Neo-McCarthyism

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The charge of anti-Semitism is starting to lose its force. The reason is that over the past few years it's been applied with less and less discernment, largely by people who want to stigmatize Israel's harsher critics. As Sarah Wildman has noted in the Forward, this is very unfortunate, because there are real anti-Semites in the world, and they benefit when the label they deserve to bear no longer has the power to stigmatize.

Wildman said this six months ago while writing about a slew of smears, such as the attempt to stigmatize the Center for American Progress via half-truths and McCarthyite guilt-by-association. Now there's another example of this neo-McCarthyism, and I'm sorry to say that it appeared on this website.

Armin Rosen, an Atlantic Media fellow, yesterday attacked a writer named Alex Kane, who had recently written a piece critical of Israel for Open Zion, Peter Beinart's blog about Israel at the Daily Beast. Rosen feels that Kane shouldn't be allowed to publish on Open Zion--or, presumably, on any other website that wants to be considered respectable. Why? Was the piece Kane wrote for Open Zion that reprehensible? No, Rosen expresses no criticism of that piece whatsoever. Rather, Rosen says Kane should be banned from Open Zion because he is on the staff of Mondoweiss, a website that, according to Rosen, "often gives the appearance of an anti-Semitic enterprise."

Rosen doesn't adduce a shred of evidence that Kane--the man whose reputation he's trying to besmirch and whose career he's trying to damage--is anti-Semitic. No complaint is filed about anything Kane has ever said or written. Rather, the allegation is just that Kane works for a publication that has featured articles, written by other people, that, in Rosen's judgment, gave off anti-Semitic vibes.

The term for this maneuver is "guilt by association," and it has an unfortunate history in American politics and intellectual life.

This tarring of Kane by virtue of his association with Mondoweiss would be lamentable even if Rosen produced a convincing indictment of Mondoweiss, showing that it indeed evinces anti-Semitism. Does he do so? All I can say is that I clicked on the links to Mondoweiss that Rosen provided and--though I didn't read every single post with utmost care--I did reach a point where I could safely conclude that Rosen has a looser definition of anti-Semitism than I do. (Judge for yourself. The links to pieces by Mondoweiss founder Philip Weiss are here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, and the links to things written by other people are here, here, here, and here.)

Following Rosen's links left intact the vague impression of Mondoweiss that, on the basis of limited exposure, I already had: It is an edgy website that is highly critical of both Israel and Zionism and features a variety of contributors and--inevitably, given that description--publishes things that are outside the bounds of mainstream political discourse, in the sense that you wouldn't find them in the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal or on NPR. (And, needless to say, it publishes stuff I don't agree with.) But if those eleven links--some dating back to 2009--are the most damning indictment Rosen can assemble from the many thousands of blog posts Mondoweiss has run in recent years, then I don't see how he concludes that Mondoweiss "often gives the appearance of an anti-Semitic enterprise."

I know good, earnest people who have a looser definition of anti-Semitism than I do, and I'm not saying that everyone who finds any Mondoweiss content obnoxious or offensive does so in bad faith, out of an attempt to silence voices critical of Israel. Still, I do feel that anyone who tries to stigmatize a publication by suggesting that it's anti-Semitic (or racist, or un-American, or whatever) has an obligation to provide clear examples of things in the publication that they definitely consider anti-Semitic and explain exactly how they qualify as anti-Semitic. Rosen doesn't do that. Rather, he lists a bunch of links and paraphrases their content in a way that may or may not suggest evidence of anti-Semitism--and that, moreover, may or may not turn out to accurately represent the content once you click on the links.

Some readers may disagree with me about Mondoweiss, and they're free to express their views in the comments section below. But I want to reiterate that calling Rosen's regrettable piece McCarthyite--as I'm doing--doesn't depend on whether you do or don't think any of those Mondoweiss pieces is beyond the pale. Because the person Rosen attacked--the person whose voice Rosen is trying to silence--didn't write any of those pieces.

It's kind of amazing, when you think about it. You write a piece arguing that a given person shouldn't be allowed to write for respectable publications, and at no point do you make critical reference to anything this person has ever said or written!

I guess by Rosen's logic I am now personally responsible for his article--because, after all, it appeared on the Atlantic's site, and I work for the Atlantic. Well, I'm happy to say I disagree. But maybe my connection to the Atlantic at least entitles me to offer an apology to Alex Kane. He certainly deserves one.

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Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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