‘Israel Firsters’ - a revealing debate

By Jamie

02 February 2012

Is it antisemitic to accuse someone of being an "Israel firster"? For the past few weeks some of the most prominent American liberal commentators and Jeffrey Goldberg have been shouting at each other about this, after former AIPAC-er Josh Block orchestrated a smear campaign against two liberal think-tanks on the basis that writers associated with them had made use of the phrase. The political agenda behind the attacks was transparent: both the targeted organisations – the Center for American Progress (CAP) and Media Matters (MM) – have been prominent in pushing against US support for Israel's occupation and against an attack on Iran. But it provoked a minor split among liberal commentators, some of whom reacted by defending CAP and MM, and some of whom agreed that the phrase 'Israel Firster' is indeed "toxic".

The debate, which has now simmered down, is interesting mainly for what it reveals about where liberal American discourse on Israel is currently at, and where it might be going.

First, it is another indication of Israel's long-term secular decline in popularity among US liberals generally, and American Jews in particular. The fact that the debate is even happening indicates how far the ideological terrain has shifted. Fifteen years ago mainstream columnists would not have criticised Israel, and if they did would not have used the term "Israel Firsters" to do so, and if they had would not have been defended by other mainstream commentators. Times have changed.

The initial reaction to Block's smear further illustrates the point: usual suspects aside, it went nowhere. Even Lanny Davis, Block's business partner and himself a frequent apologist for Israel's occupation, criticised it, while two other prominent Washington think tanks threatened to sever ties with him, and Block was forced to stage a partial climbdown. Glenn Greenwald is right to note that "the only reason this has become such a problem for Block is because he made the over-reaching mistake of targeting an organization that is extremely well-connected". But more significant is that an establishment liberal organisation like CAP took such a critical line on Israel in the first place.

I say 'initial' reaction because, while MM dismissed the smears, CAP does appear to have censored its writers' criticism of Israel in the wake of the incident. This is presumably due mainly to CAP's association with the Democratic Party, which has an eye on the election and on Republican efforts to cast the Obama administration as hostile to Israel and/or Jews. But it also reflects the fact that even if criticism of Israel's occupation can no longer be credibly dismissed as 'antisemitic', "Israel Firster", with its resemblance to the charge of "dual loyalty" that has long dogged Jews, is more difficult to defend. A tactical corollary is that those commentators wishing to push back against attempts to police the discourse on Israel-Palestine ought not, perhaps, make their stand here.

Second, the debate prompts the question: is the spectre of "dual loyalty" being revived? This would be a significant development if so. Jews have historically been haunted by accusations of disloyalty, and American Jews have in the past been particularly careful to proclaim their loyalty to the US rather than Israel. Israel, in claiming to act in the name of Jews worldwide, threatened to give canards about Jewish 'dual loyalty' credibility, and as a result most American Jews for many decades distanced themselves from it. Norman Finkelstein's forthcoming book documents that before Israel became an American 'strategic asset' by crushing Nasser in 1967, most American Jewish elites – including those who advocated most vociferously for a US-Israeli alliance after '67 – were indifferent or actively hostile to it. More generally, "[fearful] of the 'dual loyalty' charge", American Jews have "drawn away from Israel whenever bilateral relations at the state level have been tenuous and drawn closer when they have overlapped".

If the current low-level grumbling among American elites about Israel's service or lack thereof to US interests escalates – and it may not – anti-Israel and anti-occupation sentiment could well be increasingly articulated in the language of 'national interests', and criticism of those who support US backing of Israel's occupation could increasingly take the form of accusations of dual loyalty or disloyalty to the US. This could in turn reinforce the abandonment of Israel by American Jews that is already underway.

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On the substantive issue in dispute – the legitimacy of the phrase "Israel Firster" – both sides are wrong. Glenn Greenwald, MJ Rosenberg, Phil Weiss and Andrew Sullivan are correct to argue that there is nothing in principle antisemitic about accusing individuals of placing "Israel's" interests above "American" ones. Nor is it "gross" to point out that the American media's go-to guy on Israel-Palestine, Jeffrey Goldberg, served as a prison guard in the Israeli army. Amusingly, Goldberg now denies he was a prison guard, insisting that he was merely a "military policeman" and "counsellor" who took care of "the culinary, hygiene and medical needs of the prisoners". This is odd because in his memoir Goldberg explicitly says that he wasn't, whatever his formal job title, merely a counsellor:

"I was a 'prisoner counselor,' a job title that did not accurately reflect my duties in the related fields of discipline and punishment..."  [Prisoners, p. 28]

Which seems fair enough, since counsellors don't generally assist in the abuse of prisoners, as Goldberg admits he did. Goldberg's strange denial appears to have convinced Ackerman, at least, which is encouraging insofar as it suggests that people who say they like Jeffrey Goldberg have never read Jeffrey Goldberg.

More importantly, if it is the case that people increasingly perceive US policy towards Israel to be a decisively shaped by de facto agents of the Israeli state, the issue should be subject to honest and frank debate. Silencing the above-ground conversation is likely to promote the less savoury lines of discussion within it.

All that said, "Israel Firsters" rhetoric is seriously problematic:

-  It is not, contra Greenwald and Sullivan, "plainly true" that many prominent apologists for Israel are "Israel Firsters". As noted above, virtually all of these supposedly principled devotees of the Jewish state were completely silent on or else actively critical of Israel before it became a 'strategic asset' of the US establishment. As Finkelstein observes, after '67 Israel also effectively became "a 'strategic asset' of American Jews":

"[joining] the Zionist club was a prudent career move for Jewish communal leaders who could then play the role of key interlocutors between the U.S. and its strategic asset.   Israel’s alleged existential vulnerability served as a useful pretext for politically ambitious Jews to champion American military power on which Israel’s survival supposedly hinged."

Charging these "Me Firsters" with principled loyalty to Israel drastically overestimates them. The record suggests that they are, as a rule, in it squarely for themselves. This confusion is significant, for example because a more realistic appreciation of the interests driving the Israel lobby and its sympathisers would draw attention to the ways in which support for Israeli militarism benefits and speaks to elite interests in the US, rather than just in Israel.

The use of "Israel Firster", while not necessarily antisemitic, is not innocuous either. Accusations of "Israel Firster" do imply some ugly politics. "Israel Firster" is, after all, being opposed implicitly to "US Firster", with the tacit assumption that it is a Bad Thing to support a "foreign" state or people over one's "own". But why should that be so? If I am moved by images of famine in Somalia and decide to vote, in Britain, according to who I think would do the most to alleviate the effects and causes of that famine, am I being "dually loyal"? More to the point, if I am, is that a bad thing? It is particularly strange that liberals, who tend to take very seriously the idea that there are universal moral principles whose value transcends the claims of any particular state, would treat "dual loyalty" as a serious criticism.

I suspect Greenwald would reply that he rarely uses the term "Israel Firster", that his aim in this debate is to defend its legitimacy against accusations of antisemitism rather than to positively endorse it, and that when he does use it, it is either as a rhetorical device to highlight others' hypocrisy or as a normatively neutral description, rather than a criticism. In his case, this is generally true. But if we look at the emerging discourse more broadly, "Israel Firster" is typically used as a pejorative, which implies a set of assumptions that Sullivan, despite his dislike of the phrase, encapsulates quite well:

"[when] an American sides with a foreign government against his own president in a foreign country, what does one call that? Apart, that is, from disgusting."

The use of the term "Israel Firster" reflects a broader trend which chooses to frame opposition to Israeli policies, and US support for them, in terms of defending or protecting US "national interests", and which appears increasingly disposed to criticising apologists for Israeli occupation on the grounds that they are being disloyal to these "national interests", rather than on the grounds that they are enabling a profound injustice. I suspect that this in turn reflects an influx of liberals into the solidarity movement – in this sense the watering down and degeneration of the latter might well be a consequence of its own success – and a desire by some activists to align the movement, in an attempt to gain political influence, with those American elites who are concerned that Israel's occupation is harming US imperial interests (cf. Walt and Mearsheimer).

In either case, the strategy is dangerous. First, it relies on the gap among US elites over the wisdom of support for Israeli occupation widening, which may not happen to a sufficient degree. Second, its effect is to essentially whitewash the former. And third, it risks abandoning a principled opposition to Israel's occupation grounded in broadly appealing progressive values – it is wrong to demolish people's houses; it is wrong to torture children; it is wrong to shell schools and hospitals with white phosphorus; it is wrong to violently prevent a people from exercising self-determination in violation of international law; etc . – in favour of a critique based on parochial, unappealing and potentially quite vicious insinuations about people's – mainly Jews' – "loyalty". This isn't antisemitism. But it isn't the way to win the struggle, and nor should it be how we'd want to win it.

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12 Comments on "‘Israel Firsters’ - a revealing debate"

By JamieSW, on 02 February 2012 - 11:24 |

Corey Robin expresses why the term is problematic well:

“I’ve never used and would never use the term, not because it questions the patriotism of American Jews but because it partakes of the vocabulary of patriotism in the first place, a vocabulary I find suspect and noxious from beginning to end.” 

By NB, on 02 February 2012 - 19:39 |

“This isn’t antisemitism. But it isn’t the way to win the struggle, and nor should it be how we’d want to win it.”

Yes!  A thought-provoking response from Jamie on “Israel firsters” debate.  Why can’t we just stop muddying the bloody waters?!  It is hard enough already to have a sane and sensible discussion about Israel in the US.

By christian h., on 02 February 2012 - 20:34 |

Good post. One quibble: while the increasing opening up of debate on the issue of I/P in liberal circles definitely impacts the way the issue is framed, it wasn’t liberals who brought the “national interest” into the movement - it was conservatives, and some leftists who for reasons beyond my understanding have decided that they should ally themselves with conservatives on foreign policy issues, due to a superficial resemblance of their positions on concrete questions (like the Iraq war, US support for Israel). Counterpunch has to be mentioned here, but they are not the only offender.

It should also be mentioned, however, that there is push back: one of the national interest brigade was put forward as a candidate for the board of the US Campaign to End the Occupation, and was soundly defeated. Here in L.A. at least, the hard work in the solidarity movement is all done by principled leftists, with marginal liberal involvement and no conservatives to see anywhere.

By ChrisR, on 03 February 2012 - 14:14 |

“a critique based on parochial, unappealing and potentially quite vicious insinuations about people’s – mainly Jews’ – “loyalty”  Awesomely well put.

This is an excellent piece that explains exactly why we mustn’t adopt the term or ally with American conservatives, and why the democratic socialist critique of the actions of the Israeli state, tied to the strategic interests of the American state and the forces of capital that control it, is more effective, more ethical and more intellectually honest than the smear tactics of calling someone an ‘Israel firster’. Thanks!

By JamieSW, on 03 February 2012 - 15:48 |

Thanks christian - I’m pleased to hear that there’s been pushback. I’m not sure who first started the ‘national interest’-style rhetoric in the solidarity movement - my impression is that it got a big boost with Walt and Mearsheimer’s book - but I do think it has caught on among many liberal critics of US support for Israel. You’re right about the role some on the left have played, certainly. 

I do wonder to what extent it is a deliberate tactical choice - a decision to try to hitch the movement to one side of a perceived elite split on the wisdom of supporting Israeli occupation - and to what extent it is a product of certain blindspots, biases, etc. within a certain brand of liberalism.

By came here from mondo, on 03 February 2012 - 21:31 |

“The fact that the debate is even happening indicates how far the ideological terrain has shifted. Fifteen years ago mainstream columnists would not have criticised Israel, and if they did would not have used the term “Israel Firsters” to do so, and if they had would not have been defended by other mainstream commentators. Times have changed.”

Times have not changed at all and this is more wishful thinking more than an argument founded on evidence. Since the rise of the New Left in the late 1960s and until this very day, pro-Palestinians did not achieve anything whatsoever that benefited the Palestinians.  Nothing.  Israel and Israel only was the one who gained continuously.  If you want to help the Palestinians then you should first face reality as an objective scholar rather than as an advocate.  

What is happening right now is this: a war with Iran is going to take place, attention is already diverted worldwide from Palestine to Iran and elsewhere and the colonizations of the west bank continues.  (And this guy http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13600826.2011.577031 which was assigned by my lecturer last year even argues that Israelis say Iran Iran Iran and Iran what they actually have in mind is some more cleansing in the west bank.  I do not think that this is so but I also don’t think that your reading of recent history rests on solid evidence.  It was much harder to Israel in the 1960s and 1970s then it is today.  

By Chris2, on 04 February 2012 - 03:29 |

The “Israel Firsters” are in most cases not Jewish at all. The position of the fanatical fundamentalist Christians is well known, and there are many more of them than there are Jews in America. 

Those who “put Israel first” generally do so because they approve of that state’s aggressive and racist colonial policies. Racists applaud the treatment a largely white, European colonial population metes out to brown, largely Muslim Palestinians. They itch to be able to do the same to the “other” whom they hate. 

They regard, (and not without reason if one counts the ways in which Israeli interrogation, detention, torture, assassination and other brutal policing tactics have been adopted by NATO forces) Israel as the state which acts as they wish their own would or could act. This is why all the neo-nazis, Monday Club types and good ol’ segregationists- all confirmed anti-semites- are inclined to be among the cheerleaders for Israel. They put Israel First not because of religion or culture but because they see Israel as the vanguard in a war against the poor and the dispossessed.

‘mondo’ is right about one thing: the public avowal of support for Palestinians is at a very low point. On the other hand the new generation is going to be questioning all the orthodoxies of their society, and supporting Israeli crimes will be among them. 

By Jamie, on 04 February 2012 - 11:35 |

‘mondo’: I find that description of the current political climate in the US frankly baffling. In the 90s, for example, you couldn’t criticise Israel anywhere, except on the fringes. Now even the likes of Tom Friedman, Roger Cohen and Peter Beinart are distancing themselves.

The polls also bear out that support for Israel has been eroded, including among young American Jews. For an extensive survey of the evidence on this front, both polling and anecdotal, see Norman Finkelstein’s ‘This Time We Went Too Far’ and his forthcoming ‘Knowing Too Much’. Or just read Mondoweiss - a large chunk of their posts are devoted to cataloguing the anecdotal evidence that Israel’s stock in the US is in precipitous decline. And there is a lot of evidence, which is why there are a lot of posts on Mondoweiss.

This - “Since the rise of the New Left in the late 1960s and until this very day, pro-Palestinians did not achieve anything whatsoever” - is largely true but irrelevant. And for what it’s worth, I don’t believe that a war with Iran is imminent, although that is also irrelevant.

Chris: Public avowal of support for Palestinians - or rather, opposition to Israeli occupation - is at a relative “low point”? When you’ve got regular pieces in places like the New York Times criticising it? Please tell me when opposition to Israel’s occupation was higher than it is now. Again, for a convincing survey of the evidence on this point, I recommend the Finkelstein books mentioned above (one of which is out already; the other will be out shortly).

By Chris2, on 06 February 2012 - 17:07 |

 “Please tell me when opposition to Israel’s occupation was higher than it is now. “

When, for example, dozens of Congressmen supported Palestinians in the House and Senate. When the Black Caucus was clearly opposed to Israel’s occupation and stettlement policies. When Cynthia McKinney was in Congress. When South Dakota had a pro-Palestinian Senator… 

The New York Times, as the Angry Arab will tell you, is a zionist propaganda sheet, the twists and turns in its editorial attitudes may be of interest to unemployed former kremlinologists but they tell us very little about what is going on in the political arena which is increasingly dominated by neo-liberals and authoritarians in foreign policy: think about it, if the US public discourse is opening up on the Palestine issue why are successive governments far to the right of the positions of Reagan and Bush Sr on key questions such as settlements and 1967 borders?  

What is true, I think, is that a new generation of youngsters brought up in the Jewish faith and cultural milieu are revolting against being associated with an openly racist, fascistic Israeli government, responsible for such enormities as Gaza and Jenin. Not surprising and about bloody time too. 

By JamieSW, on 06 February 2012 - 17:28 |

You’re talking about marginal details (e.g. Cynthia McKinney’s presence in Congress) that don’t actually reveal much about broader public sentiment on Israel-Palestine. On the other hand there are plenty of indicators showing that broad public opinion is more critical of Israel than it has been in decades, and that it is growing increasingly so. This was dramatically illustrated in public responses to the invasion of Lebanon in 2006 and the Gaza massacre, but is also evident in changing public discourse. 

The fact that the mainstream has opened up to criticism of Israel in an unprecedented way in recent years shouldn’t be dismissed: it reflects growing opposition to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, among liberals and to some extent among elites. That the NYT is a home for pro-occupation propaganda makes its writers’ increasingly critical tone on Israel more, not less, significant.

The extent to which recent administrations have been “far to the right” of Reagan and Bush Sr on the conflict is often exaggerated, but I don’t have time to go into that properly here. In any case you can’t straightforwardly read public opinion off from government policy.

By Chris2, on 07 February 2012 - 18:36 |

  My personal experience is largely of Canadian attitudes. Here it is much more difficult to criticise Israeli policies than it was just a few years ago. The NDP, for example, is now committed to the same sort of auto-zionist discourse as the French Socialists or the Labour party. It was not long ago that Svend Robinson was visiting Arafat under siege.  It is now very rarely that one sees any criticisms of Israel in the newspapers even the Toronto Star. 
 I see this as a reflection of Canada’s increasing intellectual subservience to the US and US popular culture.
 I would like nothing better than to believe that this crucial question was being more thoroughly and honestly discussed, but it is not. And my understanding of the US tells me that in the States it is as bad. 
 I think that you are wrong, incidentally, to say “ the mainstream has opened up to criticism of Israel in an unprecedented way in recent years “. I don’t think that this is true at all. 
   Perhaps we are working on different timelines: I am thinking back twenty and more years to the days when Palestine was as popular a cause as Cesar Chavez. You, I suspect,
 are taking September  2001 as a baseline.  Anyway that’s enough of this. Good luck!!

By Mitchell S., on 07 February 2012 - 19:56 |

One point missing throughout the article and comments is continued use of the term “anti-Semetic” to mean only Semites that are Jews.  The term made some sense when used exclusively in Europe and North America in the 19th century and the first 3 decades of the 20th cen.  But not only the destruction of so many Jews, but the huge immigration of Semites that are Arab into Europe, and Latin America, make non-Jewish Semites the majority in these areas.
In any event, it is demeaning to overwhelming majority of Semites to choose “anti-Semitic” as a term to mean exclusively only “anti-Jewish.”  Haile Selassie was a Semite; Palestinians are Semites. This is one of those linguistic terms that go unquestioned, but note the power it gives to the Jewish community to make all other Semites..invisible, or not worthy or existence. See how that dovetails with destruction of Palestine, for ex.?

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