THE BLOG
07/31/2008 12:28 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On Joe Klein and the Jewish Neoconservatives

You may have missed it, but renowned Time columnist Joe Klein and the Jewish neoconservative blogosphere are at war with one another. The reason this is more important than an argument on who sits where in shul is that Klein has refused to cower, and as a respected member of the mainstream media is pushing back against one of the uglier and more debate-restricting phenomena of recent years. Here is what Joe had to say on 'Swampland', his blog on the Time website:

There is a small group of Jewish neoconservatives who unsuccessfully tried to get Benjamin Netanyahu to attack Saddam Hussein in the 1990s, and then successfully helped provide the intellectual rationale for George Bush to do it in 2003... Happily, these people represent a very small sliver of the Jewish population in this country...I remain proud of my Jewish heritage, a strong supporter of Israel...But I am not willing to grant these ideologues the anonymity they seek...I believe there are a small group of Jewish neoconservatives who are pushing for war with Iran because they believe it is in America's long-term interests and because they believe Israel's existence is at stake. They are wrong and recent history tells us they are dangerous. They are also bullies and I'm not going to be intimidated by them.

It came in response to the latest outburst from Podhoretz Jr. at the Commentary blog: "As for his [Klein] use of classic anti-Semitic canards, I am happy to report that the Jewish people will long survive Joe Klein". Mazal Tov, Joe, you have became a thing that the Jewish people will survive, no less.

All of this came on the heels of an earlier and none-too-friendly exchange of letters between Klein and the Anti-Defamation League, when the latter saw fit to attack Klein over his characterization of the role of the Jewish neoconservatives in the run-up to the Iraq War. Joe stood his ground then, too, effectively dismissing the claim of anti-Semitism and explaining that "most Jews disagree with their [the Jewish neocons] politics and many Jews are disgusted with their behavior." Klein expanded upon these themes in an interview on Jeffrey Goldberg's blog that is well worth reading.

I would suggest that this is not just Klein's private kerfuffle: it matters to Jewish America, to America and Israel too, and to being able to have a more serious conversation about anti-Semitism in the future.

The Klein thesis shared by a great many commentators and analysts (this writer included) goes something like this: Bush administration policies in the Middle East have had disastrous consequences for the US; Israel too is in a less secure and worse place as a result of these policies; ultimate responsibility for all this lies with the president himself and his hawkish and close group of senior aides--principal among them Veep Cheney; the neoconservatives played an important role in providing an ideological framing for these policies; within that neoconservative world there operates a prominent and tight-knit group of Jewish neocons who are ideologically driven in part by an old school Likudist view of Israeli interests.

Were the Jewish neocons in control and did they make the fatal decisions? No. Are all Jews neoconservatives or are all neoconservatives Jews? Please! Are the Jews or Israel to blame for the Bush Middle East debacle? Get outta here.

Something did happen though -- there was a failure within the mainstream, Jewish and non-Jewish, to identify the existence of a particular Jewish neoconservative narrative and then to challenge that narrative as being fundamentally flawed in its reading of both American and Israeli interests. One of the causes of that vacuum was the abuse and cheapening of the term anti-Semitism as it was hurled at many who went after Podhoretz, Perle, Feith, and co. They tried, and sadly rather successfully, built a wall of untouchability. Klein is taking his shofar or trumpet to that wall, as many have done before, but Joe is particularly MSM, and therefore important.

Too many Jewish communal leaders and institutions made the mistake of not standing up and speaking out more against the right-wing excesses of a small minority of their co-religionists. Some even embraced and feted the neocons -- a mistake AIPAC particularly excelled in and something I get the impression that AIPAC is at least partially trying to walk itself back from. Israeli leaders, interestingly enough, appear to be less enthusiastic -- there is evidence that Prime Minister Sharon thought the Iraq War not to be a good idea and outgoing Prime Minister Olmert has begun proximity talks with the Syrians.

Similar mistakes are being made with the far-right Christian Evangelical Zionists, and John Hagee's group CUFI. Can there be a more vile poster-boy for Israel than Hagee?!

Polls consistently show that American Jewish opinion is in a very different place. Over a decade ago, J.J. Goldberg described how what he called the "new Jews", who were out of sync with the majority, assumed the mantle of leadership in the American Jewish community. In his book Jewish Power: Inside the American Jewish Establishment, Goldberg claimed that a set of facts had emerged by the mid-1970s that transformed organized Jewry, based around the 1967 Israeli military victory, the role of the Soviet Jewry campaign in Soviet-US relations, and the belated rise of popular Holocaust awareness with its attendant "never again" maxim. This created the counter-revolution of the "new Jews" -- a passionate minority of defensive nationalists, driven by a terrible vision, living amidst an overwhelming majority of still optimistic Jewish liberals. To quote J.J. Goldberg, "their defiance was so strident, and their anger so intense, that the rest of the Jewish community respectfully stood back and let the new Jews take the lead."

The "new Jews" of Goldberg's 1997 book are today's Jewish neoconservatives, and the reason this is so important right now is the issue raised by Joe Klein -- their aggressive advocacy of a military strike against Iran, a position that again places them out of step with the majority of American Jews. There have been a series of articles advocating such military action. It is true that such voices are also heard in Israel (and some even appear in the New York Times op-ed page, most notably this truly horrific and pathetically argued piece by Benny Morris).

I would argue that Israel has made a strategic mistake in making the gevalt approach so central in its response to suspected Iranian nuclear ambitions. Israel is stronger than that and it also has the capacity to deter Iran. It also has U.S. support. It is worth remembering that Israel, evidently, has not attacked Iran, so in practice, at least so far, the military is not the preferred option. In their declarations, Israeli leaders express a preference for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear question. And prominent ex- and even current officials have endorsed American engagement with Iran as the best option, including ex-Mossad chief Efraim Halevy and ex-Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami. In private, Israeli leaders are apparently more circumspect. This report appeared some time ago in Haaretz about Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni:

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said a few months ago in a series of closed discussions that in her opinion that Iranian nuclear weapons do not pose an existential threat to Israel...Livni also criticized the exaggerated use that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is making of the issue of the Iranian bomb, claiming that he is attempting to rally the public around him by playing on its most basic fears.

I will not go too deeply into the Iran policy debate, but a more compelling case than that of Podhoretz and co. is that military action would be a disaster for Israel, for America, and for the American Jewish community, too.

The problem for the American Jewish community would not seem to be with exposing the objectionable positions of Jewish neoconservatives and then having a debate. The danger is in the opposite approach -- in creating the impression that the Jewish neoconservative voice is the Jewish voice, or that of the "pro-Israel" lobby, and in drowning out, or more accurately, suppressing the voice of the majority. That would be a way to not only increase the risk of an extremely dangerous policy being pursued and to make support for Israel the partisan domain of the far-right bomb-bomb-bomb Iran crowd, but it would also cede the ground to those who are emptying the charge of anti-Semitism of all meaning. And those are good enough reasons for Joe Klein's cause to be our cause too.