Navigate to Israel & The Middle East section

How Stupid Can You Get? Rethinking Israel Is the Way To Find Out.

A new genre of journalism brings up the good, the bad, and the ugly of liberal soul-searching

Liel Leibovitz
August 01, 2014
Andrew Sullivan, editor of The Dish, April, 2014 in Washington, DC.(Photo by T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images)

Andrew Sullivan, editor of The Dish, April, 2014 in Washington, DC.(Photo by T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images)

The hottest story out of Gaza these days has nothing to do with Palestinians. It’s not about Israelis either. It features no rockets or tunnels or tragically misunderstood secretaries of state. Instead, it is about what is clearly at the core of this conflict, namely the growing ennui some liberal writers are feeling as they contemplate the fluctuating state of their support for Israel.

When attempted intelligently, this exercise is less entirely narcissistic than it sounds. Writing in New York magazine, for example, Jonathan Chait presented a reasonable—if far from uncontestable, as Chait himself fairly admits—account of the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, and concluded by arguing that responsibility for failing to strike a deal lies squarely on Bibi Netanyahu’s shoulders. If you believe in that story, the war in Gaza comes off as a cynical political maneuver by a desperate politician who, having squandered a wonderful opportunity for coexistence, vies for fighter jets and surges of patriotism instead.

But the further the genre of the soul-searching liberal moved away from a well-lit attempt at interpreting the available facts, the more it sailed up the river and into the dark heart of emotional entanglements, the weirder the pieces became. Jonathan Freedland—whose newspaper, The Guardian, has a tradition of running columns with such jaunty titles as “Israel Simply Has No Right to Exist”—produced his own musing in The New York Review of Books. “The first week of Protective Edge produced awkward statistics,” he wrote. “The Palestinian death toll kept climbing while Israel’s remained stubbornly at zero.” How awkward indeed, and how stubborn those Israelis are for simply refusing to die. And what a challenge they mount to the liberal narrative by investing in bomb shelters, missile defense systems, and smartphone applications to keep its citizens safe while the other side forcefully prevents its civilians from seeking a safe shelter.

Never mind about civilians, however, when something far more important is at stake: Maintaining the purity of the author’s identity as a good liberal as defined by the ever-shifting tides of the high-brow magazines to which he or she contributes and/or subscribes. “When Israelis and Palestinians appear fated to fight more frequently and with ever-bloodier consequences,” Freedland wrote, “and when peace initiatives seem to be Utopian pipe-dreams doomed to fail, the liberal Zionist faces something like an existential crisis. For if there is no prospect of two states, then liberal Zionists will have to do something they resist with all their might. They will have to decide which of their political identities matters more, whether they are first a liberal or first a Zionist. And that is a choice they don’t want to make.” Naturally, the possibility that the Zionist entity with its civil rights lawyers and free press and internet start-ups is itself much more neatly aligned with anyone’s version of classical liberal values than the medieval ranting of Hamas’s bearded women-oppressing, gay-bashing, Jew-hating missile-launching zealots is never entertained.

It’s easy to pity the intellectual incoherence of soul-searching liberals; for the most part, they are honestly trying to resolve what they perceive as a real clash of values. But then there are those who let their incoherence blossom into something vile. In a recent post titled “The Shifting Israel Debate,” Andrew Sullivan gave his readers a thunderous account of how the times are a-changin’. Offering up Matt Yglesias’s Liberty Lobby-style piece about how Congress is basically bought and paid for by Jews with deep pockets and narrow interests, Sullivan writes: “not so long ago, anyone saying that Jewish donor money made an even-handed approach to Israel-Palestine a pretty dead letter would be deemed ipso facto an anti-Semite.”

As we’re in ipso facto territory, let’s forget about allegations of anti-Semitism—those never go very far—and focus instead on rudimentary journalistic skills. Let’s, for the sake of argument, assume that a curious journalist came across the Israel-buys-congress’s-approval-with-campaign-contributions line of arguments. What might such an aspiring muckraker do? First, he or she might seek to prove causality, asking if cash contributions from pro-Israeli Jews were truly the sole or major reason behind American support for Israel. How to answer that complex question?

Hmmmmm. Let’s start with Google, which, if tasked with the phrase “American support for Israel,” reveals a Gallup poll from last year announcing that while 64 percent of Americans side with and support Israel, only 12 percent stand with the Palestinians. Did the Jewish lobby buy the voters too? Even among Democrats, liberals, and postgraduates—groups whose sympathies for underdogs are a matter of dogma—the Palestinians could not muster more than 24 percent of the population.

Why is that? The poll doesn’t specify, but it’s not hard to surmise that some folks way down yonder in the heartland find all that business about suicide bombings and rocket launchings and sacrificing 160 children to build death tunnels a tad, well, un-American.

To say that American support for Israel, then, may have something to do with shared cultural values rather than balance sheets would have been enough. But a serious journalist could have gone a step further and discovered that when it comes to doling out the dough, Israel is a very low-grade player. How meek? Number 83 out of 84 countries surveyed, with a total of $1,250 spent, which is what some restaurants in New York charge for dinner for two with decent wine. Topping the list are the United Arab Emirates, $14.2 million of whose money flowed to Washington last year.

Sullivan, however, isn’t done. The other reason the brave champions of veracity who rule the internet can now break their shackles finally speak truth to power, he argues, is because blogging came along and liberated the hearts, the minds, and the pens of journalists. “Reporters from the scene,” he wrote, “can actually express in real time—outside the usual pro-Israel self-censorship that has existed for years at the NYT and WaPo – what they are actually witnessing.”

It’s tempting to chuckle at the idea of the Times censoring itself when it comes to Israel—Sullivan, apparently, is not familiar with the literary oeuvre of the Grey Lady’s crusader Robert Mackey—but more serious issues are at stake. To claim that the debate over Israel shifts because journalists on the ground are finally free to report what they’re seeing is to wantonly ignore the mounting evidence of Hamas harassing and threatening the lives of Western journalists attempting to question its rank propaganda. In recent days alone, we’ve heard the account of Gabriele Barbati, an Italian journalist who, once leaving Gaza, tweeted: “Out of #Gaza far from #Hamas retaliation: misfired rocket killed children yday in Shati. Witness: militants rushed and cleared debris.” We’ve also heard from Radjaa Abou Dagga, a former correspondent for France’s Liberation whose attempts at practicing honest journalism got him summoned by Hamas thugs, accused of collaborating with Israel, and told to stop working as a reporter and leave the strip at once. If Sullivan was true to his vision, if he believed in unfettered reporting, he’d promote these gutsy correspondents and their accounts. But actually, Sullivan has never reported an actual story in his long career, let alone set foot in a war zone. He’s a click-machine with an animus.

Which is the real problem with the “Let’s rethink Israel” genre in both its sensitive soul-searching singer-songwriter NYRB version and Yglesias and Sullivan’s gleeful attempt to try to rebrand rancid bigotry as the brave new forward-think of the web. Journalists, Jewish or not, liberal or otherwise, should indeed reexamine their positions about Israel. In fact, they should reexamine their positions about everything. Being reporters, their positions should be rather tightly tethered to the facts, which often swing wildly and without warning. But when pundits with very little concrete knowledge of what is actually happening on the ground fail to produce even basic reporting and indulge instead their own creepy fetishes, the insight they offer is less than meaningless.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.