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Blog Post Sparks Latest Furor, Won’t Be Last

Debating Israel in an election year

Marc Tracy
December 20, 2011
Joe Klein.(Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Joe Klein.(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

A blog post has set off the shtetlsphere and illustrated the increasing rancor and touchiness as well as polarization of the Israel debate. (Before going further, I should add that I am generally complicit in this and specifically was in this case.) Yesterday, Joe Klein, the longtime Time correspondent, posted briefly about Rep. Ron Paul’s surge in Iowa:

Ron Paul has gained ground after a debate in which his refusal to join the Iran warhawks was front and center. Indeed, in my travels around the country, I don’t meet many neoconservatives outside of Washington and New York. It’s one thing to just adore Israel, as the evangelical Christians do; it’s another thing entirely to send American kids off to war, yet again, to fight for Israel’s national security.

I read this and thought it fairly remarkable. Was he saying Ron Paul was preferable to the rest of the Republican field? And that “yet again” was even more bizarre. I wanted to press Klein and ask him if he meant what he seemed to be saying: not only that an attack on Iran would be fought “for Israel’s national security” but that this would not be the first time—presumably, that Iraq was the same thing. The notion that Iraq was invaded for Israel’s sake, I personally believe, feeds into some of the weirdest and least accurate theories of Jewish neoconservatives pushing George Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld into an ill-advised war.

Tablet Magazine contributing editor Jeff Goldberg noticed the same thing and had also emailed Klein, and our emails prompted Klein to respond. As in an email to me, he said that we were misunderstanding his “yet again” (“Jeff had jumped to a silly conclusion,” he wrote; I think the notion that it’s a silly conclusion is itself silly). He then expanded on his beliefs, arguing that while there were Jewish neocons pushing for the Iraq war, they were not actually responsible for it (he fingers Cheney, as would I). All in all, I think Klein’s original post was sloppy at best and likely pretty intemperate; and while his follow-up is helpful, language like “Israel First/Likudnik bloviators,” specifically in reference to people who aren’t actually Israeli or actually members or primary supporters of Israel’s Likud Party, makes me uncomfortable, conjuring as it does charges of dual loyalty that Jews really shouldn’t have to hear anymore.

But I know why Klein feels, as it seems he does, like his back is against the wall, and why he would be frustrated by “the crazed intolerance of many right-wing Jewish commentators.” I brought up in my email with him the fact that no less than Michael Oren had responded to Thomas Friedman’s column last week, with its already-notorious “bought and paid for by the Israel lobby” line. [UPDATE: Friedman clarified the line today.] “This allegation is profoundly disturbing,” Oren said. Whether or not he’s right, Oren is not an intellectual-without-portfolio (anymore). He is Israel’s official envoy to the United States. If criticism of Israeli policy—even when, as in Friedman’s case (or Douglas David J. Rothkopf’s, or Joe Klein’s), it is sloppy, or intemperate, or even worse—garners you an official condemnation from the Israeli government as well as the wrath of ostensibly nonpartisan PACs as well as accusations of anti-Semitism, then we are looking at a stifling of debate that isn’t in the interests of anyone except the Jewish right, which is attempting to turn Israel into a wedge issue in the American Jewish community.

I’m not sure Elliott Abrams warrants the label “sometimes, a feckless shmuck,” which is what Klein called him after this post. But I do wish Abrams had restricted himself to disagreeing with Klein and Friedman on the policies rather than bringing up the blood libel; and what I really wish is that he had urged his readers to, you know, disagree with Klein and agree with him rather than urged various Jewish institutions to rescind their awards and generally cut Friedman and Klein off.

We have a long election year ahead of us, and it could be a useful occasion of hashing out differences on the Mideast. Who knows, if it’s done right, a new consensus—more to the right or to the left of the current one—may actually emerge. But poorly chosen, sloppy, and just plain clownish accusations (and then defenses that are predicated on comma placement) as well as responses that head straight for anti-Semitism and call for communal shunning are not going to get it done.

(By the way, I tried to find a clip of Samuel L. Jackson telling everyone in Do The Right Thing to cool that shit out, but none are embeddable. But the line is “Y’all need to chill that shit out! And that’s the double-truth, Ruth.”)

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.