Opinion: Responses to readers on the left

I am devoting this column to responding to letters published in response to my last column, “Our Golden Calf” (March 9), because the topic is so important. If American Jewry’s embrace of leftism has not been a blessing for the Jews, then Jewish life is in trouble. On the other hand, if this embrace has been a blessing, Jewish life should be in great shape. It is hard to imagine, however, that many concerned Jews believe that American Jewish life is in great shape.

I salute The Jewish Journal for welcoming such dialogue. There is virtually no publication with a largely liberal readership that allows for non-left writers to interact with readers.

For some reason, I was shown only Doug Mirell’s letter prior to publication, so I responded to him in the last issue.

I will therefore begin with Barbara H. Bergen, whose blood pressure, she writes, both I and Red Bull raise.

Ms. Bergen’s letter illustrates the point of my article — that leftism causes decent people to say or do bad or foolish things.

Take, for example, her defense of Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s statement that he respects the Muslim veil (which, I wrote, is “one of the most dehumanizing behaviors to women practiced in the world today”). How does she defend it? By comparing the veil to “Orthodox women in our own community who wear heavy wigs and headscarves along with ankle- and wrist-covering clothes in the California heat.”

“Could we find that equally ‘dehumanizing?’ ” she asks.

Only leftism — with its commitment to never harshly judging Islam and to multiculturalism — can explain how an intelligent person can morally compare wearing a wig, a headscarf, long sleeves or ankle-length skirts with never being allowed to show one’s face in public.

Martin A. Brower writes that it is not leftism that is our golden calf, but “Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater’s definition of the golden calf — ultimate truths, especially those ‘truths’ held by the right.”

This is another example of leftism causing people to say awful and irrational things. Ultimate truths constitute a false god? Do these people really believe that there are no ultimate truths? Is that what years at a Jewish seminary taught a rabbi, and what a college education taught Mr. Brower? How about, “Love your neighbor as yourself”? Or, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”? Or, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights …”? And what is the claim that there are no ultimate truths, if not something that purports to be an ultimate truth? I cannot think of a more morally distortive teaching than that there are no ultimate truths. This is how the left has created the moral relativism of our time — by teaching a generation that there are no moral truths because good and evil are purely a matter of opinion.

Leonard Kass begins his letter with: “Dennis Prager has written articles that consistently conflate liberalism with communism.”

There is no truth to that charge. I specifically wrote: “Leftism, not liberalism, has been the Jews’ golden calf… .”

Moreover, my reference to communism was to not to conflate liberalism, or even leftism, with communism but to note how many Jews have supported communism. I offered as examples the Yiddish press in the 1920s, which was the most pro-Soviet press in the Western world, and the many Jews who were leading communists in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. One might add that many leftists who were not communist found more to hate in anti-communism than in communism.

Jacob Cherub writes: “Throughout history there have been repugnant dictatorships on both the left and right,” and their “repression and brutality is really no different than communist repression and brutality.” He then cites, among other examples, fascist Italy, Franco’s Spain, Nazi Germany, various Latin American dictators, the shah in Iran, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Ne Win in Burma and Sudan’s Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir.

This is close to constituting a perfect example of how leftist teachings pervert history and thereby distort the thinking of those who believe those teachings.

It is morally indefensible that anyone would write — after the communist genocides in China (65 million to 75 million), Ukraine (5 million to 7 million), Russia (about another 20 million to 30 million), North Korea and Cambodia — that there is no difference between communist regimes and other kinds of dictatorships.

There are two rather significant things wrong with Mr. Cherub’s list of dictators: Many are not rightists, and none came close to communism in terms of the number of people murdered and enslaved. Yet, nearly everyone on the left thinks as Mr. Cherub does, namely, that left and non-left dictatorships (they label all non-left dictatorships “right”) are morally equivalent. That is why so many on the left supported the Khomeini revolution — anything would be an improvement over the right-wing shah, the left reasoned. But, of course, what replaced the shah has led to incomparably more suffering among Iranians than under the shah — not to mention the first threat of Jewish genocide since the Holocaust.

But it’s not only about the shah that Mr. Cherub is so wrong.

While Mugabe is indeed a monster, he is no rightist. In fact, he is a self-described Marxist. And his destruction of Zimbabwe has been done entirely in the name of African solidarity and fighting white racism.

So, too, Sudan’s al-Bashir is not a rightist; he is an Islamist.

And as regards Nazism, it was neither right-wing nor left-wing (even though Nazism stood for “National Socialism”). It was sui generis, a unique racial, not rightist, doctrine.

Mr. Cherub ends his letter: “It seems Prager wants to paint anyone politically to his left as evil and comparable with Stalin and the like.”

Apparently it doesn’t matter to some people that I have written in every column concerning the left that there are good and bad people on both the right and the left. And while I am convinced that leftism has damaged Jewish life and almost everyone and everything else it has strongly influenced, I find it quite easy to distinguish between people with left-wing opinions — many of whom I know to be fine people — and leftism. I have never in my life written, said, implied or even thought that anyone politically to my left is comparable with Stalin and the like. That is a smear.

Syd H. Hershfield writes the one thoughtful letter among those criticizing my column. Like my article, his letter deals with issues, not personal attacks. He defends Jews who sided with Lenin and Stalin as having been so burned by czarist anti-Semitism that they supported whatever supplanted it. This is an explanation — at least for those communism-supporting Jews who escaped czarist Russia — but it is not a moral defense of them, and certainly not of American-born Jews who supported communism. Would Mr. Hershfield defend Ukrainians who sided with the Nazis because Ukrainians suffered under the Soviets (even more so than the Jews did under the czars)?

Finally, I thank Jeffrey P. Lieb for his thoughtful letter about how disheartening he finds Jewish support for the left. Perhaps it will console to him to learn that slowly but surely, more and more identifying Jews are rejecting leftism.

Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) 9 a.m. to noon. His latest project is the Internet-based Prager University (prageru.com).

Open Debate Preferable to Blind Support

A recent report in The New York Times captured almost perfectly the thorny questions that stand at the center of relations between the American Jewish community and Israel. Should one be permitted to criticize the government of a foreign country with which one feels a deep affinity, or is it a moral and political imperative to support the policies of that government, right or wrong?

What was so striking about The Times article was that it raised these questions not about the American Jewish community and Israel, but rather about the African American community and Zimbabwe.

The parallels between the two cases couldn’t be more intriguing. Just as a number of American Jews, usually of the progressive persuasion, have asserted their right and responsibility to criticize Israeli government policy, so, too, a group of African American intellectuals and activists recently abandoned their posture of strong support and advocacy for Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe by issuing a stinging condemnation of his policies, including appropriation of white-owned farmland.

In a letter of June 3, 2003, they recalled their “strong historical ties to the liberation movements in Zimbabwe, which included material and political support, as well as opposition to U.S. government policies that supported white minority rule.” But they quickly moved on to denounce “the political repression under way in Zimbabwe as intolerable and in complete contradiction of the values and principles that were both the foundation of your liberation struggle and of our solidarity with that struggle.”

This public letter provoked a torrent of responses from African Americans, many of whom were critical of the signatories. According to The Times account, the letter writers have been cast as “politically naive, sellouts and misguided betrayers of liberation struggle.”

Among the more serious critics, professor Ronald Walters of the University of Maryland justified his opposition to the letter by stating that “I am on the side of the people who claim there’s a justice issue in terms of the land. You can’t escape the racial dynamic, and you can’t escape the political history.”

Another critic, Mark Fancher, questioned the legitimacy of the letter writers. “This is an African problem, a Zimbabwean problem” — beyond the ken of “people who are really disconnected from the day-to-day lives of people in Zimbabwe.”

It is hard not to hear in those words echoes of a refrain frequently uttered in the American Jewish community — the gist of which is that it is the responsibility of American Jews to express enthusiastic and unequivocal support for the government of Israel.

The underlying logic is that American Jews are themselves “disconnected from the day-to-day lives” of Israelis. It is not they who fight the wars or suffer from the scourge of terrorism; consequently, they have no standing to criticize. Indeed, to express criticism of Israeli policies is to abet the enemy — and thereby come dangerously close to treason.

I am familiar with these arguments, because I have often been on the wrong end of them. Those of us American Jews who have felt compelled to condemn the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip as immoral, self-destructive and a violation of Israel’s own best ideals have often faced the wrath of fellow community members. How could a Jew attack Israel in a time of need? Hadn’t the Palestinians surrendered any right to a state? Weren’t they better off now than before 1967?

A similar set of justifications now issues from the mouths of the opponents of Mugabe’s African American critics. How can one attack an African leader, a heroic figure, in time of need? After all, as Fancher asserts, “The one thing nobody disputes is that, whether he won or not, Mugabe got a lot of votes.” Such statements reveal the absurdity — and moral bankruptcy — of blind support.

Curiously, the tables have turned in the case of American Jews and Israel. Not too long ago, it was taboo to criticize Israel’s occupation. Israel’s government had to be supported, regardless of its policies.

But will the same people who insisted on these principles now be able to reverse course? After all, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in a speech to his own party, used the “O” word — occupation — to refer to Israel’s hold on the West Bank and Gaza. All of the extraordinary Israeli and Jewish public relations efforts that went into claiming that the territories were “administered” rather than “occupied” went out the door after that speech.

Even more significantly, Sharon has adopted the “road map” for peace. The logic of blind support would dictate that American Jews line up in warm embrace of this Israeli government policy.

It is tempting to argue that those who demanded in an earlier period that American Jewish progressives hold their criticism do the same as Israel enters a new and more promising phase, even if they have reservations about the road map. Tempting perhaps, but not beneficial in the long run.

The recent case of African Americans and Zimbabwe reveals that the stifling of dissent not only reinforces a dangerous status quo but replicates the very policies of repression that one might want to criticize. Open debate, with all its messiness, is preferable to blind support.

This is an important principle to keep in mind — now and in the future — as Jews and African Americans debate the policies of, and demonstrate their bonds to, the countries of their dreams.

David N. Myers is professor of Jewish history and vice chair of the history department at UCLA.