This month, “The Study Of Man,” COMMENTARY's review of new thought and research in the social sciences, is given over…
This month, “The Study Of Man,” COMMENTARY’s review of new thought and research in the social sciences, is given over to a full-length report and analysis of a unique study of the adaptation of ethnic groups to life in a New England town. Harold Orlansky, guest conductor of this month’s column, is a young social anthropologist whose scientific excursions into the American scene have well qualified him to make this report and analysis. Mr. Orlansky’s interest in the main trends and minutiae of life as it is lived today was reflected in his monograph on the Harlem riots of 1943 (“A Study of Mass Frustration”). He has been a reporter for the San Francisco Call Bulletin and an editor of Avukah Student Action, organ of the American Student Zionist Federation, and a contributor to a number of scientific and general periodicals. At present, Mr. Orlansky is a graduate student at Yale. He was born in New York City in 1921.
At last we have a basic work on American minorities. The Social Systems of American Ethnic Groups by W. Lloyd Warner and Leo Srole is of unexampled importance, providing comparable data on the adjustments of eight immigrant nationality groups to life in a New England town. (In the order of arrival, these groups are: Irish, French-Canadian, Jews, Italians, Armenians, Greeks, Poles, Russians.)
The Yankee City Series is based upon five years of continuous study (1930-1935) of a seaport town in northern Massachusetts by a staff of thirty social anthropologists from Harvard and the University of Chicago, under the over-all direction of Professor Warner. The present title, published in 1945 by the Yale University Press, forms the third volume. It is not too much to say that this survey constitutes the most intensive and comprehensive investigation yet made of a representative area of American culture. Every technique in the repertory of social science was exploited to obtain a complete picture of human inter-relations in Yankee City. To anthropology’s concern with first-hand observation were added documentary material and elaborate statistical computations. A “social personality card,” containing full information on age, education, residential, economic and social status, family, clique and association membership, newspapers, magazines and books read, motion pictures attended, doctors visited, etc., was derived for each of the 17,000 inhabitants of Yankee City. Every house was surveyed and mapped; punch cards, dictaphones, photographs, and an airplane assisted the investigators.
The Social Systems of American Ethnic Groups has much to offer toward an understanding of the position of the Jew in contemporary American society. It is especially valuable because in it Jews are not isolated for special study (often productive of special bias), but treated rather as one of many groups, subjected to common inquiry; at the same time information on each minority is intimate and exact.
It is faint praise to pronounce the Series one of the most monumental accomplishments of social research. For the science of anthropology, it blasts a path beyond the debris of antique cultures to a vital concern with modern man. If only the academicians would follow!
The Yankee City Scene
Among the factors that determined the choice of Yankee City as the site of study were: that it was a relatively autonomous, well-integrated, predominantly old-American community, with a long tradition, a few industries and several factories. However, the presence of minority groups also influenced the selection: “A number of ethnic groups, we believed, should be a part of the life of the city studied, since they are typical factors in the life of the greater number of American communities. . . . The presence both of old ethnic groups like the Irish and Jews and of newer ones like the Greeks and Italians was considered desirable.”
Oldest and by far the largest ethnic group in Yankee City are the Irish, who began arriving in 1840 and now number 3,940 or 23% of the inhabitants. Youngest and smallest are the 140 Russians, some of whom arrived as recently as 1920. The majority of the population—9,030 or 54%—remains “native.” This term refers to descendants of the original British stock that founded Yankee City in the early seventeenth century and to subsequent Protestant, English-speaking immigrants—“Canadians, English, North Irish, and Scotch, whose foreign birth presents no barriers to free participation in the Yankee society.”
By ethnic the authors mean “any individual who considers himself, or is considered to be, a member of a group with a foreign culture and who participates in the activities of the group. Ethnics may be either of foreign or of native birth.” Not the least merit in this definition is its explicit recognition of the Jews as a cultural group (in the anthropological sense of “culture”), which replaces the untenable but tenacious terminology of “race” or “religion.” The definition also reclaims for the Jewish group, as considered sociologically, those Jews estranged by Orthodox or Zionist practices—the irreligious, the radical, the intellectual ones. This is a purely operational device, classifying as Jews persons with a certain history, language and culture, and their descendants as long as they manifest intimate and recognizable relations with their ancestors or with each other distinguishable from the behavior of non-Jews.
Next to the Irish and French-Canadians, the Jews are the oldest ethnic group in Yankee City. Fourteen families of Russian-Polish origin had appeared by 1892, and in 1913 their number had grown to forty-four. In 1933 there were 397 Jews in Yankee’ City—.4% of the town’s population; most of the 267 adults over 20 years old were born abroad.
Before proceeding to a discussion of the Jewish social system in Yankee City, we should note features that may be untypical of American Jewry at large. Jews are not small-town dwellers. More than four-fifths live in cities over 100,00, forming 11% of that population although only 4% of the total United States population. (See Oscar Janowsky, ed., The American Jew, p. 162.) The smallness of community is not particularly important in itself, but it does conduce toward a simplification of the community. Thus the Jews of Yankee City are a well-integrated group, whereas Jews in large metropolitan areas present an infinitely more heterogenous picture. Then, the Yankee City community is of East European origin, containing no representatives of Central European or Spanish Jewry. Also, the conservative temper of New England culture, in contrast to the social climate which immigrant Jews found in New York or Chicago, tended to inspire a similar conservatism among the newcomers. As an illustration, there is only one synagogue in Yankee City, and that is Orthodox (although liberalizing tendencies will be mentioned later). Thus, Jews who wish to pray must conform to the Orthodox mold. Other evidence shows that the pressures of small-town culture restrict the range to which Jewish life normally expands. The authors observe that in the last decade one-third of the mature Jewish youth left Yankee City “for the greater occupational opportunities of the larger metropolitan centers.” It may be surmised that the wish for greater social freedom also influenced their decision.
The Jewish Economic Pattern
Jews form the only ethnic group in Yankee City that did not stem, as immigrants, from the rural-handicraft type of economy:
The Jews excepted . . . the ethnics have their source in a simple economic system which is predominantly agricultural, organized around the productive and self-sufficient family unit, and marked by only a slight specialization of occupations and relatively little circulation of labor, money, and goods. This is in sharp contrast to the highly geared economic system of Yankee City, with its narrowly specialized economic structures and occupations, lack of family self-sufficiency, complex circulation of values, and relatively impersonal, contractual types of exchange relations.
The Jews alone came from an urban economy. In Russia, a third of the Jewish community were traders, another third independent artisans such as tailors, and five per cent were engaged in professional services. The effects of this background, which well fitted them for participation in competitive American business, are clearly visible in Yankee City. On the basis of an index for “occupational status” computed by weighting occupations ranked from a low for unskilled labor to a high for managerial and professional work, “the Jews have a far higher occupational status index than any other ethnic group, and one considerably higher than that of the Yankee City natives themselves.” Indeed, when first measured in 1913, their index was already higher than either ethnics or natives have yet achieved, despite a general tendency on the part of the immigrant groups to rise occupationally in the direction of the professions. Were the Jewish youth who left Yankee City to be considered, the index would be higher still.
Exact information on the occupational distribution of ethnic groups is not given in this volume. In Volume I it was noted that a high proportion of Jews is engaged in retail-store trade and a low proportion in the building trades and in transport. This could be anticipated from previous knowledge of the occupational distribution of American Jews. (In Janowsky, the national Jewish distribution is estimated as follows: 35-40% in trade, 15-20% in manufacturing, and 10-12% in the professions, compared to general American averages of 14%, 26%, and 7% respectively.) In addition, the Jews maintain a high mobility, which is in keeping with the trend exhibited by other ethnics to approximate the occupational distribution of the native population and to dissolve an original concentration in the unskilled and manual categories. (More recently, however, our contracting national economy has reduced opportunity in managerial occupations and produced a retrograde movement toward skilled factory labor and such management-aid occupations as foreman, bookkeeper and salesman.)
Judged by the occupational status index, the Jews are economically the best adjusted of all Yankee City ethnic groups and “despite their comparative recency they also surpassed the Yankee in business.” But the question must be raised as to how significant a measure of economic success the Warner-Srole index is. The authors have ranked the occupations essentially in the order of social prestige. (Actually, four factors were considered in determining rank: range of economic control, freedom in applying occupational techniques, skill required, and relative value of the product. The authors weight professional techniques 6 and management operations 4, thus ranking social workers, artists, and teachers above bankers and corporation heads.) But if degree of control over the economic structure be taken as the primary measure, professional techniques are grossly over-weighted and managerial functions must assume the highest rank. This would lower the Jewish index.
Even so, there is corroborative evidence of the Jew’s high economic status. “Jews and natives had more of their workers employed than any other ethnic group . . . [and] unemployed Jews led all others in the shortness of duration of their unemployment.” Some 63% of the Jews own their homes, which is a greater percentage than in any other group or even among the natives themselves. (But the proportion of home-owners is also related to the size of the town. For example, a recent survey of Worcester, Mass., by Samuel Mopsik showed 26% of the Jewish families owned their homes in this city of 190,000.) The residential status (measured by segmenting the city into six zones weighted according to status value, and multiplying each value by the number of ethnic households in the zone) of the Jews is equal to that of the natives and higher than that of all other ethnics except the Irish; and Jews led all groups, including natives, in the median value of real estate owned.
On the other hand, the crucial test of power is omitted from this appraisal. And the point has often been made that the position of Jews in the national economy is weak because of the very reasons cited here as mark of high rank—concentration in the professions and trade to the neglect of heavy industry and agriculture. Actually, we are dealing with two separate equations. Warner and Srole have measured the Jew’s economic rank impartially on the basis of accepted social values. The other equation, a partisan one, emphasizes the Jew’s lack of integration in the industrial structure, and rates the worker’s raw power above the nominal authority of supervisors. Both equations balance. Each describes accurately one aspect of reality.
Before migrating to America, all the ethnic groups of Yankee City possessed a family pattern of the patriarchal type in which the wife was subordinated to the husband and the children to the father. America has disrupted this pattern, increasing the wife’s independence and making the children carriers of the new culture—a role that has brought them into open conflict with their parents. Among Jews these developments manifested themselves in their most extreme form. In the agrarian social pattern from which most of the other immigrants stem, the husband’s authority was strengthened by rigid economic control, since the family worked as a self-sufficient unit upon the father’s land. Coming from a non-agrarian economy, the Jewish wife and children were the first to free themselves from paternal restraints (their subordination was probably never as great as that of wife and children in other ethnic groups).
Two generations of Jewish parents are distinguished by Warner and Srole: those who migrated to this country as adults, and those who, coming before the age of 18, were more susceptible to cultural change. Among the adult generation:
. . . there is still a marked subordination of the wife to the husband, but it is not as strong as . . . in the traditional Jewish family structure. Her husband does not dole out money to her. Instead, she is generally given a weekly allowance for the immediate and small necessities of the household. Either the husband alone or husband and wife together shop for home furnishings and clothing involving larger outlays.
The relative freedom that these wives have already achieved in this generation is seen by their organization into a Jewish Ladies’ Aid Society, “probably the most important associational structure of the Jewish community,” which fills charity functions that had been carried on in Russia by male organizations.
In the younger generation, the husband-wife relationship has become identical with that of the typical American middle-class family:
In these Jewish families, the allowance system . . . is generally extended to include the prerogative of making all purchases, even to home furnishings. The husbands usually reserve the right to purchase only his own clothes, the family car, and real property. In the buying of the car the wife is usually consulted . . . [Her] conspicuous advance in the family structure emphasizes the fact that . . . there has occurred a revolutionary change in the traditional personality of the Jewish wife . . . is no longer subordinate to and identified with the personality of the husband but has acquired a distinct personality in her own right.
Increased independence and initiative on the part of the Jewish wife provoke no undue friction with the husband, who shares in equal measure the changes induced by American culture. It is between children and parents that special stress develops. Born in a new country, speaking a different language and educated in strange schools, the child is leagued against his elders’ ways. (“The antagonisms between parent and child by reason of their different personality orientation, dramatized in extreme form among the Jews, are almost absent among the Irish, because here the sub-adult children have native-born parents whose personalities are almost completely oriented to the American social system.”) This rebellion, peculiar to the immigrant situation, is felt most strongly by the Jewish father who, having already relinquished important functions to his wife, is now faced with desertion by the children. One by one, the new culture has stripped him of the weapons that formerly upheld his power—respect, knowledge of proper conduct, economic and social eminence. As the child assumes the lead in introducing new behavior into the family, the father’s prestige wanes. Symptomatic of the ensuing estrangement are the family conversations in which the parent usually talks in Yiddish and the child responds to him in English.
The paternal image of an embittered, lonely old man is common to a whole generation o. Jews and the despair which he expresses will be familiar to many readers. As one Yankee City Jewish father says, “Children are not worth while. What do you get out of them? Once you used to get respect and honor at least. Here they throw you away. You become a back number.”
The child of foreign-born parents is predominantly American in allegiance; personality conflict is provoked by the opposition of native and ethnic standards. The authors observe that this conflict is customarily resolved by one of three methods: (1) violation of the standards of both ethnic and American societies via delinquent, esoteric, or radical behavior; (2) complete rejection of the ethnic community and the embracing of ultra-American conduct; (3) reconciliation of both ethnic and American elements. It should be noted that there is always a change-the child never totally accepts his ethnic inheritance.
Religious Change And Adaptation
In 1932, only 15 Jews attended the synagogue daily. These were all men between sixty and seventy who had migrated to America as adults, and they included all males of this category in the Jewish community. All “are almost unbendingly Orthodox and observe the Law to the letter. With few exceptions they remain bearded. On the Sabbath they refrain abstemiously from any tabooed activity. . . .”
The younger group of adult immigrants attended the synagogue less frequently, seldom for daily services and only occasionally on the Sabbath. “All attend to business on Saturday, write, drive, handle money . . . in the observance of the dietary laws this group remains conformist.”
The generation of Jews who entered Yankee City as children below the age of 18 has broken still further with Jewish tradition. “No member makes an appearance at the synagogue except on the high holidays. . . . It is this generation which first exhibits a critical attitude toward the sacred prescriptions . . . [and] which has broken with the dietary laws.” This generation finds itself in an ambiguous position which its members meet by the assertion to Orthodox Jewish neighbors that they do maintain kosher homes.
Finally, American-born Jews have severed almost all relations with the religious system. On Yom Kippur “these young Jews will stay home from school or work, by the constraint of their parents, but in many cases do not go to the synagogue. Those that do stand on the walk chatting with their friends and displaying their new holiday attire.”
There is, then, an unmistakable, rapid trend in the Jewish community toward alienation from the synagogue and traditional religious precepts. Such alienation from the church structure is manifested by none of the other seven ethnic groups in Yankee City, which belong either to the Roman Catholic or the Eastern Catholic Churches. (These churches have, however, exhibited modification under the influence of the American social system.) The authors attribute the pronounced irreligious trend among Jews to three factors: (1) economic—American business being organized on the Christian week, observance of the Jewish Sabbath and holidays would lead to financial loss; (2) social—mobility or simple acceptance in American society depends upon conformance with dominant ways of behavior; (3) religious—the unitary design of the Judaistic system makes the entire structure threatened by collapse upon the violation of one prescript; also, Judaism has been exposed to the same wave of skepticism that has engulfed other religions of the West.
The New Synagogue
This was the situation in Yankee City in the summer of 1932; participation in synagogue activities was apathetic—“hardly 5% of the men joined the congregation in the . . . Sabbath services, and the other 85% made few, if any, appearances at the synagogue, except at . . . Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana.”
But at this point a crisis arose. Three of the elders died, reducing the congregation close to the minimum of ten required for a minyan and confronting it with extinction. The reaction was sudden and amazing. The entire Jewish community, previously so lethargic, united to contribute $10,000—over $100 per family, in a bad depression year—toward the purchase of a new synagogue building. There, attendance rose to 125 at Sabbath services and 500 on Yom Kippur.
Thus, having been the most irreligious of Yankee City ethnic groups, the Jews now surpassed all others in the proportion of members belonging to the church.
What happened is well explained by the authors. Because of the wider functions of the synagogue as an integrating force in Jewish society, the whole community was exposed to disintegration upon its collapse. The old synagogue had been located in a poor section of town from which most Jews had moved in the course of their adjustment to Yankee City. This movement was both physical and cultural, and to revivify the synagogue a new structure was needed, closer to the modem community. The new building, in a middle-class neighborhood, symbolized this change, as did a revised seating arrangement which allowed wives to sit with their husbands, replacing the Orthodox pattern of segregation by sex.
In the emergency created by the deaths in the oldest generation, all fifty-five men in the younger generation of foreign-born immigrants joined the congregation overnight and assumed active leadership in the community. Out of consideration for the surviving elders the synagogue remained Orthodox, but a liberalized ritual is in prospect for the future.
That the action was connected with the perpetuation of the Jewish community was explicitly acknowledged by the new leaders, who made special efforts to win over their children, the American-born generation, to the synagogue: “We are only working for the shul because of the young people, in order to bring them in somehow, by giving them a nice place where they can dance and play.”
Yankee City Jews found an immediate solution to their problem, but the crisis promises to be repeated in another generation. The discouraged judgment of an elder Jew voices this predicament, which ultimately challenges the survival of all Jewish institutions in America: “The new shul will bring in the young people—yes, to dance, to play cards. Put in a swimming pool and maybe they’ll come. What good is it if they don’t believe? In Europe when I was a boy, the shul, davening, and the Sabbath was a holy thing. Here the boys laugh at it. It doesn’t mean anything to them. If they don’t believe, they won’t come to the shul.”
Isolated in a conservative Christian world, Yankee City Jews rallied around the synagogue as the focal point of the community. “A Jew who is an honest Jew and takes an interest in his synagogue is really liked better by the Gentiles,” an upper middle-class Jew declared. Of course this is true, because the radicalism associated with religious skepticism undermines the American social system as well as the Jewish. But the Gentile likes a Christian still better than a Jew, and the pressure for social conformity continues unchecked.
The conclusion is inescapable that there is little hope for the future of the Orthodox synagogue in America. In metropolitan areas, with their more varied alternatives, national, political, social or welfare institutions may form the focus of Jewish interest. Even in Yankee City, one Jewish family did not contribute to the synagogue fund—“the one considered intellectual.” The second generation remains irreligious despite its fathers’ efforts. The fathers themselves, as we have seen, have broken many religious commandments. What good are the efforts if neither fathers nor sons believe?
Of All the prizes offered by the New World to its immigrant hosts, that of status looms the largest. For status means more than mere recognition; to man as a social animal it is ultimately the measure of life itself, and freedom to enjoy that life.
Excluding Palestine and Soviet Russia, Jews probably enjoy higher social status in this country than in any other with a major Jewish population. But, though comparisons lend perspective to the judgment, our specific purpose is to estimate the Jew’s status in Yankee City.
A general estimate can be made by any child. Warner and Srole provide statistical indices, which have the advantage of being free from emotional coloring. To appreciate the significance of these measuring devices, it is necessary to understand how they were derived.
Two indices of ethnic achievement have already been explained—the occupational status index and the residential status index. Of the two, the latter corresponds more closely to social status. But the closest approximation to the notion of social status made by the authors is social class, with which, in fact, they often equate it; we ourselves will distinguish the two terms later.
By social class (henceforth referred to simply as “class”), Warner means “. . . two or more orders of people who are believed to be, and are accordingly ranked by the members of the community, in socially superior and inferior positions . . . A class society distributes rights and privileges, duties and obligations, unequally among its inferior and superior grades. . . . The social system of Yankee City, we found, was dominated by a class order.” Class was found to be compounded of many factors—occupation, income, wealth, residence, education—but none of these alone sufficed to determine it; some bankers and wealthy persons, for example, were in the middle and not upper class. Perhaps the most important determinant was family background and concomitant social behavior. All these factors were unconsciously evaluated by informants in declaring the social rank of a person. (The term “class” was seldom used by informants. Instead, the rank of persons was described by phrases such as “they belong to our club,” “he is a Riverbrooker,” or “they are the lowest people.”) Eventually, after the most thorough investigation, the researchers identified the social class of nearly every individual in Yankee City.
Six classes emerged—upper, middle, and lower, each with an upper and lower section. The authors write as if these divisions existed empirically and explain transitional cases solely as instances of mobility. It would be more accurate to describe Yankee City in terms of a continuum of social positions, and the classes as convenient categories for summarizing the data. At any rate, the following distribution was observed for the native, ethnic (including Jews), and Jewish populations in 1933:
Jews, like natives, are concentrated in the upper-lower and lower-middle classes, but in larger percentages, and few Jews have risen further; no Jew has entered the upper class. (The absence of upper-class Jews in .Yankee City, attributable to their relatively recent immigration, is another respect in which the community is unrepresentative of American Jewry at large.) However, Jews are lightly represented in the lowest class, and when’ the class positions within each ethnic group are averaged the Jews emerge with the highest index, one only slightly below that of the native Yankees.
The Jewish class index in 1933 lies between the lower-middle and upper-lower classes. By contrast, the indices of all other ethnic groups except the Irish lie in the upper-lower class or lower. The Irish, as mentioned before, are the oldest and largest ethnic group in Yankee City, and some of their families have already recorded three generations of American-born children. A few of these fourth-generation Irish have won their way into the lower-upper class.
It must be remembered that each group entered Yankee City at the bottom of the class order, and the history of its stay has been one of gradual ascension in that order until, theoretically, it will approximate the distribution of native Yankees. The degree of approximation depends primarily upon length of residence, secondarily upon cultural similarity to the native society and particular circumstances such as intention to remain and size of the ethnic group. A small group from an urban culture, the Jews manifest a high class mobility, as is clearly seen by comparing the class distribution of foreign-born Jews with that of their American-born children.
The class index of American-born Jews is phenomenally high, exceeding that of the natives and of all other ethnic groups except the fourth-generation Irish. Three and one-half per cent of the foreign-born Jews are in the upper-middle class, compared to 5.1 % of American-born Jews; 33.2% of the former are in the lower-middle class, and 55.4% of the latter; in the upper-lower class are to be found 52.3% of the foreign-born Jews, and 39.5% of the American-born. No American-born Jews are in the lower-lower class, while 10.7% of the foreign-born are ranked there. (There are some inconsistencies between these figures and those given in the table reproduced above, but the rise of the second generation is clearly demonstrated.)
This rise in social class carries a great portent for the nature of Jewish life in America. For, to repeat, class means far more than mere wealth; basically, it implies a vast complex of social characteristics—manners, morals, clothing, gestures, language, ideas, religion. When equal cultures merge, the resultant culture will reflect traits of each parent. But when a strong culture absorbs a weaker one, few traces of the latter survive. This is the over-all scheme of ethnic assimilation in Yankee City, as Warner and Srole demonstrate, and it is one of their more important conclusions that:
The American social system is not, strictly speaking, a ‘melting pot’ which fuses its diverse ethnic elements into a new amalgam, as was once popularly believed, but is rather a system which performs the transmutation of diverse elements into elements almost homogeneous with its own. . . . The ethnic groups in Yankee City are within a social system that demands conformity in all its sectors, and secures it both by its positive prizes . . . and by its negative constraints on the deviant from it.
The authors assert that conformity to native standards automatically involves a rise in social class. This is questionable. It seems to involve only a rise in social status, while class may remain unchanged. Still, it is true that the younger ethnic generation attempts to copy the behavior of a higher class than that of its parents, and Jewish families, especially, encourage this attempt by the importance they ascribe to education. The result is the inevitably closer approximation by American-born Jews to the beliefs and conventions of the general society. Indeed, Warner and Srole definitely state that all aspects of traditional Jewish social life are being replaced by American elements, with the exception of religion. “The Jews are not dropping their religious behaviors, relations, and representations under the influence of the American religious system. There are no indications that they are becoming Christian. Even the . . . [second] generation can only be said to be irreligious.”
The consequences of the continuance of such a trend would apparently be the dissolution of Jewish society in America and its absorption by the host culture. Indeed, this is just what the authors predict in a theory we will discuss at the close of this article. First we must distinguish the concept of social status from that of social class.
Status, as we understand it, is a term which incorporates two dimensions: class rank (a necessary but insufficient determinant of status) and prestige position within the class. For example, Negroes, Jews, and natives may be members of the lower-middle class, but each has a different prestige position within that class. The special prestige distinction accrues from possession or lack of possession of signal traits which usually transcend the particular group and permeate the dominant culture. In American society, some of these traits are race, religion, cultural distinctions, age, sex, beauty, potency, etc. They are all the characteristics of the mythical prototype of the American culture-hero who may be crudely characterized as: young, male, adult, native, white, Protestant, handsome, blond, potent, athletic, etc. (The culture hero is the hero of the dominant culture, of the upper-class-manufactured or oriented mythology accepted by the masses; other heroes may be created by anti-status-quo forces within the culture, as Tyl Ulenspiegl was created by the Flemish peasants, or Samson by the Jews. In this country, the Negro’s John Henry is an example. The subject tempts a lengthy digression, but we will desist with the aside that the sole Jewish hero in America seems to be the intellectual or artist suffering pain or death for humanity before his final recognition by society, an obvious reflection of the Jew’s hopes and helplessness as a minority person.)
Accordingly, when class differences are ignored, the status of the Jew in society at large becomes directly proportional to the degree of his resemblance to the ideal image. Cancelling out elements common to all ethnics, the crucial characteristics determining the Jew’s status appear to be religion, cultural background, and certain particles of race like skin color and hair texture. Of these, religion is historically the most distinctive feature, possessed jointly by Spanish, Central and East European Jews. While there are common elements inherent in the sociological definition of Jew, and the mythical American image of the Jew (based principally upon the mystique of race and religion) evokes the same low status for all Jews, the status of particular Jews may vary somewhat.
The practical significance of status is its function as a ticket of admission or a bar to the economic, social, and sexual prerogatives of the ruling society; in all these spheres, persons of low status must adopt inferior or submissive responses in relations with those of high status, or risk harmful consequences. The alternative of withdrawal and confinement to relations with those of one’s own low status is in itself either punishment or renunciation, since the choicest prerogatives always lie with the superior status.
The weakest feature of The Social Systems of American Ethnic Groups is the failure to discuss these qualitative aspects of ethnic life-i. e., the rewards that are refused and the punishments that are ‘imposed by natives of Yankee City for divergence from approved standards of behavior and appearance. The authors’ brief consideration of the subject comes under the head of “resistance to mobility”—a crass class analysis of social distance and of the attempt to restrict ethnic residence to inferior neighborhoods. But in the last chapter, they expound a saving theory of “subordinate” groups in American society that enables one to rank the Jew’s social status. (The authors speak of subordination rather than status, but the terms can be roughly transposed, degree of subordination being directly proportional to lowness of status.)
According to this theory, a group may be subordinated for either racial or cultural divergence, but racial variation is more important, being permanent and strongly condemned by Yankee standards. A hierarchy of race valuation is thereby constructed, ranging from high-status “Light Caucasoid” to low-status “Negroid.” Intermediary forms, in order of status, are “Dark Caucasoid,” “Caucasoid Mixtures,” and “Mongoloid.” Within each racial type, status is determined by the degree of cultural conformity; this degree is briefly evaluated by the criteria of religion and language, the former being judged of greater weight in American society. Elaborating this scheme, the different cultural types within each racial type are ranked in the following hierarchy:
- English-speaking Protestants.
- Protestants who do not speak English.
- English-speaking non-Protestant Christions.
- Non-Protestant Christians who do not speak English.
- English-speaking non-Christians.
- Non-Christians who do not speak English.
Jews fall into categories 5 and 6 within the “Caucasoid” and “Dark Caucasoid” racial types. The English Jew is the highest-status Jew, followed by fair-skinned European Jews. These Jews are ranked by the authors above “Dark Caucasoid” non-Protestant Christians such as Italians and Greeks, but below all other Christians. Dark-skinned Jews of Europe and the Near East are ranked at the bottom of the ethnic status scale, but above Filipinos, Orientals and Negroes. Evaluating subordination as either “very slight” (e. g., the Scotch), “slight” (Irish), “moderate” (Portuguese), “great” (Mexican) or “very great” (Negro), the subordination of fair-skinned Jews is classified as “moderate,” and of dark-skinned Jews as “moderate to great.” (“The criteria for rating a particular group’s degree of subordination are (I) freedom of residential choice, (2) freedom to marry out of one’s own group, (3) amount of occupational restriction, (4) strength of attitudes in the host society which prevent social participation in such institutions as associations and cliques, and (5) the amount of vertical mobility permitted in the host society for members of the ethnic or racial group.”)
The Future of American Jewry
Consonant with the “subordination” scale of minorities, Warner and Srole present complementary scales of the strength of each minority’s sub-system and the time required for its complete assimilation into the greater American society.
The criteria for the strength of the cultural or racial sub-system are (1) the power of the ‘church’ over its members and degree of divergence of the ‘church’ from the Protestant norms; (2) the presence of separate schools and the amount of control they exercise; (3) and (4) the political as well as the economic unity of the group; and (5) the number and power of ethnic or racial associations . . . Criteria for a time-table of assimilation are (1) the time taken for an entire group to disappear, (2) the proportionate number of people who drop out of a group in each generation, and (3) the amount and kind of participation permitted members of the group by the host society.”
The authors predict that all Caucasoid groups will ultimately be absorbed into the native culture, but that Oriental and Negro groups “will not be totally assimilated until the present American social order changes gradually or by revolution.” Most English, German, and other light-skinned Jews, they estimate, should disappear within five or six generations after immigration, and the remainder subsequently. Dark-skinned Jews are considered the most resistant of all assimilable groups, the period required for their total absorption being “a very long time in the future which is not yet discernible.”
As each group progresses toward assimilation by the American class system, so its own institutions weaken and communal unity gives way to disputes between upper and lower classes. This conflict is already prominent among the Irish in Yankee City: “. . . the growing identification with class level and the usual manifestations of extreme class distance have served to break up the Irish group’s inner cohesion. The result is seen in the sharp antagonisms which exist between the Irish of the two lowest classes . . . and of the two higher classes. . . . In other words, between the Irish and the natives of the two lowest classes, there is a class solidarity greater than the group solidarity between the Irish of the lowest and highest classes or between the natives of the lowest and highest classes.”
There is no doubt that complete assimilation is possible for individual Jews whose families have been long resident in the United States. Thus, a few German Jews settled in Yankee City early in its history. “The descendants of these scattered families were assimilated into the native group and today are regarded as natives by the community. Their ethnic past has been effectively forgotten and the individuals themselves are not behaviorally distinguishable from the Yankee group.” Still, variation in family background and social circumstances leave a visible residue of Jews from even the earlier generations of immigrants to America, and vaster numbers among the descendants of recent immigrants. It is to these that the synagogue and other Jewish institutions look for their perpetuation. The residue will probably subsist longer in areas with a large Jewish population, which afford greater opportunity for cultural autonomy, and lessened contact with Christians.
The crucial information on the extent of intermarriage among ethnic groups is not furnished in this volume. With the majority of Jews in the first or second generation, it is obvious that the American Jewish group is a long way from disappearing. But the institutions of foreign-born Jews are patently declining. The future clearly lies with the revising of old institutions and the creation of new ones to meet the needs of American-born Jews. This, and not the hopeless attempt to interest the young generation in ancient ways, is the path by which the crisis of Jewish institutions will find its solution.
Finally, though Warner and Srole are circumspect about predicting the dissolution of the Jewish group in American society as now constituted, this eventuality seems unlikely in view of broader trends in the culture. The constriction of the national economy coincides with deprivations which the lower classes must endure.
In this social situation, anti-Semitism, offering a scapegoat, constitutes both a permanent satisfaction to frustrated social elements and a powerful force toward the continued existence of the Jewish group. For defense is the inevitable response to attack and so, paradoxically, the Jewish community is strengthened by the very enemies who seek its destruction.
Louis Wirth has described how the medieval restrictions imposed upon Jews were gradually accepted by them as a code of conduct, until the ghetto came to symbolize both the enforced isolation and the voluntary separation of the Jewish community from the Christian world. When the ghetto walls collapsed, Jews strove to continue the old proscriptions on behavior; the “‘ghettoes” established by immigrants in American cities represent, in part, such an effort. In a similar if subtler manner, the restrictions imposed upon American Jews by the native society have helped to preserve the Jews’ social and cultural integrity. Even the radical, atheist Jew feels most at ease among his own people, and the relentless pressure of discrimination has driven many a potential apostate back into the fold.
There is no indication that this pressure will decrease in the future. On the contrary, it appears to be increasing, as class lines stratify, governmental controls multiply, and unemployment advances apace. Social democracy will not precede economic democracy. The lesson of “assimilated” German Jewry will long linger in our minds.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
The Study of Man: The Jews of Yankee City
Must-Reads from Magazine
Progressives can’t remodel the country through politics—and it’s making them miserable.
The liberal malaise that has followed Trump’s shocking victory is a by-product of the left’s unreasonable expectations. Many liberals and progressives were encouraged to see Barack Obama as messianic and to understand his politics as emancipatory, and they fell for it. But political shifts in America just aren’t that radical, and never have been—even though that’s what the flimflam men who run American politics always promise.
Delusions about what big election victories can achieve are nurtured by the politicians who stand to benefit from the passion of those who are swayed by their portentous prognostications. (“This is the most important election of our lifetime,” says the party that needs to win to come back from defeat.) And they are husbanded by the commercial enterprises—paid consultants, super PACs, single-issue peddlers, cable networks—that profit from them. But the vows they make—primary among them the vanquishing for eternity of the bad guys on the other side—cannot be fulfilled, or cannot be fulfilled enough to satisfy the voters who are seduced by them. This is a problem for both sides of the ideological divide.
At the moment, what we’re living through is disillusion on the part of progressives, and on a grand scale. A consensus has begun to form on the politically engaged left that the day-to-day work of American politics—meaning what happens in government and in public service—is simply unequal to the challenges that plague our country. This follows, in turn, the same sort of consensus that rose among conservative voters in 2015 and 2016 that led to the rise of the insurgent Trump candidacy.
Fewer and fewer Americans see the grinding work of passing legislation and formulating policy as anything other than a sham, an act, a Washington con. This view encourages frustration and, eventually, fatalism. The conviction that the political process cannot address the most relevant issues of the day is paralyzing and radicalizing both parties. It is also wrong.
THE LIBERAL SOUNDTRACK OF DAILY LIFE
People on the american left have reason to be happy these days. Boilerplate liberalism has become the soundtrack to daily American life. But they’re not happy; far from it.
Superstar athletes don’t stand for the National Anthem. Awards shows have become primetime pep rallies where progressive celebrities address the nation on matters of social justice, diversity, and the plague of inequality. This year’s Academy Awards even featured the actress Ashley Judd’s endorsement of “intersectionality,” a once-abstruse pseudo-academic term meant to convey that every kind of prejudice against every victimized minority is connected to every other kind of prejudice against every other victimized minority. These are the outwardly observable signs of a crisis facing the liberal mission. The realization that the promise of the Obama era had failed predated Donald Trump’s election, but it has only recently become a source of palpable trauma across the liberal spectrum.
These high-profile examples are just the most visible signs of a broader trend. At the noncelebrity level, polls confirm a turning away from conservative social mores altogether. In 2017, Gallup’s annual values-and-beliefs survey found a record number of Americans approving of doctor-assisted suicide, same-sex relations, pornography, both sex and childbirth out of wedlock, polygamy, and divorce.
Then there’s the ascension of supposedly advanced attitudes about religion, or rather, the lack of religion. In 2017, Gallup pollsters asked Americans: “How important would you say religion is in your own life?” A record low of 51 percent answered “very important,” while a record high of 25 percent said “not very important.” San Diego State University researcher Jean M. Twenge found that twice as many Americans said they did not believe in God in 2014 than was the case in the early 1980s. And a 2015 Pew poll revealed that “younger Millennials” (those born between 1990 and 1996) were less likely to claim religious affiliation than any previous generation.
Finally, a 2016 Harvard University survey found that, among adults between ages 18 and 29, 51 percent did not support capitalism. Positive views of socialism have been rising almost inexorably, even as a 2016 CBS/New York Times survey found that only 16 percent of Millennials could accurately define socialism.
But today’s progressive activist isn’t content with cultural domination; he’s after something grander. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in a memorandum dated March 2003:
“The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change the culture and save it from itself.”
The election of Obama seemed the moment at which the central liberal truth could finally be given shape and form and body. It didn’t quite work out as progressives hoped.
The first bill President Obama signed into law in 2009, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, was sold to progressives as a visionary effort to root out workplace discrimination. In fact, all it did was relax the statute of limitation on holding firms liable for discriminating on the basis of sex and race—a fine-tuning of one part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Yet the “pay gap” persisted, and Obama and his administration spent the next seven years hectoring the private sector over it. They claimed that the figures showing that women in aggregate earned less than men in aggregate demonstrated that the entire society was somehow in violation of the spirit of the law. But the real source of this gap—as Obama’s own Bureau of Labor Statistics confessed—was individual behavior patterns that led women, on average, to work fewer hours than men over the course of their lives. “Among women and men with similar ‘human capital’ characteristics,” BLS economist Lawrence H. Leith wrote in 2012, “the earnings gap narrows substantially and in some cases nearly disappears.”
Similarly, in 2013, Obama credited his Violence Against Women Act with steep declines in rates of reported sexual assault. “It changed our culture,” he said. “It empowered people to start speaking out.” But this legislation did not change the culture. Many women continued to endure abuse at their places of work, with that abuse treated as just a consequence of doing business. The behaviors revealed by the #MeToo movement in the national outing of abusive men in positions of power had been addressed in law long ago, and long before Obama signed the Violence Against Women Act. The stroke of his pen did nothing to change the culture.
ObamaCare is another example of an exercise in cultural engineering that has failed to take. The Affordable Care Act wasn’t only a health-care law; it was an effort to transform society. The law’s true goal was a “culture of coverage” that would foster a new “norm” in which health coverage was an “expected” part of the social contract, according to California Health Benefit Exchange board member Kim Belshe. But once again, the political process failed to match the transformative ambitions of the progressive activist class. A late 2016 survey conducted by the American College of Emergency Physicians found that tighter doctor networks as well as higher deductibles and co-payments meant people were cutting back on doctor visits—the precise opposite of the law’s philosophical objectives.
Donald Trump and his GOP majorities in Congress could not overturn the ACA (though they did manage to get rid of its mandatory aspect). But ObamaCare’s preservation has not prevented the health-care left from sinking into gloom. This is because the politicians who pursued these reforms set unrealistic expectations for what they could achieve. These are not blinkered ideologues, but they are in thrall to a grandiose idea of what politics should be and out of touch with what politics actually is: a messy, narrow, often unsatisfying project of compromise and incrementalism.
Some left-of-center thinkers have addressed this penchant for overreach and its consequences. “Our belief in ‘progress’ has increased our expectations,” lamented the clinical psychologist Bruce Levine in 2013. “The result is mass disappointment.” He reasoned that social isolation was a product of American institutions because, when those institutions resist reform, “we rebel.” That rebellion, he claimed, manifests itself in depression, aggression, self-medication, suicide, or even homelessness and psychosis. What can you expect when the problem is the system itself?
Progressives have come to believe that America is beset with difficulties that must be addressed if the country is to survive—but they recognize that the difficulties they diagnose are extraordinarily hard to deal with in conventional political terms. Income disparities. Sexual and racial inequities. The privileges and disadvantages associated with accidents of birth. Such matters increasingly dominate the agenda of leftist politicians because they preoccupy the minds of their voters and donors. But what can be done about them? Great Society legislation in the 1960s—the farthest-reaching effort to reorder and reframe our country along social-justice principles—was designed to extirpate these evils. It is clear that today’s progressives are convinced we have not progressed very far from those days, if at all. This can lead to only one devastating conclusion, which is that the United States is a structurally oppressive nation. The system is the problem.
For the left, no problem is more hopelessly systemic than racism. It is powerfully attractive to believe that because some American institutions were forged in racial bias, the country is forever soiled by discrimination and white supremacy. Economics, politics, education, criminal justice—all are soiled by what Harvard professor Derrick Bell has said was an indelible stain on American life. Bell’s theories have been amplified by celebrated literary figures such as Ta-Nehisi Coates. “White supremacy is neither a trick, nor a device, but one of the most powerful shared interests in American history,” he recently wrote. You can understand why exasperated activists might conclude that devoting themselves to a Sisyphean torment is not the best use of their time. “I cannot continue to emotionally exhaust myself,” wrote the British journalist and feminist speaker Reni Eddo-Lodge in 2014. In a 2016 Washington Post op-ed, Zack Linly concurred. “I’ve grown too disillusioned to be relieved and too numb to be frustrated. I’m just tired.”
Violence, too, is seen as systemic. Acts of small-scale and mass violence are the result of many factors in American life. The individual who commits those heinous acts is often a secondary concern to activists on the left. For them, the problem rests in our militaristic national character, which is foremost exemplified by a pathological devotion to guns. As a recent headline at the New Republic put it: “America’s Gun Sickness Goes Way Beyond Guns.”
What about substance abuse? “It became clear to us that there is something systemic going on,” said Steven Woolf, director of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center on Society and Health, on the issue of substance-abuse-related deaths in America. And poverty? “Poverty is systemic, rooted in economics, politics and discrimination,” reads the Southern Poverty Law Center’s guideline for elementary-school teachers. Its lesson plan is explicitly designed to convey to students that “poverty is caused by systemic factors, not individual shortcomings.” Corruption? According to Fordham University Law School professor Zephyr Teachout, when the courts find that corporate entities have much the same free-speech rights as individuals, “corruption becomes democratic responsiveness.” Obesity and diabetes are systemic too, according to TakePart magazine’s Sophia Lepore, because they stem from the industrial world’s “increasingly commercialized food supply.”
When faced with this constellation of systemic challenges, progressives are left with a grim conclusion: We are impotent; change on the scale that is necessary is out of reach. Instead of practicing “the art of the possible,” they have made a totem of the impossible. The activists who are consumed by these phenomena have come (or are coming) to the conclusion that the political process cannot resolve them precisely because the oppression is a feature, not a bug, of the system. It is logical, therefore, for them to determine that engagement in traditional forms of politics is an exercise in naiveté.
Indeed, under this set of beliefs, legislative incrementalism and compromise seem like detestable half measures. Mistaking deep-rooted and immensely complex social and cultural circumstances for problems government can solve blinds participants in the political process to the unambiguous victories they’ve actually secured through compromise. This is a recipe for despair—a despair to which certain segments of the right are not immune.
LIBERAL DESPAIR TRUMPS CONSERVATIVE DESPAIR
By the time Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy sprang to life, dejected voices on the right had concluded that the country’s leftward drift constituted an existential emergency.
In late 2015, the author and radio host Dennis Prager devoted most of his time to mourning the “decay” of absolute moral categories, the blurring of gender distinctions, the corruption of education, and the dissolution of the family, all while blaming these conditions on a wrecker’s program. In the fall of 2016, the Claremont Institute published a piece by Republican speechwriter Michael Anton (under a pseudonym) in which he postulated that the United States was all but doomed. He compared the republic to United Airlines Flight 93, the plane that went down in a Pennsylvania field on 9/11, and its political and bureaucratic leadership to the suicidal Islamist hijackers who killed everyone on board. Four days before the 2016 election, the Heritage Foundation’s Chuck Donovan declared America in decline in almost every way and blamed a “dominant elite who thrive on the dissolution of civil society.” These catastrophists agreed on one thing: The time for modesty and gradualism was over.
The issues that most animate these conservatives are significant, but they are only indirectly related to conventional political matters. Disrespect for authority figures in law enforcement, the accessibility of pornography, assimilation rates among immigrant groups, the bewildering exploits on college campuses, and the ill-defined plague of “cultural Marxism”—these are widespread social trends that resist remedy from the inherently circumspect political process.
Also like those on the left, some conservatives have come to embrace their own forms of fatalism about the American system. “We need a king,” wrote the Hoover Institution’s Michael Auslin in 2014, “or something like one.” Auslin theorized that such a figure would liberate the presidency from weighing in on polarizing social issues, thereby lubricating the gears of government. Reflecting on the disillusionment and pessimism of his big-thinking peers in the middle of the Great Recession, the libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel declared, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” Patrick J. Buchanan devotes at least one column a month to the virtues of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism. Why? Because, as he wrote in January 2018, “Nationalism trumps democratism.”
Intellectuals like Buchanan and Anton have a profound weakness for extremism; it is one of the grave dangers posed by the life of the mind. William Butler Yeats and Ezra Pound found much to admire in how nationalists detested moderation. For Yeats, the “love of force” was a visionary trait. Pound, of course, literally became a fascist and rooted for America’s destruction. These perverse judgments on the right were nothing next to the seductive power of leftist totalitarianism. George Bernard Shaw was a Stalinist convinced of the virtue of eugenics and murderous purges. Theodore Dreiser became infatuated with the Soviets’ brutal adaptation of social Darwinism. Stuart Chase’s 1932 book A New Deal, predating FDR’s governing program of the same name, heaped praise on the nascent Soviet state. The book famously concluded, “Why should the Soviets have all the fun remaking the world?” Chase later became a member of Roosevelt’s inner circle of advisers.
When the political process fails to perform as they would like, activists and ideologues become disillusioned and embittered. They also become convinced not of the unreasonableness of their position but of the incompetence of their representatives. Thus conservative activists hate the Senate majority leader and the speaker of the House, even though both Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan work tirelessly to advance conservative ideas through the bodies they help manage. Leftists have turned on House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who is among the most effective legislative players in recent American history and easily the most progressive Democratic leadership figure of our time. McConnell and Ryan and Pelosi know from bitter experience that the Constitution places obstacles in the path of anyone who wants to use America’s political institutions to remake the culture wholesale. These marvelous obstacles are designed to thwart the human impulse for radical change.
The tragedy here is how this dynamic has convinced tens of millions of Americans that the political system is broken. Pull back from the granular view of events and try to examine America over the past decade and you see something else. You see American voters responding in complex ways to complex events. Obama overreaches and the voters elect a Republican House. Mitt Romney says 47 percent of Americans are losers, and he loses an election. Hillary Clinton says people who don’t care for her are “deplorables,” and she loses an election, too. The GOP appears to be on a path to electoral disaster in November 2018 because Trump may be bringing about a counterattack against the way he does business. Democratic overreach inspires conservative backlash. Republican overreach inspires liberal backlash. The electoral system is responsive to the views of the people. The system works. It works by restraining excessive ambition.
Those restraints annoy people who think change should just happen because they will it. In 2009, for example, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman was so annoyed by Congress’s failure to devise a bipartisan environmental bill that he lamented the fact that America did not have China’s political system. The People’s Republic, he wrote, was demonstrating the great “advantages” of a “one-party autocracy” led by “reasonably enlightened people.” Amazing how Chinese Communism had the ability to circumvent public opinion—the same ability also leads to the construction of well-populated labor camps.
You don’t need a one-party autocracy to effect change. Sometimes, when change is needed and needed urgently, government can rally to address the change—when voters make it clear that it must happen and when the change is preceded by rich experimentation and vital spadework. For example, New York City is no longer the crime-ridden, pornography-addled, graffiti-marred archipelago of needle parks that it once was. There has been a generation now of civil peace in the city, notwithstanding the act of war against it on 9/11.
But the change wasn’t the culmination of a grand governmental scheme. It was in part the product of work done by the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation in the early 1980s, which developed a model followed by the Rockefeller Center Complex, the Grand Central Partnership, and more than 30 other business-improvement districts. These parties engaged in a block-by-block effort to restore streets and relocate the homeless. The NYPD and the transit police could not focus on “quality of life” policing without hyper-local input that shaped what that campaign should entail and without an intellectual framework provided by the “broken windows” theory promulgated by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. The zoning reforms that cleaned up Times Square began as an initiative submitted by the City Council member representing the porn-plagued blocks under the Queensboro Bridge, with input from the Manhattan Institute. By the time Rudolph Giuliani was elected mayor in 1993, a quiet consensus had been building for years about the nature of the problems afflicting New York City and how to solve them.
BETTER THAN WE WERE
Moynihan’s famous quote is usually cut off before the end. After identifying the divergent liberal and conservative truths about the junction of politics and culture, he observed: “Thanks to this interaction, we’re a better society in nearly all respects than we were.”
His insight into the American political equilibrium was not a lamentation or a diagnosis. It was a reflection on why America is forever reinventing and refining itself. But as partisan actors and media outlets confuse the practice of politics with exhilarating bouts of cultural warfare, this equilibrium begins to come apart.
The quotidian, custodial duties that typify public service are neither dramatic nor entertaining. Zoning laws are boring. Police reforms are boring. Business-improvement districts are boring. Functional governance in the United States is unexciting governance.
Unexciting governance is limited governance. And the fatalists are driven mad by the limits our system imposes on them because they don’t want governance to be limited. That is exactly why those limits are so necessary and why, rather than getting dirty fighting inch by inch for the things they believe in, fatalists write themselves out of our political life. The danger the fatalists pose is that they are convincing tens of millions more that our system doesn’t work when it most certainly does, just in a fashion they wish it wouldn’t. In doing so, they are encouraging mass despair—and that is an entirely self-imposed affliction.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
Seventy years after Israel’s founding, we need it more than ever.
Hertzberg understood how helping the Jews over there in the Middle East had helped Jews over here in North America. After decades of American Jewish ambivalence about Jewish nationalism, the Holocaust had created an instant consensus for a Jewish state. The fight to create that state galvanized the community, rousing it from depression—and shielding it from guilt. By doing the right thing in the late 1940s, American Jews atoned for their failure to save more of their doomed brothers and sisters.
Hertzberg’s fear that Zionism was “a movement in search of a program” in 1949 proved wildly premature, because Israel would continue to call on and depend on the support of American Jews for its survival. The nation’s creation was followed by a host of new problems and opportunities that kept the global Jewish community engaged with Israel and kept alive the American Jewish connection to “peoplehood”—even as many American Jews abandoned religious practice entirely.
In 1959, Hertzberg published a seminal anthology, The Zionist Idea, for the purpose of establishing the movement’s intellectual and ideological roots. At the time, Israel was fragile and the Zionist conversation was robust. Today, Israel is robust and the Zionist conversation has turned fragile. Israel’s 70th anniversary offers an opportunity to reframe the Zionist conversation—asking not what American Jews can do for Israel, but what Zionism can do for American Jews. Hertzberg understood that Zionism wasn’t only about saving Jewish bodies but saving Jewish souls. As the celebrations of Israel’s 70th birthday begin, Zionism’s capacity to save our souls remains vital.
Many American Jews in the 1950s helped their fellow Jews settle in the new land. The fundraising short from 1954, “The Big Moment,” featuring Hollywood stars including Donna Reed and Robert Young, celebrated the secular miracle. “When you support the United Jewish Appeal, you make it possible for the United Israel Appeal to help the people of Israel,” the short told its viewers. They could help “rush completion of new settlements, new housing for the homeless, the irrigation of wasteland acres…. Israel’s people who stand for freedom must not stand alone.”
Four years later, Leon Uris mythologized the Zionist revolution in his mammoth bestseller, Exodus. “As a literary work it isn’t much,” David Ben-Gurion admitted. “But as a piece of propaganda, it’s the best thing ever written about Israel.” In Uris’s Zionist paradise, New Jews lived noble ideas and heroic lives. Exodus captured the texture of the Jewish return: the trauma of the Holocaust, the joys of the kibbutz, the thrill of rebuilding, the anguish of the Arab fight, the sweetness of idealism, the wonder of mass migration. In the 1960 movie version, Exodus even tackled serious ideological issues within Zionism. As Ari Ben Canaan escorts his non-Jewish love interest, Kitty Fremont, around Israel, the two look over the Valley of Jezreel. They marvel at seeing the “same paving stones that Joshua walked on when he conquered” the land, along with “every clump of trees” Ari’s father planted.
Thrilled that the valley is becoming Jewish once again, Ari proclaims: “I’m a Jew. This is my country.” Kitty dismisses differences between people as artificial. Ari makes the particularist case against universalism: “People are different. They have a right to be different.” They suspend the debate, Hollywood-style, with their first kiss.
In print, on screen, and in song, Exodus cast Zionism in such glowing terms that it condemned Israel to the inevitable comedown. Decades later, Thomas Friedman, trying to justify his anger at the Jewish state as its popularity flagged, would define this mythic place he missed as “your grandfather’s Israel.” Actually, Israel today—Friedman’s Israel—is more compassionate, just, equitable, and democratic than his grandfather’s.
As Exodus climbed the bestseller lists, Hertzberg’s Zionist Idea showed how a series of abstract debates spawned an actual state in mere decades. The texts, Hertzberg’s editor Emanuel Neumann wrote, illustrate “the internal moral and intellectual forces in Jewish life” that shaped this “idea which galvanized a people, forged a nation, and made history…. Behind the miracle of the Restoration lies more than a century of spiritual and intellectual ferment which produced a crystallized Zionist philosophy and a powerful Zionist movement.”
Recalling this period, Abraham Joshua Heschel would say American Jews took that miracle for granted. We became so used to the Tel Aviv Hilton, he said, that we forgot Tel Hai, where the one-armed Zionist warrior Josef Trumpeldor sacrificed his life for his country. Heschel was chiding American Jews for failing to use Israel to find greater meaning, to revitalize their Jewish identities, to launch “an ongoing spiritual revolution.”
Several political shocks in the 1960s upstaged the cultural and spiritual conversation that Heschel, Hertzberg, and others sought. Having grown up feeling secure as Americans, some Baby Boomers questioned American Jewish silence during the Holocaust. Frustrations at their parents’ passivity “while 6 million died” altered the community’s course—triggering a move toward activism. Cries of “Never again” shaped the Zionist, peoplehood-centered fight that ultimately brought 1.2 million Soviet Jews to Israel even as it nurtured and brought to adulthood two generations of new American Jewish leaders and activists.
The biggest shock was the Six-Day War. Both their fear of losing Israel in May 1967 and their euphoria when Israel won that June surprised American Jews. Many discovered that they were more passionate about Israel than they had realized. This “extraordinary response” led Rabbi Yitz Greenberg and others toward “a strategy of making Israel central in religious and Jewish educational life—if only because thereby we can tap strong loyalties and deep feelings.” The Holocaust and Israel’s founding partially Zionized American Jewry, showing how to live with a Jewish state while living happily ever after; 1967 showed most American Jews that they couldn’t live without the Jewish state.
Zionism became American Jewry’s glue. Israel reinforced a sense of peoplehood and renewed Jewish pride. It inspired the teaching of Hebrew, revitalized summer camps, and invigorated the Conservative and Reform movements. The community learned how to mobilize politically and raise money prodigiously. Indeed, writing in the 1970s, as periodic terrorist massacres kept returning Jews to the traumatic 1973 Yom Kippur War, Hertzberg declared that Zionism had become the only sacred commitment all American Jews shared. “Intermarriage, ignorance in the Jewish heritage, or lack of faith do not keep anyone from leadership in the American Jewish community today.” Hertzberg complained. “Being against Israel or apathetic in its support does.”
But while it was succeeding politically in America, Zionism was failing culturally and spiritually, Hertzberg charged. “Today there is no Zionist education in the U.S., no schools, no teaching seminaries, no commitment by Zionists” to cultivating “a Zionist kind of Jewish personality”—Ben-Gurion’s New Jew. Instead of stirring charges of dual loyalty, instead of adding “to the discomfort of the Jews in the Diaspora,” Hertzberg noted, Zionism contributed to Jews’ “acceptance of themselves and their acceptance by others.”
Today, it seems, personal concerns predominate. Now we wonder how having a Jewish state helps Jews navigate what Birthright Israel calls “their own Jewish journeys” and their quests for meaning. That could seem to be a chaotic souk, an oriental bazaar resulting in a gay Zionism and a Mizrahi Zionism, an Orthodox Zionism and a Reform Zionism, a feminist Zionism and an environmental Zionism. This is not entirely new. Early Zionists also fused their secular, Western agendas with the Jewish agenda—creating the kibbutz and the Histadrut Labor union, among other hybrids of hyphenate Zionism. In fact, a thoughtful Zionism might cure what ails us by focusing on what Israel means “to me, to us.” Which brings us to the greatest contradiction of our age: Succeeding as Americans individually poses a threat to Jews communally. Building careers usually trumps the labor of deepening traditions, morals, or communal commitments. Increasingly, many American Jews are happy being Jew-ish, reducing a profound cultural, intellectual, religious heritage to props, a smattering of superficial symbols to make us stand out just enough to be interesting—and not too much to be threatening.
Academic postmodernism validates that professionally driven Jewish laziness. After slaving away to perfect the CV and GPA, to get into the best college possible, Jewish students arrive on campuses that often caricature Judaism—like all religions—as a repressive system while slamming Zionism as particularly oppressive, privileged, and aggressive. This postmodernist updating of Marxist universalism loathes the kinds of red lines Jews traditionally drew around multiple behaviors and beliefs—among them, intermarrying, denouncing Israel, or indulging in self-indulgent behaviors from tattooing your skin to blowing your mind with drugs or alcohol. But a community cannot exist without any boundaries—it’s as useless as a house with no walls.
More powerful than these ideological issues is the simple fascism of the clock. Few high-achieving American Jews devote much time in their week to being Jewish. The demands of work and the lures of leisure leave little room in the schedule for much else—especially such unhip, pre-modern, and un-postmodern activities.
Then, perhaps most devastating, once American Jews carve out the time and overcome the static, what awaits them in most synagogues is a stale stew of warmed-over nostalgia. Judaism must be more than gefilte fish and lox, more than some colorful Yiddish exclamations and shtetl tales. The superficiality of so many Jewish experiences inside the walls of the large Semitic cathedrals that fill up just three times a year is so dispiriting that it takes most Jews another year to screw up the courage to return.
No comprehensive cures exist, of course. And Zionism, which is in many ways a conservative cultural initiative despite Israel’s liberal democracy, faces a hostile environment. American Jews, whose parents and grandparents were once more culturally conservative than the rest of American society, tend now to be far more liberal. Moreover, the systematic campaign to delegitimize Zionism has done great damage, just as conservative dominance of Israel has tarnished Israel’s luster among America’s passionately liberal Jews.
Nevertheless, Israel and Zionism still have a magic, illustrated by the great counterforce that most lamentations about the Israel-Diaspora relationship overlook: Birthright Israel. Young American Jews on those 10-day trips are thrilled by the experience. The enthusiasm comes from tasting a thick, dynamic, 24/7 Jewish experience that is qualitatively different from their thin, static, fragmented American Judaism. The impact comes from what Jonathan Sacks has aptly called turning Israel into world Jewry’s classroom, its living laboratory demonstrating vibrant, thriving Judaisms in sync with the environment. Seeing Jewish garbage men and police officers normalizes Jewish society, broadening the range of Jewish career paths and class stances, reducing the implicit pressure wherever American Jews look to be the next Zuckerberg, Spielberg, or Sandberg.
Swimming in a pool of Jewish symbols, traditions, values, and stories, Jewish pilgrims to Israel encounter an alternate universe that reveres the past, that seeks meaning beyond the material, that is more communal than individual and is more eternal than last week’s most forwarded YouTube video of cats frolicking. Israel proves Theodor Herzl right: Fitting in, not standing out, because you’re Jewish is liberating.
Even more surprising, unlike the media’s dystopic portrayal, Israelis are happy and fun-loving. Israel’s recent score of 11th on the world happiness index comes on the heels of reports about American mass unhappiness, especially in the upper-middle-class neighborhoods where American Jews live. The findings that half of Yale’s undergraduates at some point in their four years will experience severe psychological distress goes far beyond the anxiety produced by the crazy process of getting in. It suggests a specific sort of soul sickness that an elite life increasingly stripped of community, tradition, nationalism, God, group responsibility, and virtue produces. As the occasionally embattled Jewish state in an old-new land, Israel remains a Republic of Something, even as America risks degenerating into a Republic of Nothing. The shared past, purpose, and principles produce happier, more grounded, people.
Israeli normalcy risks its own laziness. But it’s the laziness of an instinctive, normalized Judaism in all dimensions rather than a Judaism you need to carve out time for, picking and choosing just what to do and when to do it—while often looking over your shoulder because you don’t want to look like a weirdo or a fanatic.
Beyond that, Zionism answers some core ideological conundrums many American Jews don’t even know how to formulate. Zionism resolves the confusion whereby the Judeo-Christian connection in America makes many nonreligious Jews feel Jewish even while calling Judaism their “religion.” Zionism welcomes Jews through the peoplehood portal—remembering that Judaism is this unique mix of nation and religion, of peoplehood and faith. Zionism celebrates nationalism as a force for good, cherishes religion and tradition as valuable anchors, providing meaningful “software” of values and beliefs running on the “hardware” of belonging. And Zionism celebrates the virtues of having red lines to respect, as well as blue-and-white lines to affirm. It “rewards togetherness,” in Anne Roiphe’s lovely phrase, and demands loyalty in many ways—especially considering Israel’s military situation.
With Judaism providing the background music to so much that is Israeli, with Israel instilling a strong sense of belonging in visitors, let alone citizens, American Jews encounter new ways of being Jewish. They see total Judaism, immersive Judaism, public Judaism. And, often without realizing it, they see a startling contrast, even with secular Israeli Jews who have figured out how to keep their kids and grandkids Jewish without being religious.
Finally, Israel helps American Jews shift from Anatevka to Jerusalem, from what Irving Howe called “the world of our fathers” to the lives of our brothers and sisters. Israeli Jewish identity is about speaking Hebrew and eating cheesecake on the holiday, often overlooked in North America, of Shavuot. It’s also, unfortunately, about fighting and defending the state. The need for American Jews as allies in that fight continues to offer nonreligious American Jews a passionate Jewish cause, a defining Jewish mission in their lives. And judging by the fact that AIPAC’s Policy Conference is the rare mass event that parents often attend with their teenage and twenty-something children, Zionism offers something one generation can pass on to the next.
Beyond that, the excitement—and, to be sure, the frustrations—of working out Jewish dilemmas and governing problems in real time with high stakes to keep this grand Jewish national project alive and thriving, is a lot more compelling than humming “Sunrise Sunset” as you enter your synagogue.
When done right and understood properly, Zionism can offer an important clarification to all Americans, especially in the age of Trump. In the 2016 campaign, whenever the word “nationalism” appeared in the media, it often came poisoned by words like “white” or “extremist” or “xenophobic.” The reaction against Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Brexit, neo-Nazis, and other manifestations of populist nationalism has soured too many Americans on any form of nationalism.
At its best, what might be called “liberal nationalism” infuses democratic ideals into the natural tendency for people to clump together with those like them. In the 1950s, Isaiah Berlin described this constructive nationalism as “awareness of oneself as a community possessing certain internal bonds which are neither superior nor inferior but simply different in some respects from similar bonds which unite other nations.” Many Enlightenment thinkers, following the 18th-century philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, compared this communal impulse with other human “desires” for “food, shelter, procreation, and a minimum degree of liberty.”
Today, this nationalist vision goes against the prevailing cultural tide. Amid what the sociologist Robert Bellah calls “radical individualism,” young Americans experience a “negative” process of “giving birth to oneself” by “breaking free from family, community, and inherited ideas.” By contrast, commemoration of the bar and bat mitzvah defines maturation as accepting communal responsibilities rather than shirking them. The Zionist reality demanding that young Israelis enlist in the army also roots them in communal commitments. In this view, national service is the defining step toward adulthood.
A resurrected, refreshed, Zionist conversation, one that focuses on what Israel does for us, might help Jews see liberal nationalism as a neutral tool that can unite a divided community and make us more determined, more purposeful, and more fulfilled than we can be individually—precisely what the young Arthur Hertzberg proposed seven decades ago.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
The last remnant of Oslo crumbles
The whirlwind changes left Clinton unprepared for the meeting. Perhaps that accounts for the momentous mistake he made that day. “Rabin can’t make further concessions until he can prove to his people that the agreement he just made with you can work,” he told Arafat. “So the more quickly we can move on your track, the more quickly we’ll be able to move on the Syrian track.” Clinton thus tipped his hand: The U.S. saw an Israeli–Syrian peace deal as the real goal, and the president needed Arafat to make it happen. “Now that Arafat had used that deal to open up a relationship with Washington, he did not want to let Clinton shift his attention back to Syria,” reports Clinton foreign-policy hand Martin Indyk in his memoir. “And the more he managed to involve us in the details of his agreement with the Israelis, the less we would be able to do that. In his good-hearted innocence, Clinton had revealed his preferences. Arafat would not forget them.”
Indeed he would not. No foreign official would be invited to the Clinton White House more than Arafat. The Israeli–Palestinian peace process would not be a mere sideshow to the wider Arab–Israeli conflict. It would be a tapeworm inside U.S. foreign policy, diverting and consuming resources. Arafat had made the Palestinian Authority the center of the world.
Twenty-five years of violence, corruption, and incompetence later, the PA lies in ruins, with the Palestinian national project right behind it. Arafat controlled the PLO for a half-century before assuming control of the new PA. Thus his death in 2004 was the first moment of serious potential change in the character of Palestinian institutions. Mahmoud Abbas, far less enamored of violence than the blood-soaked Arafat, was his successor. Rather than reform Palestinian institutions, Abbas has presided over their terminal decline. As Abbas’s own health fades and as the world again turns its attention to Gaza, the part of the Palestinian territories not controlled by him, it’s worth wondering if there is a future at all for the Palestinian Authority.
The PLO was created at an Arab League summit in Cairo in 1964 to serve as an umbrella group for Palestinian organizations seeking Israel’s destruction. It was paralyzed by intra-Arab rivalries until various factions figured out how to wag the dog and draw the Arab states into war with Israel. “Palestinian guerrilla action was insufficient to achieve liberation, and so it needed to overturn reactionary Arab governments and assist Arab unity in order to provide the power necessary to attain the ultimate objective of liberation,” writes Palestinian intellectual and historian Yezid Sayigh, describing how some within the PLO saw it. Arafat’s Fatah faction, which delayed in joining the PLO but influenced it from the outside, was more explicit in a 1965 memorandum: Arab national armies would “intervene to decide the conflict, and to bring it to an end after the revolutionary masses had prepared the way for them.”
Palestinian provocations played a part in helping to fan the flames that exploded into the Six-Day War in June 1967. Yet rather than destroy Israel, the Arab armies lost territory to the Jewish state, including the West Bank of the Jordan River. The following year, Fatah—which had by now joined the PLO—provoked a costly battle with Israeli forces in the West Bank town of Karama. Fatah lost nearly 100 fighters, but Arafat’s mad gamble paid off: The Palestinians survived a face-off with the Israeli military and demonstrated their independence from Jordan. Arafat used this failure-as-success to complete Fatah’s takeover of the PLO in 1969 and become the undisputed public face of the Palestinian guerrillas. Documents captured by Israeli forces in southern Lebanon in 1982 showed extensive training and sponsorship of Palestinian guerrillas across the Communist bloc—the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Hungary, Soviet-aligned Pakistan—in addition to PLO support from Arab states. After its expulsion from Lebanon in the wake of the Israeli incursion, the PLO went into exile in Tunisia.
The first intifada broke out in 1987, and even as it publicized Palestinian resistance, it gave the West a chance to consign Arafat and the PLO to irrelevance. Foreign Minister Moshe Arens proposed allowing the major Palestinian cities in the West Bank and Gaza to hold mayoral elections, after which Israel would recognize the winners as official Palestinian interlocutors. Rabin, then the defense minister, opposed the Arens plan, fearing it would undermine Israel Defense Forces’ control of the West Bank. A compromise plan was for the Palestinians in the territories to hold elections for negotiators, not officeholders. In his memoir, Arens explains that the idea “was meant to begin a process of negotiations with the Palestinians while bypassing the Palestine Liberation Organization.”
Before Arens or Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir could present the plan to the George H.W. Bush administration, Bush and Secretary of State James Baker preempted the Israelis by leaking to reporters their preference for the PLO and their belief that talks with Arafat should broach the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state. Shamir’s right-of-center Likud party revolted, and the government eventually collapsed. Bush had succeeded not only in throwing Israeli politics into chaos in the midst of the intifada, but also in effectively legitimizing Arafat as the rightful representative of Palestinian nationalism. This put the PLO and Israel on the glide path to that September 1993 breakthrough and the creation of the Palestinian Authority.
All this history taught Arafat one unmistakable lesson: Violence works. And so, after the signing of the Declaration of Principles in 1993, violence continued. Some of it was ordered by Arafat; some tacitly encouraged by him; some his security services merely allowed to happen. More than 250 people were killed by Palestinian terrorists in the five years after the signing ceremony. Arafat’s political rivals in Hamas pioneered the use of suicide bombings as a regular feature of terrorism. This served Arafat well: He could crack down on Hamas if and when he needed to but could also keep his fingerprints off some of the most heinous violence against Israeli civilians.
A perfect example of this double game occurred in February 1996. The Norwegian diplomat and UN envoy Terje Rod-Larsen met regularly with Arafat at the Palestinian leader’s Gaza home throughout the Oslo period. On February 24, 1996—a Saturday—Arafat asked his guest his plans for the next day. Rod-Larsen said he was thinking about spending the day in Jerusalem. According to the journalist Michael Kelly, Arafat cryptically said: “Why don’t you stay away from Jerusalem on Sunday.” The next day, Hamas blew up a bus in Jerusalem and another in Ashkelon, killing 26. “Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who thought he had persuaded Palestinian radicals to refrain from attacks on Israelis, condemned the bombings, saying they threatened the peace process,” reported CNN that day.
Violence wasn’t the only way Arafat hindered the cause of Palestinian statehood. Corruption tore through nascent Palestinian institutions. The numbers are staggering. After Arafat’s death, David Samuels surveyed the damage for the Atlantic:
The International Monetary Fund has conservatively estimated that from 1995 to 2000 Arafat diverted $900 million from Palestinian Authority coffers, an amount that did not include the money that he and his family siphoned off through such secondary means as no-bid contracts, kickbacks, and rake-offs…. In 1996 alone, $326 million, or 43 percent of the state budget, had been embezzled, and…another $94 million, or 12.5 percent of the budget, went to the president’s office…. A total of $73 million, or 9.5 percent of the budget, [was] spent on the needs of the population of the West Bank and Gaza.… Arafat hid his personal stash, estimated at $1 billion to $3 billion, in more than 200 separate bank accounts around the world, the majority of which have been uncovered since his death.
Why didn’t the creation of the PA result in Arafat’s transition from guerrilla leader to civilian state-builder? Three problems kept cropping up. The first was that his lack of accountability was enabled by both Israel and the United States, out of the naive belief that it didn’t matter how Arafat built his state and abided by agreements just so long as he did so. Arafat exploited this—he never built his state, in part because nobody was willing to make him.
The second problem was that the PA only added a layer of opacity to Arafat’s power structure. As the analyst Jonathan Schanzer notes in State of Failure: “Was he the chairman of the PLO, the president of the PA, or the leader of Fatah? These varying roles made it difficult to firmly establish his accountability.”
The third problem was more fundamental: Arafat shaped the PLO, and thus the Palestinian national movement, for a quarter-century before the PA was established. The only thing that changed was that nothing changed. Arafat’s predilection for violence, secrecy, and authoritarianism would be deeply corrosive to the institutions of an existing state; to a nonstate tasked with creating those institutions, they were fatal.
Not until Arafat died did the full extent of the PA’s failure become clear to all. Arafat’s absence was supposed to be cause for hope; instead, it revealed the bankruptcy of the PA’s model. Mahmoud Abbas inherited not a state but an illusion.
There is no doubt that Abbas was an improvement over Arafat. As Arafat’s deputy, he tried in vain to convince his boss to halt the second intifada (2000–2003), a bloody campaign of violence instigated by Arafat after he turned down Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s offer of a Palestinian state at Camp David in 2000. The intifada sapped Israelis’ faith in the PA as a negotiating partner and delivered Likud’s Ariel Sharon—the godfather of Israel’s settlement movement and a man who, as defense minister, had been instrumental in driving the PLO out of Lebanon two decades earlier—to the prime minister’s office.
Abbas’s ascension left policymakers in Jerusalem and Washington playing Weekend at Bernie’s with the corpse of the Palestinian Authority, waving its arms and propping it up in public. Both wanted to show the Palestinians they could get more with honey than with vinegar. But by 2004, it didn’t really matter. With President George W. Bush’s backing, Sharon went forward with plans to pull Israel completely out of Gaza and parts of the West Bank. The “Disengagement” of 2005 was a political earthquake: Israel’s great champion of the settlers uprooted thousands with no concessions from the Palestinians. More important, perhaps, was the fact that it was unilateral. How much did the PA even matter anymore?
Abbas’s legitimacy was another nagging problem. Though he won a presidential election in 2005, the PA was haunted by the ghosts of Arafat’s corruption. In 2006, Abbas called for legislative elections. Confident of victory, he permitted Hamas to participate in the elections, and the U.S. didn’t object. Had his Fatah party won, its legitimacy would have been undeniable. But in a shock, Hamas won. Fatah was hobbled not only by the perception of Arafat’s venality but also by the consequences of his one-man rule. In their biography of Abbas, Grant Rumley and Amir Tibon write: “Palestinian legislative elections are essentially a local election, in which every ‘district’ chooses its own members of parliament from the different political lists. While Hamas’s candidates ran under one banner, Fatah showed disastrous disunity by having splinter lists in multiple camps, towns, and villages.” Civil war engulfed the Palestinian territories. Hamas took control of Gaza and was booted from the government in the West Bank. Abbas is now in the 14th year of his four-year term.
His legitimacy in tatters, Abbas went about consolidating power and cracking down on dissent. But it wasn’t just the democratic deficit that made Abbas’s reign resemble his predecessor’s. The courts, legislative institutions, education, civil society—Palestinian state-building simply wasn’t happening. In 2010, the Carnegie Endowment’s Nathan Brown studied Palestinian government and society under Abbas’s Western-educated prime minister, Salam Fayyad, and he came to a dispiriting conclusion: “There was far more building of institutions under Yasser Arafat than there has been under Fayyad. It is true that many institutions were built in spite of Arafat and that Fayyad’s behavior suggests a greater respect for rules and institutions. But that is consolation only for those who mistake personalities for politics.”
Yet in one way Abbas is arguably more dangerous even than his predecessor. Arafat was notoriously defensive about possible successors because he had created an entire system centered on his role as the Indispensable Man. Nonetheless, PLO bylaws made Abbas the rightful successor, and he remained the consensus choice.
But to say Abbas has failed to claw back any control over Gaza would be an understatement. With a bevy of foreign benefactors—among them Turkey, Iran, and Qatar—no pretense of democracy, and no easy way in or out, the strip has become a Philadelphia-sized Islamist police state. Every few years, Hamas instigates a war with Israel to remind the world that no degree of physical isolation can make it irrelevant. On March 30, the group organized the first so-called “March of Return,” a day of protest and mischief at the border with Israel in which 20 Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli troops. A top Hamas official said the marches will continue until they succeed in overrunning the border and driving the Jews out of the land. For this, the protests were rewarded with absurd media devotionals; the New York Times hyped a Palestinian analyst’s comparison of the border rushes to the civil-rights protesters trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. Hamas displays the organizational control Abbas can only dream of, and the ability to have its propaganda amplified by the Times, CNN, and other major media across the globe. Abbas is reduced to gritting his teeth, and lately seems ready to just give up, telling Egyptian interlocutors in early April that unless Hamas turns over “everything, all institutions and ministries, including security and weapons,” the Palestinian Authority “will not be responsible for what happens there.”
The 82-year-old Abbas is in deteriorating health—yet he has dragged his feet on succession. He now indicates he’ll designate deputy chairman Mahmoud al-Aloul his next in line. But “anyone who thinks Aloul’s appointment will find smooth sailing within Fatah is wrong,” warns Israeli journalist Shlomi Eldar in Al-Monitor. The largest challenge could come from Mohammed Dahlan, Fatah’s former Gaza security chief, whom Abbas sent into exile in 2011 and who has been cultivating Sunni allies abroad. Jibril Rajoub is the party’s secretary general and believes he’s the rightful heir. Hamas could leap into the vacuum to try to take the West Bank by force, or it could play havoc by supporting someone like Dahlan. If the succession battle becomes a proxy fight among Arab states, it could get bloody fast. The PA as an institution survived Arafat’s death. It may not survive Abbas’s.
There is, of course, one remaining way for Abbas to distinguish himself from Arafat and ensure that he leaves something tangible behind: He could take yes for an answer and actually seek a negotiated settlement. Sadly, his track record here isn’t any better. In 2007, he walked away from a generous Israeli offer by Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert. The 2008 U.S. election briefly appeared to vindicate him—Barack Obama was elected president and proceeded to browbeat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into giving away the store. But Abbas made a fool of Obama, too. At first, he sat back and played for time. Then, seeing how difficult Obama was making life for Netanyahu, he thought he could wait for Netanyahu’s government to crumble. When Obama left office in 2017, Netanyahu was still prime minister. The one time negotiations got anywhere, in 2014, Abbas blew them up by abruptly agreeing to bring Hamas into the government, a move that cannot be countenanced by the U.S. or Israel as long as Hamas remains committed to terrorism and refuses to abide by existing agreements.
Obama did two other things that backfired on the Palestinian Authority. One was the Iran nuclear deal, which gave tacit American support to Tehran’s expansionism in the Middle East, scaring Sunni regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Egypt into strategic alignment with Israel. The other was more subtle but just as consequential: He helped orchestrate the passage of a UN Security Council resolution that deemed East Jerusalem, home to Judaism’s holy sites, occupied Palestinian territory.
The UN resolution at first seemed to be a clear gift to Abbas. But in reality, it was a ham-handed attempt to tie the hands of President-elect Donald Trump, who would be taking office just a month later. Trump wouldn’t have it. In the first year of his presidency, he publicly declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel and announced that his administration would move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. (While a new embassy compound is being built, the White House plans to officially designate the existing consulate in Jerusalem as the embassy in time for Israel’s 70th anniversary celebrations on May 14.)
The Jerusalem moves have been an unmitigated humiliation for the PA. They undid the damage to the U.S.–Israel relationship inflicted by Obama. Worse for the PA, Trump called the Palestinian bluff. Contrary to the fears of Western observers, and the ill-disguised morbid hopes of some in the media, the region did not go up in flames. The “terrorist’s veto” did. And the coordination that such a move required between the United States and its Arab allies made crystal clear just how isolated the Palestinian Authority has become—how vulnerable it is to the politics of the Arab world, and how impervious to Palestinian politics the Arab world has become.
It took four decades, but the dog is once again wagging the tail.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
The covert and overt sins of a celebrated scholar
Kristeva categorically denies the charges. Her critics argue that it is unlikely that the Bulgarian government would fabricate an 80-page dossier for the purpose of embarrassing a 76-year-old academic who is of no particular contemporary political importance. Professor Richard Wolin of the CUNY Graduate Center, who has written extensively about Kristeva, says flatly: “She’s lying.” And he adds that the Bulgarian government’s claims about her did not materialize ex nihilo: Kristeva recently began writing for a Bulgarian journal, and Bulgarian policy is to publish the dossiers of public figures who had served the state intelligence agencies during the Communist era. That policy is carried out by “ComDos,” the Committee for Disclosure of Documents and Announcement of Affiliation of Bulgarian Citizens to the State Security and the Intelligence Services of the Bulgarian National Army.
But what Kristeva did or did not do in secret is if anything less troubling than what she did in public. For decades, she lent her intellectual prestige and her powers as a writer (and propagandist) to some of the most repressive and vicious regimes of the second half of the 20th century. And she did so as someone who had first-person experience with real-world socialism as it was practiced in what was arguably the single most suffocating regime in Eastern Europe.
Once inescapable on college campuses (I was assigned readings from her work in at least four different classes in the 1990s), Kristeva has faded a little: She has authored a number of novels that have not been generally well-regarded, and she has got on the wrong side of her fellow feminists by criticizing the subjection of the individual identity to the demands of identity politics. She belongs, with Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes and a few others of that kidney, to an era of postmodernist excess during which American academics aped the jargon-heavy (and famously unreadable) prose style of their Continental idols, especially the French ones. Discipline and Punish took on the totemic status later enjoyed by Capital in the 21st Century—which is to say, a book with many more owners than readers, A Brief History of Time for Reagan-era graduate students. Revolution in Poetic Language might not have generated quite as much awe as Foucault’s famous lump, but The Kristeva Reader ornamented a great many coffee tables—and who could resist “Experiencing the Phallus as Extraneous”?
Kristeva arrived in France in 1965 on a research fellowship. She soon moved from the École normale to the Sorbonne, and she studied under Claude Lévi-Strauss and Jacques Lacan, taking in the intellectual fashions of her time: psychoanalysis, poststructuralism, semiotics, feminism, and, of course, radical left-wing politics. Indicting midcentury French intellectuals for covert or overt support of Communist dictatorships around the world is like writing speeding tickets at the Daytona 500, but Kristeva’s political history and that of the journal with which she was long affiliated, Tel Quel, is a remarkable testament to the weakness of Western intellectuals for totalitarianism—provided it is dressed in sufficiently exotic trappings—careering from Marxist-Leninist to Stalinist to Maoist. Kristeva was an enthusiastic supporter of the French Communist Party, arguably the most servile of all of the Western European Communist parties, indulging Adolf Hitler when it suited Moscow and later justifying the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 as a necessary prophylactic against “counterrevolution.” There was no Communist outrage too great for Tel Quel, whose editor, Philippe Sollers (Kristeva married him in 1967), declared in the familiar language of the period his opposition to all things “counterrevolutionary” and advertised his allegiance to “Marxist-Leninist theory, the only revolutionary theory of our time.” V. I. Lenin was later displaced from the Tel Quel intellectual pantheon by Mao Zedong. Professor Wolin, an intellectual historian, tells the story in his 2017 book Wind from the East:
As a result of the May  events and their contact with the Maoists, French intellectuals bade adieu to the Jacobin-Leninist authoritarian political model of which they had formerly been so enamored. They ceased behaving like mandarins and internalized the virtues of democratic humility. In May’s aftermath, they attuned themselves to new forms and modes of social struggle. Their post-May awareness concerning the injustices of top-down politics alerted them to the virtues of “society” and political struggle from below. In consequence, French intellectual life was wholly transformed. The Sartrean model of the engaged intellectual was upheld, but its content was totally reconfigured. Insight into the debilities of political vanguardism impelled French writers and thinkers to reevaluate the Dreyfusard legacy of the universal intellectual: the intellectual who shames the holders of power by flaunting timeless moral truth…. The Maoists started out as political dogmatists and true believers. But they soon found it impossible to reconcile their pro-Chinese ideological blinders with the emancipatory spirit of May. Once they ceased deluding themselves with revolutionary slogans, they began to understand politics in an entirely new light. The idea of cultural revolution was thereby wholly transformed. It ceased to be an exclusively Chinese point of reference. Instead it came to stand for an entirely new approach to thinking about politics: an approach that abandoned the goal of seizing political power and instead sought to initiate a democratic revolution in mores, habitudes, sexuality, gender roles, and human sociability in general.
There was a substantial intellectual component to the Maoism of the Kristeva-Sollers set, but there was also a superficial one: Sollers began affecting the Maoist mode of dress, and Kristeva, one of the most important feminist thinkers of her time, dutifully authored articles in defense of Chinese foot-binding, which she described as a form of feminine emancipation. Calling to mind Senator Elizabeth Warren and her fictitious “Cherokee princess” ancestor, Kristeva boasted that she is a woman who “owes my cheekbones to some Asian ancestor.” Despite having almost no facility with the Chinese language and very little knowledge of its culture, she authored a widely read and translated book, About Chinese Women, in which she made unsupported claims about the “matrilineal” character of classical Chinese culture. Tel Quel adopted an editorial line that was uniformly and cravenly pro-Mao, even going so far as to argue that the absence of professional psychiatric practice from China resulted from the fact that Maoism had delivered the Chinese people from “alienation,” the traditional Marxist diagnosis for what ails the capitalist soul, rendering professional mental-health care unnecessary.
“I don’t fault her” for serving the Committee for State Security, Professor Wolin says. “It was the most repressive dictatorship in Eastern Europe.” Signing on to inform for the Bulgarian government might well have been a condition for Kristeva’s being permitted to study in France in the first place, and she had vulnerable family members still living under the Bulgarian police state. “I don’t know why she doesn’t come clean,” he says.
But that is not the end of her story. “What I do fault her for is jumping on the Communist bandwagon,” Wolin adds. First she served the interests of Moscow and then those of Chairman Mao. Unlike most of her French colleagues, the Bulgarian expatriate was in a position to know better from direct experience. Nonetheless, Kristeva and the Tel Quel set undertook a pilgrimage to Maoist China in the middle 1970s, where they saw the usual Potemkin villages and came home to write fulsome encomia to the wisdom and efficacy of the Great Helmsman. “By ’74, everybody knew that the Cultural Revolution was a power play and a debacle on every level,” Wolin says, an excuse for the Chinese authorities to purge their rivals. “People who had been sent down wrote memoirs, and those were published in French in 1971 and 1972…. Kristeva knew how repressive these regimes were. She didn’t have to celebrate Communism. No one compelled her to do that.”
If this were only a question about a Bulgarian-French intellectual who is obscure beyond academic and feminist circles, then it would be of limited interest, one of those French intellectual scandals that give Anglophone writers and academics a twinge of envy. (When was the last time there was a truly national controversy in the United States over a book? The Bell Curve?)
But Kristeva’s advocacy of what was in terms of gross numbers the most murderous regime of the 20th century is only one tessera in the great mosaic of Western intellectuals’ seduction by totalitarian systems, especially those that come wearing exotic costumes. (Jeremy Jennings, writing in Standpoint, describes Kristeva’s Maoism as “part radical chic, part revolutionary tourism, part orientalism.”) Sometimes, that seduction has come from the right, as with Italian Fascism’s ensorcelling of Ezra Pound and F. A. Hayek’s embarrassing admiration for the government of Augusto Pinochet, a political crush that earned him a private rebuke from no less a figure than Margaret Thatcher. But, more often, that seduction has come from the left: Lincoln Steffens returning from the Soviet Union to declare, “I have seen the future, and it works.” Walter Duranty’s embarrassing misreportage in the New York Times, which still proudly displays the Pulitzer prize earned thereby. The moral equivalence and outright giddy enthusiasm with which Western intellectuals ranging from the left-wing to the merely liberal treated Lenin and Stalin. The New Republic’s footsie-playing with Communists under Henry Wallace. Noam Chomsky’s dismissal of the Cambodian genocide as an American propaganda invention. The reverence for Fidel Castro. The embrace of Hugo Chávez by everyone from Hollywood progressives to Democratic elected officials. Chants of “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh / The NLF is going to win!” on the streets of New York in 1968. Ten million Che T-shirts.
“There are Western intellectuals who don’t succumb,” Professor Wolin says. “The George Orwells, Susan Sontags, and others who learn the lesson. Among the French leftists in the late 1960s who swooned for the Cultural Revolution, many of them came to their senses in the ’70s.” But what about those who are seduced? “Often, they’re naive about politics, and they project holistic and idealistic solutions—totalizing solutions—onto events that don’t admit of those kinds of solutions.”
Political ideologies tend to define themselves in two important ways: first, in opposition to the most important and prominent of their direct ideological competitors; second, in an effort to distinguish themselves from immediately adjacent ideologies and factions. In the case of 20th-century radicals such as Julia Kristeva, the enemy was capitalism, and the most prominent alternative to capitalism was Communism. Whether the pursuit of the idealized new man and his utopian new society took the form of old-fashioned bureaucratic Soviet socialism or the more rambunctious and anarchic mode of the Cultural Revolution was a dispute between adjacent factions, something that may seem almost immaterial from the outside but that is the source of all-consuming passions—and rage—inside the radical milieu.
The West is perversely fortunate that its hedonism and materialism have inoculated it against the premier radicalism of the early 21st century—jihadism, which has gained very little purchase in the West outside of poorly assimilated immigrant communities, mostly in Europe. But Islamic radicalism is not the only rival to democratic liberalism on the world stage: As Xi Jinping consolidates his position in Beijing (a project that goes far beyond the recent removal of the term limits that would have ended his rule at the conclusion of his second term), where are the Western intellectuals with the moral authority and political acumen to articulate a meaningful critique of what he represents? The left in Europe and in the English-speaking world has never been obliged to make an accounting—or a reckoning—for its indulgence of a far more dramatically violent expression of Chinese nationalism, and even liberal technocrats such as Thomas Friedman dream of turning America into “China for a day,” begrudgingly admiring the Chinese government’s raw ability to simply act, unencumbered by democratic gridlock.
And if the left and the center-left are ill-equipped to mount an intellectual defense of democratic liberalism, the right is even less prepared, having mired itself deeply in the very kind of authoritarian nationalism practiced by Beijing. Like the 20th-century left, the 21st-century right has gone looking for allies and inspiration abroad, and has settled upon Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, the fascist Le Pen political dynasty in France, Alternative für Deutschland, neo-nationalism, neo-mercantilism, and ethnic-identity politics. The right-wing populists of Europe do not have Mao’s practically unbounded scope of action (or his body count), but they play for intellectuals on the radical right the same role that Maoism once played for intellectuals on the radical left.
It is not clear that Kristeva has learned very much from her political errors, or even indeed that she ever has come to understand them genuinely as errors. Her alleged collaboration with the Bulgarian secret police, tawdry as it might have been, would not constitute the greatest of those errors. But it is that allegation, and not the plain facts of her long career of advocacy on behalf of inhumane political enterprises, that embarrasses her. In that, she is typical of the radical tendency, a spiritual cousin to the Western progressives who once winked at Stalinists as “liberals in a hurry.” But radical chic is not an exclusively progressive fashion. Xi Jinping is in a hurry, and so is Marine Le Pen, and both have their attention set on matters of more consequence than “intersectionality,” the matter of who uses which pronouns, and the other voguish obsessions of our contemporary intellectuals.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
It was Ben-Gurion himself who proposed a compromise: Israel’s Declaration of Independence would conclude by asserting that each signer placed his trust in the “Rock of Israel,” the Tzur Yisrael, a phrase from the Jewish liturgy inspired by the biblical reference to God as tzuri ve-go’ali, my Rock and my Redeemer.
By referring to the “Rock of Israel,” but refraining from any explicit mention of divine redemption, Israel’s declaration was one that both devout and atheistic Zionists could affirm. For believers in the Bible, the phrase could refer to the divine defender of the Jewish people; for the secular socialist signers of the document, the words could instead make reference to the flint-like resolution of the Israeli army. The compromise was accepted, and the modern Jewish state was born by eliding the issue of the existence of God.
For myself, a religious Zionist and American-history aficionado, the story is doubly painful. Thomas Jefferson, the deistic drafter of the Declaration in Philadelphia, produced a first version without any reference to the divine designs of history. The continental Congress, however, representing an America obsessed with the Bible, edited the dramatic closing of the original draft so that it made clear that the revolution was being launched with “a firm reliance on divine providence.”
The irony is difficult to miss. America, inspired by the Israelite commonwealth in the Hebrew Bible, ordered that a reference to a providential God be added to its Declaration of Independence. But in the 20th century, the restored Israelite commonwealth went out of its way to remove any such reference.
For religious Zionists, however, removing God from a document did not do away with God’s role in the divinely directed drama that is Jewish history; in fact, the contrary is true. Sidney Morgenbesser, the kibitzing Columbia philosopher, once inquired of a colleague at the end of his life: “Why is God making me suffer so much? Just because I don’t believe in him?” Morgenbesser’s droll dialectic captures, for people of faith, something profound: It is those agnostic of God’s existence who can at times reify that very same existence. In a much more profound sense, the events that preceded and followed Israel’s declaration of statehood are so staggering that providence alone explains them.
Harry Truman, the former member of the Missouri political machine whom no one had ever expected to become president of the United States, overrode his hero, General George C. Marshall, in supporting and recognizing the birth of a Jewish state. And he did so, in part, because of his relationship with a Jew named Eddie Jacobson, with whom Truman had run a haberdashery business decades before.
Joseph Stalin, whose anti-Semitism rivaled Hitler’s, ordered the Soviet bloc at the United Nations to support partition, and then he allowed Czechoslovakia to sell airplanes and arms to the nascent state. The Jews of the IDF, fighting against overwhelming odds, did indeed illustrate flint-like toughness in their heroic victory; but the honest student of history can see that this is only part of the story.
Seventy years after May 14, 1948, religious Zionists still smart at the words with which Israel came into being. At the same time, they take comfort in the fact that what followed that extraordinary day vindicates their own interpretation of the words Tzur Yisrael. In his memoir, former Israeli Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, the youngest survivor of Buchenwald, describes the moment when the concentration camp was liberated by Patton’s Third Army. Many inmates, having longed for release, ran to the gates—and as they did so, the Nazis, in a final attempt at murdering the prisoners, opened fire from the guard tower. Lau was in the line of fire; suddenly, someone jumped on him and held him down until the shooting had stopped. Having no idea who had saved his life, Lau made his way to Palestine, attended yeshiva, and entered the rabbinate. The first position for which he interviewed was chief rabbi of Netanya. Interviewing for the job with city officials, he encountered hours of question from the mayor of Netanya and his staff. The deputy mayor of Netanya, a man by the name of David Anilevitch, who ought to have been deeply involved in the interview, sat on the side and oddly said nothing. As the interview came to a close, Anilevitch stood up and said:
Friends, honored rabbi, before we disperse, please allow me to say my piece…. I have been reliving 11 April 1945. I was deported from my hometown to Buchenwald. On April 11, American airplanes circled in the skies above the camp. The prisoners, myself among them, were first out of the barracks. As we ran, a hail of bullets passed us. Among those running toward the gate was a little boy.…I jumped on top of him, threw him to the ground, and lay over him to protect him from the bullets. And today I see him before me alive and well. Now I declare this to all of you: I, David Anilevitch, was saved from that horror, fought in the Palmach, and today serve as deputy mayor of an Israeli city.
Anilevitch, Lau concludes, then banged on the table so that all the glasses shook and said: “If I have the merit of seeing this child, whom I protected with my body, become my spiritual leader, then I say to you that there is a God.”
The definition of a miracle is an event that should not naturally have occurred. For us, this tends to mean the splitting of the sea, the stopping of the sun, the opening of the earth. Yet, by the very same definition, it is a miracle that Israel was born, and endured in the way that it did. It is a miracle that after a generation in which many Jewish children grew up without parents, let alone grandparents, we have experienced the fulfillment of Zachariah’s prophecy that grandparents will watch their grandchildren play in the streets of Jerusalem. It is a miracle that after so many civilizations have disappeared, Jewish children continue to be born. It is a miracle that as anti-Semitism continues to haunt the nations of Europe that persecuted the Jews for so long, religious Judaism flourishes in Israel even as a now secular Europe demographically declines.
More than any other event in the last 70 years, the state that was born in avoidance of any explicit affirmation of Israel’s God now stands as the greatest argument for the existence of that very same God. And that is why many Jews, on the 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence, will recite with renewed fervor prayers in the daily traditional liturgy that 70 years ago had been at least partially fulfilled:
O Rock of Israel,
Arise in defense of Israel,
And redeem, as you have promised,
Judah and Israel.
Our redeemer, the Lord of Hosts is your Name, the Sacred One of Israel
Blessed are you, O Lord, Who redeemed Israel.