Yesterday we picked up news of a vicious intellectual spat. In a letter circulating on the web, Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, smeared the magazine’s senior editor John Judis as an ignorant man who has formed his Jewish identity on the basis of criticizing Jews, who have no place in his heart. Wieseltier was responding to Judis’s “nasty” book Genesis, which says that Truman caved to the Zionist lobby in supporting the establishment of a Jewish state.
Wieseltier’s letter is so unhinged that it has helped Judis. In fact, the friendly fire is doing for Judis’s book what Eric Alterman’s Nation attack did for Max Blumenthal’s book, gotten it a lot of attention. The Nation covers this new fight gleefully. Peter Beinart is forceful:
— Peter Beinart (@PeterBeinart) February 26, 2014
Other critics of Wieseltier (and reader, there are many) have hit the cowardly theme. A friend points to the fact that Wieseltier did not publish his attack on Judis in The New Republic, but sent it to rightwinger Ron Radosh and gave him permission to circulate. This is an excerpt of an email that Radosh sent out:
Below is the link to my review of the vile book by Judis:
And below is Leon W’s comment, which he gave me permission to send out to all.
In that “comment,” Wieseltier asserts that Judis is an ignoramus and that the New Republic actually has a rich history of criticizing Israel.
Another friend of mine who has studied the New Republic offered the following notes on Wieseltier’s comment:
Judis is accused of being “a tourist in the subject”–a metaphor whose sense isn’t clear. On Truman’s decision, by his own account, Wieseltier is himself a tourist and Judis is not. The only other available sense is that Judis has lived in and visited Israel a great deal less than Wieseltier. Perhaps that is what he meant to indicate.
“For three decades and more, we [The New Republic] have published criticisms of Israeli policies, even bitter ones, by myself, Michael Walzer, and many others.”
This is extraordinarily misleading. You need only compare the criticisms of Israel in the New Republic since 1980 with its criticisms of Palestinians–for the supposed exaggeration of their claims of suffering and the deviousness or untenability of their political hopes–and the latter weigh much more heavily.
But in any case, what criticisms of Israel? If Wieseltier ever wrote anything longer then a standard pessimistic column or a short explosive digression that qualifies as any sort of criticism of Israel (it has never approached bitter), he should cite it. And Walzer has published nothing ever that could qualify as strong criticism of Israel; though he has made clear that he doesn’t admire the Netanyahu government and wishes the occupation would end. His longest statement on any Israeli policy came, in fact, in a cover-article in The New Republic in 1982, where he defended the invasion of Lebanon and predicted a new birth of peace in the region thanks to Begin’s initiative in scouring the northern border lands of PLO influence.
Wieseltier’s response to the disastrous 1982 war may be judged by his review of Jacobo Timerman’s book The Longest War–a book written in protest against that war, and deploring the chauvinism and bellicosity of a new national mood, which Timerman thought a betrayal of the ideals of the country. The review by Wieseltier in Harper’s was entitled “Have Conscience, Will Travel”; it accused Timerman of a moralistic tourism and a failure of an adequate sympathy with Israel: this, at a time when Timerman was living in Israel. So it looks as if the charge of tourism is apt to be leveled against any critic of Israel, however rooted in Israel, who actually ventures a strong criticism of the military action of an Israeli government. (Just a year earlier, Wieseltier had praised Timerman’s memoir Prisoner without a Name as “a classic of Zionism.”)
Some significant tests of the New Republic regarding critical observations of Israel: the First Intifada, the Lebanon War of 2006, and Operation Cast Lead of 2008-2009 (the mass killings in Gaza). What did the magazine publish on those subjects? On the first, a full-length article attempting to expose as a forgery the incident that set off the Palestinian protests. On Lebanon 2006, a series of frightening portraits of Hezbollah and its leadership, combined with strong support of the war. On Gaza, strong support and extenuating apologies. Wieseltier did not depart from the editorial emphasis of the magazine in any of those crises.
His column on the Israeli airstrike on a building in Qana in July 2006, which killed more than 50 persons (including 37 children), may be taken as a sample:
“I am thinking of the children who were killed by an Israeli airstrike in Qana. Since I support the Israeli war against Hezbollah, I have a duty to admit that I support a war in which such catastrophes happen. This is difficult; but the brutal truth is that it is not impossible. This hurts my brain. For Qana is not all I need to know about the war. Conscience is not the enemy of intelligence, and there is more about this conflict, about any conflict, that is pertinent to moral analysis. The exterminationist objective of Israel’s adversary and of its adversary’s patron, the rain of rockets launched precisely to kill non-combatants, the deployment of its arsenal in the thick of its own population: these, too, are facts of moral significance. For Hezbollah, the murder of innocents, in Israel and in Lebanon, is its strategy. And so I am not embarrassed by Israeli power, or by its use against this particular enemy. I notice also that some people who denounce the loss of life on the Lebanese side of the border are reticent about the loss of life on the Israeli side of the border. Perhaps more Israeli deaths would restore a perverse kind of moral parity, and correct their asymmetrical hearts.”