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Juan Cole’s Mania

One of the odd things about people with very left-wing views on the Middle East is that they’re obsessed with the political influence of American Jews yet almost completely unfamiliar with the actual beliefs of the subject of their obsession. This was among the numerous methodological flaws of Walt and Mearsheimer’s widely-panned polemic “The Israel Lobby.” It’s also exemplified, in unusually stark and entertaining form, in a recent contretemps between blogger Juan Cole and the Atlantic Monthly’s Jeffrey Goldberg.

The episode begins with Cole jumping into one of the regular disputes between Goldberg and fellow Atlantic blogger Andrew Sullivan. Cole wrote a post setting out his own belief, which is that the formation of Israel was a colonialist crime:

The first original sin was the contradictory and feckless pledge by the British to sponsor Jewish immigration into their Mandate in Palestine, which they wickedly and fantastically promised would never inconvenience the Palestinians in any way. It was the same kind of original sin as the French policy of sponsoring a million colons in French Algeria, or the French attempt to create a Christian-dominated Lebanon where the Christians would be privileged by French policy.

Winding his way through his version of history, he eventually turned to Goldberg:

People like Goldberg never tell us what they expect to happen to the Palestinians in the near and medium future. They don’t seem to understand that the status quo is untenable. They are like militant ostriches, hiding their heads in the sand while lashing out with their hind talons at anyone who stares clear-eyed at the problem, characterizing us as bigots. As if that old calumny has any purchase for anyone who knows something serious about the actual views of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu or Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, more bigoted persons than whom would be difficult to find. Indeed, some of Israel’s current problems with Brazil come out of Lieberman’s visit there last summer; I was in Rio then and remember the distaste with which the multi-cultural, multi-racial Brazilians viewed Lieberman, whom some openly called a racist.

I’ve read this paragraph several times, and it never fails to amuse. Cole begins by invoking a type -- “People like Goldberg” – that he declines to define. He proceeds to accuse Goldberg of failing to state his view of the Palestinian question -- which, as we’ll see, is like accusing Jonathan Cohn of failing to state his view of the American health care system. He then produces a metaphor that sounds like something out of a hallucinogenic Monty Python cartoon – “militant ostriches”? – before making the baseless claim that Goldberg has called him a bigot. (Goldberg hasn’t, though I’m sure one of the “People like Goldberg” has.) Cole then begins free associating about Avigdor Lieberman, either in some attempt to link Lieberman’s views with Goldberg’s without quite saying so, or to make the point that Cole can’t be a bigot because Lieberman is, or possibly because he got started on the topic of Zionists he doesn’t like and couldn’t stop himself.

Goldberg then replied by restating the views that Cole accused him of never having stated:

I’m for the creation of a Palestinian state on one hundred percent of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (or a Palestinian state that equals one hundred percent of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, through land swaps); a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem that mirrors the Israeli capital in West Jerusalem; an immediate end to all settlements; Israeli negotiations with Syria that would bring about peace and an end to Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights.

He also pointed out that Cole wants “to deny to the Jewish people a state in their ancestral homeland,” a fair reading of Cole’s view that Jews never should have been permitted to immigrate to Palestine.

Cole now retaliates with a screed that makes his previous rant appear measured. Entitled, “Jeff Goldberg’s Blood-and-Soil Israeli Nationalist Fantasy,” Cole goes on at length about how unfair it is that somebody as reasonable himself is so frequently smeared by Zionists. He sums up his subjects worldview as a kind of fascism: “wounded romantic nationalism of Goldberg’s sort is a pathetic remnant of the twentieth century, which polished off tens of millions of human beings over wet dreams about ‘blood and soil.’”

Cole seems to think it’s important for his readers to know that Goldberg once served a stint in the IDF. Very important:

I have provoked the ire of a burly former Israeli military prison guard at the notorious Ketziot detention camp during the first Intifada, who is among our foremost journalists of the Middle East and given a prominent perch at The Atlantic magazine -- Jeffrey Goldberg….

Israeli Army Cpl. Jeffrey Goldberg then corrects my assertion…

Would Cpl. Goldberg like to specify which he would prefer…

Goldberg is possibly still an Israeli army reservist and actively served in the Israeli Army

That “possibly” is an especially nice touch. In fact, Goldberg is not an Israeli army reservist. But since Cole makes no effort to determine that one way or another, he can assert that it’s “possibly” the case without lying, since he doesn’t know it’s not true. Cole possibly learned this technique while serving in the KGB.

It is true that Goldberg once dropped out of college, moved to Israel, and eventually served an Army stint before returning home. Cole sees this as a mortal wound to Goldberg’s credibility. I have no particular compunction about people who have moved to other countries with the intent of living permanently, or even current citizens of those countries, writing or reporting about those countries. It does not strike me as problematic that a Brit like Alex Massie writes about Irish terrorism. If Andrew Sullivan returned to the U.K., I doubt his countrymen would consider him too compromised to write about the United States. Cole sees it differently, and I’m willing to trust that he applies this standard to foreign countries other than Israel.

Still, Cole’s view of this is unusual. Goldberg wrote a memoir about his time in Israel -- “Prisoners: A Muslim and Jew Across the Middle East Divide” – exploring his disillusionment with the heroic Zionism of his youth, telling the tale through his friendship with a Palestinian militant he guarded in a prison. Observers did not reject his observations as hopelessly biased. A New York Times reviewer concluded, “Intelligent, open-minded and universalist in his quest for justice, [Goldberg] believes not only in Zionism but also in the legitimacy of Palestinian nationalism.”

A Los Angeles Times reviewer wrote:

Realization of the humanity of the “other” is at the heart of New Yorker magazine correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg’s sharply observed and beautifully written memoir “Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide.” The journalist offers a bracingly clear-eyed, deeply emotional and often humorous account of his life as an American Jew in love with Israel. As he navigates the country’s endlessly complex realities, the narrative follows the arc of a love story: a lustful infatuation, the shock of reality and finally the mature acceptance of a nuanced bond.

Goldberg’s book concludes, “If the settlers do not allow a Palestinian state to emerge, and soon, Israel will soon find itself ruling more Arabs than Jews. And that would be the end of the idea of a Jewish democracy.” He has written extensively in this vein, such as in this Atlantic Monthly story and this New Yorker feature on the settlers. I point this out to show that calling Goldberg somebody who has failed to explicate a view on the Palestinians, or an advocate of “blood and soil” nationalism, is so laughably far from reality that it’s hard to know what to make of such descriptions.

As I said, this is not an isolated instance but merely the latest example of a pattern. Stephen Walt wrote sneeringly about “A journalist (Jeffrey Goldberg) whose idea of ‘public service’ was to enlist in the Israeli army.” Such critics routinely describe my views as “Likudnik” or even analogous to Avigdor Lieberman. (In case you’re unclear on this, my views on Israel tend to roughly align with those of the Labor Party. Even Marty Peretz, who’s to my right, has called Lieberman “repulsive” and a “gangster.”) So the general tendency among this ideological clique is to write about American supporters of Israel with almost total ignorance, in a tone of hysteria, and treating their target as a broad, undifferentiated mass. The conceit among writers like Walt and Cole is that they are dispassionate analysts beset by emotionally-driven foes. The reality is quite different.