Bintel Blog

Wieseltier vs. Sullivan vs. Kristol: Jew-Baiting, Gay-Baiting, Red-Baiting… Yada, Yada, Yada

By Daniel Treiman

  • Print
  • Share Share

Readers of The New Republic know that Leon Wieseltier has an acid pen. But does he also have an itchy trigger finger?

Former TNR editor turned top-tier blogger Andrew Sullivan is fuming after Wieseltier, the magazine’s fiercely brilliant and eloquently mean literary editor, accused him of “Jew-baiting.”

“To be called a ‘Jew-baiter’ in the pages of a magazine I was once proud and honored to edit, and which I love and support, is an extremely wounding blow. It is also untrue and unfair,” Sullivan wrote on his blog.

Wieseltier fired off his charge over a critique Sullivan had penned of a recent New York Times column by neocon scion Bill Kristol. Kristol had attacked Barack Obama’s recent remarks suggesting that Americans in small towns “cling” to religion because they are “bitter” about their economic circumstances, suggesting that the Illinois senator’s remarks echoed Marxist dogma and were “disdainful of small-town America.”

Kristol’s critique prompted Sullivan to go ballistic: “Kristol is deliberately distorting to paint Obama as a cynical manipulator of religious faith for political ends, rather than as a genuine Christian. He’s calling him a lying, Godless communist.” Referring to Kristol’s characterization of Obama, Sullivan continued: “A non-Christian manipulator of Christianity is calling a Christian a liar about his own faith.”

Before proceeding to the main event — “Wieseltier vs. Sullivan,” keep it clean fellas, no hitting below the Beltway — it’s worth noting that Sullivan’s post wildly misread Kristol’s column. Kristol, though hardly nonpartisan in his analysis, never actually accuses Obama of being insincere in his own faith, noting that the candidate has “written eloquently” about the “complexity of his religious commitment.” Instead, Kristol criticizes the Illinois senator for not extending to “other believers the courtesy of assuming they’ve also thought about their religious beliefs.”

But Wieseltier’s issue is not that Sullivan bashed Kristol. Indeed, he doesn’t seem to have particularly cared for Kristol’s column either. Apparently, however, he cared even less for Sullivan’s commentary, reading into it something sinister — on the basis of a single sentence: “A non-Christian manipulator of Christianity is calling a Christian a liar about his faith.”

“Ponder that early adjective,” Wieseltier writes. “It is Jew baiting. I was not aware that only Christians can judge Christians, or that there are things about which a Jew cannot call a Christian a liar. If Kristol is wrong about Obama, it is not because Kristol is a Jew. So this fills me with a certain paschal wrath. Nice little blog you have there, Obama boy. Pity if frogs or locusts should happen to it. Let my people be!”

Sullivan, for his part, called Wieseltier’s attack “painful in the extreme.” Sullivan — who has a record of standing up for Israel and issues of Jewish concern (with the exception of his views on circumcision, which, granted, he likely sees as a defense of Jewish penises) — explains himself as follows:

My phrase “a non-Christian manipulator of Christianity” is an attack on Kristol’s cynicism, not his Jewishness. I agree wholeheartedly with Leon that, “if Kristol is wrong about Obama, it is not because Kristol is a Jew.” It is because he is a cynic about faith, and a ruthless partisan indifferent to the truth when it cannot be harnessed to the wielding of power. My post was a protest against the manipulation of faith for partisan purposes, a theme that readers know I have been concerned with for a long time, and is the core argument of my recent book. It would apply to anyone outside a faith who has decided to use and manipulate another’s faith for his own political purposes. “Non-Christian” would include atheist or Muslim or agnostic or, of course, Jewish. It would apply to my calling a professing Muslim a fraud or a practising Protestant a liar….

He continued:

One reader emailed me to say that he thought the phrase could be interpreted as anti-Semitic, and, to be honest, it was the first time it occurred to me. All I can say is that is not in any way what I intended, the context makes this obvious, and if someone were to take it that way, I am sincerely, deeply sorry for not being clearer. I find anti-Semitism one of the vilest, ugliest, dumbest pathologies of the human mind and soul, and I don’t think any fair reader of my work over the years could come to any other conclusion….

Rather than turn the other cheek, however, Sullivan proceeded to fire back in kind, hinting that Wieseltier’s charge of “Jew-baiting” was accompanied by a tinge of gay-baiting:

The origins of Leon’s personal hatred of yours truly are too tedious to recount, but they go back a very long way, and Wieseltier is a connoisseur and cultivator of personal hatred. I do think, however, that when accusing someone of “Jew-baiting,” a writer might be a little more careful in his own use of language. I am 44 years old, a former editor of the magazine Wieseltier works for, married, and adult. And yet this is the tone of Leon’s scorn: “Nice little blog you have there, Obama boy.”

Little? Boy? African-Americans and gay men have had one thing in common over the decades and centuries. When we are being put in our place by our superiors, we are called “boys.” What do you call an openly gay man who actually manages to have a career in mainstream journalism? A boy. Obama is not a boy, and neither am I. And breaking through those barriers is one thing this election has come to be about.


If nothing else, this edifying exchange provides a convenient opportunity to take note of a certain irony in this dueling duo’s election-year writings: Sullivan’s quixotic conservatism may have made him a poor fit for the ostensibly liberal New Republic, but this election cycle he has become an enthusiastic Obama booster. Meanwhile, the liberal Wieseltier’s seeming skepticism about Obama’s candidacy contrasts with some of his friendlier words for a certain senator from Arizona.

UPDATE: Jewcy’s Daniel Koffler has a withering take on Wieseltier’s low blow here. He also adds some context that makes me reconsider my dismissal of Sullivan’s complaint about Wieseltier’s disparaging use of the word “boy.”

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Andrew Sullivan, Leon Wieseltier, Barack Obama, Bill Kristol, The New Republic

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

jasy Mon. Nov 23, 2009

was ich fer schta nütt

Find us on Facebook!
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel:
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.