The Mercy of Jews

Jews Without Mercy: A Lament By Earl Shorris Anchor/Doubleday. $14 95, 191 pp.

"NO ONE speaks for the Jews." Earl Shorris declares as an introduction to his attack on Jewish neoconservatives. But he is wrong. Jews everywhere feel compelled to speak about what it means to be a Jew Shorris, in fact, considers himself an expert and rambles expansively on the law, history and lore of his faith. Of chief concern to the author are those thinkers whom he accuses of speaking for the Jews without permission and with a perverted sense of Jewish ethics.

This book is unusual--not because it denounces Ronald Reagan and his supporters--but because it argues that neoconservatism directly opposes the essence of Judaism: mercy. Although Shorris does not even approach the philosophical freshness or subtlety of Martin Buber, nor the charm of Scholem Aleichem, his is an assessment worthy of consideration.

Norman Podhoretz has called Shorris theory "garbage." Not surprisingly. Podhoretz is one of the six figures Shorris names in the book as the "half dozen middle-aged former leftists who led the garrulous conversion" to neoconservatism. The others are Harvard professors Nathan Glazer and Daniel Bell. Irving Kristol, Midge Decter, and Sidney Hook Shorris concedes that Bell deserves credit for sacrificing his standing among leading neoconservatives because he would not surrender his Jewish ethics for "vulgarity."

Shorris consciously does not thoroughly address the ideas of these "merciless" academics, claiming no interest in his opponents' defenses. He explains the neoconservative positions in his own version of Martin Luther's 95 these (e.g. "Capitalism is good for the Jews," and "The poor of America are wretches without dignity"). His book will never convince anyone who doesn't already agree with him. Despite his rather arrogant dismissal of the neoconservative theory. Shorris consents to a quick and impressionistic history of the social changes which he says pushed Podhoretz and Co. from the Left into their current positions as "court Jews" for the Reagan Administration.

The shift began with Hannah Arendt's work on totalitarianism, Shorris says. Arendt argued that totalitarianism is a greater threat to a society undergoing atomization and "massification." Shorris says that totalitarian society was then projected onto the student radicals of the Sixties: "The mob was coming, and it was coming out of the universities that had given the Jews a way up out of the ghetto."

The next step in the transition was the Black Panther's endorsement of the PLO and the general rejection of Jews from the civil rights movement. Liberal Jews felt betrayed after commiting energy and money to the Blacks' cause, and they adopted a new, negative attitude toward issues such as affirmative action. Meanwhile, an increasing number of Jews had become established economically and socially. They began to look out more for their personal interests. Shorris says, and these tended toward salaries and summer homes. Next: the small step into politically conservative circles. Encouraging the trend was the widely held belief that a conservative like Reagan would be a loyal supporter of Israel. That's the whole story as far as Shorris is concerned.

Underscoring this history is Shorris' contention that in their move to the Right. Jews abandoned mercy along with their faith in New Deal party politics. And because they have lost mercy, the essential characteristic of people living in a free society, Shorris will not grant them the label of "Jew."

The author says that the Jews have traditionally valued mercy because it is only through the mercy of the strong that the victims of the diaspora can survive. But the diaspora is no longer. Israel exists and fights, not relying on the mercy of its neighbors for its life. And the neoconservatives represent men of wealth and power in this country who likewise seem to have lost any need for mercy. It is a grim view, but Shorris doubts the Jews' ability to retain sensitivity to moral considerations after achieving a degree of material and political success.

Shorris does not convincingly indict the neoconservatives, nor does he reveal new insight into the meaning of Judaism. The value of Jews Without Mercy is an inadvertent reminder that morality, including religious morality, can be a productive facet of secular policy making and statesmanship. Without going to the extreme of imposing religious strictures on others, a la the Moral Majority, political and economic leaders can still form effective policy based on moral grounds.

Jews do not have an exlusive claim to this idealistic attitude. But Shorris implies that because of their history, his people are burdened with a special mission to argue in favor of mercy against the encroaching forces of political compromise and conservatism: "When Jews support policies that oppress the poor and the powerless, like those of the Reagan Administration, it is the duty of other Jews to compare these policies to the Law, to lament the loss of their brothers from the timeless circle of Jewish ethics."