A few years ago when she was working for a home magazine, my wife got a feng shui expert into our house to rejigger our energy and when the expert saw me in my office, she said the assignment was about fixing me, my life was out of control. Catherine did my chart and we sat down to go over my problems. She said a big one was that I had no community. She was going to work on that. She wanted me against a northwest wall, facing out. And other stuff too.
She was right about that problem: I’d lost my community. It was about the time that this blog got axed at the New York Observer, so I was no longer working for a Jewish friend I’d worked with since college who I love. And meantime, my Jewish editor at a big publishing house who I also love was not interested in a Jewish book I was writing, saying I didn’t understand Jewish history. And many many other statusy Jewish friends I’d had since college were sailing off over my horizon. For the simple reason that I was beginning to criticize the Israel lobby every day as a threat to the American interest and Jewish life, and my Jewish community didn’t like that.
My wife was upset about it on social/psychological/professional grounds. I’m not that connected to the world anyway, and she felt I had cut all tethers. It disturbed her and not just because she was bringing home the bacon: she wanted me grounded in a community.
And I realize now that I was in grief–which is why I emphasize that I love those friends of mine.
Looking back on it, part of the deal with being inside the Jewish community was a few great modern covenants. They come with the territory, believe me. We are smarter, we have been persecuted, we are exceptional. I believed all these things. I genuinely believed them in my bones. And these covenants/beliefs worked for the Jewish individual on a very practical level. Jews were – and this is objective/factual—predominant in many elite callings, from media to finance to politics, and if you were in the gang, more power to you. I have written about Jewish kinship networks. There can be little question that one of the reasons I got ahead in life was because I’d met so many smart and accomplished Jewish friends in college. They gave me opportunities, for instance in the network of the New Republic, even when my writing was (as Mike Kinsley told me, with the gift of straightforwardness) murky and incoherent. They believed in me and I believed in them, and a big part of it was ethnic discrimination. Stay Jewish, one of my editors once said to me when I was beginning to doubt the rightness of Jewish ethnocentric identity. We all knew each others’ jokes, cadences, ironies– the mental patterns. In Hollywood I understand there is prejudice against non-Jews, and I’ve seen it in New York circles too.
But this discrimination, isn’t it meritocratic? Aren’t Jews smarter? Commentary (stacks of which I grew up surrounded by in an academic household) says it all the time. IQ. Nobel Prizes. And I have said that on this site many a time. Because I still believed it. I believed that Jews are smarter. And this was another part of my grief; I felt that I had gotten off the smart team and on to the dumb team.
Most important, I am hardly the only one who believed it. Everyone in the American power structure came to believe it. And the belief was persuasive. WASPs believed it; they were stunned by the passionate killer bees of the Jewish meritocracy and that is one reason they yielded place. They accepted the idea that Jews are smarter. My wife tells me that she believed it (even as she was studying Freud and going to Jewish therapists and working for only Jews). I bet many Muslims believed it. Many second-rate Jewish writers believed it; and that belief allowed them to elevate their game.
In retrospect I see that as a kind of curse; we were all laboring under a belief that some wise people had cast, and whether false or not is not the question, the belief was governing everyone’s behavior.
This post is prompted by the fact that yesterday morning I ran into my wife’s office to tell her about something I was writing, and when she said, Who told you that? I mentioned the two people who had helped me, and one was an Asian-American Christian, the other an Asian-American Muslim. And I realized that they are dear colleagues of mine in the space that you are in right now, the internet between your ears, and they are both wicked smart, creative (and yes privileged) thinkers, and as Jewish as Paris Hilton.
As I spoke to my wife, it occurred to me that I no longer actually believe that Jews are smarter. I think a ton of people are smart. And god knows I am meeting a lot of them; and having lost my community of mutual enforcing belief, I have found another, by ending that belief inside myself.
OK, so if Jews aren’t smarter, what is this Jewish moment? Why do Jews so predominate in so many professions? It can’t be all discrimination, honey. And no it isn’t. I think it is sociocultural. That given our incredible history of the book, we were specially prepared for what Slezkine called the Jewish Century, when an era of princes and peasants gave way to one of priests and merchants. We carried our knowledge in our head, as Raoul Felder once told my wife, and when bookishness and symbol-analysis became everything to success we were there. Herzl saw the beginning of it over 100 years ago when he said that an “intellectual proletariat” of dissatisfied Jews was forming in the cities of central Europe, over-educated, vital to the new disciplines of law and journalism and science, but hitting a glass ceiling of anti-Semitism. And Kafka saw it a few years later when he read the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and lamented, “From early on [Jews] have forced upon Germany things that she might have arrived at slowly and in her own way, but which she was opposed to because they stemmed from strangers. What a terribly barren preoccupation anti-Semitism is, everything that goes with it, and Germany owes that to her Jews.”
Kafka and Herzl died before the true horror of the anti-Semitic reaction. But fast forward and my generation was the climax of the Jewish century, when Jews swarmed the Ivy Leagues, and then the most philosemitic administration in history, Clinton, (per David Frum) was surpassed by the more philosemitic Bush administration and the even more philosemitic Obama administration, where the two men closest to his office, in two boxlike offices, guarding the national security, are Jews, Ax and Rahm.
I say the Jewish century is coming to an end for a bunch of reasons. Because most Jews in leadership have committed themselves to a false idea– that apartheid is alright– and this belief is a wrecking-ball to Jewish culture and intelligence. Bad thinking is all over the rabbinate and the leadership and the journals, and one of the most majestic minds to which I was exposed, my college prof Michael Walzer, is reduced to parochial legalistic defenses of behavior he knows is wrong. And very smart people like Marty Peretz, Leon Wieseltier, David Frum, Alan Dershowitz—they are all the pantaloons of the Jewish state. Trouble ahead, trouble behind, don’t you know that Jews just lost their minds.
It is over because we have power, and power is never conducive to free thinking. It is over because the Jewish century has to end, like all moments in history. It is over most of all because we have shared our great cultural gifts with Americans and others have learned them, because cultural gifts truly are transferable–from our psychological openness to our matriarchy to our worship of education. It is over because others have become Jewish.
I have said this kind of thing before, but I never really believed it. I continued to believe that Jews were born smarter. I continued to believe that I had lost a superior community and gained a lesser one. I no longer actually believe that. And I have many smart friends to show for it.