It is often said that what is most unique about Western civilization derives from Athens and Jerusalem, the former city representing Greek philosophy and the latter Judeo-Christian values. This is somewhat simplistic, to be sure, and even more so, perhaps, is the concept of Judeo-Christianity.
And yet, the Athens-Jerusalem metaphor comprehends some important truths. Consider only the Jerusalem part. Well, it is difficult to imagine the West ending slavery without the moral universalism it got from the Jews and that Christians augmented via the astonishing, world-transforming figure of Jesus Christ. The radical idea that every human being has dignity, and therefore must be treated as such, did not exist in the harsh pagan world, which took slavery for granted. In general, religion served to widen the moral compass, so that it eventually became wrong to regard out-groups as nothing but objects to use, exploit, or plunder (although certainly people often fell far short of practicing this value). Most liberals today assume that liberal democracy is the only legitimate form of government. But this regime comes from Protestant Christianity, and accordingly, it is not necessarily feasible outside of the tradition that produced it.
I could give other examples in this vein, but what I now want to stress is that, uniquely valuable though it is, moral universalism is nonetheless a mixed good. This is glaringly evident from an article published on April 16 at The Federalist, “The Moral Case For Israel Annexing The West Bank—And Beyond.” In this atrocious work, Jason Hill, a pseudo-scholar of “cosmopolitanism,” “race theory,” and other trendy subjects at DePaul University, asserts that
Jewish exceptionalism and the exceptionalist nature of Jewish civilization require an unconditional space for the continued evolution of their civilization. What’s good for Jewish civilization is good for humanity at large. Jewish civilization is an international treasure trove that must be protected.
“America must also admit,” says Hill,
that it owes Israel political and financial reparations for America’s many decades of support of the PLO and the PA, which have pledged destruction to Israel, and have rejected all plausible peace offerings from Israel, preferring instead war and destruction.
This political and economic reparation would see the United States supplying Israel even more advanced military capabilities, and funding Israel’s military defense in any manner Israel deems necessary for its survival and unrivaled military status in the Middle East….
One wonders how the man’s poor students are able to get through his classes without whacking him with a fly swatter. From a political point of view, it’s obvious that “What’s good for Jewish civilization” is not necessarily “good for humanity at large,” because there is no “humanity at large” in a political sense, nor do nations ever have altogether the same interests. People are free to believe that “Jewish civilization require[s] an unconditional space for the continued evolution of their [i.e., Jewish] civilization,” but it’s absurd to claim that America should fund “Israel’s military defense in any manner Israel deems necessary.” Like Israel, America is a sovereign nation, and nothing could be more self-destructive than allowing a foreign nation to decide our foreign policy. If Israel wants to annex the West Bank, that is their business. Both the Israelis and the Palestinians have legitimate grievances concerning one another, but these peoples need to work things out on their own. America is not the world’s arbiter, and hasn’t the ability to be, either.
Also stupid and contemptible is Hill’s belief that the U.S. “owes Israel political and financial reparations.” We are already giving that nation $38 billion over the next ten years—that is, $10.41 million per day! For this extravagance we can thank an administration and Congress that cannot manage to build a wall at the Southern border, and that has betrayed the working-class people who voted for the shameless liar and moral coward that is Donald Trump, a man whose foreign policy is now indistinguishable from the standard neoconservative warmongering.
On April 11, The American Conservative published an important article entitled “America Just Declared War on Iran and Nobody Blinked.” Written by Scott Ritter, a former Marine Corps intelligence officer, it is worth quoting at length:
The impetus behind Trump’s decision [to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization] is clear—he wants to support Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu himself acknowledged as much in a tweet: “Thank you, my dear friend President Donald Trump, for deciding to declare the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization. Thank you for answering another one of my important requests, which serves the interests of our country and the countries of the region.”
The other request referred to by Netanyahu was the decision made in May 2018 to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement. Since that time, the U.S. has found itself increasingly isolated from the rest of the world, especially Europe, which has opted to remain a part of the agreement, which it notes that Iran continues to fully comply with. The decision to designate the IRGC as a terrorist group is viewed by many as a mechanism for increasing pressure on Iran by expanding the scope and scale of economic sanctions against entities doing business with the IRGC. The timing of the announcement is seen as an attempt to influence the outcome of elections in Israel, where Netanyahu is struggling in a bid for reelection….
[There] can be no doubt that the Trump administration understands that by designating the IRGC as a terrorist organization, it has placed the lives of thousands of American personnel still serving in the Middle East at risk. There are currently between 1,000 and 1,500 U.S. troops inside Syria, and they are surrounded by IRGC-affiliated forces and militias. And more than 5,000 U.S. troops are stationed inside Iraq, where the IRGC controls powerful Shiite militias as well as significant portions of the Iraqi military….
[If] the U.S. acts kinetically against the IRGC, Americans will die. That this policy has been implemented in support of the re-election campaign of an Israeli prime minister, in furtherance of an effort to undermine the Iranian nuclear deal that was likewise implemented at the behest of Benjamin Netanyahu, means these brave men and women will not have died in the service of their country. They will have perished as pawns of a policy conceived in Tel Aviv that places the political fortunes of a foreign politician above the lives of our heroes.
Notice the contrast between these words and Hill’s. Of course, that is only to be expected: Ritter has actually served in the military, while Hill is a typical baleful academic blockhead with no skin in the game. Surrounded by enemies, Netanyahu naturally wants to use the U.S. to realize Israeli interests. Seeing as Trump is so obliging, one understands why Israel’s prime minister continues to try to get all he can from America. Still, we don’t have the ability to solve all of Israel’s problems, and it’s not in our interest to try to do so.
This brings us to the issue of moral universalism. Once you believe a nation or people is “exceptional,” it is but a step (for imprudent minds) to the belief that you should do anything to advance its or their interests. Similarly, if liberal democracy is thought to be the best form of government for all peoples, then it seems to follow that you should compel all “deviant” nations to become liberal democracies. But such thinking is nothing but a wildly naive, abstract, mental game—nor will hard and messy reality be chopped down to size by human hubris. From the global refugee crisis to Islamic terrorism, there have been terrible consequences for our perpetual foreign interventions, and the last thing we need is to follow the Israelis and the Saudis into World War III.
According to a February Gallup Poll, “Americans’ stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is as strongly pro-Israel as at any time in Gallup’s three-decade trend. Sixty-four percent say their sympathies in the dispute lie more with the Israelis.” Seventy-four percent report a favorable opinion of Israel. And though such support is much greater among Republicans, majorities of Democrats and independents share their opinions.
I am not interested in what side one “should” support in the dispute. I want to offer an explanation of American Zionism, it being such a political liability. In the first place, we should recognize America’s radical Protestant history. For owing to it, there has been a strong Zionist element in our country from the beginning; and between Christianity’s tendency to assume unnecessary guilt and its belief that the Jews are “God’s chosen people,” it is no wonder that support for Israel is so high.
In my April 5 column, “White Liberals: Our Greatest Political Liability,” I noted that
The organization GenForward, of the University of Chicago, recently surveyed a number of people from ages 18 to 34. Of the four ethnic groups—whites, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians—whites had the lowest in-group bias. Asked their opinion about whites becoming a minority, projected to happen in about thirty years, 57 percent of white liberals said that that would be a strength for the country.
I also pointed out that “The American National Election Studies data, which include voters of all ages, show that of the four major ethnic groups, and three political categories (liberals, moderates, and conservatives), only white liberals lack a significant in-group bias.”
In order to account for these striking moral differences between white liberals and other groups, I argued that the identity-politics left should be understood as a kind of neo-Protestant Puritanism. The greater problem, though, is Christianity itself, for today American Catholics are just as prone to self-defeating guilt and blind pity as Protestants. As with white liberals, so with Christian and Republican Zionists. Christianity is founded on the pagan concept of substitutionary atonement. From the perspective of this rather irrational (but once extremely valuable) moral psychology, it is hardly surprising that simply because the Holocaust happened, many Christians seem to believe they are wrong (or sinful) if they do not support Israel no matter what. Needless to say, the Holocaust was a horrible tragedy, but foreign policy is not so simple as to make unconditional support for Israel (or any other nation, for that matter) desirable.
American Christians are to Israel as white liberals are to Black Lives Matter and illegal immigrants: If you do not always support or agree with the victim group, like all other “good people,” something must be wrong with you. Another apt analogy would be the “men” of our time in relation to feminist women: If you do not always comply with the latter’s demands, you are bad. Such examples demonstrate why moral universalism, as practiced by many, is a mixed good. The concept of original sin is specific to Christianity. Jews find it strange. Yet it helped to transform the moral character of the pagan world, and it would be impossible to convey how much mankind owes to it. But for all that, Christianity contained the seeds of its own destruction, its greater pity and tendency to unnecessary guilt being conducive to profound moral decadence and decay.
Behold, then, our difficult condition, and the unwillingness of many to see that the political domain needs to be understood on its own terms. Subordinating it to other considerations always creates a biased point of view, something that can be quite dangerous. It is a deadly serious problem here that this country is full of gullible Christians who believe that by giving Netanyahu whatever he wants, America is supporting “God’s chosen people” and doing what Christians must before “the rapture,” or some such nonsense. Common sense tells us that America should come first, and that our military should not perish as “pawns of a policy conceived in Tel Aviv that places the political fortunes of a foreign politician above the lives of our heroes.” And yet, a vast number of Christians are committed to “Jewish exceptionalism,” even though, as regards foreign policy in the Middle East, that commitment is about as useful as snake handling and speaking in tongues.