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Sounding Off

Note to some of my fellow progressives: If we can’t argue about Israel without using anti-Semitic tropes, then the debate is lost before it even begins

Spencer Ackerman
January 27, 2012
(Daniel Hertzberg)
(Daniel Hertzberg)

At the risk of sounding like the shtetl police, there’s a right way and a wrong way for American Jews to argue with one another. The right way focuses on whose ideas are better—for America, for Israel, for the Jewish community, and for the world. The Jewish left should be right at home with this kind of substantive debate, since I believe those ideas are better than those of our cousins on the Jewish right. But the wrong way, regretfully, is now on the rise among Jewish progressives.

Some on the left have recently taken to using the term “Israel Firster” and similar rhetoric to suggest that some conservative American Jewish reporters, pundits, and policymakers are more concerned with the interests of the Jewish state than those of the United States. Last week, for example, Salon’s Glenn Greenwald asked Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg about any loyalty oaths to Israel Goldberg took when he served in the IDF during the early 1990s. (On Tuesday, writer Max Blumenthal used a gross phrase to describe Goldberg: “former Israeli prison guard.”) The obvious implication is that Goldberg’s true loyalty is to Israel, not the United States. For months, M.J. Rosenberg of Media Matters, the progressive media watchdog group, has been throwing around the term “Israel Firster” to describe conservatives he disagrees with. One recent Tweet singled out my friend Eli Lake, a reporter for Newsweek: “Lake supports #Israel line 100% of the time, always Israel first over U.S.” That’s quite mild compared to some of the others.

“Israel Firster” has a nasty anti-Semitic pedigree, one that many Jews will intuitively understand without knowing its specific history. It turns out white supremacist Willis Carto was reportedly the first to use it, and David Duke popularized it through his propaganda network. And yet Rosenberg and others actually claim they’re using it to stimulate “debate,” rather than effectively mirroring the tactics of some of the people they criticize.

Throughout my career, I’ve been associated with the Jewish left—I was to the left of the New Republic staff when I worked there, moved on to Talking Points Memo, hosted my blog at Firedoglake for years, and so on. I’ve criticized the American Jewish right’s myopic, destructive, tribal conception of what it means to love Israel. But it doesn’t deserve to have its Americanness and patriotism questioned. By all means, get into it with people who interpret every disagreement Washington has with Tel Aviv as hostility to the Jewish state. But if you can’t do it without sounding like Pat Buchanan, who has nothing but antipathy and contempt for Jews, then you’ve lost the debate.

This is tiresome to point out. Many of the writers who are fond of the Israel Firster smear are—appropriately—very good at hearing and analyzing dog-whistles when they’re used to dehumanize Arabs and Muslims. I can’t read anyone’s mind or judge anyone’s intention, but by the sound of it these writers are sending out comparable dog-whistles about Jews.


A bit of background for the uninitiated: Last month, Josh Block, a former AIPAC spokesman, pushed a series of talking points that targeted several liberal writers at the Center for American Progress, a left-wing think tank with ties to the Obama Administration. (Full disclosure: My personal blog was very briefly hosted by CAP in 2008; some of Block’s targets are my friends.) The effect was to suggest that CAP was hostile to Israel because it is to Block’s left. A plain reading of the think tank’s work refutes the accusation.

But buried in Block’s overbroad invective was a kernel of truth. Some at CAP, the liberal watchdog group Media Matters, and beyond deployed the “Israel First” smear, calling the Americanness of their political opponents into question. Predictably, right-wing Jewish writers took their shots at CAP, Media Matters, and the rest—never wanting to miss an opportunity to indict the left. And the Washington Post revived the contretemps last month in an article that effectively asked if CAP was anti-Israel.

The response to this controversy, and related ones, was ugly. Many toyed with the idea that denigrating someone’s American identity wasn’t so bad after all. Left-wing polemicist Philip Weiss wrote that he considered the term “Israel firster [to be] a perfectly legitimate term in a wide-open American discourse.” Time columnist Joe Klein noted that he’s used the term himself before, weighing in on “Americans who are pushing for war with Iran”—as the question of attacking Iran lurks in the background of this entire debate—and who “place Israel’s national defense priorities above our own.”

Even more disappointingly, the term got a nod of approval from the head of a lobbying organization that represents the Jewish left. Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street, the liberal pro-Israel, pro-peace organization that I’ve written favorably about, told the Washington Post he was cool with the throwing “Israel Firster” around. “If the charge is that you’re putting the interests of another country before the interests of the United States in the way you would advocate that,” he said, “it’s a legitimate question.” So, Ben-Ami’s response to years of getting baselessly attacked for not caring about Israel is to turn around and say his attackers don’t care about America? (Ben-Ami later clarified that, “The conspiracy theory that American Jews have dual loyalty is just that, a conspiracy theory and must be refuted in the strongest possible way.”)

If what Rosenberg and the others on the left want is a debate—by which I understand them to mean a debate about the wisdom of a war with Iran, and about the proper role of the U.S.-Israel relationship—great. The left, I think, will win that debate on the merits, because it recognizes that if Israel is to survive as a Jewish democracy living in peace beside a free Palestine, an assertive United States has to pressure a recalcitrant Israel to come to its senses, especially about the insanity of attacking Iran.

But that debate will be shut down and sidetracked by using a term that Charles Lindbergh or Pat Buchanan would be comfortable using. I can’t co-sign that. The attempt to kosherize “Israel Firster” is an ugly rationalization. It shouldn’t matter that the American Jewish right proliferates the term “anti-Israel.” The easiest way to lose a winnable argument is to get baited into using their tactics. I don’t fetishize false civility; bullies ought to get it twice as bad as they give. People disagree, so they should argue. Shouting is healthier than shutting up.

Call me a squish or a sellout or a concern troll. Whatever. But if you can’t be forceful without recalling some of the ugliest tropes in American Jewish history, you’re doing it wrong.

Spencer Ackerman is a senior writer for, covering national security. He blogs at Attackerman.

Spencer Ackerman is a senior writer for, covering national security. He blogs at Attackerman.