Vice-President Dan Quayle made his contribution with his now-infamous frontal attack on the "cultural elite." Whatever one's view on the issue, the vice-president's tone as much as his phrasing made many people uncomfortable, clearly echoing the populist anti-Semitic rhetoric that began in the thirties and would for several decades wrap Hollywood, Jews, and Communism into a neat little anti-American package. Many people simply saw cultural elite as a euphemism for Jewish elite. Addressing a Clinton fund-raising dinner, in fact, director Mike Nichols opened by saying, "We can drop the Republican code for 'cultural elite.' Good evening, fellow Jews."
Then there's the vexing case of Pat Buchanan, onetime candidate for the Republican presidential nomination and full-time bellicose columnist and talking head. "Friends, this election is about much more than who gets what," he said when he addressed the Republican Convention last August. "It is about who we are . . . what we stand for as Americans. There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America."
Buchanan's "religious war" and his attitudes toward Jews and Israel are so troubling for the conservative wing of the Republican Party—not only because of the right's sordid history of anti-Semitism, dating to Father Coughlin and others in the thirties, but because of the critical question of who will control the party's future—that William F. Buckley Jr. devoted an entire issue of the National Review last year to the subject. The response was so overwhelming, he devoted a second issue to the ensuing debate. All of this has now been collected in a book, In Search of Anti-Semitism, in which Buckley concludes, "I find it impossible to defend Pat Buchanan against the charge that what he did and said amounted to anti-Semitism."
Podhoretz thinks Buchanan's anti-Semitism—the kind cloaked in the comfortable rhetorical cloth of mainstream politics—has been seeping into the public debate for some time. "There was a growing acceptability within the culture of very virulent attacks on Israel that became difficult to distinguish from old-fashioned anti-Semitism. You saw it first with Gore Vidal on the left and then with Pat Buchanan on the right. Why has this come to a boil now? My guess is that it's a matter of a gradual erosion of the restraints against this sort of open expression of hostility to Jews." This erosion has occurred, he says, as the Holocaust recedes.
The restraints on anti-Semitism have also been lifted across Europe. With the collapse of Communism and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, there's been a rabid resurgence of nationalism stretching from Azerbaijan to Poland—the kind of zeal for racial and religious purity that has led to the "ethnic cleansing" in the former Yugoslavia. More surprising, however, is what's happening in western Europe. Germany continues to struggle with the skinheads, while France has seen the rise of the rightwing National Front party, led by the vituperative Jean-Marie Le Pen. The party, whose slogan is "France for the French," advocates a variety of anti-Semitic and xenophobic positions and got more than 14 percent of the popular vote in last year's local elections. A survey done by the Italian magazine L'Espresso found that more than a third of its respondents believed that Italy's Jews were not really Italians.
In the United States, there is a consensus that these are pessimistic, mean-spirited times marked all too often by the loss of civility and understanding. Where once Americans felt locked in what Dr. Martin Luther King called "a network of inescapable mutuality," today there is a danger of what Podhoretz calls the "Balkanization of American culture"—the loss of a clear, collective sense of common cultural and social goals. Rather than an ecumenical spirit, there is only tribal hostility—something all too evident in Crown Heights. Even after federal and state authorities have agreed to investigate the riots and the murder, even after admissions that the police made errors in judgment, and even after Mayor Dinkins's televised Thanksgiving plea for harmony, little has changed. People are still afraid, still angry, and still feel betrayed.
City councilman Herbert Berman, who represents Canarsie, Mill Basin, Starrett City, and several other mostly white areas in Brooklyn, was the first elected official to say publicly what Jews had been saying privately: "There is a sense among Jews that they are no longer welcome in the city. What frightens me is I don't think City Hall understands. The mayor's inability to make people feel he is truly sensitive to these issues has exacerbated the situation."
"Jews feel unwelcome, even powerless, in what has always been the most Jewish American city."
Crown Heights was the latest in a string of events that led Jews to believe things were changing for the worse. Most observers also point to the not-guilty verdict in the murder of Meir Kahane; the controversy about the anti-Semitic views of City College professor Leonard Jeffries and the reluctance on the part of many leaders, particularly black ones, to speak out about it; the boycott of the Korean grocer in Brooklyn, with whom many Jews empathized. And there was the fiery, often divisive rhetoric of black activists like the Reverend Herbert Daughtry, the Reverend Al Sharpton (at the funeral of Gavin Cato, Sharpton called Jews "diamond merchants"), and Sonny Carson (he said at Cato's funeral that he was proud of the rioters).