I was describing Tikkun magazine’s “National Conference of Liberal and Progressive Jewish Intellectuals” to a steady political and intellectual comrade of the past 30 years, who is not Jewish. “What would you think,” this friend responded, “about a ’national conference of liberal and progressive gentile intellectuals?’”

Well, I would think that things had gotten pretty weird. But the idea of such a gathering of Jews in New York City in December obviously did not seem so weird to the 2,000 or so persons, almost all of them Jewish, who attended the three-day Tikkun conference. Among the speakers were prominent non-Jews, notably Edward Said and Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, the Palestinian-American academics who are also members of the Palestine National Council. But even the panels that were Jewishly “neutral” — e.g., “Why Have Liberal and Left Movements Failed,” “Feminist Perspectives on Contemporary Social Reality” — were very Jewish in personnel. [1]

This Jewish cast is, on one level, understandable. The conference described itself as “reconstituting the progressive tradition of American Jewish intellectuals,” much as the journal has described its aim as “rebuilding a liberal and progressive intellectual tradition.” In this perspective, vigorously and frequently restated by Tikkun editor Michael Lerner, true understanding of Jewish religion and historical experience requires a politically, culturally and socially “progressive” commitment. By this account, the liberal-left politics characteristic of most American Jews since the great immigration of East European Jews around the turn of the century offers expressive evidence of this Jewish essence, as does the visibly disproportionate number of Jews among the intellectual elite and among the membership of socialist, communist and anarchist movements over the past century. [2]

According to Tikkun’s reading of recent Jewish intellectual and political history, this essence became obscured during the past quarter century, with the result that these Jewish and non-Jewish worlds have accepted “neo-conservatives,” most visibly represented by Commentary magazine, as the intellectual and cultural voice of “Jewishness.” In this setting was Tikkun born, as the antithesis to Commentary, taking back for progressive Jews the right to speak for Jewishness.

Commentary’s Evolution

For those whose memories go back more than 15 years, including the more mature speakers at the Tikkun conference who themselves wrote for a journal called Commentary, what is ironically obvious is how much Tikkun is the continuation of the old Commentary. The idea at first seems mildly paradoxical. In physical appearance as well as in key editorial staff, Commentary has changed remarkably little under almost 30 years of Norman Podhoretz’s direction. Type fonts, letter column arrangements and editors go on with hardly any adjustments. But in political, social and cultural perspective the leaps have been enormous. [3]

Take a venerable tradition like the Commentary symposium, the gathering and presentation in alphabetical order of a series of short pronouncements from 20 or 30 pronouncers, covering a range of positions on some large and pressing issue, usually with a Jewish focus. In the old days, some of the symposia were widely noticed, became books and provided useful sources for pithy formulations. Though the form continues, the tone has changed drastically. The journal’s right-wing assumptions are built into the topic. The politically united set of editors, friends and regular contributors now form the majority of symposiasts, and there is not enough new material or even reformulations to hold the outsider’s eye on column after column of Podhoretz, Decter, Himmelfarb, Kozodoy, Isaac (both versions) and other Commentarians who have been saying the same things at greater length and detail month after month for years.

The February 1988 symposium, appearing as the early tremors triggered by the intifada were beginning to disturb intellectual and political discourse in Jewish communities, set contributors to work on “American Jews and Israel.” The not-so-neutral premises were that American Jewish intellectuals (which seems to mean intellectuals who are Jewish and engage in Jewish community discussions) have not only become more critical of Israel (which seems to mean critical of policies of the current Israeli government) but are willing to express criticism in public. The editors find it “hard to remember a time when favorable comment about Israel has been so muted and so scanty within the American Jewish community.” (Are the editors telling us something about the deterioration of their own collective memory under the impact of increasing age and ideological rage? Or are they really suggesting that favorable comment on Israel is now barely perceptible in synagogues and Jewish organizations?) Not surprisingly, the great bulk of symposium entries dutifully deplore criticism of Israeli government policies, even when accompanied by affirmations of commitment to Israel. Someone named Edward Alexander provided an exemplary statement. [4]

I believe now, as I did twenty years ago, that Israel represents the best, perhaps the only, hope for Jewish collective survival, and that its security and wellbeing constitute an end for which American Jews should be willing to suppress their baser impulses — self- righteousness, self-indulgence, self-love — in favor of self-discipline.

The “translation” is obvious: Any American Jew who thinks that moral questions might arise in connection with Israeli policy toward the Palestinians is “indulging” some “base impulse” by raising such questions out loud. The “end” — Israel’s “wellbeing” and “Jewish collective survival” — justifies the “means” — repressing the discussion of moral and political doubts. I am sure that others have noticed the irony of Commentary stalwarts advocating the classic Stalinist form of argument: Since the Soviet Union (Israel) represents the best and only hope for human (Jewish) collective survival, peace-loving and right-thinking people should suppress their doubts about the policies of the leader and the party and practice self-discipline. Twentieth-century history is full of examples of this “means-ends” reasoning. Not surprisingly, these arguments appear somewhat dubious in light of what history has made of such ideological apologetics.

The Podhoretz Principle

A less familiar idea, much more original and definitely worth pondering, is offered by one of the journal’s intellectual lights, historian Gertrude Himmelfarb. [5] Himmelfarb modestly forswears credit for the argument and its power, attributing it to the ethical vision of editor Norman Podhoretz:

The Law of Return guarantees to every Jew a place in Israel; as Norman Podhoretz has pointed out, if we choose not to avail ourselves of that opportunity, we forfeit the moral right to pass public judgment on matters which for Israelis — but not for us — are questions of life and death.

Unlike the Stalinist-style argument, the “Podhoretz Principle” is not utilitarian; it is about a moral right. Even if an American Jew thought that an open and public discussion of Israeli governmental policies would be in the interest of Israel, American Jews and the United States, that person would be morally obligated to maintain silence.

It is the Law of Return that imposes this moral demand on Jews. But how could an act of the legislature of a foreign government impose moral obligations on American citizens? Put that way, the argument seems too silly even for Norman Podhoretz. Any country could silence criticism from American citizens by offering immediate citizenship and then claiming that, not having accepted this offer to share the life-and-death consequences of its policies, such persons had forfeited the right to criticize in public. Imagine what the Soviets could do with this moral tool, offering citizenship (and perhaps a small cultural journal) to Podhoretz and the staff of Commentary who, having declined the offer, would be morally bound not to criticize Soviet policies!

Clearly, though, it is not some general principle that creates the moral demand. It is something specific to Jews and to the state of Israel, namely Zionism. True, most people who consider themselves Zionists do not find the Podhoretz Principle binding, but most of them probably do find it comprehensible. For it lies within the core Zionist notion of an essential Jewish nationalism embodied in the state of Israel. “Exiled from the land of Israel,” reads Israel’s Proclamation of Independence, “the Jewish people remained faithful to it in all the lands of their dispersion, never ceasing to pray and hope for their return and the restoration of their national freedom.” The Law of Return was the juridical expression of this nationalist vision, affirming the idea that all Jews were Jewish “nationals,” living in “exile,” now able to fulfill their essential Jewishness by “returning” to the state of Israel.

Modern secular nationalist Zionism had been for decades a powerful current in Jewish discourse on identity, assimilation, religion, culture and the future for Jews and Jewish communities. But prior to World War II, Zionism was not at all the dominant perspective within the organized Jewish community or the Jewish intelligentsia. Even within the official Zionist organizations, pure Zionist ideology seldom amounted to more than lip service. What prevailed was a more easygoing version, less ideologically consistent but much more realistic. Popular support for a Jewish homeland expressed the idea that there should be a place where Jews could take refuge, if needed. As originally articulated in the “cultural Zionism” of Ahad Ha’am, there was also the image of an authentic and creative culture that would invigorate and sustain the various Jewish communities of the diaspora. Jews here often admired those “pioneers” who went off to build the Jewish community in Palestine. But very few members of Zionist organizations believed that the only way to fulfill their Jewishness was to make aliyah. Nor did they agree that Jewish life in, for example, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, London, Sydney, Toronto, Capetown or Paris was sick, twisted and doomed by assimilation or persecution. Nor, finally, did they think that being part of a Jewish community and a Jewish people in any way affected their full citizenship in their “host” nation, any more than practicing Judaism as a religion did.

Ceremonial Zionism

The typical condition of Zionists is that of ceremonially honoring the vision of Jewish nationalism as the essence of Jewish identity — symbolized in the Law of Return — while voluntarily remaining in their diaspora communities. This situation has perpetrated a frozen discourse of principle and apology. Another Commentary symposiast beautifully laid out the traditional breast-beating Zionist refrain: “Only by casting one’s personal lot with Israel can one realize an authentic Jewish existence,” writes this Jewish community professional. “Here I remain,” he adds, consoling his Zionist conscience that he has “not notably contributed to the overwhelming statistics of American Jewish attrition and corrosion.”

Through the 1950s and 1960s, even this sort of ritualized apologetic was seldom heard among American Jewish intellectuals. The integration of Jews into American society and culture was increasing rapidly as anti-Semitism and exclusionary forces weakened sharply. This was especially evident in the world of literary and university culture. So even as Israel became most of the content and focus of attention for Jews who were actively committed to being in the Jewish community, for increasing numbers of Jewish Americans Jewish concerns were becoming less salient. Certainly the extreme claims of Zionist doctrines were becoming ever more marginal, even theoretically. In the mid-1950s, when Commentary was consolidating its position as the major Jewish intellectual journal, the Zionist organizations felt the need to establish a new periodical called Midstream, similar to Commentary in format and intellectual level, since Commentary was insufficiently “Zionist.”

It is revealing to look back to the first Podhoretz-organized symposium, in 1961. “Jewishness and the Younger Intellectuals” included names like Philip Roth, Jason Epstein, Barbara Probst Solomon, Ted Solatoroff, Nat Hentoff and Seymour Krim. The explicit reference was the well-known 1944 Contemporary Jewish Record symposium “Under Forty: A Symposium on American Literature and the Younger Generation of American Jews,” which featured that period’s younger intellectuals (some of whom coalesced into “the New York intellectuals” — Lionel Trilling, Alfred Kazin, Harold Rosenberg, Isaac Rosenfeld). In the 1944 symposium, Lionel Trilling had written: “As the Jewish community now exists, it can give no sustenance to the American artist or intellectual who is born a Jew.” With less antagonism and less intensity than the earlier group, the younger intellectuals of 1961 generally expressed a similar indifference toward active involvement in Jewish community life, although there was no sense of shame or avoidance. Israel was also not a major interest save for a few.

More Jewishly committed readers deluged the letter columns with denunciations of the “stench” and “baloney,” even canceling subscriptions. Editorially, Podhoretz gave a reasonable account of why things were this way, though he did take the occasion to express ruefully his anguished sense of what assimilation means and to respectfully urge his intellectual comrades to share his state of feeling:

After four thousand years of existence the Jews are indeed a very big idea in the history of the world, and no person born into this idea can dismiss it or refuse to acknowledge the loyalties and responsibilities it imposes on him, without doing himself some violence. I will not pretend that anything very concrete in the way of program and philosophy follows from such piety. But I will register my conviction that one ought to feel a sense of “historic reverence” to Jewish tradition even, or perhaps especially, if one is convinced that the curtain is about to drop on the last act of a very long play.

Though more Jewishly concerned than most of the symposiasts, Podhoretz is hardly the voice of passionate Zionist commitment. “Historic reverence” is certainly not a declaration of the ethical power of the Law of Return. And the journal that he edited over the next several years did not advance a militant “Jewish politics” that would eventually become identified with Ronald Reagan’s foreign and domestic policies, George Gilder’s fervent ideological defense of capitalism, alliances with Jerry Falwell and his fundamentalists and unflinching support for the policies of the most right-wing forces in Israeli politics as well as for the Nicaraguan contras. From recommending “a sense of ‘historic reverence’” to formulating the “Podhoretz Principle” is quite an ideological journey, matching the extreme rightward shift on every important political and cultural issue accomplished by Podhoretz and his loyal band.

Lerner and others have suggested that this shift of Podhoretz and company somehow expresses profound shifts in Jewish consciousness during the past two and a half decades, a return to a mode of “particularist” Jewish assertion whose political and cultural shape includes fervent (albeit vicarious) support for Zionist notions of nationality, unswerving defense of Israeli policy, a sharp move to the right in domestic political ideology and an insistence on the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

Should the path of Podhoretz and his journal be considered so exemplary? My perception is that the Commentary group projects an irritated and embattled tone, a sense that most Jews are too confused and self-deceiving, too knee-jerky liberal, too enamored of their self-image as champions of justice to acknowledge hard and unfashionable truths, like the need to support the South African regime or to oppose feminism or to denounce Jacobo Timmerman and sympathize with the Argentine generals fighting communism. If Commentary thinks of itself as speaking for most Jewish intellectuals, I doubt that many of those intellectuals would agree.


So where does this leave Tikkun, whose birth document three years ago presented itself as the “anti-Commentary”! The early editorial statements of the new journal asserted that the neo-conservatives of Commentary had seized intellectual leadership on the Jewish scene and held the role of speaking in the name of Jews on the general political scene, at least as far as the media were concerned. Tikkun described its mission as carrying out an intellectual counter-attack on behalf of “liberal and progressive Jews" who needed to revive the old Jewish tradition of social justice as well as to affirm "critical and loving support” for Israel and a serious commitment to Jewish identity and Jewish peoplehood.

Tikkun’s image of the meaning of Commentary is exaggerated and misleading. Given the nature of image creation characteristic of media “self-presentation” and the prominence of Commentary within right-leaning intellectual and “policy” circles, some rhetorical inflation of the importance of one’s opponent is understandable. But Commentary’s counterattack on Tikkun goes far beyond exaggeration, surpassing even the Podhoretz Principle. The analysis of Tikkun and its historical-ideological context offered by Yiddish scholar and literary critic Ruth Wisse seems positively whimsical, in my dictionary’s senses of “fantastic, odd.” In her contribution to the symposium, Wisse first associates the journal with the members and overall perspective of New Jewish Agenda, a perfectly legitimate identification. For Wisse, that agenda derives from “the Communist campaign against Jewish nationalism in the 1930s.” She goes on:

Jewish criticism of Israel has increased at the same rate as left-wing and anti-Zionist propaganda. The disinclination of Jews to counter the Arab denial of their national legitimacy means that they must move ever more to the defensive. Thus Tikkun, the first American Jewish magazine to revive the old Jewish agenda of the 1930s (as the new Jewish agenda) and to argue the Palestinian case within the Jewish community, was founded, predictably, in California, where anti-Israel propaganda is most sustained.

But looking at issues of Tikkun or attending the December conference, it is impossible to miss what must be so difficult for Podhoretz and his intellectual spear-carriers like Ruth Wisse to admit — namely, how much Tikkun continues the old Commentary of the young Norman Podhoretz, who hardly personified “anti-Zionism,” unless Ruth Wisse is on to something the rest of us did not notice back then. The political and cultural parts of the “old Jewish agenda” that Tikkun advances in its editorials, articles and tone — “liberal and progressive” views on civil rights, the extension of the welfare state, civil liberties, ethnicity, social justice, support for “cultural modernism,” so to speak — were exactly characteristic of Commentary before Podhoretz and his comrades took the journal on its far right trajectory. [6]

The first Tikkun conference might have been the “twentieth Commentary conference,” if the old Commentary had realized the appeal of conferences and had kept steadily on course. Take the “elders” Tikkun honored for “keeping the faith.” This means having maintained consistently the “progressive Jewish tradition” proudly invoked in Commentary pieces by the younger Podhoretz in his left-liberal phase — that progressive views on culture and politics are “natural” for Jews who truly understand the meaning of Jewish tradition and history, that the spirit of Marx, Freud and Einstein most authentically expresses Jewishness in its encounter with modernity. [7] Irving Howe, Grace Paley and Alfred Kazin have certainly been reasonably consistent over decades in their left political and cultural commitments. The differences among their positions and involvements are considerable for those on the liberal left, but they must be imperceptible from the distant far-right peaks of Commentary-land. All of them were published in the old Commentary, and Kazin was part of the original 1944 symposium. Another participant in the conference was Michael Kazin, a respected labor historian and former New Left leader at Harvard during the wildest days of the late 1960s, currently book editor for Tikkun. Since there was no child care provided at the conference, one could occasionally see six-month-old Daniel at the back of the auditorium, alongside father Michael and grandfather Alfred. The continuities were truly impressive.

Ted Solatoroff, a “younger intellectual” of the 1961 symposium, was a featured participant on the panel on American Jewish literature, and the current “younger intellectuals” on the program were obviously those who would have been active contributors to Commentary-as-it-was — cultural writers, political activists, novelists, even prominent liberal elected officials: for example, Paul Berman and Ellen Willis from the Village Voice, Henrik Hertzberg from The New Republic, political organizer Heather Booth, Barney Frank (the Massachusetts congressman who has publicly "come out" on both the Jewish and the gay parts of his identity), novelists Rosellen Brown and Marge Piercy. Prominent academics like Michael Walzer, Robert Jay Lifton and Herbert Gans did fit right into the old Commentary and its gatherings.

Discussions of “the Jew as cultural outsider — how changed?” or “new perspectives on American Jewish literature” or “Zionism after the intifada” or “psychodynamics of Jewish self-hatred” are continuations of old Commentary discussions, not only in topic — the current Commentary still addresses such topics — but in sensibility and perspective. Noticing how much Tikkun and the conference reflects a commitment to the major “progressive” cultural movements like feminism, gay liberation, “alternative lifestyles,” therapy, ecology — all of which are excoriated in Commentary with passionate contempt — it is worth remembering that what could be considered a key 1960s founding document of “cultural liberation” as an ideal was Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd. When Goodman could not find a publisher for the manuscript, Podhoretz provided a platform for Goodman’s essays in Commentary, a service to the future counterculture that must haunt his nightmares but for which I will always give him credit.


With all the continuities, there are differences between the new Tikkun and the old Commentary: After all, there has been an interruption of almost two decades. But the differences are exactly opposite to Wisse’s analysis of the journal and the deeper forces it reflects. To begin with, Tikkun is editorially more Jewishly engaged, more interested in Judaism as a religion, more worried about assimilation, more committed to identification with and support for Israel than the young Podhoretz’s Commentary was during his “liberal” period. This is related to a notable and unpredicted “Jewish revival.” Beginning in the late 1960s there arose a small but articulate movement of havurot — small "fellowship groups" of committed Jewish intellectuals in urban centers and large campus towns who were deeply committed to carrying on their Jewish commitment but equally at home in the various 1960s cultural and political movements, and wanted to combine these commitments for their own personal identities and to work for change within the established Jewish community in “progressive” or “liberal” directions. Their internal discussions have been carried out in their own quarterly, Response, now over 20 years old.

Many of the young participants in the havurot now help staff the new Jewish studies programs that have multiplied in American universities, edit the new academic Jewish journals, produce sociology about Jewishness and Jewish culture, articulate the ideas of Jewish feminism and Jewish gay and lesbian groups, and form associations of “alternative” Jewish educators. The political left-liberalism that this group shared with other intellectuals of their own and of the older generation has had a continuous history over the past 20 years, although Commentary ceased to be the established forum for open discussions on issues involving civil rights, social justice, “progressive” views on education, ecology, nuclear power, Cold War diplomacy, US support for right-wing dictatorships and other “traditional” left subjects.

Tikkun promotes the notion of Zionism as representing the “national liberation” movement of the Jews during a period when “national liberation” and ethnic assertion in general had become more important concepts for left-wing Jews than had been evident in the old Commentary. Also, because Tikkun editor Michael Lerner is more committed to religious Judaism and to the Zionist tradition than Podhoretz ever was in his early years (and much more likely to take up the offer of the Law of Return than either Podhoretz or Wisse, with all their tough talk), Tikkun has a more outspoken, firm and less skeptical commitment to religious and national Jewishness than the old Commentary had in its editorial statements.

All of this suggests skepticism toward the claim that the ideological “long march” of Commentary could plausibly represent either American Jewish intellectuals as a group, or the broader American Jewish mainstream community, or even encapsulate some essential shift of control over the Jewish intellectual spirit. For years journals like Moment, edited by Brandeis political scientist Leonard Fein, or Present Tense, an attractive and lively mainstream Jewish community publication of Jewish life around the world — published by the same American Jewish Committee that supports Commentary — have been quite openly liberal on general political issues in just the sense Michael Dukakis had so much trouble with. There are expressions of fervent support for Israel along with discussions of issues that match the range of the Israeli mainstream, including groups like Peace Now. A recent issue of Present Tense, for example, provided an informative report on how supportive the Chilean Jewish community has been of Pinochet, who personally attends Yom Kippur services at the main Santiago shul to express his connection to the Jewish community. The article explains this support by the material wealth that this community gains under an authoritarian regime and how unhappy they were with the left policies of Allende. The judgmental implication conveyed by the article was definitely negative — very different from the Commentary reaction, which would have been to praise the Jewish political wisdom of this community. Present Tense gave its award for “lifetime achievement” for “upholding the ideals of social justice” to Irving Howe four years ago, before Tikkun existed.

There are powerful conservative and even “neo-conservative” voices in the range of representative mainstream Jewish publications, but journals like Present Tense are more representative of the mainstream Jewish community intellectual tone than is Commentary. A 65-70 percent Democratic vote (in 1988) still places Jews, a prosperous white middle-to-upper-class urban group, far toward the liberal end on the spectrum of American politics today. Tikkun’s invocation of the Jewish “tradition” of progressive and liberal commitment tries to make this Jewish statistical exceptionalism a sign of how American Jews have stood out against the broad conservative shift of the past decade or so.

This notion somewhat contradicts the idea of some “neo-conservative” domination of the Jewish intellectual world, but different myths serve different purposes. The main problem with the “standing out against the trend” idea, signifying an abiding and ineradicable progressive mythos defining Jewishness, is something else: It conveniently ignores that the rate of movement to the right for Jews is much higher than for comparable groups. After all, a shift from 90 percent Democratic (in 1964) to 65 percent is very large. The changes of other groups, already less liberal, have been relatively smaller. [8]

Mythic Formulations

At the banquet honoring the “keepers of the faith,” honoree Irving Howe raised serious questions about the mythic formulations that are so central to Tikkun’s assumptions, though not so central for a good number of readers and contributors who find the ambience hospitable even when they have disagreements with the editor’s own claims and political stances. Howe saw continuing attrition of the leftist, secular traditions in Jewish life that he so lovingly chronicled in The World of Our Fathers, and continued decline in content and identity in Jewish culture and community in general. "Much of our life has lost its sweep of conviction," he said,

and has in good measure declined into a kindly philistinism, without much faith or knowledge. As for the older animating beliefs of Jewish life, little remains…. The memory of Jewish socialism fades…. The remnant of Jewish liberalism has lost its assertiveness, declining into votes and regrets.

Responding to the tone of the conference itself, Howe commented:

Listening to participants in this conference, I sometimes had the sense that, beneath the assertiveness of language, there was an even stronger feeling of “lateness” than that felt by my own generation, which at least knew some impress from the immigrant streets and some fragments of Yiddish. And from lateness to lostness is only a short distance.

Howe’s doubts suggest that Tikkun’s success in gaining a readership at least equal to the much-diminished Commentary circulation — though considerably below the old “liberal and progressive” Commentary’s high circulation of the 1960s — should not be understood too simply, any more than the “leadership” claim about Commentary’s ideological position should be. For activist intellectuals on the left, there is always an undersupply of forums for writing and speaking. Tikkun offers a new and widely distributed place to speak out, just as the conference did, for writers who share the secular and non-particularist politics but lack any active involvement in Jewish community activities (a condition not closely correlated with personally being Jewish). Plenty of participants at the conference disagreed with Howe’s doubts. But the long-term attrition of the myths, as well as the steady progress of assimilation and integration, are trends not belied by any evidence that the varied audiences who supported the old Commentary still exist.

The Urgency of Palestine

Opening the conference with a panel that included Palestinians symbolized the centrality of the Israel-Palestine issue and the urgency felt by many American Jews, even those who do not identify with and participate in the Jewish community. Whether or not there is some particular contribution to come from Jews as Jews toward a future progressive-liberal movement in the US may still be a live issue for some participants in Tikkun, even as the myths fade. But even for those who do not find that issue salient, the particular relation of Jews to Israel and the importance of reaching a relatively just “two-state” solution for Israelis and Palestinians calls for a special concern with “Jewish politics” and an obligation to engage in the current struggles involving Israel, Palestine, American Jews, and American public opinion in general. Since the “not-progressive” and “not-liberal” Jewish intellectuals will evoke notions of Jewish tradition, Jewish values and Jewish interests, it is quite appropriate for opponents to urge counter-images that are more morally and politically worthwhile.

Polls of American Jews, as of other Americans, show widespread support for a negotiated solution, including the recent policy of talking with the PLO. The success of Tikkun, in print and in live conferences, in gaining intellectual media attention and providing a forum is certainly a welcome addition to the “progressive and liberal” forces among American Jews, even if editorial claims of “reconstitution” are somewhat exaggerated. Perusal of popular, purely Jewish publications like The Jewish Press, where Meir Kahane’s regular column receives wide exposure, shows that right-wing chauvinist positions have solid Jewish support from Jews who never found the "progressive Jew" images to match their own experience and beliefs. Even if such perspectives have not been in the majority, the argument from fear for Israel’s existence has given rightist perspectives within the Jewish community a force that has enabled journals like Commentary to have an impact out of proportion to its actual intellectual support in “policing” the Jewish community and discouraging open argument about Israeli realities.

Recent developments have weakened the power of such perspectives to constrain discussion within Jewish community debate and on the general political scene. There is a growing sense of ideological desperation in the tone of Podhoretz and his comrades, understandable in the context of the shifting political and ideological trends that have recently been reshaping the issue of Israel within the American Jewish community and the larger American polity, and in Israel itself.

When Ruth Wisse accuses Jewish intellectuals of “a failure of nerve” for criticizing Israeli army actions or for recognizing the Palestinians’ right to self-determination, she is playing an old tune. When the targets come to include, for example, Leon Wieseltier and Martin Peretz of The New Republic, whose editorial columns gave wholehearted support to Begin’s and Sharon’s Lebanon war and who have themselves trashed doubting Jewish intellectuals in just the way they themselves are being savaged by Wisse, the growing intellectual isolation of the Commentary position becomes vivid.

Dissident groups in Israel have become bolder and more outspoken in their opposition to the government, and they will reach out to the American Jewish community for support, as the various Israeli political tendencies have always done. Wisse bemoans this breakdown of the discipline the Jewish community exercised after 1967, attacks an articulate and constant supporter of Israel like Leon Wieseltier and sees in journals like Tikkun a revival of the 1930s “anti-Zionism” rather than a continuation of the Commentary that used to be edited by Norman Podhoretz. Gertrude Himmelfarb regrets that so few American Jewish intellectuals acknowledge that they have forfeited their moral right to criticize Israel. These are hardly the complaints of confident ideological leaders.

Tikkun can be taken as another positive sign — along with public criticism by major mainstream-liberal Jewish organizations of AIPAC, critical “open letters” to Elie Wiesel from Arthur Hertzberg, meetings of Republican Jewish big shots with Arafat in Stockholm — of the widening range of acceptable debate. There will be more local campaigns about recognizing Palestinian reality, like those recently in Berkeley, San Francisco, Cambridge and Newton, where the numbers and Jewish respectability of those urging recognition of Palestinian national rights were substantial. Palestinian films will be shown at Jewish film festivals. Palestinian writers and Israeli and American Jewish writers will issue more joint declarations. Hillel rabbis and student groups will sponsor more discussions within the Jewish communities on reconciliation and peace, and they will be joined by local “liberal and progressive” Christian ministers and Palestinian-Americans.

Whether political power — Israeli and American — will reflect these trends toward acceptance of the international consensus about the PLO and a Palestinian state alongside Israel in time to avoid tragedy is, obviously, another matter. But the political significance of Tikkun’s contribution to the movement for the “old Jewish agenda,” that is, the “liberal and progressive agenda,” is more solid than the mystique of a “progressive” Jewish essence and an appeal to assertion of Jewish identity and community on the basis of this mystique. As with other valued cultural modernist traits — “outsiderness,” creative “alienation,” emotional expressiveness, Levy’s rye bread, “chutzpah,” and so on — you don’t have to be Jewish to be progressive, liberal or radical. Assimilation and integration continue to work on Jews, as on many other groups and communities, eroding the capacity of such self images to provide a firm basis for community and identity. [9]

I, for one, would be receptive to Tikkun cosponsoring a future conference with other, non-Jewish journals (to which many of the Tikkun speakers and writers already contribute) for “progressive and liberal intellectuals, Jews, gentiles and others,” with many of the same “universal” topics and perspectives, broadening out the issues of community and culture to take in other ethnicities and communities and the way assimilation and integration are affecting them also. Then various intellectual and political comrades, spouses, lovers, children and friends who happen not to be Jewish would be able to share in the spirited exchanges. There would be fewer rhetorical evocations of Jewish specialness and, consequently, a more realistic sense of the way things are.

This is important. However one constructs and identifies with intellectual traditions, what Tikkun means by “liberal and progressive” ideas better have their own intrinsic and experiential convincingness, independent of mythological "essences," if the species as the ultimate “group” is to have any real chance of dealing effectively with the accumulating and interlocking social and ecological crises that threaten all of us collectively.


[1] Some of the Jewish panel sessions were: “Rethinking Zionism After the Intifada,” “Women and Judaism,” “Lesbian, Gay and Progressive Jews,” “Blacks and Jews,” “American Jewish Literature,” “Jewish and Progressive Values and Their Role in Cultural Creativity.”
[2] For an analysis of the development of this perspective among leftist Jews during the past century see Sara Bershtel and Allen Graubard, “The Mystique of the Progressive Jew,” Working Papers Magazine (March-April 1983).
[3] Several years ago, Bernard Avishai published in Dissent a very useful and detailed account of the content of these leaps in Commentary’s political and cultural evolution.
[4] Over the years, the names of Commentary writers have become less and less familiar to outsiders. Here is a sample of reviewers’ names from a recent issue — Donald Kagan, Furio Columbo, Carta Cooper, Richard Brookhiser, George Russell. Though I do read fairly widely, certainly well beyond the “left” press, I have to say that I have never come across any of these names in any of the publications I’ve ever seen, let alone those I read. A comparable list of reviewers from an issue during the liberal, open 1960s period: Walter Goodman, Amos Elon, Richard Poirer, Denis Donohue, Norman Birnbaum. (Note: It isn’t just the fact of the names being fairly widely known, even back then. There is also the fact that the political-cultural positions of these people, who have been rather consistent over the years, would not fit into the current Commentary, even though this random group is decidedly not communally “left.”)
[5] Many years back, her husband Milton Himmelfarb was a rather unusual conservative voice in this predominately liberal journal.
[6] With the notion that the defensiveness of Jewish intellectuals — whose “moral backbones” are being “cracked” by the especially sustained Arab propaganda offensive suffered by Jews in California — explains the geographic fact of Tikkun’s home, Wisse truly reaches a stratospheric ideological cloud-cuckoo land where even the most imaginative reader will have trouble following. That the journal emerged from California was “predictable,” but only by those who knew that the editor, publisher and resources lived there.
[7] Freud’s political views are normally passed over when this trinity is invoked since it is his image as profound critic and subverter of pious bourgeois pieties that is emphasized.
[8] One of the conference panelists, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller of UCLA Hillel, noted that recent data shows Jewish students registering Republican at twice the rate of Jewish adults, another sign of ongoing “normalization.”
[9] These general reflections on Jewish ethnicity and assimilation require more detail and substance for proper exposition. Such detailed discussion will be found in Sara Bershtel and Allen Graubard, Saving Remnants: Jewish Life in Post-Assimilation America, forthcoming from Pantheon Books.

How to cite this article:

Allen Graubard "From Commentary to Tikkun," Middle East Report 158 (May/June 1989).

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