The New Parochialism

Commentary

Commentary is a regular feature of The Crimson editorial page that provides a forum for opinion from members of the Harvard community. Those interested in contributing pieces to Commentary should contact the editorial chairman.

IT IS HARD TO IMAGINE a less likely situs for controversy over who is a "real" Jew and who is a "pretender" than the Eighth Congressional District of Massachusetts. But Martin Peretz, owner of the New Republic and sometime instructor at Harvard, has managed to interject this arcane theological issue into the politics of Harvard's home district.

In his "Cambridge Diarist" column, Peretz attacked the "character" of George Bachrach, who ran second to Joe Kennedy for the Democratic nomination to Congress, on the ground that he had "pretended to be Jewish." This is what Peretz said:

There was also some question about Bachrach's character. For years, in some unfathomable Machiavellian calculus, he had pretended to be Jewish.

Peretz did not give his readers the benefit of any of the relevant facts about Bachrach. He merely asked them to accept his cryptic condemnation on faith. (It's hard to imagine any decent editor letting a writer get away with this sort of ipse dixit, but I guess the owner of a magazine doesn't have to submit to the usual red pencil.)

Here are the facts. George Bachrach's parents were Viennese Jews who escaped the Holocaust. His grandfather was not so lucky. He was murdered in a death camp. Bachrach's parents--like some other shellshocked survivors--had their son baptized. But young George always considered himself Jewish. As an adult, he became an active member of the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation League. He has been one of the area's staunchest supporters of Soviet Jewry. He has always been proud of his Jewish heritage.

In short George Bachrach considers himself Jewish. And he is Jewish.

BUT APPARENTLY Peretz--who often uses his magazine as a personal plaything, to settle scores and attack enemies--has appointed himself Defender of the Faith. He has taken it upon himself to issue an edict as to who is a real Jew and who is a pretender. What criteria he uses are obscure. (Even Israel would consider Bachrach to be a Jew.) Peretz never tells us why he believes that Bachrach is a) not Jewish and b) has pretended to be Jewish. And why he thinks his theological views should be relevant in a Congressional election is equally unclear.

Peretz's most bizarre accusation is that Bachrach engaged in some "Machiavellian calculus" by pretending to be Jewish for years. During that time, Bachrach has run for the State Senate in a district with a tiny Jewish population. I recall him telling me once how he responded when an Armenian constituent asked him whether he was an Armenian. Bachrach told him that as a Jew whose family had experienced genocide, he thought he understood the Armenian experience a bit more compassionately.

Peretz owes his readers an explanation as to why a Machiavellian politician who lives and runs in a non-Jewish district might pretend he was Jewish when he was not. To say that his Machiavellian calculus is "unfathomable" is either to acknowledge that it was not Machiavellian at all, or that the underlying facts are simply wrong.

IHAVE NO IDEA, nor do I care, what Bachrach's theology is (if he has one), any more than I care what Peretz's is. What is disgraceful--and dangerous--about Peretz's raising the issue of whether Bachrach's "really" a Jew is its implication for the direction of American political campaigns.

If Peretz's interjection of religion into politics were an isolated instance of the perversion of the political process, it could be dismissed as little more than personal pique, or as a gossipy reflection of who is in and who is out of the Peretz household. (If I wasn't out before this, I am now.) But Peretz's insistance that public candidates meet parochial religious tests reflects a growing trend around the country.

Presidential candidate Pat Robertson seeks to make certain that the Constitution remains in the hands of real Christians. A Congressional candidate in South Carolina several years ago attacked his opponent for not believing that "Jesus Christ has come yet." Vice President Bush assures us that he was actually "born again." And some religious leaders tell their flock that they cannot be real Christians, Catholics, or orthodox Jews if they vote for candidates who support a woman's right to choose abortions, or a man's right to choose another man as his sex partner.

The United States Constitution provides that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification for any office..." Neither the New Republic nor Pat Robertson are bound by the Constitution. But Martin Peretz's attempt to "excommunicate" George Bachrach--from the Eighth District and from his Jewish heritage--will make it just a bit easier for the religious right to achieve its goal of undercutting that important charter of religious and non-religious liberty.