A History of the Jews (1965)
In recent weeks, the Israel lobby has drawn a red line on the use of the phrase “Israel Firster.” Supporters of Israel have lectured us that it is an “anti-Semitic trope.” Here, for instance, is Spencer Ackerman denouncing the use of the term at Tablet:
“Israel Firster” has a nasty anti-Semitic pedigree, one that many Jews will intuitively understand without knowing its specific history. It turns out white supremacist Willis Carto was reportedly the first to use it, and David Duke popularized it through his propaganda network. And yet [M.J.] Rosenberg and others actually claim they’re using it to stimulate “debate,” rather than effectively mirroring the tactics of some of the people they criticize.
As if the very words have anti-Semitism in their DNA.
Well Ackerman is wrong. The term Israel Firster was used by a Zionist before it was used by white supremacists. I just got a hold of the American Jewish Committee’s Yearbook for 1961. It cites the use of the term “Israel Firster” by a legendary Zionist, the late Abram Leon Sachar, the leading American historian of Jews and president of Brandeis when he said it.
Read the screenshot below:
I’ll write it out:
American Jews and Israel
American Jews continued to raise large sums of money for Israel, and to defend it. Israelis, for their part, continued to seek greater commitments from American Jews and more emigrants. The conflict between Prime Minister Ben-Gurion and Nahum Goldman, president of the WZO (World Zionist Organization], did not abate. On june 2, 1960, at a meeting of Mapai’s central committee, Ben-Gurion declared that neither Israel nor the Jews outside Israel needed the Zionist movement as an intermediary between them. He said that Goldmann was “neither an Israeli nor an American,” but “a wandering Jew.”
American Jews continued to object to Israel’s claim that a genuine Jewish life was possible only in Israel. Abram L. Sachar, president of Brandeis University, at the biennial convention of JWB [Jewish Welfare Board], declared on April 2, 1960 that among Jews there is no room “for Israel Firsters whose chauvinism and arrogance find nothing relevant or viable in any area outside of Israel.”
Sachar was speaking to the JWB, or Jewish Welfare Board, which bought Torahs for Jewish boys in uniform. American uniform. And he made his comments in the context of American Jews being loyal citizens of the U.S. Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, had long urged American Jews to move to Israel. The American Jewish community was resisting the pressure to make “greater commitments” to Israel.
Sachar was a goldplated Zionist, national director of the B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundations who wrote that the “rebirth of [the Jews'] independent homeland” was “an event pregnant with incalculable opportunities for creativity and enrichment.”
But Sachar needed to draw a red line of his own. He didn’t like Israel Firsters. Here he is in the New York Times, 1960:
Dr. Abram L. Sachar, president of Brandeis University, rejected tonight the “dogma that only in Israel is a genuine, normal, substantive Jewish life possible.”
I can’t get the rest of that clip because my computer’s wonky, but you get the point.
Now let’s review the context in which “Israel Firster” has arisen in 2011-2012: a situation in which supporters of Israel are pushing the U.S. to go to war against Iran in some measure out of concern for Israel’s security. One of these supporters is Sheldon Adelson, who personally revived Newt Gingrich’s campaign with $10 million after Gingrich called Palestinians an “invented people” and who is now said to be dickering with Romney’s campaign about the terms on which he will give money to the Republican frontrunner.
That dickering will turn on Romney’s promises re Israel, you can be sure of it. Because, as Adelson has said, he “unfortunately” wore the uniform of the American military not the Israeli army, and he wants his son to be a sniper for the Israeli army because “All we care about is being good citizens of Israel.”
If you can criticize Adelson’s giving without venturing the thought that he puts Israel first– well, do me a favor and don’t turn my mind into spaghetti.
The Center for American Progress has folded under pro-Israel pressure. It has recanted its use of the term Israel Firster. The fabulous young journalist, Zaid Jilani, who used the expression in tweets, has moved on to another job. Look over the battlefield today and only Andrew Sullivan, MJ Rosenberg, and Glenn Greenwald have stood up for the acceptability of the term. Courageous writers all. And they can say that the words have a good Jewish pedigree…
P.S. I wonder what’s next for the Zionist Censors? How about “Matzorian candidate?” Jon Stewart said that about the Republicans expressing endless support for Israel, with hints of dual loyalty. Sure sounds like a “trope” to me!