Israel First Means Israel Last

Last week, I broke the news that the GOP adopted the one-state solution: “Israel in their natural and God-given right of self-governance and self-defense upon their own lands, recognizing that Israel is neither an attacking force nor an occupier of the lands of others; and that peace can be afforded the region only through a united Israel governed under one law for all people.”

That is, despite the tortured arguments of a handful of apologists, a clear statement of support for permanent Israeli rule over the territories it currently occupies.

However, progressive journalists, some of whom helped spread the word about the resolution in the first few days, have not been talking about that.

Netanyahu’s right-hand man, attorney Isaac Molho, attempted to prolong useless negotiations with the Palestinians by proposing borders with a future Palestinian state that mirrored the existing “Separation Barrier.” So, just as opponents of the barrier have been saying for years, this allegedly “temporary” security measure would now become permanent.

Hardly a peep on this one from progressive, liberal and left-wing writers and bloggers.

Instead, what has been occupying so much of the time of these writers is the vexing question of whether or not the term “Israel-firster,” used to describe AIPAC, Jewish neoconservatives, and other supporters of the Netanyahu government, is anti-Semitic.


I’m not very interested in this battle. I’ve used the phrase “Israel-firster” on Twitter once or twice, in extreme cases like the now-departed Jewish newspaper publisher whose allegiance to the Netanyahu agenda prompted him to post a masturbatory fantasy of Mossad agents taking out President Obama.

I find terms that assign unknowable motivations to people’s agendas distasteful. I am no more eager to ascribe someone’s support for US policies that enable Israel’s occupation to “Israel-firstism” than I am to ascribe opposition to Israeli policies which favor Jews over Arabs to anti-Semitism.

People have their own values, and they advocate for them. Some people believe loyalty to one’s own country is as important a value as any. Others may feel that their faith, their cultural or ethnic allegiance, international law or human rights are more important than what might be in the best strategic interests of the United States. There’s nothing wrong with that. Indeed, the ability to pursue one’s own values and try to get one’s government to reflect them is the very soul of a democratic system.

There’s no crime in advocating that the US government back the current Israeli program, any more than there is for the Cuban lobby to hold the influence it does over our policy toward that country. Or, for that matter, activism and lobbying of some Irish Americans in support of Irish Republicans.

The problem we have today, though, is a systemic one. It has multiple layers.

One issue is that the Israel Lobby, and fellow travelers in the neoconservative movement, have garnered enormous political influence over the years. When even Thomas Friedman is pointing that out, the cat is clearly out of the bag.

Advocates for the Palestinians, and the far more numerous people who simply believe that such a key player in this conflict as the United States should be following a much more even-handed policy, have not been able to muster anything remotely comparable to the influence that Bibi’s supporters have.

I’ve gone to dozens of meetings in the halls of Congress. Every time, I hear the same story: no one comes to Congress members with campaign donations and a message of Middle East peace. When constituents do call, asking a Member to stand against Israeli settlements, to support a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem or to end the siege of the Gaza Strip, that call is countered by twenty urging the opposite.

In my meetings at the State Department, and at the White House, I always got more of a sympathetic hearing. Nonetheless, I was continually reminded of the “political forces” that the Executive Branch had to contend with. So, in essence, the same story.

Like it or not, those “political forces” are Americans exercising their rights under our system to press for their values. That’s not disloyalty or dual loyalty. It’s what activists on many issues do, every single day.

But the furor this issue has raised has a different purpose, one outside the bounds of legitimate discourse. It is being used to undermine critics of current US policy.

The attacks on the Center for American Progress because one of its writers used the “Israel-firster” phrase a couple of times are cynical and disingenuous.

The phrase itself has been popularized in the Twitterverse by MJ Rosenberg, a former AIPAC staffer and long-time policy expert at the Israel Policy Forum, who currently works for Media Matters for America. MJ fires his broadsides hard and fast at the Israel Lobby, but stays very true to his own Jewish identity. consistently rejecting the tribalism all too common in our community.

But the attacks on CAP have deliberately targeted three of its bloggers: Matt Duss, Ali Gharib and Eli Clifton. None of them ever used the “Israel-firster” phrase. What they do, though, is to sharply criticize, with well-reasoned arguments, current US and Israeli policy.

It’s precisely because they have been effective that they are under this attack.

On the one hand, we have people bristling because they are accused of passionately advocating for something they believe in. Those people have enormous political power behind them, not to mention the kinds of campaign funding that only the Sheldon Adelsons and Haim Sabans (two very wealthy men who plainly state that their vision of US policy toward Israel is based on Israeli, not American, interests) can muster.

On the other, we have bloggers doing their jobs. Since their reasoning is too solid to be attacked on their merits, they are being baselessly accused of bigotry. They work for a thinktank that is connected to the Democratic Party, but, given the behavior of the Obama Administration, can hardly be considered to have influenced much on Capitol Hill or Pennsylvania Avenue.

The Washington deck is already stacked toward a cement wall where policy towards Israel and the Palestinians are concerned. That deck is in the hands of Benjamin Netanyahu and his neoconservative friends. If we are to ever have hope of a rational debate on this crucial policy question, that stacking has to end. And for that to happen, we need voices far more inside the Beltway than the CAP folks.

We start by defending what we have. I have had the pleasure of getting to know MJ Rosenberg, Matt Duss, Ali Gharib and Eli Clifton to varying degrees over the past few years. The idea that any of them have an anti-Semitic bone in their bodies is absurd.

But then again, I suppose, I’m just a self-hating Jew anyway.

Photograph courtesy of the Jewish Agency. Published under a Creative Commons license.

1 comment

  1. Here’s what Sam Bahour wrote, in BitterLemons: , if the current trajectory continues, Palestinians will tell Israelis: “You win! You get it all–the West Bank, Jerusalem, Gaza, the Jordan Valley, the settlements, all the water, and guess what? You get us too! Now, where do we sign up for our health care cards?”-Published 23/1/2012 ©
    I used to support the two-state solution, but I have now changed my mind. See my essay on Cis-Jordania at
    The psycho-therapist term “self-hater,” meaning somebody who has internalized the pressures of hatred directed at us by anti-Semites can be used ironically to describe an anti-Zionist Jew. I have been one for 75 of my 90 years, but I reject, even satirically, this badge. Maybe I have lost my sense of humor, or maybe I take this whole thing too seriously. We need a Mark Twain to present this in a serious way. No joke!

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