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More On Criticism Of Israel

My current TRB column is about the eerie intellectual parallels between J Street (and its followers) and the right-wing Israel hawks they so virulently oppose. "Right-wing Zionism thrives on a sense of victimhood and encirclement," I wrote, "J Street has won a cult following among liberal bloggers by tapping into an equivalent narrative of persecution and bravery." J Street's supporters are doing their best to demonstrate its thesis.

The Nation's Eric Alterman recently wrote that, in the United States, "right-wing Jewish organizations and neoconservative pundits dominate nearly all Middle East discussion." This is a pretty radical claim, one I don't agree with--recent cover stories in both Time and Newsweek have reflected the J Street line -- but one for which you could produce at least some evidence. The sum total of the evidence he did produce was three blog posts appearing in, respectively, The New Republic, The Weekly Standard, and Commentary. Alterman, perhaps using hyperbole to compensate for the lack of evidence, called the authors "Thought Police." You may recall that the term "Thought Police" was coined by George Orwell's "1984" to describe a breed of futuristic secret police that would exceed even the draconian methods employed by Stalin and Hitler. Apparently Alterman believes equivalent powers are now wielded by a handful of Zionist bloggers. I'm trying to imagine what Alterman would say if fascism really does come to America. Perhaps he'll think to himself, while hanging from his thumbs in some dungeon, "Well, this is pretty bad, but not as bad as when I was criticized by Commentary online."

My column disputed the notion that there truly was an atmosphere of fear and intimidation around any criticism of Israel's government. The American Prospect's Ezra Klein retorts that this may be true, but only because the attempts to suppress debate--by, among other people, me--were failing. "The thing about criticizing Israel is that you get called an anti-Semite rather a lot," he wrote, rather dramatically. But we did it so often that the charge had lost its sting. Thus, "Criticizing Israel is not an act of courage because it's not actually dangerous for your career. This is despite the best efforts of Chait and his magazine."

Klein did not cite any examples of me calling somebody anti-Semitic merely for criticizing Israel. It's merely an article of faith among the left that any response to their criticism is either a direct accusation of anti-Semitism or, at the least, an attempt to suppress debate. The Center for American Progress's Matthew Yglesias, meanwhile, calls my magazine an "ideological enforcer" on Israel. The rule here is that if you write political commentary disagreeing with the J Street analysis of Israel, you're a thuggish ideological enforcer. If you write political commentary supporting the J Street analysis, you're a courageous ideological freedom fighter.

Klein in particular blames me for TNR's review of Stephen M. Walt and John J. Mearsheimer's The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy by The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, which cast Walt and Mearsheimer's book in the tradition of "judeocentric" analysis, a category that mostly includes anti-Semites. This review is a source of deep and continuing grievance among many liberal bloggers. As it is now being held against me personally, I might as well say what I think about it. I don't like using words like "racist" or "anti-Semite" to dismiss ideas or people, except in very clear-cut cases. Terms like anti-Semite create questions about definitions--does it mean hating all Jews? Thinking Jews are too powerful? Agreeing with ideas primarily favored by people who want to kill the Jews?--that tend to bring a debate to a screeching halt. Goldberg took a slight step away from the term "anti-Semite," but not far enough for my taste.

However, I do find with Goldberg's underlying analysis totally correct. Walt and Mearsheimer wrote a book that, even by the account of fair-minded and even ideologically sympathetic critics, is a shoddy, paranoid screed. When you make an argument that closely tracks a longstanding racist or anti-Semitic trope, you have some obligation to take extra care. To take another example, I have no opinion as to whether Charles Murray or Richard Herrnstein has any personal animus against African Americans. I do think that if they wanted to break the taboo against discussion of the black-white IQ gap, they should have made a better argument than they did in The Bell Curve.

In fact, the analogy between The Israel Lobby and The Bell Curve is pretty close to exact. Each covers a subject that, because it encroaches upon territory favored by racist kooks, has some measure of taboo attached to it. Each is a work that had some legitimate points but is marred by fundamental flaws. Each responded to the inevitable accusations of bigotry by playing up their sense of martyrdom and bravery. And each won devoted partisans who, even if they couldn't quite defend every shoddy claim, were pleased to see taboos challenged and the scope of discourse expanded, and quick to dismiss all the critics as bullies and censors.


--Jonathan Chait

Related: TRB: Tough Love