by Ben Cohen
Throughout the greater Middle East, opposition to the concept and existence of a Jewish state is an idée fixe for hundreds of millions of Arab and non-Arab Muslims. A hatred of Jewish political sovereignty that frequently dovetails with more traditional anti-Semitism animates café discussions and street protests as surely as it prohibits regional political progress. Yet the strand of anti-Zionism that has lately come to attract the most attention in the West is the one articulated by a tiny minority of left-wing Jews at a handful of websites.
Full-time antagonists of Israel such as M.J. Rosenberg, Max Blumenthal, Philip Weiss, and Peter Beinart have accumulated an influence that vastly exceeds their single-digit numbers. This is in part due to the financial sponsorship of successful and well-established media institutions. Until March 2012, Rosenberg was employed by Media Matters for America (MMfA) at a salary of some $130,000 per annum. Weiss was supported for years by the Nation magazine’s Nation Institute. Peter Beinart’s new Open Zion blog is hosted by the Daily Beast, an online publication jointly owned by the Harman family and the Internet media giant IAC.
But Rosenberg, Weiss, and Beinart take a different view of their place in the media conversation. They believe themselves to be fearless truth-tellers who actively resist a censorious tribal culture that bulldozes any hint of discord. Rosenberg offered a pithy insight into this in an April 2012 opinion piece for the website of Al Jazeera. After claiming that pro-Israel advocacy organizations were hindering efforts to secure a peaceful resolution of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, he concluded with an exhortation. “Being pro-Israel means caring about Israel,” wrote Rosenberg, whose career has been built on the fact that he briefly worked for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee three decades ago. “It does not mean using it as an excuse for power brokering and suppressing dissident voices.”
Dissident voices? Properly understood, the word dissident describes intellectuals and activists operating in oppressive societies. What they do frequently results in imprisonment, torture, and even death. The dissidents of whom Rosenberg speaks so modestly, since they include himself, are not silenced, but rather celebrated, by media establishments ranging from the Huffington Post to the BBC.
The persistent inclusion of these “dissident voices” in discussions of America, Jews, and Israel has proven very useful indeed, since their membership in the tribe is deemed to give them special standing in presenting their indictment of Israel—and, somewhat more subtly, inoculates Gentile critics of the Jewish state against the charge that their attacks on Israel might be anti-Semitic. How can they be if they are merely echoing the arguments made by such passionate, such moral, such fearless, such dissident Jews?
In an Internet age characterized by instant, rolling comment, they have helped to reactivate a set of ideas that many thought had perished with the grubby pamphlets published in the old Soviet Union, screeds that bore titles such as “Zionism: A Tool of Reaction.” Whereas the true dissidents of the Cold War era introduced words such as samizdat into the vocabulary of the West, the ersatz dissidents of the Jewish left have popularized a host of expressions—Judaization, Israel-firster, Zionist apartheid, and so forth—that were once relegated almost entirely to the openly anti-Semitic fringe.
What an accomplishment.
As Rosenberg’s remark makes plain, the common point of departure for online Jewish anti-Zionists is the unaccountable, transcendent power of disparate pro-Israel organizations lumped together under the umbrella term the Israel lobby. The determination of this lobby to muzzle “dissenting” voices inside the Jewish community is the favored theme of writers such as Michael Lerner, the Berkeley-based progressive rabbi and founder of Tikkun magazine, and Richard Silverstein, a Seattle-based blogger with a penchant for seeing Mossad plots behind every Middle East news story. Similarly, the explicitly anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) operates a blog, appropriately entitled Muzzlewatch, that purports to monitor “efforts to stifle open debate about U.S.-Israeli foreign policy.”
Such paranoid theories take their expositors into deep—arguably clinical—eccentricity. In an April 2012 blog entry, Rosenberg opined that the availability of kosher food at a White House reception was just another display of forelock-tugging by an administration that lives in fear of the Israel lobby’s wrath. The post’s title (“Obama: Stop Pandering to the Jewish Right Already”) was meant to be read in the folksy cadence of an offended American Jew. “The same exact impulse that causes the Obamas to blowtorch their ovens to Hassidic standards,” he wrote, “also leads the administration to be in perpetual suck-up mode to Prime Minister Netanyahu on matters like Iran and the Israeli occupation, matters of life and death.”
In addition to being uncommonly powerful, the Israel lobby is supposedly made up of U.S. citizens whose primary loyalty is to Israel, and who will choose the Jewish state over the United States should circumstances demand. It is Rosenberg who is credited with having spread the term Israel-firster in the online columns he wrote in his capacity as a “foreign-policy fellow” at Media Matters. And with the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman asserting, in December 2011, that the standing ovation for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the U.S. Congress “was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby,” it is no wonder that Rosenberg expressed great authorial pride as a result—or that Media Matters might initially have felt great pride that it had come to exert such influence on the most “mainstream” of mainstream commentators on the Middle East.
Almost immediately, however, Jewish groups and pro-Israel commentators charged that the term Israel-firster, as deployed by Rosenberg, was inherently anti-Semitic—and presented indubitable evidence that the term was a favored epithet of neo-Nazi groups. Rosenberg was compelled to announce that he would cease abusing his opponents in this way, and within three months, he and Media Matters parted company. Rosenberg indignantly denied that he had been fired, claiming on the Huffington Post that he made the magnanimous decision “to leave to protect an organization I love from people who, in their single-minded devotion to the Israeli government, will go after anyone and anything who stands in their way.” So much for taking responsibility for making rhetorical common cause with Hitler-lovers.
In any case, his Israel-firster charge is neither clever, nor daring, nor new. It is, rather, a shopworn offense to common decency. The notion that Jewish officials are more loyal to their own kind than to the state or the institutions they serve goes back at least to 1894 and the false conviction of the French army captain Alfred Dreyfus. George Orwell, writing about anti-Semitism in the immediate aftermath of World War II, noted similar sentiments in the grumblings about a “Jewish war” in which the fighting and the dying was principally done by Gentiles. “To publicize the exploits of Jewish soldiers, or even to admit the existence of a considerable Jewish army in the Middle East, rouses hostility in South Africa, the Arab countries, and elsewhere,” Orwell wrote. “It is easier to ignore the whole subject and allow the man in the street to go on thinking that Jews are exceptionally clever at dodging military service.” It is exactly this kind of lazy, conspiracy-laden thinking that informs the Israel-firster smear.
Philip Weiss, editor of the Middle East–focused website Mondoweiss, takes a more personal approach to his anti-Zionism. He writes often about his psychic struggles with his own Jewish identity—not surprising, since what he most hates about himself is also the source of his reputation. Interviewed by the anti-Semitic ex-Israeli writer Gilad Atzmon, Weiss reflected that Jewish identity imparts “a sense of difference, yes, inevitably of elite identity, that’s part of Jewish history and one I struggle with.” He also delights in stoking the notion that he traffics in anti-Semitism. “I can justly be accused of being a conspiracy theorist because I believe in the Israel lobby theory,” he wrote in a recent blog entry. “I quoted seven Jewish writers on this point, including [Harvard Professor Alan] Dershowitz: ‘The recent neoconservative movement in America has also been dominated by Jews.’” The practice of selectively quoting Jewish advocates against themselves is associated most of all with neo-Nazi propaganda outfits such as the website Jew Watch, so Weiss is in exactly the kind of company he deserves.
In 2009, the Web provocateur Max Blumenthal posted a video on YouTube called “Feeling the Hate in Jerusalem.” In it he talks to drunk American Jewish students in downtown Jerusalem and elicits grotesque statements about how much they hate Arabs. On the Huffington Post, Blumenthal went on to defend the stunt as an example of in vino veritas. “The notion that the racist diatribes in my video emerged spontaneously from a beery void is a delusion, but for some, it is a necessary one,” he wrote. “It allows them to erect a psychological barrier against acknowledging the painful consequences of prolonged Zionist indoctrination.”
Blumenthal has a knack for uncovering the influence of Zionism in the most unlikely places. Writing on the Web-only English-language version of the Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar in November 2011, he noted that the “Israelification of America’s security apparatus, recently unleashed in full force against the Occupy Wall Street Movement, has taken place at every level of law enforcement, and in areas that have yet to be exposed.” It was a fitting observation for the readership of Al Akhbar, which has made a hero of the late Hezbollah terrorist Imad Mughniyeh and whose editor believes that Jews in Israel should return en masse to the more comfortable “capitalist environment” of Europe. In another Al Akhbar piece, Blumenthal asked, “When have Zionists ever let historical nuance get in the way of a campaign to muzzle critics of Israeli policy?”
Compared with such explicit ugliness, Peter Beinart’s blog, Open Zion, seems mild and contemplative—an impression that appears very much to be Beinart’s goal, given the radicalism of his own policy suggestions. He recently proposed that the United States pursue a targeted boycott of Jewish communities in the West Bank. He did so as part of the promotional drive for his latest book, The Crisis of Zionism. Beinart’s account of Israel’s failures and liabilities earned him praise in the Atlantic and the New Yorker for his “courage” in taking on the Israel lobby, which posed such a threat to him and his career that, after the publication of the article from which his book would spring, Beinart reportedly received a courageous advance of several hundred thousand dissenting dollars.
Open Zion, in its name and design, seems intended to herald some supposedly long-neglected flowering of unapologetically diverse opinion on Zionism. There is Beinart himself, supporting a boycott of Jewish businesses, musing endlessly about the pitfalls of Jewish power, along with a host of lesser impersonators who write articles with titles such as “How I Lost My Zionism” and “Can You Be a Zionist If No-One Thinks You Are?” (Answering his own question, the author of this last piece, Jay Michaelson, writes, “I hesitate to claim the label because I don’t want to be associated with those who wear it proudly.”) Then there are the pro-Israel loyalists: the forceful Israeli historian Benny Morris, the Judaism scholar Yehuda Mirsky, the Knesset Member Einat Wilf. One gets the distinct sense that these writers are intended to function as a permanent opposition.
A third category is composed of think-tank analysts and nonprofit advocates who are ostensibly focused on the iniquities of Israeli policy but who willingly deploy the stock-in-trade dogmas of anti-Zionist ideology. Jewish critics of Israel, such as Daniel Levy of the New America Foundation and Lara Friedman of American Friends of Peace Now, play a key role in undermining the influence of Open Zion’s pro-Israel contributors.
Responding to a piece by Morris on Palestinian rejectionism, Levy argued that the real obstacle to a negotiated settlement is the naqba—the Arabic word for “catastrophe,” used by Palestinians and their supporters to describe the creation of Israel—and “the second-class status of Palestinian citizens within the Jewish state.” These words are an uncomplicated reflection of the basic stance of anti-Zionism, which holds that Jewish sovereignty is the diseased heart of the Middle East’s discontents.
Finally, there is the category of Open Zion writers for whom the very existence of Israel is at best an irritant, at worse an offense. Members of this clan include Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), whose mandate is to encourage an empathetic American engagement with the current Iranian regime, and Yousef Munayyer, a Palestinian activist who pushes the insidious line that Israel is an apartheid state that must yield in favor of a single Palestinian entity between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.
But for all its strenuous posturing about “open” discussion, Open Zion is most notable for its silences. Readers will search the blog in vain for analysis of the recent events that have spread extraordinary discomfort throughout the Jewish world. When Günter Grass, the former Waffen SS recruit who later became one of Germany’s literary celebrities, penned the turgid poem “What Must Be Said,” in which he laments that Holocaust guilt was propelling his country to support an Israeli war against Iran, Open Zion did not deem these verses worthy of even a paragraph. The question of why a man who was personally involved in the slaughter of the Jews felt confident enough to repackage his anti-Semitism as hostility to Israel was left to other outlets to consider—few of which are explicitly concerned with the “Jewish future,” as Open Zion declares itself to be.
Similarly, the website barely mentioned the March 2012 assault by an al-Qaeda gunman upon a Jewish school in Toulouse, France, which resulted in the murders of a rabbi and three small children. Again, there are a number of apposite questions about the Jewish future arising from this atrocity, ranging from the appropriate level of security at Jewish institutions to the denial by Tariq Ramadan, a European Islamist much admired by Western intellectuals, that the gunman was motivated by anti-Semitism. On these and related matters, Open Zion had nothing meaningful to say.
By contrast, it is safe to assume that had a lone Israeli extremist entered a Jerusalem mosque and sprayed worshippers with bullets, the blog would have gone into overdrive. Why? Because the paradigm of Jewish power to which Beinart subscribes does not allow for Jewish vulnerability, only Jewish aggression. Moreover, according to prevailing liberal sensibilities, when Jews do suffer, it is because the iniquities of the state of Israel brought such an outcome upon them. That, perhaps, is why Open Zion has a subject tag that reads “Real Anti-Semitism,” to be employed on those rare occasions when Jews face hatred as a reality, and not as the invention of some unscrupulous AIPAC staffer.
Such willful myopia is not without precedent. Prior to the Holocaust and the Arab war of annihilation against the nascent state of Israel in 1948, Zionism coexisted in an uneasy equilibrium with non-Zionist and anti-Zionist currents among American Jews. A marked distaste for Jewish national aspirations was shared by many liberal, assimilationist Jews. It is this tradition, more than any other, that finds its contemporary resonance in projects such as Open Zion.
In 1885, a gathering of Reform rabbis in Pittsburgh issued a statement on Jewish identity that eventually became known as the “Pittsburgh Platform.” More than a decade before the First Zionist Congress met in Basel, Switzerland, the Pittsburgh rabbis rejected the core philosophical foundations of Zionism: “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore, expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any laws concerning the Jewish state.”
The principles behind the Pittsburgh Platform found organizational expression in the work of the American Council for Judaism (ACJ). Now a shadow of its former self, the ACJ once enjoyed access to the highest levels of the American government. In 1954, a speech on the Middle East delivered in Dayton, Ohio, by then assistant secretary of state Henry Byroade drew heavily on the influence of Rabbi Elmer Berger, the ACJ’s founder, in urging that Jews in Palestine effectively surrender their national ambitions.
Both Berger and his colleague Alfred Lilienthal, a former State Department lawyer, became progressively more shrill in their denunciations of Zionism as the years wore on. Barely remembered now, Lilienthal was something of an innovator. Although Beinart might think it rather novel and provocative to write about the “hoarding” of the Holocaust by Jewish organizations, it was Lilienthal who coined the inelegantly offensive term Holocaustomania as the prime motivator behind what he called “Washington’s Israel-first” Middle East policy. “I sincerely resented the Zionist propaganda which wanted to make my Christian fellow citizens believe that all American Jews, in a fictitious ‘unity,’ desire a political separation of ‘the Jewish people,’” he wrote in a memoir.
Excoriated by their fellow Jews decades before an omnipotent Israel lobby could be fashionably blamed, Berger and Lilienthal would find their most sympathetic audience in the Arab world. In 1978 Lilienthal wrote a tome called The Zionist Connection: What Price Peace? It was published by the firm Dodd Mead. Three years later, Lilienthal was presenting smaller publishing houses with a letter guaranteeing the purchase of 10,000 copies of a paperback version of The Zionist Connection—a letter issued by the interior ministry of the government of Saudi Arabia.
In 1977, Lilienthal had turned up in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, for a conference on “Zionism and racism” organized by EAFORD, a nongovernmental organization financed by the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. “What we today know in the West as anti-Semitism has never existed in the Arab world,” he assured the assembled delegates. In 1987, Lilienthal and Berger were the star attractions at an EAFORD-sponsored symposium in Washington, D.C., on Zionism and Judaism. “Free, responsible, informed political debate about the policies of the Zionist state is impossible,” Berger snarled before his audience.
Might Berger and Lilienthal’s ideological heirs soon find themselves the exclusive darlings of Middle Eastern anti-Semites? There is already some indication fate is moving in this direction. M.J. Rosenberg’s troubles with Media Matters certainly indicate some institutional reticence in the United States with anti-Zionist punditry. Max Blumenthal, in addition to being a frequent contributor to Al Akhbar, was also the subject of a fawning profile on Press TV, an English-language satellite broadcaster financed entirely by the Iranian regime. In receiving this dubious honor, he won the seal of approval from a state that has turned the denial of the Holocaust into an official doctrine.
Mass-movement anti-Zionism will be happy to incorporate Jewish anti-Zionists and march onward. Hatred of Israel is a malleable doctrine of false justice that welcomes all comers and provides for unlikely bedfellows. These days, the burden of proof is increasingly, and perversely, placed on those arguing in Zionism’s behalf. But, ironically, charting both the writings and the career trajectories of devoted anti-Zionists makes a uniquely strong case for the continued existence and protection of the Jewish state.
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