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.
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The Jewish Future, Part 5
Must-Reads from Magazine
Exactly one week later, a Star Wars cantina of the American extremist right featuring everyone from David Duke to a white-nationalist Twitter personality named “Baked Alaska” gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a statue honoring the Confederate general Robert E. Lee. A video promoting the gathering railed against “the international Jewish system, the capitalist system, and the forces of globalism.” Amid sporadic street battles between far-right and “antifa” (anti-fascist) activists, a neo-Nazi drove a car into a crowd of peaceful counterprotestors, killing a 32-year-old woman.
Here, in the time span of just seven days, was the dual nature of contemporary American anti-Semitism laid bare. The most glaring difference between these two displays of hate lies not so much in their substance—both adhere to similar conspiracy theories articulating nefarious, world-altering Jewish power—but rather their self-characterization. The animosity expressed toward Jews in Charlottesville was open and unambiguous, with demonstrators proudly confessing their hatred in the familiar language of Nazis and European fascists.
The socialists in Chicago, meanwhile, though calling for a literal second Holocaust on the shores of the Mediterranean, would fervently and indignantly deny they are anti-Semitic. On the contrary, they claim the mantle of “anti-fascism” and insist that this identity naturally makes them allies of the Jewish people. As for those Jews who might oppose their often violent tactics, they are at best bystanders to fascism, at worst collaborators in “white supremacy.”
So, whereas white nationalists explicitly embrace a tribalism that excludes Jews regardless of their skin color, the progressives of the DSA and the broader “woke” community conceive of themselves as universalists—though their universalism is one that conspicuously excludes the national longings of Jews and Jews alone. And whereas the extreme right-wingers are sincere in their anti-Semitism, the socialists who called for the elimination of Israel are just as sincere in their belief that they are not anti-Semitic, even though anti-Semitism is the inevitable consequence of their rhetoric and worldview.
The sheer bluntness of far-right anti-Semitism makes it easier to identify and stigmatize as beyond the pale; individuals like David Duke and the hosts of the “Daily Shoah” podcast make no pretense of residing within the mainstream of American political debate. But the humanist appeals of the far left, whose every libel against the Jewish state is paired with a righteous invocation of “justice” for the Palestinian people, invariably trigger repetitive and esoteric debates over whether this or that article, allusion, allegory, statement, policy, or political initiative is anti-Semitic or just critical of Israel. What this difference in self-definition means is that there is rarely, if ever, any argument about the substantive nature of right-wing anti-Semitism (despicable, reprehensible, wicked, choose your adjective), while the very existence of left-wing anti-Semitism is widely doubted and almost always indignantly denied by those accused of practicing it.T o be sure, these recent manifestations of anti-Semitism occur on the left and right extremes. And statistics tell a rather comforting story about the state of anti-Semitism in America. Since the Anti-Defamation League began tracking it in 1979, anti-Jewish hate crime is at an historic low; indeed, it has been declining since a recent peak of 1,554 incidents in 2006. America, for the most part, remains a very philo-Semitic country, one of the safest, most welcoming countries for Jews on earth. A recent Pew poll found Jews to be the most admired religious group in the United States.1 If American Jews have anything to dread, it’s less anti-Semitism than the loss of Jewish peoplehood through assimilation, that is being “loved to death” by Gentiles.2 Few American Jews can say that anti-Semitism has a seriously deleterious impact on their life, that it has denied them educational or employment opportunities, or that they fear for the physical safety of themselves or their families because of their Jewish identity.
The question is whether the extremes are beginning to move in on the center. In the past year alone, the DSA’s rolls tripled from 8,000 to 25,000 dues-paying members, who have established a conspicuous presence on social media reaching far beyond what their relatively miniscule numbers attest. The DSA has been the subject of widespread media coverage, ranging from the curious to the adulatory. The white supremacists, meanwhile, found themselves understandably heartened by the strange difficulty President Donald Trump had in disavowing them. He claimed, in fact, that there had been some “very fine people” among their ranks. “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville,” tweeted David Duke, while the white-nationalist Richard Spencer said, “I’m proud of him for speaking the truth.”
Indeed, among the more troubling aspects of our highly troubling political predicament—and one that, from a Jewish perspective, provokes not a small amount of angst—is that so many ideas, individuals, and movements that could once reliably be categorized as “extreme,” in the literal sense of articulating the views of a very small minority, are no longer so easily dismissed. The DSA is part of a much broader revival of the socialist idea in America, as exemplified by the growing readership of journals like Jacobin and Current Affairs, the popularity of the leftist Chapo Trap House podcast, and the insurgent presidential campaign of self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders—who, according to a Harvard-Harris poll, is now the most popular politician in the United States. Since 2015, the average age of a DSA member dropped from 64 to 30, and a 2016 Harvard poll found a majority of Millennials do not support capitalism.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party of Donald Trump offers “nativism and culture war wedges without the Reaganomics,” according to Nicholas Grossman, a lecturer in political science at the University of Illinois. A party that was once reliably internationalist and assertive against Russian aggression now supports a president who often preaches isolationism and never has even a mildly critical thing to say about the KGB thug ruling over the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.
Like ripping the bandage off an ugly and oozing wound, Trump’s presidential campaign unleashed a bevy of unpleasant social forces that at the very least have an indirect bearing on Jewish welfare. The most unpleasant of those forces has been the so-called alternative right, or “alt-right,” a highly race-conscious political movement whose adherents are divided on the “JQ” (Jewish Question). Throughout last year’s campaign, Jewish journalists (this author included) were hit with a barrage of luridly anti-Semitic Twitter messages from self-described members of the alt-right. The tamer missives instructed us to leave America for Israel, others superimposed our faces onto the bodies of concentration camp victims.3
I do not believe Donald Trump is himself an anti-Semite, if only because anti-Semitism is mainly a preoccupation—as distinct from a prejudice—and Trump is too narcissistic to indulge any preoccupation other than himself. And there is no evidence to suggest that he subscribes to the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories favored by his alt-right supporters. But his casual resort to populism, nativism, and conspiracy theory creates a narrative environment highly favorable to anti-Semites.
Nativism, of which Trump was an early and active practitioner, is never good for the Jews, no matter how affluent or comfortable they may be and notwithstanding whether they are even the target of its particular wrath. Racial divisions, which by any measure have grown significantly worse in the year since Trump was elected, hurt all Americans, obviously, but they have a distinct impact on Jews, who are left in a precarious position as racial identities calcify. Not only are the newly emboldened white supremacists of the alt-right invariably anti-Semites, but in the increasingly racialist taxonomy of the progressive left—which more and more mainstream liberals are beginning to parrot—Jews are considered possessors of “white privilege” and, thus, members of the class to be divested of its “power” once the revolution comes. In the racially stratified society that both extremes envision, Jews lose out, simultaneously perceived (by the far right) as wily allies and manipulators of ethnic minorities in a plot to mongrelize America and (by the far left) as opportunistic “Zionists” ingratiating themselves with a racist and exploitative “white” establishment that keeps minorities down.T his politics is bad for all Americans, and Jewish Americans in particular. More and more, one sees the racialized language of the American left being applied to the Middle East conflict, wherein Israel (which is, in point of fact, one of the most racially diverse countries in the world) is referred to as a “white supremacist” state no different from that of apartheid South Africa. In a book just published by MIT Press, ornamented with a forward by Cornel West and entitled “Whites, Jews, and Us,” a French-Algerian political activist named Houria Bouteldja asks, “What can we offer white people in exchange for their decline and for the wars that will ensue?” Drawing the Jews into her race war, Bouteldja, according to the book’s jacket copy, “challenges widespread assumptions among the left in the United States and Europe—that anti-Semitism plays any role in Arab–Israeli conflicts, for example, or that philo-Semitism doesn’t in itself embody an oppressive position.” Jew-hatred is virtuous, and appreciation of the Jews is racism.
Few political activists of late have done more to racialize the Arab–Israeli conflict—and, through insidious extension of the American racial hierarchy, designate American Jews as oppressors—than the Brooklyn-born Arab activist Linda Sarsour. An organizer of the Women’s March, Sarsour has seamlessly insinuated herself into a variety of high-profile progressive campaigns, a somewhat incongruent position given her reactionary views on topics like women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. (“10 weeks of PAID maternity leave in Saudi Arabia,” she tweets. “Yes PAID. And ur worrying about women driving. Puts us to shame.”) Sarsour, who is of Palestinian descent, claims that one cannot simultaneously be a feminist and a Zionist, when it is the exact opposite that is true: No genuine believer in female equality can deny the right of Israel to exist. The Jewish state respects the rights of women more than do any of its neighbors. In an April 2017 interview, Sarsour said that she had become a high-school teacher for the purpose of “inspiring young people of color like me.” Just three months earlier, however, in a video for Vox, Sarsour confessed, “When I wasn’t wearing hijab I was just some ordinary white girl from New York City.” The donning of Muslim garb, then, confers a racial caste of “color,” which in turn confers virtue, which in turn confers a claim on political power.
This attempt to describe the Israeli–Arab conflict in American racial vernacular marks Jews as white (a perverse mirror of Nazi biological racism) and thus implicates them as beneficiaries of “structural racism,” “white privilege,” and the whole litany of benefits afforded to white people at birth in the form of—to use Ta-Nehisi Coates’s abstruse phrase—the “glowing amulet” of “whiteness.” “It’s time to admit that Arthur Balfour was a white supremacist and an anti-Semite,” reads the headline of a recent piece in—where else? —the Forward, incriminating Jewish nationalism as uniquely perfidious by dint of the fact that, like most men of his time, a (non-Jewish) British official who endorsed the Zionist idea a century ago held views that would today be considered racist. Reading figures like Bouteldja and Sarsour brings to mind the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner’s observation that “the racialization of the world has to be the most unexpected result of the antidiscrimination battle of the last half-century; it has ensured that the battle continuously re-creates the curse from which it is trying to break free.”
If Jews are white, and if white people—as a group—enjoy tangible and enduring advantages over everyone else, then this racially essentialist rhetoric ends up with Jews accused of abetting white supremacy, if not being white supremacists themselves. This is one of the overlooked ways in which the term “white supremacy” has become devoid of meaning in the age of Donald Trump, with everyone and everything from David Duke to James Comey to the American Civil Liberties Union accused of upholding it. Take the case of Ben Shapiro, the Jewish conservative polemicist. At the start of the school year, Shapiro was scheduled to give a talk at UC Berkeley, his alma matter. In advance, various left-wing groups put out a call for protest in which they labeled Shapiro—an Orthodox Jew—a “fascist thug” and “white supremacist.” An inconvenient fact ignored by Shapiro’s detractors is that, according to the ADL, he was the top target of online abuse from actual white supremacists during the 2016 presidential election. (Berkeley ultimately had to spend $600,000 protecting the event from leftist rioters.)
A more pernicious form of this discourse is practiced by left-wing writers who, insincerely claiming to have the interests of Jews at heart, scold them and their communal organizations for not doing enough in the fight against anti-Semitism. Criticizing Jews for not fully signing up with the “Resistance” (which in form and function is fast becoming the 21st-century version of the interwar Popular Front), they then slyly indict Jews for being complicit in not only their own victimization but that of the entire country at the hands of Donald Trump. The first and foremost practitioner of this bullying and rather artful form of anti-Semitism is Jeet Heer, a Canadian comic-book critic who has achieved some repute on the American left due to his frenetic Twitter activity and availability when the New Republic needed to replace its staff that had quit en masse in 2014. Last year, when Heer came across a video of a Donald Trump supporter chanting “JEW-S-A” at a rally, he declared on Twitter: “We really need to see more comment from official Jewish groups like ADL on way Trump campaign has energized anti-Semitism.”
But of course “Jewish groups” have had plenty to say about the anti-Semitism expressed by some Trump supporters—too much, in the view of their critics. Just two weeks earlier, the ADL had released a report analyzing over 2 million anti-Semitic tweets targeting Jewish journalists over the previous year. This wasn’t the first time the ADL raised its voice against Trump and the alt-right movement he emboldened, nor would it be the last. Indeed, two minutes’ worth of Googling would have shown Heer that his pronouncements about organizational Jewish apathy were wholly without foundation.4
It’s tempting to dismiss Heer’s observation as mere “concern trolling,” a form of Internet discourse characterized by insincere expressions of worry. But what he did was nastier. Immediately presented with evidence for the inaccuracy of his claims, he sneered back with a bit of wisdom from the Jewish sage Hillel the Elder, yet cast as mild threat: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” In other words: How can you Jews expect anyone to care about your kind if you don’t sufficiently oppose—as arbitrarily judged by moi, Jeet Heer—Donald Trump?
If this sort of critique were coming from a Jewish donor upset that his preferred organization wasn’t doing enough to combat anti-Semitism, or a Gentile with a proven record of concern for Jewish causes, it wouldn’t have turned the stomach. What made Heer’s interjection revolting is that, to put it mildly, he’s not exactly known for being sympathetic toward the Jewish plight. In 2015, Heer put his name to a petition calling upon an international comic-book festival to drop the Israeli company SodaStream as a co-sponsor because the Jewish state is “built on the mass ethnic cleansing of Palestinian communities and sustained through racism and discrimination.” Heer’s name appeared alongside that of Carlos Latuff, a Brazilian cartoonist who won second place in the Iranian government’s 2006 International Holocaust Cartoon Competition. For his writings on Israel, Heer has been praised as being “very good on the conflict” by none other than Philip Weiss, proprietor of the anti-Semitic hate site Mondoweiss.
In light of this track record, Heer’s newfound concern about anti-Semitism appeared rather dubious. Indeed, the bizarre way in which he expressed this concern—as, ultimately, a critique not of anti-Semitism per se but of the country’s foremost Jewish civil-rights organization—suggests he cares about anti-Semitism insofar as its existence can be used as a weapon to beat his political adversaries. And since the incorrigibly Zionist American Jewish establishment ranks high on that list (just below that of Donald Trump and his supporters), Heer found a way to blame it for anti-Semitism. And what does that tell you? It tells you that—presented with a 16-second video of a man chanting “JEW-S-A” at a Donald Trump rally—Heer’s first impulse was to condemn not the anti-Semite but the Jews.
Heer isn’t the only leftist (or New Republic writer) to assume this rhetorical cudgel. In a piece entitled “The Dismal Failure of Jewish Groups to Confront Trump,” one Stephen Lurie attacked the ADL for advising its members to stay away from the Charlottesville “Unite the Right Rally” and let police handle any provocations from neo-Nazis. “We do not have a Jewish organizational home for the fight against fascism,” he quotes a far-left Jewish activist, who apparently thinks that we live in the Weimar Republic and not a stable democracy in which law-enforcement officers and not the balaclava-wearing thugs of antifa maintain the peace. Like Jewish Communists of yore, Lurie wants to bully Jews into abandoning liberalism for the extreme left, under the pretext that mainstream organizations just won’t cut it in the fight against “white supremacy.” Indeed, Lurie writes, some “Jewish institutions and power players…have defended and enabled white supremacy.” The main group he fingers with this outrageous slander is the Republican Jewish Coalition, the implication being that this explicitly partisan Republican organization’s discrete support for the Republican president “enables white supremacy.”
It is impossible to imagine Heer, Lurie, or other progressive writers similarly taking the NAACP to task for its perceived lack of concern about racism, or castigating the Human Rights Campaign for insufficiently combating homophobia. No, it is only the cowardice of Jews that is condemned—condemned for supposedly ignoring a form of bigotry that, when expressed on the left, these writers themselves ignore or even defend. The logical gymnastics of these two New Republic writers is what happens when, at base, one fundamentally resents Jews: You end up blaming them for anti-Semitism. Blaming Jews for not sufficiently caring enough about anti-Semitism is emotionally the same as claiming that Jews are to blame for anti-Semitism. Both signal an envy and resentment of Jews predicated upon a belief that they have some kind of authority that the claimant doesn’t and therefore needs to undermine.T his past election, one could not help but notice how the media seemingly discovered anti-Semitism when it emanated from the right, and then only when its targets were Jews on the left. It was enough to make one ask where they had been when left-wing anti-Semitism had been a more serious and pervasive problem. From at least 1996 (the year Pat Buchanan made his last serious attempt at securing the GOP presidential nomination) to 2016 (when the Republican presidential nominee did more to earn the support of white supremacists and neo-Nazis than any of his predecessors), anti-Semitism was primarily a preserve of the American left. In that two-decade period—spanning the collapse of the Oslo Accords and rise of the Second Intifada to the rancorous debate over the Iraq War and obsession with “neocons” to the presidency of Barack Obama and the 2015 Iran nuclear deal—anti-Israel attitudes and anti-Semitic conspiracy made unprecedented inroads into respectable precincts of the American academy, the liberal intelligentsia, and the Democratic Party.
The main form that left-wing anti-Semitism takes in the United States today is unhinged obsession with the wrongs, real or perceived, of the state of Israel, and the belief that its Jewish supporters in the United States exercise a nefarious control over the levers of American foreign policy. In this respect, contemporary left-wing anti-Semitism is not altogether different from that of the far right, though it usually lacks the biological component deeming Jews a distinct and inferior race. (Consider the left-wing anti-Semite’s eagerness to identify and promote Jewish “dissidents” who can attest to their co-religionists’ craftiness and deceit.) The unholy synergy of left and right anti-Semitism was recently epitomized by former CIA agent and liberal stalwart Valerie Plame’s hearty endorsement, on Twitter, of an article written for an extreme right-wing website by a fellow former CIA officer named Philip Giraldi: “America’s Jews Are Driving America’s Wars.” Plame eventually apologized for sharing the article with her 50,000 followers, but not before insisting that “many neocon hawks are Jewish” and that “just FYI, I am of Jewish descent.”
The main fora in which left-wing anti-Semitism appears is academia. According to the ADL, anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses doubled from 2014 to 2015, the latest year that data are available. Writing in National Affairs, Ruth Wisse observes that “not since the war in Vietnam has there been a campus crusade as dynamic as the movement of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel.” Every academic year, a seeming surfeit of controversies erupt on campuses across the country involving the harassment of pro-Israel students and organizations, the disruption of events involving Israeli speakers (even ones who identify as left-wing), and blatantly anti-Semitic outbursts by professors and student activists. There was the Oberlin professor of rhetoric, Joy Karega, who posted statements on social media claiming that Israel had created ISIS and had orchestrated the murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. There is the Rutgers associate professor of women’s and gender studies, Jasbir Puar, who popularized the ludicrous term “pinkwashing” to defame Israel’s LGBT acceptance as a massive conspiracy to obscure its oppression of Palestinians. Her latest book, The Right to Maim, academically peer-reviewed and published by Duke University Press, attacks Israel for sparing the lives of Palestinian civilians, accusing its military of “shooting to maim rather than to kill” so that it may keep “Palestinian populations as perpetually debilitated, and yet alive, in order to control them.”
One could go on and on about such affronts not only to Jews and supporters of Israel but to common sense, basic justice, and anyone who believes in the prudent use of taxpayer dollars. That several organizations exist solely for the purpose of monitoring anti-Israel and anti-Semitic agitation on American campuses attests to the prolificacy of the problem. But it’s unclear just how reflective these isolated examples of the college experience really are. A 2017 Stanford study purporting to examine the issue interviewed 66 Jewish students at five California campuses noted for “being particularly fertile for anti-Semitism and for having an active presence of student groups critical of Israel and Zionism.” It concluded that “contrary to widely shared impressions, we found a picture of campus life that is neither threatening nor alarmist…students reported feeling comfortable on their campuses, and, more specifically, comfortable as Jews on their campuses.” To the extent that Jewish students do feel pressured, the report attempted to spread the blame around, indicting pro-Israel activists alongside those agitating against it. “[Survey respondents] fear that entering political debate, especially when they feel the social pressures of both Jewish and non-Jewish activist communities, will carry social costs that they are unwilling to bear.”
Yet by its own admission, the report “only engaged students who were either unengaged or minimally engaged in organized Jewish life on their campuses.” Researchers made a study of anti-Semitism, then, by interviewing the Jews least likely to experience it. “Most people don’t really think I’m Jewish because I look very Latina…it doesn’t come up in conversation,” one such student said in an interview. Ultimately, the report revealed more about the attitudes of unengaged (and, thus, uninformed) Jews than about the state of anti-Semitism on college campuses. That may certainly be useful in its own right as a means of understanding how unaffiliated Jews view debates over Israel, but it is not an accurate marker of developments on college campuses more broadly.
A more extensive 2016 Brandeis study of Jewish students at 50 schools found 34 percent agreed at least “somewhat” that their campus has a hostile environment toward Israel. Yet the variation was wide; at some schools, only 3 percent agreed, while at others, 70 percent did. Only 15 percent reported a hostile environment towards Jews. Anti-Semitism was found to be more prevalent at public universities than private ones, with the determinative factor being the presence of a Students for Justice in Palestine chapter on campus. Important context often lost in conversations about campus anti-Semitism, and reassuring to those concerned about it, is that it is simply not the most important issue roiling higher education. “At most schools,” the report found, “fewer than 10 percent of Jewish students listed issues pertaining to either Jews or Israel as among the most pressing on campus.”F or generations, American Jews have depended on anti-Semitism’s remaining within a moral quarantine, a cordon sanitaire, and America has reliably kept this societal virus contained. While there are no major signs that this barricade is breaking down in the immediate future, there are worrying indications on the political horizon.
Surveying the situation at the international level, the declining global position of the United States—both in terms of its hard military and economic power relative to rising challengers and its position as a credible beacon of liberal democratic values—does not portend well for Jews, American or otherwise. American leadership of the free world, has, in addition to ensuring Israel’s security, underwritten the postwar liberal world order. And it is the constituent members of that order, the liberal democratic states, that have served as the best guarantor of the Jews’ life and safety over their 6,000-year history. Were America’s global leadership role to diminish or evaporate, it would not only facilitate the rise of authoritarian states like Iran and terrorist movements such as al-Qaeda, committed to the destruction of Israel and the murder of Jews, but inexorably lead to a worldwide rollback of liberal democracy, an outcome that would inevitably redound to the detriment of Jews.
Domestically, political polarization and the collapse of public trust in every American institution save the military are demolishing what little confidence Americans have left in their system and governing elites, not to mention preparing the ground for some ominous political scenarios. Widely cited survey data reveal that the percentage of American Millennials who believe it “essential” to live in a liberal democracy hovers at just over 25 percent. If Trump is impeached or loses the next election, a good 40 percent of the country will be outraged and susceptible to belief in a stab-in-the-back theory accounting for his defeat. Whom will they blame? Perhaps the “neoconservatives,” who disproportionately make up the ranks of Trump’s harshest critics on the right?
Ultimately, the degree to which anti-Semitism becomes a problem in America hinges on the strength of the antibodies within the country’s communal DNA to protect its pluralistic and liberal values. But even if this resistance to tribalism and the cult of personality is strong, it may not be enough to abate the rise of an intellectual and societal disease that, throughout history, thrives upon economic distress, xenophobia, political uncertainty, ethnic chauvinism, conspiracy theory, and weakening democratic norms.
1 Somewhat paradoxically, according to FBI crime statistics, the majority of religiously based hate crimes target Jews, more than double the amount targeting Muslims. This indicates more the commitment of the country’s relatively small number of hard-core anti-Semites than pervasive anti-Semitism.
4 The ADL has had to maintain a delicate balancing act in the age of Trump, coming under fire by many conservative Jews for a perceived partisan tilt against the right. This makes Heer’s complaint all the more ignorant — and unhelpful.
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Review of 'The Once and Future Liberal' By Mark Lilla
Lilla, a professor at Columbia University, tells us that “the story of how a successful liberal politics of solidarity became a failed pseudo-politics of identity is not a simple one.” And about this, he’s right. Lilla quotes from the feminist authors of the 1977 Combahee River Collective Manifesto: “The most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.” Feminists looked to instantiate the “radical” and electrifying phrase which insisted that “the personal is political.” The phrase, argues Lilla, was generally seen in “a somewhat Marxist fashion to mean that everything that seems personal is in fact political.”
The upshot was fragmentation. White feminists were deemed racist by black feminists—and both were found wanting by lesbians, who also had black and white contingents. “What all these groups wanted,” explains Lilla, “was more than social justice and an end to the [Vietnam] war. They also wanted there to be no space between what they felt inside and what they saw and did in the world.” He goes on: “The more obsessed with personal identity liberals become, the less willing they become to engage in reasoned political debate.” In the end, those on the left came to a realization: “You can win a debate by claiming the greatest degree of victimization and thus the greatest outrage at being subjected to questioning.”
But Lilla’s insights into the emotional underpinnings of political correctness are undercut by an inadequate, almost bizarre sense of history. He appears to be referring to the 1970s when, zigzagging through history, he writes that “no recognition of personal or group identity was coming from the Democratic Party, which at the time was dominated by racist Dixiecrats and white union officials of questionable rectitude.”
What is he talking about? Is Lilla referring to the Democratic Party of Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and George McGovern? Is he referring obliquely to George Wallace? If so, why is Wallace never mentioned? Lilla seems not to know that it was the 1972 McGovern Democratic Convention that introduced minority seating to be set aside for blacks and women.
At only 140 pages, this is a short book. But even so, Lilla could have devoted a few pages to Frankfurt ideologist Herbert Marcuse and his influence on the left. In the 1960s, Marcuse argued that leftists and liberals were entitled to restrain centrist and conservative speech on the grounds that the universities had to act as a counterweight to society at large. But this was not just rhetoric; in the campus disruption of the early 1970s at schools such as Yale, Cornell, and Amherst, Marcuse’s ideals were pushed to the fore.
If Lilla’s argument comes off as flaccid, perhaps that’s because the aim of The Once and Future Liberal is more practical than principled. “The only way” to protect our rights, he tells the reader, “is to elect liberal Democratic governors and state legislators who’ll appoint liberal state attorneys.” According to Lilla, “the paradox of identity liberalism” is that it undercuts “the things it professes to want,” namely political power. He insists, rightly, that politics has to be about persuasion but then contradicts himself in arguing that “politics is about seizing power to defend the truth.” In other words, Lilla wants a better path to total victory.
Given what Lilla, descending into hysteria, describes as “the Republican rage for destruction,” liberals and Democrats have to win elections lest the civil rights of blacks, women, and gays are rolled back. As proof of the ever-looming danger, he notes that when the “crisis of the mid-1970s threatened…the country turned not against corporations and banks, but against liberalism.” Yet he gives no hint of the trail of liberal failures that led to the crisis of the mid-’70s. You’d never know reading Lilla, for example, that the Black Power movement intensified racial hostilities that were then further exacerbated by affirmative action and busing. And you’d have no idea that, at considerable cost, the poverty programs of the Great Society failed to bring poorer African Americans into the economic mainstream. Nor does Lilla deal with the devotion to Keynesianism that produced inflation without economic growth during the Carter presidency.
Despite his discursive ambling through the recent history of American political life, Lilla has a one-word explanation for identity politics: Reaganism. “Identity,” he writes, is “Reaganism for lefties.” What’s crucial in combating Reaganism, he argues, is to concentrate on our “shared political” status as citizens. “Citizenship is a crucial weapon in the battle against Reaganite dogma because it brings home that fact that we are part of a legitimate common enterprise.” But then he asserts that the “American right uses the term citizenship today as a means of exclusion.” The passage might lead the reader to think that Lilla would take up the question of immigration and borders. But he doesn’t, and the closing passages of the book dribble off into characteristic zigzags. Lilla tells us that “Black Lives Matter is a textbook example of how not to build solidarity” but then goes on, without evidence, to assert the accuracy of the Black Lives Matter claim that African-Americans have been singled out for police mistreatment.
It would be nice to argue that The Once and Future Liberal is a near miss, a book that might have had enduring importance if only it went that extra step. But Lilla’s passing insights on the perils of a politically correct identity politics drown in the rhetoric of conventional bromides that fill most of the pages of this disappointing book.
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n Athens several years ago, I had dinner with a man running for the national parliament. I asked him whether he thought he had a shot at winning. He was sure of victory, he told me. “I have hired a very famous political consultant from Washington,” he said. “He is the man who elected Reagan. Expensive. But the best.”
The political genius he then described was a minor political flunky I had met in Washington long ago, a more-or-less anonymous member of the Republican National Committee before he faded from view at the end of Ronald Reagan’s second term. Mutual acquaintances told me he still lived in a nice neighborhood in Northern Virginia, but they never could figure out what the hell he did to earn his money. (This is a recurring mystery throughout the capital.) I had to come to Greece to find the answer.
It is one of the dark arts of Washington, this practice of American political hacks traveling to faraway lands and suckering foreign politicians into paying vast sums for splashy, state-of-the-art, essentially worthless “services.” And it’s perfectly legal. Paul Manafort, who briefly managed Donald Trump’s campaign last summer, was known as a pioneer of the globe-trotting racket. If he hadn’t, as it were, veered out of his gutter into the slightly higher lane of U.S. presidential politics, he likely could have hoovered cash from the patch pockets of clueless clients from Ouagadougou to Zagreb for the rest of his natural life and nobody in Washington would have noticed.
But he veered, and now he and a colleague find themselves indicted by Robert Mueller, the Inspector Javert of the Russian-collusion scandal. When those indictments landed, they instantly set in motion the familiar scramble. Trump fans announced that the indictments were proof that there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians—or, in the crisp, emphatic phrasing of a tweet by the world’s Number One Trump Fan, Donald Trump: “NO COLLUSION!!!!” The Russian-scandal fetishists in the press corps replied in chorus: It’s still early! Javert required more time, and so will Mueller, and so will they.
A good Washington scandal requires a few essential elements. One is a superabundance of information. From these data points, conspiracy-minded reporters can begin to trace associations, warranted or not, and from the associations, they can infer motives and objectives with which, stretched together, they can limn a full-blown conspiracy theory. The Manafort indictment released a flood of new information, and at once reporters were pawing for nuggets that might eventually form a compelling case for collusion.
They failed to find any because Manafort’s indictment, in essence, involved his efforts to launder his profits from his international political work, not his work for the Trump campaign. Fortunately for the obsessives, another element is required for a good scandal: a colorful cast. The various Clinton scandals brought us Asian money-launderers and ChiCom bankers, along with an entire Faulkner-novel’s worth of bumpkins, sharpies, and backwoods swindlers, plus that intern in the thong. Watergate, the mother lode of Washington scandals, featured a host of implausible characters, from the central-casting villain G. Gordon Liddy to Sam Ervin, a lifelong segregationist and racist who became a hero to liberals everywhere.
Here, at last, is one area where the Russian scandal has begun to show promise. Manafort and his business partner seem too banal to hold the interest of anyone but a scandal obsessive. Beneath the pile of paper Mueller dumped on them, however, another creature could be seen peeking out shyly. This would be the diminutive figure of George Papadopoulos. An unpaid campaign adviser to Trump, Papadopoulos pled guilty to lying to the FBI about the timing of his conversations with Russian agents. He is quickly becoming the stuff of legend.
Papadopoulos is an exemplar of a type long known to American politics. He is the nebbish bedazzled by the big time—achingly ambitious, though lacking the skill, or the cunning, to climb the greasy pole. So he remains at the periphery of the action, ever eager to serve. Papadopoulos’s résumé, for a man under 30, is impressively padded. He said he served as the U.S. representative to the Model United Nations in 2012, though nobody recalls seeing him there. He boasted of a four-year career at the Hudson Institute, though in fact he spent one year there as an unpaid intern and three doing contract research for one of Hudson’s scholars. On his LinkedIn page, he listed himself as a keynote speaker at a Greek American conference in 2008, but in fact he participated only in a panel discussion. The real keynoter was Michael Dukakis.
With this hunger for achievement, real or imagined, Papadopoulos could not let a presidential campaign go by without climbing aboard. In late 2015, he somehow attached himself to Ben Carson’s campaign. He was never paid and lasted four months. His presence went largely unnoticed. “If there was any work product, I never saw it,” Carson’s campaign manager told Time. The deputy campaign manager couldn’t even recall his name. Then suddenly, in April 2016, Papadopoulos appeared on a list of “foreign-policy advisers” to Donald Trump—and, according to Mueller’s court filings, resolved to make his mark by acting as a liaison between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government.
While Mueller tells the story of Papadopoulos’s adventures in the dry, Joe Friday prose of a legal document, it could easily be the script for a Peter Sellers movie from the Cold War era. The young man’s résumé is enough to impress the campaign’s impressionable officials as they scavenge for foreign-policy advisers: “Hey, Corey! This dude was in the Model United Nations!”
Papadopoulus (played by Sellers) sets about his mission. A few weeks after signing on to the campaign, he travels to Europe, where he meets a mysterious “Professor” (Peter Ustinov). “Initially the Professor seemed uninterested in Papadopoulos,” says Mueller’s indictment. A likely story! Yet when Papadopoulus lets drop that he’s an adviser to Trump, the Professor suddenly “appeared to take great interest” in him. They arrange a meeting in London to which the Professor invites a “female Russian national” (Elke Sommer). Without much effort, the femme fatale convinces Papadopoulus that she is Vladimir Putin’s niece. (“I weel tell z’American I em niece of Great Leader! Zat idjut belief ennytink!”) Over the next several months our hero sends many emails to campaign officials and to the Professor, trying to arrange a meeting between them. As far we know from the indictment, nothing came of his mighty efforts.
And there matters lay until January 2017, when the FBI came calling. Agents asked Papadopoulos about his interactions with the Russians. Even though he must have known that hundreds of his emails on the subject would soon be available to the FBI, he lied and told the agents that the contacts had occurred many months before he joined the campaign. History will record Papadopoulos as the man who forgot that emails carry dates on them. After the FBI interview, according to the indictment, he tried to destroy evidence with the same competence he has brought to his other endeavors. He closed his Facebook account, on which several communications with the Russians had taken place. He threw out his old cellphone. (That should do it!) After that, he began wearing a blindfold, on the theory that if he couldn’t see the FBI, the FBI couldn’t see him.
I made that last one up, obviously. For now, the great hope of scandal hobbyists is that Papadopoulus was wearing a wire between the time he secretly pled guilty and the time his plea was made public. This would have allowed him to gather all kinds of incriminating dirt in conversations with former colleagues. And the dirt is there, all right, as the Manafort indictment proves. Unfortunately for our scandal fetishists, so far none of it shows what their hearts most desire: active collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.
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An affair to remember
All this changed with the release in 1967 of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and Mike Nichols’s The Graduate. These two films, made in nouveau European style, treated familiar subjects—a pair of Depression-era bank robbers and a college graduate in search of a place in the adult world—in an unmistakably modern manner. Both films were commercial successes that catapulted their makers and stars into the top echelon of what came to be known as “the new Hollywood.”
Bonnie and Clyde inaugurated a new era in which violence on screen simultaneously became bloodier and more aestheticized, and it has had enduring impact as a result. But it was The Graduate that altered the direction of American moviemaking with its specific appeal to younger and hipper moviegoers who had turned their backs on more traditional cinematic fare. When it opened in New York in December, the movie critic Hollis Alpert reported with bemusement that young people were lining up in below-freezing weather to see it, and that they showed no signs of being dismayed by the cold: “It was as though they all knew they were going to see something good, something made for them.”
The Graduate, whose aimless post-collegiate title character is seduced by the glamorous but neurotic wife of his father’s business partner, is part of the common stock of American reference. Now, a half-century later, it has become the subject of a book-length study, Beverly Gray’s Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation.1 As is so often the case with pop-culture books, Seduced by Mrs. Robinson is almost as much about its self-absorbed Baby Boomer author (“The Graduate taught me to dance to the beat of my own drums”) as its subject. It has the further disadvantage of following in the footsteps of Mark Harris’s magisterial Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (2008), in which the film is placed in the context of Hollywood’s mid-’60s cultural flux. But Gray’s book offers us a chance to revisit this seminal motion picture and consider just why it was that The Graduate spoke to Baby Boomers in a distinctively personal way.T he Graduate began life in 1963 as a novella of the same name by Charles Webb, a California-born writer who saw his book not as a comic novel but as a serious artistic statement about America’s increasingly disaffected youth. It found its way into the hands of a producer named Lawrence Turman who saw The Graduate as an opportunity to make the cinematic equivalent of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Turman optioned the book, then sent it to Mike Nichols, who in 1963 was still best known for his comic partnership with Elaine May but had just made his directorial debut with the original Broadway production of Barefoot in the Park.
Both men saw that The Graduate posed a problem to anyone seeking to put it on the screen. In Turman’s words, “In the book the character of Benjamin Braddock is sort of a whiny pain in the fanny [whom] you want to shake or spank.” To this end, they turned to Buck Henry, who had co-created the popular TV comedy Get Smart with Mel Brooks, to write a screenplay that would retain much of Webb’s dryly witty dialogue (“I think you’re the most attractive of all my parents’ friends”) while making Benjamin less priggish.
Nichols’s first major act was casting Dustin Hoffman, an obscure New York stage actor pushing 30, for the title role. No one but Nichols seems to have thought him suitable in any way. Not only was Hoffman short and nondescript-looking, but he was unmistakably Jewish, whereas Benjamin is supposedly the scion of a newly monied WASP family from southern California. Nevertheless, Nichols decided he wanted “a short, dark, Jewish, anomalous presence, which is how I experience myself,” in order to underline Benjamin’s alienation from the world of his parents.
Nichols filled the other roles in equally unexpected ways. He hired the Oscar winner Anne Bancroft, only six years Hoffman’s senior, to play the unbalanced temptress who lures Benjamin into her bed, then responds with volcanic rage when he falls in love with her beautiful daughter Elaine. He and Henry also steered clear of on-screen references to the campus protests that had only recently started to convulse America. Instead, he set The Graduate in a timeless upper-middle-class milieu inhabited by people more interested in social climbing than self-actualization—the same milieu from which Benjamin is so alienated that he is reduced to near-speechlessness whenever his family and their friends ask him what he plans to do now that he has graduated.
The film’s only explicit allusion to its cultural moment is the use on the soundtrack of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” the painfully earnest anthem of youthful angst that is for all intents and purposes the theme song of The Graduate. Nevertheless, Henry’s screenplay leaves little doubt that the film was in every way a work of its time and place. As he later explained to Mark Harris, it is a study of “the disaffection of young people for an environment that they don’t seem to be in sync with.…Nobody had made a film specifically about that.”
This aspect of The Graduate is made explicit in a speech by Benjamin that has no direct counterpart in the novel: “It’s like I was playing some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people. I mean, no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up.”
The Graduate was Nichols’s second film, following his wildly successful movie version of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Albee’s play was a snarling critique of the American dream, which he believed to be a snare and a delusion. The Graduate had the same skeptical view of postwar America, but its pessimism was played for laughs. When Benjamin is assured by a businessman in the opening scene that the secret to success in America is “plastics,” we are meant to laugh contemptuously at the smugness of so blinkered a view of life. Moreover, the contempt is as real as the laughter: The Graduate has it both ways. For the same reason, the farcical quality of the climactic scene (in which Benjamin breaks up Elaine’s marriage to a handsome young WASP and carts her off to an unknown fate) is played without musical underscoring, a signal that what Benjamin is doing is really no laughing matter.
The youth-oriented message of The Graduate came through loud and clear to its intended audience, which paid no heed to the mixed reviews from middle-aged reviewers unable to grasp what Nichols and Henry were up to. Not so Roger Ebert, the newly appointed 25-year-old movie critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, who called The Graduate “the funniest American comedy of the year…because it has a point of view. That is to say, it is against something.”
Even more revealing was the response of David Brinkley, then the co-anchor of NBC’s nightly newscast, who dismissed The Graduate as “frantic nonsense” but added that his college-age son and his classmates “liked it because it said about the parents and others what they would have said about us if they had made the movie—that we are self-centered and materialistic, that we are licentious and deeply hypocritical about it, that we try to make them into walking advertisements for our own affluence.”
A year after the release of The Graduate, a film-industry report cited in Pictures at a Revolution revealed that “48 percent of all movie tickets in America were now being sold to filmgoers under the age of 24.” A very high percentage of those tickets were to The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde. At long last, Hollywood had figured out what the Baby Boomers wanted to see.A nd how does The Graduate look a half-century later? To begin with, it now appears to have been Mike Nichols’s creative “road not taken.” In later years, Nichols became less an auteur than a Hollywood director who thought like a Broadway director, choosing vehicles of solid middlebrow-liberal appeal and serving them faithfully without imposing a strong creative vision of his own. In The Graduate, by contrast, he revealed himself to be powerfully aware of the same European filmmaking trends that shaped Bonnie and Clyde. Within a naturalistic framework, he deployed non-naturalistic “new wave” cinematographic techniques with prodigious assurance—and he was willing to end The Graduate on an ambiguous note instead of wrapping it up neatly and pleasingly, letting the camera linger on the unsure faces of Hoffman and Ross as they ride off into an unsettling future.
It is this ambiguity, coupled with Nichols’s prescient decision not to allow The Graduate to become a literal portrayal of American campus life in the troubled mid-’60s, that has kept the film fresh. But The Graduate is fresh in a very particular way: It is a young person’s movie, the tale of a boy-man terrified by the prospect of growing up to be like his parents. Therein lay the source of its appeal to young audiences. The Graduate showed them what they, too, feared most, and hinted at a possible escape route.
In the words of Beverly Gray, who saw The Graduate when it first came out in 1967: “The Graduate appeared in movie houses just as we young Americans were discovering how badly we wanted to distance ourselves from the world of our parents….That polite young high achiever, those loving but smothering parents, those comfortable but slightly bland surroundings: They combined to form an only slightly exaggerated version of my own cozy West L.A. world.”
Yet to watch The Graduate today—especially if you first saw it when much younger—is also to be struck by the extreme unattractiveness of its central character. Hoffman plays Benjamin not as the comically ineffectual nebbish of Jewish tradition but as a near-catatonic robot who speaks by turns in a flat monotone and a frightened nasal whine. It is impossible to understand why Mrs. Robinson would want to go to bed with such a mousy creature, much less why Elaine would run off with him—an impression that has lately acquired an overlay of retrospective irony in the wake of accusations that Hoffman has sexually harassed female colleagues on more than one occasion. Precisely because Benjamin is so unlikable, it is harder for modern-day viewers to identify with him in the same way as did Gray and her fellow Boomers. To watch a Graduate-influenced film like Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming (1995), a poignant romantic comedy about a group of Gen-X college graduates who deliberately choose not to get on with their lives, is to see a closely similar dilemma dramatized in an infinitely more “relatable” way, one in which the crippling anxiety of the principal characters is presented as both understandable and pitiable, thus making it funnier.
Be that as it may, The Graduate is a still-vivid snapshot of a turning point in American cultural history. Before Benjamin Braddock, American films typically portrayed men who were not overgrown, smooth-faced children but full-grown adults, sometimes misguided but incontestably mature. After him, permanent immaturity became the default position of Hollywood-style masculinity.
For this reason, it will be interesting to see what the Millennials, so many of whom demand to be shielded from the “triggering” realities of adult life, make of The Graduate if and when they come to view it. I have a feeling that it will speak to a fair number of them far more persuasively than it did to those of us who—unlike Benjamin Braddock—longed when young to climb the high hill of adulthood and see for ourselves what awaited us on the far side.
1 Algonquin, 278 pages
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“I think that’s best left to states and locales to decide,” DeVos replied. “If the underlying question is . . .”
Murphy interrupted. “You can’t say definitively today that guns shouldn’t be in schools?”
“Well, I will refer back to Senator Enzi and the school that he was talking about in Wapiti, Wyoming, I think probably there, I would imagine that there’s probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies.”
Murphy continued his line of questioning unfazed. “If President Trump moves forward with his plan to ban gun-free school zones, will you support that proposal?”
“I will support what the president-elect does,” DeVos replied. “But, senator, if the question is around gun violence and the results of that, please know that my heart bleeds and is broken for those families that have lost any individual due to gun violence.”
Because all this happened several million outrage cycles ago, you may have forgotten what happened next. Rather than mention DeVos’s sympathy for the victims of gun violence, or her support for federalism, or even her deference to the president, the media elite fixated on her hypothetical aside about grizzly bears.
“Betsy DeVos Cites Grizzly Bears During Guns-in-Schools Debate,” read the NBC News headline. “Citing grizzlies, education nominee says states should determine school gun policies,” reported CNN. “Sorry, Betsy DeVos,” read a headline at the Atlantic, “Guns Aren’t a Bear Necessity in Schools.”
DeVos never said that they were, of course. Nor did she “cite” the bear threat in any definitive way. What she did was decline the opportunity to make a blanket judgment about guns and schools because, in a continent-spanning nation of more than 300 million people, one standard might not apply to every circumstance.
After all, there might be—there are—cases when guns are necessary for security. Earlier this year, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe signed into law a bill authorizing some retired police officers to carry firearms while working as school guards. McAuliffe is a Democrat.
In her answer to Murphy, DeVos referred to a private meeting with Senator Enzi, who had told her of a school in Wyoming that has a fence to keep away grizzly bears. And maybe, she reasoned aloud, the school might have a gun on the premises in case the fence doesn’t work.
As it turns out, the school in Wapiti is gun-free. But we know that only because the Washington Post treated DeVos’s offhand remark as though it were the equivalent of Alexander Butterfield’s revealing the existence of the secret White House tapes. “Betsy DeVos said there’s probably a gun at a Wyoming school to ward off grizzlies,” read the Post headline. “There isn’t.” Oh, snap!
The article, like the one by NBC News, ended with a snarky tweet. The Post quoted user “Adam B.,” who wrote, “‘We need guns in schools because of grizzly bears.’ You know what else stops bears? Doors.” Clever.
And telling. It becomes more difficult every day to distinguish between once-storied journalistic institutions and the jabbering of anonymous egg-avatar Twitter accounts. The eagerness with which the press misinterprets and misconstrues Trump officials is something to behold. The “context” the best and brightest in media are always eager to provide us suddenly goes poof when the opportunity arises to mock, impugn, or castigate the president and his crew. This tendency is especially pronounced when the alleged gaffe fits neatly into a prefabricated media stereotype: that DeVos is unqualified, say, or that Rick Perry is, well, Rick Perry.
On November 2, the secretary of energy appeared at an event sponsored by Axios.com and NBC News. He described a recent trip to Africa:
It’s going to take fossil fuels to push power out to those villages in Africa, where a young girl told me to my face, “One of the reasons that electricity is so important to me is not only because I won’t have to try to read by the light of a fire, and have those fumes literally killing people, but also from the standpoint of sexual assault.” When the lights are on, when you have light, it shines the righteousness, if you will, on those types of acts. So from the standpoint of how you really affect people’s lives, fossil fuels is going to play a role in that.
This heartfelt story of the impact of electrification on rural communities was immediately distorted into a metaphor for Republican ignorance and cruelty.
“Energy Secretary Rick Perry Just Made a Bizarre Claim About Sexual Assault and Fossil Fuels,” read the Buzzfeed headline. “Energy Secretary Rick Perry Says Fossil Fuels Can Prevent Sexual Assault,” read the headline from NBC News. “Rick Perry Says the Best Way to Prevent Rape Is Oil, Glorious Oil,” said the Daily Beast.
“Oh, that Rick Perry,” wrote Gail Collins in a New York Times column. “Whenever the word ‘oil’ is mentioned, Perry responds like a dog on the scent of a hamburger.” You will note that the word “oil” is not mentioned at all in Perry’s remarks.
You will note, too, that what Perry said was entirely commonsensical. While the precise relation between public lighting and public safety is unknown, who can doubt that brightly lit areas feel safer than dark ones—and that, as things stand today, cities and towns are most likely to be powered by fossil fuels? “The value of bright street lights for dispirited gray areas rises from the reassurance they offer to some people who need to go out on the sidewalk, or would like to, but lacking the good light would not do so,” wrote Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. “Thus the lights induce these people to contribute their own eyes to the upkeep of the street.” But c’mon, what did Jane Jacobs know?
No member of the Trump administration so rankles the press as the president himself. On the November morning I began this column, I awoke to outrage that President Trump had supposedly violated diplomatic protocol while visiting Japan and its prime minister, Shinzo Abe. “President Trump feeds fish, winds up pouring entire box of food into koi pond,” read the CNN headline. An article on CBSNews.com headlined “Trump empties box of fish food into Japanese koi pond” began: “President Donald Trump’s visit to Japan briefly took a turn from formal to fishy.” A Bloomberg reporter traveling with the president tweeted, “Trump and Abe spooning fish food into a pond. (Toward the end, @potus decided to just dump the whole box in for the fish).”
Except that’s not what Trump “decided.” In fact, Trump had done exactly what Abe had done a few seconds before. That fact was buried in write-ups of the viral video of Trump and the fish. “President Trump was criticized for throwing an entire box of fish food into a koi pond during his visit to Japan,” read a Tweet from the New York Daily News, linking to a report on phony criticism Trump received because of erroneous reporting from outlets like the News.
There’s an endless, circular, Möbius-strip-like quality to all this nonsense. Journalists are so eager to catch the president and his subordinates doing wrong that they routinely traduce the very canons of journalism they are supposed to hold dear. Partisan and personal animus, laziness, cynicism, and the oversharing culture of social media are a toxic mix. The press in 2017 is a lot like those Japanese koi fish: frenzied, overstimulated, and utterly mindless.
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Review of 'Lessons in Hope' By George Weigel
Standing before the eternal flame, a frail John Paul shed silent tears for 6 million victims, including some of his own childhood friends from Krakow. Then, after reciting verses from Psalm 31, he began: “In this place of memories, the mind and heart and soul feel an extreme need for silence. … Silence, because there are no words strong enough to deplore the terrible tragedy of the Shoah.” Parkinson’s disease strained his voice, but it was clear that the pope’s irrepressible humanity and spiritual strength had once more stood him in good stead.
George Weigel watched the address from NBC’s Jerusalem studios, where he was providing live analysis for the network. As he recalls in Lessons in Hope, his touching and insightful memoir of his time as the pope’s biographer, “Our newsroom felt the impact of those words, spoken with the weight of history bearing down on John Paul and all who heard him: normally a place of bedlam, the newsroom fell completely silent.” The pope, he writes, had “invited the world to look, hard, at the stuff of its redemption.”
Weigel, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, published his biography of John Paul in two volumes, Witness to Hope (1999) and The End and the Beginning (2010). His new book completes a John Paul triptych, and it paints a more informal, behind-the-scenes portrait. Readers, Catholic and otherwise, will finish the book feeling almost as though they knew the 264th successor of Peter. Lessons in Hope is also full of clerical gossip. Yet Weigel never loses sight of his main purpose: to illuminate the character and mind of the “emblematic figure of the second half of the twentieth century.”
The book’s most important contribution comes in its restatement of John Paul’s profound political thought at a time when it is sorely needed. Throughout, Weigel reminds us of the pope’s defense of the freedom of conscience; his emphasis on culture as the primary engine of history; and his strong support for democracy and the free economy.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the pope continued to promote these ideas in such encyclicals as Centesimus Annus. The 1991 document reiterated the Church’s opposition to socialist regimes that reduce man to “a molecule within the social organism” and trample his right to earn “a living through his own initiative.” Centesimus Annus also took aim at welfare states for usurping the role of civil society and draining “human energies.” The pope went on to explain the benefits, material and moral, of free enterprise within a democratic, rule-of-law framework.
Yet a libertarian manifesto Centesimus Annus was not. It took note of free societies’ tendency to breed spiritual poverty, materialism, and social incohesion, which in turn could lead to soft totalitarianism. John Paul called on state, civil society, and people of God to supply the “robust public moral culture” (in Weigel’s words) that would curb these excesses and ensure that free-market democracies are ordered to the common good.
When Weigel emerged as America’s preeminent interpreter of John Paul, in the 1980s and ’90s, these ideas were ascendant among Catholic thinkers. In addition to Weigel, proponents included the philosopher Michael Novak and Father Richard John Neuhaus of First Things magazine (both now dead). These were faithful Catholics (in Neuhaus’s case, a relatively late convert) nevertheless at peace with the free society, especially the American model. They had many qualms with secular modernity, to be sure. But with them, there was no question that free societies and markets are preferable to unfree ones.
How things have changed. Today all the energy in those Catholic intellectual circles is generated by writers and thinkers who see modernity as beyond redemption and freedom itself as the problem. For them, the main question is no longer how to correct the free society’s course (by shoring up moral foundations, through evangelization, etc.). That ship has sailed or perhaps sunk, according to this view. The challenges now are to protect the Church against progressivism’s blows and to see beyond the free society as a political horizon.
Certainly the trends that worried John Paul in Centesimus Annus have accelerated since the encyclical was issued. “The claim that agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and the basic attitude which correspond to democratic forms of political life” has become even more hegemonic than it was in 1991. “Those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it” increasingly get treated as ideological lepers. And with the weakening of transcendent truths, ideas are “easily manipulated for reasons of power.”
Thus a once-orthodox believer finds himself or herself compelled to proclaim that there is no biological basis to gender; that men can menstruate and become pregnant; that there are dozens of family forms, all as valuable and deserving of recognition as the conjugal union of a man and a woman; and that speaking of the West’s Judeo-Christian patrimony is tantamount to espousing white supremacy. John Paul’s warnings read like a description of the present.
The new illiberal Catholics—a label many of these thinkers embrace—argue that these developments aren’t a distortion of the idea of the free society but represent its very essence. This is a mistake. Basic to the free society is the freedom of conscience, a principle enshrined in democratic constitutions across the West and, I might add, in the Catholic Church’s post–Vatican II magisterium. Under John Paul, religious liberty became Rome’s watchword in the fight against Communist totalitarianism, and today it is the Church’s best weapon against the encroachments of secular progressivism. The battle is far from lost, moreover. There is pushback in the courts, at the ballot box, and online. Sometimes it takes demagogic forms that should discomfit people of faith. Then again, there is a reason such pushback is called “reaction.”
A bigger challenge for Catholics prepared to part ways with the free society as an ideal is this: What should Christian politics stand for in the 21st century? Setting aside dreams of reuniting throne and altar and similar nostalgia, the most cogent answer offered by Catholic illiberalism is that the Church should be agnostic with respect to regimes. As Harvard’s Adrian Vermeule has recently written, Christians should be ready to jettison all “ultimate allegiances,” including to the Constitution, while allying with any party or regime when necessary.
What at first glance looks like an uncompromising Christian politics—cunning, tactical, and committed to nothing but the interests of the Church—is actually a rather passive vision. For a Christianity that is “radically flexible” in politics is one that doesn’t transform modernity from within. In practice, it could easily look like the Vatican Ostpolitik diplomacy that sought to appease Moscow before John Paul was elected.
Karol Wojtya discarded Ostpolitik as soon as he took the Petrine office. Instead, he preached freedom and democracy—and meant it. Already as archbishop of Krakow under Communism, he had created free spaces where religious and nonreligious dissidents could engage in dialogue. As pope, he expressed genuine admiration for the classically liberal and decidedly secular Vaclav Havel. He hailed the U.S. Constitution as the source of “ordered freedom.” And when, in 1987, the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet asked him why he kept fussing about democracy, seeing as “one system of government is as good as another,” the pope responded: No, “the people have a right to their liberties, even if they make mistakes in exercising them.”
The most heroic and politically effective Christian figure of the 20th century, in other words, didn’t follow the path of radical flexibility. His Polish experience had taught him that there are differences between regimes—that some are bound to uphold conscience and human dignity, even if they sometimes fall short of these commitments, while others trample rights by design. The very worst of the latter kind could even whisk one’s boyhood friends away to extermination camps. There could be no radical Christian flexibility after the Holocaust.