My Jewish Problem, Cte’d: David Brooks Uses Code Words for the Elephant in the Room

Back when I was a kid, we used to denounce people who used code words for Jews. Rootless cosmopolitans was the classic. The modern variants were “pushy,” “aggressive,” and “New Yorkish.” It was antisemitism cloaked in euphemism.

Lately I’ve noticed where Jewish writers can’t talk openly about the Israel lobby, but resort to a similar sort of code. Yesterday in the New York Times, David Brooks…

spoke of an emerging political realignment that will transform the categories of right and left. On one side are populist nationalists, he said, whose foreign policy goals are “realist.” On the other are “elitists”: “progressive globalists” whose foreign policy is “multilateral interventionist.”

This is code. Brooks’s political radar is as usual keen, but he obviously has in mind Walt and Mearsheimer, the two realists who have made an explosive critique of the Israel lobby. When the realists analyze our foreign policy, from Fukuyama to Brzezinski to Walt, they talk about Israel/Palestine, and the separation of American interest from Israel’s. Brooks should deal with this argument openly, and engage the question. What he’s done here seems intellectually dishonest.

Brooks’s predecessor, William Safire, was open about Israel’s interests, and his devotion to them. Indeed, such frankness used to be the norm among neoconservatives. Bush aide Elliott Abrams wrote nine years ago that “To many American Jews, [support for Israel] became the essence of their understanding of their own Jewishness.” Now that support for Israel has become acutely politicized—and implicated in the Iraq disaster—you never see that sort of frankness among the neocons. The more power they have, the more nuanced and opaque they have become. Brooks is a journalist. He should be clearing away such mystification, not adding to it.

This goes under the heading of My Jewish Problem, because it is a reflection of my own discomfort as a progressive small-d democrat amid the mainstream Jewish presence in public life—specifically, my tribe’s ascension into the establishment alongside its inability to engage the political questions that arise from that power. I know where the discomfort comes from: persecution, antisemitism, and the Holocaust. But failing to address that presence and power directly, when questions are raised directly, is unbefitting of a democracy. There is a way to discuss this stuff without abandoning Israel or having pogroms in Iowa.

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