Q&A: Benjamin Ginsberg, the Author of ‘How the Jews Defeated Hitler’
His thoughts on Jewish strength, Jewish weakness, and the secret history of the Judeo-Episcopate in America
I want to get back to this sense of Jews globally as a collectivity and what the touchstones of that collectivity are now. You have the Holocaust, and you have Israel. And then you have, for one segment, actual Jewish religious beliefs and practices—but even if the proportion is growing, that’s still a global minority.
This to me has always been an absolutely fascinating question, and I write about it in my next book. The Jews, who are scattered all over the place, do have a sense of communal identification, because of a set of institutions that depends upon and works hard to maintain that identification. Absent the Jews, these institutions would have no constituency. And this goes back to the Babylonian exile.
This came to me in an inspiration one day. I was sitting bored to tears at the bar mitzvah of a son of a friend of mine, and the Haftorah for that day, I forget what the portion is but it’s the complete rules of how to treat Amorites that you might have captured. I was thinking it’s been a long time since we captured any Amorites. But then I realized, what happened here was that the entire middle-upper stratum of the Jewish kingdom is transported to ancient Babylon and they stick them in a suburb and say, “OK, do whatever.” So, you had a leadership with no coercive institutions—no army, no police force—and they made a religious symbol of the law, they ensorcelled the law. And all the Jews would sit and listen to a recitation of the laws of a kingdom that didn’t exist. And that’s still what we do today. We’ve still got to remember how to treat the Amorites. It’s as though somebody took the local zoning ordinances and recited them as a central communal ritual.
My bar mitzvah parsha was the single longest possible combination of texts—Vayakhel Pekudei, Parshat Ha-Chodesh. It was, like, 250 psukim long, and what made it even more entrancing was the fact that it was the complete set of building instructions from the mishkan. I was literally reading lists of construction materials for a portable sanctuary in the desert aloud to an assembly of American Jewish suburbanites in New Jersey, 3,000 years later.
That is the ensorcellment of the building code, which has the purpose of creating communal identity and continuity in the absence of a state, which would normally do those things. The Jewish religion has been a terrific religion for a people in exile.
Israel, in a peculiar way, represents a challenge to that. After the creation of Israel there was a big struggle between the American Jewish leadership and the Israeli leadership, which led Ben Gurion to say, “I’m tired of people from Cleveland telling me what to do!” So, an accommodation was reached. The American Jewish leadership wouldn’t tell Israel what to do. Instead, they would raise money for them and Israel would serve as a symbol, a good symbol, for fundraising. Everybody goes there once a year to check their heritage. But that’s become problematic because the politics of Israel and the politics of America have diverged so sharply. When Israel was a nice little Socialist state that grew oranges and people worked on the kibbutz, there was no problem.
New Deal Democrats could get down with that!
Even European socialists used to go there. But when Israel became a fairly serious military power, it moved out of its socialist phase and became an American military satellite. At the same time the American Jewish community was very carefully allying itself with the WASPs so you could go to Harvard, too. So, now the American Jewish community is divided on Israel. Some have decided that they are Jews first and liberals second, and those people are becoming Republicans, and they’re becoming more religious. Others have decided that they’re liberal Democrats first and Jews second. But it’s tough to be both these days.
You don’t think that Michael Lerner and J Street have provided a third way by which liberal Democratic Jews in America can identify with the State of Israel as it should be—meaning, an instrument through which we Jews will continue our holy mission of tikkun olam, repairing the world?
No. They are a stepping stone for Jews to leave the Jewish people. They’re a stepping stone into WASP-hood. That’s all they are. The third way is false. Sometimes there are only two ways. You can be a Jew, or you can be an American liberal.
Whoa, there. First off, I like WASPs. I love sailing, Triscuits, and Martha’s Vineyard—although I like the Jewish parts of the island better than the WASPy parts. Second, I think that the Democratic Party itself, like all two of the American political parties, is a fractious coalition that encompasses at any given point three or four large-scale blocs, which compete with each other for power and influence and control of messaging. In turn, the terms of those coalitions’ agreements within the party often determine the level of national support for the party as a whole. When I look at the Republican Party, I see one group that obviously supports Israel and is in favor of a robust American presence in many parts of the world. I see another faction that seems to dislike the Israelis—the Baker-Scowcroft-oil money-Carlyle Group-George H.W. Bush contingent. Then there are those nasty Buchananites. So, I’m hard-pressed to see why Jews can be Republicans but they can’t be liberal Democrats.
I would say that at the present time the Republican Party is friendlier to Israel than the Democratic Party. Also that, for Jews, adherence to the Democratic Party has become a kind of secular religion. Politics is not about friends, it’s about interests, and I think Jews are not acting in accord with their interests when they strongly support the Democratic Party.
I think that if you are a Palestinian you would have a lot more reasons to see the George W. Bush Administration as having been productive than the Obama Administration.
Bush launched major wars against enemies of Israel and maintained a large American presence nearby. So, from an Israeli perspective, he was an excellent president. Of course, most American policy in the Middle East is explained by a three letter word, which is not “Jew.”
Which is what?
Oil. America fights to maintain privileged access to Saudi crude, to put it crudely. Now, what you say may be true at the moment, but I think that the Democratic Party has been moving toward a more even-handed position in the Middle East and that the number of Democrats who are staunchly pro-Israel has diminished, while the number of Democrats who agree with the Mearsheimer thesis has increased. On the Republican side, though there certainly are Buchananites and so forth, at the moment at least they are a very minor group. As I recall, Ron Paul did not do so well in the Republican primaries. Republicans for the most part are strongly pro-Israel, both for philosophical reasons and because they still regard Israel as a strategic asset.
One last question for you.
I thought you said there was only one thing in the book that you didn’t know!
On the one hand, when other people talk about “the Jews” or use phrases like “the Jews,” we immediately use language like, “You disgusting anti-Semite, take it back, there’s no such thing as ‘the Jews.’ ” But then, when we sit in our conclaves, like we are doing right now, we always talk about “the Jews” and how “the Jews” should feel or what “the Jews” should do. In the end there’s an interesting ambivalence about this idea of Jews as a collectivity—there’s obviously a fear that it is something that will be used to persecute us. On the other hand, it’s something that we are proud of.
I think whether you regard this as insulting or not is contextual. If someone is saying, “Oh, the Jews all have long noses,” well, all right. But if someone is referring to collective goals, collective interests, I don’t find that insulting. There are ways in which the Jews even today, as was true in the 1940s, have a collective consciousness—they look to the same sets of institutions and have a common religion. So, I don’t find it offensive to talk about “the Jews.” “The Jews” are the last of the ancient tribes.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
As Washington looks for a diplomatic solution with Iran, Israel’s American-born interlocutor translates for Jerusalem