American Jews Unprepared For Attacks From the Left

“The jewel is in the eye of the lotus” is a Buddhist mantra. “The Jew is in the eye of the leftist” is a mantra of our time.

My National Review colleague Byron York reported on last Saturday’s anti-war rally on the Ellipse in Washington, D.C. The main message of the rally was President Bush’s evil and stupidity—fair enough, in a two-party system—and the main instance of it was Iraq. The warriors of the anti-war movement—Joan Baez, Ramsey Clark, Cindy Sheehan—were front and center.

A secondary text of the rally was Katrina; weather, the perennial joke of the newsroom, has become a main event. But another theme was anti-Zionism. As Mr. York reports, kaffiyehs outnumbered American flags. George Galloway, the left-wing M.P., wore one around his neck. Occasionally, the themes were weirdly conflated: One group of college kids chanted, “From Palestine to New Orleans, no more money for the war machine.”

Now, on the one hand, this is fringe stuff, as many liberals and war opponents themselves recognize. The liberal Daily Kos Web site was filled with negative comments on the rally, seeing it as an off-message distraction from the duty of beating Republicans. But the fringe itself, including the Jew-bashing fringe, is perilously close to the center. Who else in the Democratic Party has passion, or ground troops, these days?

I started writing full-time the year I moved to New York City, which was 1977. The notion that Jews could be a punching bag was inconceivable then. Jews were it, here and therefore nationally. They were a Bendel bonnet, a Shakespeare sonnet, Mickey Mouse. Saul Bellow had won the Nobel Prize the year before. Abe Beame, the first Jewish Mayor, was about to surrender Gracie Mansion to three terms of Ed Koch, the second Jewish Mayor. Everyone praised Jews, and indeed they seemed universally praiseworthy. Those who didn’t got into trouble. In 1979, Andrew Young, Jimmy Carter’s ambassador to the U.N., met with a representative from the P.L.O. and promptly lost his job. (Who knew that Yasir Arafat would have his own Nobel Prize soon enough?)

This high tide of nachas began to abate with the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. NBC’s John Chancellor compared Israeli operations to the bombing of Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. (What, then, was the Syrian regime in Lebanon, which has only now begun to crack? Spain after the Spanish Civil War?) Comparing Israel to brutal bombers—fascist ones at that—was a new trope in mainstream American journalism.

More was coming. In 1984, Jesse Jackson made his first run for the Democratic Presidential nomination. The Jackson campaign was both part of the old world and harbinger of the new. When Mr. Jackson said, in a reporter’s hearing, that he was headed for an event in “Hymietown” (i.e., New York City), he had to apologize. When Nation of Islam cleric Louis Farrakhan, who had been warming up Jackson rallies, called Judaism a “gutter” religion, he was dropped from the campaign. Yet Mr. Jackson went on to a second Presidential run and elder statesmanship. Even Mr. Farrakhan, like a comet, periodically reappeared in the fringes of respectability, as people hoped against hope that he had mellowed. Somewhere, Andrew Young was wincing.

The next step down for Jews was the intifada. Maybe they shouldn’t have invaded Lebanon. Maybe we shouldn’t have fought the Vietnam War. Countries make mistakes. But the intifada cast Israel as Goliath in the West Bank and, increasingly, in Israel itself. When Palestinian kids threw rocks, Israel looked like Bull Connor. When Palestinian terrorists planted bombs, Israel looked prophetically like the Marines trying to retake Falluja. Palestinians became what the Israelis and Jews had always been: underdogs. In P.R. terms, the intifada turned Israel into a run-of-the-mill occupier, and American Jews who supported it into run-of-the-mill apologists.

American Jews were unprepared for this change of weather, to put it mildly. Historically, their enemies—even in this Hitler-less country—had been on the right. T.S. Eliot’s pokes and jabs; Richard Nixon and Billy Graham grumping together in the Oval Office—these were the villains Jews were used to in American life. Philip Roth is so used to them he just wrote a novel about Charles Lindbergh becoming President in 1940. Jews reacted to these enemies by embracing criticality in all its manifestations, socialist and psychoanalytic. It was a way of blending in. If what ails us is class, Eros and Thanatos, not religion or ethnicity, then Jews could be off the hook, or at least on the same hook as everybody else. Since, in a majority-gentile country, the institutions to be criticized were mostly gentile, Jews could also take a safe whack at their tormentors. But like all strategies too long persisted in, this one was inflexible; when enemies appeared on the left, Jews were like the British in Singapore, their guns pointing uselessly out to sea.

Think of the word “neocon” and its current usage. The actual neocons were Jewish intellectuals who began thinking outside the Great Society box in the 70’s. Some of them—Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz—became conservative Republicans. Others—Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer—remained liberal Democrats. Pat Moynihan allowed the neocons to say that they weren’t all Jewish. But none of that is what “neocon” now means. “Neocon” now means hook-nosed Nosferatu-the-vampire warmongers who plotted the invasion of Iraq, and the dumb goyim they manipulate. When Mick Jagger sings about “sweet neocon,” or when Maureen Dowd uses the word, every other paragraph or so, that is what they evoke. They evoke it, I am afraid, even if they don’t intend to, for the words we use can carry their own freight, and we are not always in charge of packing and unpacking them.

Who likes Jews now? Jews certainly don’t like themselves. The situation of Israel, and their imagined complicity in it, is an emotional dilemma for them, impossible to resolve. Who is left? Back comes the answer: evangelical Protestants. A few years ago, I wrote a song (half tongue in cheek) based on the old Roy Acuff country hit “Precious Jewel,” to explain the new alignment of forces:

Oh my precious Jew,

You bring on the end-times.

We’ll fight for your country from A-rabs to save.

And when we are through

We’ll meet you in Heaven

Where you will take Christ in your hearts so depraved.

It’s a long way from reading Walter Benjamin. The humiliation must be unbearable. The average American Jew would rather be blown up in a pizza parlor than shake hands with such people. But here we are, and I don’t seeing it changing anytime soon.