Race and The Israel Lobby

Freddie deBoer emails:

It seems to me, from reading your blog post and from watching your Bloggingheads with Matt Yglesias, that part of your problem with The Israel Lobby is that, intentionally or not, it mimics certain anti-Semitic tropes. Isn't that exactly, though, the kind of argument that has been directed at conservatives regarding race, to their great consternation? With issues like affimative action or similar, conservatives have been accused of being near-racists, like racists, arguing in similar ways to racists.... And over and over again, conservatives have replied that nuance matters, context matters, intent matters, details matter. Surely the same is true when it comes to criticizing Israel and accusations of anti-Semitism. If nothing else, your opinion reinforces the notion that, when it comes to Israel, we don't play by the usual rules, and everyone has to be a little careful, not say too much, not go too far from the conventional path. That's not a good thing, I don't think.

It's a fair issue to raise. To be clear, I don't think that Walt and Mearsheimer are mimicking anti-Semitic tropes intentionally; I think they're doing so obtusely, in the course of a tendentious and simplistic argument about the roots of U.S. foreign policy. And precisely because I think their argument is tendentious, simplistic and wrong, I'm less interested in defending them against charges of anti-semitism than I am in defending conservatives - with whose arguments I generally agree - against what I see as dubious charges of racism. Maybe that's unfair or hypocritical on my part. Certainly if you think that Walt and Mearsheimer are the victims of a suffocating and dangerous atmosphere of lockstep philo-Zionism in the American intelligentsia, then it makes sense to defend their right to raise questions regardless of whether their answers make sense. But I tend to see them more as the beneficiaries, in terms of book sales and media attention, of a calculated decision to take a highly-polemical approach to a hot-button topic; I think they received plenty of respectful, not-at-all-vitriolic criticism from prominent papers and reviewers; and I think they ultimately did a disservice to the points where I'm in agreement with them, and to the broader cause of a better American foreign policy, by couching arguments against, say, the invasion of Iraq or Israel's settlement policy in the West Bank in terms that were unlikely to convince anyone not already persuaded. So I'm not inclined to see them as figures in desperate need of defense.

It's also worth noting that "race card" debates takes place in a different political context than "anti-Semitism card" debates. In today's America, there simply aren't any major political actors taking explicitly racist/segregationist positions, and in recent national elections the race debate has largely moved beyond even the arguments over racially-charged issues like busing, affirmative action and crime, and into the realm of symbolism and subliminal messaging. The debate over Israel, on the other hand, takes place in a context in which explicit anti-Semitism - anti-Semitism as policy, that is, and with at least a somewhat eliminationist edge - is a live and potent political force. The racist tropes that the McCain campaign stood accused of dabbling in - the black male as sexual aggressor, and so forth - are the stuff of underground white supremacist literature and subconscious suburbanite anxieties. But the anti-Semitic tropes that Walt and Mearsheimer stood accused of dabbling in are the stuff of everyday rhetoric in large swathes of the Islamic world, and they're essential to the public worldview of Israel's immediate political enemies. I'm not sure how much difference this reality should make in how carefully one treads around this nest of issues - versus how much care you take to, say, avoid putting a black politician in an ad with a white woman - but certainly it should make some difference.