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On Israel, neoconservatism, and its discontents

By Ariel Natan Pasko
web posted June 7, 2004

With America seemingly bogged down in Iraq, there are those looking for scapegoats to blame. Neoconservatives, Likudniks, and Israel have become frequent targets, besides the standard fare of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Rice. Attacks from the left and the Democrats, can be seen as purely partisan, but attacks from the right, need further clarification.

I want to start by saying I don't claim any special expertise in the minutia of the history of conservative thought. But the areas I do claim some knowledge in, I feel, are sufficient to give an educated opinion on what's really going on, in this neo vs. paleo thing in American conservatism today, what it has to do with Jews, Israel, international affairs, and the evolving "Clash of Civilizations" taking place in the 21st century.

But first, a brief look at the history of religious -- i.e. cultural -- and political thought, as I see it. I hope after reading this you will better understand what I'm going to say about the above.

As we all know, early Christianity broke away from Judaism. It was a protest movement. Although the Christian or New Testament criticizes the Jewish civilization of the time -- especially the priests and Temple cult, some of which was already being voiced by the Rabbis -- many historians view these as veiled critiques of the excesses of Roman pagan culture, not really Judaism itself, so much as Greco-Roman culture's inroads into Roman-occupied Judea, and its people. Under severe persecution by the Roman authorities for a couple hundred years -- long after any semblance of Jewish autonomy ended -- Christianity stressed the imperfectability of "This World" -- an idea that helped to move it further away from Judaism -- promising its adherents a great life in the next world, heaven.

Simply put, Judaism with its legal system -- Torah and Halacha -- for the Jewish nation, living in its own homeland, believed in ultimate perfectibility of the world under G-D's Laws. Christianity, first having rejected "The Law", later rejected this understanding of the nature of social life. Without getting any deeper into the differences between Christian and Jewish theology, one can summarize thus: Judaism's ultimate fulfillment is achieved by the group, in one's lifetime, in this world. Christianity's ultimate fulfillment is for individual believers to gain "eternal life" after death in the next world.

Judaism desires the establishment of a "Messianic Nation-State" in the Land of Israel -- run according to the Torah, Jewish Law -- to lead the Jewish people onto individual and group, spiritual and social perfection. Judaism's goal is to establish a "Model State" and society, whose purpose is to influence mankind, in proper individual practice and social organization to worship G-D, i.e. national and universal redemption. Christianity having rejected the group concept of a "Chosen Nation," substituted individual salvation for national and universal redemption. Christianity sees the world as ultimately imperfectable, which led to a separation of religion and politics best expressed by the Christian Testament statement, "Give unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto G-D what is G-D's," a clear call for the separation of religion and state. Judaism sees state power as a necessary requirement -- not evil -- along the way to messianic redemption.

One further point, Judaism's primary goals are meant first and foremost for the Jewish people -- nation of Israel -- and then as a byproduct of completion, to influence the whole world toward Godliness without any thought of converting people. Christianity is individualistic and otherworldly, but missionary -- i.e. it tries to gain as many followers as possible.

Now to complete the triangle, to better understand the "Clash of Civilizations" taking place in the 21st century, one needs to know where Islam fits in. Islam can be summarized as more group-oriented than individualistic, law-based (they have Sharia Law), universalistic, missionary, and this world oriented. Therefore, whereas Judaism is for the Jews -- i.e. nation of Israel -- Islam like Christianity aspires to convert all mankind. Whereas Judaism aspires to political control over only one territory on earth, the Land of Israel -- i.e. the Promised Land -- Christianity's kingdom is of the spirit, and Islam aspires to control the whole world under Allah's rule. Both Judaism and Islam have legal traditions capable of governance, Christianity does not. And finally, whereas Christianity puts an inordinate emphasis on the individual, and Islam makes him subservient to the group and state, Judaism holds the two values in balance.

Although its true that after Roman Emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity in 335C.E.; the Roman empire's adoption of Christianity as state religion; Christianity had a thousand year fling with state power in parts of Europe, but that's just it, it was a fling. The revolt of princes and kings against the Catholic Church, the renaissance and reformation that led to the rise of secular state power and modern life in the West, returned European culture and society to the pristine vision of earlier Christian thought, separation of society and politics from religion. With that separation, and the later attack on the "divine rights" of kings, modern democracy arose with its emphasis on individual rights and liberties, the pragmatic -- as opposed to ideological -- and consent of the governed. One can now begin to understand how pluralist democracy developed in the Christian western world and has not developed in the Islamic east.

Terminology has been evolving over the centuries.

And to complicate matters, there are several spheres of discourse, economic organization, social-political policy, and inter-state relations -- i.e. foreign policy. Classical Liberalism is not the same as the term Liberal today. Classical Liberalism, a term most related to the economic organization of society -- i.e. the belief in the efficacy of free-markets and free trade -- found expression in the 17th to 19th century revolt against mercantilism -- or state-supported trade. Today liberalism stands for big government and its involvement in the economy -- i.e. the welfare state -- social leniency and the PC or politically correct movement -- which includes government involvement to enforce social leniency, and as the war in Iraq taught us, a non-interventionist foreign policy. Quite a distance from Classical Liberalism, isn't it?

So too, the meaning of conservatism has also changed over time. Originally, supporters of the monarchist order in Europe, conservatives have adapted to democracy, and incorporated free-markets just as liberalism metamorphosized to New Deal policies of big government and big spending. But, whereas conservatives believe in free-markets and free trade and small government in the economic realm, they tend to stand for "traditional family values" in the social realm and are not adverse to big government in social policy. Those truly "Classically Liberal" (i.e. small government or no involvement) in all three spheres, economic, social-political, and foreign relations, are the libertarians -- not the party per se, but the movement.

Which brings us back to the discussion I alluded to in the first paragraph.

What is all this talk about neos and paleos? Paleoconservatives, or traditional conservatives, or old-style conservatives claim that they represent "true" conservatism. They say that the neoconservatives are for the most part, escapees from the New-Old Left of the New Deal or 1960's. Paleocons say that neocons are interventionist in foreign affairs, whereas traditional conservatism is more isolationist. Paleos claim that neocons are not adverse to big government to achieve their goals, of extending American power and influence overseas. Paleocons accuse neocons of lack of interest in domestic economic issues and are more socially lenient that traditional conservatives. In that regard, for the most part, Pat Buchanan and the other paleocons are somewhat correct.

On the other hand... So what?

As I said earlier, terminology is evolving. 21st century terminology -- what's a conservative -- might not be the same as 20th century terminology, just as the term Liberal has changed its meaning in time.

In America today, there are economic interventionists and those who are for freedom from control; there are social-political interventionists and those who are for freedom from control; and there are foreign policy interventionists and isolationists. The only relevant issue is where a person, group, party, or policy stands on this triad. The current terminology blurs distinctions and labels help to muddle thinking.

Pat Buchanan, Rep. Jim Moran, Louis Farrakhan, David Duke and others, all blamed the Neo-Cons -- read Jews -- and Israel for the war in Iraq. More recently, Senator Ernest "Fritz" Hollings and retired general Anthony Zinni have also. So did elements on the far-left in America, the PC people, and the Islamists. It's true that many neoconservative thinkers are Jewish, and the war -- in theory -- benefited Israel (who doesn't like to see their sworn enemy defanged?), but many other neoconservatives aren't Jewish, and the war also benefited the entire western democratic world. Pointing out that many neocons are Jewish is the equivalent of pointing out that many Nazis or Ku Klux Klan members are white Christians. So what?

Blaming all Christians for the Klan or Nazis, just as blaming "the Jews", well I think you get the point.

The war in Iraq simply was America's attempt to suppress rogue state behavior, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, terror-supporting regimes, and reshape the Middle East, whether others understood it, agreed with them or not. Whether America should act multi-laterally, uni-laterally, or be isolationist is an issue worth discussion. But, blaming one group, "the Jews" is simply anti-Semitic. All the accusations that it's "Likudniks" -- the ruling party of Ariel Sharon in Israel -- in the White House directing policy, bemoans the fact that the Bush Administration policy toward Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking -- the roadmap process -- might in fact be on a collision course with Israel, but, more of that later.

The biggest area of disagreement between paleocons and neocons is on interventionism overseas. Neoconservatives, like Reagan before them, have been willing to fight the "Evil Empire" and "Axis of Evil". Interventionism, couched in religious imagery, rights and wrongs, is a hallmark of Neo-conservative thought. So too, it dovetails with the Christian fundamentalist element in the Republican Party and elsewhere.

But I thought you told me earlier that Christianity withdrew from the political sphere, you might now be asking yourself?

Yes, that's true I did. But that was primarily in Europe. The early Puritans who helped found America believed in government involvement in society. The early settlers of America were profoundly influenced by the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). Hebrew was one of the languages considered for use in early America as the "national language".

Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, and Thomas Jefferson's original design for the Great Seal of the United States showed Pharaoh and his Egyptian charioteers pursuing the Israelites across the parted Red Sea, while Moses stood on the opposite shore, bathed in a light from a blazing pillar, extending his arms upwards and beseeching the L-RD to close the waters over Pharaoh and his army. The motto they selected was "Rebellion against tyranny is obedience to G-D".

Although America was founded on the principle of opposing state support for religion, and believing in separation of church and state, a strong element of American culture has included moral involvement in politics. American exceptionalism and idealism have always been the counterbalance to American pragmatism. Protestantism in America has always had two wings, those who wanted government involvement and those who didn't, so, you get the call for economic liberty, and yet, the call for banning alcohol, the temperance movement. Which leads to the Moral Majority, Christian Coalition, and Christian Conservatives of today.

Since the fight against Nazism and Fascism in World War II, and the Cold War through the 1980's, America understood the necessity of engaging the world. After "winning" the Cold War, even if America thought it could go to sleep -- as evidenced by Buchanan-type isolationism reminiscent of the 19th century and the 1920's -- September 11th woke it up. American's now understood the world could become a very dangerous place, if they ignored it. The only question is whether the US wanted to barricade itself inside and pray, or confront the dangers that lurk outside. Neocon thinkers only saw the dangers a little earlier than most.

Neoconservative thinkers want to use American power and prestige globally -- while the US is the sole superpower -- to make the world "safe for democracy" and free-markets, i.e. for America. There are those neocons who are part of the American idealist tradition. As escapees from the Left -- repentant true believers -- they have all the zest of the "born-again". But there are other neocons, who are tempered by the pragmatic side of American political tradition. They also see global intervention as in America's long-term interest. Both believe in the use of state power overseas.

Liberal pluralist democracy as in America and the West, evolved from an underpinning of Christian culture, secularization, and the separation of religion and state. Although there are those willing to use state power to implement "moral values" in society, in general, there is an aversion across American society to excessive government intervention. But, use of state power overseas, for the purpose of guaranteeing those freedoms at home, does seem to be a legitimate aim to most.

I believe the Jewish neocons have another element, not yet fully addressed by any other commentator.

I've spoken about American idealism, now I want to address the Jewish element in Neoconservative thinking. As I described earlier, Judaism as opposed to Christianity, believes in the ultimate perfectibility of the world. This Jewish messianic belief is really the ultimate "idealism". Christian messianism as I earlier said, really gave up all hope for the world's improvement and transferred that hope to the next life, Jewish messianism never did.

Jewish messianism -- although perverted -- can be found in the thought of the son of recent Jewish converts to Christianity, Karl Marx. Many Jews were communists and socialists because they saw improvement in the workingman's lot -- a Jewish moral value -- and once secularized, felt close to Communism's desire to "fix the world". Jewish idealism can be seen in Jewish involvement in the trade union movement in America. Jewish idealism can be seen in many of the liberal social causes that Jews flock to in America. Remember, I didn't say they were properly applying that messianic drive, only explaining where it comes from. Many Jews, fairly assimilated into the US and bereft of real involvement in Judaism -- and its laws -- buy into the democracy, individual liberties, and free enterprise system of America.

I believe a residue of Jewish idealism "to fix the world" is what truly drives many Jewish neocons.

American political culture has many elements, but one has to look at how very profoundly it was influenced by the Hebrew Bible. America has seen itself as the new Promised Land. America like the Israelites of old, is an ideological nation, seeing itself as more moral than "Old Europe". America has seen itself as having a mission. Most countries in the world are ethnically based. Before the rise of colonialism, and the modern nation state, which redrew borders, most people lived in homogeneous population groups. Nations came about by biological proximity and linguistic similarity. It's true that empires sometimes mixed things up, but for the most part, countries, people, and nations coincided. America was different; it was born out of ideological fervor, law in hand -- the constitution -- with a purpose.

So too, were the ancient Jews.

This similarity, between America and Israel is probably the greatest reason for the strong support America has had for the Jewish state. This I believe is why the neocons have been successful in capturing the imagination of America. It's not that Ariel Sharon and the "Likudniks" have brainwashed Bush, or that the Jewish neocons have "cabaled" the Washington policy establishment, but that America and Israel have an underlying cultural connection and similar policy objectives in the short run. The State of Israel, as a modern democratic state -- not yet that Messianic State -- is part of the American vision for the world.

Today you have Christian conservative elements and secularized assimilated Jewish neoconservative elements driving American policy. As Fundamentalist Christians, Christian Zionists support Israel because of an overlapping of mutual values and because it plays out their own "End-of-Days" theology. As secularized, assimilated Jews, these neocons are a hodge-podge of Jewish idealism and America first ideology. What Pat Buchanan and the other anti-Semites don't understand about the neocons is that they don't work for Israel's interests, or Jewish interests, but for America's interests.

Back to the third part of the triangle and the "Clash".

Islam as explained briefly above is more collectivist than Christianity. Thus one can now understand why when secularized elements in the Arab world took charge in the 1950's, they aligned themselves with their natural cultural cousins, the Communist Bloc. Combined with the desire of Islam to conquer the world and put it under Allah's dominion; one can see why Arab socialism held sway. Previous to their love affair with the Soviets, the secularized Arab thinkers had been enamored with fascism and the Nazis. But the underlying point is their, totalitarianism -- whether religious or secular -- and their missionary fervor. Arab socialism is at bay, but Jihadist Islam is on the march.

A "Clash of Civilizations" as Huntington called it, between the West -- led by America -- and the Islamic world is in the offing. Isolationists like Buchanan, really don't have America's best interests at heart. Sure America can close its borders, but to stop the kind of terror that 9-11 symbolizes, it would have to become the type of police state, that it abhors. In the process, becoming just like all that is wrong with the Arab-Islamic world. Pro-active intervention overseas, driven by "End-of-Days" theology, Jewish or American idealism, or just plain old American pragmatism, is the best and probably only way to prevent many more 9-11's.

Islam desires to create the "ideal" social order globally, so does the United States. America sees its model -- democracy, individual liberty, and free enterprise -- as universally applicable, so does Islam. That's a sure prescription for conflict. But whereas Islam has never had a reformation, is authentic to its Arab imperialist roots, whether in the Wahabbiist version being exported by Saudi Arabia, or the Khomeini variety from Iran -- and maybe soon Shiite Iraq? -- America and Christian Western culture is conflicted. Will it follow the Christian Conservatives and neocons in their "Crusade for democracy and free-markets" or will leftist-liberal elements in America, allied with Islamists -- homegrown and imported -and their backers in Europe, gain sway?

Jewish neocons I believe, will ultimately fail. Christianity at its roots is ultimately other world oriented and Western civilization has little interest in "fixing this world". I don't believe they have the lasting power. Islam in contrast does, and you can count on them to continue their charge toward victory throughout the 21st century.

The modern State of Israel and most Jews in it; like most Jews throughout the world and in America; have become secularized in the last 200 years. They're weak in Jewish tradition and observance. Watered down Judaism combined with democracy, and free-markets, isn't far away from American culture. That's why Israeli leaders today and American leaders see eye-to-eye on most issues. Judeo-Christian culture, a phrase used by some people in America, really is Christian culture wedded to some Jewish elements. Although used by some Jews also, the term really stands for "traditional values" more than any overarching cultural symbiosis. Authentic Judaism, including the sense of peoplehood, and desire for life as an independent nation, is only taking place in Israel. Torah -- that G-D given Law -- not democracy and free enterprise is supposed to be implemented there. Its values are meant for the Biblical Promised Land, where messianic fulfillment is supposed to take place, not in the "promised land" of America.

The transference of Jewish idealism in a secularized and Americanized form, by Jewish Neo-conservatives, is doomed to failure. Messianic redemption, the setting up of a Model Nation-State -- i.e. polity -- and society in the Land of Israel, as prophesized by the Jewish prophets in the Hebrew Bible, is meant primarily as stated earlier, for the Jewish people, though it will have universal meaning. If America led by neocons and Christian fundamentalist try to usurp that role from the Jewish people's state, they will either, at worst come into direct conflict with G-D's unfolding redemptive process, or at best end in utter failure.

America's current Middle East peace-making policy, the "roadmap" that envisions a Palestinian state is just such an example. It's the beginning of conflict between Israel and America. How can America be "helping" Israel and the Jewish people, when it threatens to take part of the Promised Land away?

America, will never "fix the world" with democracy and free-markets, because that isn't a holistic world-view that encompasses both spiritual and worldly realms -- as Judaism has. America will not perfect the world, because it doesn't have the cultural underpinnings to do it, and because it is not America's role in history. It will never bring democracy to the Arab-Islamic world, unless some form of "Islamic Reformation" takes place first.

The best that America can hope for is to play a supporting role in helping Israel in it's messianic mission, combating the spread of Jihadist Islamism, while holding out a torch of freedom to the rest of mankind. The sooner the neocons see that and the limits to America's power, just as they initially saw the value in attacking Saddam Hussein's regime, the faster they can avert another tragedy for America!

Ariel Natan Pasko is an independent analyst & consultant. He has a Master's Degree in International Relations & Policy Analysis. His articles appear regularly on numerous news/views and think-tank websites, in newspapers, and can be read at: www.geocities.com/ariel_natan_pasko. (c) 2004/5764 Pasko

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