Scenario 1. The year is 2050. Jews have left Europe. So dangerous did it become to wear signs of Jewishness or express support for Israel in public that Jews quietly decided to leave. A hundred years after the Holocaust, Europe became Judenrein after all. In the United States the only significant group of Jews are the ultra-Orthodox. Outside Orthodoxy, outmarriage and disaffiliation rates became so high that the rest of Jewry became the new lost 10 tribes. In Israel, a beleaguered population clings grimly to life. Iran, having won its confrontation with the West, used its newfound wealth and legitimacy to surround Israel with proxy powers armed to the teeth, its nuclear arsenal the ultimate threat against any decisive response. Many Israelis left, knowing that you can find oranges and sunshine in Florida and California. You cannot bring up children under the shadow of fear.
Scenario 2. The year is 2050. Jews in Europe are flourishing. Europeans finally realized that the threat of radical Islam was not just to Jews and Israel but to freedom itself. They took action, and now Jews feel safe. In the United States, Jewish life is on the rise, leaders having decided to subsidize Jewish education and invest seriously in Jewish continuity. Israel, meanwhile, having made strategic alliances with Egypt and Saudi Arabia in the face of a nuclear Iran and apocalyptic Islamism, has finally found in the Middle East de facto acceptance if not de jure legitimacy.
Either scenario is possible. Jews make prophecies, not predictions. The difference is that if a prediction comes true, it has succeeded. If a prophecy has come true, it has failed. We don’t predict the future; we make the future. Ours is the world’s most compelling faith in free will.
What is unique about the present moment is that Jews currently enjoy a situation they have never experienced in 4,000 years of history. We have independence and sovereignty in Israel, alongside freedom and equality in the Diaspora. There were brief periods in the past when Jews had one or the other, but never both at the same time.
Today Jews have overachieved in every field except Judaism. The most striking findings of the Pew study from 2013 were that 94 percent of American Jews are proud to be Jews, while 48 percent of American Jews cannot read an aleph-bet.
Meanwhile in Israel many find the public face of Judaism deeply alienating. Israel itself, a nation of almost miraculous achievements, has lost much of the support it once enjoyed. Jews were once the world’s great storytellers. Today our enemies are better at telling their story than we are at telling ours.
Our ancestors had a dream that sustained them through 20 centuries of exile. One day they would create in the holy land a society of justice and compassion, maintaining the dignity of the individual and the sanctity of human life, where love of God translated into love of the neighbor and the stranger and religion itself was the prime driver of social justice and inclusion. They dreamed of inspiring the world by the simplicity and grace of Judaism as a way of life. It was a utopian vision, but the mere act of aspiring to it lifted our ancestors to spiritual, intellectual, and moral heights. Bounded in a nutshell, they counted themselves kings of infinite space.
That is the future that beckons us now. Yes, there is anti-Semitism, yes, there is Iran, and yes, we have enemies. But we outlived them all in the past and we will do so again in the future. In the meantime, every dream our ancestors once had is today within our grasp. What we need is the courage to be unashamedly ourselves, to educate our children in Judaic literacy, and to create in Israel a society of such moral force and spiritual generosity that it speaks to all those whose minds are still open. The time has come to honor the trust our ancestors had in us, that when we had the chance we would light the dark places of the world with the radiance of the faith for which they risked life itself. The sooner we begin, the better.
Jonathan D. Sarna
Nobody in 1945 would have predicted that, 70 years hence, the State of Israel would become a significant economic and military power home to more than 6.2 million Jews; that well over 90 percent of the world’s Jews would live in just five First World countries; that the Jewish population of Eastern Europe would drop significantly below 400,000; and that the fastest-growing Jewish religious movement in the world would be Chabad. Prophecies about Jews, 70 years ago and throughout history, have been notoriously prone to failure. In looking ahead, there is therefore every reason to be prudent. “Prophecy,” an old adage wisely warns, “is very difficult, especially about the future.”
With that in mind, what do I think will be the condition of the Jewish community 50 years from now?
First, the Jewish community will continue to consolidate at an unprecedented rate, so that instead of being a worldwide people, an am olam, spread “from one end of the world even unto the other,” Jews will become an overwhelmingly First World people, living primarily in Israel and North America. Already, some 93 percent of world Jewry lives in First World countries—those with advanced economies, worldwide influence, high standards of living, and abundant technology. Half of world Jewry actually lives in just five metropolitan areas: Tel Aviv, New York, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and Haifa. By 2065, I expect that almost all Jews will live in the First World, and as many as three-quarters of them will live close to one another, in a few sprawling metropolises.
The upside of consolidation is that Jews will be physically safer (there is security in numbers), and that it will be easier than ever for them to interact, learn from one another, and help one another. First World people, in addition, tend to share both common values and elements of a common culture. The downside is that Judaism will no longer be a world religion on par with Christianity and Islam. It will, at best, be a regional or First World religion. Those in the rest of the world—especially in Third World or so-called majority-world countries—will have no direct knowledge of Jews and Judaism at all. They will conjure up instead a mythical Judaism, and there will be no “Jews next-door” to set them aright.
Second, in 50 years, Judaism may well be experiencing a totally unexpected religious awakening. Every religious downturn since the 18th century, at least in America, has been followed by a “great awakening.” These cycles, historian William G. McLoughlin has explained, reflect the ebb and flow of culture: Periods of disruption (“crises of beliefs and values”) are followed by periods of reorientation and renewal. In our day, disruptive forces—new technologies, incendiary ideas, changing social mores, and the like—have plunged religion into a period of recession. Fifty years from now, if not sooner, the descendants of those who have intermarried and drifted off may be seeking to rediscover the spiritual heritage that their parents cast away. They will look to a renewed Judaism to provide them with meaning, order, and direction.
Jews in 2065, whatever their condition, will not likely be sanguine concerning the future of the Jewish community. Like so many before them, they will worry that theirs will be the last generation of Jews, that the Jewish community will disappear unless it changes. Paradoxically, the fear that Judaism might not survive will help ensure that it does.
Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History. His most recent book, with Benjamin Shapell, is Lincoln and the Jews: A History.
Jacob J. Schacter
The prominent Danish physicist Niels Bohr once said (or was it Yogi Berra or Casey Stengel?), “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” But, having been honored to receive an invitation to share my views about the Jewish future, I will proceed to do so, albeit with due diffidence and humility.
First, we should not under-appreciate the fact that there will be a Jewish community in 50 years. In spite of the fact that, throughout history, we have repeatedly faced demographic dispersion, political disintegration, economic dislocation, social alienation, psychological oppression, subtle as well as crude discrimination, and, at worst, brute physical annihilation, we have survived, and even flourished. This almost incomprehensible fact has confounded many throughout the centuries, some of whom have sought explanations for it. In the words of the 20th-century Russian political and religious writer Nikolai Berdyaev: “Indeed, according to the materialistic and positivist criterion, this people ought long ago to have perished. Its survival is a mysterious and wonderful phenomenon demonstrating that the life of this people is governed by a special predetermination.” Exactly what that is was made clear by Maimonides, who wrote: “We are in possession of the divine assurance that Israel is indestructible and imperishable, and will always continue to be a preeminent community.” And, in a most striking assertion, he continues: “As it is impossible for God to cease to exist, so is Israel’s destruction and disappearance from the world unthinkable.” We cannot take the survival of the Jewish people for granted. It defies logic. It is, simply, a gift from God.
But it is not for Klal Yisrael, the nation of Israel, that I am concerned. It is for “Reb Yisrael,” the individual Jew, that I am concerned, very concerned. What will that individual Jew who will still identify as a Jew in 50 years look like? I believe that only those for whom Jewishness is a central—if not the central—defining value of their lives will withstand the challenges of the most welcome and blessed freedom that Jews experience in America. Only those who are prepared to sacrifice for their Jewish identity—to pay (a lot) for day school and yeshiva education, to pay (a lot) to support schools, synagogues, mikvahs, and to live by the values they represent—will constitute the majority of Jews at the end of the next half-century.
The Torah (Exodus 34:29–30) informs us that when Moses came down from Mt. Sinai carrying the second set of tablets, he was endowed with a special radiance. In seeking the source for Moses’s radiance—and in providing for us a source for our own personal and national “radiance”—the Midrash (Yalkut Shim‘oni, Ki Tisa #406, end) writes that the tablets were six cubits long, roughly 21 inches. God, it continues, grasped on to the top two cubits and Moses grasped on to the bottom two cubits, and the radiance that emanated from Moses came from the middle two cubits. I understand this as follows: “Radiance,” or fulfillment, or optimism, for Moses—and for us—cannot come from the top two cubits held by God. They are too holy, too transcendent, too suffused with pure divinity, too otherworldly. It will also not come from the bottom two cubits; they are too earthly, too physical, and too mundane. Radiance and meaning for our lives will come from the middle two cubits only, the cubits that are neither heaven nor earth, that are, in fact, both heaven and earth. It will come from a sincere and serious effort to bring earth a bit closer to heaven and heaven a bit closer to earth, to extract ourselves from our physicality and strive to elevate ourselves to reach meaningful levels of spirituality and to grasp on to a piece of the divine and bring it a bit closer to us. For me this means living meaningful, serious Jewish lives, in practice and in spirit; this means deep and robust engagement with Torah and mitzvoth and hesed. Judaism will not survive for those who consider it a vague ethnic identity; it will survive for those who embrace it fully and passionately.
In the second half of his poem “Tourists,” the late Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai wrote:
Once I sat on the stairs at the gate of David’s Tower and put two heavy baskets next to me. A group of tourists stood there around their guide and I served as their orientation point. “You see that man with the baskets? A bit to the right of his head, there’s an arch from the Roman period. A bit to the right of his head.” But he moves, he moves!! I said to myself: redemption will come only when they are told: You see over there the arch from the Roman period? Never mind: but next to it, a bit to the left and lower, sits a man who bought fruit and vegetables for his home.
There is much wisdom here, of course, but I suggest that Amichai is wrong. At the end of the day, those who will constitute the Jewish people in 2065 will be those who recognize that both the “arch from the Roman period” (the tradition) and the “man who bought fruit and vegetables for his home” (the contemporary) need to be celebrated and affirmed.
Jacob J. Schacter is University Professor of Jewish History and Jewish Thought at Yeshiva University, where he is also a senior scholar at the Center for the Jewish Future.
The Jewish community is indeed experiencing the best of times and worst of times.
On one hand, the 2013 Pew study paints a picture of an American Jewish community in the throes of transformation: Jewish religious observance is on the decline, young Jews’ interest in traditional institutions is waning, and Israel’s standing within the Jewish community and on the world stage continues to face mounting challenges.
On the other, “Jewish” as a descriptor is on the upswing. Young Jews continue to identify as Jewish, even if “in name only,” and families of mixed faith are embracing their Jewish roots. A rapidly growing number of Jews, moreover, consider themselves to be a part of the Jewish people without devoting themselves to religious practices.
So what does this portend for the future? Challenges will remain, to be sure, but I believe the positive trends we see today will give way to a stronger, more vibrant, and sustainable community.
Even in a saturated marketplace of ideas, Jewish thought has demonstrated its extraordinary potential to speak to an increasing number of people. Many Jews—by birth, marriage, and, especially, choice—are weaving “Jewish” into their daily lives and drawing on their Jewish identities to inform who they are as global citizens.
The onset of this trend is spurred by the transcendence of Jewish values. Distilled from Jewish text and tradition, Jewish values are more relevant than ever. They call us to serve others, to build strong families and communities, to love and cherish Israel as a centerpiece of the Jewish experience, to defend justice, to ensure all have the opportunity to learn and treat everyone with mercy, kindness, care, and respect. They call us to play our part in making a positive difference in the world. Many of these are universal values, but it is their connection to Jewish thought and their call to action that serve as the strongest ties binding the global Jewish people together.
These values also create the basis of “conscious Judaism,” what I see as a rising form of Jewish expression. Conscious Judaism stems from the desire to live with Jewish intention. From Buenos Aires to Warsaw, young Jews are thinking critically, taking action, exploring their spirituality and finding solutions to complex problems through a Jewish lens. Their involvement in Jewish life is not cultural or habitual, but rather borne of an impetus to live with meaning in a community of others doing the same.
Fifty years from now, I believe the number of conscious Jews will vastly outnumber strict adherents of religious Judaism, redefining our concept of who is a Jew from one based solely on descent to one more broadly defined by connection and choice. In turn, there will be more opportunities for people to make Jewish thought and values part of how they live and love and engage with the world.
Admittedly, many questions remain. Just as the number of conscious Jews rise, the number of religious Jews outside of the ultra-Orthodox community will probably decline. If today is any indicator, there will continue to be tension between religious and secular counterparts, both of whom constitute the sum of the Jewish people. How will the two groups interact? How do we remain at once united and truly inclusive? And as a people who have been defined by our religion for millennia, how will we shape our role in the world moving forward?
We are headed for a new era of Jewish life, one in which individuals can express who they are and what they stand for in a way that is directly supported by their Jewish identities and a diverse global Jewish people.
This shift, however, is not inevitable. Our challenge over the coming years will be to ensure that all those interested have the opportunity to engage with Jewish tradition and peoplehood in meaningful ways.
It will take hard work to get there. It will require creativity, risk, and unprecedented partnership among emerging and existing institutions. It will require broad acceptance that there is no singular way to be or define Jewish.
But I also know that we have a choice. We can give in to the negative forces at play or we can use every opportunity to bring the positive forces to the fore. By choosing the latter, we can help more and more people embrace Jewish life and values and, in doing so, shape a brighter future for the Jewish people. Consciously.
To have the power of prophecy today, states the Talmud, is to be a fool or a child. So while I make no claim to prophetic powers, I’m confident regarding the future of the Jewish world.
On January 1, 2000, the New York Times printed a Millennium Edition featuring its front cover from January 1, 1900, the actual cover of that day’s paper, and a fictional one dated January 1, 2100.
For some time, the Times had been running a weekly ad each Friday on its front page. The little box—sponsored by Chabad-Lubavitch—noted that week’s Shabbat candle-lighting time and encouraged Jewish women and girls to take part. With the Times’s fictional cover a century hence falling out on a Friday, its editors included the same little box in the corner calling on Jewish women and girls to light the Shabbat candles.
Urban legend has it that it was an Irish-Catholic editor at the paper who pushed for its inclusion. “We don’t know what will happen in the year 2100,” he reportedly said. “But of one thing you can be certain . . . in the year 2100 Jewish women will be lighting Shabbat candles.”
This story illustrates why I’m optimistic about the Jewish future. Despite gloomy studies and predictions, I believe we will be strong as a people precisely because of the Shabbat candles and tefillin and the many other mitzvoth of the Torah. For the key to Jewish survival and continuity has been, is today, and will remain, our study of Torah and practice of mitzvoth. Quality Jewish education, Shabbat candles, kashrut, tefillin, these are the practices that connect us to G-d Almighty and sustain us as a nation. They always have, and always will.
A quick look at our history will prove as much. Movements within Judaism that parted with traditional practice did not survive the test of time; they are simply gone. Today, seeing their participation rates declining as members either drop everything or turn to more traditional options, liberal denominations have chosen to move closer to the traditional Jewish practices they wrote off as outdated and shunned for decades.
Jewish continuity has never been very far removed from practice, a few generations at most.
Torah and mitzvoth are the tools that we have to make the mundane around us sacred, to fulfill our missions as individuals and as a nation, and ultimately the only authentic way for us as Jews to connect to the Divine.
While the story of our survival is ultimately miraculous, we have always been an optimistic people. Centuries ago, Maimonides included the belief in the arrival of Moshiach and the messianic era in his Thirteen Principles of Faith, practically mandating optimism according to Jewish law. More recently, following the devastation of the Holocaust and a general malaise within the Jewish world, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, insisted that a bright future lay ahead for the Jewish people, and he worked incessantly to make it a reality.
It remains in our own hands to shape the Jewish future. We need to take responsibility for our future by acting now to increase our own Jewish practice, because if as individuals we are not growing as Jews, then we are receding. It doesn’t need to start big; it can begin with a single mitzvah. Take ownership of that mitzvah in a way that it becomes one with us and then share that mitzvah’s beauty with others. Inspire others to find their mitzvah. Then find another mitzvah and repeat.
It’s this small, step-by-step approach that has allowed the Jewish people to survive and ultimately thrive. Hand-wringing about the future and pouring millions of dollars into studies and committees—as well-intentioned as these efforts might be—will not find a new, shiny answer to the problems of continuity. We have the answer. Doing a mitzvah ourselves, encouraging our friends and families to do so as well, that’s what works.
Fifteen years have passed since the Times Millennium Edition, and the state of Jewish observance is strong and growing. The same can’t be said about the ad revenue for the New York Times print edition. The millions who once saw the candle-lighting notice in print in the paper of record have been replaced by millions more who find candle-lighting times on Chabad.org via their tablets, smartphone apps, and social media.
The condition of the Jewish people will only get stronger in 50 years, but it is up to us to accept the responsibility to make that the reality.
Motti Seligson is a rabbi and the director of media relations at Chabad-Lubavitch Media Center.
Throughout history the Jewish people have had a disproportionate impact on the intellectual, moral, and economic development of civilization.
As a people, our greatest impact has often been through unpopular ideas. For example, in the ancient, pagan world, we stood against idolatry and child sacrifice. When we went into exile, we did not disappear like most defeated peoples but managed to preserve our identity over two millennia.
Can Jewish contributions to the world be sustained over the course of the next half-century?
They certainly can, but the key to sustaining Jewish exceptionalism is in sustaining Jewish continuity, particularly in the face of growing trends of assimilation. Outsized contribution to the world is not a sufficient condition for Jewish strength, but it is a necessary one. This means it’s impossible to imagine a great future for the Jewish people without the central place of Israel in Jewish life. Roughly half of our people live in the Jewish state, and the fate of Jews cannot be separated from the fate of Israel. Israel’s contributions to the modern world are countless, but perhaps the underappreciated story is its radiating effects on technological modernization and Israel’s penchant for solving complex global problems, such as water droughts, cyber insecurity, and widespread medical challenges. Israel may be shamefully vilified by other nations on security matters, but it is increasingly admired and sought after as a partner in innovation.
Fifty years from now, the developing and developed worlds will be unrecognizable. Health care, energy, education, employment, transportation, agriculture, and life-sciences sectors will be dramatically altered. And Israel and the Jewish people are perfectly positioned to lead this global transformation. The power of Israel’s innovation revolution, in turn, will strengthen Israel’s position in the world. We can already see how the early phase of this revolution directly affects the Jewish state.
Imagine you were told of a Western country whose population had the highest percentage in the West of those in the 20–40-year-old age bracket, among the highest fertility rates in the world, and skyrocketing rates of immigration, with most of the immigrants young and skilled, and entrepreneurial workers relocating from Europe. And imagine if this same country had one of the highest per capita GDPs in the world, the only Western economy with both falling debt levels and a rising labor-participation rate, and a growth trajectory immune to regional security threats and global economic crises.
These trends are exactly what Israel has been experiencing for some time—and it can be the future of the Jewish state for the next half-century. For Israel, economic success is a strategic—indeed, an existential—issue. Economic stagnation would make it impossible to sustain the national power necessary to deter and confront Israel’s enemies while exacerbating social tensions. Economic growth and widespread prosperity can cover a multitude of deficiencies.
The Israeli economy will continue to be largely immune to worldwide slowdowns because of the flexibility of its thousands of technology start-ups that export and are dispersed across many industries. Israel’s percentage of GDP that comes from exports is one of the highest in the world (more than 30 percent) and is not based on commodities exports, which can be volatile in times of global crisis.
Will Israel continue to attract talented and entrepreneurial immigrants? Absolutely. In addition to the spiritual, cultural, and Zionist attractiveness of building a life in Israel—which has always been a draw for Israeli immigrants—now and going forward there is also an economic pull. Israel’s economy is growing while most other Western economies are flat on their back. Indeed, Israel has overcome the 2008 crisis better than, and its population is younger than that of, any other major economy in the developed world. Israel’s GDP growth gap with the rest of the world—especially with aging populations in the West—will help Israel offer Jews around the planet work and prosperity that other economies are failing to offer.
Israel also offers a unique combination of technological and intellectual-cultural contributions. Silicon Valley has the former; many European capitals have the latter. But nowhere outside of Israel do technology, entrepreneurialism, history, and culture all thrive in one place. The Jewish state is home to both the highest density of start-ups in the world and the highest number of museums and world-class universities. All these aspects of Israeli life reinforce one another and turbocharge Israeli society. It is a nation distinguished by its dynamism.
The future belongs to nations that combine creative energy, talent, knowledge, and ability to get things done. This is Israel’s sweet spot. It’s what so many countries are trying to emulate.
If Israel is increasingly seen as a “light unto the nations” in innovation terms, Israel will be strengthened economically, diplomatically, in the quality of life it offers to its people and the example it offers to the world. As the basis for Diaspora engagement with the Jewish state becomes less about survival, less about Israel as a charity project and more about a bracing place to live and to build and to dream, the Jewish state will not only be a light unto the nations but to the Jewish people themselves, strengthening their attachment to and identification with their homeland.
Dan Senor is co-author of Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle. A former adviser to the administration of George W. Bush, he is currently an executive at Elliott Management.
What will the situation of Israel and the Jewish people be in 50 years, when Commentary celebrates its 120th birthday? I can envision three possible scenarios, one utopian, one pessimistic, and one realistic.
Fifty years from now, the free world will have completed its first post-national, postmodern century. During this period, the liberal states of Europe, seeking to move beyond parochial nationalism, first deliberately weakened their religious and cultural attachments and opened their borders to throngs of outsiders, many of whom did not share their core beliefs. Having thus abandoned identity for the thin freedom of moral relativism, these societies will ultimately find that they lack a sense of purpose and the determination to survive as liberal states. Under threat of collapse from the weight of millions upon millions of new citizens and refugees, they will come to look admiringly or enviously at one nation—Israel—that took a very different path, proudly preserving its historical identity alongside its liberal commitments and thereby remaining a vibrant, modern democracy.
Meanwhile, the other nations of the Middle East will have undergone a catastrophe of even greater proportions, a result of their choice to eschew freedom for security and identity. For decades, secular dictatorships in the region sustained a form of stability by denying their citizens the most basic rights. Meanwhile, religious fundamentalism, operating in an ideological vacuum, grew by speaking to those citizens’ unfulfilled need for belonging and meaning. As the old dictatorships crumble and fall, the fundamentalism they helped stoke will completely destroy any chance of freedom. The desperate struggle between secular tyranny and religious extremism will erase borders and destroy entire countries, and will force those who desire liberty to flee or look wistfully at the one country in the region—again, Israel—that managed to support it.
It might seem, looking at this projected state of world affairs 50 years hence, that the two most basic human needs—to be free and to belong, to have a sustaining identity—are irreconcilable. Yet I believe that one nation will continue to successfully combine them despite innumerable challenges. The tiny Jewish state will not only continue to be a beacon of liberty, preserving fundamental rights for all its citizens, but will also stay true to its historical purpose as a home for the Jewish people and a guardian of its civilization. The increasingly acute failures of other nations to strike such a balance will, I believe, confirm to more and more Jews the distinct merit of Zionism and help strengthen their commitment to it.
The remaining question is whether other nations will recognize this merit as well. The ideal scenario, the first of three, is that the world will come to see Israel as a model for the successful union of freedom and identity, and regard the Jewish state with corresponding warmth and admiration. Alternatively, it is possible that our success will only grate, generating resentment and familiar arguments about the Jewish role in causing other people’s problems, from the loss of self-confidence in Europe (“Postmodernism was a Jewish-Marxist innovation!”) to the rise of fundamentalism in the Middle East (“The result of Zionist occupation!”). The third and most realistic scenario is that Israel’s steadfast commitment to its historical path will generate a mixture of respect and scorn, deep support and virulent criticism. And Israel, as it has already learned to do, will have to live with both of its roles: light unto the nations and global scapegoat.
Meanwhile, Zionism will continue to provide a bulwark against Jewish assimilation, as the unfolding of world affairs confirms time and again its necessity and virtue. The Diaspora will become smaller in absolute numerical terms, while the Orthodox sector within it grows proportionally larger. Those in the Diaspora who chose not to move to Israel yet whose commitment to the Jewish people is not defined solely by faith will become more closely connected to the Jewish state, finding new ways to be a part of life here or even splitting their time between Israel and homes abroad. Meanwhile, we will see the development of more streamlined institutions to allow cooperation between the two communities, including, I hope, a second chamber in the Knesset giving Diaspora Jews a voice and even a vote on certain issues, along with a more direct stake in the relationship.
In short, we have much to look forward to.
Natan Sharansky is Chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency. He was a human-rights activist and former political prisoner in the former Soviet Union and minister and deputy prime minister in four Israeli governments.
American Jewry feels like a community in decline. Lower birthrates, later marriage, and high rates of intermarriage are the norm among most American Jews. In the next generation, not only will there be many fewer Jews, but there will be fewer committed, educated, philanthropic, and politically engaged Jews. We are witness to a steady erosion in both the quantity and quality of Jewish life in the United States. Of course the exception to the grim demographic picture is the explosion of life in the Orthodox community. There, higher birthrates, earlier marriage, and negligible intermarriage are the norm. But Orthodoxy, no matter how robust its growth or how great its confidence, remains too parochial to take on the mantle of leadership for the whole of the American Jewish community. Reading today’s evidence, the question of the hour becomes: Can there be a viable non-Orthodoxy to serve future generations? If there can be, what would it look like and how can it be fortified and nourished to change this rather bleak future?
This year, I glimpsed such a Judaism, and I would like to offer a distillation of its essential elements. On Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the local Jewish Community Center hosts an annual gathering for the holiday of Shavuot. Traditionally, Shavuot is spent all night in the study of Torah, eagerly reenacting the anticipation the Jews felt before the revelation. At the JCC, there are such traditional classes, but there are also lectures, book readings, discussions, and all manner of dance, music, and poetry. The environment allows for a more traditional observance but is clearly pitched to a knowledgeable but more cosmopolitan milieu. All night, these thousands of people share time and space, experiencing a Jewish holiday, studying Torah (broadly construed) together.
These people seem to represent a Jewish life that transcends denomination but has a seriousness and depth of substance at its core. What brings such a huge, variegated swath of people together? Not politics or social causes. There is far too great a range of opinion on these matters. Nor are they unified by belief, philanthropic commitments, or ritual practice. There is no one common language spoken—I had conversations in Hebrew, English, and Spanish over the holiday. Here is what these people seem to have in common:
Jewish social networks. All the participants have Jewish friends. This is not to be underestimated. Young Jews are among the most hyper-social human beings to ever live on earth. And yet most young Jews today have one Jewish parent, not two, and two Jewish grandparents, not four. Most do not live in a Jewish neighborhood or go to a Jewish school. It is difficult to imagine how one builds a serious Jewish life without having a rich social network.
Jewish community. The Shavuot gathering is not a small subset of friends, but the interlocking of many, many groups of friends. These people chose to be in community together.
Jewish calendar. These people chose to celebrate a Jewish holiday on the traditional calendar rather than give Jewish flavor to more global, American values. This gathering was unabashedly Shavuot, on the correct day with its proper name and observances.
Love of Torah. This gathering demonstrated a voracious love of Torah study. An infinite variety of classes, lectures, study sessions—some traditional and some radical—nonetheless testified to a commitment to content. This was not Judaism-lite.
Rich diversity. The Shavuot gathering featured Hasidim and secularists, straight and queer, Israeli and American, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. It allowed for deep, rich encounters between Jews of different stripes.
I am arguing that these features constitute not only a description of the vibrant Jewish life of Manhattan, but that they can be a prescription for building a viable non-Orthodox Judaism in the future. What if we were to take seriously the priorities of social networks, communities, living the calendar, love of Torah, and rich diversity as the sine qua non of a flourishing non-Orthodox Judaism in the United States? A few policy implications might emerge. First, we would take seriously the idea of building rich Jewish social networks. Much of the Jewish community is animated by the idea that Jews will participate in community if it is meaningful. This is only half true. Judaism must be meaningful, but it needs social support. Second, we would internalize the idea that people want more content not less. Jews seek a serious, deep Judaism, not just a Jewish patina—a biblical verse here, a Talmudic quotation there—to plaster on their more worldly values. Third, we would recognize that living according to the traditional calendar provides a common framework that can be deepened or repurposed but should not be supplanted.
These principles could guide both the far left and moderate right. They could create a shared basis that could provide for both the continuity and cultural vitality of the Jewish people in North America. They could point to a future beyond the dark horizon before us.
Dan Smokler is a rabbi and the chief innovation officer of Hillel International.
December 1, 2065
Moab, Utah—Amid the natural arches, desert landscapes, and mountain views of the American west, Yoav Ascher is re-creating his homeland as a sprawling 105-acre resort, complete with its own River Jordan, Masada fortress, and Tel Aviv, the former name of the city known today as Tal Al-Rabia.
“I want to give Americans the full Israeli experience as I remember it,” says the Jerusalem (Al Quds)-born Ascher, 72, who came to Utah 14 years ago, shortly after the former Jewish state voted to nullify its own independence. “It had positive elements, too, you know.”
To that end, guests of the Holy Land Experience and Adventure, or HLEA, are greeted at his art deco–style village and hotel by a staff dressed in the olive-green fatigues of the old Israeli army. A large courtyard wall is designed to resemble a scaled-down version of historic Jerusalem’s Western Wall, complete with little cracks in which to stick scribbled prayers. Kosher wines from California are served at all three of the resort’s restaurants, each named after a former Israeli city: The Jerusalem (serving traditional Middle Eastern cuisine), The Herzliya (high-end European), and The Eilat (casual seafood).
Built on the banks of the Colorado River, the resort also seeks to capture the varied landscapes of Palestine. A specially designed high-salinity pool allows bathers to float in the water as if they were in the Dead Sea. A copse of trees by the river shades a natural baptismal pool, into which Ascher has built stone steps for religious occasions. The Masada complex, built on a flat hilltop across the river, “minutely reproduces the archeological site before its complete destruction in 2051,” Ascher claims. He is also planning a high-end shopping arcade that he says will capture the spirit of old Tel Aviv. “It’s hard to believe today, but it really was this modern, cosmopolitan, easy-going place.”
For more outgoing guests, Ascher offers the Negev Tour, which whisks them by zodiac boat up the river for two days of Bedouin-style luxury camping near Arches National Park. Camel-riding is a popular activity for clients of all ages.
Ascher was not always as enthusiastic about his native land as he is today.
“When I was young I thought that Israel was the source of the problem in our neighborhood, and therefore we held the keys to the solution,” he says. “I thought that if we could share the land, our problems would end, not begin.”
Ascher’s idealism was put to the test as a young diplomat when he served in the Israeli Embassy in Palestine—located in East Jerusalem, just a few miles from his childhood home on the western side of the city. Ascher was one of six diplomats rescued from the embassy massacre in July 2021, in which 43 Jews were killed.
Ascher later served as a diplomat in Stockholm, but left government service after the Scandinavian states severed relations with Tel Aviv at the outset of the second Israeli–Iranian war. The war, a pyrrhic victory for Israel, led to the first mass exodus of Jewish Israelis after a nuclear weapon destroyed the coastal city of Ashdod (known today as Azdud).
“Constantly having to fight our enemies in our neighborhood, constantly having to argue with our friends in the West, constantly wrestling with our own consciences, our doubts, our guilt—it just became psychologically exhausting,” Ascher explains. “After Ashdod, anyone who could find a way to get out took it. Anyway, the demography wasn’t on the Jewish side, even in our downsized state.”
In 2051, the Israeli parliament, by then evenly split between Arab members, ultra-Orthodox Jews, and a dwindling Zionist minority, voted to dissolve the state in favor of a union with its Palestinian neighbor. In a signature act, the U.S. Congress agreed to extend U.S. citizenship to any former Jewish-Israeli requesting it. Seven million Jews have now settled in the United States; another million went to Canada and approximately 500,000 to Australia.
As for historic Palestine, all that remains of the Jewish population is a small religious community in the historic town of Safed, under the formal protection of the Shiite Alliance of Galilee and the Beqaa.
Though Ascher misses his homeland, he is philosophical about its fate. “The Crusader kingdoms lasted for about a century, and we lasted about the same,” he says. “History has its logic. The small cannot survive the big. Smart people can’t outrun dumb facts. Could we have changed our destiny? Only by a little. At least most of us survived.”
Even today, the controversies of the past have not faded from the present. Hannah Levin, a graduate student in international relations at the University of Utah, led a small protest last Wednesday in Moab against HLEA. “Mr. Ascher’s fantasy hotel glorifies colonialism, it glorifies racism, it glorifies an aspect of Jewish identity which shames me and which I reject,” says Ms. Levin.
Most Moabians, however, seem pleased with Ascher’s resort and look forward to its expansion. “It’s a cool hotel, I love the food,” says local resident Brigham Johnson, 27. “And Utah is the promised land anyway.”
Bret Stephens, the foreign-affairs columnist of the Wall Street Journal, is the author of America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder, now just out in paperback.
Jonathan S. Tobin
The challenges facing world Jewry always make pessimism seem smart. Yet a sober look at Israel’s progress against the odds compels us to believe optimism is warranted. The same cannot be said about Jewish communities elsewhere.
As a nation that has been perpetually at war, Israel’s future has always been a function of crisis management. These crises will continue as the rise of ISIS and a nuclear deal that strengthens Iran are altering the strategic equation in the Middle East for the worse. When one considers the nonexistent prospects for real peace with the Palestinians, it becomes clear that Israel will have to be as heavily armed and on guard against external threats in 2065 as it is today.
Yet contrary to the laments from the Jewish left and the hopes of those who wish for Israel’s demise, that is no cause for pessimism. Israel has thrived under such circumstances throughout its history, and there is no reason to believe that this will cease to be the case. The 2014 war with Hamas proved again the cohesiveness of Israeli society and the willingness of its people to defend their country. The prospect of a continued stalemate with the Palestinians is a dismal one, but, as in the past, the coming years will show that Israelis have the ability to continue to wait until their foes give up the dream of their elimination and prosper as they do so.
From a historical perspective, Israel is an experiment that is still in its infancy. Its problems, though serious, will not sink it. It has gone from being an economic backwater burdened by socialist myths to a First World economic power. The exploitation of natural-gas and shale-oil reserves will, if properly managed, accelerate that transformation. And though the secular-religious conflict poses an existential threat, the assumption that Haredim are monolithic and will always resist modernity may prove mistaken.
The Israel of 2065 will be different from the one we know today, just as contemporary Israel is unrecognizable from the perspective of 1985, let alone 1948. But it is the future of the Jewish people, and the recent past compels us to have faith in it. Though new trials await Zionism in the next half-century, no one should doubt that Israelis will continue to meet those challenges.
But such optimism about the Diaspora is unfounded.
The rising tide of anti-Semitism throughout the world gives the lie to the idea that Jewish life can thrive in Europe. If even in the capitals of enlightened Western Europe, Jews are forced to give up identifying themselves in public, and to renounce support for Israel in order to retain their standing in elite circles, there is little hope that the reconstitution of Jewish existence there is viable.
As for the United States, I believe we can count on the persistence of American exceptionalism to ensure that the virus of anti-Semitism doesn’t take root here as it has elsewhere. But the demographic collapse of non-Orthodox Jewry that was documented by the 2013 Pew survey means that by 2065 the community here will be much smaller, less imbued with a sense of Jewish peoplehood, and no longer able to sustain its infrastructure or political influence. It might have been possible to halt or even to reverse the toll of assimilation and intermarriage had drastic measures been undertaken in the immediate aftermath of the release of the Pew report. But the shameful failure of the organized Jewish world to respond to this crisis with even a tone of alarm, let alone the necessary action, means this process will continue to its unfortunate yet logical conclusion.
A thriving Orthodox sector and the persistence of core groups of other denominations ensures Jewish life won’t disappear in America. But in 50 years a critical mass of those with Jewish ties will not be affiliated with the community or even be, in any meaningful sense, Jewish. In the past century American Jewry was an engine of Jewish revival. Its decline will have a negative impact on Jewish civilization as well as the security of the international community, making Israel and Zionism even more important to the Jewish future.
Although I am not an anthropologist or sociologist, as a rabbi for almost 50 years I have often reflected not only on contemporary Jewish life, but on what Jewish life could look like years from now. With this forward-looking attitude, I have always tried to be a step ahead, sometimes successfully, and sometimes not.
In short, I predict a reconfiguration of affiliated Jewry into three new camps.
On the right side of the religious spectrum, the various Haredi communities—Hasidim, Mitnagdim, Sephardim, as well as the more extreme wing of Chabad—will recognize that they have more in common than not. The “neo-Haredi” Roshei Yeshiva from RIETS (Yeshiva University) will find more common ground with this faction. United, their power will increase.
But with the world increasingly becoming a global village through the Internet and social media, we will witness a drop-off rate in these communities. Young Yeshiva students exposed to outside ideas and influences will in larger numbers abandon their insular worlds. The up-till-now astronomical growth rate of the Haredi community, moreover, will slow down as the Haredim will find it more difficult to sustain larger families in this economic climate. Finally, Haredi women employed in higher-powered jobs will be inspired to be more assertive and vocal in their respective communities.
On the other end of the spectrum, we will witness an amalgamation of the liberal communities. The Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and Renewal denominations will overcome their differences and unite. Among their followers we will encounter two strands: those in the Diaspora and those in Israel. Liberal Jews in the Diaspora will place a greater emphasis on ritual as the religious anchor of their community.
Despite the present ambivalence of many in the liberal community toward Israel, in the coming decades a dramatic shift will occur as thousands of liberal Jews who identify more nationally than religiously will move to Israel. This boon in non-Orthodox aliyah will occur because many liberal Jews will realize that Israel—whose very rhythm is Jewish—is a more conducive place to express their Jewish identity.
A third camp, in the middle of the spectrum, will be made up of a growing community of halakhically committed Jews. From this camp—one with which I identify—there will emerge an inclusionary Orthodoxy that empowers women to be more involved in Jewish ritual and spiritual leadership; invites religious questioning; promotes dialogue across the Jewish spectrum; welcomes people regardless of sexual orientation or level of religious observance; and looks outward, driven by a sense of responsibility to all people.
We are seeing the fruits of this growing camp already in the International Rabbinic Fellowship, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Yeshivat Maharat, and JOFA in America. There are parallels in Beit Hillel, Yeshivat Ma’alei Gilboa, and Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah in Israel. I predict that we will also witness the more conservative wing of Hadar and the more progressive graduates of Chabad, Yeshiva University, and Yeshivat Har Etzion (the “Gush”) joining this community. Indeed, in my travels I have found that young Jews are searching for a Judaism that is rooted but not stagnant, open but with boundaries.
Among what may be the largest group of Diaspora Jews, the unaffiliated, I believe that, contrary to the pundits and the Pew-type reports of the death of the search for God among young Jews, in the next 50 years we will see a renewed search for God. In a world where technology has brought people closer together yet further apart, there will be a backlash as people will yearn to find meaning in their lives. Many more young Jewish men and women will be attracted to spiritual leadership to meet this desperate need.
In Israel, too, the emerging search for greater religious meaning beyond the Orthodox community will continue to spiral. This will be enabled by the dramatic dissipation of the centralized power of the Chief Rabbinate. Each community will be given the right to choose its own spiritual leaders.
The Jewish population in Israel will increase dramatically. In the short run, Israel will continue to face serious physical challenges, but in the long run, threats against Israel will recede. Jews worldwide will not be coming to Israel out of fear, but to live more meaningful Jewish lives. A significant number of these olim will come from the inclusionary modern and open Orthodox, cutting into the vibrancy of this community in America. In addition, third and fourth generations of Israeli yordim (émigrés from Israel) will return home. Finally, with the likelihood of shorter travel time between Israel and the United States, many more people will commute to work between the two countries. As this upsurge evolves, Israel will become more open to embracing converts, especially those born to Jewish fathers.
Whether there will be one or two states between the Mediterranean and Jordan River, Israel will continue to be a Jewish state, with Diaspora communities—much smaller in number than today, all over the world. Israel will be the place where the national destiny of Am Yisrael will be realized. It will be the only place where we, as a people, will have the sovereignty and autonomy to drive our own course, carve our unique path, and join others in bringing light to the world.
If someone would have asked me 50 years ago, after the Holocaust, when we stood with signs that read Never Again, whether Jews would face the challenges we face today, specifically a virulent anti-Semitism in the guise of anti-Israelism, I would have said “never.” And yet, here we are.
Despite our physical threats and spiritual challenges, I continue to remain optimistic.
I know I will not be around to see whether any of these predictions come true, but I offer the following blessing: God created a beautiful world, a world that too many are trying to make ugly. And we have been blessed with a Torah and a land of promise and hope.
And so, whether my predictions here come true or not, it’s our sacred responsibility to do all we can to light the darkness, for our people and the larger world.
Avi Weiss is the founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and Yeshivat Maharat, and co-founder of the International Rabbinic Fellowship.
The contours of American Jewish life 50 years hence are not difficult to imagine if we project current trends forward. A much smaller population than today will engage actively with Judaism and the needs of the Jewish people. Within this group, the Orthodox will play an outsize role. Owing to their strong pro-natal norms and commitments to perpetuating Jewish life, they will bear children well above replacement level and retain enough of their offspring to maintain strong communities. Alongside them will live the descendants of Conservative and Reform Jews, who will fashion eclectic Jewish identities from cultural, Hebraic, Israel-centric, and religious/spiritual elements. Whether most will identify with a particular religious denomination is an open question. But in any event, local cultures, not national movements and organizations, will prevail. Innovative and energetic communities will attract enough of the shrunken Jewish middle to sustain a vibrant non-Orthodox life in perhaps as many as a dozen urban centers.
There also will be millions of Americans of partial Jewish ancestry with no sustained connection to Jewish life. Like their counterparts in today’s Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, these descendants of intermarried Jews may attempt to reconnect with some aspect of Jewishness episodically, but only a minority will rejoin the Jewish people. A legion of outreach workers will strive to draw more of these people into Jewish engagement, probably with only limited success. At best, the descendants of most intermarried Jews might contribute to a philo-Semitic climate in American society, but they will not reverse the dramatic loss of Jewish political and economic influence once active Jews constitute less than half of 1 percent of the American populace.
Such would seem to be the future, assuming a straight-line evolution of current trends. Judging from the past, though, it is highly unlikely that anything of the sort will occur. We need only think of how even the most farsighted person living a century ago and projecting trends in Jewish life 50 years into the future could not have anticipated what remade the world between 1915 and 1965—the two world wars, the Communist oppression of Eastern Europe and much of Asia, the remarkable technological and scientific advances, the generally constructive leadership role of America on the world stage, and the attendant rise of its Jewish community as a force in international Jewish affairs, coupled with the miraculous establishment of a Jewish state for the first time in nearly two millennia.
Instead of imagining what American Jewish life will be like in 50 years, we might ask more productively: What is necessary to ensure that, come what may, Jews will have the means to persevere? Here the past may serve as a guide. Our ancestors prepared for the future by putting in place a number of essential building blocks. First, they regarded Judaic literacy among males as a fundamental birthright. We need to expand the range of thoroughly literate Jews to include females and males, older and younger people. Grounded in a deep understanding of Jewish civilization, these literate populations will develop creative and Judaically resonant responses to new circumstances. Second, Jewish life thrives when Jews inhabit communities infused with a “thick” culture. Socializing in extensive Jewish networks, engaging passionately in matters of concern, and contributing to Jewish conversations—these are all vital for sustaining Jews in good times and bad. And third, in order to bring meaning to the lives of Jews, Judaic culture must be understood as a counterculture, not merely a pale imitation of prevailing ways of thinking. To be Jewish means to view the world through a distinctive set of spectacles. And that requires Jews to ground themselves in the formative texts of their tradition and to find meaning in alternative ways of being and thinking offered by Judaism. Engaged Jews will not shrink from addressing the wider society unapologetically, even as they assert their special responsibility to one another.
American Jews can forecast their collective future no more than each of us can know the trajectory of our own lives. History will continue to unfold unpredictably, giving rise to both destructive upheaval and extraordinary human ingenuity. Our task is to ensure that 50 years hence, the engaged population of American Jews will have the tools to respond with confidence, common purpose, and Jewish understanding.
Jack Wertheimer is a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Ruth R. Wisse
When the 2065 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Israel Defense Forces, it merely confirmed what Israel had learned and tried to teach others for a half century: Democratic societies encourage peace by protecting whatever they achieve. Unless they invest in defense the same resources they do in self-improvement, they incite meaner cultures to target them for conquest.
The Jewish people had learned this lesson the hard way. As a self-defined minority, its need for acceptance by surrounding nations made it eager to compromise and reluctant to go to war. This reputation for acquiescence originally helped to foment Arab and Muslim ambitions against a country that had been under foreign occupation for 2,000 years and against a people that had not been able to recover its sovereignty, much less protect its members, for the greater part of its history. With such images of frailty in mind, the more Israel prospered, the more fanatically some of its neighbors determined to destroy it.
Indeed, in its early decades Israel fell back into familiar Jewish patterns of political accommodation. Forced into wars that won it sustainable borders, its leaders were lured into phony deals with catastrophic consequences. In 1993, when Israel conceded authority to Yasir Arafat, it became the first country in history to arm its enemy with the expectation of gaining security. Subsequent retreats from hard-won territory inspired the explosion rather than promised termination of Arab attacks. Sobered finally by the expansion of anti-Jewish hate propaganda, terrorism, and cyberwarfare, and Iran’s intention of making Israel a “one-bomb state,” Jews realized that God protects only those who do it themselves. The disciplined power of the IDF gradually damped down at least some of the region’s carnage, and only thus did hostilities begin to subside.
The 10 million Jews of Israel now living between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River do not yet equal and perhaps may never equal the almost 17 million of 1939, but they are far more secure in body and spirit than those of 2015. Although economic advantages were not enough to persuade local Arabs to accept the eternity of Israel, many Arabs were heartened by the establishment of the Jordan-Palestine Confederation that offered citizenship to those who preferred it to living in the Jewish State. There have been joint ventures between the two polities on water, transportation, tourism, trade, and industry. Educational collaboration, cultural interchange, and reciprocal diplomatic and security measures have been transforming the once suicidal-homicidal Palestinian-Arab population into a competitive-cooperative society.
None of this could have begun until Israel’s security was attained and acknowledged. It therefore augurs well for the international community to have the Nobel Peace Prize Jury recognize the merits of a soldiering democracy. Citing the high standards of Israel’s military code of ethics, the conduct of its soldiers in battle, and the crucial role of the IDF in protecting its citizenry, the testimonial affirms, “Discouraging aggression paves the road to peace.” Would that America had followed Israel’s example.
The pincers of medievalism and defensiveness will continue to narrow the mentality of part of the Jewish people who mistake rigidness for faithfulness, copying the worldwide fundamentalist wave. Another coterie of Jews, prideful in their universalism that tosses aside the hard-hewn beauty of our ancestor’s legacy, will vanish.
God will bless those who hold the center. They are the future of the Jewish people. Neither Karaites nor Hellenizers, they represent the rabbinic tradition in its truest sense; firm but flexible, faithful but skeptical, genuinely modern Jews who disdain neither the insights of science nor the wisdom of Torah. Some will have been trained in old-style institutions (the faithful of Lakewood, New Jersey, are educating the next generation’s conservative Jews, after all), and others will come from nothing, the shofar having struck a deep and surprising note in the once secular soul. No matter their initial training—the desire to embrace an unblinkered but passionate Judaism will prevail. The rabbinic spirit will reinvigorate an ossified, over-institutionalized remnant, bringing new sparkle to the blank stare reproduced in a thousand religious-school classrooms.
Does that seem improbable? Modern yavnehs, pods cast from the mother ship, are incubating just such tough-minded Jews. The social movement is systolic and diastolic: The center is shrinking and then will expand. So long as Israel and the United States stay strong, Jews can revivify their inexhaustible texts, practices, theologies, and communal ties. It is unfashionable to be an optimist. But then, it is unfashionable to be a Jew.
Much of the Jewish world slips gently away, it is true. But faith in our tradition is not only faith in God, but in the self-renewing powers of our people. I may not live to see it, but “many that sleep in the dust shall awake” (Daniel, Chapter 12). Remember, as Rebbe Nachman teaches, the greatest sin is despair.
David Wolpe is the Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. His most recent book is David: The Divided Heart.
It is 2065, and the Jewish people are doing just fine.
The Jewish world is radically different from what it was a half-century before. America and Israel are the only Jewish communities of any consequence. About 100,000 Jews live in France, and nearly as many in both Great Britain and Germany, but Jewish populations elsewhere have dwindled into insignificance. The great Jewish Diaspora, outside of America, is no more, having given way to assimilation and aliyah to Israel.
But Jewish life in America flourishes. The Jewish community of 7 million souls is contentious and wildly diverse, but also Jewishly vibrant. Jews continue to do what they have always done in America: create a Judaism that works for them.
Orthodox Jews have more than doubled to 34 percent of the Jewish population. Almost two-thirds of these are Haredim, who live in enclaves apart from the American mainstream, mostly in the New York area. Their families are large and their devotion to Torah admirable, but the majority are quite poor and want mostly to be left alone.
Non-Haredi Orthodox Jews, modest in number, are split into two major factions and several minor ones. One major group ordains female rabbis, encourages conversion, finds a way to free agunot, and participates in theological dialogue with non-Jews. The other major group is uncomfortable with, but does not always oppose, each of these positions. Each faction has its own halakhic institutions, which disagree about almost everything, including about who can be called Orthodox.
Reform Jews are no less divided than the Orthodox. The “re-ritualization” of Reform, begun in the late 1900s, has continued unabated. In that sense, Reform Judaism is more “traditional” than it has ever been. Mikveh, kashrut, and tefillin have a place on the Reform spectrum, and serious Shabbat observance, liberally understood, is a central pillar of Reform life.
But Reform has also continued on a path of theological radicalism. Hostile to theological norms of any sort, it takes pride in its radical inclusivity. It is reluctant to define its borders and red lines, and who is in and who is out. Some Reform Jews are distressed by this absence of definition, while most are proud of the creativity and openness it engenders. Nearly 40 percent of American Jews still call themselves Reform, without agreeing on the meaning of the term.
American Jewry’s political clout has shrunk as its percentage of the general population has declined. It is no longer the political powerhouse it once was. But Jews are secure in America, and while their numerical growth is quite slow, the passionate pluralism of their religious life allows them to thrive.
American Jewish ties with Israel remain strong, due in some measure to Israel’s “Religious Revolution of 2025.” Prior to that time, religious turmoil was at its height; a third of Israelis left the country to have their marriages performed, and conversion to Judaism was essentially impossible. Finally, fed-up voters had had enough, a government was formed without the religious parties, and a far-reaching bill was passed that de-established synagogue and state. It called for each municipality to elect its religious leader and for the establishment of a single school system for the “secular” and “religious” populations.
Over the next 40 years, this law changed the face of Israel. Orthodox and non-Orthodox children came to understand one another, and hotly contested rabbinical elections pushed all candidates to moderate, centrist positions. When a Conservative rabbi was elected chief rabbi of Beersheba in 2031, it made headlines, but such developments soon became commonplace.
Orthodoxy, and especially the national religious camp, benefited most from the newly created “free market” in religion. Settler influence faded after the Saudis and the Arab league pushed the Palestinians into a two-state solution. But no longer held hostage by a coercive religious monopoly, national religious institutions flourished, contributing greatly to the spiritual vitality of Israeli life.
And the Reform and Conservative movements, while relatively small, shared in the general religious renewal, and all Israelis benefited from vigorous debates among the movements.
Israel today is not a religious utopia. But it is a country in which an end to Orthodox hegemony has produced a revived Orthodoxy, a growing progressive Judaism, broad pockets of religious commitment, serious Jewish education, and a major challenge to the spiritual emptiness that had so long characterized Israeli society.
Judaism is strong in 2065 in both Israel and America, and Jews in both countries look to each other for inspiration and spiritual sustenance.
Eric Yoffie, a lecturer and writer, was president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012.
The Jewish Future, Part 5
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A foreign-policy approach based in security and pragmatism is now characterized by retrenchment and radicalism
And yet realism is currently in crisis.
Realism was once a sophisticated intellectual tradition that represented the best in American statecraft. Eminent Cold War realists were broadly supportive of America’s postwar internationalism and its stabilizing role in global affairs, even as they stressed the need for prudence and restraint in employing U.S. power. Above all, Cold War–era realism was based on a hard-earned understanding that Americans must deal with the geopolitical realities as they are, rather than retreat to the false comfort provided by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
More recently, however, those who call themselves realists have lost touch with this tradition. Within academia, realism has become synonymous with a preference for radical retrenchment and the deliberate destruction of arrangements that have fostered international stability and prosperity for decades. Within government, the Trump administration appears to be embracing an equally misguided version of realism—an approach that masquerades as shrewd realpolitik but is likely to prove profoundly damaging to American power and influence. Neither of these approaches is truly “realist,” as neither promotes core American interests or deals with the world as it really is. The United States surely needs the insights that an authentically realist approach to global affairs can provide. But first, American realism will have to undergo a reformation.
The Realist Tradition
Realism has taken many forms over the years, but it has always been focused on the imperatives of power, order, and survival in an anarchic global arena. The classical realists—Thucydides, Machiavelli, Hobbes—considered how states and leaders should behave in a dangerous world in which there was no overarching morality or governing authority strong enough to regulate state behavior. The great modern realists—thinkers and statesmen such as Reinhold Niebuhr, Hans Morgenthau, George Kennan, and Henry Kissinger—grappled with the same issues during and after the catastrophic upheaval that characterized the first half of the 20th century.
They argued that it was impossible to transcend the tragic nature of international politics through good intentions or moralistic maxims, and that seeking to do so would merely empower the most ruthless members of the international system. They contended, on the basis of bitter experience, that aggression and violence were always a possibility in international affairs, and that states that desired peace would thus have to prepare for war and show themselves ready to wield coercive power. Most important, realist thinkers tended to place a high value on policies and arrangements that restrained potential aggressors and created a basis for stability within an inherently competitive global environment.
For this very reason, leading Cold War–era realists advocated a robust American internationalism as the best way of restraining malevolent actors and preventing another disastrous global crack-up—one that would inevitably reach out and touch the United States, just as the world wars had. Realist thinkers understood that America was uniquely capable of stabilizing the international order and containing Soviet power after World War II, even as they disagreed—sometimes sharply—over the precise nature and extent of American commitments. Moreover, although Cold War realists recognized the paramount role of power in international affairs, most also recognized that U.S. power would be most effective if harnessed to a compelling concept of American moral purpose and exercised primarily through enduring partnerships with nations that shared core American values. “An idealistic policy undisciplined by political realism is bound to be unstable and ineffective,” the political scientist Robert Osgood wrote. “Political realism unguided by moral purpose will be self-defeating and futile.” Most realists were thus sympathetic to the major initiatives of postwar foreign policy, such as the creation of U.S.-led military alliances and the cultivation of a thriving Western community composed primarily of liberal democracies.
At the same time, Cold War realists spoke of the need for American restraint. They worried that America’s liberal idealism, absent a sense of limits, would carry the country into quixotic crusades. They thought that excessive commitments at the periphery of the global system could weaken the international order against its radical challengers. They believed that a policy of outright confrontation toward the Kremlin could be quite dangerous. “Absolute security for one power means absolute insecurity for all others,” Kissinger wrote. Realists therefore advocated policies meant to temper American ambition and the most perilous aspects of superpower competition. They supported—and, in Kissinger’s case, led—arms-control agreements and political negotiations with Moscow. They often objected to America’s costliest interventions in the Third World. Kennan and Morgenthau were among the first mainstream figures to go public with opposition to American involvement in Vietnam (Morgenthau did so in the pages of Commentary in May 1962).
During the Cold War, then, realism was a supple, nuanced doctrine. It emphasized the need for balance in American statecraft—for energetic action blended with moderation, for hard-headed power politics linked to a regard for partnerships and values. It recognized that the United States could best mitigate the tragic nature of international relations by engaging with, rather than withdrawing from, an imperfect world.
This nuance has now been lost. Academics have applied the label of realism to dangerous and unrealistic policy proposals. More disturbing and consequential still, the distortion of realism seems to be finding a sympathetic hearing in the Trump White House.
Realism as Retrenchment
Consider the state of academic realism. Today’s most prominent self-identified realists—Stephen Walt, John Mearsheimer, Barry Posen, and Christopher Layne—advocate a thoroughgoing U.S. retrenchment from global affairs. Whereas Cold War realists were willing to see the world as it was—a world that required unequal burden-sharing and an unprecedented, sustained American commitment to preserve international stability—academic realists now engage in precisely the wishful thinking that earlier realists deplored. They assume that the international order can essentially regulate itself and that America will not be threatened by—and can even profit from—a more unsettled world. They thus favor discarding the policies that have proven so successful over the decades in providing a congenial international climate.
Why has academic realism gone astray? If the Cold War brokered the marriage between realists and American global engagement, the end of the Cold War precipitated a divorce. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, U.S. policymakers continued to pursue an ambitious global agenda based on preserving and deepening both America’s geopolitical advantage and the liberal international order. For many realists, however, the end of the Cold War removed the extraordinary threat—an expansionist USSR—that had led them to support such an agenda in the first place. Academic realists argued that the humanitarian interventions of the 1990s (primarily in the former Yugoslavia) reflected capriciousness rather than a prudent effort to deal with sources of instability. Similarly, they saw key policy initiatives—especially NATO enlargement and the Iraq war of 2003—as evidence that Washington was no longer behaving with moderation and was itself becoming a destabilizing force in global affairs.
These critiques were overstated, but not wholly without merit. The invasion and occupation of Iraq did prove far costlier than expected, as the academic realists had indeed warned. NATO expansion—even as it successfully promoted stability and liberal reform in Eastern Europe—did take a toll on U.S.–Russia relations. Having lost policy arguments that they thought they should have won, academic realists decided to throw the baby out with the bathwater, calling for a radical reformulation of America’s broader grand strategy.
The realists’ preferred strategy has various names—“offshore balancing,” “restraint,” etc.—but the key components and expectations are consistent. Most academic realists argue that the United States should pare back or eliminate its military alliances and overseas troop deployments, going back “onshore” only if a hostile power is poised to dominate a key overseas region. They call on Washington to forgo costly nation-building and counterinsurgency missions overseas and to downgrade if not abandon the promotion of democracy and human rights.
Academic realists argue that this approach will force local actors in Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia to assume greater responsibility for their own security, and that the United States can manipulate—through diplomacy, arms sales, and covert action—the resulting rivalries and conflicts to prevent any single power from dominating a key region and thereby threatening the United States. Should these calculations prove faulty and a hostile power be poised to dominate, Washington can easily swoop in to set things aright, as it did during the world wars. Finally, if even this calculation were to prove faulty, realists argue that America can ride out the danger posed by a regional hegemon because the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and America’s nuclear deterrent provide geopolitical immunity against existential threats.
Today’s academic realists portray this approach as hard-headed, economical strategy. But in reality, it represents a stark departure from classical American realism. During the Cold War, leading realists placed importance on preserving international stability and heeded the fundamental lesson of World Wars I and II—that the United States, by dint of its power and geography, was the only actor that could anchor international arrangements. Today’s academic realists essentially argue that the United States should dismantle the global architecture that has undergirded the international order—and that Washington can survive and even thrive amid the ensuing disorder. Cold War realists helped erect the pillars of a peaceful and prosperous world. Contemporary academic realists advocate tearing down those pillars and seeing what happens.
The answer is “nothing good.” Contemporary academic realists sit atop a pyramid of faulty assumptions. They assume that one can remove the buttresses of the international system without that system collapsing, and that geopolitical burdens laid down by America will be picked up effectively by others. They assume that the United States does not need the enduring relationships that its alliances have fostered, and that it can obtain any cooperation it needs via purely transactional interactions. They assume that a world in which the United States ceases to promote liberal values will not be a world less congenial to America’s geopolitical interests. They assume that revisionist states will be mollified rather than emboldened by an American withdrawal, and that the transition from U.S. leadership to another global system will not unleash widespread conflict. Finally, they assume that if such upheaval does erupt, the United States can deftly manage and even profit from it, and that America can quickly move to restore stability at a reasonable cost should it become necessary to do so.
The founding generation of American realists had learned not to indulge in wishfully thinking that the international order would create or sustain itself, or that the costs of responding to rampant international disorder would be trivial. Today’s academic realists, by contrast, would stake everything on a leap into the unknown.
For many years, neither Democratic nor Republican policymakers were willing to make such a leap. Now, however, the Trump administration appears inclined to embrace its own version of foreign-policy realism, one that bears many similarities to—and contains many of the same liabilities as—the academic variant. One of the least academic presidents in American history may, ironically, be buying into some of the most misguided doctrines of the ivory tower.
Any assessment of the Trump administration must remain somewhat provisional, given that Donald Trump’s approach to foreign policy is still a work in progress. Yet Trump and his administration have so far taken multiple steps to outline a three-legged-stool vision of foreign policy that they explicitly describe as “realist” in orientation. Like modern-day academic realism, however, this vision diverges drastically from the earlier tradition of American realism and leads to deeply problematic policy.
The first leg is President Trump’s oft-stated view of the international environment as an inherently zero-sum arena in which the gains of other countries are America’s losses. The post–World War II realists, by contrast, believed that the United States could enjoy positive-sum relations with like-minded nations. Indeed, they believed that America could not enjoy economic prosperity and national security unless its major trading partners in Europe and Asia were themselves prosperous and stable. The celebrated Marshall Plan was high-mindedly generous in the sense of addressing urgent humanitarian needs in Europe, yet policymakers very much conceived of it as serving America’s parochial economic and security interests at the same time. President Trump, however, sees a winner and loser in every transaction, and believes—with respect to allies and adversaries alike—that it is the United States who generally gets snookered. The “reality” at the core of Trump’s realism is his stated belief that America is exploited “by every nation in the world virtually.”
This belief aligns closely with the second leg of the Trump worldview: the idea that all foreign policy is explicitly competitive in nature. Whereas the Cold War realists saw a Western community of states, President Trump apparently sees a dog-eat-dog world where America should view every transaction—even with allies—on a one-off basis. “The world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage,” wrote National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn in an op-ed. “Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.”
To be sure, Cold War realists were deeply skeptical about “one worldism” and appeals to a global community. But still they saw the United States and its allies as representing the “free world,” a community of common purpose forged in the battle against totalitarian enemies. The Trump administration seems to view U.S. partnerships primarily on an ad hoc basis, and it has articulated something akin to a “what have you done for me lately” approach to allies. The Cold War realists—who understood how hard it was to assemble effective alliances in the first place—would have found this approach odd in the extreme.
Finally, there is the third leg of Trump’s “realism”: an embrace of amorality. President Trump has repeatedly argued that issues such as the promotion of human rights and democracy are merely distractions from “winning” in the international arena and a recipe for squandering scarce resources. On the president’s first overseas trip to the Middle East in May, for instance, he promised not to “lecture” authoritarian countries on their internal behavior, and he made clear his intent to embrace leaders who back short-term U.S. foreign-policy goals no matter how egregious their violations of basic human rights and political freedoms. Weeks later, on a visit to Poland, the president did speak explicitly about the role that shared values played in the West’s struggle against Communism during the Cold War, and he invoked “the hope of every soul to live in freedom.” Yet his speech contained only the most cursory reference to Russia—the authoritarian power now undermining democratic governance and security throughout Europe and beyond. Just as significant, Trump failed to mention that Poland itself—until a few years ago, a stirring exemplar of successful transition from totalitarianism to democracy—is today sliding backwards toward illiberalism (as are other countries within Europe and the broader free world).
At first glance, this approach might seem like a modern-day echo of Cold War debates about whether to back authoritarian dictators in the struggle against global Communism. But, as Jeane Kirkpatrick explained in her famous 1979 Commentary essay “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” and as Kissinger himself frequently argued, Cold War realists saw such tactical alliances of convenience as being in the service of a deeper values-based goal: the preservation of an international environment favoring liberty and democracy against the predations of totalitarianism. Moreover, they understood that Americans would sustain the burdens of global leadership over a prolonged period only if motivated by appeals to their cherished ideals as well as their concrete interests. Trump, for his part, has given only faint and sporadic indications of any appreciation of the traditional role of values in American foreign policy.
Put together, these three elements have profound, sometimes radical, implications for America’s approach to a broad range of global issues. Guided by this form of realism, the Trump administration has persistently chastised and alienated long-standing democratic allies in Europe and the Asia-Pacific and moved closer to authoritarians in Saudi Arabia, China, and the Philippines. The president’s body language alone has been striking: Trump’s summits have repeatedly showcased conviviality with dictators and quasi-authoritarians and painfully awkward interactions with democratic leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel. Similarly, Trump has disdained international agreements and institutions that do not deliver immediate, concrete benefits for the United States, even if they are critical to forging international cooperation on key issues or advancing longer-term goods. As Trump has put it, he means to promote the interests of Pittsburgh, not Paris, and he believes that those interests are inherently at odds with each other.
To be fair, President Trump and his proxies do view the war on terror as a matter of defending both American security interests and Western civilization’s values against the jihadist onslaught. This was a key theme of Trump’s major address in Warsaw. Yet the administration has not explained how this civilizational mindset would inform any other aspect of its foreign policy—with the possible exception of immigration policy—and resorts far more often to the parochial lens of nationalism.
The Trump administration seems to be articulating a vision in which America has no lasting friends, little enduring concern with values, and even less interest in cultivating a community of like-minded nations that exists for more than purely deal-making purposes. The administration has often portrayed this as clear-eyed realism, even invoking the founding father of realism, Thucydides, as its intellectual lodestar. This approach does bear some resemblance to classical realism: an unsentimental approach to the world with an emphasis on the competitive aspects of the international environment. And insofar as Trump dresses down American allies, rejects the importance of values, and focuses on transactional partnerships, his version of realism has quite a lot in common with the contemporary academic version.
Daniel Drezner of Tufts University has noted the overlap, declaring in a Washington Post column, “This is [academic] realism’s moment in the foreign policy sun.” Randall Schweller of Ohio State University, an avowed academic realist and Trump supporter, has been even more explicit, noting approvingly that “Trump’s foreign-policy approach essentially falls under the rubric of ‘off-shore balancing’” as promoted by ivory-tower realists in recent decades.
Yet one suspects that the American realists who helped create the post–World War II order would not feel comfortable with either the academic or Trumpian versions of realism as they exist today. For although both of these approaches purport to be about power and concrete results, both neglect the very things that have allowed the United States to use its power so effectively in the past.
Both the academic and Trump versions of realism ignore the fact that U.S. power is most potent when it is wielded in concert with a deeply institutionalized community of like-minded nations. Alliances are less about addition and subtraction—the math of the burden-sharing emphasized by Trump and the academic realists—and more about multiplication, leveraging U.S. power to influence world events at a fraction of the cost of unilateral approaches. The United States would be vastly less powerful and influential in Europe and Central Asia without NATO; it would encounter far greater difficulties in rounding up partners to wage the ongoing war in Afghanistan or defeat the Islamic State; it would find itself fighting alone—rather than with some of the world’s most powerful partners—far more often. Likewise, without its longstanding treaty allies in Asia, the United States would be at an almost insurmountable disadvantage vis-à-vis revisionist powers in that region, namely China.
Both versions of realism also ignore the fact that America has been able to exercise its enormous power with remarkably little global resistance precisely because American leaders, by and large, have paid sufficient regard to the opinions of potential partners. Of course, every administration has sought to “put America first,” but the pursuit of American self-interest has proved most successful when it enjoys the acquiescence of other states. Likewise, the academic and Trump versions of realism too frequently forget that America draws power by supporting values with universal appeal. This is why every American president from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama has recognized that a more democratic world is likely to be one that is both ideologically and geopolitically more congenial to the United States.
Most important, both the academic and Trump versions of realism ignore the fact that the classical post–World War II realists deliberately sought to overcome the dog-eat-dog world that modern variants take as a given. They did so by facilitating cooperation within the free world, suppressing the security competitions that had previously led to cataclysmic wars, creating the basis for a thriving international economy, and thereby making life a little less nasty, brutish, and short for Americans as well as for vast swaths of the world’s population.
If realism is about maximizing power, effectiveness, and security in a competitive global arena, then neither the academic nor the Trump versions of realism merits the name. And if realism is meant to reflect the world as it is, both of these versions are deeply deficient.
This is a tragedy. For if ever there were a moment for an informed realism, it would be now, as the strategic horizon darkens and a more competitive international environment reemerges. There is still time for Trump and his team to adapt, and realism can still make a constructive contribution to American policy. But first it must rediscover its roots—and absorb the lessons of the past 70 years.
The Seven Pillars of Realism
A reformed realism should be built upon seven bedrock insights, which President Trump would do well to embrace.
First, American leadership remains essential to restraining global disorder. Today’s realists channel the longstanding American hope that there would come a time when the United States could slough off the responsibilities it assumed after World War II and again become a country that relies on its advantageous geography to keep the world at arm’s length. Yet realism compels an awareness that America is exceptionally suited to the part it has played for nearly four generations. The combination of its power, geographic location, and values has rendered America uniquely capable of providing a degree of global order in a way that is more reassuring than threatening to most of the key actors in the international system. Moreover, given that today the most ambitious and energetic international actors besides the United States are not liberal democracies but aggressive authoritarian powers, an American withdrawal is unlikely to produce multipolar peace. Instead, it is likely to precipitate the upheaval that U.S. engagement and activism have long been meant to avert. As a corollary, realists must also recognize that the United States is unlikely to thrive amid such upheaval; it will probably find that the disorder spreads and ultimately implicates vital American interests, as was twice the case in the first half of the 20th century.
Second, true realism recognizes the interdependence of hard and soft power. In a competitive world, there is no substitute for American hard power, and particularly for military muscle. Without guns, there will not—over the long term—be butter. But military power, by itself, is an insufficient foundation for American strategy. A crude reliance on coercion will damage American prestige and credibility in the end; hard power works best when deployed in the service of ideas and goals that command widespread international approval. Similarly, military might is most effective when combined with the “softer” tools of development assistance, foreign aid, and knowledge of foreign societies and cultures. The Trump administration has sought to eviscerate these nonmilitary capabilities and bragged about its “hard-power budget”; it would do better to understand that a balance between hard and soft power is essential.
Third, values are an essential part of American realism. Of course, the United States must not undertake indiscriminate interventions in the name of democracy and human rights. But, fortunately, no serious policymaker—not Woodrow Wilson, not Jimmy Carter, not George W. Bush—has ever embraced such a doctrine. What most American leaders have traditionally recognized is that, on balance, U.S. interests will be served and U.S. power will be magnified in a world in which democracy and human rights are respected. Ronald Reagan, now revered for his achievements in improving America’s global position, understood this point and made the selective promotion of democracy—primarily through nonmilitary means—a key part of his foreign policy. While paying due heed to the requirements of prudence and the limits of American power, then, American realists should work to foster a climate in which those values can flourish.
Fourth, a reformed realism requires aligning relations with the major powers appropriately—especially today, as great-power tensions rise. That means appreciating the value of institutions that have bound the United States to some of the most powerful actors in the international system for decades and thereby given Washington leadership of the world’s dominant geopolitical coalition. It means not taking trustworthy allies for granted or picking fights with them gratuitously. It also means not treating actual adversaries, such as Vladimir Putin’s Russia, as if they were trustworthy partners (as Trump has often talked of doing) or as if their aggressive behavior were simply a defensive response to American provocations (as many academic realists have done). A realistic approach to American foreign policy begins by seeing great-power relations through clear eyes.
Fifth, limits are essential. Academic realists are wrong to suggest that values should be excised from U.S. policy; they are wrong to argue that the United States should pull back dramatically from the world. Yet they are right that good statecraft requires an understanding of limits—particularly for a country as powerful as the United States, and particularly at a time when the international environment is becoming more contested. The United States cannot right every wrong, fix every problem, or defend every global interest. America can and should, however, shoulder more of the burden than modern academic and Trumpian realists believe. The United States will be effective only if it chooses its battles carefully; it will need to preserve its power for dealing with the most pressing threat to its national interests and the international order—the resurgence of authoritarian challenges—even if that means taking an economy-of-force approach to other issues.
Sixth, realists must recognize that the United States has not created and sustained a global network of alliances, international institutions, and other embedded relationships out of a sense of charity. It has done so because those relationships provide forums through which the United States can exercise power at a bargain-basement price. Embedded relationships have allowed the United States to rally other nations to support American causes from the Korean War to the counter-ISIS campaign, and have reduced the transaction costs of collective action to meet common threats from international terrorism to p.iracy. They have provided institutional megaphones through which the United States can amplify its diplomatic voice and project its influence into key issues and regions around the globe. If these arrangements did not exist, the United States would find itself having to create them, or acting unilaterally at far greater cost. If realism is really about maximizing American power, true realists ought to be enthusiastic about relationships and institutions that serve that purpose. Realists should adopt the approach that every post–Cold War president has embraced: that the United States will act unilaterally in defense of its interests when it must, but multilaterally with partners whenever it can.
Finally, realism requires not throwing away what has worked in the past. One of the most astounding aspects of both contemporary academic realism and the Trumpian variant of that tradition is the cavalier attitude they display toward arrangements and partnerships that have helped produce a veritable golden age of international peace, stability, and liberalism since World War II, and that have made the United States the most influential and effective actor in the globe in the process. Of course, there have been serious and costly conflicts over the past decades, and U.S. policy has always been thoroughly imperfect. But the last 70 years have been remarkably good ones for U.S. interests and the global order—whether one compares them with the 70 years before the United States adopted its global leadership role, or compares them with the violent disorder that would have emerged if America followed the nostrums peddled today under the realist label. A doctrine that stresses that importance of prudence and discretion, and that was originally conservative in its preoccupation with stability and order, ought not to pursue radical changes in American statecraft or embrace a “come what may” approach to the world. Rather, such a doctrine ought to recognize that true achievements are enormously difficult to come by—and that the most realistic approach to American strategy would thus be to focus on keeping a good thing going.
The story of Britain’s unknown neoconservatives
During the decade that followed, the prospects of “the sick man of Europe” were seemingly transformed. With the free market unleashed and the authority of the democratic government restored, inflation fell, growth resumed, and the unions were tamed. Britain became the laboratory for an experiment—privatization—that would transform not just its economy, but that of many countries throughout the world that came to look to it for inspiration.
More than any other Briton, one person was responsible for this about-turn: Margaret Thatcher. The foundations for what came to be known as the Thatcher revolution were laid in the four years she spent as leader of the Opposition before the Conservative Party she led was returned to power at the 1979 general election. During this period, much of the groundwork was done by a curious and unlikely triumvirate. Thatcher, the daughter of a shopkeeper and Methodist lay preacher from the provincial Middle England town of Grantham, was both the leader and the follower of the other two. They were Sir Keith Joseph, the scion of a wealthy Anglo-Jewish family, and Alfred Sherman, a former Communist working-class Jew from London’s East End whose parents had fled Czarist Russia.
Traditionally, the relationship between Jews and the Conservative Party had been one of mutual distrust. It was the Tories, for instance, who had attempted to shut the door to Jewish immigrants at the turn of the 20th century, while it was the Labour Party in which many of their sons and daughters would find a sympathetic home. An all-too-common mix of snobbery and anti-Semitism dominated the upper echelons of the Conservative Party, seemingly undisturbed by the fact that, by the 1930s, upward mobility began to enable some Jews to leave behind the socialist citadels of the inner cities and find a home in Tory-voting suburbia.
After the war, the association between the Tory Party and prewar appeasement, indifference verging on hostility to the birth of the state of Israel, and occasional manifestations of anti-Semitism among its grassroots membership meant that many Jews continued to shun it. There were only two Jews on the Tory benches in the House of Commons in the 25 years between 1945 and 1970—as against, at its peak, 38 Jewish Labour MPs in 1966. During the 1970s, this began to shift: Further demographic changes within the Jewish community, Labour’s drift toward anti-Zionism, and the more meritocratic bent of the Conservative Party, begun under Prime Minister Ted Heath (1970–74) and accelerated by Thatcher, dramatically increased the number of Jews voting Tory and sitting on the party’s benches in parliament.
If the Tory Party had historically been unwelcoming toward Jews, it had also had little time for intellectuals. While the notion of the Conservatives as the “stupid party,” as Britain’s only Jewish prime minster called it, was overblown, it was also true that many Tories regarded ideas and those who traded in them as suspect and a distraction from the party’s mission to govern the nation unencumbered by the kind of intellectual baggage that might hinder its ruthlessly successful pursuit of power.
Thatcher, Joseph, and Sherman would change all that.
When Thatcher unseated Heath as the Conservative Party’s leader in February 1975, the party was suffering an acute crisis of confidence. Heath had lost three of the four elections he had fought against Labour’s wily leader, Harold Wilson. The previous October, the Tories had received their lowest share of the vote since 1945.
These political problems were accompanied by—indeed, caused by, Thatcher was certain—a lack of self-belief. For three decades, the Tories had embraced the postwar consensus of Keynesian economics and a welfare state. In 1970, the party’s “Selsdon Manifesto” had promised to break with that ignoble history by freeing up the economy, reining in government, and clipping the wings of the nation’s powerful trade unions. But, barely two years in office, Heath’s government had buckled at the first sign of resistance and executed a less than gracious U-turn: caving into miners in the face of a strike and rolling back some newly introduced restrictions on the unions; ditching fiscal caution in an ill-fated “dash for growth”; and introducing wage and price controls. Its Industry Act, crowed the leader of Labour’s left, Tony Benn, was “spadework for socialism.” As members of the Heath government, Thatcher and Joseph—respectively responsible for the high-spending education and health departments—were implicated in this intellectual and political betrayal. But, unlike many of their colleagues, the two most economically conservative members of Heath’s Cabinet were determined it would be the last.
The son of a former lord mayor of London, Joseph was an improbable revolutionary by both background and temperament. Sherman would later note his ally’s “tendency to wilt under pressure” and aversion to conflict.
And yet Joseph was to be the man who lit the touch paper that, as Sherman put it, “sparked off the Thatcher revolution.”
Thatcher and Joseph shared a common attribute: the sense that they were both outsiders. Hers stemmed from her grocer’s-daughter upbringing, the snobbery and disdain she encountered at Oxford from both the upper-class grandees of the Conservative Association and the liberal intelligentsia that dominated its academic body, and later, her gender, as she sought a safe Tory seat.
His originated from his Judaism. In later life, Joseph suggested that the advantage of being Jewish was that to be successful, “you have to spark on all four cylinders.” To put it less positively, Jews faced greater barriers to achievement than others and so had to be twice as able. Despite his rapid rise through the Tory ranks once he had entered parliament 1956, Joseph remained, in the words of one observer, “almost alien.” Nonetheless, Joseph was very much in the mainstream of postwar moderate Conservatism. He combined a liberal social outlook and concern for the poor with a belief in the importance of entrepreneurship.
Occasionally, as when the Conservatives lost power in 1964, Joseph would signal dissent with the leftward direction in which his party was drifting. In a series of speeches and articles, he bemoaned the Tories’ failure to free Britain from the collectivist constraints Labour had imposed upon it after the war, talking of the need to cut taxes further, give business greater freedom, and, perhaps most significantly for the future, raise the then virtually unheard-of prospect of privatization.
But for the most part he toed the party line, as did Thatcher. Neither indicated any personal misgivings or public signs of disagreement when Heath abandoned the free-market program on which the Conservative government had been elected in 1970.
Joseph’s weakness at this critical moment escaped neither the wrath nor the attention of Alfred Sherman. Sherman’s upbringing in the East End of London was one, he later suggested, in which “you were born a socialist, you didn’t have to become one.”
Struggling to assimilate against a backdrop of barely disguised official anti-Semitism, Sherman became a Communist. “When we deserted the God of our fathers,” he wrote, “we were bound to go whoring after strange gods, of which socialism in its various forms was a prominent choice.” At 17, he went to war in Spain. His turn from Marxism came after World War II, when he studied at the London School of Economics and came upon F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. It “set him thinking”—and in 1948 he was expelled from the Communist Party for “deviationism.” In the unpromising terrain of 1950s socialist Israel, where he went to work as an economic advisor, he developed his fervent support for the free market. It was a cause he would vociferously promote on his return to Britain.
The two future collaborators in the Thatcher project first met when Sherman—at this point a journalist for the Daily Telegraph, the house journal of the Conservative Party—came to interview Joseph shortly after he had become a Cabinet minister in 1962. Sherman soon began to help write Joseph’s speeches, including those in which, before the Tories’ return to government in 1970, Joseph first began to tentatively break with the postwar consensus. Sherman was thus dismayed not only by the Heath government’s abandonment of its pre-election free-market pledges, but Joseph’s supposed connivance in this betrayal. He later labeled his friend “a lion in opposition and a lamb in government.”
But the shattering blow of the Tories’ ejection from office in 1974 at the hands of the unions brought the two men back together. “Keith,” Sherman bluntly told Joseph over lunch one day, “the trouble is that you agree with me but you haven’t got the backbone to say so.” While Sherman was a Conservative, his disdain for the establishment did not recognize party labels. The Tories, he believed, appeared to judge virtue by the measure of whether it won them elections. The free-market revolution that he wanted Joseph to lead was designed not simply to sweep away socialism, but to cleanse the Conservative Party of its postwar ideological sins. And so it was that, with Sherman acting as his confessor, Joseph underwent his very public recantation and conversion to Conservatism.
What Sherman would later dub “the London Spring” commenced on June 24, 1974, when Joseph delivered the first of a series of speeches eviscerating the Tories’ record and his own part in it. The introductory lines of this first speech, drafted by Sherman, represented the opening volley in what was to become a five-year assault on the postwar settlement:
This is no time to be mealy-mouthed. Since the end of the Second World War we have had altogether too much Socialism.…For half of that 30 years Conservative Governments, for understandable reasons, did not consider it practicable to reverse the vast bulk of the accumulating detritus of Socialism which on each occasion they found when they returned to office.
Just over two months later, on the eve of 1974’s second election, called by Labour’s Harold Wilson to boost his weak parliamentary position, Joseph returned to the fray once again. He assailed the last Tory government for abandoning “sound money policies,” suggested that it had been debilitated by an unwarranted fear of unemployment, and warned that inflation was “threatening to destroy our society.” His solution—neither “easy nor enjoyable”— was to cut the deficit, gradually bear down on the money supply, and accept that there was a resultant risk of a temporary increase in unemployment.
This was the moment at which the Tories began to break with the principal tenet of Keynesianism—that government’s overriding goal should be to secure full employment. As Thatcher argued in her memoirs, it was “one of the very few speeches which have fundamentally affected a political generation’s way of thinking.” A decade later, when she had been prime minister for five years, the import of Joseph’s words in Preston was clearer still. By that point, Britain was being led by a woman whose government had broken decisively with the policies of its predecessors, placed the defeat of inflation above that of unemployment, and turned monetarism into its economic lodestar. Thatcher had determined that she would not, as Joseph had cautioned against, “be stampeded again” into a Heath-like surrender to Keynes.
But at the time, Thatcher’s response to the Tory defeat in February 1974 was publicly muted. Her pronouncements—“I think we shall finish up being the more radical party”—verged on the anodyne. But she did become a vice-chair of the new Centre for Policy Studies, the think tank that Joseph and Sherman had newly established to “question the unquestioned, think the unthinkable, [and] blaze a trail,” in Sherman’s world. Not for nothing would Geoffrey Howe describe Sherman as “a zealot of the right.” During this period, as she later acknowledged, Thatcher “learned a great deal” from Sherman and Joseph. Thatcher began to attend lunches and seminars at the free-market Institute of Economic Affairs think tank and, as co-founder of the IEA, Lord Harris of High Crosssaid, said, “ponder our writing and our authors’ publications.”
That Joseph would lead while Thatcher followed was not, then, surprising. She had always regarded him as “the senior partner” in their close political friendship. Thatcher urged Joseph to challenge Heath for the Tory Party leadership and discouraged speculation that she herself might seek it. Then Joseph delivered an ill-advised speech on social policy in which he suggested that “the balance of our population, our human stock is threatened” by the birth rates of the poor. It led to a media furor and the abandonment of his still-embryonic campaign. Frustrated, Thatcher stepped into the breach. Two months later, she was elected leader.
In her campaign to take command of the Conservative Party, Thatcher sounded many of the same notes as Joseph: that voters believed too many Conservatives “had become Socialists already” and that Britain was moving inexorably in the direction of socialism, taking “two steps forward” under Labour, but only “half a step back” under the Tories. Nonetheless, she was under no illusions that her victory in the leadership election represented a “wholesale conversion” by the party to her and Joseph’s way of thinking. Over the next four years, the support and counsel of Joseph would prove invaluable.
Thatcher had, in the words of one of her Downing Street policy advisors, “no interest in ideas for their own sake,” but she did regard politics as a clash of opposing philosophies. “We must have an ideology,” she declared to the Conservative Philosophy Group, which was formed in the year she became party leader. “The other side have got an ideology they can test their policies against.” She thus looked to Joseph and Sherman to articulate her “beliefs, feelings, instincts, and intuitions into ideas, strategies, and policies,” in Sherman’s telling. They were the builders of the intellectual edifice for the instincts—that “profligacy was a vice” and government, like a prudent household, should live within its means—that, Thatcher proudly declared, she had learned from “the world in which I grew up.”
Many Tories regarded the very notion of a “battle of ideas” as dangerous nonsense. For others, it was the ideas themselves that were suspect. When Joseph presented a paper in April 1975 urging a break with the “path of consensus” and a much greater defense of “what some intellectuals disparagingly call ‘middle-class suburban values,’ a desire to enjoy economic independence, to be well thought of, patriotism”—it met with a furious response from the Tory Shadow Cabinet. Joseph’s call for the Conservatives to push an agenda of higher defense spending, an assault on union power, deep cuts in public expenditure, and measures to curb immigration and bolster the family was greeted with horror by his colleagues. But as Thatcher’s biographer, Charles Moore, has noted, “this startling paper furnished the main elements of what came to be called Thatcherism, both in specific policy and in general psychological terms.”
Meanwhile, memos, letters, and speeches poured forth from Sherman, invariably urging Thatcher and Joseph to go further and faster. With Sherman as his navigator and companion, Joseph himself assumed the role of outrider— “the licensed thinker scouting ahead in Indian country,” as future MP and Cabinet minister Oliver Letwin put it—helping to open up new territory for the Tory leader to occupy when she deemed it politically safe to do so. Her political antennae, much sharper and more finely attuned than those of Joseph or Sherman, proved critical to this creative mix. They drew fire from the Tory old guard, allowing Thatcher to rise above the fray and then later make public pronouncements that frequently followed the Joseph-Sherman line.
Joseph marked the territory between the two camps clearly. He urged the Tories to reach for the “common ground.” He did not mean the centrist midpoint between the two main parties’ positions, which had been the Conservative approach since the end of the war. He meant the territory where a majority of the public found itself, on the opposite side of the political establishment. As Sherman wrote to Thatcher, in trying to compete with Labour in the ephemeral center ground, the Tories had abandoned the defense of those values—“patriotism, the puritan ethic, Christianity, conventional family-based morality”— that most voters supported. More prosaically, he urged her to speak out on issues such as “national identity, law and order, and scrounging.” He thus provided her with an electoral and moral justification for pursuing a populist political strategy that dovetailed with her own instinctive convictions.
This son of Jewish immigrants would later speak of his disapproval of the term “Judeo-Christian values” and would insist that Thatcher should root her message in her own Methodist upbringing and the Tories’ close relationship with Britain’s Established Church. Thatcher proved more ecumenical. As her close friendship with Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits illustrated, she saw, and often remarked upon, the close harmony between Judaism and the nonconformist insistence on individual responsibility, community self-help, and the moral necessity of self-improvement and wealth creation imparted by her father. Not for nothing would the Sunday Telegraph later admiringly suggest during her premiership that Judaism had become “the new creed of Thatcherite Britain.”
Sherman’s early political convictions had both positive and negative ramifications. Thatcher said he brought a “convert’s zeal to the task of plotting out a new kind of free-market Conservatism.” What Sherman referred to as his “Communist decade,” he wrote, had taught him “to think big, to believe that, aligned with the forces of history, a handful of people with sufficient faith could move mountains.” His understanding of the left also allowed him to recognize, in a way neither Joseph nor Thatcher intuitively did, the need to cast Thatcherism as an anti-establishment, radical force. Combined with his assiduous wooing of disenchanted former Labour supporters, this helped Thatcher win some high-profile converts, such as the novelist Kingsley Amis, the writer Paul Johnson, and the academic John Vaizey.
The intellectual development of Thatcherism in the 1970s was, of course, the work of many hands. While not by any means exclusively so, many were Jewish and some came from outside the Tory fold. The political scientist Shirley Robin Letwin and her husband, the economist Bill Letwin, both American-born, began to offer advice and assistance with Thatcher’s speeches. While recoiling from her devotion to “Victorian values,” the economist Samuel Brittan was nonetheless an influential exponent of monetarism. His economic commentary in the Financial Times was the only newspaper column Thatcher never missed reading. Arthur Seldon, a founder of the IEA, was a supporter of the Liberal Party who hankered in vain for it return to its Gladstonian belief in limited government. He ensured the flame of free-market economics was not completely extinguished in the 1950s, helped introduce the ideas of Milton Friedman to Britain, and willingly assisted in Thatcher’s effort to smash the postwar settlement.
However, it was Joseph and Sherman who were the preeminent warriors in the battle of ideas. Joseph’s 1976 Stockton Lecture, “Monetarism Is Not Enough,” called for a squeeze on the money supply to bring down inflation, substantial cuts in taxes and spending, and “bold incentives and encouragements” to wealth-creators. It encapsulated the governing agenda and underlying philosophy of the Thatcher governments. Thatcher biographer Hugo Young believed that Joseph’s speeches during this time contained “everything that is distinctive about the economic and political philosophy” of Thatcherism. Joseph took “the moral case for capitalism” into the lion’s den of the campuses, delivering 150 speeches in three years on the virtues of the free market. Despite the frequent attempts of hard-left students to disrupt his appearances, Thatcher later concluded that Joseph’s work had been critical in restoring the right’s “intellectual self-confidence.” She said that “all that work with the intellectuals” helped underlay her government’s later successes.
In the settling of scores that followed her dramatic defenestration in November 1990, Thatcher’s sense of betrayal was evident. Among the few who escaped her harsh words were Joseph and Sherman. In the first volume of her memoirs, which she dedicated to Joseph’s memory, Thatcher wrote simply: “I could not have become Leader of the Opposition, or achieved what I did as Prime Minister, without Keith. But nor, it is fair to say, could Keith have achieved what he did without …Alfred Sherman.”
Joseph and Sherman’s presence underlines the leading role played by Jews in the intellectual regeneration of British conservatism, a prominence akin to—and perhaps even greater than—that played by Jewish neoconservatives in the Reagan revolution.
Review of 'The Strange Death of Europe' By Douglas Murray
Since Christianity had shaped the “humanism of which Europe feels legitimately proud,” the ailing pontiff argued, the constitution should make some reference to Europe’s Christian patrimony. His appeal was met with accusations of bigotry. The pope had inflamed the post-9/11 atmosphere of “Islamophobia,” one “anti-racism” outfit said. Another group asked: What about the contributions made by the “tolerant Islam of al-Andalus”? Former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing spoke for the political class: “Europeans live in a purely secular political system, where religion does not play an important role.”
Douglas Murray recounts this episode early on in his fiery, lucid, and essential polemic. It epitomized the folly of European elites who would sooner discard the Continent’s civilizational heritage than show partiality for their own culture over others’. To Murray, this tendency is quite literally suicidal—hence the “death” in his title.
The book deals mainly with Western Europe’s disastrous experiment in admitting huge numbers of Muslim immigrants without bothering to assimilate them. These immigrants now inhabit parallel communities on the outskirts of most major cities. They reject mainstream values and not infrequently go boom. Murray’s account ranges from the postwar guest-worker programs to the 2015 crisis that brought more than a million people from the Middle East and Africa.
This is dark-night-of-the-soul stuff. The author, a director at London’s Henry Jackson Society (where I was briefly a nonresident fellow), has for more than a decade been among Europe’s more pessimistic voices on immigration. My classically liberal instincts primed me to oppose him at every turn. Time and again, I found myself conceding that, indeed, he has a point. This is in large part because I have been living in and reporting on Europe for nearly four years. Events of the period have vindicated Murray’s bleak vision and confounded his critics.
Murray is right: Time isn’t mellowing out Europe’s Muslims. “The presumption of those who believed in integration is that in time everybody who arrives will become like Europeans,” Murray writes. Yet it is the young who are usually the most fanatical. Second- and third-generation immigrants make up the bulk of the estimated 5,000 Muslims who have gone off to fight with the Islamic State.
The first large wave of Muslim immigrants to Britain arrived soon after World War II. Seven decades later, an opinion survey conducted (in 2016) by the polling firm ICM found that half of Muslim Britons would proscribe homosexuality, a third would legalize polygamy, and a fifth would replace civil law with Shariah. A different survey, also conducted in 2016, found that 83 percent of young French Muslims describe their faith as “important or very important” to them, compared with 22 percent of young Catholics. I could go on with such polling data; Murray does for many pages.
He is also correct that all the various “integration” models have failed. Whether it is consensus-based social democracy in the Nordic countries, multiculturalism in Britain, or republican secularism in France, the same patterns of disintegration and social incohesion persist nearly everywhere. Different European governments have treated this or that security measure, economic policy, or urban-planning scheme as the integration panacea, to no avail.
Murray argues that the successive failures owe to a basic lack of political will. To prove the point he cites, among other things, female genital mutilation in the UK. Laws against the practice have been on the books for three decades. Even so, an estimated 130,000 British women have had their genitals cut, and not a single case has been successfully prosecuted.
Pusillanimity and retreat have been the norm among governments and cultural elites on everything from FGM to free speech to counterterrorism. The result has been that the “people who are most criticized both from within Muslim communities in Europe and among the wider population are in fact the people who fell hardest for the integration promises of liberal Europe.” It was Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the fierce Somali-born proponent of Enlightenment values and women’s equality, who had to escape Holland under a death threat, not her persecutors.
And Murray is right when he says that Europeans hadn’t staged a real debate on immigration until very recently. The author might be too quick to dismiss the salutary fiscal and social effects of economic growth and immigration’s role in promoting it. At various points he even suggests that Europeans forgo economic as well as population growth if it means having to put up with fewer migrants. He praises hermetically sealed Japan, but he elides the Japanese model’s serious economic, demographic, and even psychological disadvantages.
All this is secondary to Murray’s unanswerable argument that European elites had for years cordoned off immigration from normal political debate. As he writes, “whereas the benefits of mass immigration undoubtedly exist and everybody is made very aware of them, the disadvantages of importing huge numbers of people from another culture take a great deal of time to admit to.” In some cases, most notably the child-sex grooming conspiracy in Rotherham, England, the institutions have tried to actively suppress the truth. Writes Murray: “Instead of carrying out their jobs without fear or favor, police, prosecutors, and journalists behaved as though their job was to mediate between the public and the facts.”I s it possible to imagine an alternative history, one in which Europe would absorb this many migrants from Islamic lands but suffer fewer and less calamitous harms? Murray’s surprising answer is yes. Had Europe retained its existential confidence over the course of the previous two centuries, things might have turned out differently. As it was, however, mass migration saw a “strong religious culture”—Islam—“placed into a weak and relativistic culture.”
In the book’s best chapters, Murray departs from the policy debate to attend to the sources of Europe’s existential insecurity. Germans bear much of the blame, beginning with 19th-century Bible scholarship that applied the methods of history, philology, and literary criticism to sacred scripture. That pulled the rug of theological certainty from under Europe’s feet, in Murray’s account, and then Darwin’s discoveries heightened the disorientation. Europeans next tried to substitute totalistic ideology for religion, with catastrophic results.
Finally, after World War II, they settled on human rights as the central meaning of Europe. But since Europeans could no longer believe, these rights were cut off from one of their main wellsprings: the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Catholic Church—having circumscribed the power of earthly kings across centuries and thereby “injected an anti-totalitarian vaccine into the European bloodstream,” as George Weigel has written in these pages–was scorned or ignored. Europeans forgot how they came to be free.
Somehow Europe must recover its vitality. But how? Murray is torn. On one hand, he sees how a rights-based civilization needs a theological frame, lest it succumb before a virile and energetic civilization like Islam. On the other, he thinks the leap of faith is impossible today. Murray can’t blame François, the professor-protagonist of Michel Houellebecq’s 2016 novel Submission. Faced with an Islamic takeover of France, François heads to a monastery desperate to shake his spiritual torpor. But kneeling before the Virgin doesn’t do anything for him. Islam, with its simplicity and practicality (not least the offer of up to four nubile wives), is much harder to resist.
Murray wonders whether the answer lies in art. Maybe in beauty Europeans can recover the fulfillment and sense of mystery that their ancestors once found in liturgy–only without the cosmic truth claims. He laments that contemporary European art has “given up that desire to connect us to something like the spirit of religion,” though it is possible that the current period of crisis will engender a revival. In the meanwhile, Murray has suggested, even nonbelievers should go to church as a way to mark and show gratitude for Christianity’s foundational role in Europe.
He is onto something. Figure out the identity bit in the book’s subtitle—“Immigration, Identity, Islam”—and the other two will prove much easier to sort out.
A maestro’s morality
How is it possible that a man who made his conducting debut when Grover Cleveland was president should still be sufficiently well known and revered that most of his recordings remain in print to this day? Toscanini: Musician of Conscience, Harvey Sachs’s new biography, goes a long way toward defining what made Toscanini unique.1 A conductor himself, Sachs is also the author of, among other excellent books, a previous biography of Toscanini that was published in 1978. Since then, several large caches of important primary-source material, most notably some 1,500 of the conductor’s letters, have become available to researchers. Sachs’s new biography draws on this new material and other fresh research. It is vastly longer and more detailed than its predecessor and supersedes it in every way.
Despite its length and thoroughness, Toscanini: Musician of Conscience is not a pedant’s vade mecum. Clearly and attractively written, it ranks alongside Richard Osborne’s 1998 biography of Herbert von Karajan as one of the most readable biographies of a conductor ever published. For Toscanini, as Sachs shows us, had a volatile, immensely strong-willed character, one that in time caused him to clash not only with his colleagues but with the dangerous likes of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. The same fierce integrity that energized his conducting also led him to put his life at risk at a time when many of his fellow musicians were disinclined to go even slightly out of their way to push back against the Fascist tyrants of the ’30s.T oscanini: Musician of Conscience does not devote much space to close analysis of Toscanini’s interpretative choices and technical methods. For the most part, Sachs shows us Toscanini’s art through the eyes of others, and the near-unanimity of the admiration of his contemporaries, whose praise is quoted in extenso, is striking, even startling. Richard Strauss, as distinguished a conductor as he was a composer, spoke for virtually everyone in the world of music when he said, “When you see that man conduct, you feel that there is only one thing for you to do: take your baton, break it in pieces, and never conduct again.”
Fortunately for posterity, Toscanini’s unflashy yet wondrously supple baton technique can be seen up close in the 10 concerts he gave with the NBC Symphony between 1948 and 1952 that were telecast live (most of which can now be viewed in part or whole on YouTube). But while his manual gestures, whose effect was heightened by the irresistible force of his piercing gaze, were by all accounts unfailingly communicative, Toscanini’s ability to draw unforgettable performances out of the orchestras that he led had at least as much to do with his natural musical gifts. These included an infallible memory—he always conducted without a score—and an eerily exact ear for wrong notes. Such attributes would have impressed orchestra players, a hard-nosed lot, even if they had not been deployed in the service of a personality so galvanizing that most musicians found it all but impossible not to do Toscanini’s musical bidding.
What he wanted was for the most part wholly straightforward. Toscanini believed that it was his job—his duty, if you will—to perform the classics with note-perfect precision, singing tone, unflagging intensity, and an overall feeling of architectural unity that became his trademark. When an orchestra failed to give of its best, he flew into screaming rages whose verbal violence would likely not be believed were it not for the fact that there were secret tapes made. In one of his most spectacular tantrums, which has been posted on YouTube, he can be heard telling the bass players of the NBC Symphony that “you have no ears, no eyes, nothing at all…you have ears in—in your feet!”
Toscanini was able to get away with such behavior because his own gifts were so extraordinary that the vast majority of his players worshipped him. In the words of the English bassoonist Archie Camden, who played under Toscanini in the BBC Symphony from 1935 to 1939, he was “the High Priest of Music,” a man “almost of another world” whose artistic integrity was beyond question. And while his personal integrity was not nearly so unblemished—he was, as Sachs reports with unsalacious candor, a compulsive philanderer whose love letters to his mistresses are explicit to the point of pornography—there is nonetheless a parallel between the passionate conscientiousness of his music-making and his refusal to compromise with Hitler and Mussolini, both of whom were sufficiently knowledgeable about music to understand what a coup it would have been to co-opt the world’s greatest conductor.
Among the most valuable parts of Toscanini: Musician of Conscience are the sections in which Sachs describes Toscanini’s fractious relations with the German and Italian governments. Like many of his fellow countrymen, he had been initially impressed by Mussolini, so much so that he ran for the Italian parliament as a Fascist candidate in 1919. But he soon saw through Mussolini’s modernizing rodomontade to the tyrant within, and by the late ’20s he was known throughout Italy and the world as an unswerving opponent of the Fascist regime. In 1931 he was beaten by a mob of blackshirted thugs, after which he stopped conducting in Italy, explaining that he would not perform there so long as the Fascists were in power. Mussolini thereupon started tapping his telephone line, and seven years later the conductor’s passport was confiscated when he described the Italian government’s treatment of Jews as “medieval stuff” in a phone call. Had public and private pressure not been brought to bear, he might well have been jailed or murdered. Instead he was allowed to emigrate to the U.S. He did not return to Italy until after World War II.
If anything, Toscanini’s hatred for the Nazis was even more potent, above all because he was disgusted by their anti-Semitism. A philo-Semite who referred to the Jews as “this marvelous people persecuted by the modern Nero,” he wrote a letter to one of his mistresses in the immediate wake of the Anschluss that makes for arresting reading eight decades later:
My heart is torn in bits and pieces. When you think about this tragic destruction of the Jewish population of Austria, it makes your blood turn cold. Think of what a prominent part they’d played in Vienna’s life for two centuries! . . . Today, with all the great progress of our civilization, none of the so-called liberal nations is making a move. England, France, and the United States are silent!
Toscanini felt so strongly about the rising tide of anti-Semitism that he agreed in 1936 to conduct the inaugural concerts of the Palestine Symphony (later the Israel Philharmonic) as a gesture of solidarity with the Jews. In an even more consequential gesture, he had already terminated his relationship with the Bayreuth Festival, where he had conducted in 1930 and 1931, the first non-German conductor to do so. While the founder of the festival, Richard Wagner, ranked alongside Beethoven, Brahms, and Verdi at the top of Toscanini’s pantheon of musical gods, he was well aware many of the members of the Wagner family who ran Bayreuth were close friends of Adolf Hitler, and he decided to stop conducting in Germany—Bayreuth included—when the Nazis came to power. Hitler implored him to return to the festival in a personal letter that praised him as “the great representative of art and of a people friendly to Germany.” Once again, though, there was to be no compromise: Toscanini never performed in Germany again, nor would he forgive those musicians, Wilhelm Furtwängler among them, who continued to do so.I mplicit throughout Sachs’s book is the idea that Toscanini the man and Toscanini the musician were, as his subtitle suggests, inseparable—that, in other words, his conscience drove him to oppose totalitarianism in much the same way that it drove him to pour his heart and soul into his work. He was in every sense of the word a driven man, one capable of writing in an especially revealing letter that “when I’m working I don’t have time to feel joy; on the contrary, I suffer without interruption, and I feel that I’m going through all the pain and suffering of a woman giving birth.”
Toscanini was not striking a theatrical pose when he wrote these melodramatic-sounding words. The rare moments of ecstasy that he experienced on the podium were more than offset by his obsessive struggle to make the mere mortals who sang and played for him realize, as closely as possible, his vision of artistic perfection. That was why he berated them, why he ended his rehearsals drenched with sweat, why he flogged himself as unsparingly as he flogged his musicians. It was, he believed, what he had been born to do, and he was willing to move heaven and earth in order to do it.
To read of such terrifying dedication is awe-inspiring—yet it is also strangely demoralizing. To be sure, there are still artists who drive themselves as relentlessly as did Toscanini, and who pull great art out of themselves with the same iron determination. But his quasi-religious consecration to music inevitably feels alien to the light-minded spirit of our own age, dominated as it is by pop culture. It is hard to believe that NBC, the network of Jimmy Fallon and Superstore, maintained for 17 years a full-time symphony orchestra that had been organized in 1937 for the specific purpose of allowing Toscanini to give concerts under conditions that he found satisfactory. A poll taken by Fortune that year found that 40 percent of Americans could identify Toscanini as a conductor. By 1954, the year in which he gave up conducting the NBC Symphony (which was then disbanded), the number was surely much higher.
Will there ever again be a time when high art in general and classical music in particular mean as much to the American people as they did in Toscanini’s heyday? Very likely not. But at least there will be Harvey Sachs’s fine biography—and, far more important, Toscanini’s matchlessly vivid recordings—to remind us of what we once were, what we have lost, and what Arturo Toscanini himself aspired to be and to do.
1 Liveright, 923 pages. Many of Toscanini’s best commercial American recordings, made with the NBC Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, were reissued earlier this year in a budget-priced box set called Arturo Toscanini: The Essential Recordings (RCA Red Seal, 20 CD’s) whose contents were chosen by Sachs and Christopher Dyment, another noted Toscanini scholar. Most of the recordings that he made in the ’30s with the BBC Symphony are on Arturo Toscanini: The HMV Recordings (Warner Classics, six CD’s).
A blockbuster movie gets the spirit right and the details wrong
But enough about Brexit; what about Christopher Nolan’s new movie about Dunkirk?
Dunkirk is undoubtedly a blockbuster with a huge cast—Nolan has splendidly used thousands of extras rather than computer cartooning to depict the vast numbers of Allied troops trapped on the beaches—and a superb score by Hans Zimmer. Kenneth Branagh is a stiff upper-lipped rear-admiral, whose rather clunking script is all too obviously designed to tell the audience what’s going on; One Direction pop star Harry Styles is a British Tommy, and Tom Hardy is a Spitfire pilot who somehow shoots down two Heinkels while gliding, having run out of fuel about halfway through the movie. Mark Rylance, meanwhile, plays the brave skipper of a small boat taking troops off the beaches in the manner of Walter Pidgeon in Mrs. Miniver.
Yet for all the clichéd characterization, almost total lack of dialogue, complete lack of historical context (not even a cameo role for Winston Churchill), a ludicrous subplot in which a company of British soldiers stuck on a sinking boat do not use their Bren guns to defend themselves, problems with continuity (sunny days turn immediately into misty ones as the movie jumps confusingly through time), and Germans breaking into central Dunkirk whereas in fact they were kept outside the perimeter throughout the evacuation, Dunkirk somehow works well.
It works for the same reason that the 1958 film of the same name directed by Leslie Norman and starring Richard Attenborough and John Mills did. The story of the nine-day evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk in late May and early June 1940 is a tale of such extraordinary heroism, luck, and intimate proximity to utter disaster that it would carry any film, even a bad one, and Nolan’s is emphatically not a bad one. Although the dogfights take place at ridiculously low altitudes, they are thrilling, and the fact that one doesn’t see a single German soldier until the closing scene, and then only two of them in silhouette, somehow works, too. See the film on the biggest screen you can, which will emphasize the enormity of the challenge faced by the Allies in getting over 336,000 troops off the beaches for the loss of only 40,000 killed, wounded and captured.
There is a scene when the armada of small boats arrives at the beaches that will bring a lump to the throat of any patriotic Briton; similarly, three swooping Spitfires are given a wonderfully evocative moment. The microcosm of the evacuation that Nolan concentrates on works well, despite another silly subplot in which a British officer with PTSD (played by Cillian Murphy) kills a young boy on Rylance’s small boat. That all the British infantry privates, not just Harry Styles, look like they sing in boy-bands doesn’t affect the power of seeing them crouch en masse under German attack in their greatcoats and helmets on the foam-flecked beaches.
On the tenth of May in 1940, Adolf Hitler invaded France, Belgium, and Holland, unleashing Blitzkrieg on the British and French armies—a new all-arms tactic of warfare that left his enemies reeling. He also sent tanks through the forests of the Ardennes mountains, which were considered impassable, and by May 16, some panzer units had already reached the English Channel. With the British and French in full retreat, on May 24 the Fuhrer halted his tanks’ headlong advance for various sound military reasons—he wanted to give his men some rest, did not want to over-extend the German army, needed to protect against counter-attack, and wanted his infantry to catch up. From May 26 to June 3, the Allies used this pause to throw up a perimeter around the French port of Dunkirk, from whose pleasure beaches more than a quarter of a million British and more than 80,000 French troops embarked to cross the Channel to safety in Britain.
Protected by the Royal Air Force, which lost 144 pilots in the skies over Dunkirk, and by the French air force (which plays no part in this movie) and transported by the Royal Navy (which doesn’t seem to be able to use its guns against the Luftwaffe in this film, but which luckily did in real life), British and French troops made it to Dover, albeit without any heavy equipment which they had to destroy on the beach. An allusion is made to that when Tom Hardy destroys the Spitfire he has (I must say quite unbelievably) landed on a beach in order to prevent its falling into German hands.
In response to a call from the British government, more than 700 private vessels were requisitioned, including yachts, paddle steamers, ferries, fishing trawlers, packet steamers and lifeboats. Even today when boating down the Thames it is possible to see small pleasure vessels sometimes only fifteen feet long with the plaque “Dunkirk 1940” proudly displayed on the cabins. That 226 were sunk by the Luftwaffe, along with six destroyers of the 220 warships that took part, shows what it meant to rise to what was afterwards called “the Dunkirk Spirit.” It was a spirit of defiance of tyranny that one glimpses regularly in this film, even if Nolan does have to pay obeisance to the modern demands for stories of cowardice alongside heroism, and the supposedly redemptive cowardice-into-heroism stories that Hollywood did not find necessary when it made Mrs. Miniver in 1942.
Nolan’s Dunkirk implies that it was the small boats that brought back the majority of the troops, whereas in fact the 39 destroyers and one cruiser involved in Operation Dynamo brought back the huge majority while the little ships did the crucial job of ferrying troops from the beaches to the destroyers. Six of which were sunk, though none by U-boats (which the film wrongly suggests were present).
Where Nolan’s film commits a libel on the British armed services is in its tin ear for the Anglo-French relations of the time. In the movie, a British beach-master prevents French infantrymen from boarding a naval vessel, saying “This is a British ship. You get your own ships.” The movie later alleges that no Frenchmen were allowed to be evacuated until all the Britons were safely back home. This was not what happened. The French were brought across the Channel in Royal Navy vessels and small boats when their units arrived on the beaches.
There was no discrimination whatsoever, and to suggest there was injects false nationalist tension into what was in truth a model of good inter-Allied cooperation. Only much later, when the Nazi-installed Vichy government in France needed to create an Anglophobic myth of betrayal at Dunkirk, did such lies emerge. It is a shame that Nolan is now propagating them—especially since this might be the only contact that millions of people will ever have with the Dunkirk story for years, perhaps even a generation. At a time when schools simply do not teach the histories of anything so patriotism-inducing as Dunkirk, it was incumbent on Nolan to get this right.
In a touching scene at the end, one of the Tommies is depicted reading from a newspaper Churchill’s famous “We shall fight on the beaches” speech of June 4, 1940, with its admonition: “We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.” Churchill made no attempt to minimize the scale of what he called a “colossal military disaster,” but he also spoke, rightly, of the fact that it had been a “miracle of deliverance.” That is all that matters in this story.
So despite my annoyance at how many little details are off here—for example, Tom Hardy firing 75 seconds’ worth of ammunition when he would really have only had 14.7, or choppy weather when the Channel was really like a mill pond—I must confess that such problems are only for military history pedants like me. What Nolan has gotten right is the superb spirit of the British people in overcoming hatred, resentment, and fury with calmness, courage, and good humor.
Which brings us back to Brexit.
The Swoon has several symptoms: extreme praise, a disinclination to absorb contrary facts, a weakness for adulation, and a willingness to project one’s own beliefs and dispositions onto an ill-suited target, regardless of evidence. The first thing to know about the Swoon, though, is that it is well rooted in reality. John McCain is perhaps the most interesting non-presidential figure in Washington politics since Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Any piece of journalism that aims to assess him objectively should be required to include, as a stipulation, a passage like this one from Robert Timberg’s masterful book about Vietnam, The Nightingale’s Song.
“Do you want to go home?”
“Now, McCain, it will be very bad for you.”
The [chief jailer] gleefully led the charge as the guards, at [another guard’s] command, drove fists and knees and boots into McCain. Amid laughter and muttered oaths, he was slammed from one guard to another, bounced from wall to wall, knocked down, kicked, dragged to his feet, knocked back down, punched again and again in the face. When the beating was over, he lay on the floor, bloody, arms and legs throbbing, ribs cracked, several teeth broken off at the gum line.
“Are you ready to confess your crimes?” asked [the guard].
The ropes came next . . .
This scene is, of course, from McCain’s five years in a North Vietnamese prisoner of war camp. It helps to know that before this gruesome episode began—there were many more to come—McCain’s arms had been broken and gone untreated. It helps, too, to know that the point of the torture was to force McCain to leave the prison and return home to his father, the highest ranking naval officer in the Pacific. In other words, they hung him by his broken arms because he refused to let them let him go.
Every reporter who’s done his homework knows this about McCain, and most civilians who meet him know it, too. This is the predicate for the Swoon. It began to afflict liberal journalists of the Boomer generation during the warm-up to his first run for president, against Governor George W. Bush, in the late 1990s. The reporter would be brought onto McCain’s campaign bus and receive a mock-gruff welcome from the candidate. No nervous handlers would be in evidence, like those who ever attend other candidates during interviews.
And then it happens: In casual, preliminary conversation, McCain makes an indiscreet comment about a Senate colleague. “Is that off the record?” the reporter asks, and McCain waves his hand: “It’s the truth, isn’t it?” In a minute or two, the candidate, a former fighter pilot, drops the F bomb. Then, on another subject, he makes an offhanded reference to being “in prison.” The reporter, who went through four deferments in the late 1960s smoking weed with half-naked co-eds at an Ivy League school, feels the hot, familiar surge of guilt. As the interview winds down, the reporter sees an unexpected and semi-obscure literary work—the collected short stories of William Maxwell, let’s say—that McCain keeps handy for casual reading.
By the time he’s shown off the bus—after McCain has complimented a forgotten column the reporter wrote two years ago—the man is a goner. If I saw it once in my years writing about McCain, I saw it a dozen times. (I saw it happen to me!) Soon the magazine feature appears, with a headline like “The Warrior,” or “A Question of Honor,” or even “John McCain Walks on Water.” Those are all real headlines from his first presidential campaign. This really got printed, too: “It is a perilous thing, this act of faith in a faithless time—perilous for McCain and perilous for the people who have come to him, who must realize the constant risk that, sometimes, God turns out to be just a thunderstorm, and the gold just stones agleam in the sun.”
Judging from inquiries I’ve made over the years, the only person who knows what that sentence means is the writer of it, an employee of Esquire magazine named Charles Pierce. No liberal journalist got the Swoon worse than Pierce, and no one was left with a bitterer hangover when it emerged that McCain was, in nearly every respect, a conventionally conservative, generally loyal Republican—with complications, of course. The early Swooners had mistaken those complications (support for campaign-finance reform, for example, and his willingness to strike back at evangelical bullies like Jerry Falwell Sr.) as the essence of McCain. When events proved this not to be so, culminating in his dreary turn as the 2008 Republican presidential nominee—when he committed the ultimate crime in liberal eyes, midwifing the national career of Sarah Palin—it was only Republicans who were left to swoon.
So matters rested until this July, when McCain released the news that he suffers from a particularly aggressive form of brain cancer. Many appropriate encomiums rolled in, some from the original Swooners. But another complication arose. Desperate to pass a “motion to proceed” so that a vote could be taken on a lame and toothless “repeal” of Obamacare, Senate Republicans could muster only a tie vote. McCain announced he would rise from his hospital bed and fly to Washington to break the tie and vote for the motion to proceed.
Even conservatives who had long remained resistant to the Swoon succumbed. Even Donald Trump tweet-hailed McCain as a returning hero. His old fans from the left, those with long memories, wrote, or tweeted, more in sorrow than in anger. Over at Esquire, poor Charles Peirce reaffirmed that God had turned out to be just a thunderstorm again. “The ugliest thing to witness on a very ugly day in the United States Senate,” he wrote, “was what John McCain did to what was left of his legacy as a national figure.” A longtime Swooner in the Atlantic: “Senator McCain gave us a clearer idea of who he is and what he stands for.” Answers: a hypocrite, and nothing!
The old fans weren’t mollified by a speech McCain made after his vote, in which he sounded notes they had once thrilled to—he praised bipartisanship and cooperation across the aisle. Several critics in the press dismissed the speech with the same accusation that his conservative enemies had always leveled at McCain when he committed something moderate. He was pandering…to them! “McCain so dearly wants the press to think better of him for [this] speech,” wrote the ex-fan in the Atlantic. But the former Swooners were having none of it. Swoon me once, shame on me. Swoon me twice . . .
Then the next day in the wee hours, McCain voted against the actual bill to repeal Obamacare. Democrats were elated, and Republicans were forced to halt in mid-Swoon. His reasons for voting as he did were sound enough, but reasons seldom enter in when people are in thrall to their image of McCain. The people who had once loved him so, and who had suffered so cruelly in disappointment, were once more in love. Let’s let Pierce have the last word: “The John McCain the country had been waiting for finally showed up early Friday morning.” He had done what they wanted him to do; why he had done it was immaterial.
The condescension is breathtaking. Sometimes I think McCain is the most misunderstood man in Washington. True enough, he’s hard to pin down. He’s a screen onto which the city’s ideologues and party hacks project their own hopes and forebodings. Now, as he wages another battle in a long and eventful life, what he deserves from us is something simpler—not a swoon but a salute, offered humbly, with much reverence, affection, and gratitude.