By Ben Cohen/JNS.org
If anyone can be said to have discovered the formula for a world without evil, that accolade belongs to the great medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides. “For through cognition of the truth,” Maimonides wrote, “enmity and hatred are removed and the inflicting of harm by people on one another is abolished.”
The successful search for truth is a necessary condition for a world in which peace reigns. As the Book of Isaiah, cited by Maimonides, declares, “Open ye the gates, that the righteous nation which keepeth the truth may enter in.” The accent here on “keeping the truth” is significant; it suggests that truth is not something that we passively receive, but something that we strive for, and something that we hold dear in the face of competing claims based on falsehoods and misrepresentations.
At the same time, this vision is the polar opposite of the reality of politics—as it has actually been practiced during the last several centuries.
Politics revolves around conflict, competition and cooperation: over power, over resources, over territories, but ultimately, over how those whose destiny is to be ruled interpret the world around them. In that vein, history shows us that there have been periods of relative intellectual harmony, when certain basic truths about humanity are generally recognized, and periods—like now—of notable rancor, when the very assumptions that guide not just our thinking, but our values and identities, are dug up by the roots.
Some of you are no doubt urging me to get to the point, and quite a few of you have probably figured out that the trigger for these reflections is President Donald Trump’s pre-Super Bowl interview with Bill O’Reilly of Fox News Feb. 5. In the most widely quoted passage of their exchange, Trump reiterated his respect for Russian dictator President Vladimir Putin. “But he’s a killer,” O’Reilly cut in.
“There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?” Trump retorted.
In the wake of this comment, legions of pundits expressed horror that the sitting U.S. president, less than one month after an inauguration in which he pledged fealty to the Constitution, would compare this nation to Russia—America’s traditional foe, whose political system is designed to restrict, rather than expand, the freedom of the individual.
But there are many others who found Trump’s candor liberating. His remark can be interpreted as shattering the very same assumption that caused the objections to it: that American liberty is superior to Russian autocracy.
In a world in which our first, and perhaps our only, mission is to ourselves, a belief like this one is a relic of the past. So, in place of elite platitudes about the enduring importance of personal liberty, a free press and fair elections, Trump inserts a hefty dose of his own brand of realism: everyone does bad things, including Americans, and Americans therefore shouldn’t use their own standards to judge those with whom, like Putin, they seek to cooperate.
That is why, in my view, the White House will remain unmoved by protests based on the facts that Putin shoots and poisons his opponents both at home and abroad, that Russia is a mafia state, and that the Russian security apparatus—whose media constantly pushes conspiracy theories about American military operations—is likely responsible for one or two “false flag” terrorist outrages of its own.
Such indifference leads to a deeper fear: that rather than just negotiating with these adversaries, as all presidents have done, we will start adopting their habits and their ways of thinking.
Those who don’t instinctively recoil at such a prospect should consider what the world would look like now had America adopted such a stance in, for example, the 1970s, when the political climate—what with oil crises, recessions and terrorism—was arguably just as ripe for the kinds of populism we’ve seen emerge in America and Europe. Recall the great anxieties of the Jewish people back then: Would Israel have survived the Yom Kippur War? Would rays of light have opened for the Jews imprisoned in the Soviet Union? All these triumphs of survival might not have been possible had America been disengaged and morally detached. As for where it would leave us now, we’d probably be dealing with Putin in his capacity as the secretary-general of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Additionally, the American public might not have been such an authentic base of support for Israel had they been relentlessly told that U.S. allies are a drain on the country’s resources, and that America shares some of the features of a police state. Would successive decades of polling have shown that a comfortable majority of Americans share some sense of common purpose with the people of Israel? I’m not so sure, if only for the reason that when you look sullenly inward, it’s difficult to see anything benevolent on the outside.
None of that precludes having shared interests with other states, but shared interests are very different from the proposition that it is shared values—the bedrock of the U.S. relationship with Israel and other democracies—which stand between today’s America and a reworking of the catastrophes of the 20th century.
While we might therefore embrace some of the policy decisions of the Trump administration, such as its tougher line on Iran and its warmth toward Israel, we shouldn’t be under illusions about the worldview underlying it. You don’t need to be an ardent advocate of democracy promotion to recognize the corrosive effects of no longer distinguishing between democracies and tyrannies.
No society has wrestled more with the realization that the “purposes, desires, opinions, and beliefs”—in the words of Maimonides—of human beings frequently lead to evil outcomes than has the U.S. You might say that this awareness of imperfection is what makes Americans free and gives them moral purpose. It also teaches them—realists take note—that in an anarchic world, casually tossing aside your most precious values in full view of those who already disdain them is a sign of weakness, not strength.
Ben Cohen, senior editor of TheTower.org & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).