A mushrooming media controversy pitting neoconservatives
against a prominent Jewish-American political commentator could mark a new stage
in the growing battle over who speaks for the US Jewish community on foreign
policy issues, particularly regarding the Middle East.
Time columnist Joe Klein's accusations that Jewish neoconservatives,
who played a particularly visible role in the drive to war in Iraq and have
since pushed for military confrontation in Iran, sacrificed "US lives and money...to
make the world safe for Israel," have spurred angry charges of anti-Semitism
and personal attacks from critics at such neoconservative strongholds as the
Weekly Standard, National Review, and Commentary.
But the fierceness of the controversy surrounding Klein, generally considered
a political centrist, highlights the growing antagonism between neoconservative
hardliners and prominent US Jews whose more moderate views are aligned more
closely with those of the foreign policy establishment.
The controversy began Jun. 24, when Klein argued in a Time blog post
that the "fact that a great many Jewish neoconservatives – people like [independent
Democrat Sen.] Joe Lieberman and the crowd at Commentary – plumped for
this war [in Iraq], and now for an even more foolish assault on Iran, raised
the question of divided loyalties."
Within a day, Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, accused Klein
of espousing ,"age-old anti-Semitic canards about a Jewish conspiracy to
control and manipulate government."
The reaction from the right-wing press was even harsher. Commentary
editor John Podhoretz reiterated the accusation of "anti-Semitic canards," and
called Klein "manifestly intellectually unstable."
Writing in National Review, former George W. Bush speechwriter Peter
Wehner called Klein "a man who cannot control his anger and even hatred."
But Klein has refused to back down, accusing his attackers of using charges
of anti-Semitism to silence criticism of neoconservative policies.
"When [Commentary writer] Jennifer Rubin or Abe Foxman calls me anti-Semitic,
they're wrong," he said in an interview. "I am anti-neoconservative."
In its broad contours, the controversy is a familiar one, as critics accuse
neoconservatives of exercizing pernicious influence on US Middle East policy
and neoconservatives reply with charges of anti-Semitism and conspiracy-mongering.
What distinguishes the recent furor over Klein, however, is that it involves
someone who is widely regarded as an exemplar of the centrist political establishment.
Klein is best known for his 1996 novel Primary
Colors a thinly-veiled and largely unflattering portrait of Bill Clinton's
1992 presidential campaign that was originally published anonymously and subsequently
made into a Hollywood movie. A frequent critic of Clinton, Klein has at times
expressed admiration for George W. Bush.
He also endorsed the invasion of Iraq in 2003 (although he has since expressed
regret for his support) and describes himself as "a strong supporter of Israel."
The Klein dust-up is the latest in a series of events over the last several
years that have placed neoconservatives both in the spotlight and on the defensive.
Neoconservatism, a predominantly – but by no means exclusively – Jewish movement,
got its start in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when a small but influential
group of Democrats began distancing themselves from the party which, in their
view, had become too dovish toward the Soviet Union and too sympathetic toward
Arab demands against Israel.
By 1980, most had become strong supporters of Ronald Reagan. A number of prominent
neoconservatives joined his administration, including many who would later
play key roles in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war.
Consigned to the political wilderness under President George H.W. Bush, the
neoconservatives became increasingly identified in the 1990s with Israel's right-wing
Likud Party. It was also during the same period that they began agitating for
"regime change" in Iraq, arguing that such a move would transform the balance
of power in the Middle East decisively in favor of both Israel and the US.
They experienced a rebirth with the election of Bush's son in 2000, and particularly
after the 9/11 attacks, when they played a major role, both inside the administration
and in the media, in rallying the public and Congress behind war in Iraq.
But with the deterioration of the situation in Iraq, the influence of neoconservatives
inside and outside the administration began to wane, and critics began charging
that they had led the US astray.
A series of incidents also focused critical scrutiny on the American Israel
Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the powerful lobbying group whose hawkish
right-wing leadership has often defied both the views of the broader US Jewish
community and the policies of Israeli governments.
In 2004, the Justice Department charged Pentagon staffer Lawrence Franklin
with passing classified US government documents to two AIPAC lobbyists, who
had then given the documents to an Israeli Embassy official. In January 2006,
Franklin was sentenced to more than 12 years in prison, while the AIPAC staffers
are still awaiting trial.
In March 2006, the well-respected and staunchly realist international relations
scholars John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt published the article "The Israel
Lobby" in the London Review of Books. That article, which charged that the lobby
had for decades skewed US policy towards Israel in a direction detrimental to
US interests, became the basis for their 2007 book, The
Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy.
Mearsheimer and Walt's thesis was instantly controversial. Like Klein, they
were accused by critics, including the ADL and Commentary, of anti-Semitism
and of perpetrating stereotypes about shadowy Jewish conspiracies.
But as a result of their stature, the two authors' work clearly created political
space for those, both within the foreign policy establishment and within the
US Jewish community, who had been long privately critical of the neoconservatives
but had been worried about the consequences of going public with their misgivings.
More recently, AIPAC has come under fire for its close alliance with right-wing
Christian Zionists, particularly controversial pastor John Hagee and his organization
Christians United for Israel (CUFI).
Hagee views an undivided Israel as a precondition for precipitating the Armageddon,
and his group has accordingly pushed for hawkish US policies in the Middle
East that have been consistent with the neoconservatives' own preferences.
Matters came to a head earlier this year, when Republican presidential candidate
John McCain was compelled to repudiate Hagee's endorsement after comments came
to light in which the pastor suggested that the Holocaust was biblically ordained
in order to force Jews to resettle in Israel.
Nonetheless, Hagee and CUFI have maintained close ties with the neoconservatives,
and a collection of prominent Israel hawks, including Senator Lieberman, spoke
at CUFI's summit in Washington earlier this month.
The belief that AIPAC has failed to accurately represent the views of the US
Jewish community led to the foundation earlier this year of J Street, a Jewish
lobbying group that aims to push for a more moderate stance on Middle East issues.
In the wake of these developments, many observers have taken Klein's comments
– and particularly his refusal to back down in the face of withering criticism
from neoconservatives – as a sign that new political space is being created
for the public airing of more moderate views on Middle East policy.
M.J. Rosenberg, a former AIPAC staffer now associated with the moderate Israel
Policy Forum, expressed the hope that commentators would stop equating neoconservatism
with Judaism and start treating it as a political movement subject to political
"Although most neocons are Jews, few Jews are neocons," he wrote Wednesday.
By equating the two groups, "[the neocons] want Americans not to follow the
trail of war-mongering that leads not to Jews but to them."
(Inter Press Service)