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The Right’s Israel Turn

Conservatives didn't always have a party line on the Jewish State.
1/21/1988 President Reagan meeting with William F Buckley in oval office

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

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.