Every time I go into the Jewish community to hear a discussion of the issue, I am reminded that the Jewish community on its own is incapable of moving forward. This week I am still reeling from seeing Bill Kristol hold forth at a debate at Bnai Jeshurun synagogue on the Upper West Side last Tuesday [a short portion of which is above]. He came off as what he is, a Republican Party warlord; and he was treated like royalty. The rabbi said he was proud to host Kristol, and Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street said he wanted to take Kristol with him to the West Bank, and moderator Jane Eisner of the Forward was very respectful, though she got in a jab at Kristol's "smear" tactics at the Emergency Committee for Israel.
When Kristol gave the self-congratulatory riff from which I’ve gotten my headline—about how all the elements hostile to Israel inside the Republican Party were purged over the last 30 years – no one dared to question the power of the Israel lobby.
Or when Kristol lectured Ben-Ami for being outside the mainstream of the Democratic Party, no one pointed out that Kristol is a Republican, and who is he to enforce a pro-Israel line inside the Democratic Party? Well because he has power in the Jewish community, and support for Israel in our community transcends party, that's why.
There was a sense that we are all on the same side because we are communal Jews and everyone in that community is a Zionist. "We've won the war, we won the war" Jeremy Ben-Ami proclaimed; 99 percent of Congress now has "deep" support for the special relationship between Israel and the U.S.
But as for the war that Bill Kristol pushed, the Iraq war, no one was so impolite as to bring that up, let alone Kristol's counsel to George W. Bush to remove Saddam Hussein because "Israel’s fight against terrorism is our fight." The words neoconservative, apartheid and Peter Beinart also were not uttered.
Kristol was the most charming figure on the dais. He had the line of the night when he said, "I hope the organization [J Street] continues to flourish and to have no effect on actual US policy." I walked out feeling like I’d just seen the Knights of Columbus having a party for Tony Soprano.
The news coming out of the event last week was that Kristol endorsed Obama’s Middle East policy—that is, once Obama abandoned the Cairo speech of 2009 for the AIPAC speech of two months back.
“I can mostly support the Obama administration of the last two years after they gave up their foolish efforts…. to cause a huge diplomatic crisis… I think the Obama administration has moved to the center… After the terrible failure [to support the Green revolution in Iran in 2009]…he’s come down on my side…I’m happy to sit here and agree with President Obama to a considerable degree at least as the policy has moved in the last two years with respect to Israel and the middle east..”
And why did Obama capitulate? Because of people like Bill Kristol. Kristol was freaked out by Obama’s early stances, and particularly by Obama's belief that he had the support of the Jewish community. This was Ben-Ami's "great achievement," Kristol said: creating a perception that the whole Jewish community was moving to the J Street position. The Emergency Committeee for Israel was born to exert pressure the other way.
Here Ben-Ami offered his strongest criticism. After saying that “We’ve won the war" and only "far outliers" in Congress criticize Israel, he said that Bill Kristol was too much of an enforcer for Israel with American politicians. They are "live in fear" of speaking out. There’s an “atmosphere of fear” and “intimidation” that has caused hundreds of congresspeople not to speak their true minds.
"You’ve pushed the debate too far, you have the impact of silencing people on a policy question."
He explained this in communal terms. You have, Ben-Ami said, "turned criticism of policy into a question of whether someone is anti-Israel," and this tactic blurred an "important line in the Jewish communal conversation"-- the line where "criticism" crosses into "delegitimization of Israel." So when Kristol attacked a congressman as anti-Israel for opposing Israel's ban on coriander entering the Gaza Strip, he was signalling to the community that the politician was delegitimizing Israel, and serious people believed him, a form of hysteria that is bad for America and bad for Israel and bad for the Jewish community too.
Kristol fought back. Those coriander Congressmen were "trashing Israel" and the J Street position was outside the "mainstream of the pro-Israel community." When 54 members of Congress sign a critical letter, or 30 members vote against the overwhelming majority of Congress on a pro-Israel resolution, "we are entitled to say that as a matter of fact this person took a position that is not in the majority position of the Democratic party and a lot of serious people think would be a position that would damage the security of the state of Israel."
Ben-Ami said Kristol is trying to "quelch debate." Those 50 members who dare to criticize Israel are the courageous ones. "Another 200 are scared to do it..."
Kristol laughed and dared him to name names. Ben-Ami said he can't give names because the politicians are afraid. Kristol said it was the New York Times and NPR and J Street on one side and “little old ECI" on the other.
Ben-Ami: "I very seriously and absolutely do believe that a significant percentage of American members of the House of Representatives and the Senate are intimidated on this issue... They worry about the ramifications of speaking out.... They are worried about the attacks that they will receive."
So the Israel lobby has gone too far, Ben-Ami is saying. This is the same man who when Walt and Mearsheimer wrote about the Israel lobby's hammerlock on US policymaking in the Middle East, said it smacked of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Because they weren't Jews. Because by and large, Jews are afraid to share our "communal" conversation. Eisner said that some in the audience had written on their question cards that maybe the Jewish community should be more “circumspect” about having this debate, because it would arm the anti-Semites. Sp a journalist suggests that we should be more circumspect. But what is the truth? What is making US policy? What are the "ramifications" of a politician criticizing Israel? Aren't Jews strong enough here to have this conversation? It would have been nice if Ben-Ami or Eisner could have asked Kristol about how he derives his power-- how he buys a full-page ad in the Times to say that Obama whom he agrees with is using Israel as a punching bag. No one mentioned hedge funder Daniel Loeb, who funds the Emergency Committee for Israel.
Ben-Ami rationalized the "communal" conversation because American Jews have a curious national status:
“Every Israeli Prime Minister says that Israel is the state of all the Jewish people, and it does represent us and we do have a stake in what goes on there… we’re asked to send our kids, and we have a right to speak out and say that the way that the country behaves is deeply reflective of the values of the Jewish people….”
He and Eisner were very good about talking about conditions on the West Bank. Ben Ami said that people of a different skin color than ours don’t have any rights and that we are about to see a new phase in the conflict, in which this becomes a worldwide issue, the battle for equal rights between the river and the sea. That was clear-sighted, and though Ben Ami wants to do everything to put off that struggle, he said the destruction of Palestinian rights was at the top of the agenda wherever Hillary Clinton goes and is hurting the U.S.' strategic national interest.
Kristol sniggered. He said that it’s a “myth” that the Palestinians are important even to Arab countries. The status quo is sustainable for another 45 or 60 years. There is no Palestinian majority between the river and the sea, because Kristol doesn’t count Gaza—1.5 million people wiped off the political map.
Some of these statements sounded like defensive lies from a party boss. When Ben-Ami said the settlement regime is threatening the rule of law in Israel, Kristol said with a petulant tone that it was “cavalier” for comfortable Americans on the Upper West Side who face no risks at all to "berate" Israel and “second-guess” the ”tough calls” that Israel has had to make.
“I'm not sure I'm capable of judging all these extremely complicated legal and political issues within the state of Israel. I believe that as Americans what we can do… is above all stand with Israel against existential threats, terror threats.”
This is Kristol's most important role in life, being Israel's guardian in the U.S. He spoke proudly about the ways the Republican Party had purged critics of Israel in the last 30 years.
I think the good news is [Ron Paul] didn’t do well…I mean, the big story in the Republican Party over the last 30 years and I’m personally very happy about this as a Republican is first the eclipsing of I’d say the [George H.W.] Bush [Brent] Scowcroft [James] Baker traditional—it’s unfair to say-- hostility to Israel-- but lack of closeness and warmth for Israel … I say this as someone who served in the first Bush White House and has high regard for the first president Bush, but it was an Arabist, oldfashioned Republican Party, which was certainly very concerned about relations with Arab states that were not friendly with Israel and skeptical about the case for Israel. They have really been eclipsed by the Reagan George W. Bush McCain kind of tradition of a more sympathetic attitude toward Israel, greater support for Israel.
The other thing that for 20 years now that has been a worry for many of us on the Republican conservative side, was the rise of -- the return of the Pat Buchanan/Ron Paul type of hostility to Israel. The good news is that doesn’t have much support in the Republican Party or the presidential field or Congress….”
How did this happen? What is the relationship of this political transformation to the Jewish rise inside American society?
Kristol kept saying that Americans support Israel, but does he trust them to do so without some influence? I don't think so. In 2008, I reported on a Kristol speech at AIPAC urging Israel's friends to cultivate up-and-coming politicians: Kristol said that Hart Hasten, a Holocaust survivor and successful Indianapolis businessman, had been crucial to shaping Dan Quayle's view of Israel, having "spent a lot of time" with Quayle when he was still a congressman.
And at Bnai Jeshurun, Kristol admitted playing a role in expelling members of the Republican Party he doesn't agree with. There were some Republicans you had to "repudiate," people
of whom I disapprove so much that I wont appear with them. That I've encouraged that they be expelled or not welcomed into the Republican Party. I'd be happy if Ron Paul left and ran as a third party candidate. I was very happy when Pat Buchanan was allowed-- really encouraged I would say by George Bush and others [unintelligible name, possibly Tony Martin] in 1998 or 1999 to go off and run as a third party candidate. And he simply left the Republican Party. I'm happier to have a Republican Party without Pat Buchanan than with Pat Buchanan. But everyone’s got to make up their own mind about where they draw that line.
I again despair of the Jewish community. They called this a "robust" debate, but the "communal conversation" is a conversation foreclosed by Jewish fear--that criticism of the need for the Jewish state will bring about a rise in anti-Semitism. So Bill Kristol is empowered because of fears, because he is more of a communalist even than Ben-Ami. And no one in our community will force Kristol to reflect on his push for the Iraq war, which many Jews have still not had to reflect on – a war that the Reform Jews supported (even as Chris Matthews bragged the other night that the Vatican was against it). This is about what the poet Robert Lowell called our transformation from doves into hawks under the influence of Jewish nationalism, and in the end the issue is whether Ben Ami will allow his Jewish communal fears to override his genuine respect for human rights.
The only way to beat Kristol is to build a coalition outside the Jewish community, to turn to the realists whom Kristol purged. Ben-Ami won’t do that. No, he is busy trying to calve Jews off the Kristol iceberg. He said again that he is not against AIPAC. This is a fight for influence, a fight for the center of the power structure. He and Kristol smiled when Eisner said that they both went to Collegiate, the fancy prep school nearby.
Meantime, I wonder who will follow up the great generational American Jewish stories I heard in Bnai Jeshrun. Who will chart the purge of the Realists from the Republican Party? Who will tell what Bill Kristol did to crush J Street? Who will tell what AIPAC did to elevate Bill Clinton and defeat that oldfashioned Arabist George Bush? Alas the Democratic establishment is not interested in these stories because it is just as corrupted; the smartest guy on this subject, MJ Rosenberg, left the Democratic Party-aligned thinktank Media Matters following Bill Kristol’s frontal attack on him in a full page New York Times ad-- Bill Kristol who is a Republican Party boss but speaks for the mainstream Democratic Party too.