Young Jewish Man: “Is there a proper blessing for the Czar?”
Rabbi: “A blessing for the Czar? Of course! May God bless and keep the Czar… far away from us!”
Fiddler on the Roof
As Enoch Powell noted, “The supreme function of statesmanship is to provide against preventable evils.” This year’s dangerous imbroglio between Russia and the United States—a conflict I labeled “World War G” last August after reading yet another series in the New York Times denouncing Russia for putting an R-rating on gay propaganda—was eminently foreseeable. But few in America could see it coming because of the long clampdown on discussing the prejudices of the powerful.
There’s inevitable bad blood between Russians, for whom pro-czarism is the natural political inclination (for reasons of geography and history, Russia is a backward place, so its political traditions are backward), and American Jews, whose ancestral traditions are fervently anti-czarist.
Thus, Putin’s reconstruction of a functioning Russian state after the disasters of the 1990s was inevitably going to turn out to be more or less neo-czarist. In turn, a strong Russia predictably triggered anti-pogrom alarms among American Jews. Since there aren’t actual pogroms, much of Jewish animus and angst got displaced into its 21st century proxies: neoconservatism (as in the case of the State Department’s Victoria Nuland) and gay activism (Radio Liberty’s Masha Gessen).
Both Russians and American Jews have perfectly understandable reasons for feeling the way they do. Fortunately, this psychological disjunction needn’t lead to war or even to simple jingoism. After all, we live on different continents. Both sides ought to be able to recognize and laugh off their inevitable bigotry and malice.
The central cognitive problem for America, however, is that gentile Americans aren’t allowed to notice, much less laugh at, Jewish predilections, nor even mention the level of Jewish influence in the American media and government (e.g., Gregg Easterbrook and Rick Sanchez).
Fortunately, our mental crimestop defenses don’t get activated when trying to comprehend the traditional geopolitical paranoia that underlies Russia’s taste for autocracy.
Czarism, which is Russian for Caesarism, is not the default political system of humanity. The Roman Republic rose to dominance through a complex, evolving system of power sharing until Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul seemed to make imperial dictatorship advisable through sheer scale.
The Russians came relatively late to the concept of Caesarism, only espousing it after shaking off two centuries of the Tartar yoke of the Mongols. The oriental despotism introduced by the Mongols impressed the Russians, who converted it into czarist absolutism in which the Czar’s role was vindicated as the disinterested protector of the common people from grasping elites. The imperialist Ivan III, Grand Prince of Moscow, began to regularly call himself Czar late in the 15th Century as his conquests spread far beyond Muscovy.
The Russians have since felt that while they may not have all that much going for them in terms of access to the ocean or other geographical and economic advantages, they at least stick together and follow orders. As long as they don’t fragment, another Genghis Khan can’t conquer them.
Note that czarism is a recurrent tendency in Washington whenever things aren’t going well. At least since William Simon was appointed Energy Czar in the 1970s, Presidents have announced they were going to appoint a Czar of this or that with absolute authority to cut through the politics and get things done. (Obama was going to make Tom Daschle the Health Czar, while Bush kicked around the idea of having a War Czar.) Czarism is a pretty un-American and stupid idea, but if, with all our advantages, we’re suckers for it, you can grasp why the poor Russians are addicted to strongman rule.
As Russia expanded westward in the 18th century, it came to rule over the parts of Poland and Ukraine long inhabited by Jews, invited in by Polish nobles to replace the urban middle class that had been slaughtered by the Mongols. (In contrast to the Poles, the czars had long preferred Germans and Dutch as bearers of superior Western organizational techniques.) The czars manifested an unfriendly attitude toward Jews, whose economic status declined as their population expanded much faster than the number of white collar jobs.
The assassination of the reformist Czar Alexander II in 1881 led to anti-Semitic mob pogroms in Ukraine and Poland, which worsened in 1903-1905 with the Kishinev massacre in what’s now Moldova. This tragedy was made notorious in America by William Randolph Hearst following up his successes in Cuba.
The leading historian on pogroms, Steven J. Zipperstein of Stanford, has exposed several myths about the received view. A Harvard Gazette article on Zipperstein’s research notes:
… Kishinev consolidated the immediate belief — propagated within days around the world — that imperial Russia was waging a brutal campaign against its own Jews. From this came the eventual belief that “Jewry’s ill-starred collision with tsarism” spurred widespread Jewish migration at the turn of the 20th century, said Zipperstein….
Zipperstein admitted at a YIVO Institute lecture in February that some of “my deepest political beliefs are predicated on historical half-truths”:
...“But most of Russia was untouched by pogroms, especially the northern provinces from which the earliest and heaviest migrations poured. Like any other immigrants, although in far larger numbers, Jews ‘fled poverty or the military, or the paucity of opportunity,’” Zipperstein said….
Zipperstein has discovered that the most publicized document stating that the czarist government was behind the 1903 Kishinev pogrom, a letter purportedly from a Czarist minister ordering a soft hand with anti-Semitic rioters to keep them from turning against the government, was much like the subsequent Protocols of the Elders of Zion: a fake. Philip Weiss writes:
... The Plehve letter was a “smoking gun” that attained “the most unassailable” and “canonic” status in Jewish consciousness, Zipperstein said: it showed that the Russian government was in on the pogrom. And it was “all but certainly a forgery,” he said….
Still, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend:
... Nonetheless, Jews widely blame the czar for Kishinev. Zipperstein said this was “the most resonant of all lessons to learn from the massacre, namely that the government at the highest level was directly responsible for it all, that it was intent on wreaking havoc, perhaps little less than the annihilation of its Jews.” … Zipperstein said the belief in the czar’s role in the massacre became the “resilient glue” of liberal Jewish identity in the U.S…..
During the 1990s, American economists such as Larry Summers, Stanley Fischer, Andrei Shleifer, and Jeffrey Sachs advised the drunken Russian president Boris Yeltsin on how to have a modern economy. Russia wound up with seven hustlers—five or six of them, as Tiger Mother Amy Chua bravely pointed out in 2003, Jewish—owning practically everything worth owning.
Today, under the pro-Semitic Putin, Jews make up what’s approaching a fifth of Russia’s billionaires, but that’s less than in the 1990s, so it seems to the American media as if the Cossacks must be riding in like at the end of the first act of Fiddler on the Roof.
In America, where Jews make up one-third of the billionaires, it’s hard to argue that anti-Semitism is much of a problem anymore. Hence, one outlet for anti-anti-Semitic energies has been the gay movement.
Richard Grenier, the longtime movie reviewer for Commentary, was one of the first to call attention to this connection. After going to see Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and other AIDS plays in 1993, Grenier wrote:
… in a recent week of diligent theatergoing in New York, at the more commercially successful homosexual works, I got the impression that the audiences were something like 10 per cent homosexuals and 90 per cent heterosexual Jews—to all appearances well-to-do, liberal, husband-and-wife couples. We had some heterosexual Gentiles in the audiences, no doubt, but they appeared to be a distinct minority. During a preview of Angels in America, when one of the characters uttered an expletive in Yiddish, the house positively roared with laughter …
Many liberal Jews… have fully accepted the parallel between discrimination based on race or religion and discrimination based on “sexual orientation.” This parallel is reflected in the AIDS plays—indeed, it is more than reflected. To put it plainly, these plays are about Jews and Jewishness almost as much as they are about homosexuality.… The characters talk endlessly about Jews and homosexuality, homosexuality and Jews. The playwrights themselves find a correlation.
Am I not to notice this?
Not noticing is usually the most prudent policy in modern America. Then again, is it worth heedlessly bear-baiting our way into a war with Russia because we’re not supposed to notice?
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