What was it about European Jewry that made possible its extermination? Historians, psychologists, theologians, thoughtful people everywhere will continue to…
What was it about European Jewry that made possible its extermination? Historians, psychologists, theologians, thoughtful people everywhere will continue to ask this question and to grope for partial answers. For no less troubling than the barbarism of the Germans and other Europeans who assisted in the destruction was their prior success in selecting the Jews as the target of their murderous enmity. How did it come about that the Jews, who were neither bellicose nor numerous, and who had contributed not a little to European well-being, were transformed into the very essence of satanic evil—the image which the Nazis projected onto them and which so much of Europe seemed to accept as true?
The history of European anti-Semitism is not a study in mere opposition to Jews. Religions and nations have opposed one another since the record of mankind began. We take it for granted that religions stand in competition with each other, and that nations vie for territory and influence. Opposition to the Jews was something else; from the beginning of the Christian era, it took the special form of delegitimation.
“Since the days of the Church Fathers,” the late historian H.H. Ben-Sasson has written, “the Church had claimed that the true image befitting Israel, which had refused to recognize Jesus and had slain him, was that of Cain who had murdered his brother.” Ben-Sasson traces the evolution of this idea in the theory of Jewish “servitude” in the Middle, Ages, which justified the humiliation of the Jews on theological grounds and made them, in practice, increasingly prey to the whim of political authority. Protected by charters with limited rights of residence and economic activity, they were granted only temporary exemption from the punishment that was considered deservedly theirs.
One might have thought the negative definition of the Jew would have disappeared with the Enlightenment challenge to Christianity, or with the Emancipation; but it merely assumed a more elegant, rationalist form. It was now considered reasonable for the Jew to be granted equal status as a citizen; in return, it was considered reasonable to expect him to forfeit his special status as a Jew. When Jews, “intransigent” and “ungrateful,” persisted in their distinctiveness, anti-Semitism was the logical reaction. Modern anti-Semitism, writes the historian Arthur Hertzberg, is “chastisement for the sin of imperfect assimilation and the goad toward the messianic day when the Jews, by completely refashioning themselves in the image of proper Westerners, would have won the acceptance that they then would merit.”
By the end of the 19th century it was obvious to Jews and non-Jews of both Western and Eastern Europe that the “Jewish question” was not about to evaporate. The delegitimation of the Jew had become one of Christianity’s most lasting legacies to the modern world, infecting the political Left and Right alike. For socialists, the Jew became the symbol of evil capitalism; for nationalists, of racial defilement. By the time Adolf Hitler isolated the Jew as the corrupting feature of European civilization, he was able to draw on a considerable body of both Christian and post-Christian mythology, which he then translated into a positive ideal—extermination. In Hitler’s formulation, if the Jews were illegitimate and evil, destroying them was not murder but a benefaction to the continent and the world.
Long before the emergence of the Third Reich, European Jews had recognized their vulnerability in secularized Christian societies, where distrust of them was no longer tempered by the religious inhibitions that had characterized the Church at its best, or by the economic requirements of feudalism which had preserved for them a designated place in the hierarchy. Whether out of positive attraction or an instinct for collective survival, modern Jews tried to adapt the emerging ideologies of socialism and nationalism to their own situation.
There were many creative thinkers among the Jews in these years, and almost as many proffered solutions to the “Jewish question.” Common to all was the desire for a normalization of status among the peoples of the world, so that Jews should no longer be held subject to a double standard of judgment. Zionists of ail factions placed the main emphasis on normalization through territory: a people with its own land would be guaranteed equal status among nations. The socialists aimed at normalization through socioeconomic transformation: Jews would be at home in the world once divisiveness gave way to class solidarity. Though many Jewish socialists tried to reconcile their particularist and universalist loyalties, they were never rewarded with the harmony they sought.
The pressure of anti-Semitism was not only greater in modern times, it also put a greater internal pressure on Jews. The traditional Jew derived his sense of legitimacy from his religion, which provided its own deep and serene justification. But when a modern, secular Jew, having jettisoned the armor of his faith, was attacked as illegitimate, he felt obligated to prove his worthiness. How could this be done? The contest was hardly equal. The Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, among others, were seeking to eliminate a minority from within their midst, while the Jews wanted simply to be allowed to live as that minority. Perhaps it was only natural that the aggression of anti-Semitism from without should have generated habits of defensiveness and apology within.
By the 1930’s, before the combined onslaught of fascist anti-Semitism and, in the East, Communist efforts at deracination, Jews found themselves at a loss to refute charges that were becoming ever more twisted and venal. Since the disseminators of the hatred remained beyond their reach, Jews redirected the better part of their efforts at self-justification, which also meant, in practice, denouncing those of their fellow Jews whom they considered politically misguided, a provocation to their enemies, chauvinists, fascists, traitors, collaborators, and all the rest. There is a demonstrable correspondence between the pitch of the propaganda directed against them and the factional fury among Jews themelves.
This progressive demoralization is not difficult to explain in its historical context, but it is not a noble story. If, after the war, the heroic struggle of the Warsaw Ghetto was taken by survivors as the symbol by which the destruction of the Jews should be remembered, the impulse derived at least in part from a desire to erase the memory of the years of internecine conflict that preceded it. As for the record of American Jews during this period, it can be found in the pages of the Yiddish and Anglo-Jewish press until 1943. No one will ever boast of it.
The war against the Jews, as Lucy S. Dawidowicz has called what others enshroud in the term “Holocaust,” was from the point of view of its perpetrators and collaborators successful beyond belief. In the aftermath of the war, during a period of international realignment, when the dead still seemed to haunt the conscience, the Zionist goal of Jewish normalization through territorial stability was realized. The state of Israel was declared and, though left to fend for itself, was welcomed by most of the community of nations.
In theory, that should have been the end of anti-Semitism, and the Jews may in any case be pardoned for feeling that they had earned a moment of rest in history. But the Arab states did not acknowledge the existence of the Jewish state. They refused to accept partition and they refused to accept its consequence. In the intervening decades they have launched repeated wars against Israel and ignored repeated opportunities for peace. Even the peace treaty of unprecedented generosity which Israel has struck with Egypt has failed to move the other rejectionist states from their insistence on Arab hegemony and Arab hegemony alone in the Middle East.
In addition to resorting to force of arms, the Arabs and their abettors on the international scene have tried to delegitimate the Jewish state in other ways—to accomplish in the political arena what Christianity did on the theological plane. UN Resolution 3379 equating Zionism with racism, passed by the General Assembly in 1975 to its eternal disgrace, institutionalized anti-Semitism in international politics. Allegations of Israel’s racism, and blatant anti-Semitic slander, are by now so common at the United Nations and other international gatherings as to attract little notice. As Michael Novak, the United States Representative to the Commission on Human Rights, recently observed, they are a form of Orwellian speech, which “uses words to mean their opposite, and then repeats such words over and over, in the hope that truth can be manufactured from untruth solely by repetition.” The clear purpose of this doublespeak, Novak went on, “is to undermine the legitimacy and the existence of the state of Israel.”
Sober people think they can guard against such distortions, but the success of the Arabs in their campaign of doublespeak is everywhere visible. They have transformed their obdurate refusal to accept Israel into an alleged Israeli war of aggression against them. They have won from Western governments a policy of evenhandedness—which dictates that as much weight be given to the war against the existence of Israel as to the struggle to maintain it. Normally, when countries go to war—Britain and Argentina, for example—each acknowledges the legitimacy of the other’s existence even as they both try to change the balance of power between them. The Arab rejectionists have yet to acknowledge Israel’s existence; a policy of evenhandedness applied to the conflict between them amounts to a license to pursue Israel’s destruction.
The cynicism of Arab policy would provoke indignation except that a further achievement of Orwellian speech, when it is used long enough, is that it withers the habit of indignation, and even turns it against the victim. Thus, Saudi Crown Prince Fahd could speak last August of a “just and comprehensive settlement” in the Middle East and not raise an eyebrow when he later denied that he had ever intended to recognize Israel. A London-based Arab newspaper financed by Saudi Arabia, Al Shark el-Assouti, was more honest in saying that “one should recognize the Israelis, but only in their tomb.” Thirty-four years after its establishment, and with the exception of Egypt, Israel has yet to be dignified by its neighbors with the simple fact of recognition. Its neighbors feel free to call for the destruction of Israel without concern for political repercussions or even moral censure. And the same Western calculations of expediency that grant the Arab oil-producing countries a near-immunity from criticism also allow them to spread their lies as truth.
Arab progress in delegitimating Israel is not limited to the United Nations. American public opinion is still very much in support of Israel, and will continue to be, so long as both countries remain proud and independent democracies. But Arab propaganda has made great inroads on this continent, with an inevitably damaging consequence to Israel.
A recent report on centers for Middle East studies at American universities, deliberately moderate in its tone, exposes a sharp trend toward the delegitimation of Israel at the very heart of academic study of the area. The report, prepared for the American Jewish Committee, deals with seven of the largest centers, all supported by heavy federal funding and some by gifts from Arab governments or pro-Arab corporations. As the obvious training ground of teachers, government workers, and businessmen, these graduate programs shape the knowledge and views of future experts and decision-makers.
The report finds that there is a general absence of courses on Israel or Zionism in the curricula of the Middle East centers and that Israel is omitted from or minimized in the literature put out by some of the centers. The numbers of Jewish graduate students in general Middle East programs are dwindling; to avoid the often inimical atmosphere of the Middle East centers, such graduate students tend to cluster instead in Jewish studies programs, “primarily in cultural or in purely linguistic areas.” The centers themselves increasingly manifest the subliminal if not the overt influence of their sources of income.1
Part of the imbalance can be traced to the decision of the federal government to exclude Hebrew from those languages designated as essential to the national defense and security, and thus deserving of federal aid. The original argument was that sufficient numbers of students, mainly Jewish, would take Hebrew anyway. In fact, however, this denial of federal funding in an otherwise very heavily subsidized area has meant a near-exclusion of Hebrew-language students from Middle East programs. At the University of Michigan, for example, where one of the largest of these programs is located, there were 336 undergraduate enrollments in Hebrew in 1980, mostly at the introductory level, but only 4 graduate enrollments. By contrast, the number of undergraduates and graduates studying Arabic was almost equal, 124 and 109; of the twenty National Defense Education Act fellowships, the bulk were for graduate students of Arabic.
The lack of graduate students specializing in Israel and Zionism, or incorporating such study as part of their curriculum, is only the smaller part of the problem. More serious by far is the redefinition of the Middle East as an area in which Israel does not necessarily figure. What does it mean for a Middle East program to be “pro-Israel,” as Berkeley’s was reputed to be before its radical reorganization in 1976? It means that Israel is considered part of the Middle East and is reflected in the academic study of the center. What does it mean for such a program to be “evenhanded”? It means the virtual elimination of Israel from the curriculum—just as being “evenhanded” in international politics means, as we have seen, giving serious regard to the aim of eliminating Israel physically. Thus, when Berkeley’s Middle East program was “pro-Israel” it produced, between 1974 and 1976, a total of six dissertations on Israeli history, anthropology, and political science. Since it turned “even-handed” in 1976 there has been no sign of a single social-science dissertation on contemporary Israel.
The attitude of faculty to this corruption of the academic enterprise reflects the difficulty of countering a campaign of delegitimation. Liberal professors, with their laudable commitment to intellectual freedom, see no reason why the “Arab cause” should not receive as much play as the Israeli cause. Perhaps within the category of normal intellectual and territorial conflict they would be correct; indeed, one of the great gains of Arab propaganda has been to define the Middle East conflict as “normal” in this sense. But as long as the Arab cause remains the destruction of the state of Israel, the elimination of a neighbor state, the academy that bends to this bias gives license to intentions of genocide. The ideal of the university is based on mutual respect for ideas and persons, and true liberals are those with the courage to uphold that ideal.
The discrediting of Israel proceeds through isolation and omission, as in the case of the Middle East centers; contrariwise, it also proceeds through an unceasing barrage of attention, mostly from the media. There are many reasons for the volume of attention, not least among them the availability of information on Israel as compared with the general dearth of information about all other countries in the area. But there are other, less neutral reasons. The difficulty encountered in filming and then showing Death of a Princess, a rather mild documentary on the rough justice of Saudi Arabia, is not likely to encourage others to expose that country’s weaknesses.
Media pressure on Israel no doubt attests to the press freedoms guaranteed there, as opposed to the absolute censorship practiced by its neighbors, but the result has been a double standard of judgment which soon becomes an instrument of incrimination. This takes its most egregious form among liberal editorial writers and columnists supposedly concerned with helping Israel live up to its moral promise and with protecting it from its own “suicidal folly.” A longstanding practitioner of this art of solicitous incrimination is Anthony Lewis of the New York Times, who plays the good cop to the Arab states’ bad cop by helpfully exposing alleged Israeli malfeasance with an air of charitable concern.
On a recent trip to the Middle East Lewis sought out local critics of the Israeli government so that he could bare before his readers all the unpleasant facts that Israel (like any open society) can yield. A victim of Lewis’s strictures later described this method of “investigative reporting” as a simple pattern of prejudice: “If they look at our water problems, then we are stealing the Arab wells. If they look at our hospitals, then we are letting Arab babies die while saving ours in the Hadassah respirators.” Reading Lewis lately, one wonders how long it will be before he will be accusing the Israelis of poisoning the wells.
Lewis’s most recent effort at improving Israel’s wayward conduct concerned the subject of alleged book-banning by Israeli occupation authorities in Gaza and what was, between 1922 and King Hussein’s greedy invasion of Jerusalem in 1967, the West Bank of Jordan. Quoting Justice Brandeis, “the great American Zionist of his day,” Lewis accused the Israeli authorities of various acts of censorship, including the banning of Palestinian poetry because it contains nationalist images. All this, he wrote, is part of Israel’s attempt to suppress political feeling among the Palestinians, part of the “apparatus of repression in the occupied territories.” Lewis concluded with the twisted logic that has become his trademark:
In this country too there are those who would silence the truth about the occupation. Things as bad or worse happen in other countries, they say. To criticize any Israeli policy is to weaken that harassed state; people should stop finding fault with Israel.
How Justice Brandeis would have scorned such arguments. He did not work for a Jewish state so it could be compared with the tyrannies of the earth; he expected it to be a beacon of freedom. He knew that wise government does not flourish in silence; it needs truth, however painful. And he would see now, in the West Bank and Gaza, proof that repression breeds hate (emphasis added).
Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, taking the defensive—unfortunately either its fated or its adopted role—issued a point-by-point refutation of Lewis’s charges, which were based on sources he did not check in the first place but simply lifted from the writing of a local opposition critic. Melvin Lasky, editor of the British journal, Encounter, who was alerted to Lewis’s article because of the mischief it had done in Egyptian intellectual circles, determined to get to the root of the matter. He found the entire charge to be based on misinformation and error which had been rectified years earlier, as Lewis could easily have determined had he not been intent on believing, and repeating, the worst.
Actually, it is not Israel’s but Lewis’s abuse of freedom which should be at issue here. By what moral right does an American journalist exploit a country’s democratic guarantees of free speech to smear it with allegations he has made no effort to check? And if freedom of political expression among the Arabs is in question, there is only one point to be made: the great irony of the Middle East, if this new disciple of Justice Brandeis has ever noticed, is that Arabs throughout Israel, emphatically including the occupied territories, enjoy greater freedom of expression and access to information than in any Arab country in the world.
Why, if Lewis is so concerned, for the Palestinian poets, did he not investigate their political rights when he was in Jordan? Hath not an Arab eyes? Shall the students and writers of Arab countries, where there are no Jews to “oppress” them with the rights of free speech, and no Jewish critics to needle the government on their behalf, be doomed to a lifetime of self-censorship and silence? It is the peculiar evil of this double standard of judgment not merely to apply an absolute moral criterion to the Jews alone, and use it as a bludgeon against the Jewish state, but to discard moral standards altogether when it comes to other nations in the region.
When Mobil and Aramco try to pretty up the Arab position, at least one knows their objectives and their justification. Their business is oil. Their suppliers must be wooed. Their economic interests in the Arab states outweigh any consideration they may have for the state of Israel. Business sometimes makes such shabby compromises in the name of business.
Lewis’s voluntary enlistment in the war of delegitimation against Israel has no such obvious basis, but his capitulation to the Arabs is no less obsequious. The sign of it is that he twists historical facts into the shape of the big lie, for the Israeli presence in the West Bank is not the cause of Arab hatred, as in Lewis’s corrupted formula, but its result. The policies of Begin, indeed the fact that Begin was elected to head the government of Israel, are the consequence of Arab intentions, not the cause of them. But in deference to the greater strength and obduracy of the Arab rejectionists in the region, Lewis’s political pleasure, immoral though it be, is to urge concessions on Israel. The political claims of the Arabs he accepts at face value, while of the Israelis he demands that they prove their moral right to exist, “as a beacon of freedom”—or else.
Just as the cycle of hatred and rejection began with the Arabs, so it will have to be resolved by the Arabs. The American “liberal” press would do well, in one respect, to pay heed to Edward Said’s chidings on the folly of thinking others too exotic to be held accountable. The Arabs deserve to be judged by no less stringent a set of expectations than the Israelis. They deserve to be bound by the same ideals, the same standard of morality. Far from resenting the moral scrutiny of such as Anthony Lewis, the friends of Israel are unwilling to be its sole beneficiaries. Since the conflict in the Middle East will be ended when the Arabs decide to end it, it is time they be credited where credit is, undeniably, due.
Unhappily, the greatest gains in the Arab war of delegitimation are in evidence among American Jews, some of whom have begun to see themselves through the eyes of their accusers, and to bow to the accusation. The rapid demoralization of Jews in the face of anti-Zionism attests to the dangerous level the abuse has reached. It also shows the depth of the influence of the past, for many have yet to achieve the simple self-respect that has been eluding the Jews collectively since the dawn of modernity.
To be sure, when the vulnerability of Israel is directly involved, as in the case of the sale of sophisticated weaponry to Saudi Arabia, American Jews act persuasively and effectively, even if they are not always successful against competing lobbies and far greater resources of influence than they can muster.2 But against the campaign to delegitimate Israel, American Jews have been impotent and silent.
On college campuses,’ even those with large and vocal Jewish populations, there are more and more unopposed attacks on Israel. PLO pamphlets flood the dormitories. Exhibits of Israeli “aggression” are presented under the guise of Arab culture. In the classroom itself there is systematic dissemination of libelous falsehood, which has been noted and documented by dozens of witnesses who say they do not consider it important enough to publicize and expose, but who, one suspects, are actually afraid to commit themselves to the process of sustained prosecution. At international and academic conferences, the terms “Zionist-racist” and “Zionist-fascist” are shrugged off as unexceptional by Jewish participants who pretend the slurs do not warrant public objection, but who are more likely embarrassed to stand up and defend their people’s dignity.
Of the United Nations resolution on Zionism/racism, which forces Jews into the position of Cain not in the eyes of Christianity alone but within the entire community of nations, many American Jews pretend to take no note. “Only Jews pay attention to the United Nations,” a Jewish intellectual answered when asked why he did not take a stand against the defamation. Yet the UN is not a parochial playpen, and real enemies do not evaporate when ignored. Instead of tirelessly challenging defamatory libels whenever they occur, so that none can hurl them with impunity, Jews have too often adopted the simpler tactic of silence—with the consequence that they have forfeited much ground in the propaganda battle to discredit Zionism.
Some, however, have felt the edge of assault so keenly they have begun to speak after all—in the language of their debasers. Organized opposition to Israel government policy on the part of American Jews began, in fact, about the same time as the UN resolution defining Zionism as a form of racism. Ironically, this opposition has always lauded itself for daring to break a community-wide “silence” concerning Israel’s misdeeds. When Breira, a college-based group of American Jews, began advocating Jewish criticism of Israel five years ago, it claimed heroically to be “breaking a taboo.” This formulation has been adopted by each successor to Breira, which disbanded as an organization but bequeathed its program to a much broader constituency.
A World Jewish Congress report on the Implications of Israel-Arab Peace (sic!), conceived in 1979 and issued in the winter of 1981, echoes much of the Breira platform, incorporating too the notion of its own courageousness. The report compliments itself on relieving the pent-up pressures of self-restraint—restraint not from criticism of the Arabs (which would have been courageous indeed) but from criticism of Israel. According to the report the most important trend in recent years has been the increasing strain in the relation of American Jews with Israel. No connection is made, however, between the oil crisis and rising Arab influence in America, between rising Arab influence in America and consequent pressure on Israel, between pressure on Israel and the strain on those who feel obliged to defend an increasingly unpopular cause. Instead, the analysis treats the struggle for Israel and Zionism as though the faults of the Jews were the reason for the enmity being directed against them. In this way certain American Jews manage to evade the unpleasant and difficult task of upholding Israel’s right to self-determination, and to call themselves heroes in the process.
At first, Jewish groups were still hesitant about embarking upon this program, although from the outset the American press loved the idea of man bites dog—Jews versus Israel. At the 1979 General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds, the largest working gathering of Jews in America, among hundreds of workshops and sessions reflecting every cultural, religious, organizational, and political concern, the New York Times featured only an impromptu briefing called by Peace Now representatives, the successors of Breira in America, to encourage open criticism of Israel. That pattern of “coverage” has never changed. American Jewish critics of Israel, emboldened by media acclaim, now regularly call into question the morality of the rest of the Jewish community, which is “silent” in the face of Israeli miscreancy. This has had its inevitable effect. “When I’m accused of standing up for Israel,” a professor said at a recent meeting of the local chapter of the Canadian Professors for Peace in the Middle East, “I no longer know what to say in my defense.”
American Jewish attempts to discredit the policies of the Begin government obviously take pains to disavow any hostility to Israel as a whole, but they cannot help serving the purposes of such hostility. In the first place, since Begin heads a democratic state, he cannot be discredited without calling into question the country that has elected him. The critics, unable to deal effectively with this knot, end by falsifying the facts and impugning Israeli democracy; they ignore the wide base of support that Likud enjoys on university campuses and in the army, and they assert that Begin was put into power by North African immigrants, Soviet émigrés, and religious Jews, as if these voters, on account of their ethnic origins and beliefs, were untrustworthy at the polls. The implications of this line of argument should be obvious to democracy’s proponents and opponents alike.
More disturbing still are the terms of the American Jewish attack upon Begin, which simply echo the Arab language of delegitimation. The critics do not merely contrast the political aims of Likud with those of the Labor party—which, as it happens, initiated the policy of West Bank settlements—but raise the specter of satanic evil. Thus, no less a Zionist than Arthur Hertzberg, writing in the pages of the New York Review of Books, concludes a piece on the threat posed by Menachem Begin with the incredible exhortation, “The Jews of the world can no longer choose to be silent.” This puts Begin in the gallery of all those—may their names be blotted out—against whose murderous intentions Jews should have been expected to raise their voices in the past and should be raising their voices now.
Hertzberg uses the standard formula of inversion to transform the global reality of which Israel is a part into a hand-to-hand Jewish combat. American Jews “fear” Begin, he says, because he is destroying the glorious vision of Israel created by David Ben-Gurion. The American Jewish community “was persuaded to support Zionism after 1945 by the vision of a Jewish state that would redeem the victims of Hitler and build a benign society that could be a light unto the nations” (emphasis added). Now Begin, heir to a counter-tradition of Jewish zealotry that wants to bring Jews into the world of “real power,” perverts the moral cause of the state. He is “frightening” and “dangerous,” and the claims he is advancing to the land of Israel threaten to bring about a “confrontation between Jews and Gentiles.”
Hertzberg, who (as we have seen) is a perceptive historian of the process of Jewish delegitimation since the Enlightenment, thus falls neatly into its trap. He pleads for the higher Israel as if Israel’s moral behavior, and not its existence, were the source of the difficulty it faces in the Middle East, and as if it has taken Begin and the Likud to bring about the threat of “a confrontation between Jews and Gentiles.”
It is far too convenient, as well as demonstrably deceptive, to pretend that Begin is the cause of the fears that are experienced by American Jews. They are frightened because of the tremendous rise of Arab “real power” and prestige since the establishment of the state of Israel; because of the unanticipated return of anti-Semitism in the mask of anti-Zionism; because of the hammering to which Israel is subjected, even by countries it has benefited at considerable cost of effort to itself. This frightens American Jews, as indeed it should, because it puts them into a position of responsibility for a vulnerable and unpopular brother.3
As for the West Bank, it is simple historical fact that the Arabs who fled Palestine in 1948-49 were left by their brothers to rot in refugee camps, a superior breeding ground for terrorism. (At the same time, Jews fleeing from Arab countries, in equal numbers, were absorbed by Israel imperfectly but with genuine and often self-sacrificing initiative.) The use to which the Arab refugees of 1948 have been put by their respective host countries has created a terrible force in the Middle East, and it is no comfort to Israel or to the Jews that the Arab countries are themselves, to some extent, reaping the harvest of hatred. What frightens Jews is that decades of callous Arab neglect should now be laid to their conscience, and history rewritten at Arab will. It also begins to be frightening that a Jewish historian of Hertzberg’s caliber lends his hand to the process.
Contrary to Hertzberg’s claim, and that of Anthony Lewis as well, American Jews after 1945 were “persuaded to accept” no glorious dream of Israel as a light unto the nations, or even the promise of a Labor Zionist homeland. With the same guilt and relief that prompted America itself to consent to the birth of a Jewish state (one that would, among other things, absorb the burden of hundreds of thousands of broken refugees who might otherwise have applied here), American Jews accepted and then came to support Israel as an assurance of the normalization of Jewish existence—which meant that their own place would be more comfortable as a result.
Nor was that “acceptance” quite as wholehearted as Hertzberg pretends. The left-wing intellectuals, the assimilationists, some of the Bundists and Communists and their children, never altogether made peace with a national Jewish presence in the world, certainly not one to which they might be expected to owe moral or spiritual allegiance. They accepted Israel with the proviso that it remain true to their own prior political orientation, their secular outlook, and their preference for Western culture. Indeed, the more honest among them have expressed over the years the conditional nature of that acceptance, as if one gives birth to a country, as to a child, on condition that it vote socialist and stay out of the synagogue. Now that attacks on Israel are becoming de rigueur among the cosmopolitan intelligentsia, many old-time opponents of Jewish “chauvinism” are resurfacing to add their outcry to the general din.
Hertzberg would have been on more solid ground had he pointed out that most American Jews would not have voted for Begin and are not in favor of either his domestic or his foreign policies. But this in itself is hardly surprising. In the absence of a strong, autonomous Jewish press in America, there is relatively little day-to-day neutral information on Israel, and even the Jewish press has been anti-Begin from the start, that is, since the 1940’s, and more and more so since his election in 1977. The putative “silence” of the Jews has been mostly found among those who support Begin, not those who oppose him.
If the views of Israelis and American Jews did coincide for several decades, it was because they were both so close to the same source, both largely products of a common East European experience of modernization, discrimination, and emigration. Yet the historical and geographic pressures on the two communities are so different that the cultural gap between them cannot help but widen with the years, and just as the attitudes of American Jews reflect what they think is good for them, so the attitudes of Israelis, freely expressed in frequent elections and public-opinion polls, declare what they think is good for them. Jews in both America and Israel may be equally afraid of the debilitating consequence of Arab rejectionism and the attempt at delegitimation; Israeli voters happen to think for the moment that the Likud coalition is a better instrument for dealing with the problem, even if American Jews, from their privileged distance, think otherwise. In any case, it ill becomes individuals who oppose Begin’s religious rhetoric to employ, as Hertzberg does, the messianic language of redemption in making known their own political preferences.
Jews who advocate attacking the government of Israel rather than the Arab rejectionists ask us to believe in the anguish of their concern. Only Israel’s great moral danger and suicidal folly, they say, prompt them to switch from defense to offense. Yet one may question the sincerity of these self-justifications, for morality is measured by the demands one places upon oneself, not on others. American Jews who want an Israel shaped in their image know that the Law of Return enables them to act upon their desire, and to vote in the next Israeli election. What critics call the “cosmopolitan minority” in Israel is shrinking because cosmopolitans who could form the majority do not immigrate to Israel with the same staying power or in the same numbers as do the Orthodox, the supporters of Gush Emunim, and Soviet émigré anti-socialists. Yet it is fully within the power of American Jews, the most numerous Jewish community in the world, to reclaim the land for whatever social or political purpose they have the dedication to shape. The new American Jewish ‘“idealists” who fear so greatly for the future of the state might demand of themselves no less than they credit to the Zionists whom they cite as their heroes.
In the meantime, the withdrawal of support from Israel becomes ever more selfish and debased. Leonard Fein, editor of Moment magazine, has vowed (from the banks of the Charles) to topple the Begin government. In the most recent issue of his magazine, to the accompaniment of the usual expressions of pain and anguish, he suggests that American Jews boycott travel to Judea and Samaria—the West Bank—to show their opposition to Israeli policy in that area. It does not appear to have occurred to Fein that Jews attempting to influence Israeli policy in this manner are no different from President Hosni Mubarak who refuses to come to Israel’s capital city of Jerusalem—for does not he object to Israeli “occupation” with the same righteous vehemence as they? Belligerents boycott one another. American Jews, who until recently tried to prevent the penetration of the Arab boycott to these shores, are now invited instead to declare themselves a new category of belligerent, and to initiate a boycott of their own. Not only are Jews taking over from the Arabs their arguments, Fein wants to adopt their tactics as well.
The Arab campaign to discredit Zionism caught the Jews before they had altogether regained their self-respect in the context of the modern age. There are many who do not know how to resist that campaign, others who lack the power and the will, still others who have moved preemptively to join the attack, renaming their fear as fear of their fellow Jews, and their anger as a righteous anger with their fellow Jews. Thus a rabbi recently announced to his congregation from the pulpit as a fact that the Israeli army had dressed an insane man in uniform and sent him armed into the Al Aksa mosque during prayer time to shoot innocent Arabs. No one rose to “silence” this rabbi, certainly not his numb congregation. The result of all this is to magnify internal conflict, and leave the campaign of delegitimation untouched at its source.
The Jews of Israel—doves and hawks, religious and secular alike—have learned that whether or not a people can be purer than others, “a light unto the nations,” it must first be considered as good as others, unexceptional by the standards of the international community, normally designated on the map of enemies, neutrals, and friends. The state of Israel has shown itself capable of defending its borders, and also of readjusting them in exchange for political security. The American Jewish community, beneficiary of the process of Jewish normalization in the world, has been proud to assist it in a minor way. Now that Arab influence spreads to this continent, and concentrates the campaign of discreditation in the United States, American Jews are being asked to bear the brunt of resistance.
Indeed, they may now have come once again to a severe time of testing. As this article goes to press, Israeli forces have entered Lebanon to secure the northern sector of their country from continual harassment. In the past, such actions by Israel, though successful from a military point of view, have invariably unleashed waves of hypocritical diplomatic reproach, and the early responses at the UN and elsewhere this time show every sign of conforming to the usual pattern. It remains to be seen how the American Jewish community will stand up to a renewed and potentially even more virulent attack on the legitimacy of Israel.
1 “Middle East Centers at Selected American Universities,” by Gary S. Schiff. In a recent development, Harvard University accepted $1 million from a Saudi businessman for a professorship in Arab studies even though the gift was linked by the donor to the appointment of a known PLO sympathizer to a research position at Harvard's Center for Middle Eastern Studies (New York Times, June 6, 1982).
2 See Murray Friedman, “AWACS and the Jewish Community,” COMMENTARY, April 1982, and the articles by Steven Emerson in the New Republic, “The Petrodollar Connection” (February 17, 1982) and “The Aramco Connection” (May 19, 1982).
3 In an article in COMMENTARY, “The Exposed American Jew,” Nathan Glazer wrote of these fears with a keen grasp of their true source—and that was in June 1975, two years before Begin's election. See also my “The Anxious American Jew,” COMMENTARY, September 1978.
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The Delegitimation of Israel
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Exactly one week later, a Star Wars cantina of the American extremist right featuring everyone from David Duke to a white-nationalist Twitter personality named “Baked Alaska” gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a statue honoring the Confederate general Robert E. Lee. A video promoting the gathering railed against “the international Jewish system, the capitalist system, and the forces of globalism.” Amid sporadic street battles between far-right and “antifa” (anti-fascist) activists, a neo-Nazi drove a car into a crowd of peaceful counterprotestors, killing a 32-year-old woman.
Here, in the time span of just seven days, was the dual nature of contemporary American anti-Semitism laid bare. The most glaring difference between these two displays of hate lies not so much in their substance—both adhere to similar conspiracy theories articulating nefarious, world-altering Jewish power—but rather their self-characterization. The animosity expressed toward Jews in Charlottesville was open and unambiguous, with demonstrators proudly confessing their hatred in the familiar language of Nazis and European fascists.
The socialists in Chicago, meanwhile, though calling for a literal second Holocaust on the shores of the Mediterranean, would fervently and indignantly deny they are anti-Semitic. On the contrary, they claim the mantle of “anti-fascism” and insist that this identity naturally makes them allies of the Jewish people. As for those Jews who might oppose their often violent tactics, they are at best bystanders to fascism, at worst collaborators in “white supremacy.”
So, whereas white nationalists explicitly embrace a tribalism that excludes Jews regardless of their skin color, the progressives of the DSA and the broader “woke” community conceive of themselves as universalists—though their universalism is one that conspicuously excludes the national longings of Jews and Jews alone. And whereas the extreme right-wingers are sincere in their anti-Semitism, the socialists who called for the elimination of Israel are just as sincere in their belief that they are not anti-Semitic, even though anti-Semitism is the inevitable consequence of their rhetoric and worldview.
The sheer bluntness of far-right anti-Semitism makes it easier to identify and stigmatize as beyond the pale; individuals like David Duke and the hosts of the “Daily Shoah” podcast make no pretense of residing within the mainstream of American political debate. But the humanist appeals of the far left, whose every libel against the Jewish state is paired with a righteous invocation of “justice” for the Palestinian people, invariably trigger repetitive and esoteric debates over whether this or that article, allusion, allegory, statement, policy, or political initiative is anti-Semitic or just critical of Israel. What this difference in self-definition means is that there is rarely, if ever, any argument about the substantive nature of right-wing anti-Semitism (despicable, reprehensible, wicked, choose your adjective), while the very existence of left-wing anti-Semitism is widely doubted and almost always indignantly denied by those accused of practicing it.T o be sure, these recent manifestations of anti-Semitism occur on the left and right extremes. And statistics tell a rather comforting story about the state of anti-Semitism in America. Since the Anti-Defamation League began tracking it in 1979, anti-Jewish hate crime is at an historic low; indeed, it has been declining since a recent peak of 1,554 incidents in 2006. America, for the most part, remains a very philo-Semitic country, one of the safest, most welcoming countries for Jews on earth. A recent Pew poll found Jews to be the most admired religious group in the United States.1 If American Jews have anything to dread, it’s less anti-Semitism than the loss of Jewish peoplehood through assimilation, that is being “loved to death” by Gentiles.2 Few American Jews can say that anti-Semitism has a seriously deleterious impact on their life, that it has denied them educational or employment opportunities, or that they fear for the physical safety of themselves or their families because of their Jewish identity.
The question is whether the extremes are beginning to move in on the center. In the past year alone, the DSA’s rolls tripled from 8,000 to 25,000 dues-paying members, who have established a conspicuous presence on social media reaching far beyond what their relatively miniscule numbers attest. The DSA has been the subject of widespread media coverage, ranging from the curious to the adulatory. The white supremacists, meanwhile, found themselves understandably heartened by the strange difficulty President Donald Trump had in disavowing them. He claimed, in fact, that there had been some “very fine people” among their ranks. “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville,” tweeted David Duke, while the white-nationalist Richard Spencer said, “I’m proud of him for speaking the truth.”
Indeed, among the more troubling aspects of our highly troubling political predicament—and one that, from a Jewish perspective, provokes not a small amount of angst—is that so many ideas, individuals, and movements that could once reliably be categorized as “extreme,” in the literal sense of articulating the views of a very small minority, are no longer so easily dismissed. The DSA is part of a much broader revival of the socialist idea in America, as exemplified by the growing readership of journals like Jacobin and Current Affairs, the popularity of the leftist Chapo Trap House podcast, and the insurgent presidential campaign of self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders—who, according to a Harvard-Harris poll, is now the most popular politician in the United States. Since 2015, the average age of a DSA member dropped from 64 to 30, and a 2016 Harvard poll found a majority of Millennials do not support capitalism.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party of Donald Trump offers “nativism and culture war wedges without the Reaganomics,” according to Nicholas Grossman, a lecturer in political science at the University of Illinois. A party that was once reliably internationalist and assertive against Russian aggression now supports a president who often preaches isolationism and never has even a mildly critical thing to say about the KGB thug ruling over the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.
Like ripping the bandage off an ugly and oozing wound, Trump’s presidential campaign unleashed a bevy of unpleasant social forces that at the very least have an indirect bearing on Jewish welfare. The most unpleasant of those forces has been the so-called alternative right, or “alt-right,” a highly race-conscious political movement whose adherents are divided on the “JQ” (Jewish Question). Throughout last year’s campaign, Jewish journalists (this author included) were hit with a barrage of luridly anti-Semitic Twitter messages from self-described members of the alt-right. The tamer missives instructed us to leave America for Israel, others superimposed our faces onto the bodies of concentration camp victims.3
I do not believe Donald Trump is himself an anti-Semite, if only because anti-Semitism is mainly a preoccupation—as distinct from a prejudice—and Trump is too narcissistic to indulge any preoccupation other than himself. And there is no evidence to suggest that he subscribes to the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories favored by his alt-right supporters. But his casual resort to populism, nativism, and conspiracy theory creates a narrative environment highly favorable to anti-Semites.
Nativism, of which Trump was an early and active practitioner, is never good for the Jews, no matter how affluent or comfortable they may be and notwithstanding whether they are even the target of its particular wrath. Racial divisions, which by any measure have grown significantly worse in the year since Trump was elected, hurt all Americans, obviously, but they have a distinct impact on Jews, who are left in a precarious position as racial identities calcify. Not only are the newly emboldened white supremacists of the alt-right invariably anti-Semites, but in the increasingly racialist taxonomy of the progressive left—which more and more mainstream liberals are beginning to parrot—Jews are considered possessors of “white privilege” and, thus, members of the class to be divested of its “power” once the revolution comes. In the racially stratified society that both extremes envision, Jews lose out, simultaneously perceived (by the far right) as wily allies and manipulators of ethnic minorities in a plot to mongrelize America and (by the far left) as opportunistic “Zionists” ingratiating themselves with a racist and exploitative “white” establishment that keeps minorities down.T his politics is bad for all Americans, and Jewish Americans in particular. More and more, one sees the racialized language of the American left being applied to the Middle East conflict, wherein Israel (which is, in point of fact, one of the most racially diverse countries in the world) is referred to as a “white supremacist” state no different from that of apartheid South Africa. In a book just published by MIT Press, ornamented with a forward by Cornel West and entitled “Whites, Jews, and Us,” a French-Algerian political activist named Houria Bouteldja asks, “What can we offer white people in exchange for their decline and for the wars that will ensue?” Drawing the Jews into her race war, Bouteldja, according to the book’s jacket copy, “challenges widespread assumptions among the left in the United States and Europe—that anti-Semitism plays any role in Arab–Israeli conflicts, for example, or that philo-Semitism doesn’t in itself embody an oppressive position.” Jew-hatred is virtuous, and appreciation of the Jews is racism.
Few political activists of late have done more to racialize the Arab–Israeli conflict—and, through insidious extension of the American racial hierarchy, designate American Jews as oppressors—than the Brooklyn-born Arab activist Linda Sarsour. An organizer of the Women’s March, Sarsour has seamlessly insinuated herself into a variety of high-profile progressive campaigns, a somewhat incongruent position given her reactionary views on topics like women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. (“10 weeks of PAID maternity leave in Saudi Arabia,” she tweets. “Yes PAID. And ur worrying about women driving. Puts us to shame.”) Sarsour, who is of Palestinian descent, claims that one cannot simultaneously be a feminist and a Zionist, when it is the exact opposite that is true: No genuine believer in female equality can deny the right of Israel to exist. The Jewish state respects the rights of women more than do any of its neighbors. In an April 2017 interview, Sarsour said that she had become a high-school teacher for the purpose of “inspiring young people of color like me.” Just three months earlier, however, in a video for Vox, Sarsour confessed, “When I wasn’t wearing hijab I was just some ordinary white girl from New York City.” The donning of Muslim garb, then, confers a racial caste of “color,” which in turn confers virtue, which in turn confers a claim on political power.
This attempt to describe the Israeli–Arab conflict in American racial vernacular marks Jews as white (a perverse mirror of Nazi biological racism) and thus implicates them as beneficiaries of “structural racism,” “white privilege,” and the whole litany of benefits afforded to white people at birth in the form of—to use Ta-Nehisi Coates’s abstruse phrase—the “glowing amulet” of “whiteness.” “It’s time to admit that Arthur Balfour was a white supremacist and an anti-Semite,” reads the headline of a recent piece in—where else? —the Forward, incriminating Jewish nationalism as uniquely perfidious by dint of the fact that, like most men of his time, a (non-Jewish) British official who endorsed the Zionist idea a century ago held views that would today be considered racist. Reading figures like Bouteldja and Sarsour brings to mind the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner’s observation that “the racialization of the world has to be the most unexpected result of the antidiscrimination battle of the last half-century; it has ensured that the battle continuously re-creates the curse from which it is trying to break free.”
If Jews are white, and if white people—as a group—enjoy tangible and enduring advantages over everyone else, then this racially essentialist rhetoric ends up with Jews accused of abetting white supremacy, if not being white supremacists themselves. This is one of the overlooked ways in which the term “white supremacy” has become devoid of meaning in the age of Donald Trump, with everyone and everything from David Duke to James Comey to the American Civil Liberties Union accused of upholding it. Take the case of Ben Shapiro, the Jewish conservative polemicist. At the start of the school year, Shapiro was scheduled to give a talk at UC Berkeley, his alma matter. In advance, various left-wing groups put out a call for protest in which they labeled Shapiro—an Orthodox Jew—a “fascist thug” and “white supremacist.” An inconvenient fact ignored by Shapiro’s detractors is that, according to the ADL, he was the top target of online abuse from actual white supremacists during the 2016 presidential election. (Berkeley ultimately had to spend $600,000 protecting the event from leftist rioters.)
A more pernicious form of this discourse is practiced by left-wing writers who, insincerely claiming to have the interests of Jews at heart, scold them and their communal organizations for not doing enough in the fight against anti-Semitism. Criticizing Jews for not fully signing up with the “Resistance” (which in form and function is fast becoming the 21st-century version of the interwar Popular Front), they then slyly indict Jews for being complicit in not only their own victimization but that of the entire country at the hands of Donald Trump. The first and foremost practitioner of this bullying and rather artful form of anti-Semitism is Jeet Heer, a Canadian comic-book critic who has achieved some repute on the American left due to his frenetic Twitter activity and availability when the New Republic needed to replace its staff that had quit en masse in 2014. Last year, when Heer came across a video of a Donald Trump supporter chanting “JEW-S-A” at a rally, he declared on Twitter: “We really need to see more comment from official Jewish groups like ADL on way Trump campaign has energized anti-Semitism.”
But of course “Jewish groups” have had plenty to say about the anti-Semitism expressed by some Trump supporters—too much, in the view of their critics. Just two weeks earlier, the ADL had released a report analyzing over 2 million anti-Semitic tweets targeting Jewish journalists over the previous year. This wasn’t the first time the ADL raised its voice against Trump and the alt-right movement he emboldened, nor would it be the last. Indeed, two minutes’ worth of Googling would have shown Heer that his pronouncements about organizational Jewish apathy were wholly without foundation.4
It’s tempting to dismiss Heer’s observation as mere “concern trolling,” a form of Internet discourse characterized by insincere expressions of worry. But what he did was nastier. Immediately presented with evidence for the inaccuracy of his claims, he sneered back with a bit of wisdom from the Jewish sage Hillel the Elder, yet cast as mild threat: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” In other words: How can you Jews expect anyone to care about your kind if you don’t sufficiently oppose—as arbitrarily judged by moi, Jeet Heer—Donald Trump?
If this sort of critique were coming from a Jewish donor upset that his preferred organization wasn’t doing enough to combat anti-Semitism, or a Gentile with a proven record of concern for Jewish causes, it wouldn’t have turned the stomach. What made Heer’s interjection revolting is that, to put it mildly, he’s not exactly known for being sympathetic toward the Jewish plight. In 2015, Heer put his name to a petition calling upon an international comic-book festival to drop the Israeli company SodaStream as a co-sponsor because the Jewish state is “built on the mass ethnic cleansing of Palestinian communities and sustained through racism and discrimination.” Heer’s name appeared alongside that of Carlos Latuff, a Brazilian cartoonist who won second place in the Iranian government’s 2006 International Holocaust Cartoon Competition. For his writings on Israel, Heer has been praised as being “very good on the conflict” by none other than Philip Weiss, proprietor of the anti-Semitic hate site Mondoweiss.
In light of this track record, Heer’s newfound concern about anti-Semitism appeared rather dubious. Indeed, the bizarre way in which he expressed this concern—as, ultimately, a critique not of anti-Semitism per se but of the country’s foremost Jewish civil-rights organization—suggests he cares about anti-Semitism insofar as its existence can be used as a weapon to beat his political adversaries. And since the incorrigibly Zionist American Jewish establishment ranks high on that list (just below that of Donald Trump and his supporters), Heer found a way to blame it for anti-Semitism. And what does that tell you? It tells you that—presented with a 16-second video of a man chanting “JEW-S-A” at a Donald Trump rally—Heer’s first impulse was to condemn not the anti-Semite but the Jews.
Heer isn’t the only leftist (or New Republic writer) to assume this rhetorical cudgel. In a piece entitled “The Dismal Failure of Jewish Groups to Confront Trump,” one Stephen Lurie attacked the ADL for advising its members to stay away from the Charlottesville “Unite the Right Rally” and let police handle any provocations from neo-Nazis. “We do not have a Jewish organizational home for the fight against fascism,” he quotes a far-left Jewish activist, who apparently thinks that we live in the Weimar Republic and not a stable democracy in which law-enforcement officers and not the balaclava-wearing thugs of antifa maintain the peace. Like Jewish Communists of yore, Lurie wants to bully Jews into abandoning liberalism for the extreme left, under the pretext that mainstream organizations just won’t cut it in the fight against “white supremacy.” Indeed, Lurie writes, some “Jewish institutions and power players…have defended and enabled white supremacy.” The main group he fingers with this outrageous slander is the Republican Jewish Coalition, the implication being that this explicitly partisan Republican organization’s discrete support for the Republican president “enables white supremacy.”
It is impossible to imagine Heer, Lurie, or other progressive writers similarly taking the NAACP to task for its perceived lack of concern about racism, or castigating the Human Rights Campaign for insufficiently combating homophobia. No, it is only the cowardice of Jews that is condemned—condemned for supposedly ignoring a form of bigotry that, when expressed on the left, these writers themselves ignore or even defend. The logical gymnastics of these two New Republic writers is what happens when, at base, one fundamentally resents Jews: You end up blaming them for anti-Semitism. Blaming Jews for not sufficiently caring enough about anti-Semitism is emotionally the same as claiming that Jews are to blame for anti-Semitism. Both signal an envy and resentment of Jews predicated upon a belief that they have some kind of authority that the claimant doesn’t and therefore needs to undermine.T his past election, one could not help but notice how the media seemingly discovered anti-Semitism when it emanated from the right, and then only when its targets were Jews on the left. It was enough to make one ask where they had been when left-wing anti-Semitism had been a more serious and pervasive problem. From at least 1996 (the year Pat Buchanan made his last serious attempt at securing the GOP presidential nomination) to 2016 (when the Republican presidential nominee did more to earn the support of white supremacists and neo-Nazis than any of his predecessors), anti-Semitism was primarily a preserve of the American left. In that two-decade period—spanning the collapse of the Oslo Accords and rise of the Second Intifada to the rancorous debate over the Iraq War and obsession with “neocons” to the presidency of Barack Obama and the 2015 Iran nuclear deal—anti-Israel attitudes and anti-Semitic conspiracy made unprecedented inroads into respectable precincts of the American academy, the liberal intelligentsia, and the Democratic Party.
The main form that left-wing anti-Semitism takes in the United States today is unhinged obsession with the wrongs, real or perceived, of the state of Israel, and the belief that its Jewish supporters in the United States exercise a nefarious control over the levers of American foreign policy. In this respect, contemporary left-wing anti-Semitism is not altogether different from that of the far right, though it usually lacks the biological component deeming Jews a distinct and inferior race. (Consider the left-wing anti-Semite’s eagerness to identify and promote Jewish “dissidents” who can attest to their co-religionists’ craftiness and deceit.) The unholy synergy of left and right anti-Semitism was recently epitomized by former CIA agent and liberal stalwart Valerie Plame’s hearty endorsement, on Twitter, of an article written for an extreme right-wing website by a fellow former CIA officer named Philip Giraldi: “America’s Jews Are Driving America’s Wars.” Plame eventually apologized for sharing the article with her 50,000 followers, but not before insisting that “many neocon hawks are Jewish” and that “just FYI, I am of Jewish descent.”
The main fora in which left-wing anti-Semitism appears is academia. According to the ADL, anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses doubled from 2014 to 2015, the latest year that data are available. Writing in National Affairs, Ruth Wisse observes that “not since the war in Vietnam has there been a campus crusade as dynamic as the movement of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel.” Every academic year, a seeming surfeit of controversies erupt on campuses across the country involving the harassment of pro-Israel students and organizations, the disruption of events involving Israeli speakers (even ones who identify as left-wing), and blatantly anti-Semitic outbursts by professors and student activists. There was the Oberlin professor of rhetoric, Joy Karega, who posted statements on social media claiming that Israel had created ISIS and had orchestrated the murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. There is the Rutgers associate professor of women’s and gender studies, Jasbir Puar, who popularized the ludicrous term “pinkwashing” to defame Israel’s LGBT acceptance as a massive conspiracy to obscure its oppression of Palestinians. Her latest book, The Right to Maim, academically peer-reviewed and published by Duke University Press, attacks Israel for sparing the lives of Palestinian civilians, accusing its military of “shooting to maim rather than to kill” so that it may keep “Palestinian populations as perpetually debilitated, and yet alive, in order to control them.”
One could go on and on about such affronts not only to Jews and supporters of Israel but to common sense, basic justice, and anyone who believes in the prudent use of taxpayer dollars. That several organizations exist solely for the purpose of monitoring anti-Israel and anti-Semitic agitation on American campuses attests to the prolificacy of the problem. But it’s unclear just how reflective these isolated examples of the college experience really are. A 2017 Stanford study purporting to examine the issue interviewed 66 Jewish students at five California campuses noted for “being particularly fertile for anti-Semitism and for having an active presence of student groups critical of Israel and Zionism.” It concluded that “contrary to widely shared impressions, we found a picture of campus life that is neither threatening nor alarmist…students reported feeling comfortable on their campuses, and, more specifically, comfortable as Jews on their campuses.” To the extent that Jewish students do feel pressured, the report attempted to spread the blame around, indicting pro-Israel activists alongside those agitating against it. “[Survey respondents] fear that entering political debate, especially when they feel the social pressures of both Jewish and non-Jewish activist communities, will carry social costs that they are unwilling to bear.”
Yet by its own admission, the report “only engaged students who were either unengaged or minimally engaged in organized Jewish life on their campuses.” Researchers made a study of anti-Semitism, then, by interviewing the Jews least likely to experience it. “Most people don’t really think I’m Jewish because I look very Latina…it doesn’t come up in conversation,” one such student said in an interview. Ultimately, the report revealed more about the attitudes of unengaged (and, thus, uninformed) Jews than about the state of anti-Semitism on college campuses. That may certainly be useful in its own right as a means of understanding how unaffiliated Jews view debates over Israel, but it is not an accurate marker of developments on college campuses more broadly.
A more extensive 2016 Brandeis study of Jewish students at 50 schools found 34 percent agreed at least “somewhat” that their campus has a hostile environment toward Israel. Yet the variation was wide; at some schools, only 3 percent agreed, while at others, 70 percent did. Only 15 percent reported a hostile environment towards Jews. Anti-Semitism was found to be more prevalent at public universities than private ones, with the determinative factor being the presence of a Students for Justice in Palestine chapter on campus. Important context often lost in conversations about campus anti-Semitism, and reassuring to those concerned about it, is that it is simply not the most important issue roiling higher education. “At most schools,” the report found, “fewer than 10 percent of Jewish students listed issues pertaining to either Jews or Israel as among the most pressing on campus.”F or generations, American Jews have depended on anti-Semitism’s remaining within a moral quarantine, a cordon sanitaire, and America has reliably kept this societal virus contained. While there are no major signs that this barricade is breaking down in the immediate future, there are worrying indications on the political horizon.
Surveying the situation at the international level, the declining global position of the United States—both in terms of its hard military and economic power relative to rising challengers and its position as a credible beacon of liberal democratic values—does not portend well for Jews, American or otherwise. American leadership of the free world, has, in addition to ensuring Israel’s security, underwritten the postwar liberal world order. And it is the constituent members of that order, the liberal democratic states, that have served as the best guarantor of the Jews’ life and safety over their 6,000-year history. Were America’s global leadership role to diminish or evaporate, it would not only facilitate the rise of authoritarian states like Iran and terrorist movements such as al-Qaeda, committed to the destruction of Israel and the murder of Jews, but inexorably lead to a worldwide rollback of liberal democracy, an outcome that would inevitably redound to the detriment of Jews.
Domestically, political polarization and the collapse of public trust in every American institution save the military are demolishing what little confidence Americans have left in their system and governing elites, not to mention preparing the ground for some ominous political scenarios. Widely cited survey data reveal that the percentage of American Millennials who believe it “essential” to live in a liberal democracy hovers at just over 25 percent. If Trump is impeached or loses the next election, a good 40 percent of the country will be outraged and susceptible to belief in a stab-in-the-back theory accounting for his defeat. Whom will they blame? Perhaps the “neoconservatives,” who disproportionately make up the ranks of Trump’s harshest critics on the right?
Ultimately, the degree to which anti-Semitism becomes a problem in America hinges on the strength of the antibodies within the country’s communal DNA to protect its pluralistic and liberal values. But even if this resistance to tribalism and the cult of personality is strong, it may not be enough to abate the rise of an intellectual and societal disease that, throughout history, thrives upon economic distress, xenophobia, political uncertainty, ethnic chauvinism, conspiracy theory, and weakening democratic norms.
1 Somewhat paradoxically, according to FBI crime statistics, the majority of religiously based hate crimes target Jews, more than double the amount targeting Muslims. This indicates more the commitment of the country’s relatively small number of hard-core anti-Semites than pervasive anti-Semitism.
4 The ADL has had to maintain a delicate balancing act in the age of Trump, coming under fire by many conservative Jews for a perceived partisan tilt against the right. This makes Heer’s complaint all the more ignorant — and unhelpful.
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Review of 'The Once and Future Liberal' By Mark Lilla
Lilla, a professor at Columbia University, tells us that “the story of how a successful liberal politics of solidarity became a failed pseudo-politics of identity is not a simple one.” And about this, he’s right. Lilla quotes from the feminist authors of the 1977 Combahee River Collective Manifesto: “The most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.” Feminists looked to instantiate the “radical” and electrifying phrase which insisted that “the personal is political.” The phrase, argues Lilla, was generally seen in “a somewhat Marxist fashion to mean that everything that seems personal is in fact political.”
The upshot was fragmentation. White feminists were deemed racist by black feminists—and both were found wanting by lesbians, who also had black and white contingents. “What all these groups wanted,” explains Lilla, “was more than social justice and an end to the [Vietnam] war. They also wanted there to be no space between what they felt inside and what they saw and did in the world.” He goes on: “The more obsessed with personal identity liberals become, the less willing they become to engage in reasoned political debate.” In the end, those on the left came to a realization: “You can win a debate by claiming the greatest degree of victimization and thus the greatest outrage at being subjected to questioning.”
But Lilla’s insights into the emotional underpinnings of political correctness are undercut by an inadequate, almost bizarre sense of history. He appears to be referring to the 1970s when, zigzagging through history, he writes that “no recognition of personal or group identity was coming from the Democratic Party, which at the time was dominated by racist Dixiecrats and white union officials of questionable rectitude.”
What is he talking about? Is Lilla referring to the Democratic Party of Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and George McGovern? Is he referring obliquely to George Wallace? If so, why is Wallace never mentioned? Lilla seems not to know that it was the 1972 McGovern Democratic Convention that introduced minority seating to be set aside for blacks and women.
At only 140 pages, this is a short book. But even so, Lilla could have devoted a few pages to Frankfurt ideologist Herbert Marcuse and his influence on the left. In the 1960s, Marcuse argued that leftists and liberals were entitled to restrain centrist and conservative speech on the grounds that the universities had to act as a counterweight to society at large. But this was not just rhetoric; in the campus disruption of the early 1970s at schools such as Yale, Cornell, and Amherst, Marcuse’s ideals were pushed to the fore.
If Lilla’s argument comes off as flaccid, perhaps that’s because the aim of The Once and Future Liberal is more practical than principled. “The only way” to protect our rights, he tells the reader, “is to elect liberal Democratic governors and state legislators who’ll appoint liberal state attorneys.” According to Lilla, “the paradox of identity liberalism” is that it undercuts “the things it professes to want,” namely political power. He insists, rightly, that politics has to be about persuasion but then contradicts himself in arguing that “politics is about seizing power to defend the truth.” In other words, Lilla wants a better path to total victory.
Given what Lilla, descending into hysteria, describes as “the Republican rage for destruction,” liberals and Democrats have to win elections lest the civil rights of blacks, women, and gays are rolled back. As proof of the ever-looming danger, he notes that when the “crisis of the mid-1970s threatened…the country turned not against corporations and banks, but against liberalism.” Yet he gives no hint of the trail of liberal failures that led to the crisis of the mid-’70s. You’d never know reading Lilla, for example, that the Black Power movement intensified racial hostilities that were then further exacerbated by affirmative action and busing. And you’d have no idea that, at considerable cost, the poverty programs of the Great Society failed to bring poorer African Americans into the economic mainstream. Nor does Lilla deal with the devotion to Keynesianism that produced inflation without economic growth during the Carter presidency.
Despite his discursive ambling through the recent history of American political life, Lilla has a one-word explanation for identity politics: Reaganism. “Identity,” he writes, is “Reaganism for lefties.” What’s crucial in combating Reaganism, he argues, is to concentrate on our “shared political” status as citizens. “Citizenship is a crucial weapon in the battle against Reaganite dogma because it brings home that fact that we are part of a legitimate common enterprise.” But then he asserts that the “American right uses the term citizenship today as a means of exclusion.” The passage might lead the reader to think that Lilla would take up the question of immigration and borders. But he doesn’t, and the closing passages of the book dribble off into characteristic zigzags. Lilla tells us that “Black Lives Matter is a textbook example of how not to build solidarity” but then goes on, without evidence, to assert the accuracy of the Black Lives Matter claim that African-Americans have been singled out for police mistreatment.
It would be nice to argue that The Once and Future Liberal is a near miss, a book that might have had enduring importance if only it went that extra step. But Lilla’s passing insights on the perils of a politically correct identity politics drown in the rhetoric of conventional bromides that fill most of the pages of this disappointing book.
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n Athens several years ago, I had dinner with a man running for the national parliament. I asked him whether he thought he had a shot at winning. He was sure of victory, he told me. “I have hired a very famous political consultant from Washington,” he said. “He is the man who elected Reagan. Expensive. But the best.”
The political genius he then described was a minor political flunky I had met in Washington long ago, a more-or-less anonymous member of the Republican National Committee before he faded from view at the end of Ronald Reagan’s second term. Mutual acquaintances told me he still lived in a nice neighborhood in Northern Virginia, but they never could figure out what the hell he did to earn his money. (This is a recurring mystery throughout the capital.) I had to come to Greece to find the answer.
It is one of the dark arts of Washington, this practice of American political hacks traveling to faraway lands and suckering foreign politicians into paying vast sums for splashy, state-of-the-art, essentially worthless “services.” And it’s perfectly legal. Paul Manafort, who briefly managed Donald Trump’s campaign last summer, was known as a pioneer of the globe-trotting racket. If he hadn’t, as it were, veered out of his gutter into the slightly higher lane of U.S. presidential politics, he likely could have hoovered cash from the patch pockets of clueless clients from Ouagadougou to Zagreb for the rest of his natural life and nobody in Washington would have noticed.
But he veered, and now he and a colleague find themselves indicted by Robert Mueller, the Inspector Javert of the Russian-collusion scandal. When those indictments landed, they instantly set in motion the familiar scramble. Trump fans announced that the indictments were proof that there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians—or, in the crisp, emphatic phrasing of a tweet by the world’s Number One Trump Fan, Donald Trump: “NO COLLUSION!!!!” The Russian-scandal fetishists in the press corps replied in chorus: It’s still early! Javert required more time, and so will Mueller, and so will they.
A good Washington scandal requires a few essential elements. One is a superabundance of information. From these data points, conspiracy-minded reporters can begin to trace associations, warranted or not, and from the associations, they can infer motives and objectives with which, stretched together, they can limn a full-blown conspiracy theory. The Manafort indictment released a flood of new information, and at once reporters were pawing for nuggets that might eventually form a compelling case for collusion.
They failed to find any because Manafort’s indictment, in essence, involved his efforts to launder his profits from his international political work, not his work for the Trump campaign. Fortunately for the obsessives, another element is required for a good scandal: a colorful cast. The various Clinton scandals brought us Asian money-launderers and ChiCom bankers, along with an entire Faulkner-novel’s worth of bumpkins, sharpies, and backwoods swindlers, plus that intern in the thong. Watergate, the mother lode of Washington scandals, featured a host of implausible characters, from the central-casting villain G. Gordon Liddy to Sam Ervin, a lifelong segregationist and racist who became a hero to liberals everywhere.
Here, at last, is one area where the Russian scandal has begun to show promise. Manafort and his business partner seem too banal to hold the interest of anyone but a scandal obsessive. Beneath the pile of paper Mueller dumped on them, however, another creature could be seen peeking out shyly. This would be the diminutive figure of George Papadopoulos. An unpaid campaign adviser to Trump, Papadopoulos pled guilty to lying to the FBI about the timing of his conversations with Russian agents. He is quickly becoming the stuff of legend.
Papadopoulos is an exemplar of a type long known to American politics. He is the nebbish bedazzled by the big time—achingly ambitious, though lacking the skill, or the cunning, to climb the greasy pole. So he remains at the periphery of the action, ever eager to serve. Papadopoulos’s résumé, for a man under 30, is impressively padded. He said he served as the U.S. representative to the Model United Nations in 2012, though nobody recalls seeing him there. He boasted of a four-year career at the Hudson Institute, though in fact he spent one year there as an unpaid intern and three doing contract research for one of Hudson’s scholars. On his LinkedIn page, he listed himself as a keynote speaker at a Greek American conference in 2008, but in fact he participated only in a panel discussion. The real keynoter was Michael Dukakis.
With this hunger for achievement, real or imagined, Papadopoulos could not let a presidential campaign go by without climbing aboard. In late 2015, he somehow attached himself to Ben Carson’s campaign. He was never paid and lasted four months. His presence went largely unnoticed. “If there was any work product, I never saw it,” Carson’s campaign manager told Time. The deputy campaign manager couldn’t even recall his name. Then suddenly, in April 2016, Papadopoulos appeared on a list of “foreign-policy advisers” to Donald Trump—and, according to Mueller’s court filings, resolved to make his mark by acting as a liaison between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government.
While Mueller tells the story of Papadopoulos’s adventures in the dry, Joe Friday prose of a legal document, it could easily be the script for a Peter Sellers movie from the Cold War era. The young man’s résumé is enough to impress the campaign’s impressionable officials as they scavenge for foreign-policy advisers: “Hey, Corey! This dude was in the Model United Nations!”
Papadopoulus (played by Sellers) sets about his mission. A few weeks after signing on to the campaign, he travels to Europe, where he meets a mysterious “Professor” (Peter Ustinov). “Initially the Professor seemed uninterested in Papadopoulos,” says Mueller’s indictment. A likely story! Yet when Papadopoulus lets drop that he’s an adviser to Trump, the Professor suddenly “appeared to take great interest” in him. They arrange a meeting in London to which the Professor invites a “female Russian national” (Elke Sommer). Without much effort, the femme fatale convinces Papadopoulus that she is Vladimir Putin’s niece. (“I weel tell z’American I em niece of Great Leader! Zat idjut belief ennytink!”) Over the next several months our hero sends many emails to campaign officials and to the Professor, trying to arrange a meeting between them. As far we know from the indictment, nothing came of his mighty efforts.
And there matters lay until January 2017, when the FBI came calling. Agents asked Papadopoulos about his interactions with the Russians. Even though he must have known that hundreds of his emails on the subject would soon be available to the FBI, he lied and told the agents that the contacts had occurred many months before he joined the campaign. History will record Papadopoulos as the man who forgot that emails carry dates on them. After the FBI interview, according to the indictment, he tried to destroy evidence with the same competence he has brought to his other endeavors. He closed his Facebook account, on which several communications with the Russians had taken place. He threw out his old cellphone. (That should do it!) After that, he began wearing a blindfold, on the theory that if he couldn’t see the FBI, the FBI couldn’t see him.
I made that last one up, obviously. For now, the great hope of scandal hobbyists is that Papadopoulus was wearing a wire between the time he secretly pled guilty and the time his plea was made public. This would have allowed him to gather all kinds of incriminating dirt in conversations with former colleagues. And the dirt is there, all right, as the Manafort indictment proves. Unfortunately for our scandal fetishists, so far none of it shows what their hearts most desire: active collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.
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An affair to remember
All this changed with the release in 1967 of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and Mike Nichols’s The Graduate. These two films, made in nouveau European style, treated familiar subjects—a pair of Depression-era bank robbers and a college graduate in search of a place in the adult world—in an unmistakably modern manner. Both films were commercial successes that catapulted their makers and stars into the top echelon of what came to be known as “the new Hollywood.”
Bonnie and Clyde inaugurated a new era in which violence on screen simultaneously became bloodier and more aestheticized, and it has had enduring impact as a result. But it was The Graduate that altered the direction of American moviemaking with its specific appeal to younger and hipper moviegoers who had turned their backs on more traditional cinematic fare. When it opened in New York in December, the movie critic Hollis Alpert reported with bemusement that young people were lining up in below-freezing weather to see it, and that they showed no signs of being dismayed by the cold: “It was as though they all knew they were going to see something good, something made for them.”
The Graduate, whose aimless post-collegiate title character is seduced by the glamorous but neurotic wife of his father’s business partner, is part of the common stock of American reference. Now, a half-century later, it has become the subject of a book-length study, Beverly Gray’s Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation.1 As is so often the case with pop-culture books, Seduced by Mrs. Robinson is almost as much about its self-absorbed Baby Boomer author (“The Graduate taught me to dance to the beat of my own drums”) as its subject. It has the further disadvantage of following in the footsteps of Mark Harris’s magisterial Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (2008), in which the film is placed in the context of Hollywood’s mid-’60s cultural flux. But Gray’s book offers us a chance to revisit this seminal motion picture and consider just why it was that The Graduate spoke to Baby Boomers in a distinctively personal way.T he Graduate began life in 1963 as a novella of the same name by Charles Webb, a California-born writer who saw his book not as a comic novel but as a serious artistic statement about America’s increasingly disaffected youth. It found its way into the hands of a producer named Lawrence Turman who saw The Graduate as an opportunity to make the cinematic equivalent of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Turman optioned the book, then sent it to Mike Nichols, who in 1963 was still best known for his comic partnership with Elaine May but had just made his directorial debut with the original Broadway production of Barefoot in the Park.
Both men saw that The Graduate posed a problem to anyone seeking to put it on the screen. In Turman’s words, “In the book the character of Benjamin Braddock is sort of a whiny pain in the fanny [whom] you want to shake or spank.” To this end, they turned to Buck Henry, who had co-created the popular TV comedy Get Smart with Mel Brooks, to write a screenplay that would retain much of Webb’s dryly witty dialogue (“I think you’re the most attractive of all my parents’ friends”) while making Benjamin less priggish.
Nichols’s first major act was casting Dustin Hoffman, an obscure New York stage actor pushing 30, for the title role. No one but Nichols seems to have thought him suitable in any way. Not only was Hoffman short and nondescript-looking, but he was unmistakably Jewish, whereas Benjamin is supposedly the scion of a newly monied WASP family from southern California. Nevertheless, Nichols decided he wanted “a short, dark, Jewish, anomalous presence, which is how I experience myself,” in order to underline Benjamin’s alienation from the world of his parents.
Nichols filled the other roles in equally unexpected ways. He hired the Oscar winner Anne Bancroft, only six years Hoffman’s senior, to play the unbalanced temptress who lures Benjamin into her bed, then responds with volcanic rage when he falls in love with her beautiful daughter Elaine. He and Henry also steered clear of on-screen references to the campus protests that had only recently started to convulse America. Instead, he set The Graduate in a timeless upper-middle-class milieu inhabited by people more interested in social climbing than self-actualization—the same milieu from which Benjamin is so alienated that he is reduced to near-speechlessness whenever his family and their friends ask him what he plans to do now that he has graduated.
The film’s only explicit allusion to its cultural moment is the use on the soundtrack of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” the painfully earnest anthem of youthful angst that is for all intents and purposes the theme song of The Graduate. Nevertheless, Henry’s screenplay leaves little doubt that the film was in every way a work of its time and place. As he later explained to Mark Harris, it is a study of “the disaffection of young people for an environment that they don’t seem to be in sync with.…Nobody had made a film specifically about that.”
This aspect of The Graduate is made explicit in a speech by Benjamin that has no direct counterpart in the novel: “It’s like I was playing some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people. I mean, no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up.”
The Graduate was Nichols’s second film, following his wildly successful movie version of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Albee’s play was a snarling critique of the American dream, which he believed to be a snare and a delusion. The Graduate had the same skeptical view of postwar America, but its pessimism was played for laughs. When Benjamin is assured by a businessman in the opening scene that the secret to success in America is “plastics,” we are meant to laugh contemptuously at the smugness of so blinkered a view of life. Moreover, the contempt is as real as the laughter: The Graduate has it both ways. For the same reason, the farcical quality of the climactic scene (in which Benjamin breaks up Elaine’s marriage to a handsome young WASP and carts her off to an unknown fate) is played without musical underscoring, a signal that what Benjamin is doing is really no laughing matter.
The youth-oriented message of The Graduate came through loud and clear to its intended audience, which paid no heed to the mixed reviews from middle-aged reviewers unable to grasp what Nichols and Henry were up to. Not so Roger Ebert, the newly appointed 25-year-old movie critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, who called The Graduate “the funniest American comedy of the year…because it has a point of view. That is to say, it is against something.”
Even more revealing was the response of David Brinkley, then the co-anchor of NBC’s nightly newscast, who dismissed The Graduate as “frantic nonsense” but added that his college-age son and his classmates “liked it because it said about the parents and others what they would have said about us if they had made the movie—that we are self-centered and materialistic, that we are licentious and deeply hypocritical about it, that we try to make them into walking advertisements for our own affluence.”
A year after the release of The Graduate, a film-industry report cited in Pictures at a Revolution revealed that “48 percent of all movie tickets in America were now being sold to filmgoers under the age of 24.” A very high percentage of those tickets were to The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde. At long last, Hollywood had figured out what the Baby Boomers wanted to see.A nd how does The Graduate look a half-century later? To begin with, it now appears to have been Mike Nichols’s creative “road not taken.” In later years, Nichols became less an auteur than a Hollywood director who thought like a Broadway director, choosing vehicles of solid middlebrow-liberal appeal and serving them faithfully without imposing a strong creative vision of his own. In The Graduate, by contrast, he revealed himself to be powerfully aware of the same European filmmaking trends that shaped Bonnie and Clyde. Within a naturalistic framework, he deployed non-naturalistic “new wave” cinematographic techniques with prodigious assurance—and he was willing to end The Graduate on an ambiguous note instead of wrapping it up neatly and pleasingly, letting the camera linger on the unsure faces of Hoffman and Ross as they ride off into an unsettling future.
It is this ambiguity, coupled with Nichols’s prescient decision not to allow The Graduate to become a literal portrayal of American campus life in the troubled mid-’60s, that has kept the film fresh. But The Graduate is fresh in a very particular way: It is a young person’s movie, the tale of a boy-man terrified by the prospect of growing up to be like his parents. Therein lay the source of its appeal to young audiences. The Graduate showed them what they, too, feared most, and hinted at a possible escape route.
In the words of Beverly Gray, who saw The Graduate when it first came out in 1967: “The Graduate appeared in movie houses just as we young Americans were discovering how badly we wanted to distance ourselves from the world of our parents….That polite young high achiever, those loving but smothering parents, those comfortable but slightly bland surroundings: They combined to form an only slightly exaggerated version of my own cozy West L.A. world.”
Yet to watch The Graduate today—especially if you first saw it when much younger—is also to be struck by the extreme unattractiveness of its central character. Hoffman plays Benjamin not as the comically ineffectual nebbish of Jewish tradition but as a near-catatonic robot who speaks by turns in a flat monotone and a frightened nasal whine. It is impossible to understand why Mrs. Robinson would want to go to bed with such a mousy creature, much less why Elaine would run off with him—an impression that has lately acquired an overlay of retrospective irony in the wake of accusations that Hoffman has sexually harassed female colleagues on more than one occasion. Precisely because Benjamin is so unlikable, it is harder for modern-day viewers to identify with him in the same way as did Gray and her fellow Boomers. To watch a Graduate-influenced film like Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming (1995), a poignant romantic comedy about a group of Gen-X college graduates who deliberately choose not to get on with their lives, is to see a closely similar dilemma dramatized in an infinitely more “relatable” way, one in which the crippling anxiety of the principal characters is presented as both understandable and pitiable, thus making it funnier.
Be that as it may, The Graduate is a still-vivid snapshot of a turning point in American cultural history. Before Benjamin Braddock, American films typically portrayed men who were not overgrown, smooth-faced children but full-grown adults, sometimes misguided but incontestably mature. After him, permanent immaturity became the default position of Hollywood-style masculinity.
For this reason, it will be interesting to see what the Millennials, so many of whom demand to be shielded from the “triggering” realities of adult life, make of The Graduate if and when they come to view it. I have a feeling that it will speak to a fair number of them far more persuasively than it did to those of us who—unlike Benjamin Braddock—longed when young to climb the high hill of adulthood and see for ourselves what awaited us on the far side.
1 Algonquin, 278 pages
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“I think that’s best left to states and locales to decide,” DeVos replied. “If the underlying question is . . .”
Murphy interrupted. “You can’t say definitively today that guns shouldn’t be in schools?”
“Well, I will refer back to Senator Enzi and the school that he was talking about in Wapiti, Wyoming, I think probably there, I would imagine that there’s probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies.”
Murphy continued his line of questioning unfazed. “If President Trump moves forward with his plan to ban gun-free school zones, will you support that proposal?”
“I will support what the president-elect does,” DeVos replied. “But, senator, if the question is around gun violence and the results of that, please know that my heart bleeds and is broken for those families that have lost any individual due to gun violence.”
Because all this happened several million outrage cycles ago, you may have forgotten what happened next. Rather than mention DeVos’s sympathy for the victims of gun violence, or her support for federalism, or even her deference to the president, the media elite fixated on her hypothetical aside about grizzly bears.
“Betsy DeVos Cites Grizzly Bears During Guns-in-Schools Debate,” read the NBC News headline. “Citing grizzlies, education nominee says states should determine school gun policies,” reported CNN. “Sorry, Betsy DeVos,” read a headline at the Atlantic, “Guns Aren’t a Bear Necessity in Schools.”
DeVos never said that they were, of course. Nor did she “cite” the bear threat in any definitive way. What she did was decline the opportunity to make a blanket judgment about guns and schools because, in a continent-spanning nation of more than 300 million people, one standard might not apply to every circumstance.
After all, there might be—there are—cases when guns are necessary for security. Earlier this year, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe signed into law a bill authorizing some retired police officers to carry firearms while working as school guards. McAuliffe is a Democrat.
In her answer to Murphy, DeVos referred to a private meeting with Senator Enzi, who had told her of a school in Wyoming that has a fence to keep away grizzly bears. And maybe, she reasoned aloud, the school might have a gun on the premises in case the fence doesn’t work.
As it turns out, the school in Wapiti is gun-free. But we know that only because the Washington Post treated DeVos’s offhand remark as though it were the equivalent of Alexander Butterfield’s revealing the existence of the secret White House tapes. “Betsy DeVos said there’s probably a gun at a Wyoming school to ward off grizzlies,” read the Post headline. “There isn’t.” Oh, snap!
The article, like the one by NBC News, ended with a snarky tweet. The Post quoted user “Adam B.,” who wrote, “‘We need guns in schools because of grizzly bears.’ You know what else stops bears? Doors.” Clever.
And telling. It becomes more difficult every day to distinguish between once-storied journalistic institutions and the jabbering of anonymous egg-avatar Twitter accounts. The eagerness with which the press misinterprets and misconstrues Trump officials is something to behold. The “context” the best and brightest in media are always eager to provide us suddenly goes poof when the opportunity arises to mock, impugn, or castigate the president and his crew. This tendency is especially pronounced when the alleged gaffe fits neatly into a prefabricated media stereotype: that DeVos is unqualified, say, or that Rick Perry is, well, Rick Perry.
On November 2, the secretary of energy appeared at an event sponsored by Axios.com and NBC News. He described a recent trip to Africa:
It’s going to take fossil fuels to push power out to those villages in Africa, where a young girl told me to my face, “One of the reasons that electricity is so important to me is not only because I won’t have to try to read by the light of a fire, and have those fumes literally killing people, but also from the standpoint of sexual assault.” When the lights are on, when you have light, it shines the righteousness, if you will, on those types of acts. So from the standpoint of how you really affect people’s lives, fossil fuels is going to play a role in that.
This heartfelt story of the impact of electrification on rural communities was immediately distorted into a metaphor for Republican ignorance and cruelty.
“Energy Secretary Rick Perry Just Made a Bizarre Claim About Sexual Assault and Fossil Fuels,” read the Buzzfeed headline. “Energy Secretary Rick Perry Says Fossil Fuels Can Prevent Sexual Assault,” read the headline from NBC News. “Rick Perry Says the Best Way to Prevent Rape Is Oil, Glorious Oil,” said the Daily Beast.
“Oh, that Rick Perry,” wrote Gail Collins in a New York Times column. “Whenever the word ‘oil’ is mentioned, Perry responds like a dog on the scent of a hamburger.” You will note that the word “oil” is not mentioned at all in Perry’s remarks.
You will note, too, that what Perry said was entirely commonsensical. While the precise relation between public lighting and public safety is unknown, who can doubt that brightly lit areas feel safer than dark ones—and that, as things stand today, cities and towns are most likely to be powered by fossil fuels? “The value of bright street lights for dispirited gray areas rises from the reassurance they offer to some people who need to go out on the sidewalk, or would like to, but lacking the good light would not do so,” wrote Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. “Thus the lights induce these people to contribute their own eyes to the upkeep of the street.” But c’mon, what did Jane Jacobs know?
No member of the Trump administration so rankles the press as the president himself. On the November morning I began this column, I awoke to outrage that President Trump had supposedly violated diplomatic protocol while visiting Japan and its prime minister, Shinzo Abe. “President Trump feeds fish, winds up pouring entire box of food into koi pond,” read the CNN headline. An article on CBSNews.com headlined “Trump empties box of fish food into Japanese koi pond” began: “President Donald Trump’s visit to Japan briefly took a turn from formal to fishy.” A Bloomberg reporter traveling with the president tweeted, “Trump and Abe spooning fish food into a pond. (Toward the end, @potus decided to just dump the whole box in for the fish).”
Except that’s not what Trump “decided.” In fact, Trump had done exactly what Abe had done a few seconds before. That fact was buried in write-ups of the viral video of Trump and the fish. “President Trump was criticized for throwing an entire box of fish food into a koi pond during his visit to Japan,” read a Tweet from the New York Daily News, linking to a report on phony criticism Trump received because of erroneous reporting from outlets like the News.
There’s an endless, circular, Möbius-strip-like quality to all this nonsense. Journalists are so eager to catch the president and his subordinates doing wrong that they routinely traduce the very canons of journalism they are supposed to hold dear. Partisan and personal animus, laziness, cynicism, and the oversharing culture of social media are a toxic mix. The press in 2017 is a lot like those Japanese koi fish: frenzied, overstimulated, and utterly mindless.
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Review of 'Lessons in Hope' By George Weigel
Standing before the eternal flame, a frail John Paul shed silent tears for 6 million victims, including some of his own childhood friends from Krakow. Then, after reciting verses from Psalm 31, he began: “In this place of memories, the mind and heart and soul feel an extreme need for silence. … Silence, because there are no words strong enough to deplore the terrible tragedy of the Shoah.” Parkinson’s disease strained his voice, but it was clear that the pope’s irrepressible humanity and spiritual strength had once more stood him in good stead.
George Weigel watched the address from NBC’s Jerusalem studios, where he was providing live analysis for the network. As he recalls in Lessons in Hope, his touching and insightful memoir of his time as the pope’s biographer, “Our newsroom felt the impact of those words, spoken with the weight of history bearing down on John Paul and all who heard him: normally a place of bedlam, the newsroom fell completely silent.” The pope, he writes, had “invited the world to look, hard, at the stuff of its redemption.”
Weigel, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, published his biography of John Paul in two volumes, Witness to Hope (1999) and The End and the Beginning (2010). His new book completes a John Paul triptych, and it paints a more informal, behind-the-scenes portrait. Readers, Catholic and otherwise, will finish the book feeling almost as though they knew the 264th successor of Peter. Lessons in Hope is also full of clerical gossip. Yet Weigel never loses sight of his main purpose: to illuminate the character and mind of the “emblematic figure of the second half of the twentieth century.”
The book’s most important contribution comes in its restatement of John Paul’s profound political thought at a time when it is sorely needed. Throughout, Weigel reminds us of the pope’s defense of the freedom of conscience; his emphasis on culture as the primary engine of history; and his strong support for democracy and the free economy.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the pope continued to promote these ideas in such encyclicals as Centesimus Annus. The 1991 document reiterated the Church’s opposition to socialist regimes that reduce man to “a molecule within the social organism” and trample his right to earn “a living through his own initiative.” Centesimus Annus also took aim at welfare states for usurping the role of civil society and draining “human energies.” The pope went on to explain the benefits, material and moral, of free enterprise within a democratic, rule-of-law framework.
Yet a libertarian manifesto Centesimus Annus was not. It took note of free societies’ tendency to breed spiritual poverty, materialism, and social incohesion, which in turn could lead to soft totalitarianism. John Paul called on state, civil society, and people of God to supply the “robust public moral culture” (in Weigel’s words) that would curb these excesses and ensure that free-market democracies are ordered to the common good.
When Weigel emerged as America’s preeminent interpreter of John Paul, in the 1980s and ’90s, these ideas were ascendant among Catholic thinkers. In addition to Weigel, proponents included the philosopher Michael Novak and Father Richard John Neuhaus of First Things magazine (both now dead). These were faithful Catholics (in Neuhaus’s case, a relatively late convert) nevertheless at peace with the free society, especially the American model. They had many qualms with secular modernity, to be sure. But with them, there was no question that free societies and markets are preferable to unfree ones.
How things have changed. Today all the energy in those Catholic intellectual circles is generated by writers and thinkers who see modernity as beyond redemption and freedom itself as the problem. For them, the main question is no longer how to correct the free society’s course (by shoring up moral foundations, through evangelization, etc.). That ship has sailed or perhaps sunk, according to this view. The challenges now are to protect the Church against progressivism’s blows and to see beyond the free society as a political horizon.
Certainly the trends that worried John Paul in Centesimus Annus have accelerated since the encyclical was issued. “The claim that agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and the basic attitude which correspond to democratic forms of political life” has become even more hegemonic than it was in 1991. “Those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it” increasingly get treated as ideological lepers. And with the weakening of transcendent truths, ideas are “easily manipulated for reasons of power.”
Thus a once-orthodox believer finds himself or herself compelled to proclaim that there is no biological basis to gender; that men can menstruate and become pregnant; that there are dozens of family forms, all as valuable and deserving of recognition as the conjugal union of a man and a woman; and that speaking of the West’s Judeo-Christian patrimony is tantamount to espousing white supremacy. John Paul’s warnings read like a description of the present.
The new illiberal Catholics—a label many of these thinkers embrace—argue that these developments aren’t a distortion of the idea of the free society but represent its very essence. This is a mistake. Basic to the free society is the freedom of conscience, a principle enshrined in democratic constitutions across the West and, I might add, in the Catholic Church’s post–Vatican II magisterium. Under John Paul, religious liberty became Rome’s watchword in the fight against Communist totalitarianism, and today it is the Church’s best weapon against the encroachments of secular progressivism. The battle is far from lost, moreover. There is pushback in the courts, at the ballot box, and online. Sometimes it takes demagogic forms that should discomfit people of faith. Then again, there is a reason such pushback is called “reaction.”
A bigger challenge for Catholics prepared to part ways with the free society as an ideal is this: What should Christian politics stand for in the 21st century? Setting aside dreams of reuniting throne and altar and similar nostalgia, the most cogent answer offered by Catholic illiberalism is that the Church should be agnostic with respect to regimes. As Harvard’s Adrian Vermeule has recently written, Christians should be ready to jettison all “ultimate allegiances,” including to the Constitution, while allying with any party or regime when necessary.
What at first glance looks like an uncompromising Christian politics—cunning, tactical, and committed to nothing but the interests of the Church—is actually a rather passive vision. For a Christianity that is “radically flexible” in politics is one that doesn’t transform modernity from within. In practice, it could easily look like the Vatican Ostpolitik diplomacy that sought to appease Moscow before John Paul was elected.
Karol Wojtya discarded Ostpolitik as soon as he took the Petrine office. Instead, he preached freedom and democracy—and meant it. Already as archbishop of Krakow under Communism, he had created free spaces where religious and nonreligious dissidents could engage in dialogue. As pope, he expressed genuine admiration for the classically liberal and decidedly secular Vaclav Havel. He hailed the U.S. Constitution as the source of “ordered freedom.” And when, in 1987, the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet asked him why he kept fussing about democracy, seeing as “one system of government is as good as another,” the pope responded: No, “the people have a right to their liberties, even if they make mistakes in exercising them.”
The most heroic and politically effective Christian figure of the 20th century, in other words, didn’t follow the path of radical flexibility. His Polish experience had taught him that there are differences between regimes—that some are bound to uphold conscience and human dignity, even if they sometimes fall short of these commitments, while others trample rights by design. The very worst of the latter kind could even whisk one’s boyhood friends away to extermination camps. There could be no radical Christian flexibility after the Holocaust.