Response to Tough Dove on Dual Loyalty Charge, and Others

Simkhe accuses me of ignoring a lot of other leftwing Jews’ critiques of the neocons, and assuming I’m the first Jew to notice. I’m sure you’re right; it’s not a discourse I’m that familiar with. One thing I’d note is that I talked to Phyllis Bennis a couple years back and, yes she knows the issue better than I do, but she also said she wasn’t bringing her Jewishness into it, it’s an American issue, she’s talking to Americans. One thing I’m trying to do is bring my Jewishness right in, figure out my own Jewish American identity in the process…

Tough Dove hits me for going over the line in the dual loyalty post. He and I go way back, we were young Jews at Harvard together. I consider him a friend. He says I’m unleashing plagues by using such language. Toughdove and I had lunch together a few months ago and he stated a similar fear at that time.

The first thing is, Toughdove is a political activist. I admire his work, which he refers to. He’s in the liberal community, he’s been sweating away at this issue for a long time before I even came around. Hats off to him. I’m not a political activist, I’m a writer. I’m interested in ideas here, and not as worried about the political consequences as I am about where the truth lies. Toughdove is holding the possibility of pogroms over me; a, I don’t see them, and b, I feel as if Toughdove is failing to register the tremendous difference between Jewish status in America and the history of the diaspora in Europe from ghetto to emancipation to marginalization to extermination. I think our experience here is altogether a new thing, and really does challenge Jews to redefine their sense of their separateness from the goyim. It’s a challenge to Jewish consciousness, and it’s huge, sociologically.

On the ideas, I don’t think Toughdove is responding to the point, which I would sharpen here: I don’t think a Washington thinktank should tell us to invade Iraq based on the views of someone who is voting in both Israel and the U.S.—without telling us as much. I don’t think the New Yorker should be running pieces on All the good reasons to invade Iraq by a guy who served in the Israeli military, without telling us that. That to me is over the line. I love a pluralist America. But Toughdove is deluding himself if he thinks the debacle in Iraq does not legitimately open the door on a (yes, emotionally charged) issue: How much the U.S. has conflated Israel’s interests and our own, to our detriment. Sorting those interests out, when the Middle East is afire, is honorable work.

I bridle at Toughdove’s claim that certain ideas are off limits because racists and antisemites have espoused them. That is anti-intellectual of him. Tony Judt has been eloquent on this point. I won’t be bound by that type of blackmail—especially when so many people are suffering in Iraq. The liberals in Toughdove’s camp who would quiet me here are shielding themselves from the tremendous negative consequences of the neocons’ ideas. They worry about some possible pogrom in America; well thanks to a lot of causes Americans now need to examine, there are pogroms right now, killing far more people than the Russian pogroms of the 1880s, in Iraq. I bet Toughdove’s children are not in any danger of dying in Iraq.

One other point. As I said, Toughdove went to Harvard, i.e., he gained Establishment certification. Two other liberal Jewish friends of mine from Harvard have written important pieces about Walt-Mearsheimer, the latest being Jim Traub in the New York Times Magazine the other day. Both these pieces, ala Toughdove, have written off as highly questionable/antisemitic the two scholars’ questioning of the morality of Israel’s founding. W-M dared to bring up the expulsion of the Arabs in ’48 and said, Hey guess what, Israel isn’t lily-white here—but we still believe there was a moral basis for its founding and that it has a right to exist. Both pieces I’m referring to (the other was in the NYRB) then quoted Israeli historian Benny Morris, who feels, angrily, that W-M had misused his historical work. Both pieces accepted Morris’s view to argue that W-M are out of line.

I think this is an intellectual shortcoming. The treatment of the Arabs in the ’48 War of Independence is something that American intellectuals should consider fully for themselves, that American Jews ought to know about, and Americans generally. Benny Morris isn’t the only informant here; there is Norman Finkelstein, Shlomo Ben-Ami (in Scars of War, Wounds of Peace), and many Arab writers. But Jewish American writers routinely dismiss the issue out of hand. I’m not talking about the right of return per se, I’m not talking about the failure of Arab states to absorb the refugees in the last 58 years, I’m not talking about suicide bombers. I’m talking about a simple historical question: What befell these people? And what did we do in the U.S. to foster it?

In the liberal U.S. Jewish community, there’s a real inability even to look at this because of the concerns about the political consequences. Joseph Lelyveld, the former executive editor at the Times, and author of a powerful book against apartheid (Move Your Shadow), 2 years ago published a memoir, Omaha Blues, where he talks about his Zionist father Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld’s effort in the 1940s (underwritten by the nascent Zionist lobby) to discredit opposition to the formation of a Jewish state that came from my intellectual ancestors: assimilationist (or integrationist, as Rabbi Elmer Berger put it) non-Zionists and anti-Zionists within the Jewish community in the U.S. In his memoir, thoughtful Lelyveld never really considers the actual consequences of his father’s actions. It’s a matter for celebration, presumably. And yes, I grew up celebrating Israel’s founding; and not knowing anything about al-Nakba, what the Palestinians call their catastrophe.

Acknowledgement of this catastrophe in our discourse would actually go some way toward healing the tremendous rage, and wounds, in the Middle East. That’s the intellectual dereliction; let’s open this up for discussion; thank you W-M! We’re Americans, proud and free! Last night I met a young Palestinian Arab living in Syria, lately come to the U.S. on a State Department scholarship to study. He has a private dream. That one day he can achieve a status in this country that will allow him to visit the village his parents and grandparents described to him, growing up, a village they fled in war out of fear of massacre. He just wants to see it. Right now, he is stateless and angry. Can American Jews not understand his feelings of displacement?