The Ilya Somin Conspiracy

Ilya Somin’s blog at the Volokh Conspiracy, “Confusing Overrepresentation with Domination” raises some interesting issues that are at the heart of my work. His purpose is to claim that Jews may be overrepresented in various movements, such as neoconservatism, without Jews dominating these movements. He also claims that Jews involved in various movements do not differ from non-Jews involved in these movements, so that the idea that Jews involved in these movements are pursuing Jewish interests is a non-starter. For example:

In the 1920s, Jews were indeed overrepresented (relative to their percentage of the general population) among both Bolshevik leaders and international capitalists [in Weimar Germany]. At the same time, non-Jews still greatly outnumbered Jews in both groups. A closely related fallacy was the assumption that overrepresentation in a field proved that the Jews involved in it were using it to promote some specifically Jewish interest. In reality, Jewish capitalists tended to behave much like gentile ones, focusing primarily on maximizing their profits. Jewish communists such as Leon Trotsky were brutal totalitarians. But their gentile counterparts, such as Lenin and Stalin, were much the same. There was no real evidence that either Jewish capitalists or Jewish communists were promoting specifically Jewish interests in any systematic way. Indeed, Jewish communists in the USSR actually supported the regime’s suppression of Jewish culture and religion.

I don’t dispute this argument when it comes to capitalists, although there is good evidence that the political attitudes of Jewish capitalists were not interchangeable with non-Jewish capitalists — the  latter more inclined to liberal internationalism than their non-Jewish counterparts. But when it comes to leftist politics, one must deal with the data in Chapter 3 of The Culture of Critique — that Jewish Bolsheviks retained a Jewish identity and saw Communism as good for Jews — as indeed it was. As Yuri Slezkine exhaustively describes, Jews became an elite in the USSR, their influence declining only after WWII. As I concluded in CofC, “Clearly, Jews perceived communism as good for Jews: It was a movement that did not threaten Jewish group continuity, and it held the promise of power and influence for Jews and the end of state-sponsored anti-Semitism.”

Responding to Somin’s point about the suppression of Jewish culture and religion, I also show that Jewish communist activists produced a secular Jewish culture within the communist system, concluding:

Despite their complete lack of identification with Judaism as a religion and despite their battles against some of the more salient signs of Jewish group separatism, membership in the Soviet Communist Party by these Jewish activists was not incompatible with developing mechanisms designed to ensure Jewish group continuity as a secular entity. In the event, apart from the offspring of interethnic marriages, very few Jews lost their Jewish identity during the entire Soviet era (Gitelman 1991, 5), and the post–World War II years saw a powerful strengthening of Jewish culture and Zionism in the Soviet Union.

Somin goes on to dispute the importance of Jewish identity in the neoconservative movement (Mearsheimer and Walt to the contrary) and the recent financial crisis. Again, I don’t  want to dispute this with respect to the financial crisis because I have not seen a good article showing differences between Jews and non-Jews in the financial industry. (On the other hand, there is evidence, soon to be presented in TOO, that Bernie Madoff’s scheme likely could not have happened apart from his Jewish connections.)

But in the case of neocons, it’s simply not enough to claim “that the views of Jewish neoconservatives differ little from those of gentile ones, that neocon hawkishness on the Arab-Israeli conflict is just one facet of their hawkishness on other foreign policy issues unrelated to Israel (and therefore not likely to be a specifically Jewish agenda), and that the overrepresentation of Jews among neocons is similar to that in many other intellectual movements (including plenty that were opposed to neoconservatism on most issues).”

I agree that non-Jewish neocons typically hold the same views as Jewish neocons (otherwise they wouldn’t be neocons!). The question is whether Jewish and non-Jewish neocons have different motivations, and there is overwhelming evidence that they do. In my article on neocons, it quite clear that Jewish neocons typically have close family connections to Israel (e.g., Douglas Feith’s father was a member of a Jabotinskyist terrorist group), are involved with Israeli think tanks, and are on personal terms with Israeli political and military leaders. Many have ties with Jewish activist organizations such as the Zionist Organization of America. Several have been credibly charged with spying on behalf of Israel (Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Stephen Bryen, Douglas Feith, and Michael Ledeen). When not working in the government, they often work for overtly pro-Israel organizations such as the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. It’s simply not credible that their Jewish identity is not a critical factor in explaining their behavior.

I also try to fathom the motives of non-Jews involved in neoconservatism, noting “Because neoconservative Jews constitute a tiny percentage of the electorate, they need to make alliances with non-Jews whose perceived interests dovetail with theirs. Non-Jews have a variety of reasons for being associated with Jewish interests, including career advancement, close personal relationships or admiration for individual Jews, and deeply held personal convictions.” But whatever these motives are, they are not the same as the motives of the Jewish neocons.

It’s also true that Jewish neocons are generally hawkish, but this certainly doesn’t imply that their attitudes about anything affecting Israel are not affected by their Jewish identifications. Again, neocons have to make alliances with non-Jews; one  way to do this is to adopt a generally aggressive foreign policy stance that appeals to non-Jewish foreign policy hawks. Further, hawkish Jewish interests extend beyond directly aiding Israel. For example, the role of neocon Jews in the Cold War fit well not only Jewish interests in weaking an ally of the Arabs, but also with improving the status of Jews in the USSR.

And finally, it doesn’t follow from the fact that Jewish neocons are motivated by their attachment to Israel that Jews who are opposed to neoconservatism are not motivated by their own conception of Jewish interests. In the same way, before the establishment of Israel there was real debate within the Jewish community over whether Zionism was a good idea. The point is that both factions in the debate viewed their perspective as better for Jews. Right now we have the conflict between AIPAC and J Street. (Granted, the conflict may be more apparent than real). But in any case, both sides see their perspective as good for Jews.  Even Mearsheimer and Walt argue that their approach to Israel policy is good for the Jews. But M&W are surely correct in seeing Jewish neocons as motivated by their perception of Jewish interests.

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