On Nov. 20, the Zionist Organization of America, a small hard-right pro-Israel group, held its annual gala. To the chagrin of many in the American Jewish community, Donald Trump’s newly-appointed senior strategist Stephen Bannon was scheduled to attend. Outside, scores of Jews protested. And inside, celebrated Zionist lawyer Alan Dershowitz, who had been scheduled to speak before Bannon had been invited, took the opportunity to issue a pointed warning to those in attendance.
“There is an equally disturbing trend that you might not be as happy to hear about, and that is the anti-Muslim and often bigoted extreme right that is pro-Jewish and pro-Zionist,” the Harvard Law professor said. “I’m a little worried today that there are Jews in many parts of the world that are being seduced by the hard right. We must not become complicit in bigotry, whether it is from the right or the left… Being pro-Israel can never serve as an excuse for bigotry against any other group.”
This warning was of a piece with Dershowitz’s critique of Bannon, outlined in an op-ed titled: “Bannon’s not an anti-Semite. But he is an anti-Muslim, anti-women bigot.” Asked by The New Yorker about the anti-Bannon protesters outside the ZOA gala before his speech, Dershowitz said, “Part of me wants to be with them. But … I confront. In the twenties, Jews were seduced by Communists. Now it’s by a populist right that has elements of Fascism. I’m going to try to warn against that tonight.” For his performance, The Daily Beast dubbed Dershowitz “the bravest man of the night.” Bannon ultimately didn’t show.
And yet, remarkably, the New York Times published a piece yesterday which falsely claimed Dershowitz defended Bannon at the ZOA. Writing for The Stone philosophy blog in a post titled “Liberal Zionism in the Age of Trump,” New School assistant professor Omri Boehm attempted to argue that “Zionism [is] a political agenda rooted in the denial of liberal politics” that inevitably dovetails with hard-right bigotry and apologism. His banner example? Alan Dershowitz.
Immediately after Trump appointed Bannon, the Zionist Organization of America prepared to welcome him at its annual gala dinner… Alan Dershowitz, the outspoken Harvard emeritus professor of law who regularly denounces non-Zionists as anti-Semitic, preferred in this case to turn not against Bannon, but against his critics. “It is not legitimate to call somebody an anti-Semite because you might disagree with their politics,” he pointed out.
As you might suspect, the quote attributed here to Dershowitz at the ZOA did not actually appear in his speech at the ZOA. (It is a truncated line from an earlier TV interview wrenched from the context of Dershowitz’s broader arguments to completely misrepresent his position.) This mistake matters not just for what it says about the intellectual integrity of the author and the editorial standards of this section of the New York Times—nothing good—but because it reveals the sleight-of-hand necessary to make the article’s entire argument work.
Boehm claims that American Jews must either opt to “hold fast to their liberal tradition, as the only way to secure human, citizen and Jewish rights” or “embrace the principles driving Zionism” and become apologists for bigotry. The problem with this dichotomy is that it only holds up if one erases the great many Zionists who expose it as a false choice—which is exactly what Boehm proceeds to do. Thus, he inverts the position of a center-left Zionist like Dershowitz, who has been repudiating Zionist fascists since Boehm was five years old. He entirely omits the strident criticism of Bannon by the centrist Zionist Anti-Defamation League. The piece never quotes anyone affiliated with J Street, the liberal Zionist lobby that has campaigned tirelessly against Bannon. And Boehm similarly elides conservative Zionists like Commentary editor John Podhoretz, who wrote that while Bannon may not personally be an anti-Semite, “it should go without saying that the president of the United States should not have a tawdry, destructive, and repulsively uncivilized goon as a chief strategist.”
None of these Zionists see any contradiction between opposing the forces of white nationalism and neo-Nazism while supporting the existence of the state of Israel, a country founded to protect Jews from the predations of those very evils. Moreover, many of these Zionists—like Dershowitz at the ZOA—have been warning their ideological allies against collaborating with the forces of the far-right. An honest appraisal of liberal Zionism’s alleged apologism for fascism would have to actually grapple with the views of these people, and maybe speak to a few of them to understand their perspective. But it does not appear Boehm was interested in an honest appraisal. (At the close of his piece, he even recycles the absurd slur that Yair Netanyahu, the son of Benjamin, is named after a fringe Jewish terrorist from Mandatory Palestine, when “Yair” is an extremely common Hebrew name that occurs multiple times in the Bible.)
To be clear, the problem is not that Boehm correctly argues against “the sanctification of Zionism to the point of tolerating anti-Semitism,” but that he falsely claims that many Zionists haven’t been sounding this very alarm. Even some on the Israeli far-right, which has at times played footsie with its European counterparts, have drawn lines in the sand over this issue. Just today, a senior Trump transition official canceled a meeting with Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely after the hawkish Israeli lawmaker refused to allow a far-right Swedish official to also attend the briefing. Clearly, Zionists do not conform to Boehm’s caricature.
When one erases the moderate members of a minority in order to tar the entire collective with the brush of extremism, it’s rightly called Islamophobia when it comes to Muslims. Yet when one does this to Zionists—who comprise the vast majority of Jews—buttressed by entirely false reporting, the New York Times appears willing to publish it, without even checking the quotes to see if they’re accurate.
Unsurprisingly, Boehm’s piece has been shared hundreds of times on social media by a jubilant alt-right—including by Richard Spencer, the godfather of the movement—thrilled to see Zionist Jews linked with neo-Nazis in the paper of record:
— The Current Year (@TheeCurrentYear) December 20, 2016
Earlier this month, Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet told NPR that he wants the paper to find ways to connect with Americans that it overlooked during this past election. Somehow, one suspects that going viral among white nationalists with a piece that falsely insinuates that Jews like Alan Dershowitz are neo-Nazi sympathizers was not exactly what he had in mind.
Then again, saying things that got enthusiastically retweeted by the alt-right is exactly the sort of thing Donald Trump did throughout his campaign. Perhaps The Stone blog can commission its next piece about the parallels between the ideals guiding its editorial decisions and those of Trump and white nationalism.
UPDATE: Boehm has responded on Twitter, arguing that he did not attribute the misleading quote to Dershowitz at the ZOA:
— Omri Boehm (@omri_boehm) December 22, 2016
The original paragraph is ambiguously worded, but even if this is so, it does not materially change the more salient fact that Boehm inverted Dershowitz’s entire position to paint him as an apologist for bigotry. Boehm did not address this issue on Twitter.