The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
The Madness of Jewcentricity

Are Jews special, or do too many people just think they are?

Published on November 1, 2006

s The American Interest magazine prepared to move from a quarterly to a bimonthly publication, a question arose as to what to call our six issues. I was not satisfied with the standard January/February, March/April system: too bland. The problem, of course, is that we have not six but only four conventionally accepted names for the seasons, leaving two issues to be dubbed something else. Our solution is to call July/August the Vacation issue, and November/December the Holidays issue.

I confess it did not occur to me at the time that preparation of the Holidays issue would throw up an interesting convolution of holidays. By Holidays, of course, we refer to Thanksgiving and to the ecumenical celebratory fecundity of late December. But it turns out that the later stages of work on our Holidays issue will always occur close to the Jewish High Holy Days. The issue before your eyes, dear reader, went to press on September 29, which fell smack dab between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—within the ten-day period called the Days of Awe, in the new year of 5767.

I confess, too (it’s the season, after all), to being a little awestruck during these Days of Awe by the presence of an unusually intense concentration of what I call Jewcentricity: the idea, or the intimation, or the subconscious presumption—as the case may be—that Jews are somehow necessarily to be found at the very center of global-historical events. Jewcentricity is not a fully universal phenomenon, at least not yet. True, minorities of intellectuals in places like Japan and Malaysia manage to produce anti-Semitic rants despite the historical absence of Jews in those lands, but Jewcentricity is mostly confined to the Abrahamic world—to what we commonly call the West and to Dar al-Islam. Jewcentricity abounds everywhere in the Abrahamic world these days, with examples ranging from the silly to the sublime. Let’s start with the silly—why not?

It came to light in September that Senator George Allen, Republican of Virginia, son of the late great coach of the revered (in this town, anyway) Washington Redskins, was born to a Jewish woman—at least to a woman born and raised as a Jew in Tunisia. According to Jewish law, that makes the Senator a Jew. Only of course he is not a Jew in any meaningful sense. He was not raised or educated as a Jew; he therefore does not see the world through the eyes of a Jew, evincing Jewish moral sensibilities or exhibiting any sign of Jewish historical memory. And yet for weeks after this revelation, the local and indeed the national press spilled more ink on George Allen’s practically meaningless Jewish origins and his parents’ twisted story of love and denial than on, say, genocide in Darfur. Why? Because as the old journalistic adage goes, Jews is news, and there are no Jews in Darfur. Darfur is merely a shockingly misunderstood tragedy, in which the adjective “humanitarian” and the proper noun analogue “Rwanda” have been allowed to wrongly define a situation that should instead be understood as “highly political” and analogous to “Halabja.” But the Allen affair, well, that really gets pulses up and moving.

But why should it? Does George Allen’s Jewish “blood” suggest to some voters that he’s somehow inherently smarter, shiftier or shrewder than they thought? (I know, people don’t say or write such things, merely think them, but never mind.) Why does this story send packs of journalists scurrying to discover the etymology of the word “macaca”, as if retrospectively it might be traceable to some exotic Tunisian Jewish dialect? (Mom denied it.) The point is, none of this matters, or should matter, to any reasonable person, particularly in light of the many genuine issues in the public domain that are serious and that do demand attention.

Alas, “human interest” in the more banal sense of the phrase explains the Allen affair, as it has explained similar affairs in the past. And it is true: The story clearly does evoke strong emotions, particularly for Jews and those who take an interest for whatever reason in Jews. George Allen responded to his mother’s revelation, in part, by trumpeting his continuing lack of aversion to eating ham sandwiches. Some Jews, and others, found this remark insensitive. Not me; why on earth should someone who knows nothing about the purposes of kashrut care one way or the other about what he eats? What evoked my emotions was Mother Allen’s story of why she hid her Jewish origins and abandoned all Jewish practice once arrived in the United States after World War II. Her father Felix Lumbroso, she said, had been imprisoned and his life put at risk by the Nazis, and she wanted to spare her offspring the unspeakable fear of what being a Jew could, and often did, mean in this unpredictable, skittering world of ours.

Of course, this is nothing very unusual: The Holocaust evoked many such reactions among Jews, as did by now uncountable earlier tragedies and the fears they inspired. No one should presume to judge others, since no one can really put himself in the elder Mrs. Allen’s place, but I have always found such stories deeply sad. As the rabbis always say, yes, it is hard to be a Jew. But as they also say, it is still worth it. Not everyone is brave, and people do get weary. Nonetheless, for a parent to deny their children’s right to live as Jews, a right hard earned over centuries and even millennia, this I find ineffably sad.

But one gets used to this sort of thing. It was not so long ago that Madeleine Albright apparently made a similar discovery about her Jewish roots, not roots in Tunisia but in Czechoslovakia. Her father, Josef Korbel, did something fairly similar to that which Etty Allen did—but there are notable differences in the tales as told and understood. When Madeleine Albright told her story in February 1997, many observers found it impossible to believe that she had not known all along that at least three, and probably all four, of her grandparents were Jews. After all, there were, as many hastened to point out, her not-all-that-distant Jewish cousins, and there was the situation itself: the wartime exile from Europe and the two prematurely deceased grandparents, the fairly obvious meaning of which no historically knowledgeable person could evade.

Yet I was not then and am still not now persuaded that Madeleine Albright lied in any ordinary sense about the discovery of her Jewish origins. We should all retain a healthy respect for a person’s capacity for self-deception, especially a person born into parlous and compromising circumstances. Harder to respect is the moral illiteracy that sometimes follows the extreme cognitive dissonance attending such circumstances. With the revelations, Ms. Albright pronounced herself proud of her parents, and called her father “brave” for what he did. But what did Josef Korbel do? As did Etty Allen, he hid the light of Torah from his own children, but, privileged as a Czech diplomat, he also took his family to safety before anyone could be imprisoned or harmed. Indeed, Josef Korbel left Czechoslovakia not just once, because of the Nazis, but a second time because of the Communists. Again, one must not judge; none of us really knows what we might have done under the circumstances. But to call this brave? Czech Jews who maintained their dignity and their identity, most of whom perished at Treblinka and other death camps—and some of whom we know sang not only Ani Ma’amin (“I believe”) but the Czech anthem at the very doors of the gas chambers—these people were brave. Brave too were those remaining few Czech Jews and the far greater number of resolute Christian Czechs and Slovaks who suffered under half a century of communist tyranny, but never let the diminished flame of their freedom die away.

These stories of hidden Jews, “half-Jews”, Jews deceived by their parents allegedly for their own sake, converted Jews, and above all variously and colorfully confused Jews roll through history, not least recent American history. Every story is different. Had it not been for an insensitive Orthodox rabbi in Maine many years ago, Senator and later Secretary of Defense William Cohen might have lived his life as a Jew. Displaced one generation, there are the older stories of the forebears of Barry Goldwater and Caspar Weinberger, and the newer story about John Kerry’s paternal grandparents. James Schlesinger, a Jewish-born convert to Christianity, is, among senior political figures, in a category of his own.

And then there is the more recent tale of the “neoconservatives”, some of whom have served in high government positions and a majority of whom are alleged to be Jews—though mostly non- or “lightly” practicing Jews. What does this mean? Well, a whole genre of quite weird literature has arisen to tell us, a literature claiming knowledge of a neoconservative “cabal” (from a Hebrew word, as it happens) hard at work hijacking American foreign policy. The cabal theory bears a cousinly relation to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and is not so far removed either from para-conspiracy theories about the hypertrophic power of the “Israel lobby.” And, for good measure, American opera buffs these days are enjoying a new book by Rodney Bolt, The Librettist of Venice, about the remarkable Lorenzo Da Ponte, described as Mozart’s poet, Casanova’s friend, the first and perhaps greatest impresario of Italian opera in America—and a Venice-born Jew whose father had him baptized just weeks after his Bar Mitzvah so that he might acquire education and opportunity in what were tough times for northern Italian Jews.

And so what? What have the Jewish origins of any of these people really to do with the way they saw problems, made decisions, lived their lives? The answer is unknowable, but almost certainly falls into the broad category of “not much.” Yet still the stories pour forth, the fascination with them seems never to slacken, and the ink spills out by the bucket. So go these mysterious but mostly harmless manifestations of Jewcentricity.

Not all cases of Jewcentricity are so inconsequential, however, or so harmless. I spent the first three weeks of September in Europe, the first in blissful repose in Provence, the second more or less working in Paris and Berlin, and the third doing much the same in Frankfurt and Budapest. Asked by French colleagues to speak about America and the Middle East, once in private, once publicly, I was happy to do so. In the public presentation I offered a taxonomy of the main drivers of current realities in the Arab and (less pointedly because so much more diverse) the Muslim worlds. I noted six such drivers.

First and most important are the ongoing travails of modernization as the West collides mostly inadvertently with the Muslim world, giving off sparks of Islamic factionalism, fundamentalism and violence discussed so insightfully in these pages by Anna Simons, Peter Berger and others. Second is the rise of Wahhabism within the Sunni Muslim world, whose faint beginning can be nicely dated to 1924, the year of the first published oil concession in Arabia and the year that the legions of Ibn Saud conquered the Hejaz and established control over Mecca and Medina. Third is the more recent political awakening of the Shi‘a, its earlier manifestations brilliantly chronicled in Fouad Ajami’s The Vanished Imam, and its more recent impact as plain as it is worrisome in Iraq’s burgeoning civil war. Fourth is the end of the Cold War, which has sharply expanded the freedom of action of regional governments. Fifth is the impact of the information revolution, which has raised the specter of a cybercaliphate. The Internet has accelerated and deepened the inherently radicalizing amalgamation and magnification of real and imagined Muslim grievances from Andalus to Mindanao, and it has simultaneously made available new methods for causing mayhem in those places and many others. And sixth is American policy toward the Middle East since 9/11, not least the very mixed effects of the so-called freedom agenda. This factor is not as deep historically as the other five, but still significant owing to the unprecedented power of the United States to influence the region.

After I completed my presentation, I knew what would happen next, particularly at a moment when the aftershocks of the summer war between Israel and Hizballah were still being felt—and it did. “You haven’t mentioned Israel or Palestine”, said the first evidently amazed questioner, as nearly the entire assembled Parisian congregation seemed to nod in unison. “Don’t you think that conflict is really central to the region, and to the world?”

Let me not be coy: I stand second to none in wishing the Arab-Israeli conflict to be settled once and for all, fairly, justly and satisfactorily to all sides, and there is no doubt that settling it would have a benign affect on the region’s misanthropies. A settlement would to some unknown degree reduce pressures for radical recruitment and mobilization. But the idea, so popular in Europe and among some in the United States, that an Arab-Israeli settlement would have a major positive impact in the War on Terror, that it would somehow decisively affect energy issues, that it would have a major beneficial effect on the future, say, of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Morocco—all more broadly consequential matters than what happens in Palestine—is a wishful fantasy. The six drivers I outlined really do explain the vast majority of what social scientists call the variance in the Middle East, and with the partial exception of the fifth driver, none of them has much to do with Israelis, Palestinians, Jerusalem and the rest.

More than that, the logic that links a settlement of Arab-Israeli issues (not only Palestine but also the matter of peace between Israel and Syria, and Israel and Lebanon) to a major amelioration of Islamist terrorism leaves a great deal to be desired. An Arab-Israeli settlement, all Western diplomats and politicians agree, will further legitimate, protect and support a Jewish state in the land of Israel within some borders. Anyone who thinks that such a result will satisfy salafi fanatics clearly does not understand their views. More likely, Islamist radicals would redouble their efforts to prevent any such settlement, and violence and terrorism would most likely rise, at least in the short term. Opponents of such a settlement would attack any Arab, and any Muslim, who would dare put his seal to such an agreement, and they would attack any Western state whose good offices helped to mediate or otherwise bring it about.

There is a corollary to the conviction of the centrality of Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict to all that goes on in the Middle East, and by extension the world. Some have argued that the U.S. government has not done enough to solve the Arab-Israeli problem, an argument that rose to crescendo toward the end of the Bush Administration’s first term. This corollary comes in two variants. One is that if only the United States tried hard enough, it could indeed settle the matter, if necessary by imposition. But it is not as though imposition is easy to impose, or wise in any case; and it is not as though U.S. diplomacy has not tried hard. None tried harder than the George H.W. Bush Administration and the two Clinton Administrations, and they did not succeed. The reason comes down to a simple truth that pervades international history: While it takes two (or more) parties to resolve a conflict and bring peace, it takes only one to continue a conflict and to bring war. And as ought now to be plain to all but the most obtuse, the PLO of Yasir Arafat was unwilling to make peace on terms any Israeli government could accept, a fact that became plain to President Bush in the wake of the infamous Karine-A affair, and a fact on which Bill Clinton holds forth with some zest at any given opportunity.

The second variant is more subtle. It takes a diplomat, the sort of person of whom Lawrence Durrell wrote in Justine: “His character was as thin as a single skin of goldleaf—the veneer of culture which diplomats are in better position to acquire than most men.” This variant coalesces in the view that even if a settlement, or major progress toward a settlement, is not now possible, the U.S. government should still go through the motions of trying, because doing so maintains the value of American diplomatic equities with all parties against the day when progress might in fact be possible. This view is what led several richly experienced veterans of Arab-Israeli diplomacy to remark in the course of this past summer’s mini-war that never before had an American administration allowed the appearance of perfect symmetry between U.S. and Israeli interests in a moment of crisis. This was not a criticism of the substance of American policy, but of the “optic”, and it is an observation with much merit. When a U.S. secretary of state flies to the region and cannot find a single Arab capital to host her, it foretells the need for heavy lifting ahead.

Jewcentricity helps to explain some of this. The senior figures of the Bush Administration have been an unusually blunt group as politicians-cum-statesmen go. A good deal of what some abroad have taken to be arrogance has been, at least by the light of Administration figures themselves, merely unvarnished honestly—the sort of Jimmy Stewart, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, straight-talking style most Americans well appreciate. And when it comes to the Middle East, George W. Bush is not ashamed of his admiration for Israel, his pride in U.S. support for Israel, and his personal belief as a born-again Christian that Israel, as the state of the Jewish people, plays a unique role in history. Though some diplomats may rue the Administration’s reluctance to concern itself with appearances, the President’s approach is broadly popular, particularly among the growing legions of Evangelical Protestants (a growth that for theological reasons conduces to rising forms of Jewcentricity in the United States).11.
See the discussion and the statistics in Walter Russell Mead, “God’s Country?” Foreign Affairs (September/October 2006).

The President knows, too, that much of the Muslim world today hosts anti-Semitic impulses of the most rancid and irrational kind. (Consider that the worst insult Sheikh Nasrallah could think of for Druse leader Walid Jumblatt, his erstwhile Lebanese opponent, was to call him “a Jew.”) Jewcentricity, alas, is a fact of Muslim life. Why else would Osama bin Laden’s famous 1998 fatwa refer to “crusaders and Jews”, as if crusaders aren’t challenge enough? Why else the widely believed theory in the Muslim world that the Mossad caused 9/11 and that Jews knew not to go to the World Trade Center on that day? Why else does the Hamas Charter reference the Protocols of the Elders of Zion? Why else did former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad blame the Jews for his country’s woes?

None of this implies that the Bush Administration gives the Israeli government of the day a pass on whatever it does. It probably does mean, however, that the President finds it both difficult and unseemly to criticize and otherwise dump on Israel just for show, for the sake of the diplomats’ proverbial “optic”, in the face of such irrational hatred and thus such an unpromising political environment for peace.

If the Arab-Israeli conflict really is not central to the many serious problems of the Middle East, then why do so many people insist otherwise? Here again, we must return to the psychological domain of “human interest.” Some Western observers think that the conflict is central because Arabs and Muslims so often tell them it is. They do not readily appreciate how convenient the conflict is for deflecting discontent within Arab countries, where most people see recent history not, as we do, through the lens of the Cold War, but through the lens of colonization and de-colonization. To them, Israel appears Western, so it fits as well within the anti-colonialist prism as it does within traditional Islamic images of the Jew as cowardly and sneaky. Palestine is, moreover, one of few issues that nearly all Muslims can agree on, so it becomes a natural rhetorical vanguard in any political conversation with Westerners.22.
See Michael Scott Doran, “Palestine, Iraq, and American Strategy”, Foreign Affairs (January/February 2003).
Not that many Arabs and Muslims do not feel deeply about the matter; they do, and they have devised their own narratives accordingly—just as all protagonists in existential conflicts do. The centrality of Palestine has thus become a kind of social-psychological fact, one that is hardly trivial. But it is not thereby made into a strategic fact, and Westerners do not well serve their own interests by confusing these categories.

There are several other reasons for the excessive focus on Israel/Palestine, most of which are fairly obvious. Large and increasingly problematic Muslim populations in many European countries affect how politicians speak, and arguably think, about the Middle East. Journalists tend to cluster in Israel rather than, say, Amman, Riyadh or Khartoum, because Israeli culture is more open and convivial to Westerners—and where the journalists and their cameramen are, that’s where the news is. Additionally, to the naked eye, most Israelis appear to live and think like Westerners, and it is natural that Westerners take a greater interest in people who remind them of themselves than in people who don’t (those in Darfur, say). Then there is the venerable age of the Arab-Israeli conflict, nearly sixty years old and still going strong, so that perseverating over it is, for many, a habit—and for some a career.

But the most important of these “human interest” reasons, I suspect, is again something a bit more recondite. Educated Europeans know that their own histories, far more deeply than American history, are entwined with that of the Jews. This is not only because Jews were for many centuries the most prominent “other” within most European cultures, and it is not only because of the Holocaust. It is also because the enormous influence of Christianity over everything that Europe is and will be—as the Pope suggested so brilliantly at Regensburg—owes much at its roots to the Hebrew Bible and to the experience of Israel in the world. As Jews were for centuries at the epicenter of Christian theology in Europe, so today, in a largely post-Christian Europe, Israel is at the epicenter of the European political worldview. It is a secularized view, to be sure, but it is at the same time a vestige of a religious obsession so deeply rooted in the European psyche that it cannot be readily named. Just as the Pope challenged Europe’s post-Christians to plumb the moral epistemology of their own secular humanism, knowing they would have no honest choice but to affirm its Christian origins, so the European fixation with Israel has similarly obscured origins.

Not long after 9/11, Jonathan Rosen wrote of his father, a Viennese-born Jew who fled post-Anschluss Austria in 1938. Rosen’s father, whose own parents were murdered in the Holocaust, would go to bed with a transistor radio tuned to an all-news station. Rosen wrote that his father “always expected bad news”, but perhaps hoped for the repetition of past evils “so that he could rectify old responses.” This did not resonate so strongly with me, my own father having been born right here in Washington, DC, in 1905—a man who, as far as I know, had only ever fled from the occasional bill collector.

But something else Rosen wrote did strike me, no doubt because it was something I had allowed to alight only on the edges of my rattled post-9/11 consciousness. “In recent weeks”, he admitted, “I have been reminded, in ways too plentiful to ignore, about the role Jews play in the fantasy life of the world. Jews were not the cause of World War II, but they were at the metaphysical center” of it. Jews are not the cause of apocalyptical Islamist terrorism either, “but they have been placed at the center of it in mysterious and disturbing ways.”33.
Rosen, “The Uncomfortable Question of Anti-Semitism”, New York Times Magazine, November 4, 2001.

Rosen put his finger right on it, on the seemingly eternal madness of Jewcentricity, a madness that now binds Jews, Muslims and Americans together in the most improbable ways. Rosen grew up determined to shed his refugee father’s acerbic view of life, he says, as “an act of mental health.” But now, wrote Rosen, “everything has come to American soil.”

So it has, and for many American Evangelicals this twinning of American and Israeli circumstances proves their religion’s essential truth. But it has come with an almost palpable sense of fatigue for many Jews, some in Israel but more, it seems, in the United States. Israelis have shown no lack of enthusiasm for defending themselves despite the recent fecklessness of their political and military leaders. But we now have Jewish columnists like Richard Cohen of the Washington Post proclaiming that the creation of Israel was “a mistake”—this at a time when Hizballah missiles were raining down on civilians throughout northern Israel.44.
Cohen, “Hunker Down with History”, Washington Post, July 18, 2006.
(Perhaps instead a certain Mr. and Mrs. Cohen made a mistake some many years ago.)

Israel was no mistake; the difficulty of demonstrating counterfactuals aside, it is hard to see how the circumstances of world Jewry would be better today had Israel never been born. Nor is it obvious that the Near East would have been a garden of delight all these years in Israel’s absence. But Israel does now face a deadly serious strategic dilemma. In the aftermath of the August 14 ceasefire there started a predictable but infantile game of arguing over “who won” the mini-war. This is beside the point. The point is that conditions now exist in which the merger of Shi‘a-infused eliminationist ideology and modern military technology raises the prospect that vast reaches of Israel can be turned into a “no go” zone in a mere hour or two simply at the wave of a murderous hand in Tehran or Beirut. That makes Israel the first test case of the post-Westphalian era, the sovereign state most likely to have its basic peace and security destroyed by fanatical non-state actors.

Israelis are lucky in a way to have discovered Hizballah’s capacity to extend the range of Iranian military power before that power surreptitiously grew even more lethal than it already is. Israel’s dilemma is how to deter the kind of threat it now faces, seemingly in perpetuity, without resort to an explicit nuclear weapons posture, and how to do it in a way that does not prevent those of its neighbors who wish to make peace from doing so. This is, to date, a unique problem, the future of which bears enormous global consequences, for the position in which Israel finds itself on account of its radical Shi‘a adversaries is precisely the position that al-Qaeda and its affiliates seek to impose on the United States.

Yom Kippur is coming soon, and on Yom Kippur we Jews collectively confess our sins and shortcomings. It is a ritual catharsis that is supposed to lighten our burdens, freshen our resolve to be better people, and renew our capacity for compassion. It works, too. But for me, this year, there is a problem. On the one hand, I am sick of Jewcentric fantasies, silly and serious alike. I don’t care what Etty Allen did sixty years ago or how much her son likes ham, I can’t change the lurid aspirations of Jew-loathing Muslim fanatics, and I can’t get more than a word in edgewise with Israel-fixated politicians and intellectuals. But on the other hand, the High Holiday liturgy bids me say: “Thou hast chosen us from all peoples; thou has loved us and taken pleasure in us, and has exalted us above all tongues. Thou hast sanctified us by thy commandments, and hast drawn us near, O our King, unto thy service.” My prayer book too, alas, is Jewcentric.

Unto thy service, huh? Suppose some of us are not in the mood to be chosen? Suppose we’d rather, like Greta Garbo, just be left alone? Well, that, precisely, is why the philosophic climax of the Yom Kippur service is the recitation of the Book of Jonah. Jonah was about as thrilled to take on Nineveh, I suppose, as I am to tell European audiences things they just don’t want to hear. But in the end who really has a choice?

See the discussion and the statistics in Walter Russell Mead, “God’s Country?” Foreign Affairs (September/October 2006).
See Michael Scott Doran, “Palestine, Iraq, and American Strategy”, Foreign Affairs (January/February 2003).

Rosen, “The Uncomfortable Question of Anti-Semitism”, New York Times Magazine, November 4, 2001.

Cohen, “Hunker Down with History”, Washington Post, July 18, 2006.

Adam Garfinkle is editor of The American Interest.