Among his many other accomplishments, William F. Buckley Jr. made the conservative movement a far less forbidding place for Jews.
Conservatism in the early 1960’s was, fairly or not, largely defined in the Jewish mind as a downscale hothouse of paranoia, racism and resentment fronted by such figures as the Christian Crusader Rev. Billy James Hargis, the anti-Semitic columnist Westbrook Pegler and, of course, Robert Welch, whose John Birch Society was never officially racist or anti-Semitic but attracted a fair number of those who could accurately be classified as such.
By basically reading the more conspiratorial-minded organizations and polemicists out of mainstream conservatism (a story engagingly told by the liberal journalist John Judis in his 1988 biography William F. Buckley, Jr.: Patron Saint of the Conservatives), Buckley made it that much more difficult for the media to portray the right as a redoubt of angry kooks and Kleagles.
His having done so no doubt smoothed the way for those liberal Jewish intellectuals who would eventually – and at first somewhat ambivalently – make their journey into the conservative camp. A devout Catholic who wrote with remarkable frankness about the anti-Semitism of his own father, Buckley (who characterized anti-Semitism as an “awful, sinful practice”) always seemed comfortable around Jews.
Indeed, several of the editors and writers who helped Buckley launch National Review were Jews; “without them,” wrote historian George Nash, “the magazine might never have gotten off the ground…”
Admittedly, my appreciation for Buckley’s role in making conservatism “safe” for Jews grew gradually over the years; for a time the Monitor even ascribed Buckley’s actions vis-à-vis the Birch Society not to altruistic motives so much as to his personal embarrassment at being lumped together with the Birchers every time the ADL did a study of right-wing extremism in the late fifties and early sixties. I did find it disturbing that Joe Sobran, an editor at National Review who sometime in the mid-1980’s descended into the fever swamps of anti-Semitism and hasn’t emerged since, was allowed to remain on the magazine’s masthead for several years after Buckley denounced his writings on Jews and Israel.
Even Buckley’s celebrated statement in 1991 about Patrick Buchanan’s alleged anti-Semitism was, I felt, an artfully constructed study in ambiguity: “I find it impossible to defend Pat Buchanan against the charge that what he said and did during the period under examination amounted to anti-Semitism, whatever it was that drove him to say and do it: most probably, an iconoclastic temperament.”
When it came to Israel, Buckley’s support may have been a little spotty during the state’s early years – in 1958, responding to what he took to be Israel’s slow response to an American request that U.S. military aircraft be permitted to fly over Israeli territory, he snappishly wrote, “If Internal Revenue started to disallow tax exemption of gifts to the United Jewish Appeal, Israel wouldn’t be able to pay the cable-cost of sassing our State Department” – but certainly by the mid-1960’s he was a consistent champion of the Jewish state, a position he maintained for the remaining four and a half decades of his life, despite occasional differences with Israeli policy.
In 1972 Buckley famously proposed that Israel become the 51st American state, pointing out that Jerusalem is no more geographically remote from Washington than Anchorage or Honolulu.
The arrangement, Buckley argued, would forever put to rest Israeli security fears: “If Israel becomes a part of the United States, there is no further question of attacking the state of Israel – as well attack the city of Chicago.”
To expedite statehood, Buckley wrote, a “resolution should be introduced in Congress and a national debate should begin. Put me down in favor.”
A fanciful notion, to be sure, and one that most Jews and Israelis (not to mention Americans) would dismiss out of hand. What cannot be dismissed as easily is the suggestion that without William Buckley, the political right might have remained an untenable – even an unthinkable – destination for those Jews who no longer could, in good conscience, remain faithful to the political faith of their fathers.