Neocons have long tossed around the "anti-Semite" and "anti-Israel" accusations to stifle debate over American Middle East policy. It doesn't work any longer.
(updated below – Update II)
The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg — in a paragraph he entitles “Where the Left and Right Always Seem to Agree” — writes (emphasis added):
Joseph Epstein’s excellent essay in The Wall Street Journal about I.J. Singer’s The Brothers Ashkenazi . . . contains this penetrating observation: “Politics taught I.J. the bitter lesson that, however much the extreme left and the extreme right might disagree, the one common ground upon which they met comfortably was anti-Semitism.” This is an evergreen phenomenon, unfortunately. We see the brown-red coalition aligned against Israel in Europe, of course, and, in less dramatic, but still disturbing fashion, we [sic] The American Conservative, Pat Buchanan’s paleo-con magazine, featuring the writings of doctrinaire leftists on Buchanan’s least-favorite country, the one he recently compared to Nazi Germany. The Buchananites have even recruited Jews to do their Israel-bashing for them. This particular development falls in the category of shocking yet not exactly surprising.
His link to “Israel-bashing” in the penultimate sentence — as in: “The Buchananites have even recruited Jews to do their Israel-bashing for them” — is to an article I wrote for the January 26, 2009, issue of The American Conservative, an article in which I documented and criticized the lack of any disagreement or genuine debate in the U.S. Congress over America’s ongoing, one-sided support for Israel generally and for Israel’s attack on Gaza specifically.
As an initial matter, the rank guilt by association technique Goldberg employs here is not only painfully transparent but also factually false. Pat Buchanan has had no involvement with the publication or editing of that magazine for many years. But why let facts get in the way of rabid attempts at character assassination?
And even if Buchanan were still involved with that magazine, which he isn’t, it’s intellectual dishonesty of the lowliest kind to toss around epithets based on Buchanan’s views aimed at anyone and everyone who writes for that journal, regardless of what they write. They publish writers as diverse as Andrew Bacevich, James Pinkerton, Philip Weiss, Dainel Larison, and Rod Dreher. Pat Buchanan spends his day opining on virtually every MSNBC program that exists; are all MSNBC commentators and hosts responsible for Buchanan’s views? Is it now fair to blame all Atlantic writers for Goldberg’s 2002-2003 extreme dishonesty in spewing blatant propaganda and outright falsehoods in order to persuade the American public to support the attack on Iraq? This is all just Smear Tactics 101.
More notably, what Goldberg is doing here in unusually unconcealed (though otherwise characteristic) fashion is relying on the most standard, by-now-clichéd debate-suppressive tactic of neoconservative Israel-fanatics in the U.S. Anyone who criticizes the actions of the Israeli Government will, for that reason alone, have “anti-Semite” tossed in their vicinity and attached to their name (just as those who criticized the actions of the Bush administration — say, for attacking Iraq – were branded “anti-American”). Any American citizen who argues that we are acting counter-productively with our unquestioning, full-scale support for Israel — the use of American money, arms and diplomatic tools to enable anything the Israeli Government does — is guilty of the crime of “Israel-bashing” and is condemned as being “anti-Israel” (or, worse still, will have the phrase “Sheikh Hassan” disgustingly placed before their name by Goldberg and his friends). These rancid equations are too familiar to require any elaboration or refutation.
But what is worth noting — and celebrating — is that a significant and palpable change has occurred. Whereas these smear tactics once inspired fear in many people, now they just inspire pity. They no longer work. Very few Americans are going to refrain from expressing their views on American policy towards Israel out of fear that the Jeffrey Goldbergs of the world are going to screech “anti-Semitism” at them. Neocons are far too discredited and their policies far too self-evidently destructive for them to intimidate anyone out of questioning their orthodoxies. Now, watching neocons recklessly spew their bitter little epithets in lieu of (and in order to suppress) debate is like watching an old, dying dragon sadly trying to breathe mighty fire from its mouth but collapsing in a debilitating coughing fit instead — or is like watching a disgraced, post-censure Joe McCarthy in 1956 stand in an empty Senate chamber and rail against hidden Communists. Nobody cares.
People like Jeffrey Goldberg — and his comrades at places such as Commentary and the ADL — have so abused, over-used, manipulated and exploited the “anti-semitism” and “anti-Israel” accusations for improper and nakedly political ends that those terms have become drained of their meaning, have almost entirely lost their sting, and have become trivialized virtually to the point of caricature. That behavior has produced serious harm. Their trivialization and misuse of those terms have severely diminished the ability to stigmatize and attack real anti-Semitism, because legitimate accusations of anti-Semitism are now conflated with and discredited by the neocons’ cynical attempts to wield it as a cheap debating weapon. That’s a particularly dangerous — and ironic — outcome given that it has been spawned by many who have long claimed proprietary ownership over the “anti-Semitism” term in order, ostensibly, to protect it from trivialization.
A symbolic turning point in the collapse of the neocon’s smear machine was when many of them swarmed on, slandered and even threatened the livelihood of Time‘s Joe Klein for running afoul of right-wing, neocon orthodoxies. Not only didn’t Klein back down or apologize, but he re-affirmed and even ramped up his advocacy, and nothing happened. The threats and neocon lynch-mob smears stood exposed as sad and impotent relics of the past.
And when, in January of this year, Bill Moyers delivered a very even-handed, two-sided commentary on the Israel/Gaza war — that included criticisms of both sides — he became, almost overnight, the new face of anti-semitism for the neocon Right. The ADL’s Abe Foxman actually issued a letter formally denouncing Moyers for “anti-semitism” and other crimes. Moyers was similarly smeared in The New York Times by Bill Kristol and in The Jerusalem Post by Alan Dershowitz. Even five years ago, that sort of smear campaign would send the target — and even his actual or prospective employer — into fits of apologia and fear. But rather than cower or backtrack, Moyers issued a defiant response, and few people even noticed, let alone cared, that such ugly and plainly unjustifiable attacks were launched at Moyers in order to punish him for expressing criticism of Israel’s war.
Indeed, people like Goldberg are becoming extra rancid and reckless in their rhetoric precisely because they know that these rhetorical devices have ceased working. There is a definite sea change when it comes to American policy debates toward Israel. They no longer possess the ability to stifle dissent through thuggish intimidation tactics and they know that, which is why they can now do nothing but turn up the volume on their name-calling attacks.
The Israeli devastation of Gaza and its trapped, defenseless civilian population — using American bombs, arms, money and diplomatic cover — was so brutal and horrific to watch that it inevitably changed the way people view that Middle East conflict. Even before that, large majorities of Americans already favored an even-handed approach to the Israel/Palestinian conflict.
That the face of Israel is now about to become Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu and the right-wing extremist Avigdor Lieberman will, as Haaretz‘s Gideon Levy wrote, cause “the veil [to] be lifted and the nation’s true face revealed to its citizens and the rest of the world,” and will also, as The Jerusalem Post predicted, change how Americans perceive of their support for that country. That Israel continues to expand its seizure of West Bank land, as Matt Yglesias recently pointed out, will (at least hopefully) force the Obama administration to place meaningful pressure on Israel to change its behavior.
The ban on questioning U.S. policy towards Israel and the requirement that uncritical homage be paid to the Israeli government is clearly coming to an end. Several members of Congress — Sen. John Kerry as well as Reps. Brian Baird and Keith Ellison — visited Hamas-ruled Gaza this week in order to survey the massive damage that was done. Newly appointed New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand openly declared this week that the U.S. should use its leverage to push Israel into serious peace negotiations “regardless of what Netanyahu says he wants to do.” And the Jewish-American group J Street is well on its way to destroying the stranglehold which right-wing groups have long exerted on American policy debates over Israel and the monopoly those groups have deceptively claimed on speaking for American Jews.
America’s destructive involvement in all Israeli conflicts and its blind devotion to all Israeli actions is one area where — not due exclusively or even primarily to Obama — change is on its way. That policy just isn’t sustainable any longer, nor are the myths that have long been propagated, and the smear tactics that have long been invoked, in service of shielding that policy from critical scrutiny and open debate. As the debate finally unfolds, Jeffrey Goldberg can — and almost certainly will — scream “anti-Semite” until he loses his voice. But the louder he screams, the more he abuses and exploits that accusation, the fewer people who will be listening. Or caring.
* * * * *
I’ll be on Democracy Now with Amy Goodman this morning at roughly 8:30 a.m. EST to discuss the Obama administration’s actions on civil liberties and Bush/Cheney “terrorism policies.” (I’ll be on with The New Yorker‘s Jane Mayer). Live video and local listings are here. I probably should make sure to familarize myself with everything Goodman has ever said since, by Jeffrey Goldberg’s guilt-by-association standards, I’m now linked to and responsible for everything she believes by virtue of my appearance on her show.
UPDATE: The video of the Democracy Now segment I did this morning is available here. It begins at roughly the 31:00 mark. A transcript of the segment that included both me and Jane Mayer
will be added shortly is now available on that page as well. There were some problems with the audio feed, though I think the discussion is still worth listening to (by herself, Jane Mayer is, as usual, highly informative).
UPDATE II: If it were his goal to prove my point, could Goldberg have done a better job than his adolescent “response” to what I wrote? (And anyone with any doubts about his “politics” — which isn’t really relevant to the issue here — should just review the things he was saying and doing about the “Saddam threat” in the run-up to the Iraq War — lies he continues to this day to defend). Identically, some American Spectator blogger chimes in with trite little condemnations so predictable and over-used that one almost falls asleep reading them: the ”subconscious meaning of my last column” is that I’m “self-hating.” Marty Peretz and Commentary were recently seen spewing similar playground taunts at Matt Yglesias, Spencer Ackerman and others who criticized Israel or question American policy towards Israel — views one can express only if, apparently, one suffers from a psychological affliction.
As I said above, they know this isn’t working any longer. They’ve lost the ability to intimidate people with their slimy name-calling and to control the debate. And all that’s left for them to do is turn up the volume, ratchet up the venom levels, and scream a little more loudly. But they and their debate-suppressive tactics are far too discredited to provoke anything other than indifference.
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