The campaign to lure the US into attacking Iran has one big problem to overcome before the War Party can taste success: the rather obvious fact that such a war would benefit Israel, and not the United States. This is why Israel’s partisans in the US constitute the spearhead of the pro-war agitation, why AIPAC has made this a consistent theme for the past few years, and why the billionaire Sheldon Adelson, aside from funding the Newtster, has poured untold millions into the same project. Hardly a day goes by without some Israeli government official reiterating, once again, that Iran represents an “existential threat” to the Jewish state, and threatening to strike the first blow if Uncle Sam fails to wake up in time, while Israel’s amen corner dutifully echoes the same line.
Israel and its more vehement partisans in this country have demanded the US attack Iran, even going so far as to raise the specter of another Holocaust if America fails to act. However, one argument they have failed to make is significant by its absence – they have failed to show how it is in America’s interest to launch a military strike. Indeed, they have neglected this part of the equation rather ostentatiously, and yet one can hardly blame them for this oversight for the simple reason that such a case would be impossible to make. An attack on Iran would deprive the world economy of a significant portion of its energy needs, and would likely result in an economic catastrophe in this country – to say nothing of the costs of the war, in blood and treasure. War-weary Americans are not in the mood for another invasion and occupation in search of nonexistent “weapons of mass destruction.” This is the War Party’s Achilles’ heel.
How to get around this is the problem at the heart of the War Party’s current project, and in order to do so they are employing the deadliest weapon in their well-stocked arsenal: the accusation of “racism,” the most toxic accusation anyone can make about someone in the current political climate. Specifically, they are accusing war opponents of “anti-Semitism.” After all, if Israel is the Jewish state, and that state’s very existence is threatened by the specter of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program (which US intelligence has stubbornly failed to detect), then opposition to US military action is “anti-Semitism,” pure and simple.
Today’s war propagandists have figured out a way to make the issue of American interests, as opposed to Israeli interests, go away, and that is by policing the language of the debate. Are you calling someone who wants to pursue Israeli interests over and above those of his or her own country an “Israel firster”? Well, then, you are “anti-Semitic,” you are employing the oldest “anti-Semitic tropes” and echoing “neo-Nazis,” who – James Kirchick assures us – are the originators of the phrase. This is the argument made by “progressive” Spencer Ackerman in a recent issue of the Tablet, in which he joins the neoconservative assault on Glenn Greenwald, M.J. Rosenberg, and four bloggers over at the Center for American Progress who got slapped down for daring to wield (or imply) this supposedly “toxic” phrase.
There’s just one problem with this argument: it isn’t true. Ackerman cites Kirchick as the authority in this matter, but as a researcher the man Time columnist Joe Klein called a “dishonest prick” and a cheap “propagandist” leaves much to be desired. Kirchick claims the phrase originated with Willis Carto’s Spotlight newspaper, a cesspool of anti-Semitism, but this is false: it originated, as one can see here, with Alfred M. Lilienthal, an anti-Zionist Jew who wrote several books in the early 1950s and 1960s, notably What Price Israel? Lilienthal’s 1953 book was brought out by Henry Regnery, the noted conservative publicist and pioneer publisher, whose press also printed a number of other anti-Zionist and pro-Palestinian works, including Freda Utley’s Will the Middle East Go West? – which presciently argued American support for Israel would alienate the Arab world – Road to Beersheba, a novel by Ethel Mannin which dramatized the plight of a conquered people imprisoned in their own land, and a collection of photographs and text by the Swedish photographer Per-Orlow Anderson, They Are Human Too, which, in Regnery’s words, “brought us face to face with the tragedy of the Arab refugees, whom he photographed crowded into the inhospitable Gaza strip.” Which brings to mind the old saw about “the more things change.” Yet another example of the changeless nature of our politics was described by Regnery, who reported in his Memoirs of a Dissident Publisher:
“One unexpected consequence of the book’s publication was the visit from an agent of the FBI, who had been sent to make some inquiries about its author.”
“This was,” continues Regnery, “one of the less serious calls by government agents of one kind or another that frequently followed the publication of a book that displeased some group or individual of influence.” Our witch-hunters will surely characterize Regnery’s sardonic remark as evidence that he, too, was another one of those awful “anti-Semites” – after all, he was implying the Zionist lobby had enough influence to call out the dogs of the FBI and sic them on a mere photographer.
Yet Regnery’s views, and those of his attendant authors, were hardly considered “subversive” back then: indeed, theirs was the standard conservative position on the state of Israel, which, back in the day, was an ally of the Soviet Union and a proudly socialist state. It is inconceivable, of course, that the Regnery Publishing Co. of today would put out anything remotely resembling Lilienthal’s work: not with the conservative movement of 2012 dominated by warmongering neoconservatives and nutty Christian Zionists who see support for Israel as divinely ordained. In 1949, however, when Lilienthal wrote “Israel’s Flag is Not Mine” for Readers Digest, his critique of Zionist propaganda was shared by mainstream conservatives as a matter of course:
“Today we see Zionists boasting of ‘Jewish’ political strength, Zionist picket lines around British consulates, Zionists demonstrating against Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin when he arrives here to sign the Atlantic Pact, New York stores plastered with posters screaming ‘Do Not Buy British. Made Goods.’
“Are these people acting as Americans? Europe’s recovery through the Marshall Plan is the keystone of our bipartisan foreign policy, which the Communists are trying to sabotage. Any boycott of British goods, organized or unorganized, helps this destruction.”
It wasn’t any neo-Nazis, but Lilienthal, a political conservative and a devout Jew, who was the first to raise the question of “dual loyalty.” The “Israel Firster” meme originated, not with the neo-Nazi fringe, but with conservative Jews who, like Lilienthal, objected that:
“My one and only homeland is America. I am proud of my belief in the age-old Judaic concept of one God in Heaven and one Humanity here below. But my faith does not pull me into a feeling of narrowly tribal kinship with all others who worship God in this way. Whenever I read of Americans singing the Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem, or see youth groups raising Israel’s flag beside the Stars and Stripes. I am outraged. For Israel’s flag and anthem are symbols of a foreign state; they are not mine.”
The Kirchicks, the Ackermans, the Goldbergs – and also the Cartos – want us to forget this heritage, which has been buried under the landslide of pro-Israel propaganda, because it challenges the premises of both the Israel-Firsters and the anti-Semites.
Lilienthal was no fringe character: a diplomat who worked in the State Department during the war, he served in the US Army in the Middle East, and was later a consultant at the founding conference of the United Nations. His opposition to Zionism as a political movement was initially shared by many if not most American Jews: see Jack Ross’s new book, Rabbi Outcast, for a biography of the most well-known figure in this movement, Rabbi Elmer Berger, which also serves as a detailed history of the American Council for Judaism, the organizational expression of this tendency. These Jews did not think it extraordinary that they would oppose the claims of a foreign government on their loyalties, and they warned – presciently, as it turned out – that American Jews would face charges of harboring dual loyalties because of the Zionists’ insistence that all Jews somehow owed allegiance to Tel Aviv.
In short, the “neo-Nazi” origins of the “Israel Firster” meme is a myth that depends on ignorance of the real history of American Jewish opposition to Israeli nationalism. Like all war propaganda, it is based on blanking out whole portions of the historical record in favor of a black-and-white version of events.
So don’t worry, Glenn – you can still use “Israel Firster” without being tainted by the stain of anti-Semitism.
Yet why use the term at all? Isn’t it just a nasty epithet, one that doesn’t illuminate any valid point about our impending war with Iran?
In a word: no. The advocates of war with Iran are finagling to set up the debate in terms of whether or not we will act to prevent another Holocaust – in which case opposition to bombing Tehran will be characterized as enabling mass genocide. Here is where the neoconservatives and the “responsibility to protect” “progressives” on the left will meet and merge.
That this “argument” is based on fantasy – the fantasy that Iran is indeed busy cooking up nukes, and is determined to wipe Israel off the map – is being obscured in a barrage of lies and phony “intelligence” similar to that which dragged us into attacking Iraq. But war propaganda and facts don’t mix: indeed, they are mutually exclusive. The idea behind any effective campaign designed to push us into war is to whip up an emotional storm, and a key part of this hysteria is smearing antiwar writers and politicians as “anti-Semites.” In the America of 2012, where political correctness is the Iron Rule, even the accusation – no matter how unfounded – of racial or religious bigotry is toxic, and the War Party hopes to poison the debate over Iran by injecting it into the discourse.
They must not be allowed to get away with it: the Language Police don’t have a warrant when it comes to “Israel Firster,” and appeasing them can only constrict the debate so that the essential motive of the pro-war forces is obscured. And, no, it won’t do to argue that Israel’s interests are not served by a US war with Iran: after all, if we aren’t allowed to argue in terms of what’s in America’s interests, and the interests of its people, then we are hogtied from the word go.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
I note that Freda Utley, mentioned above, who died in 1978, was the mother of Antiwar.com writer and conservative activist Jon Basil Utley. Here is a passage from Will the East Go West?:
“It would seem only too obvious that we are in danger of alienating not only the Arabs but also the far larger Islamic world, because our most-favored-nation treatment of Israel does give grounds for the accusation that she is ‘the spearhead of Western imperialism which still endeavors to divide and rule.’ The Arabs see that Israel is subsidized by huge, tax-free donations by American-Jewish citizens and by United States grants far larger than our economic aid to the Arab States, which, in spite of Israel’s small population, have made her militarily the most powerful State in the Middle East. This leads the Arabs to the false suppositions that America controls Israel, and that we are thus responsible for what she does. As I found during my brief visit to the Middle East, it was difficult to convince the Arabs that, although we pay the piper, we do not call the tune. Americans for sentimental reasons may like to hear music that evokes memories of King Solomon’s temple; but the tune that Israel plays with our permission, if not at our bidding, so grates on the nerves of Israel’s neighbors that they are tempted to call in a Soviet ‘policeman’ to throw both the piper and the sentimental visitor out.”
Complete text here.