The following is a transcript of Episode 84 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.
Yehuda: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Identity/Crisis: A show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer president of Shalom Hartman Institute North America, and we’re recording on Friday, December 17th, 2021.
So this is kind of a strange moment in media, to say the least. In 1976, 72% of Americans expressed trust in mainstream media. This year, according to Gallup, that number is fully half: 36%. It’s an incredibly low number compared to other countries that are democracies around the world. Or if you want to use a different metric, according to the Reuters Center at Oxford only 21% of Americans pay for news online or otherwise.
Those two statistics correlate, of course, we would only pay for things that we want, need, and trust, but it’s also self-reinforcing. The less widely we’re going to consume information from different sources, the more likely we’re going to reinforce the beliefs we already hold and our value systems. And around and around we go. There’s a lot to say about how we’ve gotten to this place and who to blame.
There are extraordinary individuals. Some politicians in the past few decades have cultivated a disdain for media. We could also point to colossal failures in media institutions themselves for bringing about their own demise. But as an ideas show, I’m more interested in some bigger picture analysis.
So for instance, we live in a culture that is liberal in nature and deeply values autonomy. We all make our own playlists. We curate our own consumption. We decide where we want to source our information and when, and how, if we want to consume it. If you’re listening to this podcast, you’re doing so on your own schedule.
This makes us all more omnivorous readers, watchers, and listeners, but it puts enormous pressure on big media systems to adapt to user needs and demands. Or we might consider a second force at work. I think we all know that our attention spans have been altered irrevocably by social media, whether in the form of now thinking that the drollest wisdom is best conveyed in 140 characters, or because of the dopamine hits that tell us to look for the next thing. A shift in the media climate in response is inevitable.
But at the same time that all this is happening, it’s hard to shake the sense that perhaps counterintuitively to what I just said and described, it seems to also be a flourishing market for ideas themselves. Everyone and their uncle now has a substack and getting yourself a good subscriber list on sub stack seems to be more lucrative and freeing than a salaried media job elsewhere.
Did you know, I found out this morning, that substack is now valued at $650 million? We might also argue that the breakneck speed of media production, every 10 minutes, we’re onto something new is witness to the fact that we’re all consuming more content more voraciously than ever before.
I think a lot about the industry of ideas as part of my work, running here a research and educational center that is at once fiercely and intentionally independent. And at the same time dependent on both philanthropy to sustain our work, as well as a market in the form of audiences to consume what we produce.
A few years ago, I started using the phrase in reference to Hartman that Torah is a growth industry referencing not only our massive growth as an organization on the Jewish landscape, but other organizations as well, who are growing and climbing right now, precisely because they emphasize ideas, intellectual, and moral creativity in a Jewish institutional ecosystem.
That’s otherwise declining. I guess this is all the way of saying that we Jews have a pretty significant interest in watching the world of ideas and playing a role in it because ideas have been a central commodity to who we are as a people and a tool for change. And in this period of ideas and media instability, we may have an extra special responsibility, both to our own history and heritage as well as to this world around us.
Among the ideas of innovation, the Jewish community in the past few years, our new journals and publications, we at Hartman have a relatively new journal called Sources, which we invite you to take a look at online and maybe subscribe. And at the same time the Maimonides Fund, a major Jewish philanthropic entity launched a new print and online journal called Sapir.
To run it, they hired Bret Stephens, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author, columnist, who writes an opinion column at the New York Times and as a contributor to NBC News. And I’m really excited that Bret is joining me today on the show to talk about Sapir. But perhaps more importantly to help us think through this moment in Jewish ideas.
So, first of all, Bret, thanks for coming on the show. And let me start by asking you: you have big platforms in the world. You’re a major journalist. You’re one of the best well-known and published people in the American context, but you took on this project to edit a journal for a Jewish philanthropic entity that is tailored by design towards a particular subset of the Jewish community. So why? What’s this particular project about for you as a thinker or a writer or a journalist, and I guess also as a Jew?
Bret: Well, it’s the last aspect of my identity that Sapir really engaged. I’ve always had a foot in the Jewish world and a foot in the secular world. In a past life, I edited the Jerusalem Post. It’s been a mainstay of my commentary, both at the Wall Street Journal where I spent many years, and now at the New York Times.
But the world of Jewish ideas is just a rich one. So I guess it was a way of marrying my avocational habits and identities with my vocational ones. And an opportunity presented itself, which I thought was very interesting, which was not really easily reproducible. It wasn’t something that I would be easily able to do in my regular day job at the New York Times.
So it just seemed like a neat thing to do in a way of exercising a different mental muscle, so to speak, that wasn’t getting the workout that perhaps it required.
Yehuda: What do you think is at stake? I don’t know if you agree or disagree with how I opened in terms of the climate of ideas. I think it’s flourishing on the idea side, even as the systems and institutions of ideas are oftentimes struggling. What do you think is at stake with a new journal like Sapir, which is making some bold statements and claims about major Jewish tensions?
We’ll get into some of those later on. What’s the play, because I think it’s not just, here’s a nice hobby project. It’s actually, I want to do something that’s going to have real impact.
Bret: Right. And that was very much at the center of what the folks that Maimonides and I discussed when, as we conceived it, a lot of Jewish media particularly the think magazines are very good at diagnosis less heavy on prescription. So the first aspect of this is we wanted a periodical that was at least as prescriptive as it was diagnostic. We were going to have ideas for the Jewish world, not just complaints about it. I guess this is one point.
The second thing is much as I’d loved my friends at Commentary magazine. I wanted something that cut across ideological lines, that cut across lines in terms of religious observance, and that brought Israeli and diaspora writers together in the same publication.
So you know, people who are to my left, perhaps even Yehuda Kurtzer, might be appearing in the pages of a Sapir. Benny Morris, Anshel Pfeffer, I can name a whole bunch of people whose politics I don’t share, but whose thinking I admire, who provoked me.
The third aspect I’ve said this jokingly that if we’re read by more than 5,000 people, we’re a total failure.
I don’t stand quite by that number and maybe I’m going to regret the comment, but I do have an idea that in many ways publications that are a little bit hard to get will be more avidly sought after. There is a problem that when you have immediate access to practically any form of media that you can conceive for $3.99 on your apple subscription or whatever it is that the result tends to be that people simply ignore it because it’s constantly available.
So I wanted to turn that on its head. And say, what if we put out a journal that was actually a little hard to find, that had very little marketing beyond word of mouth, whose chief selling point was the quality of the writing and thinking in its pages. Maybe that would actually be a more successful way of getting into the hands and the minds of our readers than printing a hundred thousand copies, putting it on the tables of every major Jewish organization, every shul, whatever, every Jewish day school, and then hoping that we’ll pick it up among the mountains of things that they might alternatively read or think about.
Yehuda: So I identify a lot with what you just described. It’s been the theory of change of our work for a long time. Speak to a particular class in the Jewish community. It could be, rabbis could be philanthropists, could be Hillel directors, and provide them with the intellectual tools to actually be change agents.
And we run up against two really significant critiques. One of which is it might be very powerful for 5,000 people to embrace –
Bret: It could be 10, it could be 25. I’m just throwing that number out.
Yehuda: Right. Right. But, in other words, it’s a small number compared to any piece that you’re going right in the Times, in terms of the number of people who can consume it.
And so one question is around how ideas actually make change and whether you do need a kind of critical mass embracing of those ideas.
And the second critique that we get a lot is by its very nature if you’re only speaking to a smaller number of people, the ideas themselves wind up taking on a parochial quality, right?
I’m speaking to a particular community.
Bret: Both of those are sensible critiques. I don’t know the answer. I have a theory that ideas and culture have a trickle-down quality. I guess it goes with my Reagan economics.
Yehuda: Your economic politics too.
Bret: But I think actually there’s quite a bit to back that up by the way, that cultural change begins in sort of small corners and then spreads because it has the allure of being something rare, slightly arcane, maybe precious and has a way of spreading. And then there’s what I think it was Malcolm Gladwell, but I could be getting that wrong.
But I thought Malcolm Gladwell had something called the law of small numbers. Bottom line, my idea is that if you can get ideas in circulation among a small number of people, we would now call them influencers, to use the parlance of social media, although I don’t mean this as social media influence.
Old-fashioned influencers. It might have a greater effect than just trying to get as many people as possible to read it. I guess what I’m saying to borrow Yehuda Kurtzer-style language is that I don’t think culture is really demotic.
But we’ll see. We just started. We’re just wrapping up our fourth issue and we’re experimenting. We are open to the possibility that our theories are mistaken and we have to take a different approach. We want to be as flexible as we can in making sure that we’re having as much impact.
So I’m not wedded to a theory. I’m just offering one.
Yehuda: Great. So I want to take the last piece that you wrote in the last journal, which was on Jewish continuity. So you said you’re wrapping up the fourth issue. I think this podcast will come out after the issue is out. And your essay in this journal on continuity is about whether there’s a future for American Jews.
I think that was even the title of the essay. Is There a Future for American Jews? I was struck, Bret. When you are prescriptive, as you said, it’s not merely diagnostic, you even acknowledge, well, it seems like the numbers of Jews might be going up as opposed to what the kind of continuity doomsday prophets say.
. So the numbers might be going up. The level of engagement by the numbers of Jews might be going down. So there’s something tricky around Jewish numbers. No question about that. But I was struck that when you offer some prescriptions, they feel very political and almost identitarian in nature. You talk about Jews needing to stand up for ourselves. You talk about resisting social trends, like the diversity equity and inclusion initiative that has kind of overtaken our organizations and institutions. You talk about anti-Zionism as conspiratorial thinking.
And I was struck by that because they all felt political in nature. We need to be a certain people. And then there’s this whole list of things that like Jews have done for a long time that has actually marked themselves and others as others, which are not political at all. Like praying, studying Torah, believing in God, eating certain things and not other things.
So I guess I read it as a kind of: there’s a political Jew who’s trying to offer a kind of political read on who American Jews are supposed to be. But where does all that other stuff of Jewishness fit into your vision of how American Jews are going to be or should be a kind of flourishing minority in the context of this civilization, where it’s not clear that we have a future?
Bret: Well, a couple of points. First of all, don’t be surprised that a guy who makes his living as a political writer would write this particular essay with a political frame of mind. When my name appears in the byline. It’s Brett Stevens speaking. When I’m editing Sapir I’m trying to put myself in a very different frame of mind and acknowledge that there are multiple high roads to the truth.
To your question, where does it leave Jewish observance, Jewish life as it’s been practiced? It leaves it pretty much in the same space as it ever was. But I think there’s a line in that essay, which is American Jews spend most of their lives outside of the gates of the Jewish community, whether it’s their homes or their shuls, or various other institutions that are explicitly defined by Jewish life.
They live lives in America. And that has to be, as it were, an outer perimeter for the conditions in which Jewish life can flourish.
If you think of Jewish life in America as consisting of say a high castle and a land that surrounds it. Well, the stuff that goes on in the high castle, whether it’s observance or different new ways of studying Torah or observance and so on that’s not, particularly my concern.
My concern has to do with the broader conditions of security for flourishing Jewish existence. So that’s why I wrote that piece. I also wrote it if I’m being totally candid, that I’ve always been more interested in Jewish politics maybe than I’ve been in Jewish observance, which makes me a very bad Jew.
I keep staving off various rabbis who threatened to study with me by saying that I need to reach some round number in terms of my birthday before I would deign to meet with them, but eventually it’s going to happen. I’m just postponing the date. It’s like Augustine. Lord, to adapt to Augustine, Lord make me observant, just not yet.
Yehuda: I don’t think it makes you a bad Jew, at least personally, if you were looking for my judgment, I think it makes you characteristically.
Bret: That’s just my judgment.
Yehuda: And you’re trying to touch it. That’s the worst of both worlds, right? That’s the worst of all worlds. You’re not objectively a bad Jew, but you think yourself to be one.
In that respect you represent where the Jewish communal discourse is primarily. where since the primary theater of Jewish identity in America seems to be political because that’s the place where our primary contest seems to be. But I am struck that you had a powerful line in here, which is “the challenge for Jewish Americans, as for most other ethnic and religious groups in the United States has been to remain a people slightly apart.”
Not actually apart. Now, if you and I both decided to be what you might call enclave Jews, enclave Jews don’t actually have much of a problem with America, right? They’re capable of resisting all sorts of forms of assimilation. Their counter-cultural lives that they live by definition characterize everything that they do.
But it strikes me that the posture that you’re trying to take is, well, then I need to identify what are the dominant, ideological political trends, and then find a way to be counter-cultural towards them. But couldn’t it be the other way around? Couldn’t Jews and as many of them are being major leaders inside the diversity equity and inclusion agenda to take one such example lead by bringing Jewishness into that space and then exhibit certain countercultural expressions once inside that world. But you’ve already determined that this ideological agenda fundamentally runs counter to what Jewish thriving is supposed to look like.
Bret: Well a lot of Jews do that. I mean the last time I had a diversity equity and inclusion training in my company, I wouldn’t swear by this, but I was pretty sure the person leading it was a Jewish individual. So that happens and far be it for me to gainsay the way she’s trying to practice her idea of an ethical life.
I just think it’s a mistake. The Jews have joined all sorts of movements socialism or Marxism being the most obvious example, which in time proved to be profoundly antithetical to Jewish interests in the broadest sense of the term. I mean, Liel Liebowitz in his essay the continuity essay in Sapir mentions the name is now going to escape me because it’s a Sovietism of Bolshevik Jews who thought their duty was to whip the Jewish population into shape for Marxism, Leninism and ended up on not just the ash heap of history, but the, almost literally the ash heap.
So I don’t want to say that about DEI. It’s not an exact comparison, but my thesis Yehuda was that a lot of what passes for what is now commonly called woke ideology is profoundly threatening to the conditions which allowed Jewish life to thrive in the United States for 400 years and what is it? Almost 70 years now
I spelled it out. Agree with it or disagree with it. I meant it as a thought provocation for our readers.
Yehuda: So, let me take one such example within this framework of woke ideology, one of the targets you say of the four kinds of problems that you name. One of them is a meritocracy. You make a strong argument in favor of thinking of America as a meritocracy. I’ll give you a personal example.
My grandfather was a GI in World War II, earned his purple heart at the battle of Metz on the French-Belgium border. He comes back to America and does exactly what the narrative of the greatest generation does: starts his own business, thrives, succeeds, et cetera, and winds up, having children who didn’t have to work in that business. That’s the dream scenario.
Bret: And then winds up with intellectuals like you, his grandchildren.
Yehuda: I love that story. It’s a great story for our family. At the same time, learning the history of recognizing that because my grandfather was white and Jewish that enabled him to take advantage of the GI bill and that there were a whole host of black Americans who couldn’t take advantage of the GI bill and therefore a narrative of meritocracy – it’s just a simple crude example. Redlining would be another. It has not been a universally meritocratic story.
Bret: That’s correct. And there is nothing in my essay that would deny that. But there are two ways of thinking of the American meritocracy, which is there’s a good idea here whose promise has not been realized fully by all Americans and that’s something we need to strive to make right which I think is something everyone subscribes to. Make right by expanding the meritocracy much further than it had been before by not excluding talent from whichever corner we find it in.
And there’s another, which is a kind of a system of forced redistribution of the places at the table of a meritocratic institution through a kind of racial gerrymandering. And that’s where I take vigorous exception. I also take exception to the idea that success in the United States, which used to be seen as the fruit of personal effort, with help, with community, with even government assistance, but essentially a personal endeavor.
It’s actually a form of privilege and therefore a privilege that has been in some sense, unearned and can be forcibly redistributed which is also antithetical to Jewish interests. Jews thrived in the United States, I think less and this is an interesting argument to have, but I would argue we owe less to our success in the United States to factors like the wall of separation between church and state or religion and state than to the fact that the Calvinist view handed down from the Puritans was that success was a sign of divine favor.
And those who succeeded on earth were viewed charitably. Our problem in Europe as Jews was that whenever any community became too successful it tended to elicit envy. And envy led to the usual furies of pogroms and other forms of discrimination. Success, Jewish success in America tended to lead to admiration. And admiration led towards ever greater forms of assimilation. To the point that discrimination has more or less ended that has been the secret of why Jews did as well in the United States as they did without suffering from the fatal blowback that they experienced elsewhere. When suddenly success is now called privilege and privilege is viewed with suspicion, I think that becomes really problematic for Jews. And we talk about white privilege, but it’s a half step away.
I hate the term white person. But white privilege is a half step away from talking about Jewish privilege. Because if you look at the percentage of places at Yale University, I don’t know if this figure is current, but at least a few years ago, it was 16% of Yale’s undergraduates were Jews. That’s wildly disproportionate to our number in the overall population.
Now you can look at that one in two ways. You can say, well that’s because young Jewish students worked hard and got good grades and deserve their places at an elite institution like Yale.
Or B. There’s something wildly wrong. This is a privilege that gives one small group a completely disproportionate and unfair grip on the American meritocracy.
If you take the latter view, you’re on the road to destroying the conditions which allow Jews to do as well as they have here. So that’s just one example of the sort of thing that worries me.
Yehuda: But that’s such a good example because part of what we have to acknowledge is that the meritocracy has been imperfect. It is not a woke thing to do to say meritocracy has been imperfect and has not applied equally to all Americans. And if you wanted to actually generate a more effective meritocracy, you would in fact have to create conditions in which people were able to access through merit, through actually clean merit because they are smart and they’ve done hard work. They would be able to access places at Yale. And so it creates this dynamic where some people are going to have to lose a little bit. And it’s at that point, like if you were going to be a genuinely meritocratic institution, maybe it isn’t the case that 16% of the university should be Jewish because it might not be the case that that act adequately represents or accurately represents a true meritocracy.
Yehuda: But it’s that fear of loss that seems to motivate this. Like we’re nervous about losing.
Bret: Let’s imagine we actually instituted a really good meritocracy and we could have a long discussion about just how you define it. Merit, that’s a separate subject, but let’s say we had a better meritocracy. And the result was that say 50% of the undergraduate class at Yale or Harvard were students of Asian descent. That’s fine by me. But you know, it’s not that way. And this is becoming a huge problem because in fact, the meritocracy, what we call the meritocracy, at least in terms of institutions is not working perfectly because it’s reaching for racially gerrymandered results.
I don’t think A the idea of meritocracy is perfect and B the institutions meant to support the meritocracy are perfect and it’s totally reasonable for thoughtful people to disagree about how you get there. But I think what isn’t reasonable is to say, okay, neither of these concepts is perfect let’s blow it up in favor of some kind of concept of what an institution like Yale should look like based purely on skin tone or largely on skin tone and design it accordingly.
I don’t see how that’s meritocratic in the least. That’s just based on statistical racial balancing tests which seemed to me invidious and at odds with the American ideal. I guess you might call it.
Yehuda: Part of the struggle here for me is that I agree with you and identify with that. That for me, for my family, for what I would characterize as the dominant Jewish experience, there is a particular narrative of America, which holds and has to hold intact. And then I think it’s perfectly fair play to interrogate whether that story has actually been true or whether it’s been true for everybody uniformly or whether it has to be held as true.
For instance, take this question in Israel. There’s no problem with people who identify as Zionists reckoning with the fact that for a significant percentage of Israeli citizens, Independence Day in 1948, wasn’t a Nakba. It doesn’t actually disrupt my Zionism that president Herzog and before him, President Rivlin went to towns in the north of Israel to apologize for the things that the state of Israel did in the 1950s to its citizens.
I think that that’s the surgery that’s taking place in America right now. And it’s violent and there’s no anesthetic, which is, we have a story that worked for a long time and we want to interrogate and challenge that.
And what frightens me is when any version of that gets characterized as woke ideology, it can’t enter into the conversation and it sets the boundaries of the debate as either we are defending a canonical version of the American story because it’s been good for us or we are tearing everything down. I get rhetorically why that works, but there’s so much space.
Bret: these are all fruitful discussions, but I think you’ve offered a bit of a caricature. We use this word woke just because, I know that it’s about two years out of date now, although it wasn’t an invention of the right. But let’s just use it for the sake of intelligibility.
The suggestion is that somehow up until the year 2015 American education was nothing, but a happy story of chivalrous, pilgrims and brave-hearted pioneers and courageous soldiers, defeating fascism. And everything was great.
And then into this mythical fairytale of America came courageous truth-tellers to tell us that actually they were unsavory aspects of our history. That’s bananas. You and I are roughly the same age. We all grew up reading, not just reading incidentally, reading centrally the genocide of the Native Americans, the enslavement of the African American population, the mistreatment of Mexicans.
I grew up with this actually, perhaps more than you, because I grew up in Mexico City where we are somewhat more sensitive to the fact that Yankees stole half our land in an utterly indefensible war of aggression mainly by Southern slaveholding stakeholders. There was this aspect of American history. We were cognizant that there were massive deficits. We all grew up in the post-Civil Rights era convinced that Martin Luther King essentially served as the capstone of the American creed. To be judged by the content of our character, not the color of our skin.
Those words are as deeply inscribed in our minds as the words of the Gettysburg address were two generations ago and so on. So we believe that and then along comes a new version of history, which tells us something that’s radically different. And it’s one of the reasons why even a lot of middle of the road or even central left people find it disturbing, find it not progressive, but kind of a totalitarian or officioustic in its assumptions about the United States find the wholesale rejection of the American story and it’s rewriting according to its own sort of set of historical quote-unquote facts, which turned out not to be so factual, to be destructive, nevermind false.
And that’s, I think what we’re objecting to. Do we want our systems to be fair? Do we want them to be more meritocratic? And we want the concept of meritocracy to be enlarged somewhat to make more room for possibility rather than immediate prior achievement and SAT scores.
Absolutely. That’s a totally reasonable conversation to have, but something I think different is happening in the United States, which is the wholesale rejection of basic categories of the liberal democratic system, as we know it. And it’s happening on the right and I’ve expressed myself, I think volubly when it comes to right-wing neo-fascist. But there’s a left neo-fascism that worries me as well. And it’s why I wrote that essay.
I’m using the term fascism loosely here to the audience who are listening to us.
Yehuda: Yes I agree. It’s for further discussion, but I’m really interested in probing what are we willing to lose? If you say, I acknowledge that some amount of corrective behavior has to happen to what we experienced as a purely medical meritocratic system, but others didn’t, there’s going to be some loss.
And is that 10% Jews at Yale as opposed to 16, that might be tolerable. And sometimes when it comes to wholesale processes by which societies undergo change, there has to be a recognition that in order to achieve change, some people are going to have to experience loss.
Bret: There has been loss, by the way. There has been huge loss, essentially, again speaking in a broad brush, but Asian Americans have become the new Jews of higher education in part because Jews have gotten lazy and soft and we’re not as maniacal about our academic ambitions for our children as perhaps, my parents were for me. Again, speaking broadly and imprecisely and that’s fine.
That’s part of the American system. And I think it has to happen organically rather than through willful interventions of the managerial class. Not least because those interventions are going to prompt a blowback that nobody’s going to like including the extensible beneficiaries of the new dispensation.
Yehuda: Okay. So let me give you one kind of outlying example that comes to the whole process by which you’ve described the kind of anti-racist or woke movements as taking on these kinds of hegemonic qualities that they suppress discourse, that they challenged liberalism. But the outlier example is that, and I know this from my work on a daily basis, in the Jewish community, you’re far more likely to get fired from a job because of your dissident view on Israel, that is not adhering to what they’ll consider to be a conservative political position than it is, at least now, for not expressing the right woke positions. You might get canceled. But you may not necessarily lose a job in the Jewish community. That of course could change.
I’m curious what the responsibility of those who are challenging wokeness in terms of its closed-mindedness, what’s their responsibility with respect to the Israel conversation as well. What’s the liberal space on Israel?
Bret: That’s an excellent question. And our responsibility is intellectual concessions. So you can find it somewhere in the archives of the New York Times, but Barry Weiss and I co-wrote an article decrying the Israeli decision to revoke a visa given to a young Florida based or a Florida student, a young woman of Palestinian descent who wanted to study at Hebrew University and had – I’m struggling to remember her name. It’ll come to me – had expressed support for Students for Justice in Palestine. And they wanted to kick her out of the country and we immediately wrote that it was a huge mistake by the state of Israel. States that call themselves liberal democracies ought to subscribe to liberal democratic values, which include tolerating views you dislike.
And what goes at the level of the state ought to go in different ways for obvious reasons, ought to go in private institutions as well. It’s a hell of a thing to decry cancel culture when your friends are being canceled and indulge the practice yourself because you don’t like this or that aspect of a person’s political views.
Now again, you have to say that with a certain sense of nuance, right? I mean there are communities that are conservative communities and expect to hear an echo of their own thoughts from the pulpit and that’s natural, right. That happens. And there’s a sort of natural sorting process for that.
And so I don’t want to go case by case and say, well they shouldn’t have done it to so-and-so, but they could have done it to another person. Obviously, private institutions have more discretion, but there is cancel culture on the right. I have denounced it. I continue to denounce it. I’m against anti-BDS resolutions at the state level which sometimes gets me into trouble with Jewish audiences I speak to. But I’m a believer in the first amendment. And I think it’s absurd when you know, the state of Arkansas finds itself getting sued by people because some newspaper publishes views that violate state law.
I think that’s antithetical to our American views. So, by the way, you’ll notice in my essay, one of the things that worries me most about modern American culture is that conspiracy theory has become ubiquitous. And the greatest conspiracy theorist of the last 20 years that I can think of is Donald John Trump.
Yehuda: I’m glad you raised the Arkansas example in particular because it feels to me like it’s a perfect storm of the displacing of what is conventionally thought of as a Jewish interest into something that’s actually deeply counter to Jewish interests, right? Supporting Israel as a means of actually suppressing discourse.
So what does a move – if you’re prescriptive here and you may just say, and you’re allowed to say, listen, I’m an intellectual. I’m an ideas guy, but there is movement building that is being associated with what you’re describing, which is a kind of claiming of a classical liberal position as being in the Jewish interest.
So what do you want to see happen? Because what I fear is happening, Bret is that the antiwar stuff becomes its own force of mobilizing and naming that the problem has emerged entirely on the progressive left and the willingness to kind of look the other way when it comes to the Arkansas BDS law when it comes to Canary Mission and other efforts that I consider to be deeply anti-liberal to try to shut down discourse in places where it actually seems to serve our interests.
What does real balanced movement building around this kind of work look like?
Bret: In the Jewish community.
Yehuda: Especially in the Jewish community.
Bret: I mean, for years I went around giving unpopular speeches when Donald Trump was president in spaces that were very pro-Israel and rightward leaning, just insisting: it’s fundamental to the Jewish experience that our enemies never come from one side only. And the idea that there are no enemies to the left for some Jews or no enemies to the right for others ignores centuries of Jewish history.
And it behooves us. I always felt this very strongly during the Trump presidency that it behooved me, especially to be that much more outspoken about the dangers I saw to my right than I did to my left. Now that doesn’t prevent me from writing an essay like the one I just did in Sapir, but I’ve always felt that it’s especially incumbent on me because I’ve always been associated with the right and had standing or have maybe standing, I don’t know if it’s present or past tense – standing on the right, to point to those dangers.
And I said it repeatedly, for instance, when it came to all the discourse around globalism, right? This new term of defamation is a half step away from old-fashioned Antisemitism. People who are speaking about anti-globalism or people who describe themselves as anti-globalist today are not just the stepchildren of old-fashioned antisemites but perhaps the grandfathers of the next generation of antisemites, because it’s always been an aspect of antisemitism to decry the internationalism of Jewish identity.
The conspiracy theory that I pointed to earlier, the hatred of immigrants, I wrote repeatedly about this in the wake of the Pittsburgh massacre, that the demonization of immigrants was almost inevitably going to lead to an incident like what we saw at the Tree of Life Temple.
So I guess my prescriptive side is to be a little bit more attentive to, forgive my language, the shit that’s going down on your side. And if you think there is no shit going down on your side, well, open your nose a little bit more because there is. I always get a little disturbed when some of my friends on the left say, well, there’s, Antisemitism on the left, but really it’s no more than a microaggression or it’s trivial or it’s happening sort of at the fringes of the left. Really? Be a little more attentive to where this language leads.
And I’m going to try to be a little more attentive to what I’m hearing on this side of the aisle.
Yehuda: Great. So two last questions, kind of a lightning round. I was struck by something you wrote at the end of your essay, where you said, “My Kishinev-born paternal grandfather changed his name from Erlich to Stevens out of a desire to submerge his Jewishness in the broad American mainstream. Yet it was thanks to that same bland surname that decades later I learned what certain people in my social circles were willing to say about Jews when they didn’t realize the Jew was listening. The name that my grandfather thought was his ticket out of his roots, became my ticket back into them.”
When I read that I was reminded of Strauss. It echoes for me with something Leo Strauss writes in the 1960s where he describes the baal teshuva, the person who returns to his roots, as the Jew who sets out to be part of the universal family of nations only to discover that he’s the only one and in that recognition returns to his people.
So I guess I don’t know whether that’s a compliment or an insult.
Bret: For me, it’s a compliment. I’m a University of Chicago guy
Yehuda: Well, there you go. Perfect.
Bret: That was the talk of the Chicago synagogue in the early 1960s.
Yehuda: Yeah. So tell me, who do you go back and read when you think about where you see yourself coming from in the Jewish intellectual tradition? What do you go back and look at as being the antecedents of what you’re trying to do intellectually today? And my second question is in the spirit of open and pluralistic discourse. I’m sure that there are people on the left, who you read today because they challenge you and your positions, then you take them seriously. So who do you recommend that people go and read? So to two reading lists for us, one in terms of your own intellectual heritage from the past and the other of looking across the aisle.
Bret: Gotcha. So they’re terrible questions for me because I’m a terrible reader when it comes to Jewish life, which is to my Jewish reading list is pedestrian. I couldn’t give you a particularly good answer to the first question. I mean, all of my lodestar authors are outside of the Jewish world.
Yehuda: That’s okay. You can take one of those.
Bret: Joseph Conrad is a guy I’ve read a lot. What I’ve been recently rereading is Thomas Mann. But again, what happens is there was a period in my life, Yehuda when I read tremendously and read for education, now I read in an ad hoc way for whatever is in front of my face. And Norman Podhoretz wrote a lovely essay after he stepped down as editor of Commentary that was titled something like “On the Pleasure of Reading for Pleasure Again.”
And he sort of describes how as a young student and then as a scholar in England, he read really deeply. And then 40 years of his professional life were just taken up with manuscripts and reading stuff that he had to read because there was a deadline in front of him. So, I guess that’s where I am in midstream there.
And so the reading I do for pleasure is relatively rare. And I really, I don’t even read new stuff. I go back to books that I have loved in my past and kind of look at them again. I did, however, pick up an issue of Sources and found much to challenge me and much to like in it.
And I am an inveterate reader of all of the commentary that drives me up the wall in Haaretz, all of my favorite antagonists on the opinion page of the Israeli left. But I just generally, I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I really read a lot. I read constantly and it’s always for a deadline that’s rarely more than three days away in my life.
Yehuda: Well, in that case, I’m glad that you’re spending some portion of your time trying to cultivate essays by others that are going to stay in print for a while. And hopefully, hopefully make people think for much longer stretches of time than the 140 character tweet
Bret: 180. You’re a little behind the times.
Yehuda: Anyway. Thank you, Bret, for being on the show this week.
Bret: Thank you for the challenging questions. I really really thank you for being such a great spirit and cooperator in a common endeavor.
Yehuda: Absolutely. And thanks to all of you for listening to our show. Identity/Crisis is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. It was produced this week by David Zvi Kalman and edited by M Louis Gordon with assistance from Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz and music provided by so-called.
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