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13 May 2012


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I don't think the Jewish version of "constructed" ideology/tribalism is necessarily unique: a lot of peoples around the world subscribe to such embattled notions of their "perpetual victimhood" and seek to disseminate/propagandize it widely both among their compatriots and their "allies": the Serbs, the Koreans, the Poles, the Lithuanians, among others. It was kinda unsettling to me how similar the Zionist narrative sounded to the Korean and Lithuanian narratives that I'd heard from my own relations, among others. There have also been times when these countries' great power allies bought so much into irredentist, batshit crazy paranoia and undertook wars--and both such occasions, in the past century, led to World Wars that went far beyond the parochial concerns of the parochial tribals (and, in both cases, costing the crazy tribals dearly along the way). Of course, we never learn from history, do we?

... a lot of peoples around the world subscribe to such embattled notions of their "perpetual victimhood" and seek to disseminate/propagandize it widely both among their compatriots ...
You need not look further than American conservatives who, in Fox' News narrative, are under perpetual assault from the left and the liberals and the gays and the atheists and socialists and Muslims and ... so forth.

Polarisation and appeal to tribal instinct by invoking external enemies, real of fictitious, is a simple tactic that rather reliably works. It is also intensely subversive to the body politic and inherently dangerous (and as a result utterly irresponsible).

Nutters who just don't get that separation of church and state thing and get struck down in court for wanting the the commandments in front of courthouses? One just needs to listen for a minute for the folksy BS that Barton tells his hapless audiences: Obviously, it was (often Bush appointed, but I digress) liberal activist judges! America is a Christian nation! Persecution! These dastardly liberals did it again!

And these people are pissed, aggrieved at the injustice (not really, but what difference does it make?) they feel they experienced. There is an entire (lucrative) cottage industry that feeds this sentiment and feeds of it, and Barton (and Limbaugh and Hannity and O'Reilly etc) are part of it.

How was that? Folks have FOX News on 24 hours a day because other networks cannot be trusted? The "fair and balanced" guys? Seriously? That could be satire, but it isn't.

The message of conservatives being persecuted was as pronounced when Bush reigned supreme as when Obama came into office. Reality and actual power relations make no difference. The message, once out out, feeds on itself and works on a sentiment level. Arguments don't matter much.

Whether the politics of victimhood will peter out in the case of American Jews I can't tell. Time will tell. I think such things are almost always more persistent than we wished they are.

rjj du Nord

What does strategic culture mean?

Larry Kart

Rick Perlstein is a friend of mine and a very bright guy to say the least, but I disagree with some of the emphases in his piece.

For instance:

‘What I didn't realize was how deliberately establishment Jewish leaders of this period substituted victimhood – the sense that Jews always and everywhere were at risk of being wiped out, should they drop their guard – for liberalism, "as a strategy for defending Israel," and as "the defining ideology of organized American Jewish life."’

I would say instead that the past victimization (not victimhood), the most recent victimization being by far the most horrific and during which aid/relief from other quarters was seldom forthcoming or even blocked , has led to the never drop their/our own guard ethos.

And again:

‘The next AJC president wrote in 1982 that the reason such trauma education was necessary was "so that our children will know who they really are." Who we really are: a stunning admonition. Who we really were, as a 1974 book coauthored by the head of the Anti-Defamation League and quoted by Beinart were martyrs – and "tolerable" to the rest of the world "only as victims...and when [our] situation changes so that [we] are either no longer victims or appear not to be, the non-Jewish world finds this so hard to take that the effort is begun to render [us] victims again." The usefulness of that bizarre, passively voiced tautology springs from its nihilism: Actually existing Jewish power can only be taken as evidence that the deluge must be right around the corner.’

No, Jews were/recently had been specifically, ideologically singled-out victims -- again to a horrific extent -- and the reality of that fact led to (as I said above) to “the never drop their/our own guard ethos.” However mistaken geopolitically or otherwise that might have been at the time or now, to describe it as Perlstein does as a “bizarre, passively voiced tautology” seems in itself quite bizarre. Is it not instead, whatever else it might be, anything but passive?

Finally, about the alleged or implied conspiratorial aspect of the reshaping of views that Perlstein describes, I would think that at the time (I myself lived through an earlier phase of it), a majority of America’s Jewish leaders and a majority of the adult American Jewish community were on the same page here. Hardcore/from above indoctrination about the Holocaust wasn’t really needed; and to the degree that it has had the tone of indoctrination, its affect on many young American Jews, from then until now, has been the opposite of what those leaders desired. Witness the response to it of Perlstein and Beinert, who not only have reached their conclusions from the evidence as they see it but also in part are reacting to their arguably very Jewish dislike of being indoctrinated.


I've always been amazed at the full on mental gymnastics many Jews perform when the topic of immigration is brought up. Amazing how the same Jewish leaders who demand multicult and diversity wherever they reside will, in the same breath, dclare Israel's right to keep a Jewish character.

Shame they didn't feel the same way about Europe when they were the architect's behind importing massive amounts of poor and uneducated from the Middle East and sub Sahara Africa. With the recent shootings in Toulouse (sp?), it seems that they are reaping the whirlwind.

Larry Kart

Further, something seems "off" to me in this passage from Perlstein's piece:

"As an adult, I've always found the stereotype that Jews are liberal a curious one; my parents’ circle was predominantly conservative, not just on Israel but on most political issues. Most of all, they were intensely (and this is a word I remember repeating in my own angry adolescent dialogues with myself) tribal. What I didn’t fully comprehend, until now, was why. Beinart unearths a story of 1970s politics that was unknown to me – except as I so intimately lived it – showing that at the root of this sense of embattled tribalism was a transformation worked by the leaders of right-leaning American Jewish organizations, who traded in their founding (liberal) aspirations to universal justice for a wagon-circling parochalism.'

Jewish liberalism as I experienced it in the New Deal-oriented household of my father (an essentially self-made first-generation immigrant, b. 1911) and from his friends was basically a liberalism of generosity, would-be empathy, and gratitude. Generosity in the sense that one was temperamentally inclined to give to/give back if and when one could; would-be empathy in that there was a basic solidarity with other groups that could be seen has having suffered the same or similar kinds of systematic social discrimination as the Jews had undergone (African-Americans in particular); and gratitude to America as a country where Jews had been treated more fairly than in any other nation. Tribalism, yes -- what Jewish liberals who could afford to give typically gave to often were synagogues, Jewish and Jewish-oriented organizations, and the FDR and descendants Democratic Party etc. -- but I would sat that their tribalism was not significantly greater that that of many Irish-Americans or Italian-Americans in support of religious and political institutions, shared tribal policies and interests, and also in terms of freely given self-definition. Oc course, when one is stigmatized because of the "tribe" one is born into, one tends to have one's tribalism oppressively reinforced or, in some cases, one then tries to disguise or altogether erase those ties. In any case, the Jewish liberalism I've known and have described briefly above -- that of generosity and would-be empathy -- has always seemed to me to be a somewhat fragile entity because the deeds involved presuppose that those deeds will be efficacious and will inspire responses of gratitude. When those things don't occur, it's always seemed to me that the American Jews of my father's generation and after can be quite (though I hate to this term) "touchy" and withdraw into one version or another of Perlstein's conservative tribal mindset.


These comments are from someone who grew up in a jewish family that was actively engaged in Jewish civic organizations - although I am neither practicing nor do I still have strong instinctive allegiances.

On Rick Pearlstein vs Larry Kart, I believe that Pearlstein is much closer to the truth. Yes, ties to Israel were always powerful. Yes, they did lead to ignoringh or downplaying injustices to Palestinians. It was the rare person, though, who disparaged them or denied their humanity. The humanistic ideal embedded into the Jewish state did not extinguish the old, deep seated tradition of praying (literally as well as figuratively - if you're familiar with Jewish liturgy) for the welfare of all nations and all peoples. The notion of Israel as a moral state was therefore integral to this tradition.

A lot has changed. One, callous and vociferous denigration of Palestinians is much more common. Support for egregious Israeli abuses (inconceivable 40 or 50 years ago)is widespread. The in-built tensions between state loyalty and commitment to humanistic ideals for all have eased for too many. In this sense, the "project' = obviously combined with events - has succeeded.

This does not mean the an enlightened humanism among American Jews is dead. Witness the survey data that still shows a majority of Jews in favor of a two state solution rejected by Israel. Moreover, they have been abandoned not only by their own leadership but by gentiles who cater to the Israeli ultra-nationalists - especially our elected politicians. An appeal to their better instincts - by American leaders, by American Jewish leaders, by Israeli leaders - would produce a profoundly favorable response.


Allow me to elaborate a bit on the broad identity question as it has been addressed by Larry Kart.

1. Jewish generosity toward non-Jews derives from the same deep humanism that inspired generosity toward Jews. Not identical in obligation but with a common source. That source was the universal humanism that emerged in Babylonia. It had a hard time prevailing in Israel itself with the restoration of the Temple where it almost always lost out to 'tribalism' i.e. modern nationalism. It lodged mainly in non-establishment synagogues and is best represented by Hillel who left Jerusalem with Roman permission rather than engage in a futile, self-destructive and vain confrontation. That tradition flourished in Moorish Spain and then, later, in Europe - from whence it came to the US.

2. On the Holocaust. Of course, it profouncdly affected Jewish American consciousness. But in my experience it never pervaded life nor overshadowed it. For two reasons. Jews sensed in America the promised land - as opposed to Athe Promised Land - and grabbed every opportunity it offered. I never once have heard any Jew voice apprehension about their security or well-being as Jews. Two, American Jews - perhaps more than other group - were imbued with the optimistic, tommorow will be a better day philosophy which is our nation's hallmark.

In fact, in my lifetime the greatest anguish that I ever saw Expressed was in October 1951 when Bobby Thompson's 9th inner homer deprived the Brooklyn Dodgers of the national league pennant. I stress expressed. I of course am not making a direct comparison with the enormous tragedies experienced by Jews. Sports are sports and nothing more. I make mention of this to underscore the point that the Holocaust trauma was not manifest routinely nor cultiavted as some sort of negative talisman. Today, that is somewhat different - for some, and it is not a spontaneous phenomenon.

Larry Kart

One last try, responding to this characterization by Adam Silverman of a Perlstein-Beinart point:

'The most interesting take away for me is Perlstein's recounting a discovery of Beinart's about a deliberate strategy by right-leaning Jewish American leaders to try to transform Jewish American identity away from liberalism (which has always been one fo the predominant strains within American Judaism, largely because of Judaism understanding of and call to social justice) and towards an embattled tribalism that centered on a victimization identity based around the Holocaust and then expanded out to other historical examples (both real and mythical - for instance the Masada Myth). This in turn created a refocusing of Jewish American identity centered around identification with the safety of the State of Israel. While Israel's importance to Jewish Americans had not been in dispute since its founding, what Perlstein is describing is the creation of the identity component of a strategic culture....'

Having lived through all this as an adolescent and young adult, I don't see any evidence that "right-leaning Jewish American leaders" had to gear up a whole lot of machinery to create or alter "the identity component of [American Jewish] culture. For better or for worse, those leaders and their audience were looking at the same sets of facts (or if you prefer, "facts) and were sharing the same feelings and thus were pretty much on the same page here, without a great deal of nudging from above. That ads were run, mailings were sent out, funds were raised and spent, letters to the editor and op-ed pieces were assiduously written, sure -- but all these efforts seem to me to have taken place within a quite imperfect echo chamber, for such "tribal" fears already flourished among the several generations older than mine (I'm about to turn 70), while the organized hue and cry that Perlstein and Beinart cite as some great mind-altering effort seems to be have been counterproductive in winning unblinking assent among many American Jews under, say, age 50. And, again, those generations older than mine by and large didn't need to be convinced; they already felt that way.

Larry Kart

About something Mr. Brenner's said while making his second point -- that he "never once have heard any Jew voice apprehension about their security or well-being as Jews" -- all I can say is that my father never forgot the strict quota-system discrimination he had to deal with as a student at a Big Ten university law school in the mid-1930s (e.g. of the ten or so spots on the law review staff, only two could be held by Jews; and similar quotas prevailed in the simple admission of students to undergrad and grad schools), while all through his life as a practicing real estate tax attorney in Chicago, he was aware that similar forms of overt and covert discrimination against predominantly Jewish firms prevailed -- to the point where when fairness was encountered from boards of appeal and the like, that was always an occasion for comment. His basic attitude always was, and he was far from alone in this, "We've got to be twice as good, and sometimes that isn't enough." And he was very good.



Curious about thoughts concerning Krauthammer's article years ago in the Weekly Standard. He predicted the coming disappearance of American Jewry as a coherent community. pl

Larry Kart

A good deal more acute IMO than CK's article -- which essentially just rehashes familiar facts (or "facts") -- is Israeli historian David Vital's relatively brief, trenchant 1990 book "The Future of the Jews," in part because Vital is more intelligent than CK and also because Vital grounds his account/argument historically -- and Vital (author of a muilti-volume history of Zionism) knows his Jewish history. No more sanguine than CK, Vital points in particular to a coming (again, in 1990) split between Diaspora Jewry and Israel and explains why that may be inevitable. Seems to me that by now this split is well underway.

 Larry Kart

What I particularly like about Vital's book is that zeros in on the dynamics of what it has meant in the course of historical time to be a Diaspora Jew -- especially since the Napoleonic Code decisively altered the social status of Jews in France and set a pattern for the rest of Europe -- and how the founding and history of the state of Israel has affected Diaspora Jewry and vice versa. One may not agree with any or all of Vital's conclusions, but it is hard to see where he has not been accurate, fair, and, above all, tough-minded.

Extrapolating from my memories of the book (perhaps in ways that its author might not agree with), I was struck by the contrast between what seemed to me to be organic and inorganic developments. Undeniably organic and intense has been the drive on the part of most Diaspora Jews to become full, freely functioning citizens of the societies in which they found themselves or emigrated to, once the route of full citizenry was open to them -- again, first, in Napoleonic France (in the nascent US, too, but not yet in such numbers as to be very meaningful).

OTOH, thr Napoleonic opening, on the part of the regime that granted it, was more or less ideological and rationalistic, not organic and also was not based on any particular affinity with or understanding of French Jewry. Rather, it was in part the baggage or legacy of the French Revolution and in part a consequence of the Napoleonic state's drive to bureaucratically organize from the top down as much of French society as possible.

Similarly, the founding of the state of Israel was arguably a rather inorganic, from the top down matter, at least geopolitically. Zionism, though, would seem to be an uneasy blend of strong organic and inorganic elements -- inorganic in that it was very much a "conceived" movement initially, organic in that its appeal to those it has appealed to over the years as a solution to the mingled dilemmas of Jewry was intense and broad-based. Further, the history of Israel since its founding would seem to be no less organic than that of most nations, as has been the behavior of its citizens.

I would add as a possibly interesting footnote on the organic versus inorganic front, that in in the eyes of many thinkers, especially British ones, the premises that underlie the founding of our own country and the conceptions that underlie our crucial governmental documents -- the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights
-- have often been regarded as profoundly and perhaps dangerously inorganic, ideologically driven, and rationalistic/idealistic; this versus the more organic growth and nature of British political society and its institutions.

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