One reason for the surge of public criticism of Israel over the last decade is the increasing interest of American media consumers in the Middle East as U.S. involvement in the region deepened after Sept. 11. The other reason is the triumph of the Internet, which lends itself to anti-Semitic narratives. The genius of the web is its interconnectedness, the facility with which it is capable of making links based on other links, which allows a chain of unbroken and unsubstantiated rumor and innuendo to acquire the stature of fact.
As far back as 2003, David Brooks, writing in the Weekly Standard, was among the first to note the resurgence of anti-Semitism, “the socialism of fools,” in polite conversation, as conspiracy theorists peddled the idea that Jewish-American officials and their colleagues in the media had pressed the United States into making war with Iraq to serve the interests of Israel. From blogs and bulletin boards, Jew-baiting soon entered the mainstream publishing industry, most famously with the publication of Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer’s The Israel Lobby. The two authors argue that there exists a group of U.S. officials, journalists, and activists—housed at institutions from The New York Times to AIPAC—who intentionally deceived the American public and subverted “true” U.S. interests on behalf of the Jewish state. As reviewers noted, the bulk of the book’s research was based on secondary sources, most of which came from the web.
If not quite as popular as adult-content sites, the anti-Israel blogosphere is a dirty little thrill that major U.S. media outfits have mainstreamed for the masses, the intellectual equivalent of the topless “Page Three” girls that British tabloids use to boost circulation. Among the dozens of blogs and websites obsessed with Israel and the machinations of the U.S. Israel lobby, Phillip Weiss’ Mondoweiss (a project of The Nation Institute), Glenn Greenwald’s blog on Salon, and Stephen Walt’s blog on ForeignPolicy.com (owned by The Washington Post Company) sit atop the junk-heap.
“Whenever one of these guys writes about me, I can tell without having looked at their blogs, because my inbox quickly fills with anti-Semitic invective,” says The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and a frequent target of Weiss, Greenwald, and Walt. “Whenever I see a subject line with something like ‘You fascist Zionazi,’ it’s pretty much assured the link in the email will lead back to a post from one of these guys.”*
Some of these bloggers, like Weiss and Andrew Sullivan, were widely published journalists prior to their careers as Jew-baiters. Walt is a different case: A tenured professor of international relations at Harvard, his reputation extended no further than academic circles until The Israel Lobby put him in the middle of the national debate over U.S. Middle East policy. “I wouldn’t consider it a Middle East blog,” Foreign Policy’s managing editor, Blake Hounshell, says of Walt’s work for the site. “He writes about a lot of other things. It’s a regular foreign-policy blog.”
While it is true that Walt covers a wide range of international subjects in his blog, nothing provokes the same amount of reader feedback as his posts about Israel. Last week, a post on the Russian spy scandal received 14 comments; another post during the same period, enumerating what Walt considers the “five big questions about contemporary world politics,” fared a bit better, garnering 53 responses. In the eyes of Walt’s readership, however, those five major issues are dwarfed by the significance of his post concerning the Emergency Committee for Israel, a new pro-Israel organization founded by William Kristol, which was commented on 378 times.
These numbers suggest that the purpose of Walt’s blog is to act as a magnet for the animus of a readership hostile not only to Israel but also to American figures friendly to Israel, especially American Jews. Whether that bothers the owners of The Washington Post or thrills the advertising staff is another question. Jeffrey Goldberg believes that big media companies have morally blinded themselves to the ramifications of using anti-Semitism to attract readers. “I suppose that to the managers of Foreign Policy, traffic is traffic,” Goldberg says. “But in the course of building that traffic they’re surfacing some fairly dreadful invective about Jews. I don’t think they’d be comfortable surfacing the same kind of invective about African-Americans or other groups. But there seems to be a high tolerance for hosting a Jew-baiting blog.”
One explanation for the open sewer of hate that runs through the most prestigious foreign-policy websites is that their editors have become desensitized to opinions they read every day—and that are widely echoed throughout the Arab world and in Europe. In the view of such people, anti-Semitism is simply another common inconvenience of the medium. “As with other sites on the Internet, we certainly don’t feel as though we’ve found a good solution yet to dealing with offensive speech—or, though undoubtedly less importantly, for the annoying spammers who are for some reason insistent on selling our readers ‘Tiffany’ watches, jeans and shoes,” says Susan Glasser, editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy.
While it is difficult and in some cases perhaps undesirable to keep reader-comment sections completely free of insults, racist slurs, paranoid rantings, and threats of violence, it is also the case that some authors and certain subjects, regardless of the author or argument, are more likely than others to stir up the cesspool. Robert Mackey’s The Lede blog at The New York Times serves up a steady diet of Israel-related stories that give hardcore anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic commenters a home at the paper but is energetic in removing the most egregious posts.
Commenters who are shut out at The Lede can find a welcoming home on Lobeblog, hosted by Jim Lobe, a journalist with the IPS News Agency who believes that the roots of the U.S. invasion of Iraq lay not in the White House or the Defense Department, or in U.S. dependence on Arab oil, but in a small neoconservative outfit called the Project for a New American Century, which was supposedly run by American Jews looking to direct U.S. policy on behalf of the Israeli government.
“It hasn’t been secret,” writes Carroll, a commenter on a Lobelog post, that “for a long time that we have a small cabal of US zionist operating in and manipulating the US for their vision of Israel and a group of US Neocons and other assorted special interest who never met a war they didn’t like. … What do we have to do to put an end to them? … Suicide the cabal?” On another post at the same site, a commenter named Rowan Berkeley writes: “It seems to me that it is no exaggeration to say roundly that the USA in its entirety is under Jewish control of one variety or another.” He then makes an entirely accurate observation: “Ten years ago, it would have been a safe assumption that only ‘neo-Nazis’ would say such a thing.”
What is notable about such comments is not that they are original or unusual, but that there are hundreds and thousands of them, each sicker and crazier than the next, appended like a mile-long oil slick to nearly any mainstream news story or opinion piece that mentions Israel. In addition to creating the impression of a wave of popular hatred directed against the Jewish state—an impression belied by polls that show nearly two-thirds of Americans support Israel—the commenters attempt to swamp the news with paranoid anti-Semitic rantings that are entirely detached from even the BBC’s version of reality. On Glenn Greenwald’s Salon blog, there were close to 1,000 comments when the news of the Gaza flotilla incident broke. One commenter took the episode as proof that “The jewish state intends to clean itself of all non-jews. Anything that might slow the starving of the hated ones will be dealt with in the most harsh of terms. This slow-motion genocide/ethnic-cleansing is a horror to witness.” One prominent contributor to Greenwald’s blog, a commenter calling himself Shingo, also appears in the comments section at Stephen Walt’s place, where he manfully exposes Zionist lies: “There is no archeologically and historically evidence that a Jewish state did exist,” he wrote in response to a Walt post.
That comment, along with several dozen others, disappeared from FP.com yesterday, removed by site administrators after I emailed Foreign Policy’s Glasser for comment. “Walt often provokes heated debate with his blog posts, and we are attentive to making sure that offensive comments are taken down,” she later explained in an email.” Many of Shingo’s similar comments remain live, however. Another typical comment, by a reader named Cal, also disappeared after I contacted Foreign Policy. “[E]njoy your hubris reveling while you can,” he warns, “cause you know whose going to be blamed for all the damage and fallout if there is a US military involvement with Iran or if we spend more blood and treasure on Israel’s war … the ‘Jews are.” The authority that Cal cites for his creepy, conspiratorial worldview is none other than the blog’s author: “[A]s before, Walt is right, has been right. Israel stung the frog, now it’s gonna drown.”
Walt’s readers live through his posts and feed off of the legitimacy bestowed on him by mainstream American cultural institutions—Harvard, which employs him; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, which published his book, and FP.com and The Washington Post Company, which host his blog. Walt and his anti-Israel blogging colleagues have become the respectable face of Jew-baiting. They’re the cesspool’s avatars.
There was a time when American publications could easily ward off the fringe population of semi-literate paranoids and shut-ins who seek admission to mainstream American intellectual life by writing crazy letters. Editors of magazines like The New Yorker didn’t particularly care what their readers had to say (the magazine had no letters section for many years), so long as they kept renewing their subscriptions, and a magazine’s prestige seemed proportionate to the lack of interest it evinced in audience feedback. Being kept in the margins, or shoved there, is the other side of the homespun success story, and no one ever has written better about thwarted American aspiration than Nathanael West. His novel Miss Lonelyhearts is about a newspaper advice columnist driven to despair over the anguished longings of his miserable readers; West’s Day of the Locust is about fringe Hollywood characters who never make the big time, a book that ends in a riot and Los Angeles in flames. What we’re seeing now on the blogs is the obscene marriage of West’s two greatest, and apparently visionary, works: Miss Lonelyhearts’s readers have repossessed the media and redeemed their self-pity and resentment with lead roles in American intellectual life—which they are intent on burning to the ground. Yet even West never dreamed that the proprietors would provide the matches.
“Walt is a throwback to the 1930s,” says Goldberg. “In the ’30s the isolationists rode the Jews as a hobby horse. They tried very hard to marginalize American citizens of the Jewish faith by questioning their loyalty. These guys don’t even understand what ancient terror they’re tapping into. What’s original, what makes this period alarming, is that The Washington Post Company would give a Jew-baiter a platform.”
*A prior version of this article incorrectly suggested that Goldberg was also referring to Andrew Sullivan in the above quote. He was not.
Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).