Jewish Journal


April 3, 2003

War Marks Defining Moment for Jews

Hostility to idea of new U.S. empire may soon be changing.


The current war with Iraq marks a defining moment in the lives of American Jews and their lives in this country. For generations, Jews have lived, for the most part, on the left-wing edge of the American commonwealth.

They have been -- in Hollywood, in the political world, academia and the media -- generally hostile to the idea of the projection of American power and the idea of a new American empire.

This may soon be changing. Although initially somewhat less supportive of the Iraq invasion than other Americans, Jews are far more behind the projection of American power, arguably, than at any time since World War II. Over half of Jews strongly supported the Bush policy before the outbreak of hostility, according to the Pew Research Center; that percentage has likely increased more recently, as has occurred in the rest of the population.

How should Jews deal with the fact that America, by invading Iraq, has become in many ways an openly more assertive kind of empire?

This is no exaggeration. The utter failure of the European "allies" and the U.N. to stop Iraq's weapons programs has forced the United States, with whatever allies it can muster, to operate largely without NATO, E.U. or U.N. approval.

Yet is becoming an empire necessarily bad?

It depends, clearly, on the nature of the empire. Given the current world chaos, not only in the Middle East but in North Asia as well, some power needs to assert itself over the outlaw regimes that seek to gain weapons of mass destruction.

The U.N. is useless for this; France too interested in selling its products; Germany too shell-shocked by its past; Russia still resentful of its decline. Only America can, or better, will, provide a counterweight for order.

Jews, for many reasons, need to rally to this notion, not only because of Iraq's lethal anti-Semitic and anti-Israel stance, but because Jews, as an exposed minority, need a legal, responsible ordered world system. The alternative -- a world controlled by the likes of Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong Il -- is terrifying.

This support should not be simply couched in terms of support for Israel. The latent anti-Semitic elements on the left and right -- from Arab activists to Democratic Rep. James Moran and Pat Buchanan -- can easily make the point that Jews pushed the Iraq war simply for Israel's sake. Would they, for example, back a possible strike at North Korea or somewhere else that could be launched for the same principles?

In a sense, we need to transcend two now powerful notions of Jewish identity. The first, now largely predominant, is one tied up with the current State of Israel.

This loyalty is understandable but not sufficient for American Jews' political identity. As great an idea as the Jewish State may be, it is only a comparatively small force or ideal compared to that projected by the might of diverse American republic.

The other is what could be called the "perpetual shtetl" notion of Judaism. In this, we are always victims and must associate with those forces -- minorities, Third World nations, oppressed genders and sexual groups -- no matter what the consequences to ourselves or the nation. This view represents a kind of nostalgic identification with either czarist oppression of the last century or with the experiences of the 1960s.

Neither of these views takes into account the new world situation. Today it is only America -- in Iraq today, in Bosnia before and perhaps North Korea tomorrow -- that stands between global disorder, including the eventual destruction of Israel and any hope for progress in the 21st century.

This American empire represents something new and worth our loyalty. It was designed, as Thomas Jefferson suggested, as "an empire for liberty." We do not seek to conquer Iraq like scores of invaders leading up to the Turks or British, most recently.

After our victory in 1945, we did not occupy permanently Germany or Japan. Indeed, we even endure strong dissent from these countries and those we saved from conquest, like France and South Korea. We acknowledge that dissent is a testament to our national virtues.

But is this new empire good for the Jews?

Throughout our history, Jews have flourished under strong, and at least basically just, empire. This was true under Cyrus the Great of Persia, under Alexander and the Ptolemies of Egypt, where Jews constructed their greatest centers of learning, first in Babylon and then Alexandria. By the time of the birth of Christ, and before the collapse of the Judaic State, two-thirds of all Jews already lived outside Palestine, mostly in areas under some form of strong imperial control.

Even under Rome, which extinguished Jewish independence, many of our scholars, teachers, craftsmen and traders found a comfortable existence. Many became citizens, perhaps most famously, Saul of Tarsus, later to be known as St. Paul. Indeed, after the Second Revolt and the expulsion from Jerusalem, Jews largely benefited from Pax Romana.

This was particularly true under the enlightened Antonine emperors. Jewish cultural and community life flourished from the Galilee -- Tiberius alone boasted 13 synagogues -- to Mesopotamia, in Alexandria, Spain, France and Rome, itself.

It was under Roman rule, for example, that the Mishnah was written. Synagogues were even established and named after emperors like Severus. Under Rome, we became, for the first time, a truly Diaspora people with global influence.

This was no accident. At its best, Rome, like America, posed an ideal of breathtaking scope and cosmopolitan vision. It sought to be a transnational empire open to diverse races and, in exchange for loyalty, allowing a wide breadth of religious practice and philosophical practice.

"Rome," wrote Areistedes, a Greek writer in the second century, "is a citadel which has all the peoples of the earth as its villagers."

This universalist notion was perhaps best expressed by Marcus Aurelius, the emperor and philosopher, who assumed the principate in 161 C.E. at the death of highly regarded Antoninus Pius. Aurelius claimed that he arose each morning to "do the work of man."

"For me, Antoninus," Aurelius wrote, "my city and fatherland is Rome, but as a man, the world. "

When the order of this empire came about, it was a disaster for the Jews. As cities declined, commerce waned and superstition, including within both Christianity and Judaism, waxed, our civilization declined. It was only with new and healthier imperial structures -- notably the Persian Sassanians and, ironically, the early Islamic empire -- that Jewish culture began to revive again, most notably in Muslim-controlled Spain.

Today's American empire, not surprisingly, now serves as the primary center of Jewish culture, creativity and commerce. Israel is important, but it is essentially a dependency of the American empire.

The connections of Israel to Europe, so beloved by many liberal Israelis, are likely to weaken further as anti-Semitism and pro-Islamicist force grow, particularly in France. Israelis, likely in the hundreds of thousands, gravitate here.

The question is what do Jews owe as citizens of this empire?

I think we have much to offer. To survive, America must keep its moral compass. It is right for us to question unjust acts and also require virtue, particularly in areas such as overconsumption of fossil fuels. Our intellectual and commercial sharpness, and history-shaped experience, represent an important asset to America.

Will this mean a new American Jewish identity?

Yes, to some extent. Clearly the war in Iraq will accelerate the gradual shift of Jews toward the center and, to a lesser extent, even to the right.

Both the old shtetl mentality and that of the 1960s will also fade, particularly among the young and more recent newcomers to the country. Recent Russian or Persian immigrants are not likely to be as enraptured by an old Stalinist like Castro or willing to cut a break to an anti-Semitic monster like Saddam, as those Jews still romantically attached to the spent utopianism of the left.

At the same time, the left, the traditional home for many Jews, seems destined to become increasingly inhospitable to Jews. We have already seen the marginalization of pro-Israel leftists.

The antiwar movement, with its powerful links in both Europe and America, with those sympathetic or even supportive of terrorists, places the opposition uncomfortably in bed with those who want to kill Jews, simply because they are Jews, in Tel Aviv, Buenos Aires, Tunisia and New York -- or LAX and Sherman Oaks.

Does this mean all Jews will become conservatives after the war?

No, although most will become further to the right on foreign policy, as the fact that few Jews in Congress, including liberals, have been prominent in the opposition to the war. But they will not, I believe, become a bunch of Rush Limbaugh or even Dennis Praeger "dittoheads." There are simply too many issues -- abortion, school prayer and economic justice -- that separate most Jews from the Republican mainstream.

But, Jews, like other Americans, will emerge from this war a changed people. We will come, I believe, with an enhanced notion of connection to the American empire and to our critical place within it.  

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