December 01, 2009 Issue
Copyright © 2009 The American Conservative
Chosen People: How to atone for being a WASP
By Scott McConnell
Measured in terms of military dominance, Israel has never been stronger. But Israel’s campaigns against its Arab neighbors no longer receive the international applause they once did. Many Europeans consider Israel a regional bully. Even in the United States, a recent essay in the New York Review of Books argued that a state grounded in ethnicity is an anachronism, a throwback to the ethnonationalism that the West sought to transcend after World War II.
In the realm of soft power, Israel finds itself somewhat beleaguered, with its cultural and economic exports facing incipient boycotts and its military actions scrutinized and rigorously condemned by prestigious international jurists. Among gentiles, Israel’s strongest support comes from Christian Zionists, but the country’s more sophisticated enthusiasts recognize that Armageddonite eschatology is not a solid foundation from which to ensure Washington’s unconditional backing.
To Zion’s rescue comes George Gilder, veteran luminary of the American Right, author of a successful polemic against feminism and a Reagan-admired ode to the free market, and publisher of a newsletter touting technology stocks. The Israel Test is in many respects a crackpot work, but it is more original than most contemporary political bestsellers, and it is bold.
Some mainstream conservative magazines have dutifully reprinted excerpts, and a few right-wing bloggers have praised the book. Still, one senses hesitation: is this an argument conventional Republicans really want to embrace?
Stripped to its basics, Gilder’s book attempts to view the Arab-Israeli conflict through the prism of the scientific and racialist thought influential in Europe and America in the first decades of the last century. By the 1920s, scientific racism was already facing intellectual resistance, perhaps most insistently from Catholics such as Hilaire Belloc, and its later association with Nazism eventually brought about its near complete demise. A generation before Hitler, Madison Grant, then scientific racism’s most prominent American exponent, had been a friend of presidents and a stalwart of the Eastern establishment. He published The Passing of the Great Race in 1916 to wide readership and considerable acclaim. The “Nordics,” claimed Grant, had given the world most of its explorers and leaders, the organizers of great endeavors. Indeed, it is not hard to imagine how an Anglo-Saxon might survey the world early in the last century, observe where its most fertile centers of economic, scientific, and technological innovation were located, and construct a plangent theory about endangered Nordic superiority.
George Gilder takes this template and recasts it, deploying group IQ data that didn’t exist in Grant’s time. For Gilder, the superior men are not Teutonic explorers or generals but Jewish scientists and financiers. He takes a brief tour through the birth of quantum physics, the Manhattan Project, and the computer revolution and finds Jews central at every stage. It is indisputably the case that in proportions much greater than their share of the population, the leading scientists and mathematicians of the 20th century have been Jewish. Half of them? Probably not. Over a quarter? Almost certainly. No surprise then that America won the race to build the first atom bomb with a boost from Jewish refugee scientists from Central Europe or that the computer revolution took off in a region congenial to Jewish talent and innovation—that is, California.
Gilder takes these facts, which are neither novel nor very carefully explored, and grafts them to an argument about Israel, the Middle East, and America’s broader conflict with the Muslim world. At the core of this struggle, he sets his “Israel test.” Is one able to admire and embrace Jewish superiority and creativity, or does one, out of envy, oppose it? This is the examination we all must face. The Nazis failed, of course, and so, he says, have the Arabs. Gilder does not concede that the anti-Semites of the past century were more likely to dwell on the prevalence of Jews in the upper echelons of Bolshevism than in the physics lab. Yet the envy that he describes has often been an unacknowledged part of their complaint.
In transporting his “Israel test” to the contemporary Middle East, Gilder runs awry. To pass the test, one must accept propositions held almost solely on the far Right of the Israeli political spectrum. He argues that no accommodation with Palestinians is desirable or possible. Those who suggest otherwise, even such robust friends of Israel as Thomas L. Friedman and The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Gilder labels weak-kneed appeasers.
Though this book is leavened by cheerleading for Israeli high-tech entrepreneurs and digressions into the theory of computers and the history of the Manhattan Project, the bulk consists of Gilder repeating the same argument: all opposition to Israel is rooted in anti-Semitism, a resentment among the masses for the brilliant and creative. Support for Israel is the only way to honor the Jews. Capitalism is the only social system that honors creativity and innovation. Hitler was an anti-capitalist, thus anything less than wholehearted support for the Likud and the Israeli parties to its right is rooted in envy, anti-Semitism, Nazism.
When addressing conditions in the Middle East, Gilder sinks to cartoonish agitprop. Palestinian leaders are “mostly Nazis.” “[W]ithout the presence of the Jews, there is no evidence the Palestinians would want these territories for a nation,” he writes. During Israel’s war of independence, “Palestinian Arabs fled, chiefly evicted or urged to flee by Arab leaders.” This catchphrase of Israeli propaganda, repeated a million times in the past 50 years, is designed to absolve Israel of any responsibility for Palestinian refugees—they did it to themselves. But it is contradicted by a powerful and growing historical literature, much of it based on Israeli military and government archives, which records Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Arabs from Palestine in 1948, including drawing up lists of Arab men who were to be seized and assassinated before the villagers were driven out. One can—and many Israelis do—debate the morality of these acts, central both to Israel’s founding and the sense among Palestinians of their own tragic history. Pretending they did not happen cannot be the basis for a serious book.
Similarly fanciful is Gilder’s assertion, oft repeated, that Arab leaders claim “the right to banish or kill 5.5 million Jews.” He names no Arab leaders making this claim and would be hard put to do so. Is Gilder simply being mendacious? It’s hard to know.
By the book’s end, one senses the author’s exasperation. Gilder seems to know that most readers welcome Jewish excellence in the sciences. But what does that have to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict? It pains him that many brilliant Israeli innovators seem to want nothing more than to lead their lives and build their companies in Europe and the United States. A frantic tone creeps in: “We need Israel today as much as Israel needs us, as much as we needed Jewish physicists and chemists [for the Manhattan Project].”
Gilder never explains why, beyond misty paeans to the spirit of enterprise and capitalism and Jewish genius. (“Jews have known before the fatherhood of Abraham that it was the word that made the world—the ultimate assertion of algorithmic power.”)
But what kind of Israel does America “need”? The 9/11 Commission Report, stating the obvious, noted that American support for Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is a prime theme of anti-American terrorist propaganda. Why should Americans support roads designated for Jews only and a web of checkpoints that strangles Palestinian life? The United States has strived with difficulty to overcome its own history of racial discrimination. Why should it embrace a stronger version in Israel? And the Israel of scientific advancement—not to mention the growing contingent of Israelis abroad—hardly needs the violent West Bank settlers to make a positive contribution to the world.
While there are other examples of authors writing books about the superiority of ethnic groups to which they do not belong, they make up a small subset in the literature of ethnonationalism.
After thumbing through The Israel Test, blogger Matthew Yglesias speculated that Gilder may be a kind of WASP who “likes Israel in part because he wishes American Jews would leave him alone and go live there instead.” This interpretation strikes me as insufficient. Perhaps a better one can be derived from Gilder’s final chapter, in which he paints a portrait of his artistically and financially successful ancestors and the upper-class WASP world in which he was raised. The focal point is an incident that occurred when he was about 17. While trying to impress an older girl, his summer tutor in Greek, he blurted out something mildly anti-Semitic. The young woman dryly replied that she was in fact “a New York Jew.” Gilder was mortified. He relates that he has never quite gotten over the episode. It is the kind of thing a sensitive person might long remember. Variations on this pattern are not uncommon in affluent WASP circles to this day: guilt or embarrassment at some stupid but essentially trivial episode of social anti-Semitism serve as a spur for fervent embrace of Likud-style Zionism. Atonement. It would not be surprising if a similar process helped to shape George W. Bush’s mentality.
This sequence might be amusing if the real-life consequences were less sinister. It is now often acknowledged—if not widely regretted—that Palestinians have had to pay the price for Nazism and the Holocaust. It is they, after all, not the Germans, who are now stateless. But Gilder’s confession, and the book it animates, establishes a corollary to this truism: Palestinians are now required to pay not only for the crimes of the Nazis but for the genteel anti-Semitism of America’s fallen WASP elite. __________________________________________
Scott McConnell is The American Conservative’s editor at large.
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Please go over to Bill Moyers' blog, and ask yourself if the Goldstone Report is just too one-sided.