When support of Israel allegedly trumps support of the US

Tempest in a teapot?

The current ‘Israel first’ debate in the US has echoes of anti-Semitism, says the ADL. Not so, say others, and when real anti-Semitism rears its ugly head, everyone will be too desensitized to pay attention

American and Israeli flags fly in the streets of Jerusalem. (Photo credit: Olivier Fitoussi /Flash90)
American and Israeli flags fly in the streets of Jerusalem. (Photo credit: Olivier Fitoussi /Flash90)

WASHINGTON — It all started, as most things do nowadays, with a blog post. Things may have begun quietly, but soon the “Israel First” remarks made on a progressive think tank’s site in December were deemed anti-Semitic and the snowballing commenced.

Part inside Washington, part inside baseball, and part Jew v. Jew, the small but intense firestorm worked its way through the Jewish political world and yet, just when it seems to be over, it’s not. It may have started with the term “Israel First” being bandied about by Zaid Jilani, writing for the Think Progress blog of the Center for American Progress, but larger points keep tacking themselves onto the original issue. CAP apologized for the post, the White House distanced itself, Jewish bloggers pointed fingers, but in the end there are questions that linger. Are Jews accusing other Jews of bad policy, or worse? What terms should be off limits? Is such a discussion actually anti-Semitic? And perhaps most important, is anything really changing as a result in the real world of policy and politics?

Rogue opinion pieces and extreme voices on either side of the political spectrum aside, in these venues support for Israel or “the pro-Israel lobby” is not generally used in a negative way. But when the rhetoric escalates to describe people whose support of Israel allegedly trumps their support of US policy, words start to get ugly. The insinuation smacks of an accusation of traitorous behavior rather than a difference of opinion. In addition, “Israel First” has been used in the past by white supremacist leaders and it pushes the dual loyalty canard.

The insinuation smacks of traitorous behavior rather than a difference of opinion.  ‘Israel First’ has been used by white supremacist leaders and pushes the dual loyalty canard

One of the people most responsible for the Israel First name-calling rising to the fore is MJ Rosenberg, a senior fellow for the Media Matters Action Network. Dismissed for his outlying ideas yet included as a voice in all matters Israel, Rosenberg admitted to popularizing the term recently and using it hundreds of times. In an article Friday in the Huffington Post, Rosenberg spelled out his reasoning for using the inflammatory term: to stop America from going to war with Iran and to get at AIPAC.

“Right now, there is only one interest group in the United States that absolutely opposes any diplomacy to avoid war with Iran and which insists that the United States expressly state (as it has) that war with Iran is definitely ‘on the table,’” Rosenberg wrote in a scathing attack on AIPAC’s positions and methods. (AIPAC declined to comment for this story.)

It may be, then, that Rosenberg uses the term as a device, albeit a provocative one, as a means to an end. Does that excuse the usage? And what if the words are already winning the war of ideas?

It has been five years since “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” the book by John J. Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen M. Walt of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, posited an all-powerful Israel lobby controlling American foreign policy. The rejection of such a claim by mainstream and Jewish thinkers and media alike was vociferous, but now some argue that simply putting the issue out there has changed the playing field, if not the actual play on the field.

And what if the words are already winning the war of ideas?

In his examination of the book, Adam Kirsch argued in Tablet recently that 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.” He hailed the book’s success in altering the intellectual climate and believes it has allowed for the ironic acceptance of the term Israel lobby and other more incendiary terms in the mainstream.

“What we have witnessed in the five years since is a blithe recuperation of dangerous, vicious imagery and ideas, with no apparent compunction about their origins or consequence,” Kirsch wrote.

In 2007, Abraham H. Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote “The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and The Myth of Jewish Control,” a powerful response denying a global Jewish conspiracy and showing how hateful anti-Semitic stereotypes were once again resurfacing and becoming dangerously mainstream. The ADL said Mearsheimer and Walt’s book gave credibility to these accusations, but they were little more than paranoid fantasies that reinforce persistent, anti-Semitic myths. Now, in response to the Israel First controversy, the ADL says it “smells of anti-Semitism” and accused those who use the term of resorting to ad hominem anti-Semitic arguments rather than dealing with substantive differences.

A “ducking the real issues” argument got a wobbly start from Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of the liberal advocacy group J Street, who initially told the Washington Post he had no problem with “Israel-firsters,” but has since clarified his comments. He now says he finds the war of words indicative of a more pressing problem with the way the debate plays out over Israel in the American Jewish community and in American politics. “Rather than engage directly over whether or not American and/or Israeli policies are actually advancing American and Israeli interests, an ill-chosen word or phrase is used to delegitimize a critic or in this case an entire institution,” Ben Ami said. He dismissed the “debates over word choice” and warned of overreaching with charges of anti-Semitism. “When real anti-Semitism actually rears its ugly head, people will be far less likely to listen.”

After so many words about words, there still appear to be a real questions over whether we are using words appropriately, using them as shields, using them as daggers, or even whether we should be using them at all. If only William Shakespeare were a Jewish leader, his words could perhaps indicate the next step in the debate: “What’s in a name?”

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