Now and then I get letters and e-mail messages asking why I am so “obsessed” with Jews and Israel. The question amuses me. It would be one thing if I often wrote about Mali, or Honduras, or Borneo, or any other nation or country most people remember only as a name from geography class.
I should think it’s obvious that I’m *responding* to an obsession – an obsession of contemporary culture, politics, the media, the arts. We have been getting 24/7 coverage of Jews, the Holocaust, and Israel for years now. The front pages, the evening news, the magazine covers devote so much attention to Israel — a country the size of New Jersey on the other side of the world –that you could get the impression that it spans several time zones and includes much of the world’s population (plus a few gentiles). Many columnists write about it more often than I do: Charles Krauthammer, William Safire, Cal Thomas, Paul Greenberg, Mona Charen, and George Will, to name a few. Of course they write uncritically about Israel, so they aren’t considered obsessed; Eric Alterman of THE NATON has compiled a list of more than 60 well-known pundits who “reflexively” support Israel, while finding only 6 who are frequently critical.
Every American president has to spend a disproportionate amount of his time coddling Israel and denouncing or actively fighting Israel’s enemies. It’s become part of the job description, as much as if it were written into the Constitution — or more so, since constitutional obligations have become optional and *this* obligation is definitely not. At the same time, no president or any other politician may suggest that the American-Israeli alliance imposes undue risks, costs, or burdens on the United States.
Journalism still devotes so much attention to the Holocaust that, as I once quipped, “The NEW YORK TIMES should be renamed HOLOCAUST UPDATE.” Books and movies about it continue to pour forth; bookstores have whole sections on the Holocaust, and universities consecrate entire departments to “Holocaust studies.” Holocaust memorials spring up everywhere. Elie Wiesel preaches that we *should* be obsessed with the Holocaust, as he is. Churches, accused of silent complicity in, and even ultimate responsibility for, the Holocaust, do their best to repent and atone.
Current Jewish sufferings are treated as specially tragic facts, extensions of the Holocaust itself. When Arab terrorists seized an Italian ship, the Achille Lauro, and threw a Jewish passenger overboard, a leading American composer, John Adams, wrote an entire opera, THE DEATH OF KLINGHOFFER, about the incident.
“Anti-Semitism” has become the chief of sins. It’s seldom helpfully defined, but it seems to take a thousand forms, from outright genocide to indiscreet bons mots about Israel. Many gentiles live in dread of being labeled anti-Semitic, a charge against which there is no real defense or appeal: to be accused is to be guilty. The burden of proof, as I’ve often pointed out, is on the defendant — and a difficult burden it is, since he hardly knows what he’s being accused of. How can you prove your innocence of an undefined crime? By the same token, there is no penalty for false charges of anti-Semitism, since a meaningless charge can’t be proved false anyway.
No gentile is quite safe from the charge. The Gospels, Catholicism, and the papacy have been indicted; so have Chaucer, Shakespeare, Voltaire, Edmund Burke, Dickens, Henry James, Henry Adams, Dostoyevsky, Mark Twain, Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Hemingway. (So far Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson seem to have escaped the accusation.) Then there are whole anti-Semitic nations, among them Russia, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Germany, France, and Spain, lately joined by most of the Arab nations (thereby proving it is possible to be Semitic and anti-Semitic at the same time).
Billy Graham was recently roasted for anti-Semitism when it transpired that he’d made a few disparaging comments about Jews in the media during what he’d thought were private conversations with President Richard Nixon *30 years ago!* Perish the thought that there might have been a grain of truth in what he’d said; Graham dutifully groveled, then, when Jewish groups indignantly complained that this was not enough, he groveled again. A few years back, even that Hollywood icon Marlon Brando had to do a tearfully groveling retraction of some mildly critical comments about Jews in Hollywood.
And they wonder why I’m obsessed.
Of course I have my own special reasons. In 1986 I had my own run-in with fanatical Zionists, earned the dreaded label, and refused to perform the mandatory grovel. I won’t retell the whole story here, except to say that my own ardent support for Israel had ended in 1982 when I realized what Israel’s cruel invasion of Lebanon, led by Ariel Sharon, meant for America and for my family.
For America it meant that the Jewish lobby, including some of my neoconservative friends (as I thought them), had gotten this country into a sticky situation: an alliance that was morally dubious and very dangerous. We were being steered into a needless war with the Arabs, hotly desired by Israel and its supporters but contrary to our own real interests.
As for the Sobrans, two of them — my sons Kent and Mike — were in their teens. If, as seemed likely, the military draft was restored, they might be sent to fight the war the Zionists were seeking. I began arguing in my syndicated column for American disengagement from Israel.
Shortly afterward I ran into Ben Wattenberg, one of my friends (I thought), who said he’d heard I’d “gone off the reservation on Israel.” It was the first time I’d been informed that I was on a “reservation,” but I soon learned what he meant.
Despite various warnings and pressures — veiled threats, really – I wasn’t about to back down or retract anything. As far as I was concerned, I was fighting for my boys’ lives. But if I wanted to thrive in journalism, I was expected to put Jewish interests ahead of everything, or at least keep quiet.
As I told Bill Buckley at the time, the Jewish- Zionist interest amounted to an unacknowledged third party in American politics. Though it had been traditionally liberal, it had sprouted a “neoconservative” wing since 1967. In truth, the neoconservatives were hardly conservative at all. For most of them, Israel was everything and overrode all other issues. You could agree with them on nine out of ten issues, but if the tenth was Israel the other nine didn’t matter to them. You were the enemy.
You couldn’t really feel the power of the Jewish Party until you ran up against it. With amazing speed it had thoroughly satellized the largely Christian conservative movement, thanks in large part to Buckley. He wasn’t about to let me imperil his position. He tried to tell me so, in his indirect and avuncular way, but I couldn’t take a hint.
Luckily, I was a fairly small fry in the movement, and the Jewish Party had far bigger antagonists to target for destruction. I didn’t get the full treatment Buckley would have gotten if he’d said what I had said, or the treatment Pat Buchanan did get.
Still, when the blowup came I felt deserted — and in some cases betrayed — by my fellow conservatives. Much as I wished they would rush to my defense, I also wished that if this was too much to ask, they would at least see the *meaning* of what was being done to me.
Put simply, I was paying the price for *defending American interests* (and conservative principles). If, as the neocons insisted, American and Israeli interests were more or less identical, they should have called me anti-American, not (or not only) anti-Semitic. But of course they never did; they weren’t that subtle, and in some ways they were deeply confused.
Without realizing it, they were tacitly admitting that I was right: that American and Israeli interests were very different — even conflicting — things. Why else would Israel need a lobby in America at all, except to promote its interests to the detriment of our own? This should be obvious, but most people don’t get it.
Of course there is no American lobby in Israel to look out for our interests, regardless of the impact on Israeli interests. This is only one of the many unnoticed asymmetries of the situation. Double standards can succeed in their furtive purpose only when they pass unobserved. But to call attention to double standards favoring Jews is “anti-Semitism.” According to Zionist rhetoric, of course, only anti-Semites apply double standards — though in fact Zionism’s first principle is that ordinary standards of justice don’t apply to Jews. As one Israeli rabbi has put it, “A million Arabs are not worth one Jewish fingernail.”
That sounds like a defiantly brutal denial that “all men are created equal.” The rabbi may have meant that it would be better to murder a million Arabs than to tolerate the slightest Jewish loss. But he might have meant something much less bellicose, something even pacific: that the current tradeoff of Jewish and Arab lives is a terrible thing for the Jews, even if far more Arabs than Jews die. Nobody really wins a war that diminishes both sides.
It may be said that all this amounts to a caricature of the Jews. In fact, I’ll say it myself. It’s really a self-caricature of the Jews, drawn by the prevalent part of the Jewish community. It reflects neither the older tradition of the Orthodox, which is rooted in the hard objectivity of Mosaic law rather than modern sentimental victimology; nor the immense variety of Jewish intellectuals, who are as the sands of the sea but who don’t usually subscribe fully to the oversimplified myths of the Holocaust and Zionism.
The Orthodox Jew, faithful to an ancient and rigorous tradition, commands respect. So, in a different way, does the nonobservant intellectual Jew, who greatly enriches the life of the mind in the modern West; he remains unobsessed by the Holocaust and skeptical of, even embarrassed by, Zionism. In some cases, both the Orthodox Jew and the unaffiliated intellectual Jew may be downright anti-Zionist.
The plague-carriers, so to speak, are the secularized, liberal, middlebrow Jews whose vulgarity sets the tone for American politics, public discourse, and popular culture. Some of them, like Steven Spielberg and Barbra Streisand, have real talent, of sorts; most of them are good at making money and aggressive in using it for their pet causes. Above all, they have a low genius for propaganda — for shaping the popular mind and its characteristic platitudes.
This is the prevalent body of Jews, our unacknowledged third party – the party of Zionism, Holocaust promotion, secularism, sexual license (including “gay rights” and legal abortion), and an aggressive U.S. foreign policy (in the interests of Israel, not the United States itself). The Jewish Party, only a small fraction of the U.S. population, donates more than half the money received by the presidential candidates of the two major parties. It also dominates the major news and entertainment media.
The Jewish Party’s inordinate power, though unmentionable in the major media, explains why gentiles, especially the ambitious, dread the label of “anti-Semitism.” Some of the most perceptive, sensitive, and effective critiques of Jewish power — that is, of the Jewish Party — have been made by Orthodox and intellectual Jews. One danger of the present situation is that the Jewish Party will become synonymous with “the Jews.”
And this is exactly what the Party wants: to be recognized as the only authoritative Jewish voice, with all dissenting Jews marginalized. Under the brutal rule of Ariel Sharon, Israel’s image in the West is worse than ever before. Today it’s startling to remember the radiant aura it enjoyed in the days when its chief international spokesman was the urbane and eloquent Abba Eban. Those days are gone forever. The old image of a humane, democratic Israel was largely myth — a myth Sharon himself still exploits — but at least the Israelis made some effort to maintain its plausibility. Now, as Israeli soldiers shoot Arab women in labor without official rebuke or regret, the ugliness of Zionism has become visible to anyone with eyes to see.
Shouting “Holocaust” and “anti-Semitism” can no longer disguise the facts. Despite all the rhetoric, Israel is a “democracy” only in a Pickwickian sense. It began by expelling most of its Arab majority, seizing its homes, and refusing it reentry. That created a Jewish majority, which has been maintained and increased by extending to every Jew on earth the “right of return” to a land where few of those Jews (or for that matter, of their ancestors) had ever lived in the first place. Yet the fiction of Israeli democracy is still honored by the United States.
The Great Obsession has become a huge embarrassment for the Bush administration. It can’t repudiate the U.S. alliance with Israel, even as it needs international — especially Arab — support for the “war on terrorism.” Of course that war itself is a result of the Obsession, which has shaped American foreign policy for decades.
The embarrassment is also a Laocoon-like entanglement. Polite diplomacy flounders in the vain quest for a peaceful settlement; Rome and Carthage are trying to destroy each other, and both sides are invited to a tea party.
As suicide bombings alternate with disproportionate yet unavailing retaliations, the daily news from Israel is so painful that we all yearn for a solution. But it’s probably too late. It has been wisely said that even the greatest chess player can’t take over a misplayed game after 40 moves. This game is clearly destined to end — or to continue indefinitely — in tragedy. The only question is how many millions of people will be engulfed in its flames.