Opinion Articles

Political Extremism and the Jews

There is a natural tendency, when discussing political extremism and polarization, to assume that the extreme Right and the extreme Left are mirror images of one another. In so doing, one appears evenhanded, even broadminded, able to accept that one’s own side’s extremists are as bad as those of the other side.

But today’s extreme Left and Right in the United States are not mirror images of one another. They represent different processes, are oriented toward different goals, and represent very paths of action. While each poses a danger to the Jewish community, the dangers that they pose are different. The threat from the extreme Right entails abuse, physical attacks, and even murder (as in the 2019 synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway). The threat from the extreme Left is not so much directed against people but against ideologies and belief systems. First it is directed against Zionism, and in Europe and some quarters in the US, against Judaism. (Arab and Muslim terror, which is of course directed against Jews, is excluded from this analysis because it has its own internal dynamics.)

A one size fits all approach is not appropriate. The Jewish community must develop separate strategies to address these threats. To fully appreciate the difference between the two extremes and defend against them, one needs to understand the roots and genealogies of each of the extreme poles.

Totalistic Utopianism on the Left as a Threat to Zionism and Judaism

A fundamental characteristic of today’s Left is its growing illiberalism. This is particularly but not exclusively evident on university campuses. Student activists have called for the suppression of anything they deem racist, referring to these policed expressions as “unfree speech.” “Cancel culture” has blocked speakers, including prominent scientists, who do not meet the criteria of political correctness or possess sufficiently progressive views, from addressing students on campus no matter the subject.

In recent years university students could foreclose discussion of certain topics or the airing of certain opinions by declaring that they caused them to feel “unsafe.” Classic works of literature and philosophy were marked with “trigger warnings,” indicating that they contained words or expressions that students might find offensive. Behind all this was the attempt to enforce an agenda that focused on a narrow vision of obtaining justice for oppressed identity groups.

These illiberal manifestations are not mere self-indulgence, but rather represent a fundamental current within modern culture: utopian totalism – the attempt to totally order society and the state in accord with transcendent ideals of justice, equality, and freedom, and put in place mechanisms to enforce ideological fealty and purity.

Perhaps the earliest clear expression of this trend occurred in the French Revolution, especially in the years of the Terror of 1793-94, when Robespierre and Saint-Just attempted to enforce republican virtue and purity through denunciation and the guillotine. These attempts repeated themselves in various Communist revolutions – from Russia to Cuba to China – especially in Mao’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. It also manifested itself in certain aspects of Fascist and Nazi regimes.

As the late Israeli sociologist S.N. Eisenstadt pointed out, these attempts to establish total utopias are intrinsically tied to the cultural program of modernity. Modern consciousness subjects all social, political, and cultural arrangements and institutions to reflective and self-critical thinking. As modern people, we now assume that political institutions, cultural and sexual norms, and social hierarchies are not given by God or by nature, but are invented and instituted by human beings, by people like us.

Such a realization could lead to tolerance and pluralism – after all we are all human, none of us is infallible. At the same time, it could also lead to far-reaching attempts to resolve inequality and injustice. Once we believe we have such solutions, we are sorely tempted to enforce them, by force if necessary. For who would tolerate injustice if we hold the key to justice and fairness for all?

After WWII, with Nazism and Fascism discredited, many thought, in the West at least, that we had reached a post-ideological era. Daniel Bell, the distinguished Harvard sociologist published a book in 1962 entitled The End of Ideology. Yet, such predictions have turned out to be premature. We seem to have re-entered an ideological era with the same utopian-totalistic ambitions witnessed before the war.

This totalistic and utopian streak has reasserted itself in regard to the quest for the equality of racial and sexual identities. Every business, educational and social organization has its diversity offices and officers. Critical Race Theory and “Anti-Racism” are being adapted for use in community education courses and schools. Many institutions are demanding creedal adherence. In the University of California faculty applicants have to complete statements about how they will advance diversity and inclusion. In communist societies too, every school, plant, and organization has its Party committee and its political officers. The thought of Xi Jinping is taught to six-year-olds. Job applicants have to demonstrate ideological adherence.

There has been a decline in liberal and tolerant attitudes such as the inviolability of free speech. According to the Pew Research Center, 40% of millennials believe that speech deemed offensive to minorities should be suppressed, compared with 25% or less among older counterparts. An article just published in the prestigious American Sociological Review found that university departments in the arts, humanities, and social sciences do not teach openness and tolerance; on the contrary, they increase the belief that one possesses the absolute moral truth.

In such an environment Zionism doesn’t stand a chance.

Centrists and moderates are willing to weigh Israel’s security needs against Palestinian rights and have some appreciation for how difficult negotiations between the two sides are, especially after Oslo’s failure. For progressives and their utopian totalism, in contrast, Israel and Zionism in their essence embody colonialist and racist evil and are of the same cloth as racism and oppression in America. They should be suppressed as they absolutely contradict and sully the ideological purity of the redeemed society currently under construction.

Judaism is not far behind. It is perceived as an atavistic tribal religion, which practices barbaric cruelty against babies and animals, and it is associated with white Jewish privilege.


The Destruction of the Social Conditions of Democracy and the Threat Against the Jews from the Right

The threat from the Right is different from the threat from the Left. It threatens Jews, mainly physically, not Zionism (which it can support) or Judaism. It has a different set of causes than the threat from the Left.

Right-wing murderous antisemitism seems to be linked to extreme social disorganization which leads to political fantasy, especially of a conspiratorial and paranoid sort.

Hannah Arendt in her Origins of Totalitarianism identified one of the sources of modern antisemitic and fascist movement as a “mob” of declassed individuals. That is, individuals that modern capitalism has removed from the organic structures of society – families, occupations, classes. They exist on the margins of society and do not really enjoy political representation in Parliament which precisely represents those structures and the interests and ideals associated with them.

Arendt writes, “Excluded as it is from society and political representation, the mob turns of necessity to extra-parliamentary action. Moreover, it is inclined to seek the real forces of political life in those movements and influences which are hidden from view and work behind the scenes.” That is the Jews, the Freemasons, and the Jesuits. In other words, excluded as they are from realistic, rational political action, the mob seeks recourse in political fantasy, particularly featuring the Jews (and others) as threats.

I contend that the types of processes that Arendt describes in relation to the anti-semitic and fascist mob of the first half of the 20th century, have repeated themselves in the contemporary American social, economic, and political scene. Globalized network capitalism has brought about a similar social disorganization, not just to individuals but to entire communities and classes.

Since the publication of Anne Case and Angus Deaton’s, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism in 2019, the story of the destruction of the white working class is well known. Globalization and offshoring of jobs on the one hand and robotics and computerized automation on the other, have made it well-nigh impossible for non-college educated men to find jobs in which they can support a family and enjoy a moderate middle class life style. The loss of these jobs has destroyed family life in many sectors of the working class. Since it does not pay for women, who have jobs as secretaries, caregivers etc. to get married and lose control both of their money and the children, they have replaced marriage with “serial cohabitation.” Most of the births in the white working class now take place out of wedlock and most family units are those of single mothers raising children along with serial boyfriends.

With the disappearance of good jobs and stable two-parent households has also come the disappearance of other anchors of working-class life, such as labor unions and the church. Above all, the absence of employment and family life has led to the loss of self-respect and to despair, which has been reinforced by the cultural depiction of this population as “deplorables” and yahoos. The most extreme result of all this, has been a huge rise in self-induced death – through alcoholism, opioid overdose, or suicide. This phenomenon has risen to such an extent that it has affected life expectancy. Life expectancy among middle-aged white working-class males is now in decline. A shocking occurrence in a developed country.

With such social disorganization comes a loosening of the grip on realistic, effective political action (as Hannah Arendt’s Fascist mob turned to conspiracy theories and antisemitic fantasies). Social disorganization does not allow one to formulate clear political objectives, nor to match them with effective means. We see this connection clearly in surveys. Support for two prevalent current political fantasies – that Biden stole the election and immigrants are invading our country and replacing our cultural and ethnic background – rises considerably among low-income white conservative populations who lack higher education, the groups who are most exposed to the social disorganization described by Case and Deaton.

Immigrant replacement beliefs are dangerously close to antisemitic conspiracy theories. In the chant “Jews will not replace us” of the white supremacist marchers in Charlottesville in 2017 and in the Tree of Life shooting, all these themes came together. The white supremacist shooter attacked Jews because Jews (HIAS) helped immigrants invade the country. These incidents illustrate that violent antisemitic attacks are often linked to beliefs about the threat Jews pose and are often conceived of as defensive steps against this threat.

What is to be Done?

What steps can the Jewish community take to safeguard itself against these dangers? The Jewish community, through the ADL and other organizations, has for years been trying to mitigate prejudice and hate in American society and elsewhere. Can the community address the deeper causes of antisemitic hate? I believe it can. The Jewish community should adopt policies that differentially address the social disorganization that is responsible for violent antisemitism on the Right and the dangerous utopian totalism of the Left.

I will address the Right first. I suggest that the Jewish community support policies that ameliorate social disorganization. Such policies are to be differentiated from the orthodoxies of both progressive re-distributionism and the social conservativism and neo-liberalism of the American right. I would describe these policies as “pro-social”. That is, their aim is to strengthen the social institutions that make for social coherence and prevent anomie and social chaos, especially in the working class – work, the family, religion and the unions. Work is a cultural and social value in itself. Re-distributionist policies such as supplemental income and child subsidies should be designed so as not to penalize working families. No worker in America (or elsewhere) should be made to feel that she is foolish or stupid for continuing to work and not accepting handouts. Similarly, to be pro-family does not only mean that one is against abortion, but rather that the state should support the maintenance of coherent (two- parent) families. America lags behind all other countries in this regard with deleterious social effects.

There is also a direction that the Jewish community can take in regard to utopian totalitarian. The great Jewish intellectuals of the mid twentieth century – Isaiah Berlin, J.L. Talmon, Hannah Arendt all identified the dangers – to society at large and to Jews – of totalitarian utopianism. Hence they all advocated liberal pluralism. Their work should be revisited and reapplied.

Furthermore, the Jewish tradition, especially the halachic rabbinic tradition that developed in the Galut has great resources of anti-utopian humility and irony. Anyone who has studied Talmud and Halacha knows that these assume that human beings do not have access to absolute truth and that all questions have many sides to them (“these and these are the words of the Living God”). Enveloping all of this is a sense of irony – the “Jewish sense of humor” so many American Jews see as important to their Jewish identity. This is based on an acute awareness of the gulf between the real and the ideal.

American Jewish intellectuals and scholars have mobilized this sensibility to great effect in critiquing and criticizing Israel and its policies. It’s time that they utilized this sensibility in evaluating and critiquing the utopianism in their own society.