Can We Talk?

Can We Talk?

CORRECTION: When this column was originally published, a fact-checking error caused the word “owner” to be removed from a reference to the Jewish “owner-editors” of U.S. News & World Report and The New Republic. This may have made it appear as if Alterman was addressing the issue of Jewish “editors” in general with regard to media coverage and Israel, rather than merely the two men he cited.


C.L. Sulzberger would not have liked this war. Back in 1937, New York Times Washington bureau chief Arthur Krock was hoping to be named editorial page editor. As Gay Talese tells it in The Kingdom and the Power, Sulzberger would not even discuss it. He explained to Krock, “It’s a Jewish paper and we have a number of Jewish reporters working for us. But in all the years I’ve been here, we have never put a Jew in the showcase.”

This war has put Jews in the showcase as never before. Its primary intellectual architects–Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and Douglas Feith–are all Jewish neoconservatives. So, too, are many of its prominent media cheerleaders, including William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer and Marty Peretz. Joe Lieberman, the nation’s most conspicuous Jewish politician, has been an avid booster, going so far as to rebuke his former partner Al Gore and much of his own party.

Then there’s the “Jews control the media” problem. It’s probably not particularly relevant that the families who own the Times and the Washington Post are Jewish, but let’s not pretend this is so in the case of the Jewish owner-editors of, say, U.S. News & World Report and The New Republic. Mortimer Zuckerman is head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and Peretz is unofficial chair of the American Arab Defamation Committee. Neither is shy about filling his magazine with news Jews can use.

To make matters worse, many of these Jewish hard-liners–“Likudniks” in the current parlance–appear, at least from a distance, to be behaving in accordance with traditional anti-Jewish stereotypes. Much to the delight of genuine anti-Semites of the left and right, the idea of a new war to remove Saddam was partially conceived at the behest of Likud politician Benjamin Netanyahu in a document written expressly for him by Perle, Feith and others in 1996. Some, like Perle, apparently see the influence they wield as an opportunity to get rich. What’s more, many of these same Jews joined Rumsfeld and Cheney in underselling the difficulty of the war, in what may have been a ruse designed to embroil America in a broad military conflagration that would help smite Israel’s enemies. Did Perle, for instance, genuinely believe “support for Saddam, including within his military organization, will collapse at the first whiff of gunpowder”? Is Wolfowitz really so ignorant of history as to believe the Iraqis would welcome us as “their hoped-for liberators”?

The character of this Administration, unfortunately, adds further fuel to the stereotypical fire. Unlike, say, Tony Blair, George W. Bush does not readily give the impression of having a geopolitical clue. Hence, he appears rather easily manipulated by the smart fellows with their fancy concepts and Ivy League degrees who surround him. (Yes, I know about Bush’s degrees, but they’re never part of the story.) Rapidly shifting conventional wisdom has already begun to blame Bush advisers’ “bum advice,” according to one Washington Post report, for the war’s decidedly not-so-cakewalk-like character. A really good conspiracy theorist would begin to wonder if the Jews are being set up to take the fall when things go badly.

A big part of the problem in addressing the “Jewish war” conspiracy thesis is the reticence of almost all sides to broach the issue of Israeli and American Jewish influence on US foreign policy. A few writers, most notably Stanley Hoffmann, Robert Kaiser and Mickey Kaus, have raised the question gingerly. But writing on the Washington Post op-ed page, New Republic editor Lawrence Kaplan insists that even raising “the specter of dual loyalty” is “toxic.” Kaus noted accurately in Slate that the dual loyalty taboo is “quite openly designed to stop people from raising the Likudnik issue.” And it works.

This is all very confusing to your nice Jewish columnist. My own dual loyalties–there, I admitted it–were drilled into me by my parents, my grandparents, my Hebrew school teachers and my rabbis, not to mention Israeli teen-tour leaders and AIPAC college representatives. It was just about the only thing they all agreed upon. Yet this milk- (and honey-) fed loyalty to Israel as the primary component of American Jewish identity–always taught in the context of the Holocaust–inspires a certain confusion in its adherents, namely: Whose interests come first, America’s or Israel’s? Leftist landsmen are certain that an end to the occupation and a peaceful and prosperous Palestinian state are the best ways to secure both Israeli security and American interests. Likudniks think it’s best for both Israel and the United States to beat the crap out of as many Arabs as possible, as “force is the only thing these people understand.”

But we ought to be honest enough to at least imagine a hypothetical clash between American and Israeli interests. Here, I feel pretty lonely admitting that, every once in a while, I’m going to go with what’s best for Israel. As I was lectured over and over while growing up, America can make a million mistakes and nobody is going to take away our country and murder us. Israel is nowhere near as vulnerable as many would have us believe, but it remains a tiny Jewish island surrounded by a sea of largely hostile Arabs. Perhaps it was a strategic mistake for America to rush to Israel’s aid in 1973, but given the alternative, I really don’t care. As Moshe Dayan told Golda Meir at the time, the “third temple” was crumbling. Tough luck if it meant higher gasoline prices at home.

I can’t profess to speak for the motivations of others, and by the numbers, American Jews seem no more prowar than the US population, and maybe even a little less. But I’d be surprised if the Administration’s hawkish Likudniks were immune to the emotional pull of defending Dayan’s “third temple.” Our inability to engage the question only forces the discussion into subterranean and sometimes anti-Semitic territory. If the Likudniks played an unsavory role in fomenting this war (and future wars), and further discussion will help illuminate this unhappy fact, then I say, “Let there be light.” If something is “toxic” merely to talk about, the problem is probably not in the talking, but in the doing.

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