You have to climb the Strand’s Judaica bookshelves like a ladder to get at a copy of Elliott Abrams’ Faith or Fear: How Jews Can Survive in a Christian America , but the author-who is now the top White House adviser on Middle Eastern issues-may well hope that few readers will undertake the trip, as the book, which he wrote in 1997, advocates a form of Jewish “separatism.”
President Bush appointed Mr. Abrams last December as a special assistant to the President and a senior director at the National Security Council. There was some talk of his religious views then, but I didn’t look into the issue till Hussein Ibish, of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, said that Mr. Abrams’ book contains condemnations of intermarriage, an issue that has interested me since it came up during the last Presidential race because of Joe Lieberman’s connections with Jewish entities that condemn dating between Jews and non-Jews.
At the time, Senator Lieberman danced away from the issue, denying that Jewish religious groups have any such ban, and Mr. Abrams, who then headed a conservative Washington think tank, pointed out, correctly, that Mr. Lieberman was misrepresenting these organizations’ principles.
His book goes much further.
Faith or Fear , which was published by the Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, deals with the crisis in the Jewish community over the lack of growth, even decrease, in the number of American Jews. High rates of intermarriage (about 50 percent) have plainly accelerated this process, and Mr. Abrams condemns intermarriage in vehement terms.
Intermarriage, he says, has “largely wrecked” the Jewish community. It is a “tragedy,” a “disaster,” a “danger,” it is “stark and sad,” it “afflicts” the Jewish community.
Reform Judaism’s methods of dealing with intermarriage have failed. “Outreach” to mixed couples is a “delusion.” Getting the non-Jewish spouse to convert is a “myth.”
“Converts nevertheless still bring with them traditions alien to Judaism,” Mr. Abrams says. “For one thing, like all non-Jews who marry Jews, they can provide their children with a loving set of Christian relatives whose lives may offer an alternative faith, diminishing the Jewish identification and affiliation of the children.” One in five converts still erect a Christmas tree in their “Jewish” homes, he notes, and converts are a bad influence on children, not only because of their loving relatives, but because they are living proof that it is possible to change your religion.
In fact, Mr. Abrams says, Judaism is a not “entirely voluntary” faith. Christians define religion as a belief, but for a Jew religion is a matter of community. A Jew is born into a “covenantal community with obligations to God.” That covenant requires him to sacrifice individual autonomy in order to perpetuate the group. A Jew who chooses to break that covenant deserves scorn.
Indeed, in calling for “wrenching changes in behavior” to end intermarriage, Mr. Abrams would seem to mean “scolding, rejection and exclusion” of Jews who marry out. He even seems to praise the idea of sitting shiva for a Jew who marries a non-Jew, in the belief that he or she is dead to the community.
As Mr. Abrams concedes, his values are at odds with the American culture of free choice.
“The free individual choice of which [Enlightenment] thinkers wrote, and which was sanctified in the U.S. Constitution, was absolutely contrary to the Jewish idea of covenant and commandment. Jewish law was about the collective, inherited obligation to God of an entire people. Could anything have been further from the modern notion that each individual must freely choose his faith? And could anything have been more subversive of the idea that Jews were by birth bound to 613 commandments than a philosophy suggesting that men were free at birth from any religious obligations whatsoever?”
But that is where separation comes in. Jewish law “does indeed separate Jews from their fellow citizens and bind them to each other.” Jewish children should be sent to Jewish day schools. The Orthodox have shown that this works; now the rest of the Jewish community should raise money so that no Jewish parent who wants to send his children to a day school can’t afford to do so.
Judaism demands “apartness,” Mr. Abrams says. This is a “metaphysical” separateness; a Jew shouldn’t live in a psychological or physical ghetto. But everything should be done to prevent “prolonged and intimate exposure to non-Jewish culture.”
A lot of this rhetoric has a segregationist ring to it. “Outside the land of Israel, there can be no doubt that Jews, faithful to the covenant between God and Abraham, are to stand apart from the nation in which they live. It is the very nature of being Jewish to be apart-except in Israel- from the rest of the population.”
Mr. Abrams adds, though, that such apartness means “no disloyalty” to the land in which he lives.
Mr. Abrams is a conservative, and one can’t quarrel with the sincerity of his beliefs. His opposition to secularism is often persuasive; his vision of religious pluralism, in which Christians do their thing and Jews theirs (and presumably Muslims do their thing, too, though his only references to Muslims are to describe their involvement in anti-Semitism), is compelling.
The problem is when parochialists get political power. America can tolerate sects: Amish separatists are honored for their choice; black separatists and white separatists are allowed their often obnoxious views. Even when sects achieve economic power, they’re tolerated, and maybe should be (the Mormons in Utah, say).
But Americans have been justly leery when parochial practices edge their way into national politics. The Republicans demonstrated this during the last Presidential primary campaign, when candidates who had visited Bob Jones University were called upon to reject the school’s policy against students dating Catholics. At the time, John McCain spoke feelingly of the pain that such edicts cause young people. In an open society, people from different walks of life will mingle, and their elders shouldn’t be telling them not to.
And, anyway, Jews are too successful to get away with such bans. As Mr. Abrams notes, Jews don’t need to marry for social status; they’ve achieved social status. But what about all the people who want to marry Jews? What Mr. Abrams calls a “campaign … to limit dating with Christians” might strike some young non-Jews as a denial of opportunity.
Mr. Abrams has intellectual honesty: He accepts that there is something non-American about his belief in group loyalty, that it goes against the philosophy behind the Constitution. The Orthodox, he points out, have willingly paid a social price for their views, not caring about success in mainstream society.
Now Mr. Abrams should pay that price, too: either give up his job or step back from his extreme views. It would be one thing if he were a Transportation Secretary or a budget officer. As it is, he’s the President’s top adviser on Middle Eastern affairs, which are already inflamed with religious-identity issues. His comments raise the question of a lack of balance at a time when the road map is teetering along at a slow pace, and when President Bush needs to put pressure both on the Palestinians to disarm terrorist groups and on the Sharon government to dismantle settlements. Mr. Abrams’ book states that Jews must be loyal to Israel. Jews, he writes, “are in a permanent covenant with God and with the land of Israel and its people. Their commitment will not weaken if the Israeli government pursues unpopular policies.”
Aren’t there enough zealots involved in the Middle East already?
(I called Mr. Abrams at the White House. His office said that he was out this week. I sent him and his deputy a fax stating my criticism and asking him if he had stepped back from his views of 1997, but heard nothing back).
Some observers of the peace process say that Mr. Abrams has apparently cooled his jets. “For all the dire predictions people had about Elliott Abrams, the road map was formally introduced on his watch,” says Lewis Roth of Americans for Peace Now. “While the Bush administration has not done everything we would like it to do to push the process, it has been far more engaged than it was prior to the Iraqi war.” And Hisham Melhem, a reporter in Washington for As-Safir , a Beirut newspaper, says, “If you noticed, Abrams doesn’t speak publicly; he doesn’t allow people to quote him. The word is that he’s evolving, that he’s not as strident and dogmatic as he used to be. I have my doubts, but Arab-Americans who have met him say that he is trying to reach out and be open-minded. He was appointed because he knows the region and is a good manager. Arab ambassadors who have met him say that he was very correct, very polite, and that he listened.” Evolving. We can all pray for that.