One of the nation's most Churchillian and courageous warriors, Norman Podhoretz, is now devoting himself to the complaint that most American Jews are liberals rather than neoconservatives. He has a whole new book about this. The argument he's making about why Jews should be neocons rather than liberals is really quite notable. Here he is in the Wall St. Journal today:
Since 1928, the average Jewish vote for the Democrat in presidential elections has been an amazing 75% -- far higher than that of any other ethno-religious group.
Yet there were reasons to think that it would be different in 2008. The main one was Israel. Despite some slippage in concern for Israel among American Jews, most of them were still telling pollsters that their votes would be strongly influenced by the positions of the two candidates on the Jewish state. This being the case, Mr. McCain's long history of sympathy with Israel should have given him a distinct advantage over Mr. Obama, whose own history consisted of associating with outright enemies of the Jewish state like the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and the historian Rashid Khalidi. . . .
In 2008, we were faced with a candidate who ran to an unprecedented degree on the premise that the American system was seriously flawed and in desperate need of radical change—not to mention a record powerfully indicating that he would pursue policies dangerous to the security of Israel. Because of all this, I hoped that my fellow Jews would finally break free of the liberalism to which they have remained in thrall long past the point where it has served either their interests or their ideals.
Apparently, The Godfather of Neoconservatism believes that American Jews do -- and should -- base their political beliefs not on what is best for their own country, but on what is best for a foreign country (Israel). According to him, even though Obama shares most of their views on political matters ("on abortion, gay rights, school prayer, gun control and assisted suicide, the survey data show that Jews are by far the most liberal of any group in America"), American Jews should have nonetheless voted for McCain because of McCain's alleged "long history of sympathy with Israel." Isn't this the "dual loyalty" argument that nobody is allowed to make upon pain of being accused of all sorts of bad things -- that the political beliefs of some American Jews are shaped primarily or even exclusively by loyalty to Israel? Yet here we find not Walt and Mearshimer or Chas Freeman making this claim, but Norman Podhoretz.
This extreme and flagrant double standard has been permitted for a long time now. Neocons arrogate unto themselves the right to make appeals to what they believe is the "dual loyalty" of American Jews -- most of whom, in fact, reject their radical ideology -- when trying to coerce support for their agenda. Podhoretz's Commentary Magazine convened a "symposium" of some of the nation's most typical war-loving neocons to discuss his new book, and virtually everyone of them argued that American Jews should shift their political loyalties to the Right because the Right is "better for Israel" -- as though considerations of what's best for a foreign country is how most American Jews (rather than just neocons) decide how they vote in American elections. Neocons have long gotten away with this manipulative game: simultaneously demanding that American Jews support the Right on the ground that the Right is allegedly better for Israel (i.e., a "dual loyalty" appeal) while branding as "bigots" and "anti-Semites" anyone and everyone who points out that neocons think this way.
The reason why Podhoretzian neocons are so frustrated that more Americans Jews don't respond to their pressure tactics is because most don't think the way neocons do and don't have the same priorities. Not only do the vast majority of American Jews reject virtually every core neocon tenet of American politics, but they also have the same priorities as Americans generally when it comes to deciding their political loyalties (the economy, health care, social issues -- not Israel). In 2008, while most American Jews said they "care about" Israel in general, only 6 % identified "support for Israel" as the most important factor in determining their vote. That's why Norm Podhoretz and his friends are so angry and confused. Devotion to Israel is at the center of their political world-view -- it's what shapes their political beliefs. One right-wing columnist actually complained that while Obama "may even be pro-Israel and pro-Jewish to an extent . . . to him America’s interests take precedence" -- as though that's a bad thing. But that view -- that Israel's interests should predominate American politics -- is shared only by a small minority of American Jews (namely: neocons), which is why their "dual loyalty" appeals fall on deaf ears.
There's an equally important factor driving the long overdue erosion of neocon influence among American Jews: the collapse of their monopoly in defining what is "good for Israel." This week's New York Times Magazine contains an excellent profile by James Traub on the emergence of J Street, the important and often courageous organization which is breaking the right-wing stranglehold of AIPAC and comrades when it comes to speaking for -- and defining -- American-Jewish political interests. Amazingly, Traub explicitly endorses a central Walt/Mearsheimer argument: that the AIPAC-led Israel Lobby -- until the emergence of J Street -- "had succeeded in ruling almost any criticism of Israel out of bounds, especially in Congress":
The idea that there is an "Israel lobby," with its undertones of dual loyalty, is a controversial notion. It has been around since the early 1970s at least, but it became a topic of wide discussion only after the publication of a notorious article in The London Review of Books in 2006 by the political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. The article, which was expanded into a book, infuriated many readers by its air of conspiratorial hugger-mugger; by its insistence that Jewish neoconservatives had persuaded President Bush to go to war in Iraq in order to protect Israel; and by the authors’ apparent ignorance of the deep sense of identification many Americans -- Jewish and gentile -- feel toward Israel. But the authors made one claim that struck many knowledgeable people as very close to the mark: The Israel lobby had succeeded in ruling almost any criticism of Israel out of bounds, especially in Congress.
"The bottom line," Mearsheimer and Walt wrote, "is that Aipac, a de facto agent for a foreign government, has a stranglehold on Congress, with the result that U.S. policy is not debated there, even though that policy has important consequences for the entire world." Mearsheimer and Walt also wrote that Aipac and other groups succeeded in installing officials who were deemed "pro-Israel" into senior positions. This is, of course, what effective lobbies do. The Cuba lobby, for example, long operated in the same way. But Israel is a much more important American national-security interest than Cuba. No country, whether Israel or Cuba, has identical interests to those of the United States. And yet mainstream American Jewish groups had implicitly agreed to subordinate their own views to those of the government in Jerusalem. The watchword, says J. J. Goldberg, editorial director of The Forward, the Jewish weekly, was, “We stick with Israel regardless of our own judgment.”
Those are some pretty amazing words to find in The New York Times Magazine. But numerous American Jewish groups have been challenging the hegemony of AIPAC, and J Street has been most successful of all in gradually highlighting how unrepresentative Norm Podhoretz, Bill Kristol, AIPAC and friends are when it comes to understanding the views of American Jews and even "the interests of Israel." As Traub notes, when AIPAC and other traditional Jewish groups threatened to target Rep. Donna Edwards for her blasphemous decision to vote "present" rather than "yes" on a House Resolution unequivocally supporting the Israeli war on Gaza -- how dare this American Congresswoman fail to show full-fledged fealty to Israel -- J Street raised a substantial amount of money for Edwards and made clear it would support her in the event AIPAC targeted her for defeat. That is changing the nature of what it means to be "pro-Israel" and allowing an expanded scope of opinion on matters relating to Israel.
For that same reason, the AIPAC/neocon effort to bully Obama out of applying true pressure on Israel is failing as well. When Obama recently met in the White House with the heads of American Jewish groups, he notably invited J Street's Executive Director, Jeremy Ben-Ami (which, according to Traub, caused "some of the mainstream groups [to] vehemently protest" his inclusion), and this is what happened:
In July, President Obama met for 45 minutes with leaders of American Jewish organizations. All presidents meet with Israel’s advocates. Obama, however, had taken his time, and powerhouse figures of the Jewish community were grumbling; Obama’s coolness seemed to be of a piece with his willingness to publicly pressure Israel to freeze the growth of its settlements and with what was deemed his excessive solicitude toward the plight of the Palestinians. During the July meeting, held in the Roosevelt Room, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told Obama that "public disharmony between Israel and the U.S. is beneficial to neither" and that differences "should be dealt with directly by the parties." The president, according to Hoenlein, leaned back in his chair and said: "I disagree. We had eight years of no daylight” -- between George W. Bush and successive Israeli governments -- "and no progress."
The anti-neocon view -- that blind, uncritical American support for anything Israel wants and does is not only bad for the U.S., but also for Israel -- is gaining widespread acceptance among American Jews. As Traub notes:
As Martin Indyk, a former American ambassador to Israel and now the director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, puts it, "In the Bush years, when Israel enjoyed a blank check, increasing numbers of people in the Jewish and pro-Israel community began to wonder, If this was the best president Israel ever had, how come Israel’s circumstances seemed to be deteriorating so rapidly?" Why was Israel more diplomatically isolated than ever? Why had Israel fought a savage and apparently unavailing war with Hezbollah in Lebanon? Why were the Islamists of Hamas gaining the upper hand over the more moderate Fatah in Palestine? "There was kind of a cognitive dissonance," Indyk says, "about whether a blank check for Israel is necessarily the best way to secure the longevity of the Jewish state."
The self-pitying, angry lament of Norm Podhoretz that most American Jews reject what he has to say is understandable. He's right: they do, and that's becoming increasingly apparent. But if Podhoretz wants to run around insisting that American Jews should decide their political loyalties based on the interests of a foreign country (even though most don't), then it shouldn't be impermissible to point out that this is how he and his neoconservative allies think. There are still a lot of highly critical issues even beyond Israel over which this faction is attempting to exert influence -- beginning with Iran and Afghanistan -- and keeping a light on what they really are, and are not, is vitally important.
UPDATE: In a scathing review of Podhoretz's "dreary" book in The New York Times, the New Republic's Leon Wieseltier writes that Jewish-Americans' "steadfast allegiance to the Democratic Party, Podhoretz insists, now flies in the face of Jewish interests. . . . The Jewish interest that makes Podhoretz most desperate for a Jewish defection to the Republicans is Israel." Attributing that view to neocons (that they shape their political beliefs based on Israel) is exactly what has led neocon critics, in the past, to be smeared with accusations of "dual loyalty" defamation and even anti-Semitism.