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The Right’s Israel Turn

The American right’s relationship with Israel has gone through several phases marked by distinct turning points. During the Cold War 1950s, Israel was not especially favored by the right. It was perceived as vulnerable and somewhat socialist, and even conservative publishing houses like Regnery produced books sympathetic to the Palestinians. But the 1967 war transformed Israel’s image for conservatives—as it did for other groups, American Jews especially. By 1970, the Nixon administration and many on the right had begun think of Israel as a useful Cold War asset. The Jewish state had demonstrated it could fight well against Soviet allies. The idea of Israel as a strategic asset was always somewhat problematic—it would be called into question when America suffered the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s, and there were sharp disagreements over Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in the 1980s. But one could safely generalize that most conservatives considered Israel an asset—a proposition that the neoconservatives, valued newcomers to the conservative movement, pushed enthusiastically.

When the Cold War ended, this became more complicated. Israel proved useless when Iraq invaded Kuwait: American diplomacy had to devote much time and energy to ensuring that Israel did not enter the conflict, as Israeli involvement would have blown up the anti-Saddam coalition President George H.W. Bush had painstakingly constructed. What good was a regional ally that must be kept under wraps when a regional crisis erupts? More generally, once Americans began to see their Mideast problems as originating from within the region, rather than from Soviet meddling, issues such as Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians became salient. For a brief time, the place of Israel in the conservative mind was in flux.

Yet out of this flux arose neoconservative hegemony over Republican discourse about the Mideast. How this happened is a broad and multilayered story, reflecting shifts in power among and within various groups in American society as much as anything that happened in the Mideast. But it also has turning points where individual decisions had lasting consequences. None of these was more significant than William F. Buckley’s reluctant but unmistakable accommodation to the neoconservatives, allowing them in effect to regulate the terms of Mideast discussion in his own magazine, National Review. This development was signaled by his treatment of senior editor Joe Sobran and his denunciation of syndicated columnist Pat Buchanan.

Buckley is rightly credited with pushing hardcore anti-Semitism out of the American right. As recently as the 1950s, it was widespread on the right: one of most popular conservative books of that decade was The Iron Curtain Over America, which purported to describe how Khazar Jews were taking over the Democratic Party. It went through 14 printings.


National Review, founded in 1955, sought to break from this kind of nuttiness. As editor, Buckley excluded writers from the American Mercury, which had become increasingly anti-Semitic, from contributing to National Review. Nevertheless NR published some pretty odd material: Peter Novick concludes in his book The Holocaust in American Life that no general-interest magazine in the early 1960s wrote more frequently or more vehemently against Israel’s bringing Adolf Eichmann to trial. In numerous articles and editorials, National Review stressed that communists would profit from what it called the “Hate Germany” movement. “The Christian Church,” stated a National Review editorial in 1961,

focuses hard on the crucifixion of Jesus Christ for only one week of the year. Three months—that is the minimum estimate made by the Israeli government for the duration of the trial—is too long. … Everyone knows the facts, has known them for years. … The counting of corpses and gas ovens … there is a studious attempt to cast suspicion on Germany. … It is all there: bitterness, distrust, the refusal to forgive, the advancement of communist aims.

Twenty-five years later, in 1986, Bill Buckley was presented with a dossier compiled by the neoconservative Midge Decter and her husband, Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz: six syndicated columns by Joseph Sobran, then a senior editor at National Review, accompanied by a tough letter by Decter accusing Sobran of being a naked anti-Semite.

Who was Joe Sobran? A conservative Catholic who came to Buckley’s notice in 1972, when as a graduate student at Eastern Michigan University he wrote a letter to the student newspaper opposing a professor who had said Buckley shouldn’t be invited to speak on campus. Sobran’s polemical power and grace made an impression, as they would on a generation of his future readers. Soon Sobran was flying to New York fortnightly to write editorials for National Review, and he quickly rose to become a senior editor. Decter sent her indictment to a few dozen of Buckley’s allies in the conservative coalition. She was trying to expel the popular Sobran from a movement in which she herself was a relative newcomer.

It’s possible to have different interpretations of the six columns, which were not published in National Review. Clearly Sobran was willing to take on the Israel lobby—“the most powerful lobby in America”—lamenting its power as the reason

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. Quadafi is an enemy of Israel. Communist Nicaragua isn’t. … So we fight Quadafi, 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.

Another column attacked those opposing President Reagan’s decision to accompany German chancellor Helmut Kohl on a visit to a veterans’ cemetery in Bitburg where several Waffen-SS were interred. A third column argued:

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 theologian Moses Maimonides insisted it was as wrong to kill a Gentile as a Jew, it seems strange that this should even have been a matter of controversy.

Sobran’s views about it were not without precedent among foreign-affairs experts. But his insinuation that Christian-Jewish antagonism had been or could be anything other than a one-way street was simply not part of mainstream American discourse in the post-Holocaust era. The columns were clearly the work of a man who wanted to start an argument. But by my reading, at least, these columns contained less of an anti-Semitic tone than National Review’s editorial complaints about Israel’s capture and trial of Eichmann.

Buckley responded to the Decter-Podhoretz démarche by speaking privately to Sobran, with whom he was quite close, and holding several lengthy meetings with the NR senior staff. He then published an editorial disassociating the magazine from the “tendentiousness” of the columns, while simultaneously asserting that those who knew Sobran knew he wasn’t an anti-Semite. Buckley also required Sobran to read him over the phone anything he wrote mentioning Israel for pre-publication approval. According to Podhoretz, Buckley assured him that Sobran would not write in National Review at all about the Mideast. Whatever the case, what Buckley clearly did not do was tell Midge and Norman to pay attention to their own magazine.

The arrangement stumbled along for several years. When Sobran became an impassioned opponent of the first Gulf War, he and NR reached a breaking point. Buckley prepared a letter asking him to step down as a senior editor while remaining as a contributor. Sobran resigned completely.

A more politically important side of this story concerns Pat Buchanan, not a colleague of Buckley’s at NR but America’s most prominent media conservative in the 1980s. Buchanan had begun to re-evaluate his views of Israel, which had once been very warm. He too hadn’t liked the attacks on President Reagan over his visit to Bitburg, and he too opposed the first war with Iraq.

The campaign against Buchanan began in 1990, instigated not by Decter and Podhoretz but by New York Times columnist A.M. Rosenthal, using a dossier of Buchanan columns prepared by the Anti-Defamation League. The indictment turned on several phrases: Buchanan had claimed there were only two groups beating the drums for war, the Israeli defense ministry and its Amen Corner in the United States; in another column he had named four commentators, all Jewish, who favored the war, and none who were not; in a third he listed four representative names of likely casualties—McAllister, Murphy, Gonzales, and LeRoy Brown. On a TV show he referred to Congress as “Israeli-occupied territory.” Rosenthal asserted, with the hyperbole typical for such charges, that the things Buchanan was saying could lead to Auschwitz.

A large controversy among journalists and pundits ensued. Buckley initially weighed in by stating that while most of Buchanan’s points were defensible, his rhetoric was insensitive. As the fray continued, Buckley published a lengthy essay in National Review, “In Search of Anti-Semitism,” and later gathered it, along with a dozen or so responses, into book form. In the 10,000-word section on Buchanan, Buckley went back and forth weighing the arguments of Buchanan’s attackers and defenders, finally coming to the tortured conclusion: “I find it impossible to defend Pat Buchanan against the charge that what he did and said during the period under examination amounted to anti-Semitism, whatever it was that drove him to say it: most probably an iconoclastic temperament.”

Buckley’s essay and subsequent book were nuanced and remain interesting to this day, perhaps most of all because of the inclusion of remarks by other journalists and friends of National Review. One can read there Bob Novak’s wry account of the pressures brought to bear on newspaper editors by members of the Israel lobby to drop his and Rowland Evans’s newspaper column, as well as Eric Alterman’s amusing description of AIPAC efforts to organize “readers” to pressure papers to drop Pat Buchanan’s column.

Buckley’s depiction of the power of the Israel lobby to break people’s reputations is perceptive and unequivocal. Describing his first private dinner with Joe Sobran where they discussed the Decter/Podhoretz charges, Buckley relates that he told the story of William Scranton, a governor of Pennsylvania who was considered presidential timber in the 1960s. Nixon sent him on a fact-finding mission to the Mideast and he came back with a recommendation that the United States be a little more evenhanded, and… no one ever heard from him again. Buckley writes: “We both laughed. One does laugh when acknowledging inordinate power, even as one deplores it.”

In the book are many such observations. One belongs to Sobran, quoted from a private letter to Buckley: “When I talk to a Palestinian for an hour or two, I am struck at how absolutely bizarre it is that an editor of Commentary or the New Republic can buy a plane ticket to Tel Aviv and instantly benefit from a whole range of rights denied to the native Arabs.” Web issue image [1]

So far as the public resolution of the issue was concerned, however, none of Buckley’s ambivalence or ability to see to see the questions as nuanced mattered. Buckley did cut Sobran loose from National Review, and Sobran’s career subsequently deteriorated into the indefensible. Buckley did conclude that what Buchanan wrote “amounted to anti-Semitism,” and even if he appended a highly qualifying clause and defended most of what Buchanan said, Rosenthal got the guilty verdict he had sought. This verdict could then be simplified by the neoconservatives contending for power on the right: “Buchanan anti-Semitic, says Buckley.” And then it could be repeated tens of thousands of times in newspaper columns and soundbites over the next decade, and a lesson would sink in: Buchanan, because of his Israel-related views, had been rightly banished from the ranks of establishment conservatism. For years hence, young conservatives with professional ambitions would draw the necessary conclusions.

Thus exclusion of Sobran and Buchanan represented something much larger. National Review had long been a clearing house for diverse conservative voices. James Burnham, for instance, a major figure in the magazine’s foreign-affairs coverage until his retirement in the late 1970s, had long opposed close American ties to Israel for reasons of realpolitik. Would he have been purged too, had he been writing in 1990?

By the mid-to-late 1990s, National Review became monolithically neoconservative on all questions related to Israel and the Mideast, publishing nothing that would distinguish it from Commentary and the Weekly Standard. This was surely unfortunate for National Review readers, but it also had baleful consequences for the conservative movement and the Republican Party—this chorus of echoes was responsible in no small measure for encouraging George W. Bush to march the country into Iraq without hearing any dissent that might have made him pause. Because of Buckley’s capitulation, issues that should have been robustly debated were closed off. Henceforth, only one view of war, peace, Israel, and the Mideast was considered respectable.

Are there signs that this may be changing? There are some. The Internet may be over-touted, but it certainly means that National Review has nothing like the hegemony over conservative opinion it did 20 years ago. Former congressman Ron Paul, whose views on the Mideast are little different from Buchanan’s, built a new faction within the Republican Party. Sen. Rand Paul, accused of being sympathetic to his father’s views, is a major Republican presidential contender. Neoconservative hegemony over the right’s Mideast discourse, responsible in great part for the Iraq War, has generated its own antithesis in a conservative movement not exempt from America’s general war weariness. The clampdown signaled by the campaigns against Sobran and Buchanan probably couldn’t be carried out today, and conservatives may finally be moving out from its shadow.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.

63 Comments (Open | Close)

63 Comments To "The Right’s Israel Turn"

#1 Comment By Clint On July 25, 2014 @ 8:45 am

The Strategic Ally Myth by Philip Giraldi

” The US has numerous bases in Arab countries but is not allowed to use any military base in Israel. Washington’s own carrier groups and other forces in place all over the Middle East, including the Red Sea, have capabilities that far exceed those of the Israel Defense Forces. Israel has never been a strategic asset or any asset at all, always a liability.”


#2 Comment By ADM64 On July 25, 2014 @ 1:41 pm

Well Philadelphialawyer, you can continue to evade the issue. If you’re going to argue that criticism of Israel is not based on anti-Semitism, which is fair enough, than you need to provide some rational explanation of your criticism, not simply assert that it you don’t have to do so because you’re under no obligation to prove you’re not an anti-Semite. If Mr. Jones say, “I think we have more trouble than is worth with the Arab world because we support Israel,” that is at least an argument. Points of debate follow from it. If Mr. Jones says, “We shouldn’t simply support Israel” and can’t give reasons, questions will linger. Stating that our policy should be neutrality, as you have done, is at least the start of a debate, at least as you’ve also included the Arab countries in this. My own view is not that Israel is perfect – any more than we are – but that it has much in common with us, that our enemies are similar, and that I consider it naïve to think we will gain anything significant from either abandoning it as an ally or acting more neutrally. You may disagree, but that is neither an uncritical nor an unreasonable viewpoint.

Regarding your point that Mr. McConnell’s article is simply that the Right has purged its ranks of anti-Israel critics under the guise of fighting anti-Semitism, and that this is politically unhealthy, I’d suggest that this is at least in part because many forms of anti-Semitism did and continue to hide behind criticism of Israel. I do not think voices should be excluded just on the basis of refusing to support Israel; I do think voices wanting to express any viewpoint need to explain the reasons for their viewpoint. My experience and observation over the last 40+ years has led me to believe that many critics of Israel are anti-Semitic, and that many critics of Israel on the Left see it as a proxy for the US and thus attack it for the same reason they attack our own institutions.

#3 Comment By Thaddeus On July 25, 2014 @ 1:43 pm

Being against Zionism is not only not anti-semitism, which is simply hatred of a person or group based upon race only, but is an obligatory stance for a Christian. Zionism is the ideology of Jewish supremacy, both racial and religious supremacy. Anyone who supports Zionism is supporting racism and therefore supporting grave evil.

#4 Comment By ADM64 On July 25, 2014 @ 1:46 pm

KXB, Unfortunately, your comments have no supporting evidence. Asking me to assume what an Arab Israeli may face with respect to banks and the like is like left-wing black Americans assuming that racism remains widespread in our society and that blacks can never get ahead no matter what the law says. I note that Arabs in Israel have civil rights and seem to participate in the social, political and economic life of that nation, not that everything is perfect. I note that none of Israel’s neighbors have any of the same institutions or rights or protections, and that historically under all Islamic states, Jews and Christians were de facto and de jure second-class citizens. ISIS in Iraq is only the most recent demonstration.

#5 Comment By Thaddeus On July 25, 2014 @ 2:35 pm

And right now, supporting the Zionism of Israel is tantamount to supporting murder.

#6 Comment By James Canning On July 25, 2014 @ 2:36 pm

Israel to a large degree has been a millstone around the neck of the US. Sadly.

#7 Comment By Johnny Appleseed On July 26, 2014 @ 2:38 pm

“If you’re going to argue that criticism of Israel is not based on anti-Semitism, which is fair enough, than you need to provide some rational explanation of your criticism”

The rational explanation is pretty obvious. Israel has proven worthless as an ally, a grave strategic and diplomatic burden, and its reckless behavior (e.g. the settlements) has put America at risk, a substantial contributing factor to the massive terror attacks on the American homeland (as Bin Laden told us) and the subsequent wars in the Midddle East.

It spies on us with roughly the same intensity as China and Russia. It takes the technology it steals from us and sells it to enemies and competitors, as amply documented over many years.

It meddles in and corrupts our domestic politics through front organizations like AIPAC.

Not least, Israel costs us billions of dollars a year, nearly a trillion over the years. We have armed it for decades, but when shooting wars break out, Israel stands down while the US and its real allies do the fighting and dying.

Now it’s using the bullets and bombs we gave it to create more terrorists, renewing and intensifying the terror threat to America.

Such a rational critique of our relationship with Israel could go on quite a while. But I think you know that.

A better question: “What kind of American takes such an obsessive interest in the welfare of a foreign country that he’s willing to deplete and imperil his own?”

And: “Is such a person really ‘American’?”

#8 Comment By Richard Wagner On July 27, 2014 @ 7:35 pm

Good intro, good conclusion, but the mid section was needlessly lengthy. I would aim to make these articles a little more concise and thereby readable to a more general audience.

#9 Comment By the colonel On July 29, 2014 @ 1:42 pm

If you’re going to argue that criticism of Israel is not based on anti-Semitism, which is fair enough, than you need to provide some rational explanation of your criticism, not simply assert that it you don’t have to do so because you’re under no obligation to prove you’re not an anti-Semite.

this is, prima facie, a false statement.

any criticism of a state, or anything else, must be considered on its merits. whether or not it is properly argued, or even rational, has no intrinsic relationship to anti-semitism.

#10 Comment By philadelphialawyer On July 29, 2014 @ 3:49 pm


I simply disagree with you as to what “the issue” is, on this thread. IF this thread were about some aspect of Israeli policy or history or the history of Zionism, then, yes, you would be on point. But it isn’t, and you are not. Thus, you are the one doing the “evading.”

If you have anything to say about how charges of anti Semitism have stifled dissent on the Right viz a viz Israel, by all means, say so. Indeed, you could even take issue with the thesis entirely, but then you would have to show that the folks on the Right, who have made plain the bases of their various objections to Israel, really were anti Semites regardless. And, of course, merely disproving their claims would not do so, as one can be wrong without being bigoted. So, if you want to take the tack that you have taken, and take it correctly and properly, you actually have a lot of work to do. Much easier, of course, to just say, “Well, phillylawyer won’t specify his complaints about Israel, so I will just assume they must be based on anti Semitism.” Not only is that absurd and logically fallacious, and irrelevant, but it doesn’t even begin to undermine the argument in the main article. What I think and why I think it is hardly germane to the question of the historical interplay of Rightist criticism of Israel and allegations of anti Semitism. (Hint: I am not a Rightist at all!)

Moreover, other posters have given you a sample of some of the possible counter arguments to your claims about Israel. And, again, there are whole libraries, archives, web sites and article caches devoted to presenting alternatives to the dominant pro Israel narrative that you espouse. Why isn’t my referencing those works good enough? Why isn’t my stating that I agree with a great many of those arguments enough? Are you claiming that all of those authors, all of those scholars, historians, journalists, pundits, analysts and participants, all of them, are simply anti Semitic too? Cogent anti Israel arguments are certainly “out there,” regardless of what you claim to be your lifelong experience (my lifelong experience, by the way, is that folks like you have helped perpetuate the “Big Lie” about Israel for decades, through the very kinds of argumentation that you are engaging in here), so why do I have to pinpoint exactly which ones I agree with to refute your utterly baseless charges of anti Semitism?

“I do think voices wanting to express any viewpoint need to explain the reasons for their viewpoint.”

Indeed, and if the topic under discussion was the conduct of Israel, and I simply said, eg “Israel stinks,” you might have a point. But, as that is not the topic under discussion, you don’t. My post was devoted to fleshing out the various ways that Israel’s supporters have stifled dissent. And I am more than happy to “explain” that, and my take on the main article (which deals with one such way), at any time. But I did not sign up for a debate on Israel, tout court, with you or anyone else on this thread, and it is not my fault if that is what you think have a right to expect merely because I mentioned that I was a critic of Israel.

Again, you have flipped the burden of proof, and in patently obvious and transparent way, demanded evidence of the absence of anti Semitism. Which is a classic tactic in the pro Israel arsenal of dirty argumentative tricks. Again, I could play along, but I refuse. Funny, how in this one thread, in which the conduct of Israel, per se, is NOT the issue, here is where you claim to want a substantive argument on that topic, to distract from the real topic, which is the use of bogus charges of anti Semitism to prevent that very discussion generally.

“I note that none of Israel’s neighbors have any of the same institutions or rights or protections, and that historically under all Islamic states, Jews and Christians were de facto and de jure second-class citizens. ISIS in Iraq is only the most recent demonstration.”

And here you use one of the other phony arguments that I outlined. ISIS is not a client or ally of the USA, is it? Nor does it not get economic and military aid, diplomatic and political cover, intelligence sharing, etc, etc from the USA either, does it? ISIS is in fact reviled in the USA, and there is a movement afoot here to help destroy it. Thus, comparing ISIS to Israel is hardly an apples to apples to comparison. Indeed, no “Islamic state” is on all fours with Israel, with respect to US treatment. And, moreover, most “Islamic states” that do get any US favors at all (although, of course, still never even close to the ones that Israel gets) get them precisely because they are de facto pro Israel.

All critics of Israel are anti Semites until proven otherwise to the satisfaction of Israel supporters…..

Israel deserves the kind of treatment it gets from the USA because other regimes, including Arab ones, that not only get no support from the USA but the USA is practically at war with, are worse than Israel…

And the beat goes on…

#11 Comment By Kurt Gayle On July 30, 2014 @ 7:14 am

Raising the charge of anti-semitism on the American Conservative website – even in the way that ADM64 raises it – is not intended to make any rational sense.

Far from it. The charge of anti-semitism is intended to back people off! Pure and simple! To shut up those who would dare to criticize Israel and the U.S.’s total, uncritical support of Israel!

“Rebecca” picked up on the ADM64 anti-semitism ploy immediately and wrote with a smile:

“Dear dear, all these anti-Semites here at TAC! The fact that you people are not willing to start World War III in order to defend poor Israel is enough to convict you of this terrible hate crime…”

But let’s not kid ourselves. Raising the anti-semitism charge can often be effective. Often merely playing the anti-semitism card on any website with commenters who dare to criticize Israel can shut down the discussion and scatter the participants.

Which is the intent of ADM64 and others.

#12 Comment By Edric The Wild On August 4, 2014 @ 5:33 pm

Thank you for this article. I am a conservative (albeit traditional rather than evangelical) Christian. I believe it is long past time for conservatives to adopt a more realistic policy towards Israel.

It is understandable why Jews would have a deep emotional, even racial attachment to Israel. I share a similar attachment for old Europe (image what I’d be called for that these days). But America needs to measure its support for Israel based on American interests – not an interpretation of the Bible that borders on ideology and makes traditionalists squirm.

The power Israel exerts over the US congress is based on money not on American interests. We need to evaluate Israel based on – “is it good for America?” No matter how much we support Israel we will never be rewarded with Jewish votes; nor will Israel ever see us as a true ally instead of just a temporal interest.

We have very little time left – we must stop making wars across the globe and start making allies in places that we have heretofore been making only enemies.


#13 Comment By BobPolicy On January 22, 2015 @ 7:02 pm

This column continues a thought process that makes foreign policy in the Middle East all about the Arabs and the Jews.

Perhaps this is because the debate has become inside baseball among America’s Conservative Roman Catholic Community.

It leaves a huge blind spot: that native Christrians all over the middle east have become and endangered species, subject to genocidal cleansing.

Likewise, it omits any reference to the huge Evangelical Community in the United States, with its own legitimate interests in the Middle East, including greater trust that Israel will protect its antiquities and relics.