Tikkun Magazine

Tikkun Magazine, May/June 2003

The Civil Liberties Crisis and the Threat of "too Much Democracy"

By Paul Buhle

The portents certainly are terrible.

Not even the happiest of possible scenarios can be expected to return us to the level of civil liberties we assumed normal before 9/11--not in the foreseeable future, and, if we believe the security services and the politicians of both parties, not ever.

When the University of Massachusetts assigns a liaison officer to work with the FBI in tracking potential campus subversives--a Cold War practice at Yale and Harvard among other places, abandoned in later years--the story gets close to many TIKKUN readers, because this cannot be a singular case. When thousands of Arab Americans are singled out to appear at immigration offices and threatened with the possibility of detention during (undeclared) wartime, when internment without charges and without protections of citizenship are threatened even for the native-born, and when Democratic presidential hopefuls are warned in the media about signs of disloyalty--we're all in real trouble.

And for progressive Jews in particular, it gets worse than that: among the visionaries of Washington's global power-grab, a select group of American Jews are more influential than at any time in history--and in ways neither benign nor idealistic. The same recent (March 21) New York Times edition that carried a full-page ad by Jews against the war (with no institutional leader from the millionaire mainstream of ADL, AJC, etc., and nearly no leaders at all except Rabbis Michael Lerner and Arthur Waskow), also carried the strictly business-news story that presidential advisor Richard Perle was to be paid $725,000 if he could use his insider influence to broker the sale of a bankrupt, formerly major American corporation to foreign investors. The same wild hawk has meanwhile been described by the Guardian (UK) as furiously promoting the stock of the Autonomy Corporation, which specializes in eavesdropping equipment. Meanwhile, Perle has been attacking and threatening to sue famed New Yorker investigative journali st Seymour Hersh (as something approaching a "terrorist") for having spilled the beans about the various other ways Perle has continually misused his White House status for personal gain.

Perle's double-dipping in the good old-fashioned American tradition of advising presidents while selling rotten beef or paper-soled shoes to the military is the least of it. Behind Perle's machinations can be found the Project for a New American Century, whose inner circle includes Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Reagan's ferociously conservative Education Secretary William J. Bennett, Paul Wolfowitz and Perle. This group, whose origins date back years before 9/11, has argued for "total war" on a long series of nations, the forced reorganization of the Middle East, and the abrogation of existing treaties on advanced weaponry (indeed, they advocate the use of "bunker buster" nuclear shots and "Star Wars" space-based military technology). The "project" is to change all world affairs for the foreseeable future. For this group, "war is the health of the State," as Randolph Bourne once put it, and if old bogeys are gone, new ones can readily be found.

Hawks would of course be flying without a single Jewish influential on the wing. And yet the "Jewish role" in the think-tanks around the White House cannot be dismissed-even if the topic is nearly forbidden from open discussion. When Perle told reporters years ago that "our children will sing great songs about us years from now," he voiced a disturbing millenarianism as odd as that of a recent Chasidic sect claiming the reappearance of the Prophet in the voice of a carp, but armed with more influence than any Jewish fanatic (with the possible exception of Ariel Sharon) has ever possessed. No wonder that the Jewish role is increasingly subject to intensive private dialogues and progressively more anxious disclaimers. No wonder the Jewish Forward, long a strident critic of TIKKUN and its editor Michael Lerner, argued editorially in its March 14 issue for "circumspection" on the part of Jewish hawks, and fretted at the consequences likely from the stated eagerness of leaders of the ADL for military conquest in Iraq and (far) beyond.

Whence came these Jewish hawks? They were fledged during Vietnam. The Jewish establishment's rage against (specifically Jewish) opponents of the War in Vietnam and that establishment's determination to reverse the effects of the peace movement have now come home here again. From the viewpoint of nervous Jewish observers (not all of them liberals), the linking of global conquest to Jewish interests offered some of today's key conspirators their first taste of real power, thirty-some years ago. There is a specific connection too. Perle, Wolfowitz, and Abrams got that taste when they worked for the Democrats' top Vietnam hawk and Congress' most ambitious weapons procurer, Henry "the Senator from Boeing" Jackson. There, the future superhawks likely envisioned their own roles in the triumph of the political Right that still lay ahead. It is almost as if the anti-Semitic Protocols of Zion, successfully fought for a century, have suddenly returned with an industrial sized grain of truth.

Take a deep breath, reader, because we need to take a hard look at history. More than at any time in the previous history of American crises, with the possible and partial exception of the later 193 Os and during the anti-fascist war, the current situation has not only striking but essential Jewish connections, some positive, some terrifyingly negative.

Let's start with the positive. Civil liberties, we should say from the outset, is a "Jewish issue" in the United States and has been for more than a century. The reasons are pretty evident. Strangers in a land dominated by Protestants (at the local level, also Catholics) who were none too tolerant toward non-Christians, Jews had an understandable anxiety. Thanks in no small part to the virtually continuous process of being labeled "Christ-killers" by so many Protestant fundamentalists and so many Catholic demagogues in any number of languages, they had a sense that some version of Old World pogroms might happen here. Who could intelligently count on the WASP elite, still enjoying their exclusionary world of private clubs and restricted suburbs, to be defenders of Jews?

The worst didn't happen. Immigrant Jews were far too valuable as workers and small entrepreneurs; perhaps most important, far from being "outsiders" in the European sense, they quickly came to play a central role in the creation of American popular culture. Jews thus made an enormous contribution to democracy, nowhere more than during the Popular Front era, in redefining the very meaning of "Americanism" as inclusive and fully democratic.

Anti-Semitism meanwhile took its most virulent forms in class terms. Many an Irish cop, for at least four generations, has enjoyed nothing more than swatting a "Jewish Red," whether on strike or at a Union Square demonstration, and the practice continues at peace demonstrations today (the Jewish elite is just as embarrassed about it as ever). "Anarchists" were portrayed as Jews and then demonized long before the Russian Revolution, and J. Edgar Hoover began his determined persecution of Jewish left-wingers a half-century before he closed out his career by going after the high proportion of Jews (including one Michael Lerner) on Nixon's "Enemies List."

At the upper end of the Jewish working class and lower middle class were those notorious quotas, successful in slowing down generations of bright youngsters from becoming medical doctors, professors, or even home-owners until after the Second World War. But immigrant Jews could become lawyers, thanks to the profit basis of law schools and the (notably American) need for countless attorneys to handle mostly property issues. And they did, including some of the earliest, most talented radicals and civil libertarians, like 1890s Russian immigrant Moses Hilkowitz, who overnight became Morris Hillquit, took a degree, and rushed into defending labor cases en route to a distinguished career as a Socialist Party leader. After famed legal defender Clarence Darrow, for generations the idol of idealistic law students, it is a little difficult to think of many left-wing and civil liberties attorneys who were not Jewish, so numerous were those who tirelessly took on clients with no means to pay bills, worked long hours in and out of cramped offices and often ended up nearly as poor as they began. Not only the American Civil Liberties Union (with a somewhat shaky record of standing up to the government in tense times) but also the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, and countless other temporary associations or alliances, up to the present day, owe their existence to Jewish activists and patrons.

All this came with an increasingly scary down side. Those civil liberties, union, and social-cause lawyers were bitterly resented by Jewish slumlords, (most) rising merchants, and the class that Forward editor Abraham Cahan dubbed "alrightniks" and that we would now term "yuppies."

In the Yiddishe gassen (Jewish streets), among early generations of immigrants, it was a shanda or shameful thing to be on the side of the rich against the poor. Upward mobility and the Cold War largely changed that. Notorious Judge Irving Kaufman, who encourage so much prosecutorial misconduct and then pronounced the death sentence upon accused "atom spies" Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, was mirrored by Joe McCarthy's twin Jewish aides, Roy Cohen and David Shine, who did the dirty work in hearing rooms--even as Dixiecrats on the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities continued to "reveal" the foreign-sounding Jewish birth names of the Hollywood writers and actors that the committee interrogated.

The further path of Jewish intellectuals is familiar to TIKKUN readers. As the 1950s turned into the 1960s a new class of highly prestigious intellectual servants of authority, led their disproportionately Jewish troops in the academy and journalism more or less straight to neoconservatism, (think of Irving Kristol or the flagship journal The Public Interest, launched on CIA cash payments). By 1970, the Cold War veterans were getting older, and beginning to arrange slots for their spiritual and biological descendents in ways that curiously mirror the Bushes. Thus the younger Kristols, Muravchiks (Joshua, son of Jewish Labor Committee leader Emanual Muravchik) and Podhoretzes, above all Commentary son-in-law Elliot Abrams, were on their way to great things and seemingly silly ones. But we're getting ahead of the story.

We need to take another look at Sen. Henry Jackson, a politician perhaps more single-mindedly devoted to the accelerated development and deployment of weapons, to the prospects of wars, real and potential, than any liberal or conservative was likely to be again until the Cold War had yielded to another frame of global conflicts. A devotee of "Give 'em Hell" Harry Truman, he successfully built a political machine in his home state of Washington, outlasted Republican tides in several hard-fought congressional campaigns, and entered the Senate in 1952. There he became the single fiercest foe of President Dwight Eisenhower's efforts to slow down the arms race, earning a reputation as ardent advocate, in particular, of more nuclear weapons of more kinds, sea to air, regardless of either the expense or the possible provocation to global holocaust. Eisenhower's warning against the rapidly assembling "military-industrial complex" might as well have been directed personally against Jackson and Jackson's ceaseless supp ort of precisely that vision of the American economy and American society for the future.

Jackson seems to have personally invented the "missilegap" (later determined to have been non-existent) for John F. Kennedy to deploy in the 1960 campaign against Richard Nixon, and the Senator expected his reward as Secretary of the Defense. To his dismay, however, he wasn't asked--until 1968, when the same offer finally came from Nixon and was turned down as an obstacle to Jackson's own hope for the presidency.

If Jackson could be credited with as much influence on a second issue, it would clearly he UN-bashing. Nothing in the current attacks on the world body exceeds Jackson's insistence in 1962 that "the best hope for peace with justice does not lie in the United Nations. Indeed, the truth is almost exactly the opposite." Jackson, an unreconstructed imperialist at heart, wanted the world to rely on the armed might of the United States and its pliable allies. If not entirely irrelevant and troublesome, the UN was, in Jackson's eyes, at best overrated, the debate and passing of resolutions before the world body an interruption in US global aims.

Jackson's day seemed to be coming. Running for president in 1972, his main competition might have been Hubert Humphrey, who Labor leaders had most admired since the old days when the Hump simultaneously urged modest civil rights advances and the mass detention of suspected subversives. But Humphrey lost his aura with that famous fat-faced smile on television during the riotous Chicago convention of 1968, turning both peaceniks (who saw him accurately as a fraud) and Democratic conservatives (who were outraged even at the candidate's promise of a secret peace plan for Vietnam) in other directions for the next round. Jackson, it is fair to say, mostly qualified as a possible candidate on the negatives.

He roused the Demo-hawks, railed at liberal critics of the war, and sought in Richard Nixon's increasing unpopularity (but also in the president's surprising willingness to quit Vietnam and deal with China) the long-awaited opening for himself. At his side were his old allies in weaponry, by this time making previously unthinkable profits amid war, but also the leaders of a labor movement deeply corrupted by decades of their own bureaucratic advance, their unprecedented salaries and perks, and their growing rage at young people, feminists (also gays and lesbians), and the peaceniks of the civil rights movement.

The historic "Jewish trades" (garment manufacturing) and other industrial sectors had begun declining sharply, thanks to a combination of imported goods and automation, and labor leaders showed little interest in unionizing minority populations or office workers. But white-collar unionism had advanced in various levels of government and in schools. Here, AFL-CIO president George Meany found his most ardent hawk ally in American Federation of Labor president Albert Shanker--an instinctive hawk, an intimate ally of a Jewish establishment that remained ambivalent about unions in general, but considered support of the Vietnam war as a test of loyalty to both American and Israeli interests.

The connecting thread between Shanker, Meany, Scoop Jackson, and young, right-wing Jewish intellectuals can be unraveled in what must be the strangest publication in all of American socialist history, New America. Conspiracy theorists will want to revisit the pages of this badly-laid out, erratically appearing newspaper for a full dose of the Jackson Faction, from 1970 more or less openly run from Shanker's outer circles. Even its editor was husband of future AFT president Sandra Feldman, groomed as Shanker's successor.

Nothing said about the weirdness of the Workers World Party in the last few months approaches the heroes and supporters of this tabloid publication. Official organ of a rapidly rightward-drifting group of almost entirely Jewish socialists (or former socialists), New America devoted much of its space to promoting the favorites of George Meany's inner circle, from Angola's mass murderer Joseph Savimbi (a special favorite of the AFL-CIO intelligence wing), to the Podhoretz family clan's intellectual chums like future Reagan UN harpy Jeane Kirkpatrick. Here, with fewer restraints and considerably less manicured prose than in the pages of Commentary, were essays advocating thinly-disguised CIA projects against elected governments, along with a quiet complaisance for human rights violations and war crimes abundant from Asia and Africa to Latin America, all hailed in the name of social democracy and, frequently, Israeli security.

Decades later, Richard Perle would reflect back on this time when he and his friend Paul Wolfowitz arrived in Washington to set down with "Scoop," who promptly offered them jobs. They soon ran into a third Jewish intellectual and right-wing ideologue in the making: Elliott Abrams, the Special Counsel to the Senate's continuation of the abandoned House Committee on UnAmerican Activities, the Senate Committee On Intelligence. (Note to researchers: it would be good to know who and what Abrams happened to be investigating, and fascinating to know how many of those investigated were Jewish peaceniks--but these records were closed, in what would become proper Bush fashion, for fifty years.)

The three right-wing yeshiva boys were not destined to rise all the way to the top with this particular boss. Jackson, a little man who frequently grew hoarse from yelling, never gained a following among rank-and-file Democrats. In the peace enthusiasm of the 1972 Democratic convention and its aftermath, he was mainly one of the spoilers (like Meany) who essentially sabotaged the campaign of George McGovern, regarded by these men as little more than a supporter of the enemy.

Jackson, defeated on the Vietnam issue and personally repellant to the party's surging young idealists, would never be a serious presidential candidate again. But he nevertheless held a trump card: Soviet Jewry. In 1972, a faltering Russian regime sought to bolster its finances and simultaneously allow a limited emigration by taxing all departing citizens heavily. Around the same time, Richard Nixon had proposed expanded trade (urged among others by American farmers) with Russians, including awarding Russia Most Favored Nation trade status. To this, Jackson and his staff formulated a unique response, known as the Jackson-Vannik amendment. This amendment demanded Russia allow immigration under eased conditions in return for the trade status.

It is fascinating to remember that, for the moment, Jackson and Meany were nevertheless McGovern's fellow Democrats. They continued to believe that the Vietnam War could have been won if the government had not been stabbed in the back by disloyal Americans, and that a continued post-Vietnam weapons build-up, along with fierce resistance to the modest build-down of troop strengths after the South-East Asian engagements, could return the guns-and-butter program to the center of Democratic Party gravity. Of course, this time, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan--another favorite politician of the emerging "New Democrats"--had articulated, more guns would be paired with less butter, since the welfare state had already gone "too far" in encouraging the misbehavior of the poor, women, and minorities.

It was a perfect move for rightward leaning Democrats looking beyond Vietnam. For the first time in a generation, establishment American Jewish organizations were energized around a cause that did not seem (as Israel often did) to raise questions of dual loyalty, but instead highlighted human rights. And unlike the peaceniks' efforts to stop the war in Vietnam, the cause of Soviet Jewry was ferociously anti-Communist. As Ben Wattenberg later reflected, it "made human rights a player" in global politics and not "just sort of a do-good cause" with its own humane purposes. Of course, human rights had always been a central issue for radicals and high-minded democrats. But only now and then--like Woodrow Wilson plunging Americans into a pointless World War I-had it been successfully used for imperial ends.

Thus, in using the cause of Soviet Jewry to renew his career-long campaign against detente and for a harder line against the staggering Soviet Union, Jackson found the issue that brought him a final burst of public attention and abundant funding from fresh sources, He also became rather suddenly the darling of Commentary and the neoconservatives of The Public Interest and its foster-child, the National Interest.

Jackson's most severe critics admit that he had a real issue, even as he used it with the same exquisite cynicism that he exploited his labor credentials. After the passage of the Jackson-Vannik amendment, Russian Jews successfully emigrated by the tens of thousands to Israel and to the West Bank. Even better for Jackson and his neocon Jewish cohorts, those new emigres then served as a veritable human barrier against Palestinian nationhood. We still ask ourselves, Did it have to happen this way? We ponder the significance of Natan Sharansky, a "Prisoner of Zion" in Soviet jails who became, practically upon arrival in Israel, a ferocious enemy of Palestinians, determined to drive resisters to the very fringes of their former homelands. Back at home, using his renewed credentials, Jackson himself meanwhile seized upon Soviet Jewry as proof of the presumed illusions of detente-style liberalism.

By the time Scoop Jackson died in 1983, a new era had opened. Reaganism and the consolidation of the hard right within the Republican Party offered youngish Jewish intellectuals more career opportunities than they could expect from the post-Vietnam Democrats. Scoop Jackson's office had actually provided, as it turns out, the transition jobs and political launching pads for future GOP savants of globalism and what might be called "First Strike" defense.

When the intelligence agency crowd of the Reagan Era faced congressional resistance to their moves in Central America and elsewhere, they shifted into the subversion of the most minimal democratic checks, using assorted governments and individuals (prominently including Israelis) in "off the books" operations. Then, suddenly, thanks to investigative journalists more than anyone else, they were caught in what was dubbed "Contragate," a vastly more pervasive violation of constitutional statutes than the "Watergate" break-in that brought down Richard Nixon a decade earlier. Elliot Abrams figured most prominently in the Contragate scandal, though Richard Perle also had a supporting role. But unlike the Nixon crew, the Contragate conspirators heat the rap, largely because Congress feared the revelation of too many secrets hidden on both sides of the aisles. Condemned for lying to Congress, attacked for involvement in serious human rights violations, these neocons never went to jail. Today, we find many of them (in cluding John Poindexter, who was convicted and then pardoned by Bush Sr.) back in power. They're bigger, less checked by any democratic restraints, than ever. They are, to listen to what their proud parents must be saying in private, practically the Jews Who Run The World.

We can imagine a different history. Imagine that the Vietnam peace movement stops Nixon in his tracks before the 1972 election, George McGovern comes to office. Or, Nixon is re-elected but Ronald Reagan is exposed and impeached. With either scenario, we would have been free of Bush senior, Bush junior, and possibly could have avoided a Business Democrat like Clinton. Even if Reagan had gained office, what if the Democrats had moved leftward in the late 1980s, around public demands for a cleaner environment and fairer global society. No Bill Clinton or maybe a totally different Clinton, the Clinton many of us voted for and supported in 1992. Now we may have entered a fantasy world where Al Gore sincerely believes what he wrote in The Earth in Balance, and would fight for it, rather than pumping iron for the newest corporate assault on the planet (most vividly, in his own case, with megatons of herbicides upon the Amazon Basin). In this exercise in wishful thinking, Jewish Americans play a heroic role in turnin g the nation around. Of course it didn't happen and we should probably go no further into this species of science fiction.

But wait a moment. That alternative world of freedom is what millions of today's youngsters, from San Francisco to London and Tokyo, not forgetting all those other global urban sites, have in mind. They are looking, without knowing it, to recover the vision that we held but seem to have lost in large part along the way. They won't be even a little surprised to have the machinations of Perle, Wolfowitz, Abrams and the others exposed. Perhaps there are not as proportionally many Jewish peace protesters as during the 1960s and 1980s (for which blame can be assigned in various directions), but look around, there are still plenty. Perhaps tomorrow's endless war and occupations will change that, too.

The portents are not so dim after all.

Paul Buhle's most recent book is Insurgent Images: the Agitprop Murals of Mike Alewitz (Monthly Review Press).

Source Citation

Buhle, Paul. 2003. The Civil Liberties Crisis and the Threat of 'too Much Democracy'. Tikkun 18(3): 33.

tags: US Politics