Tonight’s the big debate. I haven’t been so excited since Norman Mailer and Germaine Greer and Susan Sontag squared off over feminism. As a pipsqueak, I was on the wrong side then (Mailer’s), now I’m on the right one.
One cool thing about this event is you can play the West End in London or the Arena Stage in Washington forever, but nothing really matters till you come to New York. That’s the function of a cultural capital. New York has suppressed these ideas for a long time, but thanks to the London Review of Books, it’s taking them on tonight, as it should. As it provided the venue for Mailer and Greer, when they wrestled over the power of women.
The big question this time around is simple: Can we talk about the political power of Jews? I’m firmly in the yes camp.
Though it’s worth noting that Walt and Mearsheimer themselves have somewhat waffled about this issue, hedging their statements by saying we’re not talking about Jews, and the Christian right plays a role in the Israel lobby, etc., hey, that’s really the question. It has been latent in American society for a generation—through the meritocracy, which gave Jews a place in the Establishment, and the Clinton Administration, the most philosemitic administration ever, thru Larry Summers and Joe Lieberman. The reason it’s finally out on the table is one word, Iraq. We’ve alienated the world through a gigantic and obvious blunder that just about the entire establishment signed off on. John Mearsheimer and Steve Walt’s biggest contribution was to say plainly in the public square what any intellectual knows, that pro-Israel interests in the U.S. were an important if not critical factor in the decision to go to war (against a powerful Arab society that had attacked Israel), and the point of the ideological lance was the neoconservatives in the White House.
At the last public presentation of his ideas, at CAIR in Washington, John Mearsheimer was introduced fairly simply as a West Point graduate and professor of political science. It was an interesting signal; Mearsheimer was saying he’d come forward on this matter as a warrior/patriot. When the history of this awful war is written, the role of the military in the antiwar column will loom large. The generals who have bravely questioned the policy, the gold-star mothers beginning of course with Cindy Sheehan, the officers who have leaked things to Seymour Hersh, the Naval War College that defied congressional complaints and invited Walt and Mearsheimer to address young officers last June. You might even say that the military has given a bassline to the antiwar movement in a way that liberal Jews did the last time, Vietnam. Because this time the liberal Jews have been AWOL. Almost all the liberal Jewish congressmen who opposed Vietnam signed off on Iraq. I believe they had an Israel conflict. As did the neoliberal Jewish press. I’ve made something of the moral hazard involved when people whose children aren’t at risk to die make these kinds of decisions, and lately Chris Matthews has landed on the fact that none of the neocons has shouldered a weapon. As far as I can tell, David Gelernter of Yale is the only neocon with a kid in the military.
Mearsheimer’s partners tonight aren’t military. One is an Arab-American, the other a European/American Jew. I’m a New York Jew blogger in the audience. Some part of my excitement here has to do with my identity: The neocons made me Jewish again. Exactly what used to be said about the Nazis, that they made all these disaffiliated Jews Jewish. You’re a Jew, they said, off to Auschwitz, and a lot of those Jews said, Gosh yes, I guess I’m a Jew. The neocons and their liberal fellow travelers have produced a similar awakening in me. Here I was, an assimilated, intermarried American Jew, but in the darkness that the Bush and Cheney and the neocons have created in America, I’ve found myself scrabbling at my roots to try and understand what happened, and my Jewish roots have provided meaning. Something I’d distanced myself from a lot during my life I’ve now gotten closer to. When Douglas Feith told Jeffrey Goldberg in the New Yorker, as they gazed upon Herzl’s portrait in Feith’s library, that Jews should be for the war in Iraq, I said, Boys, leave me out of this….
Feith and Goldberg—overachievers. The issue in tonight’s debate, Jewish power, has a sociological piece: Jewish exceptionalism. Jewish achievement. As Yuri Slezkine has explained, modernity has a Jewish mental character; Jewish qualities of mind are required in the information age. Prince and peasant have given way to priest and merchant, Jewish roles, Slezkine writes in The Jewish Century; “modernization is about everyone becoming urban, mobile, literate, articulate, intellectually intricate…” The Nazis weren’t able to handle that, and reverted to murderous nationalism, but Americans can. Our country’s success is to some good measure Jewish success; and Jewish thinking is now one of the great engines of our economy, from finance to media to real estate. Anyone who seeks to describe the sociology of American leadership and can’t talk about this is being intellectually dishonest. It’s like talking about the history of football without talking about blacks. But of course journalists abdicated this issue a long time ago, they were too involved in the triumphant arrival themselves to step outside it, and so they wouldn’t tell us about the Jewish place in the meritocracy, in the elite, and damn sure wouldn’t talk about the Israel lobby. It took the London Review of Books and Walt and Mearsheimer to put it on the agenda.
The authors were themselves empowered by that Jewish engine; they couldn’t have written what they did, as social scientists, without drawing on the work of the New Historians in Israel. I’m hoping that this will be one of the subthemes of the debate: how an important thread of Israeli intellectual life, long ignored in the United States (and personified by Shlomo Ben-Ami, an opponent of Mearsheimer’s tonight), is finally forcing itself into the American discourse, thanks to two non-Jews, and about time.
Last week in the Nation, Alexander Cockburn said people have promised him for a long time that liberal American Jews were going to stand up to the Israel lobby, just wait. He’s been disappointed again and again, and the reason is that those engines of Jewish success & wealth in America have for at least a generation stood behind the maximalist position in Israel: Do what you like, we will make the American politicians toe the line. When LBJ asked Israeli P.M. Levi Eshkol in 1967, “What kind of Israel do you want?” (per Gershom Gorenberg’s book The Accidental Empire), LBJ was issuing a shrewd political koan. He was on the one hand acknowledging a fact, that henceforth American presidents were going to be reckoning with Jews as a powerful lobby in the U.S., and (in the middle of his own Vietnam nightmare) he was challenging Eshkol about the colonization that the Labor Party in Israel had lately licensed: the “settlements” in Arab territory. Everyone and his brother now says the settlements were a catastrophe. But who wanted that? Let’s be clear: those settlements happened in great measure because the Israel lobby in the U.S. tied American politicians down when they wanted to make one peep against activities that violated the Geneva Conventions. Thus did the “liberal secular” American Jewish leadership chain itself to forces of fundamentalist apartheid in the Middle East. I also have heard rumors over the last few months about a “lobby for the rest of us.” But where is the rest of us? For whatever reason (the Holocaust, militaristic projection fantasies), American Jews will not stand up to question the actions of this country most of them have never been to. Yes there are plenty of counterexamples, from MJ Rosenberg to JJ Goldberg to Mike Massing, but they’re exceptions.
One thing about blogging is I’ve gotten to imagine myself in the Jewish arguments of 60-80 years ago over the Jewish state. I think I would have been a cultural Zionist, as I’m a pluralist-global-village type now. Tony Judt, who’s on Mearsheimer’s team tonight, has come out for a binational state. That is one great value Americans can bring to this discussion, our history of pluralism. The pluralist strain in Zionist thinking has been crushed and bullied. Chaim Arlosoroff, the Arab-sympathizing political figure/thinker, was murdered on the beach in Tel Aviv in 1933, almost certainly by Revisionists, who were for a maximalist anti-Arab policy. The case has never been solved. (When a revisionist finally became Prime Minister, Begin in 1977, he was forced to reopen the case, again without resolution.) Rabin was killed ten years ago. Maximalists and generals have dominated Israeli politics for a long time. That’s not our problem. It’s time that maximalists and their blind supporters stopped dominating our politics too.