On the Political Stupidity of the Jews

By Irving Kristol

Whether in America or in their own sovereign country, Jews still have no idea what statecraft is.

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he novelist Saul Bellow is fond of recalling a political incident from his youth. Saul, then an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, was, like so many of us in the 1930s, powerfully attracted to the ideologies of socialism, Marxism, Leninism and Trotskyism, as well as to the idea of “the Revolution.” He and a group of highly intellectual and like-minded fellow students would meet frequently at his aunt’s apartment, which was located next to the university. The meetings lasted long into the night, as abstract points of Marxism and Leninism agitated and excited these young intellectuals. Saul’s aunt, meanwhile, would try to slow things down by stuffing their mouths with tea and cakes. After the meetings broke up in the early hours of the morning, Saul’s aunt would remark to him: “Your friends, they are so smart, so smart. But stupid!” Of course, such hard-core adherence to Marxist or Leninist doctrines has declined with the years. But while the particular doctrines in question may have changed, the Jews, for the most part, have not. In Israel as well as in America, Jews to this day continue to combine an almost pathologically intense concern for politics with a seemingly equally intense inclination towards political foolishness, often crossing over into the realm of the politically suicidal. How is one to understand this very odd Jewish condition—the political stupidity of Jews?
It seems that the easiest explanation of this phenomenon is in terms of the actual political history of the Jewish people, a history which is for the most part one of political impotence. A people whose history is largely a story of powerlessness and victimization, or at least is felt to be such, is not likely to acquire the kinds of skills necessary for astute statesmanship. Neither the rabbinic nor the prophetic traditions can be of much assistance in this respect, since political thinking is inherently secular thinking, so that Jewish secular thinking about politics has traditionally focused on some splendid isolated incidents of resistance and rebellion, such as the wars of the Maccabees, and the resistance against Rome. But the memory of these incidents is hardly a sufficient basis on which to ground a real tradition of political wisdom that could teach contemporary Jews how to wield power and successfully defend Jewish interests. And the absence of such a tradition of political wisdom continues to haunt all Jewish politics, including the politics of Israeli Jews, despite the fact that they now have half a century of experience in self-government.
In fact, one of the most striking features of Israeli political discourse, when considered from the perspective of Anglo-American and European political thought, is how narrow and constricted it is. Public discourse in Israel is often superficially sophisticated, even trendy, but it lacks genuine historical echoes, historical tonalities. Echoes of references to the traditions of Western political thought, which are common in American and Western European journalism, are relatively absent in Israel. It is not any deficiency of scholarly knowledge—Israel does have some fine academics in disciplines such as political theory and philosophy—but the presence of such individuals does not begin to repair the deficiency of Israel’s own political traditions. The main stream of Zionist political thought arose from the political thinking of nineteenth-century romantic nationalism in Central and Eastern Europe—and this is itself a movement whose shortcomings are plainly visible in Central and Eastern Europe today. In the Jewish state, as in Eastern Europe, an infusion of thought is needed from the outside; an infusion of thought, by which I mean the importation of genuine political wisdom, not just the imitation of whatever attitudes are prevailing in the West.
In this regard, it is tremendously important to translate the classics of Western political conservatism into Hebrew for the benefit of Israeli readers. It is possible that the readership of these translations will be small, but only through a serious study of this tradition will it be possible for Israelis to begin to develop a genuine understanding of the function of a conservative politics in a healthy polity.
Given the historic attitude of the European Right toward Jews, it is natural that Jews in Israel should incline to ignore the conservative political thought of other countries, thinking almost automatically in terms drawn from the European Left. And Israeli political discourse, in fact, is drenched with left-wing attitudes and assumptions. It is so drenched, in fact, that even where the socialist agenda has been largely discredited, the socialist ethos remains as powerful as ever, successfully delegitimizing any serious effort to pursue a non-socialist agenda. It is my experience that the majority of former socialists—in almost every country—remain opponents of capitalism. Socialism today is a political goal that dares not say its name, because socialism as a system has been discredited. But this does not mean that socialist societies stop being socialist. Instead, socialism takes refuge in a large variety of anti-capitalist attitudes and policies, which simply go under other names, or under no name at all. It is this type of socialism that is visible in Israel today, as well as in England and France, and elsewhere. Israel is almost singularly bereft of the kind of clear pre-socialist or post-socialist thinking that would be most useful to its leaders and citizens.
Translating such thinking into accurate and readable Hebrew is essential. Translate and publish, and the readers will come eventually. I have seen this happen in the United States and in Britain, although it does require a tremendous amount of patience to see the process through—often more patience than we can imagine. Wrong ideas, once implanted in a young person’s mind, become so plausible, so self-evident as it were, that change is hard. I remember a course I once taught at New York University on urban problems, in which we took up the issue of rent control. After a few weeks, the students had grasped what is apparent to most people who study the problem: That, except under emergency conditions, rent control is a bad idea in both theory and practice. Nevertheless, by the time the students took their examinations at the end of the term, it became clear that at least half the class had simply forgotten what they had learned about rent control; and once again, it seemed to them to be a perfectly good idea. It is a “progressive” illusion to think that, in the marketplace of ideas, truth will always win out over error. It is truth that needs help, while error usually manages to make its own way very nicely.
So in pursuing the path to political wisdom, one needs books to read, magazines and essays and articles to read. One has to be willing to work tirelessly to produce all these books and articles until the climate of opinion slowly changes. What I am describing is actually a formula for success devised by Lenin, which I still remember from my days as a young Trotskyist. First you publish a theoretical organ, then you proceed to books and pamphlets, and finally you publish a newspaper. Once you have a newspaper that can apply the theories developed in more sophisticated publications to day-to-day politics, you are in business.
This formula does not always work, of course, and one certainly cannot expect it to work if the ideas in question are poor ones. But one of the important virtues of the conservative political tradition is that, from a literary and intellectual point of view, it is really first-rate. And this is not merely a question of one’s subjective preferences. The test of a great tradition is whether its perspective is sufficiently insightful to be of use long after it is first written, and the fact is that conservatives can continue to read and reread a good part of the literature in this tradition and profit from it. One should compare this to what happens to leftist political thinkers, who have their day and then disappear from sight. The risk of being progressive is that there is always some new version of “progress” which seeks to outgrow whatever was thought to be important by progressives a few years earlier.
Who, for example, reads Harold Laski today? When I was in college everyone read him. He was one of the world’s leading political philosophers. He was a socialist and chairman of the British Labor Party, a very intelligent man who wrote endless volumes, and of course he was Jewish. He is simply not read anymore in political science courses in the United States or in England, and his books are out of print. Yet his successor at the London School of Economics, Michael Oakeshott, who was a conservative, was able to produce essays that are still being reprinted, still being quoted and still very readable—not only because his writing was so elegant, but because the ideas contained in them were of enduring value. This is the advantage the conservative has over thinkers on the Left writing on contemporary affairs. The conservative tends to think in permanent terms, so his ideas remain relevant.

Irving Kristol is co-editor of The Public Interest. 

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