There is a huge debate going on at the moment in the blogosphere about the term “Israel Firster”, which it turns out was made popular by neo-Nazis and spread through the antisemite network before making it into mainstream discourse. From what I gather, the whole debate started when Ben Smith wrote in Politico about the controversy in the Democrat party surrounding the Centre for American Progress (CAP). CAP is a think tank with close ties to Obama and a marked antipathy towards Israel (emphasis added):
The daily battle is waged in Media Matters’ emails, on CAP’s blogs, Middle East Progress and ThinkProgress and most of all on Twitter, where a Media Mattters official, MJ Rosenberg, regularly heaps vitriol on those who disagree as “Iraq war neocon liar” (the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg) or having “dual loyalties” to the U.S. and Israel (the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin). And while the Center for American Progress tends to walk a more careful line, warm words for Israel can be hard to find on its blogs.
… Another recent column on the CAP website, one of several to prompt behind-the-scenes outrage from the powerful pro-Israel group AIPAC, featured Eric Alterman accusing AIPAC of campaigning for war in Iran, which Alterman described as its “big prize.”
Over at Media Matters, Rosenberg, a former AIPAC staffer turned apostate, labels American Israel hawks “Israel-firsters” and recently blasted Rep. Brad Sherman, a California Democrat, for pushing a sanctions on Iranian civilian aviation that would be “the most ugly expression yet of this country’s almost bizarre obsession with punishing Iran, its people along with its government.”
The debate that I have been following closely began when Salon writer Glenn Greenwald tried to elicit from Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg a confession that he (Goldberg) swore to put Israel first when he joined the Israeli Defence Forces. Goldberg’s response was an understandable “I don’t think I did that but so what if I did? It was 25 years ago”. Unperturbed, Greenwald still attacked Goldberg for his alleged victimisation of the poor guy, who keeps being “silenced” by people who don’t like his opinions.
Jeffrey Goldberg, who plants himself in the middle of every one of these orgies of anti-Semitism accusations, trotted out every trite accusatory line from the tired neocon playbook to attack me explicitly as an Israel-hater and, he strongly implied, as an anti-Semite (none of these accusations are accompanied by a single word I’ve said or even a link to anything I’ve written).
… As I said, these attacks are as boring and clichéd as they are predictable: every person who deviates from orthodoxy on Israel and opposes these neocon smear campaigns is automatically subjected to them. Israel-hater. Anti-Semite. Self-hating Jew. Etc. etc. I’m boring myself even summarizing it.
That Greenwald even wrote this is very revealing of his character. Goldberg is not widely liked amongst the more right-leaning of Israel’s supporters. For instance, here’s him writing to the Israeli PM, advocating for a withdrawal from the West Bank and calling Avigdor Lieberman an “international embarrassment”, hardly the orthodox pro-Israel line:
… Yes, risking your coalition means you would have to induce Tsipi Livni’s opposition Kadima party into the government, but now seems as good a moment as any. At the very least, you’ll gain a foreign minister who isn’t an international embarrassment. And you might convince at least a few settlers — those outside the security fence, especially — that it would be best for them to move back to Israel and reinvigorate Zionism.
It is hard to see how Goldberg could possibly wage a “smear campaign” against “every person who deviates from orthodoxy on Israel” when he himself deviates from said orthodoxy and is not generally one to self-deprecate.
The irony of Greenwald automatically labelling people “neocons” for not agreeing with his anti-Zionist orthodoxy while at the same time claiming that anyone who disagrees with the pro-Israel orthodoxy is automatically labelled “antisemitic” is apparently lost on Greenwald, but not on Spencer Ackerman.
If what Rosenberg and the others on the left want is a debate—by which I understand them to mean a debate about the wisdom of a war with Iran, and about the proper role of the U.S.-Israel relationship—great. The left, I think, will win that debate on the merits, because it recognizes that if Israel is to survive as a Jewish democracy living in peace beside a free Palestine, an assertive United States has to pressure a recalcitrant Israel to come to its senses, especially about the insanity of attacking Iran.
But that debate will be shut down and sidetracked by using a term that Charles Lindbergh or Pat Buchanan would be comfortable using. I can’t co-sign that. The attempt to kosherize “Israel Firster” is an ugly rationalization.
As Goldberg notes, the truly concerning point about the “Israel First” moniker is explained by Adam Kirsch in Tablet. Kirsch points out that the discourse surrounding supporters of Israel has changed over the past few years, largely thanks to the much-criticised The Israel Lobby by Steven Walt and John Mearsheimer. While Walt and Mearsheimer did not create the idea of a “pro-Israel Lobby” controlling US foreign policy, they definitely introduced it into the popular lexicon, giving a new way for antisemites and their sympathisers to speak of the age-old Jewish conspiracy in a slightly less transparent way than pointing at the ZOG (Zionist-Occupied Government).
But if The Israel Lobby has not changed American politics, it has had an insidious effect on the way people talk and think about Israel, and about the whole question of Jewish power. The first time I had this suspicion was when reading, of all things, a biography of H.G. Wells. In H.G. Wells: Another Kind of Life, published in the U.K. in 2010, Michael Sherborne describes how Wells’ contempt for Nazism went along with a dislike for Judaism and Zionism, which he voiced in deliberately offensive terms even as Nazi persecution of Jews reached its peak. “To take on simultaneously the Nazis … and the Jewish lobby may have been foolhardy,” Sherborne writes apropos of Wells in 1938.
There’s no way to prove that Sherborne’s “Jewish lobby” is the intellectual descendant of Walt and Mearsheimer’s “Israel lobby,” but the inference seems like a strong one. Wells, the term suggests, was not attacking Jews, a group that in the Europe of the 1930s was conspicuous for its absolute powerlessness in the face of the evolving Nazi genocide. Instead, he was bravely standing up to a powerful “lobby,” an organization designed to punish critics of the Jews, and whose influence was on a par somehow with that of the Nazis.
What is disturbing in the Sherborne example is the way Walt and Mearsheimer’s conception of Jewish power is projected into a historical moment when it could not have been less accurate. In France during the Dreyfus Affair, it was common for anti-Semites and anti-Dreyfusards to speak of a Jewish syndicate that secretly ruled the country. Now, in the 21st century, it has once again become possible to speak of a Jewish “lobby” that it would be foolish to cross. One of the central premises of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy is that it takes unusual courage to oppose the Jews, since they use their power to ruthlessly suppress dissent in both the political world and the media. Walt and Mearsheimer place themselves on the side of the angels when they attack the Israel lobby’s “objectionable tactics, such as attempting to silence or smear anyone who challenges the lobby’s role or criticizes Israel’s actions.”
The problem with Walt and Mearsheimer is not that they are prima facie antisemitic, it’s that their theories come so close to antisemitism that genuine antisemites can use the cover of The Israel Lobby to mask their opinions. They provided a new platform for ancient conspiracies about Jews manipulating world affairs. For example, George Orwell once cited a common trope in British society in the 1940s that WWII was a “Jewish war” and Britain was only fighting it because of the Jewish Brits. This bears striking parallels to the Walt and Mearsheimer trope that the so-called “Israel Lobby” was responsible for America invading Iraq – something that was never an Israeli policy and is of questionable benefit to Israel in the first place. It also provides a way to begin questioning American Jewish loyalties to their country of residence.
For example, many of these accusatory articles accuse Haim Saban of being an “Israel Firster”, where he is painted as an American Jew who unwaveringly supports Israel and openly announces that Israel is his number one issue (for example, see Andrew Sullivan here), ignoring the fact that Saban is staunchly pro-Democrat and that he was raised in Israel and only emigrated to the US in his 20s.
There is undoubtedly a line between legitimate criticism of Israel and antisemitism and it is important to bear this in mind. One of the easiest ways to tell whether something is genuinely antisemitic is to replace the word “Israel” or “Zionist” with the word “Jew” and see if it brings to mind any ugly stereotypes. That the “Israel Lobby” is increasingly becoming the “Jewish Lobby” should come as little surprise; it may be only a matter of time until “Jew First” becomes an acceptable epithet.