When Joshua Muravchik, perhaps the pre-eminent expert on the interventionist foreign policy that has become known as neo-conservatism, was looking for non-Jewish neo-cons to prove that the movement isn’t pervasively Jewish, he naturally included Lewis Libby. “Non-Jews figuring prominently in current foreign-policy debates and today called neo-cons include Libby, (John) Bolton, American Enterprise Institute president Christopher DeMuth, and Gary Schmitt of the Project for the New American Century,” Muravchik wrote in Commentary magazine two years ago.
“Go easy on me,” Muravchik laughingly told a reporter this week, after it emerged that the man at the center of the White House leak scandal indeed is Jewish.
Libby resigned last Friday as Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff just hours after his indictment on perjury charges related to the leaking of the name of a CIA operative married to a prominent Bush administration critic.
Across the blogosphere, anti-Semitic and anti-Israel conspiracy theorists were quick to tie Libby’s Jewishness to his role in selling the Iraq war, imagining once again a neo-con cabal that has a singular agenda: promoting Israel at all costs.
“One more Jewish Neocon Traitor,” headlined the White Civil Rights Web site, which features the writings of David Duke.
Yet the fact that many people in Washington — including neo-conservatives — had no idea that Libby was Jewish underscores how tenuous the Jewish-neo-con link actually is, said Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and Jewish himself.
“One key measure of the falsity of the argument is that the non-Jewish neo-cons are equally pro-Israel as Jewish neo-cons,” he said.
In addition to DeMuth, Schmitt and Bolton — who now is U.S. ambassador to the United Nations — prominent non-Jewish neo-cons include Bolton’s predecessors Jeanne Kirkpatrick and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, former CIA chief James Woolsey and former Education Secretary William Bennett.
Conversely, polls have found that a majority of American Jews embrace liberal and centrist views. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, last year’s Democratic presidential candidate, won up to 77 percent of the Jewish vote.
Muravchik’s mistake was one a lot of people have made. Two other prominent Jewish neo-conservatives insisted to JTA last week that Libby was not Jewish.
Libby’s Jewish profile at the White House was low, according to Jews who have worked with the administration. Other Jewish staffers knew he was Jewish, but he was not one of the highly identified Jews, such as Tevi Troy, the deputy assistant policy adviser to the president, or Joshua Bolten, director of the Office of Management and Budget.
The low profile was attributable in part to Libby’s general reserve and to his closeness to power. After Karl Rove, Bush’s top adviser, he was considered the most powerful unelected official in the White House.
Not every Jew who works in the White House likes to wear his identity on his sleeve, said Jay Footlik, the Clinton White House’s liaison to the Jewish community.
“If they didn’t choose to self-identify as a member of the community, if they didn’t express a concern on a particular issue or ask to be a part of a meeting when a Jewish organization came into the White House, then we might have known they were Jewish, or we might not,” Footlik said.
Some of the misapprehension apparently has to do with Libby’s persona. His Andover prep school education; his nickname, “Scooter”; and the Jr. tacked onto the end of his full name as it appears in the federal directory — I. Lewis Libby, Jr. — seem to indicate a non-Jewish background.
In fact, Libby, 55, for years has been a member of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Va., a five-minute drive from his home in McLean, a wealthy suburb known for multimillion homes housing top lobbyists, lawyers and Bush administration officials.
Officials of the Reform movement and the synagogue were reluctant to discuss Libby’s involvement. Acquaintances don’t remember seeing him at shul, aside from High Holy Day services.
Libby’s membership in the Temple guide lists his wife, Harriet Grant, a former staffer for congressional Democrats, and two school-age kids.
“His name never even came up when talking about Jews in the administration, not even as part of the so-called ‘neo-con cabal,’ ” said one Reform official who asked not to be identified.
The Jewish Virtual Library, a Web site, listed Libby as Jewish, though its sourcing was unclear.
Libby’s only other ostensible Jewish involvement was with the Republican Jewish Coalition, and only since he joined the Bush administration. He made an appearance at the RJC’s 20th anniversary celebration last month.
Libby is known as a workaholic but he has a busy private life which could have kept him from spending much time on extracurricular Jewish activities. He’s an avid skier, plays touch football on weekends and has written and published an erotically charged novel set in Japan.
A number of Jewish leaders told JTA they didn’t think Libby’s Jewishness would become a factor in the leak scandal that has obsessed Washington, but his name already appeared on numerous anti-Semitic Web sites long before JTA published an item over the weekend reporting his synagogue membership.
Muravchik said it’s an old ploy to ascribe ulterior motives to neo-conservatives having to do with the Jewish origins of some movement leaders.
“It’s certainly a slur that has been repeated by people who are enemies of neo-conservatives or who are enemies of Jews,” he said.
The underlying argument is that the movement led the Bush administration into war with Iraq in hopes of protecting Israel. That argument ignores the low Jewish profile of many other Jewish neo-cons.
It also ignores the essentially American origins of a movement that seeks to spread democracy overseas.
The sympathy for Israel is simple, Muravchik said.
“It’s a lone democracy in the Middle East, and it was a chief target of the Soviet bloc,” opposition to which helped shape neo-conservatism. “It was also the chief inspiration of dissent in the Soviet bloc at the time when there was very little in the 1970s.”
Referring to a 1996 paper by three prominent Jewish neo-conservatives that pressed Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister at the time, to engage against Iraq, Muravchik wrote in Commentary that it would “make more sense to say that, in preparing a paper for Netanyahu, they were trying to influence Israeli policy on behalf of American interests than the other way around. Indeed, most Israeli officials at that time viewed Iran, the sponsor of Hezbollah and Hamas, as a more pressing threat to their country than Iraq, and (then as later) would have preferred that it be given priority in any campaign against terrorism.”
In an interview this week, Muravchik noted an emerging split between American neo-cons and members of Israel’s ruling Likud Party over the movement’s enthusiastic backing for President Bush’s Middle East policies, particularly his support for Palestinian statehood.
“I’ve had numerous private and public exchanges on this topic with Likudniks and non-Likudniks who say, ‘You Americans are nuts, you don’t know these Arabs. We know them; the idea that they can resolve differences peacefully is hopelessly farfetched,’ ” Muravchik said. “I’ve been in rooms where Americans were talking about democracy for the Arabs, and Israelis were ridiculing it.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.