Eric Alterman on his dual loyalty and the U.S. pressuring Palestinians to accept ‘their historic position’

I’m undertaking a new Jewish identity project: I’m going to start reaching out to prominent American Jews to talk about what makes them Jewish and when they got inoculated with Zionism. And below is one of my favorite statements by a Jewish journalist about his identity as it touches on his perceptions of what’s good for America and good for Israel.

Eric Alterman of the Nation is an important liberal, and he made the statement two years ago at the 92d Street Y, and I’m deeply grateful to him for his honesty. It was a panel called “Why we need a liberal Israel lobby,” where Alterman brings up the question of dual loyalty. Alterman is eloquent (if misguided) on the idea that he has dual loyalty. And then he is honest, if again misguided, I believe, on the extent to which the only players at the peace table are Israel and the United States, and Israel must agree to the terms for a Palestinian state before it can exist. And that means the U.S. compelling Palestinians to accept their “historic position,” even if this will anger Arabs across the region. And here I’d remind you that Alterman is on the left in this whole conversation in the U.S.; he actually criticizes Israel now and then.

I dig this speech out now for a few reasons. Because I have a genuine scholarly side, and I happened on this panel the other day and finally transcribed it and was blown away. Because Jack Ross’s new book traces the rapid and absolute inscription of Zionism inside Jewish American life of which Alterman, who was sent off to Israel at 14, Zionism “drummed into” him, is a perfect example even inside the Thoughtful liberal media. Because Alterman was lately hired as a columnist by the moderator of the debate, Jane Eisner of the Forward (and by coincidence, I just got emails from a couple of folks about Alterman opposing one-state in the Forward).

But mostly because I think arguing over Jewish identity, a fight over Jewish identity and Zionist identity and what it means to the American and Jewish future is absolutely crucial to world peace… I want more debate, not less.

Here’s Alterman in his own words (the video is below, it’s at 33 or so):

Alterman: You know, one of the touchiest words you can say when you’re discussing Jews and Israel is the word dual loyalty. It’s sort of one of those words that American Jewish officialdom has ruled out of the discourse. If you say dual loyalty, you’re playing into the hands of anti-semites, because it’s been a consistent trope among anti-Semites that you can’t trust Jews. etc. etc. And I find this very confusing because I was raised dually loyal my whole life. When I went to Hebrew school, the content of my Hebrew school was all about supporting Israel. When my parents who I think are here tonight sent me to Israel when I was 14, on a ZOA [Zionist Organization of America]-sponsored trip… [laughter/backtalk] that was a bad idea, yeah– it was drummed into me that I should do what’s best for Israel.

I was at the Center for Jewish History not long ago where I heard Ruth Wisse, the Yiddishist professor at Harvard who happens to be the Martin L. Peretz professor, instruct a group of young Jewish journalists that they should think of themselves as members of the Israeli army. That in Israel young people have to serve in the army– well, they didn’t have to serve in the army, but they should think of themselves as members of a Jewish army, supporting the Jewish people, supporting Israel, putting aside their intellectual qualms and concerns about things. Like [the recent elevation of Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman.

Now it so happens that because so few people are willing to say this, and there’s certainly good historical reasons for this, I end up being quoted by Walt and Mearsheimer as the only person saying, I am a dual loyal Jew and sometimes I’m going to actually go with Israel, because the United States can take an awful lot of hits and come up standing. Whereas if Israel takes one serious bad hit it could disappear. So there’s going to be some cases where when Israel and the United States conflict I’m going to support what’s best for Israel rather than what I think is best for the United States.

The big fiction that permeates virtually all discussion and I bet you even in J Street, but certainly amongst official organizations is That there’s no such thing, that there could be possibly anything that could be both Good for Israel and Bad for the United States or vice versa. Every single speech you go to at AIPAC or the AJC says, thank god that our interests and values are perfectly aligned and We support a strong Israel and we support a strong United States. No– that’s not always going to be the case. They’re two different countries with two different strategic interests and different points of view on certain things.

Lieberman is bad for everything as far as I understand the world. He’s in the long term detrimental to Israel’s interest, and he’s certainly not in the United States interest, which has a strong interest in maintaining peace and stability in that region. And so in this case, there isn’t really a conflict in my saying, look if the Israelis are going to elect a government that’s detrimental to my interests and Israel’s interests… I’m going to do everything I can to convince them to elect a different gov’t. Just the way the Palestinians elected a bad thing by electing Hamas…

[Alterman then describes Israel's role in founding Hamas, a "terrible mistake as many countries historically have made a terrible mistake."]

As a friend of Israel and a person who’s concerned with the long term health and happiness of the Jewish people. I’m going to say I’m not going there with you guys, I have no trouble doing that.

Eisner: Can you imagine a time where you would feel that dual loyalty and go with Israel?

Alterman: I just said, there are many occasions.

Eisner: Can you give us an example?

Alterman: Off the top of my head. Well look, to me the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is simple in the following regard. It’s complicated in most regards. But it’s simple in the following regard. The only people who can deliver peace, who can deliver a state to the Palestinians is the Israeli public… You can’t force Israel to make peace against its will. Israel will only make the concessions necessary to peace if they believe that the Palestinians are sincere about making peace so I can see that saying to the Palestinian leadership or saying to the Saudi leadership or Egyptian leadership, look we need to do a lot of unpopular things in Palestine to demonstrate to the Israeli public that the Palestinians have finally accepted their historic position and are now ready to make the peace that the Israelis can trust– now I’m not saying we’re anywhere near that situation, I’m answering your hypothetical question– that might make the United States a great deal more unpopular in the Arab world. It might increase terrorism in the Arab world…

Here’s a much simpler example actually. I think that bin Laden and 9/11 were to some degree inspired by U.S. support of Israel. I think a great deal of the terrorist attacks and the sort of pool of potential terrorists who want to attack the United States are inspired by the United States support for Israel. I’m not saying we shouldn’t support Israel for that reason. I’m saying, Dammit if that’s the price we have to pay, then I’m willing to pay it. I’m just saying Let’s be honest about it. Let’s not pretend that it’s unimaginable that the two states can be in conflict because if these two states happen never to be in conflict it would be the only time in history that ever happened, and yet we all treat it as if it’s a given.

About Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net.
Posted in Israel/Palestine

{ 23 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. Kris says:

    ” You can’t force Israel to make peace against its will….so I can see that saying to the Palestinian leadership or saying to the Saudi leadership or Egyptian leadership, look we need to do a lot of unpopular things in Palestine to demonstrate to the Israeli public that the Palestinians have finally accepted their historic position …might make the United States a great deal more unpopular in the Arab world…”

    Wow. That’s like saying, “You can’t force the white citizens in Mississippi to integrate against their will…so I can see that saying to the black leadership, look, we need to do a lot of unpopular things in the black neighborhoods to demonstrate to the whites that the blacks have finally accepted their historic position…might make the federal government a great deal more unpopular in much of the U.S….”

    Or, “You can’t force the Aryan citizens of Germany to stop pogroms against the Jews against their will…so I can see that saying to the Jewish leadership, look we need to do a lot of unpopular things in the Jewish neighborhoods to demonstrate the the Aryans that the Jews have finally accepted their historic position…”

  2. iamuglow says:

    I suppose for the mainstream Jewish American community its progress but he still way behind the curve with these weasly understatments…

    “I think that bin Laden and 9/11 were to some degree inspired by U.S. support of Israel. I think a great deal of the terrorist attacks and the sort of pool of potential terrorists who want to attack the United States are inspired by the United States support for Israel.”

    Bin Laden and 9/11 WERE inspired by U.S. support of Israel. Terrorists who want to attack the United States ARE inspired by the United States support for Israel.

    and of course ‘the Palestinians have finally accepted their historic position’ is vile. It entails that…..In the context of Jewish history recreating some biblical nation in the Holy Land was/is more important than anything that happened to the people who were living there. That they were killed or made refugees is their ‘historic position’ and if we just wait long enough and never give them quarter, eventually they will finally accept that they lost, might made right and this is their historic position.

    Its hard for me to consider people who think like this ‘liberal’.

  3. “I think that bin Laden and 9/11 were to some degree inspired by U.S. support of Israel. I think a great deal of the terrorist attacks and the sort of pool of potential terrorists who want to attack the United States are inspired by the United States support for Israel. I’m not saying we shouldn’t support Israel for that reason. I’m saying, Dammit if that’s the price we have to pay, then I’m willing to pay it.”

    Wow. That’s quite a statement.

    If on September 12, 2001, every reporter said these words — “We were attacked in part because of our support for Israel” (instead of literally not one reporter stating this fact) — what would have been the response from the American public?

    • MRW says:

      You’re right, Matthew.

      Alterman gets away with making statements like this because he’s Jewish. He should be shamed. This is a disgrace: “I’m saying, Dammit if that’s the price we have to pay, then I’m willing to pay it.” Speak for yourself, White Man. Is this what dual loyalty costs us?

      • American says:

        Yea…as a matter of fact it is what it cost us.

        Without dual loyalty there would be no AIPAC, no ZOA, no World Jewish congress. Aid to Israel, if there was an Israel, would have ended long ago and government support for Israel would have passed.
        The word Jew would hardly ever be seen or heard outside of noting someone’s religious affiliation or a religious discussion. Hardly be mentioned in discussions of politics or much of anything, there probably wouldn’t be this site, people would think of Jews identities about as often as they thought about Buddhist or Filipinos or Spaniards.
        Without dual loyalty most Americans would know next to nothing about the ME or the Arabs. There would be no reason to think about or talk about Jews and zionist and Israel and none of us would be here doing just that. Jews as related to the US and zionism would be a non issue…it wouldn’t exist.

        Prior to 10 years ago I can’t think of any time I ever gave any thought to Jews except in the Hollywood holocaust movie view or simply as someone’s religion.

  4. Chu says:

    look we need to do a lot of unpopular things in Palestine to demonstrate to the Israeli public that the Palestinians have finally accepted their historic position and are now ready to make the peace that the Israelis can trust…It might increase terrorism in the Arab world…

    I wonder what unpopular things he references?

    But the viewpoint from Alterman that the Palestinians
    should be sincere about peace, sort of neglects the issue that they
    have suffered greatly over the last 6 decades, losing their families and villages to make way for Israel. But they’ve got to be ready to make peace and accept more unpopular things? This is a very annoying blase leftist Zionist view.
    There’s that the duel loyalty issue rearing it’s ugly head. A man of leftist politics, but rightwing on Israel. Nothing new here.

  5. American says:

    “Here’s a much simpler example actually. I think that bin Laden and 9/11 were to some degree inspired by U.S. support of Israel. I think a great deal of the terrorist attacks and the sort of pool of potential terrorists who want to attack the United States are inspired by the United States support for Israel. I’m not saying we shouldn’t support Israel for that reason. I’m saying, Dammit if that’s the price we have to pay, then I’m willing to pay it.”

    And the flip side is:
    Since Israel causes anti Americanism and terrorism (& other things) I am saying we shouldn’t support Israel for those reasons.
    I’m saying, Dammit if ditching Israel and the US zionist is the price we have to pay , then I’m willing to pay it.”

  6. Chu says:

    btw: Jewish identity project is a great idea.

  7. With radicals like this, who needs reactionaries?

    • MRW says:

      Agree.
      —————
      PS. I’ve started reading Jack Ross’ book. He’s a kick. I like to read in bars. I like the white noisiness of it. One bar I go to has politics to the right of Avigdor Lieberman, and they argue about it all the time. I carried Jack’s book in the other night. Now, I shunned. ;-)

  8. annie says:

    this is very revealing. his example of parting ways with israel was disagreeing it was beneficial to initially supporting hamas and he’d say ‘i part ways w/you on that’. now how brave is that after the fact? on the other hand when it comes to the US waging a war on terror for israel, hell yes.

    i’m glad he was so open about the dual loyalty issue. hes completely right when he says It’s sort of one of those words that American Jewish officialdom has ruled out of the discourse.. the mantra is If you say dual loyalty, you’re playing into the hands of anti-semites but i think the real reason of making it off limits is they just do not want to have the conversation because of the implications which alterman demonstrates so openly. with the big things he’s perfectly willing to let america take the hit. over and over i presume.

    great conversation phil, keep at it.

    • American says:

      It would be very interesting to see someone read Alterman’s statement to one of our politicians out campaigning and ask if he agreed with it.
      Maybe next time one appears on C-span?

  9. Sin Nombre says:

    Eric Alterman said:

    “I am a dual loyal Jew and sometimes I’m going to actually go with Israel, because the United States can take an awful lot of hits and come up standing. ”

    And …

    “The only people who can deliver peace, who can deliver a state to the Palestinians is the Israeli public…”

    Ah, how comforting to the American families whose sons and daughters have taken some of those “hits” in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere and have died, been maimed, had their emotional lives wrecked and etc.

    And same with the families of those killed in the 9/11 attacks: “Sure sure, your loved ones had their throats cuts on planes or were incinerated or crushed in large if not exclusive measure due to America’s blind support of Israel, but of course the only people who *matter* are “the Israeli public.”

    Must be just a helluva dose of moral arrogance given during those ZOA trips to Israel: Gotta love Alterman’s unspoken implication that it’s *he* that decides just what “hits” America can and can’t take.

    While candid at least, still, wasn’t it Nixon who talked about such things as “modified, limited hangouts”?

    I.e., “okay” one feels to ask Alterman next, “given your willingness to sacrifice the interests of Americans for someone else’s benefit, why in the world would it be wrong for America and Americans to treat you as anything but—at best—a potential traitor?”

    • American says:

      I almost see something self destructive in Alterman’s public declaring of how as a Jew he expects Americans to take the hit for Jews and Israel.

      I said years ago what happened in Germany could never here but I’ve changed my mind…not another holocaust, but a confrontation of some kind could come about…because it seems American non Jews are being taunted to challenge the zios on America belonging to the Jews and Israel.
      Like the Rabbi in Israel said , non Jews are suppose to serve the Jews?

      The zios shouldn’t play with matches.

    • Chu says:

      It’s precisely why American Jews are afraid of debating this in the greater public. They have issues that don’t jibe with the greater public.
      Sure, Eric would say this because he was at the 92st Y in front a a largely Jewish audience.

      Alterman was the same guy who completely freaked out over Ralph Nader’s run against Al Gore and G.W. Bush. I recall how irrational he was becoming. He seemed to forget that the system allows for alternate choices of the 2 party system.

  10. HRK says:

    Should a person be described as liberal if on the issue nearest to his heart he’s conservative?

    • Sin Nombre says:

      That’s an interesting question, but a logically prior one is whether they are really liberal on any issues that actually *matter* to them.

      How much, say, does what I suspect is Alterman’s self-proclaimed abhorrence of racism really matter to him when, regardless of what he says about perceived instances of it in the U.S., he seems not to notice it on flamboyant display in Israel? (Or at least certainly doesn’t see it as very important no matter its virulence.)

      Or what about “nativism” and what I suspect is his “liberality” on the issue of how the U.S. should treat illegal immigrants and its borders, when he doesn’t seem to have any problem with the jewish-only “right of return”?

      And on and on and on.

      In short, when you feel that somewhere else is where your heart really is, well, who the hell cares what positions you take about elsewhere? You don’t really have to “believe” in them. Or, even worse, when you feel there’s somewhere else where your heart really is *and* it’s a place you can always flee to if the conditions in the place where you are goes South so you only have to rub shoulders with your own tribe members.

      Indeed I think it’s even worse than that sometimes too: As Israel Shahak has written (and I think Phil has noted too) there is in some Diaspora jewish circles even a strain of positive hatred of western “Christian” countries and their populations. So why the hell *not* advocate policies that are toxic to their interests? Not that you really “believe” in them for yourself or your own chosen people of course, where indeed you find them absolutely repugnant.

  11. lyn117 says:

    I don’t get why Alterman wants to support a state founded by deliberate, premeditated ethnic cleansing, which continues that ethnic cleansing and racism against the original inhabitants of the land it controls, which has made every effort with full malice to destroy the native society.

    If Israel were inhabited by the indigenous people and was beleaguered for some other reason than its crimes and malice against them, I suppose I’d be willing to pay the cost of terrorism inspired by support for it too.

    I can’t believe Alterman is supporting Israel’s behavior without full knowledge of what it is.

    • stevieb says:

      Believe it. Millions of Germans accepted Nazism as a vision of the ‘Germanic Peoples’. And then looked what happened.

      Zionism is Facism. Remember that and you won’t go too far wrong…