My father believed in social progress. He was a traditional Jewish liberal, maybe a bit on the left side despite having become a successful businessman. He was born on the lower East Side of Manhattan, lived through the crash and the depression, often worked at more than one job at a time, served his country in the navy during WWII, and ultimately moved to the suburbs, where he finally was able to take a day off now and then to play golf.
I recall asking him about the cold war. It will get better, he said. Russia will become more capitalistic and the US will move more in the direction of socialism. Soon there won’t be a problem. His heroes were Roosevelt and Adlai Stevenson, and he passionately hated Joseph R. McCarthy and Richard Nixon. When I came home for Thanksgiving, a college freshman in 1960 (he would have liked to go to college himself, but had to go to work), I proudly told him that I had learned in my Introduction to Philosophy class that moral propositions are empirically unverifiable, and therefore neither true nor false. That’s silly, he said. Isn’t it indisputably true that racial discrimination is morally wrong? I wondered why that hadn’t occurred to me in class.
He thought Marx was right that religion was the opium of the people. He acquiesced to a Reform bar mitzvah for me, perhaps because his father-in-law wanted it, but he never had a good word for Judaism or any religion. He was particularly annoyed by people who talked about an afterlife. When you’re dead, he said, you’re dead. He expected that religion, along with racial discrimination and antisemitism, would disappear as good education became more available to everyone, thanks to economic progress enabled by advancing technology.
At the same time, the gap between rich and poor, both among individuals and nations, would be narrowed by that same technology. National differences and animosities would fade as well. Conflicts would be solved by negotiation, not war, because people would learn that war is disadvantageous to everyone.
When my wife and I moved to Israel with our kids in 1979 he was supportive, although he didn’t think much of the manifestations of religious belief that were evident here. He himself wouldn’t live here, he said, because (at the time) there was only one golf course of only nine holes. But despite his leftward leanings he did not think that the Palestinians were an oppressed people, or that there was a sensible analogy between them and black Americans, or that Israel was a colonialist power. He understood that when someone was trying to kill you, it was necessary to defend yourself.
He died in 1987, at the age of only 73, a terrible loss to my mother and the rest of the family. Shortly thereafter, it became clear that he had been mistaken about the inevitability of social progress. Despite the advance of technology, the gap between rich and poor, individually and among nations, widened rather than becoming smaller. Shortly after his death the Soviet Union collapsed – how I wished that I could have had his opinion about that event! – but it did not usher in an era of peace and cooperation. Although there was no World War Three between the superpowers, vicious and bloody little wars continued to break out all over the world, and the international institutions that my father thought would deter them failed to do so. In 2001, the American homeland was attacked for the first time since Pearl Harbor, by a resurgent, fanatic, Islam, which had not, after all, begun to lose its potency.
Racial tensions within the US, which my father had observed from close up – his business was in residential real estate – that were supposed to fade away did not do so. Despite the real progress that occurred in the 1960s, the dismantling of Jim Crow in the South and the passage of laws guaranteeing fair access to housing, education, and employment for minorities throughout the country, black citizens were often worse off than before. The public educational systems in the country fell apart, especially but not only in the large cities. Higher education became astronomically expensive at the same time as its quality declined sharply and its politicization increased dramatically. The ratio of administrators to faculty shot up, while most undergraduate teaching was done by academic “temps.” Whole departments of ethnic and gender studies that were purely political came into existence.
More recently, an anti-American movement has arisen. Supposedly it is a movement for racial justice, but in fact it is a radical revolutionary movement whose objective is to replace the ideal of equal rights, opportunity, and justice for all with a system of race-based identity politics. This movement denies the importance of free expression, silences dissent – sometimes by physical violence, enforces racial criteria in granting permission to speak, has replaced fact with narrative as the criterion of truth, and intends to exchange an admittedly flawed system (but one that is improving) with one that is explicitly racist.*
It is a step backward, away from racial justice, not toward it.
Like many revolutionary movements, this one has found it possible to stir up emotions useful to motivate behavior by using the oldest trick in the book: blame everything on the Jews. This source of antisemitism has combined with the obsessive, extreme, irrational hatred of Israel (misoziony) that has become de rigueur in the academic Left, and has taken over university campuses with the help of organizations like Students for Justice in Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace, If Not Now, and so on, to produce a perfect storm of antisemitic expression, everything from academic articles on “settler colonialism” to street violence against anyone wearing a kipa.
That would be bad enough in itself, but the “racial justice” movement has co-opted much of the formerly conservative world of big corporations. The result has been the normalization of previously unacceptable antisemitic expression. In an incident emblematic of this, a Google executive described as its “chief of diversity strategy” was reassigned to a less-public position in the company, after the exposure of a blog post he wrote in 2007, in which he noted that,
If I were a Jew I would be concerned about my insatiable appetite for war and killing in defense of myself.
“Self defense is undoubtedly an instinct, but I would be afraid of my increasing insensitivity to the suffering [of] others …
It’s hard to avoid asking oneself what Google would have done to an employee who publicly accused virtually any other ethnic group of “an insatiable appetite for war and killing!” I guarantee it would be more severe than a reassignment.
The recent explosion of Jew-hatred and misoziony in America, which has encompassed street thugs, pro-Palestinian demonstrators, college students, and now corporate executives, is unprecedented. My father, who once described calling on his older brother to protect him from Jew-hating bullies on the streets of New York, would be profoundly shocked by the sheer number of incidents, as well as the fact that many of the perpetrators are particularly well-educated, unlike the bullies of the 1920s. Perhaps his faith in education as a solution to bigotry would be shaken, along with his beliefs in the inexorable march of social progress, and the generally positive effects of improved technology.
The American people, he once said to me (after JFK’s victory over Nixon), are not as dumb as they look. I hope not, because they are not looking very smart lately.
* I am aware that according to the post-colonial definition of “racism” that is in vogue today, it is impossible for those defined as “oppressed” to be racist. But I see racism simply as attitudes or behavior that negatively discriminate on the basis of ethnicity. Anyone can be a racist.