I'm reading a surprisingly-good book, The Vanishing American Jew, by Alan M. Dershowitz. Dershowitz can be angry, or mean, but in 1997, when he wrote this book, he had a more open spirit. The book is surprising because Dershowitz and I agree in many ways. Ours is a spectacular time in Jewish history. Jews are highly influential, Jews dominate in many prominent American fields, from the movies to newspapers. Support for Israel is a "secular religion" for Jews. And fighting for Jewish survival against their enemies is a "sacred mission" for Jews like Dershowitz. And oh yes: the Israel lobby is a potent force in public life.
Dershowitz could say all this because it was not controversial when he wrote the book in 1997. It was pre-9/11; and 9/11 changed everything. 9/11 put Israel front and center as an issue in American foreign policy. For me, it forced me at last, in my late 40s, to overcome what Dershowitz correctly diagnoses as the remarkable illiteracy among Jews about Jewish history. I began to study my people's fascinating history.
Many of Dershowitz's arguments actually support the view of Israel's critics: that Israel depends on American support and that American Jews feel a "sacred" bond with Israel because after the Holocaust, Jewish survival is The most important goal. When you read this book, you understand how Dershowitz could pooh-pooh concerns about Palestinian human rights at a Brandeis event earlier this year and refer to the pre-67 border between Israel and Palestinian lands as "the Auschwitz line"--a danger to Israeli lives.
For Dershowitz, Jewish survival is a hugely emotional issue. He feels it threatened by assimilation; he wants to retain the Jewish specialness in American life, that "influential" Jewishness that plays such a large part in our culture and doesn't really mix. I think this is a false and parochial hope: for as Jews changed America and derived incredible success, America has changed Jews, inevitably assimilating them. But that's a different issue from what I'm addressing here.
This fall Dershowitz will be mobilized against Walt and Mearsheimer, as he mobilized against them a year back. And the question that arises, the vulnerability in Dershowitz's legalistic argument, will be that many of the things the brave profs will address--Jewish influence, the degree to which secular American Jews are loyal to Israel in a religious way--are ideas that he himself promoted when they were not controversial. Now that these ideas are being fought over in foreign-policy circles, I am sure Dershowitz will abandon them (as I pointed out Dershowitz's righthand turn re the lobby a year ago).
I think this gets to the heart of my quarrel with the feverish pro-Israel crowd. In a competition between the truth and support for their people, they will side with their people because of memories of persecution. They will never see the Palestinian Nakba as an important event; and in that sense their views are pre-modern. Theirs is a variation of the old role in black culture of a Race Man: "those Race Men who are always clamoring everything for the race, just for the glory of being known." Dershowitz is the Jewish version.