I’ve often written that the neoconservatives
became far less transparent about their devotion to Israel once they attained
power. It was one thing to write as Jewish intellectuals about Middle East policy
in books and little magazines in the 1970s, as Norman Podhoretz did when he said American isolationism was "a direct threat to the security of Israel," and quite another to be actually affecting
that foreign policy and talking openly as Jews about Israel. Thus all the 2000-era neocon manifestos for invading Iraq–David Wurmser’s book, or Perle and Frum’s, or Lawrence Kaplan and Bill Kristol’s, or even neolib Paul Berman’s–put the emphasis on reforming tyrannies in the Arab world, and were rather quiet about Israel per se. Though yes, the idea that Israel is a perfect democracy and there is nothing wrong with the occupation is inherent in all these books, as well as the idea that Saddam’s paying for suicide bombers in Israel was somehow a reason for the U.S. to invade.
The Israel agenda got even quieter after the Iraq war turned into a disaster and suspicions grew in the antiwar movement and among the paleoconservatives that
the neocon planners of the war were motivated in good part by concerns for Israel’s security. I’ve been on one side of this argument; but it’s interesting to consider that the neocons feel hunted, and maybe even afraid.
The evidence I have is neoconservative Bill Kristol’s performance in September 2006 at Yivo Institute, on a panel about "Jewish Journalists, American Journalism." I’m looking back at the panel because Kristol, the neoconservative editor of the Weekly Standard, has
lately become a columnist at the New York Times, stirring controversy. In the video of that night, Kristol was the most emotional person on the stage. He tried to restrain his feelings, making jokes and rhetorical flourishes and jabs at J.J. Goldberg, the editor of the Forward, still the feeling that came through was, here is a guy who is full of anger about the growing tendency to blame Jewish neocons for America’s disastrous policy in the Middle East, to the point that Kristol even indulged an audience member’s crazy suggestion that Iraq-war-booster/reporter Judy Miller had been marginalized by the New York Times because she is Jewish. .
Moderator David Margolick began by asking the panelists to talk with “searing
honesty” about how Jewishness had affected their work. The first to answer
was Kristol, and he refused to answer
the question. He said that he hated when moderators asked panelists to respond with searing
honesty and he would ignore the injunction. He went on to
discuss the outwardly-Jewish aspects of his work, which he said were minimal. He had worked mostly in a non-Jewish world, including the Bush I White House. There were very few Jews at his magazine, The
Weekly Standard. The magazine rarely wrote about Israel but did have expertise on the Arab world. He hadn’t been discriminated against or judged for being Jewish.
That is, not until the
recent “insanity” over the neocon cabal, he said with raw feeling.
Kristol’s answer was so emphatic
that a little while later J.J. Goldberg said that
Kristol had said that Jewishness “didn’t affect” his writing, and Kristol
snapped, “I didn’t say that" and went on, “I just chose to address the
question” in terms of how people reacted to his Jewishness. “I don’t choose to,
actually, to say autobiographically, whether my Jewishness affects my
writing.”And so a panel on Jewish journalists began with a frank evasion by a panelist. Kristol’s anger at JJ Goldberg seemed mean, a reflection
of how much he had been hurt by the accusations against the neoconservatives (even though JJ is one of the liberal Jews who have provided cover to the neocons’ Jacobin Jabotinskyism).
And lurking just beneath the surface of Kristol’s comments all night was the powerful sense that Jewish identity motivates his work, and indeed that he endorses a parochial Jewish perspective in American public life. He never said so forthrightly. I conclude as much because
of a number of off-the-cuff statements all suggestive of an intense
Jewish chauvinism, but not a chauvinism that he could be upfront
about. To return to my opening theme, never once did Kristol speak as directly as his father Irving did in 1973 when he said that the Democratic party’s efforts to weaken the defense budget were "a knife in the heart of Israel… it is now an
interest of the Jews to have a large and powerful military establishment in the United States…
American Jews who care about the survival of the state of Israel have to say, no, we
don’t want to cut the military budget." Nor did he speak as directly as his late uncle Milton Himmelfarb did in 1971 (in an essay that Kristol’s mother republished last year in a collection of her brother’s work) when he said that American Jews had helped enable the Holocaust by complacently aligning themselves with "enlightened" opinion and the need to see the "big, unparochial picture."
What I am saying is that Kristol seems to have those very ideas, of his father and uncle, but is not direct about them. How do I know this? It came out in hint
and suggestion. For instance, when an audience member said of the evangelical Christians, "Who needs those allies?" Kristol blurted, "Israel does." He went on to say that Israel could not count on one constituency or another in the U.S. and thus had to broaden its alliances. Later he said that the more religious Jews are, the more conservative their politics are–i.e., suggesting he’s quite religious–and then embraced the parochialism his uncle advocated by saying that Jews can operate in American politics in much the way that evangelical Christians
like Fred Barnes do, or that Catholics like Antonin Scalia do. I.e., everyone in their own doctrinal box.
Whenever anyone tried to probe Kristol’s Jewish attachments, he bridled. When Goldberg said that Kristol’s father had been secular, Kristol said there you go again, and accused Goldberg of "imputing" religious ideas to people without knowing what he was talking about. When a female audience member pointed out–brilliantly, I wish I knew her name–that Kristol’s magazine regularly cited Human Rights Watch’s reports on atrocities when it came to any number of foreign countries, Iraq, Egypt, Afghanistan, but then savaged Human Rights Watch when it criticized Israel’s horrible behavior in the Lebanon war, from which she deduced that Kristol’s Jewish-American identity had shaped his coverage of Israel, Kristol brushed her off. "I’m proud of being Jewish, and my world view is shaped by being Jewish," he said, but he then went on to object to her "reductivism." You can’t reduce my foreign policy or anyone else’s to my religion. Oh no? When he spoke of his disillusionment with the mainstream media, the incident he cited was the Jenin invasion by the Israel Defense Forces in 2002 that was initially characterized as a "massacre" (and surely destroyed many innocent Palestinians). An Israel-borne epiphany. When Goldberg said that Jews have a problem because people around the world believe U.S. foreign policy is skewed by Jewish influence, Kristol said sharply, "What’s the problem?" and denied that Jews play a special role in shaping policy in the Middle East. When Goldberg said that Walt and Mearsheimer were leading academics and “not schmucks,” Kristol jumped
in and said, “They are, as it happens, but that’s another story.”
And then Judith Miller. Someone in the audience suggested that the Times should have rehired Judy Miller in the wake of certain revelations in the Plame case that tended to exonerate her (revelations too complex for me to get my head around here) but did not do so because she was Jewish. Kristol commented, "That’s a good question." Huh. Does he really think the Times is antisemitic? For me, Kristol’s vibe was: Jews are being persecuted because of the Iraq war. And the gestalt of his performance was: Israel is front and center for this guy, but he is loath to show it because he doesn’t want to arm his enemies.
Beyond the fact that Kristol was tragically wrong in his pushing the invasion of Iraq and has never paid a career price for that, that seems to me the big downside of his becoming a columnist for the Times, the likelihood that he will never do what a columnist really ought to do from time to time, that his uncle and father did, and tell the reader with searing honesty what he cares about most and why.