Greenwald, Podhoretz, neocons, Jews, and where danger lies


Glenn Greenwald, the influential constitutionalist at Salon, misrepresents Norman Podhoretz, who misrepresents American Jewish behavior, and now I’ve got a headache.

Let’s dispense first with Podhoretz, and without the depth I’d prefer — because I consider more insidious Greenwald’s misrepresentation in its creepy insinuation that neoconservative support for Israel is treasonous.

Podhoretz, in the Wall Street Journal decrying Jewish liberalism (in a piece called, plaintively enough, Why Are Jews Liberals?), seems not acquainted with American Jewish realities but with some Hollywood caricature, circa 1972 and Bridget Loves Bernie, of why American Jews behave, vote and believe they way they do.

To take just one example:

Indeed, many such secular Jews, when asked how they would define "a good Jew," reply that it is equivalent to being a good liberal. 

But avowed secularists are not the only Jews who confuse Judaism with liberalism; so do many non-Orthodox Jews who practice this or that traditional observance. It is not for nothing that a cruel wag has described the Reform movement—the largest of the religious denominations within the American Jewish community—as "the Democratic Party with holidays thrown in," and the services in a Reform temple as "the Democratic Party at prayer."

Many secular Jews would say to be a good Jew means being a good liberal? Really? I want to see this data. I know that liberal Jewish thinkers draw from Jewish teachings — among other thinking — but what philosopher who adheres to a faith does not draw on his faith to explain his outlook? I have never seen data suggesting that the 78 percent of Jewish Americans who voted for President Obama (Podhoretz’s particular bugbear in this WSJ piece) explain their vote through an identification of Judaism with their voting pattern. Jews are liberal, to be sure, but this is as much a function of where they live, how they earn, their upbringings as anything else. Contra Podhoretz’s postulation that Jewish liberalsism is socio-economically perverse, Jews tend to vote like university graduates, well, because many of them are.

And why does liberalism necessarily contradict religious teachings? Podhoretz grossly misrepresents and distorts non-Orthodox (and in truth, Orthodox) Judaism in his article to make his argument. If Judaism were liberal, he says:

…the Orthodox would be the most liberal sector of the Jewish community. After all, it is they who are most familiar with the Jewish religious tradition and who shape their lives around its commandments.

Who says? As far as I know, only the Orthodox — and now Podhoretz. Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist theologians don’t make it up as they go; each movement has a system of seminaries and a body of liturgical analysis underpinning its thinking. Call it distortive, argue that it deviates from Jewish norms — and make your case when you do — but non-Orthodox religious thinkers are as familiar with the canon as Martin Luther was with the church he broke with. If anything, this is what makes their deviation from pre-Enlightenment halachic norms so insidious for the Orthodox.

And Reform services are "the Democratic Party at prayer"? Has Podhoretz attended a Reform service lately? (Has he attended any?) How does he account for the emphasis on the centrality of God, the examinations of what constitutes the divine, the implicit requirement of a familiarity with the liturgy and with the Hebrew language? Funny, if the convention in Denver last year was in Hebrew and closed with the Shema, I missed it.

This is the most egregious evidence of Podhoretz’s lack of familiarity with just about anything, well, Jewish:

Jewish law permits abortion only to protect the life of the mother.

No, it does not. It starts out from that point, but as my 1972 edition Encyclopedia Judaica points out:

Contrary to to these [early halachic opinions permitting abortion only when the mother’s life is in danger] the majority of the later authorities (aharonim) maintain that abortion should be permitted if it is necessary for the recuperation of the mother, even if there is no mortal danger attaching to the pregnancy and even if the mother’s illness has not been directly caused by the foetus (Maharit, Resp. no. 99). Jacob Emden permitted abortion "as long as the foetus has not emerged from the womb, even if not in order to save the mother’s life, but only to save her from the harassment and great pain which the foetus causes her" (She’elat Yavez 1:43).

Emden, by the way, was an Orthodox scholar (although the term would have had no meaning in his day) and he died in 1776, which kind of precludes him from having consulted the Democratic Party platform.

Moreover, Podhoretz does not account for how religious movements approach not just the halacha of abortion, but the morality of inserting government into this most personal of accountings. The two major Orthodox umbrella bodies are divided: The Orthodox Union leans toward keeping government out of a decision a woman makes in consultation with her rabbi and physician, while Aguda favors restrictive legislation.

Whatever the merits of Podhoretz’s argument (and clearly, I’m not convinced it has any merits), it is broadbased: He attacks every facet of Jewish liberalism, and decrying Jewish support for a president who is now in open conflict with Israel’s government over its settlement policy is just one of these.

Not according to Greenwald:

Apparently, The Godfather of Neoconservatism believes that American Jews do — and should — base their political beliefs not on what is best for their own country, but on what is best for a foreign country (Israel).

But Podhoretz makes no such singular claim. He says the "main" reason he believed last year that Jewish voters would gravitate to John McCain was Israel, but this is because he believes what he depicts as sharp differences between the two candidates on Israel policy would finally shock Jews into understanding that they are, organically, Republicans:

What I am saying is that if anything bears eloquent testimony to the infinitely precious virtues of the traditional American system, it is the Jewish experience in this country. Surely, then, we Jews ought to be joining with its defenders against those who are blind or indifferent or antagonistic to the philosophical principles, the moral values, and the socioeconomic institutions on whose health and vitality the traditional American system depends.

In 2008, we were faced with a candidate who ran to an unprecedented degree on the premise that the American system was seriously flawed and in desperate need of radical change—not to mention a record powerfully indicating that he would pursue policies dangerous to the security of Israel. Because of all this, I hoped that my fellow Jews would finally break free of the liberalism to which they have remained in thrall long past the point where it has served either their interests or their ideals.

This is the crux of Podhoretz’s argument: Arrant nonsense, to be sure, but Israel is a "not to mention" clause, not the whole argument.

So Greenwald is either infuriated into delusion or is willfully lying when he reports the following:

According to him, even though Obama shares most of their views on political matters ("on abortion, gay rights, school prayer, gun control and assisted suicide, the survey data show that Jews are by far the most liberal of any group in America"), American Jews should have nonetheless voted for McCain because of McCain’s alleged "long history of sympathy with Israel."  Isn’t this the "dual loyalty" argument that nobody is allowed to make upon pain of being accused of all sorts of bad things — that the political beliefs of some American Jews are shaped primarily or even exclusively by loyalty to Israel?  Yet here we find not Walt and Mearshimer or Chas Freeman making this claim, but Norman Podhoretz.

This is the kind of misreading that would get Greenwald booted out of a suburban weekly (or might otherwise earn Greenwald an excoriation from, well, himself), and the same is true of his sloppy ellisions, from Podhoretz to the entire neoconservative movement:

This extreme and flagrant double standard has been permitted for a long time now.  Neocons arrogate unto themselves the right to make appeals to what they believe is the "dual loyalty" of American Jews — most of whom, in fact, reject their radical ideology — when trying to coerce support for their agenda.  Podhoretz’s Commentary Magazine convened a "symposium" of some of the nation’s most typical war-loving neocons to discuss his new book, and virtually everyone of them argued that American Jews should shift their political loyalties to the Right because the Right is "better for Israel" — as though considerations of what’s best for a foreign country is how most American Jews (rather than just neocons) decide how they vote in American elections.  Neocons have long gotten away with this manipulative game: simultaneously demanding that American Jews support the Right on the ground that the Right is allegedly better for Israel (i.e., a "dual loyalty" appeal) while branding as "bigots" and "anti-Semites" anyone and everyone who points out that neocons think this way.

Neoconservatism is not precisely cohesive when it comes to Israel policy. It is true that as a whole, the movement is pro-Israel, but this stems from a variety of engines: Emotional and familial attachments no doubt count for some, like Podhoretz; philosophical agreement with how some Israeli political groupings deal with Islam; sympathies for a Western style democracy, etc. etc.

But the measure of whether these sympathies translate into an overriding loyalty, as Greenwald suggests, would be whether in every single case, Israel trumped other interests for this group — namely American interests.

Or, as Greenwald puts it:

If Podhoretz wants to run around insisting that American Jews should decide their political loyalties based on the interests of a foreign country (even though most don’t), then it shouldn’t be impermissible to point out that this is how he and his neoconservative allies think.

But this is not how Podhoretz "and his neoconservative allies" (that ellision again) think.

* Here’s Paul Wolfowitz, then deputy defense secretary, in 2003, realizing that the Iraq war was going south and recognizing that one way to shore up support among its Arab neighbors would be to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He endorses a plan for peace, the Ayalon-Nusseibeh petition, an endorsement that would have made J Street, for whom Greenwald swoons, jump for joy had it existed then. Notably, the Ayalon-Nusseibeh plan and its companion, the Geneva Initiative, made Israel’s prime minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, quake and accelerated his plans to leave the Gaza Strip.

In other words, Wolfowitz, a neoconservative, saw an American crisis and endorsed as a salve a plan that was utterly repudiated by the Israeli government of the day.

* Here’s Danielle Pletka in 2005 (JTA techs, when ya gonna fix the date thing?), calling Israel’s arms dealings with China "disgraceful." Douglas Feith, who was an undersecretary of defense in Bush’s first term, echoed that assessment to me in a recent interview with me. It was why he backed the suspension of the Israel-U.S. strategic dialogue from 2002-2005.

So: Neoconservatives, faced with loyalties to the perceived U.S. interest in maintaining a viable threat against China should it move against Taiwan and the commercial intersts of Israel’s leading industry choose … U.S. interests. To the extent of even cutting Israel out of a dialogue that Israelis see as vital to their national interests.

Another neoconservative, who was working for the Pentagon at the time, has told me that "Israelis needed to understand that China and Taiwan are where the neoconservative rubber hits the road." I’m not certain that’s true  — as I said, neoconservative foreign policy has certain broadbased attributes that do not necessarily translate into cohesive details — but the preeminence of China policy over Israel’s pronounced hopes of doing business with China is surely indicative.

* Neoconservatives departed ways with Israel when it came to promoting democracy among Arabs and dealing with dictators. Here’s Josh Muravchick on the democracy issue, and here’s Max Boot skeptical of Israel’s efforts to engage Syria. (In a similar case, Podhoretz famously broke with his daughter, Ruthie Blum, in backing Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza — but that doesn’t precisely apply here, because withdrawal was the policy of Sharon’s government at the time.)

That took me minutes to track down, using only JTA’s archives. Anyone with thesis-time on their hands can make it at greater length.

There are a number of reasons why Greenwald’s willful sloppiness in this matter is important:

* There is an ongoing attempt to assign to an indigenous American movement, neoconservatism, the agenda of a foreign nation, Israel. As I’ve shown, this is demonstrably untrue — one may disagree with the broadbased agreement among neoconservatives that Israel and the United States have shared interests.  But when it comes down to clear cases of U.S. interests — that is, U.S. interests as perceived by neoconservatives — clashing with Israel’s interests, neoconservatives stick with the United States.

So: This is a smear. Depicting an outloook that sees an alliance with Israel as in U.S. interests but not at any cost as promoting such an alliance at any cost is a smear. And it is a smear that by its very nature — reducing a political outlook to a kind of treason — uncomfortably echoes the smear that any sympathy for Israel or its policies signifies disloyalty. And it is not a calumny to point this out.

* The argument is counterproductive. It eats itself up. If one wants to argue that unfettered neoconservatism is destructive, for instance in making the presumption of exporting democracy paramount to sustaining delicate, if unpalatable regional balances — and there’s plenty of evidence for that argument in the Iraq War — burying it in fatuous rhetoric about Israel loyalties turns off people who know better. And it is precisely these folks, one would imagine, that critics of U.S. Middle East policy want to convince: Congress members, their staffs, executive branch staffers and — yes — the Jewish establishment. And the same is true of making the argument for a more "even-handed" U.S. policy when it comes to Israel and the Arabs.

Let me translate the problem with this approach into a little dialogue:

Petitioner: Unquestioning support for Israel and its settlement policy is undermining U.S. interests.

Petitioned: I’m listening.

Petitioner: Let me first say, though, that your past support for Israel suggests that you’ve been bought off or drugged by a cabal of foreign spies.


* Finally, the argument is insidious not only for the arguments it advances about "dual loyalty," but for what it implicitly proposes: The criminalization of a school of thought. Nowhere is this more apparent than in when Greenwald, a civil libertarian whose views outside of this area I admire, drives off road into this scary territory. This was recently evident in his recent infatuation with Chas Freeman, the failed candidate for a senior intelligence post who was undercut by his pronouncedly unliberal views on civil liberties, but who earned accolades from some on the left because of his Israel antagonism. 

If that weren’t enough, Greenwald now comes to what I suppose he thinks is his forceful recommendation of how we should deal with neoconservatives:

Keeping a light on what they really are, and are not, is vitally important.

Ew. Neoconservatives, like anyone else, have scrutiny coming to them. But, "what they really are, and are not"?


Greenwald is not alone and certainly not original in this matter. A whole industry has arisen around this argument. He is influential, however, and as I said, his capacity to make eminent sense on torture, on civil liberties, on how the media functions makes this departure from common sense all the more baffling — and painful — and underscores the suasive potency of this insidious argument.

Look, I know that the right (including neoconservatives) have been equally prone to tarnish those with whom they disagree as, essentially, traitors to their race, class, nation (see my critique of Podhoretz above) and even to criminalize them (see my coverage of the Bush administration’s prosecution of the case against Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman).

But — and this should be especially clear to lovers of the constitution — one does not remove a threat by replicating it.

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