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The Czar Is Dead (Or, Joe Klein Responds)

Joe Klein, in his response to my earlier post, cedes the point I make about the misuse of the term "anti-Semitism," and I’m grateful for that, and I’m grateful that he’s out there selling my book (there’s no better way to soften a writer’s heart than to praise his books, except maybe handing over cash money). But Joe goes on to say that I’m "truly foolish" for writing the following:

I know that Joe derives great pleasure from criticizing Jewish supporters of the Iraq War — the Wolfowitzes, Perles and Feiths –in specifically Jewish terms, while never seeming to use the Christianity of other supporters of the war, including Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell, and other such marginal figures, against them. I don’t like the double-standard, but it’s part of the rough and tumble.

This is his response to my statement:

No, Jeff, I don’t derive great pleasure from it. I’m pretty anguished about it. As a Jew, I’m embarrassed by these extremists and outraged by their assumption that they represent mainstream Jewish opinion in this country. Furthermore, I don’t use the Christianity of Bush et al against them because their Christianity had nothing to do with their support for the war. For people like Doug Feith et al, their Jewish identity–their ethnic nationalism, not the religious part of it–had an awful lot to do with their plumping for war with Iraq and, more recently, Iran. Feith et al advised Binyamin Netanyahu, in a paper called "A Clean Break," to go to war with Iraq when he was Prime Minister in order to protect Israel. I find the conflation, by some Jewish neoconservatives, of Israel’s interests and America’s–and their truly dangerous misreading of both–to be appalling. But much worse is their rush to pin the tag of anti-Semitism on anyone who disagrees with them, including me.


There is much to unpack here. First, there is Joes’s assertion that Bush’s Christianity has "nothing to do" with his push for war. I think this will surprise a lot of people, including George W. Bush. Second, I think Joe is essentializing, to employ an unwieldy term, the Jews who supported the war. There’s no denying – nor should it be denied – that American Jews, and American Christians as well, worry about Israel’s security. (That Christian bit is important, by the way; I know this drives Mearsheimer and Walt crazy – and I know that Joe is no Mearsheimerite – but polls show the majority of Americans are sympathetic to Israel, despite the best efforts of the Mearsheimers and Walts of this country to blame Israel for America’s woes. No Jewish lobby would be powerful enough to influence American foreign policy if it worked in opposition to the feelings of a majority of Americans.) I think Americans, Jews and non-Jews alike, were worried about Saddam Hussein for many reasons, including and especially his record of genocide, and I think that many advocates of the war, myself included, were eager to see Saddam overthrown because he was a uniquely evil figure on the world stage. And if the Jewish advocates for the defeat of Saddam argued the way they did because they were sensitized to the issue of genocide by the Holocaust, well, so what? In a different context – Darfur, say – they would be praised for their sensitivity. I would imagine – I certainly hope – that non-Jews who were mobilized to oppose Saddam were motivated by his record of genocide as well. But put aside genocide: I tend to believe, and the record bears this out, that men like Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith had five or six or seven different motivations in this war, just as George W. Bush and Dick Cheney did, as well. This doesn’t absolve the Jews in the Bush Administration of incompetence and negligence, but it doesn’t absolve the non-Jews either, especially because, and I know Joe doesn’t want to hear this, the Jews were not quite the all-powerful figures in the White House and Pentagon that people imagine them to have been. But this brings me to a deeper question: Why is it illegitimate for American Jews to care about Israel’s security and argue for American measures that would strengthen Israel’s security? In a conversation earlier this year, Joe told me the following: "I just don’t want to see policy makers who make decisions on the basis of whether American policy will benefit Israel or not." Why not? American policy makers make decisions that benefit other countries all the time. American troops are in harm’s way in South Korea and Japan, serving as tripwires against North Korean aggression. American troops are in Western Europe, in Kosovo, and dozens of other places, all with the aim of providing security to friends and allies. American troops died liberating Kuwait and defending Saudi Arabia, and those who argued for the first Gulf War were seldom accused of putting Kuwait’s interests before America’s. So why, exactly, shouldn’t American policy makers consider the security of Israel, an American ally, when they’re making decisions about Middle East policy? Support for Israel is a question that’s worth debating, of course, just as support for Egypt and Kuwait and South Korea and a dozen other countries around the world is worth debating. But this country has been committed in a most bipartisan way to Israel’s security for more than sixty years. Now Joe Klein comes along and suggests that American decisions should be made without consideration for Israel, and he argues that those who take Israel’s security into account when making decisions – at least those Jews who do – are somehow disloyal to the United States. (By the way, just so we’re all clear here, I’m not arguing for or against the Iraq War now; I, for one, believe that the war has set back, among other things, Israel’s security. I’m only talking about the rights of American Jews to participate in the formulation of American Middle East policy. Even stupid Jews.) But let’s come to the final issue, the question of ethnic "embarrassment." I find Joe a little bit unfathomable on this question, actually. I tend to be unembarrassed by the actions of other Jews. I don’t feel that the idiocy or immorality of other Jews reflects negatively on me, just as the great achievements of other Jews don’t really redound to my credit. I have a visceral distaste for cringing (this is the Zionist in me, I guess), because it’s a very unflattering, very ghetto sort of Jewish behavior. It seems as if people like Joe, whose anger at a handful of Jews for advocating the Iraq War is so outsized (he seems to spend more energy attacking neo-conservative Jews than he does the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) are saying to the rest of the world, "Those Jews over there, the ones you don’t like? Well, I don’t like them either! In fact, I like them less than you like them! So just remember, I’m not them." But here’s the thing: The czar is dead. A little Jewish self-confidence wouldn’t be a bad, or inappropriate, thing.

Cross-posted at the Atlantic.

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