Why is it that no one bats an eyelash when a former United States national security adviser says, “The Israelis have a lot of influence with Congress, and in some cases they are able to buy influence”? Last week in an interview, Zbigniew Brzezinski accused the government of Israel of a crime. If he has evidence that Israeli officials have broken the law by bribing U.S. politicians, law enforcement authorities should compel him to produce it. But of course Brzezinski’s not really talking about Israelis. What he means is that American Jews have subverted the interests of the United States on behalf of a foreign power.
You don’t need to know much about history to recognize that Brzezinski here is trading in a classic anti-Semitic trope. Why didn’t his Salon interviewer call him out on it? Why hasn’t anyone else? Where are the American elites—the intellectuals, writers, policymakers, and political activists—when it comes to vigilance against anti-Semitism?
The editors of magazines and newspapers have a responsibility as gatekeepers of polite society. It turns out the gatekeepers haven’t been vigilant. We live in a culture where the social taboo against anti-black racism is so fierce that violating the taboo means certain expulsion from polite company. But the very reverse process is taking place when it comes to anti-Semitism: The taboo is being rapidly eroded, and those who ought to confront it are enabling it.
Israel Firsters, dual loyalists, Likudniks, ziocons, neocon warmongers—in the wake of the Holocaust, such anti-Semitic rhetoric would have been unimaginable. Yet it became commonplace little more than half a century later at the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003. Midlevel George W. Bush Administration officials with Jewish-sounding last-names—Wolfowitz, Abrams, Feith, and the rest of their neocon cabal—were accused of dual loyalty, sending American boys to die for the sake of the country that had their true devotion: Israel. According to this theory, administration principals like Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rice, and the president—policymakers with actual decision-making power—were merely instruments in the control of vast Zionist networks that were also manipulating the media and financial industries.
This theory reached full bloom in 2007, when Farrar, Straus and Giroux, one of America’s most esteemed publishing houses, handed the political scientists John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt a $750,000 advance for their book The Israel Lobby. As my colleague Adam Kirsch pointed out last week, the book’s impact was massive because it made it possible to say almost anything about Jewish money, and Jewish power, and the Jewish state. Walt and Mearsheimer’s thesis was praised as bracing, and to question their motives or their ideas was to traffic in McCarthyism. And so the book’s argument earned respect.
Today that discourse has made its way into a Washington-based think tank with close ties to the Obama Administration. Last month, the Center for American Progress found itself in the middle of controversy when some contributors to the organization’s Think Progress blog were accused of writing posts and Tweets that were out-and-out anti-Semitic. One blogger, Zaid Jilani, used the term “Israel firsters” to describe pro-Israel Obama donors. “Waiting 4 hack pro-Dem blogger to use this 2 sho Obama is still beloved by Israel-firsters and getting lots of their $$.”
American Jewish groups were incensed. Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told the Washington Post that, “The language is corrosive and unacceptable.” Jilani left the organization and apologized for using the term, but his colleagues remain, only slightly chastened.
CAP’s chief of staff Ken Gude explained in response to the criticism that, “We have a zero-tolerance policy for racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, or any form of discrimination.” However, it would seem that Think Progress’ bloggers were well-suited to the general temperament of the organization. The problem isn’t just CAP-sponsored ephemera like blogs and tweets, but its more significant offerings relating to the Middle East, like its massive research project on Islamophobia. On Page 94 of that study, for instance, the authors take issue with the Middle East Media Research Institute, founded by Israelis. “MEMRI is respected in some circles for its work to combat hate language and anti-Semitism, but it is also criticized for its selective translations. The institute contends that it highlights moderate Muslim voices on its Reform blog. Yet MEMRI’s selective translations of Arab media fan the flames of Islamophobia.”
How do the Jews who run this translation organization promote Islamophobia, according to CAP? By translating the opinions of those who want to persecute and kill Jews. Try fitting this twisted reasoning into Gude’s zero-tolerance policy against any form of discrimination: Women’s rights groups stir up male hatred by collecting statistics of violence against women; the NAACP fans the flames of racism because it advocates on behalf of equal rights for African-Americans.
The root of this problem is not a twentysomething blogger writing something stupid on the Internet. Rather, it is that anti-Semitic rhetoric and logic are being protected and justified by those who are supposed to be gatekeepers. These people, often in the service of their larger political aims, are willing to apologize for or ignore what is obviously Jew-baiting and Jew-hatred.
Consider, for example, Robert Wright’s take on the CAP affair in a blog post at The Atlantic he titled “How to Smear a Washington Think Tank.” “I’m not Jewish,” writes the best-selling author, “so I always feel awkward weighing in on the question of what constitutes anti-Semitism.” What an odd statement. Presumably Wright, who is also not African-American, feels no such qualms about weighing in one what constitutes racism.
For Wright and so many others, anti-Semitism now seems to fall into a special category of prejudice. In this instance, you need to be Jewish to have an opinion. Instead of enforcing the limits, the limits are erased, making phrases like “Israel Firster” acceptable. The next step is to have that move validated by Jews who may not be interested in promoting anti-Semitism but are eager to push a separate political agenda that in order to silence opponents requires dirty tricks, including the use of anti-Semitic tropes. That’s the reason Wright cites an Israeli who appeared alongside him in a recent edition of the Internet debate forum Bloggingheads and who explains that the criticism of CAP is similar to the way his own Israel-based organization has been treated.
J Street’s founder Jeremy Ben-Ami chalked up the CAP blogger’s anti-Semitic rhetoric to mere semantics. “The use of the term ‘Israel Firster’ is a bad choice of words,” wrote Ben-Ami, but in his opinion it’s not really anti-Semitic. On the J Street website, he advised “American Jews and communal leaders [not to] overreach with charges of anti-Semitism in incidents like this. When real anti-Semitism actually rears its ugly head, people will be far less likely to listen.”
Apparently, Ben-Ami has postulated some sort of acid test in order to discern “real” anti-Semitism. The bar has been set so high that just about anyone can clear it, so long as they’re not a brown-shirt, neo-Nazi, or Klansman. Say whatever you will about the Jews, and we’ll give it a pass, so long as it meets the Hitler test. According to this standard, if someone wants to eliminate the Jewish state, then they’re just an anti-Zionist. It’s only when that sentiment comes from someone wearing a swastika and who has the resources to slaughter Jews wholesale that they’ve crossed the threshold into “real” anti-Semitism. Otherwise, raising a fuss makes you just the little boy who cried anti-Semitism.
This isn’t how the world works. Americans’ sensitivity to racist language directed at African-Americans has not made Americans insensitive to “real” anti-black racism. Rather it has made us scrupulous about our language, and subsequently our beliefs and practices have come to reflect, if not wholly fulfill, the promises embodied in this country’s founding documents.
What makes people insensitive to racism is when American political and intellectual elites refuse to confront racist language. The use of phrases like “Israel Firster” and “dual loyalist” that are based on anti-Semitic tropes is anti-Semitic. So is the belief that Jews fan the flames of hatred for discussing the opinions of those who hate them. What is even more vile than the anti-Semitic language impugning the political motives of pro-Israel American Jews is someone like Ben-Ami crying foul when those Jews object to being slandered as disloyal. In effect, the message is, don’t defend yourselves against the calumnies heaped upon you, Jews, because the more noise you make the more trouble there will be for you in the long run.
No doubt there are some in the Jewish community who would prefer that I—who, like Wright, am not Jewish—stay out of what they perceive to be essentially an intramural debate. Tough luck. This is not just about the Jews. Anti-Semitic ideas and language corrode our entire social fabric. It is my business. And there is something wrong with anyone, especially those who are not Jewish, who thinks this isn’t their problem as well.
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).