Jews, Nixon, and the Torture Chamber


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August 17, 1972, Vol. XVII, No. 33

Jews, Nixon, and the torture chamber
By Nat Hentoff

As we have been glancingly informed by the daily press, the Nixon drive for the Jewish vote is gathering speed. Among those enlisting in this venture are three “lifelong Democrats”: Dr. William Wexler, chairman of the World Conference of Jewish Organizations and former president of the International B’nai B’rith; Rabbi Herschell Schacter, former chairman of the Conference on Soviet Jewry and the Religious Zionists of America; and Rabbi Seymour Siegel, professor of theology at the Jewish Theological Seminary, assistant dean of Herbert H. Lehman Institute of Ethics, and head of the Jewish Rights Council.

There are more, and others will be added because McGovern presumably is “soft” on Israel. I don’t see how he could be “harder,” short of giving Israel nuclear weaponry. But no matter. The idea has been implanted, is believed, and is being acted on.

As the Jewish Post and Opinion has been reporting, pro-McGovern Jewish leaders are reacting quite forcefully. From the July 28 issue: “Rabbi Balfour Brickner expressed grave concern that Jews holding leading positions in American Jewish organizations were backing Nixon’s re-election. He said he was advised that Jewish businessmen were being approached for funds and being told that Nixon’s reelection was crucial for Israel. He said that their leadership in Jewish organizations was employed in the appeal for funds.” Rabbi Brickner added that the actions of these organizational leaders were “disastrous and unethical.”

Well, that’s part of the debate. Certainly Wexler, Shacter, et al need no permission from anyone to work for whichever candidate they prefer. As to whether they and other pro-Nixon leaders of Jewish organizations are using the weight of office and prestige in their efforts on behalf of Nixon, that’s a question for the members of each such organization. This Jewish division is an absorbing, complex story, and I hope the daily press gives it more substantial coverage than has yet been printed.

For myself, having grown up in a home and neighborhood where Jewish interests and every single election, no matter how minor the office, were seen as inextricably intertwined, the existence of this considerable split among Jews is in now way surprising with regard to the November election. These converts to Nixon as our savior are acting out of genuine belief. Or genuine fear. I think they are dead wrong about Israel being more vulnerable if McGovern is President, but I do not expect to persuade them on that score.

I would, were I debating them, ask them how they can square their support for Nixon with traditional Jewish concern for social justice. (You will remember that Jerry Birbach was defeated in the primaries in Queens, and I think some sense of shame was involved in that.) And there is also the traditional Jewish concern for individual liberties. (The Supreme Court was a very real presence in our neighborhood, and not only its Jewish member.)

But I would not expect to persuade them on those counts either. So long as they truly believe Israel would be endangered by a Nixon defeat, these and other enormous flaws in their candidate will be rationalized one way or another. I understand that, having been alive at the time of the Holocaust. I did not experience it, but I could never be anything but a Jew because of it.

I do want to try to appeal to them on one ground, however, and I hope their children will appeal to them on this ground too.

I would only ask them to consider this, from the July 29, 1972 New Yorker:

“For Americans, Vietnam is less a battlefield than an open pen that we fire into at will as the people flee in masses from one side to another. War is a contest, a murderous competition, but for Americans in Vietnam there is no contest. The people we are killing are unable to pit their arms against our arms. Instead, they have pitted our willingness to suffer and die against our willingness to torment and kill. Our strategy is to punish them until they can no longer endure the punishment and must give up. This is the logic of the torture chamber, not of the battlefield.”

This is the logic of Richard Nixon. Yes, it was the logic of Democratic Presidents before him. But there is not the slightest question that McGovern will end the tormenting and killing. But Nixon, if re-elected, will continue to fire at will “as the people flee in masses from one side to another.”

For how long? For as long as it take to get peace “with honor.”

Can a Jew, conscious of being a Jew, vote for the logic of the torture chamber? Can he vote for the torturer?

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