Family Business

by Leon Wieseltier | May 21, 2010

Embarrassment is an important element in the pedagogy of experience. There are mistakes I will never make again because I made them once and was usefully shamed. In the winter of 1974, when I was a bright and callow student, and did not yet grasp the difference between knowledge and knowingness, I endured such a lucky education at the hands of Diana Trilling. The subject was the danger of simplification in the intellectual engagement with politics. She had signed a letter in The New York Times Book Review protesting that Mary McCarthy, in an appreciation of Philip Rahv’s liberal anti-Stalinism, had neglected the liberal anti-Stalinism of other intellectuals, herself included. I casually wondered aloud why she protested so much. I will never forget the castigation that followed. With her uncanny mixture of ferocity and affection, Diana instructed me in the art of being against Joseph Stalin and against Joseph McCarthy at the same time. She meant genuinely against both of them, equally against both of them, without making any excuses for either of them, without any “to be sure” sentences that exposed one of your dissents as a minor premise: a position forthrightly comprised of two major premises. Not a commitment and a credential; two commitments. This was not the “center,” or half of what the left thought and half of what the right thought; it was its own place on the map. And a small place it was, too: the refusal to play the game of allowing McCarthyism to extenuate Stalinism or Stalinism to extenuate McCarthyism left these brave people somewhat friendless, though in their own terrific company. Stalinism and McCarthyism are gone now, but the style of evasion remains. Everybody is “to be sure” offended by every evil, and how dare anybody suggest otherwise, but the bifocal vision, the one that manages to hit all the stresses and honor all the emphases, is still very rare.

Now to family business. Here is what I mean by “to be sure” sentences. In a worry about the future of liberal Zionism in The New York Review of Books, which is not known for its worry about the future of any kind of Zionism, Peter Beinart takes care to add: “Yes, Israel faces threats from Hezbollah and Hamas.” And: “Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are not infallible.” And: “Of course, Israel ... must sometimes take morally difficult actions in its own defense.” Of course! All this will not do. Israel is also not infallible, but Beinart does not leave it at that. The racist ideologies and hostile arsenals of Hamas and Hezbollah, and the disquiet that they provoke in Israel, cannot be so glibly treated—unless, of course, one wishes to make it into The New York Review of Books, where there is no bifocal vision of Israelis and Palestinians, and Hamas is described as a “last chance for peace.” Beinart’s pseudo-courageous article is an anthology of xenophobic quotations by Israeli hawks and anguished quotations by Israeli doves: familiar stuff. I stand with the anguish, and have said so many times in these pages. But liberal Zionism must be as much Zionism as liberalism, and I do not see that the depredations of the settlers and their political sponsors relieve one of the obligation to include Palestinian behavior prominently among the causes of the conflict (in Beinart’s piece Palestinians appear tenderly as “decent people betrayed by bad leaders”), or to assert the moral imperative of Israeli security among its other moral challenges. The lovelier Israel is also threatened by bombs and missiles. Does Beinart believe that the liberal discussion of Palestine suffers from too much solicitude for Israel’s security? Does he really think that the paltry affiliations of young Jews in America are adequately explained by the alienating effects of Avigdor Lieberman and Effi Eitam? He has produced yet another theory of AIPAC as SMERSH, except that this time the omnipotent villains are destroying not American foreign policy but American Zionism.

A few weeks ago Harold Bloom, who has been posing as a Jewish scholar for many years, lauded Anthony Julius’s extraordinary study of anti-Semitism in Britain in The New York Times Book Review. As usual, he wrote wildly. He made Britain even worse than it is. Up rose James Wood to chastise him, in a letter, for his claim that the anti-Zionism of “the English literary and academic establishment” is no different than anti-Semitism, and to deliver this beau geste: “Bloom might have noted that some of the most robust left-wing discussion of Israeli policy has come from members of the British literary and academic establishment who are also Jewish (Tony Judt, Harold Pinter, Mike Leigh, Jacqueline Rose).” It is an old and easy point, often made by non-Jews who envy Jews their lack of inhibition in speaking about themselves. So what if Wood’s authorities are Jews? Can Jews not be wrong, or anti-Semitic? Wood’s Jews are certainly anti-Zionist. Judt has called for the dissolution of the Jewish state, and a few years ago he declared that if his view that American policy in the Middle East is controlled by AIPAC “sounds an awful lot, like, you know, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion … well, if it sounds like it it’s unfortunate, but that’s just how it is.” (I found this disgrace in Julius’s book.) Pinter was a rabid anti-Israeli and anti-American crank. For Rose, mainstream Zionism is Jewish fascism, and also a psychopathological condition. (As one of her admirers on Amazon says, her work is “incitful.”) I do not know Leigh’s opinions, and I do not intend to let them ruin my pleasure in his films. Wood makes no mention of academic boycotts and other outrages. He seems to believe that since anti-Zionism is not the same as anti-Semitism, anti-Semitism can never take the form of anti-Zionism. This is unreliable narration. So is his superior remark that “there is more political discussion of this order in Britain than in America” because “most Americans live in almost complete ignorance of ... certain political realities and facts.” I will not defend the political literacy of my countrymen, but the appeal to an epistemic handicap is always a bad sign. What makes England so intrinsically enlightened? They have The Guardian, I know. But I was not aware that the American media, which Mort and Marty and I control, has been extolling Israel’s policies and leaders. The truth is that everyone finds the facts that are demanded by their level of honesty. And since these days you are thought to accuse someone of anti-Semitism if you accuse them of scanting anti-Semitism, I want to say also that Wood detests anti-Semitism, to be sure.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic. 

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Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//article/75095/washington-diarist