ews have a long history, and with that long history goes a long memory. So it is entirely to be expected that the political loyalties and habits of mind of a Jewish community should change very slowly—so slowly, sometimes, that an odd divergence can occur between Jewish thinking and the developing social, political, and economic realities. It is not so much that Jews do not see what is going on; they just do not believe it when they do see it. In politics, seeing is not always believing. Memories, and the cast of mind into which those memories become encrusted—one can fairly call it an ideological cast of mind—often enough will not only obscure the reality but will actually prevail over it for a surprisingly long time.
Something of this sort, it seems to me, is happening in the American Jewish community today. Over the past two decades, the political landscape with which American Jews are familiar, and in which they are accustomed to take their bearings, has been shifting in all sorts of unexpected ways. A sense of disorientation has slowly been pervading the political consciousness of American Jews, causing uneasiness and discomfort. Inevitably and understandably, the initial reaction, and still the dominant reaction, is that such changes are superficial and transient, and that the old, familiar markers will enable one to make one’s way. But beneath this reaction is the growing apprehension that perhaps this is not so—that perhaps the political geography of the United States has undergone a more basic realignment of its features, and that it is time for a reorientation.
Erik Erikson, in his biography of Luther, defines three critical stages in the life cycle of an individual. The first is a crisis in identity, the second a crisis of conscience (involving one’s responsibility to others), and the third a crisis of integrity (a coming to terms with historical actuality). The American Jewish community is in the process of experiencing all these life-cycle crises simultaneously. No wonder there is so much bewilderment and anxiety.
Let us look at three changes in the American political landscape that were not anticipated, and that are now contributing to these crises.
he most striking change has been the emergence of Jesse Jackson as the political leader of American blacks. Jackson stands for black nationalism—what the media mindlessly persist in calling “black pride”—with a dash of anti-Semitism added for good measure. He is not a “civil-rights” leader of the familiar kind, only somewhat more militant. He has radically redefined the role of black political leadership in this country. Even if he should pass from the scene, for one reason or another, there will be no reversion to the status quo ante. He has, with extraordinary entrepreneurial skill, shown the way, and there will be plenty of others eager to follow.
This was not supposed to happen. American Jews had anticipated a quite different scenario to emerge from the civil-rights movement, in which they were so deeply involved. That involvement was natural because Jews, as a religious and ethnic minority, have for centuries experienced a deprivation of civil rights and are therefore keenly aware of how important it is that equality in civil rights be enjoyed by all minorities—religious, ethnic, or racial. This explains why, for most of the history of the NAACP and the Urban League, Jewish money played such a large role in keeping those institutions afloat. It also explains why so many individual Jews participated so energetically, over these past twenty years, in the civil-rights movement itself.
That movement was victorious. What are now called civil-rights issues are marginal legal quarrels, and more often than not involve women rather than blacks. So far as civil rights, traditionally understood, are concerned, there now exists a comprehensive body of law, emerging from either Congress or the courts, which defines and protects the rights of blacks. The very fact that such cities as Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Birmingham—Birmingham!—now have black mayors pretty much tells the story.
Nor is it surprising that these black mayors were elected with Jewish support, which in some cases was decisive. For until yesterday, relations between the Jewish community and the official black leadership continued to be most amiable. In Congress, black Congressmen usually voted “correctly,” from the Jewish point of view, on Israel, while Jewish Congressmen usually voted “correctly” on domestic legislation that the black leadership endorsed. The black-Jewish political coalition outlasted the civil-rights movement itself, and there seemed no reason why it should not endure.
The strength of the attachment of Jews—or perhaps one should say of the major Jewish organizations and their leaders—to this coalition is best revealed by the debate over affirmative action. Affirmative action has come to be judicially and bureaucratically defined in terms of racial and ethnic quotas in hiring and firing—what has been called “positive discrimination.” This is utterly repugnant, in principle, to Jews. Indeed, Jews had always felt so keenly about this sort of thing that they had fought long and hard, and in the end successfully, to prevent the introduction of religious identification in the census. To this day, all major Jewish organizations are on record as supporting “affirmative action” in the original sense of encouraging the advancement of minorities, but remain opposed to quotas. Nevertheless, once the definition of affirmative action as implying quotas became an issue of considerable importance to the black leadership, the major Jewish organizations split on whether to oppose it outright in the courts—so powerful was the desire of Jewish leaders to continue cooperating with their black counterparts.
o what went wrong. Where did Jesse Jackson come from, and why?
Well, coincident with the civil-rights movement, another social-political phenomenon occurred that was of great significance to the black community. This was the construction, by Congress, of an extensive (and expensive) range of social programs, under the rubric of the “Great Society.” These programs were intended to repair the social and economic condition of American blacks, even while their political condition was being elevated to the plane of equality by the civil-rights movement. And even as the civil-rights movement succeeded, the Great Society programs failed—at least as far as most blacks were concerned. Out of this failure, Jesse Jackson emerged.
It is not to be thought that the Great Society programs were simply a waste of money. Some were, some were not. But where benefits did occur, it was largely the middle class that enjoyed them. Much of the population of the black ghettos was in no condition to exploit those benefits. It is nice to provide free lunches for poor schoolchildren, and it is unquestionably nice for the nutritionists, the food-service industry, and the farmers. But what availeth that free lunch to a black mother if her son, at the same time, gets hooked on drugs or is involved in criminal activities, while her teen-age daughter becomes pregnant? The sad truth is that the social disorganization and individual demoralization within the black ghettos have overwhelmed whatever positive effects those social programs were expected to have, or even might have had.
And there is good reason to think that the Great Society programs themselves had something to do with this social disorganization and individual demoralization. It may not be literally true that dependency (like power) tends to corrupt and that absolute dependency (like absolute power) tends to corrupt absolutely. But there is truth enough in that proposition to give pause. After all, how else explain the fact that the increasing breakdown of the black ghetto family and the proliferation of all sorts of social and individual pathologies parallel so neatly, in time and place, the institution of all those social programs? The people who devised, legislated, and applied these programs surely expected no such consequences and are now at a loss for an explanation. It is reasonable, however, to take seriously the possibility that the two phenomena have a causal connection.
In any case, it is out of the frustration of the black ghetto—frustration arising from the fact that neither the winning of political civil rights nor the enactment of those Great Society programs transformed or even ameliorated the condition of the black ghettos—that Jesse Jackson has built his mass appeal. It is worth recalling that, before becoming a candidate, he spoke with refreshing candor of the need for blacks to help themselves rather than relying on white handouts that left them mired in poverty and misery. This was not a theme that the established black leadership had the courage to enunciate. But apparently there was greater political potential in black nationalism than in black self-help, and Jackson himself has by now substituted the former for the latter.
The frustration of ghetto blacks, moreover, is as sharply felt by that portion of the black population—about half—whose condition has dramatically improved over the past decades. Racial solidarity is as natural a feeling as religious or ethnic, so it is not surprising that many middle-class blacks, especially the young and upwardly mobile, are sympathetic to Jesse Jackson. Nor is it surprising that the older, established black leadership has been so utterly disarmed before his campaign. They, after all, had bet all their chips on the civil-rights struggle and the Great Society programs. Confronted with the enduring, brutal realities of ghetto life today, they are mute and impotent.
The upshot is that the long alliance between Jewish and black organizations is coming apart. Jesse Jackson has substituted Arab money for Jewish money. In foreign policy he is pro-Third World and anti-American, pro-PLO and anti-Israel—and he is on the way to making this the quasi-official foreign policy of the black community. In domestic policy he is vaguely, but unambiguously, well to the Left of anything that one could call “liberal.” And his role in future elections, which is bound to be significant, will only make things worse. He has already indicated that he will be coming to New York in 1985 to back and stump for a properly militant black candidate against Mayor Koch in the Democratic primaries. The black-Jewish polarization that would ensue is almost too scary to contemplate.
he rise of the Moral Majority is another new feature of the American landscape that baffles Jews. They did not expect it, do not understand it, and do not know what to do about it.
One of the reasons—perhaps the main reason—they do not know what to do about it is the fact that the Moral Majority is strongly pro-Israel. To say this was unexpected is a wild understatement. If one had informed American Jews fifteen years ago that there was to be a powerful revival of Protestant fundamentalism, and as a political as well as religious force, they would surely have been alarmed, since they would have assumed that any such revival might tend to be anti-Semitic and anti-Israel. But the Moral Majority is neither.
To be sure, occasionally a fundamentalist preacher will say something to the effect that God cannot be expected to heed the prayers of non-Protestant fundamentalists. At which point many Jewish organizations react in a predictable way: they sound the alarm against an incipient anti-Semitism. But the alarm rings hollow. After all, why should Jews care about the theology of a fundamentalist preacher when they do not for a moment believe that he speaks with any authority on the question of God’s attentiveness to human prayer? And what do such theological abstractions matter as against the mundane fact that this same preacher is vigorously pro-Israel?
Some Jews, enmeshed in the liberal time warp, refuse to take this mundane fact seriously. They are wrong. Just how wrong they are can be seen by asking the question: how significant would it be for American Jews if the Moral Majority were anti-Israel? The answer is easy and inescapable: it would be of major significance. Indeed, it would generally be regarded by Jews as a very alarming matter. So it is ironic, and puzzling, that American Jews appear to be not all that interested in, and certainly not enthusiastic about, the fact that the Moral Majority is unequivocally pro-Israel.
One reason for the peculiar Jewish reaction here is that this phenomenon does not fall into the spectrum of the familiar and expected. But there are other reasons too, of considerable significance in their own way. For the Moral Majority is simultaneously committed to a set of “social issues”—school prayer, anti-abortion, the relation of church and state in general—that tend to evoke a hostile reaction among most (though not all) American Jews. How does one go about balancing the pros and cons of this matter? And to what degree is this hostile reaction itself worthy of some second thoughts?
That balancing should not, in truth, require much intellectual effort. From a purely expediential point of view, it is obvious that the campaign of the Moral Majority around these “social issues” is meeting with practically no success, and so there is little reason for Jewish alarm. Neither Congress nor (more important) the judiciary is at all forthcoming, and the Reagan administration has got absolutely nowhere in its espousal of these issues. In contrast, anti-Israel sentiment has been distinctly on the rise, and the support of the Moral Majority could, in the near future, turn out to be decisive for the very existence of the Jewish state. This is the way the Israeli government has struck its own balance vis-à-vis the Moral Majority, and it is hard to see why American Jews should come up with a different bottom line.
But the expediential point of view is not enough if the Moral Majority’s support of Israel is not to wither and die on the vine. That will happen if it continues to evoke so muffled and embarrassed a response from the Amerian Jewish community. American Jews really do need to revise their thinking about some, at least, of these controversial social issues, even from the point of view of expediency. Moreover, it is becoming ever more clear that it is time they did so in any case, Moral Majority or no Moral Majority.
Ever since the Holocaust and the emergence of the state of Israel, American Jews have been reaching toward a more explicit and meaningful Jewish identity and have been moving away from the universalist secular humanism that was so prominent a feature of their prewar thinking. But while American Jews want to become more Jewish, they do not want American Christians to become more Christian. This is an untenable point of view.
First, because of the hypocrisy involved. Why should there be a Hanukkah candelabrum at Central Park, as there is, but no Christmas crèche? Second, because the quest for a religious identity is not confined to Jews. It is, in the postwar world, a general phenomenon experienced by Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. It does not seem, moreover, to be a passing phenomenon but rather derives from an authentic crisis—a moral and spiritual crisis as well as a crisis in Western liberal-secular thought. Is there any point in Jews hanging on, dogmatically and hypocritically, to their opinions of yesteryear when it is a new era we are confronting? Is it not time for Jews to sit back, curb their habitual reflexes about the “proper” relations of state and religion in the United States, and think seriously about how they can most comfortably exist (and survive) in a world in which religious identity will become increasingly important? In short, is it not time for an agonizing reappraisal?
he relation of American Jews to American foreign policy is, every day, becoming more and more bizarre, more and more tormented by self-contradiction. It is a situation that cannot last. Sooner or later, American Jews are going to have to make very hard choices—hard, because they will go against a deeply imprinted grain.
To select one issue that is profoundly symptomatic because it touches on such a sensitive ideological nerve: the United Nations and the attitude of our major Jewish organizations to it.
We all know—one would have to be deaf and dumb not to know—that the UN is, above all, an organization bent on delegitimizing, even eventually destroying, the state of Israel. More than half the time, the UN and its associated organizations are busy pursuing this mission. The rest of the time they are preoccupied with serving as a forum for a Third World critique of the United States, and of the West in general, of which Israel is perceived (correctly) to be an integral part. “Zionism is racism” is a doctrine officially proclaimed by the UN, while at no time has the UN shown the slightest interest in protecting the rights of Jews (and other minorities) in the Soviet Union or in Muslim nations.
It would seem to follow logically that the American Jewish community should be hostile to the UN, should like to see the United States dissociate itself from it to the greatest possible degree, should even wish to see it vanish from our political horizon. Why not, after all? But logic, apparently, plays very little role in defining Jewish attitudes toward the United Nations. Nostalgia for what it was once hoped the UN would be is stronger than the clear perception of what the UN indubitably is. If ever there was a case of a group of people desperately evading the most obvious of political realities, this is it.
To be sure, Jews (like most other Americans) are full of admiration for Daniel Patrick Moynihan or Jeane Kirkpatrick when they boldly stand up for Israel—and America—at the UN. They are honored with plaques, scrolls, honorary degrees, banquets, etc. But that is as far as it goes. Just let anyone suggest that the Jewish reaction to the UN, as it now exists, should go somewhat farther and, suddenly, all the Jewish organizations have lost their tongue.
When efforts are made in Congress to cut the American financial contribution to the UN—we now provide 25 percent of the budget—the American Jewish community remains on the sidelines. When the Reagan administration decided to withdraw from that scandalous entity called UNESCO, the American Jewish community could think of nothing supportive to say, at least openly. Even Ambassador Charles Lichenstein’s semi-jocular remark to the effect that, if the UN wished to relocate its headquarters elsewhere, he would be on the dock waving an enthusiastic farewell, was greeted by the Jewish community with a frigid silence. Meanwhile, the United Nations Association, along with other organizations that “educate” people toward a “positive” view of the UN, are financed most generously by Jewish contributors.
Here the discrepancy between the reality and Jewish ideological obstinacy is positively stunning. The UN has become a very different organization from what Jews and Jewish organizations, in the immediate postwar years, anticipated and hoped it would be. They certainly never expected that the covenant against “genocide,” for which American Jewry lobbied in the UN so persistently and, finally, successfully, would serve as a basis for attacks against Israel, as it is, repeatedly. The actuality has diverged wildly from the dream. But the dream still exercises its dominion over the Jewish imagination.
The vision of a “community of nations” living peaceably under international law, so eloquently articulated by Immanuel Kant in the 18th century, has been an organic part of the ideology of Western liberalism ever since. It has had a special appeal to Jews, both because of its biblical roots and because Jews, as Jews, would obviously be much more secure and comfortable in such a world. No single ethnic or religious group in the United States has produced such a disproportionate number of scholars in the field of international law as have Jews, and no other group has been so reluctant to recognize that this messianic vision, when applied to political actualities, has proved to be political utopianism, wishful thinking.
It is not that international law itself is in essence utopian. The emergence, in the two centuries preceding Kant, of principles of decent international behavior was a genuine contribution toward making international relations less anarchic, less “Machiavellian,” less casually brutal than they had been or otherwise would have been. But this pre-Kantian conception of international law was much more modest in its ambitions and more realistic in its assumptions than the notion of international law we are familiar with. It recognized, for instance, that the intervention of nations in the affairs of other nations was both proper and inevitable under certain conditions, and that the violation of national frontiers could not always be classified as immoral “aggression.” To the degree that international law has any substantial meaning in the world today, it rests on this pre-Kantian basis rather than on the kind of grandiose principles associated with the League of Nations and the United Nations.1
An extraordinary number of Jews, however, remain loyal to those grandiose principles. As a result, their thinking about foreign affairs is incoherent to an equally extraordinary degree. When Israel bombed and destroyed the Iraqi nuclear reactor most American Jews realized that this was a sensible thing to do and that there was nothing “illegal” or “immoral” about the act—but they could not figure out a way to say this. Approval at the personal level was matched by embarrassed double-talk at the official level as Jewish leaders tried to talk their way out of a rhetorical trap of their own construction.
In addition to incoherence, there is positive schizophrenia. All Jews would be pleased if Ronald Reagan were publicly to reproach the Soviet Union on the issue of Jewish emigration, but would be less happy if his reproach were aimed at the suppression of all religious freedoms under that “godless” regime. This, it is felt, might be construed as undue intervention in Soviet Russia’s internal affairs, and might “worsen international tensions,” “aggravate the cold war,” etc., etc.
ne can muddle through with such incoherence and schizophrenia for a while, but sooner or later the world demands that one talk sense. Such a demand is being imposed on American Jews today. The older liberal internationalism, which was the basis of American foreign policy after the end of World War II and the basis of our membership in the United Nations, is rapidly disintegrating. The Third World uses the UN when it can, ignores it when convenient. So do the Soviet Union and the other Communist countries. There is no “community of nations,” and the grand principles of the UN Charter are cynically abused for the purposes of Realpolitik. The United States is being forced to choose between being an active, great power in the world as it exists, or gradually retiring into a quasi-isolationism that leaves our moral purity undefiled and the world to its own devices.
The Democratic party today, and especially its most liberal wing, is clearly moving toward this second alternative. It is a movement made all the easier by the unspoken (because uneasy) liberal assumption that left-wing totalitarian movements, paying lip-service to principles that have a superficial affinity with liberal ideas, will evolve into less totalitarian and more liberal regimes. This assumption flies in the face of the fact that the most evident political reality of the 20th century is the revolt against the liberal economic and political order and the liberal ideal of self-government. That this revolt is sometimes explicitly “reactionary” or sometimes “progressive” in its political metaphysics is of interest to historians of ideas, but has little bearing on the construction of foreign policy. Indeed, what is most striking in recent decades is the convergence between yesteryear’s totalitarian governments of the Right and today’s totalitarian regimes of the Left. The similarities between Castro’s Cuba and Mussolini’s Italy are far more striking than their differences.
Isolationism has a strong traditional appeal to the American people and one can understand why it should reemerge today, or why the prospect of fighting “dirty little wars” in remote places should be so repugnant. What is difficult to understand is why American Jews seem to be among those who are not shocked and appalled by this new trend. Can anyone believe that an American government which, in righteous moralistic hauteur, refuses to intervene to prevent a Communist takeover of Central America, will intervene to counterbalance Soviet participation in an assault on Israel? Can anyone believe that the American people could make sense of such contradictory behavior? Yet a large number of American Jews, perhaps even a majority, appear to believe it.
Have these Jews taken leave of their reason? Of course not. It is simply that their thinking is beclouded by anachronistic presuppositions about the kind of world we live in and about the appropriate responses by the United States to the kind of world we live in. This real world is rife with conflict and savagery. It is a world in which liberalism is very much on the defensive, in which public opinion runs in the grooves established by power, in which people back winners not losers, and in which winners not losers provide the models of the future. In such a world, we are constrained to take our allies where and how we find them—even if they are authoritarian (e.g., Turkey), even if they are totalitarian (e.g., China).
If American Jews truly wish to be noninterventionist, they have to cease being so concerned with Israel, with Jews in the Soviet Union, or indeed with Jews anywhere else. To demand that an American government be interventionist exclusively on behalf of Jewish interests and none other—well, to state that demand is to reveal its absurdity. Yet most of our major Jewish organizations have ended up maneuvering themselves into exactly this position. They cannot even bring themselves openly to support the indispensable precondition for the exercise of American influence on behalf of Jewish interests in the world: a large and powerful military establishment that can, if necessary, fight and win dirty, little (or not so little) wars in faraway places. It is the winning or losing of such wars that will determine the kind of world our children inherit—not striking pious postures or exuding moralistic rhetoric.
To Quote Erik Erikson once again:
In some period of his history, and in some phases of his life cycle, man needs a new ideological orientation as surely and as sorely as he must have light and air.
Today is such a period for the American Jewish community. For two centuries, Western Jewry has been wedded to the intellectual traditions and political movements that had their roots in the Enlightenment. This was understandable and inevitable, since it was this current of thought and these movements—liberal or Left-of-liberal—which achieved religious toleration and civic equality for Jews. Conservative thinkers and conservative political parties tended to be hostile to Jewish aspirations, or at best coolly indifferent. In the United States, founded as it was in the flush of Enlightenment enthusiasm, the division between liberalism and conservatism was never that pregnant with meaning for Jews. Nevertheless, as relatively new immigrants, Jews found liberal opinion and liberal politicians more congenial in their attitudes, more sensitive to Jewish concerns. For the most part they still do. The kind of social discrimination—in country clubs, business luncheon clubs, within the corporate community generally—that Jews experience even today is generally at the hands of people who express conservative opinions and are likely to vote Republican. This form of discrimination affects only a fraction of the Jewish population—but that fraction includes those upper-middle-class, affluent Jews who are active in community affairs and provide the leadership of Jewish organizations.
Still, the world changes and will continue to change no matter how stubbornly Jews stick their heads in the sand and hope that yesteryear’s realities will return. The American Jewish community needs the light of reason and the refreshing air of candid discourse if the world is not to pass it by. It must begin to see things as they are, not as it would like them to be.
One of the things it must see, on the domestic level, is that the liberal consensus and the liberal coalition that have dominated American politics since the inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt are disintegrating—at least so far as Jews are concerned. The blacks may or may not remain members of this coalition—one presumes they probably will—but if they do, it will be on a new set of terms. Though a great many Jews will gallantly try to swallow these terms, in the end the American Jewish community will gag on them. Can anyone doubt that, henceforth, the black caucus in Congress will be inclined to think that military or economic aid for Israel can be better spent for social programs in the ghettos? This is what Jesse Jackson thinks, this is what he says, and what Jesse Jackson thinks and says today is what the black caucus will think and say tomorrow. And can anyone doubt that, under a Mondale or Hart Presidency, our next ambassador to the UN will be more like Andrew Young than Jeane Kirkpatrick? All of these terms have been set by Jesse Jackson, and he means them most seriously. He must mean them seriously if he is to maintain his political leadership of the black community. His mission has been to incorporate a Third World view of politics into the American political spectrum, especially into the portion of that spectrum dealing with foreign affairs, and if he cannot do this within the Democratic party he will either desert that party or his enthusiastic followers will desert him. His die is cast.
But the increasing and tragic polarization between blacks and Jews is only one feature of the disengagement of the liberal coalition from Jewish interests. Another is the changes that are occurring in one of the traditional bastions of that coalition, namely, the trade unions. This reality is masked by the fact that the current head of the AFL-CIO, Lane Kirkland, is an old-fashioned liberal, a Henry Jackson type of liberal—in short, the kind of liberal Jews have cooperated with so amiably in the past. But Kirkland, alas, is not forever, and one can already see the ground shifting beneath his feet. It is, so far as American Jews are concerned, an ominous shift.
To begin with, there is the little noticed fact that the so-called “Jewish unions” are on the verge of disappearing. The Amalgamated Clothing Workers, the International Ladies Garment Workers, the American Federation of Teachers still have Jewish leaders with close ties to the Jewish community. But their membership is already overwhelmingly black, Hispanic, and Oriental, and future leaders will have no reason to be especially concerned with Jewish issues.
Meanwhile, organized labor itself is moving away from the nonpolitical tradition of Samuel Gompers and is developing closer official ties with the Democratic party. As this happens, the unions themselves naturally take on the ideological coloration of their political allies. If one wants to get a sense of what this can mean, one has simply to look at the “educational materials” prepared by the National Education Association—once a professional association, now more a union—and observe how “fair” it is to the PLO, how coolly skeptical it is of Israel’s virtues. The AFL-CIO’s executive council, too, is moving to distance itself from Lane Kirkland’s “old-fashioned” views on foreign policy. All in all, organized labor in the United States is reshaping itself in the mold of European trade-unionism, with an organic connection to a social-democratic party and with an ideology to suit. That ideology—as expressed, for instance, in the conferences and publications of the Socialist International—is pro-Third World, anti-Israel. It is now far more Left than it is traditionally liberal. But then, liberalism itself, in the United States as elsewhere, has moved distinctly to the Left in the past two decades.
This shift is very evident in a third pillar of the older liberal coalition, that class of people we call “the intellectuals”—those in academia, the media, and the foundation world. These men and women used to be predominantly liberal. Today, it is fair to describe most of them as being to the Left of the older liberalism. In the case of the media, the transition has been obvious enough, as reportage on Middle Eastern events has made clear. Here, too, we are witnessing a process that is not peculiarly American. In Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the media are even more highly critical of Israel, compassionate toward the PLO. We are witnessing the coming of age, the accession to positions of power and influence in all the institutions of the media, of the youthful rebels of the 1960’s. Their attitudes may have softened somewhat, but they have not been significantly reshaped.
In the case of academia, these attitudes have actually sharpened rather than softened. The academic community today, populated by the graduate students of the 1960’s, and insulated from worldly experience, is more openly and vigorously left-wing than ever before in American history. The most influential intellectual tendency among academicians today is Marxism, in a dozen or more different versions, some of them so far from the original as to perplex older Marxists, but all of them pointing in the same political direction. Just what that direction is may be inferred from the fact—and it is a fact—that an invitation to Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick to speak on campus will cause intense controversy in faculty councils, with quite a few professors going so far as to encourage student harassment should she appear. Meanwhile, such invitations go out routinely to Third World spokesmen, whose anti-Israel and anti-American remarks are listened to respectfully.
In short, while American Jews have for the most part persisted in their loyalty to the politics of American liberalism, that politics has blandly and remorselessly distanced itself from them. For the first time in living memory, Jews are finding themselves in the old condition of being politically homeless. It is possible, though far from certain, that Jews in the West will find a new home, however uncomfortable, in the conservative and neoconservative politics that, in reaction to liberalism’s leftward drift, seems to be gaining momentum. But whether this conservatism will be keenly enough interested in Jews to offer tolerable lodging to them is itself an open question.
What is no longer an open question is the dissociation that has occurred, and is daily occurring, between the American Jewish community and its traditional allies. That is an established fact—and one that American Jews must candidly confront.
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The Political Dilemma of American Jews
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The Elon Musk problem.
No one has ever mistaken me for a business writer. Show me a balance sheet or quarterly report, and my eyes will glaze over. Bring up “chasing alpha” at the bar, and I’ll ask for the check and give you the old Irish goodbye. Business chatter—the kind you can’t help but overhear from young stockjobbers at the gym and bloaty middle managers on the Acela—bores me to tears. I’m especially allergic to the idea of “The Market” as an autonomous, anthropomorphic entity with a unitary will and mind of its own.
But even I can tell you that Elon Musk is imploding.
The latest omen came Friday when footage of the South African-born magnate smoking a fat marijuana blunt dropped online. The video is worth watching; the Guardian has the key bits from the 150-minute interview (do people really watch interviews this long?).
Rogan, whose fame has been a mystery to many yet is an inescapable fact of our online lives, offers the joint to Musk but is quick to add: “You probably can’t [smoke it] because of stockholders, right?” (On second thought, I think I know why Rogan is famous—because he knows how to push his subjects’ buttons.)
“I mean it’s legal, right?” Musk replies.
And so Elon Musk—the founder of an electric-car company worth $50 billion and a rocket company worth $20 billion—presses the blunt between his lips and takes a drag. He washes it down with a sip of whiskey on the rocks.
“I’m not a regular smoker of weed,” Musk says a few minutes later. “I almost never [smoke it]. I mean, it’s it’s—I don’t actually notice any effect.” His speech by now is noticeably more halting than it has been earlier in the interview. “I know a lot of people like weed, and that’s fine. But I don’t find that it is very good for productivity.”
The Market was not amused. News of two senior Tesla executives quitting their jobs broke soon after the interview appeared. Tesla shares slid 8 percent. On Twitter, where he competes with President Trump for the World Megalomaniac Award, Musk tweeted out his Rogan interview, adding: “I am a business magnet.” Perhaps he was still coming down.
These disasters follow the summer’s going-private fiasco. In early August, Musk claimed he had secured the vast funding needed to take his company private and then did a switcheroo. Tesla short-sellers, whom Musk constantly tries to show up, were vindicated. The Market got angry; shares slid.
“Moving forward, we will continue to focus on what matters most,” Musk wrote in a statement to investors two weeks later, “building products that people love and that make a difference to the shared future of life on Earth. We’ve shown that we can make great sustainable energy products, and we now need to show that we can be sustainably profitable.”
That apparently entails shooting the THC-laden breeze with Joe Rogan for two and a half hours.
The question now is: How did Musk ever get so big in the first place? There were many Tesla-skeptics, of course, chief among them those very short-sellers. They were onto something, perhaps because they sensed that a sound inventor-investor-executive would be more concerned with producing a reliable, profitable, non-subsidized automobile than with . . . showing up short-sellers. Even so, Tesla shares climbed and climbed. Even now, after Friday’s Harold and Kumar routine, the stock is trading north of $260.
Two explanations come to mind. The first is that, after Steve Jobs’s death, Wall Street and Silicon Valley types were seeking the next Eccentric Visionary to whom they could hitch their dreams. And Musk was straight out of central casting for Eccentric Visionary. Ending climate change. Colonizing Mars. Super-trains linking cities across vast distances. Everything seemed possible with him. Who knows, maybe the hopes were well-placed at one point, and the adulation went to the man’s head?
The second explanation, which needn’t be mutually exclusive with the first, is ideology. So much of Musk’s business reputation rested on his claims of solving climate change and other planetary crises that loom large in the minds of the Davos crowd. Musk embodied the ideological proposition that no modern problem eludes solution by noble-minded technocratic elites. The Market, it turns out, was as prone to magical thinking as any of the rest of us.
Clarification: News of the Tesla executives’ departure broke following Musk’s pot-smoking interview, but at least one of the departures had been finalized earlier this week.
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The course the West followed has been a disaster.
The West has squandered the last, best opportunity to rid the world of the criminal regime in Syria.
Damascus was designated a state sponsor of terrorism in 1979, and it has lived up to that title every year since. Syria’s descent into civil war presented several opportunities to dispense with the despot in Damascus and avert a crisis in the process, but they were all ignored. As I wrote for National Review, Syria is a case study in the perils of ideological non-interventionism. The results of the West’s over-reliance on covert action, outsourcing, and diplomacy in Syria is arguably the worst-case scenario.
Had Barack Obama not abandoned his infamous “red line” in 2013, the U.S. might have preserved the 100-year prohibition on the battlefield use of chemical weapons. The collapse of that taboo has been rapid and terrifying. In the years that followed, chemical arms have been regularly deployed in Syria, and rogue powers have been using complex nerve agents on foreign (even allied) soil in reckless state-sponsored assassination campaigns.
Ideological adherence to non-interventionism well after it had proven an untenable course of action allowed the flourishing of terrorist organizations. Some parties in the West with a political interest in isolationism deliberately confused these terrorist groups with secularist movements led by Assad regime defectors. In the years that followed, those moderate rebel factions were crushed or corrupted while Islamist terror networks, which provided a politically valuable contrast to the “civilized” regime in Damascus, were patronized and nurtured by Assad.
The incubation of terrorist organizations eventually necessitated the kind of American military intervention Obama had so desperately sought to avoid, but at a time and place not of America’s choosing and with a footprint too small to achieve any permanent solution to the crisis. All the while, a great human tide poured out from Syria in all directions, but especially into Europe. There, an influx of unassimilated migrants eroded the continent’s post-War political consensus and catalyzed the rise of illiberal populist factions.
Even as late as the summer of 2015, there was still time for the West to summon the courage to do what was necessary. In a stunning speech that summer, Assad himself admitted that Syrian forces suffered from “a lack of human resources” amid Western estimates that nearly half the 300,000-strong Syrian army had been killed, captured, or deserted. “Based on current trend lines, it is time to start thinking about a post-Assad Syria,” an intelligence source told the Washington Post’s David Ignatius. But Obama dithered still. Just a few short weeks later, Vladimir Putin, upon whom Obama relied to help him weasel out of his pledge to punish Assad for his crimes, intervened in Syria on Damascus’s behalf. That was when the greatest crimes began.
Russian intervention in Syria began not with attacks on “terrorists,” as Moscow claimed, but with attacks on covert CIA installations and arms depots; a dangerous campaign that continued well into the Trump era. The Syrian regime and its Iranian and Russian allies then embarked on a scorched-earth campaign. They bombed civilian neighborhoods and hospitals and maternity wards. They surrounded the liberated cities of Homs and Aleppo, barraging and starving their people into submission. They even targeted and destroyed a United Nations aid convey before it could relieve the famine imposed by Damascus. All the while, Moscow’s propagandists mocked reports of these atrocities, and the children who stumbled bloodied and ashen from the ruins of their homes were deemed crisis actors by Russian officials and their Western mouthpieces.
America’s strategic obligations in Syria did not diminish with Russian intervention. They increased, but so too did the danger. Early on, Russian forces concentrated not just on attacking Assad’s Western-backed enemies but on harassing NATO-aligned forces that were already operating in the Syrian theater. Russian warplanes harassed U.S. drones, painted allied assets with radar, conducted near-miss fly-bys of U.S. warships and airplanes in the region, and repeatedly violated Turkish airspace. This conduct was so reckless that, in November of 2015, NATO-allied Turkish anti-aircraft fire downed a Russian jet. On the ground, Moscow and Washington engaged in the kind of proxy fighting unseen since the collapse of the Soviet Union, as U.S.-manufactured armaments were routinely featured in rebel-made films of successful attacks on Russian tanks and APCs.
In the years that followed this intensely dangerous period, the Syrian state did not recover. Instead, Syrian forces withdrew to a narrow area along the coast and around the capital and left behind a vacuum that has been filled by competing great powers. Iran, Russia, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, and the United States, to say nothing of their proxy forces, are all competing to control and pacify portions of the country. Even if the terrorist threat is one day permanently neutralized in Syria—a prospect that today seems far off, considering these nations’ conflicting definition of what constitutes a terrorist—the state of competition among these powers ensures that the occupation of Syrian territory will continue for the foreseeable future.
And now, the final battle is upon the rebels. On Friday, hundreds of Syrians waving the “independence flag” poured into the streets of Idlib, the last of the country’s free cities, begging the international community to spare them from the onslaught that has already begun. The United Nations has warned that up to 800,000 people could be displaced in Damascus’s efforts to retake the rebel-held enclave, and the worst of the seven-year war’s humanitarian disasters may be yet to come.
Over the last two weeks, the United States has issued some ominous warnings. Senior American officials have begun telling reporters that the evidence is increasing of Damascus’s moving chemical munitions near the frontlines with the intent of using them on civilians. Trump administration officials announced in no uncertain terms that they would respond to another chemical attack with disproportionate force.
In response to these threats, Moscow deployed the biggest Russian naval taskforce on the Syrian coast since 2015. Simultaneously, Russia has warned of its intent to strike “militant” positions in the country’s Southwest, where U.S. soldiers routinely patrol. American forces are holding firm, for now, and the Pentagon insists that uniformed personnel are at liberty to defend themselves if they come under assault. If there is a conflict, it wouldn’t be the first time Americans and Russians have engaged in combat in Syria.
In February, Russian mercenaries and Syrian soldiers reinforcing columns of T-72 tanks and APCs armed with 125-millimeter guns engaged a position just east of the Euphrates River held by American Green Berets and Marines. The four-hour battle that ensued resulted in hundreds of Russian fatalities, but it may only have been a terrible sign of things to come.
Of course, a Western-led intervention in the Syrian conflict would have been accompanied by its own set of setbacks. What’s more, the political backlash and dysfunction that would have accompanied another difficult occupation in the Middle East perhaps presented policymakers with insurmountable obstacles. But the course the West followed instead has been a disaster.
The lessons of the Syrian civil war are clear: The U.S. cannot stay out of destabilizing conflicts in strategically valuable parts of the world, no matter how hard it tries. The humanitarian and political disasters that resulted from Western indifference to the Syrian plight is a grotesque crime that posterity will look upon with contempt. Finally, the failure to enforce prohibitions against chemical-weapons use on the battlefield has emboldened those who would use them recklessly. American soldiers will suffer the most in a world in which chemical warfare is the status quo of the battlefield of the future.
American interventionists are often asked by their opponents to reckon with the bloodshed and geopolitical instability their policies encourage. If only non-interventionists would do the same.
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And the demands of realpolitik.
Earlier this week, my housekeeper, Mary, arrived to work decked out in a bright red T-shirt emblazoned with a photo of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who came to Israel last Sunday for a three-day official visit.
Mary was at the Knesset on Monday, one of several hundred Filipino workers among approximately 28,000 in Israel, enthusiastically cheering her strongman president.
I asked her what she thought of Duterte–a leader who makes President Trump seem eloquent and measured, by comparison–and I was taken aback by her effusive, unhesitating endorsement: “Oh,” she enthused, “he is a very good president! The best!”
“But,” I suggested, carefully, “he says and does some pretty extreme, crazy things. Does that concern you at all?”
“Oh, no!” she collapsed in laughter. “He doesn’t mean that. It’s just his style.”
Indeed, Duterte has “style.” Bragging of his intent to kill millions of Filipino drug addicts, and invoking Hitler and his genocidal rampage, approvingly, in this context; referring to President Obama as a “son of a whore”; boasting of his parsimony in keeping multiple mistresses available in low-end hotels; approving of sexually assaulting women, particularly attractive ones. And then there was the outburst during the Pope’s visit to the very Catholic Philippines in 2015 when Duterte called him a “son of a bitch” for causing a traffic jam while in Manila.
Mary is not a simple woman. She is university educated, hard-working, pleasant, and respectful. And whatever makes her overlook Duterte’s thuggish tendencies should interest us all, because there are many Marys the world over supporting populist leaders and governments. Mary admires Duterte’s strength of conviction in dealing with drug dealers, addicts, corruption and Islamic extremists.
Human rights activists and journalists, of course, see only a brute who visited Israel to shop for weapons and defense capabilities, which would be put to questionable use. Then again, Duterte is hardly the first and far from the only unsavory ruler to come shopping in Israel, America, or elsewhere, for arms.
Israel deftly managed the visit and optics. Whereas many were disgusted that the PM and President Rivlin gave Duterte an audience, according him a legitimacy and respect that is undeserved, their meetings were brief and remarks carefully calibrated.
In addition to acknowledging his personal gratitude to the Filipino caregiver who was a companion to his father in his final years, Bibi reminded us all of the enduring friendship the Philippines has shown Israel, and Jews, for decades. Prior to WWII, then president Manuel Quezon made available 10,000 visas as part of an “open door” policy to accommodate European Jewish refugees. Only 1,300 were used, ultimately, due to the Japanese invasion which closed off escape routes.
In 1947, the Philippines was the only Asian country to vote in support of the 1947 UN Partition Plan, providing critical support for the momentum building towards the creation and international acceptance of the Jewish state one year later. These are important, historical events about which Bibi, quite rightly, chose to remind us all.
I am no cheerleader of dictators and thugs, but I do wonder why the morality of many objectors to the Duterte visit is so selective. Israel (and all western nations) has relations and ties with many countries led by dictators and rulers far more brutal than the democratically elected Duterte.
Much ado has been made in recent months of Bibi’s meetings with a number of right-wing populists and, worse. Some link it to what they see as disturbing, anti-democratic tendencies in his own leadership of late. Others, myself included, would read it as a careful effort to maintain and cultivate as many international relationships as possible that may enhance Israel’s strategic and economic interests, particularly in this period of extreme global political, economic and institutional instability.
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The paradox of success.
The monthly jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics released Friday morning shows that the economy continues to flourish. 201,000 new jobs were added last month, while the unemployment rate stayed steady at a very low 3.9 percent.
Unemployment rates for African-Americans and teenagers continued their decline to historic lows, while US factory activity was at a 14-year high and new unemployment claims at their lowest point since the 1960s. The long-term unemployed (those out of work for 27 weeks or longer) has fallen by 24 percent in the last year. The number of part-time workers who want full-time work has gone down by 16 percent over the last 12 months. Wages are rising at a faster pace than they have, a sign of a tightening jobs market.
Corporate profits are robust (thanks partly to the cut in the corporate income tax) and consumer spending has been rising. The GDP has been growing at a more than 4 percent rate in recent months. In short, the American economy has rarely been this good and certainly wasn’t during the long, sluggish recovery from the 2008-2009 recession under the Obama administration.
In an ordinary year, one would expect that with economic numbers this good, the party controlling both houses of Congress and the White House would be looking forward to doing well in the upcoming midterm election, even though the party holding the White House usually loses seats in midterms. But, of course, no year is an ordinary political year with Donald Trump in the White House and the Democratic Party moving ever more to the left.
November 6 will be an interesting night.
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We deserve better.
You could be forgiven for thinking that everyone active in American politics has lost their minds.
What we’re witnessing is not, however, collective madness. The political class in the United States has adapted to a constant atmosphere of high drama, and they’ve adopted the most theatrical poses possible if only to maintain the attention of their fickle audiences. What might look to dispassionate observers like mass hysteria is just overwrought performance art.
This week was a case study in our national insanity, which began aptly enough on Capitol Hill. There, confirmation hearings for Judge Brett Kavanaugh got underway, but Judge Kavanaugh’s presence was barely noticed. The hearings soon became a platform for some familiar grandstanding by members of the opposition party, but the over-acting to which the nation was privy was uniquely embarrassing.
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker chewed the scenery, as is his habit, by declaring himself Spartacus and demanding that he be made a “martyr” via expulsion from the Senate for releasing one of Kavanaugh’s emails to the public, supposedly in violation of Senate confidentiality rules. But there was no violation, said Bill Bruck, the private attorney who led the review of Kavanaugh’s former White House records in the Senate. “We cleared the documents last night shortly after Senator Booker’s staff asked us to,” he said in a statement. Perhaps by engaging in what he called “an act civil disobedience,” Booker was only following the lead of his colleague, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who declared the committee’s process illegitimate, thereby supposedly rendering the rules of the United States Senate unworthy of recognition.
Outside another congressional committee’s chamber, the crazy really ramped up to absurd proportions. Following a hearing on alleged bias in Silicon Valley, Senator Marco Rubio was confronted by the rabble-rousing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, which rapidly devolved to the point that both Senator and agitator were soon threatening to fight one another. “I know you’ve got to cover them, but you give these guys way too much attention,” Rubio later told reporters. “We’re making crazy people superstars. So, we going to get crazier people.” He’s right.
The Trump era has provided the press with fertile soil in which a thousand manic flowers have bloomed.
Amplified by the president himself, Jones has become one of the right’s favorite grifters. Unfortunately, he’s in plentiful company. The press has discovered a sudden interest in conspiracy theorists like Jack Posobiec, Mike Cernovich, and Laura Loomer partly because they make for such compelling television but also because they’re willing to confirm the pro-Trump right’s most paranoid suspicions.
The “Resistance” has been a valuable vehicle for the unscrupulous and under-medicated. Congresswoman Maxine Waters has been feted in the press and in apolitical venues such as the MTV Movie Awards not despite but because of her penchant for radicalizing the left and feeding them fantasies about a coming anti-Trump putsch. Former British MP Louise Mensch, “D.C. technocrat” Eric Garland, and Teen Vogue columnist Lauren Duca spent most of 2017 basking in attention and praise from respectable quarters of the Washington political and media class. Their manifest unfitness for such elevated status somehow evaded drama addicts in mainstream political and media quarters.
And whether you’re pandering to the pro-Trump right or the anti-Trump left, there’s plenty of cash to go around for those who are willing to indoctrinate children or undermine the integrity of apolitical American institutions.
The week’s most hysterical moment belongs to the president and his aides—specifically, their reaction to an anonymous op-ed published by the New York Times purportedly revealing the existence of a cabal in the administration dedicated to thwarting the president’s worst impulses. Now, some have expressed perfectly reasonable reservations about the Times’s decision to publish an anonymous op-ed. Others have fretted about the pernicious effects this disclosure might have on the already mercurial president’s approach to governance. But lost in the over-the-top reactions this piece inspired among political observers is the hackneyed nature of the revelations it contained.
In sum, the author disclosed that many members of this Republican administration are movement conservatives dedicated to conservative policy prescriptions that are antithetical to the policies on which Trump campaigned. As such, they have often successfully lobbied the president to adopt their positions over his own preferences.
The admittedly dangerous “two-track presidency” has been observable for some time, and is the frequent subject of reporting and opinion. For example, the op-ed highlighted the discrepancy between Trump’s conciliatory rhetoric toward Russia and his administration’s admirably hawkish posture, which has become such a glaringly conspicuous feature of his presidency that Trump has recently begun trumpeting his contradictory record as though it was a unique species of competence. There’s nothing wrong with taking issue with the way in which the obvious was stated in this op-ed, but the statement of the obvious should not itself be a source of special consternation.
But was it ever. The Drudge Report dubbed the author a “saboteur,” despite the op-ed failing to describe even one action that was taken on the part of this so-called “resistance” against the president’s expressed wishes. “Sedition,” former White House Aide Sebastian Gorka echoed. Sarah Huckabee Sanders attacked the anonymous columnist as a “coward.” The president himself pondered whether the op-ed constituted “treason” against the United States and demanded the Times “turn over” this “gutless” columnist to the proper authorities, whoever they are. This is certainly one way to refute the charge that Trump’s “impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions,” but it’s not a good one.
It’s hard to fault politicians and the press for selling drama. Banality doesn’t push papers, drive up advertising rates, or turn out the vote. At a time without an urgent crisis, when the economy is strong, and the fires abroad are relatively well-contained, it serves the political and media classes to turn up the temperature on mundanities and declare all precedents portentous. But radicalizing voters for such purposes is both trite and irresponsible. In America, healthy and productive politics is boring politics. And who would tune in for that?