In memory of Max Singer

The world needs help looking forward and thinking how to enter intelligently, constructively, idealistically, into the optimistic future Max Singer envisioned – and helped build.

‘SINGER’S HOPEFUL view of the future was refreshing.’ (photo credit: REUTERS)
‘SINGER’S HOPEFUL view of the future was refreshing.’
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Last Thursday, one of southern Jerusalem’s leading lights, Max Singer, died. This exuberant futurist who flirted with doomsday scenarios in Cold War America and faced personal tragedy with grit, wit and an indomitable spirit was 88.
Had Singer been the white-shoe lawyer he trained to be in the 1950s, he would be another symbol of American Jewry’s Greatest Generation, those remarkable pioneers in pinstripes who flourished in America. Attending Columbia College and Harvard Law School when Jews were less welcome there than conservatives are in the academy today, Singer refused to be defined by the Jew-haters’ insults.
Despite a lawyerly courtliness and intellectual rigor, Singer was not destined for law firm life. His mind was too expansive, his soul too independent, his concerns too global.
In 1959, Singer met one of America’s great iconoclasts – Herman Kahn. In July 1961, the two founded a groundbreaking think tank, the Hudson Institute – in Westchester, New York, far from Washington’s day-to-day partisan obsessions. They aimed to hammer out unbiased solutions to various thorny dilemmas – from legalizing gambling in New York state to nuclear strategy.
Intellectuals, then as now, tended to cluster in neat ideological categories. Conservatives seemed to be cranky McCarthyites, while liberals were elegant Kennedyites.
Hudson was too iconoclastic – and future-oriented – to be conservative or liberal. Kahn became famous with his 1960 book On Thermonuclear War. Singer helped Kahn write a 1962 follow-up, Thinking About the Unthinkable. They argued, paradoxically, that only by thinking through a nuclear catastrophe could America develop a coherent deterrence strategy to minimize the chances of such a war breaking out.
Such unflinching thinking inevitably typed the Hudson Institute as “hawkish” and “conservative,” as if taking the possibility of war seriously hastened it. Under Singer’s leadership as the institute’s second president, Hudson helped Ronald Reagan rethink nuclear deterrence and launch “Star Wars,” Reagan’s proactive Strategic Defensive Initiative.
Working with a funny, eclectic genius like Kahn for 12 years sharpened Singer’s skills in analyzing the present to speculate about the future creatively and rigorously.
The result, in 2012, nearly two decades after Kahn’s death, was Max Singer’s magnum opus, History of the Future: The Shape of the World to Come is Visible Today. Characterizing modernization as “a national learning experience,” Singer saw the world evolving toward a universal democratic reality wherein freedom dominates, education spreads, wealth grows, families shrink and – in a lovely phrase – “all people count.” But, he warned, when democracy triumphs and “the war system” disappears, humanity’s “biggest challenge” will be finding “a substitute for the adversity that has helped to shape human character.”
DESPITE THAT challenge, Singer’s hopeful view of the future was refreshing. That his optimism persisted was impressive, given the defining tragedy of his life, the loss of his second son, Alex.
Inspired by the four years the Singer family spent in Jerusalem during the 1970s, Alex moved to Israel, joined the army, and became an officer. On September 15, 1987, Alex was killed just over the border in Lebanon, trying to save his commander amid a terrorist ambush. It was his 25th birthday.
In an essay Max published in Moment that December, dedicated to Alex’s commitment to “building a Jewish state in Israel,” this futurist-in-mourning examined the Jewish future over the next century.
Anticipating a world with “eight billion educated wealthy people” seeking meaning, Max Singer offered Judaism as an answer. Rejecting our exile-scarred fear of becoming too numerous, Singer called for a renewed internal confidence to spread Judaism’s intellectual, spiritual and mystical religious-peoplehood identity package. Perhaps “the real show is about to begin,” he proclaimed.
Reeling from his son’s death, Singer could easily have turned to the perpetual victim’s self-pity, trying to keep Judaism alive by guilt trip. Calling for a bold new Jewish mission reflected Judaism’s life-affirming creed and Max’s buoyancy.
Eventually, Max and his remarkable wife for 61 years, Suzanne Singer – the esteemed editor of Moment and Biblical Archaeology Review – launched the Alex Singer Project. They published Alex’s letters, journals and drawings in a book, Alex: Building a Life, and brought them to life in a video. Thousands of people have been inspired by Alex’s proud, thoughtful, sometimes critical, always patriotic Zionist idealism – and the Singer family’s example.
By 1998, Max, Suzanne and their three surviving sons were all living in Israel: Saul, a coauthor of Start-Up Nation, Daniel, an educational innovator, and Benjy, the founder of WeWork Israel.
The Singers continued mourning Alex – while living his Zionist ideals. In one of many essays he continued writing, most recently, between cancer treatments, Singer warned that until the Palestinians democratically accept Israel’s existence, no Israeli withdrawals will satisfy them. He acknowledged, without pathos: “Keeping our home here requires that we accept dangers and human costs of all kinds.”
Two weeks ago, one of Max and Suzanne’s 11 grandchildren called the grandkids together for “an evening of pizza and memories.” They hadn’t heard yet that hope was lost. The result was a Singeresque evening of love and faith in the future, cosseted by memories of the past.
With that, Max’s family gave him the send-off he deserved. Now, in these days of partisanship, pessimism and polarization, we should honor this happy conservative, this optimistic Jew, this fulfilled Zionist, by rereading his words; by engaging with his ideas.
Max didn’t need some sentimental homage – he had no patience for that. But the world needs help looking forward and thinking how to enter intelligently, constructively, idealistically, into the optimistic future Max Singer envisioned – and helped build.
The writer is the author of the The Zionist Ideas (an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology, The Zionist Idea) and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award finalist. A distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American history, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.