When Conservatives Loved the Palestinians

Ronald Reagan awarding James Burnham the Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1983.

War propaganda often rests on the myth of eternal enmity: the current enemy must be portrayed as perennially and irredeemably vile. George Orwell aptly limned this mindset in his novel 1984: “Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia.” During the two world wars, Anglo-American historians wrote many a book arguing that Germans have always been stinkers from the Gothic barbarians and autocratic Frederick the Great to the amoral Bismarck and psychotic Hitler. This whole literature of eternal Teutonic villainy was conveniently forgotten when West Germany became a pillar of NATO.

Reading the conservative press now you would think that Arabs and Muslims have always and everywhere been the enemies of Western civilization. We’re invited to imagine that the current troubles in Afghanistan and Iraq are just the most recent manifestation of a clash of civilizations that goes back to Mohammed, the Crusades, and the conquest of Constantinople.

Yet within the lifetime of our parents, conservatives were surprisingly pro-Arab. This was particularly true of the most salient issue in the Middle East, the Palestinian refugee problem. As surprising as this may sound, the mainstream consensus view of American conservatives from the late 1940s until well into the late 1960s was that the Palestinians had been deeply wronged by Israel and deserved restorative justice.

Consider Regnery Publishing. Founded  in 1947 by Henry Regnery, it was the premier publishing house of the postwar conservative renaissance, issuing classic books by William F. Buckley, Russell Kirk, Willmoore Kendall, James Burnham and many other writers. During this period it also published a steady stream of books championing Arab culture and sympathetically describing the plight of the Palestinians. These books included Nejla Izzeddin’s The Arab World (1953), Alfred M. Lilienthal’s What Price Israel (1953), Freda Utley’s Will the Middle East Go West? (1957), Per-Olow Anderson’s They are Human Too (1957), and Ethel Mannin’s Road to Beersheeba (England: 1963; America: 1964). Anderson’s book was a collection of photographs taken at Palestinian refugee camps, Mannin’s volume a novel about Palestinian refugees. Utley’s book uttered a sentiment typical for these books: “freedom and justice for Israel depend on freedom and justice for the Arabs.”

In recent years, Regnery press  has totally abandoned this pro-Arab tradition and also the habit of publishing high-minded intellectuals like Kirk and Kendall. Instead they focus on partisan political pornography (David Limbaugh’s Bankrupt: The Intellectual and Moral Bankruptcy of Today’s Democratic Party or Bay Buchanan’s The Extreme Makeover of Hillary [Rodham] Clinton) as well as books that paint Arabs and Muslims as the tireless, fast-breeding enemies of Western Civilization (Mark Steyn’s America Alone, Robert Spencer’s Religion of Peace?: Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn’t). These books are diametrically opposed to the perspective of the Middle East that the founder of the press upheld.

It’s easy to treat Henry Regnery as an anomaly. David Frum once claimed that the publisher “showed a curious partiality, throughout his long career, for anti-interventionist, anti-British, and anti-Israeli books.”  The word “curious” makes it sound like Regnery was an oddball, yet the ideas about the Middle East expressed by the books he published books were absolutely mainstream among conservatives. Authors like Lilienthal and Utley frequently contributed to conservative newspapers and magazines (Utley was probably the most famous conservative foreign correspondent of her day).

Examples are easy to multiply. On November 19th, 1956, Leo Strauss wrote a letter to Willmoore Kendall complaining that National Review (the flagship conservative magazine Kendall helped found) was too anti-Israel. Strauss was particularly irritated by an article by that ran in November 17th, 1956 issue that contained this astonishing sentence: “Even the Jews, themselves the victims of the most notorious racial discrimination of modern times, did not hesitate to create the first racist state in modern history.” (Apparently National Review didn’t believe that Jim Crow America, not to say Hitler’s Germany, constituted a racist state.)

James Burnham, the most important and influential foreign policy analyst at National Review, was very critical of Israel, constantly berating the state for inflaming Arab passions by mistreating Palestinian refugees and its internal Arab population. As Burnham wrote in the July 28, 1970 issue of National Review, “The United States cannot base a successful long-term Mideast policy on support of Israel.” Westbrook Pegler, the most widely read conservative columnist of the 1940s and early 1950s was venomous whenever he wrote about Israel. The conservative/libertarian science fiction writer Poul Anderson often mocked liberals for ignoring the plight of the Palestinians.

Why were conservatives so hostile to Israel? And why did conservatives turn against Arabs starting in the late 1960s? This is a rich, unexplored topic, one that historians should take up. Here are a few possible factors:

1. Anti-Semitism. One could argue that the “Old Right” (the isolationists of the 1930s and 1940s) were largely anti-Semites and this carried over into a grudge against Israel. It is true that many of the articles that National Review ran were hair-raisingly prejudiced enough to make one suspicious. (See here for examples of how National Review dealt with the Eichmann trial). And Westbrook Pegler was unquestionably a thuggish bigot; he had a tendency to use the word “kike” rather freely, as if it were an especially clever bon mot. Still, some of the conservative critics of Israel were themselves Jewish and others were admirably critical of racism in any form. So this is something that has to be taken on a case by case basis.

2. Anti-communism. Conservatives of early postwar eras were anti-communists above all else. They thought that Arabs and Muslims would be reliable allies against Moscow and feared the Palestinian refugee crisis could radicalize the Middle Eastern masses, making them anti-American. This was a legitimate concern and to some degree an accurate prophesy. Which might explain the turn-around in the 1970s to the 1990: with the rise of anti-Americanism in the Arab and Islamic world and the corresponding collapse of communism, the die had been cast and it no longer seemed possible (or necessary) to placate Arab and Islamic public opinion.

3. Power worship. James Burnham, George Orwell once shrewdly observed, had a tendency to worship power, to exalt the strong and mock the weak. This is true of many conservative foreign policy analysts.  Israel was a weak, provisional nation in the 1950s and early 1960s but proved its mettle in the war of 1967. After that, conservatives, like nerds attracted to a strongman, decided to sidle up to Israel.

4. Anti-liberalism. American conservatism is a profoundly reactionary movement in a very literal way: its entire orientation is based less on a positive program than a visceral rejection of anything associated with liberalism. With regard to foreign policy, the principal seems to be, “the friend of my enemy is my enemy.” Liberal and socialists often celebrated Israel in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s; during this era, conservatives were anti-Israel. A small sliver of the left in the late 1960s started expressing concern about the Palestinians, gradually making the Palestinian issue a cause of the left. This leftist solicitude for the Palestinians turned many conservatives into fans of Israel.

5. Projection. National Review‘s harping on Israel as a “racist state” is noteworthy. At that time, National Review avidly defended Jim Crow segregation in the South and apartheid in South Africa. Perhaps the attacks on Israel could be seen as a form of projection, to prove that the other side (the liberals and socialists who supported Israel) were also racist. Or in the language of the school yard, “I know you are, but what am I?”

The point I want to make is not that conservatives were right in the 1950s and are wrong now, or vice versa, that they were benighted in the past and learned better. Rather, what I want to suggest is that there is no essentialist logic governing the clash of civilizations. Foreign policy commitments among conservatives are often contingent and irrational, based not on a realistic assessment of threats but on the hidden logic of tribalism. Many conservatives in the 1950s, it could be argued, hated Israel because it was supported by liberals. Conversely, many conservatives now are calling for a clash of civilization because they dislike liberal multiculturalism. The logic of the tribe, of animus rooted in domestic politics, is what is at work.

During the 1950s and 1960s, conservatives didn’t think of Jews as part of their tribe. As an example, there’s a curious passage in Burnham’s Suicide of the West (1964) where the question is raised as to whether Israel is really a part of Western Civilization. In his letter to Kendall, Leo Strauss tried to address this very line of thought by arguing that Israel “is a western country, which educates its many immigrants from the east in the ways of the West.; Israel is the only country which as a country is an outpost in the West in the East.” In the 1970s, variations of this argument won the day: Jews were accepted by conservatives as part of the tribe, Israel as a bulwark of the West against the barbaric East, and Palestinians now put into the camp of “the other.”

Neither in the 1950s nor now do you find many conservatives that want to make practical suggestions for resolving the Palestinian dilemma. Trapped as they are by the logic of tribalism, conservatives simply know how to support one side or the other, and are loath to offer criteria of universal justice that might solve the problem or support the international organizations and alliances that could offer some realistic redress. The lesson to draw is that conservative foreign policy is almost always a form of theater, of using the international stage to create dramatic morality plays.

39 thoughts on “When Conservatives Loved the Palestinians

  1. This is shrewd analysis, up until the last paragraph. The main problem is that you don’t offer any suggestions about what keeps the conservative tribe together in the first place. It must be a pretty powerful glue if it can support such disparate political positions. But what is it? As best I can tell, you are suggesting that it is simply some kind of tribal instinct, unique to conservatives. But what sort of politics doesn’t have some sort of tribal basis? Doesn’t your own analysis present politics politics as a competition between right-wing ‘tribalists’ and left-wing ‘anti-triablists’? Isn’t that pretty tribal?

  2. Chief Waga-Waga: the point you make is fair enough, the ending of the post is a truncated. To fully respond to it I think I’d have to write an essay much longer than the original post defining the essence of conservatism with a special focus on the tension between universalism and tribalism. Here’s a short stab at this: all modern political ideologies involve balancing universalism and particularism. Conservatives want to universalize the market economy while trying to maintain tribal boundaries between nations and civilizations. Similarly, liberals want to universal human rights while maintaining the particular integrity of national welfare states and local cultures. And radicals want to universalize economic equality (as an ultimate goal) which often means championing particular downtrodden groups. So, yes, we’re all universalists and tribalists, in a sense. But conservative tribalism is characterized by a tendency to define “us” with regards to the dominant social groups and classes within a particular nation/society/civilization. To use the example cited in the post: when Israel was weak in the 1950s conservatives scorned it; when Israel was strong after 1967, Israel flocked to it. Israel became acceptable as a part of the conservative its increased military strength meant it could be regarded as useful to or part of the dominant global power (idealized as “Western civilization”).

    Weldon Berger: you’re right, that’s definitely a factor. Conservatives were more hostile to Israel when Labour was the main party, and became friendlier with the rise of the right within Israel.

  3. There was also Israel’s participation in the Suez Crisis of 1956, in which Britain, France and Israel formed an Axis of Evil to attack Egypt and humiliate the Arab Socialist leader Nasser. By throwing in with these two imperialist nations and participating in an act of naked aggression Israel became a member of the club, so to speak. Remember that Israel did rout the Egyptian forces and seize most of the Sinai Peninsula, only to be forced to disgorge this “Third Kingdom of Israel” by Eisenhower. This was rather like the Kingdom of Sardinia’s participation with Britain and France in the Crimean War–in order to show that Sardinia could run with the big dogs.

  4. To tell you the truth, I don’t really care about Israel or Palestinians. That may sound cold hearted but really, they don’t care about me here in America. I do care about the thieves and crooks in my own government who steal half my paycheck and give it to other governments in the form of bribes and payoffs. As an American and if you are an American, that is what you should be pissed off about too.

  5. walt and mershemier wrote a controversial essay, turned to a book in 2007 that may explain the shift. title: The Israeli Lobby and US Foreign Policy.

  6. from Benjamin Ginsberg’s The Fatal Embrace (1993):

    “One major factor that drew [the first-generation neo-cons] inexorably to the right was their attachment to Israel and their growing frustration during the 1960s with a Democratic party that was becoming increasingly opposed to American military preparedness and increasingly enamored of Third World causes [e.g., Palestinian rights]. In the Reaganite right’s hard-line anti-communism, commitment to American military strength, and willingness to intervene politically and militarily in the affairs of other nations to promote democratic values (and American interests), neocons found a political movement that would guarantee Israel’s security.”

  7. A long time ago in some document in the British Archeives I read that the Arabs once viewed the US very favorably…even prefered that the US assume Britains adm role in the ME after WWII.

    I can’t find that reference now but I can see why they would have. Back then the US was regarded as half way even handed in it’s policies. It wasn’t yet known as a colonizing empire.

    But no longer.

    Our agressive “national interest” capitalism has gotten us a lot of resentment around the world but Israel is what has branded us morally.

    And the reason for our morally bankrupt support of Israel comes down to nothing more than US zionist, their lobby and the corruption by it of our politicans and media.

  8. It seems to me that another reason conservativism shifted towards Israel and began treating Palestinians as an enemy is located within the American Evangelical wing of Conservatism. The Republican Party’s southern strategy focused on the Evangelical voter. In the late 1960’s Hal Lindsay appeared on the stage and there became a strong bias in Evangelical circles for “Israel.” Prior to that if Christians felt they had anything to say to Israel and Palestine it was as neutral peacemakers. The “end times” Evangelical saw support of Israel as a litmus test for God’s true people. Since 1980 the Republican/Conservative movement’s single most solid core support group has been the Evangelical. That core group was lost if there was not support for (1) a pro-life political statement and (2) a pro-Israel view of the Middle East. If some forms of Christianity tended to promote anti-Semetic viewpoints in the past, the American Evangelical tended to be blind to any of Israel’s faults.

  9. Really well written and insightful.

    To add to the other causes conservatives have abandoned:
    — Nature conservation (Theodore Roosevelt)
    — Fiscal conservativism (as in not running us into terrible national debt)

  10. This nonsense about an American Empire is nothing short of ridiculous.

    You want to know why the US is hated in the Middle East? Because the Soviet Union sent a bunch of agents from its Islamic SSRs to spread the message that the United States was dominated by bloodthirsty imperial Jews and that Israel was the first step.

    And don’t take my word for it. Ask General Ion Mihai Pacepa, former head of Communist intelligence for Romania. He was there.

  11. The publishing of Ethel Mannin’s novel THE ROAD TO BEERSHEEBA by Regnery is an extreme case of politics making strange bedfellows.

    Mannin (1900-1985) was on the extreme left in British politics from about 1930 on, as was her second husband, Reginald Reynolds (1905-1958). Both of them considered Zionism to be essentially an imperialist racket. (They were not anti-semitic, though). There isn’t much on Mannin on the web, but here is a paragraph from her Wikipedia article:

    “She became a prolific author, and also politically and socially concerned. She supported the Labour Party but became disillusioned in the 1930s. A visit in 1936 to the USSR left her unfavourable to communism. According to R. F. Foster (W. B. Yeats: A Life II p.512) ‘She was a member of the Independent Labour Party, and her ideology in the 1930s tended to anarcho-syndicalism rather than hardline Communism, but she was emphatically and vociferously left-wing’. She came to support anarchism, and wrote about the Russian-born, American anarchist Emma Goldman, a colleague in the Solidaridad Internacional Antifascista at the time of the Spanish Civil War.”

    Not your typical Regnery author. I’d love to see what the advertising material Regnery used to promote this book said about Mannin’s past.

  12. The author of this blog makes one of his own biases manifest in this remark:

    “Neither in the 1950s nor now do you find many conservatives that want to make practical suggestions for resolving the Palestinian dilemma.”

    The tendency of American conservative intellectuals of the 1930s and ’40s (when the term “conservative” was first adopted in the U.S. to describe opponents of New Deal “reforms” and military/foreign policy machinations) was to be quasi-libertarian and opposed to meddling in foreign affairs. (For the latter, they were smeared by New Dealers as “isolationists.”) Later (in no small part influenced first, by richly financed CIA infiltrators likes W.F. Buckley and James Burnham, and then, by even better financed Zionist infiltrators like the Kristols), what were called “conservatives” became foreign policy interventionists that, on that count, eventually put the post-WWII “liberals” to shame. First it was activist, militarist, foreign policy anti-Communism. Later, having absorbed the assumption that the U.S. government has a just interest in meddling in every corner of the earth, it became anti-Islamism.

    From the mid-’40s to mid-’50s, when American “conservatives” were tending to transition from non-interventionists to super-interventionists, they were rapidly losing the principled sense of non-interventionism that underlay so much of the New Deal-era “conservatism.” In the earlier period, “conservatives” would be apt to say that the Islamic world needs to work out its own affairs, and that “fixing” things in other parts of the world is not only an impingement on the wealth and freedom of individual Americans, but that the nature of the interventionist enterprise itself is corrupting and counterproductive. By the early Cold War era, the “conservatives” were already interventionists (if somewhat conditional ones), so they opposed the Jewish state because the powerful influence of homegrown Zionism on the U.S. foreign policy Establishment was making many Muslims anti-American and, eventually, pro-Soviet. (Later “conservatives” forgot what had made Muslims anti-American in the first place.)

    When ’50s-era conservative intellectuals were complaining about the treatment of Palestinians, their subtext was that the U.S. shouldn’t align itself with Israel, the effect of which was to make the much larger Islamic world disposed toward the Soviets. I wish they’d had the courage to say that the U.S. shouldn’t be helping Israel and other foreign countries as a matter of principle, but, what with CIA agents like Burnham and Buckley pulling strings and distributing secret CIA funds to reconfigure American “conservatism,” there was no way that was going to happen.

    Speaking as a “libertarian” who voted for Ron Paul in 2008, and as someone with considerable sympathy for the New Deal-era “conservatives,” I have little interest in making what the blogger here calls “practical suggestions for resolving the Palestinian dilemma.” It’s not my or the American people’s responsibility to figure out how to fix the great dilemmas that exist on the other side of the world. That’s a prescription for eternal meddling and, ultimately, war and imperialism. It’s hard enough for people to deal with the challenges of their own lives, much more so the predations of their homegrown political classes. So I don’t blame “conservatives” for not trying to “fix” the destruction of the Palestinian people by the Zionist aggressors. I do blame those “conservatives,” though, for their selective, imperialist hypocrisy.

  13. Gray.com wrote:

    “Could it be that NR, AEI, Heritage, et al relied on money from the Baroodys???”

    I know there was some Lebanese-American named Baroody who used to head the AEI. (Maybe he still does, but I’d think he’d’ve died by now.) Anyway, you seem to have some opinion about his family, so why don’t you spell it out for the rest of us?

  14. Jeet Heer seems to be using material from my dissertation, Liberty Lobby: Vanguard of a Dispossessed Right, and the follow-up book, Liberty Lobby and the American Right: Race, Conspiracy and Culture. This, of course, may be a coincidence, but thought I would mention this. Although I am attacked by right nationalists, I never got employment based on these studies, which appeared 25 and 27 years ago. Instead, I believe I was ground down by both sides….

    I invite the world to become acquainted with my work!

    Thanks, fpm 8-12

  15. @Frank P. Mintz. Actually, I haven’t read your work, although it sounds like it is highly relevant to my interests, so I’m going to try and locate your book. Thanks for the note.

  16. “Blah, blah, blah, those evil old white guys were nothing but a bunch of anti-Semites!”

    There was no reason on Earth for any white conservative or any white, period, to support Israel or anything Jews do, and the so-called criticism of Israel back then was mild and cannot be separated from the reality that support for Israel has been nothing but a costly disaster for the U.S. and that Jews are the chief funders, ideologues and organizers of everything destructive to what conservatives hold dear, everything destructive to Western civilization. This essay is simply another example of ritual anti-white racism that dishonestly leaves out the reality of the quite literally genocidal beliefs and actions of the Jews that the 50s conservatives so mildly react against. Leaving out the context this very, very, mild antagonism existed in is like writing an essay on why Jews didn’t care for Germans in 1945 without mentioning the Nazis. The switch can be seen simply as a mark of the success of the the genocidal campaign led by racist Jews against white
    America. It’s a Stockholm Syndrome reaction to oppression. Black and Hispanic religious figures don’t have the same uber philo-semitism that white evangelicals have, what does that tell you?

  17. Fantastic article, which reinforces my belief that someone needs to write an intellectual/ideological history of the American right (or maybe the right in general). I’m sure they’re out there, but they’re hard to find whereas books on the history if the left are a dime a dozen, often written by conservatives too. Whereas the left does not seem very interested in analyzing the genesis/evolution of their opponents’ ideas, and the right wants to conveniently focus on tying its enemies to past beliefs or causes rather than examining its own foundation.

  18. Anti-semitism is the mirror of the diffident and envious Western civilization and besides it`s like the “movable feast”.

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