There has been a controversy brewing over allegations that several bloggers at the liberal Center for American Progress have used anti-Semitic rhetoric when criticizing Israel and its American Supporters. Critics have particularly focused on these bloggers’ use of the term “Israel-firster.”
I haven’t paid all that much attention to the controversy, but today I came across a piece by Jamie Kirchik in which he alleges that the term “Israel-firster” was first popularized by Willis Carto’s anti-Semitic The Spotlight, and that the term gradually migrated from the anti-Semitic far right to the “Progressive” left.
So I decided to do some research. I couldn’t find any online archives of The Spotlight, but here is what I did find.
The “Israel-firster” slur was not used in “mainstream” discourse until the last few years.
Before that, you can find it occasionally in the early 1980s and 1990s in sources such as Wilmot Robertson’s anti-Semitic Instauration journal, a 1988 anti-Semitic book called “The F.O.J. [Fear of Jews] Syndrome, and a 1998 anti-Semitic book “Rise of AntiChrist.” I also found a couple of references to “Israel-firsters” in the extremist anti-Israel publication, The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, and from writers associated with this journal.
By the early 2000s, one can find “Israel-firster” being used by a variety of anti-Semitic “right-wing” sources like DavidDuke.com and the Vanguard News Network. As the decade wore on, the phrase occasionally pops up in far left anti-Israel sites that have ties to the anti-Semitic far-right or are known for playing footsie with anti-Semitism, like Antiwar.com, Norman Finkelstein’s website, and Indymedia.
Finally, over the last few years the term has become increasingly used on the anti-Israel far left, especially by blogger M. J. Rosenberg of Media Matters, who Kirchik calls the “worst offender.”
Obviously, the phrase “Israel-firster” should be expunged from reasoned discourse, regardless of its origins–it amounts, as Kirchik points out, to name calling as opposed to argument. And it certainly questions the patriotism of Jewish Americans to whom the moniker is applied, which at best potentially plays to anti-Semitic sentiment.
But is the phrase clearly anti-Semitic, even if used by those who have no anti-Semitic intent? I don’t think we need to reach that issue. Some of the “Progressive” bloggers who have used the phrase may not have been aware of its origins in the depths of unhinged neo-Nazi land.
So the question is, does your average Progressive recoil at the use of terminology that migrated recent 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.
Therefore, regardless of what cockamamie post hoc excuses they come up with (Rosenberg, for example, claims that when he talks about “Israel-firsters”, he only means “Netanyahu firsters” [in the sense they always think Netanyahu is right--if Rosenberg meant the latter, then he was being intentionally provocative, and not in a good way), if bloggers want to claim status as Progressives who are not anti-Semitic, they should treat the phrase "Israel firster" the same disdain as any other phrase that recently emerged from the sewers of racism.
UPDATE: The following passage from Kirchik's piece is relevant: "While CAP publicly denied that its employees were trafficking in anti-Semitism, an e-mail from the organization's vice president, obtained by The Jerusalem Post, deemed 'Israel-firster,' to be 'terrible, anti-Semitic language.'" That's further then I'd go, in the absence of proof of intent. But the point, once again, is that self-styled "Progressives," as a rule, bend over backwards to be politically correct and hypersensitive on linguistic usage as pertains to members of minority groups. They wouldn't deign to use the equivalent of Israel-firsters to refer to other minority groups (indeed, they'd likely be attacking "conservatives" for using such language), and if they did, they would surely take some care to examine the origins and implications of the phrase. But when it comes to using borderline anti-Semitic language, not only does sensitivity go by the wayside for certain Progressives, but they delude themselves into thinking that by ignoring Jewish sensitivities, they are "speaking truth to power."
So I'm neither claiming that the bloggers in question are anti-Semitic, or had anti-Semitic intent, or that, in general, writers should engage in self-censorship on matters related to Israel. What I am arguing is that there is a double standard, in which standards that are applied to other groups are not applied to Jews. (I made a related point here.) [Here, for example, is Glenn Greenwald, who has prominently defended his use of "Israel Firster," attacking John McCain for racism for engaging in rhetoric "blatantly designed to stoke raw racial resentments," for such statements as "the usual rules do not apply" to Obama,
and questioning why Obama "refused to disclose the people who are funding his campaign."]
Indeed, I’ve occasionally seen this justified explicitly by “anti-Zionist” leftists on the grounds that Jews, unlike other minority groups, are “powerful.” Just sixty-six years after the end of World War II, and with calls for the annihilation of Jews still emanating from a variety of rather significant sources (Hamas, Hezbollah, various radical Islamist groups, etc.), and still rather high levels of anti-Jewish prejudice even in the most enlightened countries, I think it’s rather early to proclaim that anti-Semitism is no longer a matter of significant concern for “Progressives.”
FURTHER UPDATE: “Fanatically pro-Israel” or “pro-Israel fanatic” would (and often does) serve the same rhetorical function, without either the imputation of foreign loyalties or the neo-Nazi origins.