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“For Fear of the Jews”

(Expanded from SOBRANS, September 2002, pages 3–6, and taken from a speech given at the IHR Conference held in Los Angeles, June 21–23, 2002.)
Text dropped from the print edition or modified solely for reasons of space appears in blue.

The news that I would be addressing the Institute of Historical Review came to some people as ... well, news. It was mentioned in the Jewish newspaper Forward and on the Zionist Wall Street Journal Online. The editors of two conservative magazines called and wrote me to express their concern that I might damage my reputation, such as it is, by speaking to “Holocaust deniers.”

I’m not sure why this should matter. Even positing that I was speaking to a disreputable audience, I expect to be judged by what I say, not whom I say it to. I note that my enemies have written a great deal about me, yet they rarely quote me directly.

Why not? If I am so disreputable myself, I must at least occasionally say disreputable things. Is it possible that what I say is more cogent than they like to admit?

My enemies are always welcome to quote anything I say, if they dare. I would say the same things to them, and they may consider my remarks to the IHR as addressed to them too. I wasn’t just speaking to “Holocaust deniers,” but also to Holocaust believers.

Because I’ve endured smears and ostracism for my criticism of Israel and its American lobby, some people credit me with courage. I’m flattered, of course, but this compliment, whether or not I deserve it, implies that it’s professionally dangerous for a journalist to criticize Israel. That tells you a lot.

But if I’m “courageous,” what do you call Mark Weber and the Institute for Historical Review? They have been smeared far worse than I have; moreover, they have been seriously threatened with death. Their offices have been firebombed. Do they at least get credit for courage? Not at all. They remain almost universally vilified.

When I met Mark, many years ago, I expected to meet a raving Jew-hating fanatic, such being the generic reputation of “Holocaust deniers.” I was immediately and subsequently impressed to find that he was just the opposite: a mild-mannered, good-humored, witty, scholarly man who habitually spoke with restraint and measure, even about enemies who would love to see him dead. The same is true of other members of the Institute. In my many years of acquaintance with them, I have never heard any of them say anything that would strike an unprejudiced listener as unreasonable or bigoted.

Breaker quote: "Holocaust deniers" versus fanaticsIt was his enemies who were raving, hate-filled fanatics, unable to discuss “Holocaust deniers” in measured language, without wild hyperbole, loose accusation, and outright lies. I began to wonder: if they can’t tell the truth about “Holocaust deniers,” how can they tell the truth about the Holocaust itself?

Even if the Holocaust had really happened, as I assumed, maybe it should be studied with a critical rationality most of its believers obviously lacked. After all, even Stalin’s crimes might be exaggerated, quite understandably, by his victims. As Milton puts it, “Let truth and falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?” Even those in error might have something to say, some marginal clarification to offer. Why stop our ears against them?

Why on earth is it “anti-Jewish” to conclude from the evidence that the standard numbers of Jews murdered are inaccurate, or that the Hitler regime, bad as it was in many ways, was not, in fact, intent on racial extermination? Surely these are controversial conclusions; but if so, let the controversy rage. There is no danger in permitting it to proceed. It might be different if denying the Holocaust could somehow affect the course of events, as the denial of Stalin’s crimes by the New York Times in the 1930s helped him to continue committing them. Why is the Institute for Historical Review notorious, while the Times, despite its active support of Stalin at the height of his power, remains a pillar of respectability?

The Holocaust has never been a consuming interest of mine. But as I read the Journal of Historical Review over the years, I found in it the same calm virtue of critical rationality I’d found in Mark himself. And it was applied to many other subjects besides the question of whether Hitler had tried to exterminate the Jews.

I’m especially indebted to one fascinating article on another taboo subject: Abraham Lincoln’s long pursuit of the policy of sending former Negro slaves outside the United States. This completely reshaped the book on Lincoln I was writing. I realized that you can’t understand Lincoln unless you grasp that he waged the Civil War with a dual goal: to prevent the political separation of North and South, while achieving the racial separation of whites and blacks. His dream was a united white America. He was by no means the color-blind humanitarian we have been taught to revere.

The IHR’s mission can’t be fairly summed up as “Holocaust denial.” Its real mission is criticism of the suffocating progressive ideology that has infected and distorted the telling of history in our time. But of course its specific skepticism of the standard Holocaust story is regarded as blasphemy, and has earned it the dreaded epithet of anti- Semitism.

Not long ago the only label more lethal to one’s reputation was that of child molester, but, as many men of the cloth are now discovering, there is this difference: a child molester may hope for a second chance.

There is also another difference. We have a pretty clear idea what child molestation is. Nobody really knows what “anti-Semitism” is. My old boss Bill Buckley wrote an entire book called In Search of Anti- Semitism without bothering to define anti- Semitism.

At the time I thought this was an oversight. I was wrong. The word would lose its utility if it were defined. As I observed in my own small contribution to the book, an anti-Semite used to mean a man who hated Jews. Now it means a man who is hated by Jews.

I doubt, in fact I can’t imagine, that anyone associated with the IHR has ever done harm to another human being because he was Jewish. In fact the IHR has never been accused of anything but thought-crimes.

The same is true of me. Nobody has ever accused me of the slightest personal indecency to a Jew. My chief offense, it appears, has been to insist that the state of Israel has been a costly and treacherous “ally” to the United States. As of last September 11, I should think that is undeniable. But I have yet to receive a single apology for having been correct.

If I were to hate Jews en masse, without distinction, I would be guilty of many things. Obviously I’d be guilty of injustice and uncharity to Jews as human beings. I would also be guilty of willful stupidity. More personally, I’d be guilty of ingratitude to my benefactors — which Dante, in his Inferno, ranks the worst of all sins — since many of my benefactors, in large ways and small, have been Jewish

Moreover, I would be becoming exactly the man my Zionist enemies would like me to be; a man like them, in whom ethnic hostilities take priority over all other values and considerations. I would justify them in treating me as an enemy. In fact I’d go so far as to say that I would be helping to justify the state of Israel. I consider that if I fight these people on their terms, they have already won.

What, exactly, is “anti-Semitism”? One standard dictionary definition is “hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious or racial group.” How this applies to me has never been explained. My “hostility” toward Israel is a desire not for war, but for neutrality — out of a sense of betrayal, waste, and shame. Our venal politicians have aligned us with a foreign country that behaves dishonorably. Most alleged “anti-Semites” would wince if Jews anywhere were treated as Israel treats its Arab subjects. Moreover, Israel has repeatedly betrayed its only benefactor, the United States. I have already alluded to the place Dante reserves for those who betray their benefactors.

These are obvious moral facts. Yet it’s not only politicians who are afraid to point them out; so are most journalists — the people who are supposed to be independent enough to say the things politicians can’t afford to say. In my thirty years in journalism, nothing has amazed me more than the prevalent fear in the profession of offending Jews, especially Zionist Jews.

Breaker quote: War crimes and thought-crimesThe fear of the label anti-Semitic is a fear of the power that is believed to lie behind it: Jewish power. Yet this is still pretty much unmentionable in journalism. It’s rather as if sportswriters covering pro basketball were prohibited from mentioning that the Los Angeles Lakers were in first place.

In my 21 years at National Review, I had a front-row seat. I watched closely as Bill Buckley changed from a jaunty critic of Israel to what I can only call a servile appeaser. In its early days, the magazine published robust editorials blasting politicians who sacrificed American to Israeli interests in order to pander to the Jewish vote; in those days it was considered risqué to suggest that there was a “Jewish vote.” Today Bill’s magazine supports Israel with embarrassing sycophancy, never daring to intimate that Israeli and American interests may occasionally diverge. It has forgotten its own principles; today it would never dare to publish the editorials written by its great geopolitical thinker of those early days, James Burnham.

There has been a qualitative change that is downright eerie — not only in Bill Buckley and National Review, but in American conservatism generally. The “fear of the Jews,” to use the phrase so often repeated in the Gospel according to John, seems to have wrought a reorientation of the tone, the very principles, of today’s conservatism. The hardy skepticism, critical intelligence, and healthy irony of men like James Burnham, Willmoore Kendall, and the young Buckley have given way to the uncritical philo-Semitism of George Will, Cal Thomas, Rush Limbaugh, and of course the later Buckley — men who will go to any lengths, even absurd and dishonorable lengths, to avoid the terrorizing label anti-Semite.

It was once considered “anti-Semitic” to impute “dual loyalty” to Jews — that is, to assert that most American Jews divide their loyalty between the United States and Israel. This is now passé. Today most politicians assume, as a matter of course, that Israel commands the primary loyalty of Jewish voters. Are they accused of “anti-Semitism” for doing so? Does this assumption cost them Jewish votes? Not at all! Dual loyalty nothing! Dual loyalty would be an improvement!

Once again, it’s a practical necessity to know what it would be professional suicide to say. No politician in his right mind would accuse Jews of giving their primary loyalty to Israel; but most politicians act as if this were the case. And they succeed.

You can read Jewish publications like Commentary for years, and you’ll read interminable discussions about what’s good for Israel, but you’ll never encounter the slightest suggestion that what’s good for Israel might not be good for America. The possibility simply never comes up. The only discernible duty of Jews, it seems, is to look out for Israel. They never have to choose between Israel and the United States. So much for the “canard” of dual loyalty.

The very word anti-Semite is reminiscent of the term anti-Soviet. It serves a similar function of facilitating imputations of ill-defined guilt.

The strength of Western law has always been its insistence on definition. When we want to minimize an offense, say murder or burglary, we define it as clearly as possible. We want judge and jury to know exactly what the charge means, not only to convict the guilty but, also, just as important, to protect the innocent.

Clear definitions put a burden of proof on the accuser, and properly so. If you falsely accuse a man of murder or burglary, not only is he apt to be acquitted — you may pay a heavy penalty yourself. As a result, few of us are afraid of being charged with murders and burglaries we didn’t commit.

By contrast, the Soviet legal system left prosecutors with a wide discretion in identifying “anti-Soviet” activities. Almost anything irritating to the Soviet state could qualify. An impossible burden of proof lay on the accused; guilt was presumed; acquittals were virtually nonexistent. To be indicted was already to be convicted. Since the charge was undefined, it was unfalsifiable; there was no such thing as a false accusation. As a result, the Russian population lived in fear.

The word anti-Semitic functions like the word anti-Soviet. Being undefined, it’s unfalsifiable. Loose charges of “anti-Semitism” are common, but nobody suffers any penalty for making them, since what is unfalsifiable can never be shown to be false. I once read an article in a Jewish magazine that called the first Star Wars movie “anti- Semitic.” I was amazed, but I couldn’t prove the contrary. Who could? And of course people in public life — and often in private life — fear incurring the label, however guiltless they may be.

If you want to distinguish between the innocent and the guilty, you define crimes precisely. If, however, you merely want to maximize the number of convictions, increase the power of the accusers, and create an atmosphere of dread, you define crimes as loosely as possible. We now have an incentive system that might have been designed to promote loose charges of “anti-Semitism.”

Silly as all this is from a rational point of view, the label of anti-Semitism is deeply feared. It does signify one thing: Jewish hatred. When I became a conservative as a college freshman, in 1965, nearly all Jews were liberals and Jewish intellectuals associated conservatism with “anti-Semitism.” Bill Buckley was often depicted as a fascist or crypto-Nazi; given the smears he endured, it’s understandable that he should go to great lengths to appear pro-Jewish, even if he somewhat overdid it by abetting smears of his fellow conservatives.

The situation changed somewhat when many Jewish intellectuals, upset by liberal criticism of Israel, became what were called “neoconservatives.” This term implied no deep adherence to conservative principles, but only the adoption of a few ad hoc principles useful to Zionism, with no basic departure from New Deal liberalism insofar as it was useful to Zionism. “Neoconservatism” was really a sort of “kosher” conservatism.

A few incidents from my years at National Review may illustrate the point.

In the mid 1980s, the neoconservative Earth Mother Midge Decter, wife of Norman Podhoretz, accused Russell Kirk of “anti-Semitism.” Kirk’s offense? He had made a mild quip that some neoconservatives appeared to believe that the capital of Western civilization was Tel Aviv. Never mind that he had a point. Kirk had been a founding father of modern conservatism and a National Review columnist for many years, yet the magazine not only failed to rally to his defense against this smear — it didn’t even report the incident! Decter’s attack was the biggest news of the season in the conservative movement, but Buckley was afraid to mention it. So was most of the conservative press.

At about the same time, Israeli troops shot up a Catholic Church on the West Bank during Mass — a horrible sacrilege that sent worshipers fleeing for their lives and provoked an angry protest from the Vatican. (The congregation had planned a march after Mass to protest the beating of a Palestinian priest by Israeli soldiers.) I mentioned the incident to Buckley, a fellow Catholic, at an editorial meeting and gave him a news clipping describing the event in detail; as I expected, the magazine ignored this too. Even the violent persecution of Catholics by Jews was unmentionable — in a “conservative” magazine owned and run by a Catholic.

Breaker quote: Imagine Israel without the HolocaustWhen the Pollard spy case broke, the magazine called for the death penalty for Pollard — but excused Israel for sponsoring him, on grounds that it’s normal for friendly nations to spy on each other!

And so it went. I could have understood a favorable attitude toward Israel, having been pro-Israel for many years myself; but surely even this alliance must have occasional drawbacks. From time to time it’s necessary to criticize even friends. If we criticized our own government every week, why not Israel once in a while? But the magazine consistently refused to find the slightest fault with Israel, and since I left in 1993 it has gotten much worse. Today it has become assertively slavish, to a comical degree.

By 1993 I’d had enough. I wrote a column correcting some of the things Bill had written about me, in which I mentioned his evident fear; I wrote that he was “jumpy about Jews.” This was a pretty mild description of his terror, but the column got me fired, just as I expected. Since then it has become a neoconservative legend that I was fired for “anti-Semitism,” but the truth is that it was far more personal than that. Bill knew me too well to make such a charge. I was fired for making him look bad. He considered making others look bad his prerogative.

Since then
I’ve noticed how eager and desperate mainstream conservatives are to avoid Jewish wrath. Again, they don’t just speak favorably of Israel; they refuse to acknowledge any cost to American interests in the U.S.-Israel alliance. They treat the two countries’ interests as identical; when they scold either government, it’s always — always — the U.S. Government for failing to support our “reliable ally.” They are in headlong flight from reality. They have none of the realism of James Burnham, whose writings and style of thought would be wholly unwelcome in today’s conservative movement.

They are frightened. You can sense this in their bluster, in the vicarious jingoism with which they address Israel. Their fear produces a peculiar intellectual thinness that pervades all their thinking on foreign policy. Gone is the critical intelligence that used to set the tone for such earlier conservative writers as Burnham, Kendall, Kirk, Whittaker Chambers, Frank Meyer, Thomas Molnar, and the other distinguished names that used to grace the masthead of National Review. Individualists have been replaced by apparatchiks. Zionism has infiltrated conservatism in much the same way Communism once infiltrated liberalism.

I notice that Bill Buckley’s latest book is a novel about the Nuremberg trials. Over the past few years Bill has made a habit of commemorating the Holocaust with remarkable frequency. He has dropped references to Auschwitz into countless of his syndicated columns and interviews, as if compelled to banish the slightest suspicion that he has any doubts about the Holocaust or that he doesn’t feel deeply about it. The Holocaust seems to have joined, or supplanted, the Gulag Archipelago in his historical memory.

Since I vividly remember the days when Bill regarded the Jews and Israel not with hostility, but with a healthy and playful irony — the same attitude he brought to politics in general — I find all this solemnity pretty cloying.

Here I should lay my own cards on the table. I am not, heaven forbid, a “Holocaust denier.” I lack the scholarly competence to be one. I don’t read German, so I can’t assess the documentary evidence; I don’t know chemistry, so I can’t discuss Zyklon-B; I don’t understand the logistics of exterminating millions of people in small spaces. Besides, “Holocaust denial” is illegal in many countries I may want to visit someday. For me, that’s proof enough. One Israeli writer has expressed his amazement at the idea of criminalizing opinions about historical fact, and I find it puzzling too; but the state has spoken.

Of course those who affirm the Holocaust need know nothing about the German language, chemistry, and other pertinent subjects; they need only repeat what they have been told by the authorities. In every controversy, most people care much less for what the truth is than for which side it’s safer and more respectable to take. They shy away from taking a position that is likely to get them into trouble. Just as only people on the Axis side were accused of war crimes after World War II, only people critical of Jewish interests are accused of thought-crimes in today’s mainstream press.

So, life being as short as it is, I shy away from this controversy. Of course I’m also incompetent to judge whether the Holocaust did happen; so I’ve become what might be called a “Holocaust stipulator.” Like a lawyer who doesn’t want to get bogged down debating a secondary point, I stipulate that the standard account of the Holocaust is true. What is undisputed — the massive violation of human rights in Hitler’s Germany — is bad enough.

What interests me is the growth of what Norman Finkelstein has called “the Holocaust Industry.” True or not, the Holocaust story has been put to many uses, some of them mischievous. It is currently being used to extort reparations and to blacken reputations, for example. Daniel Goldhagen is soon to publish a book blaming the Holocaust on the central teachings of the Catholic Church. This is only the most ambitious project of a school of thought, largely but not exclusively Jewish, that sees Christianity as the source of all “anti-Semitism.”

So if you want to avoid being called “anti-Semitic,” the safest course is to renounce Christianity. Whether this is a safe course for your immortal soul is a question Goldhagen doesn’t address. The important thing is to avoid Jewish censure. Obviously this sort of thinking presupposes Christian fear of the Jews. Jews themselves are not unaware of Jewish power; some of them have rather exaggerated confidence in it.

But the chief use of the Holocaust story is to undergird the legitimacy of the state of Israel. According to this view, the Holocaust proves that Jewish existence is always in danger, unless the Jews have their own state in their own homeland. The Holocaust stands as the historical objectification of all the world’s gentiles’ eternal “anti-Semitism.” Jewish life is an endless emergency, requiring endless emergency measures and justifying everything does in the name of “defense.” Jews and Israel can’t be judged by normal standards, at least until Israel is absolutely safe — if even then. Their circumstances are forever abnormal.

But the daily news reports suggest that Israel may not really be the safest place for Jews. Theodore Herzl’s original dream was of a Jewish state where Jews could at last live the normal lives they were denied in the Diaspora. Yet today it’s Diaspora Jews who live relatively normal lives, at least in the West, while they must worry about the very survival of Israel. And far from being the independent state Herzl hoped for, Israel depends heavily on the support not only of Diaspora Jews but of foreign gentiles, especially Americans.

Israel insists that its “right to exist” is nothing more than the right of every nation on earth to be left in peace. This right is allegedly threatened by fanatical Arabs who want to “drive the Jews into the sea,” as witness the recent wave of Palestinian terror. But in truth, Israel’s claimed “right to exist” is much more than it seems at first sight. It means a right to rule as Jews, enjoying rights denied to native Palestinians.

We are told incessantly that Israel is a “democracy,” and therefore the natural ally of the United States, whose “democratic values” it shares. This is a very dubious claim. To Americans, democracy means majority rule, but with equal rights for minorities. In Israel and the occupied territories, equal rights for the minority are simply out of the question.

Breaker quote: "Democracy" based on inequalityMajority rule itself has taken a peculiar form in Israel. The original Arab majority was driven out of their homes and their native land, and kept out. Meanwhile, a Jewish “majority” was artificially imported. Not only the first immigrants from Eastern Europe, but every Jew on earth was granted a “right of return” — that is, “return” to a “homeland” most have never lived in, and in which none of their ancestors has ever lived. A Jew from Brooklyn (whose grandfather came from Poland) can fly to Israel and immediately claim rights denied to an Arab whose people have always lived in Palestine. In recent years Israel has been augmenting its Jewish majority by vigorously encouraging Jewish immigration, especially from Russia. Ariel Sharon has told a group of American senators that Israel needs a million more Jewish immigrants.

In recent negotiations, Israel has flatly rejected demands for a “right of return” for Palestinians exiled since 1948. It frankly gave as its reason that this would mean “the end of the Jewish state,” since an Arab majority would surely vote down Jewish ethnic privileges. If Israel remained democratic, it wouldn’t long remain Jewish.

This confirms the contention of hard-line Revisionist Zionists from Vladimir Jabotinsky to Meir Kahane that in the long run, Israel must be either Jewish or democratic; it can’t be both. And in order to remain Jewish, it must reject the equal rights for its minorities that Jews everywhere demand where they are a minority. Israel must be the only “democracy” whose existence depends on inequality.

Put otherwise, Zionism is a denial of the “self-evident truths” of the Declaration of Independence. To acknowledge those truths, and to put them into practice, would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state. Again, honest and rigorous Zionists have always seen and said this.

American gentiles, bemused by the propaganda claim that a beleaguered little democracy is fighting for its very right to exist, are vaguely baffled, unable to comprehend what is before their eyes. They still haven’t figured out that Israeli “democracy” is essentially and radically different from — even repugnant to — what they understand as democracy.

With the verbal sleight-of-hand at which they are masters, the Israelis always appeal to the Holocaust. Maybe they have nuclear weapons, but their existence is threatened — once more! — by rock-throwing Arab boys. The Arabs are the new Nazis, repeating and perpetuating the eternal peril of the Jews. Israel is determined to prevent another Holocaust and must crush the Arab threat by any means necessary, including harsh measures.

Israel without the Holocaust is hard to imagine. But let’s try to imagine it.

Suppose the Holocaust had never occurred, had never been alleged, had never been called “the Holocaust.” Imagine that no great persecution had provided the Jewish state with a special excuse for oppressive emergency measures. In other words, imagine that Israel were forced to justify itself like any other state.

In that case, Israel’s treatment of its Arab minorities would appear to the world in a very different light. Its denial of equal or even basic rights to those minorities would lack the excuse of a past or prospective “Holocaust.” Civilized people would expect it to treat those it ruled with impartial justice — like civilized states. Special privileges for Jews would appear as outrageous discrimination, no different from insulting legal discrimination against Jews. The sense — and excuse — of perpetual crisis would be absent. Israel might be forced or pressured, possibly against its will, to be “normal.” If it chose to be democratic, its Jews would have to take their chance of being outnumbered, just like majorities in other democracies. Nobody would suppose that losing elections would mean their annihilation.

In short, the Holocaust has become a device for exempting Jews from normal human obligations. It has authorized them to bully and blackmail, to extort and oppress. This is all quite irrational, because even if six million Jews were murdered during World War II, it doesn’t follow that the survivors are entitled to commit the slightest injustice. If your father was stabbed in the street, that’s a pity, but it’s not an excuse for picking someone else’s pocket.

In a peculiar way, the Holocaust story has promoted not only pity, but actual fear of the Jews. It has removed them from the universe of normal moral discourse. It has made them victims with nukes. It has made them even more dangerous than their enemies have always charged. It has given the world an Israel ruled by Ariel Sharon.

Benjamin Netanyahu has written that Israel is “an integral part of the West.” I think it would be truer to say that Israel has become a deformed limb of the West.

Joseph Sobran

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