The conservative defense of Jewish civilization

Some remarks from the 2019 Jewish Leadership Conference in New York.

American and Israeli flags fly together. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
American and Israeli flags fly together. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Eric Cohen
Eric Cohen

Jews like to worry, and the past year has surely given the Jewish people many causes for concern—and even alarm.

Around the world—from the Poway synagogue shooting, to the Holocaust-haunted streets of Berlin, to the Orthodox neighborhoods of Borough Park—the number of physical assaults on Jews, simply for being Jews, is on the rise. To the mad white supremacist, the Jew is vermin. To the radical woke activist, the Jew is a fascist. And to the Islamic fundamentalist, the Jew is a heretic.

Yet stand up to them all we will.

Around the world—even in America—the extreme left treats Israel and the Jewish people as villains and thieves: occupying land that is not ours, manipulating world affairs with our wealth, targeting and attacking Palestinian children. These anti-Semitic attacks are of course offensive and absurd—and even more ridiculous when one considers the amoral ruthlessness and Judenrein policies that stain so much of the Middle East. But somehow it has become a badge of progressive honor to call for boycotts on Israeli companies and war crimes tribunals for Israeli leaders.

Yet stand up to the progressive squad we will.

Around the world—even in America—Jewish students are being mistreated on college campuses: Jew-haters are provided student activity funding and special safeguards, while Zionist clubs are banished from campus. Jewish students are afraid to speak their minds in the classroom, while the crazy carnival of “intersectional” activists—with no Jews allowed—are provided safe spaces.

Perhaps the most egregious example of the corruption of the modern academy is the story of Oberlin College, which over the past few years has appeased anti-Semites and dehumanized a local bake-shop, all in the name of radical politics. Oberlin is what happens when truth itself is abandoned: bakers and Jews alike become collateral damage—or deliberate targets—in the unjust crusade for social justice.

Yet stand up for truth and civility we will.

Around the world—even in America—a campaign has begun to treat the rituals, rites and beliefs of traditional Jews as backward and bigoted. Bans on Kosher food. Bans on circumcision. Efforts to shut down Jewish schools for focusing too much on the transmission of Jewish identity. Efforts to ostracize traditional Jews who do not acquiesce to progressive dogmas about gender and marriage.

Yet stand up for religious freedom we will.

In the Middle East, violence and disorder creeps ever closer to the Israeli border, with bloody civil wars and fleeing refugees on Israel’s desert doorstep. Iran continues its march towards nuclear weapons and clings to its mad theology of serving the Almighty by wiping Israel off the map. Israel itself—a beacon of liberty in the Middle East and in many ways the most conservative nation in the West—is now mired in a period of political uncertainty. All leaving us to wonder: Where will the next generation of Israeli leaders come from? Yes, stand up for Jewish sovereignty we will—but on whose sturdy, statesmanlike shoulders will Jewish destiny in Zion rest?

Amid these many concerns, we also face the slow but steady withering of Jewish identity here at home. The tragic reality is that too many Jews in America have only a fading attachment to the miracle and majesty, the wisdom and weight, the rites and responsibilities, of being a Jew. In the end, we cannot control the perverted ideologies of our enemies. But the transmission of Jewish civilization falls solely upon us: the committed Jews, awed by the Jewish past, sober about the Jewish present and hopeful about the Jewish future.

This is our defining purpose in convening this conference—one thousand people strong and growing—on Jews and conservatism: to embolden us, as a community, to preserve the exceptional heritage of the Jewish people. To worry is not enough. The Jews need a strategy—and that is why we are here.

The Jewish Leadership Conference was launched three years ago by the Tikvah Fund, the organization that I have been proud to help lead for the past 12 years. Tikvah’s mission is clear: to educate a new generation of Jewish leaders; to advance the most serious thinking about the urgent challenges facing the Jewish people; to create a new web of Jewish institutions.

This effort has many dimensions: We have created intensive Tikvah programs for high school students, college students and young professionals—reaching over a thousand exceptional young Jews every year. We have launched a series of publications—like Mosaic, which produces the most insightful essays in the Jewish world, and the Jewish Review of Books, with its penetrating features on every aspect of Jewish culture and civilization. We are building new institutions in Israel, such as an Israeli version of the Federalist Society, to advance conservative ideas in Israeli law schools and conservative judges on Israeli courts. We are creating Tikvah Online University, with some of the greatest Jewish minds teaching the most important Jewish subjects.

For these efforts to succeed—and we believe they will succeed—we need to build a movement of people and ideas. We need educators and activists, donors and volunteers. To be sure, the old mega-institutions of Jewish life still have their place. We wish them all well. But we believe the Jewish people need new thinking, new institutions and a new agenda. We believe the era of Jewish liberalism—or the tired assumption that all Jews are liberals—is coming to an end. And we believe that Jewish conservatives of all types—religious and secular, Americans and Israelis, cultural conservatives and start-up nation entrepreneurs—have an indispensable role to play in standing up for Jewish civilization and Jewish sovereignty.

Yes, we have many causes for concern. But this is nothing new. The Jews have always lived between the Scylla of destruction and the Charybdis of assimilation. And yet we endure, because the Jews have a grand purpose in the world. We endure, because we are an exceptional nation, a chosen people, a leading actor in the providential human drama from creation to redemption.

Yes, Jewish worry is immortal. But like our name—Tikvah—I am also eternally hopeful. In the deepest sense, the Jewish story itself gives me hope: as Mark Twain said, the most powerful civilizations come and go, yet the Jew remains. Our metaphysical significance far outweighs our small size. This is the undeniable truth of Jewish history.

But I am also hopeful because of what I see every day in Tikvah’s classrooms: Incredible young Jews—eager to learn and to lead. At Tikvah, I see American high school students discovering their Jewish inheritance for the first time: opening up the Hebrew Bible, marveling at the heroes of modern Zionism, rediscovering the Jewish meaning of American liberty.

At Tikvah, I see haredi Jews from Israel coming to recognize their growing responsibility for the civic future of the Jewish state. Any world in which Jewish kids from Beverly Hills High School are reading Leviticus, and haredi Jews from Mea She’arim are reading Adam Smith—well, that is a Jewish world that has a chance to flourish. But if, and only if, the most thoughtful Jews also have the will to act, to fight and to build—just as Herzl did more than a century ago. Jewish ideas are naked without the armor of Jewish courage.

So what is our strategy? What next? What can we do? Let me offer three specific suggestions, each of them pushing our work at Tikvah and the Jewish Leadership Conference aggressively forward.

• First, we can strengthen and build Jewish educational institutions around the country. We can expand and create new summer programs that awaken young Jews to the remarkable story of Jewish and Zionist civilization. We can bring Jewish classical education into our existing Jewish day schools. We can reinvigorate Jewish life at our universities around serious Jewish ideas rather than empty slogans. We can build new Jewish colleges informed by Jewish tradition, Jewish texts and Jewish values—especially if our existing universities continue to follow Oberlin’s self-destructive example. In short: We can create new citadels of Jewish excellence.

• Second, we can build local chapters that advance Jewish conservatism in Houston and Phoenix, Lakewood and Teaneck, Boston and Los Angeles. It is not enough that Jewish conservatives come together once per year, exciting as it is. We need to build Jewish leadership communities around the country—working together all year long—with a view to reshaping our synagogues, improving our schools and advancing a policy agenda that truly serves Jewish interests. This agenda includes the defense of religious freedom, the promotion of school choice, and the preservation of the unbreakable alliance between America and Israel. Jewish conservatives should help lead these policy battles in every city, every state and every national debate.

• Finally, we should invest heavily in the future of Israeli conservatism. Israel is a patriotic people, devoted to family and children, with a sober understanding of why military power matters in the defense of human liberty. Yet Israel has never had a modern conservative movement, bringing together the core ideas of economic freedom, traditional values and national sovereignty into a coherent governing agenda. If there is going to be a new generation of Israeli conservative leaders—an Israeli Reagan or Thatcher—then we need to invest in the people, ideas and institutions that will form and embolden them.

So let me end exactly where I began: As we look around the world with Jewish eyes, there are many causes for concern. But I see a hopeful future: a renaissance of Jewish excellence in America, an Israel that endures and inspires, and a Hebraic renewal of the West that fulfills our deepest Jewish purpose. I hope that the project of Jewish conservatism has something important to contribute to this grand story. And I look forward to working, in the years ahead, to build a Jewish future that is worthy of our majestic Jewish past.

Eric Cohen is the Executive Director of the Tikvah Fund and co-chair of the Jewish Leadership Conference (JLC). This article is excerpted from Mr. Cohen’s opening and closing remarks at the JLC 2019 conference on “Jews and Conservatism,” held in New York on Sunday November 10.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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