Liberals, Passover, and the Attitude towards the “Other”: The Dilemmas of 21st Century Morality

Jay Michaelson has an interesting essay in the Forward on “why Jews are so liberal?” which he wants to link to the Passover holiday. In some ways, he could not be more right, in others, he could not be more wrong. And why that’s true of both cases gives us an insight into the dilemma of the “liberal” in the 21st century.

NB: Michaelson works on millennial movements and has read my book (or at least knows of it), so in principle he knows about active cataclysmic apocalypticism and the dangers involved in this religious belief, as well as the current wave of apocalyptic Islam. He’s also has written before (2009, after Operation Cast Lead) on these matters, expressing, among others, the dilemma of understanding Israel’s problems defending herself on the one hand, and being pressured to condemn her by his friends and by the images of Israeli might and Palestinian suffering on the other. To judge from this piece, the sloganeering of his “liberal” “friends” has won the day.

Why Are American Jews So Liberal? – The Jewish Daily Forward Published Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Why Are American Jews So Liberal?

Enduring Political Message of the Passover Seder

By Jay Michaelson

Strangers in Strange Land:

American Jews have long since adapted to life in the U.S. So why do they vote like they are just off the boat?   Why are Jews so liberal?

Every few years, the question gets asked, often with the unspoken follow-up “… and what can we do to change that?” This year, Republican super PACs are drooling with anticipation. If you think the attacks on Mitt Romney by Sheldon Adelson — I mean Gingrich — I mean a Super-PAC that theoretically doesn’t co-ordinate with Gingrich — were mean, just wait until the general election. Israel! The war on religion! The Ground Zero mosque! Anything to wake up the Jews and get them to vote Republican.

What’s more, Jews have every reason to vote Republican. In a series of studies, political scientist Sam Abrams (together with Steven M. Cohen and others) has shown how American Jews’ views on helping the needy, on diplomacy versus war, and on other litmus test issues actually line up with the center, maybe even the center-right, rather than with the left.

No link, but I suspect that on helping the needy most Jews end up on the left of the left. Certainly when Madoff went down, every major non-Jewish charity in the Boston area lost because their Jewish donors no longer could keep up their contributions.

Moreover, Jews are, on average, more affluent than most Americans, and political scientists tell us that the more affluent you are, the more likely you are to vote Republican. (More on that below.) When Jews were hawking pickles on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, our Democratic politics made sense. But not now, when we live in gated communities.

This is old stuff. Jews, unlike other immigrant groups, continue to vote against their pocketbook (which is admirable). And in the 21st century, they even vote against their identity (which is not so noble).  

And yet, since Ronald Reagan, no Republican presidential candidate has gotten more than 30% of the Jewish vote. It’s an anomaly.   Abrams has suggested that Jews vote Democrat largely out of identity. Judge Jonah Goldstein, a 1940s Republican from New York, said famously, “The Jews have three veltn (worlds): di velt (this world), yene velt (the next world) and Roosevelt.”

Despite the fact that Roosevelt sent their fellow Jews back to the Nazi killing machine.

No doubt, that is in large part true. But in light of the Passover holiday, I want to suggest a different, perhaps complementary, view: It’s in our religion. The Torah says, many times, that our experience of oppression is meant to lead to ethical political action. “The stranger that dwells with you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers once in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34). “You shall not mistreat a stranger, nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21) “You must open your hand to your poor and needy brother in your land… and you must remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 15:11–15).   These are clear, powerful texts. It’s only human that when we have plenty, we lose our sense of empathy for those who have little. So, religion comes to remind us not to do that — in the Jewish case, by remembering the narrative of the Passover story and our shared experience of oppression.

Actually, it goes much deeper than that. This is what one might call the empathic imperative: “do not do onto others as you would have them do onto you” rather than the dominating imperative, “do onto others before they do onto you.” It’s the way that the Exodus leads not to a reversal of relations (the slave becomes master), but it short-circuits that tendency to reverse and prolong the cycle of abuse – do onto someone weaker what someone stronger has done to you – with an empathy for the less powerful. It’s the key to true freedom which involves granting others the same freedoms we wish to exercise.

Now, let’s go back to that political science point from a moment ago, about how wealth and voting Republican tend to correlate. This is a telling point. Republicans tell us that they, too, are living out the mandates of the Bible — this was part of my point in an earlier column, that conservatives also say they have Jewish values. They just say that the best way to help the poor is to get government out of the way, let rich people make more money and then assume that those same rich people will generously make up the difference.   But then, if Republican policies were really for the benefit of everybody, why do wealthy people disproportionately vote Republican? Is it that the richer you get, the more you care about the poor?   No, of course not. Conservative politics are not for the benefit of everybody; that’s just spin. Trickle-down economics, for 30 years a pillar of Republican policy, doesn’t work. A little spending trickles down, but mostly, capital enriches itself. The wealth gap widens. The super-rich take bigger and bigger risks, and are then declared too big to fail. Trickle-down rhetoric — that tax cuts for the rich promote jobs, that taxing millionaire’s estates would hurt small businesses — is just a cover for rich people to pay fewer taxes and keep more of their money.   Which is why rich people vote Republican. Because we are selfish animals, and we want more stuff.

Aside from the superficiality of this analysis (which I largely agree with in as much as it’s partially accurate), the most striking element of this is the reductive and self-congratulatory nature of the invidious comparison. “We” democrats are good people; those republicans are selfish hypocrites. Not being a republican, and no longer being a democrat, this does not push my “us-them” emotions as it’s apparently supposed to.

Except when we remember. We remember, because of the Passover story, that we were slaves in Egypt: slaves, with no freedom, no property and no ability to look the other way from whatever we found unpleasant. And we remember, more recently, our Diaspora Jewish experiences, whether in the Holocaust or during times of anti-Semitism. Or, not too long ago, when we were disempowered peasants in Eastern Europe and new immigrants to America — just like the new immigrants that today’s Republicans want to keep out.

In other words, if we have an appreciation of the good that’s been done by letting us in, we are not to keep out others.

Jews are predominantly liberal because we are still mindful of being outsiders, even when we are insiders, and because we have a tradition that, right at this time of year, reminds us that we should not oppress anyone and must remember that we were once oppressed.

Here’s where we skate close to the edge of something not identified. Apparently Michaelson wants us to view all “Others” as ourselves. But the commandment is to do so with neighbors and strangers. But enemies? That’s not Jewish, that’s Christian, and not even Christian, it’s radical Christian. While Judaism – indeed the Haggadah – reminds us we have enemies, liberals seem to live in a world where evil does not exist: bad things are done by people who have been misunderstood, abused, mistreated; being nice and empathic will make them “good” like us.  

And while this is true, maybe even in a large majority of the cases – depending on how good one’s therapeutic techniques are – in some cases, those where the Other is remorselessly hostile, such openness can render one fatally vulnerable.

Is this Judaism? Or, asserted without nuance, is it a potentially suicidal deviation, a system of thought that insists everyone is basically decent and humane, an approach to human nature that confuses humane with human, one that has far less longevity than the idealistic but also realistic three millennia-long Jewish tradition. Sadism is human. Only a moral imbecile treats a sadist as if he’s humane.

This is the Jewish equivalent of German pastor Martin Niemoller’s famous “First they came for the Jews…” speech. Today, we may be free people, unworried by the wealth gap, or the threats to the social safety net, or people of color being racially profiled and attacked, or the Republican war on women (since, after all, we’re rich enough not to need publicly funded contraception anyway). But tomorrow we might not be. And so we are enjoined to act responsibly now. This is the lesson of Passover, observed by more than 75% of American Jews (second only to Hanukkah).

Of course, the memory of victimhood can also be very harmful. For many Jews, the lesson of anti-Semitism is that we must always be tougher, stronger and meaner than our enemies, and it colors how we understand Middle East politics. And so, cynical conservatives, interested in their own power and wealth, have begun manipulating these Jewish traumas to their own ends. Bomb Iran! Support Israel all the time! Obama is a Muslim! These cries, too, speak to Jewish experiences of victimhood. They, too, can draw nourishment from the lessons of the Seder.

Nice segue! So bombing Iran and supporting Israel all the time are just extensions of selfish republic economic policies. The poor in our society – for whom we should have due regard are equated with  powerful haters in others (who treat their poor with sadistic contempt). Shades of Lemony Snicket’s take on the “wicked father” in the Forward Haggadah:

The Wicked Parent tries to cram the story of our liberation into a set of narrow opinions about the world. “The Lord led us out of Egypt,” the Wicked Parent says, “which is why I support a bloodthirsty foreign policy and am tired of certain types of people causing problems.”

Obama’s Muslim sympathies, so egregiously misplaced, so disastrous as foreign policy, are whisked away with a reference to the apparently ludicrous notion that Obama is a Muslim.  

Here’s where the superficiality of Michaelson’s analysis comes out into the daylight. One need not want to bomb Iran to want a policy that makes their acquisition of nuclear weapons impossible – a policy that our President, with his “let’s be friends” foreign policy seems incapable of applying.  

One need not be a “let’s have Israel transfer the Arabs out of Greater Israel,” Zionist to understand that when it comes to supporting a real friend both politically and culturally in an area where the dominant political culture is repugnant to liberal values, it’s a no brainer to back Israel against despotic if not totalitarian regimes and their genocidal hatreds.  

One need not claim Obama is a Muslim in order (if one has the slightest knowledge of Islam and Muslims today) to understand that they consider him a Muslim (his father being the key issue), and to worry when his administration, under his direct guidance, makes imbecilic remarks like “to speak of radical or violent Islam is to insult moderate Muslims.” With approaches like that not only could Major Hassan pursue his personal Jihad against his own fellow soldiers unhindered by his colleagues to whom he openly espoused his radical Islamic doctrines, but the DoD report on the event never mentioned radical Islam

The sneering tone here suggests that Michaelson has spent entirely too much time hanging with people who are so self-satisfied with their own superior morality that they no longer feel they even have to take their critics’ points seriously. And the suggestion that the Jews’ concerns from the Holocaust “color” (read color inappropriately) their reading of hostile others (Iranians, Islamists, PLO) when those others are quite clear about their admiration for Hitler and their desire to finish the job, is nothing short of sadistic itself. Tell a person whose reasonably afraid of enemies that he’s paranoid and needs to let his guard down! If a phobia is an irrational fear of something, what’s the term for an irrational lack of fear? And if liberals want a world in which we need not be afraid, why attack those who are afraid and cover for those who want to frighten?

But they don’t have the support of the tradition itself. Apart from isolated cases (such as the law to annihilate Amalek), you won’t find these kinds of warmongering, greed-maximizing and fear-stoking messages in Torah. Do the aforementioned passages, or the rabbinic commentaries, say, “Treat the stranger roughly, because you were once strangers in Egypt, and you don’t want to slide back there, now do you?” Of course not. They say, “Do not oppress, because you were once oppressed.” They say, “You must rise above the all-too-human inclination to essentialize and demonize the Other, because you were once that Other.”

Here Michaelson reaches the height of his misguided and aggressive naiveté. Not content with making his point on the stranger, he has to go after the “fear-stoking, warmongering” messages of what he identifies as the “greed-mazimizing republican right.” As if greed maximizing, and fear of enemies who want to destroy you are inherently linked (and by extension, generosity towards others and lack of fear go hand in hand).

On the contrary, the rabbis are quite clear that self-defense is legitimate, that if an enemy comes to attack you, rise up early and kill him (Talmud Bavli, Berachot 5a based on Exodus 22:1). It’s probably notable that no nation that identified itself as “Christian” in the history of that religion has ever conducted a foreign policy based on the Sermon on the Mount. So why now, are secular post-Christians and post-Zionists urging Israel and the West to do precisely that?

The real problem here is that Michaelson, the liberal, not the Jew, has boxed him (and us) into a corner by denying our ability to identify enemies. If we do that, we are guilty of “essentializing and demonizing the Other” (gotta love that capital O). We fear- and warmonger. As a result Michaelson smears any Jew (indeed, also any liberal) with “right-wing” traits just for identifying a hostile Other. Like the least sophisticated and most doctrinaire Levinasian post-colonialists, he has embraced the Other no matter how hostile, no matter how driven by essentializing, demonizing and warmongering they are about the Jews.  It’s honorable and moral to show respect and empathy for, even to embrace the Other – neighbor, stranger in your midst, fellow citizen – it’s suicidal to embrace an enemy who wishes to destroy you.

Yes, there is a Jewish consciousness that holds that in order to survive, you have to be tough, and take every advantage. Screw the other guy before he screws you. Let the poor get sick. And hit first, because might makes right (or because “Force is all the Arabs understand”). Some of it has filtered right into the Passover liturgy, like the pogrom-inspired prayer for God to pour out His wrath on the nations. Our tradition is complicated.

It’s complex, much more nuanced than the puerile string of foolish statements made above, none of which he could support with a rabbinic source – “Screw the other guy before he screws you? Might makes right? Let the poor get sick?” This isn’t a summary of rabbinical thought about how to dsadeal with enemies, it’s a sneering summary by a man who wants to make a straw man he can burn gleefully with his buddies, a caricature about what crude, xenophobes think about the Other. 

My favorite line here, however, is “Force is all the Arabs understand.” I’ve heard it dozens of times from my liberal interlocutors, and I must say, it strikes me as the epitome of everything that’s wrong with the liberal approach to the Arab world. It’s not that they only understand force; they also understand kindness and cooperation. But force most definitely plays a much larger role in their culture than in ours. They themselves insist on its crucial importance. It’s an oft-repeated Arab proverb that “That which has been taken by force can only be regained by force.” (This is, by the way, the one of the main reason that Arafat said “no” to Camp David in 2000: to accept the return of that which was taken by force would be dishonorable. Violence is meaningful.)

Below the mural of Muhammad al Durah and his father, the inscription: What was taken by force can only be regained by force.

If, for liberals, “senseless violence” is a tautology – we consider all violence somehow a regression to the irrational – for honor-shame cultures “senseless violence” is an oxymoron – all violence is meaningful. When we liberals insist on viewing the Other as a clone of ourselves, when we project our values on to them, we rob them of their voice and agency, we assimilate their culture into ours, we essentialize them as the liberals they are not. And we then concoct foreign policies (the Oslo “Peace” Process) that backfire (the Second Intifada/Oslo War). And instead of rethinking them, we figure out ways to deny we were wrong, and call warmonger anyone who points out that, at least now, any Israeli concession will be seen as weakness and an invitation to further aggression.

Because when that Other happens to be hostile, it becomes doubly dangerous to presume he’s an honorable “other.” On the one hand, when they get violent (e.g., suicide terror), rather than see it as their choice, we make it a reaction to something “we” have done to make them so “desperate.” And on the other, we end up demonizing and essentializing as Islamophobes those of us who do listen to them, who do grant them autonomy, and who have even minimal standards of decency to which we hold them morally accountable.

But religion’s role is to harness these human instincts, take us to something at once higher and deeper, and help us to be less nasty to one another.  Sometimes it backfires, and the nastiness creeps back in.

I’m all in favor of such a view of the role of religion. It’s just that many religious people don’t agree, especially Muslims. What does one do with a campaign with the slogan kill a Jew go to Heaven? Does one claim it’s not religious, or, somehow, it’s backfired? Does one ignore it in pained embarrassment, including the fact that every so-called “moderate” American Muslim website ignores it? Does one recognize that some religious leaders harness human instincts to drive people to violence and hatred of the Other? And if we do recognize these problems, what do we do about them? Hopefully not accuse those grappling with such difficult moral dilemmas of being Islamophobes, and imagining, like our President, that if we just don’t talk about it, it will go away.

But the whole point is to get beyond the merely human, to aspire to a liberation that makes the Festival of Freedom worthy of its name.

Please, Jay, tell that to Muslims, and ask why they might agree with you in private, but don’t write columns like yours in Arabic addressed to their fellow Muslims, or fill their “moderate” websites with honest discussions of the rampant Judeophobia that pervades so much Muslim discourse these days. And please, if you value freedom, stop attacking the messenger who comes to you with bad news and start identifying freedom’s enemies.

Of course, that might mean you have to give up feeling morally superior to those fellow members of your own democratic society who disagree with you, and start criticizing those from another culture, in which democracy flourishes nowhere, those whom you condescend to and fear. After all, what is Islamophobia but a fear of criticizing Muslims.

2 Responses to Liberals, Passover, and the Attitude towards the “Other”: The Dilemmas of 21st Century Morality

  1. […] Liberals, Passover, and the Attitude towards the “Other”: The … […]

  2. Sérgio says:

    This guy is yet another example of the widespread malaise affecting so-called intellectuals in the West, the end result of years of post-modernist imbecilization led by crooks and moral delinquents such as Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, Toni Negri, et caterva (all legitimate heirs of herr Heidegger). He displays that standard and disgusting mix of mental shallowness and willing semi-ignorance, justified by a lazy self-satisfied self-righteous activism, but that barely disguise it´s true nature, which is masochistic pusilanimity, of the basest and most stupid kind.

    If this bozo was at least consistent he’d go to Gaza right now to embrace the “Salafist Other”. But, though his ilk love to mock such notions as coherence, consistency, logic, evidence, objetivity and truth (ya know, all the basic conceptual apparatus that led humankind out of the cave some 2.500 years ago) he´s got sufficient intellectual dishonesty and self-love not to end up like that Other moron, Victor Provolloni, who’s got a *real* taste of the “Salafist Other”.

    Well, someone has got to inform him that there are other people in the World, who are sane, appreciate moral & intellectual integrity, who also love life and that, contrary to this lazy self-centered wanker, have to deal with the death-worshipping “islamist Other” in their everyday lives.

    In sum, this guy is perfect type of postmodernist fool. He should join Oberalzheimerführer Günther and write a poem (in french) praising Mo Merah, that poor-traumatized-cum-rejected-assassin-of-Jewish-children “Other”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *