Nathan Alterman (1910–1970) was the most important Hebrew poet of his generation. He was popular with readers of poetry and continues to be much-studied. Side by side with the major modernist works that established his reputation, Alterman was also a prolific producer of occasional verse on subjects of Jewish and Israeli concern. Try to imagine a close-knit, ideologically driven society of immigrants in which a public-spirited Wallace Stevens or Geoffrey Hill regularly contributed a “Seventh Column” to the newspapers. Some of his engaged poetry, like “The Silver Platter,” which honors the anonymous battlefield sacrifices that made the state of Israel a reality, are familiar to every Israeli; poems commenting on and often criticizing Israeli policy in the 1950s are still recalled and discussed today. Though it would probably be an exaggeration to ascribe to Alterman great influence over the socialist Israeli establishment of his day, there is no doubt that the elite, from Ben-Gurion on down, read him and acknowledged his stature as writer and conscience of the nation.
Alterman shared with many of his admirers a mild contempt for American Jews, Jews who enjoyed lives of materialistic comfort that contrasted tellingly with the Spartan conditions of pioneering Israeli Jews. These American Jews had not given sweat and blood on behalf of their people. He dismissed the pretenses of his brethren west of the Atlantic who deemed themselves a Jewish cultural center that rivaled Israel, as if they reincarnated the academies of Sura and Pumbedita in late antiquity that bequeathed to us the Babylonian Talmud. And he lampooned the claim that post–World War II American Jews had found a secure haven in this country.
All this brings us to Alterman’s observations on the American presidential campaign of 1952, Dwight Eisenhower versus Adlai Stevenson. Whatever went on in the proverbial smoke-filled rooms, for the average spectator the conventions, like many before and after, were a circus, with fulsome rhetoric and invective and party hats and cow horns and clichés. To an Israeli like Alterman, the idea of the world’s greatest power and arsenal of democracy choosing its leader in such a fashion seemed ludicrous, and he was amused.
Within the boisterous throng, Alterman fastened his eye on the eager American Jew. Alterman saw him shouting and cheering and valiantly trying to fit in. Yet there is something about him that doesn’t quite fit, an element of preoccupation or distance. Whence does this discomfort stem? Perhaps the American Jew is insecure because of his loyalty to his people, and particularly his Zionism. He dreads the suspicion that Gentile Americans will think that concern for his people means a lackluster commitment to America.
Yet Alterman doesn’t buy this analysis. Advocacy and boosterism for one’s ethnic group is typically American. Many Irish Americans have been militant for the Irish cause against Great Britain. Slavic-American neighborhoods in postwar America expected their politicians to fight against the Soviet enslavement of Eastern Europe, at least rhetorically if not in concrete actions. Precisely in this respect, the Jew is like other Americans. No, says Alterman, the difference is this: The Jew may yell “I like Ike” and pump his fist and blow his whistle, but his real question is whether “Ike likes me.” This, he judges, is why the Jew looks like an outsider at the party, or, in the poet’s striking phrase, like an old man in a nursery school.
Perhaps so, but is this surprising? How we feel about a leader normally corresponds to how we think he feels about us. We are enthusiastic because a candidate “shares our values.” We elect people whom we trust, not bloodless platforms. It is the exception rather than the rule to strongly back a politician who distances himself from his supporters and offers them his principles rather than his person.
There are good reasons for wanting to feel a special connection to the politicians we support. One is that political policies change in response to circumstances and unanticipated pressures. We want to feel confident that he feels his advertised convictions “in his gut,” and very often that means that the leader identifies with the groups and interests he has pledged to serve. “I like Ike” because, in the crunch, Ike thinks and feels like me, and the people he surrounds himself with, whose advice and arguments he is inclined to hear, are people like us.
Another point is that the full import of a man’s convictions is often evident only if you know the man in full. In the decades after World War II, American Jews who supported Israel liked to say that all American statesmen were devoted first and foremost to what’s good for America. What they did in the Middle East was to safeguard American interests; domestic politics or personal feelings about Jews played a secondary role. But this attitude sidestepped the question of how different political leaders viewed the American interest. In the final analysis, social and temperamental factors do a great deal to determine a leader’s orientation, more so than policy positions. Hence, the leader’s personality and the voter’s sense of affinity matter, and they should. A voter is wholly justified in wanting Ike to like him, whether that voter’s burning issue and existential concern is Israel or Ireland or labor unions.
Now, this evident truth about representative government in a democracy poses a challenge to Alterman’s thesis: If liking Ike and wanting him to like you naturally go together, there is nothing idiosyncratic about the Jew feeling this way. Was Alterman wrong about the Jewish anomaly? Or can we give his insight a sharper formulation?
We can refine things further. As we saw, those who like Ike also want to be liked by Ike. But the ordinary American in the crowd doesn’t dwell on the difference between liking Ike and being liked by him. He cheers his candidate, and the candidate beams back at him. They are two sides of the same coin, sharing an unconscious but powerfully felt Americanism. Where the Jew differs, according to Alterman, is that in liking Ike (or Adlai) he can’t let go of his anxiety about Ike’s attitude to him. He is reflective, and to a degree anxious, where other citizens are largely confident in their reciprocal regard.
Alterman’s perspective on the American Jew of the 1950s, once sharpened, is persuasive. And it has applications to the religious voter of 2020. Many progressives feel a powerful kinship with their political icons, Bernie and Liz and “The Squad” of young legislators. At heart, they believe, their preferred candidates see the world as they do. Religious traditionalists cannot feel a similar harmony with the standard-bearers of the right. We care about religious liberty and so applaud President Trump’s judicial nominations; we worry about Israel, and therefore warily back some of his diplomatic moves. But do we believe that Trump, or other Republican figures, are kindred spirits? Are proclamations about abortion and other important issues a sop to a critical bloc of voters in the Republican coalition? Or are they sincere, a sign of a leader who is like us? Does the tilt toward the Netanyahu agenda for the future of Israel reflect settled conviction? Or is it the result of an accidental convergence of interests?
In his poem about American political conventions in 1952, Alterman distanced himself from his American Jewish brethren, because caring too much about whether Ike likes you exemplified the spirit of the old, dependent Jew of exile. There is an important truth in that judgment, perhaps more relevant to our situation today than to that of Jews in the 1950s. Today, traditional Christians here, and religious Jews both here and in Israel, are in many ways outsiders whose fate depends on the tolerance and approval of the powerful. We do not enjoy a spontaneous confidence that our leaders are like us—or even that they like us.
Shalom Carmy teaches Jewish studies and philosophy at Yeshiva University and is editor emeritus of Tradition.