My Daughter Sarah and the Lack of Civil Dialogue in our Culture

Progressives turn a deaf ear to a call for reconciliation and healing.

Last year Regnery published A Cracking of the Heart, a book I wrote about my late daughter Sarah, which I hoped would draw attention to her remarkable life and compassionate soul. Since its publication, I have edited her Collected Writings and printed it as a hardcover book so that those who were inspired by her story can have the opportunity to gain insight and pleasure from her work.

When A Cracking of the Heart was published one of my concerns was that even though my daughter was actively engaged in progressive causes and was an early supporter of Barack Obama, my political enemies, who dominate the literary culture, would punish her, and her book would not receive the attention she deserved. That turned out to be the case as the so-called liberal media ignored A Cracking of the Heart despite the fact that one of its themes was reconciliation, and one of its subjects the ongoing dialogue I had with my liberal daughter over the issues that divide our political culture. One conservative talk show host who interviewed me actually broke down on air recounting how his daughter had become estranged because of their political disagreements and how he hoped after reading the account of our relationship that he would be able to reach her.

It was my hope that perhaps my daughter’s legacy would be to stimulate a dialogue beyond the political wars. Sarah was not a political activist but a literary and spiritual person. The stories and poems she had written were not political tracts but wonderful explorations of the human condition, expressions of her generous spirit. Politics is a two-dimensional zone of our existence. My daughter’s writing and approach to life – and to the lives she encountered -- added a much-needed third dimension to any political subject she discussed.

I was particularly disappointed in the liberal blackout because one of the things I had hoped to do for my daughter was to bring the generous and heroic life she had lived to the attention of the public who shared many of her views. I was even more disappointed at the silence of the Jewish press because an important focus of Sarah’s life was Judaism. It was over the Jewish concept of tikkun olam that our disagreements had revolved. I felt we had succeeded in resolving these differences and wrote about this resolution in the book. I thought this experience would prove helpful to progressives and to conservatives, and that in its small way this book about my daughter could create bridges within families and across the political culture.

Tikkun olam means “repair of the world,” and in the arguments of Jewish progressives it is generally associated with a global transformation and “social justice.” My quarrel with progressives is that they believe human beings can be fundamentally changed by revolutionary upheavals, and a more perfect world can be created by political actors. From this view, terrible consequences have followed -- mass genocides and human catastrophes on an unprecedented scale. But this was not the way my daughter approached tikkun olam and the task of achieving social justice (a term I still find problematic). Sarah was not a sentimentalist and she cast a properly skeptical eye on human actors, their motives and behaviors. Her view was that if the world is to be redeemed it would have to be one individual at a time, and should not be based on the expectation of miraculous changes in human character. This was a view I could live with.

I also admired the example she set in showing that compassion was not incompatible with a firm view of justice, and that embracing both was a better way of being: “If you see someone in the fullness of their humanity, you see how they are acting out their own confusion and suffering,” she wrote me. “This does not justify hurtful or evil acts. It doesn’t even always inspire forgiveness. But if you see someone this way, you respond more in sadness than in anger. And that is simply a more excellent state of being.”

Just before Sarah’s death, she was interviewed by the Jewish online magazine NextBook. The title of the interview was “Vision of Unity: An Activist Poet Explores the Religious Side of Social Justice.” Because of the magazine’s interest in my daughter’s work, I appealed to its editors to consider the book I had written and share its account of her life with their readers. I was encouraged to think that NextBook would be open to such an appeal because of a blurb that had been provided for A Cracking of the Heart by Ruth Messinger, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and a former Democratic president of the Borough of Manhattan.

Messinger was the head of American Jewish World Service, an organization that had sent Sarah to El Salvador, India and Uganda to help people who were poor and to seek justice for people who were abused. Of A Cracking of the Heart, Messinger had written:

“This extraordinary book is a father’s tribute to an amazing daughter who took on the problems of her community and the problems of her world with no regard to her own physical limitations.  Sarah was an active participant with and supporter of American Jewish World Service and did us proud with each of her contributions to greater global justice.  We treasure the time we had with this activist who left the world too soon and are deeply moved by her father’s determination to tell her story that others might walk in her path.”

I thought that if Ruth Messinger could be so big-hearted, surely there were others on the left who could be so as well.

But I was destined to be disappointed. The editors of NextBook, which had since been renamed the Tablet, did contact me and promised to review the book. However, from the outset I realized something was wrong when they asked me if I had some event planned or another book coming out, so they could peg the story to that. I told them I didn’t want the review to be about me. If they wanted to do a story about my politics they should do that separately from the book. I wanted it to be about my daughter. This was her audience and she deserved that at least.

A Cracking of the Heart was published in October 2009. A book usually has a window of about two months to create its audience and this is the time when reviews are crucial. But many months passed and no review appeared in the Tablet. I wrote the editors several times and was assured it was coming. On September 3, 2010 – almost a year later – an article did appear but under the following title: “Beyond Repair – Is Tikkun Olam, the Jewish Concept of 'Healing the World' as Dangerous as David Horowitz Says It Is?” The article began by noting the publication of a new book I had written, Reforming Our Universities, which it mischaracterized as “a call to action against an academic system he argues has been hijacked by the radical left.” In point of fact, this book, which had nothing to do with my daughter, was not about the hijacking of the academic system by anyone but about my campaign to restore liberal academic freedom principles, which were already in place but ignored.

The caricature of my views continued through the rest of the article, which was mainly taken up with quotes from hostile leftists like Todd Gitlin who claimed, preposterously, that I was suggesting that Jews who embraced the concept of tikkun olam were “bad Jews who have forsaken their own people because of a misinterpretation of the text.” My daughter was mentioned in passing but with so little attention to her views that none of the twenty people who commented on the article even referred to her.

The Tablet was not the only Jewish magazine to ignore A Cracking of the Heart. I had made personal appeals to many others but only the Jewish Media Review published a review of the book. If it were not for my daughter I would have given up after these attempts, but I resolved to make another effort with the volume I had edited of her Collected Writings. This was not a book that I had written but was my daughter’s life work. She had devoted her days to causes shared by the editors of many magazines and websites of the left, such as Salon, which I had written for, and especially the progressive Jewish media, including the Tablet, Jewschool, the Jewish Journal, and so forth. None of them responded to my letters or reviewed her book or mine.

The Collected Writings of Sarah Horowitz contains her novel, short stories and poems, her commentaries on the Torah, and her writings about the Abayudayah, an African tribe that converted to Judaism in the 1920s and whose children Sarah taught on behalf of American Jewish World Service. These writings display Sarah’s mastery of her craft and reflect her large view of life. Their effect is inspirational. Both are available on Kindle and also in our Frontpage bookstore where we are offering both in a special combined offer. I hope my readers will take advantage of this offering both for her sake and for their own pleasure and enrichment.