How America’s embrace is imperiling American Jewry.
In the first half of the 20th century, the political and social perspective of the American Jewish community was defined by its collective experience of anti-Semitism—both in the countries from which Jews had emigrated and, in far more muted form, inside the United States. Four percent of Americans were estimated to be Jewish at mid-century, twice as many as at present. But the Jews of that time were insecure about their place in American society and often unwilling to make a show of their background and faith. They felt themselves a people apart, and they were. It was difficult if not completely impossible for them to live as American Jews entirely on their own terms.
Now the situation is reversed. As an explosive new survey of 3,400 American Jews reveals, 94 percent say they are proud of being Jewish. That data point dovetails neatly with the current place of Jews in American society—a society in which they make up 2 percent of the population but in which there are virtually no barriers to full Jewish participation. American Jews can live entirely on their own terms, and they do. But the stunning finding of Pew’s A Portrait of Jewish Americans—the most comprehensive portrait of the community in 20 years and, in the richness of its detail, perhaps of all time—is the degree to which American Jews are now choosing not to live as Jews in any real sense. Secularism has always been a potent tradition in American Jewry, but the study’s analysis of what being Jewish means to its respondents reveals just how much irreligion has taken center stage in American Jewish life.
There has been a startling increase over the past quarter century of Jews who say they regard themselves as having “no religion.” Intermarriage rates in that group are now at 70 percent. And the proportion of families raising their children as Jews by religion is 59 percent, while only 47 percent are giving them a Jewish education. Jews are not being driven from Judaism due to social difficulties. Fewer than 20 percent claimed to have experienced even a snub in a social setting, let alone an anti-Semitic epithet, in the last year. Such numbers are not only without precedent in American history; they are without precedent in the millennia-long history of the Jewish people. The Pew survey paints a portrait of a group that feels none of the shame or fear that once played a major role in defining Jewish attitudes toward other Americans. But this loss of shame, and the concomitant growth of pride when it comes to having a Jewish heritage—these have come at a heavy cost, it appears. It is now inarguable that American Jewry, or at least the 90 percent that does not hew to Orthodox practice, is rapidly shrinking, and the demographic trend lines are stark.
The same American Jewish community that is bursting with pride also now regards Jewish identity as a matter of ancestry and culture almost exclusively. Forty-two percent think a good sense of humor is essential to being Jewish; almost exactly the same number, 43 percent, think it means supporting the State of Israel. When asked about the fundaments of Judaism itself, Jews speak of values and qualities that apply equally to other faiths and are followed just as readily by those who have no faith at all. After all, there is nothing distinctively Jewish about believing one should lead an ethical and moral life or about working for justice. And yet these are the defining characteristics of Judaism for American Jews. Only 28 percent think being Jewish has something to do with being part of a Jewish community. Only 19 percent think it means abiding by Jewish religious law.
This is what happens after several generations of the most highly educated minority group in the United States have allowed themselves and their children to become functionally illiterate about Judaism itself, its belief system, its history, and the obligations of Jewish peoplehood. The Pew data make it abundantly clear that the cultural values of secular Jews have proved to be perfectly portable—they can carry their liberal political and cultural beliefs everywhere without having to carry the Jewish trappings that go with them.
The increasing Jewish desire to give up what is distinctive about Jewish faith and practice while maintaining mushy positive attitudes about their colorful backgrounds and the social-justice aspect of the tradition is more than a recipe for self-extinction. The ingredients have been assembled and mixed, and the dough has begun to rise. American Jewry is on the brink of a demographic catastrophe. And yet here is the paradox: This catastrophe is also a triumph—a triumph both for American Jews and for the American experiment.
The existential crisis that threatens the future of American Jewry has only been made possible by this nation’s embrace of the Jewish people. There is no social or economic penalty to be paid in this country for making an open showing of Jewish identity. Jews face almost no difficulty making friends with non-Jews, working with non-Jews, playing with non-Jews, socializing with non-Jews—or marrying non-Jews. A quarter century ago, a White House aide named Richard Darman desperately offered to provide scoops and inside information to a Washington reporter if she would agree not to reveal he’d been born a Jew and had actually received a bar mitzvah. A few years later, the newly appointed secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, professed herself astounded to discover her parents were Jewish. Albright and Darman, born in 1937 and 1943 respectively, were the last American Jews who would ever imagine the need for such disreputable subterfuges and denials. Consider: Darman served as head of the Office of Management and Budget in 1989. Two decades later, that same post was filled by Jack Lew, an Orthodox Jew who later became White House chief of staff—itself a position previously held by a Jewish day-school graduate (and son of an Israeli immigrant) named Rahm Emanuel, now mayor of Chicago.
The transformation of the fearful, largely passive community into the more assertive ethno-religious group that throws its weight around on national issues is primarily the function of the marginalization of anti-Semitic attitudes that were once part of the American mainstream. In public affairs, that marginalization enabled the creation of the so-called Israel Lobby that inspires fear and loathing from the Jewish state’s opponents. To their frustration, they find themselves opposed by a group that inspires support across the entire spectrum of American politics. A figure such as former Senator Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew who observed the Sabbath even when he was the Democratic Party’s vice-presidential nominee in 2000, was admired for his faith, not abused for it.
Thus, even as a rising tide of anti-Semitism calls into question the future of Jewish communities in Europe, and as hatred for Israel becomes a thinly veiled substitute for traditional Jew-hatred around the globe, the acceptance of Jews at every level of American life might be the ultimate proof of American exceptionalism. America is not insisting in any way that Jews assimilate, give up religious practice, or do anything differently. It is Jews themselves who are choosing this path.
In choosing it, they are following the pattern of American society as a whole. The number of Americans who say they have no religion is 22 percent; that is exactly the same number among American Jews. But it is one thing for Americans as a whole to fall away from religious observance—it is still the case that 74 percent of the American people define themselves as Christian. It is quite another for Jews, who constitute only 2 percent, to do so. While unaffiliated American Protestants and Catholics who don’t stick with their church still fit comfortably within a cultural milieu that is Christian, Jews of no religion cannot be said to have the same opportunity. For one thing, Jews are far more secular than other Americans in the broad sense of the term; only 34 percent of Jews are certain of God’s existence as opposed to 69 percent of the general population.
Secular Jews are content to think of themselves as belonging to an ethnicity instead of a faith tradition—but without the faith tradition, the historical reason for the existence of Jews as a distinctively separate entity, there will be no Jews. The overwhelming majority of Jews who have married in the last decade are marrying non-Jews—58 percent since 2005, 55 percent since the late 1990s, and overall, 71 percent for the 90 percent who are not Orthodox. Of these, only 20 percent are raising their children as Jews by religion. In other words, among those who intermarry, only one-fifth of their children are leading a Jewish life. (Among the intermarried, only 18 percent are being Jewishly educated.) Meanwhile, 37 percent of the intermarried say that they are not raising their children to think of themselves as Jews at all.
The Pew authors could not say with certainty whether being intermarried makes Jews less religious or whether being less religious makes Jews more inclined to intermarry:
The survey finds a strong association between secular Jews and religious intermarriage. In some ways, the association seems to be circular or reinforcing, especially when child rearing is added into the picture. Married Jews of no religion are much more likely than married Jews by religion to have non-Jewish spouses. Jews who have non-Jewish spouses are much less likely than those married to fellow Jews to be raising children as Jewish by religion and much more likely to be raising children as partially Jewish, Jewish but not by religion, or not Jewish at all. Furthermore, Jews who are the offspring of intermarriages appear, themselves, to be more likely to intermarry than Jews with two Jewish parents.
Clearly, the erosion of belief in Judaism as a religion enables intermarriage and the consequent raising of children who are either not Jewish or so lacking in Jewish literacy that they are unlikely to adhere to it in the future.
Who are the intermarried? According to Pew, 79 percent of Jews of no religion and 69 percent of those who espouse no affiliation with a Jewish religious movement are intermarried. Of the children of intermarriage, 83 percent have followed the practice and have married non-Jews themselves. Meanwhile, we learn that half of those who affiliate with the Reform movement, the largest denomination of American Judaism, are intermarried. The math is inescapable. In three or four generations, absent some staggering reversal on the other side of a great religious awakening, few of the descendants of these people will be Jewish.
What will they be instead? Much in the manner that some Americans now seek to claim even the most minute percentage of Native American ancestry—something that 19th- or even early-20th-century Americans would have sought to cover up because of prejudice—they will probably invoke their remote Jewish roots with pride. It will give them a bit of welcome ethnic color to spice up their plain-vanilla backgrounds and some vague connection to matters both great (the Ten Commandments) and monstrous (the Holocaust).
The Jewish experience in America raises fascinating and heretofore unexplored issues about Jewish identity. Once, being a Jew was not a choice. People were who their parents had been. Judaism featured barriers—among them a special legal code and dietary restrictions—that kept Jews apart from non-Jews. Non-Jews returned the favor for millennia and still do across the globe; they did not want to mix with Jews and placed all manner of obstacles in the paths of Jews when they weren’t forcing Jews behind walls, chasing them, or committing acts of genocide against them.
Even in the United States, where the worst that anti-Semitism produced was employment and academic discrimination, the non-religious tended not to intermarry because non-Jews did not want a Jewish spouse. When those barriers fell, when Jews could attend college freely with non-Jews and work alongside non-Jews, the social separation created by anti-Jewish hostility no longer appertained. “They don’t want to kill us,” the late Irving Kristol once cracked about American Gentiles. “They want to marry us.”
The freedom to be as Jewish as Joe Lieberman also means the freedom to abandon your identity. And with so many Jews lacking religious faith, or lacking any belief system that requires them to stick to their community, that is what large numbers of them are doing. Those charged with the responsibility of maintaining liberal Jewish religious movements and communal institutions that still retain the fraying loyalty of the bulk of the population are left with choices about what to do about these frightening statistics. Unfortunately, some of the choices they have made leave little doubt that the current trends will not be halted, let alone reversed.
The Pew Study is hardly the first wake-up call American Jews have received about their future. First, it is in keeping with a 2011 survey of the New York metropolitan area (constituting nearly 40 percent of all American Jews) undertaken by the UJA-Federation of New York City. More broadly, it confirms the trends first seen in the last two major national surveys—the 1990 National Jewish Population Study and the more controversial 2000–2001 National Jewish Population Survey. That is particularly true with respect to the 1990 finding that 52 percent of Jews who had married since 1985 had a non-Jewish spouse.
At the time of that 1990 survey, the organized Jewish world went into full-blown panic about the prospect of its rapid diminishment. Very quickly, the Jewish federation movement—the umbrella philanthropies that served as the chief fundraisers for both domestic and Israeli Jewish causes—became focused on what was dubbed the “continuity” issue.
A great deal of what followed was productive. After decades of focusing on the memory of the Holocaust and the need to defend Israel, the 1990 study gave new impetus to those who had long pointed out that these matters were not enough to help form a stable sense of Jewish identity for new generations that did not remember the 1940s or the plight of the beleaguered pre-1967 Israel. What was needed was a new emphasis on Jewish education, both the comprehensive day-school movement and synagogue Hebrew schools as well as summer camps. Trips to Israel (a place that Pew tells us the majority of American Jews have still not visited) were also rightly seen as a potential incubator of Jewish identity. That led to the creation of Birthright, a program that offered free trips to Jews in their 20s to get a taste of Israel in the hope that this would trigger greater commitment from them in the future.
The early returns from Birthright are positive and, combined with the proven impact of day-school education and camps on the future of Jewish youth, these programs point to a formula for ameliorating the impact of assimilation. But since the population profiled by Pew—which drew upon the broadest possible definition of who is a Jew—is increasingly apathetic to institutions that are primarily religious in nature, it’s far from clear whether most Jews would avail themselves of these schools and camps for their children, even if they were free of charge instead of ruinously expensive. As Pew’s data explains, a growing proportion of Jews lack interest in parochial Jewish concerns.
But the real enthusiasm of much of the organized American Jewish world was for a different response to the “continuity” problem: They called it “outreach.” If the statistics offered lemons, in the form of high intermarriage numbers and the lower rates of affiliation that went with them, many preferred to see them as an opportunity to make lemonade—by transforming the community into a place where those on the margins would feel welcome.
As the sociologist Jack Wertheimer, a frequent contributor to these pages, wrote in the online publication Mosaic this past September, most non-Orthodox rabbis as well as those tasked with running Jewish agencies have come to believe that seeking to turn back the tide on intermarriage is as futile as complaining about the weather. And many Jewish professionals are worried more about stigmatizing the intermarried than about the impact of the normalization and acceptance of assimilation. So instead of fighting it, they built an outreach movement. Its purpose was to make both Jewish and non-Jewish spouses feel accepted and thus more likely to affiliate with Jewish institutions and raise Jewish kids.
The result has been almost complete failure, as the Pew numbers on intermarriage and Jewish identity show. Advocates of such programs argue that they have not been as fully tried or funded as they would have liked, but the Pew study’s data validates the conclusion that for those without religious faith or any coherent Jewish belief system, there is little reason to affiliate. No matter how welcomed they are made to feel in synagogues and at federation fundraisers, the investment in families that will probably not be Jewish in another generation is a dead end. Outreach is based on a paradigm of Jewish community that is primarily defined by its inclusiveness. The inclusivity doctrine asks nothing of those at whom it is aimed except good will. But the good will, as the survey attests, is already there.
Outreach, in other words, is an opportunity cost, both financially and spiritually. First, it diverts scarce resources to a failing cause. Second, and more important, it wreaks havoc on the approach the non-Orthodox denominations must take if they are to sustain their own connection to Jewish identity. Whatever else it is, Jewish identity is by definition exclusive. And here is where the American embrace is theologically problematic, for inclusion is the American creed.
Increasingly, secular Jews have come to see any effort to define group identity in ways that include some but exclude others as distasteful and even hateful. This helps explain the most shocking of the Pew findings: More than a third of those Jews polled said belief in Jesus—the one point that all Jews had once been able to agree was something that put you outside the Jewish tent—should not be deemed a disqualifier. How can this be? Simple: It is just an extreme manifestation of the logic governing the inclusion doctrine. The very idea that Jewish identity involves drawing lines—lines as seemingly insignificant as who may be a voting member of a synagogue and who may receive honors during services—is itself the problem for many Jews. The non-observant American Jewish mind-set is increasingly uncomfortable with the notion of drawing any boundaries around Jewish identity. And that mind-set has been ironically justified by the organized Jewish community’s breathless pursuit of those who have already chosen to place themselves outside the lines.
The fate of the liberal denominations that make up the bulk of American Jewry is particularly instructive. Conservative Judaism, which as recently as the 1970s could claim close to half of those who affiliated with a religious movement, is in free fall. Only 18 percent now identify as Conservative. The Reform movement has nearly doubled that number with 35 percent. But that is largely explained by Reform’s decision to accept the children of non-Jewish mothers as Jews if the father is Jewish (in contravention of halachic law still accepted by Conservatives as well as the Orthodox) and to allow their clergy to perform intermarriages.
The problem for liberal Judaism goes deeper than the mass exodus of Conservatives to synagogues where their children can intermarry. Reform Judaism is retaining half of those who say they were raised in the movement—but with the intermarriage rate in this group also at 50 percent, the prospect of that population expanding or even holding its own in the future is doubtful. Sixty percent of Reform Jews say they are raising their children as Jews by religion—but only 37 percent are giving them a religious education.
Most important, a jaw-dropping 35 percent of those who claim they were raised as Reform Jews now say one of three things: (a) they identify with no movement, (b) they are not Jewish by religion, or (c) they are not Jewish even by ethnicity. Almost as many report participating in some sort of non-Jewish religious practice (like celebrating Christmas), a clear sign that the compromises intermarriage forces on families send a message to children that Jewish identity is, at best, an option rather than an imperative. While Reform’s ranks may continue to be bolstered by a steady stream of those from other backgrounds who intermarry but wish to identify with Judaism, the Pew numbers show that at some point the losses from assimilation will increase as the gains diminish.
Orthodox Jews are the outliers in the Pew study in almost every respect—and especially so when it comes to intermarriage and adherence to traditional Jewish values. Though half of those raised as Orthodox say they no longer identify as such, the age breakdown here is remarkable: The falloff is much more prevalent among older Jews. Younger Orthodox Jews are sticking with their faith tradition: 83 percent of those under 30 have remained in the fold. Though they compose only 10 percent of the total number of Jews in America, the Orthodox are not intermarrying and therefore they are retaining their numbers at far higher percentages than other movements. They are also having more children than the rest of the community, which is itself less fertile than the rest of the American population.
Given their higher birth rate and the manner in which the rest of American Jewry is melting away, that raises the prospect that at some point in the future, the Orthodox will make up the bulk of those who identify with a religious movement and perhaps even eventually of those who identity as Jews at all.
However, any triumphalism about a future of Orthodox dominance should be muted. The Orthodox are still a tiny minority of those who claim some sort of Jewish identity in the United States, and it will be many decades before they constitute anything close to a majority even if their growth rates continue to outstrip the rest of the community. Orthodox triumphalists should also consider that they, too, would be diminished by the disappearance of much of the non-Orthodox majority when it comes to political influence and even philanthropic concerns. With increasing numbers of the observant community identifying as ultra-Orthodox and that sector being disproportionately poor, the changing demography of American Jewry raises questions that even those who are sure their grandchildren will be Jewish ought to be worried about.
Unsurprisingly, Pew found that Jews are largely liberal and overwhelmingly supportive of the Democratic Party. Perhaps more surprising, and more dispiriting, was the suggestion that support for Israel is less than enthusiastic. Only 38 percent of Jews said they think the Israeli government is making a sincere effort to make peace with the Palestinians. However, that number was heavily skewed by the negative opinions about Israel expressed by the unaffiliated and Jews of no religion (another mark of the profound failure of two decades of outreach). This was cheering to those who believe the American-Jewish establishment is too supportive of Israel and the Israeli government, and that the establishment should be more representative of Jewish opinion nationally. Anti-Defamation League head Abraham Foxman offered the perfect riposte to this in an interview with the Forward: “You know who the Jewish establishment represents? Those who care. This is a poll of everybody. Some care, some don’t care.”
Here, too, the Pew results point to a growing divide—between those for whom their Jewishness is a central, if not the central, fact of their lives and those who are increasingly detached from Judaism and any belief in Jewish particularism. The Jews “who care,” in Foxman’s words, are disproportionately affiliated with religious movements and are far more likely to be passing down their beliefs to subsequent generations that will keep the faith and keep supporting Israel.
With respect to the Jews, the American promise of religious and personal freedom has been completely fulfilled. Not so in Western Europe and Russia and other places where Jewish populations still exist, where we are seeing the ominous resurgence of attitudes many had thought would never return after the Holocaust.
Thus, as Jews face the prospect of their own declining numbers in the United States, the vital necessity of the State of Israel is more evident than ever. If this tiny tribe that has remained on this earth for thousands of years—carrying out the dictates of its ageless scrolls and following the rulings of its millennia-old sages—is to survive and thrive into the unknowable future, it will only be able to do so primarily in its own land with its own language, a land in which Jews live with Jews, marry Jews, and bear Jewish children who bear Jewish children of their own. Where outreach has failed, Zionism has succeeded.
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Loving Us to Death
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The news that Hungary’s prime minister will visit Israel next week has sparked outrage from liberal Jews both in Israel and abroad. Opponents raise two main objections. One would be serious if true, but it doesn’t seem to be. The other is sheer hypocrisy–and it’s an excellent example of the way liberal Jews routinely hold Israel to standards they apply to no other country on earth.
The hypocritical objection is that Viktor Orban is an authoritarian. “Sad company to keep,” tweeted Brookings Institute fellow Tamara Cofman Wittes after hearing that Orban was definitely coming and Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte (who is admittedly more problematic) might be. Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro also questioned the wisdom of welcoming Orban and other authoritarians. “While Israel’s unique security and other requirements understandably impel it to develop as wide a network of relationships as it can,” he said, “I think it will want to avoid finding its own democratic identity tarnished by, of its own choosing, aligning less with the club of democracies and more with this very different coalition.”
This is simply ridiculous. Aside from the fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also regularly hosted liberal leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel (several times) and Barack Obama, with French President Emmanuel Macron reportedly planning to visit later this year, the reality is that most countries in the world today are authoritarian, and even a growing number of Western democracies have authoritarian leaders. Thus, any country which wants to maintain relationships with more than a handful of other countries will end up hosting a lot of authoritarian leaders, which is why every other Western democracy also does so.
In fact, other Western democracies often host leaders considerably more objectionable than Orban, and with less justification. I can understand hosting Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping despite their aggressive foreign policies; Russia and China are too important to be ignored. But just this month, Switzerland and Austria welcomed Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, as did France and Italy in 2016, even though Rouhani’s government is actively abetting the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people in Syria and Yemen and brutally crushing dissent at home. That’s far worse than hosting Orban, whose government isn’t killing anyone.
Moreover, Hungary is genuinely important to Israel’s core foreign policy interests, since it has repeatedly helped quash anti-Israel decisions by Israel’s largest trading partner, the European Union. What vital contributions does Iran make to Europe’s core interests that justify overlooking its complicity in mass murder?
In short, liberal Jews are criticizing Israel for doing exactly what every other Western democracy does—except that other Western countries are even more egregious, and with fewer excuses.
Now let’s consider the serious objection, which is that Orban foments anti-Semitism in Hungary. Most Israelis would agree that their government shouldn’t whitewash anti-Semitism; that’s why Netanyahu’s recent statement downplaying Poland’s role in the Holocaust sparked outrage far beyond the ranks of his usual opponents. If true, this charge would be a valid reason to oppose Orban’s visit.
The problem is that the evidence doesn’t support it. That isn’t because Hungary has no anti-Semitism problem; indeed, a major study published last month showed that almost two-thirds of Hungarian Jews think it does. Moreover, Orban has undeniably made some problematic statements.
Nevertheless, the study found an objective and significant improvement over the past 18 years, almost half of which were under Orban’s rule. For instance, the number of Jews who reported hearing anti-Semitic remarks in the street dropped from an astronomical 75 percent in 1999 to 48 percent (still outrageously high) last year, while the number who reported experiencing three or more anti-Semitic incidents fell from 16 to 6 percent.
This jibes with JTA’s in-depth report on Hungarian anti-Semitism earlier last month. In light of the data cited above, the fact that the Hungarian Jewish community’s anti-Semitism watchdog, TEV, recorded just 37 anti-Semitic incidents in 2017 (down from 48 in 2016) only shows that anti-Semitic comments are massively underreported. What was noteworthy, however, is that not a single reported incident involved violence.
By comparison, reporter Cnaan Liphshiz noted, the United Kingdom, with a Jewish population only about 2.5 times that of Hungary, recorded 145 physical assaults in its total of 1,382 anti-Semitic incidents in 2017. Austria, with a Jewish population less than a tenth of Hungary’s, recorded five cases of physical violence among its 503 anti-Semitic incidents last year—and, incidentally, that was under a left-wing government led by the Social Democrats. Conservative Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz took power only in December 2017.
Thus, Jews in Britain or Austria were far more likely to suffer anti-Semitic violence than their Hungarian brethren. Indeed, unlike their counterparts in, say, France or Belgium, Jews with beards and kippahs told Liphshiz they feel safe walking Hungary’s streets.
Hungarian Jewish community leaders also said a 2014 revision of the legal code enacted by Orban’s government significantly increased prosecution and punishment of anti-Semitic offenses. “It was a big step forward,” said TEV’s secretary-general, Kalman Szalai. Nor, incidentally, did the Jewish leaders Liphshiz interviewed think Orban’s attacks on George Soros—Exhibit A in most liberal Jewish indictments of Orban—were anti-Semitic (a point I made last year).
In other words, as Szalai said, “It’s not that Hungary doesn’t have anti-Semitism . . . But it also has little to no anti-Semitic violence, and responsive authorities in the judiciary, the police force and also in government.” All of which makes it hard to argue that Orban should be shunned as a dangerous anti-Semite. That is, unless you think, as liberal Jews increasingly seem to do, that right-wing authoritarians are by definition dangerous anti-Semites.
And once you remove the straw man of anti-Semitism, you’re left with the double standard in all its glory: Israel alone has no right to host authoritarian leaders important to its interests, even as other Western democracies routinely host worse leaders with less justification. By insisting that Israel shouldn’t host Orban, liberal Jews are effectively saying that Israel, alone of all the countries of the world, has no right to conduct a normal foreign policy.
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The Iran deal haunts its sponsors.
In a rare lucid moment in January 2016, then-Secretary of State John Kerry admitted that the Tehran regime would use some of the funds from the Iranian nuclear deal to fund terrorism.
“I think that some of [the money] will end up in the hands of the [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] or other entities, some of which are labeled terrorists,” he said in the interview with CNBC in Davos. “You know, to some degree, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that every component of that can be prevented.” It’s worth watching footage of the interview to observe Kerry’s nonchalance as if the possibility of transferring money to some of the world’s most lethal terrorist groups bothered him not in the least.
Flash forward more than two years later, and Reuters reports:
Germany’s federal prosecutor on Wednesday remanded in custody an Iranian diplomat suspected of having been involved in a plot to bomb an Iranian opposition rally in France but said the suspect could still be extradited to Belgium.
Belgium is already investigating two Belgians of Iranian origin arrested earlier this month for plotting an explosive attack on the annual “Great Assembly” of Iranian opposition exiles last month on the outskirts of Paris.
In a statement, the German federal prosecutor said the Austria-based Iranian diplomat is suspected of commissioning a couple living in Antwerp to carry out the attack and providing them with a detonation device and homemade explosive TATP.
Mercifully, European security forces unraveled the plot before the attack took place. But imagine if they had failed. Imagine the blood spilled and body parts scattered outside a rubbled convention center in Paris; the smoke rising high above the densely populated urban core of the French capital. Now think back to Kerry’s arrogance and indifference to what it would mean for the U.S. and its allies to grease the wheels of Iran’s terror machine.
Say what you will about President Trump’s penchant for hyperbole, but his characterization of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action–“the worst deal ever”–was spot on.
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Hypocrisy is no obstacle.
In the early days of “The Resistance,” back when the movement was purportedly focused on forming broad coalitions that spanned ideological divides, it was common to hear its members lament Donald Trump’s assault on treasured American norms and conventions. The patina of legitimacy this organizing principal lent to the anti-Trump left’s more unsavory members and tactics is no longer operative. For the power-starved left, it seems that those norms and conventions are part of the problem.
Among the norms not codified in law that nevertheless buttress the power-sharing relationships that have preserved the republic’s stability for decades is the Supreme Court’s balanced number of justices, which has stood at nine for nearly 150 years. The panic that tore through liberal ranks following Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement led the left to exhume one of the Democratic Party’s worst ideas: court packing.
It’s not entirely clear what kind of strategy liberals have devised to ensure that Democrats and only Democrats would get to dilute the conservative majority’s influence, but they sure are passionate about it. And this is not a fringe movement. From far-left websites like The Outline, Paste, and Jacobin to mainstream liberal venues like the Huffington Post and the Washington Post opinion page, resurrecting the idea that contributed to the GOP’s astounding victories in the 1938 midterm elections is just what the doctor ordered.
The Court is one of three branches now dedicated to advancing the “ideology and agenda of international fascism,” Huffington Post political reporter Zach Carter insisted. Roosevelt University political science professor David Faris penned an elaborate fantasy in which Democrats regain the presidency and Congress, the “illegitimate” Justice Neil Gorsuch resigns, and both parties agree to support a constitutional amendment to end lifetime appointments to the bench. To claim that boosting the number of justices on the nation’s high court was not a controversial proposal, Vox.com’s Dylan Matthews cited precedent established in Mussolini’s Italy. Seriously. “Court-packing is a tool,” he wrote, “it can be used for authoritarian ends, or for democratic ones.” Presumably, you are supposed to trust that the people advocating court packing to achieve that which they cannot through the political process are not the authoritarians here.
It isn’t just the Supreme Court’s organization but the U.S. Constitution itself that becomes a source of liberal consternation whenever Democrats are out of power. Specifically, the U.S. Senate, which is resistant to proportionality by the Founders’ design, has also supposedly become a tool of despotism.
“I want to repeat a statistic I use in every talk,” American Enterprise Institute scholar and Atlantic editor Norm Ornstein began. “[B]y 2040 or so, 70 percent of Americans will live in 15 states. Meaning 30 percent will choose 70 senators. And the 30 [percent] will be older, whiter, more rural, more male than the 70 percent.” He concluded that this was, “unsettling, to say the least,” though it is telling that he felt comfortable describing the collective habits of a group that is defined by a common gender and race in negative terms without any fear of blowback. As for Ornstein’s condemnation of the Senate’s lack of proportionality, the AEI scholar is practically coy in comparison to those on the left.
Take, for example, Ian Millhiser, who recently penned a hysterical screed on the subject. Originally headlined “In U.S. Senate elections, people of color count as 3/4s of a person,” the Center for American Progress’s blog wisely ditched the racial agitation and settled on claiming that the upper chamber of Congress is “facing a legitimacy crisis.” Why? Because of the way it has been structured since the Constitution was ratified. Indeed, without making the Senate unresponsive to population shifts, it’s unlikely that the Constitution would have been ratified in the first place. The compromise that produced the nation’s bicameral legislature was a stroke of American brilliance that yielded not only the nation’s founding charter but the Bill of Rights, the subsequent amendments, and the flourishing of human rights they enabled. To Millhiser, though, the Senate is racist because minorities tend to sort into shared communities and, therefore, receive less representation in the upper chamber.
Reforming or abolishing the Senate altogether isn’t a new idea for the left, but it tends only to rise to the fore when Democrats are in the minority. They do not dwell on Article V of the Constitution, which declares “that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.” Since no state is likely to consent to its disenfranchisement, this isn’t going to happen anytime soon. But of course, not all of the left’s coup fantasies are unfeasible or even unpopular.
The move to abolish the Electoral College received new momentum following Donald Trump’s unlikely presidential victory, but the campaign to transform the presidency into the product of pure democracy is an old one. As of May, 11 states and the District of Columbia have signed onto the nonbinding National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which would effectively eliminate the Electoral College by compelling a state to apportion its votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the popular vote. It’s no coincidence that the only states that have adopted this anti-republican measure vote reliably Democratic on the presidential level. This legally dubious campaign has the support of liberals ranging from Robert Reich to Al Gore to the New York Times editorial board (you guessed it: the Electoral College is racist). Even Hillary Clinton has managed to overcome the shame associated with advocating the abolition of the institution that cost her the presidency in order to support this proposal.
Any fair-minded observer must conclude that the left’s appeal to the sacred inviolability of America’s cherished norms was only another convenient avenue for regaining power. There is no convention or settled principle so sacred that it cannot be attacked in the name of “progress.”
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And it long predates Trump.
The latest NATO summit got underway in Brussels this week, and President Trump brought all of his signature rhetorical subtlety to the Belgian capital. Off the bat at a meeting Wednesday with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Trump accused Germany of being “captive” to Russia. The remark ruffled diplomatic feathers in the Western alliance and touched off a predictable freakout among reporters and pundits back home.
When Trump insults Merkel and Germany, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell tweeted, “Putin wins.” Mitchell’s horror was shared across the foreign-policy establishment. Many American liberals like to think of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel as a one-woman bulwark against populism and Putinism at a time when the putative leader of the free world—Trump—is an unabashed populist and, they suspect, a crypto-Putinist.
Reality is a lot messier.
Yes, Trump’s suggestion that Germany is “captive” to Russia was a bit much. But it is true that, among the top NATO powers, Berlin has often struck a wobbly pose in response to Russian aggression and other threats to the West. With few exceptions, the country’s leaders view Germany less as a member of the Western military alliance and more as a commercial and diplomatic intermediary between East and West. Germany’s drift toward Moscow—there is no other way to describe it—began long before Trump came on the scene.
Start with the Nord Stream II pipeline, which provided the immediate context for Trump’s barb. The project—a joint venture of Gazprom, the Vladimir Putin-linked energy giant, and several European firms—would allow Russia to deliver some 55 billion cubic meters of gas directly to Germany. Running on the Baltic seabed, Nord Stream II would bypass existing land routes, which is why it has nearly all of Central and Eastern Europe up in arms.
Nord Stream II would allow the Kremlin to expand its energy dominance and isolate the likes of Poland and Ukraine, which not only lose out on transit fees but also the strategic leverage they enjoy over Moscow—i.e., the fact that they can block the westward flow of Russian gas and therefore a significant share of Putin’s energy income. The Merkel government, which backs Nord Stream II vigorously, is deaf to the ominous historical echoes of Germany and Russia dividing the region among themselves.
The Trump administration, like its predecessor, is opposed. As Richard Grenell, the American envoy to Germany, told me recently, “The U.S. shares widespread European concerns about projects like Nord Stream II that would undermine Europe’s own energy diversification efforts.” Grenell also warned that firms working on “Russian energy export pipelines are operating in an area that carries sanctions risk.”
A senior Republican congressional staffer, who has repeatedly met with the Germans on these issues in recent months, was blunter still: “Nord Stream II is Germany making money by putting Europe under Russian energy hegemony. The Trump administration has been fighting tooth and nail to stop it. So have bipartisan coalitions in Congress. But the Germans say it’s in their national interest and won’t budge.”
Then there is Germany’s less-than-serious response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine. Encouraged by President Obama to take the lead in talks with Moscow, Berlin softened the Western line in word and deed. In 2015, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the country’s most serious newspaper, called the German position on Russia’s encroachments a “pink line.” That was after an especially brutal Russian rocket assault against eastern Ukraine that left 30 civilians dead.
Germany’s response to the attack? It was serious, said then-Foreign Minister (now-President) Frank-Walter Steinmeier, but not one signaling a “quantitative change in the situation.” The previous year, as some 15,000 suspected Russian troops poured into eastern Ukraine and another 40,000 amassed by the border, then-German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel was quick to warn NATO that “the impression must not be given that we’re playing with military options even in theoretical terms.”
Time and again, Gabriel, Steinmeier, and other German leaders have denounced NATO exercises meant to reassure allies in Central and Eastern Europe as “saber rattling” and “war cries.” Their proposed alternative: dialogue and cooperation and, well, gas deals. Berlin also reportedly opposed plans to rotate NATO armored forces through Poland and the Baltic States, and German leaders weighed on the Obama administration not to arm Kiev (not that the 44th president needed much persuading to abandon embattled allies).
To be fair, all this reflects popular sentiment in Germany. Opinion polling consistently shows that the majority of Germans don’t view Russia as a military threat, don’t support economic sanctions against Moscow, and don’t want German troops defending Poland and the Balts if Putin attacked them.
The reasons for this German ambivalence are complex. Not all of it can be attributed to cowardice or greed for euros. But it would be nice if the American reporters and pundits who imagine that Merkel can do no wrong, while Trump can do no right, would brush up on history—which did not, in fact, begin in 2016.