Jon Voight had a question for me on that August afternoon. “Do you know about the Balfour Agreement?” he asked over the phone. I did. “Do you know anything about the League of Nations mandate in 1922?” I was pretty sure I knew the gist. “Do you know anything about the San Remo Accords?” He got me there.
Did I know anything about Jon Voight? I knew the famously tough-guy actor has emerged as a strong, vehement supporter of Israel, seemingly of the Christians United for Israel school—the obvious thing I could take away from the trip he made to the Holy Land earlier this year with evangelical uber-Zionist Mike Huckabee, the Fox News host and former Arkansas governor. They had visited the site of a planned Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem and hobnobbed with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And I knew that Voight was slated to be in New York City during the opening session of the U.N. General Assembly to attend a conference titled “The Perils of Global Intolerance: The United Nations and Durban III,” sponsored by Touro College and the conservative Hudson Institute. I had called his agent seeking an in-person interview about his very public Zionism, and Voight had phoned back.
But I hadn’t known enough to predict an impromptu lesson in Zionist history. Voight wound his way, like a skier expertly slaloming past every flag, through the Mandate, the Mufti, the Holocaust, and the partition. “And as we know, again, there was silence from the world community,” this time as Arab nations invaded the brand-new State of Israel, Voight said, his voice high-pitched with agitation. “No one said anything from that body.” He meant the United Nations. “We didn’t.” He meant the Americans. “France didn’t. Germany didn’t.” Well, we recognized Israel, I pointed out. He spat back, defending Israel’s founders: “But they did nothing to stop them from being annihilated. Nothing! Just like they did nothing to stop them from being annihilated during the Holocaust. When they could have stopped the murder of hundreds of thousands, of millions of lives.”
I asked Voight why he felt so strongly about this issue. “How can you not have an admiration?” he replied. “You walk the land in Samaria,” he continued, referring to a part of the West Bank by its biblical and politically charged name, “where I was, and you are amazed at what they’ve been able to accomplish.” What on paper would be boilerplate—what must seem to you as boilerplate—felt credible in his impassioned voice. What was less clear was where the passion came from.
A few weeks later, I found myself in a mid-sized, mildly ornate room on the second floor of the Millennium U.N. Plaza Hotel, across the street from the U.N. General Assembly building on the East Side of Manhattan. Several dozen of us were there to listen to a roster of speakers—including Elie Wiesel, Alan Dershowitz, John Bolton, Ed Koch, and the omnipresent Huckabee—inveigh against the persistent anti-Israel bias within the building on the other side of First Avenue, which that day was playing host to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s anti-Semitic conspiracy theorizing as well as Durban III, a re-re-affirmation of a 2001 U.N. conference’s notorious report that had toyed with revivifying a (since-annulled) General Assembly resolution stating that Zionism is a form of racism. Huckabee provoked the loudest applause of the afternoon when he called for Israel to accelerate settlement-building. Conference speakers dropped Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s name the way rock aficionados drop Jimmy Page’s.
If you were looking for him, as I was, Voight was instantly recognizable, a cap of thinning gray hair half-a-head above the other seated figures near the front. Men with real presence tend to have large features, but Voight has small eyes and a tiny, half-triangle of a nose that get crowded out by his ruddy-complexioned, square face. In profile, his long, flat, vertical jaw is almost a dead-ringer for that of his daughter, Angelina Jolie.
“My dear fellow Americans,” began his prepared remarks when his turn came to speak, “I’m here today to express my outrage that anti-Semitic Arabs can give themselves the right to decide the fate of Israel, when we all know by now that the Arab and Palestinian mandate is to wipe Israel off the map.” When he reached his rousing conclusion, it sounded like it was written by a conservative who had been forced to watch 40 hours of The West Wing:
And now, they try to spew out this insane new poison: Zionism is racism. These people, who themselves are terrorists and killers, are trying to find new ways to bring hatred to the Jewish people once again. [Dramatic pause.] Zionism is philanthropy, a belief in helping others, a belief in life, and freedom. “To save one life is to save a world.” It is belief in God and good. The Palestinians that have orchestrated this lie believe in death and killing. It’s just their way of covering up who they really are. If Israel falls, America will fall. Let us stay tuned and focused on the Palestinian agenda at the U.N. President Abbas is a Holocaust denier and wants to create another holocaust for Israel with his agenda, and he is trying to make it all look legal, to point fingers at the people of Israel, who are the true democratic society and human rights-keepers. I pray that every good, God-fearing American understands the truth of this onslaught. My love to you all.
As much as Voight relished his prepared oration, bomb-throwing but carefully wrought, he also seemed genuinely, enthusiastically earnest in his opening remarks, which can so often seem perfunctory. “I’m a fan,” he’d said of the other presenters. Conference organizer Anne Bayefsky was “this beaver after the truth.” Black conservative intellectual Shelby Steele was “my good friend, who sees this from a new aspect.” Smart English guy Douglas Murray was “quite brilliant.” Ruth Wisse’s “insights and her words about anti-Semitism were quite brilliant—and she’s up in Harvard.” He added, to more laughter, “That’s like coming from Hollywood!”
After the conference, I introduced myself to Voight, and he told me I could take a walk with him. He seemed delighted to be in my company, which surprised me, because I had sent his representatives repeated emails and put in numerous phone calls after that initial conversation, but I had received no reply. “An eager person like yourself should be rewarded,” he told me.
We arrived at First Avenue. “What building is that?” he deadpanned. The United Nations, an erect rectangle of glass next to a snug, curled horizontal French fry of white adobe, was directly in front of us. It was after six, and most of the diplomats and protesters seemed to have gone. “When I look at it, I always think, Maybe they’re fumigating it,” he said. “It would be the perfect thing to do to the whole place: fumigate. Get rid of all the rats.”
This was not the only outrageous thing he said to me. “There is no Palestinian people,” he had told me over the phone. “Palestine was the name of that area given by the Romans—comes from the root ‘Philistine.’ They were just Arabs that came there.” And there was the speech.
Moreover, Voight was once a sergeant of the counterculture. In 1969, he was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for the titular role in Midnight Cowboy, a Southern good ol’ boy who finds himself a hustler in New York City. In a bit of convenient symbolism, his main competition for the statue was the ultimate old-school cowboy, John Wayne. Wayne won, for True Grit; Midnight Cowboy, however, took home Best Picture honors—the only X-rated film ever to do so. Voight still lives in Hollywood. Recent roles have included Pope John Paul II and FDR. In 2001, Voight also played the coal-miner father of the male model Derek Zoolander’s in the Ben Stiller comedy Zoolander, a role so deadpan it absolutely required a sense of humor.
I prodded him again about why he chose defending Israel, out of all possible causes, to promote. “I’m just trying to do what I can,” he said. “I can contribute some of my celebrity—that’s helpful. And that’s a reason to have celebrity, to do something good with it. If you have physical strength, you can use that. If you have money, you can do something with money. You give what you have.”
Exhibit A in the use of celebrity toward good causes, I pointed out, might be his daughter. “It’s not a coincidence, obviously,” he replied. “Her mom was a humanitarian, I’m a humanitarian.” However, I pointed out, her causes are quite different. Starving African children and West Bank settlers don’t look the same, least of all in Hollywood’s eyes.
We were standing still now, periodically shuffling back and forth, like two boxers in the ring. (Voight had won every round.) The late afternoon took on a weirdly quiet quality; First Avenue was still closed off, but, most of the day’s business complete, few people were actually around.
“When the left walked away from the murder that took place when we pulled out of Vietnam—all the millions of people who were massacred when we pulled out—it should’ve awakened anybody that was on the other side, who was against the war,” he told me.
But the narrative of the ’60s lefty turned contemporary conservative isn’t exactly original, and, knowing this, you tend to look for something specific. Voight’s association with Huckabee led me to assume that his faith, no doubt some evangelical Christian variant, was what led him to feel strongly about Israel, and that his Southern upbringing planted the seeds for his conversion that just happened to take 30 or 40 years to bloom.
Isn’t he from the South? That’s what I had assumed back before he first called me on that afternoon. His most iconic character, Midnight Cowboy’s Joe Buck, was a Texan hayseed. And in my imagination, he was most shaped by his role as Bud Kilmer, the racist redneck coach of the West Canaan Coyotes in 1999’s MTV-produced Varsity Blues.
Well, apparently, it’s called acting for a reason. Voight is from Westchester County, N.Y. He was raised not evangelical but Catholic. “I knew Jews from the community that I come from,” he had told me on the phone. “My father was a golf professional at a Jewish country club. So, when I was very young, I understood anti-Semitism, because these people at the club who were employers of my dad couldn’t get into other clubs because of anti-Semitism. So, they built their own club.”
He continued: “I grew up understanding that these people were for some reason the victims of bigotry or racism or whatever you want to call it, and I saw them to be admirable people. They had the freedom to build their own club.
“No one told me that,” he added, “I just knew it. I grew up with these people. I liked them—they were my dad’s mentors, because he grew up as a caddy at the same club. I was very fortunate to grow up in their company as well.” Voight, it turns out, was born in Yonkers. The club in question is Sunningdale; it’s a little farther north, in Scarsdale.
But back to First Avenue, creeping ever closer to dusk. “I usually say, ‘Don’t ask about people’s political affiliation,’ ” he told me after I asked him, one more time, why he should give a damn about Israel and the Jews. “I’m interested in knowing about the truth and acting on it. That’s it.” Voight was getting excited again. “I would say the Republican Party is being attacked by the left—vilified—much like Israel is being vilified across the world. And I say it’s wrong.”
We were alone on the sidewalk, everything getting dark as the sun prepared to set. “So then when that happens”—the Republican Party is being vilified—“I say: ‘I’m a Republican!’ That’s what I say. I say, ‘Hey, you’re gonna pick on these guys? Pick on me! I’m big enough. Go ahead, take a shot.’ ”