By Dan Fleshler | November 19, 2008
After years of shamelessly pretending to know what Reinhold Niebuhr wrote and thought when his name came up in conversation, I have taken the trouble to start reading him for the first time. There are two reasons. One is that our President-elect has indicated that Niebuhr has had a profound effect on his thinking.
Andrew J. Bacevich noted in the Boston Globe, “Faced with difficult problems, conservative evangelicals ask: What would Jesus do? We are now entering an era in which the occupant of the Oval Office will consider a different question: What would Reinhold do?
“…Obama has written that he took from reading Niebuhr `the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world’ along with the conviction that evil’s persistence should not be `an excuse for cynicism and inaction.’ Yet Niebuhr also taught him that `we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things.’ As a point of departure for reformulating US foreign policy, we could do a lot worse.”
But there is another aspect of Niebuhr’s thought that has not gotten any attention of late. During World War II and afterwards, he was an unapologetic Zionist. That is the second reason why I have started to read him. We live in a time when the entire Zionist enterprise is being reduced by its detractors to a murderous, western colonialism whose main goal was to steal land, rather than to help a people survive. So it is instructive to remember that, during and soon after the Nazi reign of terror, at least some Christians of good conscience believed the Jews needed a homeland in Palestine.
Niebuhr was a man who constantly balanced a passion for justice with an understanding of the power and prevalence of original sin, which limited the ability of individuals and societies to right wrongs. In summing up his life and thought, he wrote “I might define this conviction (that a realist conception of human nature should be made the servant of an ethic of progressive justice] as the guiding principle throughout my mature life of the relation of religious responsibility to political affairs.”
Niebuhr’s essay, “Jews After the War,” (Feb. 21, 1941, in The Nation) was all about justice:
The problem of what is to become of the Jews in the postwar world ought to engage all of us, not only because a suffering people has a claim upon our compassion but because the very quality of our civilization is involved in a solution. It is a scandal that the Jews have had so little effective aid from the rest of us in a situation in which they are the chief victims. [DF here: This is 1941, remember, years before the enormity of the Nazis’ crimes was clear.] The Nazis intended to decimate the Poles and to reduce other people to the state of helots, but they are bent on the extermination of the Jews.
It is a complicated, nuanced essay and, like all of his work, can’t be summed up easily. Briefly, his solution was to make it possible for the Jews to have a homeland while ALSO insisting that the civil rights and liberties of Jews in other countries be protected. Was there a concern about the Arabs of Palestine? Yes, up to a point. He noted that the Zionists were “unrealistic in expecting that their demands entailed no `injustice’ to the Arab population… It is absurd to expect any people to regard the restriction of their sovereignty over a traditional possession as `just…’ What is required is a policy that offers a just solution to an intricate problem faced by a whole civilization.” He hoped that the aspirations and needs of Arabs after the war could be addressed in a confederation of new and existing Arab states.
So there was a typical lack of understanding of Palestinian nationalism and, I infer, probably too much faith in the moral grounding of Ben Gurion and the other Zionist leaders. But at a time when liberals (including liberal Protestants) and “progressives” refused to press for an opening of the gates so that Jewish refugees could be rescued, what Niebuhr wanted was the best solution possible in a morally corroded, sinful world.
I wish all of the people who are so quick to dismiss the Zionists as nothing but racist, ethnic cleansers, and to heap disdain on non-Jewish supporters of the Jewish state in the ’40s as blinkered Orientalists, would read that essay. You can find some it excerpted in Google Books as part of an anthology called Love and Justice (great title!).
In particular, I wish my friend and former classmate Philip Weiss, who brings an admirable moral fervor to his rage at the Israelis and their American Jewish supporters, and who has nothing good to say about Jewish nationalism of any kind, would read it. Among other things, it lambastes the “universalists” of Neibuhr’s time who refused to accept the value of any ethnic distinctions and believed, even in the midst of World War II, that the solution to the Jews’ problems was to fight discrimination against them and foster their assimilation (Last I heard, Phil was working on a book called The Assimilationist).
But now the question is, what would Reinhold have done about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2009, and what should his admirer in the White House do?
There are many Niebuhr scholars and admirers out there who are a thousand times more qualified than me to speculate. But I believe it is safe to say that he would have been appalled by the consequences of the Israeli occupation that commenced in 1967, at the treatment of Palestinians at checkpoints, at the refusal or inability of Israel’s political system to stand up to the settlers who have made most –although not all–of those checkpoints necessary. He also would have been appalled by Palestinian terrorism, the incitement against Jews in the Palestinian media, the election of Hamas and other mistakes made by Israel’s neighbors. But since it was a passion for justice that energized him, I believe his primary interest would have been to address the terrible problems of the Palestinian people, just as he was once interested in solving the terrible problems of a ravaged, dispersed Jewish people.
It is also true, as Basevich points out, that “Niebuhr specialized in precise distinctions. He supported US intervention in World War II – and condemned the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended that war. After 1945, Niebuhr believed it just and necessary to contain the Soviet Union. Yet he forcefully opposed US intervention in Vietnam.”
In other words, he was…a realistic dove. A passionate moderate. I choose to believe that he would have seen that the only rational, and moral way out of the Israeli-Palestinian nightmare was a two-state solution. And, just as he called for governmental activism on a host of issues –including the civil rights of black Americans–, surely Niebuhr would have called upon the Obama Administration to DO SOMETHING about the Israeli-Palestinian question, even though he might have been skeptical of its ability to succeed. The establishment of a Jewish state was a bold idea when he endorsed it. But there were times when he insisted upon boldness that was tempered with realism.
That’s what we need from Obama. The boldness needed to stand up to the conventional Israel lobby and press both sides, rather than just one side, to make difficult compromises. The realism needed to understand that scores of Middle East peace plans and proposals have been consigned to the graveyard for more than a hundred years. And the passion for justice that will persuade him to ignore all of those failures, and try his best.