Jewish Journal


February 20, 2013

Moynihan’s moxie


Gil Troy

Gil Troy

Gil Troy is a history professor at McGill University and a research fellow with the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Engaging Israel Program as well as the author of eight books, including “Leading From the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents,” “Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s,” “Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady” and “Why I Am a Zionist.” Here he discusses his recently published and critically acclaimed book “Moynihan’s Moment” (Oxford University Press, $29.95).

Shmuel Rosner: For those who haven’t yet read the book, what was unique about the way Moynihan perceived Israel? 

Gil Troy: When Daniel Patrick Moynihan became United States ambassador to the United Nations in 1975, he had no particularly deep ties to Israel. He would say, “I knew little of the place …” He had never visited, he noted, never having received one of those fun freebie trips for academics.

But Moynihan saw the attack on Israel as an attack on democracy and decency. He understood it as an attempt by the Soviet Union and the Arabs to humiliate the United States at a low moment for Americans, just six months after the fall of South Vietnam. And he saw the perversion of the truth — singling out one form of nationalism, Jewish nationalism, meaning Zionism in a forum of 141 nationalisms — as typical of totalitarians who sacrifice all, their children, other’s children, the truth, to serve their nefarious goals. Unlike others in the 1970s, Moynihan decided he would take a stand and fight. “An issue of honor, of morality was put before us,” he would say, “and not all of us ran.”

SR: You dedicate a big part of the book to explaining the war of legitimacy waged against Israel in the 1970s; is the wave of delegitimization we see today a continuation of the same phenomenon or is it different?

GT: Moynihan and the Israeli ambassador to the U.N. at the time, Chaim Herzog, feared that what Moynihan called the “Big Red Lie”— claiming Zionism is racism — would set the ideological framework for attacking Israel, and they were right. You can draw a line from the Zionism-is-racism resolution of 1975 to the intellectual pogrom against Israel and Zionism at the Durban conference of 2001, to the continuing attacks on Israel both from Islamists and from authoritarian progressives, part of today’s inexplicable, hypocritical, reprehensible Red-Green alliance.

Even though the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a national conflict, accusing Zionism of [being] racism, and comparing Israel to South Africa’s reprehensible apartheid policies would justify ostracizing and demonizing the Jewish state. As Moynihan explained, all countries “were equally accepted as equally legitimate. Only regimes based on racism and racial discrimination were held to be unacceptable.” And, anticipating today, when despite the fall of the Soviet Union, and the repeal of the resolution, the assault on Israel’s existence, not just Israeli policies, continues, he warned:Whether Israel was responsible, Israel surely would be blamed: openly by some, privately by most. Israel would be regretted.” We can, therefore, understand the Zionism-is-racism resolution as the Rosetta Stone of the delegitimization movement, revealing its nasty, communist origins.

SR: One can’t escape the many parallels between then and now: U.N. bias, Israel under attack of delegitimization, the United States as the one ally on which Israel relies — but do you see a “Moynihan” defending Israel today with such efficiency?

GT: That is the question I have been asked most frequently on my book tour, and the answer is depressing: No, I don’t see someone of Moynihan’s stature and eloquence around. Now, Moynihan was unique as a scholar-statesman, the Thomas Jefferson of his day. George Will quipped that Pat wrote more books while serving in the Senate than most senators ever read. One of my book’s messages is we need a new Moynihan; we need that kind of passion, righteous indignation and rhetorical power — defending Israel, defending America, defending human rights consistently. 

SR: Moynihan wasn’t Jewish, and today one feels at times that the job of defending Israel in liberal circles (Evangelical Christians definitely defend Israel on the right) falls mostly on Jewish shoulders. Is that a problem? Did Moynihan want to be visible because he understood how important it is for Israel to be supported by non-Jews?

GT: Initially, Moynihan wanted to be visible because he wanted to teach Americans how to function in “the opposition,” in the U.N. and elsewhere. He wanted to remind Americans, after the humiliations of Watergate and Vietnam, of soaring crime and rampant inflation, to stand tall. He wanted to challenge liberals not to succumb to what we today call political correctness and identity politics. But as Moynihan’s career developed in the Senate, I believe he did take pride in his support for Israel. He became, he said, “preoccupied with the Soviet effort to delegitimate the state of Israel.” And he understood the importance of having a liberal, Democratic Irish-Catholic defending the Jewish state, especially as support for Israel on the totalitarian left became unfashionable and Zionism became politically incorrect.

To read more of this interview, and more analysis of Israeli and American politics, visit jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain

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