Predictably, New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier’s broadside against blogger Andrew Sullivan over Israel has prompted lots and lots (and lots) of responses, including from Sullivan himself. They all seem to agree with the following propositions: Wieseltier may not explicitly call Sullivan an anti-Semite, but that is the unavoidable implication of his argument (and, indeed, because of that Wieseltier should have said as much in order to be on the record about it); and, Andrew Sullivan is no anti-Semite. After that, they begin to disagree.
In a response to the responses, Wieseltier states, “I did not propose that he is an anti-Semite. I did propose that the scorn and the fury that characterizes his discussion of Israel and some of its Jewish supporters is wholly unwarranted.” As it happens, two years ago, over a similar contretemps, Wieseltier explicitly asserted that Sullivan is not an anti-Semite. (I’m inclined to give Wieseltier the benefit of the doubt: as I said last time, if Wieseltier wanted to write, ‘Andrew Sullivan is an anti-Semite,’ he could have, and since everyone took it that way anyway, it is not clear what Wieseltier stood to gain from refraining; therefore, it stands to reason that he does not think he is one.)
In Sullivan’s response, he adopts a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone, bemoaning the loss of what was once a strong friendship (both parties admit that there are personal grounds for this conflict in addition to substantive ones) before denying Wieseltier’s (implied) charge of anti-Semitism. He writes:
I’m sorry if Leon immediately saw my distinction between some neocons and many non-neocons as some kind of reference to ancient persecution. But what am I to do if I am trying to describe my support for J-Street over AIPAC on these matters, or for the younger generation of American-Jewish writers as opposed to their elders? Is this analysis something no non-Jew is allowed to even discuss, for fear of offending?
And while noting some caveats, Sullivan does roughly align himself with Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, whose basic thesis is that a powerful Israel Lobby works, mostly successfully, to steer U.S. policies vis-à-vis Israel in (right-wing) directions inimical to the U.S. interest.
At his most generous, Wieseltier accuses me of moronic insensitivity. Well, I do not think Leon thinks I am a moron. Am I insensitive? At times, I’m sure I am. I’m a writer who doesn’t much care for political correctness, of policing discourse for every single possible trope or code that someone somewhere will pounce on as evidence of bigotry. I’ve gone out of my way as an editor and writer to stir things up—on race and gender and culture and sex—and I have never been one to worry excessively about the sensitivity of others. I think I have offended and enraged far far more gay men and evangelicals than I ever have Jewish-Americans, for example. I’m a South Park devotee, for Pete’s sake.
Beyond Sullivan’s rejoinder, and Wieseltier’s rejoinder to the rejoinder (oh, look: Sullivan has now responded even to that!), a ton of other pundits and bloggers weighed in. The Atlantic Wire has an excellent links gallery in case you want to read everything. Several that are especially worth your time follow:
• Jonathan Chait notes that Sullivan once was rabidly, uncomplicatedly pro-Israel, and argues: “On the Middle East, Andrew falls prey to a habitual tendency to see the world divided between children of darkness and children of light. … 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.”
• Matthew Yglesias sees the piece as symptomatic of larger problems at the magazine that published it: “Like most of TNR’s very worst work, it suffers deeply from schizophrenia about the idea of flinging around baseless charges of anti-Semitism. On the one hand, the charges are baseless so the writer hesitates to fling them around. On the other hand, flinging baseless charges of anti-Semitism is the essence of the magazine’s commentary on Israel.”
• Tablet Magazine contributing editor Jeffrey Goldberg, while denying that his (Atlantic colleague) Sullivan is anti-Semitic, agrees with the sentiment of Wieseltier’s article, and points out, “What is relevant is that [Sullivan] sometimes uses his blog to disseminate calumnies that can cause hatred of Jews, and of Israel.” He also argues:
Sullivan doesn’t know that much about the Middle East. … The politics, contradictions, and motivations of Netanyahu’s approach to Obama do not interest Andrew. Netanyahu’s apparently self-evident evilness is what interests Andrew. Extremists on both sides of the issue want the Middle East to be simple, but it’s not. The Middle East is a tragedy precisely because the Israelis have an excellent case, and the Arabs also have an excellent case. This essential fact has often escaped Andrew’s attention.
• Blake Hounshell, of Foreign Policy, finds both Sullivan and Wieseltier’s writings “weird and sloppy,” and makes this valuable point: “Sullivan’s criticism of Israel ought to worry defenders of the Jewish state, then, because he is a bellwether for a broader shift in American media and society that has happened over the last few years.”
That last comment seems impossible to refute. The question of whether Andrew Sullivan is anti-Semitic, or even wrong, is far less relevant than the question of how many in America are apt to agree with his analysis of the Mideast situation, which is decidedly uncharitable to the Israeli side. Debaters’ points may win these little kerfuffles, but will they be enough to stem that “shift”?
Earlier: Wieseltier vs. Sullivan