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'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.”

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    1. Richard Witty

      The art is to keep the pendulum swing from getting wider on the response than on the original.

      Both name-calling doesn’t leave room for sober caring discussion.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Jazzy

      If Eli Lake lacks credibility because he is less affected by “Pro-Israel” policies than you are, then you certainly lack credibility in a discussion about antisemitic demagoguery in America (Sorry, but you can’t live in two places at once – holding an American Passport doesn’t change that). Your Haaretz piece and this piece are, like many examples of hipster antisemitism, both exercises in rhetorical gymnastics – you’re claiming that the “Israel” in “Israel-firster” means the same thing as “Israel” in “Pro-Israel” (from a right wing point of view). But that’s not how it comes across to a lay person, and I think you know it. Any honest, informed person can see that the real context for “Israel-firster” is the much longer history of antisemitic dual-loyalty nonsense, NOT your account of several decades of right-wing jibber jabber. Building your own rhetorical fun house doesn’t excuse you or anyone else from being honest about what you know this really implies to most people. Were the ppl who wanted Bush to stop Sudanese genocide at the expense of US intelligence cooperation called “Darfur-Firsters”? Are all the foaming antiZionists who want to military and intelligence cooperation with Israel “Arab-Firsters”? Hmmm…yeah its really mysterious why all the dual-loyalty stuff surfaces when Jewish people prefer the lives of millions of other Jews to cheaper gas. Eli was right. STOP INCITING AGAINST AMERICAN JEWS, Ms. I’m-so-much-braver-than-Eli-the-Chicken-Hawk.

      Reply to Comment
    3. aristeides

      You go find an “honest, informed person,” Jazz, and ask that question. The problem is that most American Jews are misinformed, cause they’ve been sucking up the same lies you’re pumping here.

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    4. What I have learned from my incessant, obsessive talk of your Declaration of Independence is that, mostly, the Israel right and center care not of it. I infer from this two things: 1) they want the judiciary suborinate to a soverign Knesset which, of course, must be right in the Way of things; 2) the words of the Declaration are rather uncomfortable, so ignored. Americans haven’t a clue that it exists, and will mostly say “its their business, just like ours is ours.”
      I have given up on all these word battles. I advocate the Declaration because it fits no one’s scheme right now, as far as I can tell, so might really form a new place to stand; and its (few) words of social and political equality evoke human particularism–harm of the moment–instead of some abstract saving of an abstract object, like a nation state. When words like “anti-Semite,” “Israeli Firster,” or even phrases like “right of return” take over, all practical thought is lost. We feel good “winning” in words (like Jazzy, above), thinking our “side” won. Well, I am tired of sides. I will stand for priciple, legal, and human particularlism.
      An industry of word wars has been created. Some people probably get a pension doing it. All I know is most of our words will vanish, but the pain inflicted by them will last a good long while. So here’s my non-pensioned words: if I’m anti-Semitic then the Declaration is anti-Semitic. If equality is not Israel First, then the Declaration is not. If the right of free ingress is Zionist, then the Declaration is Zionist. Let no one feel comforatable in their fortress. I can conjecture no other way to move forward, at least forward in thought.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Aaron

      If this statement is true of the left – “`Israel-firsters’ are not those who put Israel first, but rather those who put an Israeli right-wing agenda first” – then it just shows that the left has completely changed the meaning of the term after taking it from the non-interventionist right. There, where the term originated (probably based on the America First organization), it refers to loyalty to Israel over American loyalty. That’s completely regardless of one’s views on the 1967 occupation, Israeli treatment of Arab citizens, and other left-right issues in Israel. “Israel Firster” includes left-Zionist, liberal American Jews, if they support continued military and monetary aid to Israel or basically any US foreign policy that involves more support for Israel than, say, Madagascar.
      I’ve never heard of MJ Rosenberg before, but if he is using the term “Israel Firster” in the way you described, then he has completely twisted its original and plain text meaning in an attempt to appropriate it for his side. Fair enough, I guess, since it’s always been a purely polemical term in any case: may the more powerful side win. But the term was originally about the loyalty of American citizens, not about the Israeli left or right.
      By the way, whatever the pure meaning of the term, in practice it’s used in a very anti-Semitic way. I’ve been called an Israel Firster plenty of times on anti-Israel right-wing forums, even though my view of US-Israel foreign policy is close to Pat Buchanan’s and Ron Paul’s, just because I’m Jewish and I’m sympathetic to Israel.

      Reply to Comment
    6. One (an American) might rather foolishly assume (as many AIPAC types would like us to) that Israel’s geopolitical needs and America’s are identical (not just similar, mark!, but identical), in which case to be an America-firster or an Israel-firster is the same thing. VOILA!

      But if you do not make that assumption (and I surely do not), then Israel-firsters’ call for war with Iran may be seen as a call for America to injure itself at least by going (once again) to huge expense for Israel in a manner of no utility to America itself and at most in far worse ways — by doing major damage to the USA’s economy as a result of disruption of the world’s oil supply, for instance.

      If you can imagine major damage to the USA from following Israel’s lead (and AIPAC’s command), then you see Israel-firsters as a sort of 5th-column. (Even if they themselves do not see themselves that way!)

      For those who see Israel’s demands as damaging, then the political problem inside the USA is [1] HOW to rescue the USA from the pro-Israel lobby, [2] WHO to accomplish this rescue, and [3] WHY should they do it.

      Since (as I assume) governance of the USA is 99% in the hands of the 1% [whom I call the BIGs, such as BIG-OIL, BIG-ZION, BIG-BANKs, BIG-DEFENSE) who exercise this control through lobbying and political-electoral manipulation, the “WHO” would seem to be the BIGs themselves (other than BIG-ZION, of course), since the 99% have so little information and less political power. In that case, the “HOW” is just business as usual — normal, daily political manipulation. The “WHY” is the hard part. The BIGs are, as far as I can see, extremely myopic, seeing the world through self-focused glasses. The corporations are focusing on their own short-term profits. The very rich individuals are doing the same and also focusing on their own ideological fixations.

      Fiercely felt fixations (such as Adelson’s pro-Israel and anti-Palestinian and anti-Iran fixation) tend to express themselves in well-financed action among the BIGs.

      Modestly felt fixations (like safety for America, which is often imagined to be totally safe, so why be worried?) are less likely to result in well-financed action among the BIGs.

      And that, children, is why BIG-ZION is virtually alone among the BIGs who direct America’s affairs in caring one way or the other about America’s support for Israel. And that is why an Israeli attack on Iran in August or September 2012 seems likely to suck America into war — come hell or high water — even if most of America would oppose it.

      If all goes badly, one might find a rather larger voice saying “Israel-firster”, and they might be quite angry, even a bit anti-semitic, when they say it.

      Reply to Comment
    7. aristeides

      Many American Jews are declared Israel-firsters, in their own words. Jazzy, above, explicitly declares himself one. Sheldon Adelson does. Carolyn Glick, Elliot Abrams. Many commenters on Ynet not only proudly declare themselves Israel-firsters, one fellow copped to being a “Jew-firster.”

      The problem lies in saying so, in pointing out what they themselves say. Many American Jews want to BE Israel-firsters, but they don’t want anyone else to point this out, to talk about it. They want the truth to remain unspoken and unrecognized. Thus Jazzy’s all-caps scream about “inciting”. Jazzy the Israel-firster doesn’t want anyone to say he’s an Israel-firster because someone else might become hostile to him on account of this.

      In short, Jewish Israel-firsters in the US don’t have the courage of their convictions. They want to live a lie, to avoid the consequences of their beliefs and acts on behalf of their beliefs.

      And if US Jews like Aaron don’t like the name directed at them, he should blame the Israel-firsters who are working so diligently against the interests of Americans, including himself, by dragging us into another disastrous war. Don’t blame the people who simply state the truth.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Manny jakel

      JAZZY, you’ve said it all. Anyone who has not discovered that a new way of JEW HATRED is probably born every day. Whether it’s israeli firster, neocons, amen corner or multiple other names to describe a Jew who is not a loyal AMERICAN and who also has a love of ISRAEL.

      Reply to Comment
    9. aristeides


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    10. Aaron

      Wait a minute, A, let me get this straight: If I don’t like being called an Israel Firster despite my support for a neutral, non-interventionist US foreign policy, then I should blame Jews for that? I’m labeled inaccurately based not on what I say but on my Jewishness, and that’s the fault of the Jews? I’m not supposed to blame the idiots who call me something I’m not?

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    11. aristeides

      A – You’re twisting my comment to mean what it does not say. Which is nothing about “it’s the fault of the Jews.”

      The campaign against saying “Israel Firster” is meant to keep anyone from using that accusation, even against actual Israel Firsters. It’s meant to keep actual Israel Firsters from being rightly accused, and from pointing out the true nature of their activities.

      This campaign isn’t being carried out by “the Jews.” It’s being carried out by the Israel Firsters, who know they are vulnerable to the accusation, because it’s true in their case.

      What should American Jews who aren’t Israel Firsters do about this? I stated it clearly – they should blame the Israel Firsters. They should declare emphatically that most US Jews are not Israel Firsters. They should condemn the Israel Firsters, because they are Americans and the activities of the Israel Firsters do threaten all Americans. And they should support the people (many of them US Jews) who point out that Israel Firsters certainly do exist (and not all of them Jews – look at the speeches of the current Republican candidates).

      Reply to Comment
    12. James North

      Mairav: Thank you for a strong, well-argued post. Your extensive experience in both Israel and America, far from being a handicap, actually makes you a particularly valuable person to write on this subject.
      As you know, there are plenty of people here in America who have a dream castle view of Israel, who may not have been there for a quarter-century, if ever, but who are willing to advocate policies that raise the danger for Israelis.
      I was also glad to see you quote the great M.J. Rosenberg, a true moral giant.

      Reply to Comment
    13. Judy

      The Far Left conists of Hamas Firsters and the usual anti-Semites

      Reply to Comment
    14. sh

      Pardon me for this question, but I’m not American. Since when are all “neo-cons” and “Israel firsters Jewish?” You mean to tell me that reproaching a Wolfowitz or an Adelson for putting Israel at the top of their agenda is anti-semitic but if a Cheney or a Hagee does the same, it isn’t?

      Reply to Comment
    15. aristeides

      Or a Romney or a Gingrich. Or the body of the US Congress.

      Some people have asked why I comment at this Israeli site, since I’m American with no stake in Israel. The reason is the control that the Israel Firsters exercise over so much of our government and media, dragging us into wars against our own national interest.

      Reply to Comment
    16. Steve

      Extreme-left writer MJ Rosenberg hates anyone who supports or defends Israel in any discussion

      Former KKK leader David Duke hates anyone who supports or defends Israel in any discussion

      And they both yell “Israel-firster!” at anyone who tries to explain Israel’s point of view.

      Sorry, what’s the difference here?

      Reply to Comment
    17. Steve

      The extreme-left Israel-haters, Jew-haters (and a handful of Jews who want to kiss up to them and feel accepted by hatemongers) relentlessly attack Israel in every discussion.

      As for this article, Mairav Zonszein tries to white-wash the effect that extremists like MJ Rosenberg are having. Nobody is interpreting his rabid anti-Israel ranting and his yelling about his hatred of “Israel-firsters” as something peaceful. It’s just spreading RAW, EXTREME HATE of Israel to the masses. That’s all that it’s accomplishing. Which is what a lot of people want.

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    18. aristeides

      So, Steve, are we correct to infer that you are calling Zonszein a Jew-hater? Or just a kiss-up?

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    19. Steve

      ARISTEIDES: I know very little of what Mairav Zonszein thinks about stuff, so I have no opinion on her yet.

      I do have a strong opinion of the extreme-left, in that they are as rabidly hateful of Israel as the extreme-right. They simply present their hate differently. Some people pretend to be peace activists, yet shape every discussion in a manner where it’s clear their only goal is to see Israel destroyed/undone/WHATEVER. ANd then some people are at least honest about their hate and just openly root for Hamas, etc.

      A lot of people on the extreme left are dishonest critics of Israel, and exaggerate all of Israel’s errors and intentionally white-wash the behavior of Israel’s neighbors

      Reply to Comment
    20. aristeides

      Steve – you’re exhibiting no small amount of hate yourself. How does this make you better than the people you condemn?

      Reply to Comment
    21. Steve

      ARISTEIDES: You’re joking, right?

      I’m “hating” antisemites and bigots and nazis.

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    22. annie

      this is a great article Mairav Zonszein. you totally get it and have deconstructed both the usage of the term and the criticisms. as long as one owns the narrative and controls the discourse they control the discussion. the use of the term is completely legitimate and we’ll keep using it.

      ““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.”

      we have a right to talk about this. Israels right-wing agenda has permeated american politics and i for one am sick of it. we didn’t elect a supposedly liberal dem politician for prez to have him hogtied by a congress voting 100-0 to harshly sanction iran against the best interests of the US which has completely divorced itself from using diplomatic channels to solve our differences. this push to attack iran, we all know exactly where it’s coming from.

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    23. annie

      “I do have a strong opinion of the extreme-left, in that they are as rabidly hateful of Israel as the extreme-right.”

      don’t fool yourself steve, the extreme right is thriving in the knesset. it’s thriving in settlement growth, it’s thriving in ethnic cleansing, it’s thriving in apartheid and it’s very much thriving in zionism. is there an equivalent in the cess pool of white national movements? yes. do they have any political power, unlike the zionist rightwinger israel firsters in this country, not so much. so while you’re slinging around terms like ‘extreme right’..think likud, because that’s what we think. the kkk are not really represented in congress anymore last i heard.

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    24. aristeides

      No, Steve, you’re hating anyone who opposes Israel’s activities, and CALLING them “antisemites and bigots and Nazis” so it’s OK in your mind to hate them and rave online.

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    25. Piotr Berman

      “Extreme-left writer MJ Rosenberg”

      Educated at Sorbonne, MJ Rosenberg wrote a thesis on how Cambdian society could be reformed as an agrarian society based on collective sharing and avoiding commercial transactions. Upon return to his homeland he clearly climbed in the hierarchy of Communist party and presided some of the most astonishing atrocities of the century, astonishing in part by following so closely the blue-print in his Ph D Thesis.

      Not true? Rosenberg is not a Communist? Not a Socialist? One cannot a single industry that he would like to nationalize? Not a single quote of Marx can be found in his writing? What kind of Leftist is he?

      If you want to find a bunch of unreconstructed Leftist, you have to look at GoI. It is all there. Railroads, electric companies and hospitals run by the state. Medicine, I am sorry to say, is socialized. Poor receive subsidized housing, and what Knesset is debating? Ending that leftist atrocity? No, the debate is if subsidized apartments should go exclusively to the most pius Jews, the current policy, or if some units could be given to not-so-pius free loaders.

      Gays can serve in the military and they have equal rights to marry as many heterosexual couples (who are also not allowed).

      I am skipping the issue of kibutzes as kind of historical.

      Reply to Comment
    26. Piotr Berman

      Sorry, can a moderator delete my post? I will edit better. Steve really got on my nerves. Apart from quite common sense views on Israel, MJ Rosemberg is a very conventional Democrat. The fact that J Street supporters are routinely dubbed “extreme Left” shows that Jewish supremacists like Steve have equal disdain for preserving our languages as for property rights of individuals or communities, or any kind of human rights (or, as they write, so-called human rights).

      Reply to Comment
    27. Steve

      ARISTEIDES just made this up: “No, Steve, you’re hating anyone who opposes Israel’s activities”

      My response: That’s false. You literally just made that up. Strange way to discuss things.

      Reply to Comment
    28. Steve

      As for MJ Rosenberg, he constantly rewteets and promotes mondoweiss, Max Blumenthal and a big stack of others who are the most rabid, obsessed Israel-haters on the entire Internet. These people’s “peace” all involves Israel being destroyed (or “undone as a Jewish state” if you want to be coy about it). It’s an extreme-left group that’s as bad as the extreme-right.

      Reply to Comment
    29. aristeides

      Just making it up, Steve? Like I made up “the most rabid, obsessed Israel-haters on the entire Internet?”

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    30. Steve


      I am not sure what’s confusing you.

      I do not like the people I feel are the most rabid, obsessed Israel-haters on the entire Internet, and that includes mondoweiss, max blumenthal, etc.

      I did not say anything about hating “anyone” who criticizes Israel. I do not. I just hate the crazed over the top maniacs. Valid criticism is fine, obviously.

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    31. Steve

      MJ Rosenberg is disgusting. 99% of his Israel-related comments are to bash Israel or promote people who want Israel erased from existence, and 1% of his Israel-related comments are to claim he’s “pro-Israel.”

      It’s like constantly promoting KKK members, and then occasionally mentioning that you like black people.

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    32. aristeides

      Steve – I’m not confused at all. I read your posts and they are full of hate speech directed at persons who offer valid criticism of Israel. There is really nothing to what you say except to smear the people you hate and to use inflammatory language in your expression of it. Otherwise, there is no content.

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    33. Steve

      I appreciate valid criticisms of Israel.

      Mondoweiss, Max Blumenthal, Ben White, etc. do not offer valid criticisms of Israel. They offer exaggerated, distorted, raw hate of Israel, and all of them want Israel to cease to even exist as a Jewish state. They are extreme-left hatemongers.

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    34. aristeides

      Steve – all you do is repeat yourself in the same hate language. You convince no one, except for convincing everyone that you are nothing but another hatemonger for Israel.

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    35. Steve

      I “hate” nazis and bigots, etc.

      I appreciate valid critics of Israel and other countries.

      I realize this confuses you so I won’t post further in this topic.

      Reply to Comment
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