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
Can it be reversed?
Writing in these pages last year (“Illiberalism: The Worldwide Crisis,” July/August 2016), I described this surge of intemperate politics as a global phenomenon, a crisis of illiberalism stretching from France to the Philippines and from South Africa to Greece. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, I argued, were articulating American versions of this growing challenge to liberalism. By “liberalism,” I was referring not to the left or center-left but to the philosophy of individual rights, free enterprise, checks and balances, and cultural pluralism that forms the common ground of politics across the West.
Less a systematic ideology than a posture or sensibility, the new illiberalism nevertheless has certain core planks. Chief among these are a conspiratorial account of world events; hostility to free trade and finance capital; opposition to immigration that goes beyond reasonable restrictions and bleeds into virulent nativism; impatience with norms and procedural niceties; a tendency toward populist leader-worship; and skepticism toward international treaties and institutions, such as NATO, that provide the scaffolding for the U.S.-led postwar order.
The new illiberals, I pointed out, all tend to admire established authoritarians to varying degrees. Trump, along with France’s Marine Le Pen and many others, looks to Vladimir Putin. For Sanders, it was Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, where, the Vermont socialist said in 2011, “the American dream is more apt to be realized.” Even so, I argued, the crisis of illiberalism traces mainly to discontents internal to liberal democracies.
Trump’s election and his first eight months in office have confirmed the thrust of my predictions, if not all of the policy details. On the policy front, the new president has proved too undisciplined, his efforts too wild and haphazard, to reorient the U.S. government away from postwar liberal order.
The courts blunted the “Muslim ban.” The Trump administration has reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to defend treaty partners in Europe and East Asia. Trumpian grumbling about allies not paying their fair share—a fair point in Europe’s case, by the way—has amounted to just that. The president did pull the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but even the ultra-establishmentarian Hillary Clinton went from supporting to opposing the pact once she figured out which way the Democratic winds were blowing. The North American Free Trade Agreement, which came into being nearly a quarter-century ago, does look shaky at the moment, but there is no reason to think that it won’t survive in some modified form.
Yet on the cultural front, the crisis of illiberalism continues to rage. If anything, it has intensified, as attested by the events surrounding the protest over a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia. The president refused to condemn unequivocally white nationalists who marched with swastikas and chanted “Jews will not replace us.” Trump even suggested there were “very fine people” among them, thus winking at the so-called alt-right as he had during the campaign. In the days that followed, much of the left rallied behind so-called antifa (“anti-fascist”) militants who make no secret of their allegiance to violent totalitarian ideologies at the other end of the political spectrum.
Disorder is the new American normal, then. Questions that appeared to have been settled—about the connection between economic and political liberty, the perils of conspiracism and romantic politics, America’s unique role on the world stage, and so on—are unsettled once more. Serious people wonder out loud whether liberal democracy is worth maintaining at all, with many of them concluding that it is not. The return of ideas that for good reason were buried in the last century threatens the decent political order that has made the U.S. an exceptionally free and prosperous civilization.F or many leftists, America’s commitment to liberty and equality before the law has always masked despotism and exploitation. This view long predated Trump’s rise, and if they didn’t subscribe to it themselves, too often mainstream Democrats and progressives treated its proponents—the likes of Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn—as beloved and respectable, if slightly eccentric, relatives.
This cynical vision of the free society (as a conspiracy against the dispossessed) was a mainstay of Cold War–era debates about the relative merits of Western democracy and Communism. Soviet apologists insisted that Communist states couldn’t be expected to uphold “merely” formal rights when they had set out to shape a whole new kind of man. That required “breaking a few eggs,” in the words of the Stalinist interrogators in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. Anyway, what good were free speech and due process to the coal miner, when under capitalism the whole social structure was rigged against him?
That line worked for a time, until the scale of Soviet tyranny became impossible to justify by anyone but its most abject apologists. It became obvious that “bourgeois justice,” however imperfect, was infinitely preferable to the Marxist alternative. With the Communist experiment discredited, and Western workers uninterested in staging world revolution, the illiberal left began shifting instead to questions of identity. In race-gender-sexuality theory and the identitarian “subaltern,” it found potent substitutes for dialectical materialism and the proletariat. We are still living with the consequences of this shift.
Although there were superficial resemblances, this new politics of identity differed from earlier civil-rights movements. Those earlier movements had sought a place at the American table for hitherto entirely or somewhat excluded groups: blacks, women, gays, the disabled, and so on. In doing so, they didn’t seek to overturn or radically reorganize the table. Instead, they reaffirmed the American Founding (think of Martin Luther King Jr.’s constant references to the Declaration of Independence). And these movements succeeded, owing to America’s tremendous capacity for absorbing social change.
Yet for the new identitarians, as for the Marxists before them, liberal-democratic order was systematically rigged against the downtrodden—now redefined along lines of race, gender, and sexuality, with social class quietly swept under the rug. America’s strides toward racial progress, not least the election and re-election of an African-American president, were dismissed. The U.S. still deserved condemnation because it fell short of perfect inclusion, limitless autonomy, and complete equality—conditions that no free society can achieve given the root fact of human nature. The accidentals had changed from the Marxist days, in other words, but the essentials remained the same.
In one sense, though, the identitarians went further. The old Marxists still claimed to stand on objectively accessible truth. Not so their successors. Following intellectual lodestars such as the gender theorist Judith Butler, the identity left came to reject objective truth—and with it, biological sex differences, aesthetic standards in art, the possibility of universal moral precepts, and much else of the kind. All of these things, the left identitarians said, were products of repressive institutions, hierarchies, and power.
Today’s “social-justice warriors” are heirs to this sordid intellectual legacy. They claim to seek justice. But, unmoored from any moral foundations, SJW justice operates like mob justice and revolutionary terror, usually carried out online. SJWs claim to protect individual autonomy, but the obsession with group identity and power dynamics means that SJW autonomy claims must destroy the autonomy of others. Self-righteousness married to total relativism is a terrifying thing.
It isn’t enough to have legalized same-sex marriage in the U.S. via judicial fiat; the evangelical baker must be forced to bake cakes for gay weddings. It isn’t enough to have won legal protection and social acceptance for the transgendered; the Orthodox rabbi must use preferred trans pronouns on pain of criminal prosecution. Likewise, since there is no objective truth to be gained from the open exchange of ideas, any speech that causes subjective discomfort among members of marginalized groups must be suppressed, if necessary through physical violence. Campus censorship that began with speech codes and mobs that prevented conservative and pro-Israel figures from speaking has now evolved into a general right to beat anyone designated as a “fascist,” on- or off-campus.
For the illiberal left, the election of Donald Trump was indisputable proof that behind America’s liberal pieties lurks, forever, the beast of bigotry. Trump, in this view, wasn’t just an unqualified vulgarian who nevertheless won the decisive backing of voters dissatisfied with the alternative or alienated from mainstream politics. Rather, a vote for Trump constituted a declaration of war against women, immigrants, and other victims of American “structures of oppression.” There would be no attempt to persuade Trump supporters; war would be answered by war.
This isn’t liberalism. Since it can sometimes appear as an extension of traditional civil-rights activism, however, identity leftism has glommed itself onto liberalism. It is frequently impossible to tell where traditional autonomy- and equality-seeking liberalism ends and repressive identity leftism begins. Whether based on faulty thinking or out of a sense of weakness before an angry and energetic movement, liberals have too often embraced the identity left as their own. They haven’t noticed how the identitarians seek to undermine, not rectify, liberal order.
Some on the left, notably Columbia University’s Mark Lilla, are sounding the alarm and calling on Democrats to stress the common good over tribalism. Yet these are a few voices in the wilderness. Identitarians of various stripes still lord over the broad left, where it is fashionable to believe that the U.S. project is predatory and oppressive by design. If there is a viable left alternative to identity on the horizon, it is the one offered by Sanders and his “Bernie Bros”—which is to say, a reversion to the socialism and class struggle of the previous century.
Americans, it seems, will have to wait a while for reason and responsibility to return to the left.T
hen there is the illiberal fever gripping American conservatives. Liberal democracy has always had its critics on the right, particularly in Continental Europe, where statist, authoritarian, and blood-and-soil accounts of conservatism predominate. Mainstream Anglo-American conservatism took a different course. It has championed individual rights, free enterprise, and pluralism while insisting that liberty depends on public virtue and moral order, and that sometimes the claims of liberty and autonomy must give way to those of tradition, state authority, and the common good.
The whole beauty of American order lies in keeping in tension these rival forces that are nevertheless fundamentally at peace. The Founders didn’t adopt wholesale Enlightenment liberalism; rather, they tempered its precepts about universal rights with the teachings of biblical religion as well as Roman political theory. The Constitution drew from all three wellsprings. The product was a whole, and it is a pointless and ahistorical exercise to elevate any one source above the others.
American conservatism and liberalism, then, are in fact branches of each other, the one (conservatism) invoking tradition and virtue to defend and, when necessary, discipline the regime of liberty; the other (liberalism) guaranteeing the open space in which churches, volunteer organizations, philanthropic activity, and other sources of tradition and civic virtue flourish, in freedom, rather than through state establishment or patronage.
One result has been long-term political stability, a blessing that Americans take for granted. Another has been the transformation of liberalism into the lingua franca of all politics, not just at home but across a world that, since 1945, has increasingly reflected U.S. preferences. The great French classical liberal Raymond Aron noted in 1955 that the “essentials of liberalism—the respect for individual liberty and moderate government—are no longer the property of a single party: they have become the property of all.” As Aron archly pointed out, even liberalism’s enemies tend to frame their objections using the rights-based talk associated with liberalism.
Under Trump, however, some in the party of the right have abdicated their responsibility to liberal democracy as a whole. They have reduced themselves to the lowest sophistry in defense of the New Yorker’s inanities and daily assaults on presidential norms. Beginning when Trump clinched the GOP nomination last year, a great deal of conservative “thinking” has amounted to: You did X to us, now enjoy it as we dish it back to you and then some. Entire websites and some of the biggest stars in right-wing punditry are singularly devoted to making this rather base point. If Trump is undermining this or that aspect of liberal order that was once cherished by conservatives, so be it; that 63 million Americans supported him and that the president “drives the left crazy”—these are good enough reasons to go along.
Some of this is partisan jousting that occurs with every administration. But when it comes to Trump’s most egregious statements and conduct—such as his repeated assertions that the U.S. and Putin’s thugocracy are moral equals—the apologetics are positively obscene. Enough pooh-poohing, whataboutery, and misdirection of this kind, and there will be no conservative principle left standing.
More perniciously, as once-defeated illiberal philosophies have returned with a vengeance to the left, so have their reactionary analogues to the right. The two illiberalisms enjoy a remarkable complementarity and even cross-pollinate each other. This has developed to the point where it is sometimes hard to distinguish Tucker Carlson from Chomsky, Laura Ingraham from Julian Assange, the Claremont Review from New Left Review, and so on.
Two slanders against liberalism in particular seem to be gathering strength on the thinking right. The first is the tendency to frame elements of liberal democracy, especially free trade, as a conspiracy hatched by capitalists, the managerial class, and others with soft hands against American workers. One needn’t renounce liberal democracy as a whole to believe this, though believers often go the whole hog. The second idea is that liberalism itself was another form of totalitarianism all along and, therefore, that no amount of conservative course correction can set right what is wrong with the system.
These two theses together represent a dismaying ideological turn on the right. The first—the account of global capitalism as an imposition of power over the powerless—has gained currency in the pages of American Affairs, the new journal of Trumpian thought, where class struggle is a constant theme. Other conservatives, who were always skeptical of free enterprise and U.S.-led world order, such as the Weekly Standard’s Christopher Caldwell, are also publishing similar ideas to a wider reception than perhaps greeted them in the past.
In a March 2017 essay in the Claremont Review of Books, for example, Caldwell flatly described globalization as a “con game.” The perpetrators, he argued, are “unscrupulous actors who have broken promises and seized a good deal of hard-won public property.” These included administrations of both parties that pursued trade liberalization over decades, people who live in cities and therefore benefit from the knowledge-based economy, American firms, and really anyone who has ever thought to capitalize on global supply chains to boost competitiveness—globalists, in a word.
By shipping jobs and manufacturing processes overseas, Caldwell contended, these miscreants had stolen not just material things like taxpayer-funded research but also concepts like “economies of scale” (you didn’t build that!). Thus, globalization in the West differed “in degree but not in kind from the contemporaneous Eastern Bloc looting of state assets.”
That comparison with predatory post-Communist privatization is a sure sign of ideological overheating. It is somewhat like saying that a consumer bank’s lending to home buyers differs in degree but not in kind from a loan shark’s racket in a housing project. Well, yes, in the sense that the underlying activity—moneylending, the purchase of assets—is the same in both cases. But the context makes all the difference: The globalization that began after World War II and accelerated in the ’90s took place within a rules-based system, which duly elected or appointed policymakers in Western democracies designed in good faith and for a whole host of legitimate strategic and economic reasons.
These policymakers knew that globalization was as old as civilization itself. It would take place anyway, and the only question was whether it would be rules-based and efficient or the kind of globalization that would be driven by great-power rivalry and therefore prone to protectionist trade wars. And they were right. What today’s anti-trade types won’t admit is that defeating the Trans-Pacific Partnership and a proposed U.S.-European trade pact known as TTIP won’t end globalization as such; instead, it will cede the game to other powers that are less concerned about rules and fair play.
The postwar globalizers may have gone too far (or not far enough!). They certainly didn’t give sufficient thought to the losers in the system, or how to deal with the de-industrialization that would follow when information became supremely mobile and wages in the West remained too high relative to skills and productivity gains in the developing world. They muddled and compromised their way through these questions, as all policymakers in the real world do.
The point is that these leaders—the likes of FDR, Churchill, JFK, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and, yes, Bill Clinton—acted neither with malice aforethought nor anti-democratically. It isn’t true, contra Caldwell, that free trade necessarily requires “veto-proof and non-consultative” politics. The U.S., Britain, and other members of what used to be called the Free World have respected popular sovereignty (as understood at the time) for as long as they have been trading nations. Put another way, you were far more likely to enjoy political freedom if you were a citizen of one of these states than of countries that opposed economic liberalism in the 20th century. That remains true today. These distinctions matter.
Caldwell and like-minded writers of the right, who tend to dwell on liberal democracies’ crimes, are prepared to tolerate far worse if it is committed in the name of defeating “globalism.” Hence the speech on Putin that Caldwell delivered this spring at a Hillsdale College gathering in Phoenix. Promising not to “talk about what to think about Putin,” he proceeded to praise the Russian strongman as the “preeminent statesman of our time” (alongside Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan). Putin, Caldwell said, “has become a symbol of national self-determination.”
Then Caldwell made a remark that illuminates the link between the illiberalisms of yesterday and today. Putin is to “populist conservatives,” he declared, what Castro once was to progressives. “You didn’t have to be a Communist to appreciate the way Castro, whatever his excesses, was carving out a space of autonomy for his country.”
Whatever his excesses, indeed.T
he other big idea is that today’s liberal crises aren’t a bug but a core feature of liberalism. This line of thinking is particularly prevalent among some Catholic traditionalists and other orthodox Christians (both small- and capital-“o”). The common denominator, it seems to me, is having grown up as a serious believer at a time when many liberals—to their shame—have declared war on faith generally and social conservatism in particular.
The argument essentially is this:
We (social conservatives, traditionalists) saw the threat from liberalism coming. With its claims about abstract rights and universal reason, classical liberalism had always posed a danger to the Church and to people of God. We remembered what those fired up by the new ideas did to our nuns and altars in France. Still we made peace with American liberal order, because we were told that the Founders had “built on low but solid ground,” to borrow Leo Strauss’s famous formulation, or that they had “built better than they knew,” as American Catholic hierarchs in the 19th century put it.
Maybe these promises held good for a couple of centuries, the argument continues, but they no longer do. Witness the second sexual revolution under way today. The revolutionaries are plainly telling us that we must either conform our beliefs to Herod’s ways or be driven from the democratic public square. Can it still be said that the Founding rested on solid ground? Did the Founders really build better than they knew? Or is what is passing now precisely what they intended, the rotten fruit of the Enlightenment universalism that they planted in the Constitution? We don’t love Trump (or Putin, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, etc.), but perhaps he can counter the pincer movement of sexual and economic liberalism, and restore a measure of solidarity and commitment to the Western project.
The most pessimistic of these illiberal critics go so far as to argue that liberalism isn’t all that different from Communism, that both are totalitarian children of the Enlightenment. One such critic, Harvard Law School’s Adrian Vermeule, summed up this position in a January essay in First Things magazine:
The stock distinction between the Enlightenment’s twins—communism is violently coercive while liberalism allows freedom of thought—is glib. Illiberal citizens, trapped [under liberalism] without exit papers, suffer a narrowing sphere of permitted action and speech, shrinking prospects, and increasing pressure from regulators, employers, and acquaintances, and even from friends and family. Liberal society celebrates toleration, diversity, and free inquiry, but in practice it features a spreading social, cultural, and ideological conformism.1
I share Vermeule’s despair and that of many other conservative-Christian friends, because there have been genuinely alarming encroachments against conscience, religious freedom, and the dignity of life in Western liberal democracies in recent years. Even so, despair is an unhelpful companion to sober political thought, and the case for plunging into political illiberalism is weak, even on social-conservative grounds.
Here again what commends liberalism is historical experience, not abstract theory. Simply put, in the real-world experience of the 20th century, the Church, tradition, and religious minorities fared far better under liberal-democratic regimes than they did under illiberal alternatives. Are coercion and conformity targeting people of faith under liberalism? To be sure. But these don’t take the form of the gulag or the concentration camp or the soccer stadium–cum-killing field. Catholic political practice knows well how to draw such moral distinctions between regimes: Pope John Paul II befriended Reagan. If liberal democracy and Communism were indeed “twins” whose distinctions are “glib,” why did he do so?
And as Pascal Bruckner wrote in his essay “The Tyranny of Guilt,” if liberal democracy does trap or jail you (politically speaking), it also invariably slips the key under your cell door. The Swedish midwives driven out of the profession over their pro-life views can take their story to the media. The Down syndrome advocacy outfit whose anti-eugenic advertising was censored in France can sue in national and then international courts. The Little Sisters of the Poor can appeal to the Supreme Court for a conscience exemption to Obamacare’s contraceptives mandate. And so on.
Conversely, once you go illiberal, you don’t just rid yourself of the NGOs and doctrinaire bureaucrats bent on forcing priests to perform gay marriages; you also lose the legal guarantees that protect the Church, however imperfectly, against capricious rulers and popular majorities. And if public opinion in the West is turning increasingly secular, indeed anti-Christian, as social conservatives complain and surveys seem to confirm, is it really a good idea to militate in favor of a more illiberal order rather than defend tooth and nail liberal principles of freedom of conscience? For tomorrow, the state might fall into Elizabeth Warren’s hands.
Nor, finally, is political liberalism alone to blame for the Church’s retreating on various fronts. There have been plenty of wounds inflicted by churchmen and laypeople, who believed that they could best serve the faith by conforming its liturgy, moral teaching, and public presence to liberal order. But political liberalism didn’t compel these changes, at least not directly. In the space opened up by liberalism, and amid the kaleidoscopic lifestyles that left millions of people feeling empty and confused, it was perfectly possible to propose tradition as an alternative. It is still possible to do so.N one of this is to excuse the failures of liberals. Liberals and mainstream conservatives must go back to the drawing board, to figure out why it is that thoughtful people have come to conclude that their system is incompatible with democracy, nationalism, and religious faith. Traditionalists and others who see Russia’s mafia state as a defender of Christian civilization and national sovereignty have been duped, but liberals bear some blame for driving large numbers of people in the West to that conclusion.
This is a generational challenge for the liberal project. So be it. Liberal societies like America’s by nature invite such questioning. But before we abandon the 200-and-some-year-old liberal adventure, it is worth examining the ways in which today’s left-wing and right-wing critiques of it mirror bad ideas that were overcome in the previous century. The ideological ferment of the moment, after all, doesn’t relieve the illiberals of the responsibility to reckon with the lessons of the past.
1 Vermeule was reviewing The Demon in Democracy, a 2015 book by the Polish political theorist and parliamentarian Ryszard Legutko that makes the same case. Fred Siegel’s review of the English edition appeared in our June 2016 issue.
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How the courts are intervening to block some of the most unjust punishments of our time
Barrett’s decision marked the 59th judicial setback for a college or university since 2013 in a due-process lawsuit brought by a student accused of sexual assault. (In four additional cases, the school settled a lawsuit before any judicial decision occurred.) This body of law serves as a towering rebuke to the Obama administration’s reinterpretation of Title IX, the 1972 law barring sex discrimination in schools that receive federal funding.
Beginning in 2011, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued a series of “guidance” documents pressuring colleges and universities to change how they adjudicated sexual-assault cases in ways that increased the likelihood of guilty findings. Amid pressure from student and faculty activists, virtually all elite colleges and universities have gone far beyond federal mandates and have even further weakened the rights of students accused of sexual assault.
Like all extreme victims’-rights approaches, the new policies had the greatest impact on the wrongly accused. A 2016 study from UCLA public-policy professor John Villasenor used just one of the changes—schools employing the lowest standard of proof, a preponderance of the evidence—to predict that as often as 33 percent of the time, campus Title IX tribunals would return guilty findings in cases involving innocent students. Villasenor’s study could not measure the impact of other Obama-era policy demands—such as allowing accusers to appeal not-guilty findings, discouraging cross-examination of accusers, and urging schools to adjudicate claims even when a criminal inquiry found no wrongdoing.
In a September 7 address at George Mason University, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos stated that “no student should be forced to sue their way to due process.” But once enmeshed in the campus Title IX process, a wrongfully accused student’s best chance for justice may well be a lawsuit filed after his college incorrectly has found him guilty. (According to data from United Educators, a higher-education insurance firm, 99 percent of students accused of campus sexual assault are male.) The Foundation for Individual Rights has identified more than 180 such lawsuits filed since the 2011 policy changes. That figure, obviously, excludes students with equally strong claims whose families cannot afford to go to court. These students face life-altering consequences. As Judge T.S. Ellis III noted in a 2016 decision, it is “so clear as to be almost a truism” that a student will lose future educational and employment opportunities if his college wrongly brands him a rapist.
“It is not the role of the federal courts to set aside decisions of school administrators which the court may view as lacking in wisdom or compassion.” So wrote the Supreme Court in a 1975 case, Wood v. Strickland. While the Supreme Court has made clear that colleges must provide accused students with some rights, especially when dealing with nonacademic disciplinary questions, courts generally have not been eager to intervene in such matters.
This is what makes the developments of the last four years all the more remarkable. The process began in May 2013, in a ruling against St. Joseph’s University, and has lately accelerated (15 rulings in 2016 and 21 thus far in 2017). Of the 40 setbacks for colleges in federal court, 14 came from judges nominated by Barack Obama, 11 from Clinton nominees, and nine from selections of George W. Bush. Brown University has been on the losing side of three decisions; Duke, Cornell, and Penn State, two each.
Court decisions since the expansion of Title IX activism have not all gone in one direction. In 36 of the due-process lawsuits, courts have permitted the university to maintain its guilty finding. (In four other cases, the university settled despite prevailing at a preliminary stage.) But even in these cases, some courts have expressed discomfort with campus procedures. One federal judge was “greatly troubled” that Georgia Tech veered “very far from an ideal representation of due process” when its investigator “did not pursue any line of investigation that may have cast doubt on [the accuser’s] account of the incident.” Another went out of his way to say that he considered it plausible that a former Case Western Reserve University student was actually “innocent of the charges levied against him.” And one state appellate judge opened oral argument by bluntly informing the University of California’s lawyer, “When I . . . finished reading all the briefs in this case, my comment was, ‘Where’s the kangaroo?’”
Judges have, obviously, raised more questions in cases where the college has found itself on the losing side. Those lawsuits have featured three common areas of concern: bias in the investigation, resulting in a college decision based on incomplete evidence; procedures that prevented the accused student from challenging his accuser’s credibility, chiefly through cross-examination; and schools utilizing a process that seemed designed to produce a predetermined result, in response to real or perceived pressure from the federal government.C olleges and universities have proven remarkably willing to act on incomplete information when adjudicating sexual-assault cases. In December 2013, for example, Amherst College expelled a student for sexual assault despite text messages (which the college investigator failed to discover) indicating that the accuser had consented to sexual contact. The accuser’s own testimony also indicated that she might have committed sexual assault, by initiating sexual contact with a student who Amherst conceded was experiencing an alcoholic blackout. When the accused student sued Amherst, the college said its failure to uncover the text messages had been irrelevant because its investigator had only sought texts that portrayed the incident as nonconsensual. In February, Judge Mark Mastroianni allowed the accused student’s lawsuit to proceed, commenting that the texts could raise “additional questions about the credibility of the version of events [the accuser] gave during the disciplinary proceeding.” The two sides settled in late July.
Amherst was hardly alone in its eagerness to avoid evidence that might undermine the accuser’s version of events; the same happened at Penn State, St. Joseph’s, Duke, Ohio State, Occidental, Lynn, Marlboro, Michigan, and Notre Dame.
Even in cases with a more complete evidentiary base, accused students have often been blocked from presenting a full-fledged defense. As part of its reinterpretation of Title IX, the Obama administration sought to shield campus accusers from cross-examination. OCR’s 2011 guidance “strongly” discouraged direct cross-examination of accusers by the accused student—a critical restriction, since most university procedures require the accused student, rather than his lawyer, to defend himself in the hearing. OCR’s 2014 guidance suggested that this type of cross-examination in and of itself could create a hostile environment. The Obama administration even spoke favorably about the growing trend among schools to abolish hearings altogether and allow a single official to serve as investigator, prosecutor, judge, and jury in sexual-assault cases.
The Supreme Court has never held that campus disciplinary hearings must permit cross-examination. Nonetheless, the recent attack on the practice has left schools struggling to explain why they would not want to utilize what the Court has described as the “greatest legal engine ever invented for the discovery of truth.” In June 2016, the University of Cincinnati found a student guilty of sexual assault after a hearing at which neither his accuser nor the university’s Title IX investigator appeared. In an unintentionally comical line, the hearing chair noted the absent witnesses before asking the accused student if he had “any questions of the Title IX report.” The student, befuddled, replied, “Well, since she’s not here, I can’t really ask anything of the report.” (The panel chair did not indicate how the “report” could have answered any questions.) Cincinnati found the student guilty anyway.1
Limitations on full cross-examination also played a role in judicial setbacks for Middlebury, George Mason, James Madison, Ohio State, Occidental, Penn State, Brandeis, Amherst, Notre Dame, and Skidmore.
Finally, since 2011, more than 300 students have filed Title IX complaints with the Office for Civil Rights, alleging mishandling of their sexual-assault allegation by their college. OCR’s leadership seemed to welcome the complaints, which allowed Obama officials not only to inspect the individual case but all sexual-assault claims at the school in question over a three-year period. Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis has estimated that during the Obama years, colleges spent between $60 million and $100 million on these investigations. If OCR finds a Title IX violation, that might lead to a loss of federal funding. This has led Harvard Law professors Jeannie Suk Gersen, Janet Halley, Elizabeth Bartholet, and Nancy Gertner to observe in a white paper submitted to OCR that universities have “strong incentives to ensure the school stays in OCR’s good graces.”
One of the earliest lawsuits after the Obama administration’s policy shift, involving former Xavier University basketball player Dez Wells, demonstrated how an OCR investigation can affect the fairness of a university inquiry. The accuser’s complaint had been referred both to Xavier’s Title IX office and the Cincinnati police. The police concluded that the allegation was meritless; Hamilton County Prosecuting Attorney Joseph Deters later said he considered charging the accuser with filing a false police report.
Deters asked Xavier to delay its proceedings until his office completed its investigation. School officials refused. Instead, three weeks after the initial allegation, the university expelled Wells. He sued and speculated that Xavier’s haste came not from a quest for justice but instead from a desire to avoid difficulties in finalizing an agreement with OCR to resolve an unrelated complaint filed by two female Xavier students. (In recent years, OCR has entered into dozens of similar resolution agreements, which bind universities to policy changes in exchange for removing the threat of losing federal funds.) In a July 2014 ruling, Judge Arthur Spiegel observed that Xavier’s disciplinary tribunal, however “well-equipped to adjudicate questions of cheating, may have been in over its head with relation to an alleged false accusation of sexual assault.” Soon thereafter, the two sides settled; Wells transferred to the University of Maryland.
Ohio State, Occidental, Cornell, Middlebury, Appalachian State, USC, and Columbia have all found themselves on the losing side of court decisions arising from cases that originated during a time in which OCR was investigating or threatening to investigate the school. (In the Ohio State case, one university staffer testified that she didn’t know whether she had an obligation to correct a false statement by an accuser to a disciplinary panel.) Pressure from OCR can be indirect, as well. The Obama administration interpreted federal law as requiring all universities to have at least one Title IX coordinator; larger universities now employ dozens of Title IX personnel who, as the Harvard Law professors explained, “have reason to fear for their jobs if they hold a student not responsible or if they assign a rehabilitative or restorative rather than a harshly punitive sanction.”A mid the wave of judicial setbacks for universities, two decisions in particular stand out. Easily the most powerful opinion in a campus due-process case came in March 2016 from Judge F. Dennis Saylor. While the stereotypical campus sexual-assault allegation results from an alcohol-filled, one-night encounter between a male and a female student, a case at Brandeis University involved a long-term monogamous relationship between two male students. A bad breakup led to the accusing student’s filing the following complaint, against which his former boyfriend was expected to provide a defense: “Starting in the month of September, 2011, the Alleged violator of Policy had numerous inappropriate, nonconsensual sexual interactions with me. These interactions continued to occur until around May 2013.”
To adjudicate, Brandeis hired a former OCR staffer, who interviewed the two students and a few of their friends. Since the university did not hold a hearing, the investigator decided guilt or innocence on her own. She treated each incident as if the two men were strangers to each other, which allowed her to determine that sexual “violence” had occurred in the relationship. The accused student, she found, sometimes looked at his boyfriend in the nude without permission and sometimes awakened his boyfriend with kisses when the boyfriend wanted to stay asleep. The university’s procedures prevented the student from seeing the investigator’s report, with its absurdly broad definition of sexual misconduct, in preparing his appeal. “In the context of American legal culture,” Boston Globe columnist Dante Ramos later argued, denying this type of information “is crazy.” “Standard rules of evidence and other protections for the accused keep things like false accusations or mistakes by authorities from hurting innocent people.” When the university appeal was denied, the student sued.
At an October 2015 hearing to consider the university’s motion to dismiss, Saylor seemed flabbergasted at the unfairness of the school’s approach. “I don’t understand,” he observed, “how a university, much less one named after Louis Brandeis, could possibly think that that was a fair procedure to not allow the accused to see the accusation.” Brandeis’s lawyer cited pressure to conform to OCR guidance, but the judge deemed the university’s procedures “closer to Salem 1692 than Boston, 2015.”
The following March, Saylor issued an 89-page opinion that has been cited in virtually every lawsuit subsequently filed by an accused student. “Whether someone is a ‘victim’ is a conclusion to be reached at the end of a fair process, not an assumption to be made at the beginning,” Saylor wrote. “If a college student is to be marked for life as a sexual predator, it is reasonable to require that he be provided a fair opportunity to defend himself and an impartial arbiter to make that decision.” Saylor concluded that Brandeis forced the accused student “to defend himself in what was essentially an inquisitorial proceeding that plausibly failed to provide him with a fair and reasonable opportunity to be informed of the charges and to present an adequate defense.”
The student, vindicated by the ruling’s sweeping nature, then withdrew his lawsuit. He currently is pursuing a Title IX complaint against Brandeis with OCR.
Four months later, a three-judge panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals produced an opinion that lacked Saylor’s rhetorical flourish or his understanding of the basic unfairness of the campus Title IX process. But by creating a more relaxed standard for accused students to make federal Title IX claims, the Second Circuit’s decision in Doe v. Columbia carried considerable weight.
Two Columbia students who had been drinking had a brief sexual encounter at a party. More than four months later, the accuser claimed she was too intoxicated to have consented. Her allegation came in an atmosphere of campus outrage about the university’s allegedly insufficient toughness on sexual assault. In this setting, the accused student found Columbia’s Title IX investigator uninterested in hearing his side of the story. He cited witnesses who would corroborate his belief that the accuser wasn’t intoxicated; the investigator declined to speak with them. The student was found guilty, although for reasons differing from the initial claim; the Columbia panel ruled that he had “directed unreasonable pressure for sexual activity toward the [accuser] over a period of weeks,” leaving her unable to consent on the night in question. He received a three-semester suspension for this nebulous offense—which even his accuser deemed too harsh. He sued, and the case was assigned to Judge Jesse Furman.
Furman’s opinion provided a ringing victory for Columbia and the Obama-backed policies it used. As Title IX litigator Patricia Hamill later observed, Furman’s “almost impossible standard” required accused students to have inside information about the institution’s handling of other sexual-assault claims—information they could plausibly obtain only through the legal process known as discovery, which happens at a later stage of litigation—in order to survive a university’s initial motion to dismiss. Furman suggested that, to prevail, an accused student would need to show that his school treated a female student accused of sexual assault more favorably, or at least provide details about how cases against other accused students showed a pattern of bias. But federal privacy law keeps campus disciplinary hearings private, leaving most accused students with little opportunity to uncover the information before their case is dismissed.
At the same time, the opinion excused virtually any degree of unfairness by the institution. Furman reasoned that taking “allegations of rape on campus seriously and . . . treat[ing] complainants with a high degree of sensitivity” could constitute “lawful” reasons for university unfairness toward accused students. Samantha Harris of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education detected the decision’s “immediate and nationwide impact” in several rulings against accused students. It also played the same role in university briefs that Saylor’s Brandeis opinion did in filings by accused students.
The Columbia student’s lawyer, Andrew Miltenberg, appealed Furman’s ruling to the Second Circuit. The stakes were high, since a ruling affirming the lower court’s reasoning would have all but foreclosed Title IX lawsuits by accused students in New York, Connecticut, and Vermont. But a panel of three judges, all nominated by Democratic presidents, overturned Furman’s decision. In the opinion’s crucial passage, Judge Pierre Leval held that a university “is not excused from liability for discrimination because the discriminatory motivation does not result from a discriminatory heart, but rather from a desire to avoid practical disadvantages that might result from unbiased action. A covered university that adopts, even temporarily, a policy of bias favoring one sex over the other in a disciplinary dispute, doing so in order to avoid liability or bad publicity, has practiced sex discrimination, notwithstanding that the motive for the discrimination did not come from ingrained or permanent bias against that particular sex.” Before the Columbia decision, courts almost always had rebuffed Title IX pleadings from accused students. More recently, judges have allowed Title IX claims to proceed against Amherst, Cornell, California–Santa Barbara, Drake, and Rollins.
After the Second Circuit’s decision, Columbia settled with the accused student, sparing its Title IX decision-makers from having to testify at a trial. James Madison was one of the few universities to take a different course, with disastrous results. A lawsuit from an accused student survived a motion to dismiss, but the university refused to settle, allowing the student’s lawyer to depose the three school employees who had decided his client’s fate. One unintentionally revealed that he had misapplied the university’s own definition of consent. Another cited the importance of the accuser’s slurring words on a voicemail, thus proving her extreme intoxication on the night of the alleged assault. It was left to the accused student’s lawyer, at a deposition months after the decision had been made, to note that the voicemail in question actually was received on a different night. In December 2016, Judge Elizabeth Dillon, an Obama nominee, granted summary judgment to the accused student, concluding that “significant anomalies in the appeal process” violated his due-process rights under the Constitution.niversities were on the losing side of 36 due-process rulings when Obama appointee Catherine Lhamon was presiding over the Office for Civil Rights between 2013 and 2016; no record exists of her publicly acknowledging any of them. In June 2017, however, Lhamon suddenly rejoiced that “yet another federal court” had found that students disciplined for sexual misconduct “were not denied due process.” That Fifth Circuit decision, involving two former students at the University of Houston, was an odd case for her to celebrate. The majority cabined its findings to the “unique facts” of the case—that the accused students likely would have been found guilty even under the fairest possible process. And the dissent, from Judge Edith Jones, denounced the procedures championed by Lhamon and other Obama officials as “heavily weighted in favor of finding guilt,” predicting “worse to come if appellate courts do not step in to protect students’ procedural due process right where allegations of quasi-criminal sexual misconduct arise.”
At this stage, Lhamon, who now chairs the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, cannot be taken seriously when it comes to questions of campus due process. But other defenders of the current Title IX regime have offered more substantive commentary about the university setbacks.
Legal scholar Michelle Anderson was one of the few to even discuss the due-process decisions. “Colleges and universities do not always adjudicate allegations of sexual assault well,” she noted in a 2016 law review article defending the Obama-era policies. Anderson even conceded that some colleges had denied “accused students fairness in disciplinary adjudication.” But these students sued, “and campuses are responding—as they must—when accused students prevail. So campuses face powerful legal incentives on both sides to address campus sexual assault, and to do so fairly and impartially.”
This may be true, but Anderson does not explain why wrongly accused students should bear the financial and emotional burden of inducing their colleges to implement fair procedures. More important, scant evidence exists that colleges have responded to the court victories of wrongly accused students by creating fairer procedures. Some have even made it more difficult for wrongly accused students to sue. After losing a lawsuit in December 2014, Brown eliminated the right of students accused of sexual assault to have “every opportunity” to present evidence. That same year, an accused student showed how Swarthmore had deviated from its own procedures in his case. The college quickly settled the lawsuit—and then added a clause to its procedures immunizing it from similar claims in the future. Swarthmore currently informs accused students that “rules of evidence ordinarily found in legal proceedings shall not be applied, nor shall any deviations from any of these prescribed procedures alone invalidate a decision.”
Many lawsuits are still working their way through the judicial system; three cases are pending at federal appellate courts. Of the two that address substantive matters, oral arguments seemed to reveal skepticism of the university’s position. On July 26, a three-judge panel of the First Circuit considered a case at Boston College, where the accused student plausibly argued that someone else had committed the sexual assault (which occurred on a poorly lit dance floor). Judges Bruce Selya and William Kayatta seemed troubled that a Boston College dean had improperly intruded on the hearing board’s deliberations. At the Sixth Circuit a few days later, Judges Richard Griffin and Amul Thapar both expressed concerns about the University of Cincinnati’s downplaying the importance of cross-examination in campus-sex adjudications. Judge Eric Clay was quieter, but he wondered about the tension between the university’s Title IX and truth-seeking obligations.
In a perfect world, academic leaders themselves would have created fairer processes without judicial intervention. But in the current campus environment, such an approach is impossible. So, at least for the short term, the courts remain the best, albeit imperfect, option for students wrongly accused of sexual assault. Meanwhile, every year, young men entrust themselves and their family’s money to institutions of higher learning that are indifferent to their rights and unconcerned with the injustices to which these students might be subjected.
1 After a district court placed that finding on hold, the university appealed to the Sixth Circuit.
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Review of 'Terror in France' By Gilles Kepel
Kepel is particularly knowledgeable about the history and process of radicalization that takes place in his nation’s heavily Muslim banlieues (the depressed housing projects ringing Paris and other major cities), and Terror in France is informed by decades of fieldwork in these volatile locales. What we have been witnessing for more than a decade, Kepel argues, is the “third wave” of global jihadism, which is not so much a top-down doctrinally inspired campaign (as were the 9/11 attacks, directed from afar by the oracular figure of Osama bin Laden) but a bottom-up insurgency with an “enclave-based ethnic-racial logic of violence” to it. Kepel traces the phenomenon back to 2005, a convulsive year that saw the second-generation descendants of France’s postcolonial Muslim immigrants confront a changing socio-political landscape.
That was the year of the greatest riots in modern French history, involving mostly young Muslim men. It was also the year that Abu Musab al-Suri, the Syrian-born Islamist then serving as al-Qaeda’s operations chief in Europe, published The Global Islamic Resistance Call. This 1,600-page manifesto combined pious imprecations against the West with do-it-yourself ingenuity, an Anarchist’s Cookbook for the Islamist set. In Kepel’s words, the manifesto preached a “jihadism of proximity,” the brand of civil war later adopted by the Islamic State. It called for ceaseless, mass-casualty attacks in Western cities—attacks which increase suspicion and regulation of Muslims and, in turn, drive those Muslims into the arms of violent extremists.
The third-generation jihad has been assisted by two phenomena: social-networking sites that easily and widely disseminate Islamist propaganda (thus increasing the rate of self-radicalization) and the so-called Arab Spring, which led to state collapse in Syria and Libya, providing “an exceptional site for military training and propaganda only a few hours’ flight from Europe, and at a very low cost.”
Kepel’s book is not just a study of the ideology and tactics of Islamists but a sociopolitical overview of how this disturbing phenomenon fits within a country on the brink. For example, Kepel finds that jihadism is emerging in conjunction with developments such as the “end of industrial society.” A downturn in work has led to an ominous situation in which a “right-wing ethnic nationalism” preying on the economically anxious has risen alongside Islamism as “parallel conduits for expressing grievances.” Filling a space left by the French Communist Party (which once brought the ethnic French working class and Arab immigrants together), these two extremes leer at each other from opposite sides of a societal chasm, signaling the potentially cataclysmic future that awaits France if both mass unemployment and Islamist terror continue undiminished.
The French economy has also had a more direct inciting effect on jihadism. Overregulated labor markets make it difficult for young Muslims to get jobs, thus exacerbating the conditions of social deprivation and exclusion that make individuals susceptible to radicalization. The inability to tackle chronic unemployment has led to widespread Muslim disillusionment with the left (a disillusionment aggravated by another, often glossed over, factor: widespread Muslim opposition to the Socialist Party’s championing of same-sex marriage). Essentially, one left-wing constituency (unions) has made the unemployment of another constituency (Muslim youth) the mechanism for maintaining its privileges.
Kepel does not, however, cite deprivation as the sole or even main contributing factor to Islamist radicalization. One Parisian banlieue that has sent more than 80 residents to fight in Syria, he notes, has “attractive new apartment buildings” built by the state and features a mosque “constructed with the backing of the Socialist mayor.” It is also the birthplace of well-known French movie stars of Arab descent, and thus hardly a place where ambition goes to die. “The Islamophobia mantra and the victim mentality it reinforces makes it possible to rationalize a total rejection of France and a commitment to jihad by making a connection between unemployment, discrimination, and French republican values,” Kepel writes. Indeed, Kepel is refreshingly derisive of the term “Islamophobia” throughout the book, excoriating Islamists and their fellow travelers for “substituting it for anti-Semitism as the West’s cardinal sin.” These are meaningful words coming from Kepel, a deeply learned scholar of Islam who harbors great respect for the faith and its adherents.
Kepel also weaves the saga of jihadism into the ongoing “kulturkampf within the French left.” Arguments about Islamist terrorism demonstrate a “divorce between a secular progressive tradition” and the children of the Muslim immigrants this tradition fought to defend. The most ironically perverse manifestation of this divorce was ISIS’s kidnapping of Didier François, co-founder of the civil-rights organization SOS Racisme. Kepel recognizes the origins of this divorce in the “red-green” alliance formed decades ago between Islamists and elements of the French intellectual left, such as Michel Foucault, a cheerleader of the Iranian revolution.
Though he offers a rigorous history and analysis of the jihadist problem, Kepel is generally at a loss for solutions. He decries a complacent French elite, with its disregard for genuine expertise (evidenced by the decline in institutional academic support for Islamicists and Arabists) and the narrow, relatively impenetrable way in which it perpetuates itself, chiefly with a single school (the École normale supérieure) that practically every French politician must attend. Despite France’s admirable republican values, this has made the process of assimilation rather difficult. But other than wishing that the public education system become more effective and inclusive at instilling republican values, Kepel provides little in the way of suggestions as to how France emerges from this mess. That a scholar of such erudition and humanity can do little but throw up his hands and issue a sigh of despair cannot bode well. The third-generation jihad owes as much to the political breakdown in France as it does to the meltdown in the Middle East. Defeating this two-headed beast requires a new and comprehensive playbook: the West’s answer to The Global Islamic Resistance Call. That book has yet to be written.
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resident Trump, in case you haven’t noticed, has a tendency to exaggerate. Nothing is “just right” or “meh” for him. Buildings, crowds, election results, and military campaigns are always outsized, gargantuan, larger, and more significant than you might otherwise assume. “People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular,” he wrote 30 years ago in The Art of the Deal. “I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion.”
So effective, in fact, that the press has picked up the habit. Reporters and editors agree with the president that nothing he does is ordinary. After covering Trump for more than two years, they still can’t accept him as a run-of-the-mill politician. And while there are aspects of Donald Trump and his presidency that are, to say the least, unusual, the media seem unable to distinguish between the abnormal and significant—firing the FBI director in the midst of an investigation into one’s presidential campaign, for example—and the commonplace.
Consider the fiscal deal President Trump struck with Democratic leaders in early September.
On September 6, the president held an Oval Office meeting with Vice President Pence, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin, and congressional leaders of both parties. He had to find a way to (a) raise the debt ceiling, (b) fund the federal government, and (c) spend money on hurricane relief. The problem is that a bloc of House Republicans won’t vote for (a) unless the increase is accompanied by significant budget cuts, which interferes with (b) and (c). To raise the debt ceiling, then, requires Democratic votes. And the debt ceiling must be raised. “There is zero chance—no chance—we will not raise the debt ceiling,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in August.
The meeting went like this. First House Speaker Paul Ryan asked for an 18-month increase in the debt ceiling so Republicans wouldn’t have to vote again on the matter until after the midterm elections. Democrats refused. The bargaining continued until Ryan asked for a six-month increase. The Democrats remained stubborn. So Trump, always willing to kick a can down the road, interrupted Mnuchin to offer a three-month increase, a continuing resolution that will keep the government open through December, and about $8 billion in hurricane money. The Democrats said yes.
That, anyway, is what happened. But the media are not satisfied to report what happened. They want—they need—to tell you what it means. And what does it mean? Well, they aren’t really sure. But it’s something big. It’s something spectacular. For example:
1. “Trump Bypasses Republicans to Strike Deal on Debt Limit and Harvey Aid” was the headline of a story for the New York Times by Peter Baker, Thomas Kaplan, and Michael D. Shear. “The deal to keep the government open and paying its debts until Dec. 15 represented an extraordinary public turn for the president, who has for much of his term set himself up on the right flank of the Republican Party,” their article began. Fair enough. But look at how they import speculation and opinion into the following sentence: “But it remained unclear whether Mr. Trump’s collaboration with Democrats foreshadowed a more sustained shift in strategy by a president who has presented himself as a master dealmaker or amounted to just a one-time instinctual reaction of a mercurial leader momentarily eager to poke his estranged allies.”
2. “The decision was one of the most fascinating and mysterious moves he’s made with Congress during eight months in office,” reported Jeff Zeleny, Dana Bash, Deirdre Walsh, and Jeremy Diamond for CNN. Thanks for sharing!
3. “Trump budget deal gives GOP full-blown Stockholm Syndrome,” read the headline of Tina Nguyen’s piece for Vanity Fair. “Donald Trump’s unexpected capitulation to new best buds ‘Chuck and Nancy’ has thrown the Grand Old Party into a frenzy as Republicans search for explanations—and scapegoats.”
4. “For Conservatives, Trump’s Deal with Democrats Is Nightmare Come True,” read the headline for a New York Times article by Jeremy W. Peters and Maggie Haberman. “It is the scenario that President Trump’s most conservative followers considered their worst nightmare, and on Wednesday it seemed to come true: The deal-making political novice, whose ideology and loyalty were always fungible, cut a deal with Democrats.”
5. “Trump sides with Democrats on fiscal issues, throwing Republican plans into chaos,” read the Washington Post headline the day after the deal was announced. “The president’s surprise stance upended sensitive negotiations over the debt ceiling and other crucial policy issues this fall and further imperiled his already tenuous relationships with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan.” Yes, the negotiations were upended. Then they made a deal.
6. “Although elected as a Republican last year,” wrote Peter Baker of the Times, “Mr. Trump has shown in the nearly eight months in office that he is, in many ways, the first independent to hold the presidency since the advent of the two-party system around the time of the Civil War.” The title of Baker’s news analysis: “Bound to No Party, Trump Upends 150 Years of Two-Party Rule.” One hundred and fifty years? Why not 200?
The journalistic rule of thumb used to be that an article describing a political, social, or cultural trend requires at least three examples. Not while covering Trump. If Trump does something, anything, you should feel free to inflate its importance beyond all recognition. And stuff your “reporting” with all sorts of dramatic adjectives and frightening nouns: fascinating, mysterious, unexpected, extraordinary, nightmare, chaos, frenzy, and scapegoats. It’s like a Vince Flynn thriller come to life.
The case for the significance of the budget deal would be stronger if there were a consensus about whom it helped. There isn’t one. At first the press assumed Democrats had won. “Republicans left the Oval Office Wednesday stunned,” reported Rachael Bade, Burgess Everett, and Josh Dawsey of Politico. Another trio of Politico reporters wrote, “In the aftermath, Republicans seethed privately and distanced themselves publicly from the deal.” Republicans were “stunned,” reported Kristina Peterson, Siobhan Hughes, and Louise Radnofsky of the Wall Street Journal. “Meet the swamp: Donald Trump punts September agenda to December after meeting with Congress,” read the headline of Charlie Spiering’s Breitbart story.
By the following week, though, these very outlets had decided the GOP was looking pretty good. “Trump’s deal with Democrats bolsters Ryan—for now,” read the Politico headline on September 11. “McConnell: No New Debt Ceiling Vote until ‘Well into 2018,’” reported the Washington Post. “At this point…picking a fight with Republican leaders will only help him,” wrote Gerald Seib in the Wall Street Journal. “Trump has long warned that he would work with Democrats, if necessary, to fulfill his campaign promises. And Wednesday’s deal is a sign that he intends to follow through on that threat,” wrote Breitbart’s Joel Pollak.
The sensationalism, the conflicting interpretations, the visceral language is dizzying. We have so many reporters chasing the same story that each feels compelled to gussy up a quotidian budget negotiation until it resembles the Ribbentrop–Molotov pact, and none feel it necessary to apply to their own reporting the scrutiny and incredulity they apply to Trump. The truth is that no one knows what this agreement portends. Nor is it the job of a reporter to divine the meaning of current events like an augur of Rome. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And a deal is just a deal.
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Remembering something wonderful
Not surprisingly, many well-established performers were left in the lurch by the rise of the new media. Moreover, some vaudevillians who, like Fred Allen, had successfully reinvented themselves for radio were unable to make the transition to TV. But a handful of exceptionally talented performers managed to move from vaudeville to radio to TV, and none did it with more success than Jack Benny, whose feigned stinginess, scratchy violin playing, slightly effeminate demeanor, and preternaturally exact comic timing made him one of the world’s most beloved performers. After establishing himself in vaudeville, he became the star of a comedy series, The Jack Benny Program, that aired continuously, first on radio and then TV, from 1932 until 1965. Save for Bob Hope, no other comedian of his time was so popular.
With the demise of nighttime network radio as an entertainment medium, the 931 weekly episodes of The Jack Benny Program became the province of comedy obsessives—and because Benny’s TV series was filmed in black-and-white, it is no longer shown in syndication with any regularity. And while he also made Hollywood films, some of which were box-office hits, only one, Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942), is today seen on TV other than sporadically.
Nevertheless, connoisseurs of comedy still regard Benny, who died in 1974, as a giant, and numerous books, memoirs, and articles have been published about his life and art. Most recently, Kathryn H. Fuller-Seeley, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has brought out Jack Benny and the Golden Age of Radio Comedy, the first book-length primary-source academic study of The Jack Benny Program and its star.1 Fuller-Seeley’s genuine appreciation for Benny’s work redeems her anachronistic insistence on viewing it through the fashionable prism of gender- and race-based theory, and her book, though sober-sided to the point of occasional starchiness, is often quite illuminating.
Most important of all, off-the-air recordings of 749 episodes of the radio version of The Jack Benny Program survive in whole or part and can easily be downloaded from the Web. As a result, it is possible for people not yet born when Benny was alive to hear for themselves why he is still remembered with admiration and affection—and why one specific aspect of his performing persona continues to fascinate close observers of the American scene.B orn Benjamin Kubelsky in Chicago in 1894, Benny was the son of Eastern European émigrés (his father was from Poland, his mother from Lithuania). He started studying violin at six and had enough talent to pursue a career in music, but his interests lay elsewhere, and by the time he was a teenager, he was working in vaudeville as a comedian who played the violin as part of his act. Over time he developed into a “monologist,” the period term for what we now call a stand-up comedian, and he began appearing in films in 1929 and on network radio three years after that.
Radio comedy, like silent film, is now an obsolete art form, but the program formats that it fostered in the ’20s and ’30s all survived into the era of TV, and some of them flourish to this day. One, episodic situation comedy, was developed in large part by Jack Benny and his collaborators. Benny and Harry Conn, his first full-time writer, turned his weekly series, which started out as a variety show, into a weekly half-hour playlet featuring a regular cast of characters augmented by guest stars. Such playlets, relying as they did on a setting that was repeated from week to week, were easier to write than the free-standing sketches favored by Allen, Hope, and other ex-vaudevillians, and by the late ’30s, the sitcom had become a staple of radio comedy.
The process, as documented by Fuller-Seeley, was a gradual one. The Jack Benny Program never broke entirely with the variety format, continuing to feature both guest stars (some of whom, like Ronald Colman, ultimately became semi-regular members of the show’s rotating ensemble of players) and songs sung by Dennis Day, a tenor who joined the cast in 1939. Nor was it the first radio situation comedy: Amos & Andy, launched in 1928, was a soap-opera-style daily serial that also featured regular characters. Nevertheless, it was Benny who perfected the form, and his own character would become the prototype for countless later sitcom stars.
The show’s pivotal innovation was to turn Benny and the other cast members into fictionalized versions of themselves—they were the stars of a radio show called “The Jack Benny Program.” Sadye Marks, Benny’s wife, played Mary Livingstone, his sharp-tongued secretary, with three other characters added as the self-reflexive concept took shape. Don Wilson, the stout, genial announcer, came on board in 1934. He was followed in 1936 by Phil Harris, Benny’s roguish bandleader, and, in 1939, by Day, Harris’s simple-minded vocalist. To this team was added a completely fictional character, Rochester Van Jones, Benny’s raspy-voiced, outrageously impertinent black valet, played by Eddie Anderson, who joined the cast in 1938.
As these five talented performers coalesced into a tight-knit ensemble, the jokey, vaudeville-style sketch comedy of the early episodes metamorphosed into sitcom-style scripts that portrayed their offstage lives, as well as the making of the show itself. Scarcely any conventional jokes were told, nor did Benny’s writers employ the topical and political references in which Allen and Hope specialized. Instead, the show’s humor arose almost entirely from the close interplay of character and situation.
Benny was not solely responsible for the creation of this format, which was forged by Conn and perfected by his successors. Instead, he doubled as the star and producer—or, to use the modern term, show runner—closely supervising the writing of the scripts and directing the performances of the other cast members. In addition, he and Conn turned the character of Jack Benny from a sophisticated vaudeville monologist into the hapless butt of the show’s humor, a vain, sexually inept skinflint whose character flaws were ceaselessly twitted by his colleagues, who in turn were given most of the biggest laugh lines.
This latter innovation was a direct reflection of Benny’s real-life personality. Legendary for his voluble appreciation of other comedians, he was content to respond to the wisecracking of his fellow cast members with exquisitely well-timed interjections like “Well!” and “Now, cut that out,” knowing that the comic spotlight would remain focused on the man of whom they were making fun and secure in the knowledge that his own comic personality was strong enough to let them shine without eclipsing him in the process.
And with each passing season, the fictional personalities of Benny and his colleagues became ever more firmly implanted in the minds of their listeners, thus allowing the writers to get laughs merely by alluding to their now-familiar traits. At the same time, Benny and his writers never stooped to coasting on their familiarity. Even the funniest of the “cheap jokes” that were their stock-in-trade were invariably embedded in carefully honed dramatic situations that heightened their effectiveness.
A celebrated case in point is the best-remembered laugh line in the history of The Jack Benny Program, heard in a 1948 episode in which a burglar holds Benny up on the street. “Your money or your life,” the burglar says—to which Jack replies, after a very long pause, “I’m thinking it over!” What makes this line so funny is, of course, our awareness of Benny’s stinginess, reinforced by a decade and a half of constant yet subtly varied repetition. What is not so well remembered is that the line is heard toward the end of an episode that aired shortly after Ronald Colman won an Oscar for his performance in A Double Life. Inspired by this real-life event, the writers concocted an elaborately plotted script in which Benny talks Colman (who played his next-door neighbor on the show) into letting him borrow the Oscar to show to Rochester. It is on his way home from this errand that Benny is held up, and the burglar not only robs him of his money but also steals the statuette, a situation that was resolved to equally explosive comic effect in the course of two subsequent episodes.
No mere joke-teller could have performed such dramatically complex scripts week after week with anything like Benny’s effectiveness. The secret of The Jack Benny Program was that its star, fully aware that he was not “being himself” but playing a part, did so with an actor’s skill. This was what led Ernst Lubitsch to cast him in To Be or Not to Be, in which he plays a mediocre Shakespearean tragedian, a character broadly related to but still quite different from the one who appeared on his own radio show. As Lubitsch explained to Benny, who was skeptical about his ability to carry off the part:
A clown—he is a performer what is doing funny things. A comedian—he is a performer what is saying funny things. But you, Jack, you are an actor, you are an actor playing the part of a comedian and this you are doing very well.
To Be or Not to Be also stands out from the rest of Benny’s work because he plays an identifiably Jewish character. The Jack Benny character that he played on radio and TV, by contrast, was never referred to or explicitly portrayed as Jewish. To be sure, most listeners were in no doubt of his Jewishness, and not merely because Benny made no attempt in real life to conceal his ethnicity, of which he was by all accounts proud. The Jack Benny Program was written by Jews, and the ego-puncturing insults with which their scripts were packed, as well as the schlemiel-like aspect of Benny’s “fall guy” character, were quintessentially Jewish in style.
As Benny explained in a 1948 interview cited by Fuller-Seeley:
The humor of my program is this: I’m a big shot, see? I’m fast-talking. I’m a smart guy. I’m boasting about how marvelous I am. I’m a marvelous lover. I’m a marvelous fiddle player. Then, five minutes after I start shooting off my mouth, my cast makes a shmo out of me.
Even so, his avoidance of specific Jewish identification on the air is noteworthy precisely because his character was a miser. At a time when overt anti-Semitism was still common in America, it is remarkable that Benny’s comic persona was based in large part on an anti-Semitic stereotype—yet one that seems not to have inspired any anti-Semitic attacks on Benny himself. When, in 1945, his writers came up with the idea of an “I Can’t Stand Jack Benny Because . . . ” write-in campaign, they received 270,000 entries. Only three made mention of his Jewishness.
As for the winning entry, submitted by a California lawyer, it says much about what insulated Benny from such attacks: “He fills the air with boasts and brags / And obsolete, obnoxious gags / The way he plays his violin / Is music’s most obnoxious sin / His cowardice alone, indeed, / Is matched by his obnoxious greed / And all the things that he portrays / Show up MY OWN obnoxious ways.” It is clear that Benny’s foibles were seen by his listeners not as particular but universal, just as there was no harshness in the razzing of his fellow cast members, who very clearly loved the Benny character in spite of his myriad flaws. So, too, did the American people. Several years after his TV series was cancelled, a corporation that was considering using him as a spokesman commissioned a national poll to find out how popular he was. It learned that only 3 percent of the respondents disliked him.
Therein lay Benny’s triumph: He won total acceptance from the American public and did so by embodying a Jewish stereotype from which the sting of prejudice had been leached. Far from being a self-hating whipping boy for anti-Semites, he turned himself into WASP America’s Jewish uncle, preposterous yet lovable.W hen the bottom fell out of network radio, Benny negotiated the move to TV without a hitch, debuting on the small screen in 1950 and bringing the radio version of The Jack Benny Program to a close five years later, making it one of the very last radio comedy series to shut up shop. Even after his weekly TV series was finally canceled by CBS in 1965, he continued to star in well-received one-shot specials on NBC.
But Benny’s TV appearances, for all their charm, were never quite equal in quality to his radio work, which is why he clung to the radio version of The Jack Benny Program until network radio itself went under: Better than anyone else, he knew how good the show had been. For the rest of his life, he lived off the accumulated comic capital built up by 21 years of weekly radio broadcasts.
Now, at long last, he belongs to the ages, and The Jack Benny Program is a museum piece. Yet it remains hugely influential, albeit at one or more removes from the original. From The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Danny Thomas Show to Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond, and The Larry Sanders Show, every ensemble-cast sitcom whose central character is a fictionalized version of its star is based on Benny’s example. And now that the ubiquity of the Web has made the radio version of his series readily accessible for the first time, anyone willing to make the modest effort necessary to seek it out is in a position to discover that The Jack Benny Program, six decades after it left the air, is still as wonderfully, benignly funny as it ever was, a monument to the talent of the man who, more than anyone else, made it so.
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Review of 'The Transferred Life of George Eliot' By Philip Davis
Not that there’s any danger these theoretically protesting students would have read George Eliot’s works—not even the short one, Silas Marner (1861), which in an earlier day was assigned to high schoolers. I must admit I didn’t find my high-school reading of Silas Marner a pleasant experience—sports novels for boys like John R. Tunis’s The Kid from Tomkinsville were inadequate preparation. I must confess, too, that when I was in graduate school, determined to study 17th-century English verse, my reaction to the suggestion that I should also read Middlemarch (1871–72) was “What?! An 800-page novel by the guy who wrote Silas Marner?” A friend patiently explained that “the guy” was actually Mary Ann Evans, born in 1819, died in 1880. Partly because she was living in sin with the literary jack-of-all-trades George Henry Lewes (legally and irrevocably bound to his estranged wife), she adopted “George Eliot” as a protective pseudonym when, in her 1857 debut, she published Scenes from Clerical Life.
I did, many times over and with awe and delight, go on to read Middlemarch and the seven other novels, often in order to teach them to college students. Students have become less and less receptive over the years. Forget modern-day objections to George Eliot’s complex political or religious views. Adam Bede (1859) and The Mill on the Floss (1860) were too hefty, and the triple-decked Middlemarch and Deronda, even if I set aside three weeks for them, rarely got finished.
The middle 20th century was perhaps a more a propitious time for appreciating George Eliot, Henry James, and other 19th-century English and American novelists. Influential teachers like F.R. Leavis at Cambridge and Lionel Trilling at Columbia were then working hard to persuade students that the study of literature, not just poetry and drama but also fiction, matters both to their personal lives—the development of their sensibility or character—and to their wider society. The “moral imagination” that created Middlemarch enriches our minds by dramatizing the complications—the frequent blurring of good and evil—in our lives. Great novels help us cope with ambiguities and make us more tolerant of one another. Many of Leavis’s and Trilling’s students became teachers themselves, and for several decades the feeling of cultural urgency was sustained. In the 1970s, though, between the leftist emphasis on literature as “politics by other means” and the deconstructionist denial of the possibility of any knowledge, literary or otherwise, independent of political power, the high seriousness of Leavis and Trilling began to fade.
The study of George Eliot and her life has gone through many stages. Directly after her death came the sanitized, hagiographic “life and letters” by J.W. Cross, the much younger man she married after Lewes’s death. Gladstone called it “a Reticence in three volumes.” The three volumes helped spark, if they didn’t cause, the long reaction against the Victorian sages generally that culminated in the dismissively satirical work of the Bloomsbury biographer and critic Lytton Strachey in his immensely influential Eminent Victorians (1916). Strachey’s mistreatment of his forbears was, with regard to George Eliot at least, tempered almost immediately by Virginia Woolf. It was Woolf who in 1919 provocatively said that Middlemarch had been “the first English novel for adults.” Eventually, the critical tide against George Eliot was decisively reversed in the ’40s by Joan Bennett and Leavis, who made the inarguable case for her genuine and lasting achievement. That period of correction culminated in the 1960s with Gordon S. Haight’s biography and with interpretive studies by Barbara Hardy and W.J. Harvey. Books on George Eliot over the last four decades have largely been written by specialists for specialists—on her manuscripts or working notes, and on her affiliations with the scientists, social historians, and competing novelists of her day.
The same is true, only more so, of the books written, with George Eliot as the ostensible subject, to promote deconstructionist or feminist agendas. Biographies have done a better job appealing to the common reader, not least because the woman’s own story is inherently compelling. The question right now is whether a book combining biographical and interpretive insight—one “pitched,” as publishers like to say, not just at experts but at the common reader—is past praying for.
Philip Davis, a Victorian scholar and an editor at Oxford University Press, hopes not. His The Transferred Life of George Eliot—transferred, that is, from her own experience into her letters, journals, essays, and novels, and beyond them into us—deserves serious attention. Davis is conscious that George Eliot called biographies of writers “a disease of English literature,” both overeager to discover scandals and too inclined to substitute day-to-day travels, relationships, dealings with publishers and so on, for critical attention to the books those writers wrote. Davis therefore devotes himself to George Eliot’s writing. Alas, he presumes rather too much knowledge on the reader’s part of the day-to-day as charted in Haight’s marvelous life. (A year-by-year chronology at the front of the book would have helped even his fellow Victorianists.)
As for George Eliot’s writing, Davis is determined to refute “what has been more or less said . . . in the schools of theory for the last 40 years—that 19th-century realism is conservatively bland and unimaginative, bourgeois and parochial, not truly art at all.” His argument for the richness, breadth, and art of George Eliot’s realism—her factual and sympathetic depiction of poor and middling people, without omitting a candid representation of the rich—is most convincing. What looms largest, though, is the realist, the woman herself—the Mary Ann Evans who, from the letters to the novels, became first Marian Evans the translator and essayist and then later “her own greatest character”: George Eliot the novelist. Davis insists that “the meaning of that person”—not merely the voice of her omniscient narrators but the omnipresent imagination that created the whole show—“has not yet exhausted its influence nor the larger future life she should have had, and may still have, in the world.”
The transference of George Eliot’s experience into her fiction is unquestionable: In The Mill on the Floss, for example, Mary Ann is Maggie, and her brother Isaac is Tom Tulliver. Davis knows that a better word might be transmutation, as George Eliot had, in Henry James’s words, “a mind possessed,” for “the creations which brought her renown were of the incalculable kind, shaped themselves in mystery, in some intellectual back-shop or secret crucible, and were as little as possible implied in the aspect of her life.” No data-accumulating biographer, even the most exhaustive, can account for that “incalculable . . . mystery.”
Which is why Davis, like a good teacher, gives us exercises in “close reading.” He pauses to consider how a George Eliot sentence balances or turns on an easy-to-skip-over word or phrase—the balance or turn often representing a moment when the novelist looks at what’s on the underside of the cards.
George Eliot’s style is subtle because her theme is subtle. Take D.H. Lawrence’s favorite heroine, the adolescent Maggie Tulliver. The external event in The Mill on the Floss may be the girl’s impulsive cutting off her unruly hair to spite her nagging aunts, or the young woman’s drifting down the river with a superficially attractive but truly impossible boyfriend. But the real “action” is Maggie’s internal self-blame and self-assertion. No Victorian novelist was better than George Eliot at tracing the psychological development of, say, a husband and wife who realize they married each other for shallow reasons, are unhappy, and now must deal with the ordinary necessities of balancing the domestic budget—Lydgate and Rosamund in Middlemarch—or, in the same novel, the religiously inclined Dorothea’s mistaken marriage to the old scholar Casaubon. That mistake precipitates not merely disenchantment and an unconscious longing for love with someone else, but (very finely) a quest for a religious explanation of and guide through her quandary.
It’s the religio-philosophical side of George Eliot about which Davis is strongest—and weakest. Her central theological idea, if one may simplify, was that the God of the Bible didn’t exist “out there” but was a projection of the imagination of the people who wrote it. Jesus wasn’t, in Davis’s characterization of her view, “the impervious divine, but [a man who] shed tears and suffered,” and died feeling forsaken. “This deep acceptance of so-called weakness was what most moved Marian Evans in her Christian inheritance. It was what God was for.” That is, the character of Jesus, and the dramatic play between him and his Father, expressed the human emotions we and George Eliot are all too familiar with. The story helps reconcile us to what is, finally, inescapable suffering.
George Eliot came to this demythologized understanding not only of Judaism and Christianity but of all religions through her contact first with a group of intellectuals who lived near Coventry, then with two Germans she translated: David Friedrich Strauss, whose 1,500-page Life of Jesus Critically Examined (1835–36) was for her a slog, and Ludwig Feuerbach, whose Essence of Christianity (1841) was for her a joy. Also, in the search for the universal morality that Strauss and Feuerbach believed Judaism and Christianity expressed mythically, there was Spinoza’s utterly non-mythical Ethics (1677). It was seminal for her—offering, as Davis says, “the intellectual origin for freethinking criticism of the Bible and for the replacement of religious superstition and dogmatic theology by pure philosophic reason.” She translated it into English, though her version did not appear until 1981.
I wish Davis had left it there, but he takes it too far. He devotes more than 40 pages—a tenth of the whole book—to her three translations, taking them as a mother lode of ideational gold whose tailings glitter throughout her fiction. These 40 pages are followed by 21 devoted to Herbert Spencer, the Victorian hawker of theories-of-everything (his 10-volume System of Synthetic Philosophy addresses biology, psychology, sociology, and ethics). She threw herself at the feet of this intellectual huckster, and though he rebuffed her painfully amorous entreaties, she never ceased revering him. Alas, Spencer was a stick—the kind of philosopher who was incapable of emotion. And she was his intellectual superior in every way. The chapter is largely unnecessary.
The book comes back to life when Davis turns to George Henry Lewes, the man who gave Mary Ann Evans the confidence to become George Eliot—perhaps the greatest act of loving mentorship in all of literature. Like many prominent Victorians, Lewes dabbled in all the arts and sciences, publishing highly readable accounts of them for a general audience. His range was as wide as Spencer’s, but his personality and writing had an irrepressible verve that Spencer could only have envied. Lewes was a sort Stephen Jay Gould yoked to Daniel Boorstin, popularizing other people’s findings and concepts, and coming up with a few of his own. He regarded his Sea-Side Studies (1860) as “the book . . . which was to me the most unalloyed delight,” not least because Marian, whom he called Polly, had helped gather the data. She told a friend “There is so much happiness condensed in it! Such scrambles over rocks, and peeping into clear pool [sic], and strolls along the pure sands, and fresh air mingling with fresh thoughts.” In his remarkably intelligent 1864 biography of Goethe, Lewes remarks that the poet “knew little of the companionship of two souls striving in emulous spirit of loving rivalry to become better, to become wiser, teaching each other to soar.” Such a companionship Lewes and George Eliot had in spades, and some of Davis’s best passages describe it.
Regrettably, Davis also offers many passages well below the standard of his best—needlessly repeating an already established point or obfuscating the obvious. Still, The Transferred Lives is the most formidably instructive, and certainly complete, life-and-works treatment of George Eliot we have.