Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Jewish Fact Check #11: Bill Kristol and Obama's Israel Policy

I was at my sister's this past weekend for Passover and hadn't spent much time on the Internet, until I turned on her computer Monday night and came across this headline at "Right blasts Obama with charges of Anti-Semitism." I thought, "Wow, what have I missed?" Actually, nothing--except another unfortunate instance of a writer misconstruing legitimate criticism of someone's views/policy on Israel (in this case, the president's) with anti-Semitism.

After a brief introduction noting the chilly meetings last week between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Atlantic writer Alex Eichler provides three examples of alleged anti-Semitism from the right under the subheadline "Obama Hates Jews." One is a link to a blog post by Pamela Geller which does call Obama an anti-Semite, compares American Jews of the 2000s to European Jews in the 1930s and argues that another Holocaust is on its way. Geller has every right to make this argument, but it's one that is on the fringe -- I think it's fair to say that opinion isn't widely shared either in the Jewish community or, to the best of my knowledge, on the political right wing.

Eichler also notes Instapundit Glenn Reynolds' blog post, in which he first speculates that it is "plausible" that Obama treated Netanyahu rudely because he "hates Israel and hates Jews." Actually, that's not particularly plausible. There's no evidence that Obama "hates" Jews or Israel, although I think reasonable people can disagree on how friendly Obama is or wants to be with Israel -- or, perhaps more accurately, how warm his feelings are toward the current government in the Jewish state. Reynolds, though, does go on to say, though, that he actually doesn't think that's the explanation and that he finds another idea more plausible -- that this is all about Iran, and that Obama is either trying to put distance between the U.S. and Israel because Israel is going to strike Iran -- or that this is all a big distraction so that no one will realize that the U.S. is really helping Israel strike Iran.

Eichler does correctly report this (although others like Glenn Greenwald seem to have obsessed over the hates Jews stuff and totally ignored the following sentence), but perhaps in his eagerness to get the all-important third example for his piece that would demonstrate a trend, he also throws the Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol into the mix. And that's where he goes wrong.

Eichler's piece states that Kristol is arguing Obama is perhaps pretending to hate Jews:

At The Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol argues that Obama "aspires to be a leader of humanity, not merely a president of a single country. And there’s no better way to be a leader of humanity than to show disapproval of the Jewish state." Whatever his real feelings toward Jews may be, Kristol holds that Obama must find it expedient to show "anger at the stiff-necked Jewish state. It puts him in sync with the rest of the world.

Having skimmed through the Kristol piece a few days before I saw the Atlantic piece, I was surprised. Did Kristol actually debate what Obama's "real feelings toward Jews may be"? I didn't recall that. And indeed, Kristol didn't. Here's what he wrote:

Why the exploitation of a minor disagreement with the Israeli government to justify a turn against Israel? President Obama cares about being popular—in America, certainly, but in the world as well. And not just because popularity in the world can help the United States achieve its foreign policy aims. But because, as James Ceaser argued in these pages in January, Obama aspires to be a leader of humanity, not merely a president of a single country.

And there’s no better way to be a leader of humanity than to show disapproval of the Jewish state. Sure, Obama’s turn against Israel will make it less likely that Palestinians will negotiate seriously with her. Sure, it will embolden radical Arabs and Muslims against those who would like their nations to take a different, more responsible, course. Sure, it’s a distraction from the real challenge of Iran. But the turn against Israel is ultimately a key part of what Obamaism is all about. That’s why there’s been so little attempt by the administration to reassure friends of Israel that Obama has been acting more in sorrow than in anger. Obama’s proud of his anger at the stiff-necked Jewish state. It puts him in sync with the rest of the world.

As you can see, Kristol doesn't talk about Obama's feelings towards Jews at all, just about his policy toward the Jewish state. He's arguing that Obama is treating Israel badly because much of the rest of the world treats Israel badly -- and the president wants to ingratiate himself with the rest of the world in order to be a "leader of humanity." It's certainly a debatable assertion, but there's no accusation of anti-Semitism or "Obama hates the Jews" in that theory. In fact, Kristol's argument is really just a more negatively-spun version of something Obama has said himself -- that Obama believes there needs to be some "daylight" between the U.S. and Israel in order to make progress in the peace process.

(And for those who want to make an issue of Kristol's use of the term "Jewish state," please don't. Many writers and journalists, including me earlier in this post, use the term "Jewish state" interchangeably with Israel as sort of a synonym in order to vary the language in an article about Israel.)

A lot of people seem to not like Bill Kristol because they don't like his opinions or don't think he's a good columnist. That's fine. Personally, I find his affection for Sarah Palin puzzling, but the few times I've spoken to Kristol after Jewish community events at which he's spoken, he's been nothing but kind and generous with his time. But whatever one's feelings about Kristol, he should be quoted correctly. And he was making a critique of the president's Israel policy, not speculating about whether someone is an anti-Semite. As I've written about before, I wish people would stop confusing the two. There's a big difference.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

What is an anti-semite?
Someone who lays all the problems of the world at the foot of the Jews.

What is the "new antisemitism?"
The phenomenon of laying all the problems of the world at the foot of the Jewish State.

Obama is not quite there yet. He has only laid all of the problems of the middle east at Israel's doorstep, not all the problems of the entire world. But he believes such things as 1) Jews building in Jerusalem is causing American soldiers to get killed in Iraq and Afganistan and 2) if Israel would give land to the pals there wouldn't be a big problem with Iran. These things are so ridiculous that he gets pretty damn close to that definition.

4/11/10, 4:59 AM  
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