Surprise is the name of the game since November 8, and we’re likely in for more. The electoral strategies pursued by mainstream Republicans through the primaries and Hillary Clinton throughout turn out to have been an American Maginot Line, vast buttresses built to face the wrong enemy. Not least of the surprises of recent months has been a sudden rise in concern about anti-Semitism. As it has so many times before, the Jewish Question has surged to the forefront of politics, urgent and raw. But what is the question? And what does the new Jewish question have to tell us about some of the deeper currents, among Jews and non-Jews both, roiling the waters? As it turns out, quite a lot.
It started during the campaign. When David Duke endorsed Trump in February, Trump claimed he did not know who David Duke was. That could only have meant one of two things, neither reassuring. Either Trump had missed a large number of news days over the past 25 years, or he was lying. Then, in July, Trump shared an image of Hillary Clinton amid a shower of money and a six-pointed star. The campaign tried to backtrack but Trump himself held his ground, claiming that the star was not a Star of David at all. Same problem: Either he was displaying appalling ignorance and insensitivity, or he was lying.
One might have expected the mainstream press to have connected the two incidents and draw the logical conclusion that, whatever Trump’s personal views, the campaign had identified an anti-Semitic constituency worth appealing to, albeit sotto voce, while throughout the campaign all kinds of brutal anti-Semites harassed as many Jewish journalists and commentators as they could. Certainly, most Jews, with their ever-ready bigotry antennae fully deployed, took this conclusion for granted
Those antennae had been tuned to an exquisite sensitivity when Stephen Bannon joined the campaign as manager in August. They detected in-coming transmissions when they and others heard outright conspiracy theory overtones in Trump’s October 13 speech, and saw one of the last television ads of the campaign featuring “enemy” photos of George Soros, Janet Yellin, and Lloyd Blankfein.
When after the election Bannon, the tribune of a movement which seems regularly to blame Jews for America’s ills, was slated for a major White House role, and the Democrats turned to Representative Keith Ellison, an American Muslim tied earlier in his career to the Nation of Islam (yet praised by some Jewish leaders as a great friend), to possibly head the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the temperature of discontent rose still higher. What in God’s name is going on?
Well, as with many things these days, we don’t know yet. Oddities abound, a fair number of them revealing deep splits within the Jewish community in the United States, and gathering splits between American Jews and Israel.
For example, while Trump’s candidacy flirted with outright anti-Semitism and brought legions of Jew-haters out from under their rocks, his daughter and son-in-law are Orthodox Jews, whose community voted for him in substantial numbers. The Anti-Defamation League, long the mom and apple pie of Jewish organizations, has broken with its long bipartisan ethos to denounce the appointment of Steve Bannon as chief strategist in the White House. At a recent conference in New York, the ADL’s director announced that if the Administration follows through on its plan to register Muslims, they can register him, too.
Meanwhile, however, Bannon invited himself and was welcomed to the annual dinner of the hardline pro-Israel Zionist Organization of America, which has attacked the much-larger AIPAC for insufficient fervor, though in the end Bannon didn’t show (chaos sown, mission accomplished). Across the aisle, Jewish Democrats are taking different and opposite positions on the potential appointment of Congressman Keith Ellison, an American Muslim who has been critical of Israel in the past, as chairman of the DNC. Ellison has been endorsed both by Charles Schumer, who reached Senate leadership via Brooklyn and has for decades been an unabashed supporter of Israel, as well as by Bernie Sanders, as unmistakably Jewish as the old socialists of my West Side childhood (yet who has called himself the child of “Polish immigrants,” not quite the Trotskyite Jews of an earlier time). Yesterday, the Anti-Defamation League, which had initially seemed supportive of him, issued a statement expressing serious reservations.
So, to repeat: What is going on here?
As so often happens, a closer look at the Jews and their headaches casts light on some of society’s deepest and most painful reckonings, with matters particular and universal. This time it’s American society, and the headache is not restricted to the Jews alone. Two sets of dynamics, one set rather new, as history goes, the other pretty old, are in play. A brief dive into them can help clarify the present. Let’s start with the new.
Our identities, the great sociologist Shmuel Noah Eisenstadt observed, are of three kinds: identities of soil and kin, or what today we call ethnicity; identities defined by the civic life we share together in a political community; and identities wrought by our transcendent, ultimate values. In reasonably stable people and societies, the three work together. When they don’t, things get complicated.
Modernity profoundly shifted the relationships among, and the balances between, these three founts of identity, and in doing so it destabilized an old equipoise. In modernity, secularists displaced God and His representatives, representative governments replaced monarchies, and ethnicity became newly politicized. The concept of the modern nation-state became the bearer of meaningful collective belonging, for liberals and conservatives alike, even in the United States, albeit on its own exceptional terms. It was being part of the nation-state that gave you your rights, and, crucially for liberals, rights such as individuals all created equal. As Robert Penn Warren observed decades ago, the story of modern democracy was the steady widening of that rich idea of political and legal personhood to ever-expanding groups (Dissenters, Catholics, Jews, African Americans, women) to whom it had been hitherto denied.
This widening was not without its turmoil, for reasons material and spiritual both. Many people suffered through the dislocations of modernity. At times in America, and in Europe big time, the Jews were held to blame for all this. Jews became associated as a nefarious silent partner with the great wrecking ball of modernity as it leveled traditions, and later the association transferred in the minds of many to the very embodiment of modernity, the United States. (In Weimar Germany, the euphemism for all the bad stuff of modernity was “Americanism.”)
These anti-Jewish tropes were layered on older antipathies. Modern iterations of anti-Semitism—what the late historian Robert Wistrich called “the longest hatred”—sat on top of the fact that Jews had been for many centuries the most prominent internal “Other” of the majority cultures. The Jews, who were inside these cultures and outside them at the same time, possessed only two of the crucial forms of identity mentioned above: soil and kin, and transcendent values. Sharing neither with the people around them, the Jews did not fit into their political communities. And so when modernity tried to wedge Jews into those political communities solely by dint of civil values and rights, two things basically happened: In some places, these being places where corresponding attitudes and institutions of liberalism were sunk deep into the culture, it worked well; and in other places, suffice it to say, it didn’t. Meanwhile, Jews tried to adapt to new opportunities offered to them for the very first time as individuals rather than as a community, and nothing has been the same since.
This brings us to the old part of the story that is now, sadly, new again. It starts with the very phrase “Jews and Judaism”—the former a concrete group of people, the latter a teaching, a set of arguments meant at its heart for all humanity. In other words, here we have a specific people who committed themselves to survival so that they could proclaim, by word and by example, faithfulness to a transcendent God and His universal teachings. This duality of the universal message and the particular delivery system at the very heart of Jewishness since the time of the Biblical prophets has been a source of extraordinary creativity (consider Maimonides) and grief (consider the Crusades).
Up to modernity, Jews and non-Jews lived within boundaries, well defined from within and without. With the fall of those boundaries in the rise of nation-states and the dismantling of traditional Jewish communities, the latent tensions between the universal and particular aspects of Jewishness became were radicalized. Jewish politics, largely passive and inward-looking for centuries, now became activist, and in the drive for citizenship and emancipation, its latent universalism brought into play like never before.
As the magisterial, controversial thinker and rabbinic leader Abraham Isaac Kook observed shortly before World War I, modernity had essentially whirled apart the constituent elements of Jewishness—transcendence, universal ethics, and peoplehood—which each became the property of one party: the Orthodox, the liberals, and the nationalists. As each contended against—and at times attempting syntheses—with the others, their arguments over politics and polices became ineluctably arguments over values and ideals.
Meanwhile, these modernized Jews became the most visible signifiers of the destabilization of modernity, for good and for ill. You see, for capitalists and communists simultaneously to accuse Jews of seeking world domination seemingly makes no logical sense, until you realize that both phenomena—modern capitalism and modern socialism —were themselves very new and destabilizing reactions to new and deeply destabilizing realities. And indeed, Jews were involved in generating the new reality as well as both forms of reaction to it. What critics failed to realize was that what looked to them like Jews striving for world domination was instead just individual Jews, whose own sense of self was as much under siege as everyone else’s and in many ways more so, trying to survive.
The Jewish mix of particular and universal is not easy to figure out, for Jews or anyone else. Modernity remade and radicalized that mix, yielding both modern anti-Semitism and its reactions, above all Zionism. It was Herzl’s analysis of European anti-Semitism as something both new and structural that made his 1896 pamphlet The Jewish State so electrifying. Unbeknownst to him, 14 years earlier in 1882 a Russian-Jewish physician, Leo Pinsker, had offered the same analysis, but more cuttingly, in his Auto-Emancipation.
The heart of Pinsker’s message offered a shocking observation: At the risk of making you a bit uncomfortable, he told his readers, we Jews are a ghost people, in but still never really of the places we live. Anti-Semitism itself is irrational, but it makes lots of sense for people to be scared of ghosts. So, Pinsker said, the Jews needed to create for themselves a state of their own, to save themselves and rid the Gentile world of its own demons. Neither he, nor any of Zionism’s direst prophets, could have foretold just how far those demons would go once they had the chance.
What does all of this have to do with early 21st-century America, so different for so long from the Old World? I think it’s fair to say that we’re beginning to discover the surprising answer: quite a lot.
Trump’s candidacy and nascent Administration have thrust upon us some mind-bending paradoxes. He has ridden to power on a wave of angry populism the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades, and with it comes a kind of white nationalism we may never have seen before, premised as it is on the rejection of the supposedly tried-and-failed liberal socio-economic and international order that emerged from the Cold War. (That the early appointments of this ostensible populist are coming from Wall Street is another paradox, one his supporters will have four years to ponder.) Trump’s candidacy has galvanized American anti-Semites like nothing has in decades, and yet he’s a New Yorker whose daughter converted to Judaism so she could marry, yes, an Orthodox Jew. The significance of this, as I’ve written elsewhere, is that Trumpism and its focus on the Great Leader has thrust Jewish politics back by centuries, to the time when all that mattered was the personal relationship between the sovereign and Jewish merchants with good connections, or in slightly less exalted circumstances between the poritz (the baron) and his transactionally useful Jewish intermediaries (schtadlanim).
But Trumpism may indeed bid to become larger than Trump, and become an abiding presence in American life—and that brings us to the man who is the greatest flashpoint here, Steve Bannon. What makes Bannon especially significant, and scary, is not only his understanding of the new media swamp in which we live, but also his being the person in Trump’s circle with something like a program and ideology.
Bannon is an odd mix. Reading Breitbart, the website over which he has presided, he seems a purveyor of crude racism, disdain for Jews, and misogyny. He told Ron Radosh that he’s a Leninist who wants to burn the system down. (He denies ever having spoken to Radosh. Me, given a choice between the bomb-thrower and the historian, I go with the historian.) Yet reading the transcript of his talk at the Vatican, in which he lays out a considered critique of the damage done to local communities by global finance untethered to traditional moral teachings, he sounds like a worldly though not terribly threatening editorialist for, say, First Things. Thus, to his mind, the unmooring of the global capitalist class (in which he’s participated) from traditional religion and traditional community has led it to pursue policies that run counter to the interests of its various compatriots.
Missing from his Vatican talk are the truly scary dimensions of the site he’s run. Not only the site’s support for Trump, a man as unmoored by traditional morals and any sense of loyalty or belonging to anything but his own lust for adulation and power as any we’ve seen in our lifetimes. But even more so its regular fanning of anger against blacks, Jews, and women who don’t know their place (his repeated invocations of “Judeo-Christian heritage” notwithstanding). This too, says Bannon’s former colleague, Ben Shapiro, is, as Lenin might have said, no accident, for Bannon “truly believes multiethnic democracies cannot succeed.”
But, presumably, ethnic democracies can. Reading Breitbart, one gets the sense that Bannon likes muscular, military Jews who fight for their country and stand firm against the Saracens (leaving aside for a moment that Israel’s security chiefs have long been a domestic constituency for moderation). And you get the feeling that he may similarly like Orthodox Jews for their unapologetic rejection of much of liberalism, and for their union of the two forms of identity he most celebrates: primordial (soil and kin) and transcendent.
Jewish ambivalence over Keith Ellison’s heading the DNC reflects the complex dynamics of Jewish identity in modern America. Jews have for decades been apostles of progressive liberalism, both for its civic and political benefits to minorities like them as well as its resonance for them with the ethical universalist teachings of Judaism. At the same time they are attached to Israel, both as a restored Jewish commonwealth and cultural center in the ancestral homeland and as, yes, the lone Western democracy in the region. (And that is why the rise in Israel of the kin-and-soil wing of Zionism is so discomforting for liberal American Jews, whose identity channels run toward civic and ultimate values.) Right-leaning Jews, like those who invited Bannon to the ZOA, see things differently.
Most of America’s Jews, of course, are liberals and are not religiously observant, as any mainstream rabbi over the past many centuries would have defined it. Trump’s presidency has already begun to deepen the wedges between them and Orthodoxy, and, as Shmuel Rosner has suggested, between American Jews and Israel, which has been tilting decidedly rightward in recent decades. We have a new Republican Administration whose nascent ideology comports well with hatred of the cosmopolitan Jews who don’t go to the army or the synagogue, and fondness for Jews who fight and die for tribe and homeland.
Of course, the homeland is complicated by the presence of Palestinian Arabs—who, one can only hope, will soon start to realize at long last just how long their rejectionism has and will go on costing them. The Palestinians are a genuinely aggrieved and put-upon people, whose institutions and political culture are also a regular hotbed of anti-Semitism. Though the PLO was founded and led by secularists, much Palestinian nationalism is increasingly driven by one form or another of radical Islam—and indeed, radical Islam is among other things a different sort of universalism, of a darker kind. This in turn deeply complicates any Israeli effort to neutralize the occupation’s long-term threat to its remaining a democracy. Supporting the Palestinians even at their worst is, of course, for many Western liberals and leftists a way of exorcising the demons of colonialism, which is how we end up with ruthlessly secular leftists making common cause with ruthlessly religious radicals. And for some non-Jews on the Right, meanwhile, defending Israel, even at its worst, is a vehicle for exorcising the demons of guilt over centuries of persecution and the Holocaust. Put a bit differently, Jews still play a role, now political more than religious, in the passion plays of others. It was not fun to watch in medieval times, and the fare has certainly not become more entertaining down the line.
Modernity, or something not yet named that comes after it, is now in hyperdrive in the form of what is generically called globalization. As before, it creates instabilities in the trinity of identity sources, and as before some people are inclined to blame the Jews for it. In other words, some of the deepest dynamics of modern Jewish history both reflect and affect the deepest global political questions of the moment: Will transnational capitalism die of its own inequalities if not committed to the welfare of national communities? What is the relation between, on the one hand, soil and kin, and on the other, some conception of being human that transcends them? And can that transcendence (in the form of commitments to human rights and liberal democracy) be sustained in the absence of the traditional religious commitments out of which they arose? And amid the union of transcendence with blood and soil, can civil society survive? Can we honor the human need for deep connection to people and place, and the varieties of human transcendence, without killing one another?
So where does this leave those of us who still believe in a larger civic “us”? Donald Trump is the President-elect. Presumably he doesn’t want to fail, and will try to learn how not to. More to the point, because we don’t really know what he has up his sleeve, we have no choice but to breathe deep, examine each appointment and initiative on its own merits, and figure out what we can live with, what we can’t, and just what our room to maneuver is on any given one.
At the same time, the larger questions in play need to be addressed, with a caveat: Tempting though it is to work with the questions articulated by the contemplative Bannon at the Vatican, let’s not forget the down-and-dirty Bannon of Breitbart and the Alt-Right swamp that brought him and his patron into power and now aims to reap its rewards. The personal invective, name-calling, race-baiting, hate speech, and assault on civility that won Trump the White House, his gleeful disregard for, in David Frum’s phrase, “the guardrails of democracy,” and his conduct since winning the election are nothing short of terrifying. And we dare not forget that, when it was down to the wire, his last campaign ad deployed the classic anti-Semitic theme of blaming all your troubles on slick international Jews.
All this should remind us of our own first principles, our commitments to the freedoms of speech, assembly, and religion without which self-government is doomed. And it is by exercising those freedoms that we can go about the hard work of rethinking the elements of liberal internationalism that may indeed need to be revised, and those that must never be, of revisiting legacies—like liberal anti-Commumism’s mix of cosmopolitanism and patriotism—ripe for rediscovery, and of conceiving new ideas yet to be born. We must live according to our commitments, whichever our blood and wherever our soil, to the basics of human dignity.
The human aspirations for the local and the universal, for community and for something larger, are not the properties of one group or another. Those longings, with their attendant beauties and terrors, run through each and every one of us. Seeing these aspirations as inimical is false, and destructive. They are not all of one piece, and we need to find ways to accommodate that kind of human diversity, too.
As for the Jews, we need to think through the meaning of our own syntheses of the particular and the universal, of kin and place, and heaven, and the kind of civic life that can make those syntheses work in America, Israel and elsewhere—for our own sake and for the global civic society which this age has created. “History,” James Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus said, “is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.” We all better wake up now.