Elliott AbramsDark clouds always seem to hang over the Jewish people, and today’s include old problems like anti-Semitism in Europe and new ones like Iran’s nuclear-weapons program. But to me the future seems bright.
I do not believe the Islamic Republic will exist in 2065. Even the superpower Soviet Union fell after three-quarters of a century, and the ayatollahs are now in year 36 of their revolution. They are loathed by the people of Iran, and I believe popular resistance and contradictions among the clerics will eventually spell doom. Of course we can make that more likely to happen, and sooner, by our own conduct toward Iran—reversing recent policy. But they will not last 50 more years anyway, and a normal Iran will not be an enemy to Israel and the Jewish people.
Second, both the Arab world’s chaos and its battles with Iran and jihadism point to improved relations with Israel. We see this happening already, and over time it can expand. The Palestinian issue is now page-10 news, not a headline and not something that much moves Arab governments. And I believe that the status of the Palestinian West Bank population will have changed in 50 years, from subjects of Israel to those of Jordan. Israelis want to separate from the Palestinians but need security, and the long-term solution is the Jordanian army and police. Perhaps the structure 50 years from now will look like something that disappeared 100 years ago, the Austro-Hungarian empire—with one king (by 2065, Abdullah’s son Hussein) and two prime ministers—one for Jordanians and one for Palestinians. Once the Palestinian issue has a different diplomatic face, other Arab governments will be freer to do what Jordan and Egypt have done: make peace with Israel. Relations with Gulf oil producers, who are also potential investors, will be helpful to Israel’s economy. And that will be a richer economy in 2065, benefitting from Israel’s huge gas discoveries.
Just which Arab states will exist in 2065 is harder to predict, but Israel will probably have decent relations with Jordan, Lebanon, Kurdistan, and the independent Druze areas of what used to be Syria.
Israel will find American interest in the Middle East diminished due to North American energy independence, and interest from Asia increased—especially from China and India. While threats to the Persian Gulf and its oil will have lessened with the demise of the Islamic Republic, Israel will still find that the Chinese and Indian navies are patrolling those waters and occasionally visiting the Mediterranean. But its own relations with the world’s two most populous nations will be, as they are now, friendly and economically beneficial.
So 2065 will bring all sweetness and light? No. The American Jewish community will have declined as a percentage of the U.S. population, reducing its clout. And the American left, in whatever party represents it, will be as anti-Israel as the parties of the European left. Support for Israel will remain a divisive issue between left and right. Hatred of Jews in the Muslim world will remain a dangerous virus. Europe will be an increasingly hostile place for Jews, for political and demographic reasons. European Jewish populations will be small, especially after the French Jewish community begins to leave in large numbers. Israel and the United States will form the two poles of the world’s Jewish population, with everyone else playing a very minor role.
With the Holocaust an event more than 100 years in the past in 2065, its role as a cement of the American Jewish community will have dried up as well. Nor will Israel, per se, play that role as it did in the half century after 1948. The cement will be Judaism. Those Jews practicing it, in whatever form, will naturally be attached to one another and to Israel; those Jews not practicing it will drift away from the community and the Jewish state. Even more in 2065 than in 2015, Jews will be thankful for the support of American Christians in sustaining the ranks of the pro-Israel community.
Peter BerkowitzOf the multitude of factors that shape the Jewish people and that will determine their condition 50 years from now, few are more significant—and more in their hands—than education. Precautions can be implemented to protect against natural disasters, fanatical and ruthless adversaries, and massive disruptions to world markets, while preparations can be undertaken to exploit unexpected windfalls and favorable headwinds. Yet prudent precautions and sensible preparations will be for naught unless Jews understand their tradition and the moral and political conditions that in the 21st century will enable them to preserve it.
Current trends in Jewish education—or, more precisely, in how Jews are educated—are troubling. If these trends persist, the condition of the Jews in 50 years could well be dire.
Educational priorities in Israel and in the Diaspora may differ somewhat, but the education of Jews in both is crucial. A flourishing Israel and a flourishing Diaspora—which increasingly means a flourishing American Jewry, as approximately two-thirds of Jews who live outside of Israel live in America—are inextricably intertwined. While Israel has become the capital of Jewish life to which American Jewry turns for inspiration, Israel depends on Jews in America not only for economic aid and political support in a dangerous world, but also for models of the varieties of Judaism.
Neither the education of Israeli Jews nor that of American Jews, however, is adequate to sustain their flourishing and maintain their alliance.
Israeli Jews grow up informally educated by speaking their native tongue, Hebrew, the language of the Bible and of Jewish liturgy; by a calendar whose rhythms reflect the Jewish year; by living the clash between secularism and Jewish Orthodoxy; and by bearing arms to protect their lives and the Jewish state. At the same time, secular Israelis are deprived by their formal education of access to the riches of the Jewish tradition. Many will graduate from college knowing little of the Bible and the Talmud; the philosophical achievements of Maimonides and Spinoza as well as those of Herman Cohen, Martin Buber, and Franz Rosenzweig; the classics of Hebrew literature; and, not least, the roots and major strands of Zionism.
In addition, Israel does a poor job of providing students—secular as well as religious—with a solid grounding in the tradition of freedom. Few college graduates in Israel are conversant with the intertwined moral, economic, and political principles that put into practice the belief—inscribed in the Declaration of the State of Israel as well as in America’s Declaration of Independence—in the equality in freedom of all human beings.
The education of American Jews is in still worse condition. As a consequence of the decline of liberal education in the United States, most American Jews will also graduate college without a basic knowledge of the virtues that underlie free societies; the institutional arrangements through which constitutional government secures liberty and equality under law; and the assumptions, operations, and achievements of free markets. Most American Jews, moreover, will graduate from college, like their Israeli counterparts, unaware of the beauty and wisdom of the Jewish tradition. But unlike young Israeli men and women, most American Jews will, in addition to their other educational disadvantages, lack even minimum competence in Hebrew, which furnishes a gateway both to the study of the Jewish tradition and to the experience of the many dimensions of Israel’s marvelous vitality.
It would be foolhardy to count on reform of public schools in Israel or America. The damage wrought in both countries by the progressive aversion to disciplined transmission of knowledge and the politically correct war on liberty of thought and discussion will take a generation or more to repair.
To protect their long-term interests and to heighten the prospects that in 2065 the condition of their people will be good, Jews in America and in Israel must do what Jews have done throughout their history: reinforce, expand, and, where necessary, build from scratch educational institutions independent of government, in some cases as a supplement to public education and in others as an alternative.
But now Jews—in America and Israel—must go beyond what they have done in the past. It will not be enough for Jews to make sure that their children receive a Jewish education. Because of the sad state of liberal education, Jews must also construct private educational institutions that teach students the principles that support free and democratic government.
Peter Berkowitz is the Tad and Dianne Taube Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.
In epilogue to his wonderful novel from 1930, Jews Without Money (how’s that for a literary reference!), the proletarian writer Michael Gold pictured his poor and oppressed father on the Lower East Side in 1899 looking up from a Yiddish newspaper and saying to his mother: “Great news, Katie! The 20th century is coming next Thursday night!” And Gold remembered his mother’s reply: “Whatever it is, it probably means more trouble for the Jews.” Such is my prediction for 2065.
But will the Jews of 2065 bear up under their difficulties? I remind them (I am assuming that readers in 2065 will be paying attention to our long-ago symposium) that Jewish well-being ought to mean something more than success in the oddly linked fields of demography and military affairs. And it ought to mean more than religious survival, though you would never know this from looking at the question that Commentary’s editors have posed. Jewish civilization is larger, after all, than Judaism the religion. There used to be something called liberal civilization, and, during the century-and-a-half between, say, the 1840s and these latter months of 2015, the civilization of the Jews contributed massively to it. Dear Jews of 2065, there used to be a natural and civilized dedication to universal human rights. Also a commitment to economic progress and equality, not just for Jews. Those are political themes. Something deeper: There used to be a certain Jewish feeling of being at home in the world of philosophy and the arts.
Will a proper and Jewish recollection of those sundry commitments and appreciations and ways of being survive and thrive, amid the glooms of 2065? Dear Jews of the future, some of you, the contented Americans, will disappear into the semiliterate and all-accepting maw of American mediocrity, where your Jewish memory will lose its textures and grandeurs, even if you continue to observe a few rituals. Some of you will disappear into rabbinical fantasies of ancient times, where you will steep in memory unto madness, you and your Islamic counterparts together, alas. But will there be somebody, anybody at all in America or Israel or France or someplace else, who will continue to uphold the broad and generous Jewish-inflected liberalism, cultural and political, of the past? There will be somebody. I squeeze that person’s hand. To that very old-fashioned person I say, “Chin up! Mother Gold’s worries apply to you especially! You had better work up a positive program to guarantee the hardiness and prosperity of your own principles!”
Paul Berman is a columnist for Tablet and the author of Terror and Liberalism, The Flight of the Intellectuals, and other books.
The Jewish people and the West are at a crossroads. We are at the same crossroads. We’ve arrived here at the same time.
The timing is not coincidental. The interdependence is not new. The future of both civilizations depends upon the choice each makes today.
One road leads to assimilation. Diaspora Jews who forsake their faith will become Westerners—Americans, Europeans, Argentinians—with little to distinguish them from their neighbors. Israeli Jews who abandon their ancient traditions will become the Hebrew-speaking gentiles of which so many early Zionists warned (and some dreamed).
But the Jews no longer face this dilemma alone. The entire West now confronts the same stark choice. Western man is once again slipping the bonds of the Judeo-Christian culture that undergirds his civilization. Yes, pleasure and ego have always beckoned. But only now do we find increasing numbers of our greatest minds telling us that resistance isn’t merely futile, it’s evil.
As the Jews and the West contemplate the way forward, they confront steadily rising stakes. At one time, a bad decision would have merely jeopardized our culture. Today, the wrong choice will endanger our lives.
This physical threat comes from an ascendant radical Islam. We mustn’t be fooled. Those chanting death to the Jews on Europe’s streets are not the descendants of Christian supremacists. They are almost always the cousins of those currently killing Christians in the Middle East in the name of Islam. We mustn’t be naive. The only reason such slaughter remains largely confined to the Middle East is that radical Islam lacks resources, not will.
The answer to these joint threats—cultural and physical—is the same. It is to turn our backs on the road to assimilation and embark down that other road, the one that leads us home. The answer is for Jews to engage with Judaism. The answer is for the West to embrace its Judeo-Christian roots.
Such return to tradition need not be reactionary. As radical Islam demonstrates daily, faith unchecked by respect for human dignity and reason quickly turns toxic. Happily, respect for both human dignity and reason is a core Judeo-Christian value. And besides, the root of the West’s current crisis is not hubris but low self-esteem.
A West reconnected to its Judeo-Christian roots will overcome its sophomoric spasm of multiculturalism. A West so educated will both acknowledge the reality of evil and recognize the evil of our time. A West so schooled will rediscover the will to fight this evil.
The Jews and the West stand together at the same crossroads. The road toward assimilation looms before us both. It’s a road we have taken before. And we’ve forgotten that it’s a dead end.
Without Judaism, Jews disappear. Those who abandoned their dusty desert rituals for Greek or Roman ways certainly had physical progeny. But these children ceased being Jewish centuries ago.
Fortunately, not all Jews chose to trade the Bible’s blazing moral code for nude olympics and vomitoria. Some clung to their ancient ways. Thanks to them, there are both Jews and a West today.
We mustn’t forget that the West we inhabit is far more than classical civilization electrified. Athens may have been a democracy, but almost every Athenian owned slaves taken from neighboring tribes. Romans may have developed advanced technology, but they also unceremoniously drowned their baby girls in rivers.
The ancients were nice Nazis who elevated their own race—and only the supposedly productive within their race—above the rest of humanity. Modern Nazis, Fascists, and Communists did the same thing with their own race, nation, and class, respectively. And when the West abandons its Judeo-Christian values, the Jews are almost always the ones who perish first.
Where will Jews be in 50 years? The answer depends on the path both the West and the Jews choose today. If the West chooses poorly, Israel and the Jewish people will face an increasingly hostile world with fewer and fewer friends. We’ve already seen enough early signs of this possible future to understand how badly it will end.
If the Jews choose poorly, they will disappear even more quickly. But the West will certainly pay a price for Jewish folly. It will lose its stubborn conscience, its living connection to its most nourishing roots. A West without Jews will more readily revert to the ways of its classical predecessors and become societies less human and less humane. It’s happened before, and not as long ago as we’d like to think.
David Brog is the executive director for Christians United for Israel and the author of Standing with Israel: Why Christians Support the Jewish State and In Defense of Faith: The Judeo-Christian Idea and the Struggle for Humanity.
In our collective Jewish memory, we came out of Egypt an erev rav, a mixed multitude. As we fled, we accepted like-minded people of all kinds who wanted to join us in this journey to freedom. They were not all Hebrews, but this scrappy, diverse group that stumbled through the wilderness was brought together by the shared and sacred purpose of redemption. And for the first time we were called Am Yisrael: the nation of Israel.
The Torah reminds us that when we came out of Egypt, we were scared, afraid of our own freedom. So many choices. We began to romanticize what it was like to be enslaved: “Do you remember all the leeks and fish we used to eat when we were slaves?”
It’s the most human of impulses. Even today, in an era of unprecedented Jewish freedom, we Jews look back at times of more limited choice with nostalgia: “Do you remember when Jews all lived in the same neighborhood, ate the same foods, joined the same law firms and country clubs, and followed the same rules in the same way?”
But none of us wants to go back to Egypt. Or the ghetto. Or the shtetl. If Judaism can endure only under the physical danger and emotional pressure of enslavement and anti-Semitism, we are not yet redeemed.
It took 40 years for the generation that was enslaved to be replaced by a generation that no longer yearned for Egypt. Fifty years from now, the Jewish people will only know complete freedom: freedom to choose how we want to observe the mitzvoth. Freedom to choose whom to love and marry. Even the freedom to choose whether we will be Jewish at all. So many choices. It is both frightening and a tremendous opportunity.
In 50 years, Jews will be Jewish because they choose Judaism—for its profound meaning and purpose. We will have multitudes of others, like-minded people of all kinds, who will choose to join us as gerei tzedek, righteous converts to Judaism, or as gerei toshav, non-Jews who become part of our community and raise Jewish families. Am Yisrael will still be a nation set apart, but it will be forged together in our freedom, not thrust apart by our enemies.
In 50 years, we will have eradicated Jewish diseases. Not only Tay-Sachs and Gauchers. But our racism. And narrow tribalism. And other diseases resulting from generations of insularity and inbreeding. No longer will you be able to identify the Jews in a room by their “Jewish” last names or “Jewish” appearance.
But you will remain able to recognize your fellow Jews—because you will recognize them from Sinai, when we all stood together, all men, women, children, and converts, woodchopper and water-drawer alike, and accepted Torah and our covenantal relationship with God. Our kinship will run deeper than ethnic identification, and we will have a broader understanding of Chosenness—because in significant part, the choice will have been our own.
In 50 years, we still will be the Chosen People. Chosen to pull ourselves and others out of mitzrayim, the narrow places. Chosen to share our particular light with all people. Chosen to help shape a redeemed world. But in 50 years, when we truly know what it is to be free, we will be confident enough to welcome anyone who wants to choose us. Confident enough to allow their unique cultures and perspectives to etch new crowns of Torah on our Jewish practice and observances. Am Yisrael will again be a mixed multitude.
And we may just look over Nebo and glimpse the Promised Land.
Angela Buchdahl is senior rabbi of Central Synagogue in New York City.
My father, an immigrant factory worker who studied Talmud and sacrificed to keep Shabbat, would have been satisfied to know, 60 years ago, that his son would uphold his religious standards. Had he known that I would spend my life with hundreds of first-rate students, living for the study of Torah and religious observance, even while vigorously engaging Western culture, and that I myself would feel at home among non-Jewish intellectuals who respected Shabbat, honored kashrut, and valued Torah, he might have thought the Messiah was nigh. Had I told him that support for Israel, in 2015, would be an acrimonious issue dividing liberals and conservatives, he would have been puzzled and dismayed, but not wholly incredulous. Had I suggested that the cultural elites would despise people like us for professing traditional family ethics, he would have accused his bright boy of arguing for effect. Such is the fate of prognostication.
How many contemporary Jews have genuinely encountered a religious individual, meaning a person whose life is centered on the service of God? I don’t mean well-informed Jews, even those plugged into Jewish practice and organized religion. Those who know saintly men and women in their sober joy, their undistracted attentiveness to their fellows, who are swept up in the passionate intellectual precision of their quest for God in Torah, and infected by the sheer matter-of-factness of their uncompromised and undivided commitment to God, are driven and inspired to live and transmit their vision, as best as we can.
Can this make a difference for a larger public? Everything militates against it: the weakness of religious institutions, the trivialization of religious language, the ascendancy of relativism, utilitarianism, and entertainment as lifestyle axioms. Why should spiritual life be less commodified and impersonal than the rest of late capitalist culture? If these trends reign, external religious observance may yet survive; age-old rituals continue to fill psychological needs and enact ethnic pride or political pageant; charismatic leaders, harmless or malignant, will still attract followers; and a lush variety of superstition may proliferate where living models of service to God are absent or invisible. But the lines of communication between the un-extinguished and indomitable pockets of God-anchored life and mass society will have been severed.
Burke’s great secular wisdom: The stock of reason of each transient coterie is small; we must draw on the “general bank and capital of nations, and ages.” It goes without saying that the dominant dogma of “presentism,” which for current “enlightened” opinion makes truth, cuts off communication with previous generations and with all ways of thinking that are not aligned with the political correctness of the moment. That includes revealed religion. And so the resonance of traditional Judaism within the broader society depends on our success in countering the narrow parochialism that asserts its dominance in the public square and private psyche. I suspect that will require personal education. The mere conveying of information will not suffice. And that will also require vital, mutually fructifying encounters between us, the pillars of Orthodoxy, and those thinking individuals for whom those lines of communication still matter.
In 50 years, the fate of the Jewish people will appear to have been determined by many macro and micro developments we cannot foresee: the accidents of military technology and political fashion, the effects of environmental change, the vicissitudes of economic and social progress or degeneration. Within those limits, our destiny is what we make of it.
Shalom Carmy teaches Jewish studies and philosophy at Yeshiva University and is editor of Tradition, a journal of the Rabbinical Council of America.
Those who still believe that Jewish history can never again repeat itself must dispense with that illusion. Jewish history has always repeated itself and may continue to do so until the coming of the Messiah.
Fifty years from now, despite the cognitive war against the Jews—a global campaign whose big lies far overshadow all previous blood libels and which has accomplished a “perfect storm” alliance between Holocaust-denying Islamists and a politically correct Western intelligentsia—Israel, the world’s Jew, will still be here, a shining beacon of humanity.
In 1980, on the front pages of the Israeli media, I declared that anti-Semitism was on the rise; that anti-Zionism would be central to the new anti-Semitism; that politically correct Westerners, employing the left’s language of liberation, would lead the unholy charge. Israeli and Diaspora Jewish organizations did not listen. By the early 21st century, Zionism was considered a “Nazi, apartheid, colonialist” conspiracy; human bombs were “victims”; and Israel, who defended rather than endangered both her own and “enemy” civilians, was the “aggressor.” Anti-Zionism allowed anti-racist racists to enjoy their Jew-hatred without guilt.
In the past, local blood libels led to pogroms, massacres, and exiles. It is unlikely that Israel and Jews will totally escape the consequences of a defamation campaign gone viral.
Unlike other countries, however, Israel has been forced to become the world’s leading expert in counterterrorism because of continual and intolerable attacks. In response to the slow-motion Holocaust launched against it in 2001–2002, Israel stanched the flow of blood by building a much-maligned security wall and utilizing the Iron Dome. At high cost, Israel will continue to defend herself—even as other nations fall to ruin.
Prime Minister Netanyahu is fighting for the survival of Western values. Most European and American leaders are not.
Unchecked, Islamic barbaric atrocities will escalate, and nuclear catastrophes could be inevitable. This will affect many nations. The question is whether the Jewish state will be spared.
History teaches us that Jews have survived and flourished even after the gravest of devastations. Thus, the promised “remnant” of Jews will endure. Israel will continue making unexpected allies: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, India.
Diaspora Jews—not Israel—are spiritually endangered by their abandonment of Israel. Fifty years from now, secular, assimilated, anti-Zionist Jews—indifferent to or hard-hearted toward the fate of Israel—may disappear without a trace. As individuals, they may find themselves as vulnerable to anti-Semitic persecution as Jews were before 1948.
Can our Judeo-Christian civilization be saved? Its ideals and values are being vanquished in the Muslim world—and Europe is under siege.
Perhaps Europe has reaped a terrible, karmic destiny. The continent that repeatedly massacred millions of nonviolent and assimilated Semites (the Jews) has now reaped the whirlwind of 40–50 million hostile, unassimilated Semites (the Muslims) who are determined to destroy post-Enlightenment Europe.
A half-century from now, Europe will no longer be an enlightened, Judeo-Christian civilization. The Jews of Europe will have gone elsewhere.
America’s fate hangs in the balance.
Under Barack Obama, we have lost our standing and our soul. America has made common cause with Islamist barbarians who behead, stone, crucify, and publicly gang-rape the innocents, both Muslim and infidel.
America may be in for some terrible times—Israel is used to dealing with that as a given. America is not.
Judaism’s children (Christianity and Islam) mounted a bloody rebellion against Judaism’s parental authority. Historically, Christians worshipped a dead Jew whose crucifixion redeemed them; they continued killing Jews who denied this, repeating the patricide. Muslims felt theologically offended, dishonored, by anyone who did not convert to Islam. After 21 centuries, Christianity began to change. Islam is only 13 or 14 centuries into the game and may need another seven centuries before it initiates reforms.
Until then, do not expect those Muslims who are consumed with infidel hatred and jihad compulsions to renounce their views of Western-style freedoms, infidels, apostates, dissidents, women, or the “wrong” kind of Muslim.
Since Jews have always been travelers, perhaps Israel should invest in space travel and make preparations for lift-off in the event of nuclear holocaust. Let it lift the nation, holy unto God, its plants, animals, people, cities, archeological levels—the very earth itself—aloft, as in a Chagall painting, until it is safe to return.
Phyllis Chesler, professor emerita of psychology at the City University of New York, is the author of 16 books, including The New Anti-Semitism.
Had the keenest Jewish minds of 1945 been asked to imagine the Jewish future 50 years thence, it is likely that their predictions would have been distinctly cautious. All around them was the dawning realization of the Holocaust’s scale, the continuing persecution of Jews in the Communist and Arab countries, and, above all, the absence of a sovereign Jewish state. How many would have ventured that, come 1995, a nation called Israel would be on the cusp of its jubilee, with a stable population and a dynamic economy? Or that the Jews living outside its borders would do so with full civil rights, widespread affluence, and a comparative absence, by today’s standards, of mainstream anti-Semitic expression?
Yet hindsight reveals that there were reasons to be positive even in the dark aftermath of World War II, among them the confirmation that America’s exceptionalism applied to its treatment of the Jews too, and the renewed drive of the Zionist movement in Mandate Palestine to achieve Jewish statehood. Out of these combined nation- and community-building efforts, the age of Jewish empowerment was born—a period of Jewish history that, in the experience of the majority of Jews, has been more benign and more encouraging than anything that has gone before.
Still, the angst remains. Every debate, it sometimes seems, is accented by an unarticulated fear of what the future holds. Every challenge, from intermarriage, to the destiny of Jews in Europe, to the form and content of Jewish education, carries a barely disguised warning that failure to resolve the problem under discussion will erase the Jewish people from existence.
No apocalypse awaits the Jews: That much I will predict. But how we manage a future that is still to be made will be determined, in the last analysis, by how we use the modern freedoms—national self-determination, full civil rights—that earlier generations secured for us.
In that regard, we would be wise to assume that the Jews will continue to face enemies and adversaries in 2065, just as we always have. True, anti-Semitism in this century is turning out to be far less violent than during the previous 200 years, and no Jewish community of significant size currently suffers from legalized discrimination. That, however, does not tell the whole story.
The sources of anti-Semitism in our time are multiple and overlapping. In Europe, electoral successes on the extremes of left and right, along with more frequent instances of anti-Semitic thuggery, contribute to an insecurity that calls into question the long-term ability of Jewish communities to remain in places such as France and Hungary. In the Middle East, the rise of Iranian power poses the destruction of Jewish sovereignty as a genuine threat, and not the mere slogan our current crop of Western leaders pretend it to be. In America, the political center of Diaspora Jews, the whispers of “dual loyalty” are growing louder and more impatient, particularly from the citadels of progressivism.
Hostility to the existence of the Jewish state has, since the Holocaust, established itself as the principal vehicle for anti-Semitic agitation. This development was certainly not unexpected because, ironically, Zionism enabled the Jews to be the masters of their own future for the first time in more than two millennia. Resentment toward this reality runs deep and wide—a discordant chorus of languages and accents, cutting across a range of cultures, instantly available through myriad virtual communities, and embedded most of all in those Muslim countries where there are barely any Jews left. The anti-Semitism of the future will be shaped from this present context; the more we understand it now, the better positioned we will be to contain and perhaps, dare I say, substantively defeat it by the time 2065 rolls around.
Ben Cohen is senior editor of the Tower and the author of Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism.
Eliot A. Cohen
From a secularist’s point of view, this is the first period of Jewish history in which the Jews’ fate is in their own hands; from the believer’s point of view, in some measure it always has been. I incline more to the latter.
The rough shape of Jewish demography in 2065 is clear: two large, thriving communities in North America and Israel, with smaller Diaspora communities that will be at best static, at worst shrinking or disappearing, but in any case dependent on the two greater communities. The first problem the Jews will have to address is how those two poles of Jewish life will deal with each other.
That relationship, even now, is built on false premises. In the United States, there is a hard core of Zionist true believers who think of Israel as an imperiled little pioneering experiment or the earthly paradise where they aspire to live; there is a much larger group of Jews who have either modest interest or none at all in the Jewish state, or they are embarrassed by it. On the Israeli side, there is a pervasive dismissal of American Jews as being simply too lazy or comfortable to join them—mixed with a not always subtle envy centered on studying, working, or transplanting here.
Both sides need to renegotiate the relationship. Israel is no longer a poor and struggling Sparta in the Middle East but rather the “start-up nation,” in mortal danger, to be sure, but prosperous, armed to the teeth, and self-confident. It no longer needs bond drives and the saccharine Zionism they signify, but it does need the perspective of Jews who are wholly at home in a much larger world. For that, Israelis will need to develop an understanding of and respect for their American co-religionists that most of them do not have.
American Jews, for their part, will neither move en masse to Israel nor assimilate away (although many will drop out), but they need the vibrancy of Hebrew and Jewish culture emanating from Israel, which will in many ways become the center of the Jewish world. Working out a new relationship will endanger the prestige and power of existing Jewish elites and institutions, and undermine the self-confidence and influence of not a few intellectuals and leaders on both sides. It is overdue by some decades.
The second great challenge is one of faith, the reshaping of Jewish practice and beliefs. Particularly in the United States, the problem will be keeping together the major sub-sects of the Orthodox, Reform, and the dwindling Conservative community. It will mean accommodating some of the newer movements (partnership minyanim being a prime example). It will mean tackling both the absurdities of some Orthodox practice (my candidate for a quick win would be the second day of the holidays) while deepening knowledge of Hebrew, Jewish literature, and respect for traditional practice in the less observant community. The most serious issue is conversion: Without some accommodation by both sides—modifying Orthodoxy’s absurd restrictiveness on the one hand, without succumbing to laxity on the other—the Jewish community in the United States will continue to shrink, and to miss a demographic opportunity.
The Jews are peculiar, because they are a people and a faith, an ethnicity and, as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik often put it, a covenantal community. Today, they are hemmed in, to some extent, by ossified institutions and habits of thought across the spectrum of observance. They are, as they have ever been, vulnerable to mere indifference about the deeper meaning of their pact with the Almighty. But I do not for a moment doubt that 50 years hence, the Jews, having survived for this long, will, with their perseverance and genius for creativity and the help of Providence, find a way.
Eliot A. Cohen is professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
Many years ago, Irving Kristol gave a lecture in Jerusalem on the “political stupidity of the Jews,” whom he accused of being misguidedly committed to economic socialism and naive internationalism. His solution: Jews need to go to school with Thucydides to learn about the realities of power, with Adam Smith to learn about the nature of economic liberty, and with Edmund Burke to learn about the complex relationship between tradition and politics.
The Jewish tradition probably has more political wisdom to offer than Kristol acknowledged. But he was basically right in pointing to the need for a Jewish political reformation as the only route to Jewish success or even survival. That reformation, alas, has not yet come.
In the ultimate sense, the fate of the Jews is probably in divine hands. And the genius of rabbinic Judaism—both in perfecting the God-seeking moral life and in preserving the earthly Jewish community through exile—deserves the greatest respect. The heart and soul of Judaism remains the distinctively Jewish way of sanctifying sex and family, eating and time, welcoming into life and mourning in death. If Jews forget this, all is probably lost, and the struggle against the potential sources of Jewish demise, whether via destruction or assimilation, loses its deepest purpose.
But rabbinic Judaism has little to offer, alas, when it comes to the current political crisis of the Jews. And in the realm of politics, Jews seem pathologically silly, despite the fact that the creation of the Jewish state is arguably the most impressive political founding of the past century. In America, Jewish liberalism is an old story, and in Israel the polity seems to oscillate between triviality and crisis management with a leadership deficit that should frighten us.
So what would political success look like in the decades ahead, and what would a bright future for the Jewish community look like 50 years hence?
In America, Jews should be focused on promoting school vouchers, the only hope for expanding the day-school movement and unleashing a new generation of Jewish educational entrepreneurship; on fighting to defend religious liberty, the only hope for ensuring that traditional Jewish beliefs and institutions are not marginalized by a hostile secularist culture; and on electing political conservatives, the only ones who still believe that Jewish nationalism is a noble cause and that American power is necessary to preserve decency and order in the troubled Middle East.
Yet whatever we might achieve in America, the fate of the Jews will probably depend on the fate of the Zionist project. And in Israel, we must acknowledge a very hard truth: Even the greatest Israeli political leaders, even an Israeli polity with otherworldly political courage, even the strengthening of the already impressive Israeli military force—all that might not be enough. Navigating a nuclear Middle East, as a tiny and hated nation, might simply be impossible.
But it is sinful, especially in politics, to give in to despair. And so what is needed, instead, is the birth of a true Israeli conservatism and a reinvigoration of Jewish nationalism. This means fighting preemptive wars to clean up the neighborhood, ideally before the Iranian nuclear umbrella is built; reforming, in a dramatic way, the Israeli economy, which is bogged down by regulation, high taxes, and the legacy of a socialist ideology that nearly every Israeli knows doesn’t work but feels obliged to support; promoting conversion for those who seek to tie their fights to the Jewish people; and doing everything possible to facilitate a mass exodus of Jews from Europe to Zion, where they will live or die with the dignity of national self-respect.
Horrible as it is to say, war in the past century has been good for the Jews: victory in World War II, rather than being slaughtered by the Nazis; victory in 1948, when a new state was born; and victory in 1967, when Jerusalem was retaken. Jews have fought bravely and reaped their just rewards. Yet the kinds of wars that might be required to establish some measure of peace in the Middle East over the next 50 years will probably require America’s moral will and military might. On the other side of those wars, I hope for a million circumcisions, and an eternity of children dancing with Torahs, and the restoration of Jewish holiness in the holy land. This is too much to expect in a mere 50 years, but one hopes that by then all hope will not be lost.
Steven M. Cohen
The past 50 years, as seen in 2065:
In September 2011, during the run-up to the Israeli elections, political newcomer Yair Lapid generated a good bit of favorable attention by informing Haredi higher-education students that their sector had “won” and secular Jews had lost:
We lost and you won. It’s a fresh victory, just a few years old, but it’s already here. And the initial significance of this victory is that we, the secular Jews, have to admit that our vision, the vision of a state that we run without you and in which you’re only guests, was a failure.
Just two years later, the Pew Research Center’s Portrait of Jewish Americans 2013 delivered essentially the same message vis à vis American Jews. Demographically, if not in other ways, Orthodoxy was in ascendance while other American Jews were poised for decline. At the time, Orthodox Jews made up only 10 percent of American Jewish adults but as many as 27 percent of Jewish children and 35 percent of Jews younger than five. In New York City, a 2011 study showed that three-quarters of Jewish children were Orthodox.
Among the non-Orthodox, non-marriage, late marriage, intermarriage (running about 80 percent among Reform-raised Jews), and low birthrates (an average of 1.7 births per woman) were working to diminish their numbers in coming generations.
At the same time, ever-expanding Israeli settlement in the West Bank, ongoing friction with the Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, and even Israel proper, combined with the turmoil in the Middle East, all worked to perpetuate the occupation and make withdrawal from the West Bank undesirable, if not unthinkable, to the increasingly nationalist and beleaguered Israeli public. In the years to come, Israel would be militarily strong enough to ensure its security, but its ceaseless rule over another indigenous people would provoke isolation from much of Europe and condemnation by liberal sectors in the United States. Commercially, Israel would increasingly rely upon China, India, and a host of nondemocratic states.
The demographic forces in the United States and the rest of the Diaspora combined with the political dynamics related to Israel increasingly alienated erstwhile liberal Jews from Jews, Judaism, Israel, and other things Jewish. Either culturally liberal Jews produced few, if any, Jewish grandchildren, or the small numbers who were born Jewish saw a Jewish community with which they could not engage, and an Israel which they did not love. And those who tried to participate were in effect driven out by conservatives who relentlessly and repeatedly accused liberals of…naiveté, disloyalty, subversion, transgression. Where few, if any, liberal Jews sought to prevent their conservative counterparts from participating in Jewish life or questioned their Jewish bona fides, quite the opposite is true of the way conservatives often (typically?) relate to Jewish liberals.
While liberals constituted half the American Jewish population in 2015, and their counterparts were sufficiently numerous to make the 2015 elections in Israel something of a horse race, the political divisions in 2065 became lopsidedly conservative—in both countries and even around the world. Not only had conservatives expanded their numbers, Jewish liberals and their descendants essentially dropped out of the Jewish population or, in like fashion, emigrated in droves from a more and more militant and theocratic Israel in which Haredim, ultra-nationalists, and wealthy plutocrats increasingly asserted their values, interests, and agendas.
The summary above is offered more as a cautionary tale than a confident prediction. It presents an extreme version of a reasonable worst-case scenario that builds upon and extends current and genuine socio-demographic, religious, cultural, and political trends in Israel and the United States.
George Santayana is thought to have said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Similarly, those who cannot anticipate a tragic future and work to counteract it are doomed to confront it.
Steven M. Cohen is research professor at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion and director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at Stanford University.
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The Jewish Future, Part 1
Must-Reads from Magazine
Terror is a choice.
Ari Fuld described himself on Twitter as a marketer and social media consultant “when not defending Israel by exposing the lies and strengthening the truth.” On Sunday, a Palestinian terrorist stabbed Fuld at a shopping mall in Gush Etzion, a settlement south of Jerusalem. The Queens-born father of four died from his wounds, but not before he chased down his assailant and neutralized the threat to other civilians. Fuld thus gave the full measure of devotion to the Jewish people he loved. He was 45.
The episode is a grim reminder of the wisdom and essential justice of the Trump administration’s tough stance on the Palestinians.
Start with the Taylor Force Act. The act, named for another U.S. citizen felled by Palestinian terror, stanched the flow of American taxpayer fund to the Palestinian Authority’s civilian programs. Though it is small consolation to Fuld’s family, Americans can breathe a sigh of relief that they are no longer underwriting the PA slush fund used to pay stipends to the family members of dead, imprisoned, or injured terrorists, like the one who murdered Ari Fuld.
No principle of justice or sound statesmanship requires Washington to spend $200 million—the amount of PA aid funding slashed by the Trump administration last month—on an agency that financially induces the Palestinian people to commit acts of terror. The PA’s terrorism-incentive budget—“pay-to-slay,” as Douglas Feith called it—ranges from $50 million to $350 million annually. Footing even a fraction of that bill is tantamount to the American government subsidizing terrorism against its citizens.
If we don’t pay the Palestinians, the main line of reasoning runs, frustration will lead them to commit still more and bloodier acts of terror. But U.S. assistance to the PA dates to the PA’s founding in the Oslo Accords, and Palestinian terrorists have shed American and Israeli blood through all the years since then. What does it say about Palestinian leaders that they would unleash more terror unless we cross their palms with silver?
President Trump likewise deserves praise for booting Palestinian diplomats from U.S. soil. This past weekend, the State Department revoked a visa for Husam Zomlot, the highest-ranking Palestinian official in Washington. The State Department cited the Palestinians’ years-long refusal to sit down for peace talks with Israel. The better reason for expelling them is that the label “envoy” sits uneasily next to the names of Palestinian officials, given the links between the Palestine Liberation Organization, President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction, and various armed terrorist groups.
Fatah, for example, praised the Fuld murder. As the Jerusalem Post reported, the “al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the military wing of Fatah . . . welcomed the attack, stressing the necessity of resistance ‘against settlements, Judaization of the land, and occupation crimes.’” It is up to Palestinian leaders to decide whether they want to be terrorists or statesmen. Pretending that they can be both at once was the height of Western folly, as Ari Fuld no doubt recognized.
May his memory be a blessing.
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The end of the water's edge.
It was the blatant subversion of the president’s sole authority to conduct American foreign policy, and the political class received it with fury. It was called “mutinous,” and the conspirators were deemed “traitors” to the Republic. Those who thought “sedition” went too far were still incensed over the breach of protocol and the reckless way in which the president’s mandate was undermined. Yes, times have certainly changed since 2015, when a series of Republican senators signed a letter warning Iran’s theocratic government that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (aka, the Iran nuclear deal) was built on a foundation of sand.
The outrage that was heaped upon Senate Republicans for freelancing on foreign policy in the final years of Barack Obama’s administration has not been visited upon former Secretary of State John Kerry, though he arguably deserves it. In the publicity tour for his recently published memoir, Kerry confessed to conducting meetings with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif “three or four times” as a private citizen. When asked by Fox News Channel’s Dana Perino if Kerry had advised his Iranian interlocutor to “wait out” the Trump administration to get a better set of terms from the president’s successor, Kerry did not deny the charge. “I think everybody in the world is sitting around talking about waiting out President Trump,” he said.
Think about that. This is a former secretary of state who all but confirmed that he is actively conducting what the Boston Globe described in May as “shadow diplomacy” designed to preserve not just the Iran deal but all the associated economic relief and security guarantees it provided Tehran. The abrogation of that deal has put new pressure on the Iranians to liberalize domestically, withdraw their support for terrorism, and abandon their provocative weapons development programs—pressures that the deal’s proponents once supported.
“We’ve got Iran on the ropes now,” said former Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, “and a meeting between John Kerry and the Iranian foreign minister really sends a message to them that somebody in America who’s important may be trying to revive them and let them wait and be stronger against what the administration is trying to do.” This is absolutely correct because the threat Iran poses to American national security and geopolitical stability is not limited to its nuclear program. The Iranian threat will not be neutralized until it abandons its support for terror and the repression of its people, and that will not end until the Iranian regime is no more.
While Kerry’s decision to hold a variety of meetings with a representative of a nation hostile to U.S. interests is surely careless and unhelpful, it is not uncommon. During his 1984 campaign for the presidency, Jesse Jackson visited the Soviet Union and Cuba to raise his own public profile and lend credence to Democratic claims that Ronald Reagan’s confrontational foreign policy was unproductive. House Speaker Jim Wright’s trip to Nicaragua to meet with the Sandinista government was a direct repudiation of the Reagan administration’s support for the country’s anti-Communist rebels. In 2007, as Bashar al-Assad’s government was providing material support for the insurgency in Iraq, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sojourned to Damascus to shower the genocidal dictator in good publicity. “The road to Damascus is a road to peace,” Pelosi insisted. “Unfortunately,” replied George W. Bush’s national security council spokesman, “that road is lined with the victims of Hamas and Hezbollah, the victims of terrorists who cross from Syria into Iraq.”
Honest observers must reluctantly conclude that the adage is wrong. American politics does not, in fact, stop at the water’s edge. It never has, and maybe it shouldn’t. Though it may be commonplace, American political actors who contradict the president in the conduct of their own foreign policy should be judged on the policies they are advocating. In the case of Iran, those who seek to convince the mullahs and their representatives that repressive theocracy and a terroristic foreign policy are dead-ends are advancing the interests not just of the United States but all mankind. Those who provide this hopelessly backward autocracy with the hope that America’s resolve is fleeting are, as John Kerry might say, on “the wrong side of history.”
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Michael Wolff is its Marquis de Sade. Released on January 5, 2018, Wolff’s Fire and Fury became a template for authors eager to satiate the growing demand for unverified stories of Trump at his worst. Wolff filled his pages with tales of the president’s ignorant rants, his raging emotions, his television addiction, his fast-food diet, his unfamiliarity with and contempt for Beltway conventions and manners. Wolff made shocking insinuations about Trump’s mental state, not to mention his relationship with UN ambassador Nikki Haley. Wolff’s Trump is nothing more than a knave, dunce, and commedia dell’arte villain. The hero of his saga is, bizarrely, Steve Bannon, who in Wolff’s telling recognized Trump’s inadequacies, manipulated him to advance a nationalist-populist agenda, and tried to block his worst impulses.
Wolff’s sources are anonymous. That did not slow down the press from calling his accusations “mind-blowing” (Mashable.com), “wild” (Variety), and “bizarre” (Entertainment Weekly). Unlike most pornographers, he had a lesson in mind. He wanted to demonstrate Trump’s unfitness for office. “The story that I’ve told seems to present this presidency in such a way that it says that he can’t do this job, the emperor has no clothes,” Wolff told the BBC. “And suddenly everywhere people are going, ‘Oh, my God, it’s true—he has no clothes.’ That’s the background to the perception and the understanding that will finally end this, that will end this presidency.”
Nothing excites the Resistance more than the prospect of Trump leaving office before the end of his term. Hence the most stirring examples of Resistance Porn take the president’s all-too-real weaknesses and eccentricities and imbue them with apocalyptic significance. In what would become the standard response to accusations of Trumpian perfidy, reviewers of Fire and Fury were less interested in the truth of Wolff’s assertions than in the fact that his argument confirmed their preexisting biases.
Saying he agreed with President Trump that the book is “fiction,” the Guardian’s critic didn’t “doubt its overall veracity.” It was, he said, “what Mailer and Capote once called a nonfiction novel.” Writing in the Atlantic, Adam Kirsch asked: “No wonder, then, Wolff has written a self-conscious, untrustworthy, postmodern White House book. How else, he might argue, can you write about a group as self-conscious, untrustworthy, and postmodern as this crew?” Complaining in the New Yorker, Masha Gessen said Wolff broke no new ground: “Everybody” knew that the “president of the United States is a deranged liar who surrounded himself with sycophants. He is also functionally illiterate and intellectually unsound.” Remind me never to get on Gessen’s bad side.
What Fire and Fury lacked in journalistic ethics, it made up in receipts. By the third week of its release, Wolff’s book had sold more than 1.7 million copies. His talent for spinning second- and third-hand accounts of the president’s oddity and depravity into bestselling prose was unmistakable. Imitators were sure to follow, especially after Wolff alienated himself from the mainstream media by defending his innuendos about Haley.
It was during the first week of September that Resistance Porn became a competitive industry. On the afternoon of September 4, the first tidbits from Bob Woodward’s Fear appeared in the Washington Post, along with a recording of an 11-minute phone call between Trump and the white knight of Watergate. The opposition began panting soon after. Woodward, who like Wolff relies on anonymous sources, “paints a harrowing portrait” of the Trump White House, reported the Post.
No one looks good in Woodward’s telling other than former economics adviser Gary Cohn and—again bizarrely—the former White House staff secretary who was forced to resign after his two ex-wives accused him of domestic violence. The depiction of chaos, backstabbing, and mutual contempt between the president and high-level advisers who don’t much care for either his agenda or his personality was not so different from Wolff’s. What gave it added heft was Woodward’s status, his inviolable reputation.
“Nothing in Bob Woodward’s sober and grainy new book…is especially surprising,” wrote Dwight Garner at the New York Times. That was the point. The audience for Wolff and Woodward does not want to be surprised. Fear is not a book that will change minds. Nor is it intended to be. “Bob Woodward’s peek behind the Trump curtain is 100 percent as terrifying as we feared,” read a CNN headline. “President Trump is unfit for office. Bob Woodward’s ‘Fear’ confirms it,” read an op-ed headline in the Post. “There’s Always a New Low for the Trump White House,” said the Atlantic. “Amazingly,” wrote Susan Glasser in the New Yorker, “it is no longer big news when the occupant of the Oval Office is shown to be callous, ignorant, nasty, and untruthful.” How could it be, when the press has emphasized nothing but these aspects of Trump for the last three years?
The popular fixation with Trump the man, and with the turbulence, mania, frenzy, confusion, silliness, and unpredictability that have surrounded him for decades, serves two functions. It inoculates the press from having to engage in serious research into the causes of Trump’s success in business, entertainment, and politics, and into the crises of borders, opioids, stagnation, and conformity of opinion that occasioned his rise. Resistance Porn also endows Trump’s critics, both external and internal, with world-historical importance. No longer are they merely journalists, wonks, pundits, and activists sniping at a most unlikely president. They are politically correct versions of Charles Martel, the last line of defense preventing Trump the barbarian from enacting the policies on which he campaigned and was elected.
How closely their sensational claims and inflated self-conceptions track with reality is largely beside the point. When the New York Times published the op-ed “I am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” by an anonymous “senior official” on September 5, few readers bothered to care that the piece contained no original material. The author turned policy disagreements over trade and national security into a psychiatric diagnosis. In what can only be described as a journalistic innovation, the author dispensed with middlemen such as Wolff and Woodward, providing the Times the longest background quote in American history. That the author’s identity remains a secret only adds to its prurient appeal.
“The bigger concern,” the author wrote, “is not what Mr. Trump has done to the presidency but what we as a nation have allowed him to do to us.” Speak for yourself, bud. What President Trump has done to the Resistance is driven it batty. He’s made an untold number of people willing to entertain conspiracy theories, and to believe rumor is fact, hyperbole is truth, self-interested portrayals are incontrovertible evidence, credulity is virtue, and betrayal is fidelity—so long as all of this is done to stop that man in the White House.
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Review of 'Stanley Kubrick' By Nathan Abrams
Except for Stanley Donen, every director I have worked with has been prone to the idea, first propounded in the 1950s by François Truffaut and his tendentious chums in Cahiers du Cinéma, that directors alone are authors, screenwriters merely contingent. In singular cases—Orson Welles, Michelangelo Antonioni, Woody Allen, Kubrick himself—the claim can be valid, though all of them had recourse, regular or occasional, to helping hands to spice their confections.
Kubrick’s variety of topics, themes, and periods testifies both to his curiosity and to his determination to “make it new.” Because his grades were not high enough (except in physics), this son of a Bronx doctor could not get into colleges crammed with returning GIs. The nearest he came to higher education was when he slipped into accessible lectures at Columbia. He told me, when discussing the possibility of a movie about Julius Caesar, that the great classicist Moses Hadas made a particularly strong impression.
While others were studying for degrees, solitary Stanley was out shooting photographs (sometimes with a hidden camera) for Look magazine. As a movie director, he often insisted on take after take. This gave him choices of the kind available on the still photographer’s contact sheets. Only Peter Sellers and Jack Nicholson had the nerve, and irreplaceable talent, to tell him, ahead of shooting, that they could not do a particular scene more than two or three times. The energy to electrify “Mein Führer, I can walk” and “Here’s Johnny!” could not recur indefinitely. For everyone else, “Can you do it again?” was the exhausting demand, and it could come close to being sadistic.
The same method could be applied to writers. Kubrick might recognize what he wanted when it was served up to him, but he could never articulate, ahead of time, even roughly what it was. Picking and choosing was very much his style. Cogitation and opportunism went together: The story goes that he attached Strauss’s Blue Danube to the opening sequence of 2001 because it happened to be playing in the sound studio when he came to dub the music. Genius puts chance to work.
Until academics intruded lofty criteria into cinema/film, the better to dignify their speciality, Alfred Hitchcock’s attitude covered most cases: When Ingrid Bergman asked for her motivation in walking to the window, Hitch replied, fatly, “Your salary.” On another occasion, told that some scene was not plausible, Hitch said, “It’s only a movie.” He did not take himself seriously until the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd elected to make him iconic. At dinner, I once asked Marcello Mastroianni why he was so willing to play losers or clowns. Marcello said, “Beh, cinema non e gran’ cosa” (cinema is no big deal). Orson Welles called movie-making the ultimate model-train set.
That was then; now we have “film studies.” After they moved in, academics were determined that their subject be a very big deal indeed. Comedy became no laughing matter. In his monotonous new book, the film scholar Nathan Abrams would have it that Stanley Kubrick was, in essence, a “New York Jewish intellectual.” Abrams affects to unlock what Stanley was “really” dealing with, in all his movies, never mind their apparent diversity. It is declared to be, yes, Yiddishkeit, and in particular, the Holocaust. This ground has been tilled before by Geoffrey Cocks, when he argued that the room numbers in the empty Overlook Hotel in The Shining encrypted references to the Final Solution. Abrams would have it that even Barry Lyndon is really all about the outsider seeking, and failing, to make his awkward way in (Gentile) Society. On this reading, Ryan O’Neal is seen as Hannah Arendt’s pariah in 18th-century drag. The movie’s other characters are all engaged in the enjoyment of “goyim-naches,” an expression—like menschlichkayit—he repeats ad nauseam, lest we fail to get the stretched point.
Theory is all when it comes to the apotheosis of our Jew-ridden Übermensch. So what if, in order to make a topic his own, Kubrick found it useful to translate its logic into terms familiar to him from his New York youth? In Abrams’s scheme, other mundane biographical facts count for little. No mention is made of Stanley’s displeasure when his 14-year-old daughter took a fancy to O’Neal. The latter was punished, some sources say, by having Barry’s voiceover converted from first person so that Michael Hordern would displace the star as narrator. By lending dispassionate irony to the narrative, it proved a pettish fluke of genius.
While conning Abrams’s volume, I discovered, not greatly to my chagrin, that I am the sole villain of the piece. Abrams calls me “self-serving” and “unreliable” in my accounts of my working and personal relationship with Stanley. He insinuates that I had less to do with Eyes Wide Shut than I pretend and that Stanley regretted my involvement. It is hard for him to deny (but convenient to omit) that, after trying for some 30 years to get a succession of writers to “crack” how to do Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, Kubrick greeted my first draft with “I’m absolutely thrilled.” A source whose anonymity I respect told me that he had never seen Stanley so happy since the day he received his first royalty check (for $5 million) for 2001. No matter.
Were Abrams (the author also of a book as hostile to Commentary as this one is to me) able to put aside his waxed wrath, he might have quoted what I reported in my memoir Eyes Wide Open to support his Jewish-intellectual thesis. One day, Stanley asked me what a couple of hospital doctors, walking away with their backs to the camera, would be talking about. We were never going to hear or care what it was, but Stanley—at that early stage of development—said he wanted to know everything. I said, “Women, golf, the stock market, you know…”
“Couple of Gentiles, right?”
“That’s what you said you wanted them to be.”
“Those people, how do we ever know what they’re talking about when they’re alone together?”
“Come on, Stanley, haven’t you overheard them in trains and planes and places?”
Kubrick said, “Sure, but…they always know you’re there.”
If he was even halfway serious, Abrams’s banal thesis that, despite decades of living in England, Stanley never escaped the Old Country, might have been given some ballast.
Now, as for Stanley Kubrick’s being an “intellectual.” If this implies membership in some literary or quasi-philosophical elite, there’s a Jewish joke to dispense with it. It’s the one about the man who makes a fortune, buys himself a fancy yacht, and invites his mother to come and see it. He greets her on the gangway in full nautical rig. She says, “What’s with the gold braid already?”
“Mama, you have to realize, I’m a captain now.”
She says, “By you, you’re a captain, by me, you’re a captain, but by a captain, are you a captain?”
As New York intellectuals all used to know, Karl Popper’s definition of bad science, and bad faith, involves positing a theory and then selecting only whatever data help to furnish its validity. The honest scholar makes it a matter of principle to seek out elements that might render his thesis questionable.
Abrams seeks to enroll Lolita in his obsessive Jewish-intellectual scheme by referring to Peter Arno, a New Yorker cartoonist whom Kubrick photographed in 1949. The caption attached to Kubrick’s photograph in Look asserted that Arno liked to date “fresh, unspoiled girls,” and Abrams says this “hint[s] at Humbert Humbert in Lolita.” Ah, but Lolita was published, in Paris, in 1955, six years later. And how likely is it, in any case, that Kubrick wrote the caption?
The film of Lolita is unusual for its garrulity. Abrams’s insistence on the sinister Semitic aspect of both Clare Quilty and Humbert Humbert supposedly drawing Kubrick like moth to flame is a ridiculous camouflage of the commercial opportunism that led Stanley to seek to film the most notorious novel of the day, while fudging its scandalous eroticism.
That said, in my view, The Killing, Paths of Glory, Barry Lyndon, and Clockwork Orange were and are sans pareil. The great French poet Paul Valéry wrote of “the profundity of the surface” of a work of art. Add D.H. Lawrence’s “never trust the teller, trust the tale,” and you have two authoritative reasons for looking at or reading original works of art yourself and not relying on academic exegetes—especially when they write in the solemn, sometimes ungrammatical style of Professor Abrams, who takes time out to tell those of us at the back of his class that padre “is derived from the Latin pater.”
Abrams writes that I “claim” that I was told to exclude all overt reference to Jews in my Eyes Wide Shut screenplay, with the fatuous implication that I am lying. I am again accused of “claiming” to have given the name Ziegler to the character played by Sidney Pollack, because I once had a (quite famous) Hollywood agent called Evarts Ziegler. So I did. The principal reason for Abrams to doubt my veracity is that my having chosen the name renders irrelevant his subsequent fanciful digression on the deep, deep meanings of the name Ziegler in Jewish lore; hence he wishes to assign the naming to Kubrick. Pop goes another wished-for proof of Stanley’s deep and scholarly obsession with Yiddishkeit.
Abrams would be a more formidable enemy if he could turn a single witty phrase or even abstain from what Karl Kraus called mauscheln, the giveaway jargon of Jewish journalists straining to pass for sophisticates at home in Gentile circles. If you choose, you can apply, on line, for screenwriting lessons from Nathan Abrams, who does not have a single cinematic credit to his name. It would be cheaper, and wiser, to look again, and then again, at Kubrick’s masterpieces.
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Is American opera in terminal condition?
At the Met, distinguished singers and conductors, mostly born and trained in Europe, appeared in theatrically conservative big-budget productions of the popular operas of the 19th century, with a sprinkling of pre-romantic and modern works thrown in to leaven the loaf. City Opera, by contrast, presented younger artists—many, like Beverly Sills, born in this country—in a wider-ranging, more adventurously staged repertoire that often included new operas, some of them written by American composers, to which the public was admitted at what were then called “popular prices.”
Between them, the companies represented a feast for culture-consuming New Yorkers, though complaints were already being heard that their new theaters were too big. Moreover, neither the Met nor City Opera was having any luck at commissioning memorable new operas and thereby expanding and refreshing the operatic repertoire, to which only a handful of significant new works—none of them, then or since, premiered by either company—had been added since World War I.
A half-century later, the feast has turned to famine. In 2011, New York City Opera left Lincoln Center, declaring bankruptcy. It closed its doors forever two years later. The Met has weathered a nearly uninterrupted string of crises that climaxed earlier this year with the firing of James Levine, the company’s once-celebrated music director emeritus. He was accused in 2017 of molesting teenage musicians and was dismissed from all of his conducting posts in New York and elsewhere. Today the Met is in dire financial straits that threaten its long-term survival.
And while newer opera companies in such other American cities as Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, Santa Fe, and Seattle now offer alternative models of leadership, none has established itself as a potential successor either to the Met or the now-defunct NYCO.1
Is American opera as a whole in a terminal condition? Or are the collapse of the New York City Opera and the Met’s ongoing struggle to survive purely local matters of no relevance elsewhere? Heidi Waleson addresses these questions in Mad Scenes and Exit Arias: The Death of the New York City Opera and the Future of Opera in America.2 Waleson draws on her experience as the opera critic of the Wall Street Journal to speculate on the prospects for an art form that has never quite managed to set down firm roots in American culture.
In this richly informative chronicle of NYCO’s decline and fall, Waleson persuasively argues that what happened to City Opera (and, by extension, the Met) could happen to other opera companies as well. The days in which an ambitious community sought successfully to elevate itself into the first rank of world cities by building and manning an opera house are long past, and Mad Scenes and Exit Arias helps us understand why.As Waleson reminds us, it was Fiorello LaGuardia, the New York mayor who played a central role in the creation of the NYCO, who dubbed the company “the people’s opera” when it was founded in 1943. According to LaGuardia, NYCO existed to perform popular operas at popular prices for a mass audience. In later years, it moved away from that goal, but the slogan stuck. Indeed, no opera company has ever formulated a clearer statement of its institutional mission.
Even after it moved to Lincoln Center in 1966, NYCO had an equally coherent and similarly appealing purpose: It was where you went to see the opera stars of tomorrow, foremost among them Sills and Plácido Domingo, in inexpensively but imaginatively staged productions of the classics. The company went out of its way to present modern operas, too, but it never did so at the expense of its central repertoire—and tickets to its performances cost half of what the Met charged. Well into the 21st century, City Opera stuck more or less closely to its redefined mission. Under Paul Kellogg, the general and artistic director from 1996 to 2007, it did so with consistent artistic success. But revenues declined throughout the latter part of Kellogg’s tenure, in part because younger New Yorkers were unwilling to become subscribers.
In those days, the Metropolitan Opera, NYCO’s next-door neighbor, was still one of the world’s most conservative opera houses. That changed when Peter Gelb became its general manager in 2006. Gelb was resolved to modernize the Met’s productions and, to a lesser extent, its repertoire, and he simultaneously sought to heighten its national profile by digitally simulcasting live performances into movie theaters throughout America.
Kellogg was frustrated by the chronic acoustic inadequacies of the New York State Theater and sought in vain to move City Opera to a three-theater complex that was to be built (but never was) on the World Trade Center site. He retired soon after Gelb came to the Met. Kellogg was succeeded by Gérard Mortier, a European impresario who was accustomed to working in state-subsidized theaters. Mortier made a pair of fateful decisions. First, he canceled City Opera’s entire 2008–2009 season while the interior of the State Theater underwent much-needed renovations. Then he announced a follow-up season of 20th-century operas that lacked audience appeal.
That follow-up season never happened, because Mortier resigned in 2008 and fled New York. He was replaced by George Steel, who had previously served for just three months as general manager of the Dallas Opera. Under Steel, NYCO slashed its schedule to ribbons in a futile attempt to get back on its financial feet after Mortier’s financially ruinous year-long hiatus. Then he mounted a series of productions of nonstandard repertory that received mixed reviews and flopped at the box office.
The combined effect of Gelb’s innovations and the inept leadership of Mortier and Steel all but obliterated City Opera’s reason for existing. Under Gelb, the Met’s repertory ranged from such warhorses as Rigoletto and Tosca to 20th-century masterpieces like Benjamin Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, and tickets could be bought for as little as $20. With the Met performing a more interesting repertoire under a wider range of directors, and in part at “people’s prices,” City Opera no longer did anything that the Met wasn’t already doing on a far larger and better-financed scale. What, then, was its mission now? The truth was that it had none, and when the company went under in 2013, few mourned its passing.
As it happened, Gelb’s own innovations were a mere artistic Band-aid, for he was unwilling or unable to trim the Met’s bloated budget to any meaningful extent. He made no serious attempt to cut the company’s labor costs until a budget crisis in 2014 forced him to confront its unions, which he did with limited success. In addition, his new productions of the standard-repertory operas on which the Met relied to draw and hold older subscribers were felt by many to be trashily trendy.
The Met had particular difficulty managing the reduced circumstances of the 21st century when it came to opera. Its 3,800-seat theater has an 80-foot-deep stage with a proscenium opening that measures 54 feet on each side. (Bayreuth, by contrast, seats 1,925, La Scala 2,030, and the Vienna State Opera 2,200.) As a result, it is all but impossible to mount low-to-medium-budget shows in the Metropolitan Opera House, even as the company finds it is no longer able to fill its increasingly empty house. Two decades ago, the Met earned 90 percent of its potential box-office revenue. That figure plummeted to 66 percent by 2015, forcing Gelb to raise ticket prices to an average of $158.50 per head. On Broadway, the average price of a ticket that season was $103.86.
Above all, Gelb was swimming against the cultural tide. Asked about the effects on audience development of the Met simulcasts, he admitted that three-quarters of the people who attended them were “over 65, and 30 percent of them are over 75.” As he explained: “Grand opera is in itself a kind of a dinosaur of an art form…. The question is not whether I think I’m doing a good job or not in trying to keep the [Metropolitan Opera] alive. It’s whether I’m doing a good job or not in the face of a cultural and social rejection of opera as an art form. And what I’m doing is fighting an uphill battle to try and maintain an audience in a very difficult time.”
Was that statement buck-passing defeatism, or a fair appraisal of the state of American opera? Other opera executives distanced themselves from Gelb’s remarks, and it was true—and still is—that smaller American companies have done a somewhat better job of attracting younger audiences than the top-heavy Met. But according to the National Endowment for the Arts, the percentage of U.S. adults who attend at least one operatic performance each year declined from 3.2 percent in 2002 to 2.1 percent in 2012. This problem, of course, is not limited to opera. As I wrote in these pages in 2010, the disappearance of secondary-school arts education and the rise of digital media may well be leading to “not merely a decline in public interest in the fine arts but the death of the live audience as a cultural phenomenon.”3D oes American opera have a future in an era of what Heidi Waleson succinctly describes as “flat ticket income and rising expenses”? In the last chapter of Mad Scenes and Exit Arias, she chronicles the activities of a group of innovative smaller troupes that are “rethinking what an opera company is, what it does, and who it serves.” Yet in the same breath, she acknowledges the possibility that “filling a giant theater for multiple productions of grand operas [is] no longer an achievable goal.”
If that is so, then it may be worth asking a different question: Did American opera ever have a past? It is true that opera in America has had a great and glorious history, but virtually the whole of that history consisted of American productions of 18th- and 19th-century European operas. By contrast, no opera by an American classical composer has ever entered the international major-house repertoire. Indeed, while new American operas are still commissioned and premiered at an impressive rate, few things are so rare as a second production of any of these works.
While a handful continue to be performed—John Adams’s Nixon in China (1987), André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1995), Mark Adamo’s Little Women (1998), and Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking (2000)—their success is a tribute to the familiarity of their subject matter and source material, not their musico-theatrical quality. As for the rest, the hard but inescapable truth is that with the exception of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935), virtually all large-scale American operas have been purpose-written novelties that were shelved and forgotten immediately after their premieres.
The success of Porgy and Bess, which received its premiere not in an opera house but on Broadway, reminds us that American musical comedy, unlike American opera, is deeply rooted in our national culture, in much the same way that grand opera is no less deeply rooted in the national cultures of Germany and Italy, where it is still genuinely popular (if less so today than a half-century ago). By comparison with Porgy, Carousel, Guys and Dolls, or My Fair Lady, American opera as a homegrown form simply does not exist: It is merely an obscure offshoot of its European counterpart. Aaron Copland, America’s greatest composer, was not really joking when he wittily described opera as “la forme fatale,” and his own failed attempts to compose an audience-friendly opera that would be as successful as his folk-flavored ballet scores say much about the difficulties facing any composer who seeks to follow in his footsteps.
It is not that grand opera is incapable of appealing to American theatergoers. Even now, there are many Americans who love it passionately, just as there are regional companies such as Chicago’s Lyric Opera and San Francisco Opera that have avoided making the mistakes that closed City Opera’s doors. Yet the crises from which the Metropolitan Opera has so far failed to extricate itself suggest that in the absence of the generous state subsidies that keep European opera houses in business, large-house grand opera in America may simply be too expensive to thrive—or, ultimately, to survive. At its best, no art form is more thrilling or seductive. But none is at greater risk of following the dinosaurs down the cold road to extinction.
1 The “New York City Opera” founded in 2016 that now mounts operas in various New York theaters on an ad hoc basis is a brand-new enterprise that has no connection with its predecessor.
2 Metropolitan Books, 304 pages