I have just read “In Search of Anti-Semitism” [National Review, December 31, 1991], and I am, quite frankly, relieved. The reason is that it did not confirm my deepest apprehensions upon first hearing the top-secret rumor that you were writing a very long essay by that title which would take a new look at the charges of anti-Semitism against Joe Sobran, Pat Buchanan, Gore Vidal, and the Dartmouth Review.
No doubt you are wondering, perhaps a little testily, why this rumor should have made me so apprehensive. Well, our mutual friend George Will once observed that one does not call a conference on “Whither Incest?” in order to reaffirm the prohibition against incest. Just so, it is reasonable to suspect that one does not necessarily go in search of anti-Semitism in order to find it. Anti-Semitism is, after all, easy enough to unearth without a search warrant; conversely, if one needs to search in order to find it, the possibility arises that it may not be there at all.
But I am being a little disingenuous here (though no more than I admit—see below—I have sometimes found you to be on the subject of anti-Semitism). The truth is that, after discussing the issue with you several times over the past ten years—first in connection with the response to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and then more recently in connection with Sobran and Buchanan—I had come away with the sinking feeling that (forgive me, even though I can hardly forgive myself, for borrowing from the feminists) you just didn’t get it.
But, you are fully entitled to ask me, what about your past record not only in spotting anti-Semitism when it appeared in your own immediate environs but also in fighting to expunge it? In your new essay, you remind us of that record, and the pride you take in it shines through. So it should; it is a very honorable record indeed.
You begin with a casual shocker: “I have some credentials in the area, among them my own father’s anti-Semitism.” You also confess that in 1937, at the age of eleven, you “wept tears of frustration at being forbidden by senior siblings” to accompany them on an adventure that consisted of burning a cross outside a Jewish resort. But later in life, putting away childish things, and having come to see in the wake of the Holocaust that “The age calls for hypersensitivity to anti-Semitism, over against a lackadaisical return to the blasé conventions of the prewar generation, which in one country led to genocidal catastrophe,” you set your face most resolutely against anti-Semitism. When you founded National Review in 1955 and became its editor, you recall, the magazine
declined association with anti-Semites, and indeed on one occasion went a generic step further. When it became clear, in 1957, that the direction the American Mercury was headed was anti-Semitic, I ruled, with the enthusiastic approval of my colleagues, that no writer appearing on the Mercury‘s masthead, notwithstanding his own innocence on the subject, could also appear on National Review‘s.
There can be no doubt that this was indeed a “generic step.” Before you took it, the American Right had provided a rather comfortable home for anti-Semitic ideas, attitudes, and feelings, even if many on the Right were themselves, as individuals, “innocent on the subject.” Thanks to you, however, a process of purgation, of cleansing, began. It is a process that still remains to be completed, but so far has it already gone that—as your successor to the editorship of National Review, John O’Sullivan, puts it in his introduction to your essay—“When anti-Semitism appears today outside the restricted confines of the country club . . ., it is almost invariably a left-wing phenomenon.”
Nearly 30 years later came the case of Joe Sobran, which you review at length in the first part of “In Search of Anti-Semitism.” The salient points are that in 1986, Sobran, then a senior editor of National Review, wrote a number of syndicated columns which many people regarded as unambiguously anti-Semitic. Complaints were made both orally and in writing to him, to you, and to some of your colleagues. You responded in due course with an extraordinary editorial in National Review denying that Sobran was anti-Semitic but acknowledging that
Any person who, given the knowledge of the reigning protocols, read and agonized over the half-dozen columns by Joe Sobran might reasonably conclude that those columns were written by a writer inclined to anti-Semitism.
Invoking the precedent you had set in connection with the American Mercury in 1957, you concluded by dissociating yourself and your colleagues “from what we view as the obstinate tendentiousness of Joe Sobran’s recent columns” (even though those columns had not appeared in National Review itself). While you did not go so far as to drop him from your board of senior editors (that would come in 1991, over the Gulf War), you did forbid him to write in National Review on Jews, Judaism, or Israel.
As for my own role, which you now rehearse in great—perhaps too great—detail, it consisted at first only of being among those whose complaints had led to this outcome. Later I wrote an article for COMMENTARY entitled “The Hate That Dare Not Speak Its Name” [November 1986] which was mainly about Gore Vidal and the Nation (a case you take up in Part 4 of your essay) but which concluded with a section about Sobran and National Review. Later still, you and I had a rather sharp two-round exchange of unpublished letters about a piece by Sobran in defense of himself against me and some of his other critics that you published in National Review. “In Search of Anti-Semitism” contains extensive quotes from that exchange (with more space devoted to your letters than to mine—but who’s counting?), and you naturally give yourself the last word with seven points in rebuttal.
My guess is that any reader of that section of your essay who is unfamiliar with “The Hate That Dare Not Speak Its Name” will get the impression that I had been one of those who, you report, were dissatisfied with the way you handled “the Sobran crisis.” Curiously enough, in spite of the praise I lavished upon your behavior in “The Hate That Dare Not Speak Its Name,” you seem to lapse at moments into that impression yourself. So let me make things Kristol clear (pun intended, naturally).
I thought then, and I think now, that you acted nobly in confronting a “beloved” (your word) disciple and colleague and trying to set him straight in private on a matter of great delicacy and difficulty. I thought then, and I think now, that going public with your chastisement of him when he remained obdurate was an act of high statesmanship. Had you lacked the courage to perform it, grave damage would have resulted to the reputation of your magazine and of the conservative movement it has done more than any other single force to establish as an influential presence in the mainstream of our political culture. I wondered then, and I wonder now, whether I would have had the stuff to acquit myself so well in an analogous situation.
In short, I have no hesitation in including your handling of Sobran on the list of your accomplishments in fighting anti-Semitism on the Right. (Until, that is, you tarnished that accomplishment by deciding to publish what I called his “unrepentant and disingenuous” rebuttal in National Review—about which more below.)
Finally, to complete the list of your struggles to cleanse the conservative movement of anti-Semitism, we come to the case of Pat Buchanan. To my mind, the section on him in “In Search of Anti-Semitism” is the best, and politically the most important, news about the essay. Here, to my gratified surprise, you conclude another long and careful review of the record by stating simply and clearly, and without any fancy dancing, that you
find it impossible to defend Pat Buchanan against the charge that what he did and said during the period under examination amounted to anti-Semitism, whatever it was that drove him to say and do it. . . .
Again, if you are wondering why I should have been surprised, I would refer you to the column you wrote on the subject after Abe Rosenthal, in his column in the New York Times, had (as you put it) “gone ballistic” in charging Buchanan with anti-Semitism. Your own judgment at that time was that Buchanan was merely “insensitive to those fine lines that tend publicly to define racially or ethnically offensive analysis or rhetoric.” You also seemed to endorse the view that what others took to be anti-Semitism was in reality an attraction in Buchanan to “mischievous generalizations.” Worse yet, you concluded with a peroration which in my opinion came perilously close to falling into the abyss of moral equivalence in its assessment of the debate:
The Buchanans need to understand the nature of sensibilities in an age that coexisted with Auschwitz. And the Rosenthals need to understand that clumsy forensic manners are less than a genocidal offense. . . .
You now reveal that you were uneasy with the points left unexplored in this column, and that this is what prompted you to investigate further and eventually to write “In Search of Anti-Semitism.” Yet to tell you the truth, I saw little sign of any such uneasiness at the meeting of conservatives you called around that time to discuss Desert Shield. Inevitably, a good part of that meeting was devoted to the Buchanan question, and whereas a number of the non-Jewish participants were willing to say unequivocally that Buchanan’s pieces on Desert Shield—along with some of the remarks he had made on television and in other columns dealing with Israel, American Jews, and Nazi war criminals—added up to anti-Semitism, you were conspicuously reluctant to join them. You kept raising questions and introducing distinctions that struck me (see above) as disingenuous and logic-chopping and that served more to darken counsel than to advance understanding.
Hence my gratified surprise when I read the results of your subsequent investigation of and reflections on the case of Buchanan. And I was all the more gratified to discover that Joshua Muravchik’s scrupulously documented article in COMMENTARY, “Patrick J. Buchanan and the Jews” [January 1991], had helped you resolve some of your earlier doubts and reach your new conclusion.
In the cover letter accompanying the advance copy you sent me of “In Search of Anti-Semitism,” you wrote: “I have a feeling you will agree with 95 per cent of my own conclusions, nuanced though they are—which means to run special risks. . . .” As it happens, 95 percent may be a little high, since I would have to deduct at least 5 percent alone for your positively talmudic (or should the word be Jesuitical—as from before the Jesuits went Left, of course?) whitewash of Russell Kirk. I acknowledge that he deserves your deepest respect as one of the founding fathers of the contemporary conservative movement. But that does not remove the anti-Semitic stench from his crack that “not seldom has it seemed as if some eminent neoconservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States.”
Still, I do agree with a great deal of your essay. On your conclusions about Gore Vidal and the Nation, for example, there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between us—though that may not be saying much, given that we have long seen eye to eye where the growth of anti-Semitism on the Left is concerned.
On the other hand, it may perhaps strike you as more significant that I am with you all the way in your section exonerating the Dartmouth Review of the charge of anti-Semitism. Some people are always complaining that false charges of anti-Semitism are just as bad as anti-Semitism itself. I doubt it, but even stipulating that in certain circumstances it may be so, it remains the case that for these people, virtually all charges of anti-Semitism are false. The reasoning seems to be that the accusation of anti-Semitism is so damaging that not even those who make blatantly anti-Semitic statements should be subjected to it. (Remember when the press refused to call even outspoken members of the Communist party Communists?) For some, nothing short of releasing the gas into the showers of Auschwitz constitutes anti-Semitism; and even that may not be enough—assuming (they quickly go on to add) that such a thing ever really happened; or if it did happen, that it resulted in as many deaths as “the Jews” claim it did.
Yet for once, in the Dartmouth Review, we have a genuine example of false charges of anti-Semitism doing damage to innocent victims. I see no good reason to rehash your excellent summary of the particulars of this case here, but there is one crucial point that needs to be extended and stressed.
In dealing with the Dartmouth Review, you return to the question you raised earlier in discussing Sobran and Buchanan of whether there is “a nexus between anti-Semitism and opposition to the policies of Israel.” But this time—because the Dartmouth Review defended itself against the charge of anti-Semitism by emphasizing that it had always been a supporter of Israel—you raise the question in order “to probe the contrapositive assumption, namely that friendship toward Israel exonerates one from any suspicion of anti-Semitism.” Your own position is that
this is as a practical matter true, though not conclusively so. It is difficult to imagine someone who is anti-Semitic and pro-Israel. But such could exist, e.g., the (hypothetical) man who wishes Zionism to flower so that Jews in the rest of the world would be attracted to emigrate; so to speak, inaugurating an anti-diasporization.
Now, to be fair, your hypothetical man is not hypothetical at all; in the 19th century, the founder of political Zionism himself, Theodor Herzl, used this very argument with some success to enlist Gentile support. But that was in another country and those wenches have long since died. Today, I for one would insist, it is impossible “to imagine someone who is anti-Semitic and pro-Israel.” But what about Solzhenitsyn, who is thought by many to be anti-Semitic and yet is certainly pro-Israel, possibly for the very reason that he wants all the Jews of Russia to go there? In an essay on Solzhenitsyn a few years ago, I grappled with this question, and came up with the following answer:
. . . Solzhenitsyn has always defended Israel, even to the point of invidiously comparing the courage of the Israelis in the face of their Arab enemies with the appeasement of the Soviet Union by the Western democracies. To be sure, there was a time when it was possible for an anti-Semite to be a Zionist of sorts. . . . But in our own day, Israel has become the touchstone of attitudes toward the Jewish people, and anti-Zionism has become the main and most relevant form of anti-Semitism. So much is this the case that almost anything Solzhenitsyn may think about the role of Jews in the past—or even in the post-Communist Russia of his dreams—becomes academic by comparison.
This was published in February 1985, and pausing for a minute to express my awe at the realization in so short a time of Solzhenitsyn’s dreams, which then seemed so far off, I want to call your special attention to the sentence I have now put in italics. For it is here that you and I have our sharpest disagreements, and it is here that I come to the bad news about “In Search of Anti-Semitism.”
As between the two of us, the story goes back to “J’Accuse,” the article I wrote for COMMENTARY [September 1982] about the response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and the two columns you then wrote in response to it.
I recall this old controversy not because I have any desire to awaken sleeping dogs, but because you yourself dig it up in your essay—and in a most peculiar way. Instead of tackling it directly, as you do with the other instances of debate between us which you describe in other parts of “In Search of Anti-Semitism,” you drag it in via endless quotations from a piece by one Allan Brownfield attacking “J’Accuse,” as well as a speech I made a few years later at a conference of Jewish journalists in Jerusalem.1 Brownfield you identify as “a syndicated columnist who is himself Jewish,” which is true as far as it goes but omits the more relevant information that he is violently anti-Zionist (being, in fact, the editor of an American Council for Judaism newsletter) and hence violently anti-COMMENTARY and me.
Be that as it may, in one of the passages you reproduce, Brownfield repeats the widely circulated lie that in “J’Accuse” I equated any and all criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. You then make this comment:
The episode to which Brownfield refers is well remembered by readers of COMMENTARY. It was the general judgment of the concerned community (I was among the critics, devoting a column to the subject) that Podhoretz’s fears and condemnations were exaggerated. . . .
Here either your memory is failing you (if so, welcome to the club) or you are once again slipping into disingenuousness (ditto). Whichever, there are three errors in the second of the two sentences quoted above: (1) The mail on “J’Accuse” showed that the “concerned community” overwhelmingly endorsed my thesis that the coverage of and comment on the Israeli invasion of Lebanon went far beyond unfairness and gave witness to “an eruption of anti-Semitism.” (2) You devoted, as I have already indicated, not one but two columns to the subject, in the second of which you answered me and others who had complained to you about the first. (3) Neither you nor the other critics of “J’Accuse” thought that my “fears and condemnations were exaggerated,” as you now so blandly phrase it. What you all thought, or at any rate said, was summed up in a letter I sent you on the day your first column appeared. Instead of paraphrasing that letter, I will follow the example you set in “In Search of Anti-Semitism” of quoting from private correspondence when it serves to illuminate. Here, then, are a couple of the relevant passages from my letter:
Nearly fifteen years ago, I began earning the enemies you congratulate me on having by pointing to the prevalence of anti-Americanism on the American Left. This charge elicited . . . vituperation and evasive action: “Podhoretz smears anyone who criticizes America as anti-American.” To this I would reply: “Yes, to be sure, there is such a thing as legitimate criticism of America, but the phenomenon I am pointing to is more properly called ‘anti-Americanism.’”
Now you, of all people, come along and make an analogous charge against an analogous argument. . . . I was careful to say in “J’Accuse” that not all critics of Israel’s incursion into Lebanon are anti-Semitic; I specifically mentioned the New York Times editorial page as an example. Yet like my own critics on the Left . . ., you charge—and the Washington Post delightedly highlights the charge in bold type—that I “label as anti-Semitic the critics of Israel’s campaign against the PLO in Lebanon.”
Your response to this appeal was to write in your second column about two weeks later that
although Podhoretz did not accuse every opponent of Israel’s policies of being anti-Semitic, he was mistaken to the extent that he suggested that any of those he quoted (this side of the fever swamps inhabited by such as Alexander Cock-burn) is motivated by anti-Semitism.
But I was never talking about motivation; I was talking about words on paper, and I said that both in the interest of intellectual honesty and for the sake of social hygiene, those words could, indeed must, be characterized as anti-Semitic. About five years later, in arguing with you about Joe Sobran, I again emphasized that the question of whether he was an anti-Semite could be left to those who presume to know the secrets of the human heart; as for me, it was enough to observe that he had written anti-Semitic articles.
To clarify the distinction further, I will add that any person not motivated by anti-Semitism who wishes to avoid being called anti-Semitic need only refrain from voicing anti-Semitic ideas or sentiments. And might we not expect that such a person would be appalled if shown, through careful documentation and analysis, that he has blundered into anti-Semitism? For example, Nicholas von Hoffman, whose anti-Semitic remarks I cited in “J’Accuse,” had the decency to be thus appalled at the sight of what he had said.
Sobran, however, was not only unrepentant, he was defiant. Like Pat Buchanan after him, who would declare “I don’t retract a single word,” Sobran stuck by his guns; and again anticipating Buchanan, he represented himself as an innocent victim of Jewish pressure, a courageous speaker of forbidden truths who, if the Jews had their way, would be censored.
You agreed when I said that Sobran was unrepentant. But you became (in your own word) “peevish” when I expressed my dismay at the fact that, in violation as I saw it of your promise to keep him from writing on Jewish themes, you nevertheless had opened the pages of National Review to his counterattack. Although you declared that I was mistaken in viewing this as a violation, what seemed to bother you most was not my public statement [in COMMENTARY’s correspondence columns, March 1987] that you had thereby “tarnished your previously honorable record on this sorry episode.” What really riled you was my private remark (in a letter to your colleague Jeffrey Hart) that the publication of this counterattack lent “credence to all those like Marty Peretz [Editor-in-Chief of the New Republic] who have attacked me for being too easy on Buckley.”
You felt then, and you evidently still feel, that I had committed a double sin against you here. First, I had shown excessive “docility” toward Peretz’s criticisms of National Review; but more seriously, I had conspicuously failed to dissociate myself from his statement in a New Republic editorial that “the old Catholic Right has always had trouble with the Jewish problem. This explains why Buckley has made things so cozy for an unabashed bigot like . . . Sobran.”
We differed then, and we continue to differ, on whether I had a duty to do unto Peretz (who after all neither worked for me nor spoke for me) what you had done unto Sobran. Indeed, you were not even mollified when I informed you in a letter that I was so outraged by the New Republic editorial in question that “I hung up on [Peretz] when he too remained unrepentant in response to my call of protest.” All you knew was that I should have made a public disavowal comparable to the one you had made of Sobran’s columns.
All right, then, I will make one now—of Peretz’s allegations that (1) you were in effect letting Sobran off the hook, and (2) that you have “trouble with the Jewish problem” (a euphemism, I suppose, for a residual degree of anti-Semitism). In my judgment—a judgment richly confirmed by “In Search of Anti-Semitism”—the only trouble you have with the Jewish problem is that it will not let you rest, and that you feel called upon over and over again to struggle with it and think about it and talk about it and write about it. (I have the same trouble myself.)
But this does not mean that I agree with you that Peretz is guilty of “blind intolerance of nuance in any discussion of Israel.” For my money he is all too tolerant of such nuance when it comes from his friends on the Left, especially Irving Howe and Michael Walzer. Furthermore—to throw you a nuance of my own of which I trust you will be tolerant—I myself have been upset by the irritable and needling editorials on Israel which have appeared from time to time in National Review. This is not because I have regarded them as anti-Semitic. It is because on general conservative principles I would have expected National Review to be friendlier to Israel than it seemed to be—as friendly, say, as some other Christians of conservative political bent (Jeane Kirkpatrick, Michael Novak, Bob Tyrrell, George Weigel, and George Will, to name only a few).
Marty Peretz is, of course, Jewish, but I have to tell you that, as I honor the likes of Kirkpatrick, Novak, Tyrrell, Weigel, and Will, I honor Peretz as well for his championship of Israel at a time when it takes real courage in liberal circles to stand up for that besieged and beleaguered country against the relentless ideological assault to which it is being subjected.
I also have to tell you in all candor that I cannot in all conscience disavow Peretz’s charge that—to repeat, present company excepted—the old Catholic Right in general “has trouble with the Jewish problem.” For in spite of the laudable efforts which have been made by the Church in recent years to eliminate anti-Semitism from Catholic teaching, the Vatican still has no diplomatic relations with the state of Israel. If this is not a symptom of trouble with the Jewish problem, what is it?
Which brings me back to the role of Israel in anti-Semitism today.
“In searching out the meaning of contemporary anti-Semitism,” you observe, “it is useful to ask whether in order to qualify as a contemporary anti-Semite one needs to be anti-Israel.” The answer is, not necessarily, but it certainly helps—though I reiterate that I would put it in terms that stress ideas and attitudes rather than motives or conscious intentions.
Here again, instead of paraphrasing myself, I will follow your example and quote freely from what I have written in COMMENTARY on this subject in the past. First, on why and how Israel has become the main focus of anti-Semitism in a post-Holocaust world:
[It] is a testimony to the persisting vitality of anti-Semitism [that], expelled more or less successfully from domestic society in the countries where once it flourished, [it] now reappears, suitably translated into the current language and modalities of international life, to deal with the phenomenon of a Jewish state among other states as it once dealt with Jewish individuals and communities living in states dominated by other religious or ethnic groups. [“The Abandonment of Israel,” July 1976]
Or, putting the point in another way:
. . . it is perfectly true that anti-Zionism is not necessarily anti-Semitism. But it is also true, I fear, that the distinction between the two is often invisible to the naked Jewish eye, and that anti-Zionism has served to legitimate the open expression of a good deal of anti-Semitism which might otherwise have remained subject to the taboo against anti-Semitism that prevailed . . . from the time of Hitler until, roughly, the Six-Day War. [“A Certain Anxiety,” August 1971]
Lastly, on how the process of refocusing works:
Historically anti-Semitism has taken the form of labeling certain vices and failings as specifically Jewish when they are in fact common to all humanity: Jews are greedy, Jews are tricky, Jews are ambitious, Jews are clannish—as though Jews were uniquely or disproportionately guilty of all those sins. Correlatively, Jews are condemned when they claim or exercise the right to do things that all other people are accorded an unchallengeable right to do.2
As applied to the Jewish state, this tradition has been transmuted into the double standard by which Israel is invariably judged. . . . [A]ll other people are entitled to national self-determination, but when the Jews exercise this right, they are committing the crimes of racism and imperialism. Similarly, all other nations have a right to ensure the security of their borders; when Israel exercises this right, it is committing the crime of aggression. So, too, only Israel of all the states in the world is required to prove that its very existence—not merely its interests or the security of its borders, but its very existence—is in immediate peril before it can justify the resort to force. [“J’Accuse,” September 1982]
This point you now do get; you even call it “logically sound.” But even though you now defend me against the canard that in my eyes “mere opposition to an Israeli policy constitutes anti-Semitism,” you still seem to resist what logically follows from my “logically sound” point—namely, that criticisms of Israel based on this particular double standard, rooted as it is in the ancient traditions of anti-Semitic propaganda, deserve to be stigmatized as, quite simply, anti-Semitic.
I live in hopes that you will some day get that point as well.
But enough of the bad news about “In Search of Anti-Semitism.” I began with the good news and with the good news I will end. All in all, with this essay you have burnished your record as a warrior against anti-Semitism, and most especially by your willingness to call Pat Buchanan’s descent into anti-Semitism by its true and proper name. In so doing, you have taken another step in the campaign you inaugurated some 35 years ago to rescue the conservative movement from those who would besmirch it by spreading anti-Semitism in its name. If the people who lead the Left nowadays only had the decency and the courage to police their own ideological precincts in the same way and to the same degree, there would be little cause to worry as much as some of us do about a resurgence of anti-Semitism in this country—and not, alas, just the new kind that focuses mainly on Israel.
1 I spoke, as I usually do, from notes, but the account of the speech in the Jerusalem Post, on which Brownfield relied, was reasonably accurate. Which is more than I can say for Brownfield’s interpretation. Though you for some reason see fit to transcribe this piece of disinformation, you do at least assume that my speech, “coming to us third hand, contained qualifications . . . that Mr. Brownfield either is not aware of or else is disinclined to quote.” Indeed it did. Thus, you would not know from Brownfield that the question I was asked to address was whether the editors of and contributors to local Jewish papers had any special Jewish responsibility. My answer was that they were free to disclaim it, but insofar as they accepted such a responsibility, it was to defend Israel rather than to join in the ideological campaign against the Jewish state—which I took (and take) to be a war against the Jewish people as a whole. What Brownfield did with this was use it to show that no one, not even “Israeli critics of Israel’s policy in Lebanon,” was safe from my reckless accusations of anti-Semitism.
2 You refer to this passage no fewer than three times. The first time you astonishingly misinterpret it to mean that I classify “as anti-Semitic anyone who ascribes to Jews characteristics uniquely Jewish.” The second time you summarize it accurately. But by the third time, you have forgotten the second and are back to the first (“pace Norman Podhoretz, it ought not to be considered racist to speak of group characteristics”). Is it any wonder, then, that you so often leave me feeling that, where anti-Semitism is concerned, you are uncharacteristically capable of obtuseness?