Is “Israel First” The Worst?
Responding to this Spencer Ackerman piece in Tablet, in which the Wired.com senior writer comes down on the anti- side of the ongoing controversy over the phrase “Israel-Firsters,” Freddie has a spot-on summary of just how lizard-brained and incoherent the web of rhetorical bullying from Jewish-American Israel apologists has become:
Glenn Greenwald is getting the usual treatment, in large part because he pointed out that taking a loyalty oath to another country might potentially be evidence that one has loyalties to another country. (Imagine that! Swearing loyalty to Israel might give someone the impression you’re loyal to Israel!) Is it possible that Israel could have gotten involved in an armed conflict against the United States, during Jeff Goldberg’s tenure in the Israeli army? Remember, it is not merely wrong but anti-Semitic to suggest that the relationship between Israel and America is unusually close or complicated. Suggestions that Israel functions militarily as an extension of American armed forces, after all, are routinely dismissed as anti-Semitic. It’s therefore possible that armed hostilities could have broken out. So what would have happened, had Israel gotten involved in an armed conflict with America? I don’t presume to know the answer to the question. What Ackerman and others are insisting is that any suggestion that Goldberg might have held to his loyalty oath and backed Israel is self-evidently anti-Semitic. Am I guilty of anti-Semitism for even thinking of the possibility? Are thought experiments, predicated on the simply observations that separate countries can go to war, potentially anti-Semitic? Are there any Israeli Americans who might consider their dedication to Israel more important than their dedication to America? Is asking that question anti-Semitic? If an Iranian-American joins the Iranian military, and war breaks out, would asking the same questions be indicative of anti-Persian racism? I no longer know how to even broach the question.
It’s sad that this is true, but it is: Freddie’s diving into the morass of BS that is mainstream American discourse on Israel in such a forceful and unapologetic way — and as a gentile — is brave. The sting of being labeled by the self-anointed protectors of Israel (who possess a nearly divine insight into what Israel really is [Likudnik] that eludes a good portion of Israelis, I might add) as anti-Semitic has waned in the past few years through a combination of its absurd overuse and the increasingly indefensible actions of the Netanyahu government.
But it’s still a cudgel with which no one wants to be struck. In the abstract, we all agree that McCarthyism like this needs to be combatted whenever possible; but this is easier said than done, so bravo to deBoer for having the conviction to do it.
While he goes on to castigate Ackerman for treating the discussion as if it were an abstract thought-exercise over which all of “us,” by which Ackerman obviously means Jews, should be able to debate without losing any iota of civility, I think Freddie’s wrong to frame this around the occupation of Palestine. Abhorrent as that ongoing and worsening quagmire may be, the subtext that’s making both sides of the “Israel Firster” debate argue with such vehemence isn’t Israel-Palestine but rather Israel-Iran.
People like MJ Rosenberg who have taken to using the IF-term are implementing it against those they see as waging a concerted and organized propaganda campaign to bully the United States into bombing Iran. They see their ideological opponents as subscribing to a view of Israeli interests that is not only passionately contested within Israel itself but that is all the more difficult to defend as concurrent with American interests. Thus the loaded term and its implicit accusation of insufficient loyalty to the United States.
Here’s where I land on this: I’m not an observant Jew (or anything), but in that regard I’m hardly outside the norm for many American Jewish families. I did not have a Bar Mitzvah and, though I’ve often wished for one, I’ve never found a Synagogue that touched me enough to compel joining. So if, as is often their wont, the Judges of Real Israel want to decide that I’ve no grounds to offer my opinion on this matter — or maybe that I’m a self-hating Jew — I suppose that, by their debased standards, they have ample grounds.
At the same time, however, I would personally never use the term “Israel Firster” to refer to any of these bullies. Not because I find the term so overloaded with historical poison so as to be untouchable (more on that in a second) but rather because, like Corey, I’m pretty ambivalent (at best) about any rhetoric that endorses the tribalist framework of nationalism. That is to say, if there are American Jews who, if push came to shove, would choose Israel over America; fine, whatever, good for them. Something I quite like about this country — or at least the idea of this country — is that [folks can] hold those beliefs and live here in peace, and not as some kind of intellectual second-class citizens. What’s more, the term is, obviously, an equivalent rhetorical cudgel to the ones used by its intended victims (anti-Semite, self-hating Jew, etc.) and while I’m not pollyanna about the realities of rhetoric in high-stakes political debate, that doesn’t mean I feel like signing-up to wade into the mud.
But that doesn’t mean I buy the argument that no one — not even liberal Jews who, like Rosenberg, have spent nearly their entire careers working within and on behalf of self-conscious Jewish, and even Zionist, institutions — is allowed to use the term “Israel Firster” without suffering swift and unbending exorcism from the community of respectable thought. The logic behind this position not only makes me uncomfortable in an instinctual sense (anything that could be reasonably described as thoughtcrime should be seen with a very skeptical eye) but it reminds me of a kind of willful obtuseness vis-à-vis the language of out-groups that some on the Right frequently exhibit, and that people like Ackerman would usually be among the first to criticize.
Claiming that “Israel Firster” is verboten no matter the context in which it’s used, including who the participants happen to be — is this so different than when, to cite the dumbest example I can imagine, some white people complain that if they can’t say “nigga,” African Americans shouldn’t be allowed to use the term either? That Chris Rock is just as much a racist as Mel Gibson? Out-group language is only so charged because it involves out-groups and out-groups are inherently, axiomatically, defined by their relation to the rest of society, a.k.a. the context. No words or phrases have a kind of platonic value or power; and when Ackerman and the like imply that “Israel First” is evil No Matter What, they’re making a claim that’s not only impossible to prove, but that cannot possibly be sufficient to justify enforcing a draconian rule for discourse.
I understand how Rosenberg et al’s use of this language makes many uncomfortable, that they see it as a dangerous way to legitimize some of the ugliest superstitions of bigots; but any form of intra-group criticism among members of an out-group is inevitably going to be seen by those so inclined as “proof” that their hatred and ignorance is well-founded. The correct answer to this problem would be to have these kinds of discussions “in quiet rooms,” as Mitt Romney would say — not to become self-appointed police of what can and cannot be said.