The intellectual chasm between Europe and America is dangerously wide

This is unfortunate, because Europe playing the role of Greeks to the Americans' Romanscould still be valuable
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The Independent Online

America is fortunate in its Jewish lobby, whose influence goes far wider than the narrow ground of the Israel-Palestine question. The Jews bring a moral earnestness to American public debate which we in Europe have lost.

America is fortunate in its Jewish lobby, whose influence goes far wider than the narrow ground of the Israel-Palestine question. The Jews bring a moral earnestness to American public debate which we in Europe have lost.

I had come to Boston for a conference organised by Partisan Review, a cultural magazine of New York origins; over the years, a majority of its editors and contributors have been Jews. In its early days, PR had been heavily influenced by the American Communist party, but in 1952 it ran issues on the theme: "Our country and our culture." This marked the realignment by a number of New York Jewish intellectuals, who had decided to support the United States in the Cold War. Such a volte-face naturally led to bitter disputes and broken friendships. Back in the early Fifties, the arguments raged for years at New York literary parties. To an extent, they still do.

Fifty years on, Partisan Review has revisited those controversies. It is hard to imagine any British magazine taking itself seriously enough to organise a similar event. It is equally hard to find British intellectuals who will admit to taking themselves as seriously as their American Jewish counterparts do. American Jewish intellectuals are unselfconscious in the way they use that term.

This has its humorous aspects. A number of my American intellectual Jewish friends started out as Marxists. Despite their subsequent rightward journey, they have not sloughed off all their leftist habits. They still believe that signing or refusing to sign an advertisement in The New York Times is a significant event. They still talk as if the decision by the literary editor of a small-circulation monthly to send a book for review by Finkelstein rather than Goldberg can move the Earth's axis.

They also express plenty of deliberate humour: lots of anecdotes about the epic rows of yesteryear. My friends have spent decades arguing the night away in Upper West Side apartments. A long debate was held as to who had originally coined the definition which is so appropriate to these New York Jews: "An intellectual is a mouth in search of an ear."

Over the past couple of decades, many of them have found such a receptive ear in the Republican Party. Plenty of American Jewish intellectuals are anti-conservative, while the most American Jews still support the Democrats. As Irving Kristol put it, most Jews live like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans. But it is hard to over-estimate the intellectual contribution American Jewry has made to the Republican Party.

The initial contacts between Jewish intellectuals and Republicans were often tentative, with much mutual suspicion. At that time, the Republicans were rarely philo-intellectuals, while many of their golf and social clubs were not too keen on Jews either. The Jews came from families which had venerated Franklin Roosevelt while associating Republicans with isolationism, sympathy for European fascists and immigration controls. In those early days, the writer Midge Decter said that she could never vote Republican because their grandfathers had tried to stop her grandfathers from getting in. Midge has now been a rock-ribbed Republican for more than 20 years. She and others have helped to turn the Republicans into the more intellectual of the two parties.

Previously, the Republican intellectual tradition had become attenuated. Irving Babitt was the most important American conservative writer since the founding fathers, which is why Sinclair Lewis, who disliked conservatives, gave the name Babbitt to the rough, vulgar hero of his novel. He was righter than he realised. Irving Babbitt was far less important to the Republican Party than George F Babbitt.

The Jews were part of the process of change. They encouraged Republicans to think of themselves as conservatives. This was partly due to Jewish nomenclatural pusillanimity. Many Jews had become Republicans long before they were prepared to own up to it, especially to their grandmothers up in Brooklyn who thought that FDR was still President. These Jewish converts to Republicanism usually called themselves Neo-Conservatives (which led to endless jokes about Neo York). But their presence encouraged a Republican intellectual quickening.

They have also helped to counter any Republican tendency towards parochialism. Jews could never be isolationists. Their presence was one reason why isolationism was a declining force even before 11 September, which finished it off. But Jewish conservatives are not only anti-isolationist. They are also anti-European, politically and culturally. The point was made that back in the early Fifties, intelligent Americans still hung on every word from the leading European writers: Camus, Orwell, Eliot (no one was claiming him as American). But where were the contemporary equivalents? European cultural and intellectual life had never been in worse shape – and as for European politics. It, too, was in the grip of decadence, and worse.

I tried to persuade my friends that mainland Europeans are not all anti-Semites, even in France. I pointed out that though Jean-Marie Le Pen was a nasty piece of work, he had felt it necessary to suppress his anti-Semitism in order to increase his vote. I said that many Frenchmen had voted for him solely in order to stick a pin in the backside of the French political elite, and that if I had been French, I might have been tempted to do the same in the second round. I also assured the Americans that far more Le Pen voters were anti-Muslim than anti-Jewish, and that the desecrations of French Jewish property were almost all work of Muslim immigrants, not of aboriginal Frenchmen. In some parts of France, mini-intifadas were taking place.

But it was hard to elicit a good word for the French. When someone said that France was the fourth member of the axis of evil, the hall was convulsed with laughter by a rapid heckle: "Why as low as fourth?" My friends, who are neither untypical or uninfluential, are convinced that all over Western Europe and especially in France, the dogs are returning to their vomit.

This view is having an effect on American foreign policy. The accusation that the French are sympathetic to anti-Israeli terrorists because they are anti-Semitic is receiving a surprising amount of credence, and is reinforcing anti-EU instincts.

This is unfortunate, because Europe has not grown old without acquiring some diplomatic cunning, plus a salutary caution. The role of playing Greeks to the Americans' Romans could still be a valuable one. But one of my American friends responded to that suggestion by seizing on the word "Greek". "Yes" he replied: "Greek softness on terrorism, Greek anti-Americanism – Greek vice. That's what the EU offers us, and we want none of it."

This is not just one man's bon mot over dinner. It is more widely symptomatic. At a crucial junction in world affairs, American-European diplomacy has not been in worse shape since the 1920s.