Bret Stephens is one of the NY Times’s house conservatives. Unlike his colleagues David Brooks and Ross Douthat, he seldom manifests any interesting departures from right-wing orthodoxy, though, to his credit, he is an anti-Trumper. Like many ideologues of both left and right he tends to view the world in simplistic, Manichean terms—it’s good guys vs bad guys, with the latter often benefitting from the support of various dupes.
Stephens’s simplistic, Manichean understanding of the Israel/Palestine cleavage is on display in his front page diatribe in today’s NY Times Sunday Review. Stephens fulminates against what he sees as increasing tolerance among progressives for anti-Semitism. He has no trouble citing deplorable instances of anti-Semitism among the far left and anti-Zionist movements, but his claim that tolerance for same is becoming mainstreamed by the not-so-far left rests on very thin ice. The thin ice consists of just two things: the fact that some prominent Democrats opposed a bill designed to protect states seeking to punish participants in boycotts directed against Israel, and allegedly anti-Semitic statements by two newly elected Congresswomen.
The “anti-BDS” bill is a blatant violation of the Constitution’s protection of free speech; Stephens doesn’t bother to tell us how he can possibly justify it.
The statements by the two Congresswomen are worth examining, since the furious counter-reaction they have elicited reflects a determination to shield Israel from any but the gentlest criticism.
In 2012 Ilhar Omar tweeted “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” After her recent election to Congress, critics zeroed in on her “hypnotize the world” phrase, identifying it with ages-old anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish omnipotence. Omar responded to the criticism by acknowledging that her wording was “unfortunate.” To my mind her tweet was an awkward but benign expression of frustration that Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians has not evoked more widespread and effective opposition around the world.
The other statement Stephens finds offensive was by Congresswoman Rashida Tliab, who remarked that Congressional supporters of the anti-BDS bill “… forgot what country they represent. This is the U.S. where boycotting is a right & part of our historical fight for freedom & equality.” The critics charge that this assertion reeks of the “dual loyalty” slander, that Jews divide their loyalty between the USA Israel. The charge is patently silly, since most of the sponsors of the bill, led by Marco Rubio, are not Jewish. Is it anti-Semitic to suggest that Marco Rubio subordinates American free speech values to his knee-jerk support for Israel?
So, that’s it—that’s the thin ice on which Stephens rests his claim that progressives are going with the flow of anti-Semitism. What really bothers Stephens is that cracks are appearing in the uncritically pro-Israel consensus that dominates our politics. Harsh criticism of Israel is simply unacceptable, and must be denounced and delegitimated as anti-Semitic wherever it rears its ugly head. One excellent critique of Israel appeared in the Times Sunday Review section just a few weeks ago—a front-page article by Michele Alexander. Though he doesn’t mention it, Alexander’s piece undoubtedly outraged Stephens, who demanded and got from his editors equal billing to try to neutralize it.
Stephens might also be motivated to use the anti-Semitism accusation as a weapon against the left much as his predecessors on the right for decades wielded charges of “soft on communism.” A giveaway is his guilt by association attack on Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, who had the temerity to communicate with Britain’s leftist Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn. (Corbyn is legitimately vulnerable to charges of softness on anti-Semitism.)
We need more dissident voices in a Congress that can see no evil in Israeli behavior. I hope that Tliab and Omar remain uncowed, and I hope that they get other progressives to listen to them.