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.