When the mainstream left embraces the rhetoric of the far right

In an excellent article published in Ha’aretz (chapeau!), James Kirchick comments on a recent “Washington scandal” that erupted over the language used by two self-defined “progressive” organizations – the Center for American Progress (CAP ) and Media Matters for America – in writings critical of Israel and American Jewish support for Israel.

Kirchick argues that “the rhetoric of the far right has seeped into the discourse of the mainstream left.”He illustrates his point by demonstrating that accusing Jewish supporters of Israel of having “dual loyalty” and putting “Israel first” was very popular with the now defunct far-right publication “Spotlight;” in a related post, David Bernstein at the Volokh Conspiracy adds some additional publications from the far-right fringes and traces the adoption of the “Israel firster”-slur by the far-left. Bernstein then points out:

So the question is, does your average Progressive recoil at the use of terminology that migrated recent[ly] from the far-right racist kook fringe to refer to members of minority groups? They sure do. Should they recoil less if the terminology is aimed at Jews, as opposed to other minority groups? They sure shouldn’t–unless they are themselves prejudiced against Jews.

Among the related issues addressed by Kirchick is the spurious claim that criticism of Israel is somehow “risky:”

The left is constantly complaining that the debate about Israel is restricted, that one can’t criticize Israel without “risking” his career. Reality is in fact the opposite. Figures ranging from University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer to journalists Peter Beinart and Andrew Sullivan have all seen their careers blossom as a result of their harsh and unrelenting criticism of Israel. Indeed, obsessively attacking Israel is a bona-fide way to resuscitate one’s career, not destroy it. As a measure, consider the fact that employees at mainstream liberal institutions feel comfortable using the sort of language popularized by white supremacists and Holocaust-deniers.

In this context, it’s worthwhile asking how we got to this point. Among those Kirchick mentions, John Mearsheimer arguably provides a particularly instructive example for anyone interested in studying the mainstreaming of antisemitism in recent years.

When Mearsheimer and Walt published “The Israel Lobby” in 2007, I argued that the reception of the book indicated that antisemitism was becoming acceptable. Back then, Walter Russell Mead wrote an excellent review of the book in Foreign Affairs where he acknowledged that this “may be a book that anti-Semites will love,” but he also argued that “it is not necessarily an anti-Semitic book.”

As Mead pointed out, Mearsheimer and Walt “do what anti-Semites have always done: they overstate the power of Jews […] the picture they paint calls up some of the ugliest stereotypes in anti-Semitic discourse. The Zionist octopus they conjure — stirring up the Iraq war, manipulating both US political parties, shaping the media, punishing the courageous minority of professors and politicians who dare to tell the truth — is depressingly familiar.”

However, Mead argued that these antisemitic stereotypes were a result of the book’s flawed analysis: “Mearsheimer and Walt have come honestly to a mistaken understanding of the relationship between pro-Israel political activity and US policy and strategic interests. It is no crime to be wrong, and being wrong about Jews does not necessarily make someone an anti-Semite.”

But in April 2010, Mearsheimer delivered the Hisham B. Sharabi Memorial Lecture at the Palestine Center in Washington, DC. In a related post, I wrote in early May:

Mark 2010 as the year it became acceptable for a professor who serves as the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago to deliver a lecture that proposes how to define, and distinguish between, various categories of Jews. […] First, it is important to note the title of Professor Mearsheimer’s lecture: “The Future of Palestine: Righteous Jews vs. New Afrikaners”. When you read or listen to the relatively long lecture, you will see that the part where he explains how he categorizes Jews (or, to be precise, “American Jews who care deeply about Israel”) comes only toward the end of the lecture. Up to this point, Mearsheimer presents his reasoning – based on highly selective facts, misrepresentations and cherry-picked polls – for his conclusion that “there is going to be a Greater Israel between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.”

Mearsheimer then sets out to speculate about the question who will live in the “Greater Israel” he predicts and what kind of political system will be adopted in this entity. After devoting a few paragraphs to insinuating that Israel is only too eager to find some pretext to expel “massive numbers of Palestinians from Greater Israel”, Mearsheimer argues that in his view, the “most likely outcome in the absence of a two-state solution is that Greater Israel will become a full-fledged apartheid state.”

It is in this context that he turns to the question of whether American Jews and the “lobby” would continue to support Israel, and he then proceeds to offer his advice on how to categorize “American Jews who care deeply about Israel” – and it is truly revealing that it is this issue that gets highlighted in the lecture’s title. […]

Professor Mearsheimer then proceeds to outline the political credo he ascribes to the “righteous Jews” and the “new Afrikaners” respectively, and he even “fleshes out” the categories he suggests by naming names. His “list” of “righteous Jews” includes Noam Chomsky, Roger Cohen, Richard Falk, Norman Finkelstein, Tony Judt, Tony Karon, Naomi Klein, MJ Rosenberg, Sara Roy and Philip Weiss; also on the list are “many of the individuals associated with J Street and everyone associated with Jewish Voice for Peace, as well as distinguished international figures such as Judge Richard Goldstone.” [Not sure if Goldstone still qualifies after protesting the “Apartheid Slander”…]

By contrast, the Jews who make up Mearsheimer’s “new Afrikaners” list include “most of the individuals who head the Israel lobby’s major organizations”, among them “Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, David Harris of the American Jewish Committee, Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Ronald Lauder of the World Jewish Congress, and Morton Klein of the Zionist Organization of America, just to name some of the more prominent ones.”

Mearsheimer also adds to this list “businessmen like Sheldon Adelson, Lester Crown, and Mortimer Zuckerman as well as media personalities like Fred Hiatt and Charles Krauthammer of The Washington Post, Bret Stephens of The Wall Street Journal, and Martin Peretz of The New Republic.” And, he doesn’t forget to point out: “It would be easy to add more names to this list.”

Fast forward to fall 2011, and we find John Mearsheimer endorsing the book-length ruminations about Jewish and Israeli evils by the Israeli-British jazz saxophonist Gilad Atzmon who has long devoted his spare time to expressing his intense disdain and hatred for all things Israeli and Jewish. Initially, many people were in disbelief and expected that Mearsheimer would quickly distance himself from Atzmon’s odious writings. However, Mearsheimer actually did the opposite – and it shouldn’t have come as a surprise given the track record he had already established. As I’ve noted elsewhere, Gilad Atzmon could obviously expect “that Mearsheimer would embrace him as a ‘righteous Jew.’ And who knows: maybe next time Professor Mearsheimer teaches a ‘Seminar on Zionism and Palestine,’ Atzmon’s opus will be on the list of required reading.”

Let us be clear: the mainstream left has been very selective in embracing the rhetoric of the far right; as a result, antisemitic discourse is now “politically correct” and academically approved.

Needless to say, this discourse is then used to justify campaigns targeting Israel, whether it’s efforts to boycott Israel, or to question Israel’s right to defend itself by challenging the blockade of Gaza, or attempts to breach Israel’s borders.

2 responses to “When the mainstream left embraces the rhetoric of the far right

  1. Pingback: The lowest common denominator | The Warped Mirror

  2. Pingback: So can we also talk about ‘ummah-firsters’? | The Warped Mirror

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