April 2, 2002

My Podhoretz Problem – and Ours

"In thinking about the Jews I have often wondered whether their survival as a distinct group was worth one hair on the head of a single infant."

Last Tuesday, I went to the memorial service for Ernest van den Haag, the Fordham professor and brilliantly courageous author and essayist. I knew him only slightly, but long admired his readiness to pursue truth, regardless of what sacred cows needed sacrifice in the process. He was quite conservative – in the late 1950's, for instance, he made frequent appearances as an expert witness in the various legal efforts trying to shut down the incipient school integration bandwagon. That involved association with individuals and groups who were, well, simply racist, and is the kind of past that few men easily live down. But Ernest seemed to get past it without any problem whatsoever. If you are sufficiently gifted intellectually, you can generally manage to shift gears gracefully and go on to other subjects.

In the anteroom of the sanctuary, I saw Ernest's great friend Taki and his wife Alexandra, who invited me to sit with them. We moved up the aisle, taking seats near the front behind Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter. The Podhoretz's, without saying anything, got up and moved to sit somewhere else.

I've written elsewhere about Norman's hostility to me and how it saddens me. His magazine Commentary gave me my start in journalism twenty years ago, and he has been a formidable force in American literary and political culture and cultural politics for nearly half a century. For much of my adult life I agreed with a good deal of what Podhoretz wrote, and long admired his fearlessness and ability to circle around an argument, chipping away at it from every angle until he had shaped it into a conclusion he wanted. Podhoretz's Commentary was respected – even (or perhaps especially) by its opponents – as that rare magazine in which the editor's passion had never flagged. I would see Midge and Norman socially a bit, and took great pleasure in it.

Norman now prefers not to speak to me at all – last summer he told me my "hostility" to Israel was the reason. What "hostility" means in this case is my vocal support for a diplomatic solution that gives the Palestinians a state of their own on the West Bank and Gaza – a solution delineated by countless American signed United Nations resolutions, endorsed by Colin Powell and President Bush. And its corollary: opposition to the Israeli colonization of the West Bank and Gaza – settlements designed to thwart the two-state solution described above.

Norman and the magazine he edited for thirty-five years are now among the leading American voices for the idea that the Palestinians should have no serious political or national rights in historic Palestine, none whatsoever. Norman opposed the Oslo peace process from the beginning, (as he opposed the Israeli-Egyptian agreement over Sinai in the 1970's). At least in his published writing he does not refer to the West Bank as "Judaea" and "Samaria", but such usage is commonplace among his fellow American supporters of the Israeli right wing. Its political meaning is the precise counterpart of those Palestinian maps we hear so much about which don't display the state of Israel: an effort to symbolically annihilate the other party.

In order to keep and expand the Israeli settlements and to deny the Palestinians a flag and state of their own on the land allocated for that purpose by by the United Nations, Podhoretz and other neo-conservatives wage a constant campaign against American supporters of a fair diplomatic solution. They readily tolerate substantial damage to America's diplomatic position in the Arab world, and indeed, in the world at large. When Ariel Sharon's sends American-made tanks and helicopters to carve up the West Bank into more easily dominated cantons, and to arrest, deport, or kill off the Palestinian national leadership, no Arab fails to understand that it could not be done without American arms and money. The rancor stirred up by Sharon's actions is, of course, fertile soil for anti-American terror. This doesn't really disturb Podhoretz, who has actually written that the main reason Arabs are anti-Israel is that they see Israel as a pro-American entity in their midst.

While terror – at least at the level Israel has been experiencing it, is a recent phenomenon, the Israeli Right's dream of colonizing the entire West Bank and denying the Palestinians a national home is more than half a century old, far older than the actual occupation, older indeed than Israel itself. Podhoretz and his fellow neoconservatives have regularly served as the American cheerleaders for this powerful Israeli faction, heaping praise on Begin, Shamir, Netanyahu and Sharon, and attacking their American detractors.

As the quotation which opened this column might indicate, Norman Podhoretz's worldview was not always so parochial. The quoted sentence comes from "My Negro Problem – and Ours" which Podhoretz published in Commentary in 1963. He was thinking through the idea that the race problem in America was so grave and has produced so much twisted thought within the minds of members of every group, that it might be resolvable only through widespread miscegenation.

Lest there be any doubt, Norman Podhoretz was not, in these passages, endorsing that idea that Jews should ready themselves to disappear as a distinct group.

But he was not rejecting it either.

Of course, given the extraordinary and unique role played by Jews in the arts, in science and medicine, and more broadly as a kind of leavening agent for social change in the West, the world would probably be much poorer if Jews had not struggled to maintain a distinct group identity.

But consider then the distance Podhoretz has traveled since 1963. Then he was willing to initiate a startlingly frank interrogation of the worth of ethnic identity; now, a senior citizen, he has become its prisoner. His sensibility stifled and warped by pro-Israeli chauvinism, viewing ex-friends who don't share his enthusiasms for Israel's colonization of Palestinian land as frightful enemies, he now stands as a painful instance of the closing of an exceptional mind.

Text – only printable version of this article

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