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For neoconservatives, Israel is a foreign and domestic issue

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From Daniel Luban’s n+1 book review Kristol Palace:

As Balint shows [in Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine That Transformed the Jewish Left into the Neoconservative Right], Commentary and the New York Intellectuals were rather ambivalent and lukewarm about Israel in the forties and fifties, and few of the original neoconservatives were committed Zionists; in this regard they were typical of American Jewry as a whole, which did not fully embrace Israel until after its victory in the 1967 Six-Day War. The neoconservative turn coincided with the critical decade following the 1967 war that saw the Yom Kippur attack on Israel in 1973 and the UN “Zionism is racism” resolution in 1975—a decade in which American Jews became deeply invested in the fate of Israel as they came to perceive it as under siege. Not all neoconservatives were Jewish, but the gentiles among them, like Jeane Kirkpatrick and Scoop Jackson, were as fervent in their backing of Israel as the movement’s Jewish majority.

Concern for Israel alone cannot explain why the neoconservatives turned against liberalism; after all, the Democratic Party in recent decades has been as indulgent a patron of Israel as the Republicans. But the neocons drew deeper lessons from the Arab-Israeli conflict about the indispensability of American power and the uselessness of international institutions. While liberals thought the conflict called for better diplomacy, the neocons blamed diplomacy itself, and a liberalism that was too impotent and equivocating to stand up for Israel. Their contempt for the UN and for European opinion in part can be traced to the view that the UN was actively hostile to Israeli interests and Europe insufficiently zealous in defense of them. American hegemony, in the neocon imagination, became the only reliable guarantor of Israel’s existence, and a US retreat into isolationism meant the abandonment of Israeli Jews to the same fate as their European predecessors.

As a matter of political strategy, if not ideological priority, supporting Israel meant supporting American involvement in the rest of the world. “Can anyone believe,” Irving Kristol warned in 1984, “that an American government which, in righteous moralistic hauteur, refuses to intervene to prevent a communist takeover of Central America will intervene to counterbalance Soviet participation in an assault on Israel?” If Jews truly hoped to protect Israel, he suggested, they must overcome their residual dovishness and accept the necessity of “a large and powerful [American] military establishment” willing to intervene all over the world.

For Kristol, the fate of Israel came to stand in implicit parallel with the fate of American Jewish liberalism, as the Arab rejection of Israel mirrored the rise of anti-Semitism in the African-American community. In Kristol’s writings from the seventies and eighties, collected in The Neoconservative Persuasion, Yasser Arafat figures in the same symbolic role abroad as Jesse Jackson at home; in fact, Kristol wrote, Jackson’s “mission has been to incorporate a Third World view of politics into the American political spectrum.” Both Arafat and Jackson served as demonstrations of the futility of Jewish good intentions: American Jews had fought for civil rights and for the welfare state just as Israelis had generously offered to live at peace with the Arabs, Kristol suggested, and in each case the rejection of their benevolence indicated the failure of liberalism. This allegedly implacable hostility towards Jews suggested to the neocons that they must start looking at politics through a different lens. Norman Podhoretz, whose own racial preoccupations were already apparent in his famous 1963 essay “My Negro Problem—And Ours,” indicated the new tack in a 1972 Commentary piece: “Is It Good for the Jews?”

Read the entire book review here.

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The neo-conservatives have a mixed background. Some were former Trotskyites who turned “permanent revolution” into “permanent counterrevolution.” But, their move to the right parallels that in Israel itself. Israel was very socialist in its early days and even had a brief alliance with the USSR in 1948-1949. They then fell out with Moscow over the issue of promoting Jewish emigration from the USSR. During the 1950s and early 1960s their closest ally was France. Only… Read more »

Israel started (US Jewry perception) as nice little self-determination enterprise, consistent with liberalism. Comes 1960, USA enjoys burst of liberal pro-democracy, pro-civil-rights at home, Jews still liberal. Comes 1967, Jews proud of poor beleaguered Israel, remain liberal. AND THEN Israel begins its push to Greater Israel, a lotta push-back, a lotta anti-Israel feeling develops, USA’s Jews abandon human rights (for Palestinians), abandon self-determination of peoples (for Palestinians), abandon international law and UN, LO AND BEHOLD… Read more »

If the sole or predominant motive was just to prevent a second Holocaust, couldn’t that have been accomplished just as well — and without abandoning their other values — by urging the U.S. to be willing to accept any and all refugees from Israel?

I thought the Troyskyists (not Trotskyites i.e. socialites) were tepid in their criticism of Israel’s seizure of East Jerusalem and the West Bank in 1967.

Reading the excerpt I was going to object that Luban left the Cold War out of his account, but if you read the whole article it’s very much present. It’s not like neoconservative ideas about the Middle East evolved in a vacuum. On the contrary, a lot of their thinking had roots in the liberal anti-Communism of the post-WWII period. Separating out what was specifically Jewish or Zionist or Israel-oriented from wider Cold War concerns… Read more »