The scandal over the Netanyahu speech to Congress is in the end a story about the Jewish condition in the United States.
Netanyahu is coming here to tell the Congress to torpedo the efforts of the U.S. president to cut a deal with Iran. He does so because he seems to believe that Iran poses an existential threat to Israel. His actual and implicit messaging links the Iranians to the Holocaust and to Hitler. Whether or not he is working the matter to get another term, or to maintain Israel’s regional hegemony, there can be little question that many Jews share this belief. They say that Iran is determined to destroy Israel and so the charge “Never again” means, we must destroy Iran’s nuclear capability by any means and isolate the society generally. Just as Iraq which attacked Israel was also linked to Hitler by various Israel supporters 12 years ago.
That analogy proved absurd, and the Iranian/Holocaust analogy is also illogical. James Fallows has done the best job of exploding the “existential threat” claim, and many realists have said that a nuclear Iran could be contained. But my interest here is Jewish consciousness, and again– many Jews believe this. For as Roger Cohen, Alice Rothchild and Gershom Gorenberg have said in recent weeks, Jews are post-traumatic. A group doesn’t see half its population wiped out in Europe in a genocide without deep scarring. I’ve heard about Jews who keep a bag packed under their bed because they think we could be rounded up. My old editor used to ask me if my wife’s family would hide me. I don’t have the would-they-hide-you gene, but many Jews do. And Jewish politics are more temperamental than anything else. How far out you are on the paranoia curve determines whether you are a full-on neoconservative or just a garden-variety liberal Zionist, and the two categories blur.
It is my belief that much of the Jewish establishment’s view of the world is a trauma-induced delusion. Because we don’t need to be hidden. Others do, including many Palestinians from Jews. The actual Jewish condition in Israel is: they are occupiers. The abused has become the abuser, as the recovery movement explains. But still: the fear is there.
And the fear blinds Jews to our power, in Israel and the United States. It is hard for Jews to think of ourselves as powerful because of a historical and collective memory of persecution. Yet the world regards us as powerful. It sees the Jewish state as a nuclear armed country with a huge army, and it sees Jews as an elite in the United States with a ton of clout. “Why is the American Jewish community so determined to convince itself that we are living in 1938?” the late Tony Judt asked nine years ago. “Why does the most successful, the most well integrated, the most culturally and politically influential, the most socially and economically well situated Jewish community since the late years of the Roman republic, why is it so worried about the demon of anti-Semitism?”
We are as I like to remind readers the wealthiest American group by religion and we took over many establishment perches in the last generation. We are three of the four Democratic appointees to the Supreme Court, and whenever I turn on the news, I see influential Jews. Andrea Mitchell the wife of Alan Greenspan interviews Kenneth Pollack, Matt Lauer interviews Lorne Michaels. Last night I watched a panel on CSPAN about the Charlie Hebdo murders at the French-American Foundation and it appeared that all four speakers were Jewish.
Peter Beinart is one of the few writers who is honest about Jewish power: “the extraordinary acceptance and privilege afforded to Jews in late 20th century America.” In Haaretz he recently itemized our editorial control of publications: “Jews edit The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Weekly Standard, The Atlantic, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, Vox, Buzzfeed, Politico, and the opinion pages of The New York Times and Washington Post.”
Every Jew of my and my parents’ generation is aware of our incredible advance into the establishment and is embarrassed about it or will tell you that it doesn’t matter or that America is all about the rich anyway and there are tons of other rich people, religion has nothing to do with it. I think they are all rationalizing the fact of our power because it is extremely uncomfortable for us. We know that our societies are broad ones, and that the rise of Jewish professions in eastern European cities played a part in the rise of anti-Semitism. Explaining why we must leave Europe, Theodor Herzl said that Jews were the “intellectual proletariat,” hanging around the stock markets and stirring resentment, and he held up a map of Vienna showing the extent of Jewish real estate holdings.
In 1923, Kafka wrote that anti-Semitism rose in response to Jewish achievement:
“From early on [Jews] have forced upon Germany things that she might have arrived at slowly and in her own way, but which she was opposed to because they stemmed from strangers. What a terribly barren preoccupation anti-Semitism is, everything that goes with it, and Germany owes that to her Jews.”
Two of Kafka’s sisters died in the Holocaust. That’s another reason we don’t talk openly about our power, we know how this conversation turned out the last time. Beinart writes for Haaretz, but you are simply not allowed to address the issue in polite mainstream conversation here. Chris Matthews who often trumpets Catholic guests’ ethnicity — Ted Wells was a “Holy Cross man”– won’t go near Jewish ethnicity. Well, yes, his company Comcast is owned and run by Jews, and pro-Israel Jews at that. But there is a general feeling that there is only one way such an observation leads, to anti-semitism.
The problem with that restriction is that it curtails an analysis of why Netanyahu has the platform he does. No one can speak plainly about the role of the Israel lobby. Yes, the speech is doing something to end this ban, but still, look at the absurdity of the situation. The leader of a tiny country has the ear of both houses of Congress to urge the U.S. to go to war, in defiance of our president. Robert Kagan says that it has never happened before and that the speech will now open the floodgates to other foreign leaders to champion their foreign policy. Horse feathers. The Congress is hearing him because of the role of the lobby in our politics.
Now I concede that some of the blind affiliation with Israel is based on political strains that have nothing to do with what Martin Indyk calls “the Jewish lobby.” Christian Zionists care a lot about Israel; they surely have some influence in the Republican party outside Sheldon Adelson. John McCain and Lindsey Graham don’t need to be bought to be hawks. There is a deepseated historical attachment to Israel in the American establishment because Israel’s creation is viewed as the answer to an important question: how does the west respond to the Holocaust? Past American leaders felt guilty (rightly or wrongly) about our role in the Holocaust, and today those leaders feel committed. People like Chris Matthews surely see some justice in Israel’s creation because of the destruction of European Jewry and the U.S. indifference to Jews fleeing eastern Europe in the 1930s. They don’t want to revisit that great historical moment any more than they want to revisit Roe v Wade. It was decided after a lot of discussion. Let’s move on.
But those supports for Israel only go so far. That is why we have seen such anguish in recent weeks on the part of American Zionists who fear that the question of Israel support will become politicized. From J Street to Martin Indyk to Robert Kagan to AIPAC to Jeffrey Goldberg to William Saletan to Abe Foxman, they don’t want the matter opened up to political debate. Israel supporters like to say that the American people love Israel, but they don’t really believe that. After all, they are Zionists because they believe that Jews are not completely safe in the west. They didn’t trust the goyim when they established Israel, and they don’t trust them now. The strategy has always been to hold the political elites. AIPAC’s entire game is to discover promising politicians when they are young and buy them early and often—and knock out the politicians who don’t support Israel.
The difficulty in discussing the lobby is that it involves a theory of Jewish influence. But I don’t know that reality leaves us a choice. If it weren’t for Jewish power inside the establishment, the entire Democratic Party would proudly boycott the Netanyahu speech as an insult to the president. But they won’t do that: many Democratic leaders will dis their own president to go listen to Netanyahu push for war. They will do so because of the role of (rightwing) Jewish money in the political process and the Jewish presence in the political/journalistic establishment. They will do it because Haim Saban, who gets along fine with Sheldon Adelson, who wants to nuke Iran, has given untold millions to Hillary Clinton and he gave millions to Obama before that. The Democrats do not want to cross Saban. Or Chuck Schumer who has called himself the guardian of Israel in Hebrew. Or Debbie Wasserman Schultz the chairperson of the Democratic Party who said that Jews shouldn’t intermarry and MSNBC shouldn’t show pictures of the carnage in Gaza.
There is not an American national interest in supporting Israel right or wrong, not since the Cold War ended. If there were, you would see American national interest types from James Baker to Chuck Hagel to John Mearsheimer defending the occupation. The opposite is the case; they have all made personal sacrifices to oppose it. Israel does nothing to protect US access to oil and does nothing to help out in the US imperialist wars across the Middle East, except to foment them for its own security interests in the first place. Its occupation of Palestinian territories and slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza in ’08-’09 and again last summer have hurt the American reputation around the world and fostered terrorism, as John Kerry has even tried to tell us. David Petraeus learned about the occupation of Jerusalem when he was going into houses in Iraq. The people there were angry about it. Osama bin Laden and his airmen were angry about it too. And the State Department under George Marshall, the definition of a national interest type, predicted all this when they said that if the U.S. recognized Israel there would be endless strife in the region. The endless strife is there. A good deal of it is surely due to the Zionist project.
The lobby helped force Truman’s hand in ’47 and ’48 when he was opposed to the idea of a religious state, and it made Obama eat his words when he came into office declaring that the settlements must end. Kennedy and Nixon’s efforts to institute the right of return of refugees were nullified, and LBJ shut up about the attack on the USS Liberty and the Israeli nuclear program. The U.S. has done nothing to relieve the occupation; and historic overtures by the PLO and the Arab League have been shut down– just as the lobby struggles today to shut down the opening to Iran. A post-traumatic community operates out of fear. When American students try and divest just from corporations doing business with the occupation, leading American Jews and Jewish organizations say they are anti-semitic, and that Jews feel “attacked” by such measures; and when schools try and hire pro-Palestinian professors, major donors threaten to withdraw their gifts to the school. So the divestment resolution goes down and Steven Salaita gets fired. Tom Friedman has said that the Congress is bought and paid for by the Israel lobby and was widely savaged for saying that much, but Israeli writers are far blunter about the lobby’s clout. In recent months, two writers for Haaretz (Anshel Pfeffer and Yossi Sarid) have written columns saying that American Jewish influence peddlers conduct themselves like the anti-semitic caricature of Jews in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion—they buy politicians openly. (Gilad Atzmon then said, this proves that “American Jews do control the world.” So that is the problem with even discussing this; anti-Semites will have a field day.)
The lobby is a manifestation of the modern Jewish condition, our presence in the U.S. establishment. Jews have long been embarrassed by our high status, because we know that it fosters resentment. In fact, the Jewish proclivity for Communism and Zionism can be seen as forms of Jewish dispensation from an elite condition. And still that condition adheres. I am sufficiently embarrassed about it myself that I didn’t talk about it for years.
The great news about the Netanyahu speech is that it brings the classic era of the lobby to an end. When have Democrats spoken openly about “boycotting” an Israeli leader? When has the White House so openly criticized the Israelis day after day? When has a White House official blamed the Israelis for pushing the Iraq war? The seals have been broken.
The lobby’s power is waning because people are sick of it. It is the ancien regime and it has gone on too long, since 1967 or 1973. It grew in power till it affected presidential elections significantly from 1992 forward to 2012. Walt and Mearsheimer’s landmark paper of 2006 did for the Iraq braintrust what Halberstam’s Best and the Brightest did for the Vietnam one; it instructed America to pivot. It’s taken ten years, but you are likely to see Democratic congresspeople running against the occupation in the next election (mark my word).
Its power is waning because the era of the Jewish establishment is giving way to a diverse establishment. It turns out that Jewish establishment behavior can be just as nauseating as that of the Rockefeller establishment in its day. Amy Pascal and Scott Rudin’s racist Hollywood emails about Obama are embarrassing and a reflection on Jewish power culture; and I don’t know if you’ve noticed but every night on National Public Radio hosts of color, Audie Cornish and Arun Rath, promote diversity in the elite, and they are winning, and we’re all better for it.
The lobby’s power is waning because the post-traumatic period is coming to an end and Jews are no longer monolithic on Israel. Ideas of Jewish nationalism and separation are as discredited by the Israeli experiment as Communism was by the Soviet one. Young Jews are bridling, David Remnick is bridling, Benjamin Wittes is bridling. David Rothkopf is bridling. We are going to see a jailbreak from the idea of the necessity of a Jewish state inside the establishment, and Netanyahu has fostered that, god bless him.
Who are we and what is our role in the world in 2015? We were a ghettoized elite in western societies, subject to the worst forms of persecution in Europe. Now out of trauma we are licensing some of the most glaring forms of persecution in the the world.
Norman Finkelstein’s mother, who survived the Nazi concentration camps, told him that the lesson of the Holocaust was that this should happen to no people. Her experience was a human experience, and its lessons must be extended to all humans. And today there is only one test of Jewish social and political values: Where do you stand on Palestinian human rights? The Palestinians are the people whom our collective helped to dispossess, slaughter and put behind checkpoints out of an inevitable but in the end self-involved concern with our own history. We victimized them because of our own victimization, and the test of our future is when we come to recognize this responsibility and how we act on it. Many Jews will rise to that challenge. Just wait and see.