Saturday, February 13, 2010

Calling Bullshit -- The Pilot Episode

I've been writing publicly since late 2002 about utopian and totalitarian ideas, mostly as they find expression in antisemitic reaction to Israel and Zionism. For unusual reasons I haven't fully articulated, I've tapped out an oeuvre that is largely consonant with the stance of the pro-Israel "community", as it were. You may not be awed by these credentials, but I hope they qualify me as someone who might briefly restore your interest in a tattered topic: the difference between criticism of Israel and abuse of Jews.

Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, has composed a leviathan libel of Andrew Sullivan, all but calling him an anti-Semite.
Criticism of Israeli policy, and sympathy for the Palestinians, and support for a two-state solution, do not require, as their condition or their corollary, this intellectual shabbiness, this venomous hostility toward Israel and Jews. I have striven for Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, and territorial compromise, and two states, for many decades now, but Sullivan’s variety of such right thinking is completely repugnant to me. There are decent and indecent ways to advocate change. About the Jews, is Sullivan a bigot, or is he just moronically insensitive? To me, he looks increasingly like the Buchanan of the left.

Inevitably this has generated a lot of heat, earning angry responses from Matthew Yglesias, Brad DeLong, Gawker, of all things, and many others.

I have for a while been wanting to start a Calling Bullshit series about episodes like this, when oversensitive or oversearching friends-of-Israel decide to show-trial enemies-of-the-Jews. Otherwise perspicacious commentators, even brilliant ones like Wieseltier, can be seduced by the provocative crudeness of Israel's enemies, and the complex spectrum of ideological reaction to Israel, into launching McCarthyite counterattacks. And interpretation can be a carnivorous jungle when three political types, interrelated on the subject of Israel, overlap. These are the antisemite, the non-interventionist, and the foreign policy realist who has judged Israel harmful to the US.

It's important to combat confusion arising from these complexities, as well as callow and partisan accusations of antisemitism, and the effort should be led from within the ranks. New Antisemitism really does exist, and decreasing numbers of people believe that when non-antisemites are smeared. Also, real enemies of Israel or Jews use these moments to exonerate themselves, to immunize themselves against future criticism, and to enlist supporters among people offended by political correctness and identity politics.

Wieseltier's confusion is expressed in the last sentence of the passage I quoted above. He calls Sullivan a "Buchanan of the left". This seeming absurdity makes sense to those familiar enough with the material. Invoking Buchanan is often metonymy for isolationism*, and in the context of Israel one stained by Lindberghian anti-Semitism. Andrew Sullivan was a foreign policy neoconservative, and like most regretful true believers, he has been making up for it publicly by raking his scalp with conch shells. Predictably, his post-neocon writings on Israel have been a furnace of debate over the merits of Israel-critical foreign-policy realism and non-interventionism, stoked by outrage at Operation Cast Lead.

This returns us to an important topic I've written about. Non-interventionists and antisemites are implicated groups, but they are not the same. They both hate, or at least fear, Israel, but the former is not necessarily hostile to Jews. To the extent that the non-interventionist in public discourse is even identified, most people can’t distinguish him from uncomplicated Jew-haters on the subject of Israel. This is owing to some rhetorical overlap -- the very term "anti-Semite" was invented by Jew-haters wanting to sound respectable -- and also the figure of Charles Lindbergh, who combined both personas. So people default to branding as anti-Semites non-interventionist Israel-phobes like Glenn Greenwald, because the dogma that generates their vilification of Israel is not well understood.

Confusion is compounded by further rhetorical overlap of these with Israel-critical foreign policy realists. For many Israel advocates, it is beyond dispute that Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer have recapitulated The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. But again this is a mistake: Walt and Mearsheimer's critique is shoddy, dubious and above all illiberal, but it is not antisemitic. (Ironically, the Lobby portion of their critique is probably its least antisemitic element.) Wieseltier loses his grip on this distinction in another revelatory passage:
These days the self-congratulatory motto above his blog is ‘Of No Party or Clique,’ but in fact Sullivan belongs to the party of Mearsheimer and the clique of Walt (whom he cites frequently and deferentially), to the herd of fearless dissidents who proclaim in all seriousness, without in any way being haunted by the history of such an idea, that Jews control Washington.

Mearsheimer and Walt don’t believe the Jews control Washington; antisemites believe that. Mearsheimer and Walt believe the US is wrong to ally with Israel, because doing so brings us little benefit, and great harm in the form of terrorist blowback. Further, like all such analysts, they don't credit enough the power of irrationalism -- "unrealism", if you will -- in politics, and are indifferent to arguments based on the consanguinity of liberal democracies.

To muddy the waters one last time, non-interventionism is an illiberal doctrine that can be interpreted as antisemitic, and not only because of its anti-Israel excesses. The abiding theme of this blog is antisemitism is the engine of millenarian movements. So you do the math. Israel today is the Masada of the open society, under siege by Left, Right and especially genocidal Islamist forces. Moreover if Israel is compromised or destroyed, it is not only the Jews who will suffer. Complacency about antisemitism is a dangerous indulgence for all.

Maybe making these distinctions will be unsatisfying in a medium that is vexed by distance from Manichaean neatness. Inevitably, all organic and powerful movements produce a gestural simulacrum of themselves. This process is complete with the enterprise to identify and combat New Antisemitism. But it's too important to surrender it wholly to that historical imperative. Andrew Sullivan developed a touch of Israel-phobia during the hairshirt years of his anti-neocon penitence. He is not an antisemite.

* Isolationism comprises two related doctrines: military non-interventionism and economic protectionism. Even though the terms "isolationism" and "non-interventionism" are often used interchangeably, it is only the latter that is relevant to this piece.

Update: Here's Sullivan's cri de coeur.

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