Blogs > Liberty and Power > Trivializing Anti-Semitism

Feb 2, 2012

Trivializing Anti-Semitism

 Glenn Greenwald has heroically exposed the latest trivialization of the charge of anti-Semitism. (His other posts are here and here.) These days one is likely to be hit with that ugly charge – or the perhaps uglier one of being a “self-hating Jew” – merely for doubting that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon or is an “existential threat” to Israel. (Guilty!)

Needless to say, if the epithet “anti-Semite” is going to be used in such a patently ridiculous way, it will have little force when applied to the real thing. Why are the “Israel-firsters” so short-sighted?

That term – “Israel-firster” – has drawn a good deal of attention from those who lightly throw around the anti-Semitism charge in order to silence criticism of Israel and the Israel lobby, but it’s not at the heart of the issue. (An Israel-firster is not someone who says, “Israel right or wrong” but rather one who says, “Israel can’t be wrong.”) Criticism itself of Israel and the lobby is the real target. The campaign to silence the critics would have been no less intense had that term never been used – and in fact writers who have never called anyone an Israel-firster are nonetheless accused of anti-Semitism (or of dangerously skirting it).

Yet it’s hard to see what’s objectionable about the label “Israel-firster” when, as Greenwald points out, some of the most prominent American backers of Israel essentially call themselves the same thing. Greenwald writes:

Let’s start with Haim Saban, the Hollywood mogul who, among other things, lavishly funds the Democratic Party, as well as the center at the Brookings Institution bearing his name where pro-Iraq-War and Iran-adversary Kenneth Pollack is a “senior fellow”; this is what Saban told The New York Times (which described him as “the most politically connected mogul in Hollywood, throwing his weight and money around Washington and, increasingly, the world, trying to influence all things Israeli”):

      I’m a one-issue guy and my issue is Israel.

Then there’s Sheldon Adelson, Newt Gingrich’s financier. Amazingly, you can read and hear reports about Adelson and his Las Vegas casino megafortune that never mention Israel or that he publishes a pro-Likud newspaper there. Yet NBC quoted Adelson saying:

All we care about is being good Zionists, being good citizens of Israel, because even though I am not Israeli born, Israel is in my heart.

Gingrich, by the way, took a more moderate line on the Palestinians (whom he now says were only recently “invented”) before he met Adelson. If there’s one thing worse than a demagogue, it’s a demagogue for sale.

If Saban and Adelson are willing to say such things openly – which is their perfect right to do – what is the problem with criticizing them or using the term “Israel-firster”?

Clearly, the point is to intimidate the critics of Israel and the Israel lobby, which – let us not forget – are working overtime to provoke a war against Iran.

Update: This is the first time I’ve used the term “Israel-firster.” My reason for not using it is the same as Corey Robin’s, namely, “not because it questions the patriotism of American Jews but because it partakes of the vocabulary of patriotism in the first place, a vocabulary I find suspect and noxious from beginning to end.”


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