IN 1986 NORMAN PODHORETZ ON GORE VIDAL….SEE NOTE PLEASE
LATE REPORTS CONFIRM THAT VIDAL REMAINS DEAD BUT THE RAGAZINE “THE NATION” IS STILL ON LIFE SUPPORT….HERE IS THEIR LATEST HEADLINE:….RSK
No wonder the public remains so misinformed, as bigfoot pundits not only whitewash Republican extremism but paint Obama’s soggy centrism in false hues as its ideological equivalent. Eric Alterman
Last March, in a special issue commemorating its 120th anniversary, the Nation published an article by the novelist Gore Vidal entitled “The Empire Lovers Strike Back” which impressed me and many other people as the most blatantly anti-Semitic outburst to have appeared in a respectable American periodical since World War II. The Nation is a left-wing (or, some would say, a liberal) magazine run by an editor, Victor Navasky, who is himself Jewish. Yet one reader (who happened not to be Jewish) wrote in a personal letter to Navasky that he could not recall encountering “that kind of naked anti-Semitism” even in papers of the lunatic-fringe Right which specialize in attacks on Jews; to find its like one had to go back to the Völkische Beobachter. Nor was he the only reader to be reminded of the Nazi gutter press. “I thought I was back in the 30′s reading Der Stürmer,” wrote another.
Actually, however, it was not the crackpot racism of Julius Streicher that Vidal was drawing on, but sources closer to home. Prominent among these, I would guess, was Henry Adams, about whom Vidal has written admiringly and with whom he often seems to identify. Adams, as a descendant of two Presidents, was a preeminent member of the old American patriciate—the class to which Vidal also, if somewhat dubiously, claims to belong—and his resentment at the changes which came over the United States in the decades of industrialization and mass immigration after the Civil War knew no bounds. The country was being ruined, and Adams blamed it all on the Jews: “I tell you Rome was a blessed garden of paradise beside the rotten, unsexed, swindling, lying Jews, represented by Pierpont Morgan and the gang who have been manipulating the country for the last few years.” It made no difference that J.P. Morgan was neither Jewish himself nor in any sense a representative of the Jews. For as Adams wrote in another of his letters: “The Jew has got into the soul. I see him—or her—now everywhere, and wherever he—or she—goes, there must remain a taint in the blood forever.”
In Vidal’s diatribe there is no explicit mention of blood, but there is its functional equivalent in the idea that Jews born in the United States nevertheless remain foreigners living here by the gracious sufferance of the natives. Incorrigibly alien though the Jews may be, however, they exercise enormous and malevolent power over the politics of what Vidal, conjuring up the long discredited spirit of 19th-century nativism, does not hesitate to call “the host country.”
In the days of Henry Adams, and up until the establishment of the state of Israel, the great power of the Jews was supposedly used in the interests of world Jewry; today it is generally said to be deployed in the interest of the Jewish state, which Vidal, taking up this line, characterizes as a “predatory people . . . busy stealing other people’s land in the name of an alien theocracy.” Here is Vidal’s version of how the conspiracy works:
In order to get Treasury money for Israel (last year $3 billion), pro-Israel lobbyists must see to it that America’s “the Russians are coming” squads are in place so that they can continue to frighten the American people into spending enormous sums for “defense,” which also means the support of Israel in its never-ending wars against just about everyone.
As befits this resurrection of the two classic themes of anti-Semitic literature—the Jew as alien and the Jew as the conspiratorial manipulator of malign power dangerous to everyone else—Vidal’s tone is poisonous. His every word drips with contempt and hatred, and underlying it all is a strong note of menace. The Jews had better watch out if they wish “to stay on among us”—not that “we” will necessarily permit them to stay even if they do begin minding their manners. Their only purpose, after all, is “to make propaganda and raise money for Israel,” thereby impoverishing the rest of us and bringing the world closer and closer to a nuclear war.
My own reaction on first reading this article was amazement: I could hardly believe my eyes. What amazed me was not the fact that I myself and my wife Midge Decter had been singled out by Vidal as representative examples of the phenomenon he was claiming to expose. I had known Vidal personally for many years, and had followed his career, so I was well aware that he believed in getting back at anyone who had the temerity to criticize him—a crime that Midge Decter and I had each recently committed. Thus, commenting in my syndicated weekly column on his joint appearance with Norman Mailer at a fund-raising evening for the forthcoming PEN Congress in New York, I had observed that (like most of their fellow writers) Mailer and Vidal were hostile “to the kind of country they imagine America has become in the past hundred years: oppressive and repressive both at home and abroad.” I further noted that “the fame and the glory and the riches” they themselves had achieved “make nonsense of their defamatory caricature of America as a country given over body and soul to materialism, puritanism, and philistinism.”
Some weeks later in Contentions, the monthly publication of the Committee for the Free World (of which she is executive director), Midge Decter poked fun at Vidal’s ideas about “the American empire.” She also observed that Vidal had once again demonstrated that he “does not like his country.”
So a retaliatory strike, or even two, was to be expected from Vidal. Why then should I have been amazed by it when it came? For two reasons. The lesser was that Vidal, who had always seemed to glory in his hostility to America as a mark of superior intellect, virtue, and patrician ancestry, now felt driven to deny what we had said about that hostility. “Of course I like my country,” he wrote. “After all, I’m its current biographer.” For Vidal to describe his historical novels in this way was as if Lytton Strachey had pointed to Eminent Victorians as evidence of his great fondness for the generation of his father. And this piece of defensive dishonesty seemed all the more remarkable in that it was accompanied by a restatement of some of the very ideas (“We stole other people’s land. We murdered many of the inhabitants. We imposed our religion—and rule—on the survivors,” etc.) Midge Decter had cited in the article he was trying to rebut.
But if I was surprised by the discovery that this famously fearless speaker of his own mind lacked the courage to call his own political convictions by their proper name, I was truly amazed by his introduction of the Jewish issue into an argument over the quality of American society and the nature of the American role in world affairs.
Neither of the two pieces Vidal was pretending to answer so much as mentioned Israel or had anything whatever to do with the particular concerns of the American Jewish community. One of them was about the attitudes of the American literary world toward the United States; the other dealt with the American role in Mexico, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. By dragging the issue of Jewishness into such a discussion, Vidal was recklessly exposing himself to the charge of anti-Semitism. Who, after all, but an anti-Semite would attempt to refute an opposing political position by interpreting it as a Jewish conspiracy against the rest of “us”?
But Vidal did more than merely introduce the Jewish question—as his anti-Semitic forebears liked to call it—into an unrelated discussion. He did more than sound the classic themes of anti-Semitic literature. He did all this without even bothering to conceal his true feelings. For example, in response to my statement that in America “the blessings of freedom and prosperity are greater and more widely shared than in any country known to human history,” he said that I was wrapping myself in “our flag” and wearing it “like a designer kaftan.” Again, in taking up Midge Decter’s detailed challenge to his conception of American imperialism, Vidal countered that “She is [an Israeli] propagandist (paid for?), and that is what all this nonsense is about.” And to make certain that his meaning would not be mistaken, he called us both an “Israeli Fifth Column.”
So it went, literally ad nauseam.
Now that a bit of time has passed, I can see in retrospect that I should have been as little surprised by the way Vidal struck back as I was by the sheer fact that he did.
For one thing, I knew that he had long harbored feelings of resentment against what he considered the disproportionate influence of Jews in the American literary world. Many years earlier, he had joked about the domination of that world by a Jewish establishment of critics and editors which made room on the list of the important American novelists of his own generation only for an occasional “O.K. Goy” like himself. Yet as he undoubtedly recognized, Vidal had no standing (either then or now) as a novelist among serious literary critics of any ethnic background. What did make (and would continue to sustain) his reputation outside the world of commercial fiction and the television talk shows was his considerable talent as an essayist. But it was as a novelist that he clearly wished to be recognized, and he evidently blamed the Jewish establishment for preventing justice from being done to his work.
Since it served as the entering wedge for the return to America of an old tradition of cultural anti-Semitism, it is worth pausing over the concept of an all-powerful Jewish literary establishment. Precisely because it had played a part in Berlin and Vienna in the 1920′s in forming the climate of opinion to which the Nazis could later appeal, the constituent ideas of this tradition came to be regarded as so repellent and dangerous that they were shunned and repressed in the years after World War II. Yet these also turned out to be the very years in which Jews were for the first time making a deep mark in the American literary world. Thus the period from the late 40′s to the late 50′s saw the emergence of novelists like Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth; of poets like Delmore Schwartz, Karl Shapiro, and Allen Ginsberg; of critics like Lionel Trilling, Alfred Kazin, and Irving Howe. And to top it all off, Partisan Review, many of whose editors and contributors were Jewish, also came in those years to be widely acknowledged as the leading American literary magazine.
Naturally enough, this development, new and interesting as it was, gave rise to a good deal of sociological and historical discussion, and in the course of this discussion Jews were often said to have found a place in, or even to have taken over, the “establishment.” Except for a degree of exaggeration, there was nothing wrong with such talk—until, that is, it began to be combined with the allegation that a conspiratorial network had been created between Jewish editors and Jewish critics for the purpose of pushing and promoting Jewish novelists and poets to the virtual exclusion of everyone else. At first this allegation was made only in shamefaced and guilty whispers. But eventually it achieved open expression in a Playboy interview with Truman Capote which was even more outspoken than Vidal’s apparently whimsical complaint about discrimination against goyim. According to Capote, a “Jewish mafia” had taken control of “much of the literary scene through the influence of the quarterlies and intellectual magazines.” He went on:
All these publications are Jewish-dominated and this particular coterie employs them to make or break writers by advancing or withholding attention. . . . Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow and Philip Roth and Isaac Bashevis Singer and Norman Mailer are all fine writers but they’re not the only writers in the country, as the Jewish mafia would have us believe. I could give you a list of excellent writers . . .; the odds are you haven’t heard of most of them for the simple reason that the Jewish mafia has systematically frozen them out of the literary scene.
The great irony was that the Jewish editors and critics who were supposed to be pushing and promoting Jewish novelists and poets in this way were in reality their harshest, and often their only, critics. So it was that Bellow and the others were much more roughly treated in Partisan Review (and COMMENTARY) than they were anywhere else. Nor was it even remotely the case that except for an occasional “O.K. Goy,” a writer had to be Jewish in order to get attention. In addition to Capote and Vidal themselves, who were hardly starving for attention, there were such widely read and discussed novelists as Carson McCullers, William Styron, John Updike, John Cheever, James Jones, Flannery O’Connor, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin; and there were such famous poets as Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Theodore Roethke, Randall Jarrell, Richard Wilbur, Elizabeth Bishop, and Sylvia Plath. All these writers, it might be added, were treated with much greater tenderness by critics like Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, and Cleanth Brooks than their Jewish contemporaries could generally expect from such Jewish critics as Trilling, Howe, or Philip Rahv.
About twenty years ago, I myself began trying to blow the whistle on the spreading notion of an all-powerful Jewish literary establishment by arguing that it was not only untrue but that it also represented the revival of a dangerous anti-Semitic canard. I did not, however, argue that Vidal and Capote, whose contribution to its revival I cited even then, were anti-Semitic. On the contrary, I exonerated them. I said that so effective had the taboo been on any open expression of hostility toward Jews since the fall of Hitler that Vidal and Capote, like almost everyone else in America of a certain age, were entirely unfamiliar with the traditional ideologies of anti-Semitism; and it was this very ignorance that had emboldened them to spread an idea they would have been ashamed of embracing if they had been aware of its history and pedigree.
I still think this may have been true of Capote (and I think it may also explain why so many people, including a few who are discussed below, are unable nowadays to recognize anti-Semitism when it hits them in the face). But it was obviously too kind to Vidal. As the years went by, the issue of Jewish literary power faded, but not Vidal’s animus against Jews, which sought, and in due course found, a new outlet in the issue of Israel.
Most critics of Israel are more concerned with attacking the state than with attacking the Jews as such. With Vidal it was the other way around. In fact, his loathing for Israel was no greater than his loathing for America; the one often even seemed a function of the other, with Israel’s main crime being its alliance with and resemblance to the United States. Conversely, and no doubt with the example of Henry Adams to inspire him, he seemed to blame the putative decline of the United States on its susceptibility to the corruptions of Jewish influence, operating not only through the contemporary descendants of J.P. Morgan (symbolized for Vidal by the Chase Manhattan Bank) but also through the Pentagon and “our lunatic Right.”
This anti-Jewish animus occasionally peeped through Vidal’s essays and interviews. Once, for example, he referred to Hilton Kramer, a critic who has rarely if ever dealt with Jewish topics or with Israel in his writings, as “the Tel Aviv Hilton.” But as in this instance, Vidal was always careful to hide his anti-Jewish animus behind a campy façade, which allowed him, if challenged, to claim that he was after all only joking.
Indeed, even when for the first time he came more or less fully out of the anti-Semitic closet, he still thought it the better part of prudence to protect himself by posing as the spokesman for a minority which was being persecuted by the Jews.
The occasion, which served as a kind of dress rehearsal, or tryout, for “The Empire Lovers Strike Back,” was an article called “Some Jews and the Gays” that was also published in the Nation and that was also aimed at Midge Decter and me—at her for the memoir she had written of summers spent in a largely homosexual community on Fire Island in the 1960′s, at me for publishing it in COMMENTARY (under the title “The Boys on the Beach”).1
Unlike her later piece in Contentions, “The Boys on the Beach” made no reference to Vidal, but as an early pioneer of gay liberation, he took violent exception to some of the things it said about homosexuality. To be sure, time has not been kind to Vidal’s article, which sneeringly dismisses the idea, propounded by “The Boys on the Beach” and now so grimly confirmed by the AIDS epidemic, that there is a suicidal impulse at work in homosexual promiscuity. Nevertheless, Vidal’s sneers would have been fair enough if they had been confined to Midge Decter’s knowledge of the subject, her judgment, her prose. But Vidal did not confine himself to these things; instead he broadened out into a blast against “a group of New York Jewish publicists” who
know that should the bad times return, the Jews would be singled out yet again. Meanwhile, like so many Max Naumanns (Naumann was a German Jew who embraced Nazism), the new class passionately supports our ruling class—from the Chase Manhattan Bank to the Pentagon to the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal—while holding in fierce contempt what they think our rulers hold in contempt: faggots, blacks, . . . and the poor. . . .
The anti-Semitism here was brazenly obvious to anyone with eyes to see. But as Vidal correctly sensed in writing the article, and as the editor of the Nation probably figured in deciding to publish it, anyone speaking on behalf of an aggrieved minority can attack the Jews with relative impunity, especially if he turns the tables by representing them as the oppressors. Thus, just as the idea of a conspiracy against helpless Gentile writers by an all-powerful Jewish literary “mafia” had been tolerated in the early 60′s, so a similar idea about the relation of blacks to Jews had been tolerated during the bitter New York City teachers’ strike of 1968. Prior to this point, anyone making anti-Semitic statements had been in effect banished from respectable society and consigned to the lunatic fringe. But now, far from being penalized in this way, blacks could proclaim (as the African-American Teachers Forum did) that “The Jew” deliberately and “systematically” (the same word Capote used) “keeps our men from becoming teachers and principals and he keeps our children ignorant,” and still be excused and justified by liberals, including Jewish liberals, and even rewarded with foundation grants. (A few who said such things, and worse, have since become prominent in New York politics.)
The reaction to “Some Jews and the Gays” demonstrated that the same license was now being extended to homosexuals. Not only was there no outcry against this article after its appearance in the Nation; and not only did many people take the position that Vidal’s rage was understandable and perhaps even warranted; but the collection of essays in which it was reprinted (under the title “Pink Triangle and Yellow Star”) went on to win a National Book Critics Circle Award. When Ezra Pound’s The Pisan Cantos, which also contained anti-Semitic passages, was awarded the Bollingen Prize in 1949, there were protests even from some who considered Pound a great poet. But when a book by Vidal, a writer no one considers great, was awarded a literary prize, no protests were heard, and some reviewers even singled out the offending essay for special praise.
Obviously, then, both Vidal and the editor of the Nation had been right in their assessment of the risks involved in publishing “Some Jews and the Gays.” Even the caution shown in the choice of title proved to be unnecessary.
With this experience behind him, Vidal must surely have assumed that he could get away with the same anti-Semitic trick when he decided to play it again in “The Empire Lovers Strike Back.” Yet I at first thought that this time he and the Nation had miscalculated.
It was one thing to attack “some” Jews for criticizing homosexuality; and if the attack spilled over into abusive remarks about Jews in general, well, that could be dismissed as a forgivable expression of that cleansing “rage” everyone has come to expect from oppressed minorities fighting for their rights. But it was quite another thing to make abusive charges against Jews for supporting Israel. Here no pretense at limiting the attack to “some” Jews (that is, the neoconservatives) could provide protection, since virtually all American Jews, including those who detest the neoconservatives as much as Vidal does, were bound to feel themselves equally implicated. If, as Vidal charged, their support of Israel proved that Jews of a neoconservative bent did not really belong in America, then neither did liberal Jews or radical Jews who also support Israel; and if supporting Israel made the neoconservatives into a “fifth column” (which is to say, agents of a foreign power and even traitors), there was no way the rest of the Jewish community, which was at least as pro-Israel as any neoconservative, could escape being tarred with the same accusation.
If Vidal had made a mistake, so, I thought, had the Nation. In recent years, under Victor Navasky, the Nation had regularly published articles by such virulently anti-Israel propagandists as Edward Said (a member of the PLO National Council) and Alexander Cockburn. But while attacking Israel, and doing everything in its power to delegitimize the Jewish state, the Nation had always piously affirmed Israel’s right to exist. Yet here, in a special anniversary issue, the magazine was opening its pages to a piece advocating a cutoff of all American aid to Israel—which was tantamount to calling for the destruction of the state by its Soviet-armed enemies.
This was not all. Like the PLO itself, which it supports, the Nation had always insisted on the distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Yet by publishing an anti-Zionist piece that was so obviously anti-Semitic, it cast serious doubt on its own belief in the reality of this distinction.
For these reasons, I was confident that a storm of protest would be unleashed against Vidal and the Nation, and I therefore resisted the urgings of many people that I “do something.” Obviously, as an interested party, I was not in the best position to make the case that had to be made. Nor was I in the least concerned about defending myself personally. Although I am as thin-skinned as the next man, I took Vidal’s article not as a personal attack on me at all but as an attack on Jews in general. Consequently, what I most hoped for was not that others would spring to my defense, but that a protest would be mounted by people sympathetic to the Nation‘s left-wing political position who would say that while they detested everything Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter, and all the other neo-conservatives stood for, and while nothing made them happier than seeing neoconservatives raked over the coals, they were outraged by the re-introduction of anti-Semitism into American political discourse in general and their own political community in particular.
And indeed, about a week after Vidal’s piece appeared, just such a protest came from the very heartland of that community, the Village Voice. Under the rubric “Jew-Roasting,” its press critic, Geoffrey Stokes, wrote:
Happy 120th Birthday, Nationl On the other hand, what the hell was Gore Vidal’s anti-Semitic screed doing in the special anniversary issue? Not even clever, . . . Vidal’s piece . . . had the unsettling effect of making me briefly sympathetic to Podhoretz.
Gratifying though this was, however, it was followed by complete silence from the Left. In the Nation itself, three issues went by with no letters to the editor, and when an inquiry was made to its editorial offices, the answer was that the mail on Vidal had not been unusually heavy, that it was split evenly pro and con, and that some of it would eventually be run.
Meanwhile, wherever I went in those weeks, I would ask the people I encountered about the Vidal piece, only to find that hardly anyone had read it. This included people who had attended the anniversary party at which more than 3,000 copies of the offending issue had been distributed, as well as other self-professed friends of and subscribers to the Nation. It was good to learn that the Nation (which claims a circulation of 70,000), had such a small readership, but I did not think the Vidal piece should be allowed to sneak by unnoticed. In my view, ignoring it would only be taken by other anti-Semites as a license to resume saying things on which they had mercifully been choking for so long.
It was at this point that a letter was sent to twenty-nine friends and supporters of the Nation whose names were selected both from the magazine’s masthead and from the congratulatory messages which had appeared in the anniversary issue. They were: Floyd Abrams; Bella Abzug; Leonard Bernstein; Norman Birnbaum; Bill Bradley; Arthur L. Carter; Ramsey Clark; Arthur C. Danto; Osborn Elliott; Richard Falk; Frances FitzGerald; Fred Friendly; Seymour Hersh; Arthur Hertzberg; Charlayne Hunter-Gault; Peter Jennings; Edward Kennedy; Edward I. Koch; Elinor Langer; Eugene McCarthy; Sidney Morgenbesser; Aryeh Neier; Robert Silvers; Paul Simon; Gloria Steinern; Rose Styron; Mike Wallace; Tom Wicker; Roger Wilkins.
It would later be reported in the press that I had demanded that these people repudiate the Vidal article. But what the letter, signed not by me but by Marion Magid, the managing editor of COMMENTARY, actually said was this:
In connection with a projected article, we are asking a number of friends and supporters of the Nation whether they have seen fit to protest against the contribution by Gore Vidal to the 120th anniversary issue (“The Empire Lovers Strike Back”). Could you let us know whether you have made such a protest, either in private or in a letter for publication?
In the four weeks that followed the mailing of this letter we received only seven replies. By that time the Nation had also begun running letters in its correspondence columns, of which three were from people who had been on our list. Eliminating overlaps,2 this came to a total of eight out of twenty-nine. Of the eight, only five (the attorney Floyd Abrams; Professor Richard Falk of Princeton; Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg; Professor Sidney Morgenbesser of Columbia; and Aryeh Neier, the human-rights activist) said they saw anything wrong with the article or with the Nation‘s decision to publish it.
Of the others, two (the sociologist Norman Birnbaum and Tom Wicker of the New York Times), responding directly to Marion Magid, attacked her letter as an impropriety, while either saying nothing about Vidal at all (Birnbaum) or explicitly denying that his article was anti-Semitic (Wicker). The third, the journalist Roger Wilkins, writing to the Nation for publication, called Vidal’s piece “splendid.” By contrast, Wilkins said, the attacks on it as anti-Semitic were “ugly mumblings,” a species of McCarthyism, and a threat to the First Amendment.
Striking a note that would be heard over and over again from defenders of Vidal, Wilkins declared:
Scoundrels have many last refuges. One is to attack as anti-Semitic any criticism of the policies of any given government of Israel or of any supporters of Israel, no matter how frothing those supporters may be.
Not content with defending Vidal against the charge of anti-Semitism, Wilkins even denied that his piece was anti-Israel. Like himself, Wilkins wrote, Vidal “apparently” believed “that one can criticize an Israeli government policy or one advocated by a supporter of Israel as being both dangerous to peace and to Israel’s security without being either anti-Israel or anti-Semitic.”
In other words, the critics of Israel are allowed to say anything they want, no matter how vile, about the state and its supporters, but it is McCarthyism and a threat to the First Amendment to criticize them.
To put the same idea another way: it is permissible to make anti-Semitic statements, but it is impermissible to call such statements anti-Semitic.
But what of the twenty-one who did not respond to Marion Magid’s letter? What did their silence mean? Some weeks later, after the controversy had attracted a great deal of publicity, three of them (Fred Friendly of the Columbia School of Journalism; the writer Elinor Langer; and Senator Paul Simon of Illinois) finally got around to communicating their dislike of Vidal’s piece either to Marion Magid or to me. All three, however, said that they felt no compelling reason to protest against its publication.
As for the other eighteen, one can only speculate. It may be that the politicians among them (Mayor Koch, Senator Bradley, Senator Kennedy) were never shown the letter by whoever handles their mail. This may also have been the case with the media personalities (Peter Jennings of ABC, Mike Wallace of CBS, Charlayne Hunter-Gault of PBS) or with a busy celebrity like Leonard Bernstein. It is even possible that they never saw Vidal’s article (a copy of which, by the way, had been enclosed with the letter).
Nevertheless, whatever the reasons might be, one glaring and ugly fact remained: a large number of prominent liberals and leftists who had publicly associated themselves in one way or another with the Nation, and whose names had appeared in one capacity or another in the very issue containing so blatantly anti-Semitic an article, had not been sufficiently outraged to register disapproval or to express a protest. Nor did many others on the Left respond by (to borrow an image Vidal had used in congratulating himself for candor) calling a spade a spade: by, that is, describing Vidal’s article as a foul anti-Semitic outburst and expressing dismay or disgust at the fact that a magazine professedly devoted to liberal ideals should have given house room to such an article.
A few did. Stipulating that “Knocking Podhoretz up the side of the head for an inane foreign policy is like shooting fish in a barrel,” one liberal reader still characterized Vidal’s article as a “leering, taunting, look-at-how-clever-I-am anti-Semitic assault.” He also blamed the Nation‘s editor for permitting Vidal to “break the bounds of discourse.”
Another reader, dissociating himself even more vigorously from me and Midge Decter, asked whether Vidal was “sallying forth to paste yellow stars on those of us ‘foreigners’ whose Americanism is questionable because we like Israel?”
A third, summing up the case, wrote:
The implication—that American Jews who support Israel are traitors to their country—is pure anti-Semitism. . . . I do not like neoconservativism and I do not like Norman Podhoretz. I don’t like him, as a Jew, as an American, as a Zionist, and as a leftist. But I’d rather see his published ideas criticized fairly than to see him accused of treason without evidence, especially when this accusation extends to me.
Yet in the weeks immediately following the publication of Vidal’s article, these three (or stretching a point to include Floyd Abrams, four) were the only letters to the Nation from liberals or leftists that seemed to me commensurate with the provocation.
Of the other two protests from the Left published by the Nation, one came from Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg. A former president of the American Jewish Congress, Rabbi Hertzberg had been heard to rail privately against the article and had promised to denounce it in the strongest possible terms. In the end, however, all he managed to produce was a letter in which he described the piece as a “personal quarrel with Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter,” said that he was “delighted” with Vidal’s complimentary remarks about Peace Now, and could not even bring himself to use the term “anti-Semitism” at all. As for the second such liberal protest, while denouncing Vidal “for exhibiting a snide anti-Jewishness,” it spent more space explaining that the American Jewish Committee, despite its sponsorship of COMMENTARY, was not, as Vidal had ignorantly charged in passing, an organization of “the far Right.”
Neither this letter, nor Hertzberg’s, was written in the name of the Jewish organizations with which their authors were associated; nor did any other Jewish organization speak up in these first few weeks (though both the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League would subsequently be heard from). A reporter for an Israeli newspaper, who later set out to find out why the Jewish defense agencies had been so quiet, discovered that the feeling was that “Norman can take care of himself.” But the issue was not “Norman,” and to define it in those terms was to do what Hertzberg was the first (but, as we shall see, far from the last) to do: it was to turn an anti-Semitic assault into “a personal quarrel” and thereby to trivialize it. From there it was only a short step to the prominent lay Jewish leader who went around saying that “Podhoretz and Vidal deserve each other.” This idea that anti-Semitism and a protest against anti-Semitism are on an equal moral footing would also be echoed in the weeks ahead. But not usually by people carrying a mandate from the American Jewish community to defend it against anti-Semitism.
After nearly a month of waiting for a serious protest to materialize, it finally dawned on me that I had been wrong to think that Vidal and the Nation had made a mistake from their own point of view with “The Empire Lovers Strike Back.” If so, things were even more ominous than they had seemed at first. It was bad enough that a presumably reputable author should see fit to write a blatantly anti-Semitic article; it was even worse that a magazine professing devotion to liberal values should see fit to publish such an article; but what was worst of all was that so few of the magazine’s friends and admirers had been willing to raise their voices against it. Therefore, in the column I now decided I had no choice but to write, it was the theme of liberal silence I emphasized. It was, I concluded, “a silence as deep as the moral pit into which the Nation itself has fallen in welcoming the unabashed return to American political discourse of a murderous poison against which the only antidote is the revulsion of decent people.”
A few days before this column was published, first in the New York Post and then in the Washington Post and a number of other papers throughout the United States, the New Republic ran an editorial denouncing Vidal’s article as anti-Semitic on the ground that his target was not just the Jewish state but Jews in general, and that his accusations against Podhoretz and Decter as aliens, and even “in essence” traitors, applied “by extension [to] all American Jews who support Israel.”
The New Republic likes to regard itself as a liberal magazine, and in some sense it is. But its hatred of Soviet totalitarianism, its belief in the need for American power to contain Soviet expansionism, and its strong support of Israel—not to mention a host of differences over domestic issues—have placed it politically on the opposite side of the Nation in recent years. Consequently, its editorial on Vidal could no more be taken as coming from the Nation‘s own political community than an earlier protest by the neoconservative Catholic writer Michael Novak (who in his syndicated column had been the first to call attention to “a piece of bigotry and nativism by Gore Vidal worthy of the anti-Semitism of the KKK”) or the indignant letter to the Nation by the New Right activist Paul Weyrich.
In any event, to judge by the reaction to its editorial, which seemed to attract more attention than the Vidal article itself had done, the New Republic is much more widely and more carefully read than the Nation. No sooner had it appeared than I began to get calls and letters requesting more information; and whereas before it was I who had had to ask people about the Vidal article, only to discover that very few had seen or heard about it, now everywhere I went, everyone, it seemed, was talking about it. And when, hard upon the New Republic editorial, my own column appeared, the talk became even louder and more insistent.
Nor was this second wave of reaction confined to talk. Before the storm finally subsided two months or so later, at least twenty pieces had been published about the episode in American newspapers and magazines, and nearly half as many again in other countries, including England, France, Germany, Australia, and Israel.
From this second wave of reaction I learned that there is something worse than silence in the face of anti-Semitism, and that is a willful blindness in the face of it. Here the blindness took three different but overlapping forms. One was the outright denial that Vidal’s piece was anti-Semitic. The second was to treat the article as part of a longstanding personal feud between Vidal and me. The third was to affect a lofty neutrality as between two equally unpleasant and unacceptable points of view.
Leading the pack of those who simply denied that Vidal’s piece was anti-Semitic were Vidal and Navasky themselves. In the first wave, replying to the letters on his piece in the Nation itself, Vidal had not only ignored the charge of anti-Semitism but had adopted the strategy of heaping abuse on the correspondents who leveled it at him. One of these correspondents, he said, “needs psychiatric attention of a sort that I cannot provide.”3 Another he advised to “join the Israeli Army.” To a third, he cited “the hysterical tone of these letters” as evidence of the strength of his argument. To a fourth he countered that “the Podhoretzes are doing more to arouse the essential anti-Semitism of the American people than anyone since Father Coughlin.”
As for Navasky, he bemoaned the “sad fact” that “when a Gentile criticizes Israel or raises fundamental questions about its connection to American Jewry he or she is often said to be anti-Semitic; when a Jew does so he or she is said to be self-hating.” Going so far as to concede that “such ugly accusations” were “understandable in view of Vidal’s provocative framing of the issue,” Navasky still insisted that they arose out of a misreading of Vidal’s “idiom of irony”—and irony, of course, “should not be read literally.” Instead of being called bad names, Vidal should be acclaimed for his courage in “violating the taboo that forbids the discussion of the relationship of the American Jewish community to the state of Israel. . . .”
This was too much for Irving Howe, the editor of the socialist magazine Dissent. Reaffirming his often stated distaste for Podhoretz and Decter, and referring to Navasky as a “decent and humane man,” Howe nevertheless not only lashed into Vidal’s “racist diatribe” (“It is many years since I have read anything quite like this in a serious magazine”); he called the Editor’s Note in defense of it “still more shocking” than the fact that the Nation had printed Vidal’s piece:
Whatever are the Nation editors talking about? What taboo? Many of us have publicly been engaged in precisely this discussion for years now, and one need only look through the files of various magazines—Left, Right, and Center—to see how fierce this debate has been.
Vidal’s piece aroused disgust not because of any issue it raised or taboo it violated, but because of the terms in which it was couched—terms about as close to anti-Semitism as anyone not an openly declared anti-Semite would reach.
Navasky’s Editor’s Note was also too much for the veteran Old Leftist Morris U. Schappes, the editor of Jewish Currents. Schappes “admonished the Nation as a devoted friend” for its failure to perceive that Vidal’s article was “smelly with anti-Semitism” and for defending it on the false ground that Vidal had raised questions about the relation of American Jews to Israel that no one else had previously dared to ask.
Unchastened by rebukes even from such friendly quarters, Navasky stuck throughout to the same line. But this time, in the second wave, Vidal himself did deign to notice that he was being charged with anti-Semitism. In a call made to the Washington Post after my column had appeared there, he stated:
Anyone who says he is not an anti-Semite is probably one, and so I shall not dignify the dread Norman (Poddy)4 Podhoretz’s characterization of me in these pages as “a virulent anti-Semite” with a defense where no offense of that nature exists or has ever existed.
In addition to thus fingering himself here by doing precisely what he says an anti-Semite would do, Vidal requested that the Post reprint his Nation article. This request the Post thereupon honored so that, it explained, readers could answer for themselves the question posed in its headline: “Was the Vidal Article Anti-Semitic?” (Will the Post, the New Republic subsequently wondered, “reprint the writings of Louis Farrakhan or Lyndon LaRouche when next its readers seem puzzled by a columnist’s criticisms?”)
First out of the gate in the race to join in denying that Vidal’s piece was anti-Semitic sprang Edwin M. Yoder, Jr., another Washington Post columnist. Yoder, in his courteous Southern way, allowed as how it was “unfair” of Vidal to charge me with being “more interested in Israel than in this country” (is that what he charged me with?) but “The truth is that Norman Podhoretz asked for it, not only by firing the first shot at Vidal in connection with an entirely different subject, but by professing an ostentatious indifference to early American history.”
What Yoder is referring to here is a story Vidal told in his article about a remark I am supposed to have made to him twenty-five years ago, to the effect that to me, as the child of immigrants, the Civil War was as remote as the War of the Roses. Though I have no memory of making the remark, I may well have said something like it. But whether or not I did—and if I did, I was certainly putting Vidal on—Yoder’s notion that I deserved to be answered with an anti-Semitic onslaught twenty-five years later takes the breath away. But of course Vidal’s onslaught was not, in Yoder’s view, anti-Semitic at all. It was only “mischievous and cutting . . ., in Vidal’s best polemical manner.”
No more than Roger Wilkins before him was Yoder satisfied with defending Vidal against the charge of anti-Semitism. He also counterattacked with the accusation that I, like many (most?) American Jews, have tried to silence any and all criticism of Israel by denouncing such criticism as anti-Semitic, even while pretending otherwise:
Podhoretz graciously concedes that “it is possible to criticize Israel without being anti-Semitic.” Thanks, we needed that. But has Podhoretz noticed that if one is critical of an Israeli policy one may be accused of attacking Israel’s legitimacy? And, just beyond that, of being a crypto anti-Semite? It was that very logic that drove Podhoretz to mistake Vidal’s hard-edged teasing for anti-Semitism.
A similar argument was advanced by another columnist, William Pfaff, writing in the International Herald-Tribune, who moreover took it upon himself to deliver a lecture on how “reasonable people” should conduct themselves in discussing the subject of Israel. He graciously conceded in his turn that Jews have a right to support Israel “without having imputed to them a lack of patriotism toward the country of which they are citizens.” His main concern, however, was clearly to establish the right of “an American to criticize or oppose the policies of the state of Israel . . . without an anti-Semitic motivation being imputed.”
Once again, then, the issue was shifted from the appearance of an anti-Semitic article in a respectable left-wing magazine to the alleged efforts by people like me to silence any and all criticism of Israel. On this point Pfaff let it be known that he knew whereof he spoke: “I have . . . been myself denounced by Mr. Podhoretz as anti-Semitic because of things I wrote about Israel’s conduct during the siege of Beirut in 1982,” he told his readers. What he did not tell them was that in one of these “things” he had begun by asserting that in Israel’s conduct “Hitler’s work goes on,” and he had concluded by predicting that Hitler might soon “find rest in Hell” through “the knowledge that the Jews themselves, in Israel, have finally accepted his own way of looking at things.” In my article “J’Accuse,”5 I did indeed denounce these words (not Pfaff himself) as anti-Semitic. Nicholas von Hoffman, another columnist who had used similar words, had the good grace to withdraw them in response to the same criticism. But not Pfaff—who, in addition, had and has the gall to feel aggrieved and victimized by the fact that he was called to account.
Since Pfaff (like Yoder a decent man who is intelligent enough to know better) remains convinced that comparing Israel to Nazi Germany represents a “reasonable” application to the Jewish state “of the same moral and political judgments as one applies to the conduct of other states,” it is no wonder that all he can see in Vidal is an innocent “critic” of Israel like himself. What he does not see is that it is he, and Yoder and Wilkins and Wicker, who erase the line between legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism by their unwillingness or inability to distinguish between the former and a clear case of the latter like the Vidal article (or like his own comparisons of Israel with Nazi Germany).
If denial, was one form taken by this blindness to anti-Semitism, a second was the treatment of Vidal’s article as part of a longstanding personal feud with me and/or Midge Decter. “A Big-League Literary Feud,” announced the headline of a story in Newsweek which went on to describe it as “the sort of literary quarrel that had everything going for it,” with “the prospect of more vitriolic prose, more character assassinations, and, in all likelihood, more broken friendships.”
Several newspapers also played the story largely for its gossip value. “The dirty little war of words between writer Gore Vidal and conservative columnist Norman Podhoretz appears to have gone nuclear,” brightly chirped a reporter in the Washington Post Style section. “Long bombarding each other with verbal abuse, Vidal and Podhoretz have now engaged in an exchange that is by all accounts ugly, burying the issues in an atomic barrage of name-calling.”
From this kind of trivialization the third form of denial naturally followed. On National Public Radio, Rod MacLeish declared a plague on both our houses for “polluting” public discourse, but he was more incensed at me than at Vidal. Unjustly to accuse someone of anti-Semitism, he said, is almost as base as anti-Semitism itself. But he was so busy explaining to me that it is not anti-Semitic to criticize the economic policies [sic!] of the Israeli government that he never got around to explaining how what he himself described as Vidal’s appeal to “an ancient American bigotry” differed from anti-Semitism.
The same trick of morally equating Vidal’s anti-Semitism with my protest against it was used by Jody Powell in the Los Angeles Times. Deploring all the attention being paid to this “grand wrist-flapping dither” at a time when “deficits and exchange rates” were crying out for discussion, Powell proceeded to devote an entire column to it himself:
What we have here is a trio of aging, self-righteous ideologues bent on exposing the absurdities of their intellectual configuration to all who can stomach the spectacle. What emerges is that they are more alike than different.
Powell therefore “steadfastly refused to choose” because “it is impossible to attack one without appearing to be allied with the other.”
But this was only impossible because Powell also “steadfastly refused” to recognize anti-Semitism when he saw it; to those not so blinded, like Paul Berman of the Village Voice (which in the second wave as in the first acquitted itself more honorably than any other left-wing publication), there was no question about which side to take as between an anti-Semitic article and a protest against it:
Who but my discombobulated friends at the Nation could so bollix things that right-minded leftists have no choice but to rise to the defense of Norman Podhoretz?
I rise. . . . The Nation had no business publishing Gore Vidal’s spleen. . . . And why must the editors of the Nation, having made the mistake of publishing this horrendous stuff in the first place, pass it off as “irony”?
In describing both waves of reaction to the Vidal article, I have omitted the protests that came from people outside the circle of friends and supporters of the Nation—writers like William Safire, R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., Jeane Kirkpatrick, Richard John Neuhaus, Jeffrey Hart, and David Evanier who are neither liberals nor radicals and whose general political views are closer to mine than to the Nation‘s.6 For such people, protesting against Vidal and the Nation was as unproblematic as it was hard for leftists who were reluctant to give political aid and comfort to an opponent like me. But as a diabolical fate would have it, the conservative political community was soon to face a similar test of its own.
Joseph Sobran is a syndicated columnist, a commentator on the CBS radio series “Spectrum,” and a senior editor of National Review (a magazine whose standing on the Right is comparable to, though much higher than, the position on the Left occupied by the Nation). For some years now, and especially since the Lebanon war, when he too wrote a few “things” about Israel’s “conduct,” he has been increasingly unfriendly to the Jewish state. During the Bitburg controversy, in defending the President’s decision to visit a German military cemetery in which SS men were buried, he also struck a number of people as decidedly unfriendly to the American Jewish community. Remonstrations were made to him in private about the insensitivity to Jewish concerns reflected in his Bitburg columns, and he was even caricatured as a latter-day Nazi in a small-town paper which had carried those columns.
To all this he responded by defending himself in print against what he indignantly denounced as Jewish attempts to intimidate and silence him. He would not, he vowed, be intimidated; he would not be silenced. And he was as good as his word. Over the following months, he seemed to let no opportunity slip for attacking Israel and American support for Israel. As bitter an opponent of the Left as can be found, he was even driven to seize on a book attacking Zionism from the Left as a vehicle for the amazing declaration that he had never seen a good case made, except by Jews (whose arguments, of course, could not be trusted), for the American alliance with Israel.
Nor was this the only instance when the Jewish issue drove Sobran into making common cause with people or positions he would normally be the first to attack. The most egregious example was his criticism of the American strike on Libya. This was so uncharacteristic a stance for a hardline conservative hawk like Sobran to take, and so inconsistent with his general world view, that it could only cause his regular readers to wonder how he had come to such a pass. Demonstrating his fearless disregard of the “gas-chamber rhetoric” that would no doubt be thrown at him, Sobran provided the materials for dispelling that wonder:
The Israeli lobby is, of course, the most powerful lobby in America. That is ultimately why Congress so quickly endorsed a direct military strike against Libya, while it quibbles endlessly about whether aid to the contras in Nicaragua might lead, someday, to American military involvement in Central America. Qaddafi is an enemy of Israel. Communist Nicaragua isn’t. It’s an enemy of America, period.
So we fight Qaddafi, and maybe, the administration hints, Syria and Iran as well. Ostensibly the issue is “terrorism,” but that sounds more and more like a surrogate word for enemies of Israel.
Having thus explained how Congress was manipulated by the Jews into approving the Libyan strike, he went on in another column to explain why the New York Times also applauded Reagan for this misconceived action:
On the issue of Libya, the Times sounds like Soldier of Fortune magazine. It even chides our allies for ingratitude in failing to support Reagan’s action: “The failure to cooperate against Libya plants poisonous seeds of disintegration.”
The Times didn’t use that kind of language at the moment when it might have done so more appropriately: When Israel was discovered to have been paying a U.S. citizen for U.S. military secrets. Our European allies are our allies for the purpose of resisting Communism, not terrorism. But the Times, one of America’s most ardently Zionist newspapers, understands that Israel has its own reasons for desiring to pit the United States against the whole Arab world. So bombs away.
Never mind the ignorance and/or misrepresentation here. Never mind that the Sandinistas—who are so close to the PLO that some of them were trained in PLO camps before the overthrow of Somoza; who still receive help from the PLO today; and who have declared that “the PLO cause is the cause of the Sandinistas”—are enemies of Israel. Never mind that the New York Times, far from being “ardently Zionist,” is by a wide margin editorially more critical of Israel than approving. Sobran will not permit such elementary facts to stand in the way of his theory that the Jews first manipulated Reagan into bombing Libya, and then manipulated the Congress and the media into applauding him for doing so.
As if all this were not enough, Sobran took the occasion of the Pope’s visit to a synagogue in Rome earlier this year to dredge up canards against the Jews as a people and Judaism as a religion that had rarely been heard since the Middle Ages (though it is possible that Sobran found them in the writings of such Edwardian Catholics as Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton who seem to play a part for him as mentors in anti-Semitism analogous to the one Henry Adams plays for Vidal):
Millions of Jews chose to migrate to Christian Europe. They lived there for centuries. If Christians were sometimes hostile to Jews, that worked two ways. Some rabbinical authorities held that it was permissible to cheat and even kill Gentiles. Although the great Jewish theologian Moses Maimonides insisted that it was as wrong to kill a Gentile as a Jew, it seems strange that this should ever have been a matter of controversy, and Maimonides was in some quarters regarded as a heretic.
Again, never mind the ignorance here. Never mind the preposterous lies about rabbinical permission to cheat and kill Gentiles or the suggestion that the most revered Jewish thinker of post-biblical times (“From Moses to Moses,” Jews say of him, “none has arisen like Moses”) was regarded as a heretic because he considered it wrong for a Jew to kill a Gentile. Never mind the ludicrous moral judgment that (in another passage of the same column) equates Christian “hostility” to Jews—manifested over the centuries in mass expulsions, pogroms, forced conversions, and denial of civil or political rights—with the less than respectful Jewish attitude toward Jesus that prevailed in those same centuries. The point to be stressed is that in this column, although Israel comes in at the beginning and the end, the issue is not Zionism, or rather anti-Zionism, but Jews and Judaism throughout the ages. Anti-Semitism, in other words.
For me personally, as well as for Midge Decter, a difficult problem was posed by the growing but finally inescapable conclusion that anti-Semitism was at work in those Sobran columns. In contrast to Vidal (with whom in general he has, to put it mildly, nothing in common), Sobran did not single us out for attack. On the contrary, in one of the very columns from which I have quoted, he defended us against Vidal’s charge of disloyalty to America. Not that this did anything to mitigate his own hostility to Israel; it did not, in fact, even prevent him from playing on the theme of dual loyalty himself: “As their frequently duplicitous behavior shows, the Israelis know very well the difference between their interests and ours. It’s Americans who love Israel who don’t know it yet.” Then he used a column of mine (which he might have noticed gave the lie all by itself to the charge that I consider any and all criticism of Israel to be ipso facto anti-Semitic) to drive the dual-loyalty point home:
When the Pollard spy story broke, Podhoretz wrote that American Jews had been doubly betrayed—as Americans and as Jews. If so, they have been doubly betrayed again—and again. It’s time they stood up for their rights against their unreliable ally.
But if there was no problem by now over how to characterize Sobran’s writings about Israel and the Jewish community in general, there was a problem of what to do about it. With the Vidal controversy still raging, it seemed reckless to open up, so to speak, a second front. On the other hand, to let Sobran’s pieces go by without protest might only make it seem that while neoconservatives were all too ready to attack anti-Semitism on the Left, we were perfectly content to tolerate it on the Right. It was Midge Decter who hit on the idea of writing a letter to Sobran himself and to send copies to a number of mutual friends and political allies. Her letter was very tough. It opened by accusing Sobran of being “little more than a crude and naked anti-Semite” and it proceeded to document this charge (pretty much along the lines of the foregoing account).
Mutatis mutandis, then, just as members of Vidal’s political community had been asked for their reaction to his piece in the Nation, so Sobran’s political friends were now being asked how they felt about the anti-Semitic sentiments to which he had been giving expression in his column. But there the similarity ends.
In contrast to the Vidal-Nation case, none of the clearly anti-Semitic Sobran columns had appeared in National Review. In spite of this, the editor of National Review, William F. Buckley, Jr., responded to Midge Decter’s letter, and to the urgings of nearly all the people to whom it had been sent, by deciding to publish an editorial dissociating the magazine from Sobran on this issue. This editorial, written by Buckley himself with the concurrence of all the other senior editors of National Review, affirmed that while his colleagues were sure that Sobran was not in his heart an anti-Semite, anyone who did not really know him “might reasonably conclude that those columns were written by a writer inclined to anti-Semitism. . . . Accordingly, I here dissociate myself and my colleagues from what we view as the obstinate tendentiousness of Joe Sobran’s recent columns.” Buckley also expressed confidence that Sobran would in the future respect the “welcome” structure of “prevailing taboos concerning Israel and the Jews.”
It would be pleasant to report that this was an end of it. Unfortunately, Sobran himself and a number of his other friends and allies sprang to his defense in terms very similar to those used by Vidal and his apologists. They denied that the columns in question were. anti-Semitic; they complained that anyone who criticizes Israel is smeared with accusations of anti-Semitism; they charged that the Jewish lobby was trying to silence them; they invoked the First Amendment. One of them even compared me with Jesse Jackson: as Jackson has tried to silence opposition with charges of racism, so I have tried to silence it with charges of anti-Semitism.7
From Vidal’s political friends on the Left, then, mainly denial, and from the editor of the Nation, stonewalling. From Sobran’s political friends on the Right, mostly outrage, and from the editor of National Review, dissociation and repudiation of anti-Semitism.
What emerges from the contrast between the two cases is further evidence that anti-Semitism has largely if not entirely been banished from its traditional home on the Right, and that today, especially in the guise of anti-Zionism, it is meeting with more and more toleration, and sometimes even approval, on the Left.
Meanwhile liberals and other leftists, including large segments of the American Jewish community, go on refusing to face these immensely important facts. If they should therefore also go on failing to undertake the job of housecleaning that conservatives like Buckley have long been doing within their own political community, the poison of anti-Semitism will continue spreading through the American air, with what consequences no one can foresee.
Comments are closed.