HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

December 17, 2007
Michael Mukasey And Jewish Conservatism

Dean Lawrence R. Velvel
VelvelOnNationalAffairs.com


I shall write relatively briefly today on a matter which touches a subject I’ve long, but perhaps wrongly, considered sensitive.  The sensitive subject is the turn of American Jews toward conservatism.  The matter relating to this is Michael Mukasey on waterboarding.

The overall subject has in recent years been sensitive, I’ve thought, because so many of the neocons who brought us the Iraq war were Jewish.  The men at the very top weren’t:  bush II, Cheney, Rumsfeld.  But several people just below, or with influence, were:  Wolfowitz, Feith, Abrams, Perle, William Kristol.  To bring up the American Jewish turn toward conservatism in such circumstances seemed to me likely to simply fan the ever present, if often banked , fires of anti-Semitism, fires which have certainly not been diminished by the leftish view that Israel is responsible for our problems.  Yet recently, when my views toward Mukasey began boiling over to the point that I have felt a need to do a radio show on the question of Jewish conservatism, and have begun reading materials on the subject in preparation, I found that there is a perhaps surprising amount of writing on the subject.  So maybe it is not as sensitive as I thought.  Or, if it is, people have decided to write about it regardless.

At present, I have not yet read widely enough to feel reasonably educated in the premises.  My views largely still stem from growing up in the home of Russian Jewish immigrants who had a strong belief in social justice and great sympathy for labor (even though a union was more than a little responsible for the destruction of my old man’s small business).  My folks, before I was born, had themselves been part of the laboring class for a reasonable period, my mother a milliner and my father a laundryman.  I grew up with certain values, obtained from them, from their friends, who had similar or identical backgrounds, from reading, and from the fact that people of their stripe invariably voted for the Democrats -- for FDR and Truman -- and favored what the New Deal was trying to accomplish.

It always seemed to me, quite wrongly and very naively I’m now sure, that several of the inculcated values were necessarily ones which stemmed from a Russian Jewish, semi socialistic background.  But in later years I came to believe that several of the values I hold dear are, to a very major extent, signposts as well of the Protestant rural America of the 1800s and well into the mid 20th century, of the working class of all racial and ethnic groups, of Scandinavian American Midwest culture, of much Asian American culture, and others.  I am speaking here of values such as hard work, modesty, honesty and a sense of fairness to others.  The only group, as it were, that one might think gravely lacking in such attributes is, sad to say, the group which controls America today:  the white collar class in business, the professions and government.

I am, of course, not praising or indicting every member of any of the aforementioned groups or others, but am speaking in broad generalities that I think cannot be readily dismissed as obviously incorrect.

Which brings me to Michael Mukasey.  Mukasey is Jewish -- he even went to an Orthodox Jewish (if possibly modern) prep school.  He belongs to a people that often has been viciously persecuted for 1,500 or 2,000 years.  They have been slaughtered, tortured and dispossessed, time and time again.  Long before Hitler there was the Spanish Inquisition -- which used waterboarding (and may even have invented it).  Coming from this background, and growing up in a period (the 1940s and 1950s) when the human (and hum ane) attitudes of the general Jewish community favored social justice (as indicated by overwhelming support for FDR and Truman), Michael Mukasey nevertheless does not know if waterboarding is torture?  The son of a bitch cannot bring himself to say that a technique used in a Spanish war against his own people, a technique considered torture for 500 years, is torture?  I imagine it must be my background, as described earlier, but I just cannot understand how someone who comes out of Mukasey’s background can say what he has been saying.  I can understand it when some crumb from the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page tells me in emails that we are not doing torture, or when a lying bum like George Bush claims it.  But a Jewish guy who even went to a Jewish religious school? --  he claims it is possible that waterboarding is not torture?  This is just too much for my poor mind to grasp.  I cannot grasp it even if one were to say Mukasey has acted out of ambition to become Attorney General.  It seems to me like a desertion of the most basic human values that a Jewish guy from New York City, and from a religious prep school no less, must have been exposed to all the time.

And it brings up the broader question I adverted to earlier, the question I am in process of reading about.  How is it, and why is it, that so many Jews have become so conservative?  What are all the reasons?  And this implicates another, conceivably even broader question.  How is it and why is it that so many American of all creeds, faiths and types -- Americans, for God’s sake -- have come to accept torture as just one of those things?

Maybe, though, I am to some extent focusing through the wrong end of the telescope.  Maybe the focus should be on the fact that so many Americans of all faiths, creeds and types never accepted torture, and an increasing number of them seem to be rejecting torture as time moves on.  Yet, if that is true, it only causes me to wonder the more about a guy like Mukasey and about the wing of conservative, even neocon, Jews whom he may represent.


This posting represents the personal views of Lawrence R. Velvel.  If you wish to respond to this email/blog, please email your response to me at velvel@mslaw.edu.  Your response may be posted on the blog if you have no objection; please tell me if you do object.


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