A Question From Glenn Greenwald (Updated)

I received an e-mail a little while ago from Salon's Glenn Greenwald that contained what I would call a leading question. Here is the e-mail (I'm preemptively -- now there's a word! -- posting this e-mail on my blog because Greenwald tends to post publicly e-mails he receives, at least from me):

Hi Jeffrey - I'm working on (yet another) piece about the CAP-anti-Semitism controversy. Could you confirm whether, when you joined the IDF, you took this standard oath:

"I swear and commit to pledge allegiance to the State of Israel its laws, and authorities, to accept upon myself unconditionally the authority of the Israel Defense Force, obey all the orders and instructions given by authorized commanders, devote all my energies, and even sacrifice my life for the protection of the homeland and liberty of Israel."

Much appreciated -

I love that "much appreciated"!

For those of you blessedly unaware of this latest controversy, CAP, the Center for American Progress, a liberal, Democratic-Party-oriented think tank in Washington, has been accused of anti-Semitism, or borderline anti-Semitism, or something having to do with Semitism, by various parties for sponsoring a blogger who used the term "Israel-Firster" to describe Americans of the Mosaic persuasion with whom he disagreed on America's Middle East policy.

The larger issue, the discussion of which was ignited by this Ben Smith piece, is whether or not CAP, and other like-minded Democratic Party institutions, are becoming anti-Israel, or at least pushing Democrats to lessen their support for a close Israel-U.S. relationship, but I'm not going to go into that right now.

I don't think CAP is anti-Semitic (it's pretty hostile to Israel, but it's not as if it has called for the Jewish state's destruction), but the term "Israel-Firster" is originally a neo-Nazi term (Willis Carto's fascist Liberty Lobby was a big proponent of its use, as is David Duke), and it is  meant to raise questions about a Jewish person's willingness to be loyal to America (this is merely the local variant of an ancient anti-Semitic trope). CAP, to its credit, acknowledged the anti-Semitic nature of the term, and apologized. (I wrote about the controversy here.)

Obviously, use of the term "Israel-Firster" to describe someone with whom you disagree is not meant to open a discussion, or advance an argument, but to demonize your opponent. When Jews use it, as Joe Klein does, it is particularly unfortunate, because it is a term specifically designed to marginalize Jews in the American political discourse, and people like Joe Klein will eventually reap the whirlwind, in one form or another. The mainstreaming of hostility toward any group of Jews leads inevitably to the mainstreaming of hostility to Jews generally. And of course it's probably a sound idea for Jews to avoid using neo-Nazi-derived slurs to describe other Jews.

Anyway, I get the sense that Glenn Greenwald is trying to see whether I pass his version of a loyalty test. The question he raises is actually an interesting one in my case, though I'm sure he knows this, having obviously done his research by reading my book on the subject of my Israeli army service during the first Palestinian Uprising. For those of you haven't read the book (you can conveniently buy it right here!), the hyper-short version of the loyalty issue is this: As a teenager, I felt a bit like David Ben-Gurion (or Ari Ben-Canaan, more to the point)  set adrift on Long Island. I thought, for various reasons I describe in the book, that Israel might have been meant to be my true home, so I moved there in my early 20s, only to learn that in Israel, I felt like George Washington. I realized, by the time I arrived at the central army intake base as a not-so-happy draftee, that I was irreducibly American, and this feeling was reinforced by my service at an Intifada prison, which I disliked very much, mainly because I thought the occupation (or more specifically, the settlement) of the West Bank and Gaza was counterproductive, brutal and generally un-Jewish.

So, the answer to Greenwald's question -- and usually I don't feel that participating in McCarthyite projects like his is a useful thing, but I'm open about all of this -- is, to the best of my ability to recollect, no, I didn't take that oath. I don't like swearing any oaths (there's a perpetual debate in some circles in Israel about whether a Jew should be asked to swear allegiance to any entity but God; this is another story, of course, though not entirely irrelevant, because I'm under the impression that this is one way Israeli soldiers can get out of taking an oath) and I thought -- I'll admit that the thought was more inchoate a quarter-century ago, when I had it, then the manner in which I'm characterizing it now -- that I shouldn't, as an American, swear to anything like this.

This doesn't mean that I didn't, as a soldier, refuse orders, except those orders I found to be illegal and/or immoral (there's a wider berth for this in the Israeli army -- or at least there was when I was there -- then you might think. An upside of the Israeli army is that it is basically improvisational; the downside is that it is basically improvisational). And what I remember is that I ducked the oath and no seemed to care (there was no pomp or circumstance associated with this, which is why I don't even remember at what point in the induction process this oath-taking was to have occurred. The only thing I remember clearly about those early days was that the army took very extensive pictures of your dental work, in case they had to identify your remains).

I don't know how other American Jews deal with this in the Israeli army (I'll ask my fellow Atlantic national correspondent Robert Kaplan, who also served in the IDF, if he remembers how it worked with him), but my memory of my time in the army is that I wanted to avoid this issue, and I did. I'm looking at the relevant parts of "Prisoners" to see if I mentioned this at all, but so far I can't find anything.

And by the way, as an American Jew, I believe, as most American Jews believe (and most American non-Jews, as well) that Israel should exist and flourish as a Jewish country, that it is an important project of the Jewish people, that  and that it is a natural ally of the United States. An American Jew can feel this and still be a loyal, upstanding American. (Certainly, non-Jewish Americans are permitted to feel this way.)  I get the sense, from reading him every so often, that Glenn Greenwald is in the minority on this issue. Which is fine, of course.

UPDATE: An alert Goldblog reader points me to a Greenwald tweet that he must have issued minutes after his e-mail to me:

Maybe Jeffrey Goldberg, who enlisted in the IDF (oath: is.gd/bMiaBf), isn't the best one to make this argument is.gd/7T9F

Sort of typically ad hominem.

UPDATE 2: Arik Elman posted on my Facebook page, which I barely know exists:

OK, first, at the induction base, you sign the 500 form. This is a personal oath, and you can't NOT sign it - failure to do so is tantamount to desertion. Usually it's done in a bunch of other forms, so not anyone notices, even the religious soldiers who are forbidden to swear an oath. This is because at the end of the basic training in your unit you swear a COLLECTIVE oath - which is the same, but proclaimed verbally by the whole command, in celebratory circumstances and before the flag. Here, the religious soldiers proclaim "I declare" instead of "I swear". Still, I fail to see your Israel-hating counterparts' point. The military oath is just that - a commitment given for the period of the said service. It expires when the person is discharged, and while the average Israeli is bound by the reserve duty, you're clearly not.

This is interesting information. I remember none of this, but I'm sure I signed a bunch of forms -- but what I certainly don't remember is any celebratory ceremony at the end of Basic, or whenever this is said to have happened. I remember some pro forma event at induction, which I remember I somehow got of.

Another Goldblog reader made an interesting point, that this was a quarter-century ago, so what does it matter what I did when I was in my early 20s? The reader wrote, "Glenn Greenwald's standard is that we are all frozen in amber at our most vulnerable moments, and should be judged forever based on this frozen moment." It's a good point. It's why Greenwald doesn't seem to be able, on some occasions, to process contradictory information.

UPDATE 3: This, from Goldblog reader Itai Mesch:

Thanks to your latest post, I suddenly want to read your book (Ed. note -- God bless you).  I finish my own army service next week and even though I'm a jobnik's jobnik (jobnik -- non-combat soldier), everything you said in the article about your experience rings true for me.  No, the IDF hasn't changed much in twenty years.

Incidentally, and keeping in mind that my Hebrew was ridiculously lacking when I did tironut (basic training), I don't remember taking any oath similar to what Greenwald described.  But then again, my tironut was fairly mismanaged.

Glad I made aliyah (immigrated to Israel), glad I served my country, and even more glad said service is almost over.

UPDATE 4: Damon Linker writes in with an interesting thought:

Isn't the best response to (Greenwald) simply: I don't remember if I took that oath, but let's assume I did. So what? I was joining and pledging to fight and potentially die for the IDF. It's perfectly appropriate to uphold an "Israel first" oath in such circumstances. (Joining the army was itself an implicit act of affirming such an oath.) But the oath is not intended to bind the soldier beyond his or her duties in the military any more than the American presidential oath of office is binding on George W. Bush now that he's no longer the president of the United States. So your game of "gotcha" got nothing.