Why I am using ‘Israel firster’ again

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It has been almost three months since the big “Israel Firster” brouhaha which led to me leaving Media Matters for America and the Center for American Progress deciding to avoid writing about anything that might be construed as “anti-Israel.”

At that time I thought that the AIPAC-initiated onslaught was not really about a label it (and its allies) found offensive but about silencing some key critical voices.

I knew that they would not succeed. I, for instance, am just as “out there” as before. I love Media Matters, which supported me throughout the whole controversy, but my voice was heard on the Israel/lobby issue long before I landed at Media Matters and nothing has changed since I left.

And I am far from alone. Other than among the lobby and its cutouts and devotees, supporting Israeli policies is no longer the default position it once was. Even among Jews, support for Israeli policies is deep only among that dwindling number that defines itself, first and foremost, as part of the organized Jewish community. (Of course, these are the people politicians listen to because they vote and contribute money based exclusively on a candidate’s support for Israeli policies. But according to the American Jewish Committee poll, these Israel voters and donors constitute just 4% of Jews.

So what was the campaign which, in the end, brought together AIPAC (via its former spokesman Josh Block), Alan Dershowitz (who said he would campaign against President Obama unless I was fired!) and Bill Kristol (who took out a full page ad in the New York Times condemning me and the offending term) all about?

I now understand it was really about the term “Israel Firster” and about my use of it now. I say now that because I used the term regularly during my decade at the moderate (to the point of being almost indistinguishable from AIPAC) Israel Policy Forum and no one objected. It was viewed correctly as a description of those individuals and institutions which place support for right-wing Israeli policies over any concern for how those policies impact the United States.

Short definition: you are an Israel Firster if you believe it is acceptable to criticize US Presidents (whether Obama, Bush or any other) but believe that you must stand behind any and all Israeli policies and prime ministers. Call it “my country, right or wrong” but with a significant twist.

My best examples of the concept of Israel Firster are liberal Members of Congress, like Jerry Nadler, Al Franken, and Barbara Boxer, who are invariably anti-war in every situation except when it comes to Israel. These legislators have no problem criticizing US Presidents for whatever reason but never criticize Prime Minister Netanyahu for any reason.

The phenomenon is not, of course, limited to Congress. It is evident in the media (think MSNBC) and even in the blogosphere where even supposedly independent bloggers can write endlessly about the failing negotiations with Iran without revealing who is torpedoing them. (See this Atlantic piece by Robert Wright which explains how it is Netanyahu and AIPAC who are preventing successful negotiations with Iran by insisting that sanctions not be lifted no matter what Iran does, and contrast it with the other prominent center-left bloggers who are afraid to mention this fact).

The same dynamic applies to all the columns about Sheldon Adelson which conspicuously ignore that the sole reason he is involved in politics is maintain U.S, support for Netanyahu.

However, as I said, I have been using “Israel Firster” for years and it wasn’t even considered “anti-Israel.” Why would it be? Preserving the status quo or promoting wars that will get Israelis killed is not, by any definition, pro-Israel? And that is what the Israel Firsters promote.

But then, in 2012, it all changed. Suddenly suggesting that those who put their view of Israel’s interests above anything else was anti-Israel, anti-Semitic, and (I love this term) perpetuating a “blood libel.”

As Israelis say: “mah pitom?” Why all of a sudden?

I now understand why. And it is the reason will continue to use the term “Israel Firster” and why I think you should too.

The reason Israel Firster became so explosive in 2012 is because (1) this is the year the lobby wants the United States to either attack Iran or allow Israel to do it and (2) this is the year in which tens of millions of dollars of unregulated campaign contributions are flowing to the Republican candidate for president simply because the single-issue crowd believes that Mitt Romney is the candidate most likely to fit comfortably in Netanyahu’s pocket.

The lobby’s biggest fear is that the American people will figure this out and that the blow back will harm the US-Israel relationship.

Frankly, I share part of that worry. But my fear is that if the American people do figure out what AIPAC and its friends are up to, it could harm us here. After all, the lobby has done a great job convincing Congress and opinion leaders that they represent all Jews not just 4%.

I don’t want my kids or theirs tainted with any association with those who are pushing for war with Iran, as they did with Iraq, or who blackmail presidents into supporting policies that harm the United States.

How to prevent that?

In a famous memo, Steve Rosen, the ex-AIPAC official who was indicted for espionage, wrote: a lobby is like a night flower; it thrives in the dark and withers in the daylight.

And that is why we need to use the term Israel Firster, not to call names for its own sake but to make it harder for these people to get the war they want or buy the president they think will give it to them.

It won’t be easy to get the media or blogosphere to tell the truth about any of this. Young reporters know that if they dare discuss the lobby and its influence, their careers will likely be cut short. No matter that the climate of opinion in the country at large (and certainly in the Jewish community) may be changing, a journalist who speaks out could well be destroyed. Just look at this hit piece on Peter Beinart.

So, let’s use all the weapons in our arsenal. And that includes “Israel Firster” with everything that term evokes.

Frankly, I think I’m more than entitled to call this spade a spade. I have supported Israel (not, however, its more horrific policies) my whole life. I believe that Israel should survive and live in security, in some kind of arrangement with the Palestinian people who deserve peace, security and sovereignty just as much as Israelis do. Also, I speak as someone whose own kids are first generation. Their mom, my wife, was born in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany to two Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust.

I simply cannot be intimidated by those who business is intimidation. The way I see it, both my country, America, and a country I deeply care about, Israel,and the Jewish people are all being placed at risk by a small bunch of multi-millionaires and billionaires whose only interests are self-aggrandizement, hob-nobbing with those in power, and crushing anyone who gets in their way.

One day, everyone will understand that.  It should be our mission to make sure that before they do, we break the back of an unrepresentative, dishonest and corrupt lobby that jeopardizes us all.

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Good on you MJ!

You go to the word-robe, try on all the other terms and phrases, but none looks or feels right, and covers all those lumps and bumps as well as “Israel Firster”.

YEAHHHH!!! The reason Israel Firster became so explosive in 2012 is because (1) this is the year the lobby wants the United States to either attack Iran or allow Israel to do it and (2) this is the year in which tens of millions of dollars of unregulated campaign contributions are flowing to the Republican candidate for president simply because the single-issue crowd believes that Mitt Romney is the candidate most likely to fit comfortably… Read more »

Didn’t a lot of the current Israel Firsters oppose Rabin’s peace policies? I’m not sure I agree that Israel Firsters always support Israeli governments, whatever they do.


Who is the wolf in sheep’s clothing – in the NYT ad? Aren’t these the people who on face value are American or German and say they are concerned with world peace in general but have an ‘Israel first’ agenda? Sometimes it takes a certain event for them to come out as Israel Firsters. This was so in Germany with the publication of Günter Grass’ poem on Israel. Suddenly I realized that people, mostly Jews,… Read more »