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We are all Jews By: James Woolsey
Jerusalem Post | Friday, October 03, 2003


I sometimes get asked these days if I’m Jewish — it’s my neoconish views on defense and foreign affairs, I suppose. For a while I would just say, "No, Presbyterian,‘ but I’ve started saying instead, ’Well, I anchor the Presbyterian wing of JINSA (the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs)."

What with anti-Semitism growing in Europe and a hideous variety thereof metastasizing in the Middle East — not to speak of the American Left’s (and a small part of the Right’s) hostility to Israel, which sometimes veers off into anti-Semitism — it seems to me our Jewish friends could use a bit of solidarity these days. Today, the first day of Rosh Hashana, celebration of the Jewish New Year, is as good a time as any to explain why.

It’s not only the other two great Abrahamic religions, Christianity and Islam, that owe a substantial debt to Judaism, it’s the world as a whole. The reason is that between three and four millennia ago something happened in the Sinai among a tribe of refugees from Egyptian oppression that introduced the world to the concept of the rule of law — the idea that the law is not the whim of, but rather has its source above, those who rule.

This concept is at the heart of what makes decently-governed societies possible, whether you sign on to Jefferson’s formulation that we are "endowed by our Creator" with basic rights or prefer the more secular notion of natural law.

In the absence of one or the other of these bases for the notion that the rule of law somehow derives from a source above the rulers, electoral democracy can degenerate into mob rule and capitalism into theft. This supremacy of the law is what most Americans mean when they say that we have a "government of laws, not men."

Some aspects of this have gotten a bit muddled recently in the largely academic debate about whether the United States is or is not an "empire.‘ If the US is an empire it’s a very odd one: Countries where it has troops such as Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Germany suggest they are unhappy about that and the response is, ’OK," and an offer to leave.

Nero and Napoleon would have been appalled. They would also have had a hard time understanding the travails of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. One was driven from office by the people’s elected representatives for permitting a cover-up of a clumsy political burglary. The other was impeached by the House, then acquitted in a Senate trial, for lying under oath in a deposition taken in what was essentially a sexual harassment case brought by a private citizen.

What, you may well ask, are the most powerful individuals in the world doing, if they are emperors, getting held to account by members of Congress for burglary cover-ups and by private citizens, no less, for sexual behavior?

The answer is, of course, that neither Nixon nor Clinton, indeed no American president, is even close to being an emperor. People (and smaller nations wherein an empire maintains troops) obey emperors, if they know what’s good for them, without much discussion. These two recent presidents were, instead, held to account in a distinctly non-imperial way — in pretty much the same way Elijah humbled Ahab for allowing his queen, Jezebel, to frame and execute Naboth and steal his vineyard, and in the way the prophet Nathan confronted David over his taking Bathsheba and ordering her husband, Uriah, to the front lines and certain death.

The US does not look back to Rome or France at the height of their power in determining the way to deal with those who today govern the most powerful nation in history. Thankfully, in regard to the powerful being subjected to the rule of law we are, instead, all Jews.

I’VE MAINLY been in synagogues for the bar mitzvas and bat mitzvas of friends’ children. The next time you are, notice what the object of veneration is — it is the Torah, the law itself. At a point in the service it is carried, lovingly, around the congregation, greeted as an old friend. I am convinced that it is this veneration of the law — with its status above the ruler — that is at the heart of anti-Semitism.

Jews have almost always been the first target of tyrants, because their beliefs and religious practices, honed by nearly two millennia in Diaspora, clearly declare that in their view the law is above the ruler: dietary laws, the dress of the Orthodox, a propensity to contend about what is a fair interpretation of rules, all stamp Jews with this belief’s being the heart of their history and religion. As a consequence they are often the first group that dictators, secular or theocratic, feel they must suppress.

We should all reflect upon the historic reality that when anti-Semitism raises its head, the rest of us, unless we are willing to live with a foot on our neck, will be the next targets.

Jewish humor, a distinctive barrier against any propensity to self-righteousness, permeates American culture. A number of times during the Cold War, I was involved in arms control negotiations with the Soviets. No matter how bad the tension across the negotiating table during the day, Russian and American negotiators would often end up going out for dinner together. Somehow, even in the most difficult periods, the conversation frequently turned to trading jokes.

I always thought it remarkable how much Russian humor was suffused with a wry, self-deprecating, ironic tone both quite funny and somehow quite familiar to Americans. Later, finding versions of a number of these jokes and stories in Leo Rosten’s wonderful The Joys of Yiddish, I realized the source of the familiarity.

Six years ago the Immigration and Naturalization Service imprisoned eight Muslims, Iraqi freedom fighters who were refugees from Saddam, for allegedly being security threats to the US. The government’s case was worse than flimsy but it was protected by rules regarding secret evidence. After a long struggle all eight were freed, and several are now working to establish democracy in Iraq.

I was one of their lawyers. The majority of my co-counsel, all acting pro bono, were Jewish. The law is, after all, above the ruler.

To all of us, happy Rosh Hashana.

The writer was director of the Central Intelligence Agency 1993—95.

James Woolsey is a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency.


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