Is “Israel-Firster” Anti-Semitic?

On the latest episode of my Bloggingheads show, I discuss this with Sarah Wildman:

In the rest of the program, we discuss the neoconservative Emergency Committee for Israel ad aimed at demonizing (and defunding) the Center for American Progress and Media Matters for America; how issues relating to Israel-Palestine get discussed among American Jews; and Wildman’s excellent piece about the web magazine 972, published in the current issue of the Nation. (I reported on the campaign against CAP and MMFA when it emerged in December.) 

Relatedly, Connie Bruck lays bare the ECI agenda, and points out that the notion that Media Matters’ M.J. Rosenberg, who has used the term “Israel-firster,” “could be labelled an anti-Semite is an indicator of the lengths to which this smear-campaign has gone. It is hardly the first time in American history that those with a political agenda have sought to demonize others whose views they dislike, as a means of destroying them and silencing any potential sympathizers.”

Also read David Remnick on the state of democracy (or not) in Israel. Wildman and I discussed these matters the last time we met on Bloggingheads, and in particular the chasm between the reality on the ground there and what Wildman has called a “mythical” vision of Israel as the land of milk and honey. Remnick:

Although Israel as imagined by Theodor Herzl and built by the generation of David Ben-Gurion was never intended to be a replica of the Anglo-American model—its political culture, even now, is closer to that of the European social democracies—its structures of governance are points of pride. And yet, as an experiment in Jewish power, unique after two millennia of persecution and exile, Israel has reached an impasse. An intensifying conflict of values has put its democratic nature under tremendous stress. When the government speaks daily about the existential threat from Iran, and urges an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, it ignores the existential threat that looms within. Reactionary elements lurk in many democracies. Ask the Dutch, the British, the Austrians, the French. The Republican Party has flirted with several in this election cycle. But in Israel the threat is especially acute. And the concern comes not only from its most persistent critics. The former Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert have both warned of a descent into apartheid, xenophobia, and isolation.

The political corrosion begins, of course, with the occupation of the Palestinian territories—the subjugation of Palestinian men, women, and children—that has lasted for forty-five years. Peter Beinart, in a forthcoming and passionately argued polemic, “The Crisis of Zionism,” is just the latest critic to point out that a profoundly anti-democratic, even racist, political culture has become endemic among much of the Jewish population in the West Bank, and jeopardizes Israel proper. The explosion of settlements, encouraged and subsidized by both Labor and Likud governments, has led to a large and established ethnocracy that thinks of itself as a permanent frontier. In 1980, twelve thousand Jews lived in the West Bank, “east of democracy,” Beinart writes; now they number more than three hundred thousand, and include Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s wildly xenophobic Foreign Minister. Lieberman has advocated the execution of Arab members of parliament who dare to meet with leaders of Hamas. His McCarthyite allies call for citizens to swear loyalty oaths to the Jewish state; for restrictions on human-rights organizations, like the New Israel Fund; and for laws constricting freedom of expression.

UPDATE: Also worth noting, via Rosenberg himself, that Phil Weiss has uncovered the use of the term “Israel-firster” by then-President of Brandeis University Dr. Abram L. Sachar, in 1960. From the American Jewish Committee’s Yearbook from 1961:

American Jews continued to object to Israel’s claim that a genuine Jewish life was possible only in Israel. Abram L. Sachar, president of Brandeis University, at the biennial convention of JWB [Jewish Welfare Board], declared on April 2, 1960 that among Jews there is no room “for Israel Firsters whose chauvinism and arrogance  find nothing relevant or viable in any area outside of Israel.”

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email