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Barack Obama: America’s First Jewish President

In 1963, the young editor of Commentary, Norman Podhoretz, wrote a strangely confessional article (the first intimation of what, full-blown, would become his style), which he called “My Negro Problem—and Ours.” Its disquieting point, made the year of the March … Read More

By / January 31, 2008

In 1963, the young editor of Commentary, Norman Podhoretz, wrote a strangely confessional article (the first intimation of what, full-blown, would become his style), which he called “My Negro Problemand Ours.” Its disquieting point, made the year of the March on Washington, was that too much hatred attached to race for integration ever to succeed. Podhoretz offered himself as evidence, confessing to the fear, envy and contempt with which he had grown up in Brooklyn under the siege of “Negro gangs.” Those streets still seemed to him world-historical ground: “There is a fight, they win and we retreat, half whimpering, half with bravado. My first nauseating experience with cowardice, and my first appalled realization that there are people in the world who do not seem to be afraid of anything, who act as though they have nothing to lose.” His solution was radical, and a little titillating, given his admitted weakness for blacks’ “physical grace”: racism could be ended only by mixed raced marriages, what was called (though not usually by people from the Upper West Side) ”miscegenation.” Ultimately, whites and blacks would pair off, have children, and raise up a new American type; “the Negro problem can be solved in this country in no other way.” Indeed, if his own daughter should wish “to marry one,” Podhoretz wrote, he would “rail and rave and rant and tear out my hair,” but then he would hope to have the “courage,” the manliness, to do his “duty” and offer his blessing.

What then of the future of American Jews? Podhoretz wasn’t sure, but then he also wasn’t sure why he should be sure. “I think I know why the Jews once wished to survive, though I am less certain as to why we still do. They not only believed that God had given them no choice, but were tied to a memory of past glory and the dream of imminent redemption.” Podhoretz thought it unnecessary to add that educated American Jews did not think this way anymore. Except for the (quaint) Orthodox—or except in the metaphorical sense—Jews did not really believe they had commandments to perform. The categorical imperative was to get a degree.

Indeed, Jews now had choices, not the least of which was how to make something interesting of Jewish origins once they had moved to Manhattan—to a world far removed from the Manichaean street fights of an immigrant childhood. This was a world where (as Podhoretz would put in his 1967 book, Making It) one might give orders rather than take them, have money rather than live in poverty, gain fame rather than die in obscurity. To call oneself a Jew was also a choice, of course. His childhood persecution—a tiny American token of the immense persecution just ended—made this somewhat daring and even cool.

But was it really interesting being, as Jonathan Miller put it, Jewish? Simply to spite anti-Semites? What would hold the next generation of American Jews together if organized synagogue life felt vaguely faked; if, for all the differences, one could feel oneself in a shared culture with James Baldwin—who admitted, at least according to Podhoretz, that all blacks hated whites; if the Ethics of the Fathers seemed okay, but not quite up to Whitman? “In thinking about the Jews,” Podhoretz wrote, “I have often wondered whether their survival as a distinct group was worth the hair on the head of a single infant.”

Podhoretz has grown ashamed of his article, I bet, but I always thought it qualified as poignant—not, clearly, for his extrapolation from schoolyards to public policy, or his creepily sexualized panacea, or the histrionic way he grasped intermarriage. Rather, I was (and remain) impressed by the open-spirited way he questioned the future of American Jews, indeed, the way he unselfconsciously seemed to confuse American Jews with open-spiritedness itself. For the up-and-coming audience Podhoretz knew he was writing for, it was Jewish to be ill at ease, to be for the underdog and against phonies. As Lenny Bruce had it, Ray Charles was Jewish, Eddie Cantor was goyish, fruit salad was Jewish, lime Jell-O, goyish. Making sense of these distinctions made us tortured. Tortured was also cool.

Was this Jewish culture? Well, it was culture made by Jews. We had Bernstein and Bellow. Roth had Bernstein and Bellow. 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.

And those of us who were younger, who came into our own in the Sixties, also took for granted this amorphous, self-critical enlightenment that Podhoretz took for granted. It fit with the natural defenses of classical liberalism we experienced at the university. We were citizens, there was a commonwealth: nobody had—as JS Mill had written—a monopoly on the truth. No book was sacred, but the right to interpret books was. The constitution was our real Torah, Justice Brandeis, our Rashi.

Our parents loved Brandeis too, of course. They counted -steins and -bergs during the Nobel announcements; they circulated, half-conspiratorially, the real names of Jack Warner and Bennett Cerf. Which was fine with us. If Sandy Koufax wouldn’t pitch on Yom Kippur, then there wasn’t much we needed to add. Yet we, in contrast (or in spite), spoke also of Mill or Orwell or William James at the dinner table; we plotted a graduation somewhat more ambitious than the one our parents had planned for us. Some of us even thought to take our dream of civil society to, of all places, Israel, which Commentary’s articles by liberal young Israelis (e.g., Amos Elon) seemed to invite—but that’s another story.

Most of all, I suppose, we loved the civil rights movement, for all the obvious reasons, and not only because Rabbi Heschel marched with Martin Luther King. Actually, few of us knew who Heschel was except for the fact that he marched with Dr. King. Podhoretz tried to tell us, in his 1963 article, that our “abstract commitment to the cause of Negro rights will not stand the test of a direct confrontation,” that Jews would flee to the suburbs, send their kids to private schools, etc. But here he was missing his own point. The civil rights movement was not something we did for “Negroes.” It was the very way we defined ourselves, defined the civil society we fervently saw ourselves helping to shape. Our problem was not—as Sophie Portnoy (the real spiritual guide of the neo-cons) had it—that Jews were at fault for being “too good.” Our hunger was to live in certain kind of America. It would be spacious enough for “the questions,” for a sense of tragedy, for self-criticism, for anomalies like us, free at last.

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, 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.

This may seem an academic point but its implications cut very close to the bone now. For what exactly do Jews (or all of us, really) mean by a society of choices? The liberalism we once knew assumed fallible citizens, skeptical of received wisdoms, struggling to come up with some common, provisionally defined good. Podhoretz assumed us to be atomized bundles of appetites, organized into “socialized” groups, getting what we can from a competition for inherently scarce goods (like money, power and fame). Old liberals were interested in rights; now we were right to have interests. Hannah Arendt once wrote that this behaviorism can’t be realistic, but it can win.” More recently, Jon Stewart put things more sweetly when he told Chris Matthews that his world of power, interests, and manipulated perceptions (so much like the one Podhoretz embraced in 1970s), was “sad.”

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.

I know there is something terribly uncool about this. I should, presumably, focus on the subtle differentiators of Obama’s policies, like Paul Krugman and the mandates. I would shrug off Obama’s attacks on anti-Semitism and at least take seriously that his church once honored Farrakhan, as Richard Cohen warns us. I would be skeptical about callowness, as Leon Wieseltier warns himself, plumping for the new McCain; I would, like Wieseltier, not be taken in by Obama’s suave, since Wieseltier (“I am myself not unsuave”) troubles to instruct us on “how much it accomplishes and how little.” I am old enough to know better, or certainly old enough to know how suave it is to show off that I know better.

Indeed, if I weren’t uncool I would just focus on Obama’s political virtues, his detailed progressivism, his efforts to run without polarizing electors, his hundreds of thousands of donations, his courses on the constitution, his intellect, his story, his cadences. I would, like Andrew Sullivan, want to see his as the face of America, as we try to redeem America’s place in a dangerously small world. Since I live half my life in Israel, I would emphasize his evolving approach to Middle East peacemaking, his hint that we all know what the deal is, that it is time to get it, his reliance on foreign policy people who seem both realistic and fair, his even-handedness, his cosmopolitanism, his willingness to talk with all parties, his insistence that the Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed cannot be ignored any longer.

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.

* Cross-posted at BernardAvishai.com

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