Terra Incognita: 'McCarthyism’ vs. free speech

The Israeli misuse of the word as a synonym for criticism has been seemingly due to an ignorance of historical record.

mccarthy 311 (photo credit: Library of Congress)
mccarthy 311
(photo credit: Library of Congress)
On March 7, three heavy hitters of the “pro-peace” camp in the US, Americans for Peace Now, J Street and the New Israel Fund, released what they described as a “first ever joint statement.” They claimed to be “outraged by Bret Stephens’ attack yesterday on President Obama as ‘untrustworthy’ on the basis of the President’s association with people involved in our organizations. His attack – grounded in a litany of guilt-by-association charges – fits well with the tradition established in the 1950s by Senator Joseph McCarthy.”
It seems like a tempest in a teapot, among people who think their sandbox is being disturbed by some interloper. But the joint statement should be taken seriously not because of the dust-up with Mr. Stephens, but because of the substantive claim that these organizations are victims of “McCarthyism.”
The “I’m a victim of the new McCarthyism” claim among left-leaning, Israel-centric organizations has its origins in an Israeli dialectic of “McCarthyism” that began several years ago. When Im Tirzu, a right-leaning student organization, and several other groups such as Israel Academic Monitor and Isracampus began speaking out about the prevalence of extreme left-wing academics who were pushing their ideologies onto students, they were accused of McCarthysim.
In an ironic twist, one academic circulated an email to his peers saying that they should find a way to sue those who were criticizing them so as to stop the verbal assaults.
In March of 2009, David Landau, former editor of Haaretz, claimed that “Israel has slid almost inadvertently a long way down the slope that leads to McCarthyism.” Numerous other articles have been published flippantly using the word McCarthysim as a euphemism for any type of criticism.
It seemed at the time that the Israeli misuse of the word as a synonym for criticism was due to an ignorance of the historical record. But now the misappropriation has affected colleagues on the other side of the Atlantic.
Stephens, according to the current form of his article “The ‘Jewish’ President,” which appears on The Wall Street Journal website, doesn’t even use the word “untrustworthy.” The article is primarily about Peter Beinart’s claim in his soon-to-be-published book The Crisis of Zionism that Obama is a “Jewish” president because he knew many left-wing Jews growing up.
The “guilt by association” is actually a process used, supposedly, by Beinart to build up the President’s credentials. Stephens argues that Beinart is wrong, that in fact the president’s Jewish friends are mostly anti- Israel radicals.
So the “joint statement” is a condemnation of someone for writing an opinion about someone else’s book which hasn’t been published and which argues that Obama is Jewish-by-association. It’s a debate about the debate about the debate, like one of those bureaucracies where they have a committee on committees.
How did all this get twisted around into a McCarthyist threat?
Let’s recall that Beinart’s book is a form of free speech, as is Stephen’s critique of Obama’s portrayal in the as-yet-unpublished work. NIF, APN and J Street are unhappy that “people involved in our organizations” were being critiqued for associating with the president.
But why didn’t the organizations condemn Beinart, since he was the one who dragged them into the arena in the first place? But let’s get back to the first question. Simply put, the red herring of McCarthyism is always brought up for the purpose of inflating an issue, so as to make it seem to be about our fundamental democratic rights.
Joe McCarthy, it should be recalled, served in the US Senate as a representative from Wisconsin from 1947 to 1957. He first came to the public’s attention in 1950 when he claimed that he had a list of Communists who had infiltrated the government. In response a Democratic Senate investigated McCarthy and found his allegations to be a “fraud.”
A left-leaning cartoonist coined the term McCarthyism and McCarthy, in an odd turn of events, embraced it and described his actions as “America with its sleeves rolled up.” He then transformed the “Permanent Subcomittee on Investigations” into a center of his anti-Communism activity, aided by Robert “Bobby” Kennedy.
The committee investigated Communist influence at Voice of America before turning its sights on the US Army. Provoking the army was McCarthy’s downfall; he was censured and died soon after leaving office in disgrace. The real workings of what was called “McCarthyism,” namely the Congressional investigations of Hollywood, are often wrongly associated with the Senator.
The problem is that we have come to a point in the public debate, in both the US and Israel, where the term McCarthyism is often bandied about in relation to totally legitimate opinions expressed by activists or commentators.
It is not McCarthyism to complain that numerous lecturers at Israel’s universities hold extreme anti-Israel views, whether or not that is true, and it is not McCarthyism for Mr. Stephens to discuss a book in an oped. When free speech and the miracle of a free press is confounded with “McCarthyism” it means that we no longer understand the underpinnings of a free market of ideas.
When organizations like the NIF, APN and J Street falsely play the victim to tar their critics they harm the cause of democracy they claim to support. Debate is part of a free society, government intrusion in debate is McCarthyism, cries of “McCarthyism” in relation to free speech damage the public’s notion of what constitutes legitimate speech and what is demagoguery.