The neocons’ post-9/11 Jewish journey (and mine)

Israel/Palestine
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The tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks has come and gone. But in the commemoration of those attacks, under the radar of the inevitable jingoism and cynical emotional appeals, a more disturbing phenomenon lurks still: the neoconservatives, new to public attention, if not to power, in the wake of the attacks, have used the anniversary to push anew their most cherished and pernicious myths about the last decade they did so much to define.

This is not a matter of mere historical import, for the mythmaking is largely focused on current events, namely, the so-called “Arab Spring”. Thus Joshua Muravchik, author of one of the most scurrilous attacks on what he called the “myth” of neoconservatism in 2003, takes on the matter of “Neoconservatives and the Arab Spring” in the special 10th anniversary issue of Commentary. Muravchik asserts that “the split between Israeli analysts and neoconservatives on democratization in the Middle East was ignored by the new wave of conspiracy-minded hate-mongers,” as he evidently views all critics of neoconservatism, yet many bloggers at the time of the Egyptian uprising took note of the divide and sought to earnestly account for it, not least this author. At the time, I saw the confusion among the neocons as representing “The Neocon Hitler-Stalin Pact Moment”, and this is borne out by the tone and substance of Muravchik’s reflections six months later: Egypt and other countries are likely to fall into the hands of “Islamists”, but there is cause for hope – in other words, everything would have been alright if we were in charge.

Among those who have reinforced this increasingly hardening party line was Paul Berman, in a characteristically long and elaborate essay in The New Republic. Somewhere in the midst of his reaffirmation of the good war against Islamofascism, Berman repeats the line put down by Muravchik, in short: Islamofascism will likely prevail in Egypt and across the Arab world, but there yet remains a hope for the “liberals” and “democrats” to prevail, but if they don’t, which is likely, they would have if we, the vanguard party of the global democratic revolution, had been listened to. As ever, the underlying conceit is that there is a difference between the “Facebook liberals” and the “Islamists”. In truth, they are one and the same, and at this historical moment at least, liberalism and “Islamism” are one and the same because their common objective is to cast off the yoke of the American empire. And this remains the simple truth which all fictions about the Arab Spring, from the liberals, State Department, and mainstream media no less than the neocons, are designed to obstruct.

For the neocons, however, there is also the underlying conceit that somehow, all their grand principles of liberal universalism and democratic revolutionism are inseparable from what they deem to be “good for the Jews”, and that therefore the drama that has unfolded since 9/11 must be all about the Jews. This conceit was most vividly illustrated in Tablet, the Jewish online magazine which has recently taken on such venerable neocon agitators as Judith Miller and Jeffrey Goldberg, with an essay by Adam Kirsch ostensibly about anti-Semitism since 9/11. In a whopper of a denial of the existence of neoconservatism, Kirsch writes:

Thanks to Stephen Walt and John J. Mearsheimer, the phrase “Israel lobby”, often enough translated into “Jewish lobby”, has become almost as commonplace in American leftist discourse as the phrase “Jewish syndicate” was among the French right during the Dreyfuss Affair. Think of how common it was, five or six years ago, to hear opponents of the Iraq War reel off the names of the so-called neoconservatives whose fault it allegedly was – always Jewish names like Wolfowitz, Perle, and Feith. Remember the bizarre ingenuity that traced the invasion of Iraq to the teachings of a long-dead Jewish mastermind, Leo Strauss.

Kirsch goes on to describe three disparate “Jewish” responses to 9/11. The first, an obscure work of Orthodox Jewish legalism about declaring dead bodies not retrieved from the World Trade Center site; the second, a novel by Amy Waldman inspired by the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy which Kirsch condemns for daring to suggest that the danger in America of the last ten years has been an anti-Muslim backlash rather than an anti-Semitic backlash. But what Kirsch venerates as “the real memorial to this moment in American Jewish history” is Philip Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America, a bizarre imagining of America notintervening in the Second World War as though war is peace and freedom is slavery. In his devastating review of the novel, Bill Kauffman declared it “bigoted and libelous of the dead” and “the novel a neoconservative would write, if a neoconservative could write a novel.” But without likely knowing it, Kauffman also cut into the heart of neoconservative pathology in observing of Roth’s collaborationist rabbi character “the scene in which Rabbi Bengelsdorf vivisects FDR’s Scottie [dog]Fala must have been excised by a wise editor.”

If I may here come in on a personal note. Not a single reviewer of The Plot Against America recognized it to my knowledge, and I did not even realize it until I began researching the subject, but “Rabbi Bengelsdorf” is an allusion to the anti-Zionist Reform rabbis of the American Council for Judaism. My quest to resurrect their actual history, which culminated in my biography of Rabbi Elmer Berger, was the result of a personal Jewish journey which was prompted by 9/11. Witnessing the rise of neoconservatism, and its claim on an American Jewish identity inseparable from American nationalism, I cried out for an alternative to what Rabbi Berger brilliantly labeled “the worship of Jewish peoplehood” in a 1952 exchange with neocon founding father Milton Himmelfarb – himself among the most consequential students of that “long-dead Jewish mastermind” Leo Strauss. This worship of “Jewish peoplehood”, now so central to American nationalism generally, is precisely the conceit motivating such neocon apologists as Kirsch, Berman, and Muravchik.

Specifically, it is the fundamental premise behind the dangerous and delusional notion that “Islamofascism” is the heir and successor to 20th century totalitarianism, when its undoubtedly closer relative is the bizarre marriage of Trotskyism and American militarism (yes, significantly colored by the thought of Leo Strauss) called neoconservatism. My biography of Rabbi Berger is dedicated to the late Tony Judt, the impeccable social democrat who stood courageously alone in recognizing that it is neoconservatism, not Islam, that is the heir and successor to 20th century totalitarianism. His 2006 essay in which he most clearly articulated this point, “Bush’s Useful Idiots”, was one of the greatest joys to read of my whole young life. To paraphrase the Passover liturgy, if he had just written “Bush’s Useful Idiots”, it would have been enough.

In the decade ahead, may many more of us be granted that same courage to see what is plainly in front of our noses.

[1] Joshua Muravchik “The Neoconservative Cabal”, Commentary, September 2003

 

[1] Joshua Muravchik “Neoconservatives and the Arab Spring”, Commentary, September 2011

 

[1] Jack Ross “Whither the Party Line on Egypt?” February 1, 2011

http://rightweb.irc-online.org/articles/display/whither_the_party_line_on_egypt

 

[1] Jack Ross “The Neocons Have Lost It” January 29, 2011

http://www.theamericanconservative.com/postright/2011/01/29/the-neocons-have-lost-it/

 

[1] Paul Berman “Do Ideas Matter?”, The New Republic, August 24, 2011

 

[1] Adam Kirsch “No Escape”, September 6, 2011

http://www.tabletmag.com/arts-and-culture/books/76914/no-escape/?all=1

 

[1] Bill Kauffman “Heil to the Chief”, The American Conservative, September 27, 2004.  http://www.theamericanconservative.com/article/2004/sep/27/00028/

 

[1] Tony Judt “Bush’s Useful Idiots”, London Review of Books, September 21, 2006.

http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n18/tony-judt/bushs-useful-idiots

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