Within the mainstream media punditocracy, discussion of the Israeli invasion of Gaza is not only one-sided in Israel’s favor but also deeply contemptuous of anyone who deviates from that side. (“It takes real stupidity to blame it on Israel,” writes Richard Cohen.) On the nonliberal left–including, alas, most of what has been published on this magazine’s website–Israel is not merely guilty of a foolish misadventure but is sufficiently evil to have earned itself a South Africa-style boycott. The middle, meanwhile, is a muddle because it’s not so easy to figure out how a small, powerful but beleaguered nation ought to address a threat from an implacable ideological foe who lives on your doorstep, is sworn to your destruction, lobs missiles into your cities and hides behind its civilian population. And given the ferocity of the likely response, coupled with the unlikelihood that anyone will actually listen in good faith, the benefits of intervening in this debate from anything but an extremist perspective are decidedly murky. For my own trouble, for instance, Andrew Sullivan has compared me to the authors of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, while Boston Globe columnist Cathy Young has accused me of blaming Hitler’s victims for Palestinian misery.
If I lived in Europe–to say nothing of an Arab or Islamic nation–where the Palestinians are held to be innocent victims of Israeli aggression, my strong personal identification with, and intellectual belief in, the historic Zionist project would no doubt lead me to spend most of my time defending Israel’s legitimacy, if not its every action. But in the United States, where right-wing Jewish organizations and neoconservative pundits dominate nearly all Middle East discussion–and where one rarely if ever hears about, say, Israel’s illegal settlement and expropriation policies or the daily indignities and immiseration of Palestinian life–I find myself forced to focus on the various means by which pro-Israel hawks seek to discredit and delegitimize anyone who dares to disagree with them.
The central headquarters of America’s Middle East Thought Police are the websites of The New Republic, Commentary and The Weekly Standard–who share not only a number of individual writers but a style of argument that, in times of Israel-related tension, tends to resemble less that of a sophisticated journal of opinion than the bathroom wall of a Jewish junior high school.
A classic of the genre can be found in a blog post by ex-New Republic owner Martin Peretz called “Don’t F*ck with the Jews”–a comically inappropriate headline to anyone who has ever seen, much less considered, um, “fucking” with Mr. Peretz. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, wrote an op-ed in the Forward in which he objected to what he termed the blog’s “obscene, cowboy-like delight” in “the damage Israel’s army is able to inflict.” Yoffie is no pushover for Jewish peaceniks. The same op-ed also contained an intemperate attack on the new Jewish peace lobby, J Street*, whose work has been endorsed not only by a number of prominent American Jews but also Israeli politicians and ex-military officials for its refusal to draw moral distinctions between Israel’s invasion and Hamas’s rockets. And yet even this criticism–misguided in my view–sounded positively Gandhi-esque compared with that of Peretz’s assistant and informal mini-me, James Kirchick, who termed J Street an American Jewish “Surrender Lobby.” The Weekly Standard‘s Michael Goldfarb chimed in by calling J Street “obsequious” to terrorists and “hostile” to Israel, but Commentary‘s Noah Pollak won the contest by stringing together “appalling,” “contemptible,” “unrealistic,” “silly” and “dishonest” before adding the predictable “anti-Israel.” Whether or not one shares J Street’s views, that language is obvious evidence of panic among those whose position as the self-appointed spokesmen for American Jews has grown increasingly tenuous, especially since their uncritical cheerleading for the disastrous US invasion of Iraq and Israel’s failed incursion into Lebanon three years later.
No less revealing of this panic in the neocon playground are the assaults on the reputations of a group of young liberal Jewish bloggers who–like the J Streeters–cannot be silenced by personal invective. Peretz and Pollak, in particular, whine about the refusal of what they call the Juicebox Mafia–meaning Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein and Spencer Ackerman–to toe the official Israeli line on the invasion of Gaza. “They are pip-squeaks,” writes the putative pugilist, Martin Peretz. “I pity them their hatred of their inheritance.” (This is also unintentionally funny on Peretz’s part, when you consider that it is Peretz’s wife’s inheritance that allowed him to purchase–and nearly destroy–what was once America’s flagship liberal weekly magazine, and which provides the only reason anyone, anywhere pays attention to the venom he regularly spews there.) Pollak’s attacks are characterized by a similar lack of personal grace or sense of proportion. These three bloggers, who have “disgraceful” views, he argues, only “write about Israel…when they can condemn it” and “have nothing invested in Israel.”
Reading these missives, I was reminded of a conference I attended a year or so ago at the Center for Jewish History, sponsored by the excellent Jewish student publication New Voices. On stage, Ruth Wisse–who happens to be Harvard’s Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature–instructed the assembled aspiring journalists that they should think of themselves not as honest and independent-minded social critics and thinkers (like, say, Nathan Glazer or Michael Walzer, who were on stage with her) but as “soldiers” in Israel’s cause, armed with pens rather than Uzis. At the time, I thought it was just about the most un-Jewish attitude a person could hold. After all, the Talmudic tradition is devoted to endless ethical and intellectual disputation. It is no less so today…
* I serve on the organization’s board of advisors, but play no role whatever in the policies it advocates or decisions it takes.