Why I am a Jewish Conservative

[Editor's note: The following is the text of an address given yesterday by AT political director Richard Baehr to Congregation Rodfei Zedek in the Hyde Park district of Chicago, and a group of visiting students from Harding University, a Christian college in Searcy, Arkansas.]

Shabbat shalom, welcome and good morning.  I would like to thank Rabbi Gertel for the invitation to speak this morning.  With this invitation and another one from Sherry Glick to speak to Rodfei Zedek's Sisterhood in April , the shul  [synagogue - ed.] has now pulled ahead of Anshe Shalom into second place in my shul speaker invitation standings, behind only Beth El of Highland Park. However, Rodfei now leads all other shuls in the all important Shabbat Sermon category, as this is the second time I have been honored to give such a talk. 

I would also like to welcome our many guests from Arkansas.  Before moving to the Chicago area in 1982, my family lived in Atlanta, where I ran a regional office for a national health care consulting firm. Part of my territory was Arkansas and I worked with hospitals in Jonesboro, Little Rock and Pine Bluff. My best visits to the state were two occasions in which I was invited to speak at the annual hospital association meeting, which  was followed by a float trip on the Buffalo River, a very idyllic place. I also got to meet Lou Holtz, then the coach of the Razorbacks, which made him the most important person in Arkansas at the time, especially after an 11-1 season, and a victory over Oklahoma in the 1977 Orange Bowl.   Arkansas, for those who have never visited, is under-rated. Just don't think about Bill and Hillary before you go. 

Which brings me to the topic of today's sermon: Why I am a Jewish conservative.  When Rabbi Gertel approached me to give such a talk, I wanted to make sure he did not mean for me to talk on why I am a conservative Jew. That talk would have been shorter.  Orthodox is a bit too heavy, reform services too much like attending meetings of the Democratic National Committee,  so conservative is closest for me to being just right. Amen. But that is not the topic for today, so I will go on.

I am a Jewish conservative and I will try to explain what that means, and why that perspective or orientation makes sense to me, and why I think it should to others. There are many kinds of conservatives.  There are small government conservatives, who believe that an economy works better when more of it is in the hands of private rather than public enterprise. I consider myself a small government conservative. Small government conservatives believe that lower tax rates on employment and capital spur an economy and promote work and entrepreneurship. The alternative is the nanny state-where government seeks to control and provide more services, and tax rates are far  higher to support this.  In Europe, the fastest growing economies are all the low tax model countries, many of them in Eastern Europe, countries which have had their fill of collectivism, and state control. The slow growing economies, with high unemployment and little new job creation, are in Western Europe, following the high tax, social welfare model. The new leaders in Germany and France are finding out how difficult it is to combat an entrenched culture and laws developed over 50 years that penalize work and job creation even though this model has produced sustained high unemployment levels and slow growth for decades.

The European system has also affected immigrant absorption.  Compare the integration over time of immigrants to this country with those who have arrived in Western Europe. In European cities, we see immigrants without jobs, supported by the welfare state, remaining outsiders, and growing increasingly alienated from their societies. Alternatively, those who come to America to work, almost always find it, and over time, are integrated into American society.

The two countries in the world which have had the greatest track record  in terms of integrating immigrants into their societies are America and Israel, which should for all of us be a source of pride.  The starkest contrast between the relatively free market, lower tax rate American economy, and those of Western Europe is reflected in the flow of people, and population levels. Since 1950, the US population has doubled from150 to 300 million people, with substantially higher real wage and income levels achieved over that half century. In Europe, the population of the largest countries has barely budged the last 30 years, and in many countries, the population is now declining, as birth rates approach one per woman of child bearing age, barely half the American birth rate. In Russia, the trend has gone the furthest; on average, there are 3 births and 4 deaths every minute. That is a dying country.

And of course immigrants are not flocking to Russia either. The average life expectancy for men in Russia has dropped below 60 -- 20 years below the American male life expectancy.  For years, some delusional Americans were advocates of the superiority of the Soviet system, and many of them still occupy chairs in our prestige academic institutions.

Even within our own country, we see the dynamic I have just described at work. The fastest growing states in terms of population growth, economic growth rates, and job growth are, for the most part, states with lower tax rates, and fewer regulations on business. New York State, Pennsylvania, most of the Midwest, New England, Louisiana, West Virginia are all stagnant in terms of population, and slow growing economically. The Sunbelt and the mountain west are growing rapidly.

In my opinion, the big government European model has produced a continent with many selfish people -- the ultimate me generation, choosing to enjoy the fruits of their society, but not pass them on to a new generation.  Families with no children are now a very common thing in Europe. Who can forget a few summers back, when ten thousand elderly French people died in their un-airconditioned apartments in a sweltering month of August while their children, not caring to be bothered, remained on vacation.

One criticism that I often hear is that the United States does not give  as much aid to poorer countries as a percentage of GDP, as many countries in Europe, so we are the selfish ones.  That is nonsense. In Europe, almost all foreign aid or aid to the poor is government aid. There is very little private charity. As with so much else,  people in Western Europe assume the government will do it for them.  In the US, most of the aid and philanthropy is from individual charity, not from the government, and the combination of public and private charity from the United State dwarfs that of any other country in the world on a total or per capita basis. 

We are the most generous people in the world, in part because we live in a society that values individual effort, and achievement, and we have more of our money left over after paying the tax man to make choices about how to use it. We don't delegate all philanthropic decisions to government. The American model, the smaller government model, expands personal freedom, and choice.   Of course we have some Americans, liberals for the most part, who would prefer that our society more closely resemble those of Western Europe. They would trade growth and opportunity for a greater measure of security. I would not make that trade. 

Which brings me to another branch of conservatism: social conservatism. The debate over social issues in this country is heated --  not only between liberals and conservatives but even among individuals of the same faith. Orthodox Jews and reform Jews, for instance,  do not agree on abortion policy. Abortion is always the central issue behind debates over Supreme Court nominees. But the conservative argument over abortion is not strictly one of its legality, but how the right to abortion was established.  Prior to Roe v Wade, several states had adopted legalized abortion policies for their residents through legislation.  Roe v Wade made abortion a national right, relying on dubious links to a constitutional right to privacy, and utterly bypassing the legislative process. Going even further, the Justices produced a trimester delineation over when abortion was protected and when not. Regardless of one's feelings about whether abortion  should be legal, I believe that had abortion rights grown in the United States through acts of state legislatures, or even Congress, the issue would be far less contentious today. A conservative principle, judicial restraint, recommends that we leave for legislatures the job that is theirs: creating new laws.

As to the substance of the debate over social issues, while I do not include myself in the class of social conservatives on all issues, I have great admiration and sympathy for those who support a culture of life. In our own congregation, we have Dr. Leon Kass, , who has shown great sensitivity on issues of life and death in his role as an advisor to the Bush Administration on the issue of stem cell research and in his writing on these and related subjects.  Choice on abortion is not the same as choice in selecting a toothpaste brand.

Just to show you that I am not avoiding sensitive subjects, let me spend a minute on the abortion issue. When the Supreme Court decided Roe v Wade and then affirmed it in the Casey decision, they established that in the first two trimesters of a woman's pregnancy, abortion was legal.  In the third trimester, it could only be performed if the mother's life and health were at risk. In 1973, fetal viability before six months of pregnancy was pretty much unheard of. Today it is not. Premature infants are kept alive who have been delivered after but 20 weeks of pregnancy.

I find it impossible to rationalize how our society can permit abortion on demand after a time when fetal viability has been established by modern medical technology. At that point in the pregnancy cycle, if not earlier, we have to think very carefully about what choice means.  Evidence of the kind of thinking that disturbs me in this debate was a conversation between a reporter and California's very liberal Senator Barbara Boxer at a time when the Senate was debating restrictions on a procedure known as partial birth abortion.  The reporter asked Boxer what she believed were a woman's  rights if a partial birth abortion went bad -- in the sense, that the fetus was delivered alive. Just describing this event in this way is pretty disturbing. Boxer, who may be a hero to some in this room, responded that she believed  the woman retained her right to choose. 

To choose what pray tell?  To club the newborn to death? 

Finally, I am a conservative because of foreign policy -- in particular American national security and support for Israel. For me this issue trumps all the others. In fact, I am not just a conservative, but a neoconservative. Which means that I personally was the one who brought you the Iraq war. Funny, right? Actually, not. For Israel's enemies in the United States, on the right, and even more so on the left,  make precisely that charge: that supporters of Israel in America led us to war against Iraq in service to Israel's Likud Party.  And capitalizing on that charge at a time when the Iraq war is unpopular, these critics are now arguing that America risks being led into another war, taking  action against Iran's nuclear program at the behest of these same pro-Israel advocates. Some of those who make these charges claim that they are the real conservatives, and that the neocons are inauthentic conservatives (hence neo), since many were once on the left. One wonders howthis brand of conservatives hope to win a governing majority when they reject those who switch to their side on most other arguments.  These Israel critics on the right are known by some as paleoconservatives. In their ranks are folks like Pat Buchanan and Robert Novak. But the fiercest attacks on the neocons have come from the left.  

The very term neoconservative has become to a certain extent a slander, when uttered by a cable TV talk show host such as Chris Mathews or  a writer like  Michael Lind. For many left wing critics of the Iraq war,  the term is used as virtually synonymous with Jews, and in particular, with the group of Jews who they believe encouraged or supported the Bush Administration in going to war in Iraq. Among the names often associated with the necoons are: Charles Krauthammer, Joshua Muravchik, Bill Kristol and his father Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz and his son John Podhoretz, Douglas Feith,  Paul Wolfowitz, Elliot Abrams, and Richard Perle. These individuals I just named are all Jewish.

There are non-Jewish neocons: Jeanne Kirkpatrick, John Bolton, and William Bennett, among them.  Those who blame the neocons for the Iraq war generally exclude the non-Jewish members since a core part of their argument is that the American neocons were all doing Israel's bidding, and it is more convenient to blame Jews for this. The charge I think is preposterous. The idea that President Bush, Vice President  Cheney, Don Rusmfeld, Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell are shrinking violets who needed a push from a group of neocons, some in government, some political writers outside of government, to decide to go to war, strains credulity. And of course none of the Administration figures have ever suggested that they needed any push from anybody else to take action in Iraq.

What is disturbing I think is that so many American Jews have been completely oblivious to the rank anti-Semitic undercurrent in the charge and the danger to American support for Israel that is tied to the effort to associate the neocons, meaning the Jews and Israel, with the Iraq war. The effort by anti-Iraq war critics on the left to tag Israel and its supposed agents (the neocons) with causing the war, has picked up steam recently with the publication of a new book by Professors John Mearsheimer  and Stephen Walt called The Israel Lobby. It was also seen in the vicious attacks on Senator Joe Lieberman last year when he ran for re-election and was rejected by his own party in the Democratic primary.

For the record, the formation of the neocon movement long preceded any talk about Iraq. Many neocons were supporters of Senator Henry Jackson of Washington when he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976, as I was. Jackson was known as a cold war warrior. He believed America needed to enhance its military strength and remain resolute in dealing with Russia, and challenge their aggression in various spots around the world. Jackson believed the Soviet system would eventually collapse, and the people of Eastern Europe would at some point know the freedoms of those in the West.  The events of 1989-91, years after Jackson's death proved his vision on this was the correct one. Jackson was also the strongest supporter of Israel in the US Senate, seeing that nation as a moral beacon in the region, and a steadfast cold war ally. 

Jackson was defeated for the nomination by Jimmy Carter, who was then elected president. And the Democratic Party continued its turn to the left, a process that began with the nomination of George McGovern in 1972. Many neocons, Democrats to that point, switched parties in 1980 and supported Ronald Reagan who believed in Jackson's approach to conducting the Cold War.  They and Reagan were committed to expanding the arc of freedom worldwide. Except for most parts of the Muslim world, that arc of freedom has been expanding -- not only in Eastern Europe, but in much of Latin America, and Asia, and parts of Africa.

Today we have a conflict that some neocons have called World War 4.  This war, like the Cold War, which by this logic must have been World War 3, is not a single battle on a single front, but one that may last decades. The Cold War lasted almost five decades. The neocons believe, as I do, that Israel is a front in the West's war with a global jihad. That jihadist threat comes from  Shiite Iran, on the verge of becoming a nuclear power, and from Sunni Al Qaeda and its financiers and proselytizers, who are either members of the Muslim Brotherhood, or wahhabists miseducated by Saudi Arabia.

Today this country faces serious challenges in Iraq and the Middle East, in dealing with Iran's nuclear program and its destabilizing effort in Lebanon, in battling the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, in keeping Pakistan, a nuclear power,  from collapsing and falling to Al Qaeda and the radical Islamists, with North Korea and their nuclear and missile programs , and even in our own hemisphere from Venezuela. It is certainly not a time to pull in our horns, and make believe the world would be a better place if we just left it alone.

Whatever one's views on the wisdom of the Iraq invasion, at this point, the debate needs to be on policy going forward. The neocon view is that the Middle East region will become far more dangerous for the US and its allies, including Israel, if it is perceived that we are withdrawing from Iraq before our job is done, hanging our heads in defeat. Our enemies in the current struggle and Israel's enemies keep probing to find weakness, to see if our side can deal with pain and fight on.  This country has a history of doing just that: of getting off the canvas and taking the fight to our enemies. 

In the case of Israel, the risks of inaction are higher. 40 % of the world's Jewish population is in Israel, and Iran is continually calling for the destruction of the Jewish state.  Of all the world's people, we Jews should know to take threats of annihilation seriously. The Jewish population worldwide is today 4 million below the level in 1939.  Could a second holocaust, this time perpetrated against Israel, be the final blow for our people? Would we have the strength to go on in a diaspora already reeling from a 50% intermarriage rate and a low birthrate?

It seems obvious to me that the Jewish future is in Israel, and the protection of  Israel has to be a primary concern of American Jews. I am a conservative at this moment, because I sense greater understanding of Israel's peril among conservative Jews than among liberal Jews, who sometimes seem embarrassed by Israel, and think it is Israel that has been the principal obstacle to achieving peace with the Palestinians and it neighbors.  A serious study of the history proves conclusively that this is not the case.

Israel needs to be high or at the top of our agenda, not way down the list after the minimum wage, stem cell research, no child left behind and Al Gore's new movie. So yes, I favor a foreign policy that does not shy away from action. And the brand of conservatism I have described here, I believe offers our best hope to expand our freedoms and continue our economic progress  at home, and to protect our freedom and Israel's from threats from abroad. And with that, I thank you, and say Amen. 
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