When David Brooks became the designated conservative columnist for The New York Times in 2003, the editorial page editor explained that he was “the kind of conservative that wouldn’t make our readers shriek and throw the paper out the window.”
William Safire, Brooks’ predecessor, had been a stanch supporter of Israel, often its solitary defender on the Times Opinion page. Safire praised Menachem Begin as an “Authentic” who did not “wet his finger, hold it up to the breeze, and then point the way” like most politicians; and he defended Israel’s forceful military responses to Palestinian terrorist attacks and Iraqi nuclear threats – even if they made “ultra-assimilated American Jews uncomfortable.”
Not so, David Brooks. Born Jewish, he attended an Episcopal primary school in Manhattan. He began his career in journalism as an intern for the conservative National Review, moving from there to the Wall Street Journal and Weekly Standard before he was hired by the Times. Fond of philosophizing about morality and sin, and discoursing about the components of a virtuous life, he has been identified as its “moralizer-in-chief.”
Brooks’ sparse writing about Israel has vacillated between idiosyncrasy and condemnation. Back in 2010 he described technological success as “the fruition of the Zionist dream” – which surely would have made Theodor Herzl, to say nothing of Zionist fighters for independence, pioneering kibbutzniks, desperate immigrants and talented musicians and writers wince in disbelief. He made his political position clear when he added: “The country was not founded so stray settlers could sit among thousands of angry Palestinians in Hebron.” Israel, he imagined, “was founded so Jews would . . . create things for the world.”
Brooks’ recent analysis of Gaza violence (May 18) explored competing narratives. Conservatives defend Israel as the “front line in the war on terror” while “progressives” condemn its “continued colonialist oppression.” Attempting to stand above the fray, he offers his own foundational belief: “the creation of the state of Israel was a historic achievement involving a historic wrong – the displacement of 700,000 Palestinians.”
Both Israelis and Palestinians, for Brooks, are victims and perpetrators of extremism, each indulging in “moral condemnation” of the other, “with vindication as the ultimate goal.” Along the way, “the dream of total victory became the only acceptable dream,” with each side imagining “that someday the other side will magically disappear.” Palestinians “rejected incrementalism,” exemplified by their transformation of an Israeli-free Gaza after 2005 into storehouses for missiles and a network of tunnels for attacks against Israel. In turn, Israel chose to counter the extremist Palestinian “mind-set” with its own commitment to extremism – rather than embrace Brooks’ preference for “pragmatism.”
So Israel, in Brooks’ lofty judgmental view from Manhattan, has been led by Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman “from pluralism to ethnocentrism, from relentless engagement to segregation.” Indeed, “sometimes Israeli policies seem callously designed to guarantee an extremist response.” In translation, Israel is to blame for Palestinian violence.
There was, Brooks conjectures, “plenty of time [for Israel] to figure out how to handle the [Gaza] crowds without bloodshed.” He could not imagine that Hamas might be fanatically determined to shed the blood of Gaza civilians for its own political purposes. Relying solely upon Haaretz journalist Amos Harel’s insistence that Israel did “almost nothing . . . to prevent this blood bath before it happened,” Brooks concludes: “That’s the problem with extremism: It is a flight from reality.” Israel sacrificed its own values – “for pluralism, for a compromise, for peace” – and ended up “another soiled part of the climate.”
Determined to appear even-handed, Brooks refuses to “absolve the Palestinians from responsibility for their choices”; but nor does he “let the Israelis off the hook for their failure to properly confront extremism.”
How David Brooks would “properly confront extremism” – expressed with gun fire, flaming kite missiles that destroy kibbutz farm land, and attempts to breach the border to kill Israelis – is not answered. So, from his lofty perch of judgment, he joins the loud chorus of New York Times disapproval of the solitary democratic state in the Middle East.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016, to be published this summer by Academic Studies Press.