Passive Aggressive is a Bad Look on You

by Brien Jackson

It’s always funny to watch someone back themselves into a passive aggressive swipe at someone else. You start off seeming concillatory and accomodating, before you inevitably level a backhand swipe at whomever you’re addressing. Very few people can do it well in print, because it’s easy to see coming, and Jon Chait isn’t one of them. Here he is writing about The Israel Lobby and Jeffrey Goldberg’s infamous review of it in TNR:

My column disputed the notion that there truly was an atmosphere of fear and intimidation around any criticism of Israel’s government. The American Prospect‘s Ezra Klein retorts that this may be true, but only because the attempts to suppress debate–by, among other people, me–were failing. “The thing about criticizing Israel is that you get called an anti-Semite rather a lot,” he wrote, rather dramatically. But we did it so often that the charge had lost its sting. Thus, “Criticizing Israel is not an act of courage because it’s not actually dangerous for your career. This is despite the best efforts of Chait and his magazine.”

Klein did not cite any examples of me calling somebody anti-Semitic merely for criticizing Israel. It’s merely an article of faith among the left that any response to their criticism is either a direct accusation of anti-Semitism or, at the least, an attempt to suppress debate. The Center for American Progress’s Matthew Yglesias, meanwhile, calls my magazine an “ideological enforcer” on Israel. The rule here is that if you write political commentary disagreeing with the J Street analysis of Israel, you’re a thuggish ideological enforcer. If you write political commentary supporting the J Street analysis, you’re a courageous ideological freedom fighter.

Sounds reasonable so far right? And Chait gets even more magnanimous, or seems to, as we go along:

Klein in particular blames me for TNR’s review of Stephen M. Walt and John J. Mearsheimer’s The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy by The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg, which cast Walt and Mearsheimer’s book in the tradition of “judeocentric” analysis, a category that mostly includes anti-Semites. This review is a source of deep and continuing grievance among many liberal bloggers. As it is now being held against me personally, I might as well say what I think about it. I don’t like using words like “racist” or “anti-Semite” to dismiss ideas or people, except in very clear-cut cases. Terms like anti-Semite create questions about definitions–does it mean hating all Jews? Thinking Jews are too powerful? Agreeing with ideas primarily favored by people who want to kill the Jews?–that tend to bring a debate to a screeching halt. Goldberg took a slight step away from the term “anti-Semite,” but not far enough for my taste.

However, I do find with Goldberg’s underlying analysis totally correct. Walt and Mearsheimer wrote a book that, even by the account of fair-minded and even ideologically sympathetic critics, is a shoddy, paranoid screed. When you make an argument that closely tracks a longstanding racist or anti-Semitic trope, you have some obligation to take extra care. To take another example, I have no opinion as to whether Charles Murray or Richard Herrnstein has any personal animus against African Americans. I do think that if they wanted to break the taboo against discussion of the black-white IQ gap, they should have made a better argument than they did in The Bell Curve.

In fact, the analogy between The Israel Lobby and The Bell Curve is pretty close to exact. Each covers a subject that, because it encroaches upon territory favored by racist kooks, has some measure of taboo attached to it. Each is a work that had some legitimate points but is marred by fundamental flaws. Each responded to the inevitable accusations of bigotry by playing up their sense of martyrdom and bravery. And each won devoted partisans who, even if they couldn’t quite defend every shoddy claim, were pleased to see taboos challenged and the scope of discourse expanded, and quick to dismiss all the critics as bullies and censors.

Did you catch that? Chait doesn’t like to call people anti-Semitic for criticism of Israel, and there’s no evidence of him doing so apparently, but The Israel Lobby is just like The Bell Curve, which argues, ultimately, that white people are inherently smarter than black people, which many people, obviously, consider to be quite racist. The Israel Lobby, by contrast, posits that Israel has a political lobby in America just like gun manufacturers, corportate interests, reproductive rights advocates, etc. Indeed, given the presence of a group like AIPAC, in which “PAC” literally means “political action committee,” the reason I have yet to read the book is that the conclusion is just obvious.

And this is what Matt and Ezra are talking about when they discuss TNR’s Israel writing. If you criticize Israel someone in TNR (not counting Marty) will call you an anti-Semite. The ones who do it more subtly, like Chait, will do it nonetheless. And while I don’t much care about Commentary or The Weekly Standard since those are right-wing outlet, TNR is still a nominally mainstream publication with a liberal domestic slant.

But Ezra is right about the fact that the recent incursion into Gaza, as well as “the lobby’s” more recent (unsuccessful) attacks on higher profile, more established critics like Walt, Mearshimer, Joe Klein, etc., have left their criticisms with less force than they had, say, 5 years ago.

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