‘Israel-firster’ in context: A response to rightist ‘pro-Israel’ rhetoric

I wrote a piece in Haaretz yesterday entitled “The downside of unbridled support for Israel” (see below) disputing the claims that “Israel firster” is an antisemitic term, to which journalist Eli Lake commented in a tweet that it “has nothing to do with Israelis. They should stay out of it.” Well, first of all, I am also American, so his argument has no legs. But second and more importantly, as an Israeli citizen who lives here, of course I have a say in how this country is talked about and leveraged in American foreign policy. Hell, if Israel and the US attack Iran, who do you think will suffer from it the most? Certainly not Eli Lake. Furthermore, I have a say in how terms like “pro-Israel,” “anti-Israel” and “antisemitism” are thrown around by people who don’t even know what it is like here.

M.J. Rosenberg from Media Matters, who has been one of the main targets of this smear campaign and expressed how lonely it can be to care about Israel and still be outflanked, told me his thoughts on the people so adamant about deeming him antisemitic and so gung-ho on attacking Iran:
The funny thing is that I find most right wing Israelis to be more accepting of dissenting from the official line than these Americans. It may be because these guys, and almost all are guys, get a machismo charge from identifying with macho Israel and the IDF. Israelis, on the other hand, tend to have served in the army and derive their sense of masculinity elsewhere. It is sad, really, but also dangerous because they push war on America and Israel with no knowledge at all of what war is.”
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Crosspost from Haaretz:

In his op-ed “A case of leftist McCarthyism?” James Kirchick declares that the tables have turned in the Israel debate in America, now that liberal critics of U.S. support for Israel’s rightist government are employing terms like “dual loyalists” and “Israel-firsters.” He argues that this is indicative of “just how deep the rhetoric of the far right has seeped into the discourse of the mainstream left,” and deems such language to be anti-Semitic because it has also appeared in white supremacist publications.

Kirchick’s charge of anti-Semitism is baseless and unconvincing. Just because white supremacists used a term doesn’t mean everyone who employs it is an anti-Semite. He also fails to mention that many of those employing the term “Israel-firster” are deeply concerned about Israel’s future and about regional stability, and are no different from members of the Israeli peace camp – not to mention that some of them are Jewish themselves.

His argument also blatantly ignores the highly divisive role Israel plays in U.S. politics. American Jewish organizations are constantly battling over the definition of “pro-Israel,” a term monopolized by powerful groups like AIPAC to mean “Israel right or wrong.”

“Israel-firster” is admittedly a deliberately crude response, but use of the term should be understood within the context of decades of American Jewish right-wing rhetoric that has largely silenced dissent on Israeli policies by discrediting those who dare to criticize Israel. Calling rightists “Israel firsters” is not nearly as belligerent and certainly not as preposterous as labeling J Street “anti-Israel” and Thomas L. Friedman an anti-Semite.

This polemic has permeated internal American bipartisan politics, where Israel has taken center stage as a wedge issue. “Pro-Israel” has become political currency in the presidential race, despite bearing divergent connotations. For Newt Gingrich, the term means denying the existence of a Palestinian nation (and thus ruling out a two-state solution ); for Mitt Romney, it means ensuring security at all costs (and thus discounting Israeli settlements as a problem ). For Barack Obama, it means what it has meant for previous American administrations: A secure Jewish nation-state based on the ’67 borders, alongside a viable Palestinian state.

Despite this being U.S. foreign policy for quite a while, GOP candidates and mainstream American Jewish groups – bolstered by what is arguably the most rigid right-wing government Israel has ever had – have attacked Obama regularly for what they deem to be his deficient “pro-Israel” record, simply because he has condemned settlement construction. Obama has capitulated under the pressure and reasserted his strong “pro-Israel” (read: Israel right or wrong ) stance, for fear of losing the political and economic support he needs to win another term. Indeed, it is no secret that “pro-Israel” money (albeit, not all of it from Jews ) comprises a substantial percentage of all donations to political parties in the United States. Talking about “Jewish” – or more accurately, “pro-Israel” – money in American politics is therefore not inherently anti-Semitic: It is a given, and the effort to silence such debate is the problem.

When progressive entities like the Center for American Progress and figures like M.J. Rosenberg use the term “Israel-firster,” they are attempting to deconstruct and challenge the notion that being “pro-Israel” means demanding unchecked support for Israeli policies, even when they directly conflict with the U.S. administration’s stated positions and its declared role as an arbiter in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Such people are trying to dismantle the equation between opposition to Israel’s current reckless agenda, and concern for Israel’s long-term interests and impact on American geopolitics. They are identifying those, whether Jewish or Christian, Democrat or Republican, who, as Rosenberg put it, “consistently – and without exception – thwart the efforts of U.S. presidents to achieve Middle East peace.” “Israel-firsters” are not those who put Israel first, but rather those who put an Israeli right-wing agenda first, even at the expense of American interests.

Thus, Kirchick has it backward when he argues that the language of the far right has seeped into the left. It is, rather, Israel’s far-right policies that increasingly clash with American liberal and democratic values. Long before Peter Beinart became famous for pointing to a conflict between Zionism and liberalism, academics and policymakers warned that unbridled American support for Israel (spearheaded by AIPAC’s bullying influence on Congress ) would backfire.

This concern first surfaced in 1982 during the first Lebanon War, when many Americans began to wonder whether Israeli values were in line with American ones. It is reappearing again now within the context of a possible attack on Iran, on top of the incessant Israeli settlement project in the West Bank – a relentless policy that not only undermines Israel’s claim to being a democratic state, but undercuts America’s ability to be an honest broker of a two-state solution; all of which makes it much harder for American progressives, Jews and non-Jews alike, to cheerlead for Israel – that is, to be “pro-Israel.”