As I’ve noted in this space before, the racist anti-Arab rants by New Republic editor in chief/owner Martin Peretz have undermined not only his magazine’s reputation for liberalism but also the term "pro-Israel" itself. What I have not addressed, however, is the manner in which the magazine, no less cynically and purposefully, confuses the issue of anti-Semitism by deploying it for political purposes to try to silence those with opposing views about Israel and the Palestinians. Recent targets have included Jimmy Carter, Wes Clark, Juan Cole and the political scientists Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer. This tendency has finally spilled into polite discussion now that the magazine has turned on one of its own: former editor, and now Atlantic Monthly blogger, Andrew Sullivan.
At first glance, the episode appeared to offer a kind of rough justice. For Sullivan is no stranger to this very same tactic, having made it against yours truly, going so far as to compare something I once wrote to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This was in addition to his infamous "Fifth Column" accusation against "the decadent Left in its enclaves on the coasts," as well as the outright lie that Susan Sontag and I had already announced our opposition to a US military response to 9/11, which, in fact, we both supported. (True to form, he has never apologized, or even admitted the falsehood of his claim.)
While many of the people who’ve commented on the Sullivan contretemps have focused on the pathos of the event–his accuser, TNR‘s legendary literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, was once his mentor–its true significance lies in its demonstration of the diminution of the accusation. Once upon a time, being accused of anti-Semitism over thousands and thousands of words in what was America’s most prestigious liberal publication by its most imposing intellectual voice would engender severe consequences, personal and political, particularly in a field so well populated by Jews. But as far as I can tell, Wieseltier’s attack is having the opposite effect. Sullivan has been turned into a kind of free speech hero. "We’re the cops," Wieseltier said to me roughly twenty years ago when discussing the magazine’s role in policing arguments over Israel. Given the response to this particular arrest, it appears long past time for those associated with TNR to turn in their badges.
So far, virtually the only journalistically significant voices to join in Sullivan’s persecution are those of TNR senior editor Jonathan Chait and The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg, who enjoy regular appearances in Wieseltier’s pages. To be fair, both writers distance themselves from the accusation of anti-Jewish animus. But rather than focus on the injustice of leveling so disturbing an allegation on the basis of all but imaginary evidence, each felt the need to devote most of his comments to a critique of Sullivan for what they deem to be his transgression of the boundaries of acceptable criticism of Israel.
Most of those who’ve commented find the episode merely bewildering. For instance, much of Wieseltier’s initial essay is devoted to Sullivan’s use, in a blog post, of a 1944 quote by W.H. Auden, in which he remarked to Ursula Niebuhr, "Trying to explain the doctrine of the Trinity to readers of The New Republic is not easy." But while Wieseltier professes to detect evidence of anti-Semitism in the quote, it turns out that the very same line of Auden’s had provided considerable amusement in a private e-mail exchange between Sullivan and TNR editor Franklin Foer. As Sullivan later revealed–I’m guessing without Foer’s permission–he had sent the quote to Foer upon discovering it, and the editor replied, "That’s just perfect–and before we entered our High Shul phase even!" As Ezra Klein asks, "Now, I know that Wieseltier has control over his section of the magazine, but surely Foer reads the thing…. Why didn’t Foer stop this?" Why, indeed?
Matt Yglesias compares TNR‘s anti-Semitism campaign to the plotting of Bolshevik justice minister Nikolai Krylenko, who said, "We must execute not only the guilty. Execution of the innocent will impress the masses even more." The idea, as Yglesias aptly explains, "is to put everyone on notice that mere innocence will be no defense."
One can see this tactic at work in Chait’s response to the controversy, in which he self-consciously seeks to draw a line between acceptable criticism of the Israel lobby and the sort that derives from what he terms a "revolting provenance." The provenance to which he refers is that of Walt and Mearsheimer, whom Goldberg, writing in Wieseltier’s book pages, likened to Louis Farrakhan, David Duke, Pat Buchanan, Mel Gibson, Father Coughlin and Charles Lindbergh and whom Wieseltier credits, in his attack on Sullivan, with the belief "that Jews control Washington."
As someone who has been repeatedly critical of the Walt/Mearsheimer book–particularly its argument that George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq was, at bottom, the responsibility of America’s Israel lobby–I cannot help but observe that these accusations, like Wieseltier’s against Sullivan, say a great deal more about the accuser than the accused. Were either writer called upon to produce evidence to support these poisonous accusations, each would come up empty-handed. But, as Yglesias observes, truth is not what matters here; politics is. The editors of The New Republic seek to employ the false accusation of anti-Semitism to draw the political equivalent of a "security fence" around Middle East debate, impugning the integrity of anyone and everyone who strays beyond it. Ironically, the true victors in this campaign are genuine anti-Semites, who are happily witnessing the weakening of what was once an extremely consequential, potentially career-killing accusation. For to compare Farrakhan and Duke to two distinguished political science professors with whom one happens to disagree is to absolve the former of their respective offenses against truth and human decency. However unintentionally, Leon Wieseltier has done much the same for Andrew Sullivan.