To speak of something called “Christian America,” as both the advocates and the opponents of this idea are nowadays at high levels of passion wont to do, is by itself evidence of how un-Christian the country has become. Many Christian activists, especially the most innocent and high-minded among them, seem not to understand the true nature of their underlying predicament. We are, for instance, constantly being reminded by those who have an interest in declaring the robustness of Christianity in America today that such-and-such a high percentage of Americans are to be found in church each Sunday and that an even higher percentage profess to believe in God; and while such numbers surely do not mean nothing, the very fact that the Christian party so often needs to invoke them is evidence that the religious enterprise, for all its vaunted majority status, is in a deeply defensive mode.
When I was young—which, at least as history reckons these things, is after all not all that long a time ago—everyone, Jew and Christian alike, would in fact have been puzzled by the term “Christian America,” puzzled in much the same sense as a fish might be puzzled by the idea of “ocean.” What other America was there? Christians did not think about it, and Jews imagined no alternative. (Islam, of course, and Buddhism were in those years strictly the Arabian Nights to most Americans: for one thing, oil was cheaper than water, so who really cared about Islam? and the fascination of the young of the 1960s with exotic spirituality was still quite beyond imagining.) There were only two religious possibilities, Christianity and Judaism, and no honest person on either side of this divide was in any doubt about the status of the latter as a minority on sufferance. On the whole benignly treated, to be sure, but in need of tolerance nonetheless.
Back in the period I am talking about, the 1930s and 1940s, Jews living in the major population centers of American Jewish life—New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and so on—might at least in some part of their daily lives have experienced a sense of cultural dominance: in their neighborhoods, on their blocks, most people lived as they did, and spoke as they did, and viewed the world as they did. Thus the shock of recognizing their status as a drop in a bucket might have come to them a bit later than to others of their fellow Jews living more scattered throughout the country. In any case, for the timid and the wounded of the ghettoized big-city Jewish community, the home enclave could always be a safe haven to remain in; and indeed many then did (and to this day some still do) remain there.
But for many other Jews, who, like me, grew up in what has come to be called the American heartland—namely, small to medium cities in the Middle West—there was never a safe haven; as children we pretty much sank or swam, socially speaking, among the majority. At least, that is, until some point in middle-to-late adolescence, when thoughts of marriage began to intrude—in those days most people married at a sensible early age before too much consciousness set in—and one way and another Jewish boys and girls, whether by instinct or external pressure, joined together in a kind of separate social entity. (I do not speak here about Jews in the South, who lived perpetually between the hammer and the anvil and who must have been so constricted by the experience that to this day not a single serious Jewish novelist has risen from that literature-soaked land to tell us about it.) For us as children, Christmas and Easter, to take only the gaudiest and most public examples, were not only major events in school, undertaken with full and unself-conscious panoply—and, be it noted, without even a hint of a glance at Hanukkah and Passover—but even more important, they were events in the households of all those among whom we lived day to day, our neighbors and our neighbors’ neighbors, as well. Christian observances were part of our street life and part of the civic life of our communities.
My own home town, St. Paul, was a predominantly Catholic city, with a sizable minority of Scandinavian Lutherans. Just across the river was our “twin” city, Minneapolis, which back then touted itself among other things as the capital of the Bible Belt and whose radio stations, in earnest of this claim, carried a more than modest number of fundamentalist preachers. (You might have thought that the Bible Belt was actually somewhat to the south of Minnesota, but that didn’t bother the Minneapolitans, who staked their claim all the same, just as travelers to my own city across the river were greeted by a sign that read “Welcome to St. Paul, Gateway to the Great Northwest.”) I offer these data about the respective religious compositions of the two cities with the consciousness of now; back then distinctions of this kind would have largely escaped me and, I think, most of my fellow twin cities Jews as well. In other words, they, the others, Catholics, Protestants, were truly one big “they”—some more agreeable than others; some truly one’s friends, some not—and it was unmistakably their terrain on which we were living.
If all this added up to certain kinds of discomfort that would have seemed somewhat peculiar to our Eastern big-city cousins—childhood friendships, for example, that unspokenly and mysteriously evaporated in adolescence—in some respects we were also far more at ease than they. A few years ago someone published a book about Brooklyn in the early years of the century, and in this book is to be found a positively gripping photograph: a group of Jewish boys and girls, say about eight or nine years old, from their dress clearly the children of immigrants, standing in a line that stretches down what looks to be a whole city block. They are waiting, the photo caption tells us, to get into . . . the neighborhood public library. How much venturing away from the warm comforts of home and into the far-off precincts of American, and beyond American, Western, civilization that photograph speaks of-how much fearful striving, how much passion, how much longing to get out and get away, are these children to be letting themselves in for! (For some, of course, there would be reward beyond measure; and for others, there would be only a lifetime of a kind of chronic, low-grade disaffection.)
But we out there in our heartland cities, we did not have to venture to find America—we were living totally, if not without a certain self-consciousness, in it. And because we were not driven, so to speak, to find our way to the library, like most of the middle Americans among whom we lived we tended to be a little smug and more than a little provincial. The boosterism once so grossly though alas not altogether unrecognizably caricatured by Sinclair Lewis was no less a besetting sin of St. Paul’s Jewish than of its Christian inhabitants. And as for provinciality, that is a quality of being best illustrated for me by the story of my introduction to Mr. Roy Wilkins (for many long years, before its descent into shame, the wise and sturdy leader of the NAACP). We met at a dinner party, and as we sat sipping martinis and seeking, as people do, some way into conversation, we discovered that we had grown up in the same city. He was quite a bit older than I, and when I sought to discover if we nevertheless had any acquaintances in common, I asked him what street he had lived on. He told me the name of the street and of the school he had gone to, and when he did so, I realized that I had never once in all my life set foot on that street or laid eyes on that school—this in a city whose population when I lived there was not much more than 200,000!
Meanwhile, as the old song has it, back in the jungle—which was in this case a land called Germany—there were Hitler and his minions, revving up among other things to alter the course of Jewish history forever. In the comfort of our American existence we were aware that Hitler was doing evil things to Jews, first in Germany and next in Central and Eastern Europe; we would not for a few years—in some cases not till the end of the war in Europe—know just exactly how evil, but what we already knew by the late 1930s was bad enough.
Now, though our lives were pleasant, we were not, of course, growing up entirely ignorant of the experience of anti-Semitism. The preachments wafted through the airwaves from Minneapolis, for instance, were more than liberally salted with reminders of Jewish malfeasance, some of which I found rather difficult to grasp (and do to this day, I might add). There was Father Coughlin of Detroit, to whom we sometimes listened and whose accusations against us were considerably less arcane than those of our fundamentalist radio interlocutors. And then, of course, there were the boys from Nativity school, just a block from our own, who would now and then spice up their boyish tauntings on our common way home with the charge that I had murdered their Lord and other such pleasantries. But public humiliations, beatings and dispossessions, and unspeakable concentration camps—all this certainly had nothing to do with us and seemed more akin to those old stories of Eastern Europe offered in explanation of why our forebears came here to this promising land in the first place.
There was, however, one difference between the fate of our parents and grandparents and that of those 1930s and 1940s Jews of Europe: and that is, that the doors of the United States were no longer wide open. Some of the Jews of Germany and Austria got out while the getting was good and one way and another were taken in here. But when the Blitzkrieg moved East, engulfing in its murderous maw not only millions of innocents but a whole rich, thick, various, and teeming Jewish culture—“hurling into silence,” as Harold Rosenberg once put it in an essay on Adolf Eichmann, “so many of the subtlest and most humane minds of Europe”—there would be no escape. (But what would we do with a million Jews? was the response of the British foreign office when an intermediary brought an offer from Eichmann to exchange the lives of a million Jews for some trucks and materiel.) So though the war would be over before we knew, or admitted to ourselves, just how bad things had been with our European cousins, we were not for a moment permitted to be unmindful that the world had become a murderous place for a large proportion of its Jews.
I realize that I am here touching upon what has become to our friends the most nagging and tiresome of all Jewish points of reference, namely, the Holocaust. But it is impossible to understand what has become of America’s Jews, culturally as well as politically, without understanding our experience of those immediately prewar and wartime years—without, to put the case in far too crude but convenient shorthand, understanding the role played by Franklin D. Roosevelt in our communal fantasy life.
Though the New Deal was itself certainly of major importance to the political formation of what has come to be known as the organized Jewish community, for many if not most Jews Roosevelt’s greatness lay not so much in the fact that he was a liberal in opposition to conservatives as it did in the fact that in the face of Nazi Germany he was an interventionist in firm and successful opposition to the isolationists. The isolationist party, best known by the name of America First, was in fact a jumble of people with a whole variety of agendas: there were those who believed that the United States should have no truck with Europe and its wars, there were socialists who found nothing to choose among the imperialists on both sides, and there were those who believed that Germany’s was not necessarily the wrong side to be on, this latter group itself being a kind of odd amalgam of Anglophobes, anti-Semites who said that the war against Hitler was merely a Jewish war, and immigrant German patriots. Except for a tiny handful of, to put it mildly, deracinated radicals, American Jews knew World War II to be overridingly a moral war and they were entirely certain that Roosevelt knew it too.
There were of course other sources of the Jews’ loyalty to Roosevelt: primarily, I think, that Jews, even those originally from the remotest villages in Eastern Europe, were in their inmost cultural being an urban people, and Roosevelt was the President of the cities: patrician and alien of background though he might be, he somehow managed to create the illusion for the teeming city folk that he spoke their language. But most of all, Roosevelt was to the Jews one of the major heroes of that great and good war. And when the war was over, not only was their fealty to the Democratic party now graven in stone, anything that smacked of the old order or of the forces of America First was simply unthinkable—out of the question—anathema—to them.
At war’s end, something would begin to happen to the rest of America, too: something that would take more than a decade to manifest itself but that had probably been brewing—as Norman Mailer might say, in the American psychic underground—since the first heady days of victory. And that was the acquisition of a newfound sense of vast power and unending possibility. To be sure, the war against the Axis, followed almost immediately by the Cold War, had introduced a new recognition of evil, with its concomitant sense of human limitedness and imperfectibility, into American political-philosophical discourse. This new understanding was, of course, an inherently religious one, and was most prominently associated with the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr. (It ought to be remembered, however, that Sigmund Freud, too, had a hand in it, through the offices of some of the influential intellectuals who had subjected themselves to his much misunderstood and much distorted discipline.) But in the culture at large, such a view of the human condition could not stand for long against the almost overwhelming tide of wealth and innovation and freedom of movement and the sensation of moving toward . . . sheer limitlessness.
In my own life, this new sense of possibility was given its first expression by my leaving home and moving to New York City. I would not have thought of it—and would not to this day quite think of it—as leaving Christian America, but I was certainly getting away from what felt to me to be the prospect of a restricted and over-prescribed life. (In any case, as it would turn out, Christian America was itself coming to manifest signs of leaving home: Minneapolis, for example, quondam self-styled capital of the Bible Belt, was growing far more dedicated to art and theater than to preachments and country music, both of which had just about disappeared from local radio. Indeed, Minneapolis was plighting its troth to metropolitanism, with all the high pretension and low adventure that implied. And the same process would, though somewhat later and with considerably less success, also overtake my own home town, as it would, at least superficially, just about every American city of more than minimal size.)
As a Jew in the newly post-Holocaust period, and as someone who had come with adulthood to loathe the Soviet government and its apologists, I too for a time, that much-libeled time known as the fifties, professed to derive my ideas of the world from a deep commitment to the doctrine of human imperfectibility. But though I would never cease to harbor the altogether illiberal belief in the existence of unmitigated evil, something else, which continued as always to lie in wait for American intellectuals, was also lying in wait for me.
Before I begin to describe what this something else was, it is important to understand that the postwar transition years—the years, say, from 1945 to 1965—were very good years for American Jews. For after the shock of discovering just how completely the entire civilized world had averted its gaze from what was happening to their fellow Jews in Europe, they would find not only that they were now being welcomed to hitherto restricted precincts but that all the traditional expressions of hostility to Jews had been banished from polite, and even largely from impolite, society. Beyond this, in some considerable degree as a result of the primary system, Jews began to exercise a new degree and new kind of political influence. And above all, Jews were now at ease culturally: not only were they being let in, but what they were being let into was more and more losing any definable character as Christian.
Now, what I have referred to before as the something, the force, just waiting to spring on the American Zeitgeist would in the early sixties be given throaty articulation by the courtiers surrounding John F. Kennedy, who, while clearly doing little more than making rhetorical gestures, nevertheless managed to hit the cultural nail squarely on the head. What I am talking about is summed up in the famous question of Robert Kennedy: “Why not?”
The question “Why not?” requires as its first premise great wealth and even greater expectations—conditions that for the American educated middle class came to be ever more taken for granted as the postwar years wore on. Beyond that, as we know, this question is and has ever been the introduction to sweet and irresistible seduction. “Why not?” turns out to be the means by which virtuous societies no less than virtuous ladies are led in pleasure down the path of self-destruction.
To be sure, many influences beyond sheer wealth led to the sense of being unshackled, prominent among them a number of literary and intellectual ideas and attitudes whose power over the country’s culture was being vastly increased by the massive spread of higher education. In addition the country was beginning to experience a burst of just plain old political restlessness, the outgrowth of boredom—ever a possibility in the life of any democracy. Be these influences as they may, the sense of open-endedness came upon me and, I would say, a decisive number of my contemporaries with the force of a new revelation: life need no longer be constrained.
It was not so much that we actually lived our day-to-day lives according to this revelation; our households and our work proceeded pretty much as they would have had we still been living in the old society in which we had been brought up. We worked hard, for instance, and were for the most part and perforce reasonably prudent. We led fairly steady lives, and if there were certainly much more libertinism and many more divorces among us than there had been, say, in our parents’ generation, they tended still to be very costly and painful and for the most part not light-mindedly undertaken.
When it came to politics, asking “Why not?” led us to disdain the old-style liberals, who for all their declared intention to make the country a more expansive place were in our view too smug of spirit and too banal of mind to be truly open to the new. Thus many of us declared ourselves to be radicals; but despite a few feeble efforts in the direction of play-acting at social transformation, our radicalism was to be found not in our lives, not even our political lives, but in our heads.
And in our heads was precisely the place where the radicalism of “Why not?” could, and did, do the maximum amount of damage, primarily to our own children. For if our 1930s nervous systems did not permit us, as they say, to “act out” the liberation of our minds, our children were to become its perfect foils. One of the things that to this day few people understand about the famous young of the 1960s is that far from rebelling, most of them were in fact being deeply obedient to the demands and expectations of their elders. That these demands and expectations were largely unspoken is little to the point. The sixties generation’s inordinate self-regard; their demand to be given, without striving for it, all the goodies their society had to offer, including, of course, easy sex; their recourse to the instant and unearned sense of power and comfort supplied by drugs; their refusal to serve their country; their general ingratitude, expressed most of all in their declared intention to lead lives in no respect like those of their forebears—all these were translations of the hubris that, partly unconsciously but entirely influentially, constituted the basic underpinning of their upbringing.
And if “Why not?” proved in the end to be an invitation to sin against one’s children—not to speak of an invitation to one’s children to do some further considerable sinning against themselves—this question carried in its wake a second, even more lethal, one. That second question was, “So what?”—two words that in combination have the power to wither growing things on the vine. In our own time, for instance, this question is the intellectual shrug that lies behind the institution of multicultural education, the social shrug that lies behind a race-based double standard of conduct, and the moral shrug that lies behind the permission to teach techniques of anal and oral sex to schoolchildren.
In any case, these two questions—”Why not?” and “So what?”—would in the end prove to be among the most lasting legacies of our escape from the bounded, and limiting, view of life that had been our natural birthright, Jews and Christians, separately and together. Obviously, neither serious Judaism nor real Christianity can cohere with a sense of life that has banished all need for prayer, humility, and submission—three things that depend precisely on the recognition of human frailty and finitude. “Why not?” in its arrogance and “So what?” in its nihilism were thus to set the stage for a kind of nationwide drama of moral paralysis.
Many people who are shocked and repelled by the decadence that has so widely overtaken Western societies are now prepared to join the theorists who have traced our troubles all the way back to the Enlightenment. Theirs is a view of things that can be, and indeed has been, most persuasively argued, but it seems to me at once too convenient and too iniquitously ungrateful for either a Jew or a Christian to entertain. For Jews, certainly, the Enlightenment was the beginning of the hope, if not at all times and all places the reality, of liberty—a hope that it would be criminal for people like me to dare to make light of. And I would presume to say that the same is true for Christians: freedom of choice has after all been given to us by God, as have the mighty and humane benefits of science and technology. This is, let us remember, His universe, constituted as He has seen fit to constitute it and offering itself up to our scrutiny and management as He has chosen to offer it.
The same goes for the currently far too careless animadversions against humanism on the part of many conservatives. We are after all the heirs of giants who have lived on earth through the ages, many of whose ideas we may reject but whose genius and whose arts, be they of thought and language or of color and representation, both inspire and civilize us. Surely it was not meant for us to cut ourselves off from such an inheritance. So rather than calling on ancient and modern history—illuminating as they may be—to provide us with the source of our present threatening condition, let us just in all simplemindedness agree to recognize that our deepest troubles are of our very own making. They do not stem from enlightenment or from humanism; they are the troubles of our very own, very contemporary, self-generated atheism, the atheism, precisely, of “Why not?” and “So what?”
But to return to my story: there is no more efficient way to recover from the ungodly temptations of radicalism than to become conscious of the traps it has set for one’s children. For if we, as I indicated before, still had moral and emotional capital to draw on from that other, that earlier, call it Judeo-Christian (a usage I am not crazy about) world, our children had only our reserves of “Why not” and “So what” to depend upon. I don’t have to go into all the characteristics of the failure of that particular account; it can most aptly be summed up by the fact that in the late sixties and especially the early seventies there was a marked and sudden increase in the adolescent suicide rate. (That rate, by the way, persists, and may if anything have increased in recent years.)
In any case, there were basically two ways to respond to the admission, which became harder with each year to evade, that the young were in deep trouble. The first of these, the liberal way, was to assert that the sorrows of the young arose from the fact that the revolution had not yet been completed. Their demands for freedom and justice were still a long way from being met: there was as yet, for example, no justice for blacks or women or homosexuals; and as for freedom, regardless of how much of it was being wrested from courts and legislatures, no one had yet succeeded in putting an end to the continuing pressure from a group of the so-called “troglodytes,” mainly small-town Christians, who, it was said, wished to return the country to the dark ages of censorship and intolerance. Not to mention the persistence of yet a different group of “troglodytes,” in this case more sophisticated ones, who with their invention of the Cold War were constantly endangering the country and its young citizens with their longing to engage in jingoistic military exercises. No wonder, said the liberals, “the kids” were restless and unhappy. (I have referred to this reading of the young as liberal rather than radical because by the mid-seventies the former had in fact become entirely interchangeable with the latter.)
The second way was the way that came, not without considerable resistance, to surrender to the sobriquet neoconservative. Neoconservatives came with varying degrees of alacrity to see that it was the revolution itself and not the basically just and free country against which this putative revolution was being made that was responsible for the social ill-health of the young—responsible in one sense for the indisposition of the privileged among them and in another, far more permanently damaging, way for the ever more inescapable pathology of young blacks in the inner cities.
What we had here, then, was no mere difference of opinion, but rather a deep, and to this day ever deepening, schism. What had once been the liberal community was now split asunder; the metaphor of civil war would not be an entirely exaggerated one. In any case, the neoconservatives believed that justice and freedom as defined by the young and their middle-aged camp followers were at best caricatures and at worst outright perversions of those terms, properly understood.
Properly understood: there’s the rub. From whence such proper understanding? Lenin once declared that he who says a must say b. Despite what happened to be the murderous nature of his own particular a, Lenin was of course right. The neoconservatives came to a new recognition of freedom (I do not, of course, mean to suggest that this recognition was in any sense theirs alone—God forbid—it’s just that it happens to be their story I am telling here), and this view of the nature of freedom had, for the reasons I have cited and others, ceased to be the ersatz liberation of “Why not?” It had become rather the freedom meant by the term “free will”—which is to say, the taking of responsibility for what one does and what one is.
There you have the essential neoconservative a. And the b? The b—what else can it be?—is God. Beyond that, as the old Jewish saying has it, the rest is commentary. Rationalists find it interesting to debate whether or not God exists. Theologians seek to understand His attributes. But for Jews the real questions are not, or rather ought not to be, does He exist, and if so, who is He, but rather only, what is it that He wants of us? He has, to be sure, answered this question, not only in his Scripture but in the very constitution of our natures: to choose life, to be fruitful and multiply, and to walk in his ways, which means among other things to understand that life makes sense and that human fulfillment resides in resisting the ever-present temptation to return to tohu vavohu—the primordial chaos and void.
Such an understanding, of course, goes beyond politics and can never be satisfied by politics, but it does inevitably have a political dimension. It requires one to renounce the arrogant rejection of God’s world that many liberals, particularly young ones, call by the name of idealism. What follows from this is one’s commitment to a whole host of ideas and proposals which, despite the fact that they represent a major departure from what has been the dominant American ethos for more than half a century, are called conservative. (Alas, so far have things gone that many of the things that conservatives say they are out to conserve will in fact have to be rebuilt from scratch.)
The slowly dawning process of realization that brought the neoconservatives from a to b—the discovery or in some cases perhaps rediscovery of God—was for most of us more like a long climb up a steep hill than like a flash of lightening. And among other things it was to bring us into a new and largely unfamiliar community of conservative fellows. It would be hard to say who was more surprised, nonplussed, and possibly to some extent also amused by this new association, the old conservatives or their new neoconservative allies.
Now, most of the journalists who have assigned themselves the task of trying to describe or explain—or simply give vent to their hostility toward—this new development called neoconservatism have identified it as being primarily a Jewish phenomenon. This is most certainly not the case; many neoconservatives are Christian. Nevertheless, this misapprehension does make a certain perverse sense. For Christians in America, however far and for however long they may have strayed, the journey from liberal culture to conservatism is essentially a journey back home, where, so to speak, there are a multitude of loving arms to enfold them. For the Jews involved in this phenomenon, the case is rather different: conservatism for them represents an estrangement from not one but from two of their former communities, from the Jewish community as well as from that of the liberal intellectuals.
Thus they have found themselves in a kind of no-man’s-land where they have been engaged in constructing for themselves a cultural home for which there has been neither precedent nor blueprint. In an alliance with Christian conservatives against the atheism that has made a sick and paltry joke of each of their respective and joint traditions and that has begun like a swarm of termites to eat away the underpinnings of this democratic republic, the new Jewish conservatives have come to understand that any alienation they felt as children in Christian America is as nothing compared with the danger they sense to themselves and their progeny, along with their uncomprehending coreligionists, in atheist America. Even less than others, they know, can America’s Jews afford to indulge themselves and others in the reckless endangerment represented by the various movements that have swept unresisted through liberal society: prominent among them, the movement for a woman’s right not to be a woman; the movement for homosexuals to be considered merely heterosexuals with a somewhat different erotic taste; the movement to dehumanize blacks by exempting them from ordinary moral demands.
School prayer? This is what organized Jewry finds threatening? As it happens, I am no devotee of school prayer, on the ground that it is a distraction, a kind of trivializing surrogacy for truly weighty issues this society must find the courage to face and deal with. Nevertheless, there is something unholy in the Jewish argument that the reintroduction of the acknowledgment of God into the schools will in some way be discriminatory of and psychologically harmful to their children when these schools as they are represent so many real dangers to them: the danger of the coarsening of their sensibilities, for one, and of the snuffing out of their normal youthful longing to grow up, as well as the danger of leaving them utterly cynical about their society and their country and the rightful demands on them of both. Prayer, indeed; it is Jewish liberals, more than children, who should be doing the praying.
There are other unholinesses as well. One need not spell out each and every aspect of the participation of the organized Jewish community in the liberal culture. It is enough to say that that participation involves a kind of heedless assurance of being in the right that sits particularly ill on people whose very existence depends on a mere stroke of luck—the luck of someone’s having immigrated to the United States. Such people ought to be the first rather than the last to be found each day on their knees in gratitude to God. And such people ought to be the first rather than the last to understand the anxieties of the devout Christians—evangelicals, fundamentalists, orthodox Catholics and Protestants—about, precisely, the growing chaos in a country from whose public life religion has not so much disappeared but been banished. Thus have the neoconservative Jews sought—so far, to put it mildly, with mixed success—to convince their mainstream fellow Jews that the growing political strength of Christian believers is not a danger to them, that, on the contrary, in the long run it will conduce far more to the security and well-being of their children and grandchildren.
And yet, and yet . . . While the new Jewish conservatives may quarrel with their fellow Jews about conservatism and Christianity, there are occasions, too, when they wish they could make their Christian fellow-conservatives a little slower to temper against Jewish liberal stiffneckedness. It is true that the mainstream American Jewish community has egregiously, and I believe suicidally, conflated liberal atheism—radical feminism, gay rights, promiscuous abortion—with the Jewish interest. And it is true that the mainstream Jewish community, priding itself on its concern for social justice, has on the whole been almost professionally insensitive to the many valid complaints of social injustice on the part of believing Christians, particularly the evangelical fundamentalists. But now and then those of us who wish to turn our fellow Jews from the path of liberal suicide come up against a certain crackpottedness—and sometimes worse—from the right that appears to be reminiscent of that old 1930s Bible Belt, Coughlinite, America First damnation of the Jews. And when that happens, it is not ideas we are left to deal with but nervous systems.
The late Lucy Dawidowicz, distinguished historian of the Holocaust, declared that there should be a moratorium on the very use of the word “Holocaust”—that it has become a crutch and an excuse and a cheapener of memory—and what she said is undeniably right and healthy. Moreover, if the twentieth century witnessed a horror beyond all the horrors of Jewish history, it also witnessed a new redemption, the return to our ancient land. Still, we remain testy about our security, in the United States as well as in the ever-threatened Israel—testy in a way that others perhaps do not understand.
The “Why not?” and “So what?” of present-day liberalism are thus a special temptation to Jews, who entertain themselves with the idea that they can escape what has for so long been God’s seemingly difficult, and for them often particularly cruel, decree. And if anything, these questions are proving more dangerous to Jews than to anyone else, undermining as they do the foundations of the kind of free society on which the twentieth century has taught them that they must depend for their very continuation. As between the old Christian America, which did, it cannot be denied, visit the Jews with certain discomforts, and the new atheist America, which goes straight for the jugular of their children and their children’s children, how can America’s Jews feel there is even any choice? And yet, of course, they do most unsentiently continue to feel exactly that.
Still, there are many Christians, too, who suffer from that age-old Hebraic malady that the Lord once diagnosed as stiffness of the neck and who, I like to think, cause Him a certain worry, as they do me.
Let me explain. Last year I sat one evening in late spring on a veranda in Jerusalem, looking across at Mount Zion, from whose wonderfully lighted nightscape loomed the dome of the Dormition church. It was a beautiful evening, balmy, heavy with the scent of jasmine. And as I sat there I thought: Why do not the world’s Christians celebrate the return of the Jews to this city? They have tended it so lovingly, burnished its ancient beauty, planted it with flowers and trees, made it so pleasant and been so tender and so mindful of its holiness. For nineteen years the eastern half of Jerusalem, including the much hallowed Old City, languished under the Jordanians, who not only desecrated Jewish holy places and graveyards but left the whole area in a dirty and threadbare condition. Why, then, do the Christians not celebrate the salvation of Jerusalem made possible by the Israeli military victory in 1967? Why do Christian institutions take part in pressuring the Israelis to place themselves once again in mortal danger and throw the history—and faith—laden parts of the city back into wretchedness? The answer is that the evangelicals do indeed celebrate, both the return of the Jews to the holy land and their rescue of old Jerusalem. But others, many, many others, do not—for reasons that, no matter how often they are articulated, simply make no sense to me.
In any case, as I sat there that evening, I understood with my senses instead of merely with my head how truly dependent on one another Jews and Christians nowadays really are—in a world in which they are both so dangerously surrounded by barbarians, Christian and Jewish barbarians among them. The little girl from St. Paul has come a long way and so, I keep hoping and believing, have at least some of the boys from Nativity.
Midge Decter recently retired as Distinguished Fellow of the Institute on Religion and Public Life. This essay originated as the 1995 Erasmus Lecture, which is sponsored by the institute.