A few thoughts, as William F. Buckley Jr. would say, about anti-Semites and whether his fellow National Review editor, the syndicated columnist Joseph Sobran, is one. Buckley, in an extraordinary move, has dissociated himself in the National Review from Sobran's writings but not -- note -- from Sobran himself. He remains one of the Review's three senior editors.
What Buckley does is important. As the founding editor of the nation's most influential conservative journal and as both the friend and ideological mentor of President Reagan, Buckley is a figure conservatives look to for cues. Anti-Semitism is infecting attitudes toward the Middle East, and Buckley is in a position to say what is and what is not permitted.
Unfortunately, when it comes to Sobran, Buckley's definition of what constitutes anti-Semitism is flabby. Among other things, Sobran has written that The New York Times endorsed the air strike against Libya only because it served its Zionist editorial line. He also wrote, in Buckley's words, "that the visit of the pope to a Rome synagogue had the effect of muting historical persecution of Christians by Jews." (That's right -- Christians by Jews.) And finally, Sobran wrote a paean to a little-known magazine called Instauration. He called it "often brilliant." B'nai B'rith's Anti-Defamation League had a different assessment of it: "anti-Semitic" and racist.
Buckley is aware Sobran has offended, and he finds some of his writings inexplicable. He concedes a reader "might reasonably conclude" that Sobran is "inclined to anti-Semitism," but he assures us that the truth is otherwise. The thrust of his argument is that Sobran is insensitive, a klutz with the pen, and the consequences have been potentially damaging. Sobran has insulted Jews -- "the natural allies" of the conservative movement. Thus Sobran is accused of endangering the Great Conservative Coalition. He is welcome to stay, but only if he keeps his mouth shut.
Buckley is right that Jews sometimes see anti-Semitism where it isn't and ascribe it to those who, for whatever reason, are critical of Israel. But he begs the question in Sobran's case. The man cannot be separated from his writing. If, after a thousand years of Christian persecution of Jews and the direct papal role in establishing the ghettos of Italy, he can instead see Jewish persecution of Christians, then he is dealing from an anti-Semitic deck.
Similarly, any reader of Sobran's column praising Instauration would have to conclude that an animus toward Jews and other minorities is what compels him to stand things on their head. The magazine publishes cartoon stereotypes of blacks ("Willie"), Jews ("Marvin") and Hispanics ("Pancho") and refers to the Holocaust as the "Holohoax" ("one gigantic hebe soap opera"). In its September 1985 edition, Instauration returned Sobran's praise. It titled an article "The Brave Pen of Joseph Sobran," hailing him for his defense of "white racial pride and solidarity."
Understandably, Buckley shies from dissociating himself entirely from his friend and colleague. His is a painful task. But one can fairly ask how the Joe Sobran-Bill Buckley relationship is, in essence, different from the one Jesse Jackson had with the Rev. Louis Farrakhan. Jackson initially went the Buckley route and dissociated himself from Farrakhan's statements. Finally, when others pointed out that those statements reflected the man, he severed the relationship entirely.
Buckley and the other editors of National Review, though, have refused to drop the other shoe. Buckley himself rejects particular Sobran writings, but embraces the whole man. But anti-Semitism can be deduced from the way a person conducts himself. In Sobran's case, the conduct in question is his writings, and those put his anti-Semitism beyond doubt. But rather than dissociate himself from the man, Buckley raps his knuckles and issues a warning. We hear nothing from Sobran himself.
As Buckley notes, American conservatism has come a long way since it was polluted by anti-Semitism -- and some of the credit is his. But the continued presence of Sobran on the masthead of America's most influential conservative magazine is a step backward. Sobran is no martyr to the hair-trigger sensitivities of Jews but a victim of his own poison pen. Reconsider, Bill Buckley, before Sobran's ink stains your own cause.