The image is hard to resist. One of the most loathsome figures of
20th-century America is being haunted by the ghost of someone he condemned to death as he lays dying of AIDS.
The dying man is Roy Cohn, the former associate of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who
was a closeted homosexual who died of AIDS.
The ghost haunting him is the shadow of Ethel Rosenberg, the convicted
Communist spy who was executed in 1953 for her role in a Soviet espionage ring run by her husband, Julius.
Rosenberg taunts the dying Cohn by telling him that
"you could kill me, but you could not defeat me."
This scene from the new HBO adaptation of Tony Kushner's Pulitzer
Prize-winning play "Angels in America" is a bizarre twist on history.
But to criticize the fantasies contained in "Angels" on the grounds of
historical accuracy or even for artistic shortcomings is pointless. The play,
and now the film, are no longer mere theatrical offerings; as the single most
famous work that encapsulates the struggle of gays for acceptance and for the
world to take the deadly threat of AIDS seriously, it has taken on iconic
proportions. To argue with it on any other terms is a waste of time.
But the scene in which Meryl Streep, as Rosenberg, proclaims her ultimate
victory over Al Pacino, who plays the dying Cohn, remains interesting in and of
A REWRITING OF HISTORY
Kushner's wrong to proclaim that Ethel Rosenberg "could not be defeated,"
even if one thinks that she shouldn't have been executed for her crime. The
Stalinist cause for which she sacrificed her life and family was, heaven be
praised, defeated. The totalitarian and deeply anti-Semitic "socialist motherland"
that she loyally served is itself now in the dustbin of history, having
survived Cohn by only a few years.
This is significant because Kushner has, with his revisionist version of the
Rosenberg case, undermined one of the most important historical truths about
the McCarthy era. And that is that although McCarthy and Cohn are remembered as the most famous
anti-Communists, it was actually American liberals who were
the most fervent foes of all the Communists stood for.
Indeed, it's fair to say that the conservatives of that era were largely
bystanders, as courageous liberals such as Arthur Schlessinger Jr. and the late
journalist James Wechsler fought the Communists in the name of a principled
That's worth remembering, because another of the causes that has caught
Kushner's fancy requires the same sort of response from contemporary liberals.
Kushner, who was described in a recent New York Times profile as "socialist,
gay and so very Jewish (according to his friend Maurice Sendak) that 'it hurts
your eyes,' " is also interested in Israel.
Among those items listed in the piece as his "political preoccupations" is
"a renewed and serious peace process in the Mideast, [having] the wall and
settlements dismantled, and the presence of a real international peacekeeping
force to patrol the borders and Jerusalem."
Not prepared to just leave it at that, Kushner has produced a book that has
just been published by Grove Press that is dedicated to debunking and
undermining American Jewish support for Israel's attempts to defend itself.
Titled Wrestling With Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the
Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, the book, which was edited by Kushner and Alisa
Solomon, is a collection of essays by left-wing authors that debates the
legitimacy of Zionism itself. It attacks Israel's position from within the Jewish
community, rather than from outside it.
From that vantage point, Kushner and his authors champion Israelis who refuse
military service, debate Israel's Law of Return, scoff at the connection
between anti-Semitism and the vituperation aimed at Israel, and generally write of
the Jewish state as, at best, the moral equivalent of the Palestinian
terrorists that seek to destroy it.
In his introduction to the book, Kushner takes particular aim at those
American Jews who have rallied to Israel's defense in the past three years during
the Palestinian terrorist war of attrition.
He rails at those Jewish writers distinguished political liberals and
conservatives alike who signed an advertisement in the aftermath of the April
2002 "Passover massacre," in which dozens of Jews were killed. The ad condemned Palestinian terror, affirmed
the justice of Israel's cause, and called on the international community to stand with Israel in a time of peril.
But to Kushner, the statement was "shameful" because it did not balance
condemnation of terrorism with opposition to Israeli self-defense. Specifically
embracing discredited lies about Israeli "atrocities" during the course of the
Operation Defensive Shield battle in Jenin, Kushner can only see the
Palestinians as victims. This distorted version of the truth coming at a time of
continued Palestinian rejection of peace offers and dedication to the destruction of Israel is as outrageous as it is
WHERE HAVE ALL THE LIBERALS GONE?
But my point here is not to belabor the ubiquitous playwright; it's to point
out that the people we need most to hear from refuting his stand on Israel are
not those generally associated with the Jewish right. As was the case 50
years ago when liberals ousted Communists from positions of influence on the
respectable left, it must be liberals who reject the idea that the left should
remain a bastion of opposition to Israel.
Some liberals worry that those who defend Israel are damning them for not
specifically embracing the Likud Party, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon or
even President George W. Bush. They are wrong. The battle for Israel need not,
indeed, should not, be one of conservatives versus liberals, nor left versus
right, in either an American or an Israeli context.
Americans of goodwill no matter what their politics need to recognize
that opposing the assault on Israel and the worldwide rise of anti-Semitism that
masquerades as anti-Zionism isn't about politics. It is about the very
survival of Israel and the Jewish people.
Liberals should be concerned that a recent poll showed far more Republicans
than Democrats believe the United States should side with Israel in the Mideast
conflict. The trend is backed up by the opinion pages of newspapers, where
liberal backers of Israel are increasingly scarce.
Liberals who do not share Kushner's views on Israel need to realize that the
left is becoming an increasingly hostile place for Zionists. By not speaking
up loudly against leftists who have moved to a position of neutrality or even
hostility toward the Jewish nation, they are abandoning their political home to
a dangerous foe.
American Jewish liberals must reclaim the field from the likes of Kushner. It
is their voices and not just those of us for whom the word liberal is not a
compliment that must now be raised in defense of Israel.