Monday, March 17, 2003

The War of the Jews

As I write – the day before Purim – it appears certain that the war against Iraq is about to start. According to Pat Buchanan, an unrepentant serial anti-Semite and others in his Amen Corner of Jew-haters, this is a Jewish war. At least that is what he said the other day on CNBC as he went beyond Congressman Jim Moran’s offensive statement that the U.S. is heading into a war with Iraq because of the Jews and into the Protocols of the Elders of Zion territory by concocting a vast conspiracy involving Jews in government and the media.

Why do TV and cable talk shows give so much prominence to Buchanan? The First Amendment may give him license to fantasize and lie and preach hatred but it obviously does not oblige anyone to give him space and airtime. So far as I know, no other bigot is given the opportunities regularly afforded to this one by the broadcast media. Our defense organizations do kazatzkes on their heads trying to limit obscure and entirely inconsequential hate-mongers while they seem to accept the notion that Buchanan is different. I was recently asked to join with other Jews in a protest against an appearance by David Duke, a loathsome character who is far less of a threat to Jewish well-being than Buchanan is.

The other participants in the CNBC program duly protested against the notion of a Jewish conspiracy, yet they did not do so with passion. The angriest retort was from Peter Beinart, editor of The New Republic and an excellent journalist, who exploded when Buchanan included his magazine among the conspirators.

One possible explanation of why Buchanan gets away with comments that are far more odious than anything that was said by Trent Lott is that he is regarded more as a celebrity than as a public figure in the political sense. The rules for celebrityship – how outrageous they can be – are different and more lenient than they are for political personalities. Thus, while Buchanan has said things that are at least as bad as what Le Pen has said in France and Haider in Austria, since he speaks as a journalist and not as a leader, he is given a good deal more leeway. Indeed, Buchanan’s pathetic showing in the 2000 election season has added weight to the conclusion that he is a political lightweight. This circumstance provides little comfort.

Buchanan is essentially a far right-winger and like others of the right wing, he blends a touch of populism into his message of hate. Congressman Jim Moran is elsewhere on the political spectrum, he being an anti-war Democrat who has now demonstrated anew the old political truth that the ideological extremes manage to find common ground in their defamation of Jews. Buchanan and Moran are well matched and they are not strange bedfellows. Under much pressure from within his party, Moran has apologized for his “insensitive” remarks, a word that leaves me wondering what exactly it is that he apologized for.

The strange thing about the charge of Jewish warmongering on Iraq is that there have been few major public issues during the past generation on which American Jews have been so divided. My rough guess is that there are at least as many of us who are against the war as there are those who are for it and that among those who are for the war, more than a few are ambivalent. There are Jews who support President Bush’s determination to get rid of Saddam Hussein and by force if need be, yet who are also fearful of the consequences to Israel, both during military action and afterwards.

It is the case that Jews who are more committed to Jewish life are, in the aggregate, more solidly in the pro-war camp than are those Jews who are significantly less attached to our community and traditions. Even so, this provides paltry support for the absurd claim that Jews have concocted a conspiracy to draw America into war or even to Moran’s silly notion that were it not for the Jews, the President and his key advisors would not be on the course that they have taken.

By my rough calculation, Jews who support the President’s Iraq policy constitute no more than 1% of the entire population of the U.S. I know that our tribe is powerful and influential, but certainly not that powerful and influential.

For all of the loathsomeness of the recurring theme of a Jewish conspiracy to dominate or to bring about war, we need to reflect on whether we have contributed to a wrongful perception of how much power we are exercising through organizational activity that is mainly meant to induce contributors to contribute and politicians to pay attention. We tend to boast about our strength and accomplishments and while boasting is nearly always inherent in organizational life, the fact that we are blessed – or as I see it cursed – with so many organizations results in an abundance of boasts about our power and influence that is virtually impossible for persons who are not Jewish to ignore.

I have touched on this theme previously and Michael Kinsley dug into it in an on-line essay for Slate. He collected some quotes from AIPAC’s website, such things as President Clinton’s description of this lobby as “stunningly effective” and Newt Gingrich’s exuberant claim that AIPAC is “the most effective general interest group…across the entire planet.”

American Jews have never understood that real power is discrete and that our public persona which is primarily designed for fundraising and publicity purposes is an open invitation to others to consider us mega-powerful. Put otherwise, our army of organizations have contributed to the bizarre idea that we actually have control of the
U .S. Army.