‘Israel Firster’ gets at an inconvenient truth

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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Jeremy Ben Ami 1
Jeremy Ben Ami

The new battleground in the argument over Israel’s influence on American policy is the idea that some of those pushing an attack on Iran are “Israel Firsters.”

The term has been used by MJ Rosenberg of Media Matters and Zaid Jilani, formerly of  Center for American Progress. Israel supporters have struck back hard. They claim that using the term is anti-Semitic because it calls on a long history of questioning Jews’ loyalty to western countries.

Yesterday Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street bravely defended the use of the expression in an interview with the Washington Post. “If the charge is that you’re putting the interests of another country before the interests of the United States in the way you would advocate that, it’s a legitimate question,” Ben-Ami said. (And today Ben-Ami, evidently summoned by commisar Jeffrey Goldberg, apologizes for misspeaking.)

I think “Israel firster” is a perfectly legitimate term in a wide-open American discourse– especially a debate about attacking another country. Obviously, it’s loaded. It’s a comment on a person’s motivation, and it can be wielded as a form of redbaiting. But as an intellectual and political question, it has a long and honorable pedigree.

Its legitimacy can be demonstrated by three factual arguments:

1, Israel supporters routinely make frank professions of loyalty that raise the issue. 2, Students of US policy, including many mainstream (and Jewish) writers, have blurted frank comments in recent years about dual loyalty, so it must be a useful term. 3, It was useful historically for three important theorists of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, Hannah Arendt, and Rabbi Elmer Berger. If they get to talk about it, why can’t we? 

1). Public declarations of loyalty.

Senator Chuck Schumer went to AIPAC and declared that his name means guardian in Hebrew and then he cried, “Am Yisroel Chai.” The people of Israel live! MJ Rosenberg caught this:

Schumer: “I believe Hashem [Orthodox for God] actually gave me that name. One of my roles, very important in the United States senate, is to be a shomer — to be a or the shomer Yisrael. And I will continue to be that with every bone in my body …”

He’s hardly alone. Neoconservative Elliott Abrams wrote in a book on Jewish identity that “Outside the land of Israel, there can be no doubt that Jews, faithful to the covenant between God and Abraham, are to stand apart from the nation in which they live.” Alan Dershowitz has written that American Jews have a “sacred mission” to protect Jewish lives in Israel, and The Forward has lately stated that Jewish university presidents have “loyalty” to Israel.

If all these folks can talk about their devotion to Israel, then why can’t critics problematize that support and wonder if it crosses the line? Of course we can. That’s called debate.

2. Lots of smart writers find the term useful.

Before MJ Rosenberg and Zaid Jilani were attacked for talking about Israel firsters– and before Jilani apologized for doing so– many writers have questioned the allegiances of Israel supporters.

Joe Klein at Time:

The fact that a great many Jewish neoconservatives–people like Joe Lieberman and the crowd over at Commentary–plumped for this [Iraq] war, and now for an even more foolish assault on Iran, raised the question of divided loyalties: using U.S. military power, U.S. lives and money, to make the world safe for Israel.

John Judis, at the New Republic:

[Jewish leaders] want to demand of American Jewish intellectuals a certain loyalty to Israel, Israeli policies, and to Zionism as part of their being Jewish. They make dual loyalty an inescapable part of being Jewish in a world in which a Jewish state exists.

Eric Alterman of the Nation (speaking at the 92d St Y):

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.

Finally, culture critic Douglas Rushkoff has written that American Jewish confusion about which is our nation, epitomized by the two flags in the synagogue– “So the Jewish flag was our real flag—our secret flag—and the American flag was our conspicuous nod to the nation that we called home”—helped to produce the “compromise of Jewish ideals” that American Jewish support for Israel has involved.

Hannah Arendt
Hannah Arendt

3. This problem was anticipated historically by leading theorists of Zionism.

The very best understanding of dual loyalty was expressed by Hannah Arendt, in 1944, when she said that if the creation and long-term preservation of a Jewish state depended upon American Jews, the relationship would foster questions of dual loyalty.

From Zionism Reconsidered:

If a Jewish commonwealth is obtained in the near future… it will be due to the political influence of American Jews. This would not need to affect their status of American citizenship if their “homeland” or “mother country” were a politically autonomous entity in a normal sense, or if their help were likely to be only temporary. But if the Jewish commonwealth is proclaimed against the will of the Arabs and without the support of the Mediterranean peoples, not only financial help but political support will be necessary for a long time to come. And that may turn out to be very troublesome indeed for Jews in this country… It may eventually be far more of a responsibility than today they imagine or tomorrow can make good.

This is visionary, utterly visionary. Arendt anticipates the edifice of the Israel lobby in 2012. She anticipates Schumer declaring himself Israel’s “guardian” in Hebrew, Eric Alterman saying that the U.S. can take some hits for Israel, Joe Klein wondering about the neocons’ motivation for the Iraq war, and John Judis’s understanding that dual loyalty is an “inescapable” part of American Jewish leadership.

Now to Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism. Herzl repeatedly refers to allegations of dual loyalty in his diaries chronicling his campaign for Zionism in the eight years before his death in 1904.

Herzl wanted to characterize these allegations as anti-Semitic– as dark questions that anti-Semites raise about good Jews. But his diaries show that leading Jews, including the Zionist Edmond de Rothschild, who was then paying for Jewish settlement in Palestine, were concerned about the doubts posed to their patriotism by the foundation of a Jewish state.

From the diaries:

Paris. Nov. 10, 1895. Meeting with French Chief Rabbi Zadok Kahn.

He too professed himself to be a Zionist. But French “patriotism” also has its claims. Yes, a man has to choose between Zion and France.

Paris. Nov. 17, 1895. Meeting with Narcisse Leven, Jewish French leader.

When he harped on his French nationality I said, “What? Do not you and I belong to the same nation?”

London. Nov 24, 1895 Meeting with Samuel Montagu, Member of Parliament.

He confessed to me—in confidence—that he felt himself to be more an Israelite than an Englishman.

May 1896, diary entry containing a report of the feelings of Edmond de Rothschild, a French banker and Zionist:

What I am doing he considers dangerous, because I render the patriotism of the Jews suspect.

I will get to Rabbi Berger later. But to conclude, the term Israel Firster gets at an inconvenient truth of Zionism: that when you establish a Jewish nation, it may raise questions about the interests of Jews outside the “homeland.” Especially when they are pushing war that will help Israel.

Yes, some people who use the term Israel firster may be anti-Semites. Yes, the term can be ugly. Just as the expression “the 1 percent” can be ugly if wielded crudely.

But smearing people who use the term Israel firster as anti-Semites is a very old Zionist tactic– because they don’t want us to talk about a legitimate question, in this case whether an attack on Iran is in Americans’ interests. As Arendt wrote: 

[W]hen the assimilationists talked about the danger of double loyalty and the impossibility of being German or French patriots and Zionists at the same time, they rudely raised a problem which for obvious reasons the Zionists did not care to talk of frankly.

Zionists have controlled the terms of this conversation for too long. The smearing of smart journalists as anti-Semites is yet another effort to do so.

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