The unfashionable Charles Krauthammer
Jun. 10, 2009
hilary leilea krieger, JPost Correspondent, Washington , THE JERUSALEM POST
Charles Krauthammer, the Washington Post columnist who quit a job as the chief resident in psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital in the 1970s to find work sharing his views with a global audience (his op-eds are carried in The Jerusalem Post among other publications), does not want to talk about himself or his political opinions.
Instead, the 59-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner wants to discuss the music program he and his wife recently started to try to revive and preserve Jewish music that has been lost to the masses. "Pro Musica Hebraica," as it's called, just finished its first season to critical acclaim, and Krauthammer is looking to raise awareness about the project as it gears up for its second year.
He points to many styles and eras that are neglected these days - the victim of times both banal and horrific. Though the first season focused on Eastern European 20th-century themes, Krauthammer would like to present a wide variety of works in coming concerts, including Ladino, Dutch cantorial and baroque Jewish pieces - the latter of which, he noted, "many people think is an oxymoron: baroque Jewish, what does that apply to, Jackie Mason?"
So if submitting to an interview is what he has to do, so be it. And, agreeing to submit, he does so good-naturedly. The sharp, commanding strokes of a pen that doesn't refrain from taking the powers-that-be to task - a recent column explained why he rejected an invitation to a White House stem cell bill signing ceremony - belie a warm, amiable, humorous person. Of course, for all Krauthammer's strong neoconservative convictions, tempered though they might be with support for abortion rights and other socially liberal positions, he was raised in Canada.
Despite his preference for talking about musical rather than prose compositions, he can't quite escape the writer in him as he speaks, editing sentences as he utters them. His foundation, he dictates, "is a very - you should add a lot of 'very's - a very, very small foundation." In addition to sponsoring the music project, it also supports a Washington-area Jewish high school program, Shorashim, whose mission is to teach students who don't go to Jewish day schools Jewish texts. The common link is Krauthammer's devotion to his Jewish heritage and its preservation, both in a score and on the printed page.
How did you first get interested in this project?
My wife had the idea five, six years ago. It came from two thoughts. One is, when people hear "Jewish music," they think Israeli folk-dancing - "Hava Negila" - they think of liturgical music, they think of Kol Nidre, they might think of klezmer and that's it. It turns out there's a great, rich tradition of classical Jewish music people just don't know about.
The other thing is that Jews, in America and around the world, are extremely supportive of music philanthropically and through playing, producing, composing. [Yet] when it comes to something that has the word "Jewish" on it, there's some sense that it would be too parochial to get involved. And that's absurd. Ever other nationality or ethnicity proudly supports and encourages its own national culture; many Jews find it too parochial. So we wanted to say, here it is. Much of it is at the level of the great music of the world, and we want it to be recognized for what it is.
Why haven't these pieces received more prominence in the past?
Some have come and gone with the historical genre they were part of. [With] Jewish baroque music, there's nothing particular that ended that. Baroque had its fashion for everybody, then it came and went. Some haven't gone: Sephardic music is there, just Western audiences haven't heard it. Obviously Ladino and Sephardic music has declined because of the change in Jewish demographics, where Jews don't live in the Muslim world after 1948... We're not necessarily making the claim that these are great enough to be sustained on their own. We'll let people judge and see whether they feel that it is at a high enough level that it should be learned and transmitted and continued.
At one of your recent concerts, you defined Jewish music broadly as based on a sensibility rather than DNA. The lineup included the non-Jewish Dmitry Shostakovich's so-called "Jewish finale," itself one of the only pieces that featured recognizably Jewish melodies. What, then, did you mean by a Jewish sensibility?
It's music that's either consciously or unconsciously drawn from the folk, the klezmer, the liturgical, the shtetl. Shostakovich, interestingly, absorbed that through his fellow musicians without having experienced it firsthand.
In music it would be drawn from the music of the folk. In literature it's an interesting question, what's a Jewish novel? Again, it has to do with whether there's an attachment to or a feeling of or a concern with the Jewish experience and Jewish destiny, though that's to put it very broadly and bluntly and crudely.
We're not going to do Felix Mendelssohn. He was genetically Jewish, but he was so consciously Christian, and he tried to be European. That's fine - he's one of the great composers and he's in the European canon - but he's not particularly of interest to us simply because he happened to be genetically Jewish.
Can you talk a little bit about your own Jewish upbringing and sense of Jewishness, and how that influences you? I assume it's a factor in this particular project.
I grew up in a Modern Orthodox home. I went to Jewish day school right through high school, so half of my day was spent speaking Hebrew from age six to 16. I studied thousands of hours of Talmud. My father thought I didn't get enough Talmud at school, so I took the extra Talmud class at school and he had a rabbi come to the house three nights a week. One of those nights was Saturday night, so in synagogue Saturday morning my brother and I would pray very hard for snow so he wouldn't be able to come on Saturday night and we could watch hockey night in Canada. That's where I learned about prayer.
That didn't seem to you to be a prayer that was likely to go unanswered?
Yeah, I was giving it a shot to see what side God was on.
And what did you determine?
It rarely snowed.
Despite being raised Orthodox, you said in a recent column that you're not religious.
Rabbi David Hartman, who runs the Hartman Institute [in Jerusalem], was actually at McGill the years I was a student there, and I took his courses on Maimonides. That had a big influence on me in the sense that I was going away from my Jewish upbringing, thinking of it as narrow and parochial, and when I was introduced to Maimonides, it was just sort of at the highest level of world philosophy, Aristotelian philosophy applied to Judaism. I realized that Jewish culture was not just not a Sunday afternoon lecture. It belonged with a great secular culture that I admired as a student. So that kind of reinforced my Jewishness even as I became irreligious.
Was becoming less religious connected to that feeling of Judaism being parochial?
That was not the reason. It was simply a matter of just applying my thinking to these questions of God, a historical God and a God who intervenes in prayer, and I came up short. It was no great epiphany. It was no great disappointment. It had nothing to do with my being [paralyzed in a diving accident] when I was 22. I was already way, way gone by the time I was 18 and 19. It was simply an intellectual conclusion, and I've been basically unchanged for 50 years. I don't make any great claims for it. I would not proselytize my own agnosticism. It's just where I've come to. If I'm honest with myself, I'm not religious but I am very Jewish in the sense that I feel a tremendous duty to the past and the majesty of Jewish culture, to not let it disappear... As for my own practice, it's fairly minimal, but I go on the required days. I go to Yizkor, those kinds of things. I once described to a friend my Jewishness - I said, I'm a Jewish Shinto. I believe in ancestor worship. That's the heart of my Judaism.
What about your connection to Israel?
As you see in my writing, it's very strong. That would be a third example of my connection to Jewish history. I've always been a Zionist, and I believe with utter conviction in the justice of the cause, which makes my writing about it clear and direct. [Defending Zionism] is pretty much out of fashion these days. But to me it's extremely important, in and of itself as a just cause and also in the context of America and how it looks at itself as, among other things, a champion for freedom around the world.
You said Zionism's not in fashion. Is that why there's all this criticism of Israel, because it's not trendy, or because of something deeper?
I think the world is tiring of Israel and of Jews. And Jews, secular Jewish intellectuals are tiring more than most. It used to be they would criticize Israeli actions. That was the norm in the '70s, '80s. Now it's come down the legitimacy of a Jewish state.
It's in part as a result of the disastrous policies Israel has followed since 1993 with Oslo. But it's in part the shallowness in these people who are not quite ready to stand up to the fashions of the times, to the pressures from polite society, from elite society, from various national establishments against Israel. It's far easier to join the cocktail party set. If you deplore Israel, it gets you through the day a lot more easily.
In Europe I think it is that the era of Holocaust guilt is over. It was a generational phenomenon. Now that it's over, Europe is reverting to its natural anti-Semitism - not with the virulence obviously that we saw in the early 20th century, but the norm for the 19 centuries before that - Jews as alien, Jews as troublesome, Jews as not quite trustworthy. And it's writ large for Israel. The Jewish people have lost Europe. Israel's lost Europe. The one place it hasn't been lost is America, where there are tens of millions of Americans who are strongly Zionist and many other who are sympathetic. One of the things I try to do is make the case, which I find a very easy case to make, to oppose the fashionable anti-Israeli trend.
How do you feel about being labeled a neoconservative, which is decidedly not in fashion now that a new political guard has taken over Washington?
Irving Kristol, who is the father of neoconservatism, [long] resisted the term because he considered himself the true heir to American liberalism, while liberals were the ones who deviated to European social democracy or into infantile leftism or whatever. He gave up and decided, "What the hell! They're going to call me neoconservative, we'll be neoconservatives." So I don't really mind the label any more than he did.
Neoconservatism is deeply out of fashion now, which is fine with me. We're the root cause of every evil on earth, including the rise of the Red River in South Dakota and Minnesota, but I'm very comfortable with its basic views of the world.
Does it matter that if you carry this label, it might turn people off or make them less receptive to your ideas from the get-go?
It's true. There's no way around it. It's like being Jewish. There are some people who are going to think that I'm a genetically programmed agent of Israel infiltrating America. I'm not going to lose any sleep over that.
So as both a "neocon" and a Jew, how did it feel being in fashion briefly?
Maybe that was the more disturbing moment? Yeah, it actually is. I don't take the fashions very seriously one way or the other. I can accept White House invitations and I can go without White House invitations. I really don't care. Post-9/11 was exciting because there was an administration that was open to conservative ideas and one had to think very hard about what to do, and that's a challenge. It's a lot easier when the other guys are in power and all you've got to do is skeet shoot - blow them out of the sky. Writing in the opposition is a lot easier.
I'm perfectly at ease with the Democrats, the liberals in power. I think we should have a rotation of power. It makes the other side have to act responsibly, as we saw with Obama on Afghanistan [recently boosting forces there].
That's why I can take it either way. In fashion, out of fashion, it hasn't affected my readership, which has grown without stop since 1985. With the newspaper industry shrinking, I think I'm in 209 newspapers as of today. So people obviously want to hear this point of view, and whether they're reading me in the White House or not is not of terrible importance.
In case they are reading you in the White House, what are your thoughts about moving forward in Israel? You're both critical of the Oslo Accords but supportive of a two-state solution, so what do you suggest?
The damage done by Oslo is incalculable but it's irreversible, so one has to go forward. I opposed it from the day I was on the White House lawn, and I opposed it regretfully, hoping that I was wrong. It turned out, very painfully, that I was right. It just did terrible damage. Now Israel's in a position where the peace process is a farce. I'm not against pretending to be involved in a peace process, as we did in Annapolis. I supported the Annapolis conference precisely because I knew that it would go nowhere, so it looks as if everyone's involved and we're all very peaceful-thinking.
But the Middle East is not complicated to this extent. I mean, it has tremendous nuances and curlicues and all that, but it's very simple: As long as the Arab states and Palestinians do not accept a Jewish state, there will not be peace. And on the day they make a collective decision to accept a Jewish state, there will be peace within weeks. It will be a technical matter. And everything else is commentary.
Right now there's no hope for a peace process. Israel withdrew land for peace - they gave land in Lebanon, they got rockets; they gave back the land in Gaza, they got rockets. They give back the land in the West Bank, they'll get rockets and the shutting of Ben-Gurion Airport. I mean everybody knows this, it's simple.
That process is going nowhere until the Palestinians change. And that process might not change in my lifetime, in which case Israel simply has to maintain the status quo as long as it can, and make sure Israel and the West Bank are divided so that there's no one-state solution.
Obviously Bibi [Binyamin Netanyahu] and the Likud will accept a two-state solution - there's no other way out. There's no other way to go, but the Palestinians haven't given up the dream of destroying Israel. That's what the Gaza war was about, that's what the Lebanon war was about. These aren't theoretical propositions; these are realities of what the Arabs say.
So I think Israel needs a very strong defense, it needs the fence, it needs American support. It defeated the second intifada, which everyone said was impossible, and that's where we'll be for years until the Palestinians decide they'll take half a loaf, which has been offered to them since 1947.
How do you see the ultimate resolution?
Everyone knows what the resolution will be. It will be along the lines of the Clinton-Barak proposal in 2000 at Camp David. And I can give you the terms of the agreement on the back of an envelope right now. It will be 5 percent of the West Bank, which will involve some of the larger Israeli settlements, which Israel will take. Israel will give Palestinians equivalent territory out of Israel proper. There will be a Palestinian state, a Jewish state, and Jerusalem will be divided along the lines Ehud Barak offered, and that's what it's going to look like.
Is that an acceptable position to you?
It's a heartbreaking position to me, and I think Ehud Barak did terrible damage to Israel in 2000 in offering the division of Jerusalem because it set a norm, it destroyed a consensus in the West of an undivided Jerusalem. It was US policy until then, not only Israeli policy - but how is the United States going to be more Catholic than the pope? So that's the new reality. It would be heartbreaking, but it would be acceptable. Peace is the ultimate objective. If that's what it takes, that's what it takes.
You said a couple of years ago that the right man to lead Israel was then opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu. Now that he's prime minister, do you still believe that?
Between '96 and '99, the total number of Israeli dead from terrorism was in the 30s. Given what followed, the thousand Jews killed in the second intifada, I would call that very successful. He also gave away very little. [Yitzhak] Rabin and [Shimon] Peres and Barak gave away a lot and got nothing but war in return... I thought Netanyahu was pretty successful in basically holding the line.
I supported [Ariel] Sharon's withdrawal from Gaza, even though Bibi opposed it. People think in retrospect they should not have withdrawn, I think they should have. So I was pretty much a supporter of Sharon and Kadima and the vision that they had, but the Palestinians have decided the Kadima approach was dead by their reaction to the Gaza withdrawal, so that's dead. So we want someone who won't give away the store for dreams, which is what Peres and Rabin did. That happens to be Bibi, and I'm not too happy about the way his cabinet shaped up, but that's a function of the dysfunctional Israeli political system. I don't think he would have chosen his cabinet that way had he had the free hand of an American president.
How do you think he'll manage with the new American president?
I don't know. I think it could be rough. I think [Avigdor] Lieberman as foreign minister is going to be very, very difficult for Israel.
How so, and are those attitudes towards Lieberman legitimate or based on misperceptions?
The fact that he is so reviled in the West, whether for legitimate reasons or not, in and of itself is a reason why he shouldn't be foreign minister, even if it's not just. You don't start out an administration if you can help it with a foreign minister who is exceedingly unpopular in the capitals to which you're about to send him.
And what about the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu themselves?
I'm not that sure that that in and of itself is a recipe for disagreement or unpleasantness. I just don't know, but I don't think there's any reason to assume that.
You said that it's important Israel receive strong support from America. Are you confident that Obama will provide that support?
I don't know and I don't know that anybody does. We've elected a very mysterious man in many, many ways - the most unknown man ever to be elected president of the United States, in the sense of people's experience with him and his own experience. So we have no idea.
Should we have some ominous music playing in the background now?
No. I mean, who would have predicted that George W. Bush would have been the most pro-Israel president since Harry Truman? There wasn't much in his background ever to suggest that, and yet he was. I really don't know what Obama's policies will be. It's hard to read it from his advisers. Some are pretty strongly pro-Israel. Others are less so.
What do you think about his policy of outreach to Iran?
I'm skeptical that these overtures will work, but let's see what he brings home.
Do you think it could work?
I don't think anything will come of it, but then I'm a cynic.
But theoretically, do think engagement can work?
You go the extra mile so that you're in position to do stuff afterward. Will he do stuff afterward? I doubt it.
What if Israel does?
If Israel does, it will be a very difficult day. All hell will break loose.
What about the American response?
We'll get blamed one way or the other, though I'm sure we will not be involved.
Do you see it playing out the way it reportedly did under George W. Bush, with him telling Israel to hold off?
We'll give them the red light, but if Israel feels an existential threat, it will do what it did in '67. Johnson gave Israel the red light as well, and they went ahead and attacked Egypt. They had to. I think the Israelis feel the same way. They just better succeed, like in '67. If you're going to go against the American red light, you better make sure you get the job done; '67 would have been disaster otherwise. This will be a disaster otherwise too.
Looking back over the last eight years, how do you feel about the positions you took, many of which are criticized today? You said you still think disengagement was the right thing to do. What about the invasion of Iraq? Is there anything you need to rethink?
There's always a lot to rethink. Basically I think history will see that the Iraq war was worth it. I think it will look at the Iraq war the way we look at the Korean War, which claimed almost 10 times as many American lives: We didn't get everything that we wanted. It was much more costly than we had expected. But if Iraq continues on the current trajectory, it will end up as a strategic ally in the region, which should be a tremendous advance for the United states. So I think history will look at it with the same balanced but probably favorable view if that outcome is achieved.
I think Bush kept us safe for seven years and it was no accident. I think most of the measures he took were required. To the extent that we dismantle those, which I don't think we will actually, we'll be less safe. But we deeply undervalue the achievement of seven years of safety. No one expected it. Nobody expected six months without a second attack. In completely new, unplanned, ad hoc circumstances post-9/11, I think they did a good job.
So do the critics just have it wrong?
I think there's war-weariness... We didn't find the right general and the right strategy until late 2006. America has a history of not knowing what to do at the beginning of wars. Lincoln didn't find his general until three years in. If he hadn't, we'd be two different countries right now... The Iraq war, as tragic as it was, and terrible as it was, was one of those wars where we couldn't figure out the insurgency strategy and get it right until very late, and that's the reason people are so war-weary, and they are correct to be war-weary.
So none of the things we've seen these years made you rethink ideas or arguments?
Lest I seem unreflective and inflexible, the answer is no. The view of the world that basically led to [Ronald] Reagan's policies - the success of the Cold War, the basic response to 9/11, which is sort of parallel to that in seeing radical Islam as the equivalent of the great totalitarian enemies of the 20th century - I think is basically correct.
We can argue, I think we should argue, whether some of the tactics of counterinsurgency were correctly carried out, and there's no question that they were incorrectly, badly, tragically done in 2004, 5 and 6. But because the first three years of the Civil War were such a disaster it doesn't make you rethink the basic idea of the Civil War, which was to keep the union intact... The basic idea of trying to defeat radical Islam on the ground had to be done. You can't defeat it by cruise missiles and you can't do it by preaching. And if we succeed in creating this seed in Iraq which may actually be happening, it could have a profound effect on the evolution of the Middle East and that would be the ultimate answer to 9/11.
The reason I haven't changed my views is that no one has offered a remotely plausible alternative to answering the challenging of 9/11 and its origins. So when someone does I'll be willing to rethink it.
So when it comes to the current fashions - I'm too old to worry about fashion. I've worn a blue shirt on television every week for 20 years. No, I don't go too much with the fashions.
Where does that come from? Why don't you? So many columnists are trying to be one step ahead of what everyone thinks and says.
I think it's indicative of the fact that I spent seven years in medicine and I quit to do this, and it wasn't exactly an exercise in upward social mobility at the time. My father was scratching his head for years over why I would do it.
The only reason to do it is to say what you believe, and if you don't, it would have been pointless to do what I did. So you say what you believe and you really don't give a damn.