JTA editor Ami Eden draws our attention today to the fact that M.J. Rosenberg has waved the white flag on his penchant for labeling supporters of Israel as “Israel-firsters.” That term is redolent of anti-Semitic stereotypes that seek to smear Jews with the charge of dual loyalty. On his Media Matters blog, Rosenberg writes he won’t use the term any more, but writing in his characteristically obnoxious and abusive manner, Rosenberg doesn’t admit that what he had done was wrong but merely discards it now as a “distraction” from his great work of preventing a war with Iran. That is, I suppose, some sort of progress. With Rosenberg, style long ago became substance as his impotent rage at the fact that his views have been rejected by Israel’s voters and the vast majority of American Jews, bubbled over in abusive language aimed at anyone who disagreed with him. “Israel-firster” was just the tip of the iceberg for Rosenberg, whose writing and tweeting has become an object lesson in the myth that liberals or leftists believe in civil discourse.
However, Eden takes Rosenberg’s concession as an opportunity to play the moral equivalence game with those who have criticized the Media Matters staffer. He pivots the discussion into one about the way the term “anti-Israel” has been applied to critics of Israel’s government and asks whether right-wingers will give up that practice now that Rosenberg has taken the pledge. But the problem with this argument put forward by my old friend and colleague is that there is a big difference between the two charges.
Calling someone “anti-Israel” is wrong if the persons at whom it is aimed are in fact merely supporters of Israel who are critics of its current government. But it is more than apt when applied to those who actually are foes of Israel, such as those who are either neutral about or supporters of the movement to boycott, divest and sanction the Jewish state.
But contrary to Eden’s formulation, it is not just the right that plays the “anti-Israel” game. In recent years, people like Rosenberg and others on the left have taken to labeling those who support the settlement movement or even those who regard the issue as superseded by security concerns as “anti-Israel” because they think the “occupation” is a threat to the country’s future. Eden is right when he lambasts those who seek to view anyone who dissents from a particular position on Israeli politics as foes of the state though nowadays that’s a sin that left-wingers are as likely to commit as their foes. However, he goes too far when he claims the term “anti-Israel” has led “to as much bullying and violence, probably even more, than the use of terms like ‘Israel-firster’ (see the Yitzhak Rabin assassination and the failed assassination plot against Shimon Peres, death threats and attacks against left-wing activists, and efforts to blackball some liberal groups from communal settings).”
Bringing up the Rabin assassination in conjunction with an argument about whether American Jews are sufficiently supportive of Israel is nothing but a red herring. It has long been used in Israel as unfair tactic intended to smear anyone who opposed or raised questions about the Oslo Accords as having somehow been connected to an extremist unconnected with any real political movement. It has no bearing on this discussion and dragging it into this dispute does nothing but to further muddy the waters. Moreover, the idea that liberal American Jewish critics of Israel are living in fear seems the stuff of satire more than anything else. If there is anything that we have learned in the last 30 years as Israel-bashing has become one of the mainstream media’s favorite sports it is that it takes little courage to run with the pack of abusers of the Jewish state.
As for the charge of “bullying,” it is more than a little out of place when discussing a vigorous public debate about the future of Israel. Civility and good manners are always to be encouraged, but as M.J. Rosenberg and others of his ilk on the far left has showed us the idea that the right has a monopoly on bad behavior is a joke.
Let’s also remember that while “anti-Israel” is sometimes used promiscuously and incorrectly, there are a lot of people out there who really are “anti-Israel” and many, if not most of them, are on the left. Even worse, when Jewish newspapers like the Forward honor those who call for economic war to be waged on Israel with flattering profiles, editors should not be surprised when some observers begin to question their motives.
It is also a mistake to minimize the damage the term “Israel-firster” can cause. To call the pro-Israel community “Israel-firsters,” as Rosenberg repeatedly did, is an attempt to delegitimize more than just his ideological foes. It’s a canard intended to silence all Jews. Using it is an implicit endorsement of the Walt-Mearsheimer conspiracy theory that is thinly veiled anti-Semitism. Those who do so cross a line that no supporter of Israel or Jew should cross. The fact that Rosenberg has begrudgingly and belatedly given it up does little to restore his credibility.