For most observers, Leon Wieseltier's latest attack on me as an anti-Semite, without even the candor to say so (since that would contradict his previous categorical refutation of the idea), may seem somewhat over the top. And, as many have already noted, there is a long history here, which it is unseemly to disinter and tedious to recount.
But I do want to note that it is a history of deep love and friendship and mentorship, for which I shall always be deeply grateful, as well as of eventually profound animosity. The day I sero-converted to HIV, a fact I couldn't tell anyone (even my mother who was hospitalized with severe depression at the time), he took me into his home and cared for me like a brother. He is a man capable of immense kindness, of brilliant humor, and is probably the funniest single person I have ever come across. I also deeply respect his quite remarkable legacy as editor of the literary section of the New Republic which I was honored to edit for a while under his guidance. In the good old days, I took him to gay bars (he has not a shred of homophobia); as a Jew and a Catholic, we read Buddhist scriptures together. We were, in fact, somewhat painfully alike in many ways: religious traditionalists whose reverence for our faiths was also marked by our rebellion within them. We share a commitment to secularism and religion, these days a very rare combination. His mentor was Isaiah Berlin; mine Michael Oakeshott. Their differences are fascinating but minor - and they too, sadly, came to despise each other.
Although the collapse of our friendship was among the most hurtful of my life, and for which I take my own share of responsibility, I remain an admirer of his intellect. I have tried to move on, and although I have occasionally thrown a tease about his sometimes impenetrable prose, or got him to make a factual correction, I also posted this quite recently of a review he wrote for the NYTBR:
This is a very pithy summary of a view of politics and religion that I share and that Leon helped me appreciate and understand. The quote is an hors d'oeuvre before the main course, however, which is this essay: clear, stringent, restrained where necessary, vicious when warranted ... and, well, humane. It's an important essay because within it, there pulsates a whole slew of vital issues where some level of contradiction and tension is far more defensible than their opposites: being a Jew and an American, being a conservative who can see the role of liberalism in the West (and vice-versa), and being a secular citizen with profound respect for and engagement with religious truth.
I think it's the best thing Wieseltier has written in memory - and reminds me of what an immense and powerful talent he remains.
People have referred to this contretemps as the continuation of a tit for tat. More tit than tat, I'd say. But his newest charge deserves treatment beyond this personal history, because it is a very grave one.
His accusation of anti-Semitism is wounding because from my teenage years, the Holocaust has remained in my mind and soul as a defining event in human history, and, as a Catholic, I have struggled mightily to hold my own faith fully accountable for its historical contribution to it. I have also an extremely long record of calling out genuine anti-Semitism on this blog - not as a way to score points against my critics, or to police the domestic discourse - but because I think it is an eternal toxin for which my own Church bears a huge amount of responsibility and which needs to be confronted wherever it appears. I despise the Iranian regime in part for its murderous and disgusting anti-Semitism, as I do Hamas and Hezbollah. Maybe other non-Jewish writers have a stronger or deeper record of this than I, but I did my best. It is demeaning to point to the many instances, as if I were in a dock and presumed guilty before having to prove myself innocent. But the record is plainly there (just search this blog or google it); it is voluminous; it is deep; and it is quite patently sincere.
There is also some irony here since my political position on Israel remains, so far as I can tell, extremely close to Leon's. I favor a two-state solution along the 1967 lines (give or take a few adjustments to reality on the ground), a partition of Jerusalem, and guarantees for both Israel's security and that of the Palestinians, whose suffering and constant humiliation is indisputable. I cannot see a full right of return being viable, and I would like to save the idea of a specifically Jewish state from demographic suicide, and because I see the Jewish faith as the foundation of my own and my Jewish friends as more than just my friends, but part of a spiritual brotherhood.
Even on the Gaza war, which was, for me, a turning point in my view of the Israel that is emerging with ever more danger to itself and the entire world, Leon and I have very similar positions, so far as I can tell. He has a long record of calling out the racist religious right in Israel, although much less so now than in the past. Again, I posted on this blog his very elegant description of the situation a year ago:
"I have a sickened feeling about the recent campaign in Gaza. No sovereign state can accept regular aggressions across its border, but Operation Cast Lead seems to have accomplished nothing. Hamas is again firing its rockets, Israel is again retaliating against them, and Israeli politicians are again making virile promises to finish the job. The suffering of the people of Gaza during the war was partly the responsibility of their own astoundingly callous leaders, but not entirely. Israel's choice of tactics and strategies was its own; and when it chose blunt instruments, it guaranteed harsh consequences."
Now Leon used those words weeks after the onslaught, and I am a blogger writing in real time, reacting to the horrifying scenes of suffering, of the heads of children buried in rubble. Whatever the context, watching largely defenseless, densely packed urban areas being pummeled with missiles is traumatizing. I don't see how a human being can watch it and not feel for those innocents trapped in terror below. I have Irish blood and a Catholic conscience. Seeing this happen in real time was as vivid for me as it was watching the people of Iran last June. There will be times in which the emotion of the moment overwhelms me. Leon despises blogging, but I see its merits as long as it is seen in proper context as provisional truth, not considered analysis. Read my Sunday Times columns or Atlantic essays to see the difference. So maybe my reaction was over-wrought. But it was certainly not over-wrought because of some kind of anti-Semitism. To be honest, I was also shocked. This was not the Israel I thought I knew.
To address the substantive points: