There are different kinds of great blog posts. There are those that are polished diamonds. There are those that show immense erudition, elegance, or cleverness. And then there are those that are rough-hewn (and I mean this not at all in a disparaging way), more discursive, a little unsure of where they’re headed. But you know the place they’re headed is one helluva interesting one and you’re dying to go along for the ride regardless of–or perhaps BECAUSE OF–the side trips. Such posts take an idea from here and an idea from there, they range back and forth over historical eras, mix it all together and come up with something wild and wonderful.
Bernard Avishai’s My Jewish Problem–and Ours is one such post. He begins with Podhoretz’s seminal Commentary essay, My Negro Problem–and Ours (pdf), and polishes it off nicely by both placing it in its proper historical and intellectual context, and then dismissing its hopelessly outdated and wrongheaded approach to the issue of race and Black-Jewish relations. Podhoretz becomes a central figure of this essay because he bookends two important periods: the 1960s and today. His ideas in the 60s were a bellweather for liberal Jews grappling with questions of race, equity and justice. His ideas today are no longer relevant and plumbing the reason why is the heart of Avishai’s mission here.
I’d have to call myself an intellectual enthusiast. I love ideas, especially those connected with politics. And I love the history of ideas, especially the ideas of progressive movements. This is what Avishai’s essay serves up in heaping helpings. He ranges from Podhoretz, Heschel, and Koufax in the 60s to Obama in the 00s (can we properly call this decade that?). It’s quite a fun ride which is another reason I like the post. The most important and exciting element of the essay is its attempt to parse the excitement that Barack Obama’s candidacy holds for so many of us liberal Jews.
Now to the esssay itself…I especially appreciate this characterization of the historical American Jewish embrace of Israel in a liberal context:
As my late friend (and Podhoretz’s eventual foil), Dissent’s editor Irving Howe put it, American Jews lived on “the questions.” Israel, for its part, was providing something more like answers, something more resilient and demanding, rooted in Hebrew, there for the long haul if it could survive its siege. But for American Jews before 1967—whose Major Organizations had not yet turned Jerusalem into their Epcot Center—it was American liberalism that was the triumph. Israel’s victories were admired all the more because, after the European horrors, the country was seen as something that remained distantly valiant and progressive. The Weavers sang the songs of Jezreel Valley pioneers in a medley with anthems of Republican Spain. This made Israel a really Jewish state.
The parallel between Jerusalem and the Epcot Center made my heart skip a beat as I read it. He really captures something critical about the Jewish community’s transformation of Jerusalem into a sacred version of Masada, a city worth dying for.
Here, Avishai brings his essay up to date by marrying Podhoretz’s mistaken notions of race and how Jews should relate to the race issue–to the Obama campaign and its impact on Jews today:
I AM RECALLING Podhoretz’s article now because there is something about the current presidential election that is teasing out a moment of truth for American Jews much like the one that article once punctuated. Specifically, there is Barack Obama, whose personification of integration in this old liberal sense can’t help but make Jews question not only what they want, but who they are.
It did not take long for the young Podhoretz to conclude that, instead of marrying African-Americans out of existence [ed. Podhoretz advocated miscegenation as the best solution for the race problem], it was simpler to push them around in ways that, as a child, he could not imagine doing. By the 1970s, his magazine was, among other things, challenging affirmative action and publishing tendentious articles about race and IQ, turning Stokely Carmichael and Ocean Hill-Brownsville into a new assault by Negro gangs. (I wrote about all of this at length in “Breaking Faith: Commentary and the American Jews,” Dissent, Spring 1981, from which some of these ruminations are borrowed.)
Still, Podhoretz’s real breakthrough came, not when he reimagined blacks as more or less permanent adversaries, but when he reimagined Jews as a more or less permanent interest group—when he reimagined the old liberalism as a trendy behaviorism and argued that “Jewish interests” (protection of wealth, “support for Israel,” etc.) required nothing more than a common sense use of power.
The author carries this discussion of Jewish “interests” vs. values into the presidential campaign:
What’s the Jewish interest? I’ll leave that to Podhoretz and (the latest tough he’s attached himself to) Rudy Giuliani to tell Florida today. But what if this was always the wrong question? What if American Jews are not an interest group but restless, loosely connected citizens—curiously proud of (what Aharon Appelfeld calls) their “fate,” not Christian but not unChristian, no longer immigrants, educated and well-off to be sure, but still not quite comfortable, looking to make sense of themselves in an evolving America? What if, by choosing, they show themselves who they are?
THIS IS, PERHAPS, a very roundabout way of saying that Barack Obama got me with hello. Pretty much everything he’s said and done since he started his campaign makes me proud to have voted for him (by absentee ballot, from Jerusalem). But I would be less than honest if I did not explain why voting for him makes me feel like a Jew in America, and in Israel for that matter, in a way I haven’t felt for a very long time. I think of Obama’s candidacy a little like the way I think of my first vote for Pierre Trudeau in 1967, or the emergence of the European Union in my lifetime. It is a kind of show-me-don’t-tell-me proof that the essential premises of liberalism, which Jews have championed since 1848—by which they have defined themselves since Heine—are, well, true.
Yes, Avishai understands that Obama is not perfect. He alludes to the criticism of Jewish mavens like Richard Cohen and Leon Wieseltier. But he seem to say: all that is important, but not as important as an overarching idea of liberalism and hope that Obama has come to embody for his Jewish supporters.
This bit of deft historical analogy shows off the author’s command of the history of the left and brings the essay to a satisfying and hopeful conclusion:
But none of this gets at the big opportunity here. Imagine, by analogy, what it felt like for Frenchmen, a couple of generations after the Dreyfus Affair, to vote for Leon Blum in 1936. Don’t tell me that the only thing at stake was who was the most experienced Social Democrat to govern “on day one.” (And please, New Republic editors, if you are reading this, don’t respond that Blum had failed by 1938; Obama will have the first Congressional majority without Southern Democrats ever, not a tragic alliance with Communists following Stalin’s zig-zag line.)
Anyway, to those of us who’ve been heartsick since the assassinations, the debasement of commercial television, the political triangulations, the vaguely reciprocal threats of creationism and hip-hop, Obama’s voice sounds just prophetic enough. Der mensch tracht und Gott lacht, my father used to say, “Men strive, God laughs.” Fair enough. But I have, I’m afraid, a dream.
For those of us contemplating the enormous excitement we’ve been feeling for the past year at the prospect of an Obama candidacy, Avishai’s essay plumbs this territory beautifully.