One strange human quirk I’ve just noticed is that people often ignore the substance of what you’re saying and focus instead on how much time you spend saying one thing versus another. A couple days ago, I wrote a reply to Peter Beinart’s much-discussed New York Review of Books manifesto on Israel. I called Peter “one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever known,” endorsed his notion that Aipac was contributing to an “existential threat” to Israel, and said his call to arms needed to be “heeded,” but proceeded to critique some ways that I thought he oversimplified and overdramatized reality in order to lend urgency to his call.
The response to my comment surprised me. Peter has answered heatedly. Israel hawks were generally pleased, and a reporter even told me that a staffer at Aipac was emailing my item around. It’s weird. Suppose I wrote the opposite: Peter is a moron, and his general claim about the American Jewish leadership is wrong and should be ignored, but then I detailed some specific areas where Peter had some solid points. Would Peter have sent me a thank-you note? Would Aipac be furious? I’m starting to think the answer might be yes.
Peter’s counter-argument centers around castigating me for failing to exhibit the anger he feels:
there is only one decent response to these truths: fury. If you're not angry, you're either not paying attention or you don't care. ...
people who love Israel enough to speak in anger about what is happening to it. Jon should try it sometime.
This is exactly the point I was making: writing in anger weakens your analytical capacity. I can’t say that I’ve never written in anger, but I can say it’s something I strive to avoid. (I frequently write with contempt, which is different than anger.) This is why my reply cited the intellectual parallels with Peter’s 2004 manifesto about the need to purge peaceniks from the Democratic Party. The angry, crusading Peter has a certain intellectual style that sacrifices his usual analytic brilliance. Peter is still quite smart when writing angry – “A Fighting Faith” was provocative and insightful yet flawed, and his NYRB essay is the same, perhaps less flawed. But the flaws follow a familiar pattern.
Angry Peter tends to cast the power of whatever evil he is fighting in maximalist terms. I suggested that the political situation in Israel is not as dire as Peter makes it out to be. He replies by accusing me of “rationalization.” I suppose, in the same way, in 2004 I was rationalizing the dire threat posed by Michael Moore and Move On. I’m not drawing a moral equivalence. My point is that it’s possible to disagree with Peter about the objective political strength of whichever group has him bug-eyed with alarm without being guilty of explaining away its sins. Alarmism is difficult to argue against, because it places you in the position of minimizing the evil of evil things when you're really arguing against probabilities. I'm exactly as opposed to forcible transfer of the Palestinians as Peter is, but far less fearful that it will actually happen.
He also cuts intellectual corners in ways that the non-angry Peter never would. For instance: Peter asserts, his "basic point, which is that Human Rights Watch is no tougher on the Israeli government than are a host of Israeli human rights organizations." Not true. HRW celebrated the Goldstone Report, but as the New York Times reported in January:
[V]irtually no one in Israel, including the leaders of Breaking the Silence and the human rights group B’Tselem, thinks that the Goldstone accusation of an assault on civilians is correct. “I do not accept the Goldstone conclusion of a systematic attack on civilian infrastructure,” said Yael Stein, research director of B’Tselem
Likewise, Peter described Netanyahu’s 1993 rejection of Palestinian statehoood as his current view. I replied that Netanyahu had changed his view, and it’s fair to question his sincerity, but for the sake of accuracy he should have noted the change. Peter replies that Netanyahu isn’t sincere about his changed position – which is exactly what I said. Peter then notes, acidly, “So what exactly is Jon celebrating, except perhaps that we have an American president willing to spend political capital to pressure Israel? Too bad TNR thinks that is a bad idea.” First of all, I’m not “celebrating” anything, I’m pointing out a fact that Peter fudged for the sake of simplifying his polemic. And second, Peter neglects to point out that I think an American president pressuring Israel is a good idea.
Peter acknowledges that I condemn the same enemies Peter condemns. But he expresses his fury that I don’t focus all my attention on those enemies. It's true that I haven't fulminated on this subject with the passion Peter musters in his NYRB essay. On the other hand, before last week, neither did Peter.
Until recently I wrote very rarely about Israel. What changed things for me was the emergence of Walt and Mearsheimer's conspiratorial analysis "The Israel Lobby," which not only inspires a lot of opinions in me, but also strikes me as an important moment in American political discourse. I see the climate of debate on the American left changing in disconcerting ways. There is the creepy division of American Jews into good Jews and bad Jews, and resulting premise that American Jews who don’t take a sufficiently left-wing position on the Middle East should be presumed to be acting out of dual loyalty. There is the casual impugning of hawkish American Jews qua Jews, and the wild assumption that pro-Israel Jews coordinate secretly. This is an assault upon the liberal norms that have prevailed in this country for decades. I find myself shocked to see liberals failing to decry it and sometimes defending it out of what strikes me as ideological tribalism.
I could just as easily counter Peter by arguing that, as liberals, this ought to be our primary concern, and he is the one averting his eyes, making excuses, and so on. I don’t make that case because I don’t believe it. As I wrote, I don’t begrudge Peter his focus on the dangers of the Israeli right and the complacency of the American Jewish establishment. They are worthy subjects of concern. (Again: I endorse Peter Beinart's disgust with the Israeli right and the complacency of the U.S. Jewish leadership.) I do wish that, as he fights his worthy fight, he reconsiders the urge to hector those of us who think the way he thought the day before yesterday.