One: The Present ConditionThe question Norman Podhoretz asked in his 2009 book—Why Are Jews Liberals?—seems only more consequential after President Obama’s two terms in office. The Obama years were unsettling for Jewish conservatives on many fronts. The Iran nuclear deal, the broader American retreat from the Middle East, and the delegitimation of Israel at the UN left the Jewish state in a weaker geopolitical position. Many religious Jews worried that an activist judiciary and administrative state might eventually force traditional Jewish schools and synagogues to accommodate progressive practices like same-sex marriage or else lose their tax-exempt status. The continued expansion of the progressive welfare state and the intolerant culture of political correctness seemed like a direct assault on core conservative beliefs.
Viewed historically, the Jewish devotion to liberal politics has deep and understandable roots. Jewish immigrants to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw liberals as the best defenders of Jewish rights. Liberals cared for the poor, including the Jewish poor. Liberals fought against social prejudices and privileges, including unjust barriers to Jewish advancement. And liberalism’s secular understanding of American democracy offered Jews (and many other religious and ethnic subgroups) a pathway to American normalcy.
In economic and social life, Jews soon succeeded in myriad spheres: business and media, politics and culture, law and academia. As the 20th century progressed, they ceased being outsiders and became a part of the American establishment. And along the way, Jews began to assimilate—with intermarriage rates moving steadily up from 17 percent of all Jews married before 1970 to 58 percent of all Jews married since 2005. As the majority of Jews integrated further into American society, the religious, cultural, and social distinctiveness that once defined their Jewish identity often weakened or disappeared. It turned out that the real threat to the American Jewish future, as Irving Kristol quipped decades ago, “is not that Christians want to persecute them but that Christians want to marry them.” And this problem—the crisis of Jewish continuity—has only gotten worse.
As Jews ascended and assimilated within American life, American liberalism morphed into the new progressivism: less hospitable to traditional religion, more committed to sexual and cultural liberation, less confident in America’s leadership role in the world, and more tolerant of those who would see the homeland of the once-powerless, once-stateless Jewish people as a colonial oppressor. Even as many Jews were becoming increasingly post-Jewish—treating their heritage as a weak form of multicultural affiliation, not a life-shaping web of attachments, traditions, and values—their commitment to American liberalism persisted. While the partisan balance of the Jewish vote remained fairly steady from Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama, with a supermajority of Jews supporting the more liberal candidate, the meaning of the Jewish vote gradually changed. Many Jews once voted for liberals out of a deep conviction that liberalism served real Jewish interests, both at home and abroad. Today’s Jewish liberals are typically progressives first, and Jews very much second.
In a 2015 speech celebrating Jewish Heritage Month, President Obama praised American Jews for their leadership in the great liberal struggles of the modern era. From “women’s rights to gay rights to workers’ rights,” Obama declared, “Jews took to heart the biblical edict that we must not oppress a stranger, having been strangers once ourselves.” He then proceeded to explain that supporting the Iran nuclear deal and making territorial concessions to the Palestinians served true Israeli interests, and he strongly implied that opposition to this agenda would only undermine the Jewish people’s proud claim to be at the vanguard of progressive values. And the Jews in the audience at the Adas Israel Synagogue applauded.
But many Jews did not cheer.
A distinct part of the Jewish community in the United States opposes the progressive agenda, in whole or in part, both culturally and politically. Roughly 22 percent of American Jews voted against Obama in 2008; 30 percent voted against Obama in 2012; 24 percent voted for Donald Trump in 2016. This more conservative bloc now makes up a significant minority, and its numbers are likely to grow in the years ahead, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of self-identified American Jews.
Two: Who Are We?The most identifiable and most rapidly expanding group of Jewish conservatives are Haredi, Hasidic, and right-leaning Modern Orthodox. These traditionalists believe that the progressive worldview is a threat to “Torah values.” At present, roughly 10 percent of all American Jewish adults are Orthodox, while an estimated 27 percent of all Jewish children are being raised in Orthodox homes. According to the 2013 Pew report, the Orthodox community (especially the Haredi) has virtually no intermarriage, as compared with a 72 percent intermarriage rate among non-Orthodox Jews since 2000. They have a high birth rate: 4.1 children per couple vs. 1.7 for non-Orthodox Jews. And they have a high retention rate of preserving serious Jewish commitment in their children. In short: Orthodox Jewry is growing, while non-Orthodox Jewry is shrinking.
Pew’s research also found that Orthodox Jews lean 57 percent Republican and 54 percent conservative, compared with 18 percent and 16 percent among non-Orthodox Jews. In certain major Orthodox centers—from Brooklyn’s Borough Park to Wickliffe, Ohio, from Lakewood, New Jersey, to Monsey, New York— the Jewish vote is even more heavily skewed toward Republicans in national elections. According to Pew, Orthodox Jews resemble white Evangelical Christians on several key cultural and political indicators. All in all, the most committed and fastest growing sector of American Jewry is now among the most conservative voting blocs in the country.
These religious Jewish conservatives are joined by other conservative-leaning Jewish subgroups. Jewish émigrés from the former Soviet Union and their American-born children—a population now numbering roughly 750,000 people—tend to be anti-statist, free-market, and staunchly Zionist. Seventy-seven percent of Russian Jews in New York voted for George W. Bush in 2004, and 65 percent voted for John McCain in 2008. Per Samuel Kliger, Director of Russian Affairs at the American Jewish Committee, a pilot study suggested that the Russian Jewish community voted about 70 percent for Donald Trump in 2016, a notable counter-trend to the general American Jewish community.
Many American Zionists—religious and secular alike—now believe that American progressivism in general and the Democratic Party in particular are bad for Israel, and that American military and political leadership is essential for preserving stability in the Middle East. Pro-free-market Jews, who celebrate the idea of American meritocracy, reject how progressivism stigmatizes economic success, and they oppose the high levels of taxation that are necessary to sustain the progressive welfare state.
In short, while the vast majority of self-identified Jews today are still politically liberal, the “Judaism vote” (i.e., those most committed to Jewish practice and Jewish continuity) and the “Zionism vote” (i.e., those most committed to Israeli national sovereignty) are increasingly conservative. And while many secular Jewish conservatives may not affiliate strongly with their own Jewish heritage, their conservative persuasion, if cultivated, could lead some of them to deepen their bond with more traditionalist Jews who share many of their political ideas and values. For while a progressive worldview leads many (if not all) Jews beyond Judaism, conservative ideas may offer a natural pathway back toward Jewish commitment. Like Judaism itself, conservatism still honors the importance of fidelity to tradition, communal obligation, and the role of religion in sustaining a moral society.
Taken together, Torah conservatives, Zionist conservatives, and free-market Jewish conservatives could create a formidable new coalition of American Jews who stand athwart progressivism yelling stop in a unified Jewish voice and for distinctly Jewish reasons.
In building this coalition, Jews might learn something from the evolution of American conservatism itself. Like many other great political movements in history, postwar conservatism began by clarifying what it opposed: statism at home, Communism abroad, and the radical culture of the 1960s that was beginning its long march through America’s institutions. Yet out of this opposition movement, American conservatism developed, over time, a positive governing agenda, and it expanded the moral and political imaginations of those involved. Many religious conservatives came to recognize the importance of economic liberty; many libertarian conservatives came to see the value of traditional communities; and many conservatives who appreciated small-town American life came to understand the necessity of American power in trying to preserve a civilized world order.
In a similar spirit, one could imagine a new Jewish conservative movement that unites various existing Jewish sub-groups around a positive agenda: pro–religious liberty, supportive of the traditional family, in favor of school choice, allied with Israel in a dangerous world, and tough-minded in the global fight against anti-Semitism. Such a movement would seek to advance ideas and policies aimed at strengthening Jewish continuity in the United States. And it would aim to contribute the best Jewish thinking, with the full weight of the Hebraic tradition behind it, to the revitalization of American conservatism itself. So far, very little work has been done to articulate this broader Jewish conservative agenda, to bring these disparate Jewish factions together, and to create a new set of institutions that speak for Jewish conservatives in a serious way. This is the challenge—and opportunity—that Jews face in the current era.
Three: The Jewish Defense of Religious FreedomThe American Jewish agenda rightly begins with the defense of religious freedom, an idea that unites lovers of liberty and traditional communities of faith into a common political cause. And if there is a place where the sacred texts of the American founding and the political history of the Jewish people most vividly come together, it is in George Washington’s famous letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport:
It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
In America, Jews were free to create and sustain religious communities of their own distinct sort—“to sit in safety under [their] own vine and fig tree,” as Washington put it—while still possessing the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of American citizenship in full. To be sure, the Jewish experience in America was filled with frustrations, hardships, and long periods of social discrimination. American Christians have not, in their hearts or in their private institutions, always welcomed their Jewish neighbors. And yet from the beginning, the American polity has almost always preserved an inviolable sphere of Jewish liberty. (General Ulysses S. Grant’s infamous Order 11, expelling Jews from certain areas of the embattled American South, is a remarkable and very brief exception, almost immediately overturned by Abraham Lincoln.) The powers of government were not used to prohibit the practice of Jewish life; and Jews were not asked to sacrifice their beliefs or identity to participate in the civic life of the nation.
While Jews are still the religious minority most victimized by hate crimes, they are, astonishingly, also the most beloved religious group in America, outranking Catholics, Protestants, Evangelicals, Buddhists, and Muslims, according to a 2017 Pew survey. Many Americans admire Jewish success and creativity; and the overwhelming majority of religious Christians see modern Jews as a sacred remnant of God’s chosen people, worthy of respect (and even reverence) for who we are as Jews. Yet many Jews remain concerned that America is still one misstep away from becoming a “Christian nation.” The ideological syndrome Milton Himmelfarb described in 1966, when he observed that “Jews are probably more devoted than anyone else in America to the separation of church and state,” persists in the liberal Jewish mind as if Christian power were the greatest threat to Jewish flourishing. This wasn’t true half a century ago, as Himmelfarb explained, and it is even less true today.
In reality, traditional Jews, Christians, and other faith communities now face a shared cultural and political threat: a transformed understanding of “the separation of church and state,” which seeks to impose the acceptance of progressive mores (such as same-sex marriage, gender fluidity, and sexual liberation) by force of law. Until recently, a broad majority of Americans maintained a basic respect for religious liberty. Progressives sought the freedom to live in accordance with their own values (they demanded “choice”) and they sought recognition and support for those values from the state (they demanded “equality”). In many arenas—such as abortion and more recently same-sex marriage—the progressives won the legal battle. But they were also willing, at least in their understanding of America’s political and civic order, to respect the private freedom of religious communities to live in accordance with their own traditional values. Back in 1993, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which sought to prevent the courts from allowing undue restrictions on the free exercise of religion, passed Congress by a near-unanimous vote. Today, most progressives see the RFRA and its state analogs as archaic, and they see the religious freedom that these laws were enacted to protect as “code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, [and] Christian supremacy,” as Martin R. Castro, the chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, wrote in 2016.
For many progressive activists, it is no longer enough to normalize progressive values within the culture, and it is no longer enough to legalize progressive social practices. The ultimate aim, as Jonathan Last explained in a 2015 Weekly Standard essay, is assimilation: to demand that every American institution adopt the new morality as its own, and to treat any opposition to post-traditional norms and lifestyles as a form of religious backwardness so dangerous to the public good that it requires activist legal intervention to eradicate it.
The issue here is not only or ultimately about same-sex marriage, transgender rights, or other current controversies. It is about defending the freedom of religious communities to live religious lives, and the need to oppose the idea that the progressive state should have the power to decide which communities have a place (or no place) in American society. Same-sex marriage has been one of the legal clubs used to advance this larger agenda, and the progressive strategy is both sophisticated and incrementalist: First, use the courts to establish that same-sex marriage is a national right (this has already been achieved). Then require private companies to participate in the commerce of these ceremonies—this is being done now, through lawsuits such as those trying to force Christian bakers to write congratulatory notes on cakes for gay weddings. Then require churches and synagogues to permit same-sex marriage or else lose their tax-exempt status—this is already being promoted by myriad progressive activists and was explicitly mentioned as a possibility in Obergefell v. Hodges, the case in which the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. When asked during oral arguments whether such a ruling could allow the administration to strip tax-exempt status from religious institutions, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli confessed that “it’s certainly going to be an issue.”
From here, one can imagine the next possible steps. Require ministers and rabbis to perform same-sex marriages or else lose their license to perform weddings at all; then treat the teaching of traditional morality itself as an offense to public conscience, and use this principle as the basis to prohibit religious groups from gaining official recognition at public universities and to restrict the accreditation of religious schools that teach “unenlightened” values. Along the way, the idea is to empower the state—and especially the courts—to act as the ultimate judge of religious practice and principle, and to decide whether it should be indulged, marginalized, or outlawed entirely. This includes Jewish practices, such as circumcision and the ritual slaughter of animals, that have already been targeted in certain American cities and outlawed in parts of Europe.
Recent legal cases affecting specifically Jewish concerns should only heighten Jewish awareness of the perils. New York City has sued ultra-Orthodox Jewish business owners for requiring dress codes to enter their stores, and has also attempted to shut down women-only separate swimming hours in community facilities, a reasonable accommodation made to Orthodox sensibilities in a heavily Hasidic neighborhood of Brooklyn. In Abeles v. Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (2017), the Fourth Circuit upheld the suspension of a government employee after she took time off on Passover, ruling on such weak grounds that the plaintiff’s counsel has cautioned that such a precedent could mean that “no employee with a bona fide religious duty is safe from arbitrary after-the-fact punishment for religious observance.” And in Ben Levi v. Brown (2016), the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a claim of discrimination by a Jewish inmate who had been denied religious study time in prison, allegedly because the warden believed his request contradicted the demands of Jewish tradition. As Justice Samuel Alito explained in his dissent, this refusal inappropriately ceded to the state the power to evaluate the legitimacy of a particular Jewish religious practice:
Even assuming that [the warden] accurately identified the requirements for a group Torah study under Jewish doctrine—and that is not at all clear—federal courts have no warrant to evaluate “the validity of [Ben-Levi’s] interpretations.” . . . The State has no apparent reason for discriminating against Jewish inmates in this way. . . . [T]he Court’s indifference to this discriminatory infringement of religious liberty is disappointing.
Of course, Jews are not the main target in the new progressive campaign to redefine religious freedom. Evangelicals and Catholics are the big game, and we have already seen the lengths to which progressive activists are willing to go to impose their will on Christian florists, Catholic nuns, and Evangelical student groups. But traditional Jews are in the same cultural and political situation as traditional Christians—and perhaps even more vulnerable because of our diminutive size and our communal failure to recognize the threat. And Jews can uniquely contribute to the public debate on religious freedom by speaking with the moral authority of a small but proud people who once suffered under the oppressive weight of Old-World establishments that treated Jewish life as “unenlightened” and “backward,” and who thus have a special appreciation for the blessings of true religious freedom.
It is a mistake to believe that the Republican victory in 2016 will automatically reverse these efforts to refine and shrink the scope of religious liberty in America. Activist judges are still in power in many lower courts across the country, and troubling precedents in recent religious-liberty cases may yet prevail at the state and local levels. A secularist ideology still dominates in our crucial cultural institutions, including schools and universities, museums and the media, entertainment, and now in many large public corporations. And even many Republicans are not eager to confront a progressive elite that threatens all cultural opposition with the charge of backwardness and bigotry. America thus stands at a critical moment in the religious-freedom debate—a timeout, and yet still a tipping point. And Jews should play their part in “proclaiming liberty throughout all the land” (to borrow a phrase from Leviticus, inscribed as a precious reminder on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia).
Concretely, Jewish conservatives should encourage the judiciary to restore the American tradition of religious freedom and roll back the progressive overreach of the Obama years. They should help pass laws, at the federal and state level, that protect the freedom of religious institutions—schools, synagogues, and seminaries—to determine their own educational, ritual, and communal lives without the threat of litigation and without fear of losing their tax-exempt status. They should create a multi-denominational Jewish version of organizations like the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Becket Fund, leading defenders of those whose religious rights have been challenged, standing ready to defend any potential breach of Jewish liberty. And they should develop a training program to educate communal leaders so that if and when judicial and political progressivism goes back on the march, they are prepared to protect their Jewish interests and values as effectively as possible.
Orthodox Jews surely have the greatest stake in this debate, and their crucial allies will be religious Christians and other traditional faith communities. But regardless of their political or cultural orientation, all Jews have good reasons to support this religious-freedom agenda. No Jewish friend of liberty—secular or religious—should tolerate the establishment of a progressive state that restricts the free self-determination of religious communities. And no Jewish friends of Jewish unity should stand idly by as their fellow Jews are treated as illegitimate, and as the Jewish schools and synagogues down the block are potentially threatened by a punitive progressive state simply for believing what Jews have believed for millennia.
Four: The Jewish Defense of the FamilyImportant as it is, the preservation of religious freedom is simply the political precondition for creating and sustaining strong Jewish communities. As Yuval Levin argued last year in First Things, it is in “the institutions and relationships in which we learn to make virtuous choices—in the family, the school, the synagogue and church, the civic enterprise, the charitable venture, the association of workers or merchants or neighbors or friends—that the fate of our experiment in moral freedom will be decided.” The defensive task of protecting our religious institutions from new legal infringements cannot replace the deeper work of building and sustaining a vibrant Jewish culture. And this cultural undertaking necessarily begins, for Jews and for everyone, in the family.
The original Jewish story is a tale of a founding family, summoned to establish a righteous way of life as a corrective to the pre-Abrahamic world of disorder, decadence, despair, and destruction. In the Hebraic worldview, the gift of a child is the Creator’s greatest gift; honor thy father and mother is one of the Bible’s central commandments; educating one’s own children is a sacred parental duty. Abraham and his descendants believe they have an important mission to fulfill, and that mission is carried out by transmitting a covenantal way of life to their children.
The Hebrew Bible does not romanticize family life—indeed, quite the opposite. It vividly portrays sibling rivalries, family breakdowns, sexual perversions, and much-needed redemptions. As commentators ranging from Nachmanides to Leon Kass have explained, the stories of Genesis show us the fragility of family life by illustrating how it goes wrong. The Jewish tradition that codifies the moral guidelines for forming and sustaining families—including the elevation of monogamous marriage and the preservation of certain sexual taboos—is designed to moderate the passions of bodily existence and to awaken us to the difficult responsibilities and transcendent joys of fulfilling our roles within the drama of the generations as husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, daughters and sons.
In the current cultural environment, this traditional understanding of the family has been severely weakened. Out-of-wedlock births in America have skyrocketed to over 40 percent; only 46 percent of American children grow up in a traditional family; and 34 percent of children today are living with an unmarried parent. In 2010, Pew research found that only 30 percent of Millennials included a successful marriage as one of their most important life goals, while 39 percent of Americans overall believed marriage was obsolete. A 2011 Pew study found that only 57 percent of Generation Xers and 53 percent of Millennials believed that children needed a mother and a father to grow up happily—an opinion that cuts against all serious sociological research, which demonstrates that children reared in intact two-parent families are happier, more successful, and more civically responsible. The rising generation has grown up in a culture that promotes sexual freedom and devalues the unique significance of marriage, and, as Charles Murray and others have discussed, the dark consequences of family breakdown have hit America’s lower classes the hardest. Most American Jews, alas, seem to have accepted or embraced the new morality. A 2016 Gallup poll reveals that 25 percent of Mormons, 47 percent of Evangelical Protestants, and 59 percent of Catholics believe that having a child out of wedlock is “morally acceptable,” while a remarkable 68 percent of American Jews believe this to be the case. In other words: The majority of American Jews have rejected the Jewish idea of the family, at least in their moral-cultural outlook if not necessarily in their own private family lives.
This devaluation of the traditional family has also contributed to a decline in birthrates throughout the modern West. The only advanced democracy in the world with a birthrate far above replacement is Israel. The Jewish state still believes in the family because Israel still believes it has a purpose: to serve as the national homeland of the Jewish people and the spiritual center of Jewish civilization. The rest of the West—with America as a partial exception—is ensuring its own decline by choosing, person by person, lifestyle by lifestyle, not to have children. In so doing, entire nations and civilizations are gradually declaring that they have no enduring legacy to preserve or distinct heritage to transmit. And tragically, non-Orthodox American Jews have among the lowest birthrates of any sub-sector within American society, well below the levels necessary to maintain their communities into the future.
This two-headed crisis—family breakdown leading to social dysfunction, and demographic decline leading to civilizational suicide—has the same cultural root: the elevation of the “sovereign self,” as Simone de Beauvoir put it, who pursues a life without duties, sacrifices, or the cultural pressure to accept the supreme adult responsibility of rearing the young. Yet very few of our political and religious leaders, including most mainstream American conservatives, seem willing to speak about or confront this crisis. The hesitancy of our leaders is understandable. Ministers and politicians alike fear offending those who have been unable to form families of their own, those who have chosen against family life in the name of personal freedom or professional ambition, those whose families are scarred by divorce, those of differing sexual orientations. Others believe that the moral transformation of mainstream culture is now so deep that nothing can really be done to restore traditional family life within society at large. And so the majority of America’s leaders remain largely silent about America’s greatest problem. Even those who recognize the crisis are often too reticent, too intimidated, or too defeatist to confront it.
Yet this capitulation to the decline of the family is a grave mistake—for Americans and for Jews alike. The strength of American society rests on the integrity of its families. And the only way to preserve and strengthen Jewish life is to restore the idea of the Jewish family—large, thriving, immersed in Jewish traditions—as a cultural norm that reaches beyond the Orthodox community alone. The first step is regaining the moral self-confidence to defend traditional family life against those cultural forces that reject it: to celebrate monogamous marriage as a moral ideal, to celebrate large families as the heroic nurseries of our national and religious heritage, to celebrate mothers and fathers who sacrifice their own freedom to raise up their own replacements, and to dispute the notion that being “inclusive” requires accepting every lifestyle as equally praiseworthy.
In the effort to reinvigorate a family-centered conservatism, Jewish thinking and Jewish activism have much to contribute. At a deeper cultural level, Jews can explain how the life-cycle family rituals—brit (circumcision), bar mitzvah, chuppah (wedding), and Kaddish (mourning)—embody a deeper teaching about intergenerational responsibility that is relevant to every American in search of meaning and purpose in life. At a communal level, Jews can provide a model for support of family life. They can show how married couples in crisis are actively helped by congregants and rabbis; how large families are supported with tuition breaks at religious schools; how aging parents are cared for at or close to home rather than hidden out of sight and out of mind. And at a policy level, Jews should advocate for pro-family social policies, including targeted tax cuts that ease the burden on parents; child-care policies that respect rather than penalize parents who reduce their work hours to care for their children; and opposition to euthanasia and assisted suicide, which devalues the elderly and the sick in the false name of compassion. In becoming public voices for strengthening the American family, Jews may find a moral purpose that would only strengthen their commitment to Judaism itself. And by standing together with the nation’s strongest communities of faith—Catholics, Evangelicals, Mormons, and others—they can help renew and reform America’s cultural fabric.
At the same time, Jews need to address head-on the greatest threats to the modern Jewish family: the normalization of intermarriage and the high costs of Jewish education. There is obviously no easy answer to the communal challenge of intermarriage, which concerned Jewish leaders have lamented for decades. Among the Orthodox, intermarriage is still prohibited and roundly criticized, since in their view only united Jewish families can sustain, model, and transmit a Jewish way of life to their children. And this taboo, while sometimes painful in particular cases, has largely preserved a culture of Jewish in-marriage. Among more liberal denominations, the increasing rates of intermarriage have opened up a more welcoming approach toward intermarried couples. Some progressive Jews are now embarrassed by the very idea of opposing intermarriage at all, seeing it as a form of discrimination no different from opposing interracial marriage; others aim to keep intermarried families within the Jewish fold by embracing them; and still others seek a middle ground, by promoting conversion of the non-Jewish spouse before or after marriage, and speaking honestly to young Jews in love about the tensions that often arise within intermarried families.
Yet for Jews who have little knowledge of their majestic Jewish heritage, intermarriage is not a revolt or a heresy; it is simply a natural extension of their normal American upbringing. Various educational and outreach efforts—such as Birthright programs, Chabad on Campus, and Jewish camping—have unquestionably had some positive effects on Jewish identity and commitment. But it is too much to expect that such initiatives will reverse the cultural assumptions about love and marriage that young, non-observant Jews have internalized from birth to college. Ultimately, the only enduring answer to the crisis of Jewish continuity is acculturation to Jewish life at an early age. And part of the genius of traditional Jewish culture is getting young adults to behave with more wisdom in forming families than their limited age and experience could ever allow them to have acquired on their own. The crucial question, therefore, is whether a growing percentage of non-observant Jews might become inspired to give their young children a serious Jewish education, and whether any substantial portion of American Jews can afford to do so. Fortunately, for the economic dimension of the problem, there may be a political answer.
Five: A Jewish Education AgendaIn his classic story “Eli the Fanatic,” Philip Roth recounts the clash of two cultures: that of an Old-World yeshiva with 18 orphans from the Holocaust, and that of the highly assimilated suburban Jews and non-Jews who conspire to shut down the yeshiva, because it threatens their sense of enlightened, refined, and successful modern life.
“Someday, Eli, it’s going to be a hundred little kids with little yamalkahs chanting their Hebrew lessons on Coach House Road, and then it’s not going to strike you as funny?”
“Eli, what goes on up there—my kids hear strange sounds.”
“Eli, this is a modern community.”
“Eli, we pay taxes.”
Well, in communities across America, we now have hundreds of thousands of little kids chanting Hebrew lessons in Jewish day schools of myriad shapes and sizes. And according to every serious study, the most reliable guarantor of Jewish perpetuation in America is providing young Jews with such an intensive Jewish education. Yet at present, close to 90 percent of Jewish day-school kids come from Orthodox families. While those affiliated with the Conservative and Reform movements still constitute the majority of American Jewry, about 18 percent and 35 percent respectively, non-Orthodox schools account for only 13 percent of all day-school enrollment, and that number continues to drop. The Solomon Schechter schools connected to the Conservative movement are closing at an unfortunately rapid rate, and Reform students make up a mere 1.5 percent of all those enrolled in day schools. All in all, of the more than 1 million non-Orthodox school-age children, it is estimated that merely around 3 percent are enrolled in full-time Jewish schools. So how did we get here, and what can we do?
Like nearly every other immigrant group, most Jews came to America in search of economic opportunity, and the key to Jewish self-improvement was education. In the early decades of the republic, schooling was more communal, less centralized, less formal, and more sectarian. As the historian Jonathan Sarna explains:
In the colonial and early national periods of American Jewish history, most Jews—their numbers never exceeded a few thousand—studied in either common pay (private) schools that assumed the religious identity of their headmaster; or in charity (free) schools supported by religious bodies with financial support from the State. In 1803, New York’s only Jewish congregation, Shearith Israel, established a charity school under its own auspices named Polonies Talmud Torah. The school enjoyed equal footing with Protestant and Catholic schools in the city and received state aid—a reminder that American Jews understood the relationship of religion and state differently in those days than we do today.
During the 1800s, the American model—and the Jewish-American model—changed dramatically. As immigrants from around the world poured into the country—especially Catholics, but also Jews—the more established (and predominantly Protestant) elements of American society worried about the threat of rival subcultures to American civil society. A growing public-school movement sought to “Americanize” these new ethnic communities, and thus to assimilate the children of immigrants into the language, mores, and opportunities of America. In reality, many of these public schools initially sought to advance a Protestant agenda, with Catholics as their main target. Many Catholic communities resisted, creating a network of private religious schools supported by communal charity and run by the diocese system. Most Jews embraced the public-school model, seeing it as a gateway to the upper ranks of American society in the merit-based professions long prohibited to them in the Old World. Various efforts were made, at the Jewish communal level, to supplement public schooling with Hebrew school in the evenings and on the weekends. But in aggregate, and especially over the past many decades, this supplementary model proved to be a weak instrument of Jewish continuity.
Over time, many Jews came to see support for public schools as itself a Jewish cause. With gratitude, Jews appreciated the opportunity that public schooling had provided their working-class ancestors, and, like hawks, they stood guard to ensure that every hint of religion—such as prayer in schools—was removed from the once-Protestant and now thoroughly secular culture of public schools. At the same time, the small but more traditional sector of the Jewish community came to fear that American Jews were quickly losing their Jewish identity; that they lacked any real knowledge of Jewish history, ritual, and culture; and that they felt no obligation to marry fellow Jews and hand down a Jewish way of life to their future children. This sense of crisis deepened after the Holocaust, and the drive to do something different—to create a new model of Jewish schooling—received an infusion of energy from Old-World survivors who came to America to rebuild traditional Jewish life. And so, while day schools had previously existed as minor institutions in the Jewish community, the modern Jewish day-school movement gained steam in the 1950s and 1960s.
Today’s Jewish day schools come in a variety of forms, ranging from Haredi yeshivas that spend most of their educational time on Talmudic learning, to modern Orthodox day schools that combine traditional Jewish literacy with modern secular education, to pluralistic and nondenominational Jewish academies that add Jewish culture and modern Hebrew to a curriculum and social environment that otherwise try to replicate America’s suburban public schools.
The day-school movement is remarkable, fragile, and disappointing all at once. Through entirely private communal initiative, dozens of day schools are now thriving across the country, and the Jewish families enrolled in such schools often organize their whole lives to send their kids there. Yet the high cost of paying for Jewish schooling is now straining many committed Jewish families. (Dark Jewish humor treats day-school costs as the most effective form of birth control for observant Jews.) The average annual cost of a day-school education, K–12, is about $15,000 per child; in certain areas (especially New York and Los Angeles) high-school tuitions can approach $40,000 annually. And as Aryeh Klapper argued in a provocative essay in Jewish Ideas Daily a few years ago, the two-parent/all-hours work life that is often required to finance such an education means that mothers and fathers often have less energy and less time to engage (Jewishly or otherwise) with their own children. Within the schools themselves, the challenge of trying to balance Jewish studies and secular studies, all at an affordable cost, often results in accepting middling academic standards in both.
At the same time, the high cost of Jewish day schools is an impediment to attracting less observant Jews. While the overall day-school population has grown over the past few decades, due largely to the natural growth of the Orthodox community, the percentage of non-Orthodox students in day schools has fallen, as noted above, even as graduates of outreach programs like Birthright have now entered their child-rearing years. In facing these high tuition costs, many committed Jews still find a way to make it work. Yet the broader Jewish community—including that subset of American Jews that might be open to Jewish schooling, if it were available, affordable, and comparable in quality to a normal American suburban school—never really considers it.
Various communal organizations have tried to address the affordability problem. They have founded low-cost “blended schools” that use more technology and hire fewer teachers, they have capped tuition at a fixed percentage of family income, and they have sought larger contributions from private philanthropy. These efforts are all noble. But ultimately, the costs are just too high to change the basic equation. Most Jewish parents will simply not pay twice—first in obligatory real-estate taxes that support the public-school system and then in optional private tuitions to send their children to Jewish schools. So they send their children to public schools. And as the strain on existing day-school families continues to grow, the downward pressure on birthrates and on educational quality will only intensify.
The best strategic answer to the “tuition crisis” is to reestablish the principle that public dollars should be available to parents who wish to send their children to religious schools. Even suggesting this idea gives many progressive Jews a nervous breakdown. One writer in the Forward recently suggested that school-choice programs are part of a larger agenda
to re-Christianize America and to replace the melting pot or gorgeous mosaic of our current secular society with an imagined America of a hundred years ago: white-dominated, Christian-dominated, traditional in values and orientation. . . . Of course, some foolish Orthodox Jewish organizations have signed on to “school choice” initiatives, since they promise a short-term financial windfall for Orthodox Jewish schools—as if a few dollars thrown to them will not be drowned out by a thousand times as many poured into Christian schools. These fools are modern-day Esaus, exchanging the birthright of American democracy for a bowl of voucher porridge.
The Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel—our “modern-day Esaus”—have indeed become strong advocates for seeking public dollars to help defray the costs of religious schooling. So far, these lobbying efforts have focused primarily on seeking the funds that Jewish schools are already entitled to by law, which means relatively small amounts of public money for ancillary services like security, technology, and busing, and somewhat larger amounts of money for special-education services. Such advocacy should continue, and it has helped existing day schools in a real way. But these small victories should not distract Jews from waging a broader political campaign for educational choice. As a matter of social justice, religious taxpayers are entitled to some portion of the public purse to support the education of children in their own religious communities. And at a deeper cultural level, American civil society would become only further impoverished if its communal web of religious schools weakened, withered, and closed down.
In his satiric caricature, Philip Roth presents two diametrically opposed cultural alternatives: an Old-World Judaism, alien to American society, and an assimilated Jewry that sheds its Jewish heritage in the name of American convention. But in truth, as conservatives understand, the flourishing of the American project depends on the “little platoons”—families, traditional communities, and religious schools—that are best equipped to educate young men and women in the moral virtues necessary for citizenship. They are, as Edmund Burke put it, the “first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.” In the 1800s, one could understand the powerful case for the public-school movement as the best way to create a shared American culture. Yet today, American civil society needs religious schools as a cultural counterweight and living alternative to secular America. The Jewish case for educational liberty should be advanced in these large civilizational terms: not merely as a matter of economic necessity or economic justice, but as a battle for the future of American democracy itself. And it should be combined with a reinvigoration of the case for American federalism—the idea that different states and localities should have maximal freedom to craft their own distinctive social contracts, including a variety of funding models for public, private, and religious schools. This would allow true American diversity to flourish.
For many years now, the school-choice battle has been waged primarily as a means of liberating underprivileged minorities from failing public schools, and of introducing much-needed competition into a public-school system that often functions as a failed and self-protective monopoly. These are powerful arguments, and this effort has so far achieved some real but limited successes in certain cities and states across the country. But the school-choice movement should no longer remain simply a rescue mission for impoverished and neglected children. It should be advanced, too, as a rescue mission for America’s essential communities of faith. In practical terms, this will involve policy changes at both the state and federal levels—including education tax credits, which allow families to allocate a portion of their taxes toward private- or religious-school scholarships; state funding for secular studies at religious schools; public charter schools (including Hebrew-language schools) that could work in sync with private religious education; and school vouchers for families living in areas where the public-school system is failing. The ultimate aim should be to get the same per child allocation for religious schools as for public schools, creating a truly competitive and diverse market for educating the young.
Jews have much to gain if this educational revolution advances in a serious way. But Jews also have much to give in explaining why this revolution matters, for we know firsthand how different our communal fate looks when our children receive a serious religious education versus when they do not. American Christians now face the same challenge—the problem of cultural continuity—that Jewish communities have struggled with for decades. And in this case, what is “good for the Jews” is also good for American society as a whole. The future of American civilization depends on whether our society can marry together the renewal of traditional communities and the reinvigoration of American patriotism. Religious schools play an essential role in performing this civilizational work, and only the public purse can ensure that these citizen-forming institutions have a long-term future.
Six: Israel and AmericaThroughout the modern era, enemies of the Jewish people have accused them of possessing a dual identity and often treated them as disloyal outsiders to the nations in which they lived. In response, some Jews cast away their Jewish heritage in pursuit of acceptance by the dominant culture. They sought to be “normal” and willingly shed or reformed their Jewish identity in an effort to become true patriots of other nations. Other Jews fiercely rejected the various national cultures that rejected them. They sustained, often under duress, a distinctly Jewish way of life. They believed, often in spite of their inferior material conditions, in the moral, theological, and civilizational exceptionalism of the Jews. And some clung to the dream of national restoration in their own ancestral homeland: Zion.
Modern Zionism, the late-19th-century movement advocating the political reestablishment of the Jewish nation, gathered support only slowly in the American Jewish community. Most establishment Jewish leaders of the early 20th century saw Zionism as a challenge to their identity as Americans, and most Jews were focused on realizing for themselves the blessings of American liberty. They had no reason—and little desire—to flee to Palestine. The Zionist movement only gained greater sympathy among American Jews when Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis—arguably the most prominent American Jew of his generation and one of the leading figures of the progressive movement—agreed to lead it in 1914. Less than a decade earlier, Brandeis had declared that there was “no place” in our nation for “hyphenated Americans . . . [including] Jewish-Americans.” But over time, he changed his mind:
My approach to Zionism was through Americanism. In time, practical experience and observation convinced me that Jews were, by reason of their traditions and their character, peculiarly fitted for the attainment of American ideals. Gradually it became clear to me that to be good Americans, we must be better Jews, and to be better Jews, we must become Zionists.
American Jews do indeed possess two intertwining identities, and they should not shy away from or apologize for it. We are the carriers of two remarkable stories—the Jewish story and the American story. We are the inheritors of two great civilizations—one ancient and one modern. And we should take pride in the fact that many of the American Founders found moral and political inspiration in the Hebrew Bible—and especially the Exodus story of founding a new nation, delivered from tyranny and devoted to the ideals of liberty and justice.
Yet the Zionist project does present American Jews with a serious political challenge: What does it mean to be a Jewish-American patriot living outside of Israel? Do American Jews have any special responsibility for the Jewish state? What are the terms of the larger America–Israel relationship, and what are the legitimate aims of the American pro-Israel movement?
Over the years, the meaning of Israel in American political life—and the practical geopolitical relationship between the two nations—has seen a series of dramatic changes, upheavals, redefinitions, and reassessments. In the era between World War II and the 1967 war, the American debate over Israel was shaped by two basic paradigms: the “moral” and the “realist.” The “moralists” treated American support for Israel as an ethical obligation of the highest order. Jews had been destroyed and displaced in the Holocaust and deserved a homeland; the Israeli founders were scrappy rebels fighting for a noble cause, just like the American Founders; Jews were God’s chosen people; the Jewish return to Zion was divinely ordained. The Christian Zionist movement, with roots that go back to before the American founding, was essential in advancing this worldview.
The “realists,” by contrast, weighed America’s posture toward Israel like any other geopolitical relationship: Given the socialist leanings of many Israeli founders, would Israel sympathize with the Soviet Union in the Cold War? Given the ongoing conflict with its Arab neighbors, would American support for Israel undermine our access to Arab oil? Would the Arab–Israeli conflict create instability in the Middle East that would burden American power? From Truman to Eisenhower to Kennedy to Johnson, the relative weight of the pro-Israel moralists and the generally Arab-leaning realists oscillated. And the question of Israel was not yet a conventional left–right issue in American politics: The moral defenders of Israel came from both the secular left and the Christian right, and the realist skeptics about Israel came in both Democratic and Republican forms.
In the 1967 war, Israel demonstrated its strength to the world in the face of another looming assault by its annihilationist enemies and took possession of greater Israel for the first time—including the Old City of Jerusalem. After that, the America–Israel relationship took on two additional dimensions. On the one hand, America had clearly become Israel’s crucial and most committed superpower ally, defending the Jewish state on the international stage and supplying Israel with the weapons and resources it needed to defend itself. At the same time, a new ideological movement began to take shape—one that intensified after the Israel–Lebanon War in 1982—that denounced Israel in moralistic terms as an occupier, a fascist state, and a denier of Palestinian rights. This way of thinking found its ideological home largely on the American left and had its first prominent sympathizer in President Jimmy Carter. It also began to gain traction among certain American Jews, who now believed that Israel itself was the main impediment to their dreams of peace in the Middle East, and that Israeli nationalism (embodied in the right-wing Prime Minister Menachem Begin) was an affront to their own more cosmopolitan values.
For decades, the aim of the mainstream pro-Israel movement in America has been to preserve the bipartisan consensus on American support for Israel. In this view, success is measured primarily by the continuation and expansion of virtually unanimous congressional support for military aid to the Jewish state and by the shared rhetorical support of Democrats and Republicans for the special U.S.–Israel relationship. There were obviously clear differences between Carter’s Israel policy and that of Reagan, George H.W. Bush’s Israel policy and that of Clinton, George W. Bush’s policy and that of Obama. But despite these policy differences, the focus on maintaining a bipartisan consensus has largely prevailed. Congressional support for Israel funding remained a joint effort; stump speeches and state addresses referred easily to the uniqueness of the U.S.–Israel relationship; leaders in both parties pledged their support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and Israel enjoyed remarkably high popularity among the American public.
Beneath the bipartisan surface, however, a deeper rift was taking shape. The left-wing assault on Israel became both more vehement and more influential within the Democratic Party, while the political right became more unified in believing that America and Israel have the same values, the same interests, and the same enemies. While President Obama worked assiduously to put “daylight” between his White House and Israel, his administration benefitted greatly from the prevailing myth that there was still little actual difference between Republican friends of Israel and Democratic friends of Israel. Administration actions were often rationalized rather than publicly opposed by many Jewish leaders. These rationalizations persisted even after President Obama had engineered a deal that effectively legalized Iranian nuclear development and funneled billions of dollars in cash to a nation that sponsors terrorism around the world and pledges to wipe Israel off the map. And in the perfect anti-Israel send-off, the Obama administration took the unprecedented step of refusing to veto UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which declared Judea, Samaria, and East Jerusalem as illegally occupied and thus left Israel vulnerable to international sanctions and boycotts.
The struggle within the Democratic Party over Israel seems to have two basic camps. On one side, a shrinking establishment still celebrates its friendship for Israel, still decries the most egregious anti-Israel actions such as UN Resolution 2334, and yet displays little willingness to fight for Israel’s interests against enemies within its own party. On the other side, there are progressives, who are now openly hostile to Israeli sovereignty and sharply critical of Israeli behavior. At the grassroots level, the progressives seem to be winning. Shortly before passage of the 2016 UN Resolution, a Brookings poll found that 60 percent of Democrats supported penalizing Israeli construction in East Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria through economic sanctions “or more serious actions,” while 55 percent of Democrats believed that Israeli influence on American foreign policy was too high, and that Israel was a “burden” to the United States.
As Democratic sympathy for Israel weakens, Republican support for Israel only strengthens. A February 2017 Gallup poll found that 81 percent of Republicans have a “totally favorable” view of Israel (compared with only 61 percent of Democrats), and 82 percent of Republicans sympathize more with Israel than with the Palestinians, with only 6 percent claiming more affinity for the Palestinian cause. The Republican platform, already deeply supportive of Israel, became even stronger in 2016, with additional provisions that “reject the false notion that Israel is an occupier,” oppose boycott efforts against all Israeli-controlled territories, and reject any imposition of terms by outside parties regarding the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
For Jewish conservatives, the current political moment is an opportunity to redefine the policy aims and guiding strategy of pro-Israel activism. They should continue to press hard against the Iran nuclear deal, advocating for American withdrawal if possible, swift action at any sign of Iranian intransigence, and strong American opposition to counter Iranian aggression and subversion across the Middle East. Jewish conservatives should call on America and Israel to re-visit the “memorandum of understanding” that now defines American military aid to the Jewish state, seeking to expand Israeli autonomy in developing its own military capabilities, so long as it does not transfer American military technology to American enemies. They should make the case for anti-boycott measures that counteract the recent UN resolution, and they should push America to demand fundamental changes in the governance structure of the UN or else withdraw American funding and support.
They should applaud any measures to defund the corrupt Palestinian Authority, whose school curricula teach Jew-hatred and promote terrorism, and whose government continues to reward and celebrate the murder of Israeli innocents. They should advocate for the official recognition of Jerusalem as the eternal capital of the Jewish state. They should push to strengthen a new regional alliance between America, Israel, and those Arab states that seek real political stability and economic cooperation, which might create a new and more favorable environment for negotiating a practical political arrangement with the Palestinians. And at the deepest level, they should explain why the America–Israel relationship is a mutually beneficial partnership of two sovereign nations, not a client-state relationship in which American generosity serves a needy Jewish state. Israel is an important strategic ally: a counterweight to Iran’s hegemonic ambitions, a warrior against destabilizing terror, a leader in developing invaluable new technologies, and a nation that has never asked or needed American soldiers to die on its behalf.
In the political fights over Israel, the Jewish left—led by organizations such as J Street and even more radical groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace—has adopted a very different approach, arguing that Israel should embody the loftiest progressive ideals, both in its social policies at home and in its relations with its neighbors. In this view, to be “pro-Israel” means demanding that the Jewish State “take risks for peace,” plead guilty to an allegedly aggressive and illegitimate “occupation,” and cede territory to an oppressed Palestinian population. And it means using American power to pressure Israel in this progressive direction. The Israel they love—their version of a light unto the nations—is an Israel that acts like a lamb in a world of wolves and that sheds its national past in favor of a new Hebrew-speaking universalism.
Jewish conservatives should offer a very different vision. In the current political environment, it is easy to forget that in the 1950s, when National Review was founded, many American conservatives looked upon Israel—and the Jews—with skepticism and even hostility. Leo Strauss, the great political philosopher, was so annoyed by this conservative animus that he wrote a letter to the editor in 1957 suggesting a rather different understanding of the new Jewish state:
Israel is a country which is surrounded by mortal enemies of overwhelming numerical superiority, and in which a single book absolutely predominates in the instruction given in elementary schools and in high schools: the Hebrew Bible. Whatever the failings of individuals may be, the spirit of the country as a whole can justly be described in these terms: heroic austerity supported by the nearness of biblical antiquity. A conservative, I take it, is a man who believes that “everything good is heritage.” I know of no country today in which this belief is stronger and less lethargic than in Israel…[T]he founder of Zionism, Herzl, was fundamentally a conservative man, guided in his Zionism by conservative considerations. The moral spine of the Jews was in danger of being broken by the so-called emancipation, which in many cases had alienated them from their heritage, and yet not given them anything more than merely formal equality; it had brought about a condition which has been called “external freedom and inner servitude”; political Zionism was the attempt to restore that inner freedom, that simple dignity, of which only people who remember their heritage and are loyal to their fate are capable. . . . It helped to stem the tide of “progressive” leveling of venerable, ancestral differences; it fulfilled a conservative function.
In this spirit, Jewish conservatives should defend the Jewish nation as a heroic enterprise, one that resurrected Jewish civilization in the ancient homeland of the Jewish people and created the most modern, most democratic, most civilized state in the Middle East. In an era when conservatism in general is trying to reinvigorate the moral case for nations, the Jewish state should be advanced as a model to emulate—a country that all true friends of the democratic West should appreciate.
For over the long term, American support for Israel will depend on whether a majority of Americans—and hopefully a majority of Jews—see Israel as an exceptional nation, with a significance in the American moral imagination far greater than the small, contested piece of land it occupies in a bloody region that many Americans would often rather ignore. In the American mind, Israel should symbolize the founding city of their own biblical heritage, and it should remind Americans of the moral, spiritual, and physical toughness that is necessary to defend American civilization against its most determined enemies. Norman Podhoretz, in his classic 1982 Commentary essay “J’Accuse,” said it best: “The Bible tells us that God commanded the ancient Israelites to ‘choose life,’ and it also suggests that for a nation, the choice of life often involves choosing the sacrifices and horrors of war. The people of contemporary Israel are still guided by that commandment and its accompanying demands. This is why Israel is a light unto other people who have come to believe that nothing is worth fighting or dying for.”
Seven: The Jewish Fight Against Anti-Semitism
The Podhoretz essay was written in the aftermath of the Lebanon War, in direct response to a torrent of ideological assaults on the modern Jewish state in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and elsewhere. He borrowed the title of Emile Zola’s famous broadside about the Dreyfus affair in late-19th-century France—J’Accuse—to make a clear and powerful point: The new attacks on Israel were so vehement, so willing to abuse and distort the facts, and so apologetic toward Israel’s death-seeking enemies, that the political disease of anti-Semitism had clearly taken root. Anti-Zionism had become the new anti-Semitism of the enlightened elite. And its home was now on the American and European left.
The perverse hatred of the Jews has taken many forms throughout history. Christians once despised the Jews for theological reasons; ethnic supremacists blamed the Jews for allegedly defiling their national purity; socialists attacked the Jews for supposedly controlling all wealth; capitalists vilified the Jews for their involvement with socialism; agrarians scapegoated the Jews for supposedly destroying their economic and cultural way of life; and on and on it goes. In general, what binds these disparate hatreds together is the use of “the Jews” as fuel for ideological passions that have nothing to do with us at all. When reason fails, and when reality fails to satisfy, the Jews are always there as props to mobilize the masses and explain away the misery. In this way, as Jean-Paul Sartre explained in his classic essay “Anti-Semite and Jew,” hating Jews becomes a positive morality: a way of healing the world by assaulting and removing the Jews who infect it.
In general, America has never succumbed to the vilest forms of anti-Semitism, and the American Jewish experience has been far more welcoming than that of any other diaspora in history. Yet social discrimination against American Jews existed in earlier eras, and the persistent fear of anti-Semitism has long played a significant role in shaping the mindset of the American Jewish community. Many American Jews—or their forebears—had fled varying forms of state and popular persecution, whether in 19th-century Germany, 20th-century Eastern Europe, or in the dark days leading up to the Holocaust. Shaped in the fires of anti-Semitism, Jewish political and cultural ambitions in America focused on achieving civic equality and physical security. Fighting anti-Semitism became a central aim of many communal organizations, first among them the Anti-Defamation League. And believing that anti-Semitism was predominantly associated with a majority-Christian society—which it had been in Europe, Russia, and in a far more limited fashion in the United States—many Jews sought to protect themselves by adopting various secularist ideas. These included the rejection of cultural particularism, the “separation of church and state,” and the expansion of government power in the struggle against discrimination.
To this day, many American Jews reflexively associate anti-Semitism with the “Right.” And without question, the “neo-Nazi” and white-supremacist strains of anti-Semitism exist in America, and occasionally their sick adherents act out against the Jews. But these perverse philosophies have no broad institutional base and no representatives in American political office. They are fringe movements.
Leftist anti-Zionism, by contrast, has permeated every corner of academia and now has powerful adherents in high political office. The ideological preconceptions of our self-proclaimed sentinels against anti-Semitism, always looking for right-wing monsters to decry, often blind them to the far more dangerous ideological threat now facing the Jews: the simultaneous rise of progressive Israel-bashing and Islamic Jew-hatred.
The vanguard of this new political assault is the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. BDS is a global effort, linked to radical Islamic terror groups, that pressures churches, companies, trade associations, and universities to divest from Israel and from companies that do business with Israel. In the European Union, there is now a requirement to label goods imported from Judea and Samaria in order to deter their sale. In early 2016, the Obama administration suddenly issued guidelines for enforcing a never-enforced Oslo-era trade directive mandating the special labelling of goods made in the West Bank. And while the economic effects of the BDS movement have thus far been dubious, the false narrative on which this campaign is based has been toxic for young American Jews, especially during college.
That universities are the main setting of this anti-Israel campaign should hardly come as a shock. In both the United States and Europe, many Middle East studies departments have long been funded by multimillion-dollar donations from the Arab world, which takes advantage of the existing academic culture of identity politics to advance anti-Zionist and often anti-Western ideas. And despite various efforts to promote “Israel studies” as a more even-handed alternative, the intellectual balance of power remains firmly on the anti-Israel side. The rising prominence of “intersectionality”—a doctrine linking together all perceived injustices against recognized victim classes—is expanding the perverse alliance between progressive “social justice” activists and radical Islamic groups. The irony here, given the record of many Islamic political organizations when it comes to the treatment of minorities, women, and homosexuals, seems entirely lost on the progressive activists themselves.
In 2015 and 2016, the AMCHA Initiative conducted surveys of more than 100 campuses in the United States and found strong correlations between BDS activity and anti-Semitic attacks, including the destruction of Jewish property, the suppression of speech, and the physical assault of Jewish students. A 2016 Brandeis study on “Hotspots of Antisemitism and Anti-Israel Hostility on Campus” similarly found that the presence of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a BDS advocacy group, was one of the strongest predictors of “perceiving a hostile climate toward Israel and Jews.” While many within the mainstream American Jewish community have mobilized against BDS, a number of prominent Jewish groups are still unwilling to confront its Islamic roots, and many progressives remain blind, accommodating, or actively supportive of the anti-Israel agenda.
In the face of this progressive confusion and complicity, Jewish conservatives should develop a more hard-headed approach to anti-Semitism animated by Jewish self-respect. For as Ruth Wisse has explained, anti-Semitism is almost always about something else, some other political sickness, some ideological project in which the Jews are just a prop. Islamic radicals use the Jews as fuel for their jihadist project; European progressives use the Jews as a distraction from the obvious failure of UN-style internationalism; Euro-fascists use the Jews as scapegoats for the tragic decline of European culture. And the only way for Jews to combat this political assault, Wisse argues, is to “go on offense,” attacking the attackers rather than simply defending ourselves.
While anti-Semites are a clear and present danger to Jews, the Jewish battle against anti-Semitism presents its own moral perils. In the progressive mind, the struggle against anti-Semitism is often universalized into a campaign against all hatreds, all prejudice, and all forms of discrimination. Rather than focusing on the concrete threats to modern-day Jews and how to confront them in the real world, they pursue a utopian goal that paradoxically tarnishes all forms of ethnic, national, and cultural particularism, since loving one’s own too much is the first step toward diminishing “the other.”
In positioning the fight against Jew-hatred within this oppressor-oppressed paradigm, Jews risk turning themselves into just another member of the victimhood choir, and they risk putting victimization itself—rather than the spiritual, intellectual, and moral riches of the Jewish tradition—at the center of Jewish identity. Indeed, Holocaust remembrance is already considered the most personally significant aspect of “Jewishness” for the majority of American Jews, far outweighing Jewish literacy, support for Israel, or ritual observance. And when the psychic strain of standing up for Jewish interests and Jewish values becomes too much, some Jews come to blame themselves for other people’s hatreds; they apologize for Jewish “misdeeds” and Israeli “aggressions”; or they sever any outward signs or inward connection to Jewish identity at all. In the end, the result is the same: When Jews come to see themselves as simply victims or simply aggressors, they are no longer able to stand up for themselves as Jews.
Without question, Jews should continue to mobilize on campus against those who attack them and against administrators who mistreat them. They should encourage the continued struggle against the BDS movement. They should prepare to absorb European Jews, in America or Israel, who are fleeing anti-Semitism in ever larger numbers. They should cultivate their philo-Semitic allies worldwide. And they should decry right-wing anti-Semites and left-wing anti-Semites with equal vigor. But in the end, the only real answer to the permanent plague of anti-Semitism is Jewish pride: the enduring belief that Jews have a special purpose in the world, a sacred heritage to preserve, and a heroic history to continue. Without this moral self-confidence, the Jews will diminish themselves, and the anti-Semites will win without even firing a shot.
Eight: A Call to Action
In weighing their political and moral condition, American Jews should not overestimate their own importance. We remain a small people, and American political and cultural life hardly depends on which road American Jews choose for themselves, whether conservative or liberal, religious or secular. And while America remains the second-largest Jewish community in the world, the primary center is Israel, which is the fullest realization of Jewish national aspirations, and now the demographic, cultural, and intellectual heart of world Jewry. And while Jews and Israel are frequently at the center of world events, we would make a grave error if we believe that the current clash of civilizations—and the struggle among world powers—will turn on our actions alone. It will not.
Yet while Jews will not dictate the future of the West, the fate of the West may mirror the fate of the Jews. If the American Jewish community assimilates out of existence—or is forced to embrace an extreme version of Rod Dreher’s “Benedict option,” isolating itself entirely from American culture and society—then there is good reason to fear that all traditional communities of faith in America will suffer a similar fate. If Israel is severely attacked by a nuclear-armed Iran—or one of its terrorist proxies—then there is good reason to fear that the West will have failed to contain the broader threat of nuclear proliferation among radical groups. If anti-Semitism continues to poison so many progressive and Islamic minds—and to bring them together in common cause—then there is good reason to believe that Western culture as we know it is truly over. As go the Jews, so goes the West. And while Jews cannot save the West, they serve Western civilization best when they stand up for themselves.
The primary Jewish responsibility today—and the greatest gift that Jews can offer the world—is to defend Jewish civilization against its many detractors, at home and abroad. American Jews have a crucial role to play in this great project, both in sustaining vibrant Jewish communities in the United States and in strengthening American support for the Jewish state. To succeed, Jews will need to reform their political philosophy. For far too long, the “political stupidity of the Jews,” as Irving Kristol provocatively put it, has undermined Jewish interests, Jewish values, and Jewish continuity. The progressive worldview has long since turned against Israel, turned against traditional religion, turned against the very idea of national pride—and so Jews should oppose progressivism itself, even if they identify with certain specific positions within the liberal worldview.
Fortunately, there is some reason for hope that a new coalition of Jewish conservatives can redefine the political and cultural direction of American Jewry in the years ahead. Orthodox Jews of various stripes—Modern, Haredi, Hasidic,—are growing rapidly in number, supporting many conservative causes, and becoming more prominent in the broader Jewish community. Russian Jews, hardened by their memory of life under Soviet totalitarianism, are generally strong Jewish nationalists and vigorous opponents of American statism. The Obama legacy has further clarified that conservatives, not progressives, are now the true friends of the Jewish state, and hopefully this reality will one day set in among centrist Jews who are passionate Israel activists. And for some Jewish conservatives with little connection to or knowledge of Judaism, conservative ideas may be a pathway back to their forgotten Jewish heritage, at least for those who seek a deeper grounding for their conservative worldview and a sane cultural alternative in which to raise their children.
What Jewish conservatives need, if they ever hope to unite as a group and expand their influence, is a positive agenda: a set of ideas and arguments about how best to strengthen Jewish resolve against both our internal weaknesses and our external enemies. Such a worldview—a new Jewish conservatism, animated by a genuine love and concern for the whole Jewish people—is waiting to be born out of the sources of the Jewish tradition itself, out of the hard-won experiences of Jewish history, and out of the wisdom of conservative thinking that most Jews have for too long neglected. And today, more than ever, such an agenda is both urgently needed and may actually have the political chance to be heard.
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Jewish Conservatism: A Manifesto
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A monstrous regime's rational statecraft
ne of the more improbable geostrategic surprises of recent years has been the revival of the North Korean economy under the direction of Kim Jong Un. Just to be clear, that economy remains pitiably decrepit, horribly distorted, and desperately dependent on outside support. Recent estimates suggest that its annual merchandise exports do not reach even 1 percent of the level generated by its nemesis, South Korea. Even so, the economic comeback on Kim Jong Un’s watch has been sufficiently strong to permit a dramatic ramp-up in the tempo of his nation’s race to amass a credible nuclear arsenal and develop functional intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking the U.S. mainland. That is, of course, the express and stated objective of the program. Pyongyang today appears to be perilously close to achieving its aim—much closer now, indeed, than complacent Western intelligence assessments had presumed would be possible by this juncture. But then, North Korea is full of surprises for foreign observers.
The difficulty with analyzing the country’s weaknesses and strengths comes from the fact that the North Korean system—which is made up of the Kim dynasty, the North Korean state, and the economy constructed to maintain them both—is unlike any other on earth. By now, its brand of totalitarianism (“our own style of Socialism,” as Pyongyang calls it) is sufficiently distinctive that children of the Soviet or Maoist tradition also commonly find themselves at a loss to apprehend its logic and rhythms.
North Korea is no longer even a Communist state, if that term is to have any meaning. The once-prominent statues of Marx and Lenin in Kim Il Sung Square were removed some years ago. Mention of Marxism-Leninism has reportedly been excised from the updated but still currently unpublished Charter of the Korean Workers’ Party. The 2016 version of its constitution excises all references to Communism, extolling instead only the goal of “socialism”—and its two “geniuses of ideology and theory,” Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il (the grandfather and father of the current dictator). Small wonder that the world routinely misjudges—and very often, underestimates—the North Korean state and its capabilities.1
Despite its suffocating ideology, for example, North Korea is capable of highly pragmatic adaptation and economic innovation. Notwithstanding its proclaimed “self-reliance” and its seeming isolation, it is constantly finding new sources of foreign cash through ingenious and often remarkably entrepreneurial schemes overseas. And despite all the international sanctions, Kim Jong Un really has overseen a North Korean economic upswing of sorts since assuming power in 2011, the signal fact that best helps explain the acceleration in Pyongyang’s push for a credible nuclear and ballistic arsenal. Thanks to these and other apparent paradoxes, an economy seemingly always on the knife edge of disaster somehow manages to stay on course, methodically amassing the military might for what it promises will be an eventual nuclear face-off with the world’s sole superpower.
Though the hour is late, given all the progress that North Korea has been permitted over the past generation, it nevertheless looks as if there may still be time left to prevent Pyongyang from completing and perfecting its nuke and missile projects through “non-kinetic means”—that is to say, through international economic pressure as opposed to military action. For such an approach to work, however, we will need an informed and robust strategy—not the feckless, episodic, and intellectually shoddy interventions we have mainly witnessed up to now.
Indispensable to such a strategy must be an understanding of the North Korean economy—the instrument that makes the North Korean threat possible. In particular, we need to understand 1) how that economy functions, and to what ends; 2) how the “Dear Respected Comrade” Kim Jong Un brought to it a limited but critical measure of economic revival; and 3) how America and others might use the considerable financial and commercial options at their disposal to impair the North Korean regime’s designs, before Pyongyang wins what is now a race against time.
Despite the information blackout that North Korean leadership has striven to enforce for generations, we already know much more about all these things today than the Kim family regime could possibly want—more than enough to begin purposely defanging the North Korean menace.
One: The Economy of Command
Given its longstanding reputation as a basket case, it may startle readers to learn that there was actually a time when North Korea was regarded as a dynamic and rapidly advancing economy. Back in 1965, the eminent British economist Joan Robinson wrote that North Korea’s achievements put “all the economic miracles of postwar development…in the shade.”2
In those days, if Western intellectuals happened to talk about the “Korean miracle,” they weren’t discussing anything going on in the South. And it wasn’t just dreamy academics and well-hosted foreign visitors who seemed to hold North Korea’s economic prospects in high esteem. Between the late 1950s and the early 1960s, Japan witnessed an exodus of ethnic Korean residents—in all, roughly 80,000 people—who packed up and steamed off under their own free will to the North, voting with their feet to join the Korean state they deemed to offer the greater promise.
Despite the devastation North Korea suffered during the war it launched against the South in 1950, and despite the blazing economic takeoff in South Korea that commenced in the early 1960s under the Park Chung-Hee junta, North Korea may have been ahead of South Korea in per capita output for two full decades after the 1953 armistice. A CIA study in the late 1970s, for example, concluded that South Korea did not catch up with North Korea until 1975.3 Contemporaries at South Korea’s Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) concurred that the North was well ahead of the South on a per capita basis throughout the 1950s and 1960s, though they argued that the South caught up with the North a few years earlier than the CIA believed.
In retrospect, the wonder is that North Korea’s economy worked as well as it did for as long as it did. For from its 1948 founding onward, North Korea was not just another Cold War Soviet-type economy: It was a Stalin-style war economy on steroids.
As fate had it, the Japanese colonial overlords who controlled Korea from 1910 until 1945 constructed a heavy industrial base in its northern half—a forward supply zone to support their own greater Asian war efforts. Unlike the South, the North had major deposits of coal, iron, and other minerals, along with plenty of natural hydropower. “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung—the onetime guerrilla fighter and later Red Army officer who started North Korea’s Kim family dynasty—inherited this infrastructure when he took over the northern part of the divided peninsula in 1945 and used it as a base camp from which he directed an upward climb toward the summit to which he aspired: an economy set on permanent total-war footing.
Kim Il Sung came perilously close to consummating his vision. By the mid-1970s, the Great Leader would observe that “of all the Socialist countries, ours bears the heaviest military burden.”4 Even by comparison with places like the Soviet Union and East Germany, his North Korea was a garrison state. By the late 1980s, this country of barely 20 million was fielding an army of more than 1.2 million—a ratio comparable to America’s in the middle of World War II. Those military-manpower estimates, by the way, are derived not from U.S. or South Korean intelligence, but rather from unpublished population figures Pyongyang transmitted to the UN in 1989 (data that inadvertently revealed the size of the country’s non-civilian male population).5
Today, two Kims later, the International Institute for Strategic Studies reports that North Korea currently maintains the world’s fourth-largest standing army in terms of sheer manpower—ahead of Russia and behind only the globe’s demographic giants (China, India, the United States). For more than half a century—since 1962, the year Kim Il Sung decreed the “all-fortress-ization” of the nation—North Korea has been the most exceptionally and unwaveringly militarized country on the face of the planet.
But why? What possessed North Korean leadership to commit their country, decade after decade, to such an extraordinarily expensive and irrational economic posture? There was a method to this seeming madness. Kim Il Sung’s grand design for unending super-mobilization served many logical purposes, given the first premises of his North Korean state.
Enforcing permanent war-economy discipline comported nicely with perfecting the domestic totalitarian order the Great Leader desired. Further, given the unhappy realities of geography and 20th-century Korean history, having the might to stand up to any and all foreign powers—including his nominal Communist allies in Moscow and Beijing—may also have seemed an imperative. But above all else, North Korea’s immense military economy reflected Kim’s overarching obsession with unifying the divided Korea, and doing so unconditionally—that is to say, to finishing up that Korean War he had started in 1950, and finishing it up on his own terms this time.
In the eyes of North Korea’s rulers, the South Korean state was (and still is) a corrupt, illegitimate, and inherently unstable monstrosity, surviving only because of the American bayonets propping it up. The Great Leader wanted to be able (when the right opening presented itself) to strike a knockout punch against the regime in Seoul and wipe it off the face of the earth—“independent reunification,” in North Korean code language. This he could not do without overwhelming military force—and without an economic system straining constantly to provide that muscle.
As early as 1970, the Great Leader was warning that “the increase in our national defense capability has been obtained at a very great price.”6 And by the late 1980s, Kim Il Sung’s “economic miracle” was all but dead in the water. Decades of crushing military burden and systemic suppression of consumer demand had taken their predictable toll. And North Korean planners had compounded these difficulties with additional unforced errors of their own.
Their idiosyncratic application of the Great Leader’s Juche (“self-reliance”) ideology, for example, included a general injunction against importing new foreign machinery and equipment. This ensured that the country would have to maintain a high-cost, low-productivity industrial infrastructure. Juche also apparently meant never having to pay your foreign debts, whether to fraternal socialist states or to “imperialist” creditors in Western countries foolish enough to lend money to Pyongyang. By the 1980s, global financial markets had caught on to the game, and North Korea found itself almost completely cut off from international capital. And the longstanding “statistical blackout” North Korean leadership enforced to facilitate international strategic deception also inadvertently impaired economic performance by blinding domestic decisionmakers and requiring them to “plan without facts.”
But it was the ending of the Cold War that pushed the North Korean economy out of stagnation, and into disaster. Juche ideology notwithstanding, North Korea had never been self-reliant; sustaining its severely deformed economy required constant inflows of concessionary resources from abroad. Pyongyang was (and remains) consummately imaginative in devising schemes for extracting aid and tribute from overseas. In the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, Kim Il Sung procured the equivalent of tens of billions of dollars in support from Beijing, Moscow, and the Kremlin’s Warsaw Pact satellites, expertly playing the Kremlin off against China, gaming aid out of each while aligning with neither.
In 1984, Kim Il Sung made a fateful error: He leaned decisively toward Moscow, a tilt signaled by his unprecedented six-week state visit to the USSR and Eastern Europe that same year. The gamble paid off initially: Between 1985 and 1989, the Kremlin transferred around $7 billion to Pyongyang, twice as much as the amount transferred over the entire previous 25 years, much of it in military matériel. In 1988, North Korea relied on the Soviet bloc not only for almost all its net concessionary foreign-resources transfers, but also for roughly two-thirds of its international trade, most of it arranged on political, highly subsidized, terms.
Then the came the Soviet bloc’s collapse. By 1992—the year after the collapse of the USSR—both trade and aid from the erstwhile Soviet bloc had plummeted by nearly 90 percent. North Korea’s worldwide overall supplies of merchandise from all foreign sources consequently plunged by more than half over those same years.
These sudden devastating shocks sent North Korea’s economy into a catastrophic free fall from which it would not manage to recover for decades. The socialist planning system essentially collapsed. Famine was just around the corner.
Two: A Man-Made Horror and Its Surprising Aftermath
The North Korean famine of the 1990s was a catastrophe of historic proportions. No one outside North Korea’s leadership knows just how many people died in that completely avoidable man-made tragedy, but the toll was certainly in the hundreds of thousands and could possibly have exceeded a million.7 It arguably qualifies as the single worst economic failure of the 20th century. It was the only time in history that people have starved en masse in an urbanized, literate society during peacetime.
It is noteworthy that the famine—usually dated from 1995 to 1998—did not commence until after the death of the Great Leader and the ascension of his son and heir, “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il. This was no coincidence. Economic failure was the Dear Leader’s stock-in-trade. His political rise almost perfectly corresponds to the decline and fall of the North Korean economy. It happens that the Dear Leader did succeed in what was arguably his primary political objective: to die of natural causes, still safely and securely in power. But economic progress worthy of the name would not be possible in North Korea so long as he was its supreme ruler.
Though both father and son were totalitarian tyrants enthused with their hereditary total-war machine, the differences in their economic inclinations and impulses were nonetheless striking. Dogmatic as he was, the Great Leader still possessed a peasant’s sense of practicality. Proof of his pragmatism is the singular fact that North Korea, alone among all Asian Communist states (and including Russia in this roster), avoided famine during its 1955–57 collectivization of agriculture.
On the other hand, the Dear Leader, from his sheltered Red Palace upbringing onward, was every bit the paranoid, secluded ideologue. He not only disapproved of any concessions to economic pragmatism but feared these as positively counterrevolutionary and potentially lethal to his rule. He likewise regarded ordinary commercial interactions with the world economy as “honey-coated poison” for the North Korean system. At home, he wanted total mobilization but without any material incentives; from abroad, he sought a steady inflow of funds unconstrained by any reciprocal obligations. Kim Jong Il’s preferred economic model, in short, was to enforce Stakhanovite fervor at home through propaganda and terror while financing his war-economy state through military extortion abroad. He called this approach “military-first politics.”
Unwilling as he was to address the country’s newly dire economic circumstances with reforms—in his view, there was nothing to reform—Kim Jong Il’s North Korea was trapped in deepening depression for most of the 1990s. We will know how close the place came to total economic collapse—to the sort of breakdown of the national division of labor that Germany and Japan suffered at the very end of World War II—only when the archives in Pyongyang are finally opened. Throughout the 1990s, in any case, heavy industry was largely shut down, with inescapable consequences for conventional military forces. The death spiral for the war-making sector redoubled the importance to the regime of the nuke and missile programs, both as an insurance policy for regime survival and as the last viable military instruments for forcing the South into capitulation in some future unconditional unification.
In retrospect, it is clear that Pyongyang had no intention of desisting from its quest for nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, even as it played Washington and her allies for aid for years by pretending its nuclear program might be negotiable. Yet also in retrospect, the slow tempo of nuke and missile development under Kim Jong Il’s rule has to be considered a surprise. Any serious weapons program requires testing to advance—yet Pyongyang managed just one long-range missile launch in the 1990s and only three during his 17-year reign. The Dear Leader also oversaw two nuclear tests before his death in 2011—but only toward the end of his tenure, in the years 2006 and 2009.
Why this hesitant tempo if nukes and missiles were a central priority for the North Korean war economy? Although other possible explanations come to mind, the obvious one has to do with financial and economic constraints. Ironically, despite his vaunted “military-first politics,” North Korea’s nuke and missile programs may also have been inadvertent casualties of Kim Jong Il’s gift for stupendous economic mismanagement. (True, North Korea could undertake expensive nuclear projects internationally, such as the undeclared plutonium reactor in Syria that was nearing completion when the Israelis leveled it in 2007—but that was apparently a cash-and-carry operation, bankrolled by the Dear Leader’s friendly customers in Iran.)
There is considerable evidence that the North Korean economy hit bottom around 1997 or 1998. That bottom was very low indeed: Rough estimates suggest that, by 1998, North Korea’s real per capita commercial merchandise exports were barely a third their level of just a decade earlier, while real per capita imports, including supplies indispensable to the performance of key sectors of the domestic economy, were down by about 75 percent.
North Korea appears to have turned the economic corner not on the strength of new or better domestic economic policies, but rather on breakthroughs in international aid procurement. Pyongyang figured out how to work the West’s international food-aid system: Between 1997 and 2005, the year before its first nuclear test, it was bringing in an average of over a million tons of free foreign cereal each year, ending the food crisis. It is tempting to regard this as “military-first politics” in action, for military menace played an important role in the international community’s solicitude. It is impossible to imagine a helpless and stricken sub-Saharan population obtaining “temporary emergency humanitarian aid” on such a scale, for such an extended duration and with so very few conditions attached.
Central to this upswing in food aid and other freebies from abroad was the fact that North Korea got lucky with the alignment of governments in Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo. For a while, the leaders of this consortium of states were commonly willing to underwrite an exploratory policy of “sunshine” or “engagement” with the Dear Leader by offering him subventions and financial transfers. To secure his June 2000 Pyongyang Summit with the Dear Leader, for example, South Korea’s then-president had hundreds of millions of dollars secretly wired to special North Korean accounts—thereby committing crimes under South Korean law (for which he later issued pardons).
In the event, the “sunshine”-aid influx that may have rescued North Korea at its darkest moment would wane after its clandestine uranium-processing project surfaced in 2002—but the nuclear crisis that revelation triggered also made possible the next big round of North Korean international aid-harvesting.
After the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Beijing—alarmed by the possibility that the U.S. might also engage in a similar military confrontation with neighboring North Korea—organized and convened a “six-party talks” diplomatic process, ostensibly for deliberations over North Korean denuclearization, to cool things down. While the subsequent years of talking quite predictably led nowhere, North Korea’s price of attendance was apparently a steep increase in economic support from China. Between 2002 and 2008, China’s annual net balance of shipments of goods to North Korea—its exports to Pyongyang minus corresponding imports—more than quintupled, rocketing upward from less than $300 million to more than $1.5 billion. By then, North Korea had become just as economically dependent on Chinese largesse as Pyongyang had been on Soviet-bloc blandishments two decades earlier—but these inflows, and the politically subsidized trade they came with, were evidently sufficient to help at least partially revive the Dear Leader’s broken economy. From Chinese trade statistics, for example, we can infer that Chinese investments were instrumental in a resuscitation of North Korea’s mining and metallurgy sectors in the last years of Kim Jong Il’s life. (We must rely on inference here since Beijing to this day remains almost totally opaque about its economic relation with Pyongyang.)
All in all, Kim Jong Il’s North Korea took in more than $1 billion from its enemies in Washington, and nearly $4 billion from the “puppet regime” in Seoul (not including the South’s additional expenditures on “off-the-books” transfers and special economic or tourist zones in the North). And from China, North Korea scored more than $12 billion of net merchandise inflows under the Dear Leader—a sum that would look even greater if valued in today’s dollars. All the while, North Korea was also earning invisible revenues from a whole network of highly enterprising if generally illicit overseas endeavors: its “nuke-and-missile homework club” with Iran; à la carte weapons sales and military services provided to a host of dictatorships and terror groups; counterfeiting of U.S. currency; drug racketeering; insurance frauds perpetrated against firms in London’s City; and more. The Dear Leader was extensively involved in the world economy, after all—just in a Bizarro World, Legion of Super-Villains sort of way.
Thanks to highly skilled aid-wheedling, international shakedowns, and financial gangsterism, Kim Jong Il’s North Korea clawed its way back from famine to a low but acceptable new economic normal—all the while forswearing domestic economic reforms or genuinely commercial contacts with the outside world. North Korea did not completely avoid potentially fraught economic changes under Kim Jong Il, of course—that was beyond the powers even of the Dear Leader. Domestic cellphone use began during the Dear Leader’s reign, for example, as did a tentative marketization of private consumption (about which more in a moment). But these and other analogous economic changes during the Kim Jong Il era are best understood as “transition without reform,” to borrow an apt term from North Korea watcher Justin Hastings.8
The economy’s “new normal” in the Dear Leader’s final days was still at a miserable level. Although North Korean scientists could launch long-range missiles and test atomic weapons, and although North Korea’s population had reportedly achieved a fairly high level of educational attainment (higher than China’s, if North Korean figures are believed), the country’s international economic profile was Fourth World. According to the World Trade Organization, North Korea’s per capita merchandise trade levels in 2010 approximated Mali’s. Its share of world merchandise trade that same year was roughly the same as that of Zimbabwe, a country with half of North Korea’s population—and despite its measure of recovery after 1998, North Korea’s global trade share fell by more than two-thirds between 1990 and 2010, even more than Zimbabwe’s under Mugabe’s misrule in that same period.
The world is a moving target and, generally, an improving one—so national stagnation also means continuing relative decline. Although the Dear Leader bequeathed his son Kim Jong Un a system that had avoided total collapse, there was little else that could be said to commend his economic legacy.
Three: The Economic Upturn
Dear Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un faced formidable odds when he took over in late 2011. The twentysomething was a novice manager at the time of his father’s demise. Unlike the Great Leader, who had groomed his son to rule from an early age, Kim Jong Il himself put off the whole business of naming a successor for as long as he possibly could, designating the child of one of his mistresses as the next Supreme Leader only after an incapacitating stroke made the naming of an heir an unavoidable matter of state.
As Kim Jong Un took office, the planned economy was no longer functioning, and to make matters worse, North Korea’s limited market sector was beset by galloping and seemingly unstoppable inflation. His father had experimented with a limited monetization of North Korea’s tiny consumer sector in 2002 but botched it—and only made matters worse with a surprise 2009 “currency reform” that effectively confiscated private holdings above $100, drastically degrading the already low credibility of the won.
From this unpromising beginning, Kim Jong Un has proved a relative success in delivering economic results in North Korea. There is evidence that the North Korean economy has enjoyed some measure of growth, macroeconomic stabilization, and even development under his aegis.
Pyongyang, “the shrine of Juche,” may be a Potemkin showpiece—but is showpiece-ier today than in the past. Construction cranes are whirring, and whole new sections of the city have risen up. Traffic jams now sometimes clog “Pyonghattan’s” vast, previously empty boulevards. Expensive restaurants and shops purveying luxury goods increasingly dot the capital, and their customers are mainly locals, not foreigners. The upsurge in prosperity and living standards evident in Pyongyang is reportedly reflected, albeit to a more modest degree, in other urban centers as well.
Furthermore, in sharp contrast to previous North Korean trends, or other earlier Soviet-type economies, the country today not only displays considerable marketization but also market stability. This much is demonstrated by cereal prices and foreign-exchange rates in informal markets across North Korea. Over the decade between mid-2002 and mid-2012, North Korea’s won depreciated against the U.S. dollar in such markets by a factor of more than 5,000 (no, that is not a typo). But that depreciation abruptly stopped a little over five years ago, and since then the won has traded around 8,000 to the dollar (fluctuating within a band around that average). In other words, North Korea now has a stable currency that is convertible into hard currencies. Likewise, the domestic price of rice in North Korean markets suddenly stopped soaring five years ago and has been in the vicinity of 5,000 won per kilogram ever since. Whatever else one may say of these new domestic price signals from Kim Jong Un’s North Korea, they are not what one would expect to see from an economy in mounting crisis and disarray.
Finally and by no means least important: In the military realm, nuke and missile testing has accelerated. In the 13 years between Kim Jong Il’s first Taepo Dong test and his death, North Korea launched three long-range rockets and detonated two atomic devices. Kim Jong Un has been in power just over six years; his regime has already set off four nuclear tests and shot off more than a dozen long-range missiles. Some of the speed-up could reflect long-term strategic choices and might in part be affected by improvements in efficiency (cost reduction) within the WMD industrial sector. All other things being equal, though, this sharp acceleration would seem to betoken a major new infusion of resources into programs already long accorded a top priority by the North Korean state. Without a bigger economic pie and substantially greater funding sources, it is hard to see how Pyongyang could have pulled this off.
All this said, North Korea is still shockingly unproductive, still punching far below its weight, still nowhere near self-sustaining growth. Kim Jong Un’s boundless self-indulgence is manifest in costly vanity projects like a spanking-new “ski lift to nowhere” resort, Masikryong, a venture otherwise inexplicable save perhaps for the memories of childhood days in Switzerland that it might elicit.
But by distancing himself from his father’s most economically destructive policies and practices, and navigating into previously uncharted waters of economic pragmatism, Kim Jong Un has opened up heretofore ungraspable opportunities for raising living standards and building military power at one and the same time. Thus the name of his signature policy: byungjin, or “simultaneous pursuit.”
In short order after his ascension, Kim Jong Un demoted—or killed—most of the Dear Leader’s closest cadres and confidants. And less than five months after assuming power—at a ceremony commemorating his grandfather’s 100th birthday in April 2012—he made an astounding declaration, coming as it did from North Korea’s supreme ruler: “It is our party’s resolute determination to let our people…not tighten their belts again.” Translation: This is no longer your father’s dictatorship; aspiration for personal betterment is no longer a counterrevolutionary act of treason.
Dear Respected has deliberately and steadily reshaped the economy under his command. The fundamental strategic difference between Kim 2 and Kim 3 was this: Whereas the Dear Leader saw “reform” and “opening” as deadly “ideological and cultural poison” pure and simple, Dear Respected believes that North Korea could withstand a bit of that poison—actually, quite a bit—and even end up stronger for taking it.
Pyongyang’s new policy directives have been informed by this insight. In agriculture, Kim Jong Un promulgated the “June 28 Instructions” (2012), which permitted family-level work units and allowed farmers to keep 30 percent of their surplus—a bonanza compared with all previous official rules. For enterprises and industry, there were the “May 30 Measures” (2014), which allowed managers to hire and fire workers, pay them according to their productivity, and keep a portion of any profits they earned. People were, increasingly, paid with money for their work—and it was real money, as in, money that could buy things people wanted. The gradual marketization and monetization of North Korea’s civilian economy over the past two decades is a major transformation, and one critical to understanding the country today.9
By the late 1980s, North Korean leadership had fashioned a consumer sector that would have turned Stalin green with envy. No country on the planet had so tiny a share of total national output flowing to personal consumption as late Cold War North Korea—and no country had so low a fraction of its personal consumption accruing to citizens on the basis of their own market choices. By the late 1980s, North Korean planners had come closer to completely demonetizing their economy than any modern polity this side of the Khmer Rouge. Most goods, services, and supplies that North Korean families consumed were provisioned to them directly by the state, with no “interference” by actual consumer preferences. North Korean planners wished to cede as little control over their command economy as humanly possible.
Pyongyang’s near-total control of the consumption basket, however, presupposed that the state would be supplying its subjects with their daily necessities in the first place. That collapsed in the mid-1990s when the Public Distribution System simply stopped providing the full promised daily food rations to most of the population—and stopped supplying any food at all to some of the population. A terrible number of those who trusted the government to take care of them ended up perishing. To survive the famine, North Koreans had to learn to buy and sell in informal markets that began to spring up—even though such activity was against the law, and some “economic crimes” were punishable by death. The Kim Jong Il government loathed these new private markets, but it needed them to forestall wholesale calamity. Thus commenced the two-steps-forward-one-step-back dialectic of marketization that lasted the rest of the Dear Leader’s life—and after his death, marketization and monetization of the civilian economy gained further steam.
Today it is all but impossible to get by in North Korea on state-supplied provisions alone—and a wide array of goods and services, both foreign and domestic, are available for money in North Korean markets. Although formally prohibited, even real estate is for sale throughout the country, with a vibrant market for private flats in Pyongyang. And a wealthy marketeering caste has arisen: donju, or “money masters,” stereotypically a well-connected official and his enterprising wife, who use political influence as well as entrepreneurial savvy to enter this nouveau riche North Korean elite.
In case you were wondering: Yes, corruption is rife in North Korean markets. It is the necessary lubricant for all North Korean private commerce. In addition, the government expects a big cut, and such funds have been integral to the recovery of the North Korean state.
The marketization and monetization of its consumer economy, in conjunction with new agricultural and commercial incentives and a more tolerant official attitude toward informal activity, laid the groundwork for a domestic-production upswing in North Korea (and a veritable boom in private consumption, although from a very low starting point).
Unlike Asia’s “reform socialism” states, China and Vietnam, North Korea has never made a serious effort to attract private investment from abroad from real live capitalists. Pyongyang prefers large-scale foreign projects that are political in nature. Such projects are bankrolled by governments indifferent to profit, which is to say by the foreign taxpayers who can ultimately be left holding the bag. Examples include the ill-fated Kaesong Industrial Complex paid for by South Korea, as well as its doomed Kumgang Tourist Resort. For international trade and finance, the overwhelming bulk of North Korean activity still falls into two categories: 1) politically predetermined, highly subsidized economic relationships, or 2) what we might call “guerilla warfare” or “outlaw” finance.
Four: North Korea’s Friends
Preferential trade ties with China are pretty much the only game in town for Pyongyang these days. With the virtual shutdown of South Korea’s politically subsidized inter-Korean trade in 2016 following accusations that money from the Kaesong project was being used to fund the North’s missile program, China may now account for close to 90 percent of North Korea’s international commercial-merchandise trade turnover. And North Korea always receives much more than it gives in its arrangement with China, year after year.
There is, to be sure, an element of harsh capitalist bargaining within this overall relationship—but most of that is in the “people to people” bartering and petty trading at the border, largely for consumer goods. At the national level, judging by Chinese customs statistics, North Korea raked in well over a billion dollars a year in net merchandise shipments from China from 2008 through 2014—with no transparency on Beijing’s part about the mechanisms by which this ongoing transfer is financed, much less about the Chinese government’s objectives and intentions in extending this lavish lifeline.
Since 2015, official Chinese numbers suggest that Beijing’s de facto aid is down—but these look like figures deliberately fudged in the face of mounting international demands for sanctions against North Korea. It is at the very least possible that important aspects of Chinese support for the North Korean economy or its defense industries have not yet come to light. Given what is already known, though, it is indisputable that deals with China under the two latest Kims have been key to reviving North Korea’s heavy industrial sector. (For the year 2016, China reported shipping over three-quarters of a billion dollars of machinery and transport equipment to North Korea, 10 times the volume in 2003, when the six-party talks commenced.)
Vital as Chinese support may be to North Korea’s survival and economic revival, North Korea evidences no gratitude for Beijing’s largesse. Pyongyang does not “do” gratitude. Moreover, leadership in Pyongyang knows very well a bitter truth about Chinese aid that they can never utter: namely, that capricious cutbacks in free food from China in the year 1994 were the trigger for the Great North Korean Famine, which became impossible to conceal by 1995.
Apart from its Chinese lifeline, North Korea’s other main sources of international support come from “outlaw” forays into the world economy—including activities tantamount to state-sponsored organized-crime operations. These shady dealings typically attempt to generate revenues for the state that avoid international detection, often relying on the special protections and prerogatives of a sovereign state for cover.
One cannot help but be struck by the industry, ingenuity, and sophistication that have generally kept such schemes one step ahead of international authorities. Koreans in the North can be world-class innovators, too—it’s just that their chosen fields of excellence happen to be in smuggling, drug-running, money-laundering, and the like.
Some of these inventive schemes have been in the news. In recent years, for example, Pyongyang has made unknown millions abroad from what we might call its own style of human trafficking: profiting off the tens of thousands of workers in labor gangs it has sent to China, Russia, the Middle East, and even parts of Europe. No less inventive has been Pyongyang’s apparent monetization of its growing capacity for cyberwarfare through international bank robbery. In 2016, “unknown” hackers relieved the Central Bank of Bangladesh of $81 million in a spectacular heist; in late 2017, similar cyber-fingerprints were detected in a theft of $60 million from a bank in Taiwan. These are just two of many “hit and runs” orchestrated under the Kim Jong Un crime family. And as the WannaCry ransomware attack last year demonstrated by infecting hundreds of thousands of computers the world over, vastly greater dividends from cybercrime may lie just over the horizon.
Then there is North Korea’s signature global service industry: WMD proliferation. For obvious reasons, most of this work never makes the news. No one outside Kim Jong Un’s court probably knows just how much this nefarious business is bringing in these days. These unobservable flows, however, may be consequential. Consider this: Barely weeks after Tehran inked its September 2012 Scientific Cooperation Agreement with Pyongyang, the won suddenly ended its decade-long freefall and finally achieved exchange-rate stability. North Korea may have had additional, still concealed, operations that were also paying off at the same time as that Iranian deal, of course. But either way, the deal clearly marked a turning point in North Korea’s macroeconomic fortunes, and the stabilization of exchange rates and domestic cereal prices probably could not have occurred without an open spigot of foreign cash.
In sum, the hallmarks of Jong-Un-omics economics would appear to be new revenues from foreign sources, along with the new flows of funds derived from privatization and growth at home. These monies have apparently sufficed not only to stabilize North Korea’s previously toxic currency, and to bring an end to runaway inflation in North Korean key private markets, but also to abet Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic ambitions. This, at least, would seem to be the most plausible reconstruction of the limited but meaningful evidence from the jigsaw puzzle that is the North Korean economy today.
To repeat: While we should recognize the existence of this economic upswing we should also keep its scale in perspective. All one need do is consider the sad, stunning space photos of North Korea at night—the satellite shots revealing a territory almost pitch-black, while the rest of Northeast Asia is glowing with light. They attest better than any available statistics to the limits of economic recovery under Kim Jong Un.
Among the other implications of that space imagery, the North simply does not have the pocketbook for a wholesale modernization of its conventional army and a nuke-missile program. For now at least, most of the military’s equipment, apart from critical nuclear-related pockets like submarine production, remains outdated and ill-suited for the tasks originally assigned. Today, Kim Jong Un cannot credibly threaten to roll in and occupy South Korea. But Kim Jong Un is on track to manufacture enough nuclear matches to burn the place down, with Tokyo and Washington thrown in for good measure, in the foreseeable future.
Five: How to Put Pressure on Pyongyang
Given what we know about the North Korean economy, can America and the world community keep Pyongyang from reaching its ultimate nuclear objectives through a real economic-pressure campaign?
We do not know just how close North Korea is to perfecting its weaponization of ballistic missiles, or how many nuclear weapons the North currently possesses. We also do not know as much as we need to about North Korea’s strategic inventories and reserves. If Pyongyang were stopped in its tracks today, its nuclear and missile work would require unwavering vigilance and far-reaching containment for the remaining life of the regime. That said, a serious international campaign of trade and financial sanctions—led by America, ruthlessly executed, and starting immediately—could very significantly slow the pace of Pyongyang’s ongoing nuclear-ballistic march. And if we are in it for the long haul, a serious sanctions campaign could eventually promise the effective suffocation of the entire North Korean military economy.
An international economic campaign of this sort won’t be easy (though America has many more cards in her hand than many now appreciate). It probably won’t be pretty, either. But in any case, it is the world’s last chance to thwart North Korea’s nuclear ambitions by nonmilitary means.
Let’s start with the unpleasant truths. We must recognize that economic pressure will not alter the intentions of the Kim family regime—ever. We must dispense with the fantasy, still inexplicably maintained in various esteemed diplomatic circles and Western universities, that Pyongyang can somehow be pressured—or bribed—at this late stage into changing its mind about its multi-decade march to a credible nuke and missile arsenal. There is no “bringing North Korea back to the table” that ends with CVID—comprehensive, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization. Period.
So much for the bad news. The rest of the news about the outlook for sanctions against North Korea, fortunately, is better than we usually hear.
Many authoritative voices seem to think sanctions have little chance of influencing North Korea’s nuclear trajectory. Economic historians note that the record for coercive economic diplomacy is poor and has been for centuries. Policy wonks and foreign-affairs experts add that successive rounds of UN and international economic sanctions seem to have had no real bite so far against North Korea. These pessimistic assessments, however, misread the prospects for international economic pressure against North Korea on two important counts.
As poor as the general record of coercive economic diplomacy may be, North Korea is not exactly a typical economy. It is an outlier—it’s world-class dysfunctional, recent changes under Dear Respected notwithstanding. The economy is incapable of growth (or for that matter, even stagnation) without steady inflows of financial support from abroad to keep it on its feet. Remember: When net aid from abroad sharply dropped (but did not end) in the 1990s, that was enough to send North Korea spiraling downward into paralysis and mass famine. The North Korean regime in short, is a poster child for a successful international campaign of economic strangulation. Despite Pyongyang’s nonsense about “self-reliance,” it is uniquely vulnerable to the cutoff of foreign money and subvention.
Kim Jong Un has not yet faced anything even remotely resembling an international campaign of “maximum economic pressure.” The continuing stability of North Korea’s foreign exchange rate and domestic food prices pointedly suggest international sanctions have not yet greatly impacted North Korea. But few foreign-policy experts, and even fewer general readers, seem aware of how flimsy were the array of sanctions imposed on North Korea by the UN and U.S. during the George W. Bush and Obama years.
Consider first the successive rounds of UN Security Council sanctions lodged against the regime since its first atomic test in 2006. China and Russia flagrantly and routinely violate the very sanctions their own Security Council representatives voted to impose. Most countries around the world still ignore them, too. In early 2017, the UN’s Panel of Experts on the sanctions reported that 116 of the UN’s 193 members had not yet bothered even to file implementation reports on the then-latest round (UNSC 2270, levied in response to Pyongyang’s fifth nuclear blast). The previous year, the Panel noted that 90 countries had never reported on any of the sanction resolutions against North Korea (eight at that time, the first of them ratified a decade before that report). And filing a report on these sanctions resolutions is not the same thing as enforcing them. Several countries with whom Washington enjoys ostensibly friendly relations have turned a blind eye to illicit North Korean activities on their soil for many years (Malaysia, Singapore, and some of the Gulf States being among the more egregious examples).
When it comes to Washington’s own economic measures, furthermore, North Korea is still far from being “sanctioned out,” no matter the received wisdom. In the final year of the Obama administration, according to Anthony Ruggiero of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, fewer entities and individuals from North Korea were under U.S. Treasury Department sanction than those from seven other countries, including Zimbabwe and Sudan. While the Trump administration has been much more serious about sanctioning North Korea, Ruggiero testified that as of late summer 2017, North Korea nonetheless remained less sanctioned than either Syria or Iran. For some mystifying reason, moreover, North Korea was not put back on the State Department’s list of strictured “state sponsors of terrorism” until the end of 2017, after enjoying a nearly decade-long holiday off that roster.
As 2018 commences, three big changes augur well for the prospect of devastating “shock and awe” sanctions against the North Korean system. First: At the end of 2017, the Security Council endorsed a broad new writ and scope for sanctions against North Korea, dispensing with the earlier “marksman” approach of picking off particular military-related firms or individuals and embracing instead the “blockbuster” approach of crippling North Korea’s entire military-industrial complex. The new sanctions, among other things, ban all industrial imports by North Korea, severely cut permitted energy imports, and require UN member governments to “seize, inspect, and freeze” vessels violating some of the new restrictions.
Second: In late 2017, the U.S. Treasury announced new and much more sweeping authority for North Korea sanctions, granting U.S. officials wide discretion to impose what are known as “secondary sanctions.” Henceforth any business or person engaging in any kind of commercial or financial transactions with North Korea could be severely penalized, with punishments including fines, seizure or forfeiture of assets, prohibition against any commerce in or with the U.S., and being cut off from the worldwide clearing system for dollar-based financial settlements.
Finally, and by no means unrelated to these other changes, is the third change: the advent of the Trump administration. Under President Trump and his team, there appears to be a qualitative change in America’s North Korea policy—one that accords the North Korean threat a higher priority, and more unblinking attention, than it has been granted by any of Trump’s predecessors. The White House calls this new approach to North Korea a policy of “maximum pressure.”
Six: The American Role
Trump’s address before South Korea’s National Assembly last November on the North Korea problem was the most incisive, and moving, statement on the topic ever delivered by an American president. Whatever else may be said of him, Trump is keenly aware that the North Korean threat he inherited was allowed to fester and worsen under each of the four men in the Oval Office immediately before him. He appears to have no intention of continuing that tradition.
The Achilles’ heel of the North Korean economy—and thus, of Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs—is its existential dependence on foreign aid and outside money. The fortress-prison country is an operation that cannot be sustained on its own. To date, North Korea has skillfully extracted wherewithal and extorted financial concessions out of a largely unfriendly world. To jam the gears of the North Korean war machine, the international community must recognize, and finally begin systematically exploiting, Pyongyang’s unique economic weakness. This will require a campaign of economic pressure worthy of the name—and the pieces for such a campaign are already falling into place.
In broad strokes, what would this “maximum economic pressure” campaign look like? It must be Washington-led, since it will not coalesce spontaneously. To carry it out most effectively, diplomacy will be crucial: Alliance coordination and the building and maintenance of motivated coalitions are obvious force multipliers for this exercise. But the U.S. has unique international strengths that allow us to act unilaterally and with great consequence when necessary.
For starters, now that we ourselves have relisted North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, we have a stronger case for pressing governments around the world to shut down the regime’s embassies, trade missions, and other facilities located on their soil. Not necessarily to sever diplomatic ties, much less end all communication, with Pyongyang: just to deprive North Korea of safe havens for their illegal rackets on foreign shores. Given North Korea’s standard operating procedure overseas, affording Pyongyang an embassy in one’s country is like offering diplomatic immunity to the Mafia. The Trump administration has begun some of this advocacy already and has some initial results to show for its troubles. In conjunction with a consortium of like-minded states (including Japan), a full-court press could gain true international momentum. At the very least, this would disrupt some of North Korea’s illegal rackets and reduce the take from them.
Washington can also take the lead in lobbying governments to shut down the North Korean work crews operating within their own countries—these are too close to slave labor for comfort. This need not be quiet diplomacy. The complicit governments in question, including Beijing and Putin’s Kremlin, deserve to be called out publicly if they are intransigent. (The wording of the latest round of Security Council sanctions calls for shutting down such arrangements within 24 months, an amendment Moscow negotiated for—but there is no reason that the U.S. or independent human-rights groups should not try to speed up that timetable.) The U.S. also has options for penalizing trading partners who violate internationally recognized labor standards, which is to say we can affect the cost-benefit calculus for governments that tolerate North Korea’s odious practices in their own backyards.
This brings us to a rather larger diplomatic task: confronting China and Russia about their continuing financial malfeasance on North Korea. The scope and scale of China’s furtive support for North Korea dwarfs Russia’s, of course—but that is no reason to give the Kremlin a pass. These two states have long been playing a double game—one that must come to an end starting now.
Seven: The Russians and the Chinese
Contrary to some hand-wringing in Washington and elsewhere, the U.S. is by no means devoid of options in facing down China and Russia for their economic enablement of the Kim family regime. As already noted, Washington possesses an extraordinarily powerful tool for inducing their compliance: the U.S. dollar—the most important reserve currency in the world economic order. America gets to decide who can, and who cannot, engage in the dollar-denominated financial transactions with the myriad of correspondent banks serving the globe, for which the Federal Reserve Bank is the clearing house. Existing legislation and executive orders already provide the U.S. government with a panoply of instruments for inflicting nuanced and escalating economic penalties and losses on financial institutions, corporations, and private individuals who rely upon U.S. correspondent banks but engage in illegal or forbidden commerce with North Korea.
So far, the United States government has used only minor pinpoint-pinprick secondary sanctions against Chinese and Russian parties that violate restrictions on dealings with North Korea. Both nations face potentially major economic costs if they do not address and control such violations, should we choose to impose them.
It is no secret, for example, that the Chinese banking system is highly leveraged and that some of China’s largest banks are in what we might call a financially delicate situation. Does Beijing really want to find out whether one of these major concerns can survive a Treasury Department-Justice Department inquiry for North Korea infringements, much less the weight of actual secondary sanctions—or to find out what happens at home and in international financial markets if it looks as if a major Chinese bank might fail on that account?
If the Kremlin and Beijing believe we mean business, they will have reason to suppress illicit deals with North Korea—but convincing them we mean business is our responsibility. Washington has been curiously hesitant here, possibly for fear that Beijing or the Kremlin, or both, would respond by sabotaging any further UN sanctions. But we now have pretty much what we need from UN resolutions for a campaign of “maximum economic pressure” on North Korea—so the time for horse-trading and slow-walking is over. And while we are at it, these governments’ official economic support for North Korea shouldn’t be off the table. Isn’t it time to spotlight and track those flows, too?
As we work to rein in China and Russia, we should not lose sight of the money that North Korea receives through arrangements with other governments—including states in Africa and the Middle East that receive U.S. foreign aid. Yet much of what Washington needs to do in this economic campaign, alas, is currently unknown. This is a failure of our intelligence community that must be immediately addressed if “maximum economic pressure” is to stand a chance of ending up as more than just a slogan.
By the very nature of intelligence activity, spy agencies cannot take credit for many of their successes. But the U.S. intelligence community doesn’t deserve a slap on the back for its performance in this particular area. It should be something of an embarrassment, for example, that some of the best work mapping out the connections between Chinese front companies and the North Korean military these days should apparently come from a small think tank, C4ADS, that relies entirely on open sources. And that is just one small example of intelligence insufficiency. Our government also appears to know much less than it should about the financial relations between Pyongyang and its backers in Tehran, North Korea’s money ties with terrorist groups, and its adventures in crypto-currencies and other harder-to-trace instruments of finance.
Much of what is currently unknown—by our government—about North Korea’s covert international financial networks and overseas holdings is in fact knowable, given better legwork and intelligence. The story of the U.S. government’s interagency Illicit Activities Initiative (2001–6), which methodically mapped out North Korea’s money trails before being derailed by bureaucratic infighting under the George W. Bush administration, provides an “existence proof” that such research can be done. North Korea’s overseas financial networks have had more than a decade since the demise of IAI to evolve and hide their tracks—so a new IAI-style effort would have to play catch-up.
With the information we could gather from a well-funded and coordinated intelligence initiative, we can help shut down North Korea’s worldwide criminal enterprises, arrest their international accomplices, freeze and seize violators’ overseas assets (not just Kim Jong Un’s assets: think Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and the rest), and levy potentially devastating fines against commercial and financial concerns that willfully aid North Korea in violating the law. We can also improve the efficacy of existing proliferation-security efforts.
With better intelligence, better international coordination, and the will to get the job done, an enhanced “maximum economic pressure” policy could swiftly and severely cut both North Korea’s international revenues and the vital flows of foreign supplies that sustain the economy. An enhanced Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), indeed, could use interdiction not only to monitor the goods entering North Korea but also to regulate and, as necessary, suppress that level. (UN sanctions, by the way, make provisions for humanitarian imports into North Korea a matter the U.S. and others must attend to faithfully.) Yes, this is economic warfare, and it can be conducted with much more sophisticated tools than were available in the 1940s. In fact, it should be possible through such a campaign to send the North Korean economy—and the North Korean military economy—into shock, possibly even in fairly short order.
Eight: Success and Its Failures
If comprehensive sanctions and counter-proliferation against North Korea fail, we enter into a new world with darker and much less pleasant options. But what if, by some measure of success, they turn out to succeed? What then?
In addition to their intended consequences, successful policies always have unintended ones. Three potential consequences of an effective economic-pressure campaign against the North Korean regime deserve special consideration in advance.
The first concerns the role of North Korea’s donju elite in a future where North Korea is increasingly squeezed economically. These “money masters,” who until now have enjoyed waxing wealth and have lived with rising expectations under Kim Jong Un, would stand to suffer very sharp financial loss. What would a serious reversal in the fortunes of this privileged element in North Korean society mean for elite cohesion and for regime dynamics? Even North Korea has domestic politics. Poorly as we may be able to apprise North Korean politics, it would behoove us to try to understand in advance how such a change would alter the realm of the possible within the country—and what new opportunities such internal developments might present.
Second is the all-too-likely possibility that North Korea would careen back into famine under an effective sanctions campaign—and not because Pyongyang would be incapable of purchasing or procuring sufficient food to feed its populace. The reason North Koreans starved last time was the government’s dreadful songbun system, still very much in force today. Songbun is a unique North Korean instrument of social control that carefully subdivides the North Korean populace into “core,” “wavering,” and “hostile” classes, lavishing benefits and meting out penalties according to one’s station. Life chances in North Korea—and no less important, death chances—turn on one’s assigned class. Just as it is a safe bet that virtually no one outside the “core classes” has amassed great donju riches, so too death from starvation is almost entirely consigned to the state’s designated enemies from the “hostile classes.” Only “intrusive aid” (provided on site by impartial outsiders) and public diplomacy, including calling out Dear Respected on this vile practice, stand to mitigate the toll of the impending humanitarian-cum-hostage crisis should “maximum economic pressure” work.
Finally, there are the countermeasures Pyongyang will surely adopt if the economic-pressure campaign is attaining a measure of success. These will be intended to terrify and to break the will of the sanctioners. North Korean leaders are practiced masters of white-knuckle, bared-fang diplomacy—and they would naturally regard the stakes in this contest as particularly high. No national directorate is so expert in brinkmanship or so consummate at carefully gaming through seeming “outbursts” well in advance.
North Korea will test the stomach and the will of the pressure alliance, threatening what sees as the campaign’s weakest and the most exposed elements and ranks. These probes and tests may be military in nature, with a range of options that could well include threats of nuclear war. Pyongyang will try to make Washington and the international community fear that they are facing a “Japan 1941 moment,” with a cornered Kim family regime: a déjà vu of the drumroll that led to World War II in the Pacific, only this time against a nuclear-armed adversary.
This would be a point of incalculable danger. There are good reasons to think North Korea would not resort to first use of nuclear weapons, most compelling among them, its own state-enshrined doctrine known as “Ten Principles for the Establishment of a Monolithic Ideology.” (The essence of this doctrine: The Hive must keep the Queen safe, and at all cost.) But there is no sugarcoating the terrible risks, including risks of miscalculation, inherent in North Korea’s most likely countertactics.
Any way you look at it, North Korea’s adversaries are in for a long and bumpy ride. The alternative to thwarting North Korea’s war drive now is permitting Pyongyang to prepare to fight and win a limited nuclear war in the future, at a time and place of its own choosing, when the situation for America and her allies may be even more perilous.
Like it or not, Pyongyang plays for keeps, and we are in this with them for the long game. The next move is ours.
1 Full disclosure: I am one of those who seriously underestimated North Korea’s resilience in the 1990s. Twenty years ago, I would have thought it almost unimaginable for the North Korean state to survive to this day. Needless to say, subsequent events have proved otherwise, and studying my own mistakes has led to the analysis under way here.
2 Joan Robinson, “Korean Miracle” Monthly Review, January 1965, Vol. 16, No. 8, pp. 541–549.
3 Korea, the economic race between the north and the south: a research paper, ER 78-10008, January 1978, CIA.
4 Kim Il Sung, Works, Vol. 31 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1987), p.76.
5 Nicholas Eberstadt and Judith Banister, The Population of North Korea. (Berkeley, CA: University of California, 1992).
6 Kim Il Sung, Selected Works, Vol. 5 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1972), p. 431.
7 On this man-made, and completely unnecessary, tragedy, see Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland, Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid and Reform, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).
8 Justin V. Hastings, A Most Enterprising Country: North Korea in the Global Economy. (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 2016).
9Perhaps the best analysis of this transformation is Kim Byung-Yeon, The North Korean Economy: Collapse and Transition. (New York: Cambridge Univer sity Press, 2017)
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s I write, Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury has become a mere husk of a book, emptied of everything consumable and tasty. And it’s only been out a week! In the hinterlands, the book is selling briskly, but here in Washington, we already find ourselves in the final phase of a mass hysteria, a hangover that we would call the Woodward Detumescence.
Woodward is Bob Woodward, of course. Every few years, for more than 30 years, Woodward has sent Washington reeling with a book-length, insider account of one administration after another, presenting government as high drama, with a glittering cast of villains and heroes.
The sequence of the symptoms seldom varies. First comes the Buildup. We hear premonitory rumblings: Freshly minted Woodward revelations are on the way! His publisher declares an embargo on the book, mostly as a tease. Another reporter writes an unauthorized report guessing at what the revelations might be. Washington can scarcely breathe. At last the first excerpts appear in a three-part serial in Woodward’s home paper, the Washington Post.
We enter the Swoon.
The excerpts tell of betrayals and estrangements, shouting matches and tearful reconciliations, tough decisions and disappointing failures of nerve, all at the highest levels of government. Woodward goes on TV shows to explain his findings. Sources attack him; he stands by his book. The frenzy intensifies, the breathing is labored, until, at last, comes the Spasm, as all the characters from the book refuse to comment on a “work of tabloid fiction.”
Then the newspaper excerpts end, there is a collapsing sigh, a dying fall, and the physical book, the thing itself, appears. The text seems an afterthought, limp as a wind-sock and, by now, even less interesting. If there were more revelations to be found in its pages, after all, we would have read them already. We skulk back to the routines of what passes for normal life in Washington, slightly abashed at our momentary loss of self-control. This is the Woodward Detumescence. Shakespeare foresaw it in a sonnet: “the expense of spirit in a waste of shame.”
The Fire and Fury frenzy omitted some of these steps, prolonged others. It was touched off by an excerpt in New York, appearing a week before the book’s original publication date. Running to roughly 7,000 words, the excerpt was densely packed and so juicy it should have come with napkins. The article’s revelations about White House backbiting and self-loathing are by now universally known, and have been from the moment the excerpt hit the Web. One thing they make plain is that Michael Wolff bears little resemblance to Bob Woodward. Over a long career, our Bob has shown himself to be a tireless and meticulous reporter. He is a creature of Washington, besotted by government; Woodward never found a briefing paper he wouldn’t happily read, as long as it was none of his business.
Wolff, on the other hand, is an incarnation of Manhattan media. He’s a 21st-century J.J. Hunsecker, the gossip columnist in the great New York movie Sweet Smell of Success, although, unlike J.J., he has a pleasing prose style and a sense of irony. His curiosity about the workings of government and the shadings of public policy is nonexistent. “Trump,” Wolff writes with typical condescension, “had little or no interest in the central Republican goal of repealing Obamacare.” Neither does Wolff. Woodward would have given us blow-by-blow accounts of committee markups. Wolff mentions Obamacare only glancingly, even though it was by far the most consequential failure of Trump’s first year.
If you want to learn how Trump constructs that Dreamsicle swirl that rests on the top of his head, or the skinny on Steve Bannon’s sartorial habits, then Wolff is your man. He tries to tell his story chronologically, but he occasionally runs out of things to say and has to vamp until the timeline lets him pop in a new bit of shocking gossip. Early in the book, for example, after he has established that Trump is reviled and mocked by nearly everyone who works for him, Wolff leads us into a tutorial on The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam’s doorstop on the 1960s White House wise men and whiz kids who thought it would be a great idea to get in a land war in Southeast Asia. He calls Halberstam’s book a “cautionary tale about the 1960s establishment.” Wolff’s chin-pulling goes on for several hundred words. Apparently, Steve Bannon had had the book on his desk.
This is interesting, I guess, and so are the excessive digressions about New York real estate, Manhattan’s media culture, the evolution of grande dames into postfeminist socialites, and many other subjects that are orthogonal to the book’s purpose. If you’ve bought Fire and Fury, chances are, you wanted to learn things you didn’t know about the first year of the Trump administration. The New York excerpt was chockablock with such stuff, told in sharply drawn scenes and vivid, verbatim quotes. But the book dwells much more on general impressions, flecked here and there with scandalous asides. In these longeurs—most of the book—Wolff writes at an odd remove, from the middle distance. The prose loses its immediacy and becomes diffuse.
He’s not so much padding his book as filibustering his readers, perhaps hoping to deflect a reader’s attention from another revelation: He really hasn’t delivered the goods. All of Wolff’s most scandalous material was filleted and packed into the New York excerpt. Listening to discussions among friends and colleagues, I keep hearing the same items, all from the magazine: Staffers think Trump might be (literally) illiterate, Steve Bannon thinks the Mueller investigation puts Trump’s family in legal jeopardy, the president uses vulgar language when talking about women. He is a child, Wolff wants us to know, and the disorder of his government is directly traceable to that alarming fact.
And it is indeed alarming, but nobody who has followed Trump’s Twitter feed or watched his news conferences will think it’s news. Wolff wrote a scintillating 7,000-word magazine article; the problem is that he spread it over a 328-page book. The rumor has gone around (hey, if he can do it, so can I) that before submitting his manuscript, Wolff warned his publisher that it didn’t contain much that was new.
This explains a lot. Wolff clearly was unprepared for the explosion set off by the magazine article. You could see it in his halting explanations of his journalism techniques. When his quotes were questioned, he let it be known that he had “dozens of hours” of tapes. (Other news reports inflated the number to hundreds.) When quotes continued to be questioned, he was asked, by colleagues and interviewers, to release the tapes. He refused. Wolff said his book threatens to bring down the president—on evidence that he alone has and won’t produce.
Spoken like a true journalist! Much has been made of this modern Hunsecker’s techniques. One explanation for the candor of his sources is that Wolff gained their confidence by misleading them about his intentions; they had concluded he was writing a book that would show the administration in a kinder light. “I said what I had to to get the story,” he proudly told one interviewer. Many of his colleagues in the press have shrugged at his willful misdirection—his deception, in fact—as a standard trick of the trade.
They’re probably right. But they demonstrated again the utter detachment of journalists from normal life. Whole professions are generally and rightly maligned—trial lawyers, car salesmen, lobbyists—because ordinary people see that prevarication is built into their work. When it comes to the people who write the books they read, they have a right to ask how far the deception goes. If a writer will mislead his sources, how can we be sure he won’t he do the same to his readers?
“My evidence is the book,” Wolff responds. I’m not sure what he means. In any case, as the Detumescence recedes, it becomes clearer that his evidence is thin. The book isn’t particularly good journalism, but it’s a triumph of marketing. Our Trump hatred has been targeted with such precision that we’ll lower any standard to embrace Fire and Fury, even if the tale as told signifies nothing, or nothing much.
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An uncontroversial museum still manages to offend the ignorant
t one point during his 2000 campaign, George W. Bush gave his listeners a folksy admonition: “Don’t be takin’ a speck out of your neighbor’s eye when you got a log in your own.” This amused Frank Bruni of the New York Times, who called it “an interesting variation on the saying about the pot and the kettle.” Bruni’s words in turn amused the substantial portion of Americans who knew that Bush was actually quoting Matthew 7:3. To them it was simply unimaginable that someone could graduate Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in English and subsequently study at the Columbia School of Journalism, as Bruni did, without having once encountered the Sermon on the Mount. The anecdote revealed the extent to which, in the space of a few generations, America went from habitual Bible reading to biblical illiteracy, and of the most abject and utter kind. This is the justification for the Museum of the Bible.
The Museum of the Bible, which opened in Washington, D.C., in November, is an enterprise of appropriately pharaonic ambition. At a capacious 430,000 square feet, it cost half a billion dollars to build, all of it contributed privately. It is the brainchild of Steve Green, the president of Hobby Lobby, the chain of arts-and-crafts supply stores that successfully challenged the contraception mandate of Obamacare. Indeed, to those who felt the Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby decision was a catastrophic setback to the separation of church and state, the coming of the Museum of the Bible seemed nothing less than the physical manifestation of that threat—an unwelcome expression of evangelical political power standing in plain sight of the Capitol. Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby has loomed large in the coverage of the museum, as has the Green family—as well as the $3 million fine levied on Hobby Lobby for illegally importing cuneiform tablets from Iraq.
But those who looked forward to exposing the museum as a bigoted and ignorant enterprise, with a laughably literal view of biblical truth, have been bitterly disappointed. Its exhibitions are conspicuously even-handed and scholarly, and not at all sectarian. The Museum of the Bible is no vehicle of theological indoctrination. If anything, it errs in the other direction. When it was first incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 2010, it pledged itself “to inspire confidence in the absolute authority and reliability of the Bible.” It has quietly lowered its sights since, and now seeks only “to invite all people to engage with the history, narrative, and impact of the Bible.” This makes the museum less objectionable (who can object to an invitation?), but a less incendiary Bible is also a less interesting one. The danger of the Museum of the Bible is that by sidestepping the question of biblical truth it might downgrade the Good Book, as it were, into one of the Great Books.W
ith all their resources, the Green family might easily have commissioned a celebrity architect to build a prodigy of a museum. But they did not want a building that would compete with its contents. Instead, they bought a 90-year-old cold-storage warehouse two blocks south of the Mall, and into its windowless brick shell they inserted six stories of exhibition and administrative space. The interior is intelligently planned but hardly remarkable, and nothing about its materials, finishes, or details speaks of the Bible or antiquity. If anything, it has the glossy impersonal cheeriness of contemporary hotel architecture.1
The heart of the museum is in the exhibitions of the third floor (The Stories of the Bible) and the fourth (The History of the Bible). These are utterly different in texture and tone, but they work in tandem—one delivering sensation and the other information. This is hardly a new distinction; it is the difference between the stained-glass window and the sermon.
The Stories of the Bible are told through crowd-pleasing “immersive” galleries—the fashionable term for displays in which a coordinated battery of sound effects, musical cues, dramatic lighting, and moving forms are combined to induce an overwhelming sensory experience in the viewer. These were devised by BRC Imagination Arts, a design firm that specializes in corporate branding—as they put it, in “creating emotionally engaging experiences that generate lasting brand love.” When it comes to emotionally engaging material, the exhibits Genesis and Exodus offer at least as much as the Heineken Experience (another recent BRC creation) and here the designers have outdone themselves. Noah’s Ark presents “a unique, stylized representation of the great flood, they tell us.”
“Stacks of boxes tower over them. Inside each box are artistic representations of animals—two by two—lit by flickering candlelight. Guests hear the raging of the storm outside and the creaking of the wooden ship.”
Somewhat later, although not until they have seen “a hyssop bush bursting into flames from the story of Moses,” visitors themselves can part the Red Sea, or an abstraction thereof, created by a web of taut metal cables shimmering under blue light. (It is curious how the highly cinematic events of the Hebrew Bible lend themselves to abstract expression.)
By contrast, the World of Jesus is rendered in literal terms, by means of a realistic re-creation of a first-century village complete with actors in period costume. In the Galilee Theater, visitors can watch a short film and see John the Baptist confronting King Herod (as played by John Rhys-Davies). Even those of us who are allergic to historic reenactments will see that it is carried through with extreme competence and attention to detail. What is there is done well; it is what is not there that has caused a good detail of quiet grumbling. To the bafflement of many, the central events of the Christian Bible—the Crucifixion and Resurrection—are not represented. Were there fears that a scene of unspeakable horror would disturb the museum’s upbeat, family-friendly ambiance? Or is it that its academic advisors come from the mainstream of contemporary Biblical studies, for whom the Resurrection is not a truth but a trope? Perhaps both factors are at play.
Another curious aspect of the display, though unhappy, is understandable: The Hebrew and Christian Bibles are rendered as two segregated and self-contained experiences, and like oil and vinegar, the exhibition paths are not allowed to mix. Unfortunately, the visitor who has waited for the one is unlikely to stand in line again for the other. One can appreciate that the organizers wanted to avoid a linear sequence in which the Hebrew Bible serves as mere prelude to the New, but in the process, the relationship between the two is lost. Surely a compromise might have been found, perhaps with the occasional physical passage between the two, so that the viewer might move back and forth and make his own connections—alas, a proposition that is heretical in today’s world of manipulative museology.
If the third floor gives us the stories in the Bible, the fourth gives us the book itself—not only the text itself but its translations, copies, orthography, printing, binding, illustrations and all else that is associated with a literary artifact. The oldest objects here (although of disputed authenticity) are tiny fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and from them to the most recent translations, one is struck by the fastidious probity with which the text was transmitted. Here we learn the high stakes of tampering with the Bible in the story of how the 14th-century theologian John Wycliffe was posthumously excommunicated for daring to make the first English translation. We also learn how the Bible acted to codify and order regional dialects into a national language; Martin Luther’s translation did this for the German language just as the King James translation did a century later for English. A remarkable display shows the innumerable phrases from the Bible that have entered vernacular speech in the world’s languages, some of which I did not know (e.g., “den of thieves,” “suffer fools gladly,” “at their wit’s end,” etc.
Here one senses a certain reservation—a curatorial suspicion, perhaps, that vellum manuscripts and printed books are intrinsically boring. There is nothing an exhibition designer fears more than a bored visitor. This would account for the rather plaintive effort to provide visual relief in the form of arresting objects: a facsimile of the Liberty Bell with its inscription from Leviticus, a tableau of books burned by the Nazis, and statues of Galileo and Isaac Newton. These diversions suggest that the designers did not trust the words themselves and their hotly disputed variants and interpretations to generate interest on their own.
This is a lost opportunity. For instance, the history of the English translations would have been far more effective with a comparison of representative examples. One might illustrate various renderings of the 23rd Psalm, juxtaposing the lapidary King James version (“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want”) with the explanatory translation of the International Standard Version (“The Lord is the one who is shepherding me; I lack nothing”) or the willful flatness of the Good News Bible (“The Lord is my shepherd; I have everything I need”). A few examples from the recent push to purge the Bible of any and all sexist language would also have been eye-opening. To refer to this trend blithely in passing, as the wall labels do, without confronting the viewers with the sobering reality of a gender-neutral Bible is a sign of either haste or indifference.
And for those who are not fascinated by the fact that the neuter possessive its appears just once in the entire King James translation, they still have the chance to take a peek at Elvis Presley’s personal copy of the Bible.T
he truth is, the Museum of the Bible is as innocuous, gregarious, multifaceted, and congenial an institution as one might have hoped. It certainly does not preach biblical inerrancy; the attentive reader will see that Noah’s flood is anticipated by the much older flood story in the epic of Gilgamesh, complete with divine instructions on building the ark.
Nonetheless, the museum has been greeted with extraordinary hostility, although of a strangely unfocused sort. It has hardly been “dogged by scandal,” as Business Insider charged, apart from the importation of antique materials with a false provenance (something of which the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Getty Museum have both been guilty). The real objection is not its business practices or its theology (which it wears so lightly as to be invisible), but rather that it comes from the wrong side of the cultural tracks. One has the sense that the museum is a social faux pas, that the wrong guests have crashed the party, blundering uninvited into Washington and violating rules of which they are ignorant. CityLab, the digital magazine of the Atlantic, expressed this attitude most pithily when it called the museum “pure, 100 percent, uncut megaplex evangelical white Protestantism…megachurch concentrate.”
The charge that the museum presents a narrow and exclusively white version of Protestantism is undercut by a single visit; the audience is comprehensively ecumenical and international. But it has been repeated endlessly nonetheless, in part because of the recent publication of Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby, by Candida R. Moss and Joel S. Baden—a furiously ambitious attempt to discredit the museum, its theology, its founders, and Hobby Lobby itself. (This may be the first time a book has been published condemning a museum before it was built.) Moss first came to public attention in 2013 with The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom, which charges early Christians with forging accounts of their suppression. Bible Nation is written in a similarly debunking spirit. For her, the “thousands of fragments of contradictory material” in the Bible make it pointless to try to make of it a coherent or meaningful document. The insights of contemporary biblical scholarship, she says with conspicuous exasperation, ought to be “a faith killer.”
Clearly they have been for her. But if anything, the museum’s fourth floor testifies to the opposite: This is a building built by believers for whom the analysis of the materials contained within is a noble task. The curators have taken painstaking efforts to get it right, as did those scribes who through the millennia worked to reconcile the discrepancies, to choose among the contradictory variants the ones that are most rigorously supported. And where the conflicting documents are irreconcilable—as between the two opening chapters of Genesis, or between the four Gospels—the procedure has always been to preserve multiple sources rather than impose an arbitrary uniformity. In the end, the Museum of the Bible pitches it about right.
Its greatest surprise is that it makes no truth claim. The central propositions of the Hebrew Bible (God’s covenant with his chosen people) and the Christian Bible (Christ’s Resurrection) are subordinated to the existence of the Books that carry those propositions. One might imagine that a museum devoted to other monumental culture-shaping books, say The Iliad and The Odyssey, would look similar in approach.
And of course they are right to have done so. The place to make claims to the truth in these cases is a church or synagogue, not a museum. But even the lesser claim that the Museum of the Bible makes, that the Bible is a foundational document of our civilization, is to many an unwelcome one. And as biblical ignorance grows, the claim grows progressively more unwelcome. The Bible seems to be one of those books that the less people know about it, the less they like it. And for those who know it only as a “Bronze Age document” (one of Christopher Hitchens’s favorite epithets) and from some of the livelier passages in Leviticus, it is an offensive absurdity.
Writing in the Washington Post, the novelist and art historian Noah Charney asserted that “in Washington, separation of church and state isn’t just a principle of governance, it’s an architectural and geographic rule as well.” It’s unclear who established such a rule, and in any case, the “principle” of the “separation of church and state” does not originate in the Constitution. Rather, its source is to be found in Matthew 22:21: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” We all carry a stock of mental habits and moral values, and a language with which to express them, that ultimately derives from the Bible, whether we have read it or not. The Museum of the Bible merely proposes that we read it. And for all its shortcomings and missed opportunities, and all its fits of cuteness (there’s a Manna Café), it does so with refreshing sincerity and surprising effectiveness.
1 The building has one passage of real brilliance. The entrance portal on Fourth Street is flanked by a pair of immense bronze panels, nearly 40 feet high, that call to mind Boaz and Jachin, the mighty bronze pillars that guarded Solomon’s Temple. In fact, they are panels of text inscribed with the opening lines of Genesis, as printed in the Gutenberg Bible of 1454, the first mass-produced book to use moveable metal type. The letters are reversed, confusingly, until one realizes that this aids in making souvenir rubbings that themselves embody the printing process. The genesis evoked here is that of universal literacy and the cultural transformation wrought by the printed book.
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Review of '(((Semitism)))' By Jonathan Weisman
Now, two years later, Weisman has published a book about anti-Semitism—and, more specifically, about the supposedly grave threat to Jews springing from the alt-right and the Trump administration. (((Semitism))), for such is the book’s title, suffers from two grave ills. First, Weisman believes that political leftism and Judaism are identical. Second, he knows little or nothing about the political right, in whose camp he places the alt-right movement. Combine these two shortcomings with a heavy dose of self-regard, and you get (((Semitism))): a toxic brew of anti-Israel sentiment, bagels-and-lox cultural Jewishness, and unbridled hostility toward mainstream conservatism, which he lumps together with despicable alt-right anti-Semitism.
According to Weisman, Judaism derives its present-day importance from the way it provides a religious echo to secular leftism. This is his actual opening sentence: “The Jew flourishes when borders come down, when boundaries blur, when walls are destroyed, not erected.” Thus does he describe a people whose binding glue over the millennia is a faith tradition literally designed to separate its adherents from those who are not their co-religionists.
This ethnic-Jew-centric perspective leads Weisman to reject not merely Jewish observance, which he finds parochial and divisive, but the tie between Judaism and Israel, which he subtly titles “The Israel Deception.” He laments: “The American Jewish obsession with Israel has taken our eyes off not only the politics of our own country, the growing gulf between rich and poor, and the rising tide of nationalism but also our own grounding in faith.” He sneers at Jews who promote the “tried and true theme of the little Israeli David squaring off against the giant Arab Goliath.” Weisman believes, like John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, that members of both parties are guilty of “kissing the ring” at AIPAC, of “turn[ing] to mush when the subject was Israel.” In fact, Weisman says, the anti-Semitic BDS movement on college campuses “is worrisome as much for what it says about the American Jew’s inextricable links to Israel as for what it says about anti-Semitism.” In his view, “Barack Obama was the apotheosis of liberal internationalism.…The Jew thrived.”
Thus Weisman has this to say about his infamous Iran-deal chart: “I had my own brush with fratricidal Jew-on-Jew violence during that heated debate.” Was Weisman attacked? Assaulted? No, he received some nasty notes in response to running a chart. Weisman says he found the uproar “absurd” and laments that he is “still hearing about it.” Poor lamb.W eisman gets it right when he writes about the mainstreaming of the alt-right—the winking and nodding from Breitbart News and Donald Trump himself, the willingness of many in the mainstream to reward alt-right popularizers like Milo Yiannopoulos. (I left Breitbart in March 2016 due to differences regarding our coverage of the presidential campaign). Weisman is at his best when describing the origins of the alt-right and their infiltration of more well-read outlets.
But he can’t stop there. Instead, he seeks to impute the alt-right to the entire conservative movement and builds, Hillary Clinton–style, a fictitious basket of deplorables amounting to half the conservative movement. He cites “Christian fundamentalist” Israel supporters, to whom he wrongly attributes universally apocalyptic End of Times motivation. He condemns anti-immigration advocates, whose opposition to importation of un-vetted Muslim refugees he likens to anti-Semitic anti-immigrant movements of years past. He reviles “anti-feminists,” those who oppose political correctness in video games, Republican Jewish Coalition members who laughed at Trump making a Jewish joke, and free-speech advocates supposedly engaged in “forcible seizure of the free-speech movement” (a weird charge to level, considering that it cost Berkeley $600,000 to prevent Antifa from burning down the campus when I visited). In other words, pretty much anyone who didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton gets smeared with the alt-right brush, outside of those specifically targeted by the alt-right.
The problem of alt-right anti-Semitism, Weisman thinks, is just a problem of anti-leftism. If we could all just give money to the notoriously left-wing propaganda-pushing Southern Poverty Law Center, watch Trump-referential productions of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros at the Edinburgh National Festival (yes, this is in the book, and no, it is not parody), ignore anti-Semitic attacks at the Chicago Dyke March (I am not making this up), slap some vinyl signs on synagogues (no, I am still not making this up), and “not get too self-congratulatory” (seriously, guys, this is all real), all will be well. In the end, Weisman’s goal is to build a coalition of ethnic and political groups, cobbled together in common cause against conservatives—conservatives, he says, who represent the alt-right support base.
As the alt-right’s chief journalistic target in 2016, I’m always happy to see them clubbed like a baby seal. And there is a good book to be written about the alt-right. At times, Weisman borders on it, particularly when he seeks to investigate the bizarre relationship between Trump and the trolls who worship him.
But Weisman’s ardent allegiance to leftism leads him to misdiagnose the problem, to ignore the rising anti-Semitism of his own side (the DNC nearly elected anti-Semite Keith Ellison its leader last year), to prescribe the wrong solutions, and, most of all, to react in knee-jerk fashion to the alt-right by flattering himself as the epitome of everything the alt-right hates. Thin as the paper it was printed on, (((Semitism))) is a failure of imagination.
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Review of 'The People vs. Democracy' By Yascha Mounk
The save-democracy writers have generally taken two tacks in answering it. Some see a simple replay of the previous century: The West’s authoritarian spirit has resurfaced, they say, and seduced the multitudes once more. It is up to heroic liberals to fight back, as their forebears in the 1940s did. But others have tried to trace today’s crack-up to liberal missteps or even to flaws in the liberal-democratic idea. This is a more useful avenue for those of us concerned with the preservation of self-government.
Yascha Mounk’s The People vs. Democracy wants to be the latter kind of (subtle, thoughtful) book but too often ends up making the cruder arguments of the former. The author, a lecturer on government at Harvard, argues that while liberals took liberalism’s permanence for granted, voters became “fed up with liberal democracy itself.” Elections across the developed world, in which fringe characters and populists routed mainstream establishments, provide the main evidence. Mounk has also collected mountains of public-opinion data, mainly from the World Values Survey, which shows a deeper transformation: People in the U.S. and Europe increasingly reject democratic principles and even hanker for strongman authority.
Fewer than a third of U.S. millennials “consider it essential to live in a democracy.” One out of 4 believes that democracy is a bad form of government. One-third of Americans of all ages now favor some sort of strongman rule, without checks and balances, and 1 of 6 would prefer the strongman to don a military uniform. Similarly, a third of German respondents and an astonishing half of those from Britain and France support strongman rule. Parties of the far right and far left are rapidly expanding their appeal, particularly among young people. There are many more depressing statistics of the kind, presented in numerous charts and graphs throughout.
Mounk thinks there are two factors at play in these attitudes. The first is the emergence of illiberal democracy, or “democracy without rights,” as a serious rival to the current order. Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Narenda Modi in India, and Viktor Orbán in Hungary, among others, exemplify this model. Once elected, these leaders chip away at individual rights and independent institutions until democracy is all but hollowed out and it becomes nigh impossible to remove the ruling party from office. Mounk strongly suspects that the Trump administration plans to pull something like this on the American public, though thus far the president’s illiberal bluster has proved to be just that.
The second factor is undemocratic liberalism, or “rights without democracy.” Here Mounk has in mind technocratic liberalism’s drive to remove an ever-growing share of policy decisions from the purview of voters and their elected representatives. This has been necessitated by the complexity of contemporary problems such as climate change and international trade, Mounk contends. Yet rights without democracy has generated mistrust and cynicism. Liberals, he says, should aim to “strike a better balance between expertise and responsiveness to the popular will.”
Mounk’s sections on the damage wrought by undemocratic liberalism should be instructive to his fellow liberals. But conservatives have for years stamped their feet and pulled their hair over the same phenomenon, only to be ignored by elite liberals on both sides of the Atlantic. Right-of-center readers might be forgiven for sarcastically muttering “no kidding” as Mounk takes them on a guided tour of liberal folly.
Conservatives have been warning about administrative bloat, for example, since at least the first half of the 20th century. It turns out that they had a point. Writes Mounk: “The job of legislating has been supplanted by so-called ‘independent agencies’ that can formulate policy on their own and are remarkably free from oversight.” Ditto activist judges: “The best studies of the Supreme Court do suggest that its role is far larger than it was when the Constitution was written.” And ditto the European Union’s democratic deficit: “To create a truly ‘single market,’ the EU has introduced far-reaching limitations” on state sovereignty.
He also strikes upon the idea that nations really are different from one another, and in politically significant ways. “After a few months living in England,” the German-born author confesses, “I began to recognize that the differences between British and German culture were much deeper than I imagined.” No kidding. What about the anti-Western monoculture that lords over most college campuses? Here, too, the right was on to something. “Far from seeking to preserve the most valuable aspects of our political system,” Mounk writes, liberal academe’s “overriding objective is, all too often, to help students recognize its manifold injustices and hypocrisies.”
Mounk’s discovery of these core conservative insights, however, doesn’t spur a rethink of his reflexive disdain for conservatives. This is most apparent in his coverage of American politics. The book is supposed to be a battle cry for democracy to rally left and right alike. Yet, with few exceptions, conservatives and Republicans are cast as cynical operators who rely on underhanded tactics and coded racism to undermine democracy and ultimately abet the populists. (Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama receive adulatory treatment.)
He describes Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal to hold hearings for Merrick Garland, Obama’s final Supreme Court nominee, and GOP filibustering of Democratic legislation as “abuse[s] of constitutional norms” (they weren’t). But he pooh-poohs popular outrage at Clinton’s unlawful use of a private email server and elides the Obama Internal Revenue Service’s selective targeting of conservative nonprofits ahead of the 2012 election.
He also underestimates a third development of recent years—liberal illiberalism (my term, not his)—a liberalism that not only lacks democratic legitimacy but seeks to destroy, in the name of tolerance, the fundamental rights of those who stand in the way of full-spectrum progressivism. This is the kind of liberalism that compels nuns to pay for contraceptives and evangelical bakers to bake gay-wedding cakes, silences conservative speakers on campus, and denounces sushi restaurants as “cultural appropriation.”
Mounk isn’t ignorant of these tendencies, and he wants liberals to ease up (a bit). Yet, because he maintains that the censorious left’s heart is in the right place, he can’t seem to reach the necessary conclusion: that much illiberalism today comes, not from the right, but from ostensibly liberal quarters, and that this says something about the nature of contemporary liberal ideology. The true illiberal villains, for Mounk, are only ever the Modis, Trumps, and Orbáns—plus the troglodytes down South. Well-intentioned liberals who back censorship, he writes at one point, “ignore what would happen if the dean of Southern Baptist University…were to gain the right to censor utterances” he dislikes.
In fact, there is no such institution as “Southern Baptist University.” According to the most recent rankings from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, however, four of the 10 worst U.S. colleges for free speech last year were public schools located in blue states, while five were blue-state private or religious schools with longstanding reputations for progressivism (Mounk’s own Harvard among them).
His quickness to frame Southern Baptists as illiberal bogeys is telling and suggests that, for all its exhortations against liberal highhandedness, Mounk’s book comes from the same high-handed place. It colors the author’s approach to questions of nationalism and immigration that are at the heart of the current ferment. He concedes that liberal democracy is compatible with voter demand for limits on mass migration. But he can’t help but attribute those demands to irrational “resentment,” eschewing completely the—perfectly rational—fear of Islamist terrorism.
He sees the nation-state as an “imagined community” to which too many of our fellow citizens remain attached. Ideally for Mounk, the empire of rights and procedural norms would thrive independently of nationhood, civilizational barriers, and sacred communities. For now, he allows, liberals unfortunately have to contend with these anachronisms. His view is an improvement over the liberal transnationalism that is still committed to doing away borders altogether, even after the popular counterpunch of 2016. Still, why should Poles or Hungarians or Britons remain politically attached to Polish, Hungarian, or British democracy? What is it about Polishness as such that matters to Poland’s democratic character? Mounk has no answers.
No wonder, finally, that the author never satisfactorily links liberalism’s turn against democracy and the rise of illiberal democrats. He can never bring himself to say outright that the one (rights without democracy) is begetting the other (democracy without rights). Liberals, of the classical and the contemporary varieties, badly need a book that offers such uncomfortable reckonings. Yascha Mounk’s The People vs. Democracy is not it.