinism. Stuart Chase’s 1932 book A New Deal, predating FDR’s governing program of the same name, heaped praise on the nascent Soviet state. The book famously concluded, “Why should the Soviets have all the fun remaking the world?” Chase later became a member of Roosevelt’s inner circle of advisers.
When the political process fails to perform as they would like, activists and ideologues become disillusioned and embittered. They also become convinced not of the unreasonableness of their position but of the incompetence of their representatives. Thus conservative activists hate the Senate majority leader and the speaker of the House, even though both Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan work tirelessly to advance conservative ideas through the bodies they help manage. Leftists have turned on House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who is among the most effective legislative players in recent American history and easily the most progressive Democratic leadership figure of our time. McConnell and Ryan and Pelosi know from bitter experience that the Constitution places obstacles in the path of anyone who wants to use America’s political institutions to remake the culture wholesale. These marvelous obstacles are designed to thwart the human impulse for radical change.
The tragedy here is how this dynamic has convinced tens of millions of Americans that the political system is broken. Pull back from the granular view of events and try to examine America over the past decade and you see something else. You see American voters responding in complex ways to complex events. Obama overreaches and the voters elect a Republican House. Mitt Romney says 47 percent of Americans are losers, and he loses an election. Hillary Clinton says people who don’t care for her are “deplorables,” and she loses an election, too. The GOP appears to be on a path to electoral disaster in November 2018 because Trump may be bringing about a counterattack against the way he does business. Democratic overreach inspires conservative backlash. Republican overreach inspires liberal backlash. The electoral system is responsive to the views of the people. The system works. It works by restraining excessive ambition.
Those restraints annoy people who think change should just happen because they will it. In 2009, for example, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman was so annoyed by Congress’s failure to devise a bipartisan environmental bill that he lamented the fact that America did not have China’s political system. The People’s Republic, he wrote, was demonstrating the great “advantages” of a “one-party autocracy” led by “reasonably enlightened people.” Amazing how Chinese Communism had the ability to circumvent public opinion—the same ability also leads to the construction of well-populated labor camps.
You don’t need a one-party autocracy to effect change. Sometimes, when change is needed and needed urgently, government can rally to address the change—when voters make it clear that it must happen and when the change is preceded by rich experimentation and vital spadework. For example, New York City is no longer the crime-ridden, pornography-addled, graffiti-marred archipelago of needle parks that it once was. There has been a generation now of civil peace in the city, notwithstanding the act of war against it on 9/11.
But the change wasn’t the culmination of a grand governmental scheme. It was in part the product of work done by the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation in the early 1980s, which developed a model followed by the Rockefeller Center Complex, the Grand Central Partnership, and more than 30 other business-improvement districts. These parties engaged in a block-by-block effort to restore streets and relocate the homeless. The NYPD and the transit police could not focus on “quality of life” policing without hyper-local input that shaped what that campaign should entail and without an intellectual framework provided by the “broken windows” theory promulgated by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. The zoning reforms that cleaned up Times Square began as an initiative submitted by the City Council member representing the porn-plagued blocks under the Queensboro Bridge, with input from the Manhattan Institute. By the time Rudolph Giuliani was elected mayor in 1993, a quiet consensus had been building for years about the nature of the problems afflicting New York City and how to solve them.
BETTER THAN WE WERE
Moynihan’s famous quote is usually cut off before the end. After identifying the divergent liberal and conservative truths about the junction of politics and culture, he observed: “Thanks to this interaction, we’re a better society in nearly all respects than we were.”
His insight into the American political equilibrium was not a lamentation or a diagnosis. It was a reflection on why America is forever reinventing and refining itself. But as partisan actors and media outlets confuse the practice of politics with exhilarating bouts of cultural warfare, this equilibrium begins to come apart.
The quotidian, custodial duties that typify public service are neither dramatic nor entertaining. Zoning laws are boring. Police reforms are boring. Business-improvement districts are boring. Functional governance in the United States is unexciting governance.
Unexciting governance is limited governance. And the fatalists are driven mad by the limits our system imposes on them because they don’t want governance to be limited. That is exactly why those limits are so necessary and why, rather than getting dirty fighting inch by inch for the things they believe in, fatalists write themselves out of our political life. The danger the fatalists pose is that they are convincing tens of millions more that our system doesn’t work when it most certainly does, just in a fashion they wish it wouldn’t. In doing so, they are encouraging mass despair—and that is an entirely self-imposed affliction.
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Seventy years after Israel’s founding, we need it more than ever.
Hertzberg understood how helping the Jews over there in the Middle East had helped Jews over here in North America. After decades of American Jewish ambivalence about Jewish nationalism, the Holocaust had created an instant consensus for a Jewish state. The fight to create that state galvanized the community, rousing it from depression—and shielding it from guilt. By doing the right thing in the late 1940s, American Jews atoned for their failure to save more of their doomed brothers and sisters.
Hertzberg’s fear that Zionism was “a movement in search of a program” in 1949 proved wildly premature, because Israel would continue to call on and depend on the support of American Jews for its survival. The nation’s creation was followed by a host of new problems and opportunities that kept the global Jewish community engaged with Israel and kept alive the American Jewish connection to “peoplehood”—even as many American Jews abandoned religious practice entirely.
In 1959, Hertzberg published a seminal anthology, The Zionist Idea, for the purpose of establishing the movement’s intellectual and ideological roots. At the time, Israel was fragile and the Zionist conversation was robust. Today, Israel is robust and the Zionist conversation has turned fragile. Israel’s 70th anniversary offers an opportunity to reframe the Zionist conversation—asking not what American Jews can do for Israel, but what Zionism can do for American Jews. Hertzberg understood that Zionism wasn’t only about saving Jewish bodies but saving Jewish souls. As the celebrations of Israel’s 70th birthday begin, Zionism’s capacity to save our souls remains vital.
Many American Jews in the 1950s helped their fellow Jews settle in the new land. The fundraising short from 1954, “The Big Moment,” featuring Hollywood stars including Donna Reed and Robert Young, celebrated the secular miracle. “When you support the United Jewish Appeal, you make it possible for the United Israel Appeal to help the people of Israel,” the short told its viewers. They could help “rush completion of new settlements, new housing for the homeless, the irrigation of wasteland acres…. Israel’s people who stand for freedom must not stand alone.”
Four years later, Leon Uris mythologized the Zionist revolution in his mammoth bestseller, Exodus. “As a literary work it isn’t much,” David Ben-Gurion admitted. “But as a piece of propaganda, it’s the best thing ever written about Israel.” In Uris’s Zionist paradise, New Jews lived noble ideas and heroic lives. Exodus captured the texture of the Jewish return: the trauma of the Holocaust, the joys of the kibbutz, the thrill of rebuilding, the anguish of the Arab fight, the sweetness of idealism, the wonder of mass migration. In the 1960 movie version, Exodus even tackled serious ideological issues within Zionism. As Ari Ben Canaan escorts his non-Jewish love interest, Kitty Fremont, around Israel, the two look over the Valley of Jezreel. They marvel at seeing the “same paving stones that Joshua walked on when he conquered” the land, along with “every clump of trees” Ari’s father planted.
Thrilled that the valley is becoming Jewish once again, Ari proclaims: “I’m a Jew. This is my country.” Kitty dismisses differences between people as artificial. Ari makes the particularist case against universalism: “People are different. They have a right to be different.” They suspend the debate, Hollywood-style, with their first kiss.
In print, on screen, and in song, Exodus cast Zionism in such glowing terms that it condemned Israel to the inevitable comedown. Decades later, Thomas Friedman, trying to justify his anger at the Jewish state as its popularity flagged, would define this mythic place he missed as “your grandfather’s Israel.” Actually, Israel today—Friedman’s Israel—is more compassionate, just, equitable, and democratic than his grandfather’s.
As Exodus climbed the bestseller lists, Hertzberg’s Zionist Idea showed how a series of abstract debates spawned an actual state in mere decades. The texts, Hertzberg’s editor Emanuel Neumann wrote, illustrate “the internal moral and intellectual forces in Jewish life” that shaped this “idea which galvanized a people, forged a nation, and made history…. Behind the miracle of the Restoration lies more than a century of spiritual and intellectual ferment which produced a crystallized Zionist philosophy and a powerful Zionist movement.”
Recalling this period, Abraham Joshua Heschel would say American Jews took that miracle for granted. We became so used to the Tel Aviv Hilton, he said, that we forgot Tel Hai, where the one-armed Zionist warrior Josef Trumpeldor sacrificed his life for his country. Heschel was chiding American Jews for failing to use Israel to find greater meaning, to revitalize their Jewish identities, to launch “an ongoing spiritual revolution.”
Several political shocks in the 1960s upstaged the cultural and spiritual conversation that Heschel, Hertzberg, and others sought. Having grown up feeling secure as Americans, some Baby Boomers questioned American Jewish silence during the Holocaust. Frustrations at their parents’ passivity “while 6 million died” altered the community’s course—triggering a move toward activism. Cries of “Never again” shaped the Zionist, peoplehood-centered fight that ultimately brought 1.2 million Soviet Jews to Israel even as it nurtured and brought to adulthood two generations of new American Jewish leaders and activists.
The biggest shock was the Six-Day War. Both their fear of losing Israel in May 1967 and their euphoria when Israel won that June surprised American Jews. Many discovered that they were more passionate about Israel than they had realized. This “extraordinary response” led Rabbi Yitz Greenberg and others toward “a strategy of making Israel central in religious and Jewish educational life—if only because thereby we can tap strong loyalties and deep feelings.” The Holocaust and Israel’s founding partially Zionized American Jewry, showing how to live with a Jewish state while living happily ever after; 1967 showed most American Jews that they couldn’t live without the Jewish state.
Zionism became American Jewry’s glue. Israel reinforced a sense of peoplehood and renewed Jewish pride. It inspired the teaching of Hebrew, revitalized summer camps, and invigorated the Conservative and Reform movements. The community learned how to mobilize politically and raise money prodigiously. Indeed, writing in the 1970s, as periodic terrorist massacres kept returning Jews to the traumatic 1973 Yom Kippur War, Hertzberg declared that Zionism had become the only sacred commitment all American Jews shared. “Intermarriage, ignorance in the Jewish heritage, or lack of faith do not keep anyone from leadership in the American Jewish community today.” Hertzberg complained. “Being against Israel or apathetic in its support does.”
But while it was succeeding politically in America, Zionism was failing culturally and spiritually, Hertzberg charged. “Today there is no Zionist education in the U.S., no schools, no teaching seminaries, no commitment by Zionists” to cultivating “a Zionist kind of Jewish personality”—Ben-Gurion’s New Jew. Instead of stirring charges of dual loyalty, instead of adding “to the discomfort of the Jews in the Diaspora,” Hertzberg noted, Zionism contributed to Jews’ “acceptance of themselves and their acceptance by others.”
Today, it seems, personal concerns predominate. Now we wonder how having a Jewish state helps Jews navigate what Birthright Israel calls “their own Jewish journeys” and their quests for meaning. That could seem to be a chaotic souk, an oriental bazaar resulting in a gay Zionism and a Mizrahi Zionism, an Orthodox Zionism and a Reform Zionism, a feminist Zionism and an environmental Zionism. This is not entirely new. Early Zionists also fused their secular, Western agendas with the Jewish agenda—creating the kibbutz and the Histadrut Labor union, among other hybrids of hyphenate Zionism. In fact, a thoughtful Zionism might cure what ails us by focusing on what Israel means “to me, to us.” Which brings us to the greatest contradiction of our age: Succeeding as Americans individually poses a threat to Jews communally. Building careers usually trumps the labor of deepening traditions, morals, or communal commitments. Increasingly, many American Jews are happy being Jew-ish, reducing a profound cultural, intellectual, religious heritage to props, a smattering of superficial symbols to make us stand out just enough to be interesting—and not too much to be threatening.
Academic postmodernism validates that professionally driven Jewish laziness. After slaving away to perfect the CV and GPA, to get into the best college possible, Jewish students arrive on campuses that often caricature Judaism—like all religions—as a repressive system while slamming Zionism as particularly oppressive, privileged, and aggressive. This postmodernist updating of Marxist universalism loathes the kinds of red lines Jews traditionally drew around multiple behaviors and beliefs—among them, intermarrying, denouncing Israel, or indulging in self-indulgent behaviors from tattooing your skin to blowing your mind with drugs or alcohol. But a community cannot exist without any boundaries—it’s as useless as a house with no walls.
More powerful than these ideological issues is the simple fascism of the clock. Few high-achieving American Jews devote much time in their week to being Jewish. The demands of work and the lures of leisure leave little room in the schedule for much else—especially such unhip, pre-modern, and un-postmodern activities.
Then, perhaps most devastating, once American Jews carve out the time and overcome the static, what awaits them in most synagogues is a stale stew of warmed-over nostalgia. Judaism must be more than gefilte fish and lox, more than some colorful Yiddish exclamations and shtetl tales. The superficiality of so many Jewish experiences inside the walls of the large Semitic cathedrals that fill up just three times a year is so dispiriting that it takes most Jews another year to screw up the courage to return.
No comprehensive cures exist, of course. And Zionism, which is in many ways a conservative cultural initiative despite Israel’s liberal democracy, faces a hostile environment. American Jews, whose parents and grandparents were once more culturally conservative than the rest of American society, tend now to be far more liberal. Moreover, the systematic campaign to delegitimize Zionism has done great damage, just as conservative dominance of Israel has tarnished Israel’s luster among America’s passionately liberal Jews.
Nevertheless, Israel and Zionism still have a magic, illustrated by the great counterforce that most lamentations about the Israel-Diaspora relationship overlook: Birthright Israel. Young American Jews on those 10-day trips are thrilled by the experience. The enthusiasm comes from tasting a thick, dynamic, 24/7 Jewish experience that is qualitatively different from their thin, static, fragmented American Judaism. The impact comes from what Jonathan Sacks has aptly called turning Israel into world Jewry’s classroom, its living laboratory demonstrating vibrant, thriving Judaisms in sync with the environment. Seeing Jewish garbage men and police officers normalizes Jewish society, broadening the range of Jewish career paths and class stances, reducing the implicit pressure wherever American Jews look to be the next Zuckerberg, Spielberg, or Sandberg.
Swimming in a pool of Jewish symbols, traditions, values, and stories, Jewish pilgrims to Israel encounter an alternate universe that reveres the past, that seeks meaning beyond the material, that is more communal than individual and is more eternal than last week’s most forwarded YouTube video of cats frolicking. Israel proves Theodor Herzl right: Fitting in, not standing out, because you’re Jewish is liberating.
Even more surprising, unlike the media’s dystopic portrayal, Israelis are happy and fun-loving. Israel’s recent score of 11th on the world happiness index comes on the heels of reports about American mass unhappiness, especially in the upper-middle-class neighborhoods where American Jews live. The findings that half of Yale’s undergraduates at some point in their four years will experience severe psychological distress goes far beyond the anxiety produced by the crazy process of getting in. It suggests a specific sort of soul sickness that an elite life increasingly stripped of community, tradition, nationalism, God, group responsibility, and virtue produces. As the occasionally embattled Jewish state in an old-new land, Israel remains a Republic of Something, even as America risks degenerating into a Republic of Nothing. The shared past, purpose, and principles produce happier, more grounded, people.
Israeli normalcy risks its own laziness. But it’s the laziness of an instinctive, normalized Judaism in all dimensions rather than a Judaism you need to carve out time for, picking and choosing just what to do and when to do it—while often looking over your shoulder because you don’t want to look like a weirdo or a fanatic.
Beyond that, Zionism answers some core ideological conundrums many American Jews don’t even know how to formulate. Zionism resolves the confusion whereby the Judeo-Christian connection in America makes many nonreligious Jews feel Jewish even while calling Judaism their “religion.” Zionism welcomes Jews through the peoplehood portal—remembering that Judaism is this unique mix of nation and religion, of peoplehood and faith. Zionism celebrates nationalism as a force for good, cherishes religion and tradition as valuable anchors, providing meaningful “software” of values and beliefs running on the “hardware” of belonging. And Zionism celebrates the virtues of having red lines to respect, as well as blue-and-white lines to affirm. It “rewards togetherness,” in Anne Roiphe’s lovely phrase, and demands loyalty in many ways—especially considering Israel’s military situation.
With Judaism providing the background music to so much that is Israeli, with Israel instilling a strong sense of belonging in visitors, let alone citizens, American Jews encounter new ways of being Jewish. They see total Judaism, immersive Judaism, public Judaism. And, often without realizing it, they see a startling contrast, even with secular Israeli Jews who have figured out how to keep their kids and grandkids Jewish without being religious.
Finally, Israel helps American Jews shift from Anatevka to Jerusalem, from what Irving Howe called “the world of our fathers” to the lives of our brothers and sisters. Israeli Jewish identity is about speaking Hebrew and eating cheesecake on the holiday, often overlooked in North America, of Shavuot. It’s also, unfortunately, about fighting and defending the state. The need for American Jews as allies in that fight continues to offer nonreligious American Jews a passionate Jewish cause, a defining Jewish mission in their lives. And judging by the fact that AIPAC’s Policy Conference is the rare mass event that parents often attend with their teenage and twenty-something children, Zionism offers something one generation can pass on to the next.
Beyond that, the excitement—and, to be sure, the frustrations—of working out Jewish dilemmas and governing problems in real time with high stakes to keep this grand Jewish national project alive and thriving, is a lot more compelling than humming “Sunrise Sunset” as you enter your synagogue.
When done right and understood properly, Zionism can offer an important clarification to all Americans, especially in the age of Trump. In the 2016 campaign, whenever the word “nationalism” appeared in the media, it often came poisoned by words like “white” or “extremist” or “xenophobic.” The reaction against Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Brexit, neo-Nazis, and other manifestations of populist nationalism has soured too many Americans on any form of nationalism.
At its best, what might be called “liberal nationalism” infuses democratic ideals into the natural tendency for people to clump together with those like them. In the 1950s, Isaiah Berlin described this constructive nationalism as “awareness of oneself as a community possessing certain internal bonds which are neither superior nor inferior but simply different in some respects from similar bonds which unite other nations.” Many Enlightenment thinkers, following the 18th-century philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, compared this communal impulse with other human “desires” for “food, shelter, procreation, and a minimum degree of liberty.”
Today, this nationalist vision goes against the prevailing cultural tide. Amid what the sociologist Robert Bellah calls “radical individualism,” young Americans experience a “negative” process of “giving birth to oneself” by “breaking free from family, community, and inherited ideas.” By contrast, commemoration of the bar and bat mitzvah defines maturation as accepting communal responsibilities rather than shirking them. The Zionist reality demanding that young Israelis enlist in the army also roots them in communal commitments. In this view, national service is the defining step toward adulthood.
A resurrected, refreshed, Zionist conversation, one that focuses on what Israel does for us, might help Jews see liberal nationalism as a neutral tool that can unite a divided community and make us more determined, more purposeful, and more fulfilled than we can be individually—precisely what the young Arthur Hertzberg proposed seven decades ago.
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The last remnant of Oslo crumbles
The whirlwind changes left Clinton unprepared for the meeting. Perhaps that accounts for the momentous mistake he made that day. “Rabin can’t make further concessions until he can prove to his people that the agreement he just made with you can work,” he told Arafat. “So the more quickly we can move on your track, the more quickly we’ll be able to move on the Syrian track.” Clinton thus tipped his hand: The U.S. saw an Israeli–Syrian peace deal as the real goal, and the president needed Arafat to make it happen. “Now that Arafat had used that deal to open up a relationship with Washington, he did not want to let Clinton shift his attention back to Syria,” reports Clinton foreign-policy hand Martin Indyk in his memoir. “And the more he managed to involve us in the details of his agreement with the Israelis, the less we would be able to do that. In his good-hearted innocence, Clinton had revealed his preferences. Arafat would not forget them.”
Indeed he would not. No foreign official would be invited to the Clinton White House more than Arafat. The Israeli–Palestinian peace process would not be a mere sideshow to the wider Arab–Israeli conflict. It would be a tapeworm inside U.S. foreign policy, diverting and consuming resources. Arafat had made the Palestinian Authority the center of the world.
Twenty-five years of violence, corruption, and incompetence later, the PA lies in ruins, with the Palestinian national project right behind it. Arafat controlled the PLO for a half-century before assuming control of the new PA. Thus his death in 2004 was the first moment of serious potential change in the character of Palestinian institutions. Mahmoud Abbas, far less enamored of violence than the blood-soaked Arafat, was his successor. Rather than reform Palestinian institutions, Abbas has presided over their terminal decline. As Abbas’s own health fades and as the world again turns its attention to Gaza, the part of the Palestinian territories not controlled by him, it’s worth wondering if there is a future at all for the Palestinian Authority.
The PLO was created at an Arab League summit in Cairo in 1964 to serve as an umbrella group for Palestinian organizations seeking Israel’s destruction. It was paralyzed by intra-Arab rivalries until various factions figured out how to wag the dog and draw the Arab states into war with Israel. “Palestinian guerrilla action was insufficient to achieve liberation, and so it needed to overturn reactionary Arab governments and assist Arab unity in order to provide the power necessary to attain the ultimate objective of liberation,” writes Palestinian intellectual and historian Yezid Sayigh, describing how some within the PLO saw it. Arafat’s Fatah faction, which delayed in joining the PLO but influenced it from the outside, was more explicit in a 1965 memorandum: Arab national armies would “intervene to decide the conflict, and to bring it to an end after the revolutionary masses had prepared the way for them.”
Palestinian provocations played a part in helping to fan the flames that exploded into the Six-Day War in June 1967. Yet rather than destroy Israel, the Arab armies lost territory to the Jewish state, including the West Bank of the Jordan River. The following year, Fatah—which had by now joined the PLO—provoked a costly battle with Israeli forces in the West Bank town of Karama. Fatah lost nearly 100 fighters, but Arafat’s mad gamble paid off: The Palestinians survived a face-off with the Israeli military and demonstrated their independence from Jordan. Arafat used this failure-as-success to complete Fatah’s takeover of the PLO in 1969 and become the undisputed public face of the Palestinian guerrillas. Documents captured by Israeli forces in southern Lebanon in 1982 showed extensive training and sponsorship of Palestinian guerrillas across the Communist bloc—the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Hungary, Soviet-aligned Pakistan—in addition to PLO support from Arab states. After its expulsion from Lebanon in the wake of the Israeli incursion, the PLO went into exile in Tunisia.
The first intifada broke out in 1987, and even as it publicized Palestinian resistance, it gave the West a chance to consign Arafat and the PLO to irrelevance. Foreign Minister Moshe Arens proposed allowing the major Palestinian cities in the West Bank and Gaza to hold mayoral elections, after which Israel would recognize the winners as official Palestinian interlocutors. Rabin, then the defense minister, opposed the Arens plan, fearing it would undermine Israel Defense Forces’ control of the West Bank. A compromise plan was for the Palestinians in the territories to hold elections for negotiators, not officeholders. In his memoir, Arens explains that the idea “was meant to begin a process of negotiations with the Palestinians while bypassing the Palestine Liberation Organization.”
Before Arens or Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir could present the plan to the George H.W. Bush administration, Bush and Secretary of State James Baker preempted the Israelis by leaking to reporters their preference for the PLO and their belief that talks with Arafat should broach the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state. Shamir’s right-of-center Likud party revolted, and the government eventually collapsed. Bush had succeeded not only in throwing Israeli politics into chaos in the midst of the intifada, but also in effectively legitimizing Arafat as the rightful representative of Palestinian nationalism. This put the PLO and Israel on the glide path to that September 1993 breakthrough and the creation of the Palestinian Authority.
All this history taught Arafat one unmistakable lesson: Violence works. And so, after the signing of the Declaration of Principles in 1993, violence continued. Some of it was ordered by Arafat; some tacitly encouraged by him; some his security services merely allowed to happen. More than 250 people were killed by Palestinian terrorists in the five years after the signing ceremony. Arafat’s political rivals in Hamas pioneered the use of suicide bombings as a regular feature of terrorism. This served Arafat well: He could crack down on Hamas if and when he needed to but could also keep his fingerprints off some of the most heinous violence against Israeli civilians.
A perfect example of this double game occurred in February 1996. The Norwegian diplomat and UN envoy Terje Rod-Larsen met regularly with Arafat at the Palestinian leader’s Gaza home throughout the Oslo period. On February 24, 1996—a Saturday—Arafat asked his guest his plans for the next day. Rod-Larsen said he was thinking about spending the day in Jerusalem. According to the journalist Michael Kelly, Arafat cryptically said: “Why don’t you stay away from Jerusalem on Sunday.” The next day, Hamas blew up a bus in Jerusalem and another in Ashkelon, killing 26. “Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who thought he had persuaded Palestinian radicals to refrain from attacks on Israelis, condemned the bombings, saying they threatened the peace process,” reported CNN that day.
Violence wasn’t the only way Arafat hindered the cause of Palestinian statehood. Corruption tore through nascent Palestinian institutions. The numbers are staggering. After Arafat’s death, David Samuels surveyed the damage for the Atlantic:
The International Monetary Fund has conservatively estimated that from 1995 to 2000 Arafat diverted $900 million from Palestinian Authority coffers, an amount that did not include the money that he and his family siphoned off through such secondary means as no-bid contracts, kickbacks, and rake-offs…. In 1996 alone, $326 million, or 43 percent of the state budget, had been embezzled, and…another $94 million, or 12.5 percent of the budget, went to the president’s office…. A total of $73 million, or 9.5 percent of the budget, [was] spent on the needs of the population of the West Bank and Gaza.… Arafat hid his personal stash, estimated at $1 billion to $3 billion, in more than 200 separate bank accounts around the world, the majority of which have been uncovered since his death.
Why didn’t the creation of the PA result in Arafat’s transition from guerrilla leader to civilian state-builder? Three problems kept cropping up. The first was that his lack of accountability was enabled by both Israel and the United States, out of the naive belief that it didn’t matter how Arafat built his state and abided by agreements just so long as he did so. Arafat exploited this—he never built his state, in part because nobody was willing to make him.
The second problem was that the PA only added a layer of opacity to Arafat’s power structure. As the analyst Jonathan Schanzer notes in State of Failure: “Was he the chairman of the PLO, the president of the PA, or the leader of Fatah? These varying roles made it difficult to firmly establish his accountability.”
The third problem was more fundamental: Arafat shaped the PLO, and thus the Palestinian national movement, for a quarter-century before the PA was established. The only thing that changed was that nothing changed. Arafat’s predilection for violence, secrecy, and authoritarianism would be deeply corrosive to the institutions of an existing state; to a nonstate tasked with creating those institutions, they were fatal.
Not until Arafat died did the full extent of the PA’s failure become clear to all. Arafat’s absence was supposed to be cause for hope; instead, it revealed the bankruptcy of the PA’s model. Mahmoud Abbas inherited not a state but an illusion.
There is no doubt that Abbas was an improvement over Arafat. As Arafat’s deputy, he tried in vain to convince his boss to halt the second intifada (2000–2003), a bloody campaign of violence instigated by Arafat after he turned down Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s offer of a Palestinian state at Camp David in 2000. The intifada sapped Israelis’ faith in the PA as a negotiating partner and delivered Likud’s Ariel Sharon—the godfather of Israel’s settlement movement and a man who, as defense minister, had been instrumental in driving the PLO out of Lebanon two decades earlier—to the prime minister’s office.
Abbas’s ascension left policymakers in Jerusalem and Washington playing Weekend at Bernie’s with the corpse of the Palestinian Authority, waving its arms and propping it up in public. Both wanted to show the Palestinians they could get more with honey than with vinegar. But by 2004, it didn’t really matter. With President George W. Bush’s backing, Sharon went forward with plans to pull Israel completely out of Gaza and parts of the West Bank. The “Disengagement” of 2005 was a political earthquake: Israel’s great champion of the settlers uprooted thousands with no concessions from the Palestinians. More important, perhaps, was the fact that it was unilateral. How much did the PA even matter anymore?
Abbas’s legitimacy was another nagging problem. Though he won a presidential election in 2005, the PA was haunted by the ghosts of Arafat’s corruption. In 2006, Abbas called for legislative elections. Confident of victory, he permitted Hamas to participate in the elections, and the U.S. didn’t object. Had his Fatah party won, its legitimacy would have been undeniable. But in a shock, Hamas won. Fatah was hobbled not only by the perception of Arafat’s venality but also by the consequences of his one-man rule. In their biography of Abbas, Grant Rumley and Amir Tibon write: “Palestinian legislative elections are essentially a local election, in which every ‘district’ chooses its own members of parliament from the different political lists. While Hamas’s candidates ran under one banner, Fatah showed disastrous disunity by having splinter lists in multiple camps, towns, and villages.” Civil war engulfed the Palestinian territories. Hamas took control of Gaza and was booted from the government in the West Bank. Abbas is now in the 14th year of his four-year term.
His legitimacy in tatters, Abbas went about consolidating power and cracking down on dissent. But it wasn’t just the democratic deficit that made Abbas’s reign resemble his predecessor’s. The courts, legislative institutions, education, civil society—Palestinian state-building simply wasn’t happening. In 2010, the Carnegie Endowment’s Nathan Brown studied Palestinian government and society under Abbas’s Western-educated prime minister, Salam Fayyad, and he came to a dispiriting conclusion: “There was far more building of institutions under Yasser Arafat than there has been under Fayyad. It is true that many institutions were built in spite of Arafat and that Fayyad’s behavior suggests a greater respect for rules and institutions. But that is consolation only for those who mistake personalities for politics.”
Yet in one way Abbas is arguably more dangerous even than his predecessor. Arafat was notoriously defensive about possible successors because he had created an entire system centered on his role as the Indispensable Man. Nonetheless, PLO bylaws made Abbas the rightful successor, and he remained the consensus choice.
But to say Abbas has failed to claw back any control over Gaza would be an understatement. With a bevy of foreign benefactors—among them Turkey, Iran, and Qatar—no pretense of democracy, and no easy way in or out, the strip has become a Philadelphia-sized Islamist police state. Every few years, Hamas instigates a war with Israel to remind the world that no degree of physical isolation can make it irrelevant. On March 30, the group organized the first so-called “March of Return,” a day of protest and mischief at the border with Israel in which 20 Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli troops. A top Hamas official said the marches will continue until they succeed in overrunning the border and driving the Jews out of the land. For this, the protests were rewarded with absurd media devotionals; the New York Times hyped a Palestinian analyst’s comparison of the border rushes to the civil-rights protesters trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. Hamas displays the organizational control Abbas can only dream of, and the ability to have its propaganda amplified by the Times, CNN, and other major media across the globe. Abbas is reduced to gritting his teeth, and lately seems ready to just give up, telling Egyptian interlocutors in early April that unless Hamas turns over “everything, all institutions and ministries, including security and weapons,” the Palestinian Authority “will not be responsible for what happens there.”
The 82-year-old Abbas is in deteriorating health—yet he has dragged his feet on succession. He now indicates he’ll designate deputy chairman Mahmoud al-Aloul his next in line. But “anyone who thinks Aloul’s appointment will find smooth sailing within Fatah is wrong,” warns Israeli journalist Shlomi Eldar in Al-Monitor. The largest challenge could come from Mohammed Dahlan, Fatah’s former Gaza security chief, whom Abbas sent into exile in 2011 and who has been cultivating Sunni allies abroad. Jibril Rajoub is the party’s secretary general and believes he’s the rightful heir. Hamas could leap into the vacuum to try to take the West Bank by force, or it could play havoc by supporting someone like Dahlan. If the succession battle becomes a proxy fight among Arab states, it could get bloody fast. The PA as an institution survived Arafat’s death. It may not survive Abbas’s.
There is, of course, one remaining way for Abbas to distinguish himself from Arafat and ensure that he leaves something tangible behind: He could take yes for an answer and actually seek a negotiated settlement. Sadly, his track record here isn’t any better. In 2007, he walked away from a generous Israeli offer by Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert. The 2008 U.S. election briefly appeared to vindicate him—Barack Obama was elected president and proceeded to browbeat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into giving away the store. But Abbas made a fool of Obama, too. At first, he sat back and played for time. Then, seeing how difficult Obama was making life for Netanyahu, he thought he could wait for Netanyahu’s government to crumble. When Obama left office in 2017, Netanyahu was still prime minister. The one time negotiations got anywhere, in 2014, Abbas blew them up by abruptly agreeing to bring Hamas into the government, a move that cannot be countenanced by the U.S. or Israel as long as Hamas remains committed to terrorism and refuses to abide by existing agreements.
Obama did two other things that backfired on the Palestinian Authority. One was the Iran nuclear deal, which gave tacit American support to Tehran’s expansionism in the Middle East, scaring Sunni regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Egypt into strategic alignment with Israel. The other was more subtle but just as consequential: He helped orchestrate the passage of a UN Security Council resolution that deemed East Jerusalem, home to Judaism’s holy sites, occupied Palestinian territory.
The UN resolution at first seemed to be a clear gift to Abbas. But in reality, it was a ham-handed attempt to tie the hands of President-elect Donald Trump, who would be taking office just a month later. Trump wouldn’t have it. In the first year of his presidency, he publicly declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel and announced that his administration would move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. (While a new embassy compound is being built, the White House plans to officially designate the existing consulate in Jerusalem as the embassy in time for Israel’s 70th anniversary celebrations on May 14.)
The Jerusalem moves have been an unmitigated humiliation for the PA. They undid the damage to the U.S.–Israel relationship inflicted by Obama. Worse for the PA, Trump called the Palestinian bluff. Contrary to the fears of Western observers, and the ill-disguised morbid hopes of some in the media, the region did not go up in flames. The “terrorist’s veto” did. And the coordination that such a move required between the United States and its Arab allies made crystal clear just how isolated the Palestinian Authority has become—how vulnerable it is to the politics of the Arab world, and how impervious to Palestinian politics the Arab world has become.
It took four decades, but the dog is once again wagging the tail.
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The covert and overt sins of a celebrated scholar
Kristeva categorically denies the charges. Her critics argue that it is unlikely that the Bulgarian government would fabricate an 80-page dossier for the purpose of embarrassing a 76-year-old academic who is of no particular contemporary political importance. Professor Richard Wolin of the CUNY Graduate Center, who has written extensively about Kristeva, says flatly: “She’s lying.” And he adds that the Bulgarian government’s claims about her did not materialize ex nihilo: Kristeva recently began writing for a Bulgarian journal, and Bulgarian policy is to publish the dossiers of public figures who had served the state intelligence agencies during the Communist era. That policy is carried out by “ComDos,” the Committee for Disclosure of Documents and Announcement of Affiliation of Bulgarian Citizens to the State Security and the Intelligence Services of the Bulgarian National Army.
But what Kristeva did or did not do in secret is if anything less troubling than what she did in public. For decades, she lent her intellectual prestige and her powers as a writer (and propagandist) to some of the most repressive and vicious regimes of the second half of the 20th century. And she did so as someone who had first-person experience with real-world socialism as it was practiced in what was arguably the single most suffocating regime in Eastern Europe.
Once inescapable on college campuses (I was assigned readings from her work in at least four different classes in the 1990s), Kristeva has faded a little: She has authored a number of novels that have not been generally well-regarded, and she has got on the wrong side of her fellow feminists by criticizing the subjection of the individual identity to the demands of identity politics. She belongs, with Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes and a few others of that kidney, to an era of postmodernist excess during which American academics aped the jargon-heavy (and famously unreadable) prose style of their Continental idols, especially the French ones. Discipline and Punish took on the totemic status later enjoyed by Capital in the 21st Century—which is to say, a book with many more owners than readers, A Brief History of Time for Reagan-era graduate students. Revolution in Poetic Language might not have generated quite as much awe as Foucault’s famous lump, but The Kristeva Reader ornamented a great many coffee tables—and who could resist “Experiencing the Phallus as Extraneous”?
Kristeva arrived in France in 1965 on a research fellowship. She soon moved from the École normale to the Sorbonne, and she studied under Claude Lévi-Strauss and Jacques Lacan, taking in the intellectual fashions of her time: psychoanalysis, poststructuralism, semiotics, feminism, and, of course, radical left-wing politics. Indicting midcentury French intellectuals for covert or overt support of Communist dictatorships around the world is like writing speeding tickets at the Daytona 500, but Kristeva’s political history and that of the journal with which she was long affiliated, Tel Quel, is a remarkable testament to the weakness of Western intellectuals for totalitarianism—provided it is dressed in sufficiently exotic trappings—careering from Marxist-Leninist to Stalinist to Maoist. Kristeva was an enthusiastic supporter of the French Communist Party, arguably the most servile of all of the Western European Communist parties, indulging Adolf Hitler when it suited Moscow and later justifying the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 as a necessary prophylactic against “counterrevolution.” There was no Communist outrage too great for Tel Quel, whose editor, Philippe Sollers (Kristeva married him in 1967), declared in the familiar language of the period his opposition to all things “counterrevolutionary” and advertised his allegiance to “Marxist-Leninist theory, the only revolutionary theory of our time.” V. I. Lenin was later displaced from the Tel Quel intellectual pantheon by Mao Zedong. Professor Wolin, an intellectual historian, tells the story in his 2017 book Wind from the East:
As a result of the May  events and their contact with the Maoists, French intellectuals bade adieu to the Jacobin-Leninist authoritarian political model of which they had formerly been so enamored. They ceased behaving like mandarins and internalized the virtues of democratic humility. In May’s aftermath, they attuned themselves to new forms and modes of social struggle. Their post-May awareness concerning the injustices of top-down politics alerted them to the virtues of “society” and political struggle from below. In consequence, French intellectual life was wholly transformed. The Sartrean model of the engaged intellectual was upheld, but its content was totally reconfigured. Insight into the debilities of political vanguardism impelled French writers and thinkers to reevaluate the Dreyfusard legacy of the universal intellectual: the intellectual who shames the holders of power by flaunting timeless moral truth…. The Maoists started out as political dogmatists and true believers. But they soon found it impossible to reconcile their pro-Chinese ideological blinders with the emancipatory spirit of May. Once they ceased deluding themselves with revolutionary slogans, they began to understand politics in an entirely new light. The idea of cultural revolution was thereby wholly transformed. It ceased to be an exclusively Chinese point of reference. Instead it came to stand for an entirely new approach to thinking about politics: an approach that abandoned the goal of seizing political power and instead sought to initiate a democratic revolution in mores, habitudes, sexuality, gender roles, and human sociability in general.
There was a substantial intellectual component to the Maoism of the Kristeva-Sollers set, but there was also a superficial one: Sollers began affecting the Maoist mode of dress, and Kristeva, one of the most important feminist thinkers of her time, dutifully authored articles in defense of Chinese foot-binding, which she described as a form of feminine emancipation. Calling to mind Senator Elizabeth Warren and her fictitious “Cherokee princess” ancestor, Kristeva boasted that she is a woman who “owes my cheekbones to some Asian ancestor.” Despite having almost no facility with the Chinese language and very little knowledge of its culture, she authored a widely read and translated book, About Chinese Women, in which she made unsupported claims about the “matrilineal” character of classical Chinese culture. Tel Quel adopted an editorial line that was uniformly and cravenly pro-Mao, even going so far as to argue that the absence of professional psychiatric practice from China resulted from the fact that Maoism had delivered the Chinese people from “alienation,” the traditional Marxist diagnosis for what ails the capitalist soul, rendering professional mental-health care unnecessary.
“I don’t fault her” for serving the Committee for State Security, Professor Wolin says. “It was the most repressive dictatorship in Eastern Europe.” Signing on to inform for the Bulgarian government might well have been a condition for Kristeva’s being permitted to study in France in the first place, and she had vulnerable family members still living under the Bulgarian police state. “I don’t know why she doesn’t come clean,” he says.
But that is not the end of her story. “What I do fault her for is jumping on the Communist bandwagon,” Wolin adds. First she served the interests of Moscow and then those of Chairman Mao. Unlike most of her French colleagues, the Bulgarian expatriate was in a position to know better from direct experience. Nonetheless, Kristeva and the Tel Quel set undertook a pilgrimage to Maoist China in the middle 1970s, where they saw the usual Potemkin villages and came home to write fulsome encomia to the wisdom and efficacy of the Great Helmsman. “By ’74, everybody knew that the Cultural Revolution was a power play and a debacle on every level,” Wolin says, an excuse for the Chinese authorities to purge their rivals. “People who had been sent down wrote memoirs, and those were published in French in 1971 and 1972…. Kristeva knew how repressive these regimes were. She didn’t have to celebrate Communism. No one compelled her to do that.”
If this were only a question about a Bulgarian-French intellectual who is obscure beyond academic and feminist circles, then it would be of limited interest, one of those French intellectual scandals that give Anglophone writers and academics a twinge of envy. (When was the last time there was a truly national controversy in the United States over a book? The Bell Curve?)
But Kristeva’s advocacy of what was in terms of gross numbers the most murderous regime of the 20th century is only one tessera in the great mosaic of Western intellectuals’ seduction by totalitarian systems, especially those that come wearing exotic costumes. (Jeremy Jennings, writing in Standpoint, describes Kristeva’s Maoism as “part radical chic, part revolutionary tourism, part orientalism.”) Sometimes, that seduction has come from the right, as with Italian Fascism’s ensorcelling of Ezra Pound and F. A. Hayek’s embarrassing admiration for the government of Augusto Pinochet, a political crush that earned him a private rebuke from no less a figure than Margaret Thatcher. But, more often, that seduction has come from the left: Lincoln Steffens returning from the Soviet Union to declare, “I have seen the future, and it works.” Walter Duranty’s embarrassing misreportage in the New York Times, which still proudly displays the Pulitzer prize earned thereby. The moral equivalence and outright giddy enthusiasm with which Western intellectuals ranging from the left-wing to the merely liberal treated Lenin and Stalin. The New Republic’s footsie-playing with Communists under Henry Wallace. Noam Chomsky’s dismissal of the Cambodian genocide as an American propaganda invention. The reverence for Fidel Castro. The embrace of Hugo Chávez by everyone from Hollywood progressives to Democratic elected officials. Chants of “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh / The NLF is going to win!” on the streets of New York in 1968. Ten million Che T-shirts.
“There are Western intellectuals who don’t succumb,” Professor Wolin says. “The George Orwells, Susan Sontags, and others who learn the lesson. Among the French leftists in the late 1960s who swooned for the Cultural Revolution, many of them came to their senses in the ’70s.” But what about those who are seduced? “Often, they’re naive about politics, and they project holistic and idealistic solutions—totalizing solutions—onto events that don’t admit of those kinds of solutions.”
Political ideologies tend to define themselves in two important ways: first, in opposition to the most important and prominent of their direct ideological competitors; second, in an effort to distinguish themselves from immediately adjacent ideologies and factions. In the case of 20th-century radicals such as Julia Kristeva, the enemy was capitalism, and the most prominent alternative to capitalism was Communism. Whether the pursuit of the idealized new man and his utopian new society took the form of old-fashioned bureaucratic Soviet socialism or the more rambunctious and anarchic mode of the Cultural Revolution was a dispute between adjacent factions, something that may seem almost immaterial from the outside but that is the source of all-consuming passions—and rage—inside the radical milieu.
The West is perversely fortunate that its hedonism and materialism have inoculated it against the premier radicalism of the early 21st century—jihadism, which has gained very little purchase in the West outside of poorly assimilated immigrant communities, mostly in Europe. But Islamic radicalism is not the only rival to democratic liberalism on the world stage: As Xi Jinping consolidates his position in Beijing (a project that goes far beyond the recent removal of the term limits that would have ended his rule at the conclusion of his second term), where are the Western intellectuals with the moral authority and political acumen to articulate a meaningful critique of what he represents? The left in Europe and in the English-speaking world has never been obliged to make an accounting—or a reckoning—for its indulgence of a far more dramatically violent expression of Chinese nationalism, and even liberal technocrats such as Thomas Friedman dream of turning America into “China for a day,” begrudgingly admiring the Chinese government’s raw ability to simply act, unencumbered by democratic gridlock.
And if the left and the center-left are ill-equipped to mount an intellectual defense of democratic liberalism, the right is even less prepared, having mired itself deeply in the very kind of authoritarian nationalism practiced by Beijing. Like the 20th-century left, the 21st-century right has gone looking for allies and inspiration abroad, and has settled upon Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, the fascist Le Pen political dynasty in France, Alternative für Deutschland, neo-nationalism, neo-mercantilism, and ethnic-identity politics. The right-wing populists of Europe do not have Mao’s practically unbounded scope of action (or his body count), but they play for intellectuals on the radical right the same role that Maoism once played for intellectuals on the radical left.
It is not clear that Kristeva has learned very much from her political errors, or even indeed that she ever has come to understand them genuinely as errors. Her alleged collaboration with the Bulgarian secret police, tawdry as it might have been, would not constitute the greatest of those errors. But it is that allegation, and not the plain facts of her long career of advocacy on behalf of inhumane political enterprises, that embarrasses her. In that, she is typical of the radical tendency, a spiritual cousin to the Western progressives who once winked at Stalinists as “liberals in a hurry.” But radical chic is not an exclusively progressive fashion. Xi Jinping is in a hurry, and so is Marine Le Pen, and both have their attention set on matters of more consequence than “intersectionality,” the matter of who uses which pronouns, and the other voguish obsessions of our contemporary intellectuals.
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It was Ben-Gurion himself who proposed a compromise: Israel’s Declaration of Independence would conclude by asserting that each signer placed his trust in the “Rock of Israel,” the Tzur Yisrael, a phrase from the Jewish liturgy inspired by the biblical reference to God as tzuri ve-go’ali, my Rock and my Redeemer.
By referring to the “Rock of Israel,” but refraining from any explicit mention of divine redemption, Israel’s declaration was one that both devout and atheistic Zionists could affirm. For believers in the Bible, the phrase could refer to the divine defender of the Jewish people; for the secular socialist signers of the document, the words could instead make reference to the flint-like resolution of the Israeli army. The compromise was accepted, and the modern Jewish state was born by eliding the issue of the existence of God.
For myself, a religious Zionist and American-history aficionado, the story is doubly painful. Thomas Jefferson, the deistic drafter of the Declaration in Philadelphia, produced a first version without any reference to the divine designs of history. The continental Congress, however, representing an America obsessed with the Bible, edited the dramatic closing of the original draft so that it made clear that the revolution was being launched with “a firm reliance on divine providence.”
The irony is difficult to miss. America, inspired by the Israelite commonwealth in the Hebrew Bible, ordered that a reference to a providential God be added to its Declaration of Independence. But in the 20th century, the restored Israelite commonwealth went out of its way to remove any such reference.
For religious Zionists, however, removing God from a document did not do away with God’s role in the divinely directed drama that is Jewish history; in fact, the contrary is true. Sidney Morgenbesser, the kibitzing Columbia philosopher, once inquired of a colleague at the end of his life: “Why is God making me suffer so much? Just because I don’t believe in him?” Morgenbesser’s droll dialectic captures, for people of faith, something profound: It is those agnostic of God’s existence who can at times reify that very same existence. In a much more profound sense, the events that preceded and followed Israel’s declaration of statehood are so staggering that providence alone explains them.
Harry Truman, the former member of the Missouri political machine whom no one had ever expected to become president of the United States, overrode his hero, General George C. Marshall, in supporting and recognizing the birth of a Jewish state. And he did so, in part, because of his relationship with a Jew named Eddie Jacobson, with whom Truman had run a haberdashery business decades before.
Joseph Stalin, whose anti-Semitism rivaled Hitler’s, ordered the Soviet bloc at the United Nations to support partition, and then he allowed Czechoslovakia to sell airplanes and arms to the nascent state. The Jews of the IDF, fighting against overwhelming odds, did indeed illustrate flint-like toughness in their heroic victory; but the honest student of history can see that this is only part of the story.
Seventy years after May 14, 1948, religious Zionists still smart at the words with which Israel came into being. At the same time, they take comfort in the fact that what followed that extraordinary day vindicates their own interpretation of the words Tzur Yisrael. In his memoir, former Israeli Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, the youngest survivor of Buchenwald, describes the moment when the concentration camp was liberated by Patton’s Third Army. Many inmates, having longed for release, ran to the gates—and as they did so, the Nazis, in a final attempt at murdering the prisoners, opened fire from the guard tower. Lau was in the line of fire; suddenly, someone jumped on him and held him down until the shooting had stopped. Having no idea who had saved his life, Lau made his way to Palestine, attended yeshiva, and entered the rabbinate. The first position for which he interviewed was chief rabbi of Netanya. Interviewing for the job with city officials, he encountered hours of question from the mayor of Netanya and his staff. The deputy mayor of Netanya, a man by the name of David Anilevitch, who ought to have been deeply involved in the interview, sat on the side and oddly said nothing. As the interview came to a close, Anilevitch stood up and said:
Friends, honored rabbi, before we disperse, please allow me to say my piece…. I have been reliving 11 April 1945. I was deported from my hometown to Buchenwald. On April 11, American airplanes circled in the skies above the camp. The prisoners, myself among them, were first out of the barracks. As we ran, a hail of bullets passed us. Among those running toward the gate was a little boy.…I jumped on top of him, threw him to the ground, and lay over him to protect him from the bullets. And today I see him before me alive and well. Now I declare this to all of you: I, David Anilevitch, was saved from that horror, fought in the Palmach, and today serve as deputy mayor of an Israeli city.
Anilevitch, Lau concludes, then banged on the table so that all the glasses shook and said: “If I have the merit of seeing this child, whom I protected with my body, become my spiritual leader, then I say to you that there is a God.”
The definition of a miracle is an event that should not naturally have occurred. For us, this tends to mean the splitting of the sea, the stopping of the sun, the opening of the earth. Yet, by the very same definition, it is a miracle that Israel was born, and endured in the way that it did. It is a miracle that after a generation in which many Jewish children grew up without parents, let alone grandparents, we have experienced the fulfillment of Zachariah’s prophecy that grandparents will watch their grandchildren play in the streets of Jerusalem. It is a miracle that after so many civilizations have disappeared, Jewish children continue to be born. It is a miracle that as anti-Semitism continues to haunt the nations of Europe that persecuted the Jews for so long, religious Judaism flourishes in Israel even as a now secular Europe demographically declines.
More than any other event in the last 70 years, the state that was born in avoidance of any explicit affirmation of Israel’s God now stands as the greatest argument for the existence of that very same God. And that is why many Jews, on the 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence, will recite with renewed fervor prayers in the daily traditional liturgy that 70 years ago had been at least partially fulfilled:
O Rock of Israel,
Arise in defense of Israel,
And redeem, as you have promised,
Judah and Israel.
Our redeemer, the Lord of Hosts is your Name, the Sacred One of Israel
Blessed are you, O Lord, Who redeemed Israel.