jimsleeper.com » A Neo-con Hanukah!

A Neo-con Hanukah!

By Jim Sleeper – December 12, 2009, TPM Cafe

David Brooks has taken all the fun out of Hanukah, which was already distorted by three generations of overweening parental and commercial effort to assuage American-Jewish kids’ loneliness at Christmas. But now Brooks, looking for both depth and political traction, makes an ironclad case for Hanukah as a celebration of… Oops! Ho Chi Minh!

He didn’t mean it that way. On the surface (as most readers have taken it), his rendering of the holiday is for adults, not kids, and it’s commendably complex. But it also reinforces Brooks’ and neo-conservatives’ gut, default position: Acts of war and terrorist savagery can be met only by savagery in ourselves. Is that true for Israel in Gaza, or America in Afghanistan? Brooks doesn’t say. He just gives us his religious history lesson.

Neo-conservatives love to mock progressive religious Jews who claim that the teachings of rabbinic and even kabbalistic (mystical, esoteric) Judaism support their understandings of justice and “social action.” But nothing is more hilarious than the neo-cons’ own efforts to conscript Judaism to their national-security state strategies for the American republic.

Jews who know anything about any of this have already suffered through opportunistic neoconservative renderings of the Hebrews’ astonishing journey through and against history, such as Elliott Abrams’ Faith or Fear, Norman Podhoretz’s The Prophets and his Why Are Jews Liberals?, and David Gelernter’s Americanism: The Fourth Great Religion (a manifesto for what he calls American Zionism) and, recently, his Judaism As a Way of Being.

But in his Times column Brooks,– crediting the idiomatically American but tribalistically Israeli revolver-journalist Jeffrey Goldberg — spins Jewish history like a dreidel to present a candid apologia for the fanatical, sometimes savage Jewish Maccabees, who revolted against the Greek empire and Hellenistic cultural influence but wound up bringing another western empire, the Roman, into Judea as their protector.

He never brings up Ho Chi Minh or the Vietnam War. Yet the column reads eerily like an account of the Viet Cong’s often-fanatical, brutal struggle against French and American dominance and its embrace of another western empire, the Communist, as an antidote. There are even parallels between some Maccabees’ conflicting, assimilationist attractions to the West and some Vietnamese’ attractions to French and Catholic as well as Marxist culture and history. (Ho Chi Minh was educated in Paris.)

Brooks means to analogize the Maccabees’ conflicted maneuverings to those of modern Israelis and Americans . But I doubt that he can point to a single element in his account of the Judah Maccabee and his followers that doesn’t also apply to Ho Chi Minh and his devotees.

He does acknowledge that Hanukah’s lessons are complicated, even self-contradictory. But his rendering of the history isn’t just complex, it’s sophistical, with an edge of desperation best explained some other time. Just read the column, substitute Vietnamese National Liberation Front for the Maccabees, and watch Brooks dance too-cleverly-by-half in a direction didn’t intend.

There are better ways to parse Judaism and Americanism than the neo-cons’. Try this one.