Chait Vs. Walt-erman

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THE PLANK JANUARY 30, 2009

Chait Vs. Walt-erman

My last TRB column about J Street and its sense of ideological martyrdom, and my follow-up blog item, continue to win me love and affection on the blogs. One of the points I made was this:

Even people we think of as harsh critics of certain countries would
embrace them if they were willing to adopt radically different
policies. Dick Cheney no doubt thinks Iranians would stand to gain by
taking up a pro-American foreign policy. Does he qualify as pro-Iran?
Stephen Walt recently aped J Street's logic, writing, "The sooner we
redefine what it means to be 'pro-Israel,' the better for us and the
better for Israel." Is Walt--whose book portrays Israel as a force for
evil throughout its existence--pro-Israel?

Walt, co-author with John Mearsheimer of "The Israel Lobby," which portrays the Israel lobby as a nebulous, all-powerful force subverting America's interests for the sake of Israel, replies that he is too pro-Israel. He cites passages in the book stating "Israel's creation and subsequent development is a remarkable achievement" and that he supports Israel's right to exist. The former statement is, of course, completely devoid of any normative judgment -- i.e., "Ghengis Khan's conquest of the whole Asian steppe was a remarkable achievement." The latter certainly distinguishes Walt from those who desire Israel's elimination, but, again, doesn't address my point about setting the bar for "pro-Israel" a bit too low. Everything Walt says about his "support" for Israel could be said of Dick Cheney and Iran. Is it really descriptively useful to call anybody who opposes the extinction of nation X as "pro-Nation X"?

I'm making this point not to delegitize critics of Israel or America's pro-Israel stance. The fact that an idea is not usefully described as "pro-Israel" does not of course make it wrong. My point was that the obsession of J Street and its allies with rhetorical spin leads it into positions that lack any logical basis.

Meanwhile, at the Nation, Eric Alterman has a long, digressive reply to my Plank item. Let me briefly recap. Alterman wrote that the mainstream punditocracy "is not only one-sided in Israel's favor but also deeply
contemptuous of anyone who deviates from that side." Alterman blamed this on "Thought Police," which he defined as three hawkish blog posts.

In response I pointed out that recent opinion articles featured on the cover of Time and Newsweek -- surely important elements of the mainstream punditocracy -- were highly critical of Israel. I futher noted that three blog posts is not very strong evidence of control of the mainstream opinion debate. I also made a bit of fun of Alterman's description of these blog posts as "Thought Police," which seems to have particularly irked him:

This, too, strikes me as purposefully idiotic. I don't know Chait
personally, but I have a hard time he's gotten this far in life without
ever encountering the literary concept of "metaphor." When a comedian
comes off stage and says "I killed," he does not mean that he literally
ended a person's life. 

Etc., etc. I am perfectly aware, and I believe my readers were too, that Alterman did not literally mean to say that being criticized in a few hostile blog posts was the exact same thing as a being abducted and tortured by a sinister futuristic secret police. My point was that his choice of metaphor was silly, and indicative of the martyr mentality that has prevailed among so much of the J Street crowd. In any contentious debate, there are going to be people on each side writing sharp things about each other. The problem is that, on the topic of Israel, Alterman insists on seeing all commentary from his right as coercive. Of course -- and this was one point of my column -- there are Israel hawks on the right who have their own narrative of ideological persecution.

--Jonathan Chait

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