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The Loneliness of a Liberal US Jew

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I have never thought of myself as an extremist. I have lived happily at the middle left of mainstream American politics, which is equivalent to the middle right of British politics – more Blair than Thatcher, but more Thatcher than Scargill.

I was a consultant for the Clinton administration and on the Al Gore campaign, and was proud of both affiliations. On the night of the 2000 presidential election, I held a party, a strange event during which we briefly celebrated Gore’s apparent victory, and then sorrowfully mourned his apparent defeat, and then stumbled to bed muddled and confused. I suffered through the ensuing month of pandemonium with many faltering hopes and anguished pray-ers, but finally accepted the inevitable.

I always thought that George W. Bush was a dangerous ideologue, though even I did not guess that he would build an administration of incompetent reactionaries. It was eerie going to Washington, DC, even in the pre-9/11 period, knowing that those buildings which had once been populated by my friends – even if they were friends whom I had never met – were now full of my enemies. But it was a private sadness that I felt.

Meanwhile, I watched with horror as Ariel Sharon became prime minister of Israel. I believed strongly in the state of Israel, in the rights of Jews to the homeland, but I had liked the gentle diplomacy of Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, and was distraught when the Clinton and Oslo peace plans failed to take. I cursed Yasser Arafat and his false statesmanship. I hated the Palestinian bombings and attacks in the resumed intifada, but I also hated the way Israel responded to them. I believe that the best piece of modern statecraft is the Marshall Plan, and that the way to deal with the Palestinians – even though their behaviour may not always “warrant” such generosity – is to build schools and hospitals and share the riches of the state.

Sharon’s wanton disregard for the feelings of Muslims, manifest early on with the opening, in 2000, of an ill-situated entrance to the tunnel at Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, was nauseating. His punitive, egotistical stance made me sick. But it was a private sickness that I felt.

Then suddenly the privacy disappeared. I am an American; I am a Jew. Out in the larger world, I am held accountable for the policies of Bush and Sharon. I now have to say to people that I am American but not one of those Americans, and that I am Jewish but not one of those Jews. It is an exercise in humiliation, being taken as representative of positions that I abhor. Most of my Jewish-American friends also abhor these positions.

The problem is that it is difficult to express dissent without seeming to capitulate to the virulent anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism that have become ever more fashionable in western Europe. When I disparage Bush, many leftists want me to acknowledge that he is no better than Osama Bin Laden – which I do not believe and will not say. I do not think that US-style democracy is the right answer for every country or that Iraq is a disaster; however, I believe the principles of American democracy are glorious and that the world could do worse than to follow the example of our constitution. I loathe the Patriot Act, but I consider myself a patriot, not for the foul administration, but for the beloved country itself. When I say that I regret the policies of Sharon, I am asked to champion the cause of the Palestinians, which I cannot in good faith do: they blow up innocent civilians.

I am also asked, cunningly, to acknowledge that Jews are no better than Nazis: that, like the abused child who grows up to be abusive, we have become the enemy we once fought. We have not. Why can one not criticise the vengefulness of current Israeli policy without dismissing the idea of Israel and becoming an anti-Zionist?

The matter is further complicated be-cause embarrassment over being American and Jewish as those terms are now understood is linked to snobberies of which I have been guilty: a sense that it would be somehow more aristocratic to be British, that it would be more elegant to be Episcopalian. In my formative years, I tried to de-emphasise my nationality and religion. I took a British passport and attended Mass every Christmas. My family was pretty assimilationist, and it was easy to carry that assimilation the extra mile.

It has been a hallmark of my maturity to lay claim to Americanness and Judaism. The problem is to locate an identity that is authentic, without assuming positions I do not fit. When I was growing up, my mother occasionally used to point to Jewish-looking people making scenes in New York or to boisterous Americans speaking too loudly in Paris, and would say, sotto voce: “Those are the people who give us a bad name.” How can I best be who I am, to myself and the world, while distancing myself from those who give us a bad name?

The loss of international public sympathy has been painful. It was wonderful to feel, after 9/11, that our pain touched the people of the world; it was a terrific comfort to witness the wreaths of flowers and the candlelit vigils all over Europe. A terrible loss has come with the shift in attitude since then.

It was equally great to feel, when the Clinton accords were rebuffed, that the Jews had the sympathy of the world. Loneliness makes individuals depressed. Yet it is possible also to be lonely as a country or as a population. The American liberal, the Jewish liberal, and the Jewish-American liberal above all, now face a rough course: isolated and defensive, touched with shame, and deeply sad.

Thank God that gay people are for the moment comfortably settled on the left, or I, a gay American Jew, would have lost out on every front in an age of identity politics.