Steve Clemons, Jennifer Rubin and “Israel bashing”


We wrote earlier this week about the letter that a gaggle of ex-government, think tank and policy types wrote to the Obama administration, urging it to endorse a U.N. Security Council resolution that blasts Israel on settlements and urges the parties back to talks.

Eventually, as the news day bore on, that item became a single line in a brief about how two Jewish groups are urging the U.S. not to veto the resolution. In other words, we recalibrated the story as folks whose names are more recognizable to our readership made their views known.

Anyhoo: I didn’t see anything objectionable in the actual, original letter — not in the sense that I would endorse (or oppose) the letter’s recommendation, of course, but in the sense that nothing in the letter crossed any rhetorical line into anti-Israelism or anti-Semitism, phenomena I have made a habit of calling out on this blog.

It was par for the course realist-left criticism of Israeli settlement policy as obstructionist and counterproductive. It endorsed a strong commitment to Israel’s security. One can argue that Israel is the best judge of its security — but that doesn’t mean voices who oppose its settlement policy are anti-Israel.

Before I go on, there are two other issues, not at all pertaining to the text of the letter, but which will inevitably — if irrationally — arise in a discussion of its contents.

–Its signatories. These include the likes of Chas Freeman and John Mearsheimer, whose writings about Israel and its supporters have veered into dark conspiracy theories, and whom I have obsessed over in this space. It also includes the likes of Peter Beinart and David Mack and a host of others who have been at some times reasonable critics of Israel’s policies, at other times reasonable supporters. I have interviewed many of the signatories as experts. I do not believe in guilt by association. I can’t throw out the whole list just because of a suspect few, and for that matter, even if the entire list was suspect because of past writings, I would still judge this letter solely by its content.

As Ben Smith put it at Politico, "The signatories include both usual suspects and unusual ones, and shifts the call for Obama to take a harder line on Netanyahu a bit toward the center."

–The United Nations. Yes, a cesspool of anti-Israel rhetoric. Not so the Security Council, where the United States has a veto, and has — contra a lot of the blabber surrounding this latest resolution — withheld the veto on Israel-critical resolutions, stretching at least from the Reagan administration and the first Lebanon war to the last Bush administration and the Gaza War.

Okay, to continue: Jennifer Rubin, on her Washington Post "Right Turn" blog, dismissed the letter as the product of the "usual crowd of Israel bashers."

That led the New America Foundation’s Steve Clemons, who drafted the letter, to wonder what was going on at the Washington Post:

I would like to know from Jennifer Rubin and from her editor — and from the Chairman of the Board of the Washington Post — what I have ever said, what I have ever written, what I have ever organized that deserves the characterization I received from Jennifer Rubin today at the Washington Post. What does she consider makes me an Israel-basher?

I believe that she and I have a serious disagreement about what Israel’s interests are — and I believe that the Netanyahu wing of the Israeli political establishment regularly places short term interests over long to mid-term interests. But I don’t call those who support Netanyahu Israel-bashers even though I believe that as patriotic as they may be as Israelis or as pro-Israel as they may be as Americans they are harming Israel’s interests. That could be a constructive debate — something where both sides could learn something, perhaps.

Calling someone an Israel-basher is akin to calling them an anti-Semite or a bigot, and that can’t go without response. I’m a strong believer in Israel and want a healthy and constructive relationship between Israel and the United States. I have traveled to Israel, have met people from nearly every political party in the Knesset, and love the place and people.

So here’s where I weigh in.

–Steve Clemons is not an Israel basher. I’ve spoken to him plenty about Israel, and he makes routine appearances in my copy and in the copy of others in the Jewish media because he is a reliable interlocutor for the left-realist point of view on Israel and Iran. It would be dumb to shut out that point of view, because it holds considerable sway among policy makers in Washington. (Just as the views of neoconservatives do, and I think calls to shut them out are equally as dumb.) He has never said anything to me personally and I have never read anything that he’s written that suggests an animus toward Israel, or to the idea of Israel as a Jewish state. 

–The most fascinating thing about this exchange, I think, is when Steve says "Calling someone an Israel-basher is akin to calling them an anti-Semite or a bigot." A lot of people would say that’s a libel of Israel bashers. A lot of those people are on the left. A couple of them are even signatories to the letter. 

But Steve, I think, has it right — trashing Israel, its meaning, its history, its future, for the perceived sins of its government of the day, is, indeed, bigotry. It’s not as deadly as anti-Semitism, but it is bigotry nonetheless.

I’ve tried to make this point, but I think it’s important that it comes from Steve. I think it’s important that he makes this point to both friend and rival — and guess what, he just did.

So, in a circumlocutory way, Steve comes out of all of this … as pro-Israel.

Go figure.

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