In the spring of 1986, Gore Vidal, novelist and chronicler of US history, published an essay in The Nation which became instantly notorious. Called “The Empire Lovers Strike Back,” its subject was the relationship of American Jewish neo-conservatives to the state of Israel. He chose as exemplars of the phenomenon, Commentary magazine editor, Norman Podhoretz, and spouse, Midge Decter (mother-in-law of Elliot Abrams of Iran Contra infamy; Abrams, a racial purist who disdains intermarriage, now serves as White House Director of Middle Eastern Affairs). Podhoretz and Decter had once been liberals, but an aggressive Zionism led them to pitch their tent in the Republican Party. Their aim was to use US economic and political heft to advance Israel’s interests in the Middle East. The essay was vintage Vidal and it greatly provoked his critics. To ensure that no one took seriously what he had to say – to silence the debate before it started – he was rubbished as the worst kind of anti-Semite.
So, exactly what had Vidal said to earn this most feared of labels? In recent weeks we have heard a good deal about the cynical alliance between fundamentalist Christian Zionists in the US and Jewish settlers (supported by the right-wing Likud party) in the Occupied Territories. Sixteen years ago in a display of considerable prescience, Vidal wrote: “since spades may not be called spades in freedom’s land, let me spell it out. In order to get military and economic support for Israel, a small number of American Jews, who should know better, have made common cause with every sort of reactionary and anti-Semitic group in the United States, from the corridors of the Pentagon to the TV studios of the evangelical Jesus Christersé all in the interest of supporting the likes of Sharon as opposed to the Peace Now Israelis whom they disdain.”
Central to Vidal’s case was the indifference to US history which he discerned among these Jewish neo-conservatives. When he was writing a play set during the American Civil War, he recalls Norman Podhoretz asking him, “Why are you writing a play about, of all things, the Civil War?” When Vidal explained that this was/is “the great, single tragic event that gives resonance to our Republic” Podhoretz replied, “To me, the Civil War is as remote and irrelevant as the War of the Roses.” Vidal calls Podhoretz and his ilk Fifth Columnists (Israeli division) to indicate their extra-territorial priorities. They pursue political power not in order to make the US a better place, to right wrongs or to fight inequality here, but to promote Israel’s pre-eminence in the Middle East, to confine Palestinians to a couple of Bantustans or, better still, engineer their expulsion to Jordan. Judith Shulavitz, writing last month in The New York Times about Podhoretz’s new book, The Prophets: Who They Were And What They Are, observes that for Podhoretz the biblical prophet’s message is: “the Jews are the people chosen to redeem the worldé They will perform their divinely appointed duty only if they cling to the Covenant between God and themselveséand support Zionism.” Any appropriation of the prophets in support of social justice he dismisses as false – a Christian overlay or redaction.
The influence of old-guard Jewish neo-cons, such as Podhoretz and Decter, was exercised mainly through journals of opinion they edited or owned (in addition to Commentary, Martin Peretz’s New Republic comes to mind). Now, however, a new generation has its hand on the tiller of power. In September, Bill Keller profiled Deputy Secretary of Defence, Paul Wolfowitz, for The New York Times‘ Sunday Magazine. Wolfowitz and fellow Jewish neo-cons Richard Perle and Douglas Feith have emerged as the Pentagon’s Paladins, their aim being to subdue the Islamic world through decisive, pre-emptive use of American military superiority. While Wolfowitz is pressing for war against Saddam Hussein, Keller notes his “scholarly detachment” from the disastrous Vietnam War (as remote as the War of the Roses?), in which, while eligible, he had chosen not to serve. Wolfowitz first formed ties to Israel when he accompanied his father there for a sabbatical year. He is known to have close links to Israeli generals and Likud politicians. Keller, somewhat hesitatingly, discloses that there are people in Washington who hint at Wolfowitz’s “dual loyalties.” The (London) Guardian columnist, Hugo Young, is less reticent: “Only in Washington does one get a true sense of the obsession of these Pentagon civilians. Conversationally, it is common talk that some of them, not including Rumsfeld, are as much Israeli as American nationalists. Behind nervous, confiding hands come sardonic whispers of an American outpost of Likud. Most striking of all, however, is how unmentionable this is in the liberal press.”
If dragons’ teeth are being sown by American foreign policy in the Middle East, the urgent question is why a craven liberal press is not addressing the Israeli nationalism of the policy’s architects. Thinking I might find clues, I trawled through a piece by Cliff Rothman in The Nation, entitled “Jewish Media Stranglehold?” At the outset, Rothman delegitimizes the question by reminding us that it was Richard Nixon who first posed it; he then proceeds to associate it with White Power rhetoric, trailer parks and compounds in Montana. Nothing of substance emerges. There was, however, an interesting exchange with Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harpers, whose essays are surely some of the best political writing in the US. When the question was put to him, Rothman writes that Lapham “ventured onto the treacherous terrain of hypothosizing a unique Jewish sensibility impacting the media because of the sheer number of Jewish editors and writers. But, Lapham then recoiled: ‘If I am going to take shit, I may as well write my own column.'”
About three years ago, Nightline’s Ted Koppel came to the University of Notre Dame to give the Red Smith journalism lecture. I remember summoning every ounce of courage during question time in order to express my concern about the importance of even-handedness in the US media when reporting on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Then I asked Koppel how he felt, as a Jewish-American, about a foreign policy team which at that time was overwhelmingly Jewish. Madelaine Albright and her spokesman, James Rubin, were at the State Department, Sandy Berger was Security Advisor and William Cohen Secretary of Defense; Richard Holbrooke was Ambassador to the UN. I was sure that had the shoe been on the other foot – had the team’s composition been almost entirely Arab-American – the issue of fairness would most certainly have been raised. Koppel was nonplussed by the question and responded that in the US gifted individuals, regardless of background, could rise to the top – an answer that did not address my concern.
Each week, I have a marathon phone conversation with a Jewish friend, an octogenarian whose mental vigor remains undiminished. A retired college teacher, her take on virtually every political issue of importance is exemplary. Our friendship is very close and has easily survived occasional squalls over the one topic on which we have some disagreement, namely Israel and the Occupation. After reading something I had written on the neocon Zionists at the Pentagon, she gave me a no-holds-barred dressing down. In identifying Paul Wolfovitz, Richard Perle and Douglas Feith, the Pentagon troika planning the war against Saddam Hussein, as Jewish-Americans, I had crossed the line into anti-Semitism. Go after them as bad guys, not as Jews, she said. After all, there were lots of Jews, herself included, who find the troika a frightening bunch. For days I brooded about her comments, but in the end I demurred. Sure these are bad guys, but it is as Zionists that they are pursuing their war aims. The connections Gore Vidal was making in 1986 still need to be made in 2002.
Robert Dreyfus, a senior correspondent at The American Prospect, came close in a first class expose on how the Pentagon’s “well-placed hawks” are muzzling the CIA so that intelligence data that contradicts the case for war is not presented to the White House. Dreyfus is blunt: “For Perle, Wolfovitz and Feithéan attack on Iraq is a strategic necessity, not because Saddam Hussein is a threat, but because America needs to display an overwhelming show of force to keep unruly Arabs and Muslims all over the world in line.” However, Dreyfus still cannot mention the elephant in the room, namely that these well-placed hawks are Jewish-Americans and it is their hard-core Zionism that is shaping American foreign policy. Zionism is fast becoming a poisoned chalice, yet the US is poised for a war largely propelled by its agenda. Most of the country is ignorant or in denial, and the mainstream media either too conflicted or in cahoots to sound the alarm. In the meantime, Richard Perle, addressing British members of parliament even as UN arms inspectors were returning to Iraq, asserted that the US will go to war no matter what. And on the BBC World Service, The Washington Times‘ Barry Fein proclaimed war as absolutely necessary, saying that from now on the US would decide what constituted international law. There is real madness here, but who will stop it?
Do I think the case against Zionism could be made more effectively by Jews themselves? Certainly, but the evidence suggests it is not any easier. In the early 1960s, there was a bitter correspondence between two German Jews, the political philosopher Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of Kabbalah. Much of the disagreement turned on Arendt’s rejection of Zionism which led the Zionist Scholem to accuse her of having no love for the Jewish people. Arendt acknowledged that she had no love for any nation or collective – believing, as she did, that love of humankind trumped tribal or parochial affections. Insofar as Zionism had led Jews from belief in God to belief in themselves, she continued, “in this sense I do not love the Jews.”
Ann Pettifer is a freelance writer and the publisher of Common Sense, the alternative newspaper at the University of Notre Dame.