“Defenders of Israel”


Over at the New York Review of Books, Michael Massing gives this blog a plug, for which we always are appreciative.

He also lumps me, Michael Goldfarb and Jeffrey Goldberg together as part of a "battalion of Israel defenders" "fiercely opposing," among others, Rob Browne at Daily Kos and M.J. Rosenberg at Talking Points Memo:

The Web has helped open up entire subjects that were once off-limits to the press. The domestic politics of US policy toward Israel is a good example. Until recently, the activities of pro-Israel lobbying groups like AIPAC were all but ignored by reporters fearful of being branded anti-Semitic or anti- Israel. Today, the Web teems with news, analysis, opinion, and polemic about US–Israel relations. Rob Browne, a Long Island dentist, keeps track of Israel-related legislation in Congress on the left-liberal blog Daily Kos. M.J. Rosenberg, a former AIPAC staffer-turned-dove, dissects the Israel lobby’s activities on Talking Points Memo. Fiercely opposing them is a battalion of Israel defenders, including Ron Kampeas, (Capital J at the JTA wire service), Michael Goldfarb (the online editor of The Weekly Standard), and—the most influential journalist/blogger on matters related to Israel—Jeffrey Goldberg (at The Atlantic).

Massing’s larger point is how the availability of information and opinion on the web is altering perceptions on a wide range of issues; here, my battalion, apparently, is defending "subjects that were once off-limits to the press."

From minor to major, here’s what baffles me:

I’ve never heard of, nor mentioned Browne. (I’ll start looking now.) M.J. is a friend whom I’ve criticized and praised. In the latter case, I praise M.J. for defending the right of Norman Finkelstein to be heard, however repulsive Finkelstein’s views; in the former I question whether Bibi Netanyahu, in an interview with Goldberg, really gave President Obama an ultimatum on Iran. My point was, simply, don’t start a news train when there’s no engine. Notably, those who bought into the ultimatum both favored and were appalled by it. Neither issue was particularly partisan of Israel.

But here’s the larger issue: What does it mean to be an "Israel defender?"

The narrow definition, I suppose, is to be an Israeli government proxy, a spokesman — to defend Israel’s actions, whatever they are, like the diehard post-Ribbentrop Stalinists mocked in the old song, "Oh my darling party line."

That’s not me or Goldberg, or even Goldfarb. I’ll let them defend themselves, but here are a few of my most recent skeptical takes on Israeli policy having to do with settlements.

The broader definition of an Israel defender, I suppose, applies to those who resist efforts to smear Israel as immutably wrong, whatever the circumstances. I plead guilty to this, in the same way that francophiles pointed out in real time how stupid, how bloody-minded the anti-French animus was on the eve of the Iraq War ("freedom fries"), in the same way that some folks believe that Palestinian innocents may be harmed by by an Israeli onslaught, or that such a notion of Arab innocence exists (like, um, this guy.)

Those who attach immutability to a body as organic, as mutable as a people are bigots, and yes, I’m not a great fan of bigotry. More specifically (damnably?) I resent bigotry against peoples I know, alongside whom I have lived (the Palestinians), with whom I identify (Americans), to whom I belong (Jews and Israelis).

So, yes, I plead guilty to having defended all of those difficult, durable, definition-defiant organisms, and even more.

I thought Massing did a credible job a few years ago of exposing the weaknesses in "The Israel Lobby," by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer; he spoke with me at length, evidently followed a lot of my tips, and didn’t give me credit, which is fine in a journalist-to-journalist kind of way, and I told him so. I’ve gone considerably farther than he has in panning the work of Walt and Mearsheimer, but not because I’m interested in defending the "lobby"; I’m interested in abusing the idea that you can get away with hackery and hide behind fancy titles while you’re at it. It offends me that this unsavory work has helped define an important argument, has, indeed inhibited real conversations about Israel and the vitality and danger of its relationship with the United States.

That doesn’t make me a defender of Israel; it makes me a defender of real scholarship and, you know, journalism.

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