A family affair

Ruthie Blum interviews her father, Norman Podhoretz, upon receiving the 'Guardian of Zion' award.

norman podhoretz 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
norman podhoretz 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
'I find it impossible to believe that the evil forces of Islamofascism will prevail over the political good that is embodied in Western civilization' 'It never occurred to me that an Israeli government would sit around while 2,000 missiles were raining down on Sderot and do hardly anything. If I had anticipated such a state of affairs, I probably would have opposed disengagement' 'Most Jews are probably pro-Israel. Not as pro-Israel as the politicians think, but don't tell the candidates that. They still believe that they need Jewish support' 'Who are you and what did you do with my real father?" I asked this man who sounded eerily as though he'd been invaded by aliens. It was a memorable conversation - the first of many fever-pitched arguments he and I would have over the next couple of years whenever I visited New York or he Jerusalem. Until we agreed never to discuss Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan again, for the sake of family harmony. Though this was by no means the only run-in I'd ever had with one of my parents, it was the first time the point of contention was political. Which is surprising enough, considering the fact that my father is Norman Podhoretz, whose entire professional life has been marked, if not characterized, by his being a highly controversial ideological warrior, first on the Left and then on the Right. Indeed, he was one of the founding fathers of what his detractors called "neoconservatism" - a label that has lived on in infamy, so to speak. The editor-in-chief of Commentary magazine between 1960 and 1995, and the author of hundreds of articles and 11 books, the most recent of which - World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism - will be released on September 11, Podhoretz has never been reticent when it comes to his views, no matter how unpopular. On the contrary, the greater the vitriol hurled at his ideas, the louder and better he articulates them. It is perhaps no wonder, then, that he was unable to uphold our temporary truce. In the April 2005 issue of Commentary, he published an article called "Bush, Sharon, My Daughter and Me" in which he presented my case against Israel's withdrawal from Gaza, in order to demonstrate the superior wisdom of his own pro-"separation" position. Four months later, the settlements of Gush Katif and northern Samaria were evacuated - the results of which, I felt, were speaking for themselves, thereby making it unnecessary for me to taunt him with a hefty "I told you so." And gloating over something as serious as Jews having been forced out of their homes to make way for a global jihadist state was out of the question as far as I was concerned. Nor did I think for a minute that the now 77-year-old - who, for as long as I can remember, was accused by anti-Zionists in the United States of "dual loyalty," due to his undying defense of the Jewish state - had become soft either on America or on Israel. Apparently, neither did George W. Bush, who presented him with the 2004 Presidential Medal of Freedom. Nor, clearly, did the Ingeborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies at Bar-Ilan University, which granted him the 2007 Guardian of Zion award. (Previous recipients were Elie Wiesel, Herman Wouk, A.M. Rosenthal, Sir Martin Gilbert, Cynthia Ozick, Charles Krauthammer, Ruth Wisse, Arthur Cohn, William Safire and Daniel Pipes.) In Israel at the end of last month to receive the award, my father was as contentious as ever, though with an unfamiliar twist. Famous for being a purveyor of gloom and doom - shouting warnings from the proverbial rooftops about the decline of Western power in general and of the dangerous pitfalls that liberalism poses for America and Israel in particular - he was singing a very different tune. In a two-hour interview on the morning after his award ceremony at Jerusalem's King David Hotel, my father - or the aliens who invaded him - suddenly seemed confident of victory. "I find it impossible to believe that the evil forces of Islamofascism will prevail over the political good that is embodied in Western civilization," he said with the conviction he used to reserve for worst-case scenarios. Would you characterize yourself as an optimist or a pessimist? Most of my professional life, I've played the role of a Cassandra. But in recent years, for reasons I'm not altogether clear about, I've become surprisingly optimistic. For example, I believe that we will ultimately prevail in the war against Islamofascism - which I call World War IV - just as we did against the communists in the Cold War, which I call World War III, and just as we did against the Nazis and the Japanese fascists in World War II. In the early stages of those wars, many people said that we were too soft to stand up against disciplined, fanatical enemies like the Nazis and the Imperial Japanese or the communists. They turned out to be wrong, and I think the people who are predicting our doom this time around will also turn out to be wrong. When you say, "We will ultimately prevail," are you including Israel? This war, at least for now, is for all practical purposes being fought by "America alone," as [syndicated columnist] Mark Steyn puts it. Israel, while certainly an ally of the United States in this war, occupies a special place, as Jews always seem to do. Israel has its own particular struggle, the configuration of which doesn't entirely conform to or correspond with the wider war. Recently, I had an argument with somebody who called you a Zionist. I said that you are pro-Israel, but not a Zionist. Which of us is right? I used to say that I would die for Israel, but I wouldn't want to live there. The truth is that I've never felt altogether at home in Israel. Even when I first came here in 1951, at the age of 21 - at a time when I spoke Hebrew fluently and knew a lot about the history of the country - I didn't feel that I was coming home. Nevertheless, my ideological enemies generally find a way of sneaking the word "Zionist" into their attacks. Only recently one of them called me "a superannuated Zionist hack." This is also because I'm a so-called neoconservative, and one of the elements of the latest wave of anti-Semitism is to use the term neoconservative to mean an American Jew serving the interests of Israel at the expense of the United States. In your books Making it and My Love Affair with America, you make the point that there has never before been a country as good to the Jews. Given the spread of anti-Semitism in universities across the US, is this haven for Jews now threatened? I'm glad to hear you talking like a Zionist, Ruthie. [He laughs.] There's been less anti-Semitism in America than in any other country in the world - even Japan, where there are almost no Jews. This doesn't mean there was never any anti-Semitism in America; there's always been some and there still is. But, especially in the two decades after World War II - because people began to understand how what might have seemed harmless anti-Jewish sentiment could lead to something as horrendous as Auschwitz - there was an implicit taboo against its open expression. The anti-Semites more or less went underground, and anyone who revealed himself in public as an anti-Semite was pretty well ruled out of polite political society. But I never took this to mean that anti-Semitism had entirely disappeared. Then, immediately after the Six Day War, it began to reemerge into the open, mainly on the Left, and especially among radical blacks. Because they were considered the prime victims of American society, blacks were given a license to say anything they wanted - and one of the things the new "Black Power" movement wanted to say was that American Jews, and the Jewish state, were the worst oppressors of "people of color." I warned then that nobody could predict how far this might go - that once anti-Semitism was released into the air, there was no telling where it would end. And it has in fact grown since 1967. In 1982, during the first war in Lebanon, I wrote an article called "J'Accuse," in which I documented very carefully the resurgence of anti-Semitism not only in the United States but all over the world. In return, many people, including many Jews, accused me of saying that anyone who criticized Israel was an anti-Semite. Of course, I never said that, nor did I think it or mean it. On the contrary, I was very careful to distinguish between anti-Semitism and opposition to Israeli policies or actions - and to show that anti-Semitism was now taking the cover of anti-Zionism. The next big wave came in 1990, during the run-up to the first Gulf War. That was when people like Pat Buchanan - the leader of the "paleoconservatives" - charged the neoconservatives with trying to drag the US into a war against Saddam Hussein only because the Israelis wanted us to. Here, then, was another stage in the exfoliation of the new anti-Semitism - new in that Israel, the Jewish state among states, rather than the Jews among the gentiles, became the main focus. In the process, all the charges that had been made for centuries against Jews in the Diaspora were translated into the language of international affairs and then directed at the Jewish state. Actually, the new anti-Semitism didn't even bother attacking Diaspora Jews - until, that is, the latest wave that was triggered by the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when American Jews began to be openly denounced as de-facto agents of Israel. That's the bad news. The good news is that there are traditions and mechanisms in America that will prevent anti-Semitism from going too far. For one thing, anti-Semitism is not in the American bloodstream to the extent that it is in the European. In fact, the Pilgrims and the founding fathers of America were all very philo-Semitic. The early American Christians identified with the ancient Hebrews, and even saw themselves as "The New Israel." Though this was a long time ago, it's a strain that has persisted throughout American history, and it's still there, acting as one of the countervailing forces against whatever anti-Semitism is also present. And then, of course, you have democratic politics, which makes it very difficult for anything like anti-Semitism to flourish in the United States. Jews are a tiny minority - maybe two and a half percent of the population, maybe less - but they are considered part of the majority. And there's some justification for that. American Jews are very prosperous. They are very successful in practically every area of life, except maybe professional sports [he laughs]. Furthermore, there are many millions of Evangelical Christians who are even more pro-Israel than the Jews, and because of their great numbers, they are a much more powerful political force than the universities or the media. Speaking of which reminds me to emphasize that there's been a real reversal of roles where anti-Semitism is concerned. Once upon a time, and especially in Europe, anti-Semitism mostly came from the Right. But today, the forces most hostile to Israel tend to be on the Left, and in America they have found a home in the Democratic Party. Yet despite the fact that these forces are extremely influential within the Democratic Party, all the Democrats running for president in the primaries this year - from Hillary Clinton to John Edwards to Barack Obama - are tripping over themselves to demonstrate how pro-Israel they are. If the natural affiliation of the Evangelicals is to the Republican Party, and the Jews vote for the Democrats, why do the Democratic candidates need to profess their support for Israel? Whom are they courting when they do that? And to what extent are the Jews pro-Israel? Most Jews are probably pro-Israel. Not as pro-Israel as the politicians think, but don't tell the candidates that. They still believe that they need Jewish support. This is partly because Jews are heavily represented in some of the big states that count so much under the electoral college; partly because of Jewish money; partly because of the influence of Jews in various sectors of the culture that can help or hurt a politician. But there's a great irony here. Charles Murray recently wrote an article in Commentary about Jewish genius, and it was posted on Lucianne.com. One talkback said: "If my people are so smart, how come they're so stupid politically?" I agree with that completely. George W. Bush is by far the friendliest president Israel has ever had, and the failure of Jews to recognize and appreciate this is not just politically stupid, but a moral disgrace. But, if American Jews have an ambivalent attitude toward Israel, the fact that Bush is pro-Israel might not be in his favor, from their point of view. In other words, maybe it's not a case of political stupidity, but one of identification with less pro-Israel elements. I don't think that's it. My own take on this issue is that the true religion of American Jews is liberalism, which many of them actually confuse with Judaism. Here I want to connect to what you said in your Guardian of Zion award speech about chosenness and particularity. In discussing the history of European anti-Semitism, Holocaust historian Robert Wistrich says that the more Jews integrated into their societies, and the less they acted like a particularist group, the more they were hated. Would that indicate that it is not the Jews who consider themselves the chosen people, but the anti-Semites and Evangelicals who do? There's no question in my mind that almost everybody, either consciously or deep down, believes or suspects that the Jews are "chosen" in some sense, or that they are at any rate special. Otherwise, it's very hard to explain the degree of preoccupation with the Jews, a minuscule percentage of the human race. On a tour of the Lebanese border [at the end of last month], I was struck by how tiny this speck on the globe is - and yet, at least 60 percent of the world's political energy is devoted to worrying about a checkpoint on some stupid back road in the middle of nowhere. It's incomprehensible from a rational point of view. You talk about the world's preoccupation with this "tiny speck." If you look at the Palestinians and the Israelis as a microcosm of the global conflict between radical Islam and the West, how can you possibly be optimistic about the outcome? We're into year six of World War IV. At the same point in World War III, or the Cold War, things looked even worse than they do now. You had a stalemate in Korea, where over 30,000 Americans had been killed, not 3,000, as in Iraq. There were powerful communist parties in countries like France and Italy, and communist influence was growing all over the world, accompanied by an anti-Americanism very similar to what we see today. If you were betting on the outcome in 1952, you probably would have bet that we were going to lose. Even though I myself was a dedicated cold warrior, this is how I felt then and also at other dark moments later on. So you're saying that it was the fall of the Soviet Union that made you see things differently? Yes, it had a profound effect on me. In the days before Henry Kissinger and I became friends - when I was what he considered his most bitter enemy - I used to argue against the premise behind his policy of detente, which was that the Soviet empire would last forever and that we therefore had to find a way of living with it. I asked why we should assume that the Soviet empire was the only empire in history that would never collapse. And yet, like most people, I was very surprised that it collapsed as suddenly as it did. Once again, as in World War II, it turned out that we were ultimately a lot stronger than we looked to ourselves and to our enemies. How do you explain the surges in strength? Is it a question of being pushed too far? Yes, it's a case of "waking the sleeping giant." Also, the American people are more resilient and have more stamina than meets the eye. Before World War II, Hitler thought the West wouldn't fight, and after World War II Stalin thought we wouldn't resist him. Osama bin Laden thought the same thing. I'm not going to live to see the end of World War IV, because I'm pretty sure it's going to last for 30-40 years. But I find it impossible to believe that the evil forces of Islamofascism will prevail over the political good that is embodied in Western civilization. But in World War II, once the "sleeping giant" was awakened, that was it. In this case, it seems as though the giant heard the alarm, turned it off, rolled over and went back to sleep. That's certainly what it looks like at the moment. And there are some people who think it will take another 9/11 to wake the giant up again. But I remember all the times during World War III when many of us were convinced that we were on the skids. In 1979, I wrote a book called The Present Danger: Do We Have the Will to Reverse the Decline of American Power? With a few changes, everything I said there could be said today. Of course, that doesn't mean it has to come out the same way this time. But I prefer to believe that it will. You and I had that argument over Israel's disengagement from Gaza. How do you feel about it now that there's a civil war going on there between Fatah and Hamas, and Kassams are pummeling Sderot? [He laughs.] I was wondering when you were going to bring that up. Look, I supported disengagement for several reasons. First of all, I thought that Gaza was a kind of albatross around Israel's neck, and I saw disengagement as a prudent strategic retreat. Secondly, even if the most pessimistic demographic projections are overly alarmist in foreseeing an Israel with a Palestinian majority, in my opinion an Israel with a 40 percent Palestinian minority would be unmanageable enough. So I agreed with [Disengagement author] Dan Schueftan about separation. I also thought that [former prime minister Ariel] Sharon agreed as well - that his strategy was to achieve a maximum degree of separation by getting out of Gaza, building the fence, holding onto the large settlement blocs in the West Bank and letting the Palestinians stew in their own juices. In other words, disengagement was not a matter of trading land for peace. I didn't believe then, and I don't believe now, that it will be possible to negotiate peace with the Palestinians in the foreseeable future. A strategic retreat to what end? To enable Israel to do what in the event of attack? What I assumed - and I think that if Sharon were still in charge, my assumption would have proved well-founded - was that once the Jews were out of there, there would be nothing to prevent the IDF from smashing the Palestinians to smithereens if they started firing Kassams. It never occurred to me that an Israeli government would sit around while 2,000 missiles were raining down on Sderot and do hardly anything. If I had anticipated such a state of affairs, I probably would have opposed disengagement. Actually, I told you that was going to happen, and that the Israeli government would do nothing in response. Well, on that point you were right and I was wrong. But [he laughs], as usual, you go too far. I don't think Sharon would have been passive in response to the Kassams. On the other hand, I very much doubt that he would have gone to war in Lebanon. Having been burned in 1982, he was gun-shy about Lebanon, and all he wanted was to keep the border quiet. You don't think he would have responded to the abduction of the soldiers? Maybe, like [Yitzhak] Rabin before him, he would have offered an exchange of 1,000 or so Palestinian terrorists for the three Israelis. But I'm sure he would not have gone into Lebanon, and I'm pretty sure that he would have responded much more harshly in Gaza than [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert has so far done. Especially as he was responsible for creating that situation, my guess is that he would have felt honor-bound to try to minimize the damage it was doing. Here's what I don't understand about your worldview. If you believe that Israel is a local theater of World War IV, how can you support withdrawal from any Israeli territory, when territory is not the issue? That's a very good question, and [he laughs again] I have an even better answer. Because I don't think peace is possible with the Palestinians in the foreseeable future, and because I don't think that drawing the boundary here or there is going to make peace possible, the issue is how best to protect yourself in this strategic environment. What I thought was that Israel should unilaterally decide how it could best position itself to fend off external attack and at the same time protect its internal security as a Jewish state. You used to say that the best strategy was to stall indefinitely, which is why I was so shocked at your about-face. Well, I began to realize that stalling was not a realistic option. I once said that God had created Yitzhak Shamir because the Jewish nation at that point needed "a little prick who knew how to say no." But in the end, not even Shamir could go on saying no, as was demonstrated when he agreed to attend the Madrid conference convened by James Baker after the first Gulf War. And if Shamir couldn't continue stalling, no one could. So when Sharon came up with the idea of a strategic retreat to consolidate his forces and draw the perimeter where it could be best defended, while minimizing the internal demographic problem, I thought it was a good fallback position. Though, if you see what's happened in Gaza - not just the barrage of Kassams, but the arms flowing in with tacit Egyptian consent - then what you're doing in terms of the larger global conflict is leaving the Palestinians alone to create another jihadist state. I agree with that assessment, but I'm not quite clear as to what the alternative would be. There's no question that Israel is a front in World War IV. And there's no question that there are wrinkles in this particular front that lead to inconsistencies with the larger strategy. But that's not unusual. I could cite you cases in World War II that were even worse, such as the decision to invade Italy, which was made not on military grounds, but as the result of inter-alliance politics, and which then led to the needless squandering of many thousand of lives. In that respect, World War III was even worse. As for Bush, I don't have the slightest doubt about his deep concern for the security of Israel. But there are crosscurrents at work here that complicate matters. For example, what exactly do you do about Egypt, when you're trying to encourage democratic reform without at the same time strengthening the Muslim Brotherhood? Creating a "Hamastan" in Gaza was, to put it mildly, not a great outcome. On the other hand, you've got these Palestinian terrorists out in the open fighting each other, which will make it harder for them to keep fooling the West as to their true intentions toward Israel. Why is everybody siding with Fatah, by providing them with arms and money, as though it is some kind of ally in this struggle, rather than a terrorist organization? I don't like that any more than you do. But again, this kind of thing has happened many times in the past. The US under Ronald Reagan even armed Osama bin Laden because he was useful in achieving the immediate objective of getting the Soviets out of Afghanistan. How do realpolitik and moral clarity go together? How can you champion the Bush Doctrine and at the same time understand his dealings with the Saudis or the Syrians? Well, in World War II, there was no need to sacrifice moral clarity in making an alliance with Stalin against Hitler. It was understood by those with moral clarity that Stalin was just as bad as Hitler, maybe even worse. But since the immediate objective was to defeat Hitler, the alliance was as much a moral imperative as it was a case of realpolitik. Once Hitler was defeated, we were forced to take on Stalin. We couldn't have fought both at the same time, so we took them on one at a time. Something similar has been going on in World War IV. We've had an alliance with Pakistan, whose help was essential when we invaded Afghanistan. To have refused that help because the Pakistanis are in other respects no friends of ours would have been suicidal. The same goes for the Saudis. I regard the Saudis, who finance the madrassas all over the world that preach jihad against us, as one of our worst enemies. Yet even I would hesitate before taking them on under present circumstances, when doing so would, among other things, create tremendous economic problems. As for Syria, I believe that an opportunity was missed to bring down the Assad regime in the early days of the invasion of Iraq. But the main priority right now is to stop Iran from developing a nuclear capability, and we can't do everything at once. On the way to victory in World War IV, the turn of the Saudis and the Syrians will come. What, then, would constitute victory? Something similar to what happened in World War III. Communism fell; the Soviet empire disintegrated; and the countries that had been living under Soviet domination were set on the path to democracy. Some are doing pretty well, like Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. Others are not doing so well. Russia has backslid, but it's still better than it was under communist rule. In general, many millions of people have already benefitted, and they can reasonably hope that things will continue to improve. That's what I think will victory will mean in the broader Middle East. The despotic regimes in the region - which were created not by Allah in the seventh century but by British and French diplomats in the 1920s, and therefore have shallow roots - will be replaced by more or less democratic systems, and some will do better than others. So far as Israel is concerned, this by itself will transform the environment in which it lives. This doesn't mean that the lion is going to lie down with the lamb; but it does mean a new and better situation. That's what we're fighting for. The whole point of the Bush Doctrine is to "drain the swamps" - that is, to change the conditions which bred the forces that attacked the US on 9/11. You've left Islam out of the equation. Can the Bush Doctrine work with so many Muslims all over the world? Just as I used to ask why we should assume that the Soviet empire would last forever, I now ask why we assume that Islam is forever going to resist the trends that have been affecting the rest of the world. I believe that Islam will gradually go the way of Christianity and Judaism if we succeed in clearing the ground for the seeds of democratization to be planted in the broader Middle East. And they are being planted in Iraq, which is what everybody keeps forgetting. This will inevitably have an effect on Islam. When the Taliban were driven out of Kabul, the first thing people did was to dig up the VCRs they had buried in their backyards when watching videos was banned, and to storm into the old video rental shops to get movies to watch again. These were religious Muslims, and yet they saw no reason why being devout necessarily meant being forbidden to see movies. After all, there were periods in the past when being a good Muslim didn't require becoming a homicidal maniac. But my general point is that, just as there was a complete transformation of Western Europe after World War II, and then a complete transformation of Eastern Europe after World War III, victory in World War IV will lead to a complete transformation of the broader Middle East. What will World War V be fought over? I don't know - maybe China, maybe Africa, or maybe there won't be one. But what I do know is that we're seeing the continued movement of the modernizing forces that have been operating for some 200 years and that have slowly engulfed one region of the world after another. The resistance to these forces has been able to exact a heavy price in suffering and blood, but it has never succeeded in stopping them, and I don't think it ever will.