To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.
--- George Orwell

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Tell It To The Marines: David Brooks Has A Son In The Israeli Military But Won't Disclose Or Explain It To His NYT Readers

Josh Brooks, front and center

We live in a culture which largely rejects the harsh generational vengeance of the Old Testament. Most of us don’t think the sins of the father should not be visited on the son, nor those of the son on the father.

This is one reason why there hasn’t been too much of a fuss about David Brooks’ recent announcement ---during an interview with Katie Couric at the Aspen Ideas Festival in July, and again in two interviews with the Israeli publication Haaretz in September ---that his 23 year-old son Josh has enlisted in the Israeli military. Although Brooks was a little journalistically imprecise about exactly when the son took the Israeli military oath, it would seem that he did so around the time that the Israel Defense Forces began its latest operations in Gaza at the beginning of the summer.

Brooks did acknowledge that the enlistment made him nervous. “Every Israeli parent understands the circumstance, and that it is worrying,” he told Haaretz. But, Brooks told the crowd at Aspen that his son “believed in the cause,” “believed in serving Israel,” and “knew he needed one hard thing to complete his trip to full adulthood.” Children “should take risks as they get out of college and university,” Brooks explained.

They should expand their expectation of risk, and I do think they should do something hard – and military service is hard. And they should do something outside themselves. I think that service defines all those three things, and I can’t very well advise that to other people if I don’t think my own family should do it.

At Aspen, he couched his acceptance in personal terms as a father, saying that he “appreciated the wisdom he (his son) had about himself.”  In the second Haaretz interview however, Brooks affirmed the choice in decidedly political terms, saying that after the Gaza war “I’m more convinced that it’s the right thing to do.”   

Still, for those not paralyzed by the reigning spirit of nonjudgmentalism, or intimidated by the anti Semitism some of Brooks’ media buddies have charged stands behind any curiosity about the son’s IDF service, there are some issues that the son’s enlistment raises, as does his father’s affirmation of his son’s decision. The political and cultural context in which the decision and the parental endorsement was made and received is also something to note.

There’s the journalistic issue of “full disclosure” that the Times public editor Margaret Sullivan scolded Brooks for not respecting in a recent blog post.  Responding to some unusually angry letters from readers, which she quoted from one of which called the son a “ foreign mercenary,” Sullivan wrote that

I don’t think readers usually need to know what the spouses of columnists think or what brothers do for a living, or whether a daughter has joined the U.S. Army. But this situation strikes me as a more extreme case. Mr. Brooks’s son is serving as a member of a foreign military force that has been involved in a serious international conflict – one that the columnist sometimes writes about and which has been very much in the news.

Sullivan said she “strongly” disagreed with those who say Mr. Brooks should no longer write about Israel.”

But I do think that a one-time acknowledgement of this situation in print (not in an interview with another publication) is completely reasonable. This information is germane; and readers deserve to learn about it in the same place that his columns appear.

This of something however, Brooks has not yet done.     

Josh Brooks’ enlistment also raises some interesting sociological issues that Brooks himself---never one to ignore an interesting sociological trend---might profitably examine.

The enlistment could serve as a peg to look at the recent increase in the numbers of American Jews like his son who have made the decision to join the IDF, especially against the backdrop of the significant underrepresentation of American Jews in the US military which the American Jewish community itself sees as a source of some concern. It’s also a way of discussing the greater role that Israel plays in the formation of American Jewish identity in this generation as opposed to earlier generations who were more concerned with American assimilation and acceptance. In fact, for many in the American pro Israel community, Israel is not as much a foreign country anymore as it is an American adjunct--the 51st State--- with the two nations’ political cultures “co-mingled” by dint of their mutual exceptionalism and “shared values.” Serving Uncle Shmuel is the same as serving Uncle Sam.  

The fact that when Brooks first made the announcement of his son’s Israeli service  at Aspen it generated almost no discussion in the media is significant too. On the video of the session you can hear the audience react quite audibly: Not quite a gasp, but definitely more than a murmur, with approval and disapproval seeming to rise in equal parts.   

Yet none of the many journalistic and media figures in attendance noted it in any of their subsequent coverage. This muted response suggests:

1) Anxiety among the non-Jewish members in the audience about being accused of anti Semitism for even sensing that Brooks’ disclosure had significance .

2) Ethnic defensiveness ---or ethnocentric myopia---on the part of some in the audience, the new Atlantic of David Bradley, which co-sponsored the event and managed the guest list, being far from the WASPy bastion the magazine was in the past;

3) A kind of post patriotic, post national sensibility that regards questions of “allegiance to country” as kind of quaint, and dual citizenship the “new normal,” or

4) A combination of all three.  

As the Times faces yet another transparency-related case involving a family member serving in the IDF (Isabel Kershner, an Israeli citizen who is a contract reporter in the Jerusalem bureau has a son who is currently doing his mandatory national service ) the issue is catching up with Brooks, however, and not only at the Times. PBS and NPR, the networks where Brooks comments regularly on a wide variety of subjects, the war in Gaza this summer being one of them have also felt heat, with PBS's ombudsman, Michael Getler responding quite vigorously and NPR's Edward Schumacher-Matos basically refusing to take the issue seriously.  But the interests of Brooks readers, listeners and viewers would have been far better ---and sooner--- served if his disclosure and conflict of interest issues were raised two and half months before the Times Public Editor kicked into gear.  

Finally, there is the issue of Brooks’ asking his readers to “do as I say but not as I, or mine, actually do.” 

Indeed no one in Brooks’ league has written more ---and more fulsomely, as if channeling Teddy Roosevelt himself--- about American exceptionalism, American patriotism, the awesomeness of the “John Waynes and Jane Addamses” of the American military, the obligations of American citizenship or the crisis of the American leadership elite than Brooks himself. No one has more lamented the loss of “national cohesion” and “national solidarity” ---and about a fragmented America held together by “a tenuous common culture” which is badly in need of some form of mandatory "national service" to encourage civic virtue and “loyalties larger than tribe and self.”  

If it’s not hypocrisy per se, I’m left with the feeling that either Brooks has been trying to sell a bill of goods that even his own family isn’t buying--- or that the things he wants to rest of society to embrace are somehow different than the ones he allows for his own kith and kin. In fact, he’s preaching for a renewal of American patriotism and “a code of public spiritness,” even as he affirms an ethnocentricity which is at odds with specifically American interests and which he exhorts others to transcend.  

I don’t want to make too much out of one young man’s decision and a father’s acceptance of it.  Serving in a foreign army is legal, as one of Brooks’ colleagues in the Times’ Washington bureau reminded me, adding that “ there are a lot of dual citizens out there besides those with an Israeli passport.” But it seems to stand as some kind of socio-cultural  marker.

A member in good standing of our national leadership elite, who often scolds his peers in the idiom of American patriotism and public spiritedness, is not only personally accepting of his son’s decision to join another nation’s military but is also politically supportive of it----and doesn’t see the need to acknowledge that decision in the appropriate manner. If you were tracking the history of elite disconnection in America, there are many threshold events and episodes to examine. This seems to be one, highlighting one of the many understandings that once defined relations between the leadership elite and the rest of America which no longer have the traction they once had.  

In fairness to the complexities and sensitivities involved in the matter, however, I asked Brooks to have a look at some questions I sent him, which follow below. So far, Brooks has not replied. When I spoke to his assistant on Friday afternoon, she told me he was busy with NPR and unavailable.


* Is it journalistic valid to ask that you make the disclosure of your son Josh’s IDF enlistment directly to your readers in your Times column itself, as Margaret Sullivan has advised, or is this request a form of “naked anti Semitism,” as Commentary’s John Podheretz fumed at one of his twitter followers?

* What was Josh’s date of enlistment? Was he in the process of “joining the IDF” when you said so at Aspen on July 1 or was he already in at that point? If he was already in pre Gaza, where was he stationed during the military operations? (NB: There’s a bit of discrepancy bw the phrasing at Aspen and the Haartez interview leaving me unsure if he was in during Gaza or not.)

* In early June, when you endorsed Obama’s decision to make a deal for Bowe Bergdahl, you cited Israel’s deals with Hamas and Hezbollah for Israeli military hostages. In hindsight, it seems like your son’s impending enlistment ---or this thinking about enlistment it--- might have been on your mind. Why didn’t you note it at that point?

* It’s unclear to me whether the act of enlisting in the Israeli military automatically confers Israeli citizenship. Is he an Israeli citizen now? If not, is he planning to become one?
Is yr wife an Israeli citizen? Planning on it?
Are you an Israeli citizen, or planning to become one? (NB: Sorry, I only ask this bc in the Haaretz interview you made a reference to what “every Israeli parent knows” about the dangers of IDF service and some who commented on the Public Editor’s blog seemed to think that meant this meant you were in fact an Israeli citizen. )

* In a December 2013 speech to Stand With Us/ LA, the WSJ’s Bret Stephens declared that Israel was “the defining moral issue” of the day. Is yr son’s IDF service in line w that understanding? You said at Aspen that “he believed in the cause,” and “believed in serving Israel.” What exactly is involved in “the cause” of Israel? Among some young American Jews, does serving in the IDF represent something akin to going off to fight with anti-fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War?

* To join the armed forces of another nation is, among other things, a mark of dedication and passion. How did Josh become so dedicated? What kind of secondary school education did he have? Public or parochial? How did he become so devoted to the Zionist cause?

* In terms of sociological and cultural trends, is Israel becoming a touchstone for American Jewish identity that is different for some in your son’s generation than it was for you? Is your son’s service an example of the “reorthodoxy” you said in one 2012 column (A Nation Of Mutts) that certain third-generation ethnic minorities might find appealing?

* Another sociological trend: the increasing numbers of American Jews choosing to serve in the IDF against a backdrop of disproportionately low rates of service in the US military, as noted by the Forward and by the WSJ. (The Forward said that to many American Jews, “the IDF is the Jewish military.”) Some American Jews blame a legacy of anti Semitism in the American armed forces. What do you think? Was this a factor in Josh’s IDF enlistment?

* At Aspen you explained that yr son needed to do one hard thing “to complete his trip to full adulthood.” Why wouldn’t a hitch with the US Marines offer that same opportunity? And why did you use the language of the human potential movement instead of the vocabulary of “Duty, Honor, Country?”

* Some feel that serving in the IDF is as valid as serving in the American military---that the values being defended are “shared” and that there is a common enemy in the form of intolerant, anti democratic Islamism. Others see an act of cultural separatism, if not a problematic kind of dual loyalty (though different from the kind of dual loyalty of the Dreyfus Affair.) What’s yr take?

* Some critics, like Phil Weiss at Mondoweiss, have said that your sons’ service and your affirmation of it signal a “co-mingling” of American and Israeli political cultures that is inappropriate, another sign, among many, that the US-Israel “special relationship” is a bit too special and that many in the pro-Israel community here see Israel as the 51st state. Thoughts?

* You’ve said that Gaza confirmed that yr son was right to want to serve Israel. What specific to this summer’s Gaza operations made you agree with his decision more than before?

* What do you think of yr son serving in a military credibly accused of war crimes in Gaza, and of him defending a “Jewish state” which has become more racist, or at least “ethno nationalist” in character? How do you feel about him serving as part of an
occupation that is nearing its 50th year and is taking on characteristics of apartheid?

* You supported American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and have expressed support for American military intervention in the Middle East once again. And yet your son has elected to fight in another country’s military, which will not be fighting those kinds of wars, and you are OK with that. How do you square this?

* Over the years, your columns have warned of an American leadership elite that is disconnected from the rest of the America, the erosion of national solidarity and cohesion, and of a “tenuous common culture” as well as lack of social trust and ‘community.” Your columns have also extolled the “John Waynes and Jane Addamses” of the American military, made the case for some kind of mandatory national service and cheered for a restoration of national greatness through a revived form of American patriotism and the cultivation of civic virtue. I agree with yr diagnoses and with yr prescriptions. But I’m not seeing where service in a foreign military fits in to yr reform program, other than as a rejection of it. I mean, again, how do you square this circle, without resorting to ethnic exceptionalism?

I know, I know, Josh is an autonomous adult who makes his own decisions--the sins of the father/ sins of the son, blah, blah blah. But you have affirmed his decision quite unambiguously. What makes it OK for him to pursue the path of ethnic particularism and not for everyone else?

* Finally, you’ve celebrated Teddy Roosevelt quite ardently and in fact your critique and your program for reform reflects many of his core ideas. Roosevelt, if I recall, didn’t have a lot of enthusiasm for ethnic hyphenation and was quite fanatical about a kind of American patriotism that was singular in focus. What do you think TR would think of Josh’s IDF service. Your affirmation of it?