Is America Ready For A Maimonidean Moment?

by Gil Troy The New York Jewish Week, June 27, 2008


Both presumptive presidential nominees, John McCain and Barack Obama, have repudiated George W. Bush’s leadership style. Both have vied for the center, and promised to lead from the center. Unknowingly, they are channeling the approach of the great Jewish philosopher, Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon. With any luck, the next president will help the United States achieve a Maimonidean moment — it is long overdue.
Maimonides synthesized the biblical warnings against excess and Greek models of balance to chart the “Golden Path.” Writing in the 1100s, Maimonides described this Golden Mean geometrically, urging individuals to calibrate their behavior by placing themselves equidistant from their warring impulses. Defining wisdom as moderation, Maimonides said individuals needed to seek midpoints in their emotions, appetites, personal relations, and business lives.In a democracy, politics should have that kind of balance, that kind of temperance. Ultimately, democracies rely on good will to survive. Let’s face it. The basis of democracy, consent of the governed, is a fiction. Those of us born into the democratic system did not give our consent. The democratic regime has been imposed on us. We are free to vote for our leaders (or not vote). This gives us input into our leaders; it does not give our consent to the government.

The system works so well and provides so much freedom that we ignore this problem. Still, historically, one of the keys to American success has been a political culture whose strong tendency to moderate conflict is led by center-seeking presidents. George Washington’s civility, Abraham Lincoln’s pragmatism, Theodore Roosevelt’s nationalism, Franklin Roosevelt’s incrementalism, Harry Truman’s consensus-building, Dwight Eisenhower’s consensus-culture, John Kennedy’s romanticism, and Ronald Reagan’s patriotism all played to — and reinforced — the great American middle. Barack Obama is correct. America is more united culturally and politically, and Americans are more inconsistent than media emphasis on red versus blue or cosmopolitan bicoastals versus Western and Southern rednecks would have us believe.

Sadly, this moderate, bipartisan spirit, rooted in a reasonable but romantic nationalism, has been lacking lately. Democrats love to blame George W. Bush, Karl Rove, Fox News, and the shrill partisans of the right led by Bill O’Reilly, Anne Coulter, and Rush Limbaugh. Republicans love to blame the Clintons, both Hillary and Bill, James Carville,, and the shrill partisans of the left led by Al Franken, Bill Maher, and Keith Olbermann. The polarizing enmity is so great that when critics lament the generalized hyperpartisanship, many liberals and conservatives object to the false equivalence, convinced that only their opponents are unreasonable.

Unfortunately, the American Jewish community has become encased in its own polarizing set of stereotypes. Enemies of Israel, eager to implicate Israel in the Iraq war fiasco and transfer some of President George W. Bush’s unpopularity to the Jewish state, have caricatured all of Israel’s Jewish supporters as neoconservatives.  At the same time, right-wingers frequently caricature the American Jewish community as a collection of mushy-headed liberals, hopelessly nostalgic about the ‘60s, convinced that all of America’s domestic problems can be solved by a Great Society-type implementation of the prophet Isaiah’s teachings.

There is some truth behind both caricatures. Although support for Israel remains impressively bipartisan, George W. Bush’s intense support for the Jewish state, along with the modern unholy anti-Zionist alliance between many leftists and Palestinians, has fed perceptions that conservatives support Israel. Similarly, the American Jewish community has long been liberal and deeply tied to the Democratic Party. But given Israel’s overwhelming popularity among American Jews, and the perception of support for Israel as conservative, can the American Jewish community still be considered liberal?
Rather than fueling the partisan epidemic, American Jews should use this overstated contradiction to help hasten America’s Maimonidean moment. As supporters of Israel —and targets of the global Jihadists — American Jews are particularly sensitive to the dangers of terrorism. Just as Jews from the left in the 1960s and 1970s recognized the abuses of Soviet Communism faster than others because of the Soviet Jews’ plight, Jews today should be especially wary of the global dangers facing all Americans. Some liberal authors including Paul Berman and Peter Beinart have argued that liberals should lead the fight against Islamism, that it is a mistake to let opposition to President Bush blind liberty-lovers to Islamic fundamentalism’s dictatorial dangers. At the same time, as descendants of so many who have suffered oppression, and as proud heirs to the biblical tradition, American Jews are also particularly sensitive to the needs of the unfortunate.
After too many years of partisanship, we need to build a new center by defeating the Islamist scourge and, at the same time, advancing social justice. As both nominees vie for the center, American Jews should push from both the left and the right for more compromise, more civility, less polarization and less demonization. Our great rabbi Maimonides can indeed help heal America, and return Americans to the paths our greatest presidents followed. 

Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His book “Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents” (Basic Books) was just published.


‘Scoop’ McCain

While, as I argued in my last blog posting, the best part of Barack Obama’s AIPAC speech reflected a passionate, poetic understanding of Zionism as an anchor for Jewish identity, John McCain’s AIPAC speech revealed his deep sensitivity to Israel’s role in Jewish history and in American history.

STOP the presses! Can it be! Are you allowed to say something positive about BOTH candidates? Aren’t you supposed to demonize one and sanctify the other? Actually, much can be learned about the two candidates by seeing the different ways they approach their friendship with Israel. And there can be no more eloquent repudiation of all the libels about the Jewish Lobby by seeing how the candidates offered two very different intellectual paths that both led to a bipartisan affirmation of the enduring friendship between Israel and America, practically and spiritually.

McCain rooted his views of Israel in the more conventional, but equally compelling, narrative of the Jewish need for a Jewish state as a refuge from persecution, especially after the Holocaust. McCain views Israeli and American security needs as intertwined. The Arizona Senator understands that, as sister democracies, Israel and the United States share a common battle in fighting Islamic extremism, and in the particular need to check Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

McCain began his speech by praising one of the architects of the America-Israel alliance, Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson. Senator Jackson represented the State of Washington, a western state with few Jews. Throughout his career, and at the peak of his power in the 1970s, Jackson defended the Jewish State not because it was the politic thing to do, but because it was the right thing to do. Jackson also worked hard to save Soviet Jews, another cause without an obvious Washington State constituency – but with a compelling moral rationale.

Senator Jackson understood that Israel was an essential ally in fighting America’s greatest threat in the 1970s, Soviet Communism. Jackson was the kind of bighearted visionary who could champion Soviet Jewry and Israel in such a way that he never appeared to be using the plight of Soviet Jews or Israel’s needs as mere tools against Soviet Russia. Rather, he showed how the universal moral cause and America’s strategic needs converged and reinforced each other.

Obama, left, and McCain
Photo: AP

“Scoop” McCain is following that approach in fighting the Islamist scourge. He appreciates the way Israeli and American needs harmonize – and a righteous American-Israeli friendship consecrates and cements the strategic American-Israeli alliance. “My friends,” McCain proclaimed, “as the people of Israel know better than most, the safety of free people can never be taken for granted. And in a world full of dangers, Israel and the United States must always stand together.”

Here, then, is one of the continuing mysteries following September 11. On that awful day in 2001, the Islamist terrorists acted so despicably the moral confusion of so many Westerners should have ended. The joy the fundamentalists took in destroying the Twin Towers, with nearly 3000 innocents slaughtered, should have been a clarifying crime.

The Jihadists’ wanton destruction was so outrageous, so unjustified, so threatening that it should have ended our era of moral relativism. The Islamist attempt to establish a reign of terror should have ended the reign of error centered in our universities that consistently finds fault with the West and absolves Third Worlders of guilt.

The blood unnecessarily and tragically spilled of so many workers, both black and white, rich and poor, American and non-American, should have cleansed the polluted, self-abnegating souls of so many America bashers, in the United States and abroad. The fact that it did not raises disturbing questions about what is happening in the West culturally, ideologically, existentially.

I recall one meeting I attended of Canadian academics who spent so much time blaming the United States for what happened on 9/11, that when it was my turn to speak I said, “I must have been watching a different channel than the rest of you that Tuesday in September. I saw that America was attacked that day, not the other way around.”

John McCain’s AIPAC speech had the kind of moral clarity that we need to face the world’s challenges today. And, like his mentor, McCain could not forget the human dimension, in this case, mentioning Gilad Shalit, Eldad Regev, and Ehud Goldwasser, the three Israeli hostages who were kidnapped so cruelly nearly two years ago.

Israelis – and their friends throughout the world – should appreciate the fact that both of America’s leading presidential candidates spoke so powerfully and so personally at the AIPAC conference. And let us be clear. This bipartisanship does not reflect AIPAC’s power as much as it reflects the greater power and logic of the enduring American-Israeli friendship.

Jerusalem syndrome

By GIL TROY, Jerusalem Post, 6-22-00

In these days of gotcha politics, it is not surprising that Barack Obama’s Texas two-step about a united Jerusalem became so controversial. Obama’s embrace of a “united Jerusalem” during his recent speech to AIPAC, and then his subsequent backpedaling, made for a good story – and fed into many people’s fears that his support for Israel is a posture not deeply rooted in principle.

In fairness, many American politicians have suffered from their own peculiar variation of Jerusalem Syndrome. How many times have presidents promised to move America’s embassy to Jerusalem – which, as of this writing, remains in Tel Aviv.

Candidates -and incumbents – will inevitably bob and weave when it comes to specific policies regarding Israel. The region is so volatile, the issues are so complex, the scenarios keep shifting. So while it was an amateurish mistake to oversell to AIPAC and come out too strong in favor of the current status quo in Jerusalem, Obama’s miscue probably reflected sloppy staff work more than malice or deceit. And amid the brouhaha, many have missed the most important part of Obama’s speech.

Early on in his address, Obama said: “I first became familiar with the story of Israel when I was 11 years old. I learned of the long journey and steady determination of the Jewish people to preserve their identity through faith, family and culture. Year after year, century after century, Jews carried on their traditions, and their dream of a homeland, in the face of impossible odds.”

Obama explained that as a young man cut off from his roots, not knowing his father, this quest to return and this deep sense of rootedness, moved him. “So I was drawn to the belief that you could sustain a spiritual, emotional and cultural identity,” Obama proclaimed. “And I deeply understood the Zionist idea – that there is always a homeland at the center of our story.”

Those kinds of sentiments do not get adjusted in a press release the next day. That kind of a statement suggests the kind of deep tie to Israel and understanding of Zionism not enough young American Jews have today.

Still, it remains for Obama to reconcile that sincere understanding of Zionism with his many anti-Zionist friends. This challenge parallels the larger task ahead for Obama in the wake of the hard-fought campaign against Hillary Clinton.

The vision Obama has articulated of a united America is as moving as his affirmation of Zionism. But many Americans’ faith in the sincerity of his vision weakened as we learned of his long friendship with the divisive African-American nationalist Jeremiah Wright, and as we occasionally glimpsed dimensions of a typically Ivy League mix of cynicism and elitism.

Clearly, Barack Obama has some explaining to do. Not about his Jerusalem rhetoric but about his own journey. There is a disconnect, a missing piece. The Obama enigma will continue to mystify until he explains how he experienced the superciliousness of so many classmates, the harsh anger of so many African-Americans including his preacher, but arrived at a different conclusion.

Many fears about Barack Obama will not be quieted until he reconciles his heartfelt and longstanding appreciation for Israel with his occasional tone-deafness on the issue when friends may be bashing it, or even his church is divesting from it.

We should judge Barack Obama on his thoughts and his deeds, not on his influences and his associates. But as a candidate, the burden of proof is on him. He needs to give the voters the tools, the roadmap, if you will, for understanding his journey. He should explain how he stopped at various negative places along the way, but ultimately ended up as an American patriot, an American nationalist, and in that same vein, a strong supporter of Israel and other embattled democracies.

All too often, Barack Obama as presidential candidate is a hologram, appearing different from various angles. He now has five months to appear more solid, more consistent, and more like the young Senate candidate who wowed Americans in 2004 and 2006, rather than the battle-scarred candidate of 2008 reeling from the Clinton assault.

If he can rekindle that magic, many will happily shout with him “Yes We Can” and help him on his historic journey.