DAVIDSON: Peretz and the dangers of obsessive love + Stephen Walt’s update 21Sep10 September 21, 2010

by Lawrence Davidson  -  Informed Comment -  20 September 2010

Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief of The New Republic. He acquired that position by simply buying the magazine in 1974. Although he resold it to a group of investors in 2002, they were, and apparently remain, his ideological soul mates for he continues to this day to be the magazine’s executive editor.

Peretz’s New Republic is a far cry from the original magazine. The origin of The New Republic goes back to 1914 when it was established by Herbert Croly and Walter Lippman. From the first the magazine was liberal and progressive. Between the First and Second World Wars it took a stand against the growing ideological enmity that bred the Red Scares and their accompanying violations of the civil rights of Americans. In the 1950s it took a principled stand against both Soviet tyranny and the McCarthy witch hunts. In the 1960s the magazine took a position opposing the Vietnam War. Little of this survived Peretz’s remaking of The New Republic. Within a year of gaining control he fired most of the staff and shifted the editorial direction toward the center/right. The new New Republic supported Reagan’s foreign adventures, including alliances with terrorists such as the Contras, and later both Persian Gulf Wars. Sometimes the magazine would selectively back Democrats. It backed Al Gore (a personal friend of Peretz) for president and waxed elegant about the likes of Joseph Liberman. One progressive policy the magazine decided to support was universal health care. Peretz claims to be a life-long supporter of the Democratic Party but that has not stopped the ultra conservative National Review from touting The New Republic as “one of the most interesting magazines in the United States.”

One of the reasons we can get this mixed bag of positions from Peretz’s New Republic is because domestic policy is but a secondary interest of the editor-in-chief. “I care most about foreign policy” Peretz admits, and there is one aspect of foreign policy toward which he is down right obsessive. That aspect is U.S.-Israeli relations. In more ways than one he keeps declaring that “I am in love with the state of Israel.” And how does he tell the world of his love? Mainly through the pages and blog of The New Republic. He has made it into his mouthpiece, his vehicle for declaring his abiding passion for “Zion.”

Peretz In Love

It should be made clear that Peretz’s love of Israel is no ordinary love. It is not like, say, the love the founding fathers must have held for the new United States. No, Peretz’s love is of another order of intensity. It is that sort of passionate and blinding love that defeats reason. For instance, it has caused him to get Israel and the U.S. all mixed up. According to Peretz support of Israel is a litmus test of American good citizenship, “Support for Israel is deep down, an expression of America’s best view of itself.” I suspect that he got this sentiment from Louis Brandeis, the first leader of the Zionist Organization of American as well as the first Jew appointed to the Supreme Court. Back in 1918 Brandeis declared that to oppose Zionism was to be disloyal to the U.S (See Lawrence Davidson, America’s Palestine, page 225, Note 23).

One fellow who failed the litmus test is Charles W. Freeman Jr., the man Barack Obama momentarily considered for his chief of the National Intelligence Council. Peretz wrote at the time that Freeman was utterly unsuitable for the post. Why? Because he had raised questions about America’s uncritical support of Israel–an act which Peretz characterized as “an offense.” By committing this “offense” Freeman had “questioned the loyalty and patriotism of not only Zionists and other friends of Israel” but also “the great swath of American Jews and Christian countrymen who believed that the protection of Zion is the core of our religious and secular history….” This is the way Peretz sees the world. And it is, of course, a severely distorted view. When you get so intense about, so in love with, a foreign nation that you insist this outside entity represents “the core of our religious and secular history” you have, as the saying goes, really gone over the top. Peretz has turned the United States and its national interests into a suburb of Tel Aviv.

In some of my earlier analyses I tried to show that “Zion” is in fact a racist place that does not resemble contemporary America, but rather America before the introduction of civil rights legislation. In today’s Israel, Arab Israelis are systematically discriminated against. Yet, a person who loves blindly will fail to see the faults of his or her lover. He or she may well adopt those faults as virtues and spend an inordinate amount of energy justifying the lover’s sins and castigating all who would be critical. And so it is with Martin Peretz. One way he has shown his perverse and obsessive love of Israel is by taking its anti-Arab line as his own. That has turned him toward bigotry.

Back on March 6, 2010 Peretz said, “I can’t imagine any venture requiring trust with Arabs turning out especially well. That is, you will say my prejudice, but some prejudices are built on real facts, and history generally proves me right. Go ahead, prove me wrong.”* Such wholesale stereotyping is, to use Peretz’s term, an offense against everyone who has ever had a good Arab friend, who is successfully married to an Arab man or women, and to the very long and successful diplomatic relations the United States has had with such countries as Saudi Arabia and Jordan. And by making this common sense observation I have, at least strongly suggested, that what Peretz spouts is indeed wrong, and grievously so. But there is no doubt that this nonsense reflects his true feelings. And, it is his obsession with Israel that makes him see the world in this way.

On September 4, 2010 Mr. Peretz, again using The New Republic blog, returned to his prejudicial ways. “But frankly, Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims. And among those Muslims led by the Imam Rauf [leader of those seeking to create the Muslim religious center near ground zero] there is hardly one who has raised a fuss about the routine and random bloodshed that defines their brotherhood. So yes, I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.” Here, Martin Peretz presents himself as a walking and talking example of how one is almost always wrong when one indulges in gross simplifications and categorizations from the “gut’ or otherwise. And his advocacy of stripping first amendment protections from a single group of people is despicable and dangerous (he later tepidly apologized). Consider that:

1. The Imam Rauf has consistently demonstrated himself to be a moderate and sensible man. He has publically denounced radicalism in all religions and called on moderates to keep control of the leadership of religious movements.

2. How does Peretz know that “hardly one’ of the Imam’s supporters “has raised a fuss” about violence? Those supporters number in the thousands, and perhaps tens of thousands. Has he checked them all out?

3. The notion that “routine and random bloodshed…defines their [Muslim] brotherhood” is just the lowest sort of stereotyping. If I asserted that the quite routine and random bloodshed caused by Israeli settlers in the Occupied Territories defined the “brotherhood” of Judaism, Peretz would go ballistic. Both statements can be properly labeled specious nonsense.

4. Martin Peretz has the First Amendment right to wonder out loud in a fashion that can only undermine the First Amendment. He can even legally do so in an atmosphere of growing and volatile Islamophobia, although in my estimation that is a bit like yelling fire in a crowded theater. Such public assertions certainly puts him in the running for the title of demagogue, but he is probably to impassioned to care. Occasionally, when he is called to task by a major national organ like the New York Times he will back off in a sort of resentful and ill-tempered way, like a little bully confronted by schoolmaster. But you know that he does not mean it when he says he is sorry. You know he is insincere because, by consistently speaking first and thinking later (if at all), he wears his feelings on his sleeve.

The Harvard Connection

This latest outburst of Mr. Peretz happens to coincide with a ceremony in his honor planned by Harvard University. It seems that Peretz was once an assistant professor at the prestigious school and money plus contacts have subsequently taken him beyond that to the status of a school benefactor. We are here reminded of the recent conference on anti-Semitism held at Yale during which radical Zionists put on a display of bigotry disguised as academic research. Now it is Harvard’s turn to host a someone who negatively stereotypes a whole people. It might well be that some of the Harvard bureaucracy are embarrassed at having to fete Peretz (though they did once choose Lawrence Summers as their president) but they seem to feel they are stuck with him, and so they cover their position with appeals to free speech. Even Harvard has a First Amendment right to reward a man whose stated desire is to deny the First Amendment rights of an entire American religious minority. According to Harvard’s publically issued defense, going ahead with the ceremony makes the place “ultimately stronger as a university” engaging in “the robust exchange of ideas.” Well, its their party.


Martin Peretz is a good example of that subset of Americans whose single-minded dedication to Israel makes them, for all intents and purposes, agents of a foreign power. Indeed, in his willingness to pronounce his affection in the most indiscrete way, Peretz can be seen as their spokesman. These folks get very upset when you describe them this way, but that is because they have so mixed up America and Israel that, in their minds, there is no real difference between the two. As the Bard once said, “love is blind and lovers cannot see what petty follies they themselves commit.” Alas, these follies are far from petty.

I once had the dubious pleasure of appearing in a debate with Mr. Peretz. I remember him as a small man of nervous temperament. He had a tendency to handle challenges to his position by speaking very fast and very loudly so that you could not get a word in edgewise. Based on this behavior “I had in my gut the sense” that he was quite capable of going hysterical. Such people usually self-destruct over time and maybe that will be Martin Peretz’s fate. I do hope so.

*There has been some question about the first quote of Marty Peretz cited in my recent piece. The quote is “I couldn’t quite imagine any venture requiring trust with Arabs turning out well.” You won’t find this in the posting now on The New Republic because, according to commenters at his wikipedia article, “Peretz later edited his piece without comment” changing the line to read “any venture like this in the Arab world.” This is one of his many speak first and think later manuevers. LD

Lawrence Davidson is Professor of History at West Chester University, West Chester, Pa and author most recently of Foreign Policy, Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest (2009).

More on the Martin Peretz affair (updated)

by Stephen Walt  -  Foreign Policy -  21 September 2010

I hadn’t intended to say anything further about the shameful Martin Peretz affair, and lord knows there are plenty of good reasons for me not to poke my finger in the eye of Harvard’s current leadership. But seriously: You’d think after nearly 400 years the leaders of the university would have figured out what the principles of academic freedom and free speech really mean — and also what they don’t mean. But judging from the official university response to the furor, the people I work for appear to be somewhat confused about these issues.

To recap: A couple of weeks ago, Peretz made some offensive and racist statements about Muslims on his blog. Specifically, he wrote that “Frankly, Muslim life is cheap, especially for Muslims,” and then went on to say that he didn’t think American Muslims deserved the protections of the First Amendment, because he suspected they would only abuse them.

These statements were not an isolated incident or just a lamentably poor choice of words. On the contrary, they were the latest in a long series of statements displaying hatred and contempt for Muslims, Arabs, and other minorities. Peretz retracted part of his latest remarks after they were exposed and challenged by Nicholas Kristof (Harvard ’82) in his column in the New York Times, but in his “apology,” Peretz nonetheless reaffirmed his belief that “Muslim life is cheap.” Indeed, he declared that “this is a statement of fact, not value.”

A number of people then began to question whether it was appropriate for Harvard to establish an undergraduate research fund in Peretz’s name and to give him a prominent role in the festivities commemorating the 50th anniversary of its storied Social Studies program. A University spokesman defended the decision to accept the money for the research fund and to have Peretz speak at a luncheon by saying:

As an institution of research and teaching, we are dedicated to the proposition that all people, regardless of color or creed, deserve equal opportunities, equal respect, and equal protection under the law. The recent assertions by Dr. Peretz are therefore distressing to many members of our community, and understandably so. It is central to the mission of a university to protect and affirm free speech, including the rights of Dr. Peretz, as well as those who disagree with him, to express their views.”

In a masterful display of understatement, the Atlantic’s James Fallows (Harvard ’70) termed this response “not one of the university’s better efforts.” As he (and others) pointed out, nobody was questioning Peretz’s right to write or say whatever he wants. For that matter, nobody has even questioned whether Harvard ought to give him a platform to expound his views on this or any other subject. (For my own part, if the Kennedy School invited him to speak on any subject he chose, I wouldn’t object.

As should be obvious, this issue isn’t a question of free speech or academic freedom. Rather, the issue is whether it is appropriate or desirable for a great university to honor someone who has repeatedly uttered or written despicable words about a community of people numbering in the hundreds of millions. And isn’t it obvious that if Peretz had said something similar about African-Americans, Catholics, Jews, Asians, or gays, the outcry would have been loud, fierce, and relentless and some of his current defenders would have distanced themselves from him with alacrity.

And let’s also not lose sight of the double standards at work here. After a long and distinguished career, journalist Helen Thomas makes one regrettable and offensive statement and she loses her job, even though she offered a quick and genuine apology. By contrast, Peretz makes offensive remarks over many years, reaffirms some of them when challenged, and gets a luncheon in his honor and his name on a research fund at Harvard.

And why? Because Peretz has a lot of wealthy and well-connected friends. Bear in mind that in 2003 Harvard suspended and eventually returned a $2.5 million dollar gift from the president of the United Arab Emirates, after it learned that he was connected to a think tank that had sponsored talks featuring anti-Semitic and anti-American themes. As the Harvard Crimson said at the time, “no donation is worth indebting the university to practitioners of hate and bigotry.” So the University clearly has some standards, it just doesn’t apply them consistently.

For more on this unequivocally depressing business, you can read:

1. An open letter from Harvard students protesting the honor to Peretz, and the petition protesting Harvard’s policy that now has over 500 signatures, many from Social Studies alums.

2. James Fallows’ summary of recent developments.
3. A powerful statement by Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic, examining Peretz’s achievements as an editor and questioning his liberal bona fides.
4. A comment by Alan Gilbert of the University of Denver, a former tutor in the same Social Studies program.
5. And while you’re at it, you might read the Boston Globe’s editorial whitewashing Peretz, and compare it with their reaction to the Helen Thomas affair.

And no, this isn’t just a matter of Ivy League academic politics, unrelated to issues of foreign policy. As everyone knows, U.S. relations with the Arab and Muslim world are especially delicate these days. You can read this or this to understand why, but it certainly doesn’t help when one of the nation’s premier academic institutions decides to honor someone with such deplorable views, even after they have been widely exposed. This is obviously not the main reason why the America’s image in the Arab and Muslim world is so negative, but it surely adds fuel to the fires of bigotry.

To take this matter a step further, Islamophobia is on the rise here in the United States.  Efforts to combat this pernicious and dangerous trend would be furthered if institutions like Harvard took a principled stand on this issue, and declined to honor anyone who has made bigoted remarks about Muslims (or any other group). This has not happened with Peretz, and history will not treat Harvard well for its behavior in this case.

Update: As I write this, I’ve received a couple of emails suggesting that Peretz was not going to be speaking at the Social Studies event after all. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but to me the issue is less about his being one of the speakers, and more about having his name permanently attached to an undergraduate research fund.

Update 2: James Fallows reports on the reported resolution of the dispute (i.e., Peretz won’t have a speaking role at the event), and suggests that Harvard could address the controversy by creating a scholarship fund for students of Muslim background.

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