A mushrooming media controversy pitting neoconservatives against a prominent Jewish-American political commentator could mark a new stage in the growing battle over who speaks for the US Jewish community on foreign policy issues, particularly regarding the Middle East.
Time columnist Joe Klein’s accusations that Jewish neoconservatives, who played a particularly visible role in the drive to war in Iraq and have since pushed for military confrontation in Iran, sacrificed “US lives and money…to make the world safe for Israel,” have spurred angry charges of anti-Semitism and personal attacks from critics at such neoconservative strongholds as the Weekly Standard, National Review, and Commentary.
But the fierceness of the controversy surrounding Klein, generally considered a political centrist, highlights the growing antagonism between neoconservative hardliners and prominent US Jews whose more moderate views are aligned more closely with those of the foreign policy establishment.
The controversy began Jun. 24, when Klein argued in a Time blog post that the “fact that a great many Jewish neoconservatives – people like [independent Democrat Sen.] Joe Lieberman and the crowd at Commentary – plumped for this war [in Iraq], and now for an even more foolish assault on Iran, raised the question of divided loyalties.”
Within a day, Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, accused Klein of espousing ,”age-old anti-Semitic canards about a Jewish conspiracy to control and manipulate government.”
The reaction from the right-wing press was even harsher. Commentary editor John Podhoretz reiterated the accusation of “anti-Semitic canards,” and called Klein “manifestly intellectually unstable.”
Writing in National Review, former George W. Bush speechwriter Peter Wehner called Klein “a man who cannot control his anger and even hatred.”
But Klein has refused to back down, accusing his attackers of using charges of anti-Semitism to silence criticism of neoconservative policies.
“When [Commentary writer] Jennifer Rubin or Abe Foxman calls me anti-Semitic, they’re wrong,” he said in an interview. “I am anti-neoconservative.”
In its broad contours, the controversy is a familiar one, as critics accuse neoconservatives of exercizing pernicious influence on US Middle East policy and neoconservatives reply with charges of anti-Semitism and conspiracy-mongering.
What distinguishes the recent furor over Klein, however, is that it involves someone who is widely regarded as an exemplar of the centrist political establishment.
Klein is best known for his 1996 novel Primary Colors a thinly-veiled and largely unflattering portrait of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign that was originally published anonymously and subsequently made into a Hollywood movie. A frequent critic of Clinton, Klein has at times expressed admiration for George W. Bush.
He also endorsed the invasion of Iraq in 2003 (although he has since expressed regret for his support) and describes himself as “a strong supporter of Israel.”
The Klein dust-up is the latest in a series of events over the last several years that have placed neoconservatives both in the spotlight and on the defensive.
Neoconservatism, a predominantly – but by no means exclusively – Jewish movement, got its start in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when a small but influential group of Democrats began distancing themselves from the party which, in their view, had become too dovish toward the Soviet Union and too sympathetic toward Arab demands against Israel.
By 1980, most had become strong supporters of Ronald Reagan. A number of prominent neoconservatives joined his administration, including many who would later play key roles in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war.
Consigned to the political wilderness under President George H.W. Bush, the neoconservatives became increasingly identified in the 1990s with Israel’s right-wing Likud Party. It was also during the same period that they began agitating for “regime change” in Iraq, arguing that such a move would transform the balance of power in the Middle East decisively in favor of both Israel and the US.
They experienced a rebirth with the election of Bush’s son in 2000, and particularly after the 9/11 attacks, when they played a major role, both inside the administration and in the media, in rallying the public and Congress behind war in Iraq.
But with the deterioration of the situation in Iraq, the influence of neoconservatives inside and outside the administration began to wane, and critics began charging that they had led the US astray.
A series of incidents also focused critical scrutiny on the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the powerful lobbying group whose hawkish right-wing leadership has often defied both the views of the broader US Jewish community and the policies of Israeli governments.
In 2004, the Justice Department charged Pentagon staffer Lawrence Franklin with passing classified US government documents to two AIPAC lobbyists, who had then given the documents to an Israeli Embassy official. In January 2006, Franklin was sentenced to more than 12 years in prison, while the AIPAC staffers are still awaiting trial.
In March 2006, the well-respected and staunchly realist international relations scholars John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt published the article “The Israel Lobby” in the London Review of Books. That article, which charged that the lobby had for decades skewed US policy towards Israel in a direction detrimental to US interests, became the basis for their 2007 book, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy.
Mearsheimer and Walt’s thesis was instantly controversial. Like Klein, they were accused by critics, including the ADL and Commentary, of anti-Semitism and of perpetrating stereotypes about shadowy Jewish conspiracies.
But as a result of their stature, the two authors’ work clearly created political space for those, both within the foreign policy establishment and within the US Jewish community, who had been long privately critical of the neoconservatives but had been worried about the consequences of going public with their misgivings.
More recently, AIPAC has come under fire for its close alliance with right-wing Christian Zionists, particularly controversial pastor John Hagee and his organization Christians United for Israel (CUFI).
Hagee views an undivided Israel as a precondition for precipitating the Armageddon, and his group has accordingly pushed for hawkish US policies in the Middle East that have been consistent with the neoconservatives’ own preferences.
Matters came to a head earlier this year, when Republican presidential candidate John McCain was compelled to repudiate Hagee’s endorsement after comments came to light in which the pastor suggested that the Holocaust was biblically ordained in order to force Jews to resettle in Israel.
Nonetheless, Hagee and CUFI have maintained close ties with the neoconservatives, and a collection of prominent Israel hawks, including Senator Lieberman, spoke at CUFI’s summit in Washington earlier this month.
The belief that AIPAC has failed to accurately represent the views of the US Jewish community led to the foundation earlier this year of J Street, a Jewish lobbying group that aims to push for a more moderate stance on Middle East issues.
In the wake of these developments, many observers have taken Klein’s comments – and particularly his refusal to back down in the face of withering criticism from neoconservatives – as a sign that new political space is being created for the public airing of more moderate views on Middle East policy.
M.J. Rosenberg, a former AIPAC staffer now associated with the moderate Israel Policy Forum, expressed the hope that commentators would stop equating neoconservatism with Judaism and start treating it as a political movement subject to political criticism.
“Although most neocons are Jews, few Jews are neocons,” he wrote Wednesday. By equating the two groups, “[the neocons] want Americans not to follow the trail of war-mongering that leads not to Jews but to them.”