Review of Michael N. Barnett's "The Star and the Stripes: A History of the Foreign Policies of American Jews"

tags: book review, Michael N. Barnett, The Star and the Stripes

Henry D. Fetter is a lawyer and independent historian whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, The Public Interest, the Times literary Supplement and the Journal of Sport. History.

If the cardinal sin of a book reviewer is to complain that an author didn’t write the book that the reviewer thinks he should have written, perhaps absolution may be had when a review points out that a book’s title promises more than its contents deliver. Such is the case with Michael N. Barnett’s The Star and the Stripes: A History of the Foreign Policies of American Jews. The twin plurals of the title suggest diversity in both subject matter and protagonists. A history of “foreign policies” could portend coverage of issues and debates ranging from turn of the twentieth century American imperialism, intervention in World War I, the Treaty of Versailles, the struggle between isolationism and interventionism in the years before Pearl Harbor, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the Iraq war and the war on terror and so on. And it might be expected that attention would be paid to the many “American Jews” who have played prominent roles in formulating, implementing, supporting - and dissenting from - those policies, whether as officials in Republican administrations (Henry Kissinger), Democratic (Walt Rostow) or both (Dennis Ross), pundits (Walter Lippmann, Thomas Friedman), scholars (Hans Morgenthau, Herman Kahn), defenders of American Cold War policies (Sidney Hook, Irving Kristol) or critics (Noam Chomsky, I.F. Stone), congressional supporters of the Iraq War (Joseph Lieberman) or opponents (Carl Levin) to mention only a few leading figures. But the book is not about those "foreign policies” or those “American Jews.”

Instead Professor Barnett has written an extended essay which analyzes the American Jewish political community as an entity, not its individual or associational components, and that community’s “foreign policies” that bear on one subject, Zionism and the State of Israel. “The foreign policies of a Jewish community,” Professor Barnett writes, “are designed to serve two immediate functions - to alleviate Jewish suffering and to assure its identity in the world.” The “foreign policies” of the title refer only to two competing visions that Professor Barnett contends have shaped the community’s response to the movement for, and achievement of Jewish statehood. The author describes these “policies” as “cosmopolitanism” and “tribalism.” “Cosmopolitanism,” Professor Barnett writes, “ holds that one’s identity and self-interest is intertwined with the community’s interests; al humans are equal and serving of equal sympathy ... for these Jews ... their own safety and well-being are bound up with global justice and peaceful coexistence of all peoples.” By contrast, “a tribal foreign policy has the characteristics of a severe realpolitik: consumed by self-interest and survival; drawing stark boundaries between us and them.... In this view, Jews can evaluate world events by asking the simple question: ‘Is it good or bad for the Jews?’ ”

According to Professor Barnett, cosmopolitanism has been the dominant tendency in American Jewish “foreign policy.” Relying mainly on the writings of prominent figures in Reform Judaism (which “crafted a political theology for America”), most notably nineteenth century rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, Professor Barnett argues that American Jews embraced a “political theology of Prophetic Judaism - a belief that the Jews are a people connected to the world who should demonstrate their religiosity through act is of compassion to all. And whose diaspora will help catalyze global justice and a common humanity.” As a result, American Jews reacted to Zionism with lukewarm indifference from Herzl’s era onwards as antithetical to its universalistic, cosmopolitan orientation. Even the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel triggered only a brief embrace of tribalism before the cosmopolitan tendency regained its primacy. In a symposium on American Jewishness published in Commentary magazine in August 1966, Professor Barnett observes, Israel and the Holocaust were scarcely mentioned.

The Six Day War in 1967, however, gave tribalism the upper hand over cosmopolitanism within the community for several decades thereafter. American Jews were first shocked out of any sense of security by seeing Israel apparently abandoned to a dire fate by the world community in the run up to the war and then swept away by a new-found pride and self-respect in their “tribal” identity as Jews in the aftermath of Israel’s smashing victory. But in recent years, Professor Barnett argues, cosmopolitanism has reasserted itself as the pole star of Jewish “foreign policy.”

Professor Barnett ascribes this renewed cosmopolitanism to the fact that contemporary American Jews are doing so well that they can afford to expand their horizons beyond the needs of the Jewish community, whether in the United States or Israel. Unmentioned is the possibility that Jews are not doing so well, witness concerns about the nuclear threat from Iran, the challenge to community survival posed by increasing rates of intermarriage, the escalation of anti-Israel activism, with more than traces of traditional anti-Semitism motifs, on college campuses. Pace Professor Barnett, are Jews qua Jews really doing all that well? Perhaps the relevant question is why these challenges, which might be expected to encourage a “tribalist” perspective, are being evaded or even avoided, by today’s “cosmopolitans.” But Professor Barnett appears to assume away these potential challenges to a cosmopolitan policy by ignoring them.

Professor Barnett is a political scientist and his book’s limitations as history result from his overly schematic models of the overarching “tribal” and “cosmopolitan” policies that allegedly guide the community as a whole and concentration on spokesmen for Reform Judaism. Missing from the book are the “foreign policies” of Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, as well as those of the not insignificant number of Jews whose “foreign policies” were determined by ideological commitments to Socialism or Bundism or Communism, even to the extent, in the last case, of endorsing the paranoid anti-Zionism and plainly anti-Semitic excesses of Stalin’s last years.  Nor does Professor Barnett give a hearing to those Jewish politicians or activist whose perspectives on Zionist and Israeli affairs were refracted through their participation in mainstream political party activity.

What the rank and file of American Jews might have thought about these dueling “foreign policies” goes almost entirely unexamined. Professor Barnett recognizes that until recently survey evidence of rank and file Jewish opinion is lacking but sources that would permit a fuller picture of the subject, such as Yiddish language newspapers and other community oriented publications are neglected, as are, with a few exceptions, memoirs and archival materials. As for current attitudes, Professor Barnett is generally cautious about survey evidence, cogently observing that the ways in which questions are phrased can skew the responses. However, at times he puts too much weight on those findings, in one instance, buttressing a claim about contemporary Jews’ universal concerns by citing a survey reporting that 94 to 96 percent of Jews are proud that Jewish organizations perform service work. To which one must ask, what else would anyone be expected to say?

Many primary source quotations are taken from secondary accounts and the author too often takes at face value what others have written about the state of American Jewry with insufficient attention to the fact that those commentators may be projecting their own values and parti pris onto that community. As a result, Professor Barnett is frequently writing about American Jews at one or more steps removed from American Jews themselves. That said, the book’s extensive bibliography is a boon for future scholars.

For a work that, although narrow in scope, has a long chronological range the error rate is impressively low. A meeting between FDR and Jewish leaders that Professor Barnett places at Dumbarton Oaks in March 1944 actually occurred at the White House in March 1945; Berlin Rabbi Leo Baeck settled in London not the United States after World War II; Henry Ford’s anti-Semitic publications appeared in the 1920s not during the Great Depression; and, in an especially unfortunate slip, Hebrew University founding president Judah Magnes is misnamed  “Judas Magnes,” an inadvertent slur that even the harshest Zionist opponents of his vision of a bi-national state in Palestine would have been loath to employ.

On one of today’s hot button issues for the American Jewish community, Professor Barnett agrees with those who contend that the attachment of American Jews to Israel is fraying and notes that, at the same time, “tikkun olam” - the asserted obligation of Jews to “repair the world” - has become an increasingly prominent rallying point for the community. Professor Barnett carefully navigates his way between those who attribute the rise of “tikkun olam” to disenchantment with the asserted failure of Israel to live up to American Jewish values of social justice and those who ascribe that disenchantment to a prior commitment to the universal values embodied by “tikkun olam.” Taking the long view, Professor Barnett attributes its current prominence to a reassertion of the cosmopolitan world view embodied in the prophetic tradition that has provided the long-term “foreign policy” of American Jewry.   In either case, Professor Barnett sees it as creating distance between American and Israeli concepts of Jewish identity, citing the joke in which an Israeli asks “How do you say tikkun olam in Hebrew?” Putting it more bluntly than Professor Barnett does, but without doing violence to his analysis, he suggests that tikkun olam provides a way to assert a Jewish identity for those American Jews who worry that contemporary Israel’s failure to live up to their ideals makes them look “‘bad “to the wider society.

Even so, Professor Barnett makes the interesting observation that contemporary cosmopolitan Jewry’s focus on humanitarianism rather than human rights reflects uneasiness with the way in which certain advocates and organizations (notably the United Nations) have used “human rights” as a club with which to single out Israel for disproportionate condemnation. Looking back at the initial relations between American Jewry and Israel, Professor Barnett writes that Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s jaundiced view of those Jews who preferred to remain in the Diaspora made for some troubled passages in that relationship during the first years of statehood. Professor Barnett writes that “as far as Ben -Gurion [was] concerned, American Jews would always be second-class American citizens and third-rate Jews.”  Whether or not Professor Barnett so intended, if Ben-Gurion were to read what this book has to say about the “foreign policy” of present day American Jews he would find little reason to change his mind.

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