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!)

About Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net.

Other posts by .

Posted In:

    Leave a Reply