August 23, 2002


We got an especially thoughtful email from David Cohen, which he's kindly given his permission to post.

In your neo-con post, you raise three questions that are of particular interest to me: what does it mean to be Jewish in America? What beliefs define political conservatism in the US? Can there be Jewish conservatives?

The first question is difficult, mostly because Americans don't like to talk about the issues that must be discussed to appreciate the place of Jews in America. For example, we almost never say out loud that the fundamental basis for American culture is Christianity and that the United States is a Christian nation. On one level, the truth of this proposition is self-evident: most Americans believe in God and most believers -- by far -- believe in the divinity of Jesus. Moreover, this understates the influence of Christianity in American life, for even many of those who don't think of themselves as Christians, and I'm simply going to ignore the differences between the various Christian sects, are culturally Christian, celebrating Christmas and Easter, even if they don't otherwise pay attention to the religious calendar. They try to pass this off as secular American culture, but this just proves my point -- American culture is based upon Christianity.

Indeed, the general assumption in American culture is that people are Christian, albeit secular Christians. For example, the secular calendar is simply the religious calendar hidden behind a series of vapid phrases like Spring Break, Winter Vacation, the Holidays, etc. Television shows have Christmas episodes in which characters who have not theretofore shown any religious inclinations are shown celebrating around a tree and singing carols to the newborn king. It is true that, in a sort of naive balancing, Christmas is linked with Hanukah (and Ramadan and Kwanzaa) but even the prominence of Hanukah, a relatively minor holiday that falls in the winter and, fortuitously, included a tradition of giving small amounts of money to children, is almost entirely a culturally Christian phenomenon. (That is, Jews wouldn't make too much of it if they weren't surrounded by celebrating Christians.) Until recently, it was very common for non-Christians to be wished Merry Christmas in December, a well-wishing, by the way, that only a churl could resent and which I much prefer to the vapid and fundamentally dishonest "Happy Holidays."

Moreover, despite the somewhat desperate attempts to paint the Founding Fathers as deists, the history of the discovery and settlement of North America and of the ideological, political and military foundation of the United States is the history of a self-consciously Christian enterprise. Quite a bit is owed, of course, to the English Enlightenment, but it is impossible to imagine either the Enlightenment or the writing of the Constitution without the Protestant reformation with, among other things, its ultimate emphasis on congregationalism -- with apologies to our Anglican friends -- and on the direct relationship between the individual and God.

There is, obviously, more to say on this subject, but you are not, I think, someone who needs a great deal of convincing. So, having established that ours is a Christian nation, we must now ask whether a Jew can truly be an American. There are plenty of people who say no. I say yes. But my answer is largely solipsistic: I feel myself to be fully an American, and since I cannot directly experience your Americanism or that of other Jews, I am left with my conviction. You can just take me word for it.

But if my word will not suffice, my conviction is not entirely untestable. Jews have been American citizens for as long as there has been a United States. George Washington, no less, said that Judaism is no bar to citizenship, and who am I to argue with him. I owe no allegiance to any foreign prince or potentate and while I wish Israel well, it is more because of what I believe as an American than what I believe as a Jew. Indeed, the things I believe as an American fully support my American identity: I was created equal to any other man, I, too, have been endowed by my creator with inalienable rights, the government of the United States was created to secure my rights. None of these tenets rise or fall because I am a Jew.

Moreover, the mere fact that America is a Christian country implies a role for the Jews. The relationship between Christianity and Judaism is, of course, complex and the historical relationship between Christians and Jews has, let us understate, been troubled. But Jesus was a Jew. Mary was a Jew. Many of the church fathers were Jews. There could not have been a new testament without an old. In fact, I fully believe that one reason for the difference in America's relationships with Judaism and Islam is that, for Christianity to be true, Judaism must also be true, but Islam cannot be.

Finally, Jews form a part of American life. We have served in the military, we vote, we participate in public debate, we serve in Congress and the Courts and by so doing we, along with and inseparable from all other Americans, have made the country what it is. America would not be America without Jews, just as blacks, whites, Asians, Christians, railroad workers and dime novelists could not be removed without the whole becoming lesser.

Discussions of religion are difficult; reconciling all the difference strains of conservatism to come up with an American Ur-conservatism may be impossible. Contemporary American conservatism, after all, almost spans the entire political spectrum of 18th century Britain, with both (classical) Liberals and Tories being called conservative. The best I can do is set out my own lists of beliefs that conservatives must hold. I have not attempted to show their derivation, because that I think is a separate question and would require a long disquisition into Burke, Kirk and Hayek that I don't feel like taking on right now. Not all people who call themselves conservatives may agree with all of the following statements, but I wouldn't accept as conservative anyone who does not believe the following:

*Human nature has not changed from Adam to Eminem and is not trustworthy.

*Power corrupts.

*Each individual should be allowed as much sovereignty over his person and property as possible, and free choice should only be curtailed when necessary to protect others from substantial, tangible and immediate harm.

*Man's ability to reason is severely flawed because he cannot see all of the ramifications of his actions.

*Traditional societal arrangements, while not perfect, reflect a historical genius for stability that must be respected and should be changed only when absolutely necessary.

If this statement of principles is correct -- and I'd be glad to hear about additions or subtractions -- then I see no reason that Jews can't be conservative. Some of these do depend, at least for me, on religion as a basis, but I see nothing here that can only be derived from Christianity.

Nevertheless, traditionally Jews in the United States have been liberal and the idea of a Jewish conservative has been rejected by both conservatives and Jews. It has always been something of a mystery to me that, after the Holocaust, Jews weren't almost cognitively suspicious of big centralized government and, for that matter, zealous supporters of the Second Amendment, but there you are. I think there are a couple of reasons for the Jew's historic avoidance of conservatism. First, Judaism in America is urban and urban populations tend more towards liberalism. Second, most Jewish immigrants came to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from eastern Europe, where the governments were implacably hostile to Jews and to be a dissident was to be a socialist. Third, given the nature of Christian/Jewish relations in Europe, it is perhaps natural for Jews to avoid a philosophy that is, in part, defined by its Christian roots. To the extent that modern conservatism derives from English liberalism, well, not many Jews came here from England. Finally, conservatism tends to be associated with country clubs and a WASP elite from which Jews have been excluded, another reason for alienation.

However, with changes in conservatism, particularly the semitophilism of the evangelical Christian right, and changes in Jews, mostly through increased assimilation, Jews are becoming more and more conservative. This is, in part, why I think the reasons you give for the rise of neoconservatism are a little too reductive. Israel, military might and bourgeois values are important, but I think the neocons can agree with most if not all of my conservative tenets.

This is not to deny that part of the reason for the movement of Jews to conservatism is because of Israel. Two quick stories will make my point. Last weekend I got together with a friend of mine, Muslim, born and raised in the US with Egyptian parents and now working in London. We were discussing the middle-East and he complained about American policy being skewed by all the "right-wing Jews". When I objected that I was the only right-wing Jew he knew, he confessed that by right-wing he meant Zionist. I think there is a good amount of truth here. Second, I was just listening to Rush Limbaugh in my car when an ad came up for the Forward. The ad was clearly pitched to conservatives. I'm certain that five years ago, it did not occur to the Forward to advertise on Rush Limbaugh.

Both of these stories illustrate the power of Israel's current predicament to help Jews identify with conservatism. But it is equally important to note that situation in the middle-East has equally driven non-Jewish conservatives to support Israel. In other words, the importance of Israel's current situation is that it demonstrates, to Jews and to conservatives, the power and truth of conservative thought. This demonstration is responsible for moving both Jews and conservatives closer together. Israel shows the strength of democracy, it shows the failure of socialism and it shows that there is evil in the world that neither answers to reason nor rewards faith in the innate goodness or perfectibility of man. If Israel is right, than liberalism is wrong.

So more and more Jews are open to conservatism. There is nothing inherent in conservatism, at least as I've defined it, that prevents Jews from being true believers. Will their (our) conservatism look in all aspects like that of the paleocons or theocons. Of course not, not least because some paleocons and theocons will define conservatism as not being open to Jews. But can conservative Jews make common cause with Christian conservatives? Absolutely. Is this Jewish conservatism any less conservative than Christian conservatism? I think not.

David Cohen

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 23, 2002 10:21 PM
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