There were reportedly 700 people in attendance at this two-day event at Queens College (See our khaver Doug Chandler’s report online in the NY Jewish Week.) One thing that struck me at a glance was how few were younger than 60.
I missed the opening talk by Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive head of the Council of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and most of Leonard Fein’s response, but I heard that Hoenlein was brilliant – albeit in a hardline way. Norman Podhoretz, also an able speaker, is even more clearly an unapologetic voice of the right. He still sees George W. Bush as Israel’s best friend ever in the White House and even continues to defend the invasion of Iraq – to the point of nonchalantly suggesting that Saddam’s Weapons of Mass Destruction are still buried somewhere in Syria (a regime so hostile to Saddam that it contributed troops to Bush Senior’s 1991 coalition). He also refuses to see the war as lost.
Still, his concern that European policy may be “Finlandized” in the face of Islamist extremism, analogous to the Soviet intimidation of Finland during the Cold War, may be realistic. (Podhoretz refers to the Cold War as World War III and to the current conflict with Islamism as World War IV.) What is overblown was his outrage that the UK had permitted Iran’s capture of their naval and marine personnel without reprisal; he seemed oblivious to the fact of their safe return within a few days. (In this connection, see Nicholas Kristof’s column of April 29, which describes and links online with documents outlining Iran’s “grand bargain” proposal of May 2003 to normalize relations with the US — which apparently included a promise to refrain from developing nuclear weapons, to end military aid to Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad and to facilitate a two-state solution with Israel.)
Podhoretz wittingly told a joke that touts his lack of self-doubt:
An old Hasidic rebbe is on his death bed, surrounded by grief-stricken disciples. “Oy vey iz mer, who will teach us Torah as brilliantly as the rebbe?” says one. “Oy vey, who will show us wisdom like our beloved rebbe?” moans another. “Oy, who will be our example for righteousness without our wonderful rebbe?” asks a third.
The rebbe stirs and in a low voice demands, “And nothing about my humility?”
Yet Podhoretz admits to a contradiction in his positions. He firmly believes in the nobility and rightness of advancing democratization in the Arab world, but does not believe in democracy for the Palestinians. He sees the Palestinians as not ready for – and not even really desiring – a state of their own, because he sees them as continually rejecting one. He has a point about their violent rejection of the deal on offer in 2000, with Barak and Clinton, but Podhoretz is confusing their rejection of the parameters of a deal as they understood it (and were disappointed by) with the notion that they’d not accept a two-state solution at all.
Irving Louis Horowitz, an emeritus professor of sociology and political science at Rutgers, has a physical speech impediment that makes him a challenge to listen to, but this has not undercut his career. His major point, in a session with Michael Walzer and Alan Dershowitz, was that world Jewry’s problem is not really a question of left versus right; it’s more about the need for solidarity between American and Israeli Jews.
Walzer addressed this question of whether there can be a “unified Jewish front.” He applauded the fact that over 80 percent of American Jews voted Democratic last year and emphasized that the “correct choice” for Jews is the “near left.” He does not see “far left Jews” who reject Israel as part of this front. Walzer culminated his talk with five propositions:
- Jews are both a nation and a religious community. Israel is an expression of our nationhood, not our religion and needs to be kept as such, although not necessarily in the same exact way as the US traditionally separates government and religion. Israel is as legitimate as any other nation-state.
- The mistake of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza was huge. The withdrawal from these territories will be the final step in the creation of a secular Jewish nation-state and, he hopes, will also create a secular Palestinian nation-state.
- It is necessary to understand that part of the Palestinians’ troubles are of their own making. (He excoriated the left’s failure to absolutely condemn terrorism.)
- You never know if Israel has a true partner for peace until Israel tries its best to engage with such a prospective partner.
- Support for an ongoing US alliance with Israel. Walzer indicated that the leftist term, “critical support,” is appropriate for such an alignment.
Prof. Walzer proposed that this unified front must exclude the pro-settler movement and the far left. He insisted that the Zionist assumption is that this is NOT 1938. He concluded by referring to writer-activist David Grossman’s observation that Israel suffers from a deep sense of “existential insecurity” despite all that Israel has achieved as a creative society and a powerful state.
To be continued.