The Plank

More On Criticism Of Israel

My current
TRB column
is about the eerie intellectual parallels between J Street (and its
followers) and the right-wing Israel
hawks they so virulently oppose. "Right-wing Zionism thrives on a sense of
victimhood and encirclement," I wrote, "J Street has won a cult following among
liberal bloggers by tapping into an equivalent narrative of persecution and
bravery." J Street's
supporters are doing their best to demonstrate its thesis.

The Nation's Eric
Alterman recently wrote
that, in the United States,
"right-wing Jewish organizations and neoconservative pundits dominate nearly
all Middle East discussion." This is a pretty
radical claim, one I don't agree with--recent cover stories in both Time
and Newsweek have reflected the J
Street line -- but one for which you could produce at least some evidence. The
sum total of the evidence he did produce was three blog posts appearing in,
respectively, The New Republic, The Weekly Standard, and Commentary. Alterman, perhaps using
hyperbole to compensate for the lack of evidence, called the authors "Thought
Police." You may recall that the term "Thought Police" was coined by George
Orwell's "1984" to describe a breed of futuristic secret police that would
exceed even the draconian methods employed by Stalin and Hitler. Apparently
Alterman believes equivalent powers are now wielded by a handful of Zionist bloggers.
I'm trying to imagine what Alterman would say if fascism really does come to America.
Perhaps he'll think to himself, while hanging from his thumbs in some dungeon,
"Well, this is pretty bad, but not as bad as when I was criticized by
Commentary online."

My column disputed the notion that there truly was an
atmosphere of fear and intimidation around any criticism of Israel's
government. The American Prospect's
Ezra Klein retorts
that this may be true, but only because the attempts to suppress debate--by,
among other people, me--were failing. "The thing about criticizing Israel is that
you get called an anti-Semite rather a lot," he wrote, rather dramatically. But
we did it so often that the charge had lost its sting. Thus, "Criticizing
Israel is not an act of courage because it's not actually dangerous for your
career. This is despite the best efforts of Chait and his magazine."

Klein did not cite any examples of me calling somebody
anti-Semitic merely for criticizing Israel. It's merely an article of
faith among the left that any response to their criticism is either a direct
accusation of anti-Semitism or, at the least, an attempt to suppress debate.
The Center for American Progress's Matthew Yglesias, meanwhile, calls
my magazine an "ideological enforcer" on Israel. The rule here is that if
you write political commentary disagreeing with the J Street analysis of Israel, you're
a thuggish ideological enforcer. If you write political commentary supporting
the J Street
analysis, you're a courageous ideological freedom fighter.

Klein in particular blames me for TNR's review
of Stephen M. Walt and John J. Mearsheimer's The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy by The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, which cast Walt and Mearsheimer's
book in the tradition of "judeocentric" analysis, a category that mostly
includes anti-Semites. This review is a source of deep and continuing grievance
among many liberal bloggers. As it is now being held against me personally, I
might as well say what I think about it. I don't like using words like "racist"
or "anti-Semite" to dismiss ideas or people, except in very clear-cut cases.
Terms like anti-Semite create questions about definitions--does it mean hating
all Jews? Thinking Jews are too powerful? Agreeing with ideas primarily favored
by people who want to kill the Jews?--that tend to bring a debate to a
screeching halt. Goldberg took a slight step away from the term "anti-Semite,"
but not far enough for my taste.

However, I do find with Goldberg's underlying analysis
totally correct. Walt and Mearsheimer wrote a book that, even by the account of
fair-minded and even ideologically sympathetic critics, is a shoddy, paranoid
screed. When you make an argument that closely tracks a longstanding racist or
anti-Semitic trope, you have some obligation to take extra care. To take
another example, I have no opinion as to whether Charles Murray or Richard
Herrnstein has any personal animus against African Americans. I do think that
if they wanted to break the taboo against discussion of the black-white IQ gap,
they should have made a better argument than they did in The Bell Curve.

In fact, the analogy between The Israel Lobby and The Bell
Curve is pretty close to exact. Each covers a subject that, because it
encroaches upon territory favored by racist kooks, has some measure of taboo
attached to it. Each is a work that had some legitimate points but is marred by
fundamental flaws. Each responded to the inevitable accusations of bigotry by
playing up their sense of martyrdom and bravery. And each won devoted partisans
who, even if they couldn't quite defend every shoddy claim, were pleased to see
taboos challenged and the scope of discourse expanded, and quick to dismiss all
the critics as bullies and censors.

And, again, they had a point! Some people do trim their
sails on the influence of the Israel
lobby for fear of being called anti-Semitic. Likewise, the black-white IQ gap
is a very important issue, yet intellectuals are loathe to discuss it for fear
of being tarred as racists. (For example, Ezra Klein, 2006:
"Murray, you'll remember, is the crackpot conservative responsible for The Bell
Curve, the racist, IQ-obsessed tract from the mid-90's that turned out to be
little more than the thinking man's eugenicism.") But just as it's regrettable
that critics casually impute bigoted motives to those who stray onto taboo subjects,
self-styled ideological martyrs need not compel our sympathy.

--Jonathan Chait

Related: TRB:
Tough Love

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