Has the Israel Lobby Gone Too Far?
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The other problem is that “Israel firsters” – a term used often by MJ Rosenberg that Block condemns as “fringe” and “borderline anti-Semitic,” aren't necessarily Jewish. The Israel lobby today rests as much on the activism of evangelical Christians as it does Jews. Support for Israel – often uncritical support – has become an ideological touchstone on the right, and politicians like Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich fall all over themselves to genuflect to the Israeli government. At a recent GOP debate, Mitt Romney said that he wouldn't dare try to influence the Israeli government. “If I was president,” he said, “I’d get on the phone to Bibi [Netanyahu] and say ‘Would it help if I said this?’” Israel-first, indeed.
MJ Rosenberg writes that he doesn't accuse anyone of putting the state of Israel first; rather, they “are putting the interests of Binyamin Netanyahu and his hardliners first.”
After all, if they were putting Israel first, they would not be promoting policies (such as war with Iran or the perpetuation of the occupation) that could very easily lead to Israel's destruction or, at least, to the loss of its Jewish majority. The people I call "Israel firsters" are, in fact, Netanyahu firsters.
Policing the Discourse
In the non-retraction to Ben Smith, Block also illustrated quite clearly that these smears are used to narrow the range of acceptable debate to that which is approved by people like Block. He told Smith, “policy or political rhetoric that is hostile to Israel, or suggests that Iran has no nuclear weapons program, has no place in the mainstream Democratic party discourse.”
It's a remakable revelation; Block is saying that suggesting that Iran is not seeking a nuclear weapon “has no place in the mainstream” discourse, despite the fact that this is a crucially important question and one subject to intense debate within intelligence circles. As Patrick Pexton, the onbudsman for the very-mainstream Washington Post wrote recently, the International Atomic Enegry Agency “does not say Iran has a bomb, nor does it say it is building one, only that its multiyear effort pursuing nuclear technology is sophisticated and broad enough that it could be consistent with building a bomb.”
Iran steadfastly denies it is aiming for a nuclear bomb and says its program is aimed at civilian nuclear energy and research. Of course, Tehran could be lying. But no one knows for sure.
This is what the U.S. director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March: “We continue to assess [that] Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that better position it to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so. We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.”
This is more than an inside-baseball story about feuding Washington institutions. It may prove to be a sea-change in the debate over Middle East policy. While Block probably didn't think twice about accusing those with whom he disagrees of harboring some sort of “fringe” ideology, it backfired in a very public, very noisy way.
For years, casual accusations of anti-Semitism against journalists, scholars and politicians resulted in damaged reputations, career problems and exile from the public sphere. Perhaps supporters of the Israeli government's policies will look at this incident and think twice about employing such smears in the future. And if that happens, it may well open up new space for a broader debate within the mainstream discourse.
Joshua Holland is an editor and senior writer at AlterNet. He is the author of The 15 Biggest Lies About the Economy: And Everything else the Right Doesn't Want You to Know About Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America . Drop him an email or follow him on Twitter.