Misplaced Nostalgia Obscures Truth About the Left

In an illuminating commentary in the American Spectator, Rabbi Dov Fischer shows how far to the Left the Anti-Defamation League is moving under its current director, Jonathan Greenblatt, a former Clinton Administration official and onetime close associate of George Soros. Rabbi Fischer wonders whether Greenblatt is serving any real Jewish or American interest. Among his observations, Fischer speaks nostalgically about the ADL’s supposedly glorious past, when he was still proudly associated with it. Unfortunately, the organization seems to have fallen away grievously from its initial purpose under current management: “Under Jonathan Greenblatt, they’ve lost focus, attacking conservatives instead of fighting Anti-Semitism.”  

As someone who has been observing the ADL for many decades, I don’t recall a time when it was not on the political Left. I don’t think Greenblatt represents an ideological leap from his predecessor, who was situated well on the Left and who viewed American white Christians as a continuing source of anti-Semitism. Greenblatt’s predecessor, Abraham Foxman, lapsed into sheer hysteria at the “horrific spectacle” of Donald Trump becoming president, a response that seems to be diametrically opposed to that of Rabbi Fischer, who was a Trump enthusiast. In a blistering rebuke in the American Thinker in 2012, Jewish conservative Pamela Geller went after Foxman for “epitomizing the failure of Jewish leadership.” Foxman had the nasty tendency of pairing any Jew whom he considered too conservative with one of two villains—Louis Farrakhan or Pat Buchanan.  Growing up in the 1950s, I recall Jewish Republicans leaving the ADL because they felt ideologically unwelcome.

What this rosy journey down memory lane typifies is a misplaced nostalgia that persists in our conservative establishment. Establishment conservatives seem unwilling to recognize how the woke Left already had roots in an older Left that became increasingly radicalized. Thus, we hear about how tolerant and open-minded American universities used to be, that is, before they lapsed into their present intolerance. 

Although I taught in higher education for over 40 years, I don’t remember those happy bygone days of open, fruitful discussions between them and us. As a graduate student at Yale, I found the radical leftist Herbert Marcuse to be more open to dissenting views than my conventionally liberal professors, who were barely more tolerant than the woke academics whom the conservative establishment happily tees off on. Universities have been marked by leftist intolerance for decades, as was driven home to me already in the early 1970s, when I failed to obtain tenure at Case Western Reserve after it was learned that I voted for Richard Nixon in the 1968 presidential race. 

Although things were not quite as bad then as they are now in terms of leftist thought control, the present situation must have come from somewhere. Greenblatt as head of ADL may be quantitatively more woke than his predecessor. But both have been decidedly on the Left and all too ready to identify anti-Semitism with white Christians, or even with Jewish conservatives who fail to share their leftist convictions. American institutions of learning and the American media, like those of other Western countries, did not go from being conservative or traditionalist to becoming woke. They were taken over by an earlier Left, which dragged society toward its present leftist positions. It may be more useful to trace the steps of this journey than to pretend that some dramatic flip-flop occurred or that sane actors suddenly lost their minds. 

Historians tell us that the seeds of German Nazism lay deeply embedded in German history; and if we are properly focused, we should be able to see the horrors of the Third Reich spilling out everywhere in the German past. Although this search for ideological roots sometimes has been carried to ridiculous extremes and repeatedly used to guilt-trip Germans (who seem to enjoy being guilt-tripped), the opposite position seems even more indefensible, namely that certain sinister developments just happened without warning. The conservative establishment may be happiest with that deficient position because it can then avoid questioning what it wishes us to accept: e.g., gay marriage and feminism. Those concerned solely with today’s electoral politics may not be interested in reviving certain long-held but no longer fashionable positions. 

 Thus, we are left with this narrative: Everything was generally going swimmingly well in this country until a few years ago, when we suddenly went off the rails. Until then we were still in a “majority conservative” society, but then things just began to go south. “Marxism” reasserted itself, perhaps as a surviving strain of 1960s radicalism, or we were hit by “fascism,” as interpreted by, say, Jonah Goldberg. This leads into another historically short-sighted assumption, namely that voting for more Republicans will reverse this unhappy trend. If we can elect enough Republicans, then it may be possible to return to those happy times before the Democrats made everything bad. Such thinking overlooks the degree of our social and political deterioration, which did not start with Joe’s election or Greenblatt’s elevation to the directorship of ADL.

About Paul Gottfried

Paul Edward Gottfried is the editor of Chronicles. An American paleoconservative philosopher, historian, and columnist, Gottfried is a former Horace Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, as well as a Guggenheim recipient.

Photo: Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images via Getty Images

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