Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Jewish Fact Check #6: Who's really using the term "anti-Semite"?

"There they go, flinging around baseless charges of anti-Semitism again." That was the general thrust of many responses to last week's piece by Leon Wieseltier on Andrew Sullivan, that supporters of Israel (or "neocons") were allegedly once again smearing critics of the Jewish state as anti-Semites rather than arguing their case fairly. I found this charge a little odd, considering that in his more than 4,000 word piece, Wieseltier only uses the term "anti-Semite" or "anti-Semitic" in reference to Sullivan once -- in reference to Sullivan's depiction of a "Goldfarb-Krauthammer wing" of the Jewish community, Wieseltier writes that the idea that "every thought that a Jew thinks is a Jewish thought is an anti-Semitic assumption, and a rather classical one." Yes, the insinuation of anti-Semitism by Sullivan runs through much of the piece, but the fact that Wieseltier doesn't actually use the term must mean something, doesn't it? Wouldn't one think that writers, who making their living through words, would at least find that noteworthy? But they didn't seem to notice.(Wieseltier, in a response to Sullivan's response to him, has since written, "I did not propose that he is an anti-Semite. I did propose that the scorn and the fury that characterizes his discussion of Israel and some of its Jewish supporters is wholly unwarranted by the requirements of a critical analysis of the settlements or the Gaza war, and that it may therefore be mistaken for bigotry.")

In fact, the whole Wieseltier-Sullivan episode has served to illustrate an emerging trend among critics of Israel: Their eagerness to allege that they've been accused of being an anti-Semite. I do agree that some of Israel's defenders are too quick to throw out charges of anti-Semitism or "self-hating Jew," and that's lamentable and a problem. But it seems that among many of Israel's critics, claiming that you've been accused of being an anti-Semite has become some sort of bizarre badge of honor. And quite a few of those that have allegedly been accused of being an anti-Semite, according to Wieseltier's critics, either were never smeared with such a term or were only accused of making a specific problematic remark and not tarred with some broad brush of disliking Jews, as they claim.

The best example of this overheated "He called me an anti-Semite" charge is a column by Glenn Greenwald last week. Early in the article, he writes: "As Charles Freeman can attest, frivolous anti-semitism accusations can still damage those seeking high-level political positions, but those accusations no longer pack any real punch in virtually any other realm" and later gives us this paragraph:

If The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan, and Time's Joe Klein, and Foreign Policy's Stephen Walt, and the University of Chicago's John Mearsheimer, and Gen. Wes Clark (a TNR target), and Howard Dean, and former President Jimmy Carter, and a whole slew of others like them are "anti-semites," then how terrible of an insult is it?

So let's examine a few of Greenwal'd alleged victims. First we have the oddest name on this list, Howard Dean. Yes, when running for president in 2003-04, Howard Dean was criticized for some remarks he made about the Israeli-Palestinian issue. But I couldn't remember any point where he was referred to as an anti-Semite. Well, in fact, the Salon article that Greenwald links to in order to apparently make his case on Dean doesn't even include the words "anti-Semite" or "anti-Semitism" anywhere in its more than 2,000 words. Yes, the article includes people, inside and outside the Jewish community, criticizing Dean as insufficiently supportive of Israel. That criticism may have been overheated or somewhat unfair -- but no one ever said Dean was anti-Semitic. In fact, the article makes the point that the most vocal critic of Dean was John Kerry, who last time I checked isn't a neocon and isn't Jewish (and for you smart alecks, yes, his paternal grandfather was Jewish, but Kerry isn't.) Dean was being criticized for his position on Israel by another candidate in the heat of a presidential primary contest. It happens all the time on many issues -- and it's called politics.

How about Charles Freeman? There were a lot of words written about Freeman's eventually aborted nomination to the National Intelligence Council, from the Weekly Standard's Michael Goldfarb, former AIPACer Steve Rosen, and The New Republic's Jonathan Chait, among others. Some of these pieces criticized Freeman's "realist" approach to foreign policy, some his opinions and feelings about Israel. Did some of the things written about Freeman unfairly distort his past writings? Sure, and that's not good, but that happens on issues in Washington every day. Was there a legitimate argument to be made that too much focus was being put on Freeman's opinions on the Middle East, and that it shouldn't matter for his appoitment to this intelligence post? Sure. But the only -- and please, we're not counting someone's anonymous comment left at the bottom of a Politico article or something -- mainstream figure to ever make any kind of argument that Freeman had any hostility to Jews was Marty Peretz, who wrote that the former ambassador had a "hostility to Jews generally." That line is unfortunate -- and also completely unrepresentative of the vast majority of criticism of Freeman, but was seized upon by his defenders as the only statement that really mattered about Freeman. (Accusations of anti-Semitism later were made about Freeman, but only after his bizarre screed blaming the "Israel lobby" for his withdrawal.)

Let's move on to Joe Klein, who claims he was called an anti-Semite by the ADL's Abe Foxman. Actually, he wasn't. Here's what Joe Klein originally wrote that raised the ire of Foxman:

The notion that we could just waltz in and inject democracy into an extremely complicated, devout and ancient culture smacked--still smacks--of neocolonialist legerdemain. The fact that a great many Jewish neoconservatives--people like Joe Lieberman and the crowd over at Commentary--plumped for this war, and now for an even more foolish assault on Iran, raised the question of divided loyalties: using U.S. military power, U.S. lives and money, to make the world safe for Israel.

Foxman objected to Klein's reference to "Jewish" neoconservatives and his use of the term "divided loyalties" and wrote this: "The notion that Jews with 'divided loyalties' were behind the decision to go to war is reminiscent of age-old anti-Semitic canards about a Jewish conspiracy to control and manipulate government..." That's the only time Foxman uses the term "anti-Semitic" in his letter, and it's hard to argue that he's using it incorrectly. Klein says, pretty clearly, that some American Jews supported the war in Iraq, and are supporting another with Iran, because of "dual loyalties," and accusing Jews of dual loyalties is, as Foxman writes, an "age-old anti-Semitic canard."

Klein's response is essentially to say he was telling the truth--and then rip Foxman for calling him an "anti-Semite"--but he never actually proves that what he says is the truth. His examples are "people like Joe Lieberman and the crowd at Commentary" but he offers no links or quotes to substantiate that claim. (As far as I'm aware, Joe Lieberman never said the U.S. needed to go to war to "make the world safe for Israel," and I'm not sure who he means by the Commentary crowd--those who wrote there in 2003, before the war? Those who were there in 2008, when he wrote the blog item at issue? Klein and his defenders would likely respond that he's referring to American Jews who are strong supporters of Israeli security that also strongly backed the war. OK, fine--but while the (now discredited) neoconservative theory which apparently animated the war would have no doubt made Israel's neighborhood safer if it had worked, the idea was that it would spur the rest of the Middle East to go democratic, which would benefit the U.S. in innumerable ways (from cheaper oil to not having to be militarily involved there anymore--after all, it's not like the U.S. was new to the region, we'd fought a war in Iraq already 12 years earlier!) Klein's contention that it was simply to benefit Israel is something he just asserts with no proof--and therefore is, as Foxman argues, reminiscent of an age-old canard. That doesn't mean he's an anti-Semite, just that he used inappropriate language. It's similar to what happened with Bill Clinton in South Carolina in 2008. He was accused of making a racially-charged remark, but no one seriously believes Bill Clinton is a racist. (Oh, by the way, here's Joe Klein calling Clinton's remarks a "racial jab." So is Joe Klein saying Bill Clinton is a racist? And here's TNR's Chait saying Commentary's Jennifer Rubin used a "classic anti-Semitic trope" in describing why Jews don't like Sarah Palin. He wasn't saying that the Jewish Rubin is an anti-Semite, just that she was using that language--and no one seemed to complain.)

Finally, Sullivan himself -- unintentionally -- best illustrates this point with a Monday blog post about Johann Hari entitled "What Often Happents to Israel's Critics, Part 1." He finds a 2008 column by British journalist Hari, who had written a column charging that sewage from Israeli settlements was poisoning the water of Palestinian reservoirs and was outraged by the reaction. He claims that "there was little attempt to dispute the facts I offered. Instead, some of the most high profile 'pro-Israel' writers and media monitoring groups – including Honest Reporting and Camera – said I an anti-Jewish bigot akin to Joseph Goebbels and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad."

So I eagerly googled Honest Reporting's piece attacking Hari and found hardly anything to substantiate Hari's claim. Midway trough an 888-word blog post, the phrase "modern day 'poisoning the wells' libel" is used. Some hyperbole that would have been better left out? Yes. But the other 882 words in the post are indeed a lengthy attempt to "dispute the facts" that Hari offered. There's a charge that Hari used a fabricated quote from David Ben-Gurion, that he gets the history of Israel wrong, and that the Palestinians are equally to blame for polluting the West Bank. I don't know who's correct on these issues, but for Hari to claim that the Honest Reporting piece compared him to Goebbels and didn't address his arguments is simply not true. (And the CAMERA piece is much the same.)

None of this excuses the responsibility of some of Israel's defenders to be less eager to throw out the anti-Semitism charge. But here we have examples of four different public figures who were supposedly victims of the charge of anti-Semitism -- except that the charges are either false or wildly exaggerated. Which leaves the question: Why exactly has claiming you've been called an anti-Semite become so cool lately? Could it be that those claiming they've been called anti-Semites find it easier to do that that actually defend their positions with facts?

More on this issue later in the week.

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Anonymous Bchurch said...

It took me all of about two minutes to find the specific criticism Hari was talking about, by Tom Gross of something called "Mideast Dispatch." Referring to Hari's piece he says:


* Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of Iran, on February 20, 2008, called Israel “this filthy bacteria.” This is one of the terms the Nazis used to describe Jews. Having denounced Israel as “apartheid,” “shit,” “Nazis,” and so on, it can only be a matter of time that some European journalists also adopt that term."


Note that Hari's original quote blamed high profile bloggers for accusing him of being an "anti-Jewish bigot", and listed the above as examples. You're incorrect to read Hari's claim to mean that Honest Reporting or CAMERA specifically compared him to Goebbels. I think accusing Hari of resurrecting a poisoning the wells libel falls within the realm of accusing him of bigotry, and I've just shown where the Goebbels reference comes from.

I don't have any special attachment to Hari-- honestly I had never heard of him before this issue. He was just the first I picked to google. Hopefully, your other examples are a bit stronger.

2/17/10, 7:26 AM  
Blogger Eric Fingerhut said...


Interesting find, but you're wrong about Hari's original quote. Hari's original quote said this: Instead, some of the most high profile "pro-Israel" writers and media monitoring groups – including Honest Reporting and Camera – said I an anti-Jewish bigot akin to Joseph Goebbels and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad." There's no other way to read that except that Honest Reporting and Camera said he was akin to Goebbels and Ahmadinejad. If he objects to Tom Gross, then why doesn't he say, "Tom Gross said this"? Why does he tar everyone with the same brush?

As for the "modeern-day poisoning the wells libel," I acknowledged that in my original post as an unfortunate choice of words. As I noted, it's six words in a more than 800 word critique of Hari's piece that he ignores, while claiming that no one argued against the facts in the article. Please.

2/17/10, 9:32 AM  
Anonymous kumquat said...


If I write a long essay insinuating that (Person A) is (Bad Thing B), but never explicitly use the term (Bad Thing B) in said essay, (Person A) cannot reasonably complain that I'm calling him (Bad Thing B)?

Dude, the game of "I'd never accuse my opponent of being a ____, but... (list of reasons why he really is a ____)" is one of the oldest in the book.

2/17/10, 11:59 AM  
Blogger Nickname unavailable said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2/17/10, 7:00 PM  
Anonymous bchurch said...


Well, Hari's sentence was inartful at best. And the criticisms at Honest Reporting and CAMERA seem to be reasonable and certainly in good faith, which is why the libel "hyperbole" is so unecessary.

In any case, I hope you'd now agree that he has in fact been called an anti-Semite-- even if mistaken about the source-- and isn't just making unfounded accusations in an attempt to sound cool.

2/17/10, 7:02 PM  
Blogger Eric Fingerhut said...


Actually, I'd argue that the Hari case proves a couple of the points I was making. Hari cited the criticism of one person who compared him with Goebbels and ignored all other legitimate criticism of him from other sources, claiming he had been tarred an anti-Semite and pretending that no one had refuted his arguments. It's too bad that Tom Gross wrote that, but it doesn't invalidate everyone's else's arguments. (Sort of like the Freeman case in which Marty Peretz charged Freeman was hostile to Jews, but no one else did--and yet everyone seemed to talk only about how Freeman had somehow been tarred as an anti-Semite.)

As for Honest Reporting's use of the term "poisoning the wells libel," it's similar to the Joe Klein example. Saying someone made a remark which hearkens back to anti-Semitic stereotypes is not tarring someone as a bigot in my mind, it's saying that the person made an offensive remark. If you keep making such remarks, then maybe you're a bigot. As I said, I didn't find such hyperbole necessary, but I find there to be a big difference between saying someone has used anti-Semitic language or terminology (which Honest Reporting did) and claiming that someone is an anti-Semite or Jew-hater (which Honest Reporting did not do.) I think it's a crucial distinction, especially among people who make their living writing.

2/17/10, 7:32 PM  
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