George Scialabba v’Eretz Yisrael

At long last, the critic is getting . I only met George once, about ten years ago, and I had forgotten how articulate he was in conversation; I was reminded by listening to with Christopher Lydon on his web show (which is as good as anything on NPR). I did, however, want to take issue with one comment George makes—and I hope that my minor quibble will be taken in the context of the huge respect I have for George, who is an essential writer and you should buy and read. At one point, George takes a stab at explaining how many Jewish intellectuals moved right-ward politically; his explanation, and it's not his alone, is that the 1967 war, when Israel's survival seemed to be at stake, caused many American Jews to become more attached to Israel, a country that until then had not been a major part of American Jewish consciousness, especially among intellectuals. Since then, he says, many Jews have been unwilling to follow their progressive principles if those principles might put them at odds with (their perception of) what's best for Israel's survival. And so we can understand how, for example, there was no large Jewish outcry about the invasion of Iraq, which they took to be in Israel's interests. (I hope this is a fair representation of George's position; I'm talking about one or two minutes in a 44-minute interview otherwise filled with fascinating discussions of Randolph Bourne, Walter Karp, and other too-forgotten intellectuals. If this is an unfair statement, I hope George will let me know in the comments section—although I understand if he has better things to do!)

On one level, George is of course right; in fact, he does not go far enough. Israel's remarkable victory in the '67 war not only heightened Jewish concern about the survival of their several million co-religionists in Israel, but it also—more important, I think—increased Jewish pride in identification with that state. Even my fervently anti-Zionist, left-wing grandparents were a little astonished at a country that had produced successful Jewish soldiers (or so my mother recalls). (And here I am reminded of the comedian Jackie Mason's line about the difference between Jews and Italians: Jews are wimps on the street corner, while Italians can f— you up; but put them in an army, and Jews are indestructible, whereas Italians can't shoot straight.)

But I think we have to know which Jews we're talking about. The Jews who became the famous neo-conservatives—Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol, most famously—were well on their way to the right before 1967, and they were swinging right in a way that was bound to sweep all their opinions to the right. Indeed, I have often marveled at the sheer, improbably drift of their move to the right—how can it be intellectually honest to just happen to move right on labor, foreign policy, economics, etc., at the same time. Such a comprehensive move is more likely to be the result of cynicism or careerism. There is no reason, after all, why becoming more hawkish on foreign policy also entails becoming more hostile to labor unions. But with these guys, so it went, and there you have it.

Anyway, I don't think 1967 had much to do with where Kristol, Podhoretz, and Himmelfarb ended up. Nor did it have much effect on a lot of Jewish New Left types who were pretty irreligious to begin with, and Jewishly uninterested, and who make up one important core of anti-Zionism today. After all, while most Jews are not anti-Zionists, a lot of outspoken anti-Zionists and Israel critics actually are Jews. Jews may, in fact, be more disproportionately anti-Zionist than they are disproportionately Zionist, compared to the American population at large. Pretty much all Americans are, in their unthinking way, supportive of Israel—a goodly number of Jews, in a very thoughtful way, are critical of Israel. Especially among intellectuals, and that's whom Scialabba is talking about.

So who are these Jews whose foreign-policy ideas were warped, or subtly shifted, by the 1967 war? For whom was the war decisive in that way? The best case could be made, I think, by looking at my contemporaries (I am 34), rather than at neo-cons in the sixties and seventies. I would hazard that a lot of New Republic types (to just pick one useful marker), people like Peter Beinart, say (although there is no reason to pick on him, and he's written a lot about how his position on this has changed), were more inclined to support the Iraq invasion because of having grown up in a post-1967 world where the survival of Israel was an issue for young American intellectuals in a way that it wasn't for, say, my dad.

But I think what George was really getting at is a general despair, his and others', that the same people who have been central—indeed, indispensable—to so many other social-justice movements in America have seemed, to him, relatively absent on foreign policy. And that is a shame. But the causation isn't so simple.

Another point about Jews: most American Jews, even those who went Communist or socialist, have, in their own ways, been very supportive of the American project. This is, after all, the land that saved us from what had been happening, and what lay in wait, in Europe. So that deeply felt Americanism has been channeled into certain domestic progressive causes—like Civil Rights—where it is apparent that the United States is not living up to its ideals. And with our long tradition of women being at least moderately educated, and working outside the home (in the shtetl, scholars' wives often worked to support their husbands endless hours in study), Jews were at the forefront of Second Wave feminism. And there was a history of labor radicalism that Jews brought from Europe. But Jews have not historically been pacifists, and we have been enthusiastic soldiers in every American war (including both sides of the Civil War). It may, therefore, be a bit of a mistake to read into that Jewish progressivism a congenital anti-war inclination. Yes, many Jews were at the fore of the anti-Vietnam movement (although perhaps not out of proportion to our representation on liberal college campuses, where the movement was centered). But it's not my sense that the leading pacifists in the Great War or World War II were Jews—they were Protestants, often of the Anabaptist or Radical Reformation stripe: Quakers, Mennonites, etc., with a smattering of Jehovah's Witnesses, and some more mainline Protestants.

So while it would be nice if there were a strong, identifiably Jewish foreign-policy left today, and in the run-up to the Iraq War, I am not sure that that was ever likely, or that there was a historical precedent, and I don't think its absence is as clearly related to the 1967 war as George Scialabba seems to think.