Playing With Fire
When the comments on the blogs of Stephen Walt, Andrew Sullivan, Philip Weiss, and Glenn Greenwald turn ugly, who should be held accountable? Plus: A Jew-baiter’s lexicon.
Last week this column argued that major media organizations were mainstreaming the opinions of anti-Semitic commenters in the hopes of boosting traffic on their websites. Some of my critics mistakenly believed that I was accusing specific journalists and academics—Stephen Walt, Andrew Sullivan, Philip Weiss, and Glenn Greenwald—of being anti-Semites. Some also charged that I had smeared these writers by incorrectly holding them accountable for the hate that appears in the comments section of their blogs.
These detractors missed the point of my article, which had nothing to do with the indiscernible beliefs of individuals; rather, I was instead illustrating that these pundits, their audiences, and the major media companies hosting their blogs, are complicit in the common work of mainstreaming the kind of anti-Semitic language, ideas, and discourse that were once confined to extremist hate sites on the far right.
Let’s start with a very recent example: After I contacted Foreign Policy’s Editor-in-Chief Susan Glasser for comment before publication of last week’s column, FP.com quickly excised dozens of the most egregiously anti-Semitic comments that stuck to Walt’s posts. Perhaps they should have also vetted some of the links that Walt himself embeds for the edification of his readers. Consider this recent post where Walt has inserted a link under the name Ariel Sharon, which leads to a 2002 article on the Media Monitors Network website:
The name Safire, as in William Safire of the New York Times, is a name they recognize well at the State Department. He is one of the high priests of Sulzberger’s New York Times empire which has a franchise to dictate terms to the State Department. Of course, it is Safire himself who appears to be taking in dictation work these days from his old pal, Ariel Sharon. Before you read on, note that the Boston Globe is also a publication owned by Sulzberger. Is their a civil war breaking out among the Yiddish Supremacists? Or is Sulzberger trying to deflect some of the damage that is bound to come his way as a result of transforming his media empire into just another corner of the Israeli Lobby? Who cares? Let Sulzberger explain his shadow government’s antics.
With this link Walt shows that he hangs out in the same fetid places as some of his most paranoid commenters. And yet it is true, as some of my critics, including Walt, contend, that he and his colleagues are not responsible for the views of their readers. Walt is not accountable for the rabble that hang on his every word and who feel vindicated by the fact that their dark fantasies about Jews are enhanced by a veneer of academic reasoning from a Harvard professor. Nor can Walt be blamed for the fact that David Duke lauded his work on the Israel lobby’s machinations in pushing the United States to war in Iraq. (“It is quite satisfying,” wrote the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, “to see a body in the premier American University essentially come out and validate every major point I have been making since even before the war even started.”) Even though a sewer follows Walt wherever he goes, he is not that sewer’s keeper.
I did not feel the need to make the case that Walt himself is an anti-Semite. There are plenty of credible voices who have pursued that line of argument. They have made a case that the book he co-authored with John Mearsheimer, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, was an anti-Semitic tract. Still others equally credible believe that Walt simply flirts with anti-Semitism. Andrew Sullivan has also been called to account, more than once, for combining his strident, conspiratorial denunciations of Israel, “Jewish neocons,” and “the Israel Lobby,” with his pronounced obsession with circumcision. Even as Glenn Greenwald and Philip Weiss have both been accused of obscuring the plain facts behind their frothing rhetoric about Israel, I never claimed that they were of the hothouse flower variety of anti-Semite known as the self-hating Jew.
Whether or not these bloggers are anti-Semitic is precisely the argument Walt and the rest want to have and precisely the one I do not. Anti-Semitism is an idea held in the mind that finally can only be confirmed—and can always be denied—by the mind holding it. I can no more discern what these bloggers really think about Jews than I can know whether they are thinking about the color blue or green. To get bogged down in this argument deflects attention from the issue that I am interested in here, which is not a mental state, but a process, an activity in which all four men openly engage: Jew-baiting.
Everyone knows that the media is reeling. For instance, New York Times staffers recently took a 5 percent pay cut after a hundred of their colleagues were laid off. And yet, compared to their colleagues at the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, both of which have been gutted after sliding into bankruptcy, journalists at the Times are clearly the lucky ones. None of the big media companies has figured out how to make their Internet presence into a profit center that can sustain operations, even as they turn their hallowed brand-names over to opinion bloggers who can generate copy at a tiny fraction of the cost of traditional reporting. The Israel, or rather anti-Israel, market is one of the most attractive niche markets in this trade because it taps into a passionate audience that is interested in news and can generate immediate and measurable results—page views, hits, and comments. Even on his best days, Stephen Walt can’t hold a candle to premier sports, shopping, or pornography websites traffic-wise. But he can tap into the prurient passions of a niche market.
If Walt and the others may be acquitted of responsibility for their cesspools, what blame lies with their employers? It is hard to believe that if an author had a written a book, like Walt’s, that had been similarly branded as “nasty,” “paranoid,” and “riddled with errors of fact,” and the book was about, say, African-Americans, or Latinos, or gays—and endorsed by David Duke—that the author would be embraced by the U.S. intelligentsia in the name of open debate. Only their employers know why Walt and the others were hired or remain on staff—the editor of The Atlantic, James Bennet, declined comment through the magazine’s spokesman, while Salon editor Joan Walsh and The Nation Institute’s Taya Kitman did not respond to requests for comment—but it’s not outlandish to imagine that the number of commenters and pageviews these writers’ polemics draw would be a factor. Whether Foreign Policy knew they were getting the public sewer Walt elicits, or just a public intellectual, is unclear. (Foreign Policy’s Susan Glasser did not respond to a request for comment.) What is clear is that they decided to host Walt’s blog, give it prominent billing, and tolerate its commenters.
As was the case with Walt’s blog, Weiss’ sponsor must have brought him aboard fully aware of his anti-Israel sentiments (Mondoweiss was hosted by the New York Observer before the Nation Institute), but Greenwald was already on the Salon site before he turned his baleful attention to anti-Zionist polemics, and The Atlantic bought The Daily Dish before Sullivan started ranting about circumcision and the Jews. Unlike the rest, Sullivan doesn’t allow comments, but we still know what his readers think, because he publishes examples of their work. These published emails are scarcely different from the comments published under the posts of Walt, Greenwald, and Weiss, whose arguments serve as a dog-whistle, calling out the pack of haters whose remarks make explicit what was merely hinted at in the original, (usually) more respectable post. The commenters, many of them known to each other from like-minded Internet sites, feed off of each other’s semi-literate rage, elaborating upon their colleagues’ lies, myths, and slanders and serving up anti-Semitic invective. As the Jews, and sometimes non-Jews, arrive on the site to dispute the calumnies, the cyber-sport of Jew-baiting begins, driving up comments and traffic to heretofore-unreachable heights. Even as Sullivan’s technique to summon the mob seems slightly more sophisticated, it still uses a strategy that allows him to walk away with more traffic—he is currently ranked 15th in “standing & influence” in the entire blogosphere—but a little less of the stench.
In his review of The Israel Lobby, Walter Russell Mead explained how Jew-baiting has historically functioned: “Jews are in a double bind: refrain from responding with outrage and the charge becomes accepted as a fact, express utter loathing at the charge and give anti-Semites the opportunity to pose as the victims of a slander campaign by venomous Jews.” For the purposes of driving Internet traffic, it is helpful if Jews respond, but not necessary, as anyone who has waded through the cesspool knows. In this column last week the subject alone, without the rhetorical energies of Walt and company, also brought a record number of comments for this site, thanks to the efforts of commenters migrating from their own safe havens of invective in order to shout down reasoned debate.
To advertising salesmen and advertisers, of course, the subject of any given blog post is presumably immaterial: What matters are the numbers. But is targeting Jews that much more profitable than going after African-Americans or gays and lesbians or women? The answer is simple. People know they can get away with Jew-baiting because history shows that it has been done before and no one did anything to stop it.
Jew-baiting is simply one way that the new old media and old new media are trying to find their collective footing in a changing press environment and a bad economy. So, in the interests of sharing my understanding of this successful recipe with my colleagues in the opinion press, these are some notes on how to increase traffic to your struggling website.
The Jew-baiter’s Lexicon
Here are some of the euphemistic catchphrases that will cover your ass with your queasier colleagues in the press corps while announcing to those in the know that your cesspool is open for business, with examples drawn from top anti-Israel blogs:
1. “The Israel lobby”
A conspiracy theory by any other name, the “Israel lobby” has long been invoked to explain unconditional U.S. support for the Jewish state. This conceit hit the mainstream in 2007 with publication of the Walt-Mearsheimer book explaining that a broadly inclusive coalition of U.S. citizens of Jewish descent ranging from the far left to the far right are subverting U.S. foreign policy on behalf of Israel. Walt and Mearsheimer deny that what sounds, looks, and smells like a conspiracy theory about Jewish power is in fact one. Why? Because conspiracies about Jewish power are for anti-Semites, and they, by contrast, are tenured professors at two of the most esteemed universities in the United States, men who are simply trying to explain the mysterious forces that have poisoned the U.S. public so much that it overwhelmingly supports the Jewish state in poll after poll, subverting rational U.S. interests in the Middle East through a uniquely irrational process that is applicable to the behavior of no other state on the planet. That’s why.
Here, for instance, Stephen Walt finds the proof vindicating his claim that it was indeed the Israel lobby that drove the United States to make war on Iraq—Tony Blair says so! The problem however is that Tony Blair said no such thing. Walt not only wrenches Blair’s quote out of context, he also wildly twists the evidence surrounding the run-up to the Iraq war to fit his theory. In Walt’s account, the fact that Israel was vocal in its opposition to the Iraq war, until it eventually fell in line behind the George W. Bush Administration’s democracy-promotion crusade like a good ally, was a feat of astonishing misdirection, which appears to have fooled even Stephen Walt himself (as well as Mearsheimer). By the end, it appears, the United States was taken to war not by the Bush Administration but by a remarkably complete list of nearly every Israeli and American Jewish politician, journalist, activist, and thinker, liberal and conservative alike, including Ehud Barak, Benjamin Netanyahu, Ariel Sharon, “Every Israeli politician who Bill Clinton knows … and he knows a lot,” Howard Kohr of AIPAC, Nathan Guttman of The Forward, Michelle Goldberg of Salon.com, John B. Judis of The New Republic, Jeffrey Goldberg of The New Yorker, the Brookings Institution, Martin Indyk, the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Mortimer Zuckerman, Matthew Berger of the Jewish Telegraph Agency; Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, executive vice president of the Orthodox Religious Zionists of America; Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism; David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee; Gary Rosenblatt, the editor of The Jewish Week; and Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
So how does Jew-baiting work in practice? Let’s look at the comments on this particular post.
“Bush and Cheney only had to walk down the hall to consult with Israel, considering how many in their cabinet and appointees have dual citizenships with Israel and were already actively involved with the Israeli government… All roads lead to PNAC, AIPAC, JINSA, ZOA, AEI, etc.” says one commenter, leaving out only ZOG in his paranoid alphabet soup. Another writes: “Everybody knows that many (not all) Jewish Americans care more about the security and preservation of the Israeli state than they do about the safety of American citizens.”
A commenter named Jacob, whom the other commenters appear to believe is Jewish, remarks that among other troubling issues with Walt’s argument is that his list of Jews responsible for the war seems to include virtually every public figure in the American Jewish community. Once baited, the mob zeroes in: “Calm down Jacob.” “Stop whining and make your point.” “Stick to the point and ease up on the histrionics.” “[Y]ou are, unfortunately, indicative of the sickness called Zionism that has perverted the Jewish community. It’s time to start to take RESPONSIBILITY for the actions of YOUR community. Get some help, Jacob.”
This is a synonym often used to designate the kind of American Jew who has forced Washington officials to sacrifice U.S. interests, as well as U.S. blood and money, in order to make war on behalf of Israel’s desire to gobble up Muslim and Arab lands. First, the neocons slipped something into the well that Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, and other policymakers drank from before they made war on Iraq; now the neocons are eager to push the U.S. into a conflict with Iran. If Weiss is to be believed, Washington Times reporter Eli Lake and a bunch of other Jewish journalists with no evident influence on the decision-making process are in fact setting the agenda for the entire Barack Obama Administration. To the Mondoweiss audience, it appears to make perfect sense that the decision on how to deal with the Iranian nuclear program will not be shaped by administration principals like Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Vice President Joe Biden but rather by Sen. Joe Lieberman’s op-ed in the Jerusalem Post. “[W]ith the neocons and aipac’s plugs in congress/media calling openly for war,” writes one commenter, “and with zionist liberals and fake leftists/progressives demonizing Iran more subtly to pave the way, how much longer before zionism, inc. gets their way on this?”
3. “Good Jews” vs. “Bad Jews”
If you give evidence that you have a problem with all Jews, you’re identifying yourself as an anti-Semite. It’s important then to make a distinction between two kinds of Jews—the “good Jews,” who agree with your conspiratorial views, and the “bad Jews,” who are often referred to with the shorthand term “Likudnik.” John Mearsheimer makes the distinction a bit more baldly, calling the bad Jews the “New Afrikaaners” and the good ones, “righteous Jews,” a cleverly nasty twist on the Jewish concept of the righteous gentile.
“Most American Jews,” writes Andrew Sullivan, “retain a respect for learning, compassion for the other, and support for minorities. But the Goldfarb-Krauthammer wing—that celebrates and believes in government torture, endorses the pulverization of Gazans with glee, and wants to attack Iran—is something else. Something much darker.” In other words, the “Krauthammer/Goldfarb wing” represents the bad Jewish thoughts of U.S. Jewry. As Leon Wieseltier put it in The New Republic, “[Sullivan’s] assumption, in his outburst about ‘the Goldfarb-Krauthammer wing,’ that every thought that a Jew thinks is a Jewish thought is an anti-Semitic assumption, and a rather classical one.”
4. “Conflict of interest”
Stephen Walt coined this phrase himself as a substitute for “dual loyalty,” which as he concedes, “has a regrettable and sordid history, given its origins as a nasty anti-Semitic canard in old Europe.” What he means by conflict of interest is in effect the same thing, but purged of that nasty history. It is not someone’s racial or ethnic background that should exclude them from policy-making roles in the U.S. government, writes Walt, but rather when “an individual’s own activities or statements give independent evidence of strong attachment to a particular foreign country” that they should be excluded from “an influential role in shaping U.S. policy towards that country.” Who qualifies as a source of independent evidence? According to Walt, working at AIPAC, or the Washington Institute for Near East Policy is sufficient proof of conflict of interest. That is to say, that the many hundreds of scholars, military officials, and policymakers who have worked at the Washington-based think-tank that reflects the bipartisan Israel-friendly position of the U.S. government should—uniquely—be disqualified from working on U.S. Middle East policy.
Walt claims that he’d have similar concerns about “key figures” “from the American Task Force on Palestine or the National Iranian-American Council.” And yet when President Obama named Chas Freeman to head the National Intelligence Council, Walt defended a man reported to have done advocacy work on behalf of Saudi Arabia and to have sat on the advisory board of a state-owned Chinese oil company. As Freeman’s nomination began to unravel, thanks in part to the revelation that a former U.S. diplomat tapped to play a central role in the intelligence community believed U.S. support for the Jewish state was responsible for 9/11, Walt likened criticism of Freeman to McCarthyism, and adduced yet more evidence for the awesome power of the Israel lobby.
5. “No one can criticize Israel without being labeled an anti-Semite.”
This slogan entitles its speaker to slander Israel in any fashion without having to worry about being called an anti-Semite. Walt often makes the claim that critics of Israel are intimidated into silence, despite the fact that The Israel Lobby, published by one of the country’s most prestigious houses and home to 22 Nobel Prize in Literature winners, was widely reviewed in the national media and even hit the New York Times best-seller list. What this statement really means is that Jews control the media.
According to Glenn Greenwald, for the Israel lobby, “The real goal, as always, was to ensure that there is no debate over America’s indescribably self-destructive, blind support for Israeli actions.” Moreover, Greenwald explains, the Israel lobby has overpowered the American legal system: “Not even our Constitution’s First Amendment has been a match for the endless exploitation of American policy, law and resources to target and punish Israel’s enemies.”
Here’s another new entry in the lexicon, perhaps related to the fact that given the capricious nature of its one-time allies around the world, its virtual isolation from the international community and, of course, the anti-Israel press, Israel has of late devoted more of its human and financial resources to public relations. While it is true that all states engage in a range of activities to make its case to the rest of the world—from public diplomacy to propaganda—and some Middle Eastern countries are famous for spending hundreds of millions of dollars on such efforts, the use of the Hebrew word hasbara (meaning “explanation”) indicates that the Jewish state is engaging in a dark conspiracy to pull the wool over the eyes of the public in order to justify its crimes. After all, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it still isn’t kosher. Or, as Weiss notes before quoting a writer from The Guardian, “Why do they persist in trying to defend the indefensible?”
“I single out Israel in part because of the lies, because the lobby has gotten away with this since Truman’s day,” writes Weiss. And a commenter responds: “Also because they threaten the livelihoods of those who criticize them.”
7. The Awesome Power of Jewish Mind-Control
Remember that one aspect of The Israel Lobby’s central thesis is that marching orders for the war in Iraq were whispered into the ears of key Bush Administration decision-makers—Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Rice—by Jews. In this view, because Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith were working under Rumsfeld at the Pentagon they must have exercised their mesmeric powers of Jewish mind-control to bend the U.S. government to their will. In a separate example, Andrew Sullivan wrote—with no actual evidence to support his pretty loaded claim—that his arch-nemesis Sarah Palin was being “indoctrinated by Joe Lieberman and AIPAC as we speak.”
What happens if you don’t read the script the Jews have handed you? They’ll silence you, says Walt’s co-author John Mearsheimer. “[T]here’s no accountability for Israel on any issue,” the University of Chicago professor recently told a Washington audience. “If I went to the Middle East, and visited Israel, and I was killed, somebody shot me, do you think there would be any accountability? The Israelis can do almost anything and get away with it.”
One way to avoid the awesome power of the Jews is to link to truth-sites beyond their control, as Stephen Walt does in the example I cite at the beginning of this piece, and allegedly to even more extreme hate sites which will gladly receive readers who might have previously been a little too timid to explore the darkest parts of the web without an escort.
8. I like Jews. I just don’t like Zionists
In rationalizing the excesses of your blogger or his more voluble commenters, explain that they are simply critical of Zionism, which is different from anti-Semitism. Even as Martin Luther King explained that, “When people criticize Zionists they mean Jews, you are talking anti-Semitism,” this particular trope has become so naturalized that no one will think to ask why Jewish nationalism, among all the varieties of nationalism promoted by the world’s myriad of ethnic, racial, and religious groups, is singled out for opprobrium.
In fact, there is no apparent contradiction in loathing Zionism and at the same time celebrating opposing forms of nationalism. Palestinian national aspirations remind Philip Weiss “of the life-and-death struggle for freedom our brave ancestors experienced during the Revolutionary War.” In Weiss’ view, anyone—like himself, for example—who stands against Israeli aggression and with the resistance partakes of that heroism. In this inversion of reality, it is not Hezbollah and Hamas who use Arab civilians as human shields, but Israel.
9. The uniquely evil evil that is Israel
Here we move from the merely tactical use of loaded vocabulary to the conceptual level. Israel is so extraordinarily beyond the pale that its behavior does not even merit comparison with states like China, which brutally occupies Tibet, or India, which occupies Kashmir, or Poland, which stands on parts of what used to be eastern Germany, or Sri Lanka, which recently extirpated the secessionist Tamil Tiger movement after a brutal three-decades long civil war, or the United States of America, which annihilated the Native American peoples. Indeed, the only states that resemble Israel are Nazi Germany and South Africa’s apartheid regime, neither of which exists any longer. Get it?
Watch the comments section fill to the brim at Mondoweiss when Israelis are likened to Nazis: “It’s not so much the methods but the ideology,” writes commenter “Shingo.” “The racial and ethic supremacy. The belief in maintaining bloodlike purity and opposition to mized [sic] marriages.” Another argues, in response to a different post that, “Israel threatens world peace like no other country.” That’s not quite right, as Weiss explains in the post: “I constantly compare the conflict with the battle over slavery in this country in the 1850s.”
While sweeping and unsubstantiated rhetoric has its place, it is best at times to use a more subtle approach. Consider a recent Robert Mackey post from the New York Times’ Lede Blog, which regularly appears on the front page of the Times website, concerning the story of the Arab man found guilty of rape by deception. Never mind that rape by deception statutes—however stupid they may be—are also on the books in California and Tennessee. Mackey portrays this episode as yet another instance of Jewish supremacism. Perhaps if this were in the print edition of the New York Times, the reporters or their editors might have been obliged by normal reporting standards at the very least to read to the end of the Haaretz piece they link to, which explains that two Jewish Israelis have been sentenced under the same law. But, it’s not a newspaper; it’s a blog.
Israeli President Shimon Peres reflects on his mentor, his peace partner, and whether the State of Israel will survive