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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.

The latest round in the long and nasty debate over Israel, Palestine and our own government's Mideast policy began with a coordinated campaign -- initiated by a former AIPAC staffer and eagerly picked up by the conservative media -- to marginalize a handful of progressive bloggers at the Center for American Progress and Media Matters who wrote critically of Israel's hard-right government and called its enablers in the United States "Israel Firsters." (I wrote about  the dust-up in December.)

The back and forth has continued since then, and it's now become clear that we need to offer a simple challenge to those who say that such terms are beyond the pale because they bear some vague resemblance to some old “anti-Semitic trope” or another. What, exactly, is an acceptable way of mixing it up with these people? How can we marginalize their malign policy preferences without being smeared as anti-Semites or self-loathing Jews? 

America's political discourse is not a garden party. We're factionalized, and we throw sharp elbows, especially online, where conservatives call liberals “moonbats,” and accuse them of hating America, and liberals lob back terms like “wingnut,” and accuse their counterparts of being morons.    

In the debate over Israel and Palestine – and U.S. policy in the Middle East – one side has been disarmed, their derogatory labels rejected as singularly unacceptable, while their opponents remain free to use the coarsest insults against them with impunity.  

The problem stems from the objective fact that there are a group of Americans – disproportionately represented among right-wing Christian evangelicals and older generations of Jewish-Americans – who ally themselves with the Israeli government. They do so regardless of its ideological bent at the moment and deny that the Palestinians have legitimate grievances (sometimes going so far as to deny their existence). They wish away the cruelty of the occupation, pretend that there are only rejectionists on the Palestinian side and Israel only wants peace, claim Israel has never violated international law or trampled on human rights, insist that Israeli Arabs don't face hostility and discrimination and go around calling everyone who disagrees anti-Semites and terror supporters. 

And despite the fact that their views are totally out of sync with most liberal Israelis, and many of the policies they favor, like a military attack on Iran, would likely result in an utter disaster for Israel as well as its neighbors, they insist on calling themselves “pro-Israel.”  

People who do not accept these arguments have attempted to characterize the views of this group and to come up with a variety of typically rough-and-tumble labels to apply t it. But all of them have been condemned as entirely out of bounds because, if held up to the light in just the right way, they kind of, sort of resemble some old anti-Semitic stereotype.  

Never mind that some of those who use the term “Israel-firster” are themselves Jewish – like Media Matters' analyst and former AIPACer MJ Rosenberg -- and their targets are very often not. The term, according to a recent column by Spencer Ackerman, writing in Tablet Magazine, recalls “some of the ugliest tropes in American Jewish history.”  

According to Ackerman: 

“Israel Firster” has a nasty anti-Semitic pedigree, one that many Jews will intuitively understand without knowing its specific history. It turns out white supremacist Willis Carto was reportedly the first to use it, and David Duke popularized it through his propaganda network. 

But as Phillip Weiss  later noted, “Ackerman is wrong. The term Israel Firster was used by a Zionist before it was used by white supremacists.” Actually, it was “a legendary Zionist, the late Abram Leon Sachar, the leading American historian of Jews and president of Brandeis when he said it.” Ackerman, who is a good, progressive journalist, cited James Kirchick , who is not, as an authority on this. (Justin Raimondo credits another prominent American Jew, the conservative anti-Zionist Alfred M. Lilienthal, for coining the phrase.)

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