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Of Semites and 'Anti-Semites' | The Nation

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Of Semites and 'Anti-Semites'

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Andrew Adler, publisher of something called the Atlanta Jewish Times, recently suggested that Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu should consider ordering the assassination of President Obama in order to “forcefully dictate that the United States’ policy includes its helping the Jewish state obliterate its enemies.” I wonder if it might be fair to term this dangerous nudnik an “Israel-firster.”

About the Author

Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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I mention the term not because I endorse its use. I don’t, as I am uncomfortable with its historical associations with age-old accusations against the political loyalty of all Jews, wherever they reside; and in any case, I try not to impute motives to others. But that does not mean that a great many people—including many right-wing Jews and some conservative Christians—will never prioritize what they believe to be Israel’s interests above all else.

Take, for instance, longtime Commentary editor (and father of current Commentary editor) Norman Podhoretz. In February 1972 he titled an article “Is It Good for the Jews?” in which he argued that American Jews needed to look “at proposals and policies from the point of view of the Jewish interest.” Thirteen years later he told an international conference of Jewish journalists in Israel, “The role of Jews who write in both the Jewish and general press is to defend Israel.” Moreover, in March 2007 I happened to be in the audience at a conference for aspiring Jewish journalists at New York City’s Center for Jewish History, where Harvard’s Ruth Wisse instructed the earnest young attendees to think of themselves not as honest seekers of wisdom and truth but as adjuncts to the Israeli Defense Forces, and to use their words just as Podhoretz suggested: to defend Israel, period.

It hardly strains credulity to imagine that folks with the views described above would welcome an attack on Iran’s nuclear program to protect Israel, regardless of its implications for the United States and the world. Rather than argue the merits of this position, however, many of these same folks try to circumscribe debate on the issue, up to and including ruling the facts out of order. (In this respect, they resemble global warming deniers.) Moreover, they are willing to use the McCarthyite tactic of smearing anyone who questions the arguments of those pushing for war or even merely offers honest assessments of the situation on the ground in Iran. Their epithet of choice is “anti-Semite.”

The current campaign was begun by a former AIPAC flack named Josh Block, who shared a lengthy e-mail message he wrote to a right-wing listserv with Politico’s Ben Smith. Smith’s hastily written article, which had to be repeatedly revised after publication, floated Block’s notion that certain writers associated with the Center for American Progress (like yours truly) and Media Matters were guilty of anti-Semitism owing to some infelicitous language some of them had employed in criticizing Israel and its supporters in the United States who appeared to be agitating for an attack on Iran. However flawed, the Politico piece did its job, and was followed up by similar articles in the Washington Post, the Jerusalem Post, the New York Post, the Wall Street Journal and Commentary, among others, and was seconded by spokespeople for the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Anti-Defamation League. Thus Block succeeded in getting others to “amplify” his attacks—as he suggested in the original e-mail—with the explicit purpose, as he later told Politico, of silencing debate among liberal Democrats on Iran and destroying the reputations of those liberals who questioned the commitment of the current Israeli government to peace. No “progressive Democrat,” Block insisted, should allow any “room for…policy or political rhetoric that is hostile to Israel, or suggests that Iran has no nuclear weapons program.” He added that “progressive institutions have a responsibility not to tolerate such speech or arguments.”

Block’s charges were complicated by a few inconvenient facts. Neither the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency nor the US director of the CIA is willing to sign on to the assertion that Iran even has a nuclear weapons program for certain. And just recently, Haaretz reported that, lo and behold, “Iran has not yet decided whether to make a nuclear bomb, according to the intelligence assessment [of] Israeli officials.” So the view that Block and his allies are seeking to promote—and on behalf of which they smear others as anti-Semites—has been repudiated by the Israeli government. Talk about being holier than the pope…

Alas, this syndrome is an old one. Let us recall the warning, more than twenty years ago, of the former president of the American Jewish Congress, the late Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, who observed that, frequently, “What everyone in Israel knows as a matter of course is often denounced as false and subversive when quoted in America.” But so much easier than dealing with the facts is tarring one’s opponents with charges of bias. James Kirchick, protégé of the viciously anti-Arab Martin Peretz, employed this same tactic to banish the term “apartheid” from all discussion of Israeli treatment of the Palestinians. His argument was echoed by Jason Isaacson of the American Jewish Committee, who wrote that, together with “Israel-firster,” the term “apartheid” is “so false and hateful” that it reveals “an ugly bias no serious policy center can countenance.” Again, it is their tough luck that the current Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, warned Israeli citizens in February 2010, “As long as in this territory west of the Jordan River there is only one political entity called Israel it is going to be either non-Jewish, or non-democratic…. If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state.”

Among the few people who can enjoy this spectacle are actual anti-Semites, whether here or abroad. By treating the accusation as a kind of political ping-pong ball, Israel’s putative “friends” succeed only in draining it of all meaning.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to the International Atomic Energy Agency as the "International Atomic Energy Association."

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