Mr. and Mrs. Norman Podhoretz, two New York editors and writers I have known pleasantly for years, have been goaded into a high-voltage quarrel with that master alley-fighter, Gore Vidal. It may look at first glance like another parochial jihad among the New York literati. In fact, the issues are of the largest general interest.
In The Nation magazine a few weeks ago, Vidal speared both Podhoretzes (Mrs. Podhoretz is known by her pen name, Midge Decter) as being, in effect, more interested in the destiny of Israel than in the destiny (or at least the history) of the United States. The alleged evidence is that Norman Podhoretz once told Vidal, who had done a play about our Civil War, that the episode was for him "as irrelevant as the War of the Roses."
Podhoretz, who edits the public-issues magazine Commentary, is indignant that so few denounced Vidal's mocking attack as an anti-Semitic diatribe. He canvassed friends for an opinion of the Vidal piece, but the canvass was disappointing. Few found it anti-Semitic. Mischievous and cutting it was, in Vidal's best polemical manner, but not by any useful definition anti-Semitic.
Norman Podhoretz seems blind to the extent to which U.S. dialectics on Israel have gotten out of hand. A minor personal example: I was stunned to see myself described, in a recent letter to The Post, as a "hate-Israel columnist." (The basis for this absurd charge was not given.) Podhoretz graciously concedes that "it is possible to criticize Israel without being anti-Semitic." Thanks, we needed that. But has Podhoretz noticed that if one is critical of an Israeli policy one may be accused of attacking Israel's legitimacy? And, just beyond that, of being a crypto anti-Semite? It was that very logic that drove Podhoretz to mistake Vidal's hard-edged teasing for anti-Semitism.
Vidal's hardest rabbit punch was to raise the issue of dual loyalty, which in the old days would probably have been prima facie proof of anti-Semitic intent. Vidal more than once says or implies that as arch supporters of Israel, the Podhoretzes are ipso facto more interested in Israel than in this country. The charge is unfair and mischievous, but anti-Semitic? Surely not.
The truth is that Norman Podhoretz asked for it, not only by firing the first shot at Vidal in connection with an entirely different subject, but by professing an ostentatious indifference to early American history. Indifference to American history is not an indictable offense (alas) and it is no more evidence of being anti-American than a distaste for Israeli foreign policy is evidence of being anti-Semitic. But it can be plenty irritating. Both Israel and the United States are products of a complex history, and neither can be understood unless you know that history -- all of it.
In fact, if relevance is the test, the Civil War has plenty, even for those whose ancestors arrived after it. A mutual friend of ours once had occasion to remind Podhoretz that U.S. labor and immigration policies might have been quite different if the South had prevailed. The industrialization drive might not have made the United States a free-labor haven for the dispossessed in the later 19th century. There might have been no Ellis Island.
By advertising his flip attitude toward the American past, Podhoretz asked for Vidal's mocking response. Vidal says that for many Americans, "the theological and territorial quarrels of Israel and Islam are as remote . . . as -- what else? -- the War of the Roses." Not so, obviously; but as a debating point it draws blood.