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Dear Israel Lobby, We Give Up -- Please Give Us an Acceptable Way of Insulting You

In general, American political discourse isn't terribly civil. But critics of Israel's far-right government and its enablers at home aren't even allowed to throw a sharp elbow.

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But the ease with which Ackerman accepted this supposed association with a neo-Nazi highlights one of the problems with his column. I'll grant that “Israel firster” is clumsy, and lacking in civility. Yet it's such a benign slur compared with the casual and constant smears levied against those who criticize our government's tacit support for the occupation. Calling people “anti-Semites,” “self-loathing Jews” or “terrorist sympathizers” is a hundred times more offensive, but those smears are deployed so frequently and casually that one can almost forget that we have this debate that's marked with wildly asymmetric incivility. Scholars like  Steven Walt and nice Jewish boys like  Thomas Friedman and Eric Alterman are constantly being accused of holding truly heinous views -- of wanting to see women and gays stoned and lusting for the deaths of millions of Israelis. It's as outrageous as it is ubiquitous from the [FILL IN THE BLANK] crowd.  

And while two wrongs don't make a right, reading Ackerman's column, it's hard not to think, Oh, cry me a river -- these people smear everyone with whom they disagree, every day, with impunity, and now they're whining about being called an Israel firster?

Of course, such appeals to "civility" – not Ackerman's specifically, but more broadly -- are all about narrowing our discourse. Keep in mind that even acknowledging the existence of an Israel lobby is greeted with charges of anti-Semitism. And it's an easy game to play. One can find a vague parallel with some old “anti-Semitic trope" in just about any critical statement if one holds it up to the light in the right way and maybe squints a little. Some have argued that using the word "neocon" is inherently anti-Semitic. Pointing to the fact that there exists an influential "Israel Lobby" has been condemned as anti-Semitism. 

Ackerman, in a followup, insists that he's not trying to “police the discourse.” “You can say whatever you like about Israel,” he writes. “Expect people to argue with you about it.” One should accept that at face value, given Ackerman's liberal background. But it is also somewhat disingenuous; Ackerman didn't fall off the turnip truck yesterday, and he should know full well that in the debate over Israel and Palestine, one certainly cannot “say whatever you like about Israel.” The goal-posts of what crosses the line between “acceptable” criticism of Israeli policy and something far darker has been moved considerably by a concerted campaign to brand all but the most tepid criticism of the Israeli government as a “New Anti-Semitism.”  

As Max Blumenthal  noted, “The concept of the 'New Anti-Semitism' first emerged in 1973 when Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban wrote, 'Let there be no mistake: the New Left is the author and the progenitor of the new anti-Semitism.... Anti-Zionism is merely the new anti-Semitism.'"  

A year later, the Anti-Defamation League published the first book on the topic, accusing Palestinian rights advocates of advancing an ulterior, anti-Semitic agenda. Today, books warning about the existential threat of a "New Anti-Semitism" comprise a cottage industry, with pro-Israel politicians and activists producing a new title almost every year. 

A parallel effort has been underway to condemn any criticism that results in the “delegitimization” of the Israeli state, as judged by supporters of the Israeli government. The list of supposed delegitimizers is long – from  Salon and the Huffington Post, to  Israeli civil rights groups and international human rights organizations to former president  Jimmy Carter -- all have supposedly worked to erode the legitimacy of the “Jewish state.” And all manner of their criticisms are deemed beyond the pale. Ackerman may not be attempting to “police the discourse,” but as a liberal writer with a fair degree of credibility, he's legitimizing the efforts of those who are trying to do just that -- and in large part succeeding. 

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