The strongest and earliest of my racist attitudes concerned Christians, as we called the goyim. I thought of the wide world of non-Jews as bland, oppressive, and stupid-- they went in for idol worship. My mother had a reproduction of Rouault’s oil painting of the Crucifixion on the second floor landing, near the Tiffany lamp she had found in a yard sale. But that was art. And Jews loved art.
I call it racism because the difference seemed biological. I was born into one tribe and they into another. Our house was filled with books.
My parents had a number of Christian friends, but they were exceptional, they were honorary Jews. One of my first political memories involved a Christian saint. The week after Norman Morrison burned himself to death on the Pentagon lawn in 1965, outside McNamara’s office, first handing his baby to a stranger, my mother went to his Quaker meeting to honor him. At 10, that seemed noble and thrilling. Not just Morrison’s incredible sacrifice, but my mother’s--to drive across Baltimore to a Christian neighborhood, alone, and to steep herself in an alien ritual (in which very little was said, as she told me later).
Morrison’s death was stamped with Jewishness for me. Jews were against the war, and so my mother was reaching out to a righteous Christian-- up against the bad Christians who had plotted Vietnam.
Of course these are childhood memories, but these racial materials seem to affect my thinking to this day. Repulsion and attraction to Christians has been a large part of my life.
When I got to college, my closest friends were Jews. I was afraid of the preppies and the WASPs, and also of the richer, WASPy Jews, as my family styled Jews who tried to pass. My friend Mike was from a Jewish enclave in Brooklyn and told a great story about the stupid goyim. The sculptor Chaim Gross was teaching art history at Yale and came to a slide of the Venus de Milo. “This is a beautiful woman. Most beautiful woman in the world, why?” Gross said in a heavy accent. “Because of the schmatte, that’s why. Without the schmatte she’s nothing.” Then he moved on to the next slide, and all the stupid goyim looked at one another trying to figure out what he meant.
(And today how many of you don’t understand that Gross was saying that the cloth around the Venus’s hips made her beautiful?)
I spent my time at the college paper, which was almost all Jewish. Halberstam and Lukas had been there before us, Jeffreys Toobin and Zucker came along later. I remember a friend marveling at Steve Chapman, who is now an editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune, that he could come into that place with his conservative politics and being Christian, and chip out a niche for himself. And I will never forget Mary Ridge, an Irish Catholic from the Boston area, yelling at me—when I was on a tirade about the old Harvard clubs, Porcellian, Fly, Spee, that discriminated against Jews—yelling that I was a member of a Jewish men’s club, the college newspaper.
I understood the truth of that in an instant. We were very exclusive, and how much of our discrimination was based on common culture/religion? It is why I speak about Jewish kinship networks in the American establishment today. We were one elite up against another elite. The other elite had more power than we did, more money, and god knows it was also exclusive. In his book on the neoconservatives, They Knew They Were Right, Jacob Heilbrunn says that neoconservatives were propelled by ethnic resentment about the glass ceiling the WASPS had erected. The Jews had been excluded by Ivy League faculties, or from administrative position, and they were determined to get inside, and so they created a "Parallel Establishment," a Jewish one. That is the establishment that gave us Iraq. And socially, it is the establishment of Larry Summers and Elena Kagan and Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod.
I had that ethnic resentment and esprit-de-corps in my bones. My father had lost out on a chairmanship struggle at an old-line school that had a tradition of anti-Semitism, and at Harvard I felt that the highest plums were out of our reach, the Christians held on to them.
Yes but things were changing before our eyes. Michael Walzer, who seemed heroic to me then, was getting Jews all over the Government Department, there were Jews entering Porcellian, the most exclusive club, and there was already that sense that WASPs were walking away from the turrets of the Establishment. "I’m a Preppie, Hate Me," was the sign pinned to the back of the jacket of a classmate trudging ahead of me up the stairs of some dorm. My wife tells me that the last thing you wanted to be in the 70s was a WASP.
I was not prepared for the philosemitism. My parents loved the movie The Heartbreak Kid, which made the shiksa Cybill Shepherd and her father Eddie Albert out to be vapid, but this was a self-protective delusion. The girls I met were smart and also upper middle class, and they were interested in crossing cultures.
That blandness I had learned to despise when I was a kid I now call straightforwardness, and I’m drawn to it, maybe because I have so little straightforwardness myself. My wife says that I am incredibly tricky. Two weeks back, I asked her what she wanted to do with the dogs Saturday night when we are going out of town, and she said that she wanted to take them to the kennel, and I then said that I was seeing about our neighbor looking in on them in our house, and she stormed at me, “You always do this. You are manipulative and creepy.”
Or the other day a Jewish friend said to me, “I don’t get WASP neurosis, are they neurotic?” and later I told my wife, and she said with some venom, Of course we’re neurotic, we just don’t pour it all over you. Like I do? I said. Yes.
When manners clash in my marriage, I think of the Jewish jokes I grew up with that justified trickiness as a way of dealing with the outside world. There is the joke about the two salesmen who run into one another on the train in the old country. One salesman asks the other where he’s going and he says Minsk, then the other sees his ticket getting punched a little later and he blows up. You said Minsk so I would think Pinsk., but now I see your ticket and it's to Minsk! So why did you lie?
We howled about that joke; it justified a way of being. Yes, a Jew is deceiving another Jew in the joke, but for me it is about the reflexive and necessary camouflage that Jews had to adopt for the outside world. We were at a great disadvantage, in numbers, in cultural difference, in language and garb, and subject to persecution, so we devised protective armors of deception. We felt righteous in our suspicion of Christians, but my wife on coming into my community said, Well I always heard about anti-Semitism but I had never heard of anti-anti-Semitism. She saw the prejudice in my community against the bland stupid Christians, as she had seen the prejudice in her own, against blacks and Jews.
The Jewish identity that I am so familiar with, of bookish people at the edge of respectable society, today seems a sort of self-satisfied fraud. We are empowered, but it seems to me my Jewish generation will always be stuck in a delusion about the exclusive clubs, or in Woody Allen shtik about the goyim, about their stupidity and blandness. Even leftwing Jews make jokes about the goyim, or about Jewish powerlessness (Jon Stewart, Larry David); and the jokes keep us from making a simple observation about our incredible privilege in American society.
Which brings me back to the my core concern, the way that Zionism transformed Jewish identity, and, after the birth of Israel, the vital political importance to the Zionists of the American Jewish community, with its access to the powerful. Let me tell you how one Christian sees us.
The story is from this book about the Israel lobby. In 1949, when the Truman administration was insisting on the right of return of the 750,000 Arab refugees as a basic human right in Palestine—just as Truman had based his decision to help establish Israel because of Jewish refugees in Europe—Israeli leaders resisted him again and again and again, by fair and foul means. And toward the start of this unending drama, acting Secretary of State James Webb wrote, “Israel officials have, in fact, informed our representatives… that they intend to bring about a change in the position of the United States Govt. on the above points, through means available to them in the United States. [Webb’s emphasis] There are also indications that the Israelis are prepared to use the implied threat of force to obtain the additional territory which they desire in Palestine.”
That was in 1949. And everything Webb wrote turned out to be true: no refugees returned, more territory grabbed, implied use of force, Jewish domestic pressure on both issues. It is why I always write that Palestinian statelessness is an American Jewish achievement, it is something we sought.
And meanwhile, as my own family agonizes about Zionism, without having ever been over there, the non-Jewish family I married into has offered me only encouragement in the issues I care most about. My mother-in-law smuggled sheets into a Bethlehem hospital. My wife’s cousin lived in Syria for a while, and is going back to Palestine and Israel this fall. They are liberals; they would have been abolitionists, or supported civil rights. They demonstrate more leadership on this issue than my Jewish friends.
The other day I was sitting with someone of my mother’s generation, a rich woman who has met many Jewish members of Obama braintrust, from Pritzkers down, and we got talking about Israel and she said, “I think about Israel all the time.”
Why? “Because I’m always afraid they are going to wipe us out.” That of course is the basis of the Jewish support for Israel in the U.S. (and of Israeli Jewish identity); and it is the basis of my own understanding of the goyim. And it’s not true.