“Israel Firster”: Anatomy of a Smear


There are many aspects to the current controversy over use of the “Israel Firster” term. There are people who use the term – continue to use it, resistantly defending its use – and there are those who criticize them for it. The critics claim that adopters of the term are continuing an ages-old anti-Semitic libel against Jews – of disloyalty to their home country because of greater, primary loyalty to their Jewish identity. The people who use the term have accused their critics of “smearing” them with the anti-Semitic label for political ends. Again, there are multiple issues buried in these counter charges – that of anti-Semitism itself, and of disloyalty, or divided loyalty or, as has mostly been expressed, “dual” loyalty – but first I consider the notion of the smear.

The first definition of a smear, in its literal, physical sense is to apply an oily, greasy substance that adheres. Extended metaphorically to its secondary meaning, a smear is an unsubstantiated accusation intended to label and “stick” to its object, sullying its reputation. Note the element of unsubstantiation. There is the additional, more uncertain element of intent.

To criticize, in contrast, is “to consider the merits and demerits of and judge accordingly.” In other words, criticism, in its analytical, intellectual sense, is empirical – evidence based. It is not simply a label applied with sticky fallaciousness, but an analytical discrimination that classifies according to identifying characteristics.

One may use the term smear at will, and many do, but it is not just another one of those misguided, relativistic “one person’s smear is another person’s criticism” cases. The two acts are not the same – they have distinct definitions – and they can be identified and themselves discriminated.

There have been several foci of attention in this current accusatory debate, including those initiated by a Ben Smith piece at Politico and James Kirchick in Haaretz. Another was Jeffrey Goldberg’s blog post responding to an email request from Glenn Greenwald. The email from Greenwald, beginning with a typical, causal and friendly “Hi Jeffrey” and ending with a “Much appreciated” explains that Greenwald is “working on (yet another) piece about the CAP anti-Semitism controversy.” Greenwald is seeking helpful information from Goldberg.

Goldberg himself, given the substance of the request, wryly noted the “much appreciated” sign off. I’ll add to that the “(yet another)” parenthetical. It’s all just one pro – writer, blogger, journalist – seeking assistance from a fellow slogger in the field (oh, you know, “yet another”) in getting some work done. What decent guy or gal would not provide collegial assistance?

However, the specific request was the following:

Hi Jeffrey – I’m working on (yet another) piece about the CAP-anti-Semitism controversy. Could you confirm whether, when you joined the IDF, you took this standard oath:

“I swear and commit to pledge allegiance to the State of Israel its laws, and authorities, to accept upon myself unconditionally the authority of the Israel Defense Force, obey all the orders and instructions given by authorized commanders, devote all my energies, and even sacrifice my life for the protection of the homeland and liberty of Israel.”

Much appreciated –

That is, Greenwald was trying (so he thought) to get the goods on Goldberg, to establish, voila, that Goldberg was/is(?), like Sasquatch caught by flash lumbering through the Bayou – there he is, Ladies and Gentleman, you pays your buck, you steps right up, you get to see him, certified, we got the goods on him – a real live Israel Firster in the flesh.

Goldberg provided his answer in the blog post. He offered other comments in other posts, which prompted other responses from a variety of defenders of the Israel-Firster term, including, from Corey Robin, one exceedingly tedious attempt at clever academic exegesis, of an observation by Goldberg, intended to demonstrate see, we’re not anti-Semitic, you’re anti-Semitic, nyah, nyah.

Focus on Goldberg is significant. Goldberg is a liberal supporter of Israel. (The meaning of the word “support” when applied to Israel is yet another issue embedded in this debate. For my purpose today, I’ll call such supporters of Israel as Goldberg firm supporters.) Critics – indeed, very harsh critics of Israel – consistently identify firm support of Israel with the political right, which identification is an essential ground to this whole debate. Neocon is another popular label. Such as Greenwald will apply that term to any individual who has offered any measure of support at any time to exercises of military force by the United States. The right aids in this identification by the typically fundamentalist belligerence of its own support for Israel. If firm support for Israel can successfully be isolated as a hard right position –  and there has been great success in this effort – then the ongoing campaign against the Israeli position can gain greater strength. If a firm, liberal supporter of Israel can be exposed as an “Israel-Firster,” then the very idea of liberal support for the Israeli position can be dismissed as a phantasm. The Israeli-Palestinian war of historical cases can be drawn only in terms of Israel’s most extreme defenders, while the Palestinian extremes are ideologically white washed, and liberal sense is vanquished from the field.

First, then, I call your attention to Greenwald’s approach to Goldberg, on a personal level. In the past, Greenwald has been consistently vituperative in his treatment of Goldberg, with whom he has no personal relationship. Yet he sends this email dressed in the imposture of a friendly, collegial request for assistance – an email intended to gather the information that will help Greenwald, as he sees it, expose Goldberg as a disloyal American. Now it is true that in the political world – and in the journalistic world, where reporters are always seeking very, very important information, justifying all sorts of behavior for the greater good of the human race and the future of the world – excuses are often made for what is normally considered bad behavior. But in that normal world, Greenwald’s phony smile of an email, with its hateful, destructive intent, is as slimy as a human being gets. That the act he committed with his email was not committed for money or to gain political power is a function only of the interests that motivate his life. The discredit it brings upon him should not be forgotten.

Second, consider that we know from the public record of Goldberg’s service in the IDF decades ago, oath taken or not. There are about 86 countries that permit multiple citizenships in some form, with the details complex and varied. Dual citizenship may easily be argued as prima facie (thought not actually certain) evidence of dual loyalty. The United States does not formally recognize dual citizenship; neither does it restrict or punish it in any way. While there are no records kept of dual citizenships, the 2010 census shows the percentage of foreign-born Americans – people with the potential of being dual citizens, and likely to feel degrees of dual loyalty – to be 12.7%, or about 39 million people. Americans, like people all over the world, feel multiple loyalties, to their religious faith, their families, to causes and ideals separate from the official policies of their national governments. Red meat GOP candidates will almost without fail name God first among their following loyalties to family and country. And if God led them to believe that some other nation or group was in his service rather than their own nation?

Beginning in 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, approximately 2800 Americans fought in Spain on behalf of the Republican cause, in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and elsewhere. Most were members of the Communist Party or other leftist organizations. They served without the support of the U.S. government, were treated with suspicion after the war, and in some cases were even prosecuted by the Roosevelt Administration for recruiting volunteers into the Brigade. These volunteers into a foreign army are universally regarded with respect and even reverence by American liberals and the broader left.

Whether Goldberg himself swore the oath in question, it is a matter of the most common sense that any military force would require of its personnel that they pledge allegiance to the fighting force that was entrusting them with weapons and their cause.

Greenwald’s attempt to impugn Goldberg’s full loyalty to the United States is vile and reprehensible on two scores. First, in the convergence of some elements of the American left with reactionary movements and sentiments, Greenwald’s attempt to question Goldberg’s loyalty on the basis of an oath resounds with the questioning of Roy Cohn and others during the McCarthy hearings:

Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist party?

Now, the question is from Greenwald, and from those who countenance these questions about the loyalty of American Jews whom they believe to support Israel a little too much,

Are you now or have you ever been too ardent a supporter of Israel?

Of what other ethnic or racial group would supposed progressives permit such questions to be asked without condemnation? And in the matter of the most regressive right political forces in the nation – resisting all identification of their own and others’ racist language and insinuation (see: the current GOP presidential primary race) – though the anti-Semitic history of “Israel Firster” has been well documented – these so-called progressives reach to rationalize use of an offensive term against Jews in a manner they would countenance in no other cultural context.

Just because white supremacists used a term doesn’t mean everyone who employs it is an anti-Semite.

Substitute “racist” for anti-Semite and search left literature world-wide for a similar expression.

“Israel-firster” is admittedly a deliberately crude response, but use of the term should be understood within the context of decades of American Jewish right-wing rhetoric that has largely silenced dissent on Israeli policies by discrediting those who dare to criticize Israel.

Try this substitute:

“Food stamp President” is admittedly a deliberately crude response, but use of the term should be understood within the context of decades of militant black rhetoric that has largely silenced dissent on Welfare policies by discrediting those who dare to criticize their perpetuation of an African-American underclass.

Once again:

He also fails to mention that many of those employing the term “Israel-firster” are deeply concerned about Israel’s future and about regional stability, and are no different from members of the Israeli peace camp – not to mention that some of them are Jewish themselves.


He also fails to mention that many of those employing the term “Food stamp President” are deeply concerned about America’s future and about social and economic stability, and are no different from members of the Nation of Islam – not to mention that some of them are black themselves, e.g. Clarence Thomas, Michael Steele, Herman Cain, and Alan West.

That some people who consider themselves progressive do not cringe with embarrassment and shame at the incoherence of these ideas and arguments, or, in the case of those like Greenwald, at the depths to which they plunge in their animus toward Israel, would be startling if not for the twentieth century history that records these depths before.

It is always so, though, that misguided, even hateful political manifestations will be betrayed in their nature by the figures who most publically represent them. So when we consider Greenwald’s malign questioning of Goldberg’s loyalty on the basis of an oath he might have made over twenty years ago, we need to consider it in the following final light.

When Glenn Greenwald began blogging in 2005, he espoused opinions about illegal immigration that would not be admired or popular among his current fan base. He has been challenged about these views a sufficient number of times to have posted an explanatory update at his original blog, Unclaimed Territory, six years later. His explanation?

This post was written in 2005, one month after I began blogging. It was recently dug up by some Obama cultists trying to discredit my criticisms of the President ….

That was a 6 yrs ago: 3 weeks after I began blogging, when I had zero readers. I’ve discussed many times before how there were many uninformed things I believed back then, before I focused on politics full-time – due to uncritically ingesting conventional wisdom, propaganda, etc. 

Six years is not a very long time in the intellectual life of a 44 year old man. For Glenn Greenwald and Mitt Romney, however, it is sufficient time to reverse most of their previously, and apparently not very reliably, conceived political views, and to now scorn those who believe some of what they once did, including, for both men, ironically, Barack Obama. Six years is sufficient time for Greenwald to expect not to be held accountable for his views. In contrast, for Greenwald, the twenty-two years since Jeffrey Goldberg may have taken an oath that Greenwald thinks damning is no barrier to setting Goldberg up for a smear of disloyalty (Israel Firster) based upon it.

To repeat and clarify: criticisms are based on evidence analyzed and subjected to judgment. A smear is unsubstantiated. The anti-Semitic history of the term “Israel Firster” has been clearly laid out by numerous sources. The disloyalty (Israel Firster) of no one of significance or party to this debate has been substantiated, only malignly alleged in the hope that the accusation will stick.

These critics of Israel could easily back away from the expression and continue to make their case about Israel-Palestine on the basis of the merits they can gather. That they do not, that they aggressively reassert their claim to the term “Israel-Firster,” – rationalizing it in the face of all evidence – and attack those who object to it – casting themselves as victims (rather like Rick Perry’s and Newt Gingrich’s “war on Christianity) – clearly reflects their likeness to their mirrored opposites. These critics defend their use of the term because they believe that this time it is true. They believe that this time there really are divided loyalties, there really is a cadre of Jews exercising excessive, secretive power while aggressively attempting to suppress any exposure of it. And like all their reactionary forebears (like every GOP reactionary today who plays the card of nationalist loyalty) they forget that the belief they cling to is the belief to which purveyors of anti-Semitic tropes of Jewish power always hold fast – it’s the essential marker of the tradition – that what they believe is true.

And this is the belief, like a ball that is chained to the ankle, drawing one down to the depths, by which they will be known.


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4 thoughts on ““Israel Firster”: Anatomy of a Smear

  1. Reading each of your visceral take-downs of Greenwald is a frequent pleasure – reading your criticisms of such a pompous, easily deflated ass never gets gold. May I suggest you go after Andrew Sullivan in the future? He’s also an easy target, which won’t take up much of your time.

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