On Israel, diversity and media: Eric Alterman addresses his recent disputes

“If they had said the Nation has too many black people writing about civil rights, wouldn’t people object?”(UPDATE)

Topics: eric alterman, The Nation, Media Criticism, max blumenthal, Zionism, Israel, Palestinians, interview, Jews, ,

On Israel, diversity and media: Eric Alterman addresses his recent disputesEric Alterman

He’s not deterred by what they write in the comments. He’s not deterred by the “thousands” of 140-character assaults on his character he has received on Twitter. And he’s not deterred if the magazine he works for says he was wrong to suggest last week that a critic of its Israel-Palestine coverage approached anti-Semitism. Eric Alterman — longtime columnist at the Nation — says in an interview with Salon that he will continue standing up for the state of Israel.

Someone has to, Alterman would say.

Few American publications publish more articles critical of the state of Israel than the Nation but relative to the number of those written by people who identify as Jewish, few of those critiques are authored by Palestinians. Writing for the Electronic Intifada, journalist Rania Khalek argued that while the magazine has published numerous articles in support of the Palestinian cause, it nonetheless “reinforces Israeli apartheid by privileging Jewish voices over Palestinian ones.”

To editor Richard Kim, that was unfair. At the Nation, he rejected the charge that “we have failed to include Palestinian writers in our coverage of the Israeli occupation,” though to be fair that is of course a different charge than the one that was made. Alterman, however, took it a step further: Khalek’s critique (and a post about her article at the site Mondoweiss) wasn’t merely mistaken, in his view, but something more.

“[S]peaking of The Nation,” Alterman wrote on his blog hosted by the publication, “have you noticed what the the magazine’s real problem is? Too many Jews!” Sarcastically saluting Mondoweiss and Electronic Intifada “for their belated commitments to honesty and transparency,” he wrote that it’s “always nice when people who pretend to care about one thing admit to their actual motivations, though I do wish each would clarify just how many Jews are too many.”

That post not only prompted a backlash on Twitter – Alterman is accustomed to those since he first criticized Nation colleague Max Blumenthal last fall for writing a critique of Israel that he claimed “could have been published by the Hamas Book-of-the-Month Club” – but also a “clarification” from Alterman’s editors: “This blog post mischaracterized recent articles … The writers of those pieces did not argue that ‘too many Jews’ write for The Nation; they pointed out that The Nation has published more Jewish than Palestinian voices.”

That clarification was appended as Alterman spoke to Salon on Monday morning. During the interview, he stuck to his original analysis.

“By essentializing Jewishness rather than a viewpoint, they are calling attention to a person’s identity,” said Alterman, “and that, to me, it’s not quite racism because Jews are not a race, but it is highly objectionable and anyone who cares about freedom of discourse should be troubled by it.”

“If they had said the Nation has too many black people writing about civil rights, wouldn’t people object?” Alterman told Salon. “If they had said the Nation has too many women writing about abortion, wouldn’t people object?”

What if the critique were that the magazine was not publishing enough black people writing about civil rights? Or enough women writing about abortion? Both, it seems, would be rather uncontroversial critiques in liberal circles. Would not Alterman himself critique a think tank hosting an all-white panel talking about the problems facing “urban America”?

“If the Brookings Institution were having a forum on urban America, would I insist that a black person be in there? No,” said Alterman. “I would insist that people there know what they’re talking about and have good evidence to support their arguments.”

Fox News could always find someone to provide an African-American stamp on a right-wing agenda, no doubt. But is there not something to be said for diversity? Even the hypothetical “best” white person with the most correct of political views has blind spots — and no amount of empathy can replace the experience of, say, growing up wealthy in the suburbs with growing up poor in the city.

The focus should be on views, not backgrounds, according to Alterman, as identities are not “useful signifiers when it comes to intellectual discourse.” Indeed, “I think they are reductive and a means of avoiding the issue. And there’s no better example than Israel-Palestine because of all the Jews who hate Israel and would like to see it disappear.”

There is little doubt that many of the leading critics of the Jewish state are themselves Jewish. In her piece for Electronic Intifada, Khalek herself noted that most of those writing in the Nation in favor of boycotting Israel are Jewish-American. But Alterman said he respects their right to an opinion and, though he’s in the minority on the issue, he admires his editors’ commitment to allowing a diversity of opinions (if not always writers).

“I know who the people are at the Nation who would like to see Israel disappear and are anti-Zionist to the core. They have that right,” he said. It also provides him motivation.

“I would wish that the views I hold would be better represented in the Nation but, as it is, I’m really the only person as far as I can tell who cares deeply about the continued existence of Israel who writes regularly at the Nation. So for my own sanity and, I like to think, the honor of the Nation, I write about it with a lot more frequency than I otherwise would because to be honest, I don’t think it changes anyone’s mind.”

And Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of the Nation, told Salon he is free to do so.

“In general, I believe there must be room for debate in the Nation,” she said in an email. “While we insist on factual accuracy and strive for fairness, I do not believe in policing the views of our columnists.”

Update, 1/15/14Eric Alterman responds:

“This piece is perfectly accurate insofar as it goes, but I fear it leads to a misleading impression of my views. In reading it, you’d never know that while it’s true I have no use for the BDS mob, the vast majority of the pieces I’ve written about Israel have been deeply critical of Israeli government policy, the occupation, and the Neocon cheerleaders who attempt to police the discourse on both. Indeed the attempt to shut down legitimate criticism of Israel, its ruinous occupation of Palestinian lands, and its refusal to negotiate a good faith two-state solution via the use of the frequently false accusation of anti-Semitism or Jewish-self hatred has been something of a hobby horse of mine. For instance:  Here is one recent example from The NationHere is one from The International Herald TribuneHere is one from the Center for American Progress. Here is one from The American ProspectHere is one from The Daily Beast. Here is one from The Forward. And here is one from Moment, etc., etc. True, I am a staunch defender of Israel’s right to exist, but I do not and would not defend its government’s actions that seek to extend its borders beyond those of the 1967 Green Line nor its discriminatory treatment of Palestinian Israelis or the occupied populations of the West Bank and Gaza. These are anathema to me, and I have frequently said and written as much.”

Charles Davis is a writer and producer in Los Angeles whose work has been published by outlets including Al Jazeera, The New Inquiry and Vice. You can read more of his writing here.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 22
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Talking Heads, 1977
    This was their first weekend as a foursome at CBGB’s, after adding Jerry Harrison, before they started recording the LP “Talking Heads: 77.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith, Bowery 1976
    Patti lit up by the Bowery streetlights. I tapped her on the shoulder, asked if I could do a picture, took two shots and everyone went back to what they were doing. 1/4 second at f/5.6 no tripod.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Blondie, 1977
    This was taken at the Punk Magazine Benefit show. According to Chris Stein (seated, on slide guitar), they were playing “Little Red Rooster.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    No Wave Punks, Bowery Summer 1978
    They were sitting just like this when I walked out of CBGB's. Me: “Don’t move” They didn’t. L to R: Harold Paris, Kristian Hoffman, Diego Cortez, Anya Phillips, Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Jim Sclavunos, Bradley Field, Liz Seidman.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell + Bob Quine, 1978
    Richard Hell and the Voidoids, playing CBGB's in 1978, with Richard’s peerless guitar player Robert Quine. Sorely missed, Quine died in 2004.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bathroom, 1977
    This photograph of mine was used to create the “replica” CBGB's bathroom in the Punk Couture show last summer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So I got into the Met with a bathroom photo.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Stiv Bators + Divine, 1978
    Stiv Bators, Divine and the Dead Boys at the Blitz Benefit show for injured Dead Boys drummer Johnny Blitz.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977
    “The kids are all hopped up and ready to go…” View from the unique "side stage" at CBGB's that you had to walk past to get to the basement bathrooms.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Klaus Nomi, Christopher Parker, Jim Jarmusch – Bowery 1978
    Jarmusch was still in film school, Parker was starring in Jim’s first film "Permanent Vacation" and Klaus just appeared out of nowhere.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Hilly Kristal, Bowery 1977
    When I used to show people this picture of owner Hilly Kristal, they would ask me “Why did you photograph that guy? He’s not a punk!” Now they know why. None of these pictures would have existed without Hilly Kristal.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Dictators, Bowery 1976
    Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators with his girlfriend Jody. I took this shot as a thank you for him returning the wallet I’d lost the night before at CBGB's. He doesn’t like that I tell people he returned it with everything in it.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Alex Chilton, Bowery 1977
    We were on the median strip on the Bowery shooting what became a 45 single sleeve for Alex’s “Bangkok.” A drop of rain landed on the camera lens by accident. Definitely a lucky night!

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery view, 1977
    The view from across the Bowery in the summer of 1977.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977 – never before printed
    I loved shooting The Ramones. They would play two sets a night, four nights a week at CBGB's, and I’d be there for all of them. This shot is notable for Johnny playing a Strat, rather than his usual Mosrite. Maybe he’d just broken a string. Love that hair.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell, Bowery 1977 – never before printed
    Richard exiting CBGB's with his guitar at 4am, about to step into a Bowery rainstorm. I’ve always printed the shots of him in the rain, but this one is a real standout to me now.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith + Ronnie Spector, 1979
    May 24th – Bob Dylan Birthday show – Patti “invited” everyone at that night’s Palladium show on 14th Street down to CBGB's to celebrate Bob Dylan’s birthday. Here, Patti and Ronnie are doing “Be My Baby.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Legs McNeil, 1977
    Legs, ready for his close-up, near the front door of CBGB's.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Suicide, 1977
    Rev and Alan Vega – I thought Alan was going to hit me with that chain. This was the Punk Magazine Benefit show.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ian Hunter and Fans, outside bathroom
    I always think of “All the Young Dudes” when I look at this shot. These fans had caught Ian Hunter in the CBGB's basement outside the bathrooms, and I just stepped in to record the moment.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Tommy Ramone, 1977
    Only at CBGB's could I have gotten this shot of Tommy Ramone seen through Johnny Ramones legs.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery 4am, 1977
    End of the night garbage run. Time to go home.

  • Recent Slide Shows


Loading Comments...