George Bush has put every kind of American in his cabinet
except Jews, and no one has complained about this, even though everyone knows
it’s nuts. Remaking the American power structure without Jews is like remaking
sports without blacks. At least when it comes to blacks in sports, you can talk
about it; you can say that blacks changed sports. But no one is allowed to
speak up about something we all quietly know: Jews changed America.
There is hardly an area of public life on which Jews have
not had a profound impact in the last generation, as discrimination against
them ended and as they gained power. The civil rights movement reflects Jewish values
of justice. Feminism is a reflection of liberal Jewish matriarchal values (note
the Jewish groups that are talking about Roe
v. Wade in opposing John Ashcroft for Attorney General). Ever-more-powerful
Jews in the media have ushered in the information age. Psychologically attuned
Jews and Hollywood Jews changed the language of popular culture-Seinfeld,
Weinstein. And the new emphasis on educational achievement throughout our
society reflects the Jewish love of learning.
I have not even gotten to finance or the law, though anyone
who doubts the Jewish influence here should ask how many white-shoe law firms
still keep gentlemen’s hours.
These trends have made America a fairer and more creative
place-and no, it’s not as if one or another of them would not have occurred
without Jews. But altogether they represent the force of Jewish values coming
into public life. In a recent study, Jews
and the American Public Square , the Center for Jewish Community Studies
argues that Jews have fostered an important legal trend in the last half
century, the separation of church and state. I’d go further and argue that the
greatly diminished influence of church on public mores wouldn’t have happened
without secularized Jews gaining cultural power.
And no one ever talks about it. The most important change in
establishment culture in the last 25 years, and it goes unspoken. Instead,
people talk about blacks all the time, as the press did throughout the Florida
election struggle, as if blacks and Jews share a political identity, which they
From its beginnings, the Bush campaign represented, in the
hearts of many Jews and apparently in the heart of George W. Bush himself (that
knower of hearts), an attempt to reverse Jewishness in the establishment. The
press has only been able to discuss this power struggle in code. The most
perfectly coded statement appeared in The
New York Times ‘ long series last year on George’s life, from swaddling to
bottling, when The Times’ Nicholas
Kristof marveled that when Bush went to Yale he directed all his anger at East
Coast “elitists.” But, Mr. Kristof pointed out, George Bush was in Skull and
Bones-wasn’t that an elite?
Nicholas Kristof knew exactly what George Bush was talking
about: the new elite, the ones who could take SAT’s. Mr. Kristof knows better
because he was himself part of that trend, and so was I, at Harvard. Yes, there
were Italian-Americans, Asians, but the sea change that was upon us was that
middle-class Jews were taking up an important place in the establishment. Which
was threatening to George Bush, as he’s made clear in his cabinet choices.
The Jewish press has been concerned about those choices. Forward said warningly that the cabinet
picks were a symbolic “snub.” Phil Baum, executive director of the American
Jewish Congress, was quoted by The
Jerusalem Post as saying that the lack of Jews was “a little distressing.”
But outside Jewish circles, no one is actively complaining, apparently in the
belief that Jews will weather this one, too. There was a letter to The Times . William Safire mentioned it.
Richard Cohen lamented it in The Washington Post . Not much else.
The Jewish silence comes out of a profound fear among Jews
that this powerful moment will pass, that Jewish prominence in America is like
Jewish prominence in Vienna in 1920, teetering on the brink. The more power,
the less anyone wants to talk about it. Though there is Alan Dershowitz, who in
his nervy book, Chutzpah , said that
Jews must strive to gain even more power disproportionate to their numbers,
because of growing envy and anti-Semitism. Not long ago, over lunch with a
power Jew at a major New York firm, I marveled at the proliferation of Jews in
the establishment. He held up a warning finger. “In every generation, our
enemies will rise up to destroy us.” He was quoting the Haggadah, the Passover
story, and for the rest of our lunch told me movingly about a visit to Anne
I wanted to say, “Wait, bub-wrong country.”
But you can’t say “wrong country.” The Jewish history of
persecution transcends boundaries, and the Constitution. A recent study by a
group called Public Agenda said that 80 percent of American Jews see
anti-Semitism as a potentially powerful force in American life, while only 55
percent of non-Jews see that reality. That’s a giant difference, reflecting
ancient Jewish paranoia. In this space I’ve argued that Jews are wrong. Most
Jews say, “Just you wait.”
The problem with this belief is that it short-circuits any
discussion of Jewish power in America. If you talk about Jewish influence,
you’re risking a Holocaust. So there’s no public acknowledgment of something almost everyone understands:
Jews are major players in the establishment.
On Jan. 15, the Center for Jewish History on West 16th
Street held a discussion on the subject “The Jewish People in the 20th Century:
From Powerlessness to Power.” The moderator, Sylvia Hassenfeld, said that Jews
had “blithely” ignored the question, and then the three professors on the panel
promptly attacked the assumption that Jews are powerful.
There are so many Jews in the media that the cone of silence
falls over the territory where you might expect wider discussion. The
establishment tends to be portrayed as a kind of bland rainbow of
excellence-all welcome, Jews, suburbanites, Asians, Hispanics.
By the way, I don’t claim to know how Jewish the membership
of the establishment is. Twenty percent, 50 percent? I’m guessing 30.
There’s nothing wrong with an elite. Society couldn’t
operate without one. But a democracy demands some accountability of these
elites. A generation ago, the scholar
E. Digby Baltzell, a good Philadelphia WASP, published The Protestant Establishment , in which
he argued that “a crisis in moral authority” had developed because of the
inability of WASP’s to share power, and in particular because of their
anti-Semitism. In his more recent book describing the end of that order, The Big Test , my friend Nicholas Lemann
detailed the ways that certain members of what he called “the Episcopacy” felt
compelled to make the system fairer, and ushered in the meritocracy. I remember
when I got to Harvard in 1972, and all my outsider Jewish energy was focused on
tearing down the WASP bastions that kept me back. And we tore them down.
Jewishness is not a social bastion, but the failure of Jews to
acknowledge their status is problematic.
“Jews are very much insiders who continue to be fixated on
the mentality of the outsider,” says Alan Mittelman, a Muhlenberg College
professor and the director of the project, Jews
in the American Public Square. ”We’re certainly part of what they used to call ‘the
establishment.’ But we continue to think about ourselves as this embattled
minority. We have to re-orient ourselves to a greater sense of responsibility
for the culture, rather than a sense of the precariousness of the outsider.”
Mr. Mittelman wants political Jews to show greater
flexibility on the issue of school vouchers, which are supported by many blacks
who were once so allied with Jews. But on this question as on others, Mr.
Mittelman says, Jews vote as outsiders, as if “we’re voting against the czar.”
Mr. Mittelman is getting at the heart of the new Jewish
problem in America: the degree to which Jewish caste identity as victims of
power obscures a real understanding of their place in America. This belief can
often be smug and self-congratulatory, reflecting a refusal to cop to power and
I can think of a few examples of this attitude. Last year, The New Yorker published a glowing
profile of outgoing Monsanto chairman Robert Shapiro, by Michael Specter. The
unspoken theme of this article was, “He’s a Jew from the Upper West Side who
gardens, so he must love the planet!” The piece was remarkable because it
casually overturned the magazine’s long-standing environmentalist stance. Monsanto
is the producer of Roundup, an herbicide that is a nightmare among greenies,
but Roundup went virtually unmentioned in Mr. Specter’s assessment, which was
awash in Jewish chauvinism, in the warmth of Jewish social arrival-Mr.
Shapiro’s and Mr. Specter’s. This is how meritocracy works: The successful
adore the successful, and everybody else is a loser.
Or there was an aside by Hanna Rosin, in Slate last summer, in which she
characterized Reform Jews as blending into the “American mush” of religion. Hers
is certainly a widely shared attitude. What is remarkable is that Ms. Rosin was
identified as the religion correspondent for The Washington Post . The Post
is an important newspaper; what is the responsibility of such a reporter to
have some sensitivity to the varieties of modern religious practice?
Or there’s the continuing attack on politicians for merely
visiting Bob Jones University-whose intolerant policies are justly
criticized-when Jewish groups are given a complete pass for promulgating
policies of in-marriage that half of the Jewish population have said in surveys
are racist (and which few goyish Americans even know about).
Or there was the profile of Hadassah Lieberman in The New York Times suggesting that she
was a humanitarian because she had given to Jewish causes. Shouldn’t we make
the definition a little broader? Indeed, the same sort of definition that
caused the media to all but ignore the troubling aspects of the raid on Waco,
whose victims-besides 25 children-were ignorant gun-toting Christians, the very
sort who, in the Jewish imagination, might have been responsible for pogroms in
the old country.
That Jewish imagination has been the most powerful force in
elite life in the last generation. The rise of the meritocracy, the celebration
of feminism, the emergence of the media: all have been spearheaded by Jews who
So long as Jews continue
to see themselves as powerless, they fail to recognize the effect they have had
on society and, worse, fail to move outside a privileged position of wounded
self-regard and come to terms with their real spot: big winners in the new
order. It looks like the next chapter in the democratic discourse is going to
be about winners and losers in the globalist pursuit of excellence. Liberal
Jews owe it to themselves and to American ideals to take an honest part in that
conversation. Doing so might begin with asking the President-elect bluntly
what’s in his heart.
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