Wieseltier/Sullivan again; and why Alterman doesn’t get it


The Wieseltier/Sullivan wars enter their fourth (or fifth?) day and now (in short: The TNR literary editor wonders whether the prolific and influential Atlantic blogger has a Jewish problem):

Wieseltier replies to Sullivan’s reply;

The New York Times is on it;

David Bernstein at the Volokh Conspiracy sums up quite wonderfully how anti-Semitic tropes may be at times more tempting to use, less easy to detect — and therefore more pernicious — than (some) other bigotries:

There is a reason why some critics of Israel (some of whom I’ve discussed in this blog) are tempted to use venomous rhetoric against Israel and its supporters that sometimes crosses the line, to various degrees, into hostility to Jews, even if they are personally not only not anti-Semitic, but find it repulsive.   And that is that such rhetoric works.  Arguments based on pure reason are often less successful than arguments that provide reasoned arguments but also appeal to the emotions.  Our civilization has a two thousand year old reservoir of anti-Jewish sentiment that is part of our societal DNA, and appealing to that cultural baggage, even if it’s just latent, makes anti-Israel arguments more powerful and persuasive.   Being anti-Israel doesn’t make one anti-Semitic, but appealing to anti-Semitism does make it easier to persuade people to be anti-Israel.  The very effectiveness of appealing to societal anti-Semitism in criticizing Israel is good reason to avoid it, but also the reason it’s all too common.

The Alantic rounds up the pundits, yes, no and maybe.

Finally, Eric Alterman at The Nation weghs in. I like Alterman; he once allowed me to blab on and on on his blog, when it was at MSNBC, about the Sopranos, and what the show said about Americans and tribalism.

But he doesn’t get the issue about "The Lobby" and why and how its discussion veers into ugly tropes about Jewish control.

Alterman basically says Wieseltier is crazy, and thinks Jonathan Chait (who defended both Wieseltier and Sullivan in his post) is headed there:

Jonathan Chait was, onceupon a time, immune to this kind of thing and was a fine liberal writer. But he’s caught the disease now as well. With considerable political dexterity, he embraces Wieseltier’s thesis while distancing himself from the particulars. But here’s the bottom line. "His obsession with the singular power of the Israel lobby, writes Leon ‘has a provenance that should disgust all thinking people.’ Agreed. But just because an idea has a revolting provenance, it does not follow that everybody who subscribes to any version of it shares the same motive."

Got that? Andrew may not be an anti-Semite but anyone who is concerned with the Israel’s lobby’s ability to thwart the peace process or interfere with the conduct of a sensible policy toward the region is guilty of holding an idea of "revolting provenance" and hence, is only asking to be described this way, true or not. Remember inside TNR Walt and Mearsheimer are literally treated as the equivalent of David Duke and Louis Farrakhan. Jimmy Carter will go down in history primarily as a "Jew-hater." Etc, etc. And if you, yourself find any cause for concern in the actions of the Israel lobby, prepare to find yourself similarly smeared.

First, Wieseltier is "criminalizing" no one, as Alterman alleges elsewhere in his post, he is exercising his right, as he says in his reply to Sullivan, to "refute" arguments. Alterman, on the other hand, by intimating "crazy" (actually, saying it straight out) seems to want to institutionalize folks.

More substantively, here’s the thing: A lot of us who are watchful for instances of these slides into bigotry would love to have that discussion about the "lobby," about AIPAC’s influence and whether it is truly doing America, Israel or the Jews any favors. But with obscurantists like Walt and Mearsheimer mucking up the debate, that becomes impossible. It’s like a cancer patient who has a hernia: Before we even get to that abdominal bump, we have to clear out the toxins.

And that is what Chait is referring to with the critical word Alterman, whether by design or sloppiness, ignores in his quote: "singular." You want to have the lobby discussion? Please, bring it on, and we may even agree in a lot of areas. But do not make it seem that the lobby has supernatural powers. The "revolting provenance" of which Chait and Wieseltier speak does not refer to "the Israel’s lobby’s ability to thwart the peace process or interfere with the conduct of a sensible policy toward the region."

It refers to the depiction of the lobby as more powerful  than any other group influencing foreign policy (which is what Walt and Mearsheimer posit), or even more fantastically, any other group seeking influence, period (which is what Glenn Greenwald has posited, to Sullivan’s approval.) As a "singular power."

The Cuban lobby has managed to cut off a formidable interest — farmers — from exporting grain to Cuba. The oil lobby has sustained a degree of American engagement with regimes (Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and, in the past, Iran) that have been actively hostile — not simply detrimental as Israel lobby critics would have it — to U.S. interests. I’m not arguing merit here — the Cubans have a compelling human rights case, and the petro-powers’ case is not based only on self-interest, but also on American economic realities. But honestly: Have AIPAC’s victories been this far reaching in repelling other, equally compelling, arguments about what is in the American interest?

And that’s just the Walt-Mearsheimer foreign policy distortion; get into Greenwald land, and we’re saying AIPAC is somehow more powerful than a gun lobby that makes assault weapons available against the wishes of three quarters of voters in either party. Although, a second Walt-Mearsheimer myth — that Israel and its defenders shaped an Iraq war they had no role in planning — is even more pernicious, in terms of perpetuating notions of conspiracy and absolute control.

Alterman should know this, and if this was genuinely an oversight — if he really didn’t stop and consider Chait’s meaning in using the word "singular" — he needs, as a university professor, to kick his own butt for not reading the material closely.

This is not a matter of nuance, either. It is not enough to say "okay, Walt, Mearsheimer and their cohort go overboard in identifying the breadth of Israel and pro-Israel influence, but that shouldn’t get in the way of an argument about whether AIPAC’s policies are wise."

Well, yes, it should. Let’s cast in this in terms of a much cruder version of the medieval Pablo Christiani–Nachmanides debate. Priest to rabbi: Let’s debate this Jesus thing. Rabbi to priest: Sure. What aspects? Priest: Well, you have an issue with the Trinity. Rabbi: Right, that we can discuss. Priest: There are some rather ugly depictions of Jesus in your Talmud. Rabbi: Few and far between, but why not, let’s get them on the table. Priest: And you drink the blood of Christian children. Rabbi: No. We are not having that debate.

We are not having that debate.

Insinuations of supernatural Jewish wizardry — from vulgar blood libels to vulgar imaginings of overweening influence in a polity that is made up of competing influences — are simply not on. I will not dignify them with argument. No Jew should.

It crosses from a disputation into a libel. And the thing is, Alterman should get this — as he recalls, not for the first time, in his post, he has never forgiven Sullivan for crossing from a disputation with critics of President Bush’s post-9/11 policies into a crazed libel, suggesting that these critics were in fact spies.

Critic, not spy. Powerful lobby, not tentacled conspiracy. It’s as simple as that. Really.

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