There's been a controversy raging over the past month or so that I've avoided writing about mainly because it has a Groundhog Day quality to it. It began with this very interesting Ben Smith piece, but lately it has become tiresome. Apparently, it is not tiresome to other pepole, because it just keeps going. The seemingly most urgent question to emerge from this controversy is whether or not the term "Israel-firster" is anti-Semitic. The term is used by Media Matters, the left-wing advocacy group, to describe American Jews with whom it disagrees on American Middle East policy, and it was also used by staffers of the Center for American Progress, the important liberal think tank, to describe same. CAP has disavowed the language, and apologized on behalf of the staffer who used the term; Media Matters doesn't seem to care.
So, is "Israel-firster" anti-Semitic? Its origins are certainly anti-Semitic, and the idea that Jews are incapable of being loyal to the country of their citizenship and are only loyal to world Jewry, or the Jewish state, is an age-old anti-Semitic trope. This doesn't mean that those who use it are anti-Semitic. They just might be ignorant, like J Street's Jeremy Ben-Ami, who to my surprise buys into the trope. Obviously, "Israel-firster" is a term deployed by opponents of Israel, and opponents of a close relationship between the U.S. and Israel, to stoke resentment of Jews they find objectionable (though the two most important scapegoating stokers, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, have been too sophisticated to use the actual term in their public pronouncements -- though Mearsheimer has clearly gone off the deep end in other ways).
Here is David Bernstein on the origins of the term:
The "Israel-firster" slur was not used in "mainstream" discourse until the last few years.
Before that, you can find it occasionally in the early 1980s and 1990s in sources such as Wilmot Robertson's anti-Semitic Instauration journal, a 1988 anti-Semitic book called "The F.O.J. [Fear of Jews] Syndrome, and a 1998 anti-Semitic book "Rise of AntiChrist." I also found a couple of references to "Israel-firsters" in the extremist anti-Israel publication, The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, and from writers associated with this journal.
By the early 2000s, one can find "Israel-firster" being used by a variety of anti-Semitic "right-wing" sources like DavidDuke.com and the Vanguard News Network. As the decade wore on, the phrase occasionally pops up in far left anti-Israel sites that have ties to the anti-Semitic far-right or are known for playing footsie with anti-Semitism, like Antiwar.com, Norman Finkelstein's website, and Indymedia.
Here is The Washington Post on the controversy over the term:
CAP officials and the think tank's critics agree that the term is over the line. University of Maryland historian Jeffrey Herf, who has published books on anti-Semitism, said the phrase represented a "classic theme of modern anti-Semitism." He said the suggestion of Jewish "dual loyalty," along with the accusation that AIPAC was pushing for war with Iran, hearkened back to the early days of World War II, when certain people accused the U.S. government of entering the war as a response to powerful Jewish interests.
"This kind of nonsense is all over the place on the Internet," Herf said. "The fact that some of this is showing up on the Center for American Progress Web site makes it important."
But some on the left see the phrase as a legitimate critique, and argue that charges of anti-Semitism serve only to shut down needed policy debates about Israel and the Middle East.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a left-leaning voice on Israel issues, said he had no problem with "Israel-firster."
"If the charge is that you're putting the interests of another country before the interests of the United States in the way you would advocate that, it's a legitimate question," Ben-Ami said.
Ben-Ami added that Jewish groups "should tread lightly" when they make accusations of anti-Semitism. "Because when they do need to use that word, people won't take you seriously," he said.
The most important article that touches on this controversy is by Adam Kirsch in Tablet, which you should read, and about which I will blog later. Kirsch argues, very convincingly, that Walt and Mearsheimer, while failing to actually change American policy toward Israel, have opened up the discourse about Israel, and about Jewish participation in the American political process, to all sorts of cranks and anti-Semites, and they have given cover for others to introduce pernicious stereotypes into the conversation. (Kirsch's piece is partly about Robert Kaplan's paean to Mearsheimer published in this month's Atlantic, about which more later, as well.)
Update: Jeremy Ben-Ami sent over this "clarification" of his comments to The Washington Post:
"I agree that the use of the term "Israel Firster" is a bad choice of words. The conspiracy theory that American Jews have dual loyalty is just that, a conspiracy theory and must be refuted in the strongest possible way.
However, this incident is a perfect example 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.
The real question we should be debating is not the use of the term "Israel Firster" but the underlying questions being raised by CAP and others over the direction of American foreign policy - how best to achieve a two-state solution and how to prevent Iran from attaining a nuclear weapon without going to war.
Disagreements over substantive issues should be engaged with substantive arguments and shouldn't be sidestepped with debates over word choice.
One final and important point: American Jews and communal leaders should not overreach with charges of anti-Semitism in incidents like this. When real anti-Semitism actually rears its ugly head, people will be far less likely to listen."
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