'I don't care if our pro-Zionist stance costs us'
Anyone who doesn't more or less share Marty Peretz's views on Israel or U.S. politics has little hope of getting a job at The New Republic, the editor-in-chief of the prestigious U.S. journal told Haaretz while in Israel last month.
Those views, in short, hold that 60 years after Israel's independence, the world is once more "in need of a mandate for Palestine," the journalist and retired Harvard University lecturer said in his suite in the Tel Aviv Hilton.
The Palestinians, he says, need to be governed by foreign powers for the time being, because they "do not have yet the attributes to allow them to live peacefully alongside Israel without threatening its civilian population."
As for academia's growing criticism of Israeli policies toward the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and the Arab world, Peretz says that "for young scholars in the U.S., being anti-Israel is an easier way of being anti-American."
These "definite" opinions, as Peretz calls them, have prompted some of his politer critics to write him off as a "stalwart defender of Israel." Harsher detractors accuse him of pursuing an "iron-fisted and ugly approach" to Israeli-Arab relations.
"So tachlis, are we losing influence because we're vocal on the Israel issue?" Peretz says, relying on more than 30 years of journalistic experience to cut to the chase before the question is presented. "I've puzzled over this a lot," he says and pauses. "I don't care if our declaredly pro-Zionist stance is costing us some influence. But, you know, I get quoted an awful lot."
Peretz, 68, has edited The New Republic for the past 34 years. He says it has been pro-Zionist from the day it was born in 1914. "My editorship is not an interruption; it's just that things are clearer now," he says.
The New Republic is an unusual phenomenon in American journalism. The biweekly is considered pro-Democrat and liberal, yet it has a distinct and even declared pro-Israel agenda, and many consider its views on foreign policy to be more hawkish than some pro-Republican papers.
Peretz's cell phone rings. It's his son, film director Jesse Peretz, calling from the U.S. to discuss the primaries results. His father, a close friend and associate of Bill Clinton's vice president, Al Gore, says he prefers Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton.
"In the 1980s there developed among African Americans a deep strain of hostility to Jews. That's not the case any more," he says. "In the history of the Jewish-Black relationship, Louis Farrakhan will be a footnote. Al Sharpton won't even be that, he'll only be a street fighter with gold jewelry."
Despite his support for Obama, Peretz doesn't seem to have too much faith in the candidate's approach to foreign policy. "If Obama's elected, we will see more diplomacy in American foreign policy. But that doesn't mean there would be any more successful diplomacy," he says.
Although Peretz considers the Democrats to be "a little bit more problematic" when it comes to foreign policy, he says he bel ieves American support for Israel would not change under Obama - or any of the other candidates. "The U.S. can always twist Israel's arm. But it supports Israel because it has been a reliable ally and because our enemies are the same," he says.
While Peretz says The New Republic doesn't cover Israel very much, it brings history to the discussion when it does. "You never get an ounce of history on the media. What do most reporters know about history? They know squat."
That was one of the issues Peretz and The New Republic had with the September 2007 study by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy" alleged that U.S. Middle East policy is driven by the "Israel Lobby" contrary to America's best interests.
Peretz, a retired lecturer in social studies, rechristened the study "The Walt-Mearsheimer Travesty of History." The New Republic ran a review by Jeffrey Goldberg, Washington editor of the Atlantic, who suggested the study was anti-Semitic and based on conspiracy theories about Jewish world domination.
Shortly after, in November, Peretz organized an event in New York sharply criticizing Walt and Mearsheimer. It was attended by Goldberg, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, the Harvard genocide historian, and Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Columbia School of Journalism. They all called the report anti-Semitic. Walt and Mearsheimer responded to the attacks by saying they were both philo-Semites "and strongly support the existence of Israel."
In retrospect, after such an impressive tour-de-force against the "flimsy and meretricious fraud," as Peretz called the study, he downplays the whole affair.
"The book was not a success in the U.S." he says. "The publisher has lost a lot of money, so it's a do-not-go-here sign for others." In evaluating how serious the study is, academically speaking, Peretz proposes counting the number of times he is mentioned in it. "If they think I'm worth 16 mentions ... Well, that just goes to show you how flimsy this book really is."
People like Walt and Mearsheimer are "facing a stone wall, which is the fact that the American people like Israel and identify with it," he says. That support has little to do with the Israel lobby. "We have petitions upon petitions from centuries ago by Americans who wanted a Jewish homeland in Palestine," he says. "That's from before there were any Jews in the U.S. There were maybe a dozen Jews in every city."
Peretz concedes the Walt and Mearsheimer study might have had some profound effects. "It is possible that in some unconscious way, the report set the scene for the National Intelligence Assessment," he says, referring to the December report that concluded Iran had dropped its program for developing nuclear weapons - a conclusion the Israeli defense establishment reportedly considers erroneous.
Walt and Mearsheimer's target audience includes liberal American Jews, Peretz says. "Their study appeals to Jews who resent having to suffer the embarrassment of being connected to Israel," he says.
Peretz feels the report is indicative of deteriorating scholarly standards, which are "rendering American academia increasingly ludicrous."
He proposes Columbia University as a case study. "This institution has a big problem, in the form of an Arab League propaganda arm disguised as its center for Middle Eastern studies," he says. As a result, it appoints researchers who entertain "scientifically preposterous" claims.
He names Nadia Abu El-Haj as an example. This professor of archaeology recently received tenure after alleging that the ancient Israelite kingdoms are a political fabrication crafted by politically-driven researchers.
"Then there's Joseph Massad," Peretz says, smiling. "An associate professor who wrote a book called 'Desiring Arabs,' where he says the gay international movement, in league with Zionism and American power, is trying to subvert Arab culture by making gay rights a human rights issue in the Arab world."
If one were to measure the journalistic accuracy of these research papers, Peretz says, one would realize "how little responsibility publishers have for what they print."
The lesson of responsibility was a painful one for The New Republic. In 1998, reporter Steven Glass was fired for fabricating articles, quotes, sources and events in what became one of the most famous scandals in modern American journalism. It was told in the 2003 film "Shattered Glass."
While Peretz says the movie brought new subscriptions, he says he has issues with how it portrayed him.
"My role in the movie was distorted. First of all, I didn't have a beard. Second, I didn't look as old. And I would never wear a dark blue shirt. It's always black," he says, half-jokingly. "I realize these are vain things, but for a movie that was supposed to be about fact-checking, they got off to a bad start."
Peretz considers Glass, who was then 26 years old, "a sad figure." "I happen to like Steve Glass and his wife. His inventing stuff has to do with the psychology of a very bright, extremely funny man in a great hurry." But Glass' fibs, Peretz says, weren't a result of his political outlook.
That is, except for the March 1997 article "Spring Breakdown," where Glass fabricated a lurid tale of drinking and debauchery at that year's Conservative Political Action Conference. "I think Steve wanted to show up these moralists," Peretz says.
Bad things happen everywhere
As the conversation progresses, Peretz revisits the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through his feelings toward Haaretz. "It provides a cover for Jewish and non-Jewish anti-Zionists from all over the world. It gives a Hebrew lettering to the deep discomfort that some Jews feel toward the idea of Jewish sovereignty," he says.
Reports about the "horrors of Israeli occupation," Peretz adds, don't particularly impress him. "I'm not under the impression that Israeli occupation is kind and sweet. No occupation is kind or sweet. But bad things happen everywhere, all the time," he says dryly.
But Peretz does rely on Haaretz for raw news about Israel. "In fact, the English Internet edition is my home page on the computer. I mean, obviously I need to know what's going on in Israel as soon as I wake up in the morning."