American Jews Cannot Conduct a Discussion of Jewish Power Out of Earshot of ‘the Goyim’

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Over the next couple days I’m going to write about an event that took place at Yivo, the Institute for Jewish research, 16 months ago, in Sept. 2006, when at Yivo board member Marty Peretz’s impetus, a group of journalists took the stage to talk about "Jewish Journalists, American Journalism." I looked up this old event because Bill Kristol, the Iraq-war-drumbeater who has lately become the new New York Times Op-Ed columnist, was on the panel. He had some interesting things to say, and I will get to them.

But first I want to talk about a remarkable statement or two, or three, from J.J. Goldberg, the estimable editor of the Forward, about Jewish power in America. I need to set those comments up.  The moderator was David Margolick of Vanity Fair, a former New York Times reporter. The other political journalists on the panel were the rubicund Kristol and Clyde Haberman of the New York Times. Margolick opened the panel by telling of the time some years ago when he asked an editor at the Times about being assigned to the Jerusalem bureau, and the editor, a Jew, asked him if he could "be fair." Margolick was surprised and later insulted by the question. Still seemed insulted.

Myself I think it a wholly legitimate question, and Margolick’s surprise was characteristic of the lack of reflection on the panel. Indeed, later Margolick himself said that at Vanity Fair he had gotten an interview with Ariel Sharon mainly because he was Jewish, and even had to pass a test: "I had to visit his best friend [in New York] and let him know I was a haimische [down-home, in Yiddish] guy." As a result, Margolick said, he felt somewhat "beholden" to Sharon for granting him the interview (though in fairness, Margolick also said that he felt he later alienated members of the Israeli government by writing about Hamas without judgment). This story utterly legitimizes the editor’s question. It shows that Jews covering Israel have a special status–just as Arabs covering Palestine are going to have issues…

The rest of the panel basically echoed this idea, that there was no problem at all involved in Jewish prominence in the media covering Middle East events. Then finally, after two hours, a guy in the audience asked, What about the disproportionate number of Jews in the media, doesn’t that grant Jews influence? Of course there are antisemitic myths. "But it does seem we have a large influence over power."

Haberman answered at first in what I can only describe as a foolish manner. He said that this is "a function of a generation or two, I don’t think it’s going to remain that way forever." Foolish because everything changes in the world in a generation; of course this too will change. What about a problem that’s here right now before our eyes? When the guy in the audience persisted, saying that the panel hadn’t addressed the issue all night, Haberman sourly said, We’ve been here two hours, we couldn’t get to everything. Like it was nothing. Kristol also dismissed the question, saying that some people in the Middle East might buy these "conspiracy" theories, but in the U.S. people don’t "obsess" about journalists’ religions.

Then J.J. Goldberg spoke and basically acknowledged that this was the elephant in the room. He said that the issue of Jewish influence over Middle East policy was a "problem." Not a few–hundreds of millions of people in the Middle East believed this. "It is the standard parlance in the European intelligentsia, and it is becoming acceptable in the American intelligentsia and academia and the blogosphere." Later the same week, Goldberg pointed out, Walt and Mearsheimer were going to be at Cooper Union for their debate–of what was then only a paper in LRB. "These are not two schmucks," he said. "They wrote a bigoted, ignorant and inflammatory paper that made one good point, that America’s relationship with Israel is one of the reasons that we have the conflict we have with the Arab world" and a lot of bad points, including, "that Jews somehow conspiratorially dragged us into that relationship with Israel, that the rest of America wouldn’t have if they knew the truth."

We have avoided the discussion, Goldberg acknowledged, and other Americans were speaking in an "ignorant, bigoted way" about the issue, "because we don’t know how to discuss it… America is in this worldwide struggle partly because of something we happen to like [Israel]. It’s awkward. Maybe it’s good that the Forward has a circulation of [only] 30,000 so we can have the discussion openly and intelligently and the goyim won’t–"

Goldberg didn’t finish the thought. He meant, let’s talk about it without the goyim taking a part.

These statements are remarkable for a few reasons. Anyone who knows Goldberg knows that he is a mensch. I disagree with him about a great number of issues, including his comments about Walt and Mearsheimer, but he is a reflective big-souled guy, and it shows in those comments. The rest of the political journalists on that stage were complacent and self-congratulatory; Goldberg was agonized. Anyone who thinks the Iraq war and the Jewish cheering section that helped get America into the big muddy in Baghdad have not set off a crisis in Jewish-American consciousness is dreaming. The Iraq war will be as important to a shift in Jewish attitudes as ’67 was, I predict.

But the other remarkable thing about Goldberg’s comments is that he thinks this is a discussion Jews can have among themselves (and not all themselves either; note that progressive Jews of my ilk are not even invited to participate) out of earshot of the goyim, a derisive Yiddish word for gentiles. This is un-American. The U.S. is a democracy. Elites are subject to scrutiny, and journalists assist in that process. Sunshine laws and Pulitzer Prizes and 60 Minutes are all about that. To think that Jewish influence is somehow exempt from that sort of consideration is–well I already said it.

I know why Goldberg is saying Jews must have this conversation among themselves. He said honestly at the beginning of the conversation at Yivo that Jews don’t sleep at nights worrying about whether someone is preparing the ovens for them. I know that I am not sympathetic enough to this strand of the Jewish psyche in this blog, largely because it was inculcated in me all my youth and turned out to be a misrepresentation of the American scene for Jews. Yet still those fears are there, in the older privileged set especially; and Goldberg said that even though that is not the reality, and that those fears are wrong, he must consider those fears when he addresses his audience. And when he sees his own reporting about Jewish power cited on antisemitc websites, or in Walt and Mearsheimer’s paper, "I feel guilty and I cringe." An honest man.

Clyde Haberman made something of the same point when he said that Jews "like" the fact that they are overrepresented in the media, "but they don’t like hearing it when it comes out of a non-Jew’s mouth; because it sounds like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion…."

Fascinating. I think this explains a lot of the reaction to Walt and Mearsheimer (who contrary to Goldberg’s assertion are not bigoted and ignorant and inflammatory, they are merely earnestly engaged in anatomizing the greatest foreign policy disaster in nearly 50 years). Non-Jews are not allowed to talk about this stuff, because they are Nazis. And so no discussion takes place, and Jews insist on having the discussion amongst themselves and writing W&M off as antisemites. Like I said, it’s un-American. Jews of my post-Holocaust generation have to have the courage to carry this discussion into the mainstream. It is about elitism and influence, and Americans have been having these types of conversations for 200 years now, without pogroms.   

P.S. One other comment that underlines my point. J.J. Goldberg took a shot at the former New Yorker writer Jeffrey Goldberg. He said that in writing about Hamas in the New Yorker, Jeffrey Goldberg quoted a right wing think tanker to the effect that the group "Islamic Jihad" was believed to be "an arm of Arafat’s operation." J.J. suggested that Jeffrey Goldberg was trying to "delegitimize any dealings with Arafat," by tying him to "mad bombers… Islamic Jihad," a group connected to Iran. J.J. Goldberg implied that quoting a rightwing thinktanker in this manner was irresponsible. "But he slipped it in. Because he’s got an agenda. People do that sometimes because they’ve got an agenda." Note that in the weeks to come, the Washington Post assigned Goldberg Jimmy Carter’s book on apartheid, which lo and behold he trashed. And subsequently Walt and Mearsheimer’s book to trash in the New Republic.   

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