Hopes for the achievement of worldwide prosperity have dimmed.
For a brief, glorious, and unforgettable moment 20 years ago, it seemed as if a great and terrible question that had been perennially stalking humanity had finally been answered. That profound question was as old as human hope itself: could ordinary men and women, regardless of their location on this earth or their station in this life, hope that deliberate social arrangements could provide them—and their descendants thereafter—with permanent and universal protection against the grinding poverty and material misery that had been the human lot ever since memory began? For those exhilarating few years back in the 1990s, it seemed to many of us that the 20th century had indeed answered this age-old question: decisively, successfully, and conclusively.
Brute facts, after all, had demonstrated beyond controversy that human beings the world over could now indeed create sustained explosions of mass prosperity—rather than temporary and transient windfalls—that would utterly transform the human material condition, relegating the traditional conception of desperate want from a daily personal concern to an almost abstract textbook curiosity.
According to estimates by the late economic historian Angus Maddison, the world’s average per capita output quadrupled between 1900 and 1989/91, with even greater income surges registered in the collectivity of Western societies where the process of modern economic growth had commenced.1 Membership in this “Western” club, though, manifestly did not require European background or heritage, for the Asian nations of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan had come to embrace political and economic arrangements similar to those pioneered in Western Europe and its overseas offshoots, and had in fact enjoyed some of the century’s fastest rates of long-term income growth.
The formula for generating steady improvements in living standards for a diversity of human populations, in short, had been solidly established. The matter at hand was now to extend that formula to the reaches of the earth where it could not yet be exercised—most obviously at that time for political reasons, given the fact that nearly a third of the world’s peoples were still living under Communist regimes in the late 1980s.
By the early 1990s, with the final failure of the Soviet project and the widely heralded idea of the “End of History,” it suddenly seemed as if the liberal political ideals that promoted the spread of the Western growth formula would no longer encounter much organized global resistance. It now seemed only a matter of time until every part of the world could join in a newly possible economic race to the top. Prosperity for all—everywhere—no longer sounded like merely a prayer. Quite the contrary: the end of global poverty was increasingly taken to be something much more like a feasible long-term-action agenda.
Alas, in the years since, new brute facts have asserted themselves, while other awkward facts of somewhat older vintage have reasserted themselves, demanding renewed attention. All too many contemporary locales have managed to “achieve” records of long-term economic failure in our modern era. The plain and unavoidable truth is that countries with hundreds of millions of inhabitants today are not simply falling behind in a global march toward ever-greater prosperity: they are positively heading in the wrong direction, spiraling down on their own distinct, but commonly dismal, paths of severe, prolonged, and tragic retrogression.
Haiti is a particularly awful case in point.
The Case of Haiti
Conditions of life in Haiti, wretched for most Haitians even in the best of times, took a sharp turn for the worse earlier this year, when an earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale struck not far from the capital of Port-au-Prince. The resultant carnage was heartrending; the chaos, stomach-churning. At this writing, the official estimate of the death toll from the disaster has risen above 200,000—although it is a telling sign of Haiti’s sheer underdevelopment that an exact death count from the earthquake and its aftermath is regarded by foreign relief workers on the scene as an utterly unrealistic proposition.
Yet there was absolutely nothing “natural” about the human cost of this natural disaster. Massive earthquakes do not always unfold as calamities of biblical proportions, even when they are visited on major urban population centers. In October 1989, a massive earthquake suddenly struck the Bay Area of California. In sheer magnitude, that earthquake was almost as violent as Haiti’s (6.9 vs. 7.0); its epicenter was roughly as far from downtown San Jose as Haiti’s was from central Port-au-Prince. The final death toll in the Bay Area tragedy: 63 lives.
At first glance, such wildly disparate death counts in the face of arguably comparable natural calamities may seem to serve as a grim metaphor for the seemingly perennial yawning gap that separates life chances in rich and poor regions today. In reality, however, the backstory is still sadder than these raw numbers might of themselves suggest: for the awful fact of the matter is that the United States and Haiti are societies whose capabilities for meeting human needs (and protecting human beings) have been moving in fundamentally different directions for decades.
A society’s material capabilities for meeting human needs are very broadly indicated by its levels and trends in per capita output (GDP). America is not one of the modern world’s most rapidly growing economies—over the past century, in fact, per capita growth has averaged a little under 2 percent a year—but thanks to the power of compound interest, such a tempo of growth brings dramatic and salutary transformations over time, if it can be sustained. In the roughly six decades between 1950 and 2008, indeed, America’s per capita output more than tripled. But over that same half century or so, by Maddison’s reckoning, per capita output in Haiti actually declined—by more than a third.
Thanks to its prolonged economic retrogression, Haiti today is not simply immiserated; it is in fact substantially poorer than it was half a century ago. By the hardly insignificant yardstick of income levels, the country appears to be less developed now than it was two generations before. (Appalling death tolls in the face of earthquakes, tropical storms, and other forces of nature are merely one manifestation of the more general deterioration in material capabilities for meeting human needs that are implied by such trends.)
Haiti, moreover, is only one of many countries in the modern world to have been heading down—not up—in economic terms for decades on end. Summary statistics from the World Bank and the World Trade Organization (WTO) outline the dimensions of this global problem.
By the World Bank’s calculations, nearly two dozen countries suffered negative per capita economic growth over the course of the quarter century from 1980 to 2005. And the World Bank does not even attempt to estimate economic trends for a number of national problem cases—Kim Jong-il’s North Korea and Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe among them—where pronounced and prolonged economic decline have almost certainly taken place. When one tallies up the global totals, it would appear that close to half a billion people today live in such countries—societies beset not merely by long-term stagnation but also by a quarter century or more of absolute deterioration in income levels.
At the same time, WTO numbers point to a jarring drop in the long-term export performance of many contemporary societies. Adjusting for inflation, these WTO data suggest that more than 30 countries were actually earning in real terms less from merchandise exports in 2006 than they did in 1980, over a quarter century earlier. The picture is still worse when we take intervening population growth into account. Real per capita export revenue, measured in U.S. dollars, looks to have been lower in more than 50 countries in 2007 (the last year before the current worldwide economic crisis) than in 1980. In all, such places today account for roughly three quarters of a billion of the world’s 6.8 billion current inhabitants—about a ninth of the globe’s total population.
Thus, it is not just that an appreciable swath of humanity today lives in countries that have not yet managed to customize, and apply, the global formula for sustained growth that has been propelling the rest of the world out of poverty and into material security, or even affluence. No—hundreds of millions of people in the modern world live in places where the development process is manifestly stuck in reverse.
For these hapless societies, pronounced and relentless economic failure is not an awful aberration but rather the seemingly “natural” way of things: the only way things have ever been in living memory for most locals, and most international observers. After all, the median age of the world’s present population is less than 30 years; this means that most people today can recall only long-term economic failure for these dozens of countries.
National examples of prolonged economic failure dot the modern global map: in the Caribbean (Cuba, Haiti); in Latin America (Paraguay, Venezuela); even in dynamic East Asia (North Korea). But the epicenter of prolonged economic failure is sub-Saharan Africa.
The Case of Sub-Saharan Africa
Sub-Saharan Africa comprises an extraordinary diversity of peoples, and the economic records of each of the region’s 50-plus countries is separate and distinct. Yet taken together, their overall development record in the post-colonial period has been utterly dismal.
Some improvement in the region’s economic performance has been registered since the mid-1990s. Even so, according to estimates by both Angus Maddison and the World Bank, per capita income for the region as a whole was slightly lower in 2006 than it was in 1974. Much the same holds true for real per capita export earnings. According to the WTO’s numbers,Africa’s overall per capita merchandise export revenues, adjusted for inflation, showed absolutely no improvement between 1974 and 2006—and after the global economic crisis, they appear to have been around 10 percent lower in 2009 than they were in 1974.
This is very bad news for a very large number of people: as of last year, according to U.S. Census Bureau projections, sub-Saharan Africa’s population was well over 800 million people, roughly one-eighth of all human beings on earth today.
The sub-Sahara is not simply an epicenter of economic failure; it is also the epicenter of a pervasive failure in what might be called human development. Poorer countries, of course, tend to suffer from poor health and education as well, and sub-Saharan Africa is by far the poorest region of the planet today. But it is not just that Africa’s health and educational profiles are much worse than for any other major region of the world; they are also markedly worse than would be predicted on the basis of the region’s woeful economic performance alone.
Consider life expectancy at birth—the single best summary measure of a population’s overall health conditions. Sub-Saharan life spans today are on average roughly 10 years lower than in other countries with comparable starting points in health four decades ago and comparable income levels today. This awful result has much to do with the HIV/AIDS tragedy, which to date has been concentrated in Africa and has sent life expectancy in some sub-Saharan societies plummeting.
But analogous patterns are evident for educational attainment in the sub-Sahara—trends that cannot be traced so easily to the unpredictable outbreak of communicable pandemics. Through painstaking effort, Robert J. Barro of Harvard and Jong-Wha Lee of Korea University have compiled a database detailing changes in adult educational levels in more than 100 countries for the years 1960 to 2000.2 For the world as a whole, average years of schooling for a country’s adult population as of the year 2000 can be pretty accurately predicted by the country’s level of adult education 40 years earlier and its income level at the end of the intervening period.
Here again, sub-Saharan educational profiles in 2000 were even more modest than the region’s very low income levels would have of themselves predicted: to go by World Bank data, this “sub-Sahara effect” amounted to an average of 1.2 years of schooling forgone for each and every person 15 years of age and older. In a region where adult men and women had an average of just 3.5 years of schooling as of 2000, this would have been a far from trivial loss; on the contrary, it suggests that sub-Saharan Africans would have enjoyed fully one third more years of adult education, its low income levels notwithstanding, if only they had been living in a place more like other regions of the Third World.
A Poor-Friendly Era
The problem of sustained socioeconomic retrogression is all the more dismaying, and puzzling, when one bears in mind the phenomenal explosion of prosperity that has transformed the world as a whole in the modern era—and the potentialities for material advance that are afforded even the poorest societies.
In the half century between 1955 and 2005, by Maddison’s reckoning, the planet’s per capita income levels nearly tripled, growing at an average tempo of more than 2 percent per year, despite the unprecedented pace of population increase in the Third World over those same years. The expansion of international trade—and thus by definition, of markets for export produce—was even more dramatic: on a worldwide basis, real per capita demand for international merchandise and commodities jumped almost tenfold during those same years.
Scientific and technical advances have immensely improved life prospects in the planet’s poorest and least scientifically proficient reaches. Thanks largely to progress in life sciences and public-health know-how and the concomitant spread of basic education, longer lives are now possible worldwide at ever lower national-income levels. No country on earth registered a female life expectancy at birth of 65 years before the end of World War I; the first society to breach that threshold was apparently New Zealand, somewhere around 1920. Today average female life expectancy at birth for poor countries as a whole is well above 65 years. Even places like Nepal are thought to have reached this once-impossible level of life expectancy—and Nepal does this today on less than a fifth of New Zealand’s income level circa 1920.
There should be no doubt whatsoever that the health revolution facilitated by the postwar era’s knowledge explosion, and all that has accompanied it, has been fundamentally “poor-friendly.” In the early 1950s, by the estimates of the UN Population Division, life expectancy at birth was 25 years higher in the more developed regions than in the less developed regions; 50 years later—despite the AIDS catastrophe—that differential had been cut in half. By this most basic measure of all, inequality between rich and poor has by no means increased; rather, during our era of modern global economic development, it has been shrinking, progressively and dramatically.
The worldwide surge in prosperity over the past two generations has been nothing like the winner-take-all race that some insinuate it to be. The plain fact is that countries at every income level have benefited tremendously from the global economic updrafts of our modern age. World Bank estimates underscore this point. If we take high-income economies completely out of the picture, average real per capita output for the rest of the world more than tripled between 1960 and 2006. (By Maddison’s calculations, incidentally, per capita incomes in Brazil, Mexico, and Turkey are higher than they were in Scandinavia and the Netherlands in the early 1950s.)
For the “low middle income economies” (countries including China, Egypt, India, and the Philippines), estimated per capita incomes rose more than fivefold. And even for the “low income economies” as a whole—the 1.3 billion people in the world’s poorest contemporary societies—per capita output is thought to have risen by almost 150 percent over those same years.
Salutary political changes—including what the late Samuel Huntington termed “waves of democratization”—have swept through the less developed regions over the past two generations. But First World levels of institutional and administrative acumen are by no means necessary for sustained economic growth in poor countries today. In fact, the political and policy prerequisites for eliciting enormous improvements in local incomes may be less exacting in our modern era than ever before.
A few examples will suffice to make this point. Take Bangladesh, a country widely written off as a hopeless basket case at its independence in 1971.Political stability has not exactly been Bangladesh’s métier: over the past four decades, the country has experienced dozens of attempted political coups, three of which overturned the seated government. Bangladesh still does not qualify as an open society or a full-fledged democracy; Freedom House, for example, rated the country as only “partly free” earlier this year. Yet despite all this, per capita output in Bangladesh has roughly doubled since the early 1970s, according to both Maddison and the World Bank’s World Development Indicators (WDI).
The case of the Dominican Republic may be even more instructive. In 1961, the country’s longtime dictator, Rafael Trujillo, was assassinated. A period of political instability ensued; in 1965, U.S. troops had to occupy that country for a year to restore order. In the decades that followed, the country’s “economic climate” might at best be described as mediocre: the country ranked 99th on the 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index, and 100th on the Fraser Institute’s 2009 Index of Economic Freedom. Yet over the four decades between 1965 and 2005, per capita income in the Dominican Republic more than tripled, increasing over these years at an average pace of almost 3 percent per annum. Between the early 1960s and the early 2000s, moreover, overall life expectancy in the Dominican Republic jumped by nearly two decades: today, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, it stands at 74 years—just four years behind that found in the United States.
The Dominican Republic’s progress in economic development is noteworthy in its own right—but it is all the more striking when juxtaposed against the gruesome and prolonged developmental failure still underway in Haiti. The two countries, of course, share the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.
So, given the pervasive scope and scale of worldwide economic advance in our age—and the apparently increasing ease of achieving sustained economic progress, even for populations at the lowest levels of material attainment—how are we to explain, and deal with, the phenomenon of persisting socioeconomic failure in Haiti and dozens of other contemporary societies? How have these places managed to avoid self-enrichment, given the apparently increasing worldwide odds against such an outcome? And what can be done to end the syndrome of developmental decline on the lands that have been subject to it?
One diagnosis, insistently tendered in some parts of the academy and the international community, pegs the problem as a sheer insufficiency of foreign aid; the correlative prescription from these quarters—a lot more of it. Currently, the most vocal and articulate advocates of this point of view are Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University and the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals (MDG) project. The MDG project avers that the primary impediment to more rapid progress against poverty in low-income countries nowadays is the lack of funding for practical, tested programs, and policy measures that would reliably and predictably raise living standards in the world where they are lowest today. Sachs and the UN’s MDG apparatus consequently urge an immediate doubling of official Western-aid transfers to low-income areas and offer a detailed array of plans for absorbing these proposed additional flows (which are envisioned at almost $190 billion a year above “baseline” levels by the year 2015).3
The trouble with this narrative is that foreign aid is not exactly an untested remedy for global poverty in our day and age. To go by figures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, total flows of development assistance to recipient countries since 1960, after adjusting for inflation, by now add up to something like $3 trillion.
Now, in some places and times, international aid appears not only to have enhanced material advance but also to have promoted the transition to self-sustaining growth (i.e., growth without aid). Aid transfers seem to have been most productive in the hands of governments that supported economically productive policies and practices. But foreign aid quite clearly is neither necessary nor sufficient to elicit growth and development in our modern era—nor is it even capable of preventing long-term economic retrogression in recipient states. In today’s dollars, Haiti has received more than $10 billion since 1960 in official development assistance alone (and vastly more if private aid, humanitarian assistance, and security assistance are taken into account). On a per capita basis, this works out to more than four times as much assistance per capita as Western European populations received during the Marshall Plan era. Yet Haiti’s per capita income, according to Maddison, was less than two-thirds as high in 2008 as it had been in 1960.
Similarly, since 1970, sub-Saharan African states have taken in the current equivalent of more than $600 billion of official development assistance—over three times as much aid on a per capita basis as Marshall Plan states received. As we know all too well, these subventions neither forestalled long-term economic decline for the region as a whole nor prevented the rise of poverty in many “beneficiary” states in the sub-Sahara.
How does one account for these inconvenient facts? Evidently, by ignoring them. To make their case for aid as the necessary remedy for contemporary global poverty, proponents of the Sachs-MDG plan are willing to undertake breathtaking, even patently absurd, intellectual contortions. Thus the plan’s overview document asserts, without any hint of irony, that “many well-governed countries [today] are too poor to help themselves.”4 Social-science and policy-research literature, to be sure, has committed a fair share of howlers during the past century, but this may be the single most empirically challenged sentence of the new millennium.
The too-little-aid theory in essence attempts to explain—or blame—the prolonged economic failure of large portions of the modern world on external factors (in this case, the stinginess of affluent Western populations). A much more plausible explanation, however, relates to domestic factors within the countries and societies in question. Perhaps most important, these concern the deep, complex, historically rooted, and interconnected issues of “culture” on the one hand and what is now called “governance” on the other.
Culture and Governance
The proposition that a local population’s viewpoints, values, and dispositions might have some bearing on local economic performance would hardly seem to be controversial. Decades ago, the great development economist Peter Bauer wrote that “economic achievement depends upon a people’s attributes, attitudes, mores and political arrangements.” The observation was offered as a simple and irrefutable statement of fact, and it would still be unobjectionable today to most readers who have not been tutored in contemporary “development theory.” But for development specialists, discussion of “culture”—much less its relationship to such things as work, thrift, savings, entrepreneurship, innovation, educational attainment, and other qualities that influence prospects for material advance—is increasingly off-limits.
In the erudite reaches of development policy, indeed, discussion of such matters at all is often regarded as poor form at best—and at worst is taken to smack of condescension, paternalism, or even latent prejudice. Paul Collier’s bestselling 2007 exposition, The Bottom Billion, is a case in point.5 Remarkably, Collier manages to complete his opus without ever referring to cultural impediments to economic progress in the world’s poorest and most economically stagnant societies. In fact, he utters the world culture only once—and that once as a reference to the contending worldviews and approaches of various parties involved in international-aid negotiations.
To be sure, the record of historical efforts to predict and explain economic performance on the basis of cultural attributes is, let us say, checkered. Up through the 1950s and even into the early 1960s, for example, researchers and self-styled experts were offering confident and detailed explanations of why “Confucian values” constituted a serious obstacle to economic development in East Asia. A decade or so later—after the huge boom all around the East Asian rim was well underway—the profession was still united in the consensus that the Confucian ethos mattered greatly in economic performance, but they had quietly shifted their estimate of that impact from negative to positive.
This gets us to the crucial issue of governance—which is shaped by, and in turn independently shapes, local attitudes, expectations, and motivations. Throughout the reaches of the world characterized by long-term economic failure, governance has generally been abysmal. Violent political instability and predatory, arbitrary, or plainly destructive state practices have shaken, or sometimes altogether destroyed, the institutions and legal rules upon which purposeful individual and collective efforts for economic betterment depend. In a few spots on the map—such as North Korea—pronounced economic failure is due to “strong states”: monster regimes that starve their subjects as a matter of principle or ideology, given their own twisted official logic. For many more of today’s failed economies, the trouble instead is that governance has been the charge of “weak” states or even “failed states”: polities with extremely fragile capabilities, sometimes lacking the ability to maintain order or guarantee their subjects’ physical security at all (think Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia).
In these wretched locales, economic failure and continuing developmental decline are unlikely to be arrested absent some serious successes in state-building. But how, exactly, does one proceed with that task? As Francis Fukuyama, who was studied the history of state-building, has cautioned, even under the best of circumstances, the quest to forge sturdy, competent, and trusted state apparatuses promises to be difficult, risky, and time-consuming ventures in these places—and expensive to boot.6 Yet state-building is still hardly even on the agenda of the international-aid community, where moving Western “development” money to stricken regions assumes a much higher administrative priority. Scarcely less important, the challenges of state-building today are compounded by the burdens of history. In South Korea, state-building, from today’s perspective, looks to have been a relatively undemanding mission, difficult as it was: Korea was a nation with a tradition of self-rule under a fairly sophisticated indigenous administrative system for a people with a long civilization and their own written language. In sub-Saharan Africa today, apart from South Africa, the only country that can be similarly characterized is perhaps Ethiopia. But even self-rule is no guarantee that state-building will be easy. Haiti, for example, has enjoyed more than two centuries of formal political independence.
If state-building is the precondition for any real hope of ending the prolonged economic failure and enduring poverty of the hundreds of millions of people currently condemned to this fate in the modern world, the precondition to state-building looks, quite unavoidably, to be foreign intervention—and quite possibly, sustained foreign intervention.
Unfortunately, in the wake of America’s unpopular and in many ways bungled intervention in Iraq, such a prospect is if anything even less palatable for the Western governments that might undertake it than it would have been before the Iraq war. Given sensitivities about their own past colonial activities, postwar voters in Japan and most of Europe have always been reluctant to send troops abroad on indefinite latter-day “civilizing missions.” For example, public support in those countries for the existing, arguably modest, state-building mission currently underway in Afghanistan is tenuous, and any broader commitment to such an international objective simply is not in the cards, now or in the foreseeable future. A number of development economists who recognize the imperative of state-building (not that they would call it by that name) have proposed intriguing schemes for promoting security in poor regions through outside interventions. Collier, much to his credit, flatly states that “external military intervention has an important place in helping the societies of the bottom billion” and argues that “these countries’ military forces are more often part of the problem than a substitute for external forces.” In fact, he devotes the better part of a chapter of his tome to hypothesizing just how the European Union could be encouraged to provide “credible guarantees of external military intervention” to prevent coups in democratically elected Third World governments.7 Paul Romer, the father of modern economics’ “new growth theory,” floats the idea of “charter cities” protected by international security arrangements to which impoverished inhabitants in violent and lawless environments could migrate to enjoy the protections of person, property, and pragmatic rule. Such ideas, unfortunately, are only thought experiments—with little chance of moving off the shelf of theory and into practice, barring a tremendous change in the norms by which international relations are today conducted.
So where does this leave us?
On the one hand, the formula for achieving sustained long-term economic growth on a national basis has pretty clearly been developed, if not perfected—and applying this formula looks to be easier than ever before in human history. Most people, moreover, live in countries that have accepted the arrangements to undergird this growth formula—some by deliberately and enthusiastically embracing them, others by more inadvertently stumbling upon them. Barring global catastrophe—some unforeseen worldwide conflagration or environmental debacle—these populations in general can expect their descendants to enjoy higher incomes and greater affluence than they themselves have ever known. Moreover, thanks to what the economic historian Alexander Gerschenkron described as “the advantages of backwardness,” untapped technological and economic potentialities provide the poorer populations in this group with the possibilities of even more rapid growth than those facing the richer world.
On the other hand, many hundreds of millions of people—a fraction of humanity that may rise, not fall, in the years immediately ahead—cannot avail themselves of the basic political arrangements that set the global growth formula into action. For now, and for the foreseeable future, these miserables can look forward only to relative economic decline—or even further absolute decline, difficult as that may be to imagine.
Nearly half a century ago, Peter Bauer warned presciently that “if attitudes, mores and institutions uncongenial to material progress have prevailed for long historical periods, with corresponding effects on material advance, it may be difficult to reverse their effects except after long periods.” We are living in the world Bauer prophesied. Global prosperity for all is not yet at hand—and, painful and indeed shocking as this may be to recognize, the day in which all humanity can expect to be included in the march toward ever greater affluence cannot be foreseen with any confidence.
1 Angus Maddison, “Statistics on World Population, GDP and per Capita GDP, 1-2008 AD” (March 2010), available electronically at http://www.ggdc.net/maddison.
2 Robert J. Barro and Jong-Wha Lee, “International Data on Educational Attainment: Updates and Implications” (Harvard Center for International Development Working Paper No. 42, April 2000)—Appendix Data Tables, available electronically at http://www.cid.harvard.edu/ciddata/ciddata.html.
3 Investing in development: a practical plan to achieve the Millennium Development Goals/UN Millennium Project, Jeffrey D. Sachs, Director (New York: United Nations Development Programme, 2005).
4 Sachs, p. 17.
5 Paul Collier, The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It (New York: Oxford, 2007), p. 124.
6 Francis Fukuyama, State Building: Governance and World Order in the 21st Century (Ithaca: Cornell, 2004).
7 See, for example, Paul Romer, “For Richer, for Poorer,” Prospect (London), no. 167, February 2010, available electronically at http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2010/01/for-richer-for-poorer/.
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The Global Poverty Paradox
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One: The Present ConditionThe question Norman Podhoretz asked in his 2009 book—Why Are Jews Liberals?—seems only more consequential after President Obama’s two terms in office. The Obama years were unsettling for Jewish conservatives on many fronts. The Iran nuclear deal, the broader American retreat from the Middle East, and the delegitimation of Israel at the UN left the Jewish state in a weaker geopolitical position. Many religious Jews worried that an activist judiciary and administrative state might eventually force traditional Jewish schools and synagogues to accommodate progressive practices like same-sex marriage or else lose their tax-exempt status. The continued expansion of the progressive welfare state and the intolerant culture of political correctness seemed like a direct assault on core conservative beliefs.
Viewed historically, the Jewish devotion to liberal politics has deep and understandable roots. Jewish immigrants to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw liberals as the best defenders of Jewish rights. Liberals cared for the poor, including the Jewish poor. Liberals fought against social prejudices and privileges, including unjust barriers to Jewish advancement. And liberalism’s secular understanding of American democracy offered Jews (and many other religious and ethnic subgroups) a pathway to American normalcy.
In economic and social life, Jews soon succeeded in myriad spheres: business and media, politics and culture, law and academia. As the 20th century progressed, they ceased being outsiders and became a part of the American establishment. And along the way, Jews began to assimilate—with intermarriage rates moving steadily up from 17 percent of all Jews married before 1970 to 58 percent of all Jews married since 2005. As the majority of Jews integrated further into American society, the religious, cultural, and social distinctiveness that once defined their Jewish identity often weakened or disappeared. It turned out that the real threat to the American Jewish future, as Irving Kristol quipped decades ago, “is not that Christians want to persecute them but that Christians want to marry them.” And this problem—the crisis of Jewish continuity—has only gotten worse.
As Jews ascended and assimilated within American life, American liberalism morphed into the new progressivism: less hospitable to traditional religion, more committed to sexual and cultural liberation, less confident in America’s leadership role in the world, and more tolerant of those who would see the homeland of the once-powerless, once-stateless Jewish people as a colonial oppressor. Even as many Jews were becoming increasingly post-Jewish—treating their heritage as a weak form of multicultural affiliation, not a life-shaping web of attachments, traditions, and values—their commitment to American liberalism persisted. While the partisan balance of the Jewish vote remained fairly steady from Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama, with a supermajority of Jews supporting the more liberal candidate, the meaning of the Jewish vote gradually changed. Many Jews once voted for liberals out of a deep conviction that liberalism served real Jewish interests, both at home and abroad. Today’s Jewish liberals are typically progressives first, and Jews very much second.
In a 2015 speech celebrating Jewish Heritage Month, President Obama praised American Jews for their leadership in the great liberal struggles of the modern era. From “women’s rights to gay rights to workers’ rights,” Obama declared, “Jews took to heart the biblical edict that we must not oppress a stranger, having been strangers once ourselves.” He then proceeded to explain that supporting the Iran nuclear deal and making territorial concessions to the Palestinians served true Israeli interests, and he strongly implied that opposition to this agenda would only undermine the Jewish people’s proud claim to be at the vanguard of progressive values. And the Jews in the audience at the Adas Israel Synagogue applauded.
But many Jews did not cheer.
A distinct part of the Jewish community in the United States opposes the progressive agenda, in whole or in part, both culturally and politically. Roughly 22 percent of American Jews voted against Obama in 2008; 30 percent voted against Obama in 2012; 24 percent voted for Donald Trump in 2016. This more conservative bloc now makes up a significant minority, and its numbers are likely to grow in the years ahead, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of self-identified American Jews.
Two: Who Are We?The most identifiable and most rapidly expanding group of Jewish conservatives are Haredi, Hasidic, and right-leaning Modern Orthodox. These traditionalists believe that the progressive worldview is a threat to “Torah values.” At present, roughly 10 percent of all American Jewish adults are Orthodox, while an estimated 27 percent of all Jewish children are being raised in Orthodox homes. According to the 2013 Pew report, the Orthodox community (especially the Haredi) has virtually no intermarriage, as compared with a 72 percent intermarriage rate among non-Orthodox Jews since 2000. They have a high birth rate: 4.1 children per couple vs. 1.7 for non-Orthodox Jews. And they have a high retention rate of preserving serious Jewish commitment in their children. In short: Orthodox Jewry is growing, while non-Orthodox Jewry is shrinking.
Pew’s research also found that Orthodox Jews lean 57 percent Republican and 54 percent conservative, compared with 18 percent and 16 percent among non-Orthodox Jews. In certain major Orthodox centers—from Brooklyn’s Borough Park to Wickliffe, Ohio, from Lakewood, New Jersey, to Monsey, New York— the Jewish vote is even more heavily skewed toward Republicans in national elections. According to Pew, Orthodox Jews resemble white Evangelical Christians on several key cultural and political indicators. All in all, the most committed and fastest growing sector of American Jewry is now among the most conservative voting blocs in the country.
These religious Jewish conservatives are joined by other conservative-leaning Jewish subgroups. Jewish émigrés from the former Soviet Union and their American-born children—a population now numbering roughly 750,000 people—tend to be anti-statist, free-market, and staunchly Zionist. Seventy-seven percent of Russian Jews in New York voted for George W. Bush in 2004, and 65 percent voted for John McCain in 2008. Per Samuel Kliger, Director of Russian Affairs at the American Jewish Committee, a pilot study suggested that the Russian Jewish community voted about 70 percent for Donald Trump in 2016, a notable counter-trend to the general American Jewish community.
Many American Zionists—religious and secular alike—now believe that American progressivism in general and the Democratic Party in particular are bad for Israel, and that American military and political leadership is essential for preserving stability in the Middle East. Pro-free-market Jews, who celebrate the idea of American meritocracy, reject how progressivism stigmatizes economic success, and they oppose the high levels of taxation that are necessary to sustain the progressive welfare state.
In short, while the vast majority of self-identified Jews today are still politically liberal, the “Judaism vote” (i.e., those most committed to Jewish practice and Jewish continuity) and the “Zionism vote” (i.e., those most committed to Israeli national sovereignty) are increasingly conservative. And while many secular Jewish conservatives may not affiliate strongly with their own Jewish heritage, their conservative persuasion, if cultivated, could lead some of them to deepen their bond with more traditionalist Jews who share many of their political ideas and values. For while a progressive worldview leads many (if not all) Jews beyond Judaism, conservative ideas may offer a natural pathway back toward Jewish commitment. Like Judaism itself, conservatism still honors the importance of fidelity to tradition, communal obligation, and the role of religion in sustaining a moral society.
Taken together, Torah conservatives, Zionist conservatives, and free-market Jewish conservatives could create a formidable new coalition of American Jews who stand athwart progressivism yelling stop in a unified Jewish voice and for distinctly Jewish reasons.
In building this coalition, Jews might learn something from the evolution of American conservatism itself. Like many other great political movements in history, postwar conservatism began by clarifying what it opposed: statism at home, Communism abroad, and the radical culture of the 1960s that was beginning its long march through America’s institutions. Yet out of this opposition movement, American conservatism developed, over time, a positive governing agenda, and it expanded the moral and political imaginations of those involved. Many religious conservatives came to recognize the importance of economic liberty; many libertarian conservatives came to see the value of traditional communities; and many conservatives who appreciated small-town American life came to understand the necessity of American power in trying to preserve a civilized world order.
In a similar spirit, one could imagine a new Jewish conservative movement that unites various existing Jewish sub-groups around a positive agenda: pro–religious liberty, supportive of the traditional family, in favor of school choice, allied with Israel in a dangerous world, and tough-minded in the global fight against anti-Semitism. Such a movement would seek to advance ideas and policies aimed at strengthening Jewish continuity in the United States. And it would aim to contribute the best Jewish thinking, with the full weight of the Hebraic tradition behind it, to the revitalization of American conservatism itself. So far, very little work has been done to articulate this broader Jewish conservative agenda, to bring these disparate Jewish factions together, and to create a new set of institutions that speak for Jewish conservatives in a serious way. This is the challenge—and opportunity—that Jews face in the current era.
Three: The Jewish Defense of Religious FreedomThe American Jewish agenda rightly begins with the defense of religious freedom, an idea that unites lovers of liberty and traditional communities of faith into a common political cause. And if there is a place where the sacred texts of the American founding and the political history of the Jewish people most vividly come together, it is in George Washington’s famous letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport:
It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
In America, Jews were free to create and sustain religious communities of their own distinct sort—“to sit in safety under [their] own vine and fig tree,” as Washington put it—while still possessing the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of American citizenship in full. To be sure, the Jewish experience in America was filled with frustrations, hardships, and long periods of social discrimination. American Christians have not, in their hearts or in their private institutions, always welcomed their Jewish neighbors. And yet from the beginning, the American polity has almost always preserved an inviolable sphere of Jewish liberty. (General Ulysses S. Grant’s infamous Order 11, expelling Jews from certain areas of the embattled American South, is a remarkable and very brief exception, almost immediately overturned by Abraham Lincoln.) The powers of government were not used to prohibit the practice of Jewish life; and Jews were not asked to sacrifice their beliefs or identity to participate in the civic life of the nation.
While Jews are still the religious minority most victimized by hate crimes, they are, astonishingly, also the most beloved religious group in America, outranking Catholics, Protestants, Evangelicals, Buddhists, and Muslims, according to a 2017 Pew survey. Many Americans admire Jewish success and creativity; and the overwhelming majority of religious Christians see modern Jews as a sacred remnant of God’s chosen people, worthy of respect (and even reverence) for who we are as Jews. Yet many Jews remain concerned that America is still one misstep away from becoming a “Christian nation.” The ideological syndrome Milton Himmelfarb described in 1966, when he observed that “Jews are probably more devoted than anyone else in America to the separation of church and state,” persists in the liberal Jewish mind as if Christian power were the greatest threat to Jewish flourishing. This wasn’t true half a century ago, as Himmelfarb explained, and it is even less true today.
In reality, traditional Jews, Christians, and other faith communities now face a shared cultural and political threat: a transformed understanding of “the separation of church and state,” which seeks to impose the acceptance of progressive mores (such as same-sex marriage, gender fluidity, and sexual liberation) by force of law. Until recently, a broad majority of Americans maintained a basic respect for religious liberty. Progressives sought the freedom to live in accordance with their own values (they demanded “choice”) and they sought recognition and support for those values from the state (they demanded “equality”). In many arenas—such as abortion and more recently same-sex marriage—the progressives won the legal battle. But they were also willing, at least in their understanding of America’s political and civic order, to respect the private freedom of religious communities to live in accordance with their own traditional values. Back in 1993, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which sought to prevent the courts from allowing undue restrictions on the free exercise of religion, passed Congress by a near-unanimous vote. Today, most progressives see the RFRA and its state analogs as archaic, and they see the religious freedom that these laws were enacted to protect as “code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, [and] Christian supremacy,” as Martin R. Castro, the chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, wrote in 2016.
For many progressive activists, it is no longer enough to normalize progressive values within the culture, and it is no longer enough to legalize progressive social practices. The ultimate aim, as Jonathan Last explained in a 2015 Weekly Standard essay, is assimilation: to demand that every American institution adopt the new morality as its own, and to treat any opposition to post-traditional norms and lifestyles as a form of religious backwardness so dangerous to the public good that it requires activist legal intervention to eradicate it.
The issue here is not only or ultimately about same-sex marriage, transgender rights, or other current controversies. It is about defending the freedom of religious communities to live religious lives, and the need to oppose the idea that the progressive state should have the power to decide which communities have a place (or no place) in American society. Same-sex marriage has been one of the legal clubs used to advance this larger agenda, and the progressive strategy is both sophisticated and incrementalist: First, use the courts to establish that same-sex marriage is a national right (this has already been achieved). Then require private companies to participate in the commerce of these ceremonies—this is being done now, through lawsuits such as those trying to force Christian bakers to write congratulatory notes on cakes for gay weddings. Then require churches and synagogues to permit same-sex marriage or else lose their tax-exempt status—this is already being promoted by myriad progressive activists and was explicitly mentioned as a possibility in Obergefell v. Hodges, the case in which the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. When asked during oral arguments whether such a ruling could allow the administration to strip tax-exempt status from religious institutions, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli confessed that “it’s certainly going to be an issue.”
From here, one can imagine the next possible steps. Require ministers and rabbis to perform same-sex marriages or else lose their license to perform weddings at all; then treat the teaching of traditional morality itself as an offense to public conscience, and use this principle as the basis to prohibit religious groups from gaining official recognition at public universities and to restrict the accreditation of religious schools that teach “unenlightened” values. Along the way, the idea is to empower the state—and especially the courts—to act as the ultimate judge of religious practice and principle, and to decide whether it should be indulged, marginalized, or outlawed entirely. This includes Jewish practices, such as circumcision and the ritual slaughter of animals, that have already been targeted in certain American cities and outlawed in parts of Europe.
Recent legal cases affecting specifically Jewish concerns should only heighten Jewish awareness of the perils. New York City has sued ultra-Orthodox Jewish business owners for requiring dress codes to enter their stores, and has also attempted to shut down women-only separate swimming hours in community facilities, a reasonable accommodation made to Orthodox sensibilities in a heavily Hasidic neighborhood of Brooklyn. In Abeles v. Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (2017), the Fourth Circuit upheld the suspension of a government employee after she took time off on Passover, ruling on such weak grounds that the plaintiff’s counsel has cautioned that such a precedent could mean that “no employee with a bona fide religious duty is safe from arbitrary after-the-fact punishment for religious observance.” And in Ben Levi v. Brown (2016), the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a claim of discrimination by a Jewish inmate who had been denied religious study time in prison, allegedly because the warden believed his request contradicted the demands of Jewish tradition. As Justice Samuel Alito explained in his dissent, this refusal inappropriately ceded to the state the power to evaluate the legitimacy of a particular Jewish religious practice:
Even assuming that [the warden] accurately identified the requirements for a group Torah study under Jewish doctrine—and that is not at all clear—federal courts have no warrant to evaluate “the validity of [Ben-Levi’s] interpretations.” . . . The State has no apparent reason for discriminating against Jewish inmates in this way. . . . [T]he Court’s indifference to this discriminatory infringement of religious liberty is disappointing.
Of course, Jews are not the main target in the new progressive campaign to redefine religious freedom. Evangelicals and Catholics are the big game, and we have already seen the lengths to which progressive activists are willing to go to impose their will on Christian florists, Catholic nuns, and Evangelical student groups. But traditional Jews are in the same cultural and political situation as traditional Christians—and perhaps even more vulnerable because of our diminutive size and our communal failure to recognize the threat. And Jews can uniquely contribute to the public debate on religious freedom by speaking with the moral authority of a small but proud people who once suffered under the oppressive weight of Old-World establishments that treated Jewish life as “unenlightened” and “backward,” and who thus have a special appreciation for the blessings of true religious freedom.
It is a mistake to believe that the Republican victory in 2016 will automatically reverse these efforts to refine and shrink the scope of religious liberty in America. Activist judges are still in power in many lower courts across the country, and troubling precedents in recent religious-liberty cases may yet prevail at the state and local levels. A secularist ideology still dominates in our crucial cultural institutions, including schools and universities, museums and the media, entertainment, and now in many large public corporations. And even many Republicans are not eager to confront a progressive elite that threatens all cultural opposition with the charge of backwardness and bigotry. America thus stands at a critical moment in the religious-freedom debate—a timeout, and yet still a tipping point. And Jews should play their part in “proclaiming liberty throughout all the land” (to borrow a phrase from Leviticus, inscribed as a precious reminder on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia).
Concretely, Jewish conservatives should encourage the judiciary to restore the American tradition of religious freedom and roll back the progressive overreach of the Obama years. They should help pass laws, at the federal and state level, that protect the freedom of religious institutions—schools, synagogues, and seminaries—to determine their own educational, ritual, and communal lives without the threat of litigation and without fear of losing their tax-exempt status. They should create a multi-denominational Jewish version of organizations like the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Becket Fund, leading defenders of those whose religious rights have been challenged, standing ready to defend any potential breach of Jewish liberty. And they should develop a training program to educate communal leaders so that if and when judicial and political progressivism goes back on the march, they are prepared to protect their Jewish interests and values as effectively as possible.
Orthodox Jews surely have the greatest stake in this debate, and their crucial allies will be religious Christians and other traditional faith communities. But regardless of their political or cultural orientation, all Jews have good reasons to support this religious-freedom agenda. No Jewish friend of liberty—secular or religious—should tolerate the establishment of a progressive state that restricts the free self-determination of religious communities. And no Jewish friends of Jewish unity should stand idly by as their fellow Jews are treated as illegitimate, and as the Jewish schools and synagogues down the block are potentially threatened by a punitive progressive state simply for believing what Jews have believed for millennia.
Four: The Jewish Defense of the FamilyImportant as it is, the preservation of religious freedom is simply the political precondition for creating and sustaining strong Jewish communities. As Yuval Levin argued last year in First Things, it is in “the institutions and relationships in which we learn to make virtuous choices—in the family, the school, the synagogue and church, the civic enterprise, the charitable venture, the association of workers or merchants or neighbors or friends—that the fate of our experiment in moral freedom will be decided.” The defensive task of protecting our religious institutions from new legal infringements cannot replace the deeper work of building and sustaining a vibrant Jewish culture. And this cultural undertaking necessarily begins, for Jews and for everyone, in the family.
The original Jewish story is a tale of a founding family, summoned to establish a righteous way of life as a corrective to the pre-Abrahamic world of disorder, decadence, despair, and destruction. In the Hebraic worldview, the gift of a child is the Creator’s greatest gift; honor thy father and mother is one of the Bible’s central commandments; educating one’s own children is a sacred parental duty. Abraham and his descendants believe they have an important mission to fulfill, and that mission is carried out by transmitting a covenantal way of life to their children.
The Hebrew Bible does not romanticize family life—indeed, quite the opposite. It vividly portrays sibling rivalries, family breakdowns, sexual perversions, and much-needed redemptions. As commentators ranging from Nachmanides to Leon Kass have explained, the stories of Genesis show us the fragility of family life by illustrating how it goes wrong. The Jewish tradition that codifies the moral guidelines for forming and sustaining families—including the elevation of monogamous marriage and the preservation of certain sexual taboos—is designed to moderate the passions of bodily existence and to awaken us to the difficult responsibilities and transcendent joys of fulfilling our roles within the drama of the generations as husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, daughters and sons.
In the current cultural environment, this traditional understanding of the family has been severely weakened. Out-of-wedlock births in America have skyrocketed to over 40 percent; only 46 percent of American children grow up in a traditional family; and 34 percent of children today are living with an unmarried parent. In 2010, Pew research found that only 30 percent of Millennials included a successful marriage as one of their most important life goals, while 39 percent of Americans overall believed marriage was obsolete. A 2011 Pew study found that only 57 percent of Generation Xers and 53 percent of Millennials believed that children needed a mother and a father to grow up happily—an opinion that cuts against all serious sociological research, which demonstrates that children reared in intact two-parent families are happier, more successful, and more civically responsible. The rising generation has grown up in a culture that promotes sexual freedom and devalues the unique significance of marriage, and, as Charles Murray and others have discussed, the dark consequences of family breakdown have hit America’s lower classes the hardest. Most American Jews, alas, seem to have accepted or embraced the new morality. A 2016 Gallup poll reveals that 25 percent of Mormons, 47 percent of Evangelical Protestants, and 59 percent of Catholics believe that having a child out of wedlock is “morally acceptable,” while a remarkable 68 percent of American Jews believe this to be the case. In other words: The majority of American Jews have rejected the Jewish idea of the family, at least in their moral-cultural outlook if not necessarily in their own private family lives.
This devaluation of the traditional family has also contributed to a decline in birthrates throughout the modern West. The only advanced democracy in the world with a birthrate far above replacement is Israel. The Jewish state still believes in the family because Israel still believes it has a purpose: to serve as the national homeland of the Jewish people and the spiritual center of Jewish civilization. The rest of the West—with America as a partial exception—is ensuring its own decline by choosing, person by person, lifestyle by lifestyle, not to have children. In so doing, entire nations and civilizations are gradually declaring that they have no enduring legacy to preserve or distinct heritage to transmit. And tragically, non-Orthodox American Jews have among the lowest birthrates of any sub-sector within American society, well below the levels necessary to maintain their communities into the future.
This two-headed crisis—family breakdown leading to social dysfunction, and demographic decline leading to civilizational suicide—has the same cultural root: the elevation of the “sovereign self,” as Simone de Beauvoir put it, who pursues a life without duties, sacrifices, or the cultural pressure to accept the supreme adult responsibility of rearing the young. Yet very few of our political and religious leaders, including most mainstream American conservatives, seem willing to speak about or confront this crisis. The hesitancy of our leaders is understandable. Ministers and politicians alike fear offending those who have been unable to form families of their own, those who have chosen against family life in the name of personal freedom or professional ambition, those whose families are scarred by divorce, those of differing sexual orientations. Others believe that the moral transformation of mainstream culture is now so deep that nothing can really be done to restore traditional family life within society at large. And so the majority of America’s leaders remain largely silent about America’s greatest problem. Even those who recognize the crisis are often too reticent, too intimidated, or too defeatist to confront it.
Yet this capitulation to the decline of the family is a grave mistake—for Americans and for Jews alike. The strength of American society rests on the integrity of its families. And the only way to preserve and strengthen Jewish life is to restore the idea of the Jewish family—large, thriving, immersed in Jewish traditions—as a cultural norm that reaches beyond the Orthodox community alone. The first step is regaining the moral self-confidence to defend traditional family life against those cultural forces that reject it: to celebrate monogamous marriage as a moral ideal, to celebrate large families as the heroic nurseries of our national and religious heritage, to celebrate mothers and fathers who sacrifice their own freedom to raise up their own replacements, and to dispute the notion that being “inclusive” requires accepting every lifestyle as equally praiseworthy.
In the effort to reinvigorate a family-centered conservatism, Jewish thinking and Jewish activism have much to contribute. At a deeper cultural level, Jews can explain how the life-cycle family rituals—brit (circumcision), bar mitzvah, chuppah (wedding), and Kaddish (mourning)—embody a deeper teaching about intergenerational responsibility that is relevant to every American in search of meaning and purpose in life. At a communal level, Jews can provide a model for support of family life. They can show how married couples in crisis are actively helped by congregants and rabbis; how large families are supported with tuition breaks at religious schools; how aging parents are cared for at or close to home rather than hidden out of sight and out of mind. And at a policy level, Jews should advocate for pro-family social policies, including targeted tax cuts that ease the burden on parents; child-care policies that respect rather than penalize parents who reduce their work hours to care for their children; and opposition to euthanasia and assisted suicide, which devalues the elderly and the sick in the false name of compassion. In becoming public voices for strengthening the American family, Jews may find a moral purpose that would only strengthen their commitment to Judaism itself. And by standing together with the nation’s strongest communities of faith—Catholics, Evangelicals, Mormons, and others—they can help renew and reform America’s cultural fabric.
At the same time, Jews need to address head-on the greatest threats to the modern Jewish family: the normalization of intermarriage and the high costs of Jewish education. There is obviously no easy answer to the communal challenge of intermarriage, which concerned Jewish leaders have lamented for decades. Among the Orthodox, intermarriage is still prohibited and roundly criticized, since in their view only united Jewish families can sustain, model, and transmit a Jewish way of life to their children. And this taboo, while sometimes painful in particular cases, has largely preserved a culture of Jewish in-marriage. Among more liberal denominations, the increasing rates of intermarriage have opened up a more welcoming approach toward intermarried couples. Some progressive Jews are now embarrassed by the very idea of opposing intermarriage at all, seeing it as a form of discrimination no different from opposing interracial marriage; others aim to keep intermarried families within the Jewish fold by embracing them; and still others seek a middle ground, by promoting conversion of the non-Jewish spouse before or after marriage, and speaking honestly to young Jews in love about the tensions that often arise within intermarried families.
Yet for Jews who have little knowledge of their majestic Jewish heritage, intermarriage is not a revolt or a heresy; it is simply a natural extension of their normal American upbringing. Various educational and outreach efforts—such as Birthright programs, Chabad on Campus, and Jewish camping—have unquestionably had some positive effects on Jewish identity and commitment. But it is too much to expect that such initiatives will reverse the cultural assumptions about love and marriage that young, non-observant Jews have internalized from birth to college. Ultimately, the only enduring answer to the crisis of Jewish continuity is acculturation to Jewish life at an early age. And part of the genius of traditional Jewish culture is getting young adults to behave with more wisdom in forming families than their limited age and experience could ever allow them to have acquired on their own. The crucial question, therefore, is whether a growing percentage of non-observant Jews might become inspired to give their young children a serious Jewish education, and whether any substantial portion of American Jews can afford to do so. Fortunately, for the economic dimension of the problem, there may be a political answer.
Five: A Jewish Education AgendaIn his classic story “Eli the Fanatic,” Philip Roth recounts the clash of two cultures: that of an Old-World yeshiva with 18 orphans from the Holocaust, and that of the highly assimilated suburban Jews and non-Jews who conspire to shut down the yeshiva, because it threatens their sense of enlightened, refined, and successful modern life.
“Someday, Eli, it’s going to be a hundred little kids with little yamalkahs chanting their Hebrew lessons on Coach House Road, and then it’s not going to strike you as funny?”
“Eli, what goes on up there—my kids hear strange sounds.”
“Eli, this is a modern community.”
“Eli, we pay taxes.”
Well, in communities across America, we now have hundreds of thousands of little kids chanting Hebrew lessons in Jewish day schools of myriad shapes and sizes. And according to every serious study, the most reliable guarantor of Jewish perpetuation in America is providing young Jews with such an intensive Jewish education. Yet at present, close to 90 percent of Jewish day-school kids come from Orthodox families. While those affiliated with the Conservative and Reform movements still constitute the majority of American Jewry, about 18 percent and 35 percent respectively, non-Orthodox schools account for only 13 percent of all day-school enrollment, and that number continues to drop. The Solomon Schechter schools connected to the Conservative movement are closing at an unfortunately rapid rate, and Reform students make up a mere 1.5 percent of all those enrolled in day schools. All in all, of the more than 1 million non-Orthodox school-age children, it is estimated that merely around 3 percent are enrolled in full-time Jewish schools. So how did we get here, and what can we do?
Like nearly every other immigrant group, most Jews came to America in search of economic opportunity, and the key to Jewish self-improvement was education. In the early decades of the republic, schooling was more communal, less centralized, less formal, and more sectarian. As the historian Jonathan Sarna explains:
In the colonial and early national periods of American Jewish history, most Jews—their numbers never exceeded a few thousand—studied in either common pay (private) schools that assumed the religious identity of their headmaster; or in charity (free) schools supported by religious bodies with financial support from the State. In 1803, New York’s only Jewish congregation, Shearith Israel, established a charity school under its own auspices named Polonies Talmud Torah. The school enjoyed equal footing with Protestant and Catholic schools in the city and received state aid—a reminder that American Jews understood the relationship of religion and state differently in those days than we do today.
During the 1800s, the American model—and the Jewish-American model—changed dramatically. As immigrants from around the world poured into the country—especially Catholics, but also Jews—the more established (and predominantly Protestant) elements of American society worried about the threat of rival subcultures to American civil society. A growing public-school movement sought to “Americanize” these new ethnic communities, and thus to assimilate the children of immigrants into the language, mores, and opportunities of America. In reality, many of these public schools initially sought to advance a Protestant agenda, with Catholics as their main target. Many Catholic communities resisted, creating a network of private religious schools supported by communal charity and run by the diocese system. Most Jews embraced the public-school model, seeing it as a gateway to the upper ranks of American society in the merit-based professions long prohibited to them in the Old World. Various efforts were made, at the Jewish communal level, to supplement public schooling with Hebrew school in the evenings and on the weekends. But in aggregate, and especially over the past many decades, this supplementary model proved to be a weak instrument of Jewish continuity.
Over time, many Jews came to see support for public schools as itself a Jewish cause. With gratitude, Jews appreciated the opportunity that public schooling had provided their working-class ancestors, and, like hawks, they stood guard to ensure that every hint of religion—such as prayer in schools—was removed from the once-Protestant and now thoroughly secular culture of public schools. At the same time, the small but more traditional sector of the Jewish community came to fear that American Jews were quickly losing their Jewish identity; that they lacked any real knowledge of Jewish history, ritual, and culture; and that they felt no obligation to marry fellow Jews and hand down a Jewish way of life to their future children. This sense of crisis deepened after the Holocaust, and the drive to do something different—to create a new model of Jewish schooling—received an infusion of energy from Old-World survivors who came to America to rebuild traditional Jewish life. And so, while day schools had previously existed as minor institutions in the Jewish community, the modern Jewish day-school movement gained steam in the 1950s and 1960s.
Today’s Jewish day schools come in a variety of forms, ranging from Haredi yeshivas that spend most of their educational time on Talmudic learning, to modern Orthodox day schools that combine traditional Jewish literacy with modern secular education, to pluralistic and nondenominational Jewish academies that add Jewish culture and modern Hebrew to a curriculum and social environment that otherwise try to replicate America’s suburban public schools.
The day-school movement is remarkable, fragile, and disappointing all at once. Through entirely private communal initiative, dozens of day schools are now thriving across the country, and the Jewish families enrolled in such schools often organize their whole lives to send their kids there. Yet the high cost of paying for Jewish schooling is now straining many committed Jewish families. (Dark Jewish humor treats day-school costs as the most effective form of birth control for observant Jews.) The average annual cost of a day-school education, K–12, is about $15,000 per child; in certain areas (especially New York and Los Angeles) high-school tuitions can approach $40,000 annually. And as Aryeh Klapper argued in a provocative essay in Jewish Ideas Daily a few years ago, the two-parent/all-hours work life that is often required to finance such an education means that mothers and fathers often have less energy and less time to engage (Jewishly or otherwise) with their own children. Within the schools themselves, the challenge of trying to balance Jewish studies and secular studies, all at an affordable cost, often results in accepting middling academic standards in both.
At the same time, the high cost of Jewish day schools is an impediment to attracting less observant Jews. While the overall day-school population has grown over the past few decades, due largely to the natural growth of the Orthodox community, the percentage of non-Orthodox students in day schools has fallen, as noted above, even as graduates of outreach programs like Birthright have now entered their child-rearing years. In facing these high tuition costs, many committed Jews still find a way to make it work. Yet the broader Jewish community—including that subset of American Jews that might be open to Jewish schooling, if it were available, affordable, and comparable in quality to a normal American suburban school—never really considers it.
Various communal organizations have tried to address the affordability problem. They have founded low-cost “blended schools” that use more technology and hire fewer teachers, they have capped tuition at a fixed percentage of family income, and they have sought larger contributions from private philanthropy. These efforts are all noble. But ultimately, the costs are just too high to change the basic equation. Most Jewish parents will simply not pay twice—first in obligatory real-estate taxes that support the public-school system and then in optional private tuitions to send their children to Jewish schools. So they send their children to public schools. And as the strain on existing day-school families continues to grow, the downward pressure on birthrates and on educational quality will only intensify.
The best strategic answer to the “tuition crisis” is to reestablish the principle that public dollars should be available to parents who wish to send their children to religious schools. Even suggesting this idea gives many progressive Jews a nervous breakdown. One writer in the Forward recently suggested that school-choice programs are part of a larger agenda
to re-Christianize America and to replace the melting pot or gorgeous mosaic of our current secular society with an imagined America of a hundred years ago: white-dominated, Christian-dominated, traditional in values and orientation. . . . Of course, some foolish Orthodox Jewish organizations have signed on to “school choice” initiatives, since they promise a short-term financial windfall for Orthodox Jewish schools—as if a few dollars thrown to them will not be drowned out by a thousand times as many poured into Christian schools. These fools are modern-day Esaus, exchanging the birthright of American democracy for a bowl of voucher porridge.
The Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel—our “modern-day Esaus”—have indeed become strong advocates for seeking public dollars to help defray the costs of religious schooling. So far, these lobbying efforts have focused primarily on seeking the funds that Jewish schools are already entitled to by law, which means relatively small amounts of public money for ancillary services like security, technology, and busing, and somewhat larger amounts of money for special-education services. Such advocacy should continue, and it has helped existing day schools in a real way. But these small victories should not distract Jews from waging a broader political campaign for educational choice. As a matter of social justice, religious taxpayers are entitled to some portion of the public purse to support the education of children in their own religious communities. And at a deeper cultural level, American civil society would become only further impoverished if its communal web of religious schools weakened, withered, and closed down.
In his satiric caricature, Philip Roth presents two diametrically opposed cultural alternatives: an Old-World Judaism, alien to American society, and an assimilated Jewry that sheds its Jewish heritage in the name of American convention. But in truth, as conservatives understand, the flourishing of the American project depends on the “little platoons”—families, traditional communities, and religious schools—that are best equipped to educate young men and women in the moral virtues necessary for citizenship. They are, as Edmund Burke put it, the “first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.” In the 1800s, one could understand the powerful case for the public-school movement as the best way to create a shared American culture. Yet today, American civil society needs religious schools as a cultural counterweight and living alternative to secular America. The Jewish case for educational liberty should be advanced in these large civilizational terms: not merely as a matter of economic necessity or economic justice, but as a battle for the future of American democracy itself. And it should be combined with a reinvigoration of the case for American federalism—the idea that different states and localities should have maximal freedom to craft their own distinctive social contracts, including a variety of funding models for public, private, and religious schools. This would allow true American diversity to flourish.
For many years now, the school-choice battle has been waged primarily as a means of liberating underprivileged minorities from failing public schools, and of introducing much-needed competition into a public-school system that often functions as a failed and self-protective monopoly. These are powerful arguments, and this effort has so far achieved some real but limited successes in certain cities and states across the country. But the school-choice movement should no longer remain simply a rescue mission for impoverished and neglected children. It should be advanced, too, as a rescue mission for America’s essential communities of faith. In practical terms, this will involve policy changes at both the state and federal levels—including education tax credits, which allow families to allocate a portion of their taxes toward private- or religious-school scholarships; state funding for secular studies at religious schools; public charter schools (including Hebrew-language schools) that could work in sync with private religious education; and school vouchers for families living in areas where the public-school system is failing. The ultimate aim should be to get the same per child allocation for religious schools as for public schools, creating a truly competitive and diverse market for educating the young.
Jews have much to gain if this educational revolution advances in a serious way. But Jews also have much to give in explaining why this revolution matters, for we know firsthand how different our communal fate looks when our children receive a serious religious education versus when they do not. American Christians now face the same challenge—the problem of cultural continuity—that Jewish communities have struggled with for decades. And in this case, what is “good for the Jews” is also good for American society as a whole. The future of American civilization depends on whether our society can marry together the renewal of traditional communities and the reinvigoration of American patriotism. Religious schools play an essential role in performing this civilizational work, and only the public purse can ensure that these citizen-forming institutions have a long-term future.
Six: Israel and AmericaThroughout the modern era, enemies of the Jewish people have accused them of possessing a dual identity and often treated them as disloyal outsiders to the nations in which they lived. In response, some Jews cast away their Jewish heritage in pursuit of acceptance by the dominant culture. They sought to be “normal” and willingly shed or reformed their Jewish identity in an effort to become true patriots of other nations. Other Jews fiercely rejected the various national cultures that rejected them. They sustained, often under duress, a distinctly Jewish way of life. They believed, often in spite of their inferior material conditions, in the moral, theological, and civilizational exceptionalism of the Jews. And some clung to the dream of national restoration in their own ancestral homeland: Zion.
Modern Zionism, the late-19th-century movement advocating the political reestablishment of the Jewish nation, gathered support only slowly in the American Jewish community. Most establishment Jewish leaders of the early 20th century saw Zionism as a challenge to their identity as Americans, and most Jews were focused on realizing for themselves the blessings of American liberty. They had no reason—and little desire—to flee to Palestine. The Zionist movement only gained greater sympathy among American Jews when Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis—arguably the most prominent American Jew of his generation and one of the leading figures of the progressive movement—agreed to lead it in 1914. Less than a decade earlier, Brandeis had declared that there was “no place” in our nation for “hyphenated Americans . . . [including] Jewish-Americans.” But over time, he changed his mind:
My approach to Zionism was through Americanism. In time, practical experience and observation convinced me that Jews were, by reason of their traditions and their character, peculiarly fitted for the attainment of American ideals. Gradually it became clear to me that to be good Americans, we must be better Jews, and to be better Jews, we must become Zionists.
American Jews do indeed possess two intertwining identities, and they should not shy away from or apologize for it. We are the carriers of two remarkable stories—the Jewish story and the American story. We are the inheritors of two great civilizations—one ancient and one modern. And we should take pride in the fact that many of the American Founders found moral and political inspiration in the Hebrew Bible—and especially the Exodus story of founding a new nation, delivered from tyranny and devoted to the ideals of liberty and justice.
Yet the Zionist project does present American Jews with a serious political challenge: What does it mean to be a Jewish-American patriot living outside of Israel? Do American Jews have any special responsibility for the Jewish state? What are the terms of the larger America–Israel relationship, and what are the legitimate aims of the American pro-Israel movement?
Over the years, the meaning of Israel in American political life—and the practical geopolitical relationship between the two nations—has seen a series of dramatic changes, upheavals, redefinitions, and reassessments. In the era between World War II and the 1967 war, the American debate over Israel was shaped by two basic paradigms: the “moral” and the “realist.” The “moralists” treated American support for Israel as an ethical obligation of the highest order. Jews had been destroyed and displaced in the Holocaust and deserved a homeland; the Israeli founders were scrappy rebels fighting for a noble cause, just like the American Founders; Jews were God’s chosen people; the Jewish return to Zion was divinely ordained. The Christian Zionist movement, with roots that go back to before the American founding, was essential in advancing this worldview.
The “realists,” by contrast, weighed America’s posture toward Israel like any other geopolitical relationship: Given the socialist leanings of many Israeli founders, would Israel sympathize with the Soviet Union in the Cold War? Given the ongoing conflict with its Arab neighbors, would American support for Israel undermine our access to Arab oil? Would the Arab–Israeli conflict create instability in the Middle East that would burden American power? From Truman to Eisenhower to Kennedy to Johnson, the relative weight of the pro-Israel moralists and the generally Arab-leaning realists oscillated. And the question of Israel was not yet a conventional left–right issue in American politics: The moral defenders of Israel came from both the secular left and the Christian right, and the realist skeptics about Israel came in both Democratic and Republican forms.
In the 1967 war, Israel demonstrated its strength to the world in the face of another looming assault by its annihilationist enemies and took possession of greater Israel for the first time—including the Old City of Jerusalem. After that, the America–Israel relationship took on two additional dimensions. On the one hand, America had clearly become Israel’s crucial and most committed superpower ally, defending the Jewish state on the international stage and supplying Israel with the weapons and resources it needed to defend itself. At the same time, a new ideological movement began to take shape—one that intensified after the Israel–Lebanon War in 1982—that denounced Israel in moralistic terms as an occupier, a fascist state, and a denier of Palestinian rights. This way of thinking found its ideological home largely on the American left and had its first prominent sympathizer in President Jimmy Carter. It also began to gain traction among certain American Jews, who now believed that Israel itself was the main impediment to their dreams of peace in the Middle East, and that Israeli nationalism (embodied in the right-wing Prime Minister Menachem Begin) was an affront to their own more cosmopolitan values.
For decades, the aim of the mainstream pro-Israel movement in America has been to preserve the bipartisan consensus on American support for Israel. In this view, success is measured primarily by the continuation and expansion of virtually unanimous congressional support for military aid to the Jewish state and by the shared rhetorical support of Democrats and Republicans for the special U.S.–Israel relationship. There were obviously clear differences between Carter’s Israel policy and that of Reagan, George H.W. Bush’s Israel policy and that of Clinton, George W. Bush’s policy and that of Obama. But despite these policy differences, the focus on maintaining a bipartisan consensus has largely prevailed. Congressional support for Israel funding remained a joint effort; stump speeches and state addresses referred easily to the uniqueness of the U.S.–Israel relationship; leaders in both parties pledged their support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and Israel enjoyed remarkably high popularity among the American public.
Beneath the bipartisan surface, however, a deeper rift was taking shape. The left-wing assault on Israel became both more vehement and more influential within the Democratic Party, while the political right became more unified in believing that America and Israel have the same values, the same interests, and the same enemies. While President Obama worked assiduously to put “daylight” between his White House and Israel, his administration benefitted greatly from the prevailing myth that there was still little actual difference between Republican friends of Israel and Democratic friends of Israel. Administration actions were often rationalized rather than publicly opposed by many Jewish leaders. These rationalizations persisted even after President Obama had engineered a deal that effectively legalized Iranian nuclear development and funneled billions of dollars in cash to a nation that sponsors terrorism around the world and pledges to wipe Israel off the map. And in the perfect anti-Israel send-off, the Obama administration took the unprecedented step of refusing to veto UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which declared Judea, Samaria, and East Jerusalem as illegally occupied and thus left Israel vulnerable to international sanctions and boycotts.
The struggle within the Democratic Party over Israel seems to have two basic camps. On one side, a shrinking establishment still celebrates its friendship for Israel, still decries the most egregious anti-Israel actions such as UN Resolution 2334, and yet displays little willingness to fight for Israel’s interests against enemies within its own party. On the other side, there are progressives, who are now openly hostile to Israeli sovereignty and sharply critical of Israeli behavior. At the grassroots level, the progressives seem to be winning. Shortly before passage of the 2016 UN Resolution, a Brookings poll found that 60 percent of Democrats supported penalizing Israeli construction in East Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria through economic sanctions “or more serious actions,” while 55 percent of Democrats believed that Israeli influence on American foreign policy was too high, and that Israel was a “burden” to the United States.
As Democratic sympathy for Israel weakens, Republican support for Israel only strengthens. A February 2017 Gallup poll found that 81 percent of Republicans have a “totally favorable” view of Israel (compared with only 61 percent of Democrats), and 82 percent of Republicans sympathize more with Israel than with the Palestinians, with only 6 percent claiming more affinity for the Palestinian cause. The Republican platform, already deeply supportive of Israel, became even stronger in 2016, with additional provisions that “reject the false notion that Israel is an occupier,” oppose boycott efforts against all Israeli-controlled territories, and reject any imposition of terms by outside parties regarding the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
For Jewish conservatives, the current political moment is an opportunity to redefine the policy aims and guiding strategy of pro-Israel activism. They should continue to press hard against the Iran nuclear deal, advocating for American withdrawal if possible, swift action at any sign of Iranian intransigence, and strong American opposition to counter Iranian aggression and subversion across the Middle East. Jewish conservatives should call on America and Israel to re-visit the “memorandum of understanding” that now defines American military aid to the Jewish state, seeking to expand Israeli autonomy in developing its own military capabilities, so long as it does not transfer American military technology to American enemies. They should make the case for anti-boycott measures that counteract the recent UN resolution, and they should push America to demand fundamental changes in the governance structure of the UN or else withdraw American funding and support.
They should applaud any measures to defund the corrupt Palestinian Authority, whose school curricula teach Jew-hatred and promote terrorism, and whose government continues to reward and celebrate the murder of Israeli innocents. They should advocate for the official recognition of Jerusalem as the eternal capital of the Jewish state. They should push to strengthen a new regional alliance between America, Israel, and those Arab states that seek real political stability and economic cooperation, which might create a new and more favorable environment for negotiating a practical political arrangement with the Palestinians. And at the deepest level, they should explain why the America–Israel relationship is a mutually beneficial partnership of two sovereign nations, not a client-state relationship in which American generosity serves a needy Jewish state. Israel is an important strategic ally: a counterweight to Iran’s hegemonic ambitions, a warrior against destabilizing terror, a leader in developing invaluable new technologies, and a nation that has never asked or needed American soldiers to die on its behalf.
In the political fights over Israel, the Jewish left—led by organizations such as J Street and even more radical groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace—has adopted a very different approach, arguing that Israel should embody the loftiest progressive ideals, both in its social policies at home and in its relations with its neighbors. In this view, to be “pro-Israel” means demanding that the Jewish State “take risks for peace,” plead guilty to an allegedly aggressive and illegitimate “occupation,” and cede territory to an oppressed Palestinian population. And it means using American power to pressure Israel in this progressive direction. The Israel they love—their version of a light unto the nations—is an Israel that acts like a lamb in a world of wolves and that sheds its national past in favor of a new Hebrew-speaking universalism.
Jewish conservatives should offer a very different vision. In the current political environment, it is easy to forget that in the 1950s, when National Review was founded, many American conservatives looked upon Israel—and the Jews—with skepticism and even hostility. Leo Strauss, the great political philosopher, was so annoyed by this conservative animus that he wrote a letter to the editor in 1957 suggesting a rather different understanding of the new Jewish state:
Israel is a country which is surrounded by mortal enemies of overwhelming numerical superiority, and in which a single book absolutely predominates in the instruction given in elementary schools and in high schools: the Hebrew Bible. Whatever the failings of individuals may be, the spirit of the country as a whole can justly be described in these terms: heroic austerity supported by the nearness of biblical antiquity. A conservative, I take it, is a man who believes that “everything good is heritage.” I know of no country today in which this belief is stronger and less lethargic than in Israel…[T]he founder of Zionism, Herzl, was fundamentally a conservative man, guided in his Zionism by conservative considerations. The moral spine of the Jews was in danger of being broken by the so-called emancipation, which in many cases had alienated them from their heritage, and yet not given them anything more than merely formal equality; it had brought about a condition which has been called “external freedom and inner servitude”; political Zionism was the attempt to restore that inner freedom, that simple dignity, of which only people who remember their heritage and are loyal to their fate are capable. . . . It helped to stem the tide of “progressive” leveling of venerable, ancestral differences; it fulfilled a conservative function.
In this spirit, Jewish conservatives should defend the Jewish nation as a heroic enterprise, one that resurrected Jewish civilization in the ancient homeland of the Jewish people and created the most modern, most democratic, most civilized state in the Middle East. In an era when conservatism in general is trying to reinvigorate the moral case for nations, the Jewish state should be advanced as a model to emulate—a country that all true friends of the democratic West should appreciate.
For over the long term, American support for Israel will depend on whether a majority of Americans—and hopefully a majority of Jews—see Israel as an exceptional nation, with a significance in the American moral imagination far greater than the small, contested piece of land it occupies in a bloody region that many Americans would often rather ignore. In the American mind, Israel should symbolize the founding city of their own biblical heritage, and it should remind Americans of the moral, spiritual, and physical toughness that is necessary to defend American civilization against its most determined enemies. Norman Podhoretz, in his classic 1982 Commentary essay “J’Accuse,” said it best: “The Bible tells us that God commanded the ancient Israelites to ‘choose life,’ and it also suggests that for a nation, the choice of life often involves choosing the sacrifices and horrors of war. The people of contemporary Israel are still guided by that commandment and its accompanying demands. This is why Israel is a light unto other people who have come to believe that nothing is worth fighting or dying for.”
Seven: The Jewish Fight Against Anti-Semitism
The Podhoretz essay was written in the aftermath of the Lebanon War, in direct response to a torrent of ideological assaults on the modern Jewish state in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and elsewhere. He borrowed the title of Emile Zola’s famous broadside about the Dreyfus affair in late-19th-century France—J’Accuse—to make a clear and powerful point: The new attacks on Israel were so vehement, so willing to abuse and distort the facts, and so apologetic toward Israel’s death-seeking enemies, that the political disease of anti-Semitism had clearly taken root. Anti-Zionism had become the new anti-Semitism of the enlightened elite. And its home was now on the American and European left.
The perverse hatred of the Jews has taken many forms throughout history. Christians once despised the Jews for theological reasons; ethnic supremacists blamed the Jews for allegedly defiling their national purity; socialists attacked the Jews for supposedly controlling all wealth; capitalists vilified the Jews for their involvement with socialism; agrarians scapegoated the Jews for supposedly destroying their economic and cultural way of life; and on and on it goes. In general, what binds these disparate hatreds together is the use of “the Jews” as fuel for ideological passions that have nothing to do with us at all. When reason fails, and when reality fails to satisfy, the Jews are always there as props to mobilize the masses and explain away the misery. In this way, as Jean-Paul Sartre explained in his classic essay “Anti-Semite and Jew,” hating Jews becomes a positive morality: a way of healing the world by assaulting and removing the Jews who infect it.
In general, America has never succumbed to the vilest forms of anti-Semitism, and the American Jewish experience has been far more welcoming than that of any other diaspora in history. Yet social discrimination against American Jews existed in earlier eras, and the persistent fear of anti-Semitism has long played a significant role in shaping the mindset of the American Jewish community. Many American Jews—or their forebears—had fled varying forms of state and popular persecution, whether in 19th-century Germany, 20th-century Eastern Europe, or in the dark days leading up to the Holocaust. Shaped in the fires of anti-Semitism, Jewish political and cultural ambitions in America focused on achieving civic equality and physical security. Fighting anti-Semitism became a central aim of many communal organizations, first among them the Anti-Defamation League. And believing that anti-Semitism was predominantly associated with a majority-Christian society—which it had been in Europe, Russia, and in a far more limited fashion in the United States—many Jews sought to protect themselves by adopting various secularist ideas. These included the rejection of cultural particularism, the “separation of church and state,” and the expansion of government power in the struggle against discrimination.
To this day, many American Jews reflexively associate anti-Semitism with the “Right.” And without question, the “neo-Nazi” and white-supremacist strains of anti-Semitism exist in America, and occasionally their sick adherents act out against the Jews. But these perverse philosophies have no broad institutional base and no representatives in American political office. They are fringe movements.
Leftist anti-Zionism, by contrast, has permeated every corner of academia and now has powerful adherents in high political office. The ideological preconceptions of our self-proclaimed sentinels against anti-Semitism, always looking for right-wing monsters to decry, often blind them to the far more dangerous ideological threat now facing the Jews: the simultaneous rise of progressive Israel-bashing and Islamic Jew-hatred.
The vanguard of this new political assault is the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. BDS is a global effort, linked to radical Islamic terror groups, that pressures churches, companies, trade associations, and universities to divest from Israel and from companies that do business with Israel. In the European Union, there is now a requirement to label goods imported from Judea and Samaria in order to deter their sale. In early 2016, the Obama administration suddenly issued guidelines for enforcing a never-enforced Oslo-era trade directive mandating the special labelling of goods made in the West Bank. And while the economic effects of the BDS movement have thus far been dubious, the false narrative on which this campaign is based has been toxic for young American Jews, especially during college.
That universities are the main setting of this anti-Israel campaign should hardly come as a shock. In both the United States and Europe, many Middle East studies departments have long been funded by multimillion-dollar donations from the Arab world, which takes advantage of the existing academic culture of identity politics to advance anti-Zionist and often anti-Western ideas. And despite various efforts to promote “Israel studies” as a more even-handed alternative, the intellectual balance of power remains firmly on the anti-Israel side. The rising prominence of “intersectionality”—a doctrine linking together all perceived injustices against recognized victim classes—is expanding the perverse alliance between progressive “social justice” activists and radical Islamic groups. The irony here, given the record of many Islamic political organizations when it comes to the treatment of minorities, women, and homosexuals, seems entirely lost on the progressive activists themselves.
In 2015 and 2016, the AMCHA Initiative conducted surveys of more than 100 campuses in the United States and found strong correlations between BDS activity and anti-Semitic attacks, including the destruction of Jewish property, the suppression of speech, and the physical assault of Jewish students. A 2016 Brandeis study on “Hotspots of Antisemitism and Anti-Israel Hostility on Campus” similarly found that the presence of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a BDS advocacy group, was one of the strongest predictors of “perceiving a hostile climate toward Israel and Jews.” While many within the mainstream American Jewish community have mobilized against BDS, a number of prominent Jewish groups are still unwilling to confront its Islamic roots, and many progressives remain blind, accommodating, or actively supportive of the anti-Israel agenda.
In the face of this progressive confusion and complicity, Jewish conservatives should develop a more hard-headed approach to anti-Semitism animated by Jewish self-respect. For as Ruth Wisse has explained, anti-Semitism is almost always about something else, some other political sickness, some ideological project in which the Jews are just a prop. Islamic radicals use the Jews as fuel for their jihadist project; European progressives use the Jews as a distraction from the obvious failure of UN-style internationalism; Euro-fascists use the Jews as scapegoats for the tragic decline of European culture. And the only way for Jews to combat this political assault, Wisse argues, is to “go on offense,” attacking the attackers rather than simply defending ourselves.
While anti-Semites are a clear and present danger to Jews, the Jewish battle against anti-Semitism presents its own moral perils. In the progressive mind, the struggle against anti-Semitism is often universalized into a campaign against all hatreds, all prejudice, and all forms of discrimination. Rather than focusing on the concrete threats to modern-day Jews and how to confront them in the real world, they pursue a utopian goal that paradoxically tarnishes all forms of ethnic, national, and cultural particularism, since loving one’s own too much is the first step toward diminishing “the other.”
In positioning the fight against Jew-hatred within this oppressor-oppressed paradigm, Jews risk turning themselves into just another member of the victimhood choir, and they risk putting victimization itself—rather than the spiritual, intellectual, and moral riches of the Jewish tradition—at the center of Jewish identity. Indeed, Holocaust remembrance is already considered the most personally significant aspect of “Jewishness” for the majority of American Jews, far outweighing Jewish literacy, support for Israel, or ritual observance. And when the psychic strain of standing up for Jewish interests and Jewish values becomes too much, some Jews come to blame themselves for other people’s hatreds; they apologize for Jewish “misdeeds” and Israeli “aggressions”; or they sever any outward signs or inward connection to Jewish identity at all. In the end, the result is the same: When Jews come to see themselves as simply victims or simply aggressors, they are no longer able to stand up for themselves as Jews.
Without question, Jews should continue to mobilize on campus against those who attack them and against administrators who mistreat them. They should encourage the continued struggle against the BDS movement. They should prepare to absorb European Jews, in America or Israel, who are fleeing anti-Semitism in ever larger numbers. They should cultivate their philo-Semitic allies worldwide. And they should decry right-wing anti-Semites and left-wing anti-Semites with equal vigor. But in the end, the only real answer to the permanent plague of anti-Semitism is Jewish pride: the enduring belief that Jews have a special purpose in the world, a sacred heritage to preserve, and a heroic history to continue. Without this moral self-confidence, the Jews will diminish themselves, and the anti-Semites will win without even firing a shot.
Eight: A Call to Action
In weighing their political and moral condition, American Jews should not overestimate their own importance. We remain a small people, and American political and cultural life hardly depends on which road American Jews choose for themselves, whether conservative or liberal, religious or secular. And while America remains the second-largest Jewish community in the world, the primary center is Israel, which is the fullest realization of Jewish national aspirations, and now the demographic, cultural, and intellectual heart of world Jewry. And while Jews and Israel are frequently at the center of world events, we would make a grave error if we believe that the current clash of civilizations—and the struggle among world powers—will turn on our actions alone. It will not.
Yet while Jews will not dictate the future of the West, the fate of the West may mirror the fate of the Jews. If the American Jewish community assimilates out of existence—or is forced to embrace an extreme version of Rod Dreher’s “Benedict option,” isolating itself entirely from American culture and society—then there is good reason to fear that all traditional communities of faith in America will suffer a similar fate. If Israel is severely attacked by a nuclear-armed Iran—or one of its terrorist proxies—then there is good reason to fear that the West will have failed to contain the broader threat of nuclear proliferation among radical groups. If anti-Semitism continues to poison so many progressive and Islamic minds—and to bring them together in common cause—then there is good reason to believe that Western culture as we know it is truly over. As go the Jews, so goes the West. And while Jews cannot save the West, they serve Western civilization best when they stand up for themselves.
The primary Jewish responsibility today—and the greatest gift that Jews can offer the world—is to defend Jewish civilization against its many detractors, at home and abroad. American Jews have a crucial role to play in this great project, both in sustaining vibrant Jewish communities in the United States and in strengthening American support for the Jewish state. To succeed, Jews will need to reform their political philosophy. For far too long, the “political stupidity of the Jews,” as Irving Kristol provocatively put it, has undermined Jewish interests, Jewish values, and Jewish continuity. The progressive worldview has long since turned against Israel, turned against traditional religion, turned against the very idea of national pride—and so Jews should oppose progressivism itself, even if they identify with certain specific positions within the liberal worldview.
Fortunately, there is some reason for hope that a new coalition of Jewish conservatives can redefine the political and cultural direction of American Jewry in the years ahead. Orthodox Jews of various stripes—Modern, Haredi, Hasidic,—are growing rapidly in number, supporting many conservative causes, and becoming more prominent in the broader Jewish community. Russian Jews, hardened by their memory of life under Soviet totalitarianism, are generally strong Jewish nationalists and vigorous opponents of American statism. The Obama legacy has further clarified that conservatives, not progressives, are now the true friends of the Jewish state, and hopefully this reality will one day set in among centrist Jews who are passionate Israel activists. And for some Jewish conservatives with little connection to or knowledge of Judaism, conservative ideas may be a pathway back to their forgotten Jewish heritage, at least for those who seek a deeper grounding for their conservative worldview and a sane cultural alternative in which to raise their children.
What Jewish conservatives need, if they ever hope to unite as a group and expand their influence, is a positive agenda: a set of ideas and arguments about how best to strengthen Jewish resolve against both our internal weaknesses and our external enemies. Such a worldview—a new Jewish conservatism, animated by a genuine love and concern for the whole Jewish people—is waiting to be born out of the sources of the Jewish tradition itself, out of the hard-won experiences of Jewish history, and out of the wisdom of conservative thinking that most Jews have for too long neglected. And today, more than ever, such an agenda is both urgently needed and may actually have the political chance to be heard.
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“Women sense my power,” General Ripper tells fellow officer Mandrake, “and they seek my life essence. I do not avoid women, Mandrake, but I do deny them my essence.”
I admit it’s unlikely that many of the bright young things of Washington journalism know about General Ripper. Dr. Strangelove was released in 1964, long before most of them were born, and their knowledge of events from way back then is not encyclopedic, or even Wikipedic. (They do know about the Stonewall riots and Rosa Parks.) They were alarmed and repulsed nonetheless by a profile of Pence’s wife, Karen, published in the Washington Post at the end of March. Mrs. Pence declined to be interviewed for the story, but the Post reporter, undeterred, did a Nexis database search to fill in the blanks. (This is more industrious than it sounds; in the Trump era, many Post stories take flight on nothing more reportorial than a journalist’s hostility toward his subject.) The reporter uncovered a 15-year-old interview with Mike Pence and informed us: “In 2002, Mike Pence told the Hill that he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and that he won’t attend events featuring alcohol without her by his side, either.”
For Democrats and liberals, mainstream journalists included, this revelation overwhelmed the rest of the profile. Everything around it faded from view. This in itself is too bad, because the Post story held some genuine interest, especially for those of us who have never given a thought to Mrs. Pence. The portrait that emerged was of a devoted wife and a loyal and generous friend, a former elementary-school teacher who dabbles in watercolors and whose social circle comes not from politics but from her church and her children’s old playgroups. Ordinarily the sheer Midwestern normality of it all would have generated a few sniggers from Post readers if it weren’t for the supernova revelation: Mike Pence won’t go to dinner with any women but his wife!
What followed was much more than a condescending snigger or two. “Social media exploded” has become a cliché on the order of “it rained buckets” or “he went ballistic,” because social media, at least in the hands of political journalists, is always exploding over one triviality or another. But you really had to be there to see the foaming stew of outrage that this bit of news provoked.
It was of course the slight overhang of sex that made the news go kaboom. The subject of politics and sex is an old story, and always interesting—more interesting certainly than the subject of politics alone, although much less interesting than the subject of sex all by itself. And despite the (true) adage that politics is show biz for homely people, Washington has amassed an impressive amount of sexual folklore. In the 1980s, I used to meet with a dinner group on the second floor of a Capitol Hill restaurant, next to a small dining room where a bus boy had once discovered Edward M. Kennedy rolling around, partially unclothed, underneath the table. (There had been a female lobbyist present, too.) Political junkies and other interested parties would often ask to see the hallowed room, glancing in with abashed reverence, as though getting a glimpse into the Queen’s loo.
A few blocks away, in a suite of senators-only rooms in the Capitol, the fireplace mantel held what was called the “Strom Thurmond bat,” in honor of the famously randy senator from South Carolina, then entering his 10th decade. The bat, a senator once explained to me, was to be used after the old satyr’s death to beat down his—how to put it?—hardened member of Congress so the coffin lid could be shut.
Sex is not the first thing one thinks of when one thinks of Mike Pence—I feel safe in speaking for all of us here—but Washington’s sordid reputation was surely part of what led him to lay down his rule when he first moved to D.C. as a pious congressman. A man has to know his limitations, and maybe Pence knows his. But the picture of a frisky Evangelical vice president should have caused tittering rather than a social-media explosion. The few attempts at humor fell with the gossamer touch of a blacksmith at his anvil. “Can’t our vice president keep it in his pants?” joked the sophisticated Stephen Colbert. Oh, be-have!
In place of naughty jokes—the funny kind—there was outrage. It was well-summarized by the editor of Mother Jones, who unspooled a tweet in 10 parts, which in Twitter terms makes it the Iliad. “I don’t know/care if Pences have weird hangups,” she tweeted generously. “I do care if women are being denied jobs and opportunities, and that some normalize this . . . . If Pence won’t eat dinner alone with any woman but his wife, that means he won’t hire women in key spots.” It was left to others to point out that Pence has hired plenty of women in “key spots,” including his national-security adviser and his deputy chief of staff, and he chose a certified woman to run as his lieutenant governor in his Indiana gubernatorial campaign.
Still, the theme of gender discrimination was picked up by other scribblers. It once seemed a stretch to link the far-left Mother Jones, with its class, race, ’n’ gender obsessions, to the mainstream liberal media, but not any more. The bright young things have all drunk deep from the same well. The reaction of another Post writer was typical: “There’s a deeply troubling worldview at work here, one that has profound implications for policy, and we’re already seeing it play out at both the state and federal levels.”
To quote our quotable president: Sad! In progressive Washington, sex is no longer about sex, no longer about stubborn erections and priapic public servants bare-bottomed on a restaurant floor. No: it’s about public policy. Old Strom must be rolling over in his grave, if it’s not too uncomfortable. The Post writer went on to list several state initiatives that limit the availability of abortions. The cluster of sexual issues—abortion and homosexuality, sexism and transgender rights—now seems to be the only thing that can get liberal hearts started in the morning, and rare is the subject that won’t call them to mind. Mike Pence decides not to go out to dinner with someone, and suddenly everybody’s talking about abortion. The logic is obscure to the nonprogressive mind.
Indeed, the nonprogressive reaction to the Pence marital arrangements seemed to be: “Is this really anybody’s business but theirs?” The definitive answer was supplied by a painfully earnest website called Vox, which published an article under the headline “Vice President Pence’s ‘never dine alone with a woman’ rule isn’t honorable. It’s probably illegal.” The author was, what else, a trial lawyer. She opened her article by recalling a boorish comment made by a male colleague at lunch one day. “Everyone laughed and went back to eating,” she wrote. “But this is no laughing matter . . . ”
She went on to cite Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and—here’s the bad news—actually made a compelling case that the Pence’s marital arrangements aren’t their own business after all. “The practice described by Pence in that 2002 interview is clearly illegal when practiced by a boss in an employment setting,” she wrote, “and deeply damaging to women’s employment opportunities.”
Seldom has a document rendered the progressive project with such clarity. The unstated ambition is to bring as many private interactions as possible to the attention of government and, if they are sufficiently at odds with progressive sensibilities, to proclaim them a violation of federal law. And off to the courthouse the tumbrils will take us, passing under the arch where our new national motto is etched: This is no laughing matter.
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s feminism suffering a GirlPower hangover? Hillary lost the presidency. Beyoncé lost at the Grammys. A much-praised female “She-E.O.,” Miki Agrawal—whose company, Thinx, makes hipster menstruation products—is embroiled in a messy sexual-harassment lawsuit. Feminist novelist Ayelet Waldman confessed to microdosing on LSD to cope with the challenges of life as a middle-aged mother and wife. Even HBO’s whinging millennial melodrama Girls is ending. Chelsea Clinton might have decided to call her forthcoming feminist children’s book She Persisted, but if you look past the pussy hats and $700 Dior T-shirts with “We Should All Be Feminists” emblazoned on them, the mood among once-fervent feminist ladies seems to be more uncertain than persistent.
The feminist entitlement complex that for decades let many self-creation myths bloom—from “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” to “My Body, My Choice”—is experiencing a seismic shift. As the girls raised on a diet of empowerment reach middle age, with its attendant challenges, they are realizing that Mother Nature is not a feminist. Biology is still, in crucial ways, destiny. Patriarchy might not be to blame for all of their problems; poor life choices and old-fashioned bad luck play a role, too.
These are not new realizations to all women, of course, but they seem to be making new inroads among self-described liberal feminists. Why now? Perhaps in a culture saturated by Pinterest-perfect images and glossy reality TV, the imperfections of real life can feel like a personal affront when they intrude. Perhaps a generation that sought in its youth to rewrite the rules of marriage, child rearing, and even gender suddenly find themselves in the unwelcome role of middle-aged bureaucrats enforcing those new rules. Perhaps things such as divorce, loss of a loved one, fertility, or health problems—in other words, real life—look different when they are no longer experienced vicariously, but firsthand.
Whatever the reason, a new breed of feminist chronicler has arisen to replace the Shulamith Firestones and Andrea Dworkins of yesteryear. Unlike an earlier generation of feminist writers, whose radical stances barely shifted as they aged and whose insistence that the personal is political never wavered, these new feminist scribes are coming to the realization that the political often has very little to do with the personal, and that it can in fact distract them from adequately confronting life’s challenges. Unlike their foremothers, these women didn’t have feminist “click” moments during a consciousness-raising session; no, they’ve always been enlightened. Nevertheless, they woke up one day, looked around at their lives (with their difficult spouses and piles of dirty laundry), and asked, WTF happened to my dreams?
For some of these writers, such as journalist Jancee Dunn, the answer is clear: She married a good guy who was completely unprepared for the challenges of being a co-parent. In her new book, How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids, Dunn describes her attempts to tame her resentment and save her marriage while maintaining a career and being a good mother. It goes without saying that a man who wrote such a book about his wife would be pilloried, but Dunn is no misandrist. She is, however, indefatigable about trying to find the right hacks for every domestic problem and willing to try almost anything to achieve success (including dragging her husband to marriage counseling, interviewing parenting experts and psychologists, and canvassing her married friends for advice).
Dunn’s book offers a window into the assumptions made by a generation of feminist women regarding marriage and motherhood—namely, that if they married men who claimed to be feminists, they would have radically egalitarian domestic lives and thriving careers. Their surprise when the men failed to do enough diaper changing and laundry would be comical if it wasn’t so palpably disturbing for them (hell hath no fury like a Diaper Genie unemptied). Dunn has no trouble finding other women willing to vent their anger at husbands who shirk domestic responsibilities, but none of them seems to realize that the source of her frustrations are the expectations that feminism raised them to have: that men and women are interchangeable in the home and the workplace and so should automatically pick up the slack (and dirty socks) for each other in equal measure.
For New Yorker writer Ariel Levy, whose new memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply, documents an often-harrowing domestic journey, it is not the household and its chores, but Mother Nature, who proves her most intractable foe. A self-described radical and feminist, Levy is clearly appreciative of what she’s inherited from the women’s movement. “Women of my generation were given the lavish gift of our own agency by feminism—a belief that we could decide for ourselves how we would live, what would become of us,” she writes.
Yet like Dunn, Levy is surprised to find herself confronting a challenge that feminism could do little to help her surmount. Like many driven, successful, highly educated women, Levy had always assumed she could conquer her biological clock (and youthful ambivalence about motherhood) through a combination of technology, willpower, and money. Levy’s assumption is revealing of the feminist movement whose values she embraced. For all of its cheerleading about body positivity, gender fluidity, and diversity, the cultural left evinces a surprising moral squeamishness about incorrect bodily desires—such as the fierce yearning of an aging woman who wants to bear children but can’t.
Levy was one of the lucky ones (at first); with her wife’s approval, she was able to conceive a child in her late thirties using donor sperm from a friend who also pledged to offer financial and emotional support for the baby. Here, too, Levy finds herself surprised to depart from her feminist assumptions. One of the most radical revelations in her memoir isn’t her discussion of her bisexuality, or her gay marriage, or her infidelity. It was her admission that, once pregnant, she found herself indulging in fantasies of domesticity and motherhood that would seem familiar to a 1950s housewife.
These fantasies tragically end when Levy suffers a miscarriage while on a reporting assignment in Mongolia. Her overpowering grief at the loss of her child at 19 weeks is magnified by the fact that contemporary culture offers little in the way of ritual to validate her experience. For all of the maudlin scenes of heartbreak broadcast on reality TV, and the ease of hashtag emotional display (#blessed) on social media, in everyday life—particularly after the loss of a baby—our culture offers little guidance or respect for those who grieve. Her descriptions of her purgatorial status—she was a mother, but her child died; is she still a mother?—also complicate the usual narratives enlightened women craft for themselves when it comes to having children.
Levy mentions that she once asked New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd if Dowd had ever wanted to have children. Dowd responded, “Everybody doesn’t get everything.” Levy confesses that her younger self was shocked by Dowd’s answer, hearing it as “a statement of defeat.” After what Levy has gone through, however, “admitting it seems like the obvious and essential work of growing up.” What Levy comes to realize—that control is an illusion, and loss is part of life—brings her to a worldview that might best be described as postmodern stoicism: “It has been made overwhelmingly clear to me now that anything you think is yours by right can vanish, and what you can do about that is nothing at all.”
But Levy’s memoir is also in some sense a memo to the feminist movement from which she sprang, fully formed, as a scrappy girl convinced she could do anything boys can do—a girl who realizes only in middle age that her sense of empowerment can’t alter reality. The memo’s message? “You control nothing.” This is hardly the stuff of inspiring feminist slogans.
Neither Levy nor Dunn is interested in playing the victim; on the contrary, they both come across as appealingly tough-minded and mordantly funny. But for a feminist movement so focused on encouraging women to fulfill their ambitions, follow their dreams, and listen to their inner voices, these books suggest that the movement’s daughters are reaching self-awareness rather late. As Levy wryly notes, “Daring to think that the rules do not apply is the mark of a visionary. It’s also a symptom of narcissism.” Feminism gave these women the comfortable illusion that they were in control of the uncontrollable. Life has shown them (often painfully) just how much girl power’s reach exceeds its grasp.
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Sengupta appears puzzled by her subject. For not only is Ambassador Haley self-assured and capable of extemporaneous speech, she is unlike her immediate predecessors in that she is a conservative willing to defend her country’s ideals and interests before others. Moreover, Haley does not reflexively criticize the government and people of our ally Israel. So trapped within the liberal bubble is the Times that such behavior comes across to the paper as aberrant, freakish, worthy of incredulity. The coverage that results is almost funny when it is not outright embarrassing.
Example: On March 31, Sengupta wrote a piece with the alarmist headline “UN Envoy Draws From Playbook of an Aide Steeped in Conservative Ideology.” The article is a profile of Haley’s chief of staff Steven Groves. Why is he newsworthy? Because he “has described himself as a champion of American sovereignty and has written forcefully against international agreements” and a few of his ideas “have infused the ambassador’s remarks so far.” Shocking, I know.
Years ago, when he worked for the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Groves investigated the Oil-for-Food scandal in which UN officials covered up Iraqi abuse of an international program that allowed Saddam Hussein to sell oil for humanitarian relief. But this detail of Groves’s résumé interests Sengupta far less than his work for the Heritage Foundation, whose “analysts have advocated mission-by-mission scrutiny of peacekeeping operations” and who “argue that the United States should pay no more than 25 percent of the budget.” Ambassador Haley—this might surprise you—supports both policies. And “other Heritage Foundation priorities have already found their way into the ambassador’s own.” Conspiracy? Sengupta is just asking questions.
The article is thin as profiles go: a LinkedIn page, some policy briefs, quotes from a friend. Neither Groves nor Haley commented for the piece. There is no color. The reader does not come away from the piece with a sense of what Groves is like, how he interacts with his staff or with other ambassadors, how he and Haley relate. What the reader comes away with is a feeling of wonderment that the piece was written at all. A more apt but less eye-catching headline might have been, “Haley Hires Aide Who Shares Her Views.” The gist is that conservatives exist. This is news to the New York Times.
More insidious, because it betrayed the canons of objective journalism, was Sengupta’s report on a speech Haley delivered to the Council on Foreign Relations on March 29: “Nikki Haley Calls United Nations Human Rights Council ‘So Corrupt.’” Note how the paper distances itself from Haley’s claim and implies that it is egregious or false by using quotations in the headline. The scare quotes also appear in the lead: “The American envoy to the United Nations, Nikki R. Haley, described the United States on Wednesday as the ‘moral conscience’ of the world, and she dismissed the United Nations Human Rights Council as ‘so corrupt’ without offering evidence.”
The detached style of the copy fails to conceal the spirit of adversarial condescension in which it is written. This article is not labeled opinion or analysis or fact check. It purports to be a dispassionate retelling of Haley’s speech. It therefore misleads the reader by juxtaposing Haley’s statements with Sengupta’s barely disguised commentary. In the following excerpts the emphasis is my own:
- “Ms. Haley said the United States would never close its doors to foreigners who flee persecution, even as she defended the Trump administration’s travel ban, which closed the door to refugees from six war-torn, mainly Muslim nations.”
- “She insisted that American taxpayers should get value for the money they contribute to the United Nations. She said nothing about whether the United States would help head off a potential humanitarian disaster from famine that the United Nations has warned is looming over 20 million people abroad.”
- “She cited what she called a ‘ridiculously biased report attacking Israel,’ and criticized the Security Council for holding monthly meetings about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (The council also discusses Yemen every month and Syria three times a month.)”
The measure of Sengupta’s disingenuousness and bad faith can be taken by examining the above sentences.
The first is a needless potshot at a controversial administration policy. It makes no attempt to inform the reader of the grounds of Haley’s defense but merely recycles opposition talking points.
You might finish the second sentence wondering why Haley did not mention the reports of famine in Africa and Yemen. The reason, as Sengupta writes later on, is that “she was not asked” about it. Oh.
Sengupta’s implication in the third example is that the UN Security Council’s obsession with Israel is no big deal because it also discusses Yemen and Syria. But those countries are active war zones, sites of terrorism and foreign intervention and humanitarian crises. Is the New York Times seriously likening the situation in Israel to what’s happening in Yemen and Syria? To do so would be to commit the same gross moral equivalence of which the UN stands condemned.
Moral equivalence between Israel and its adversaries might as well be part of the Times style guide, I suppose. What’s remarkable about Sengupta’s piece is that even as she clumsily attempts to provide left-wing “context” to Haley’s appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations, she can’t bring herself to mention that the charge of corruption against the UN Human Rights Council is a long-standing bipartisan element of U.S. foreign policy.
Saint Hillary Clinton herself, when she announced that America was rejoining the council in 2009, said her goal was “improving the UN human-rights system,” and in a subsequent speech she chided its anti-Israel bias. “It cannot continue to single out and devote disproportionate attention to any one country,” Clinton said.
Haley’s charge is obviously true. The council exists only because its ancestor, the UN Human Rights Commission, had become so monopolized by autocrats, dictators, anti-Semites, anti-Americans, and chronic human-rights violators that it was dissolved upon American withdrawal in 2006. Its replacement is little better, since any human-rights body whose members do not recognize rights within their own borders is not worthy of the name. Last November, the nonprofit UN Watch reported that the autocratic socialist government of Venezuela used hundreds of fraudulent groups to whitewash its record before the council. What’s the word for that? Right: corruption.
Nikki Haley has the clarity of vision and political gumption to call corruption by its name. No wonder the Times finds her so unusual.
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