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Response To Andrew Sullivan

Andrew Sullivan has a lengthy reply to my post, which categorically stated that he’s not an anti-Semite, but which also took sharp issue with his views on the Middle East. I truly regret that my colleague impugned Andrew’s motives. I like Andrew a great deal, and like him I believe in debating politics –sharply, at times – without impinging on friendships.

My basic take is that Andrew was a simplistic supporter of Israel and has become a simplistic critic. In response, he argues that world events have changed his mind. My criticism, he contends:

critically ignores the major shifts in the world and the situation since then: the doubling of the illegal settler population on the West Bank, the catastrophe of the Iraq war and its ramifications for the West's relationship with the Muslim world, the torture policy embraced by the US government against overwhelmingly Muslim prisoners, the move to the far right in Israeli public opinion (where approval of Obama once sunk to 6 percent), the effect of Bush's blank check for Israel for eight years, the rise of Israel's religious right, the influx of Russian immigrants, Obama's promise as a bridge between the West and moderate Muslims, the brutality of the Gaza war just before his inauguration, and the intransigence of the Netanyahu government ever since over something as basic as mere freezing settlement construction that is already illegal. Chait writes as if the last decade had never happened and that therefore the shift in my position is somehow inexplicable, apart from some psychological inability to see nuance, or some general Manicheanism in my world view.

In response, no, I don’t think these events go very far in accounting for the night-and-day transformation in Andrew's stance. The 6% figure Andrew likes to site is inaccurate. That was one poll asking if Obama is pro-Israel. Favorability of Obama in Israel is actually 41%, versus a 37% unfavorable rating. The influx of Russian immigrants has been going on for twenty years, with the heaviest levels by far taking place at the beginning of this period. The Iraq war, American torture and Obama’s Muslim outreach are American actions that do not strike me as reasons to reevaluate one’s view of Israel.

As for the rest of these events – yes, Israel’s polity has taken a disturbing rightward tilt over the last several years, which I attribute mostly to large chunks of its population living in London Blitz-like conditions for extended stretches. It strikes me as a reason to modulate one’s views of the country, not to go from viewing it as a lonely, righteous embattled beacon of freedom to a bloodthirsty religious-fundamentalist aggressor.

Andrew asks me to go through Leon’s piece point by point. I’m not going to go through every line. I do think that the criticisms of his Middle East views, in general, were trenchant. “Military adventurism” is indeed a propagandistic description of a response, even a disproportionate one, to terrorist attacks launched from adjacent territory. Casually proposing an American invasion of Israel followed by a NATO occupation of the border is, yes, bizarre. Andrew does have a highly exaggerated belief in the connection between Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and the persistence of Islamism. In general, I agree with Leon’s argument that Andrew has taken a simplistic and often facile line on Israel, though I continue to object strongly to his insinuation of anti-Semitism.

To me the most disheartening turn in Andrew’s writing is his obsession with the Israel lobby, about which his writing has taken on the tone of a Dan Brown novel. Take his two recent posts “What Often Happens To Israel’s Critics.” The passive voice is ominous. “What often happens” turns out to be that… you receive a lot of angry emails, or are viciously attacked by such organs as Pajamas Media.

At this point, for the sake of comparison, I should share an analogous experience. Last year, Chas Freeman was nominated for an intelligence post in the Obama administration. Taking in the whole his record—his close Saudi ties, his staunch backing of Walt and Mearsheimer, his full-throated defense of the Tiananmen Square Massacre—I concluded that he had taken ideological realism to the point of fanaticism. Now, I don’t read public emails. But the reaction among writers who question the U.S. alliance with Israel was highly vitriolic. I was repeatedly labeled a “neocon” or a “Likudnik,” which are the terms used by the left to describe anybody whose views on Israel correspond with any major party in Israel, including Labor or Kadima. Robert Dreyfuss, along with Stephen Walt, accused me of participating in a “coordinated assault” with several Jewish writers or lobbyists with whom I have never coordinated anything, nor contacted in any way. M.J. Rosenberg accused me of having “ethnic blinders” on the issue of Israel. Walt insisted that, whatever my protestations, my true sole motive for opposing Freeman was his position on Israel, and my intent was to intimidate other critics of Israel. Chas Freeman Jr., writing in the Washington Note, threatened to punch me in the nose.

Now, one conclusion I could draw from this data is that Israel’s enemies are powerful and legion. They operate in packs, smearing anybody who dares criticize an enemy of the Jewish state. Their goal is to intimidate American Jews into keeping silent on Israel – unless they happen to belong to the tiny minority who agree with the Walts and Mearsheimers of the world – or else their opinion will be discounted as an expression of dual loyalty.

That conclusion would be overwrought. The reality is that the authors of these rants against me are individuals expressing their (hysterical) beliefs. And the “consequences” of being insulted, or subjected to empty threats, by loons over the internet are, in reality, not very dire.

It’s easy to see why many of Israel’s supporters view themselves as brave defenders of a tiny embattled state, assaulted by bigots and radicals whenever they dare speak out. It’s also easy to see why Israel’s critics see themselves as a tiny remnant willing to endure the smears of Zionist thugs for daring to speak the truth about the Middle East. The Middle East is an emotional issue, and it’s a big internet out there. Perhaps the catcalls endured by Israel’s critics are more numerous and vicious than those endured by its supporters. The relative measure of electronic abuse does not interest me. My point is that the creation of communities of mutual believers, reinforcing each other's sensation of martyrdom and bravery, is not conducive to clear thinking.

Andrew was the editor of TNR when I started as an intern. He treated me generously, has continued to do so since then, and I have always felt gratitude toward him. He’s a gifted writer and polemicist. I hope we can disagree on Israel the way we have in the past disagreed on Al Gore, progressive taxation, George W. Bush, health care, and all the rest. Israel has always aspired to become a “normal country,” and my aspiration is for arguments about Israel to become normal arguments.

Update: Andrew replies here. I think his reply is mostly worldplay, so I'll leave it at that.