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Bill Buckley and the Jews

March 6, 2008 By:
Jonathan S. Tobin
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William F. Buckley

Was there any major American personality in the last half-century who seemed more remote from the sensibilities of most American Jews than William F. Buckley?

Buckley, who passed away last week at the age of 83, was the fervent Catholic patrician whose work helped create the modern American conservative movement in the 1950s at a time when nothing could have been more remote from the thinking of most Jews in this country than his National Review.

Though much has changed in the 53 years since N.R.'s debut, given that most Jews are still, at the very least, the reliable supporters of the Democrats, if not hard-core liberals, its likely that most of them noted the passing of Buckley without emotion.

After all, Buckley's eccentric mid-Atlantic accent, his cheerful intellectual snobbery symbolized by his delight in $10 words where simple ones would have served just as well, his lavish lifestyle (skiing at Gstaad and sailing on the high seas), as well as his rock-solid conservative politics are not the sort of things that most Jews identify with.

Setting the Stage
A chorus of commentators have rightly extolled his influence, gentlemanly grace toward his opponents and literary virtuosity as an essayist and novelist. His "Firing Line" television program was the granddaddy of all the political talk shows that have followed (though none have been as thoughtful or fair). It was he who made it clear that the expression "conservative intellectual" was not an oxymoron and inspired countless young writers to try to emulate him.

But there is one other aspect of his amazing career that deserves mention. It is the fact that as much as any other person, Bill Buckley cleared the way not only for a conservative movement where Jews would be welcomed, but that it was his leadership that set the stage for an American politics in which anti-Semitism was confined to the fever swamps of the far right and far left.

As conservative columnist George Will has written, without National Review, which Buckley started in 1955, much of what followed in American politics -- including Barry Goldwater's capture of the Republican nomination for president in 1964 and then the electoral victories of Ronald Reagan and the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 -- is unimaginable. American conservatism as we have known it, with all of its subsequent ups and downs, has its origins in the pages of that magazine in which its editor helped create a coherent movement out of what had previously been a loose array of cranks.

In order to give life to that movement, Buckley specifically chose to rid its ranks of people who espoused the sort of anti-Semitism that once was inescapable on the American right.

Buckley would himself acknowledge that prejudice was a presence in his own home growing up. And as a youngster, Buckley admitted that he was a fan of Charles Lindbergh and his "America First" movement, whose flirtation with anti-Semitism was of a piece with its advocacy of appeasement of Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany.

But as National Review took flight in the late 1950s, anti-Semitic writers found themselves on the outside looking in. So, too, did apologists for the extremist John Birch Society.

But despite the fact that his conservatism was one that was informed by his own Catholic faith (something that was consistently made clear in the pages of National Review), Buckley made his journal, and by extension, the movement for which it served as an unofficial bible, off-limits to the anti-Semitism that was commonplace in the world in which he grew up.

Though he didn't always agree with all of its policies, Buckley was also a consistent supporter of Israel. A staunch anti-Communist, he was also deeply supportive of the movement to free Soviet Jewry at a time when many in this country (including some Jews) were loath to speak out because it might be interpreted as opposition to a policy of detente with Moscow.

Long after he chased the Birchers out of NR, Buckley found himself forced to confront the issue again. When longtime colleagues Pat Buchanan and Joseph Sobran used their bully pulpits on the right to bash Israel and stigmatize Jews for their support for the state, it was again Buckley who took on the haters.

Buckley repudiated Sobran's writing, which he labeled anti-Semitic, and pushed him off the magazine's masthead.

As the issue continued to percolate in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf war in December 1991, he devoted an entire issue of the magazine to an essay titled "In Search of Anti-Semitism" (which was also the title of the book he later published on the same subject), in which he took on Buchanan, who was preparing an insurgent run for the White House against the first President Bush.

His conclusion was damning: "I find it impossible to defend Pat Buchanan against the charge that what he did and said during the period under examination amounted to anti-Semitism, whatever it was that drove him to say and do it," Buckley wrote.

Though Buchanan would continue to snipe away on television, it was largely Buckley's doing that he and others like him would do so from outside a perch in one of our two major parties rather than inside it.

In His Own Image
The long-term implications of Buckley's stands were enormous. By remaking the conservative movement in his own image, in which the emphasis was on anti-communism and a libertarian skepticism of government power, he ensured that it, and the Republican Party, which it came to dominate, would be a place where Jew-haters were unwelcome.

That enabled liberal Jews, such as Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz, to feel comfortable making common cause with the right on a host of issues as he began his own journey away from the left. Though expectations that the Jews would ditch liberalism en masse were always unrealistic, the birth of an intellectually viable brand of Jewish conservative thought in this country wouldn't have happened had not Buckley first cleaned out the GOP stables.

In terms of practical politics, Buckley's rout of the anti-Semites made it possible for the sort of bipartisan consensus in favor of support for Israel that we now take for granted. He replaced the Buchanan-like world of American conservatism that existed before National Review with something that was not only more successful, but purged of Jew-hatred. If Israel Lobby authors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt want to find the real father of the enormous support for Israel in our political system today, they can look no further than the irrepressible Buckley, whose life was a testament to the power of ideas.

His was a political faith that most Jews never embraced, but as we survey a political spectrum in which our enemies are confined to the margins, we should all remember the achievements of this American original. May his memory be for a blessing for all who love liberty.  

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