Kagan went hunting, and assimilating

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On Saturday the liberal Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan spoke at the Aspen Ideas Festival and said she’d gone big-game hunting with conservative Justice Antonin Scalia in Wyoming and– putting on a Dan’l Boone tone– “I shot myself a deer.” 

MJ Rosenberg’s response to this news was: “I don’t care but I guess Justice Kagan is not a Jew. Hunting for sport is both forbidden to Jews & rarely done.”

I take Rosenberg’s point. Having been hunting a bunch of times, and fishing too, I came to understand the wisdom of Jewish law barring hunting: you are not allowed to eat an animal killed in fright. On my hunting trips, I saw several animals maimed that then scuttled off into the bushes or reeds, never to be seen again, dying in terror and misery, with broken wings or legs, and the sight haunted me. I don’t care how good a shot you are; this cruelty is built into hunting. Oh and then you see the animals’ mates keening for them, searching for them…

But there’s a much larger point here than Jewish law. After all, I break Jewish law constantly. When I turn on my computer on the Sabbath, when I go to bed at night with a non-Jewish partner, every time I sit down to eat…. As Kagan surely could tell you, many of those laws are moonshine ‘n hokum.

The larger point is about assimilation. Elena Kagan went hunting because she is an assimilating Jew who was granted enormous power and who then felt a keen responsibility to represent a broader constituency than her own group. She went hunting because it was the one promise she made during the confirmation process, and that promise grew out of cultural differences.

If you watch her appearance above, at 4:00 or so she tells Jeffrey Rosen that on her visits to the Hill three years ago she met many Senators who tried to suss out her position on the Second Amendment by asking her cultural questions:

They’ll say, Well have you ever held a gun? Have you ever gone hunting? Do you know anyone who’s gone hunting? You know me, Jeff, I grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and this was not something we really did, you know. So I kept on having these conversations where I said No and No and No.

Kagan is doing Jewish geography here, the Upper West Side. Jewish culture doesn’t involve hunting, by and large. And though she was dean of Harvard Law and a former Solicitor general, she’s a provincial: it is astonishing that she never knew anyone who went hunting, and never held a gun. She went from one cloistered elite east coast institution to another.

The great thing about Kagan that comes through in this video is that she is a thoughtful person who doesn’t put on airs, and she took the cultural lesson to heart. She understood she was now making law for millions of people from a very different culture from her own, and she promised senators that she’d learn about hunting, and she followed through by hunting several times with Scalia.  

So if you leave the animal cruelty piece out of this (and Kagan’s loutish bragging on her brutality) this is a story about power and assimilation. As John Mearsheimer has said, “American culture is like acid– it eats away at those old world identities and almost effortlessly turns immigrants, and especially their children, into Americans.” I’m sure Mearsheimer would say that Kagan and I are completely assimilated Americans.

I know why I went hunting– for the same reason I did a million things as a young person, because I wanted to leave my own insular culture and try and understand a broader American experience. I wanted to light out for the territory and overcome Kafka’s Jewish complex: “that the natives are too alien to one, thus distorting reality, and the Jews too close, distorting reality, and therefore one cannot treat the latter or the former with the proper balance.”

Kagan was seized by a similar impulse when weighty power descended on her. It shows her sense of responsibility to Americans… and it also shows why Zionism is doomed.  Because Jews are simply too powerful in the American establishment to rely on the old compass– Is it good for the Jews? Reflect that Kagan is being interviewed by Jeffrey Rosen, reflect that Jane Harman and Richard Haass (two fervent supporters of Israel) are the Establishment jury on John Kerry’s trip. The Jewish presence in the establishment is simply so large today that Jews themselves are embarrassed by it. And Elena Kagan, in her wisdom, has understood the responsibility that flows from that power.

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