Andrew Sullivan Is Not an Anti-Semite

by Jonathan Chait | February 9, 2010

Not long ago, Andrew Sullivan had ultra-hawkish views on Israel and the Middle East. The problem as he saw it, was very simple: The Muslim world was anti-Semitic and wanted to kill all the Jews. Naive Western governments pushed innocent Israelis to make peace, when the only answer was force. Here are some excerpts from an August 2001 column he wrote:

[T]he notion of a negotiable peace with the murdering hoodlums who run the PLO was always a fantasy. ...

Or maybe these optimists simply read the report of the recent suicide bombing printed in USA Today and noted by conservative commentator George Will: "The blast ... sent flesh flying onto second-storey balconies a block away. Three men were blown 30ft; their heads, separated from their bodies by the blast, rolled down the glass-strewn street ... One woman had at least six nails embedded in her neck. Another had a nail in her left eye. Two men, one with a six-inch piece of glass in his right temple ... tried to walk away ... A man groaned ... His legs were blown off. Blood poured from his torso ... A three-year-old girl, her face covered with glass, walked among the bodies calling her mother's name" ...

Here's the scenario, floated by the Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, the brilliant analyst who helped formulate the Reagan doctrine: "A lightning and massive Israeli attack on every element of Arafat's police state infrastructure -the headquarters and commanders of his eight security services, his police stations, weapons depots, training camps, communications and propaganda facilities--with a simultaneous attack on the headquarters and leadership of Arafat's Hamas and Islamic Jihad allies.

"Arafat has given Israel war; he will now receive it." ...

Under the onslaught of constant murder and fear, the Jewish public might be convinced to surrender enough arms and territory to give the PLO what they really want: a chance to destroy Israel altogether and murder any Jew they can find.

And here is one from 2002:

Then there was the recent Not In Our Name rally in Central Park, demonstrating against a potential war against Iraq. Around the edges of the rally copies of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the classic forged document of 19th-century anti-semitism, were being sold. According to the New York Sun, this peddling of anti-semitic tripe was not entirely accidental.

One protester said: “There are interest groups that want Israel to dominate Palestine. If Bush goes with them and is too critical, he might lose their support . . . the international financiers have their hooks in everything.” Ah, those international financiers. Remember them? America’s anti-war movement, still puny and struggling, is showing signs of being hijacked by one of the oldest and darkest prejudices there is. Perhaps it was inevitable. The conflict against Islamo-fascism obviously circles back to the question of Israel. Fanatical anti-semitism, as bad or even worse than Hitler’s, is now a cultural norm across much of the Middle East. It’s the acrid glue that unites Saddam, Arafat, Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Iran and the Saudis.

The style will be immediately familiar to any reader who has discovered his lively blog over the last few years: Sweeping moralistic pronouncements, graphic descriptions of violence committed by the villains deployed as moral bludgeons, innocents beset by violence-crazed monsters. Except, of course, the innocents and the villains have now swapped places. Once infinitely tolerant of Israel's need to defend itself militarily against terrorism, Andrew is now completely intolerant. Once he saw anti-Semitism lurking everywhere among Israel's critics; now he sees the perception of anti-Semitism as nothing but a weapon to silence criticism of the Israeli war machine.

Naturally, such a jarring reversal has prompted speculation about Andrew's motives. Leon has written what I consider to be a trenchant and persuasive dissection of Andrew's (current) worldview on Israel and the Israel lobby. Unfortunately, Leon also implies at several points that Andrew has succumbed to anti-Semitism. I object to that conclusion. Two years ago, Leon wrote, "I know as an incontrovertible fact, based on my long acquaintance with him and his writings, that he is not an anti-Semite." Anyone is entitled to change his mind, but I haven't -- I agreed with what Leon wrote then, and I still do.

Here are my problems with impugning Andrew's motives on this question. Leon notes, correctly, that Andrew has begun repeating tropes that happen to track classic anti-Semitic canards. His obsession with the singular power of the Israel lobby, writes Leon "has a provenance that should disgust all thinking people." Agreed. But just because an idea has a revolting provenance, it does not follow that everybody who subscribes to any version of it shares the same motive. The exploration of the link between race and I.Q. also has a provenance that should disgust all thinking people. It is, however, a legitimate topic of inquiry.

Leon agrees that the pro-Israel lobby wields significant power in U.S. policymaking, and determining this level of power is also a legitimate topic of inquiry. At one point on the spectrum of thought you have what Leon and I would consider a realistic assessment of the power of the Israel lobby. As you move further along the spectrum, you eventually approach Osama bin Laden's view of the power of the Israel lobby. Clearly, bin Laden qualifies as an anti-Semite. But the judgment can't be that as soon as you go just a little further along the line from my view, then you're an anti-Semite. There has to be some room on this question to be merely wrong -- to harbor an exaggerated view of the power of the Israel lobby without being an anti-Semite. Otherwise debate becomes impossible.

Now, I believe that those who wish to explore areas that coincide with the favorite obsessions of bigots have an obligation to do so with more care than they might use with other subjects. Andrew has been careless, but carelessness isn't bigotry.

Leon writes very carefully about the Middle East. I find his writing on this subject extremely well-informed and, in my opinion, invariably persuasive. There are topics about which I'd say the same about Andrew, but the Middle East is not one of them. (None of us can be an expert in everything.) Indeed, on the Middle East, Andrew falls prey to a habitual tendency to see the world divided between children of darkness and children of light. This is not a problem for a writer who is describing conflicts between Democrats and Republicans. When the parties involve happen to correspond with ethnic groups, then it's going to be impossible to avoid language that appears racialistic. I don't think that Andrew's transformation from overwrought hawk to overwrought dove is driven by, or has brought about, a different view of Jews. It seems instead to be the shattering of a brittle worldview and its replacement by a new worldview, equally brittle.

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