WASPs Are the New Secularists, Jews the New Parochialists

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
on 10 Comments

Two nights ago I went to a friend's 50th birthday on Long Island and stayed at the house of my wife's dear friend, Virginia Reath. In the morning I grazed her book collection, found a copy of Allen Ginsberg's Reality Sandwiches given to Virginia by a friend on her 17th birthday back in the 70s. Virginia's from an old Protestant family. I think she's related to Pocahontas and the Mayflower. Yet she's a freethinker in the arts, leads a secular existence. From at least the time she went off to Bard, a lot of her friends have been Jewish, she's been feeding off Jewish artists forever. They helped liberate her from her traditions.

Indeed, Jewish intellectuals helped bring about the rise of secular culture.

I'm reading a fascinating book, Science, Jews, and Secular Culture, by David Hollinger, that came out 12 years ago and argues that Jewish intellectuals sought to de-Christianize American culture. Hey I know; I was there. For some of these multiculturalists, "the exposure of the parochially Anglo-Protestant character of earlier American intellectual life has become an almost sacred calling," Hollinger writes. This is precisely what Jacob Heilbrunn says in his book of earlier this year on the neoconservatives: that resentment against the WASP intellectual elite fueled Kristol and Podhoretz et al, and that they strived to build a "parallel establishment." And did.

Hollinger was writing before the rise of the neocons, certainly before their Great Works. He doesn't even mention them (O.K., he lives in Berkeley). He likes secularists, and he says of the rise of the Jewish intellectuals, "what made these intellectuals special was their manifest failure to be Jewish parochials. This applied to many of the Zionist as well as the non-Zionist intellectuals in the group."

This statement must today be regarded as inaccurate. We cannot look at the transformation of public intellectual life in the last 10 years without talking about the parochialism of many Jewish intellectuals. I'm a secular Jewish writer myself, and I know a lot of secularist Jews. There are still plenty of us. But the neocons are parochialists, as I have argued time and again on this site, an argument Joe Klein has lately and bravely joined when he condemned the Iraq war planners as Jewish neoconservatives with divided loyalties. Alas, Klein is the exception. So is Tony Judt, who has also condemned parochialism. The pro-Israel feeling in Jewish life is so regnant that there has been a tendency among even secular Jewish intellectuals, for instance Glenn Greenwald and Daniel Lazare, not to identify neocons as Jewish parochialists (Greenwald in his book on Bush, where he failed to name the neocons as Israel-firsters; Lazare in his shaming review in the Nation of Walt and Mearsheimer). I think this taboo is crumbling. Greenwald has been plain about the Israel agenda on his blog, and it is now becoming a little trendy for liberal Jewish writers to dime out the Israel firsters: Rob Eshman on Huffington Post the other day, Connie Bruck going after Sheldon Adelson in the New Yorker. J Street has of course made sallies against the undivided Jerusalem crowd. But the fascination here is that almost all these folks (Greenwald excepted) do so from a vigorously pro-Israel perspective.They must first establish their Zionist bona fides, then go after the neocons. There is a religious flavor to the advocacy.

Let me be clear, I think the de-Christianizing of American culture was a good thing (though it caused resentment among Catholic intellectuals like Pat Buchanan and Protestants like T.S. Eliot, whom Hollinger both cites and condemns). There was a stuffy parochialism to that old order, and as Hollinger says, de-Christianizing included a lot of liberating trends in our culture, the Enlightenment, the questioning of religious myths, the rise of Hollywood.

The naivete in Hollinger's thesis is his claim that the emancipated Jews were truly emancipated. How can you talk about the Enlightenment when a significant bloc of American Jewish life is now wrapped around the Scriptural fairy dust that Jews have the right to a city halfway around the world that most of them have never been to? The Jewish novelists whose rise Hollinger extols–Bellow, Malamud et al–weren't all that secular. Bellow wrote a feverish Zionist book of his own and adored Allan Bloom, godfather of neocons. And speaking for the parochialist neocons, I don't think it's easy to cheerlead for the Enlightenment in the shadow of the Holocaust. (Doug Feith lost two grandparents and seven uncles and aunts in the Holocaust, and helped start parochialist JINSA and One Jerusalem).

Here's another brilliant thought from Hollinger: "[S]ecular modes of thought descending from the Enlightenment found constituencies among the sons and daughters of the old Protestant Establishment, even when such people were sheltered from social diversity."

He is talking about my friend Virginia Reath, who, coming from a privileged and even slightly ghettoized background,  imbibed all the new secularism. And you can find many others like her throughout privileged east coast life–including my wife, and Brian Dana Akers. The divide plays out in public debates, too: Duncan Kennedy at the Harvard Law School debating Noah Feldman over Iraq, the secularist pitted against the fallen Orthodox Jew implicated in the "war on terror." Ned Lamont v. Joe Lieberman. Linc Chafee v. the lobby. Walt and Mearsheimer (who are both secularist philosemites) v. Dennis Ross and Steven Spiegel. Last year Saif Ammous, an Arab secularist, battled Israeli scholar Anita Shapira, and said she might as well base the law of Jewish return on the horoscope. 

Shapira was hosted in the beautiful Hillel at Columbia U. built by Robert Kraft, who also owns the New England Patriots. Not unlike Bruce Kovner–who at once is a generous backer of the arts and of parochialist institutions (notably the NY moonie newspaper, the NY Sun, and the American Enterprise Institute). In those two machers you see the problem. The once-great tradition of Jewish secularism has been infiltrated by a parochial agenda, Zionism, to the point where any Jew in public life who speaks out for the Iraq war can justly be asked whether he has a Zionist agenda–the "benign domino theory" for the Middle East that Joe Klein at last found so worrisome with respect to Iran that he had to speak out about private Jewish conversations of five years ago. And I am saying, there's a crisis approaching in Jewish intellectual culture, where this stuff must be sorted out. I know where I'll find my models. Allen Ginsberg, Virginia Reath.

(P.S. Secularism is also under attack in Israel. Whose side are you on!)

10 Responses

  1. Leila Abu-Saba
    August 31, 2008, 4:04 pm

    Hmmm I began to learn out here in Berkeley-Oaklandistan that there were and remain Jews in America who were and are not Zionists; that Zionism did not equal Judaism even in the 1950s in New York. My Jewish mother-in-law grew up in Phoenix, AZ, and she is just not that interested in Israel, never has been. She did, however, work as an archivist for the Judah Magnus Museum here in Berkeley.

    I lived a few blocks away from the museum in the mid-90s (my husband grew up in the neighborhood too) but never knew until I met a Palestinian-American activist from Berkeley the story of Judah Magnes. He lived in Palestine in the 30s and was trying to develop a shared state with Jews and Arabs. His vision of Israel/Palestine got quashed. My friend's father worked with him, and my friend remembers the improbable lush green of his grass lawn, a luxury unheard-of in arid Palestine.

    Anyway. Not all West Coast/Southwest Jews are non-Zionists, but it seems more of them are less invested in knee-jerk Zionism. They care about being Jewish but don't see it as absolutely wrapped up in this vision of Israel. PErhaps this is why our local synagogue in Oakland (Kehilla, the Jewish Renewal temple) hosts a teach-in about the Nakba on Israel's birthday.

    And perhaps this is why I could marry and remain happily married to a Jewish man despite the terrible political events since the beginning of our relationship. Things just aren't as compelling or toxic out here re: Israel/Palestine. Yes we have our toxic tempests in Berkeley/Oakland but the whole society isn't steeped in it the way you feel it is in the East.

  2. David F.
    August 31, 2008, 7:01 pm

    There was a stuffy parochialism to that old order, and as Hollinger says, de-Christianizing included a lot of liberating trends in our culture, the Enlightenment, the questioning of religious myths, the rise of Hollywood.

    Phil, the Enlightenment was dealt a crushing blow with WWI and essentially destroyed by WWII. I cannot imagine how you could conflate it with 20th century postwar liberalism. The Enlightenment did not simply mindlessly deconstruct tradition in favor of some new radical dogma.

    The German Reform movement sought to reconcile Judaism with the ideals of moral universalism and intellectual freedom, not to de-Christianize their Protestant neighbors!

  3. D.
    August 31, 2008, 9:50 pm

    Another powerful post from Phil.

    As I read it, I thought how difficult it would be for a non-Jew to broach this topic in America today. The situation may be improving slightly, but it would still be virtually impossible.

    In Europe, the Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan has gingerly tried to introduce it into the academic discourse, but his efforts has been strenuously opposed by the usual suspects.

    This is the same Tariq Ramadan whom the Zionists blocked from coming to this country and accepting a post at Notre Dame.

  4. TGGP
    August 31, 2008, 10:56 pm

    What side am I on? I'm a Protestant-atheist (if there can be Catholic atheists and Muslim atheists, why not us?) non-secularist pro-Zionist isolationist paleolibertarian who prefers Pat Buchanan to mainstream political figures but dislikes his protectionism.

  5. Grumpy Old Man
    September 1, 2008, 12:56 pm

    The Jewish Establishment is universalist for society and large and particularist for the Jews.

    Antisemites are wont to point out this fact, but it seems hard to deny.

    Where they go wrong is attributing these views to Jews as a whole.

  6. Grumpy Old Man
    September 1, 2008, 12:58 pm

    A further point–the "social gospel" and Protestant liberals like Harry Emerson Fosdick probably did more to secularize America than did Jewish secularists. They came into prominence much later.

  7. Dan Lazare
    September 1, 2008, 3:38 pm


    Regarding my "shaming review" in The Nation of "The Israel Lobby": I'm really not sure what this means. Does it mean "shameful" or attributing shame to others? In other words, should I feel ashamed or Walt & Mearsheimer?

    Dan Lazare

  8. Ed
    September 1, 2008, 5:09 pm

    Weiss: “Jewish intellectuals sought to de-Christianize American culture. Hey I know; I was there…I'm a secular Jewish writer myself, and I know a lot of secularist Jews. There are still plenty of us. But the neocons are parochialisms…The pro-Israel feeling in Jewish life is so regnant that there has been a tendency among even secular Jewish intellectuals, for instance Glenn Greenwald and Daniel Lazare, not to identify neocons as Jewish parochialisms”

    What Weiss is laying out here is the theory that Jewish activists, including Neocons, have been waging a social and cultural war against Christianity in America for decades, and I believe this to be true. (Note: they weren’t exactly swimming against the tide of history, given the secular trends, but they certainly accelerated them.) Also implicit in the theory is that parochial Jewish Zionists then essentially sought to convert Christian America to Zionism. I also believe this to be true. As I noted before, spiritualism abhors a vacuum, so after Jewish activists de-Christianized America, Jewish Zionist Neocons exploited the spiritual void on behalf of Zionism.

    So, given that the de-Christianization of America resulted in Zionism filling our spiritual vacuum, how is this a good thing? It has been utterly disastrous for America, and, as we are seeing, also for the Jews, who are quite properly being blamed for the outcome. In fact, even if the spiritual vacuum hadn’t been filled by Zionism, it wouldn’t have been a good thing, given the destructive money-worshipping trends of America as well, which is another creed that post-Christian Neocons, Neoliberals, Wall Street Journal conservatives and other New World Order, pro-Iraq war types have encouraged fill America’s spiritual vacuum.

    This isn’t a call for a return to the phony Christianity as practiced by pseudo-Christians like Bush and Hagee (I mean, how authentically Christian could they be given their premeditated collaboration with Jewish Zionist anti-Christian Neocons?) or the Christianity as practiced by other “Christians” who have fallen for the Zionist and materialist swindle. But we are certainly going to have to backtrack through authentic Christianity before organized religion and the State will ever melt away.

    Phil and other left-liberals seem to believe we can get there by abandoning all social morality and screwing our way to enlightenment. How well has this worked out for Africa? That’s why left-liberals are in many ways more dangerous than Neocons. And the liberal interventionists are a combination of Neocons and left-liberals, so they provide no answers, either. And all of them were also collaborators with Neocons in their plan to de-Christianize America, and many also participated in the scheme to lie America into the Iraq war either willfully or through ignorance. How can any of these scheming bastards and useful idiots, or their movements, be trusted? They can’t.

  9. D.
    September 2, 2008, 12:00 pm

    Phil keeps misuing the terms parochial and secular, and this is muddying the waters. They are not opposites. In our language parochial is the opposite of universal, and secular is the opposite of religious.

    The clash of outlooks that we've been discussing on this site is between parochialism and universalism. It has nothing to do with belief in a creator God (except when that creator God is believed to have had favorite creations). A religious person can be either universalist or particularist.

    Phil's problem has come from his insistence on calling the Jewish lobby "religiously" motivated. This does draw attention to the similarites with the "religious Right" and so may be tactically useful, but it is ultimately misleading. The vast majority of people who choose to call themselves Jews today are not religious. I don't think Bill Kristol spends much time in private prayer. They are followers of an ideology. If we misidentify that ideology we're just postponing the real discussion we need to have.

  10. Siri S. Milkove
    December 22, 2008, 9:11 am

    If you say that a relion can be both universalistic and particular, and that parochialism may be seen as particular, then might we apply these to a definition o f secularism as well?

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