Sullivan v. Wieseltier

The New York Times reports on the Andrew Sullivan vs. Leon Wieseltier controversy.  The report is not quite right; it says that Wieseltier accused Sullivan of anti-Semitism, when Wieseltier actually accused Sullivan of recklessly engaging in venomous rhetoric that gives aid and comfort to anti-Semites and stokes anti-Semitism.  This may be cold comfort to Sullivan and his defenders, but we might as well get the story right, and the difference is important for reasons discussed below.  You can read Wieseltier’s original article here, Sullivan’s response here, and Wieseltier’s rejoinder (much better than his original piece, IMHO) here.

I have a few small contributions to make to the debate.  One is that I find it extremely odd that Sullivan is so vociferous in attacking Israel’s defenders (rather than just Israel’s policies) when, as Jonathan Chait points out, he himself rather recently was one of Israel’s most vociferous defenders.  If Sullivan himself was once persuaded that Israel’s cause is just, shouldn’t that lead him to some circumspection about attributing Israel’s support in the U.S. to a nefarious cabal of “neocons”, the “Goldfarb-Krauthammer wing” of the Jewish community, AIPAC, and so forth?  Maybe a lot of people find Israel’s case compelling for the exact same reasons Sullivan did as recently as eight years ago.   But Sullivan is almost uniquely uncharitable to people who hold the views he himself held just a few years ago, so this probably reflects a general “convert going after the heretics” mentality on his part.  Plus, given his blogging about Sarah Palin, Trig, et al., is there much reason to think he hasn’t gone off the deep end generally?

Second, Wieseltier’s notes, in his rejoinder, that Sullivan has apologized a couple of times for engaging in rhetoric perceived to be anti-Semitic, and adds, “There is a lot of this prejudice in the world right now, and this is really no time to be sloppy, or South Parky, about it.”  Wieseltier has stumbled, perhaps inadvertently, on one of the key bones of contention between many Jewish (and some non-Jewish) advocates for Israel and their adversaries (including Jewish adversaries).  The pro-Israel forces note that anti-Semitism is rampant in the Arab/Muslim world, still has a fair number of supporters in the West, that Iran is threatening to wipe out Israel, and so forth.  The plea, then, is to take this into account when criticizing Israel, and try to keep your criticism reasonable, and take care not to invoke anti-Semitic tropes, even by accident. Otherwise you risk stirring additional anti-Semitism, perhaps even leading to a “Second Holocaust.”  After all, the “progressives” who harshly attack Israel are generally the same people who are most sensitive about other forms of racism.

From the critics’ perspective, however, Israel and its perceived bellicosity, and its perceived alliance with bellicose forces in the U.S., is not just a significant violator of Palestinian human rights, but a serious threat to world peace.  [UPDATE: Consider Sullivan–Israeli policy is a “danger to itself and the entire world”.] When you are dealing with a country so dangerous, that has such a reservoir of (to them inexplicable) support in the U.S., you can’t treat it with kid gloves.  If a critic of Israel occasionally steps over the line,that’s an understandable reaction to the frustration of beating your head against the wall of pro-Israel public opinion, and pales in comparison to the sins of the “right-wingers” whose “unconditional” support of Israel threatens all of humanity with nuclear annihilation.  And such critics are contemptuous of the idea that care should be taken when discussing legitimate topics that relate to Jewish stereotypes, such as the “Jewish Lobby”–we are supposed to worry, they suggest, about the long-term consequences of legitimate criticism of Israel, when [they think] Israel and its supporters are trying to push the U.S. into a new and disastrous war with Iran?

Finally, and related to the second point, there is a reason why some critics of Israel (some of whom I’ve discussed in this blog) are tempted to use venomous rhetoric against Israel and its supporters that sometimes crosses the line, to various degrees, into hostility to Jews, even if they are personally not only not anti-Semitic, but find it repulsive.   And that is that such rhetoric works.  Arguments based on pure reason are often less successful than arguments that provide reasoned arguments but also appeal to the emotions.  Our civilization has a two thousand year old reservoir of anti-Jewish sentiment that is part of our societal DNA, and appealing to that cultural baggage, even if it’s just latent, makes anti-Israel arguments more powerful and persuasive.   Being anti-Israel doesn’t make one anti-Semitic, but appealing to anti-Semitism does make it easier to persuade people to be anti-Israel.  The very effectiveness of appealing to societal anti-Semitism in criticizing Israel is good reason to avoid it, but also the reason it’s all too common.