Serious observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are familiar with the nastiest and most irresponsible of the “pro-Israel” American Jewish rightwing, which at any cost seeks to defend Israel against the indefensible: Martin Peretz, Alan Dershowitz, Jeffrey Goldberg, Abraham Foxman, David Horowitz, Daniel Pipes, David Harris of the American Jewish Committee, and the like. To this unillustrious list must now be added the name of Lee Smith, until now an obscure rightwing journalist. I don’t know if Smith is Jewish, but in the last two weeks Tablet, an online “magazine of Jewish news, ideas, and culture,” published two articles by Smith that have reached a new low: ”Mainstreaming Hate,” and “Playing With Fire”
Because Tablet has a number of well-known editors and contributors, as well as because of the sensational nature of the Smith charges, the articles have received widespread publicity and notoriety. They are hard to read without feeling physically sick. Smith makes two charges. First, he asserts that the most important blogs critical of Israel—Phil Weiss’s Mondoweiss, Glen Greenwald’s regular blog on Salon, Andrew Sullivan’s commentary in Atlantic and, above all, Steven Walt’s blog at foreignpolicy.com (Weiss and Greenwald are Jewish, Sullivan and Walt aren’t)—represent nothing more than “Jew-baiting.”
Secondly, according to Smith the blogs he attacks are sponsored by mainstream media companies who, desperate to reverse their recent loss of readers, have decided that their prospects for returning to profitability depend on their “using the Internet to make anti-Semitism respectable…” He explains: “The Israel, or rather anti-Israel, market is one of the most attractive niche markets….If not quite as popular as adult-content sites, the anti-Israel blogosphere is a dirty little thrill that major U.S. media outfits have mainstreamed for the masses, the intellectual equivalent of the topless “Page Three” girls that British tabloids use to boost circulation.”
In response to the outrage that greeted his first article, in his second article Smith elaborates on his charges. He denies, apparently with a straight face, that he had charged Walt and Sullivan with being personally anti-Semitic, or Weiss and Greenwald with being “of the hothouse flower variety of anti-Semite known as the self-hating Jew.” Even though “all four men openly engage in Jew-baiting,” he continues, and even though “plenty of credible voices” (copiously cited) have accused the leading critics of Israel of being anti-Semitic, he, Smith, would refrain from doing so because he couldn’t read their minds. Nor was he blaming the critics for allegedly anti-Semitic comments on their blogs, not at all: “Walt is not accountable for the rabble that hang on his every word….Even though a sewer follows Walt wherever he goes, he is not that sewer’s keeper.”
The real point of his first article, Smith argues, was to “illustrate that these pundits, their audiences, and the major media companies hosting their blogs, are complicit in the common work of mainstreaming…anti-Semitic language, ideas, and discourse… If Walt and the others may be acquitted of responsibility for their cesspools, what blame lies with their employers?” He continues: “Walt’s readers live through his posts and feed off of the legitimacy bestowed on him by mainstream American cultural institutions—Harvard, which employs him; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, which published his book, and FP.com and The Washington Post Company, which host his blog. Walt and his anti-Israel blogging colleagues have become the respectable face of Jew-baiting. They’re the cesspool’s avatars.”
As if it would verify his charges, Smith in several places quotes Jeffrey Goldberg: “Walt is a throwback to the 1930s,” says Goldberg. “In the ’30s the isolationists rode the Jews as a hobby horse. They tried very hard to marginalize American citizens of the Jewish faith by questioning their loyalty. These guys don’t even understand what ancient terror they’re tapping into. What’s original, what makes this period alarming, is that The Washington Post Company would give a Jew-baiter a platform.” Can there be any doubt that Smith and Goldberg hope to pressure the Washington Post, not exactly an exemplar of fearless liberalism these days, into silencing Walt?
Even leaving aside the case of Lee Smith, the ugliness of his language, and his crackpot argument about the mainstream media’s decision to make more money by backing “Jew-baiting,” there are a number of things wrong with, and possibly even dangerous about, the Jewish rightwing’s screams of “anti-Semitism” when Israel is strongly criticized by the leading bloggers. Not only are the charges false and scurrilous, they risk provoking a genuinely anti-Semitic backlash; beyond that, they are bad for U.S. national interests and security, bad for Israel, and bad for the American Jewish community, especially since they violate our best traditions and values.
Are the Leading Bloggers Anti-Semitic?
To begin with, Walt, Sullivan, Weiss, Richard Silverstein, and Jeremiah Haber, along with many others, have ably defended themselves or their colleagues, for example by pointing out that the sole evidence Smith cites to support his ugly charges that they engage in “Jew-baiting” come not from anything—anything—that the bloggers themselves wrote, but from reader comments on their blogs! Of course it is the case that anything critical of Israel will appeal to a few genuine anti-Semites—but it is far more likely to generate equally enraged and vicious comments, along the lines of Smith himself, from the “pro-Israel” crackpots.
Smith’s main target is Steven Walt and, by implication, John Mearsheimer, the co-author of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (2007), which aside from Walt’s ForeignPolicy.com blog is the main focus of outrage by the Jewish rightwing. Mearsheimer (a chaired professor at the University of Chicago) and Walt (a chaired professor at Harvard, the former Dean of the Kennedy School of Government and Co-chairman of the Editorial Board of International Security, the most prestigious professional journal in its field) are two of the most eminent scholars and public intellectuals in the field of international politics, world renowned and deservedly so: in a recent survey of international politics scholars, Mearsheimer was ranked fifth on a list of scholars who have had the greatest impact on the field over the past twenty years, while Walt ranked twenty-second.
Of course intellectual eminence might not always constitute definitive disproof of the charge of anti-Semitism, but you would think it would at least induce some caution and constrain guttersniping from the Jewish rightwing—typically called “pro-Israel,” but in terms of consequences, anything but. In any case, the important point is that a careful reading of The Israel Lobby as well as the subsequent work of both Mearsheimer and Walt (as well as that of Andrew Sullivan) would make it clear that far from being anti-Semitic, if anything they are philo-Semitic. That is, while being good realists who must first emphasize the national interest stakes for the United States, they are also deeply concerned about moral justice and the true national interests of Israel. Indeed, those of us in the same profession who have widely read the work of Mearsheimer and Walt, as well as being acquainted with them personally, know that both of them have close connections to the American Jewish community, and are rightly in disbelief if not despair at what the Jewish right is doing to that community and to the “Jewish moral values” that they have deeply admired.
The Israel Lobby Thesis
Even if The Israel Lobby was actually anti-Semitic, it would not relieve us of the necessity of evaluating on its merits the book’s central argument—that the Israel lobby, of course overwhelmingly Jewish, has great power over American foreign policy toward the Middle East in general and towards Israel in particular, and that it has exercised that power in a manner that is bad for both the U.S. and Israel. In my view, while the Mearsheimer/Walt book is a highly important work in a number of ways, it is by no means entirely persuasive. I will not go into detail here; I have written about it at length and Mearsheimer and Walt have responded.
In brief, for over sixty years the United States has provided nearly unqualified support of Israel, not merely for its existence and basic security, but for most of its policies in the Arab-Israeli conflict. How to account for this “special relationship” is complicated and subject to dispute. One of the problems that Mearsheimer and Walt faced in writing their book and in their subsequent defenses of it is that there is no doubt that a focus on Jewish financial and media power has long been one of the staples of anti-Semitism both in the United States and Europe; however, that doesn’t change the obvious fact that Jews do in fact have great financial, political and media power in the U.S. The only serious question is the extent of that power. In my judgment, The Israel Lobby overstates the case—although not whether that power, whatever its extent, is today being used wisely. My own answer—and I am certain that of Mearsheimer, Walt, and Sullivan as well--is that on all non-Israeli issues America is better off because of the prominence of Jews. On Israeli issues, however, both America and Israel are harmed by the power of the Israel Lobby, whatever its extent.
In my view, the long-lasting and remarkably strong U.S. support of Israel is the result of the convergence of many factors, of which the existence of a strong pro-Israel lobby is only one, and in most cases probably not the most important. The initial reason—and one that remains important today--was the widespread and deeply felt belief among U.S. officials and the general public alike that the United States had a moral obligation to help Israel defend itself against its Arab enemies. In the early years, this obligation stemmed from a widespread sense of guilt about the consequences of centuries of Western anti-Semitism, culminating in the Holocaust.
Second, Israel captured the imagination and sympathy of the American public, which even today still generally views it (in however oversimplified a manner) as having created and maintained a Western liberal democracy in a region dominated by despotic autocracies. Third, during the cold war Israel came to be perceived as a strongly anticommunist, pro-American, and militarily powerful ally in countering the threat of Soviet or communist expansionism in the Middle East and even, to a somewhat lesser extent, elsewhere in the global struggle. A fourth set of factors are the felt cultural and religious affinities between the United States and Israel: the differences between Christians and Jews in the United States have come to be seen as increasingly irrelevant and have been replaced by a sense of solidarity between those who share the “Judeo-Christian heritage.” Finally, of course, Israel is seen by most Americans—however simplistically or even erroneously (as, in fact, Mearsheimer and Walt convincingly argue)—as an indispensable ally in the struggle against Islamic radicalism and terrorism.
All that said, however, who can seriously doubt that domestic politics are also are important part of the explanation, or that the American Jewish community has long had considerable influence and power in the U.S. government policy-making process on Israeli issues? Perhaps more so than ever: witness Obama’s pathetic series of retreats-- especially as his domestic popularity wanes and the Congressional elections approach--from his initial attempts to press Israel into agreeing to a fair settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In short, while one may disagree about the extent of Jewish power, in no sense is the Israel Lobby, or the subsequent powerful foreign policy analyses of Mearsheimer and Walt, “anti-Semitic”—let alone that Walt, Andrew Sullivan and other critical bloggers are, in Smith’s nauseating language, “career Jew baiters.”
The Jewish Right and the Danger of an Anti-Semitic Backlash.
Rather than guarding against anti-Semitism, the insults, coarseness, irrationality and dishonesty of the Jewish rightwing risks setting off an anti-Semitic backlash. To be sure, I don’t think there is much likelihood of this at present, but being Jewish myself and with some personal experience with anti-Semitism in the past, I cannot dismiss the danger out of hand: coming of age in America in the 1940s, I heard about, saw, and personally experienced plenty of anti-Semitism.
More importantly, it is well to keep in mind the historical experience of the Jews: in the past two thousand years Jews have frequently been a tolerated minority, and sometimes have even risen to powerful and respected positions in some of the most advanced and civilized states—like England, Spain, Portugal, France, and of course Germany—only to see their social standing, their accomplishments, their livelihood and often their very lives suddenly swept away by a deadly outbreak of anti-Semitism. In light of this history, the possible resurgence of anti-Semitism in the West cannot be entirely discounted, for it has never been definitively defeated and eliminated and has always survived, even if deep under the surface, as if lying in wait for some national political or economic crisis to once again burst out in full fury.
With that in mind, it is one thing to label (explicitly or by unmistakable innuendo) the most prominent and brave of the Jewish critics of Israel—Norman Finkelstein, Phil Weiss, Glen Greenwald, Richard Silverstein, M.J Rosenberg, and so on—as “self-hating Jews,” a charge that is so preposterous and revolting that only fools take it seriously. It’s another matter altogether to continue assailing the serious, informed, and justifiably highly respected non-Jewish critics of Israel—Mearsheimer, Walt, Sullivan, Chas Freeman, Scott McConnell, Michael Desch, and others.
The problem is not that these men themselves--all of them patient, of good will, and genuinely committed to the best interests of Israel--will get really angry at the supposedly “pro-Israel” Jews in general, let alone countenance an anti-Semitic backlash. Rather, the real concern is how ordinary Americans as well as unwise or unprincipled politicians will react, if or when they finally catch on to the fact that Israel’s policies and the still-strong support of them by a large majority of American Jews are inflicting serious damage on American foreign policy, and perhaps even basic national security. Although the Jewish rightwing blandly denies that there is any connection between the hatred of Islamic fanatics and terrorists for the United States and the history of the near-unconditional American support of Israel, the denial is preposterous, since Osama bin Laden and many other al-Qaeda or other terrorist leaders have repeatedly said that their primary motive for attacking this country—including 9/11-- is its support for Israel’s occupation and repression of the Palestinians.
Bad for Israel
As well as being bad for the United States, the American Jewish rightwing is bad for Israel. Israel today is in desperate straits. Even leaving aside the dangers to its national security or very existence created by its endless provocations of the Arab or Islamic world, whose fanatics will almost certainly eventually gain possession of nuclear weapons, the poison created by the stupidity and criminal behavior of the Israelis towards the Palestinians is rapidly seeping into the politics and society of Israel itself. Israel today is well on its way to making a mockery of its claim to be a civilized Western democracy—even if only for the Jews, let alone for the more than five million Arabs whom it effectively rules or controls, directly or indirectly. And with every passing day the news gets worse, as new signs emerge of the gathering descent of the Jewish state into authoritarianism, religious fundamentalism, anti-intellectualism, state repression, majority tyranny, and international pariahdom.
A growing number of Israeli commentators openly express their fear that Israel—a Jewish state, who could have imagined it—is sliding into fascism, and desperately call on the United States to help save Israel from itself. In vain, I fear, given the domestic politics of the Israeli issue in this country, as well as (as Scott McConnell has astutely observed) the reluctance of so many Jews and Gentiles to speak out and subject themselves to the repugnant attacks of the Jewish rightwing.
Bad for the Jews
In the entire history of the Jews there has never been a state such as America of the last fifty years or so: certainly not anti-Semitic, and not even merely “tolerant,” but perhaps even philo-Semitic. Where else have we ever been more secure—certainly not in Israel—and, beyond elemental safety, more integrated, respected, prosperous, honored—and, yes, powerful? Even so, given our overall historical plight, as well as the fact that we constitute less than 2% of the American population, one might hope for greater wisdom and insult-free discourse from the Jewish rightwing.
Beyond the potential dangers of fouling the nest, the Jewish rightwing is betraying what we have been pleased to think of as “Jewish values,” but which are really what is best in Western civilization as a whole: a commitment to reason, truth, and justice. The Jewish rightwing is making a mockery of these values: routinely lying, resorting to the tactics of the guttersnipe, and debasing rational and civilized discourse. Indeed, such a discourse would be essential even if the Jewish rightists had something of value to contribute to the debate over Israeli policies and U.S. support of them, and all the more so when they are devastatingly wrong about the true national interest, well-being, and moral standing of Israel.