American Institutions, Jewish Realities: Why the Divide?
On November 20 last year, a lecturer associated with George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, A. Kayem Ahmed, spoke at Fieldston, the Ethical Culture School which was founded in New York City 142 years ago and has been a feeder for Ivy League and elite liberal arts colleges for much of that period. He responded to a question after a speech about South African apartheid with this story about Israel:
Xenophobic attacks are a shameful part of South African history, but in some ways it reflects the fluidity between those who are victims becoming perpetrators. I use the same example in talking about the Holocaust. That Jews who suffered in the Holocaust and established the State of Israel today perpetuate violences against Palestinians that are unthinkable and unheard of. So, again, the victims of Holocaust and violence have become the perpetrators of injustice against the Palestinians. And so this victim-perpetrator binary is a complex, messy one that … we all need to think about.
Only a few short months later, on January 28 of this year, the Trump administration unveiled its long-awaited entry in the mandatory genre of modern presidential literature known as “the plan for a Middle East peace deal.” The Trump plan departed from the conventions of the genre — not by abstaining altogether from the conceit that a negotiated peace between Israelis and Palestinians could be worked out from Washington, DC — but rather, in shifting the practical and moral onus of a settlement onto the historically intransigent Palestinian leadership. Gone are the discredited dreams and unworkable lines drawn by the Clinton era Oslo accords. In their place, is a US plan that recognizes the legitimacy of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and perhaps authorizes further expansion into the Jordan Valley, while still preserving the call for the creation of an independent Palestinian state. It is as much as any right-wing Israeli government could possibly have hoped for from an American president.
But given the fact that the Palestinians, whether the “moderate” PLO types or Hamas and the even more warlike militias, had rejected each and every reasonable proposal, some amounting to an almost parallel or equal transfer of land with only bare changes in the topography of Jerusalem, the administration and Israeli politics had literally no alternative to a proposal like this one. Remember: this plan has the support of the Israeli opposition. A half-century of Palestinian rejectionism writes its own history and post-history, not only for Palestine but for Israel.
A New York Times subhead on January 30 proclaimed of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that the American bid “deprives Abbas of all he’s fought for.” This assertion is false. He, like Arafat, had bargained — alas, stupidly — for territories from which the Palestinians could and would wage war. The same article notes that the plan deprives Abbas of his options: but this is what a plan is supposed to do.
Certainly, for the majority of American Jews who care about Israel (7 in 10 as of 2013), pathologizing Israel’s history as group psychology, and Nazi psychology at that, as Ahmed’s analogy did, is at least absurd and perhaps something far worse. Yet, even among that 70% of American Jews sympathetic to Israel, few are as unequivocal in their support for the state as the current administration seems to be — nor do they show any signs of becoming Trump voters based on the president’s policies towards Israel.
What’s interesting, and what raises questions about Jewish issues and their relationship to American politics — or, more accurately, about American politics and Democratic politics and their relationship to Jewish issues — is how deep the reality of Israel has sunk into American political consciousness, and how much attention it commands as a glaring symbol on the surface of the country’s political discourse.
That reality is a complex one, and it turns on history: what gets lost first in any “discussion” of the Jewish state is the reality of its contingency, and that contingency’s effects on the present.
The Jewish socialists, conservatives, liberals, anarchists, communists, Orthodox, and capitalists who started to settle more than one hundred years ago in territory that belonged first to the Ottoman Empire and then to Britain were united in a minority Jewish viewpoint, a pragmatic historical gamble: that European antisemitism was ineradicable enough to warrant a national home for the Jews, a home legitimated by cultural and geographic history, like the new home of the Italians or newly proposed homes of the Slovaks, Czechs, and Poles.
After World War I, what had been a marginal idea converged with formal political trends: Woodrow Wilson’s vision of national self-determination, in which minorities in each nation would afford each other reciprocal protections enforced by a League of Nations, became the actual model for Eastern European statehood and the nominal model for statehood in the rest of the world.
But Wilson and America didn’t control the area where Jews could trace their roots; Britain did, and Britain had needed both Jewish money and Arab manpower in its fight against the Ottoman Empire. So the British Foreign Service had made promises — but casual promises, with wiggle room built into the gestures of obligation. There was the note sent to the 2nd Baron Rothschild promising the Jews a state; but also a private letter passed on to the Hussein family of the Hashemite clan, certified descendants of the prophet and local Ottoman elites, promising them their own Sunni Arab state stretching from Mecca to Jerusalem. In each case, the British promise was based on support for the war effort; Rothschild would offer funding and the Hashemites would raise a local Arab army against their Ottoman rulers, who were allied with the Central Powers.
The Balfour Declaration is a single sheet of paper, three sentences, 15 lines. The key line reads: “His Majesty’s Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object.” This is not equivocal, neither is it absolute; but for Jews who saw the future of their people as dependent on these words, they were worldly deliverance.
Working out Britain’s informal and contradictory promises was the work of the ensuing 25 years, with the clarifying complication of another World War. Early in the interwar period, Britain had created Transjordan and Iraq out of its original promises to the Husseinis, and, massaging another promise, had left local Arabs and Jews to sort through a compromise over the former British Mandate of Palestine.
Many of the local Palestinian Arab eminences had sold their properties and rights-of-way to Jewish arrivals, even as Eastern European Jews and Holocaust survivors had streamed or were streaming to the refuge of British Palestine — the size of the emigration inflaming local resentments, which were encouraged by other Palestinian elites with their own agendas.
Jewish arrivals were politically divided, roughly, between the Haganah, the mostly socialist fighters who were prepared for the pragmatic necessity of compromise with the Arabs, and the Irgun, who wanted Israel from “the river to the sea” and were not overly concerned about finessing that demand: “There are two sides of the Jordan,” went the common slogan of the time, “and both sides are ours.”
It’s hard to imagine these overlapping complexities on the ground producing anything less or more than the contingency and confusion that still lies over the land 70 years after the war was fought and the state was established. Then as now, the Arab leaders of Jordan and Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia, rule over British-and-French constructed countries, with borders and populations sharply out of sync: a legacy of the colonial cartographers and hurried border deals made through great power horse trading in the conferences held after World War I.
Then as now, Shia and Sunni, Kurd and Druze, Maronite and Alawite populations fight for recognition within these countries: another colonial legacy of simmering unrest, quick deals and counter-deals, and government policies aimed at keeping the fissured domestic populations docile.
Then as now, the Palestinian Arabs, caught between countries, are victims of their own lack of representation: divided today between a guerrilla leadership which imposes militant law and conscripts minors, and a corrupt institutional leadership managed by a president whose tenure has extended ten years after it was supposed to end.
The key difference between then and now is the status of Israel. For 50 years it has been a recognized military power in the Middle East, capable of turning back the four monarchies or military states that attacked it in both 1967 and 1973. For 20 years it has been a recognized economic power, a hub of technology in a region not known for seeding entrepreneurs from the arid land. For 70 years it has been a Jewish representative democracy with a protected Arab minority, with Arab representatives in the Knesset who may yet determine the next Prime Minister.
It has made multiple formal peace offers to the Palestinian Arabs; two of the last three involved abandoning settlements; another amounted to a full scale pullout from Gaza. In response, the militant wing of the Palestinian government has attacked Israel with missiles off and on since 2000. The institutional wing of the Palestinian government has not accepted nor actively negotiated over an Israeli offer.
Some inheritances still affect Israeli politics, not necessarily for the better. Then as now, Israeli Jews are divided uneasily between right and left — except the right has been the dominant political force for the past decade, even as its current position wavers, while the left has struggled to find its footing.
The current right-wing government led by Benjamin Netanyahu passed a “nation-state” law in 2018 opposed by even some of Israel’s staunchest American supporters, which made Jewish settlements a national value, not excluding the controversial settlements in the West Bank: a plausible first step to begin to incorporate the West Bank settlement model of minority Jewish rule, where 15 percent of Jews exercise de facto control over 85 percent of Arabs, into the organic democratic model of Israel proper, which is 80 percent Jewish.
Two months ago, that same government proposed annexing both certain West Bank settlement blocs and other isolated Jewish settlements in the Jordan Valley — essentially an electoral promise, and one unlikely to be fulfilled given current polling favoring the center-left party, but an indicator of the priorities with which the government aligns itself. That government is heavily influenced not just by right-wing secularists who care about settlements, but also by the less worldly Orthodox, Israel’s fastest growing and most impoverished group, though not one whose priorities are representative of the state as a whole: only a decade ago 53 percent of Israeli Jews didn’t keep the Sabbath.
Israel is a riven, complicated place — a place that observers can apprehend only with careful attention to its shifting realities. What is not arguable, what is factual and historical, is the political contrast between Israel and its neighbors in the region. Israel is a representative democracy where civilian control of the military is absolute, where prime ministers have been and are currently subject to stringent due process, where social and political tensions get worked out through elections (sometimes multiple elections, as the present attests).
The surrounding states or quasi-states are at best semi-coherent inheritances from imperial governments. Their leaders rule over people who are de jure or de facto disenfranchised. The Palestinian situation, through which American public discourse about Israel is most often refracted, is a microcosm of this confused disenfranchisement: what kind of good-faith negotiations can be expected to happen when a leadership is unaccountable to its own population, and when a byproduct of any successful negotiation might be a challenge to that leadership’s entrenchment in power?
The question is why some version of this reality — which has been glimpsed by many Jews with a place in American cultural and political life — has been marginalized in favor of psychological cartoons.
Ideologies, and ideologists, don’t live in vacuums. The speaker at Fieldston, A. Kayum Ahmed, is an adjunct professor at Columbia University and the “director of access and accountability” at George Soros’s Open Society Foundations’ Public Health Program in New York. Soros has had a complicated relationship with the culture he was born into since his childhood in Hungary, and he has been open about the way it’s informed his Foundation:
My mother was quite antisemitic, and ashamed of being Jewish. Given the culture in which one lived, being Jewish was a clear-cut stigma, a disadvantage, a handicap — and, therefore, there was always the desire to transcend it, to escape it. … Of course, this whole interest in universal ideas is a typical means to escape from the particular. … I think I am doing exactly that by espousing this universal concept [of Open Society]. In other words, I don’t think that you can ever overcome antisemitism if you behave as a tribe. The only way you can overcome it is if you give up the tribalness.
Soros’s stance on Israel is terse: “I don’t deny the Jews their right to a national existence — but I don’t want to be part of it.”
Fieldston was founded by a German Jewish émigré, Felix Adler, along the universalist principles which many German Jews had used to assimilate so successfully in Europe during the nineteenth century and for which Soros still shows an affinity even as the experiences of the mid-twentieth led many other Jews to abandon such ideas and gave momentum to Zionism. Ethics in this view are universal and legitimate precisely insofar as they’re open to everyone. Within this strain of secular universalism, the complex messiness of history is subsumed beneath the imperatives of rationality.
To the extent that the universalist schema prizes equal representation is friendly to particular claims of marginalized groups. Thus, it’s not a coincidence that, alongside the school’s historical Jewish influence, 40 percent of Fieldston’s student body is comprised of students of color. But to construct a world order from the building blocks of particular historical claims, as Woodrow Wilson did in the general and Theodor Herzl and David Ben-Gurion did in the particular, is, in the universalist view, to fetishize inheritances that are by their nature exclusionary, atavistic — psychological mirings in the past.
“Felix Adler’s educational vision is as important today as it was … in 1878,” Fieldston’s website reads, a note that contextualizes, even if it doesn’t explain, the school’s response to parents concerned about Kayem’s speech.
“We are taking the opportunity brought by this incident not to discuss this particular speaker or his words, but to reaffirm our institution’s firmly held values,” went the statement, going on to condemn antisemitism, racism, transphobia, sexism, homophobia. The response of a former Fieldston history instructor who was then teaching a Holocaust elective was more specific, and gives a sense of the particular and sustained political hostilities that universalist ethical conceptions can let loose at their edges. “I support BDS and Palestinian sovereignty and I have for my entire adult life,” the former instructor wrote on Twitter, going on in a follow-up tweet to condemn Israel’s “ethnonationalist settler colonialism.”
Fieldston and the Open Society Foundations influence and reflect the establishment left opinion in the United States. A. Kayum Ahmed’s history-as-psychology-as-pathology theory is echoed at a lower pitch by people who have come up in similar institutions and speak to similar constituencies.
When Ben Rhodes argued in his memoir that American Jews who opposed President Obama’s policies toward Iran had “internalized the vision of Israel constantly under attack,” this was the logic he was using. When Pete Buttigieg responded to Ben Rhodes’ question regarding the West Bank settlements at J Street’s 2019 National Conference by saying, “When I think about what could continue in terms of these settlements. … I think about it the way I think of a friendship where your friend is acting in a way that you think might hurt the relationship, might hurt them, might even hurt you. … You put your arm around your friend and you try to guide them toward a better place” — this is the logic he was using. When Nick Kristof as early as nine years ago described Benjamin Netanyahu’s “hard-line on settlements” as “like a national political suicide,” and concluded that “friends don’t let friends drive drunk,” this was the logic he was using.
“Drive drunk,” “national political suicide,” “might hurt them[selves],” “internalized the vision of Israel constantly under attack”: Forgive them, they know not what they do. This liturgy, framed as psychology, is now mainstream Democratic party thinking: a schema which, like any schema when it’s placed under pressure, tends to migrate to its logical extremes. It’s a short step from saying someone has a psychology to calling that psychology a pathology to saying someone can’t be trusted to make good decisions for himself to denying that person a say over his own situation. As with a person, so with a state.
The pressure toward the extremes when it comes to the Democratic Party, the political corollary of A. Kayum Ahmed and the Fieldston instructor who has supported BDS and Palestinian sovereignty their entire adult life, comes from Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar: energetic political disruptors whom the party’s rational progressives leave spinning at the sides.
The established “thinking wing” of the Democratic Party, the institutional stalwarts who offer advice to the candidates and set the foreign policy agendas for the upper levels of most campaigns — Susan Rice, Ben Rhodes, Samantha Power, Rob Malley, Martin Indyk, Brett McGurk, John Kerry — take the rationalist view. (McGurk is Buttigieg’s foreign policy advisor.) The loudest and most active parts of the base prefer the view of the disruptors. The former group isn’t interested in facts, it’s interested in balance. The latter isn’t interested in facts, it’s interested in dichotomies of oppressor and oppressed.
There are Democratic politicians — Cory Booker and Michael Bennett are obvious examples — who demur from either idealization because of their own Jewish experience. But the space apart from both the rationalists and disruptors, to the extent it exists, is too small and too unsupported by either institutional validation or “grassroots” pressure to grant much attention to whatever is happening with Israel on the ground.
Perhaps with Trump’s deal of the century for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict this will change, but up until now, the references to Israel in the Democratic primary have been almost nonexistent. Yet the settlements issue, now the key Democratic talking point when the issue of Israel does appear, is the case in point when it comes to the party’s idealizations.
So much as a cursory look at what is happening in the territories would satisfy most practically minded observers that, when it comes to peace negotiations, the settlements are more than a nuisance and less than the ballgame. The right-wing government’s current position on the settlements does not help the negotiating situation, but past Israeli governments have been willing to freeze the settlements at serious political cost; not just Ehud Olmert’s government, but, in the past, Netanyahu’s as well. When the freeze was put into effect under Netanyahu in 2010, there was no reciprocal action from the Palestinian leadership, which, thanks to its acknowledged corruption, lacks both the trust of its nominal constituents and the basic incentive to engage in negotiations that would alter the status quo.
But to universalize is to even the scales, to impose rationality from above rather than contextualization from below, and so the inductive leap that would lead an empirical observer to see the settlements issue as a fig leaf on top of more intractable underlying dynamics is missing. Instead the settlements act as the establishment left’s litmus test for Israel, and proof positive, for harder-edged interpolators like Tlaib and Omar, of Israel’s diabolical, ethnonationalist intent. As with the settlements, so with Israel itself, which, history and reality be damned, is now presented as the world’s worst settler-colonial state.
The Middle East in the eyes of these observers is, to borrow from Rob Malley in the November/December edition of Foreign Affairs titled “Trump’s Middle East,” a perpetual tinderbox on the verge of explosion, with the actual people of the region as the combustible elements in a larger explosive apparatus of which they are only a small part.
“When it comes to the Middle East,” wrote Malley,
Tip O’Neill, the storied Democratic politician, had it backwards: all politics — especially local politics — is international … [which] means that, as long as its regional posture remains as it is, the United States will be just one poorly timed or dangerously aimed Houthi drone strike, or one particularly effective Israeli operation against a Shiite militia, away from next costly regional entanglement.
This is not an analysis that supports pragmatic alliance building: sussing out countries’ intentions and constructing coalitions based on an analysis of interests, with reference to shared humane and plausibly democratic values. It is an analysis that supports paralysis, and a willed ignorance of actual situations in the aim of preventing escalation. Everything in the region is flammable, goes the logic, so to keep out the fire everyone in the region must be considered equivalently.
Malley is not saying, pace Omar, that “it’s all about the Benjamins, baby,” but, since Israel’s settlements provoke rhetorical and some actual hostility, they encourage inflammation, meaning that Israel is acting against not just the interests of the region but holding the US, and perhaps the whole world, hostage as well.
Former president Barack Obama’s foreign policy is where this tangle of perceptions acquired its initial momentum, and a test case of where it ends up practice. His 2009 address at Cairo University, co-hosted by the ancient Al-Azhar Mosque, titled “A New Beginning,” was authored by Ben Rhodes, and the Middle East it conjured was “the Arab world” which shared historical similarities — broad-brush ones — with the United States: John Adams remarking that the United States has “no enmity against … Muslims” and Thomas Jefferson keeping a copy of the Koran in his personal library. “So long as our relationship is defined by our differences,” the speech went, “we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace.”
This approach was a reaction to President Obama’s predecessor: a rationalist correcting a pugilist; an institutionalist succeeding a unilateralist. The theory was not “going it alone” and isolating “rogue actors,” but using dialogues and similarities to bring them into the international order.
Now, following the rational institutionalist, comes Donald Trump. With the hustler’s fingertip feel for internal fracture, he’s played on the Democrat’s increasing unease on the issue of Israel. What started in his speech at AIPAC in 2016 — “You see, I know about deal-making. That’s what I do. I wrote The Art of the Deal. … To make a great deal, you need two willing participants. We know Israel is willing to deal. Israel has been trying.” — has become something more assertive, with which most Jews would likely disagree: “I think if you vote for a Democrat, you are very, very disloyal to Israel and to the Jewish people.”
What’s most telling about both the new Democratic status quo and Trump’s outsider counterreaction to it is their distance from the reality of what most American Jews, or Americans, think about Israel.
The American Jewish approach to Israel is particular — as most émigré conversations are particular. For the older generation — people from a wide swath of political persuasions who share memories of an Israel which, in 1947 and 1967 and 1973, appeared on the precipice — concern for the state is visceral. For the younger generation, raised on the appearance of a militarily impregnable Israel, the impulse — an equally visceral if more complex motivation — is to shake off, to broaden, to put their parents’ dictates to the test of comparison in an America where coexistence, not survival, seems like the resonant challenge. If you knew how close we can come to extinction… goes one line. If you realized that Jews are secure and that suffering is broader… goes the other.
Often the arguments between perspectives end up as arguments over emphasis, over the importance of outside events to the Jewish people. Does Kayum’s misrepresentation and its derivations matter more than Trump’s incitement? Did Kushner’s political visibility hurt Jews’ image by narrowing it, or does Omar’s antisemitic tweet hurt it more by besmirching it? Is the problem Netanyahu’s tin ear or Democrats’ misrepresentations of Israel’s situation?
Underneath runs a deeper vein of agreement. Many of the younger generation would see their parents’ views as shaped by circumstances of diminishing relevance; very few would say that either their parents or Israelis are acting out an oppressor-oppressed psychology. Many of the older generation would see their children as unlearned in the historical vicissitudes Jews have faced; very few would conflate their children’s questioning about Israel with an act of disloyalty to Jews. And, were Iran to attain nuclear capability, parents and children alike would worry for the Jewish state. In other words, many of these surface arguments among Jews are themselves reactions to the extremes that dominate public discourse and seem to determine the positions of Israel and American Jews among Americans.
But they don’t determine them. The welter of public provocations and responses aside, the reality of Jews’ and Americans’ view of the Jewish state is relatively steady and quietly un-extreme. Most American Jews feel an attachment to the Jewish state (7 in 10), and so do most Americans, 59% — a significant number, given that about 2% of Americans identify as Jewish. Most American Jews feel less attached to the state’s political leadership (only 38% think the government is doing enough to advance the peace process), and most Americans feel less attached, too: 64% of Americans have a favorable view of the Israeli people, versus 41% of the Israeli government. Similarly, 46% of Americans have a favorable view of the Palestinian people, versus 19% of the Palestinian government.
These numbers suggest a raw pragmatism, a practical ability common to anyone who pays taxes or waits for a street repair or navigates the delays of a morning commute to distinguish legitimate authorities from illegitimate ones, governors from governed. And this pragmatism suggests a deeper disparity: that the public approach to Israel and Jews isn’t a reflection of the reality of Jews in America or in Israel, or of the reality of Americans’ view of Jews in either place. It’s a reflection, instead, of the idealizations that a nationalized politics has wrought on America public life.
I was alive when the issue of Israel first took the country’s attention, and the people who addressed it didn’t speak about it in terms of psychologies, because they didn’t speak abstractly in the first place. Harry Truman, who made the decision to recognize the state, had come up in Missouri machine politics, where greasing the wheels to get the goods to the constituents was a daily cycle: he was not an abstractionist. Robert Taft, who we’d now call a “blue-blood” Republican isolationist from Ohio, supported Israel in part out of his friendship with Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, a Clevelander and America’s foremost Zionist, and in part to avoid admitting foreign refugees to the United States: he was not an abstractionist. The preexisting alliance in the Democratic Party between many Jewish policymakers and politicos who helped conceive the New Deal, labor leaders who helped get out the vote, and blacks who pushed for more rights in exchange for their votes, was an alliance among people largely defined by their relationship to rank and file concerns: they were not abstractionists.
These people weren’t necessarily admirable but they were grounded in interests and practice, not ideals. Their formative experiences were local. They’d lived and worked and politicked next to different people with different customs — Truman grew up next to Orthodox Jews; blacks and Italians and Irish and Jews fought a world war together; Robert Taft spent 20 years trying to assemble a coalition to outmaneuver the Democratic Party. They’d come up in a country of labor unions and machine politics and local elites and a proliferation of regional newspapers and assertive ethnicities. Elite networks existed, but in a society where government and capital were both less centralized, where regional and local power centers played a less peripheral role, elite networks were more permeable and set fewer of the terms for political debate.
By the time Israel won the Six Day War, that America was viscerally on its way out. What started to replace those grounded structures as the incubators of politics are what we see today: think tanks and “charitable foundations,” Ivy league schools and Ivy league feeders, radical mobilizing groups that target primary voters to set the agenda, and their counterparts in Washington, DC that press elected officials to address their concerns. The people running these organizations are not elected and they are not diverse — they, and their views, perpetuate themselves in a natural and quiet and siloed cycle.
Most of us have never heard of A. Kayem Ahmed until a few weeks ago, but he has probably given other speeches to other audiences of students in the elite high school-to-Ivy league pipeline, and delivered lectures and grades to students at Columbia, where he is an adjunct. As an official of the Open Society Foundations, he has likely dispensed grants.
The Fieldston instructor who teaches the Holocaust elective has taught other classes, framed, as all classes are, according to the instructor’s analytics and attended by students dependent on that instructor for a grade to show admissions offices.
George Soros makes other donations — his and his foundation’s imprimatur are important parts of the modern Democratic party. In 2018, he committed to spending $15 million on the midterm elections. This year his donations will likely be bigger and, in a closely contested election, more crucial.
These aren’t accountable political actors, but they are actors with political influence whose vision, animated as it is by an inflationary universalism hostile to all particular identities but those deemed sufficiently oppressed, is violently out of sync with the views of a majority of Americans. They produce a politics that uses the reality of issues for its own idealized purposes. And they create a cycle hospitable to outside players with the adroitness of Donald Trump. The Israel issue, and Jewishness, in Democratic politics or the Trumpian reaction are not ones with which most of the 7 in 10 American Jews who care about the state would identify.
For forty years, the response of Jews and liberals, people who care about America having a center and about acquainting Americans with an authentic Jewish reality, has been to keep a middle ground alive from above; to work through the new and newly central institutions to push a mix of ideas, of values; to try to make a politics that made space for the emphases of each side. We’ve identified ourselves as pluralists and incrementalists, Liberals and pragmatists, practical politickers. In the late 1980s, the Democratic Leadership Council, the incubator of the Clinton-Gore administration, was our vehicle; the party’s past successive losses to Republicans the justification for our arguments. The New Republic, which I ran, was our thought organ, more or less. We used the party’s extremes against them, or we thought we did.
On nuclear proliferation, on supporting the contras, on Kosovo and Bosnia and Rwanda, and on Israel, we made our home the middle space, the unoccupied center, the part of the Venn diagram where both parties emphasized human freedom, not coercion by universalist-rationalist derivations nor by particularist-nationalist ones. For eight years, 1992-2000, our center was the center of the Democratic party. But even then, there were indications that we hadn’t tied up all the threads, warnings about the tenuousness of our construction.
In the same 1994 article in which George Soros stated his views of the Jewish state — the article appeared in The New Yorker and was written by Connie Bruck — Clinton’s Deputy Secretary of State, Strobe Talbott, who served in that position until 2001 before going on to head the Brookings Institution, was quoted saying this about George Soros’s relationship to US foreign policy:
I would say that it is not identical to the foreign policy of the US government — but it’s compatible with it. It’s like working with a friendly, allied, independent entity, if not a government. We try to synchronize our approach to the former Communist countries with Germany, France, Great Britain — and with George Soros.
On the terms of state support and official flattery, at least, Soros’s philanthropic investments had paid off.
This was a year after the Oslo Accords, which was a rationalist’s approach to the Israeli situation clothed in pragmatic sheen: deal with Arafat, the logic went, because he’s the only one we have. What went unmentioned was the Chairman’s 30-year on-the-ground record as the leader of the Palestinian people, whose institutions were still fragmentary and whose leadership showed no discernable interest in strengthening them. But in the wake of the Accords, Arafat’s picture appeared on Georgetown credenzas: manna from the ethicists, showered on the Chairman.
Twenty-five years later, George Soros’s Central European University has relocated from Hungary to Austria — from a country presided over by a nationalist government to one presided over by a center-right one — in response to sustained hostility to Open Society Foundations. Hungary, Austria, Poland, Britain, Russia — all these countries in Soros’s native continent are in open and broad-brush rebellion against his universalist prescriptions.
Middle East “peace” is chimerical — after Arafat’s death, two Israeli peace offers and a Gaza pullout, the Palestinian situation on the ground has not improved, and Israel’s politics has until recently taken a turn toward the nationalist right. One doesn’t have to sympathize with these right rebellions, the Trumpian lashings that gain strength from their emotional contrarianism, to see them as reactions against a schema that’s too constricting in the first place. The self-examining moment for the universalists hasn’t yet arrived, and all of Soros’ money and pretense certainly won’t buy its advent.
If you have enough money or protection, you can buy against reality, at least for a while, and contemporary American political structures reward and protect the people generating the political prescriptions that frame public discourse. Considered in this light, the unraveling of the liberal, pluralist project of the Clinton years into rationalizations and their reactions may have been inevitable: idealists don’t compromise, and institutions and organizations run by idealists aren’t amenable, in the long run, to reality.
Martin Peretz was editor-in-chief of The New Republic from 1974 to 2013.