Sunday, March 08, 2009

You Know Jews -- They're Only After That One Thing

Discussing the flare up over possible National Intelligence Council chair Chas Freeman, M.J. Rosenberg writes something that deserves some parsing:
Now Jonathan Chait of the New Republic is an interesting case. He's liberal on every single issue but Israel (on which he is pure neocon), not only liberal but brilliant. But when it comes to Israel, he just can't get beyond the ethnic pull. Even worse, he does not understand that his ethnic blinders (and that is all they are) have led him to support an approach to Israel that, if it succeeds, will destroy it.

This, of course, is a specific form of a question that gets asked quite frequently: "Why are Jews so liberal on everything else, but so conservative on Israel?" And Rosenberg answers explicitly what many others just leave unspoken: it's ethnocentrism.

There is blindness here, but it's Mr. Rosenberg who has it. Most Jews would reject the premise of his claim. In all but my absolute most conservative moments, I never saw my support of Israel as stemming from anything but liberal values. Israel wasn't an exception, it was normal -- just another liberal position I hold. The beliefs that Mr. Chait has about Israel, as far as he's concerned, flow part and parcel out of his generally progressive ideology. Many other progressives can't understand that this is how many Jews think; they can't fathom that progressivism can lead to an alternate path on Israel than the one they hold.

The latest turn the controversy has taken is with Rosenberg, Matt Yglesias, and Stephen Walt all asserting that the only reason Freeman is facing resistance is that he's said bad things about Israel. Here's Prof. Walt:
What unites this narrow band of critics is only one thing: Freeman has dared to utter some rather mild public criticisms of Israeli policy. That's the litmus test that Chait, Goldberg, Goldfarb, Peretz, Schoenfeld et al want to apply to all public servants: thou shalt not criticize Israeli policy nor question America's "special relationship" with Israel. Never mind that this policy of unconditional support has been bad for the United States and unintentionally harmful to Israel as well. If these pundits and lobbyists had their way, anyone who pointed that fact out would be automatically disqualified from public service.

And here's Mr. Yglesias:
[T]he habit of turning around and acting indignant when people point out that what’s motivating this fight is Freeman’s views on Israel is really pretty silly. When you hear that indicted former AIPAC director Steve Rosen, The New Republic, Commentary, Eli Lake, and Chuck Schumer are spearheading opposition to something you don’t say to yourself “they must be concerned about the human rights situation in China!”

The reason they're pushing back so hard is that, while certainly many of these people are quite concerned with Freeman's views on Israel, they are also claiming that they find Freeman's foreign policy views more generally -- his pro-authoritarian instincts on China, and his ties to Saudi Arabia -- distressing. I find it very unnerving that Walt, Rosenberg, and Yglesias can't even fathom that pro-Israel Jews could have other political commitments that hold them and motivate them (even if only in part) aside from Israel.

Chait's original editorial, for instance, focuses very little on Freeman's views on Israel. In Goldberg's first post, he mentioned that Freeman was "well-known for his hostility toward Israel, but what's more substantively troubling about this report is the obvious inappropriateness of hiring a well-known advocate for the interests of Middle Eastern autocracies to produce national intelligence estimates for the Obama Administration." All of this, we're led to believe, is mere hand-waving. Israel is the only thing that motivates these men. Everything else is a tricksy facade.

Now when we're talking about folks whose professional job is as advocates for Israel (like Mr. Rosen for AIPAC), then perhaps some skepticism is warranted. But the Walt/Yglesias/Rosenberg camp distorts the picture in their favor by only focusing on the Jews (and pro-Israel partisans) who are critical of Freeman, while neglecting to note that pro-Taiwan speakers are concerned, and Chinese human rights advocates are concerned as well. If you ignore everybody in the discussion who doesn't have a history of pro-Israel advocacy (and, of course, you assume pro-Israel advocates care about nothing else in the whole wide world), then it's easy to see a conspiracy. That doesn't make it right.

Finally, going off what I said above about how many Jews view there support of Israel as packed into broader idealistic/progressive views on foreign policy, it makes perfect sense that the concern over human rights is sincere. Chait continues:
Foreign policy idealists tend to believe in the value of supporting democracies versus dictatorships, and opposing genocide, even if this doesn't advance narrow economic or foreign policy interests. Realists disagree, which is fine. But the problem is that some realists not only disagree, but have defined the entire idealist worldview as being about Israel. In fact, foreign policy idealists have spent a lot of time defending, say, Taiwan. Not as much time as defending Israel, but of course Taiwan's citizens aren't actually under military attack from China the way Israel's have been from Hamas and Hezbollah. Now, it's true that a lot of Jews are idealists, and that foreign policy idealism is a good justification for the U.S.-Israel alliance. I'd argue that Jewish history before 1948 has more to do with Jewish belief in an ideology that elevates moral considerations over power politics and rejects the notions that a state can deal with its internal population as it sees fit.

And even if you suppose this entire world view is merely a construct to justify support for Israel, there are arguments to be dealt with. Walt refuses to defend Freeman on his ties to Saudi Arabia and extreme defense of China, thinking he can wave it all away by shouting "Israel-lover!" at the critics in the hopes that this will rally liberals to Freeman's side. The method of Walt's argument is vastly more distrurbing than the substance. Walt is arguing that any Jewish-American who does not roughly share his views on Israel (which, of course, disqualifies the vast majority) is presumptively acting out of dual loyalty, is probably coordinating their actions in secret, and should thus be dismissed out of hand. I think Walt has come to this conclusion on the basis of his foreign policy worldview rather than out of animus against Jewish people. But it's a paranoid analysis whose consequence is to make the debate about Israel much more stupid and mired in attacks on motive.

Put simply, Chait has a track record of supporting Israel, yes, but he also has a track record for supporting human rights and progressive policies worldwide. That history gets subsumed, however, once Israel comes into the discussion. Once Israel becomes a factor, the assumption seems to be that pro-Israel Jews can think of nothing else. That is a deeply unfair -- dare I say vile -- presumption. Walt's attack particularly teetered periliously on the brink of the "dual loyalties" charge, and essentially told his readers "don't trust what these men say -- they are lying to promote their Zionist agenda". It is impossible to have a mature discussion -- indeed, it is impossible to be Jewish (and hold whatever views that Rosenberg and Walt would tag as "neo-con") and be fairly included in the discussion -- when that is the standard we are held to.


PG said...

Many other progressives can't understand that this is how many Jews think; they can't fathom that progressivism can lead to an alternate path on Israel than the one they hold.

Do you find that many non-Jewish progressives share your views on Israel, though? Rosenberg may be wrong about causation (i.e. that being Jewish makes a liberal take certain views on Israel), but he doesn't seem too far off on correlation.

Not exactly on topic, I saw this and was puzzled:
Last spring, as the presidential campaign was in full roar, Jonathan decided the term conservatism was so misused that he needed to write a book explaining it. He received a computer from his maternal grandfather for his 13th birthday. “In the Jewish culture in which my mom was raised, 13 is a big deal,” he said. “But since I’m a Jewish Christian, I don’t do a bar mitzvah.” (Decades ago, his mother became a Baptist.)

How can one be a "Jewish Christian"? Is this like being a Jew for Jesus?

David Schraub said...

I think that my views on Israel are pretty well within the Democratic Party mainstream -- far more so than are, say, Stephen Walt's. The thing is that a lot of these folks (Greenwald, Rosenberg, Walt) try and group a huge swath of viewpoints on Israel as "neo-conservative", when in reality they're reasonably progressive -- it's how you get the oddity of calling Chait and Jeffrey Goldberg pro-settlement and pro-occupation when both are pretty clearly anti-settlement and anti-occupation (albeit not as aggressively as the Rosenberg clique would like).

PG said...

I don't think the Democratic Party mainstream is progressive, so this might just be differences in terminology.

David Schraub said...

Well let me put it this way: There are very few Democrats -- including many well entrenched on the party's left-wing -- whom I would consider unreasonably distant from my own views (or I suspect Mr. Chait's views) on Israel. I think at least the left side of the Democratic caucus is pretty well characterized as "progressive", and I doubt we'd have much quarrel on Israel/Palestine. (Maybe into Kucinich/McKinney territory, not true, but I think that's not the mainstream of the party -- McKinney of course is no longer even part of the party)

PG said...

Kucinich is the type I'd consider progressive: anti-Iraq war from the beginning; pro drug decriminalization; pro single-payer health care. Gwen Moore seems to be fitting into that type as well, and while they're not entirely respectable, I'd put Maxine Waters and Jim McDermott in that category too.

Most of the other prominent politicians on the more left wing of the Democratic party -- Wellstone (RIP), Feingold, Bernie Sanders -- are Jewish, and so far as I know have a position closer to yours on Israel, while the non-Jewish folks don't. That's why I'm saying it's not easy to break out the causation vs. correlation aspect.

On the other hand, I don't identify as progressive and certainly prefer someone like Feingold to someone like Kucinich (I was very disappointed that Feingold didn't run in '04), so I don't have much of a dog in the fight. But I'm not certain you're correct that your position on Israel is an obvious one for a self identified progressive.

David Schraub said...

The CBC politicians also, generally, occupy the left flank of the party and have been fine on Israel as well. Plenty of non-Jewish lefties on this list, for example.

Matt said...

I also found this somewhat disturbing. The broad category of the "professional Jewish community" and how that categorization underlies the argument.

But a question: Suppose many Jews are particular about Israel -- is that necessarily, automatically bad? Suppose instead we said simply that a great many Jews are particular about antisemitism in a way few other progressives are? We would blame those progressives. Given that many Jews see Israel as related to antisemitism, there is a similarity (not an equality) between the two questions. It shouldn't be surprising if Jews as a whole or even just Jewish progressives are a little more supportive of Israel than gentile progressives. It might be odd if Jewish and gentile progressive were completely at odds on that one issue, but I've never seen that except where there's also a complete failure to be responsive to antisemitism.