The New McCarthyism of Jewish Organizations: Where Is Our Murrow?

From Open Zion, a feature of The Daily Beast, where I have regular column.

I am just old enough to remember grown-ups speaking with disquiet about McCarthyism--the first thick book I read was Louis Nizer's My Life in Court, which was largely about the libel case of Quentin Reynolds against Westbrook Pegler, impresario of the scurrilous Red Channels--and I also remember feeling a certain pride in the very large number of Jewish liberals who, like Nizer, helped bring America back to its senses.

Let the galoots disgrace themselves attacking war-heroes like General Marshall.  Let weird groups like the John Birchers and Daughters of the American Revolution and Republican Tafters impugn a man's integrity, then repeat each others' insinuations, then spread them to widening circles in captive media (where sympathetic pens were waiting). Let them point to the public doubts they themselves manufactured "out of whole cloth," as my father used to say. Jews, and Jewish organizations, knew where they stood in the face of such smears. They stood for fairness, patience, sanity. We knew whom an unfair, impatient, insane America would not "be good for."

Louis Nizer
There was Fred Friendly, who collaborated with Edward R. Murrow in challenging McCarthy on CBS. There was Arthur Miller, whose 1953 play, "The Crucible," about the Salem witch trials, was a thinly veiled attack on the House Un-American Activities Committee. There was I.F. Stone who, forced to strike out on his own, proved the grandeur of the first amendment. There was Commentary Magazine before Norman Podhoretz lost his mind. In the America I knew, which only grew more so during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, American Jews--with their worldly souls and experience of the social margins--were the natural opponents (because potential victims) of the fear, flocking, and fanaticism that produced political libels.

Which brings me to Sen. Hagel. I think it is time to acknowledge, bluntly, that certain major Jewish organizations, indeed, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations--also, the ADL, AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, political groups like the Republican Jewish Coalition, along with their various columnists, pundits, and list-serves--are among the most consistent purveyors of McCarthyite-style outrages in America today. Are there greater serial defamers of public officials in fake campaigns against defamation? Starting with Andrew Young and the late Charles Percy, and on to Chas. Freeman and (now) Chuck Hagel, the game has been to keep Congresspeople and civil servants who might be skeptical of Israel's occupation and apologetics in a posture that can only be called exaggerated tact.

Fault Israel and you are accused of faulting Jews in our collective state, or, the same thing, overlooking the venality of our enemies--things only an anti-Semite would do and, of all times, in the wake of the holocaust. This is not a charge anyone in public life wants to suffer or try to deny. My Israeli friends love that old Borsch-belt joke, that anti-Semitism means disliking Jews more than necessary. For American Jewish organizations, the very idea that dislike is ever warranted is proof of bigotry, like Philip Roth's early novels were proof of "self-hatred."

AIPAC et al know that if American politicians--and especially those fighting routinely for Florida, Pennsylvania  and Ohio--are not cowed by the fear of being branded as anti-Semitic they may not be embarrassed into backing Israeli actions ritualistically. Where is the shame and who is our Murrow?

I won't presume to go through the credentials that make Chuck Hagel fit for appointment as Defense Secretary; I saw and heard him in person only once. I also won't repeat, or defend him against, all the charges leveled against him. Others have done this better than I could. (If you want a comprehensive list of the AIPAC-inspired letters Hagel refused to sign, you can find it here.)

Suffice it to say that Hagel is man of independent judgement whose views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict track pretty much exactly with those of Haaretz. He was a distinguished guest at J Street's first national conference. Nothing he's said has not been said by leaders like Ehud Olmert and intelligence chief Ephraim Halevy. Hagel is also a man, like George McGovern, who having served with distinction in the military fears the unknown dangers of resorting to military force except as a last resort and without a clear diplomatic strategy. So he refuses to speak glibly about using force against Iran the same way he refused to endorse war with Iraq. A Vietnam purple heart, he would in retrospect have diplomatically engaged with the Viet Cong.  Should he now disavow engagement with the Taliban or Hamas, for that matter?

Why should Hagel's stance be thought anathema to Jewish organizations? Let's get real. The latter throw their weight around, presumably on behalf of us Israelis, but really on behalf of the Israeli right, whose orthodoxy and pathos they relate to more readily than to Israeli peace advocates. The weight they have derives from their being able to hold American politicians to endorsing a "special relationship" with Israel, where special means unconditional, and Israel means the Likud's version of it, so that (as James Baker and Howard Dean discovered) even the desire for American "even-handedness" is treachery.

Hagel had the brass to call this grass green: Congresspeople will tell you openly that AIPAC has become one of the most feared, and secretly loathed, presences on Capitol Hill. Hagel spoke with thinly veiled contempt--which he came by honestly--of efforts by the Israeli lobby to intimidate dissenting diplomats and legislators. Ah, but he spoke of the power of the "Jewish Lobby"--not the Israeli lobby--which was the opening the lobby's hallelujah chorus needed to brand him a bigot.

Funny how you disapprove of what Israel has become and you are told you are disapproving of Jews in the collective sense; but when you call the Israel lobby "Jewish" you have crossed the line into anti-Semitism. And spare me talk about how calling the lobby "Jewish" gives, say, Evangelicals short shrift; without Danny Ayalon prepping him, Reverend Hagee wouldn't know Hamas from Hummus. (As if one dares not speak of Catholic and Evangelical groups opposing abortion, only "pro-life" advocates, if one wants to avoid being branded as anti-Christian.)

Will no one put an end to this dangerous creepiness? I don't mean someone who will simply speak in Hagel's defense (like the Omaha rabbi whose synagogue Hagel regularly visited, or David Brooks, who in a private letter to Peter Beinart, admitted that Hagel is not an anti-Semite). I mean someone who will reveal and condemn this moral extortion.

Where is the American Jewish Murrow, a figure with the necessary gravitas among Jews and their "friends" to expose the Jewish organizations in question and tell them that their defamations have to stop; someone who will go on offense specifically against this disgusting, AIPAC-inspired method of vetting politicians on some "pro-Israel" scale--someone who'll denounce the lobby's ways of creating buzz in destroying the reputations of honorable public servants? Tom Friedman is commendably bold today; but he has been "right too soon" on Israel for some time and thus lacks the credibility of, say, Brooks.

So where indeed is Brooks? Why will he not go public with a criticism of the machine that besmirched Hagel? He claims to want many more Republicans just like the senator and presumes to teach us, in every third column, about the dangerous foibles of human nature, especially when we humans seek cheap solidarity? Where is Mayor Bloomberg, who is a lion for common sense when it comes to fiscal issues, climate change and guns, but can't seem to rouse himself to stop these disgraceful public campaigns carried out in the name of Jews? Where is Morley Safer or Bob Simon on "60 Minutes"? Come to think of it, where is Jon Stewart, our real Murrow nowadays, who'll take on the methods of Fox News, and imply peacenik positions on the conflict here and there, but otherwise cannot seem to get beyond Joseph Lieberman impersonations?

Some claim the attack on Hagel is the problem of deranged Republicans, and in a way it is.  But that is like saying gun control is a Republican problem, implying that the NRA is just a natural feature on the landscape--as if there is no point figuring out where, given a tail and a dog, the wagging starts. No, this attack on Hagel started with the predictable Jewish organizations and pundits, who are now practiced at creating momentum for all kinds of attacks on the peace process. (Its latest initiative is to sign-up congresspeople to, of all things, close the office of Abbas' PLO in Washington--i.e., to punish him for taking his case to the UN, which the Israeli peace camp generally endorsed.)

President Obama, one hopes, will stick with Hagel and force the issue, much as Beinart has advocated. But Obama also has to count Senate votes for confirmation. Besides, he cannot as president attack the power and intoxication of Jewish organizations, which have many Democratic supporters, any more than Eisenhower could simply attack McCarthy and Taft supporters and utterly divide the Republican Party. Any president must be a consensus-builder and this one has an especial fear of divisiveness.

We did not take notice of attacks on the NRA until Republicans joined them. To have punch, the exposure of AIPAC and company must rather come from American Jews of the old school who have conservative credentials and something of a bully pulpit. This is their moment. The sigh of relief will be loud. And I know a great many Israelis who will join in.