Jewish ‘Conservatism,’ or ‘Jewish’ Conservatism?

June 4th, 2015 - 8:00 pm

Mosaic Magazine, Neal Kozodoy’s website of Jewish ideas, published last month an essay by Tikvah Fund president Eric Cohen entitled “The Spirit of Jewish Conservatism,” and invited an enormous range of Jewish and other conservative thinkers to comment. I couldn’t finish Cohen’s rambling essay, but the responses make for pithy reading. Cohen proposes to nudge American Jews away from liberalism towards conservatism on the strength of nationalism, historical identity and wealth creation. Like his mentor Leon Kass and many of the Chicago political philosophers of the past generation, Cohen wants to reproduce the benefits of religion without the unpleasant bit about fear and trembling. It’s an unsuccessful as well as a dated view, and most of the respondents invited by Mosaic to comment shredded Cohen’s argument.

The question to ask about “Jewish conservativism” is whether the point of the discussion is to bring Jews to conservatism, or to make conservativism itself more “Jewish.” The former is desirable but probably impractical; the latter is eminently possible, and a matter of existential urgency.

Among the dozens of respondents whom Mosaic grandly asked to comment, one name was missing, namely Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, without doubt the most prominent Jewish conservative in public life today (and cited by Cohen in his essay). Perhaps he will turn up later. Rabbi Sacks long ago put his finger on what is wrong with American secular conservatives, who believe that the forms of democratic government will teach people to honor the content—as in the failed Bush Freedom Agenda.  His absence from the discussion makes for a deafening silence.

I can’t recall a symposium where the guest of honor took so many beatings from the respondents. Eric Cohen failed to impress religious Jews, that is, those Jews who are most likely to hold conservative views in the first place. Herzl Foundation president Yoram Hazony wrote: “I do not understand the absence of God and Scripture from Cohen’s list of central ‘values and ideas’ that he wants Jewish conservatives to conserve. To me, if his ambitious vision is to succeed, these have to be positioned at the head of the line.” And Rabbi Meir Soloveichik added, “It is the giving of the Torah at Sinai that formed ancient Israel as a nation before it ever entered the land; it is obedience to the Torah that will insure Israel’s moral and spiritual flourishing when it settles the land; and, ultimately, should Israel be expelled from the land, it is the Torah that will preserve the Jews and Jewish continuity.” Other Jewish scholars politely noted that Cohen’s attempt to read the biblical Book of Joshua as a political rather than  religious document was simply wrong (for example Harvard’s Jon Levenson).

Soloveichik  and Hazony are Orthodox Jews. The Conservative rabbi Daniel Gordis (the capital C denotes a brand of liberal Judaism somewhat more traditional than Reform) observed, “Cohen’s hopes for a not-exclusively-Orthodox revival raise a question. Why should non-Orthodox Jews seek intellectual richness for their conservative worldview specifically in the Jewish tradition? After all, some American Jewish conservatives locate their intellectual roots in Christian sources, others in continental philosophy, still others in secular political thought. If Cohen hopes that non-Orthodox Jews will turn to the Jewish tradition, and give it primacy over others, that primacy is in need of a non-theologically based argument that will appeal to and convince a wide swath of Jews. So far, nothing we have tried has worked.”

Rabbi Gordis is exactly right. “For all Jews—religious and secular—the will to survive rests upon a belief that Jewish civilization is not only ‘my’ civilization, but a great civilization,” wrote Eric Cohen. The American Founders saw it differently: Israel was not simply a great civilization among many great civilizations, but the “exemplar and standard of a people,” in Franz Rosenzweig’s words. The Election of Israel is one of the core beliefs that divides Jewish Orthodoxy from the progressive brands of Judaism. Either Israel is unique and eternal, or it is destined to disappear into the melting pot of the nations.

There is yet another problem—in my view far more serious–with Cohen’s attempt to meld conservative views with a big-tent, secular approach to Jewish identity. That is to be found not on the Jewish side but in the conservative movement: the Kristol-Krauthammer variety of conservatism (often lumped together under the label “neo-conservative”) reached its apogee of influence during the Bush administration, but crashed and burned. Eric Cohen is persuaded of the rightness of his views, and wants to persuade Jews to adopt them; on the contrary, his views are flawed, and Jewish religious thought offers a prospective remedy.

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The Axolotl, St. John's College Mascot

From Asia Times


Twenty years ago, Yale University’s Harold Bloom offered a reading list in great literature under the title The Western Canon, with the caveat that it was impossible to teach literature to American undergraduates. So threadbare was their background, he lamented, that they could not grasp the dialogue across time among literary masters. The good news is that Bloom was wrong: not only great Western literature, but philosophy, mathematics and science are still grasped at a high level by undergraduates. The bad news is that they are doing so in tiny numbers, at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Western civilization isn’t extinct, but it survives in the cultural equivalent of a tide pool, with limited access and egress.

Last weekend I climbed the long hill crowned by St. John’s Santa Fe campus to observe its graduation exercise (it was held on Shabbat, which required me to walk). Led by a faculty member in full academic regalia carrying a ceremonial mace, its graduating class marched to the music of Haendel and received diplomas and the Bacculaureate hood between choral interludes of Campion and Palestrina. Like the St. John’s program itself, the ceremony carried the dignity of an older and better world, but it faced an audience of parents and siblings in T-shirts and sandals.

St. John’s great books curriculum spans Homer to Heidegger, and requires a working knowledge of ancient Greek as well as conic sections and Calculus, along with some familiarity with French and quantum mechanics. Other undergraduate schools require survey courses in Western civilization, to be sure—St. John’s itself is a spinoff from the old University of Chicago curriculum—but they have for the most part surrendered to the new barbarian invasion from the Left, which demands that universities retrofit intellectual history to repair the fragile self-esteem of history’s losers. Classical education has just the opposite goal, namely to teach us to distinguish between self-doomed societies whose flaws tragically destroy them, and polities with the prospect of survival.

Mainstream university life has gone mad. Satire herself stands mute before incidents like the following dispatch from my old undergraduate college, which used to teach Greek and Roman sources in mandatory courses:

“Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ is a fixture of Lit Hum, but like so many texts in the Western canon, it contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom,” wrote four [Columbia University] students, who are members of Columbia’s Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board. “These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background.”

Wellesley College, Hillary Clinton’s alma mater, has cancelled its annual performance of “The Vagina Monologues”—itself a vulgar slap at the supposed male bias of Western civilization—because it is upsetting to transgendered women whodo not have vaginas. Perhaps the politically-correct women of Wellesley could rewrite the play as “The Anus Monologues.” That lowest common denominator would include everyone.

There is more than smidgen of fairness in the feminist accusation of male bias at major universities: locker-room culture is the observe side of political correctness. The issue has become so colored ideologically that it is impossible to make an unbiased judgment about the extent misogyny at American universities. The cover-up of rape allegations at the University of Florida by academic authorities as well as local police is one case in point; the fabrication of a rape case at University of Virginia by Rolling Stone magazine is another. Nonetheless, sports culture is a simian exercise in mass stupidity inherently prejudicial to the gender with smaller biceps. Nonetheless, sports are the key to alumni fundraising at most major universities, a gauge of the infantilism of intellectual life in America.

The gladiatorial violence of university sports requires the recruitment of cyclopean dolts with a propensity for mayhem, and this sets the tone for university life; for color, one might browse (but not read) Tom Wolfe’s dreadful but informative academic novel I Am Charlotte Simmons.

America’s sports-centered culture excludes women when it does not victimize them; it explains why America never has produced a Margaret Thatcher, who went to Oxford on a science scholarship, nor an Angela Merkel, a first-rate quantum chemist, nor a Golda Meir. European women can ascend to the top of the power structure on intellectual merit, a quality that Americans characteristically regard with distrust. The only American woman with a chance to become president trades on her husband’s previous success. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is an exception that proves the rule. As David Samuels quipped in a 2007 Atlantic profile, “Rice’s obsession with sports makes it easier for her to function in a world of men who may not be immediately comfortable taking direction from a younger black woman, but who will respect anyone who can name the winning quarterback for every Super Bowl off the top of her head.”

St. John’s axolotl mascot emblemizes its unique mission. The college has as much contempt for campus sports culture as it does for political correctness. There is simply nothing like this combination of curriculum and instruction to be found anywhere else in the United States. There are a few small Catholic and Protestant schools that teach classics, but none with this intensity (and the Catholic schools are stuck with an excess of Aristotle and Aquinas, whom I think dull).


St. John’s takes in a hundred freshmen each year and graduates perhaps seventy of them on each campus. Many do not survive freshmen year, with two or three daily hours of homework in ancient Greek. The faculty (called “tutors” rather than professor) is an eclectic assemblage of brilliant and sometimes eccentric scholars who come there to teach undergraduates rather than play academic career games. There are no lectures, only seminars and tutorials: Johnnies not only have to read the great works of the West but stand up and explain them before their teachers and peers.

I have a number of quibbles with the course work: there is far too much emphasis on French at the expense of German, for example. Nothing has been written in French in the past two hundred years excepting Baudelaire and a couple of other poets that cannot be read as well in translation, and none of it is of real importance to undergraduate education. Without knowingGoethe really well, though, it is impossible to make sense of 19th and 20th century philosophy, Nietzsche and Heidegger in particular—and a great deal of Goethe is lost in translation.

A deeper problem accounts for the lacunae in St. John’s curriculum: the “Great Books” curriculum arises from consensus and custom rather than authority. Goethe is important not because he is a great lyric poet, but because he led the grand program of the German Classic to recreate the accomplishments of religion by secular means. His character Mephistopheles looks back toEcclesiastes and forward to Heidegger. Goethe mediates the great question—why is life worthwhile in the first place?—between the biblical and the modern worlds. The designers of the St. John’s curriculum in their 20th-century secularism failed to grasp the tension between religion and the Enlightenment.

Here the religious schools have an advantage, because the Magisterium of the Catholics and the masorah of the Jews set down a canon tested over the centuries. There are fewer than 800 undergraduates at the two St. John’s campuses, while one American yeshiva (center of traditional Jewish higher learning), Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, N.J., has ten times that number of students. The number of religious Jews studying traditional sources worldwide outnumbers the total number of students of classic Western texts by an order of magnitude; more than 300,000 read a daily page of Talmud (Daf Yomi), completing the voluminous compendium of Jewish teaching in a seven-year cycle.

The traditional Catholic colleges attract a surprising small number of students; the three colleges that offer the most intensive classical curriculum (St. Thomas Aquinas, Wyoming Catholic College and Ave Maria) have fewer than 1,400 students among them, and the total number of students in conservative Catholic colleges (according to the Cardinal Newman Society list) barely totals 10,000.

By coincidence, the graduation ceremonies I attended fell on the eve of the Jewish festival of Shavuot (Pentecost), the celebration of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Jews do not simply read the Torah (Bible and rabbinic commentaries) as a “great book,” but relive it. As Rabbi Berel Levertov reminded his small congregation at Chabad of Santa Fe, “All Israel”—every Jew who ever lived and all those yet to be born–are present at Mount Sinai, and Shavuot is less an anniversary celebration than the enduring presence of the original revelation. Jews read the Torah as autobiography, and that explains why Jews, who comprise just 0.5% of the world population, are so eager to learn classic sources that they make up the vast majority of such students in the West.

St. John’s cannot find enough qualified students (although more recruitment in Asia might eventually solve that problem). Once it trains them, it doesn’t know what to do with them. At the elite Ivy League schools, undergraduates absorb a kind of intellectual content, but this mainly amounts to socialization in the liberal elite’s current fancies. Johnnies graduate with a Jovian disdain for the ephemeral and a burned-in skepticism about academic fads. That makes them unsuitable for most aspects of professional life; it is hard for them to become stupid enough to succeed in public service. The Great Books curriculum arose from a concern with political leadership, and its original object was to train leaders for public life—diplomacy, the military and intelligence. I asked the outgoing president of St. John’s Santa Fe, the distinguished soldier and diplomat Michael Peters, how the college’s public-service agenda was faring. “It’s mixed,” Peters allowed.

The topics of Johnnies’ senior papers are published; very few this year were devoted to political philosophy, and most of those were written by Asian students. Many papers were devoted to imagery in Virginia Woolf or character development in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I cannot read Virginia Woolf and don’t like Tolstoy, but that’s beside the point. The Johnnies know they are at odds with the world around them, and understandably drift towards self-absorption. That is less the school’s problem than the problem of the ambient culture, but it cannot fail to have an impact on the students.

For undergraduates without the deep religious commitment that might bring them to Yeshiva University in New York or St. Thomas Aquinas College in California, St. John’s remains the last, best place in America to learn Western civilization in seriousness. I do not mean to deprecate other Great Books programs, but no other school trains its undergraduates as intensively. It is a sad gauge of the state of American culture that so few students rally to the Fighting Axolotls. It is even more alarming that St. John’s graduates do not pass easily into positions of responsibility in public life.

From Asia Times.


I have been reading Peter Schweizer’s book Clinton Cash with brief pauses to wipe the puke off the computer screen. For the past fifteen years, there has been no sewer too stinky for Bill and Hillary to bathe in. Most of Schweizer’s research has already made the mainstream media, but the sheer mass of it still amazes. It’s not one malfeasance or three, but an unbroken pattern of overtly corrupt behavior trading half-million-dollar speaking fees and multi-million-dollar payoffs to the Clintons’ foundation in return for billion-dollar mining concessions and corporate takeovers staged by the most revolting gangsters in the jungle of Third World governance. The English language needs a word like the Yiddish term “chutzpah” to describe them, but without the connotation of modesty and discretion.

What kind of people are we Americans, that we allow these kleptocrat’s hirelings to persist in public life? The answer, I fear, is that we have become corrupt ourselves. I’ve seen enough corruption in the Third World to know that it requires the consent of the governed. Between 1988 and 1993, I directed a Mexican research project on tax and regulatory reform. In 1990, I advised Violeta Chamorro after her election victory over Nicaragua’s Sandinistas for exactly one week, coaching her team in negotiations with the International Monetary Fund. Back then I was chief economist for the consulting firm Polyconomics, and I canceled the contract after one of Mrs. Chamorro’s advisers handed me our fee in the form of an envelope full of $100 bills–duly declared and reported to the U.S. tax authorities. In 1992, I was asked to advise Russian Finance Minister Yegor Gaidar on currency stabilization after the fall of Communism, and made several trips to Moscow. I never did meet Gaidar, but I saw enough of the looting of state assets to persuade me to get out of Dodge. Rather than pursue emerging markets, I shifted to quantitative modeling of high-grade bonds. Even that field turned rotten in the subprime scam two decades later, but that’s another story.

Corruption in Third World kleptocracies starts at the top but trickles down to the grass roots. Every bill-collector for the public utility takes bribes not to turn off the gas or electricity–it’s cheaper to pay a bribe than to pay the bill. Every secretary in a government office takes a tip to give you the form you need to fill out to hand to the boss who will take another mordida, or bite. Everyone hustles, everyone has a scam. The people at the bottom look up in envy and contempt at the billionaire thieves who run their country, but live their lives in emulation of them; if they were tough or smart enough, they would steal billions, too. We Americans used to be better than at. I don’t think we are any longer.

As Schweizer reports, America’s favorite power couple made millions from Kazakhstan dictator Nurslatan Nazarbayev. In 2005 Bill came to the homeland of Borat with Canadian penny-stock speculator Frank Giustra. Giustra’s  shell company UrAsia Energy, a paper entity with no track record, beat out bigger competition to scupper Kazakhstan”s uranium mining concession. Bill endorsed Nazarbayev’s bid to head the Organization for Security and Cooperation Europe. a human rights organization founded by the 1975 Helsinki Accords, despite Nazarbeayev’s execrable human rights record. Senator Hillary Clinton lifted her previous objection to Kazakhstan’s chairmanship of the organization.

Schweizer reports:

In the months that followed, Giustra gave the Clinton Foundation $31.3 million. It was the first of several large donations he would make as he went on to secure other lucrative national resources deals in development countries around the world…

At the time of Clinton’s visit, Kazakhstan was on the verge of a national election. Days after Clinton departed, the opposition party’s campaign headquarters were ravaged by fire in an arson attack. On October 12 heavily armed policy temporarily arrested the opposition party’s leader….In December 2005 Nazarbayev won reelection with more than 90 percent of the vote. Bill sent him a note of congratulations. “Recognizing that your work has received an excellent grade is one of the most important rewards in life,” he wrote. “At the start of your new term as president, I would like to express confidence that you will continue to live up to the expectations of your people.” The Kazakh dictator promptly released Clinton’s congratulatory note to the public.

There’s more, and more, and more in Schweizer’s book. Less astonishing than the facts he has assembled is that everything is on the public record. They put the Mexicans to shame. Latin American dictators and their cronies don’t twerk their wallets in front of the television cameras. For example: During the “reform” administration of Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the government privatized billions of dollars of state assets, including the country’s largest commercial banks. Mexican politicians bought shares through secret Caribbean bank accounts from the government and flipped them back to private buyers at a higher price, and the private buyers took the deal as the price of admission. I know this from private-sector bidders for state assets who turned the deal down. None of it was traceable, much less visible to the public; if some public officials made vast sums from the scam, they didn’t flaunt their ill-gotten gains. They kept them in offshore bank accounts and lived with a minimum of publicity. Bill Clinton does his act in front of any gangster who will pay him–including two in Lagos, Nigeria for $700,000 each, in return for evident favors to unspeakably corrupt Nigerian “businessmen.”

Americans are becoming a nation of hustlers. 87% of American men of working age used to belong to the labor force. Now it’s down to 70%.


What are the other 30% of American men doing? Nicholas Eberstadt gave part of the answer in his 2012 book A Nation of Takers:

Although almost all families with seniors use government benefits, over a third of families without any seniors were on at least one government benefit program—even before the Great Recession.

In 2010, over 34 percent of American households received means-tested benefits—households which included nearly half of America’s children. Yet the poverty rate was only 15.1 percent.

In 1983, fewer than 30 percent of households received one or more government benefits. By 2011, this number had skyrocketed to 49 percent. Source: Eberstadt, 31–32. The growth in entitlement spending is a bipartisan phenomenon. In fact, for the last half-century, entitlement spending has grown faster under Republican presidents than under Democratic presidents.

From 1940 to 1960, entitlement transfers accounted for under a third of federal spending. Today over two-thirds of federal spending goes to entitlements. In 2010 alone, governments at all levels oversaw a transfer of $2.2 trillion—three times as much as all military and defense spending that same year.

It isn’t just government handouts, though. The subprime scam of 1998-2008 corrupted a higher proportion of Americans than any economic phenomenon since slavery (and slavery, although wicked, was legal). Filing a false mortgage application is a felony, and millions of ordinary homeowners engaged in serious fraud during the peak years of the housing boom. The chart below was included in a 2010 FBI study of mortgage fraud:


Scamming the government or scamming the banks is so commonplace that we take fraud for granted. Why shouldn’t we? The financial industry has no qualms about it. Researchers from the University of Notre Dame’s business school (courtesy of Dealbreaker)  interviewed 1,200 respondents in the U.S. and UK and found that

More than one-third (34%) of those earning $500,000 or more annually have witnessed or have first hand knowledge of wrongdoing in the workplace

23% of respondents believe it is likely that fellow employees have engaged in illegal or unethical activity in order to gain an edge, nearly double the 12% that reported as such in 2012.

-One in 10 respondents has signed or been asked to sign a confidentiality agreement that would prohibit reporting illegal or unethical activities to the authorities.

-This figure surges to 25% for those respondents earning $500,000 or more annually.

After the biggest scam in U.S. financial history, the Obama administration has put exactly zero bankers in jail. Of course, it has levied tens of billions of dollars of fines on the banks, which is to say on the shareholders of the banks, who are mainly pension funds and life insurance companies. In other words, the Obama Justice Department taxed the savings of ordinary people to punish the malfeasance of the bankers. The bankers who committed the crimes walked away with their bonuses except in a small number of cases.

It’s like the old joke about the housewife who calls her husband during the evening commute and says, “Be careful, dear–the television says there’s a lunatic driving in the wrong direction on the freeway.” “What do you mean, ‘lunatic?’, the husband says, “There are thousands of them!”

Democracy exists to give people the kind of government they deserve. If the American people do not have the moral fibre to extirpate corruption on the Clinton scale, they will deserve what’s coming to them.

Ted Cruz is intellectually arrogant, like Ronald Reagan. The difference is that Reagan masked his arrogance with self-deprecating humor. Sen. Cruz does a Reagan impression that would do a nightclub comedian proud, but he doesn’t have Reagan’s easy and spontaneous humor.

One doesn’t think of Reagan as arrogant,  but he was in fact the most arrogant leader we have had since Lincoln. He ignored the whole of the foreign policy establishment in his conviction that America stood to win the Cold War and bring down Communism. Then as now, the foreign policy establishment resembled Jonathan Swift’s scientists on the floating island of Laputa, treading perilously close to the edge with noses in the air.

Sen. Cruz is authentically bright, sufficiently so for the liberal Alan Dershowitz to declare that he was the best student he had ever had at Harvard’s Law School. The conservative legal theorist Robert P. George, who taught Cruz at Princeton, says the same thing. He’s so smart that he is not the least impressed by the conservative foreign policy establishment.

That’s what qualifies Ted Cruz for the presidency.  Among the Republican candidates, Cruz is the only one to state plainly that we stayed too long in Iraq and erred in trying to turn it into Switzerland. (I exclude Rand Paul, who is a dumb rube isolationist of the old school and unqualified for national office.) Contrast this to Jeb Bush, who thinks we didn’t stay long enough. Cruz still has some things to learn, to be sure. Sending arms to Ukraine, as he proposes, is pointless. Russian leader Vladimir Putin wants to keep Ukraine in civil war indefinitely, and will match whatever we send in order to do so. Putin wants revenge for the West’s effort to break Ukraine out of the Russian sphere, and leaving the West with a bloody, bankrupt, ungovernable mess on its doorstep is his best move.  As Prof. Angelo Codevilla told a Claremont Institute gathering last October, the way to frustrate Putin is to let him keep the Russian-majority Eastern Ukraine, a rust-bucket and money pit of no value to the West; the Western part of Ukraine would then be Catholic and pro-Western.

Sixteen years of George W. Bush and Barack Obama will leave the next president with a different world: a new Sino-Russian entente directed against the US, and chaos in most of the Middle East. Both are the consequence of foreign policy utopianism.  We destroyed the century-long balance of power in Iraq and Syria by forcing majority rule in Iraq, and stood godfather to a perpetual Sunni-Shi’ite civil war. We tried to flip Ukraine to the West, and Putin allied with China. We have scored nothing but own-goals. We are spending a trillion and a half dollar on the Edsel of the air, the F-35, and have allowed China to narrow the technology gap that once made the United States the dominant superpower.

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From Asia Times


There is one leader in the world who has taken courageous steps across religious boundaries to help Middle Eastern Christians in their hour of need, breaking precedent and in many cases offending adherents of his own religion.

Of course, I am not talking about Pope Francis, but about Egyptian President Fatah al-Sisi, a devout Muslim who appeared last Christmas at the cathedral of his country’s Coptic Christians, the first Egyptian leader to do so. The Copts are a persecuted minority who comprise about a tenth of the Egyptian population. The Coptic language derives from ancient Egyptian, and the Copts are the remnant of old Egypt, conquered by Alexander the Great and Christianized by Constantine, before the Arab invasion of the 7th century C.E. Standing next to the Coptic Pope Tawadros II, al-Sisi declared, “We cannot say anything but: we, the Egyptians.”

President al-Sisi is locked in a life-and-death battle against the terrorists of the Muslim Brotherhood, allied to elements of al-Qaeda. During the Muslim Brotherhood’s less than year-long reign as Egypt’s government during 2012-2013, forty Coptic churches were burned to the ground, 23 were damaged, and hundreds of Coptic Christians murdered. For the moment the Copts are secure, but we are witness to “the twilight of Middle Eastern Christianity” in the Levant, as Hisham Melham wrote 28 February in al-Arabiya.

While the government of Egypt stands siege against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Palestine branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, namely Hamas, got a boost from the Vatican May 13 when the Vatican announced that it would recognize a Palestinian State. Although the titular president of the Palestine Authority Mahmoud Abbas sat in the Vatican garden with Pope Francis for the announcement, Hamas has a margin of support over Abbas’ feckless Fatah party of 2:1 by most estimates. Abbas is in the eleventh year of a five-year term, and cannot call elections because Hamas would win. He holds office because the Israeli Army props him up in power against the radical majority.

In the Levantine war of all against all, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood are not quite the same entity as ISIS, which beheads Christians en masses, rapes and enslaves Christian girls, and razes Christian churches in Iraq and Syria. Last month ISIS fighters besieged a Hamas-controlled Palestine refugee settlement at Yarmouk in Syria, killing a hundred Palestines including two Hamas leaders. But dozens of terror cells in the Gaza Strip, notionally controlled by Hamas, now are loyal to ISIS.

Judging from the opinion polls, a State of Palestine today would have a Hamas majority of about two-thirds, with substantial representation from elements of ISIS. Why would the Vatican wish this plague upon itself? If a Palestnian State rules the Old City of Jerusalem, the Christian holy sites will be razed by Muslim radicals, just as they were in Iraq. Christianity survives in Judea and Samaria because Jews are willing to die for Jerusalem. How many Christians are willing to die for Jerusalem? The Vatican should ponder this question.

There are two answers. The first is that for the most part, Arab Christians are Arabs first and Christians second, just as French and German Christians in 1914 were French and Germans first, and Christians second. The leadership of the Arab churches in confession with Rome has always tried to prove its loyalty tot he Arab cause by taking an especially vociferous stand against Israel, for example, during the 2010 Synod of Middle East Bishops. I reviewed the sad history of Levantine Christianity in a 2009 essay for Asia Times. It is impossible to exaggerate the anguish of a Church on the verge of extinction in his historic cradle.

The second answer lies in the peculiar theology of Pope Francis himself, who has a pronounced millennarian streak, as I wrote in this space last year. For reasons we may never learn, his predecessor Benedict XVI abdicated his office in good health and fullness of intellectual powers. Benedict wanted a smaller but more devout Church; Francis wants a big tent that includes everyone, including people whose nominal acceptance of Catholic doctrine is tenuous or heretical. God in this case is in a position like that of the bondholders of Argentina, who have been neither paid nor repudiated, but wait indefinitely for the Holy Spirit to motivate some future Argentine government to make them whole. Francis is a pope for people who want the warm feeling of Catholicism without its obligations, and that is what makes him so popular.

It is one thing to forgive one’s enemies, and quite another to encourage them. That is what Pope Francis has done by recognizing the fiction of a Palestinian State. When the pope visited the Holy Land last year I warned, “ear that the Church, the founding institution of the West, its pillar and mainstay, has lost its moorings. The State of Israel will do quite well without it; it was founded in 1947 against the opposition of the Church then immeasurably more influential, and does not require the blessing of the Church to flourish today. But Bergoglio’s behavior in the Holy Land bespeaks a dilution of the Church’s self-understanding and a deviation from its mission.”

Benedict XVI emphasized God’s particular love for Israel; Francis hopes that all will be saved. Except for the good offices of the Egyptian Army and the Israel Defense Force, his hope will be vain where Middle Eastern Christians are concerned.


Muslims, Europeans and Boiled Frogs

May 7th, 2015 - 7:26 pm

from Asia Times:

Today’s New York Times editorial on the Garland, Texas affair protests a bit too much. One might expect liberal journalists to express solidarity with their murdered colleagues at Charlie Hebdo. Instead, the Times offers outright condemnation:

Some of those who draw cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad may earnestly believe that they are striking a blow for freedom of expression, though it is hard to see how that goal is advanced by inflicting deliberate anguish on millions of devout Muslims who have nothing to do with terrorism. As for the Garland event, to pretend that it was motivated by anything other than hate is simply hogwash.

Not to quibble, but a cartoon contest in Garland, Texas, like the 2005 Mohammed caricatures in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten and the 2014 Charlie Hebdo depictions, only reached a large Muslim audience because Muslim organizations chose to make an issue of images that appeared in obscure publications with a small circulation. The cartoonists did not cause the anguish of millions of Muslims: Muslim authorities of various sorts elicited the anguish of their constituents by denouncing them. If Muslim leaders had ignored the cartoons, the millions of devout Muslims cited by the New York Times would have gone about their daily lives suffering anguish from another source: the cruel and inevitable encroachment of modernity on traditional life.

Islam is fragile, far more fragile than the traditional Catholicism which flourished in Italy, Spain, Ireland and Quebec only two generations ago and now is in shambles. We know this because the number of live births to Muslim women is falling faster than in any documented case in the history of the world.


Fertility and faith are inextricably linked; academic literature on the theme is deep and persuasive (I reviewed it in my book How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying, Too). As Mary Eberstadt argued in her 2013 book How the West Really Lost God (which I reviewed here), sterile societies lose their desire to bring children into the world before they admit that they have lost their faith.

Europe had two centuries in which to adapt to the great wave of secularization, and the old adage about how to boil a frog comes to mind: drop a frog into hot water and it will leap out of the pot, but a frog left in cold water that is slowly heated will not notice that it is being boiled. The Europeans suffered the latter fate, although traditional society in some cases raged against its end, for example Spain’s Civil War. Europe had the advantage of two centuries of wealth creation, an explosion of scientific knowledge, social mobility and modern governance; Islam has the disadvantages of two centuries of economic stagnation, isolation from the scientific revolutions, the prevalence of tribal society and governance that is as cruel as it is corrupt. Modernity crept up on the Europeans, but has hit most of the Muslim world with the suddenness of a boiling bath.

That is the source of the anguish of millions of Muslims. Unlike their grandparents, who sent missionaries to the Muslim world to open Western universities that would bring the benefits of Western civilization to Muslims, today’s liberals agonize over Muslim anguish. A notable example is President Obama’s mother Ann Dunham.

Ms. Dunham abandoned her young son to return to Indonesia to complete her doctoral dissertation, entilted, “Peasant blacksmithing in Indonesia: surviving against all odds.” Her struggle to help the traditional craftsmen of Indonesia in their resistance to globalization clearly formed Obama’s view of the world. He  (or perhaps Bill Ayers) wrote in Dreams of My Father;

And yet for all that poverty [in the Indonesian marketplace], there remained in their lives a discernible order, a tapestry of trading routes and middlemen, bribes to pay and customs to observe, the habits of a generation played out every day beneath the bargaining and the noise and the swirling dust. It was the absence of such coherence that made a place like [the Chicago housing projects] so desperate.

Nostalgia for the supposedly halcyon past of traditional society, and fear for the consequences of modernity, lead the likes of the New York Times’ editors to twist themselves into pretzels when they address such issues. The Times in 1999 endorsed the showing at a public museum in New York of a supposed art work consisting of a crucifix in a vial of urine, arguing, “A museum is obliged to challenge the public as well as to placate it, or else the museum becomes a chamber of attractive ghosts, an institution completely disconnected from art in our time.” This blatant contradiction at the Times has become a staple of conservative bloggers.

In Yiddish, one says: es soll gor nisht helfen (it won’t help at all). Europe’s confrontation with modernity in the 19th and 20th centuries was tragic; Islam’s encounter with modernity, I believe, is more likely to be terminal. Some parts of the Muslim world cannot sustain the transition. A Chinese expert on South Asia told me not long ago, “Pakistan is simple. DO NOT MODERNIZE. Keep them feudal. Just make sure that the army chief of staff is the biggest feudal landlord.” That is sad to hear, but the Chinese are connoisseurs of civilization. China is proof that large populations can make the transition to modernity from traditional life. But China was “modern” in a sense from inception: it united countless ethnic and language groups into a culture founded on a common system of characters and a system of governance that at its best was a meritocracy, often destroying unruly barbarians on its borders who failed to assimilate. Most of the Muslim world by contrast is tribal. Where Muslim societies try to modernize, they typically proceed from infancy to senescence in a single generation (as in the collapse of Iran’s fertility rate from 7 children per female in 1979 to 1.6 children in 2012).

Civilizations that become aware that they have past their best-used-by-date typically destroy themselves. That is not inevitable. Some Muslim countries may succeed. Egypt is most likely to, after rejecting a brief experiment in Muslim Brotherhood rule in favor of a true moderate, President al-Sisi. Most, however, will not.

There is no greater anguish than knowing that your grandchildren–if any there be–will look with disgust at your photograph, at the quaint costumes of traditional society and antique poses, the relics of a world with which they have nothing in common. To know that the certainties of your daily life will dissolve and disappear, to be replaced by alien nations, is a kind of living death. That is the fate of traditional society everywhere. It was the fate of many of the Europeans a generation or two ago and it is the fate of the Muslims today. The survivors–if any there be– will be countries whose culture was modern from the outset–the United States of America in one way, China in another, and in yet another way Israel.

Muslim anguish will deepen, whether or not anyone publishes nasty cartoons about Mohammed (which I do not do, because I do not like vulgar insults against anyone’s religion–although I will defend to the death the right to do so). Liberals will agonize along with them. The millions of devout Muslims mentioned by the Times deserve a modicum of sympathy, for life has dealt them a losing hand. The liberals on the other hand provide a fine opportunity for Schadenfreude.

(Copyright 2015 Asia Times Holdings Limited, a duly registered Hong Kong company. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

Why can’t Muslims laugh at Mohammed?

May 6th, 2015 - 12:16 am

Cross-posted from Asia Times.

In Mel Brooks’ comedy “History of the World Part I,” Moses is shown descending from Mount Sinai with three stone tablets in hand. As he declares, “I give you the Fifteen Commandments,” one falls and breaks, and Moses corrects himself, “er, Ten Commandments.” Jews, including the observant, find this funny rather than offensive. As we learned once again in Garland, Texas, Muslims do not laugh at jokes about Mohammed, the purported author of the Koran (as Moses is the author of the Torah). Two wannabe Jihadists with assault rifles and body armor were no match for an off-duty Texas traffic cop with a sidearm, but the incident might have turned into a massacre worse than the murder of the Charlie Hebdo staff in January.
Why do Jews as well as Christians–but not Muslims–laugh at jokes about the founders of their faiths?

The answer is that radically different deities are in question. Judaism begins with a covenant between God and human beings–Abraham and his descendants–that is a partnership in which God is normally, but not always, the senior partner. As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks observes, the Jewish sages of antiquity envisioned Moses acting as a judge for God, permitting God to annul his earlier vow to destroy the Jewish people after the sin of the Golden Calf. This is unimaginable in Islam, just as unimaginable as the Christian God who humbles himself on the cross.

That does not diminish the sanctity of holy writ: if a Torah scroll is dropped accidentally during Jewish services, Jewish law binds the congregation to a month of fasting. But the Jewish (and hence also the Christian) God allows his children to give him an argument, as Abraham does in the matter of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Moses does on several occasions. Humor arises from the impossible tension between an infinite God and finite man. “Humor is intrinsic to Christianity,” wrote the great Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard, “because truth is hidden in mystery.”

Jewish and Christian Scripture are human reports of an encounter with the Divine. The foundation of the Christian Bible are four separate reports of the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth that in some respects contradict each other. The Koran, to be sure, has contradictory elements, which are addressed through so-called Abrogation Theory (Naskh), allowing one Koranic verse to be nullified by another. But Mohammed’s revelation of the Koran is not a human report so much as a stenographic transcription of the purported words of Allah. No Muslim argues that Mohammed was more than human, but for practical purposes he is indistinguishable from Allah, because he was simply the vessel into which Allah supposedly his directions.  To make light of Mohammed is to impugn Allah. It is not blasphemous to laugh at Moses, whose human failings prevented him from leaving the people of Israel into the promised land. To humanize Mohammed, though, is an act of lèse-majesté against the Muslim God. That is not quite the same thing as joking about Moses or St. Matthew.

Personally, I find most convincing the argument by the German convert to Islam, Prof.Muhammed Sven Kalisch, that the Prophet Mohammed did not exist in the first place–at least not a man who in any way resembles the figure portrayed in the standard Muslim account. That is in some ways beside the point: there is no divine-human encounter in Islam, no revelation, only the selection of a human mouth as the loudspeaker by which Allah declares his Koran. Allah could as well have employed a talking rock. The Muslim god therefore remains utterly remote from humans, unconstrained in power and arbitrary in his actions. It is Allah’s caprice that electrons spin around an atom’s nucleus, or that planets describe an ellipsis around the sun.

As Franz Rosenzweig observed, the actions of God are indistinguishable from naive observation of the natural world. They simply are the way things are, and for no other reason than it is Allah’s whim that they be that way. An atheist who believes that the world is utterly chaotic and random will see the world in precisely the same way, with one grand difference: the way things are, to Muslims, includes the sedimentary layers of centuries of tribal practice: wife-beating, slavery, punishment by amputation, female genital mutilation (depending on the tribal history), and so forth. To slight Mohammed, and by extension Allah, means the ruin of the way things are, the dissolution of the ties that hold society together. To question the way things are is to inspire social chaos.


That is why most Muslims in the most populous Muslim countries (with the notable exceptions of Indonesia and once-secular Turkey) believe that apostasy should be punished by death. It is also why the moment that the literacy rate in Muslim countries reaches the 80% mark, the proportion of people claiming to be non-religious jumps. I published the chart below in 2006:


Iran, the first Muslim country to approach universal adult literacy, is by far the least religious, despite its theocratic regime. When the regime falls, as it eventually must, we will discover that there are no more Muslims in Iran than there were Communists in the Soviet Union. Iran’s mosque attendance rate is the lowest in the Muslim world at less than 30% by one estimate (see chart below), and much lower by other estimates.

Religious Participation among Muslims: Iranian Exceptionalism (Tzcur, Azadarmaki and Bahar, Journal of Critical Religious Studies, Fall 2006)

Religious Participation among Muslims:
Iranian Exceptionalism
(Tzcur, Azadarmaki and Bahar, Journal of Critical Religious Studies, Fall 2006)

To question the way things are is blasphemy in Islam. Religious observance in Iran collapsed in tandem with the country’s fertility rate (down from 7 children per female in 1979 to just 1.6 in 2012), a gauge of how rapidly traditional society has dissolved.

The organizers of the Garland, Texas exhibition of Mohammed caricatures–the Dutch politician Geert Wilders and the anti-jihad campaigners Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer–have proven their point: To placate Muslims in their resistance to modernity would require the West to give up being the West. Today’s resurgence of Muslim fundamentalism is something of a Ghost Dance, a grand flourish of existential despair before the way things are turns into the way things were, and never will be again.

Baltimore burns and America declines

April 29th, 2015 - 12:12 am

Crossposted from Asia Times


When do you declare a point of no return? The burning of Baltimore might appear in future history texts as the turning-point in America’s fortunes. Six years after the election of America’s first African-American president, the prospects of black Americans seem bleaker than at any time since the First World War, when the great migration began from the cotton-fields of the South to the factories of the North.

Percentage of births outside of marriage

Percentage of births outside of marriage

Nearly three quarters of black children are born outside of marriage, which means that the vast majority of black children are raised by single parents. Black women, meanwhile, are carrying the economic burden of their families more than men. Roughly 3 black women are employed full time for every 2 black men (for American whites, the ratio is 3:2 in favor of men).




It is hard to blame racism for this discrepancy: why should there be less discrimination against female black job applications than against male job applicants? Two-thirds of Bachelor’s degrees awarded to African-Americans, moreover, go to women. No people in the history of the world has managed to raise and educate children without a father’s contribution to family income. Where are the black men? For every 100 black adult women not in jail, the New York Times reports, there are only 83 black men. The missing 17% are dead or in jail.


The reason that so many black men are in jail is because they have committed crimes. There is an argument, to be sure, that many black men are incarcerated for “non-violent” crimes such as selling illegal drugs; the counterargument is that the drug business is inherently violent, and that it is easier to catch a miscreant selling drugs than to catch him in the act of shooting a rival. In any case, America’s higher incarceration rate has coincided with a drastic drop in the incidence of violent crime. Statisticians will argue ad infinitum about causality, but a common-sense reading of the data tells us that there is less crime because more violent offenders are in jail.

The criminal justice system has contained crime in America, at dreadful cost: One in 87 white men of working age is incarcerated, vs. 1 in 36 Hispanic men and 1 in 12 African American men. There are more African American men aged 20 to 34 without a high school diploma or GED are behind bars (37 percent) than are employed (26 percent).

It is nonsense to suggest that police violence has much impact on the big picture: 94% of black murder victims are killed by blacks. Black men have a 1 in 21 chance of being murdered, vs. 1 in 131 for white men.

No matter what anyone does, things will get worse before they get better. Never in his history has the United States spent so much to support a nonworking population. As Nicholas Eberstadt observed in his 2012 book “A Nation of Takers,” one out of every three American households has at least one person receiving some kind of means-tested government payment.

If African-American rage takes the form of arson on a mass scale–after the election of a black president–there is no apparent solution. It is merely a symptom of American decline.

Armenia’s Genocide and Obama’s Shame

April 22nd, 2015 - 2:05 pm

Despite a 2008 campaign promise “to recognize the Armenian genocide,” President Obama refuses to follow Pope Francis’ example and call the murder of 1.5 million Armenian civilians by its right name. Of all the despicable things this administration has done, this one stands out for vile hypocrisy. CNN reports:

President Barack Obama, wary of damaging relations with Turkey amid growing unrest in the Middle East, won’t use the 100th anniversary of the massacre of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire to declare the brutal episode a genocide.

Despite Obama’s campaign promise in 2008 to “recognize the Armenian Genocide” as president, the White House on Tuesday issued a carefully worded statement on a high-level administration meeting with Armenian groups that avoided using the term “genocide.”

An administration official said Obama, who will mark the centennial this Friday, would similarly avoid using the word. The term angers Ankara, which denies that Ottoman Turks carried out a genocide.

“President Obama’s surrender to Turkey represents a national disgrace. It is, very simply, a betrayal of truth, a betrayal of trust,” said Ken Hachikian, the chairman of the Armenian National Committee of America.

Despite the threat of retaliation against Turkey’s small and defenseless Christian community–the remnant of what once was a fifth of the Turkish population–the Vatican has had the courage to use the word genocide, and first did so in 2000. Not Obama, whose concern for Muslim sensibilities outweighs every other consideration.

If you don’t think telling the truth matters, think again: The world’s disgusting indifference to the Armenian genocide is what convinced Adolf Hitler that he could get away with genocide, too. This is what Hitler said about the matter in 1939:

My decision to attack Poland was arrived at last spring. Originally, I feared that the political constellation would compel me to strike simultaneously at England, Russia, France, and Poland. Even this risk would have had to be taken….Our strength consists in our speed and in our brutality. Genghis Khan led millions of women and children to slaughter — with premeditation and a happy heart. History sees in him solely the founder of a state. It’s a matter of indifference to me what a weak western European civilization will say about me.

I have issued the command — and I’ll have anybody who utters but one word of criticism executed by a firing squad — that our war aim does not consist in reaching certain lines, but in the physical destruction of the enemy. Accordingly, I have placed my death-head formations in readiness — for the present only in the East — with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space (Lebensraum)which we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?

43 countries–including Russia, Italyk, France, Sweden Poland and the Netherlands–recognize the Armenian genocide. Not the United States of America. It is a shame and disgrace.


David Brooks shares a stage with pundits during a panel discussion, “2012: The Path to the Presidency”, at the University of Chicago on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Dear David Brooks:

We have never met, and I do not regularly follow your work. Because you are a public intellectual of Jewish origin, though,  your spiritual peregrinations are of broader interest. It may be chutzpah for me to offer you advice, but I could not help thinking of the case of Franz Rosenzweig while reading a post at Aletaia claiming that you may convert to Christianity. Rosenzweig, one of the great Jewish thinkers of the 20th century, had decided to convert to Christianity. Raised in a secular family and trained in the high tradition of German critical philosophy, Rosenzweig nonetheless thought that he should do so as a Jew. He attended the Day of Atonement services at a Berlin shtuebl with Polish Jews, and liked it so much that he not only remained Jewish, but devoted the rest of his sadly short life to Judaism.

Of course, you have attended Day of Atonement services (in fact, we have done so at the same Conservative synagogue in New York, Or Zarua, albeit in different years). My experience, though, was that my conversion to Judaism began after I left “Conservative Judaism” and began observing Shabbat, eating kosher and wrapping tefillin. In retrospect, it occurred to me that the rarified Judaism I encountered in the progressive Jewish world was really a strange form of Christianity, Methodism with a yamulka. There is a word for rarified Judaism, and that is Christianity: living in an ambient Christian culture, I could not help but bring Christian sensibilities to a Judaism without the commandments. In a sense I was a Christian, despite my best intentions, and had to “convert” to Judaism. I did this while an editor at First Things, then the premier Christian intellectual magazine in the United States.

I suspect that your experience is not too different, which is why I am kibbitzing. There is the matter of the bagel that you offered to The Forward’s editor Jane Eisner, in the middle of the Passover holiday, when Jews are forbidden any matter of leavened bread. Observing Passover is the first of all commandments, given to us the night we left Egypt, before the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. To eat leavened bread on Passover (and to offer it to another Jew) suggests that there is not a shred of Jewish practice in your everyday life.

I find it hard to get worked up over reports that you might convert to Christianity. In a way, you (like me) were always there. I do not judge the religious lives of others — I am the last person who should, considering that I spent the first half of my life as the most egregious sort of atheist. But you might try Judaism. It’s well and good to read Joseph Soloveitchik’s “The Lonely Man of Faith,” an essay written for a Christian audience, and a marvelous book, but you should also keep in mind that Rav Soloveitchik supervised kashrut in Boston.

Why is it so fundamental to eat kosher? Permit me an almost-rational argument: There are things that Torah tells us, that no prior document in the whole history of humanity told anyone else, for example, to regard every human being as an image of God, with the attendant reverence. There is no philosophical justification for this: it is beyond reason. But (as Michael Wyschogrod argues) we are not wholly different from the animals. We recognize that in refraining from eating cats and dogs, for example. Which animals may we eat? That question is above our pay grade, and we accept a divine answer to that question (ruminants but not swine, for example). Precisely because we accept a divine mandate in the matter of meat consumption, we also accept it in the requirement to view human life as sacred, and each human as an image of God. 

Judaism lives in the details of everyday life, “in the pots and pans in the kosher kitchen,” as our mutual friend Rabbi Meir Soloveichik put it, in the rules of Sabbath rest and the sublime commandment to put on tefillin. One can’t intellectualize this: to describe what it’s like to live like a Jew (as opposed to theorizing about it) is like the difference between actually having sex, and reading a sex manual. You won’t make any sense of this without doing it. I am not trying to persuade you of the benefits of Jewish practice. I am daring you to try it. Read up on Rosenzweig. Don’t consider becoming a Christian until you’ve at least tried being a Jew.

I mean this respectfully. I have a couple of friends with secular Jewish backgrounds who converted to Christianity, and lead happier lives for it. My respect for Christianity and my affection for Christians is a matter of public record. Nonetheless, I cannot see how you would fail to benefit from learning what it is like to be a Jew.

Yours sincerely,

David P. Goldman, Aka “Spengler”