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The strategic use of the "anti-Israeli" label in US politics

Republicans recognize Israel as one of their most powerful tools in the coming elections. Liberals, and especially Jews, shouldn’t fall for this trap

South Lawn of the White House (photo: C.M. Fitzpatrick / US government work)


No doubt, American election year is officially here. Two democratic organizations – Center for American Progress (CAP) and Media Matters – are under attack. The charge: anti-Semitism, no less. In a story on Politico, Ben Smith reported on “a rift in the Democratic Party” because of “anti-Israeli” positions expressed by some of CAP and Media Matters staffers. The Washington Post’s neo-con blogger Jenifer Rubin clarified: “These views are not merely anti-Israel, they are anti-Semitic.”

I don’t normally write on the beltway’s inside baseball on this blog, and I wouldn’t have addressed this issue if I didn’t personally know a couple of the people at the center of the Politico story. I consider Matt Duss and Ali Gharib of CAP friends, which would not be the case if they had any hint of anti-Semitism in them. In fact, in all my conversations with Matt and Ali – including those involving too many beers and therefore, less constraints – I don’t remember any one of them referring to the Jewish people in a generalizing political context. I also never heard from them any of those inflammatory statements about Israelis that one sometimes hears in progressive circles.

I haven’t read everything Matt or Ali wrote – they are both very productive people – but I always got the impression that their writing was about Israeli policies. I don’t remember hearing from them or reading anything they wrote that you couldn’t find in the political conversation inside Israel. But even the limited debate taking place in Israel seems rational and open-minded compared to what’s going on in Washington right now.

We should nevertheless remember the context of  the attacks on CAP and Media Matters. The Republicans have singled out Israel as an issue where they have an absolute advantage over the Democrats – all over the field.

For start, Israel is one of those few topics that can bring together the big business republicans, social conservatives and the neo-cons. Unquestioning support of Israeli policies is also a legitimate way to tap into the growing Islamophobia in American society; but most importantly, it splits the Democratic party into two, and hurts the president at the heart of his political base – Jewish liberals, who overwhelmingly supported Obama in 2008. Hitting them with ridiculous talking points about the administration that “betrayed” Israel – when it’s clear that Obama’s policies are is no different then those of previous presidents – or spreading half-baked stories of progressives who are “supportive of Hamas” might not get those Jews to vote for Rick Perry, but it could sure drive away a lot of their political energy, and cast some doubts about “their guy” in the White House. In a close election, that might be all you need.

What troubles me the most right now is that Israel is not a foreign policy issue anymore, but an internal topic in the American culture war. Israel is the only spot on the political map where people like Abe Foxman or Elie Wiesel can find common language with evangelical politicians and neo-con writers – a fact that turns it into a powerful and dangerous tool. Even more than in the case of abortions or health care, the debate on Israel in the US is completely mythical, and has nothing to do with the facts on the ground. Sometimes the loudest “pro-Israeli” politicians are so ignorant of the situation here, that they make absurd statements (Herman Cain for a Palestinian Right of Return?); in other cases, they retreat from long-standing American principles – like the opposition to the settlements, including in East Jerusalem – and at times, conveniently forget their own actions and statements.

Who cares if ending the occupation is the ultimate Israeli interest, and the only way to avoid a South African-style collapse? Nothing matters in the crazy rush to the right, which often ends with American politicians taking positions that are more hard-line than those of the government in Jerusalem, improbable as it that seem with Netanyahu and Lieberman running the show. Want to score some easy points? All you need to do is to throw around the code word “Israel”, dip it in a sauce of anti-Semitism, and watch as the liberals go at each other’s throats.

The solution to this problem is clear: instead of running for cover, Democrats should draw a line in the sand against the cynical use of those charges; otherwise they are likely to come up again and again, targeting more and more people. After all, it’s not a coincidence that some American conservatives and current Israeli legislators share an admiration for one Joseph MaCarthy.

The sad thing is that Jews fall for this trap too easily. Just like the misguided ad Elie Wiesel published after the administration criticized Israel for provocative construction projects in the Palestinian parts of Jerusalem, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which should be the first to worry about the widespread use of allegations of anti-Semitism as a political tool – something which in the longer run renders the term meaningless –  joined the charge on CAP.

Wiesel and the people at the Wiesenthal Center should know better. The rightwing bloggers or the republicans in Congress have no real interest in Israel. It’s just good politics for them. They all push for an attack in Iran, but I don’t think we will see them in the bomb shelters in Tel Aviv when missiles start falling. Just like we are yet to hear from Jenifer Rubin, who recently fell in love with the settlers, about her vision for a solution to the Palestinian issue – one that  extends beyond the ethnic cleansing that Mike Huckabee seems to advocate.

Unlike those political opportunists, Matt Duss and Ali Gahrib are extremely knowledgeable of the situation in the region, and of the dangers in maintaining the current status quo. Not only are they not “anti” – whatever such labels mean when discussing policies – they hold a genuine, deep concern for the future of this place and all those living in it. What I often hear from them is frustration – about the misguided actions of Israeli and American politicians, which might bring disaster on Israelis and Palestinians alike.

It is a feeling I share with them.

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    1. Richard Witty

      Without question, the opportunistic insertion of Israeli politics into American election is a great corruption, deception and distraction from what is important.

      The natural sensitivity of Jews is for compassion, reason, and political policies that derive from that.

      The form that that sensitivity takes is the urging for peace, comprised of health for our kin and community and health for our/their neighbors.

      When Netanyahu positions peace as impossible, the opportunists take it up. They reason, “If this is a war, then lets win it rather than lose it.”

      When the left positions that peace is impossible, it FEEDS the view of the right-wing opportunists. It is a confirmation of their posing of the question.

      The only path in which the divide won’t happen in the US, in which people are forced to a decision of win or lose, rather than to construct a win-win (as much of a cliche as it is), is for the left to construct the argument that peace is possible and is being pursued by some (if not the current Israeli administration).

      Is it the left wheel of the car or the right wheel of the car that drives it into the well-grooved mud track, when there is at least a lot of solid ground to ride on, if not everywhere?

      Reply to Comment
    2. Ed Frias

      Noam Sheizaf is a hypocrit, cause everyday the Hardline Holocaust denying regime of Abbas is publishing material calling for the ethnic cleansing of all Jews for Israel.
      Its all there on Palmediawatch.
      Why doesn’t Noam see what the Pals say in their media?

      Reply to Comment
    3. Ed Frias

      A must read for Noam.
      Israeli on Arab TV: J’lem Was Ours When Moslems Worshipped Idols
      A Bar Ilan Univ. researcher told Al Jazeera, “Jews were in Jerusalem while Muslims were drinking wine; we don’t need your permission to build.”

      Reply to Comment
    4. Mikesailor

      I alwys find it strange how any criticism of Israel and its policies are deemed ‘antisemitic’ while wholesale demonisation of other groups (especially Muslims) is seen as perfectly permissible. The analysts at CAP and Media Martters are a case in point. Both have criticized the policies of Israel and questioned the moral and logical basis’ of the Zionist activities. Neither has attacked ‘Jews’ themselves. Yet is perfectly permissible for ‘columnists’ like Jennifer Rubin to advocate the murder of Palestinians without any sanction whatsoever. And, of course, fellows like Ben Smith of Politico and the rest of the so-called “mainstream media’ merely parrot the same line.
      I once brought up the idea that ‘antisemitism’ is the prejudicial hatred of Jews for who they are, but it is never antisemitic to criticize Jews, or anyone else for that matter, for what they do. If Zionists commit crimes should that not be criticized? If their policies are ones that we would criticize if done by a Cuba, China, Russia, Iran or Venezuela,(or anyone who is the flavor of the month as a putative enemy), then why should Israel be immune?
      I often witness the pernicious idea that when a crime is committed by a Jew, then his/her ethnicity is irrelevent and it is antisemitic to bring up that fact. Yet, if a crime is committed by a Muslim or other minority, then the perpetrators religion/ethnicity is fair game. Such a double standard is alive and well in the USA, mores the pity. For instance, The Catholic Church has had well-documented instances of pedophilia within its ranks, committed by both the ministry and lay Catholics. Yet, when the Forward (the Jewish newspaper) reports that 85 tabbis and other Jewish lay people within the Orthodox community in New York have been indicted or convicted within the last few years, the main stream media will not even mention the story. Why? Is this a warped type of ‘political correctness’ at work? Or merely a lie by ommision?

      Reply to Comment
    5. aristeides

      In the US, when someone like Bernie Madoff is arrested, the media don’t mention if he’s a Jew or not. Only in the Israeli media is the headline JEWISH BROKER ARRESTED.

      Reply to Comment
    6. AYLA

      thoughtful, true, timely. Thanks. (I should *almost* sign this “Tata”)

      Reply to Comment
    7. directrob

      Ayla, please no T*t* do not even think of it.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Edithann

      @ Aristeides:
      The reason Madoff is mentioned as a Jew in Israel and not here in the US, is that he’s a hero of Jewish values. To praise him here in the US would put every American on notice. The object is to screw American but not let them be aware of being screwed.
      Any Jew who can swindle that much is a phenomenon admired by his peers. But if he did it to Israel that would be a different story altogether, sort of like Katsav and his rape case taking years with endless defense proceedings..Yet no one really cared about the moral aspect of the case, nor the moral aspect of the Madoff caper..Morals and integrity are Western and therefore foreign concepts. Israel has their own moral compass, it’s called ‘the double standard’ all for us, and nothing for others..We see and read about it all the time with settlers and their Palestinians victims.

      At a recent Barbara Walters interview in prison, Madoff said, ‘he’s never been happier in his life’ now that he’s in prison! Hey,150 years is nothing to sneeze at! So how do you Israeli’s account for such happiness? His beleaguered wife looks terrible, one son changed his family name, and the other committed suicide..Maybe getting rid of family was a reward and not a sentence after all. Could this be telling us something?

      @ Director..don’t worry I don’t bite.


      Reply to Comment
    9. AYLA

      I think EdithAnn is here to give us all something to unite against. Maybe with her as our common enemy, we can finally solve this crisis. (p.s. Jews were/are horrified by Madoff, exactly because he is Jewish, not to mention because he cleaned out so many Jewish Charities, including Elie Weisel’s. But please–go ahead with the propaganda. Again: could be the key we’ve all been waiting for).

      Reply to Comment
    10. Mitchell Cohen

      I have ignored EdithAnn’s posts after like her second one. The only thing she has going for her is that her posts are not inundated with four letter words. Other than that, I will say “good riddance” when she goes the way of other posters, who if it wasn’t for their cursing, were banned for less than her….

      Reply to Comment
    11. Edithann

      This comment has been deleted and the user banned

      Reply to Comment
    12. There is not more anti-semitic obsession whose is every time alleged to invoke this statement.

      Reply to Comment
    13. Aziz

      @ayala: I am glad to see this discussion going on. It is an important one. I am following up with more detailed article on “normalizaiton”. I should post it in the next day or two.

      Reply to Comment