At the age of 91, Henry Kissinger has published yet another book — his 17th in 60 years, according to his biographer Walter Isaacson. In that sense, “World Order” is something of a miracle, but it is also a swell read. So, I initially thought, was a review of it in The New York Times by John Micklethwait, the editor-in-chief of the admirable Economist magazine — and I praised it to him in an email. A bit later, I did a double-take. I still like the book, but Micklethwait’s review is a different matter.
What caused me to change my mind? Not Micklethwait’s basic admiration of Kissinger (I feel the same) or his awe at Kissinger’s durability as a foreign policy wise man or his finding that Kissinger can be a bit of a toady, scattering praise as a certain Johnny once did apple seeds. He cites, in this regard, Kissinger’s air kiss to George W. Bush “in the midst of a section on the cluelessness of his foreign policy.” Kissinger is forever in the anteroom, waiting to be summoned.
It is when Micklethwait discerns Kissinger’s real reasons for characterizing Israel as a victim — a European-style nation with some dangerous, if not deranged, neighbors — that I take umbrage. For Micklethwait, this somehow cannot be.
To him, the case against Israel — and Kissinger’s failure to condemn West Bank settlements — is apparently so obvious, not to mention repulsive, that support for it can only be another example of Kissinger cravenness. “It all feels like a rather belated olive branch to the Israeli right and its supporters in America’s Congress,” Micklethwait writes. To me, it feels like nothing of the sort.
Henry Kissinger’s family came to the United States as German-Jewish refugees. Members of his immediate and extended family died in the Holocaust. The German-Jewish community was exterminated. To gauge the full extent of that tragedy, I can only recommend Amos Elon’s masterful book “The Pity of It All.” It begins with the impoverished Moses Mendelssohn entering Berlin in 1743 and ends with the obliteration of one of the most accomplished ethnic communities in all of Europe — but not before some Jews had fled, penniless and disoriented, to what is now Israel. The story, both enthralling and compelling, will break your heart.
Kissinger has referred to his heritage numerous times and has acknowledged its impact on him. He has always been cagey about his Jewish background — hardly an asset when dealing with Arab governments — and he has expressed some vexation at what in the book he calls Israel’s “occasionally grating” approach to peace negotiations. He favors the conventional two-state solution, and while Israel has certainly been recalcitrant at times, it has been the soul of reason compared to the outright hostility of many Arab governments — not to mention a whiff of noxious anti-Semitism emanating from their (officially approved) media.
It troubles me that Micklethwait breezed by the most obvious explanations for Kissinger’s position on Israel — or mine, for that matter. (It is -- it remains — the Middle East’s sole democracy.) He apparently cannot see over his shoulder to an endless yesterday when Jews were murdered with both impunity and glee — or to tomorrow when, history chides, the process could begin again. For Micklethwait the case against Israel is apparently so strong that only an unappealing desire to appease its most extreme supporters — both religious and secular — can explain Kissinger’s position.
The churlish view of Israel, so common in Europe and, sadly, on the American left, is to see it as just the latest manifestation of European colonialism — never mind that the purported colonialists represented no mother country. Never mind, either, that its creation was immediately greeted by an avowed war of annihilation, followed by ceaseless violence — wars, mini-wars, terrorism and an abhorrent disregard for the basic rules of civilization. Just last month a senior Hamas leader boasted that his group had indeed kidnapped and murdered the three teenage Israelis whose deaths precipitated the latest Gaza war. He called it a “heroic operation.” Ask yourself the question posed by The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg: If Hamas had Israel’s muscle, would Israel now exist?
It is permissible to be critical of Israel — God knows, I have been. But to think that overall support for it cannot be explained by its virtues, as opposed to knuckling under to some fearsome special interest, detaches the events of today from all that went before. It is history by Twitter, unworthy of the editor of a splendid and an immensely influential magazine.
Richard Cohen is a writer with the Washington Post Writers Group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.