Why left-wing McCarthyism is no better than right-wing McCarthyism

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 11-3-09


In her recent Jerusalem Post Magazine column, in which she gave Israel a “Democracy Check” fourteen years after Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, Naomi Chazan ominously failed her own test.

In analyzing Israel’s “ongoing democratic malfunctioning,” Professor Chazan offered such one-sided and exaggerated examples that her article was actually detrimental to democracy. Faced with, alas, far too many examples of violence, intolerance, hysteria, or insensitivity from across the Israeli political spectrum, she only saw the Right’s abuses. I am always amazed at partisans’ inability, both Left and Right, to engage in self-criticism – even to build credibility. But preaching about democracy in such a myopic manner deforms democracy, reducing this delicately balanced mechanism to just another bludgeon for bashing your enemies.

Most outrageously, in lamenting the “persistent inability to distinguish between freedom of speech and incitement,” Professor Chazan failed to distinguish between violent crimes and honest disagreements regarding strategy or policy. “Peace movements and activists have been a favorite target” of unhealthy incitement, she observed, correctly. But then she added: “The bombing of Prof. Ze’ev Sternhell’s home, Moshe Ya’alon’s depiction of Peace Now as a virus and Ambassador Michael Oren’s innuendo that J Street is promoting positions that are not in Israel’s interest are just three recent examples.”

Say what? I read that obscene absurdity three times to make sure I wasn’t misreading it. Equating, in any way, Ambassador Oren’s decision not to address a lobbying group – but to send an observer – with the evil violence perpetrated against Professor Sternhell is unconscionable. And using a term like “innuendo,” reeking as it does of McCarthyism, is itself a McCarthyite technique. It suggests that Professor Chazan failed to understand the argument she advanced so eloquently; that democracy requires what she called “self-restraint” that accepts “diversity” along with civil “disagreement” – acceptance of the idea that fair-minded, intelligent people may arrive at different conclusions. And such failure, under the guise of honoring Yitzhak Rabin’s memory, profanes that tragedy’s profound lessons with partisan bile.

In an overlooked lesson from his thought-provoking new book, one of America’s towering intellectuals, Norman Podhoretz, explains the myopia Chazan – and so many partisans both Left and Right – display. Podhoretz asks Why are Jews Liberals – a query that from an Israeli perspective should read, “Why are American Jews Liberals?”

I hate Podhoretz’s answer – because he may be right.

American Jewish liberals’ self-justifying myth preaches that American Jews are liberals because Judaism IS liberalism – if you have any doubts, study Isaiah, or learn about Tikun Olam. Podhoretz, who of course is no longer a liberal, rejects that argument, especially because the most pious Jews tend to be less liberal, and today’s less committed Jews frequently place their liberalism ahead of their people’s self-interest.

Podhoretz explains that over the last two centuries, as American Jews passed from the Old Country’s oppressions and deprivations to the New World’s freedom and prosperity, liberals were the good guys – and conservatives were the bad guys. In his book’s first part, “How the Jews Became Liberals,” Podhoretz’s lightening-quick guided tour illuminates the intertwined histories of anti-Semitism and enlightenment, delighting the reader with his skill despite the depressing picture he paints. For decades, anti-Semitism festered on the Right more than the Left, culminating with Hitler. As a result, Podhoretz argues, in Part II, “Why the Jews Are Still Liberals,” American Jews remain wired to love liberalism, even as today’s ugly anti-Semitism finds too welcoming a home with too much of the Left.

Seeing American Jewish political behavior through the historic prism of anti-Semitism explains why for decades the American Jewish Committee survey has found Americans Jews far more worried about American anti-Semitism than necessary. Applying the argument globally, one could say that in Israel, the Left is so insanely Left, and the Right so insanely Right, because each draws strength from its own reading of the Jewish encounter with Jew hatred.

I hate the argument. As a post-Auschwitz Jew, born a decade and a half after the Holocaust, I want to believe that the world – and my people – have moved beyond anti-Semitism. I wish the ADL was anachronistic. Alas, recent events have proved that the new, post-Auschwitz strain of anti-Zionist anti-Semitism is invigorated by the dangerous toxin of left-wing self-righteousness.

The profound – and mostly overlooked – part of Podhoretz’s argument gets to the essence of what political identity is – and why partisans like Professor Chazan can view the world in such warped ways. With his atavistic, essentialist explanation for liberalism, Podhoretz suggests our political stands are not transactional positions we arrive at rationally and adjust casually. The depth and dimensionality of our political identities explains the visceral disgust too many partisans feel for those who dare disagree with them.

In a recent New York Times column, “The Young and the Neuro,” the always thoughtful David Brooks introduced readers to the burgeoning field of “social cognitive neuroscience,” meaning how “biology, in the form of genes, influences behavior” and “how social behavior changes biology.” Brooks implicitly pushed Podhoretz’s historical explanation into the realms of psychology and biology. Lo and behold, Brooks noted, Reem Yahya and a team from the University of Haifa discovered that “Jews were more sensitive to pain suffered by members of a group other than their own.”

As an historian, I recoil from monocausal or deterministic explanations. I draw on the first book of Podhoretz’s I ever read, Making It, to explain American Jewish liberalism further. Beyond whatever scars we may carry from centuries of anti-Semitism, American Jews are also driven to “make it.” The sociological corner in America wherein we have most thrived is the Ivy-covered, bicoastal liberal cosmopolitan post-modern “shtetl.” No wonder most of us embrace the identity of our new best friends who have allowed us not just to become one with them but define them.

Podhoretz – and Brooks – help explain how Chazan and so many partisans are frequently so unreasonable even when preaching about being reasonable. Still, no matter how far “social cognitive neuroscience” advances, no matter how resonant we find the insights of Podhoretz or others, we should never get so bound to our atavistic or scientific models we forget humans’ near divine ability to transcend.

Democracy trumps biology and history. Civility can calm the collective soul and send the individual soaring. We must strive harder to achieve such transcendent leaps of faith, for all our sakes, in Israel and America, on the day we commemorate Yitzhak Rabin – and every other day, too.