A case of leftist ‘McCarthyism’?
So-called “progressives” should stop mimicking the far right and engage in that debate without questioning the allegiance of their fellow Americans.
By James Kirchik for Haaretz

One of the most notorious newspapers ever published in America was The Spotlight, founded in 1975 by white supremacist Willis Carto. For many years the country’s premier hate rag, it peaked at 330,000 subscribers in the early ’80s. Alongside support for South African apartheid and exposes of the Bilderberg group, the paper was a regular purveyor of Holocaust denial, with stories like “Jewish Groups Can’t Defend Position on ‘6 Million’ Debate” and “Anne Frank Fable Losing Credibility; Establishment Continues to Push ‘Diary’ as ‘True Story.'”

The Spotlight, which thankfully ceased publication in 2001, wasn’t just concerned with falsifying history. When not questioning the existence of the gas chambers, it focused on the “Jewish lobby.” And its writers had two terms for describing U.S. Jews and their activism on behalf of the Jewish state: “dual loyalists” who were for “Israel first.”

When Zaid Jilani was recently informed that his use of the latter term had anti-Semitic implications, he professed ignorance. Jilani, a blogger at the Center for American Progress (CAP ), claimed to be “unaware of all the connotations it carried.” That a young blogger at a prominent liberal think tank would see nothing wrong with such language is understandable. It’s an indication of just how deep the rhetoric of the far right has seeped into the discourse of the mainstream left.

Jilani is one of several individuals who have come under fire for their commentary regarding Israel and Jews. The controversy started in early December, when Politico detailed how two “core institutions” of the Democratic Party – CAP, a farm team for the Obama administration, and Media Matters for America, a self-described “progressive research and information center” – “are challenging a bipartisan consensus on Israel.”

Rather than addressing the substantive criticism raised, CAP tried desperately to change the subject, turning its guns on those airing concerns, particularly Josh Block, a lifelong Democrat and former American Israel Public Affairs Committee spokesman whose criticism of the groups was quoted in Politico. The episode approached the status of Washington “scandal” when liberal website Salon published a dossier Block had disseminated documenting a series of blog posts, articles, and Twitter messages in which CAP and Media Matters employees batted around rhetoric and accusations as if “it’s now just natural to talk about Jewish money in politics, about treasonous politicians.”

To judge from Block’s collection, the worst perpetrator is Media Matters’ “senior foreign policy fellow” M.J. Rosenberg, whose “analysis” largely amounts to name-calling. Newsweek reporter Eli Lake is an “agent of influence.” Playwright David Mamet is an “Israel first Likudnik.” Indeed, any U.S. Jew to his right (including Democratic congressmen ) is an “Israel-firster.” When one journalist complained about Rosenberg’s calling her a “dual loyalist,” he responded by saying, “I say DUAL which is generous.” No wonder he best expresses himself in the Twitter medium of 140 characters.

Block took considerable professional risk in challenging these two influential liberal organizations. The Truman National Security Project, a once-promising initiative to promote a hawkish sensibility in the Democratic Party that has since become little more than another greasy pole for young D.C. opportunists, expelled Block from its fellowship program.

In the Forward, Sarah Wildman attacked Block, writing that “When we debase the term [anti-Semite] by using it as a rhetorical conceit against those with whom we disagree on policy matters, we have sullied our own promises to our grandparents.” But it is those who use the term “Israel-firster” who are debasing the debate by accusing anyone who disagrees with them of treasonous impulses. Wildman also argued that the offensive comments had been “taken out of context” – as if there were ever a context, other than that of, say, Jonathan Pollard, in which it would be appropriate to label an American Jew an “Israel-firster” or “dual loyalist.”

Ultimately, however, Block was vindicated. While CAP publicly denied that its employees were trafficking in anti-Semitism, an e-mail from the organization’s vice president, obtained by The Jerusalem Post, deemed “Israel-firster,” to be “terrible, anti-Semitic language.”

The left is constantly complaining that the debate about Israel is restricted, that one can’t criticize Israel without “risking” his career. Reality is in fact the opposite. Figures ranging from University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer to journalists Peter Beinart and Andrew Sullivan have all seen their careers blossom as a result of their harsh and unrelenting criticism of Israel. Indeed, obsessively attacking Israel is a bona-fide way to resuscitate one’s career, not destroy it. As a measure, consider the fact that employees at mainstream liberal institutions feel comfortable using the sort of language popularized by white supremacists and Holocaust-deniers.

It isn’t just figures on the medium and lower rungs of think tanks using such foul rhetoric: “Israel-firster” and “Likudnik” are favorites of Time’s Joe Klein, as well as Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, one of America’s most popular liberal bloggers, who refers to “the many Israel-firsters in the U.S. Congress.”

Since the 1950s, liberals have routinely accused conservatives of “McCarthyism.” Now the tables have turned, and it is leftists questioning the loyalties of American Jews. Judging what’s in a country’s “interest” is highly subjective; it is the very reason why there exists such passionate and necessary debate about the purpose and tactics of American foreign policy. So-called “progressives” should stop mimicking the far right and engage in that debate without questioning the allegiance of their fellow Americans.

James Kirchick is a fellow of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributing editor for The New Republic.

About the author


James Kirchick is a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributing editor for The New Republic.


  • That was genius Thag. And flattering because I didn’t think you ever visited other blogs! We are not worthy…

    • Teacher: Can anyone give a proper rejoinder to the above comment?
      Thag: Ooh! Ooh! May I? Please?
      Teacher: Very well, Thag, what is your idea?
      Thag: (bubbling over with excitement) May I say something about the reader’s complete lack of comprehension? How he doesn’t seem to know the difference between “read” and “follow”?
      Teacher: Only if you do so politely, without trying to hurt his feelings.
      Thag: Oh. Never mind.

  • This is great. First of all, a very fine post. Really. And second, a very fine comment by a very fine commenter.

    I think I’ll go have some port now.

  • This is ridiculous. Is this author really upset about the namecalling — his friends and colleagues being called Israel Firster? He has to go back in history forty years to explain why it should be offensive… his own namecalling is beyond the pale in the here and now: “anti-semites”. That word had no place in a policy discussion between peers. Block deserved all of the opprobrium from his stupid and hateful attack on fellow Dems.

    • “…an e-mail from the organization’s vice president, obtained by The Jerusalem Post, deemed “Israel-firster,” to be “terrible, anti-Semitic language.”

  • “Pointing fingers and saying that others are more anti- Semitic is a sad attempt to distract from one’s own errors. This rhetoric adds to the destructive impact, and does nothing to remove this language from the public discourse.” Gerald Steinberg, NGO Monitor

    • “CAP bloggers have attacked their critics. The ThinkProgress blogger Ben Armbruster wrote an article last month titled “The Secret, Coordinated Effort To Smear ThinkProgress As Anti-Semitic And Anti-Israel.”

      He authored a second blog entry, “TAKE ACTION: Tell The Washington Post To Retract Jen Rubin’s Charge That ThinkProgress Is ‘Anti-Semitic.’” Prof. Gerald Steinberg, president of the Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor, told the Post last week, “Instead of playing the victim, CAP has an obligation to implement concrete guidelines demonstrating that this language is unacceptable and that it will not be used by CAP employees in the future.””

      • Resolved: No one ever convinced anyone else, ever, to change their political opinion simply by submitting comments to a web site.

        But I brought popcorn. Y’all can keep trying to get in the last word. Because if you let the other guy do so, it means he has a bigger trackball.

      • Don’t get me wrong… my point wasn’t that I’ll agree with Gerald Steinberg on everything. My point also was that the “antisemitism” charge gets used way too often and it’s stupid and counterproductive to do so. Steinberg’s quote was saying so as well.

        This entire article celebrates in using the term in a situation in which it’s not at all warranted. Those writers at CAP and MMA are *not* antisemitic. They just disagree with you on Israel related policies. Take a moment to remind yourself that there’s a difference.

        This article tries to make the case that the words “Israel Firster” are antisemitic. But after reading the history provided in this article. You and every other “pro-Israel” blogger can work from now to change public opinion on that, but you’re not there yet.

        • Listen, Brian, if anything I think we censor ourselves regarding charges of anti-Semitism. When Tom Friedman wrote in the NY Times a couple of weeks ago that Congress was bought by Jews, I refrained from calling him an anti-Semite, although the more I think about it the more I realize that I should have.

          Some of the writers on Jewlicious have been writing on the Web for years prior to Jewlicious being founded. We know that one of the key tools used by people to deflect their anti-Semitic sentiments is to qualify in advance that they don’t mean anything toward Jews, their beef is with Israel and/or Zionists. Sometimes it’s true. Sometimes it’s a lie. Sometimes it doesn’t matter because the expressed sentiment is anti-Semitic.

          Just because anti-Israel opponents have become sophisticated about covering their flanks when they attack Jews, or when they attack Israel in a manner reserved solely for the Jewish state among all of the states of the world, and just because people pooh pooh the word anti-Semitism, I don’t think we should walk away from the accusation when it is merited.

          In this case, the term Israel-Firster is clearly intended to implicate Jews, not evangelical Christians who support Israel, but Jews, of singular-to-Israel or dual-but-with-preference-for-the-Jewish-state loyalties. It is a canard that has been a part of anti-Semitic history for centuries, because when the accusations weren’t directed at the Jews’ relationship with the Jewish state, they were directed at the Jews’ loyalty to their own religion above their loyalty to their state of residence.

          Now, if the people at CAP or any Democratic, Republican or Green Martian think tank want to debate Israel, Israel’s policies, Israel’s relationship with America, America’s support of Israel, or any similar topic, they may do so and what they’ll get in response is a response. Agreement, partial agreement, disagreement. Who knows. But when they start throwing around code terms such as Israel-Firster and Likudnik and Righteous Jews, then it’s no longer a question of debating their position because THEY have chosen to turn the debate into poorly-disguised hate speech that applies a certain standard to Jews that one almost never finds when applied by the same folks to non-Jews.

          You can turn every claim by Juan Cole, Mearsheimer or Walt, Rosenberg or other prominent critics of Israel into a serious debate. Except that they take away their own right to such a debate because they pollute their claims with hateful language and ideas. They could simply use the term Israel-supporter or something to that effect, but they make a choice to attack their ideological opponents with the use of language that singles them out as Jews and posits that their Jewishness is some sort of malaise, disease or negative aspect of their being which causes them to have ideas that are different from those prescribed by these anti-Israel ideologues. They still get the debate, but I think you’ll agree with me that if somebody is going to attack you on points other than the specific argument at hand, they deserve push-back. And that means that if somebody is going to use an anti-Semitic term like Israel-Firster, they will be called on that long before they get to be entertained with a debate over their ideas.

          • Your honorable restraint is duly noted.

            Hopefully you can continue that restraint by not writing the next article in this series… explaining why “Likudnik” is off-limits as poorly disguised hate speech.

          • Because it’s not used to describe Likudniks, Brian. It’s used to describe, in pejorative terms (because the authors are leftist, “progressive,” anti-Israel ideologues), any person (animal is more along the lines of their descriptions) who actively supports Israel. It’s intended to suggest that any person who is supportive of Israel in any political manner views the conflict through the prism of their version of what the Likud is about (and that’s not a flattering version, you can be sure).

            You know, people aren’t stupid and they’re not going to put themselves in a vulnerable position, so they use code words to indicate what they mean. It’s clever and it works. A few years ago, when Walt & Mearsheimer signed their contract to publish their book about the so-called Israel Lobby, I suggested that it was the equivalent of a contract to write the new Protocols of the Elders of Zion. A bunch of people have taken umbrage at this description over the years, but here we are 5 years later and Tom Friedman writes in the NY Times something that even they wouldn’t have dared to write. Except that he can write it, and word it as he did using the term “Lobby,” because of their book and the coded ideas inside it.

            Don’t be surprised to see supporters of Israel called “Israel Firsters” in the mainstream in a couple of years because now that it’s in the open, it will be pounced upon by anti-Israel folks. And you know what? No matter how you define “Israel-Firster,” if the person isn’t an Israeli, it is an insult that intends to delegitimize that person and place him outside the framework which includes “reasonable” people. You know, the kind that don’t put Israel’s interests ahead of their “host” country.

            And thanks for recording my restraint in the Book of Recorded Restraints. I’m sure one day, somehow, I’ll be repaid for my largess.

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  • So questioning someone’s loyalty and the effect blind support of Israel has had American politics is tantamount to racism against Jewish people?

    Who is stupid enough to believe that criticizing the nutjobs that support Israel through thick and thin amounts to anti-Semitism?

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