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The Revolutionary Conservatism of the Jews

Nothing is more conservative as a practical matter than Jewish observance. Scripture, and commentaries, and commentaries on commentaries are preserved in a living colloquy among the generations. Communities that adopt specific customs are obligated to preserve them. The reading of the Pentateuch in an annual cycle recreates its revelation at Mt. Sinai: It must be heard and not merely read to evoke the  experience of hearing it for the first time. Yet all of this arch-conservative practice with its punctilious attention to the slightest details of the past is there to bring to life a revolutionary event, the irruption of the Creator God into human history. Nothing is more revolutionary than Judaism. The revolutionary-conservative character of the United States of America cannot be understood except by reference to this phenomenon in Judaism.

What passes for Jewish conservativsm has been an abject failure. A group of conservative Jewish funders styling themselves "The Jewish Leadership Conference" today are holding a conference in New York City to promote "Jewish conservatism," including a few of my friends. I won't attend; the effort remains immured in the neo-conservative swamp against which I have inveighed these past years. Its lead speaker is the former Russian refusenik and Israeli political leader Natan Sharansky, whom I admire unreservedly as a human being, but question as a political thinker. Ten years ago I excoriated Sharansky's claim that democracy provided a universal antitode to the world's ills, in a book review entitled, "Nathan Sharansky's Mistaken Identity." The other poster-boy for this conference is the late Charles Krauthammer, whose watchword was "democratic realism."

Sharansky and Krauthammer, both men of high intelligence and good will, helped persuade President George W. Bush to undertake his crusade for world democracy, and thus bring the United States close to financial and strategic ruin. Their influence has been baleful despite their best intentions, and it is a measure of the political immaturity of American Jews that the best we can to by way of conservatism is to advertise the errors that nearly ruined us in our generation. Forcing majority rule on Iraq put a sectarian Shia government in power, allied to its co-sectarians in Iran, vastly expanding Iran's power in the region, and putting Israel at risk. Of all the stupid and self-destructive things that Jews have done with the best of intentions, the Bush Freedom Agenda promoted by Krauthammer and Sharansky produced the clearest and most urgent threat to Jewish survival. With Sharansky and Krauthammer on the marquee, the "Jewish Conservatism" conference also features Hillary Clinton supporter Bill Kristol. Clearly we have a congnitive dissonance here.

We Americans are conservative but we also are revolutionary. We incorporate English Common Law, the jury system,and  the protection of individual rights under English law, but we have created a new people in a new way. We recognize that in our literature: As I wrote about American culture two years ago in Tablet Magazine: