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The Devil You Know

Alexander Cockburn isn't a big fan of Israel. The Irish expat's column for The Nation, "Beat the Devil," regularly trashes the Zionist entity. Among his typical criticisms: Israel's American supporters are "the spiritual soul-mates of those fanatical Cuban exiles"; Ariel Sharon's "credentials as a war criminal are robust"; the occupation of the Palestinians amounts to genocide. You'd have to read deep into the pages of The Final Call or Arabic-language papers to find writers who can match Cockburn's level of anti-Israel virulence.

But Cockburn's home, The Nation, has always considered itself a bastion of cosmopolitanism. Even if it's not exactly the Anti-Defamation League's house publication, it has long chastised anti-Semites on the left--proponents of what it calls the "socialism of fools." (In recent years, for example, it published an attack on Louis Farrakhan and condemnations of ccny Professor Leonard Jeffries.) And Cockburn has had his moments too. In the 1980s he discovered that the conservative writer Joseph Sobran had a history of publishing boorish pieces about Jews. A few years later he trashed Lech Walesa for indulging in crude stereotyping of Jews. "Vile sentiments," he called them.

Anyone who visits Cockburn's left-wing newsletter, CounterPunch, however, will learn that Cockburn isn't immune from spreading--if not quite explicitly endorsing--such vile sentiments himself. Take his March 12 piece (partially reprinted in The Seattle Times) on the newly released tapes of conversations between Richard Nixon and the Reverend Billy Graham in which the good reverend gripes about Jewish control of the media.

At first, Cockburn seems critical of Graham's sentiment, sneering that it is prevalent at "75 percent of the country clubs in America, not to mention many a Baptist soiree." But just sentences later, Cockburn seems to affirm the view himself:

It's supposedly the third rail in journalism even to have a discussion of how much the Jews do control the media. Since three of the prime founders of Hollywood, were Polish Jews who grew up within fifty miles of each other in Galicia, it's reckoned as not so utterly beyond the bounds of propriety to talk about Jewish power in Hollywood, though people still stir uneasily. The economic and political commentator Jude Wanniski remarked last week in his web newsletter that even if the Jews don't control the media overall, it is certainly true to say that they control discussion of Israel in the media here.

Cockburn follows with this:

Certainly, there are a number of stories sloshing around the news now that have raised discussions of Israel and of the posture of American Jews to an acrid level. The purveyor of anthrax may have been a former government scientist, Jewish, with a record of baiting a colleague of Arab origins, and with the intent to blame the anthrax on Muslim terrorists. Rocketing around the web and spilling into the press are many stories about Israeli spies in America at the time of 9/11. On various accounts, they were trailing [Mohammed] Atta and his associates, knew what was going to happen but did nothing about it, or were simply spying on US facilities. Some, posing as art students have been expelled, according to AP.

To be fair, Cockburn doesn't exactly endorse these theories. Rather, by noting that all of these Jewish conspiracy stories are "sloshing around the news," Cockburn seems merely to be pointing out that, hey, anti-Semitic ideas are still out there today--so why the shock that Graham endorsed them 30 years ago? Indeed, when I reached Cockburn to ask him about these conspiracies, he insisted he was just reporting what was already in circulation. "I don't think I said they are true. I don't know there's enough exterior evidence to determine whether they are true or not."

But, of course, that last sentence is the giveaway. There most certainly is enough exterior evidence to determine whether the stories are true or not. The answer is that they are not. They are wild rumors circulating, if at all, in some of the least credible corners of the Internet. No respectable media outlet has given these stories credence. Merely by stating that these ideas are in circulation, merely by saying it's impossible to judge their veracity, Cockburn confers these ideas with legitimacy.

Consider, for example, the story about the mad Jew scientists out to ruin the Muslims. I searched for it on the Lexis-Nexis news database but came up with nothing--not one single mention of the story in a mainstream news outlet. And I only found it on the Web at an obscure, far-far left site that refers to the United States as "gringoland" and accuses Daniel Pearl of working for Mossad. (Note the similarity of the Jewish anthrax rumor to the Nation of Islam creation myth about the wicked chemist Yacub.)

Then there's Cockburn's talk about Mossad's complicity in 9/11. Of course, this version of events can also be found in the self-exculpatory pages of the Arab press. But to my knowledge, Cockburn is the only prominent Western journalist to give these slanderous stories any credence.

And what about the Associated Press (AP) story he cites? It quotes from a 61-page Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) report suggesting the Israeli art students' travels through the United States "may well be an organized intelligence-gathering." But the AP also quotes the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as saying "the bureau also has investigated and is satisfied that the young people were not involved in espionage or intelligence gathering." The FBI insists that the Israelis were deported merely for selling over-priced paintings door-to-door in violation of their visas. And even if you accepted the DEA's vague intimations of espionage, there's nothing to suggest the Israeli connection to 9/11 that Cockburn posits. The linkage is the product of Cockburn's imagination.

Cockburn's column goes way beyond legitimate criticism of Israel. It's akin to the rantings of pitchfork Pat Buchanan, whose anti-Semitism The Nation has condemned. So you would expect the magazine to take a tough stance on the anti-Semitism in its own backyard. But when I asked The Nation's editor, Katrina vanden Heuvel, about Cockburn, she could only lamely distance herself from the piece: "This didn't appear in The Nation. I don't read CounterPunch.... It's been our experience that we've had differences with our writers. It's a strength of the magazine that it accommodates a range of perspectives." True enough. But there are some perspectives that shouldn't be accommodated.

Franklin Foer is the editor of The New Republic and the author of How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization.