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


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.)

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. 

And he could have avoided the appearance of policing the discourse by simply offering liberal critics of the currently far-right Israeli government a derogatory-but-not-at-all-anti-Semitic epithet to hurl at its knee-jerk supporters here at home.  

We're not going to call them “pro-Israel,” so the challenge for those who get squishy when we respond to charges of anti-Semitism by calling our adversaries something like “Israel firsters” is to offer us a label for our opponents that is just as aggressive as all of our other political debates, but doesn't in any way resemble any “anti-Semitic tropes.”  

We're open to suggestions -- and whatever you come up with, please make it short so we can deploy it on Twitter. 

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