Debunking the ‘Israel-firster’ slur

Better to let rational argument and a free exchange of opinions determine American policy.

By
January 30, 2012 22:43
3 minute read.
Pro-Israel protestors

Pro-Israel protestors 311. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, Reuters)

 
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Finally, after nearly two months of bickering, controversy surrounding the use by some on the American Left of the term “Israel-firster” to describe American Jews with a hawkish, pro-Israel orientation seems to have finally settled down. In the process, some important distinctions have been made and lines drawn.

Significantly, some on the Left have stood up and acknowledged the anti-Semitic roots of the slur, which apparently originated with Holocaust deniers on the extreme Right in the 1970s and was co-opted in the past decade by radical leftist, anti-Israel bodies such as Antiwar.com, Indymedia and Norman Finkelstein’s website.

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Zaid Jilani, a blogger for the Center for American Progress (CAP), which is affiliated with the Democratic Party, erased the slur from his blogs and tweets after learning of its checkered past. J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami, who originally defended use of the term, later admitted that “Israel-firster” was a “bad choice of words.” (Unfortunately, Media Matters for America’s senior foreign policy fellow M.J. Rosenberg remains uncontrite and continues to use the term.)

On the Jewish website Tablet, left-wing journalist Spencer Ackerman, who said he has criticized the American Jewish Right’s “myopic, destructive, tribal conception of what it means to love Israel,” nevertheless admits that by using the term “Israel-firster” one loses the debate by revealing one’s “antipathy and contempt for Jews.”

More profoundly, Ackerman pointed out that many on the Left who are fond of the “Israel-firster” smear and categorically deny its anti-Semitic undertone are “very good at hearing and analyzing dog-whistles when they’re used to dehumanize Arabs and Muslims.”

Besides the distastefulness of using a term with anti- Semitic roots, naming someone an “Israel-firster” is highly problematic because it tends to completely and utterly delegitimize by issuing a nonnegotiable verdict. Thus, free debate is shut down instead of encouraged. Jews are not the only ones in US history who have been vilified for purported “dual loyalties.”

President Theodore Roosevelt denounced the “hyphenated Americanism” of German-Americans during World War I. And during World War II, president Franklin Roosevelt authorized the internment of about 110,000 Japanese-Americans. Both instances are stains on America’s history.

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Also, “Israel-firster” is, as The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg has pointed out, an inaccurate term because it “precludes the possibility that the person who supports Israel is doing so precisely because he or she feels that it is in America’s best interest to support Israel.”

Indeed, there are non-Zionist reasons to support Israel, such as the fact that the Jewish state is the only true democracy in the Middle East that protects the rights of minorities, women and homosexuals; or the fact that Israel’s strong military helps protect US interests in the region. But there are also Zionist reasons to support Israel, such as the belief that the Jewish people have the right to political self-determination and sovereignty in their historical homeland; or that the Holocaust has proved that the Jewish people are in need of a country and a military of their own.

Neither Zionist nor non-Zionist arguments in favor of maintaining a strong Israel inherently contradicts American interests. In fact it is difficult to fathom a day in the future when it would no longer be possible to reconcile American and Israeli interests. But if such a day were to come, either Israel or America will have undergone a radical change for the worst.

The controversy surrounding the use of the “Israel-firster” slur has seemingly increased appreciation in America for the need to debate positions on US policy vis-à-vis Israel in an environment untainted by intimidation. Issues such as Israel’s settlement policies in Judea and Samaria must be conducted in a free and open manner regardless of where one is positioned on the political map. Claiming that the building of settlements is opposed to either US or Israel interests or both is legitimate. But those who believe differently should not be silenced with the accusation that they are putting Israel’s interests before America’s. Better to let rational argument and a free exchange of opinions determine American policy.

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