It is no wonder that Jews tend to be intensely patriotic Americans, or that our reading of American history is generally optimistic. We tell ourselves that there was anti-Semitism in America, but it went away; that America hesitated to fight Hitler, but eventually defeated him. When Jewish liberals are critical of America, it is usually in a spirit of disappointed love: we want the success of our American experience to be extended to everyone. The great American Jewish liberal question is Allen Ginsberg’s: “America when will you be angelic?” We want America to be angelic because we know it can be.
That is why one of the most authentic works of the American Jewish spirit is Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America, which is currently having a moment in the spotlight, thanks to the 25th anniversary of its original Broadway production. There is a revival now playing, a production imported from London’s National Theater; and there is a new book, The World Only Spins Forward, an oral history of the play’s genesis and later career.
Reading Angels again, and seeing it on stage for the first time, brought home to me how much has changed in the last quarter-century, and how little. The biggest difference, of course, has to do with AIDS, which has gone from being a terrifying plague to a manageable condition. Sitting in the audience at the Neil Simon Theater in 2018, AIDS is a cultural memory, and to young people a myth; back in 1993, it would have been an immediate presence for many people in the audience and their loved ones. I imagine that seeing the play then would have been highly cathartic, even sacramental.
But literature is news that stays news, and much of what Kushner saw about America in the 1980s—the action of the play takes place in 1985-86—is still part of our reality. Donald Trump himself is an ’80s figure; he’s not mentioned in Angels, but the play’s villain, Roy Cohn, was Trump’s mentor and in some ways his role model. It is Cohn who delivers Kushner’s seductive odes to chaos and selfishness and the worship of winning, all of which are defining parts of Trump’s character and ideology. “This is intestinal is what this is, bowel movements and blood-red meat! This stinks, this is politics, Joe, the game of being alive,” Roy rants, and what could be more Trumpian than the sense of politics as an amoral power game? In the relationship between Cohn and Joe Pitt—an idealistic Mormon conservative who thinks that voting Republican means standing for freedom and justice—Kushner offers a weirdly apt prophecy of the way Donald Trump seduced the conservative movement.
At the same time that he is attacking conservatism from without, however, Kushner is also powerfully questioning liberalism from within. Angels in America has been produced around the world, yet it remains highly specific—in its Jewishness, its New York-ness, and its particular variety of liberalism. Kushner takes it for granted that his audience will share his political landmarks, his pet martyrs (Julius and Ethel Rosenberg) and villains (Joe McCarthy, Ronald Reagan). Not until fairly late in the play does the audience hear any explicit explanation for what Roy Cohn did during the 1950s that made him so politically loathsome. Kushner counts on us to know why Cohn is someone we should love to hate, much as Shakespeare counted on his audience to know why Richard III was a bad guy.
But one reason why Angels in America feels like a classic is that is more complex and mysterious than its own politics. Louis Ironson, the play’s main Jewish character, is clearly Kushner’s surrogate in the story. (In the current production, he is played by James McArdle, who manages to look and sound remarkably like the playwright.) It is Louis who offers the Broadway audience the expected attacks on Republicans; but he also allows Kushner to call some basic progressive assumptions into question. For Louis believes so strongly in progress, in the arc of history bending toward justice, that he cannot function when AIDS plunges him into his own kind of wrong timeline. His abandonment of his sick partner, Prior Walter, is cast explicitly as a sin of ideological shallowness, in a scene where he offers a confession to an elderly rabbi:
Maybe because this person’s sense of the world, that it will change for the better with struggle, maybe a person who has this neo-Hegelian positivist sense of constant historical progress towards happiness or perfection or something, who feels very powerful because he feels connected to these forces, moving uphill all the time. … Maybe that person can’t, um, incorporate sickness into his sense of how things are supposed to go.
A catastrophe like the AIDS epidemic cannot be fit into a progressive picture of American society or of human life. It is one of those moments when, as Theodor Adorno said in Minima Moralia, “the whole is the false”—his own pessimistic revision of Hegel, for whom the whole was the true. The idea that everything that is is valid, because it is leading to a necessary consummation—despite all the losses and wrong turnings along the way—lies at the heart of liberal progressivism. For Kushner, AIDS refutes it, just as the Holocaust refuted it for Adorno.
While Kushner is careful not to compare these two disasters, his central image of the Angel inevitably draws a connection, by invoking Walter Benjamin’s famous Angel of History. (In The World Only Spins Forward, Kushner credits his friend Kimberly Flynn with introducing him to Benjamin, whom he calls “staggering.”) For Benjamin, the Angel of History was necessary precisely because there was no goal or direction to history: “Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet.” Yet as a divine being, the angel also holds open the possibility that God will intervene to avert the stern decree of history. “The future did not, however, turn into a homogenous and empty time for the Jews. For in it every second was the narrow gate, through which the Messiah could enter,” Benjamin writes at the conclusion of his “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”
The power of Millennium Approaches, the first half of Angels in America, lies exactly here, in the way Kushner creates a sense of imminent and inexplicable redemption. Prior Walter, who is dying of AIDS and no longer has any grounds for hope, is the one figure in the play to whom the Angel can and must appear. The fact that he is not Jewish, but the scion of a very old WASP family, is one of Kushner’s ways of insisting on the universality of the Jewish concept of the Messiah. The play believes that we are all living in a Jewish universe. (One of Prior’s visions involves his nurse speaking Hebrew—though she insists that this is impossible, since she is Italian.) If Perestroika, the second half of Angels, is less dramatically effective than Millennium Approaches, it is largely because Kushner did not know what to do with the Angel once she arrived. How could he, when redemption is necessarily prospective, something that is always just about to happen?
The visitation of the Angel, in this context, constitutes a rebuttal of modern Jewish progressivism by a much older kind of Jewish messianism. The metaphysical perspective proves to be more comprehensive, and paradoxically more humane, than Louis’s liberal humanism, which cannot reckon with the true darkness and suffering of history. Indeed, the title of the play is spoken by Louis in the course of a speech in which he denies the existence of the metaphysical: “There are no gods here, no ghosts and spirits in America, there are no angels in America, no spiritual past, no racial past, there’s only the political.”
That line comes in the act that Kushner titled “Democracy in America,” in which Louis and Belize, an African-American nurse who is Prior’s former lover, argue about the grounds for political hope in the United States. Belize, like Prior, finds himself opposed to Louis’s brand of politics, and on similar grounds: once again, Kushner suggests, liberalism is too shallow to take stock of human realities. But for Belize, it is the fact of race that undermines Louis’s faith in the triumph of politics. For this faith, Kushner correctly suggests, is a product of the particular experience that Jews have had in America.
Everywhere that liberalism dawned in the 19th century, it brought emancipation to the Jews, and enabled an amazing burst of Jewish activity and creativity. The enemies of liberalism recognized the affinity between Jews and liberalism, which is why anti-Semitism became the most effective tools of German and French illiberalism and populism, on both the left and the right. But America was always the exception, the one country where liberalism was so ingrained in the social order that Jews did not have to worry it was about to disappear. The principles of freedom and individualism were written into the Constitution; neither socialism nor fascism took root here, even at the worst moments of the twentieth century. Anti-Semitism, never as bad in America as it had been in the old country, became less and less salient to the lives of Jews after WWII, when it was discredited by association with Nazism.
Louis is by no means an optimist about American politics—how could he be, in 1985?—but he does possess the Jewish liberal’s fundamental faith in the American difference. “Why has democracy succeeded in America?” begins his speech in Act Three, Scene Two of Millennium Approaches, and he goes on to explain that it is because there is no such thing as an American racial essence. “The Jews of Europe were never Europeans, just a small problem. Facing the monolith. But here there are so many small problems…the monolith is missing,” he argues.
As far as Jewish experience goes, this is largely accurate: Jews were able to assimilate in the United States because, even despite decades of overt anti-Jewish discrimination in housing, employment, immigration and higher education, there was finally no racial-religious monolith impeding their entry into American society. But as Belize goes on to point out, the reason why Jews don’t see the American monolith, which is whiteness, is that they are inside it. Black Americans cannot sustain the same blissful ignorance. Ironically, even in this scene, the black character is made to perform an educative function for a white character and an implicitly white audience. Several of the black actors and critics interviewed in The World Only Spins Forward make this point, and Kushner himself acknowledges it: “I didn’t feel tremendously comfortable with the fact that I was writing a contemporary black character,” he says. Perhaps it is because the scene is so fraught that Kushner ends up defusing it with a comic exchange of provocations: “Louis Farrakhan!” Louis shouts, to which Belize replies, “Ed Koch!”
Still, the scene is a crucial moment in the play’s self-consciousness and in Louis’s self-criticism. Belize is voicing the same rebuttal to Louis that Langston Hughes offers to Ginsberg: “America was never America to me.” In some ways, the black experience proves the opposite of the Jewish experience: it is a story of the durability of American racism, and of the enormous effort required to budge the country in the direction of justice. Above all, the black experience reminds Jews of the uncomfortable fact that we have thrived in this country in part because Ashkenazi Jews could, eventually, assimilate into whiteness, even if that assimilation came in part on the backs of civil rights laws intended to end discrimination against blacks. In Europe, Jews were the traditional object of oppression; in America, we found that position already occupied.
This fact created a cognitive dissonance on the Jewish left that persists to this day, as could be seen in the recent fight over whether the organizers of the women’s march should disavow Louis Farrakhan for his naked anti-Semitism. (Once again, the 2010s prove to be a continuation of the 1980s.) For the Jewish left, the refusal of some black leaders to do this was especially painful, since it exposed the contradiction at the heart of their political identity. The left, historically, is a coalition of the oppressed, of all the groups damaged by the existing social order. Jews used to be such a group, and in Eastern Europe they naturally took a leading role in left politics. This legacy persisted in the first generation of American Jewish immigrants, poor laborers who suffered from both class and religious oppression, and even their children.
But in America in the 21st century, Jews can no longer plausibly claim to be part of the coalition of the oppressed. The grounds of Jewish politics have shifted; we may still feel ourselves to belong “on the left,” but really it would be more accurately to describe ourselves as liberals. That is to say, our politics are based on ideas about rights and fairness, not on the experience of powerlessness and the consequent desire to redistribute power. Liberal shibboleths like freedom of religion and freedom of speech are still strongly compelling to Jews, because we know that we flourish in societies were we are treated legally and socially as equal individuals, rather than as members of a class or group. And it is our confidence in our status as free individuals that allows to maintain a communal life that is, compared to that of modern European Jewry, remarkably confident and secure.
This state of affairs is indirectly attested in Angels in America, which speaks in Jewish accents about Jewish concerns, yet describes itself as “a gay fantasia on national themes”: its Jewishness was not novel or radical enough to be noteworthy. The danger for Jews in Kushner’s play lies, rather, in assimilation. This is presaged in the play’s first speech, delivered by a rabbi as a eulogy for Louis Ironson’s grandmother. The rabbi jokes about the irony of such a woman, a first-generation Jewish immigrant, having a grandchild named Eric (“This is a Jewish name?”). But this kind of assimilation is not what bothers Kushner; rather, what he deplores in the strongest terms is ideological assimilation. To discard the Jewish heritage of liberalism, to start to identify with the powerful and secure—in short, to join the monolith—is the original sin in Kushner’s eyes.
That is why he found his perfect villain in Roy Cohn. “I fucking hate traitors,” Cohn rages, meaning Communists like the Rosenbergs; but in the play’s view, it is Cohn who is the ultimate traitor. He is despicable twice over: as gay man who denies his sexuality and hides his HIV status, and as a Jew who helped to send Jewish leftists like the Rosenbergs to the electric chair. The play convicts Cohn of forgetting that Jews have a sacred obligation to identify with the powerless—because we were slaves in Egypt, as the Bible says; because we were immigrants like Louis Ironson’s grandmother, as the play’s rabbi says. “You do not live in America, no such place exists,” the rabbi warns, and the warning is necessary precisely because the premise is false. We do live in America, which is why we can forget what it means to be Jewish; and because we can forget, it is a duty to remember. American Jews like Tony Kushner, one might say, are liberals out of necessity, and left-liberals out of a sense of honor.
But in Trump’s America, this traditional Jewish left-liberalism is coming under pressure from all sides. The resurgence of anti-Semitism on the so-called “alt right” is not, for now, a genuine political danger. It remains a fringe phenomenon, its voice amplified out of all proportion by social media. The mass basis for anti-Semitic politics still does not exist in a country where, according to a 2017 Pew poll, Jews are held in higher regard than any other religious group. (The least liked were Muslims and atheists.)
Still, for most American Jews, the Trump years have been the first time they encountered the existence of real, aggressive anti-Semitism in this country. More worrying than its existence is the way that it has been teasingly countenanced by Trump—in his refusal to condemn the white supremacist marchers in Charlottesville, or in his use of the term “globalist.” This is the kind of thing that makes Jews, in particular, feel that we are on the wrong timeline, that the American government is now in the hands of people hostile to Jews and to the liberal order. The parallels with Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America have been made often, and rightly: for American Jews, the rise of an authoritarian, anti-Semitic government is the ultimate nightmare. On some subconscious, unadmitted level, we dread the humiliation of discovering that we are no better than those deluded German Jews who thought their patriotism would save them. We aren’t there yet, but we are closer than we ever thought we would be.
Trump has served Jews as a reminder that they will never belong on the illiberal, authoritarian, integral-nationalist right. No one knows this better than the anti-Trump conservatives, many of them Jewish, who have watched with horror as the Republican Party showed that love of freedom was not where its members’ real passions lay. So far, however, the danger to the Jews has remained in the realm of the potential, of fears and doubts rather than immediate threats. One of the many paradoxes of Trump is that anti-Semitic rhetoric emerges from an administration some of whose most prominent members are Jews—including Jared Kushner, who is supposedly Trump’s closest adviser. Jared—who has displaced Tony as the most famous Kushner in America—is proof that the temptation of the monolith is still open to American Jews.
When Jewish leftists complain that other parts of the left coalition do not take anti-Semitism seriously, they are likely to be met with the response that this is because anti-Semitism is not serious. This answer, which Jews might once have understood, no longer feels accurate to us, in the age of Steve Bannon and Richard Spencer. To Jews on the left, the indifference of their fellow leftists is yet another element of the nightmare—the kind of bad dream where no one can hear you scream. When supporters of Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom blame Russian assassinations on Israel, or when a D.C. city councilman says that the Rothschilds control the weather, they are resurrecting very old ideas about sinister Jewish influence.
This leaves American Jews in a position that our ancestors were all too familiar with: we are not wanted by the left or the right. That is because both political extremes think in terms of groups and classes, and Jews cannot succeed in America on those terms. We will always be a small and dispensable group, more profitable to attack than to defend. It is only when rights mean more than identities—only, that is, in a liberal society—that minorities such as Jews have a chance to flourish. This does not mean that liberalism is a Jewish idea, as its enemies have so often said; it is a universal idea, and preeminently an American idea. (Certainly liberalism has been behind whatever moral gains have been made in America since the time Angels in America was written, particularly when it comes to gay rights.) But it does mean that our fate as American Jews is tied to the survival of the liberal order. We can be sure that, if it fails, no angel is going to come to save us.
Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.