Glenn Greenwald on Anti-Semitism

Glenn Greenwald has a very Glenn Greenwaldesque post on the controversy over alleged use of anti-Semitic language by bloggers at the Center for American Progress, which I discussed last week.

One would never know from reading Greenwald’s piece that the controversy primarily revolved around the use of the term “Israel-firster” to describe supporters of Israel, much less that one can say two things about that term without much fear of contradiction: (1) it originated on the neo-Nazi fringe, and has only been adopted by left-wingers in the last few years; (2) it’s a term that not only substitutes insults for argument, but it implies loyalty to a foreign power, a longstanding theme in anti-Semitic literature.

As I said before, that doesn’t make the phrase somehow “objectively” anti-Semitic if used by individuals who had no anti-Jewish intent. However, as I also noted, most people of good will try to avoid using phrases related to Jews once they recognize that they have the odor of neo-Naziism about them (and indeed the CAP bloggers deleted the posts in question after the controversy broke). Others, however, like Greenwald, continue to think the phrase perfectly appropriate.

Moreover, left-wing writers tend to be especially sensitive about using language that has potentially racist implications, and also tend to be quick to accuse others of using “dog whistle” phrases–phrases that sound neutral, but are meant to stir racial animosity or invoke racial stereotypes.

In Greenwald’s defense, unlike many other left-wing anti-Israel writers who are quick to reject colorable charges of anti-Semitism, he has been a fearless opponent of political correctness, and has defended Republicans and conservatives from questionable charges of racism.

Actually, that’s not true. Actually, the opposite is true. Here, for example, is Glenn Greenwald in 2008, accusing John McCain of delivering “one of the ugliest, nastiest, most invective-filled” attacks “a major candidate has ever delivered, blatantly designed to stoke raw racial resentments.” The offending language? (Italics are Greenwald’s): It’s as if somehow the usual rules don’t apply, and where other candidates have to explain themselves and their records, Senator Obama seems to think he is above all that . . . His campaign had to return $33,000 in illegal foreign funds from Palestinian donors, and this weekend, we found out about another $28,000 in illegal donations. Why has Senator Obama refused to disclose the people who are funding his campaign? Again, the American people deserve answers.

Let’s get this straight. Suggesting that the usual rules don’t apply to Obama, stating that he returned illegal campaign contributions from Palestinian donors, and claiming that Obama refuses to disclose his funders isn’t just overheated (or silly) campaign rhetoric, isn’t even just ugly and nasty, but “is blatantly designed to stoke raw racial resentments.”

So, mentioning illegal Palestinian donations = blatant racism; adopting language appropriated from neo-Nazis within the decade about Israel’s supporters = clearly not anti-Semitic. Suggesting that a Obama has avoided “the usual rules” = blatant racism; suggesting that pro-Israel Americans care more about Israel than about the U.S. = clearly not anti-Semitic. Accusing someone of using anti-Semitism for using the Israel-firster slur makes you part of a “smear campaign”; accusing John McCain of blatant racism for claiming that Obama has not disclosed his campaign donors makes you a courageous left-wing blogger speaking truth to power.

I’m not going to argue that Greenwald’s racism argument is completely absurd–he’s a good lawyer, and he makes at least a marginally colorable argument in the rest of his post. But his argument is MUCH more of a stretch, or, if you will, much less well-founded, than the argument that “Israel-firster” is anti-Semitic language.

Obviously, Greenwald’s sensitivity to offensive language depends on whether he likes/agrees with the target. When his favored candidate, Barack Obama, was being attacked by John McCain, he was extremely quick to accuse McCain of using language designed to appeal to racist sentiment. When pro-Israel activists and politicians, a Greenwald-disfavored group, are being attacked by his anti-Israel compatriots, suddenly they are inherently immune from any hint of using anti-Semitic (a form, of course, of racism) language unless, perhaps, they are wearing swastikas and celebrating Hitler’s birthday. And the fact that Greenwald can and has come up with examples of where some of Israel’s supporters have used charges of anti-Semitism in inappropriate or exaggerated contexts is quite irrelevant to the point, just as it would be irrelevant to Greenwald’s post about McCain if someone pointed out that charges of racism against Obama’s opponents are at times inappropriate or exaggerated.

UPDATE: Here, in its entirety, is Greenwald’s response:

On a different note: both Jeffrey Goldberg and David Bernstein have posts about my arguments on the smearing of CAP that rest on the same premise: namely, that to point out that someone has “dual loyalties” is an accusation of disloyalty to their own country or even worse. As I explain here, that premise is false. There’s nothing inherently wrong with dual loyalties: those are common among many groups, especially in a country of immigrants, and are typically benign. What’s menacing is to smear those who discuss its existence and the way in which it influences our politics.

This would obviously be a more persuasive argument if the “Israel-firster” meme had not migrated to the left directly and very recently from the blatantly anti-Semitic right, a point Greenwald does not address. Indeed, the offensive aspect “Israel-firster” is not whether it’s inherently libelous to accuse someone of “dual loyalties,” any more than it’s inherently libelous to accuse someone of taking donations from foreign Palestinian sources. Rather, as Greenwald suggested with regard to McCain, the question is whether the use of the language is “designed to stoke raw racial [anti-Semitic] resentments.” Clearly this is the case when the language is used by the likes of David Duke, and the question then is whether the language magically is purged of such connotations when used by M.J. Rosenberg and others on the “mainstream” left.

[Additionally, a commenter points out that “Israel-firster” is not an accusation of “dual loyalties,” but of primary loyalty to a foreign country.]