My Jewish Problem C’ted: My Tribe Is No Longer a Progressive Political Force

The two items below that attack neocons are really the reason I’m blogging. I have tried for years to write about these issues in the mainstream media. They’re not interested, though I think these issues are central to the disaster that is Iraq and the misguided and radical thinking that guides our policy in the Middle East. Our country is in a crisis of leadership. I needed to speak out somewhere about what I know and think. Blog.

My point of entry here is my own struggle with my Jewish roots. Yes I’m an assimilator, but I know that I’m very Jewish in my thinking and approach, and part of my distaste for the neoconservatives has to do with the way that the Jewish presence in American life has changed in my generation.

When I was a kid, Jews were firmly on the left. They were outsiders in American culture—my dad faced antisemitic discrimination in his professional life (science)—and Jews were associated in the 60s with the civil-rights movement and the antiwar movement. And the great leap forward of the meritocracy, of which Jews were the prime beneficiaries (then), meant sharing the wealth of a progressive Jewish tradition, of valuing education and knowledge (as Yuri Slezkine has written) with the rest of society.

In my generation, the prominent Jewish presence in American life is no longer progressive. The meritocracy generated wealth and status, and wealth and status will make any group more conservative. Look around at the political landscape, and Jews can be seen very prominently in very conservative posts. In Commentary (a magazine my liberal Democrat family used to get, it was against the Vietnam War), Gabriel Schoenfeld has argued that the New York Times should be prosecuted for its publication of the illegal wiretap story. The New York Sun, a rightwing pro-Israel newspaper, argued in 2003 that people like myself who demonstrated against the war were guilty of treason. The Sun is funded by Bruce Kovner, the chairman of the American Enterprise Institute, which gave more brains to this administration, Bush once crowed, than anyone (he probably regrets it now!), and by Roger Hertog, who nearly wept at a Manhattan Institute gala a year ago when he described the pro-Israel roots of his thinking. Manhattan Institute brags about turning “ideas into influence.” It has done so.

It is not just the rightwing extremists. This is my point. Kovner gives money to Schumer, a good liberal Democrat who is a leading supporter of the Iraq War. Alan Dershowitz calls himself a Kennedy liberal, even as he justifies torture in the war on terror. Dershowitz’s argument is echoed by Sam Harris, in The End of Faith, an anti-Islam book that NPR finds potable (as the neocons’ ideas are not, for NPR). Joseph Lieberman symbolizes the Jewish establishment, and he is Bush’s lieutenant on Iraq. There are 14 Jewish congressmen from New York and California (as I count them in the Almanac of American Politics). Twelve of them supported the Iraq war in 2002. Including good old Vietnam doves like Henry Waxman and Howard Berman of Los Angeles. As did that other converted dove of the Jewish intelligentsia: The New Yorker magazine.

The argument is made that Jews still vote Democratic, and don’t support the Iraq war, in polls. Walt and Mearsheimer say so in their famous (realist) paper. Bush may have gotten 100 percent of the neocon vote, but only 24 percent of the Jewish vote. We’re liberals.

I would argue that while mainstream Jews are very liberal on abortion and school prayer and Hollywood sex and violence—social issues—they have allowed neocons to represent them—that is to say, Jewish public opinion is a conservative force in foreign policy. Ask erstwhile liberals Waxman (who represents Hollywood) and Lieberman, and watch from whom Ned Lamont’s insurgent antiwar candidacy against Lieberman in Connecticut draws its strength. The antiwar movement is so far a populist movement. Not very Jewish. Though, yes, Hilda Silverman and Dan Ellsberg are there.

I’m not saying the progressive Jewish tradition is dead. But we no longer characterize the force of the Jewish presence in American life. When I demonstrated against the war in the treasonous cold in February 2003, my favorite speaker was Tony Kushner, who’s a lot more Jewish than I am. Kushner is one of the exceptions that proves the rule. There are many of us, including California Congressman Bob Filner, a freedom rider in the 60s who led opposition to the war. But we are the outliers. I’m sure that there are evangelical Christians who depart from the mainstream evangelical Christian view that gays shouldn’t get married. But they’re not working the polls in Ohio. The body of Jewish opinion now licenses the neocons politically. The press routinely characterizes the evangelical Christians as rightwing; and I think the press should characterize the Jewish presence as centrist.

Why? One thing Kushner understands is that being a progressive in American life, and opposing the war, both these things necessitate a separation from Israel—a slight separation, inasmuch as he’s merely calling for a more evenhanded U.S. policy in the Middle East. The bulk of American Jewry cannot take that step. And so they have been swept to the right.