How Demonizing Iran Deal Supporters Brings Out Worst in Israel

Israeli police beefed up security last week for the American ambassador, Dan Shapiro, after he received a series of death threats related to U.S. support for the Iran nuclear deal.

At least three explicit death threats were delivered in writing last Wednesday alone, following an undisclosed number in the preceding days to his home and the U.S. embassy. In addition, a threatening post appeared on his Facebook page calling him a “kapo,” the term for Jews who assisted Nazi concentration camp guards. The threats and police response were reported in the Washington political news site The Hill as well as numerous Israeli news outlets (here, here and here, for example).

The threats against the ambassador follow weeks of intense rhetoric from Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other top officials, accusing the Obama administration of concluding an Iranian nuclear agreement that could lead to Israel’s destruction and even a new Holocaust. Beginning in late July those alarms were augmented by accusations from American Jewish activists that the administration and its allies were using anti-Semitic innuendo to intimidate their critics into silence.

In my last column I examined some of the exaggerations, contradictions and hypocrisy behind those accusations. The most notable contradiction, I wrote, is the chutzpah of mounting a massive, well-funded lobbying campaign to defeat the nuclear agreement, and then crying “anti-Semitism” when administration spokesmen note that they’re facing a well-funded lobbying campaign. I also noted the incongruity of Jewish organizations and activists enlisting in a campaign led by Israel’s prime minister, a campaign filled with warnings of Israel’s vulnerability to U.S. policy, and then complaining when they’re accused of acting in Israeli interests.

The way to avoid being accused of doing something others don’t like is not to do it. If you’re determined to do it, don’t complain when people notice and complain. Above all, don’t undertake an action that others will resent and then try to bully them into pretending they don’t notice. That will only increase the resentment.

Last week the victimhood campaign was kicked up a notch, in the wake of Senator Chuck Schumer’s August 6 announcement that he was opposing the nuclear deal. Several days later, the Times of Israel news site reported that Schumer was facing “an onslaught of allegations from progressive critics who resorted to classically anti-Semitic allegations of disloyalty and treason.“

The article referred specifically to a cartoon appearing two days after Schumer’s announcement on the left-leaning Daily Kos website, in which “Woodchuck Schumer” is referred to as a “traitor.”

The Times of Israel report was followed by a torrent of protest from the Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Aish HaTorah and various conservative American publications and websites. All complained about the supposed onslaught of “traitor” accusations against Schumer. The Wiesenthal Center called it “the lowest form of gutter politics seen in our country since Joe McCarthy.”

The New York Post railed against a string of supposed slurs and “dual-loyalty smears,” including a tasteless August 1 New York Times editorial tut-tutting the “unseemly spectacle of lawmakers siding with a foreign leader,” meaning Netanyahu — and then promptly added its own smear: “In fact, it’s Obama who’s siding with foreign leaders: Iran’s. At least Israel’s an ally.”

Strikingly, all the protests cited a single instance to illustrate the onslaught, namely the Daily Kos cartoon.

And for good reason. That cartoon was in fact the only significant instance of Schumer being called a traitor. Other than a tiny handful of obscure left-wing outlets with little national audience (here and here), the accusation showed up only in the Feedback sections attached to more measured commentary. And even there the use was rare as these things go.

Even in normal times, accusing Jews of dual loyalty, treason and similar sins is pretty common in the fringier cesspits of the Internet. The last few weeks have not seen anything resembling a spike that I’ve been able to detect. The onslaught is imagined, deliberately or not, by people who want to believe they’re being victimized and bullied.

The bottom line is that the accusations of anti-Semitism far outnumber the accusations of “traitor” or “dual loyalty.” (See my earlier column to learn why President Obama’s much-protested one-time reference to “money” and “lobbyists” bore no resemblance to anti-Semitism.) And since the accusations of anti-Semitism rest in large measure on a supposed surge of “traitor” smears and anti-Semitic “lobbyist” innuendo, we have to conclude that they’re largely groundless.

To be a traitor is a terrible thing. Consequently, to call someone a traitor is a grave charge, and to accuse them without grounds is a serious misdeed. We often forget, though, that to be an anti-Semite is also a terrible thing — and consequently, to accuse someone falsely of anti-Semitism is likewise a serious misdeed. Words have consequences. Someone who’s accused of anti-Semitism risks social ostracism, possible loss of a job and worse. Politicians accused of anti-Semitism can find their careers cut short.

Let’s concede that this sort of inflammatory rhetoric might be justified in certain cases. If, for example, the Iran nuclear deal undeniably represented the sort of apocalyptic threat that opponents warn of, then just about anything would be justified to prevent it.

But that’s simply not the case. Far from it. As I’ve written before in recent months (here, here and here), the people whose job it is to know what Israel requires in order to defend itself — that is, the heads of Israel’s military and intelligence community — are substantially at odds with the prime minister over his assessment of the nuclear deal and how Israel should be responding.

My critics have noted (here and here, for example) that Israel’s defense establishment is in fact divided on whether or not the deal is ultimately a good one or a bad one. That’s true. But I never wrote that the generals and spymasters unanimously like the deal. On the contrary, in this July column I quoted a half-dozen former defense chiefs, some calling it a good deal, others calling it a bad one. What unites them is a belief that Netanyahu should now be working with the U.S. administration to identify weaknesses and develop strategies for addressing them, rather than leading a full-force, highly partisan lobbying campaign against the president. Israel should working with the White House, the generals say, to define what constitutes an Iranian violation, what the responses should be to specific levels of violation and how America can best equip Israel to face any new challenges that might arise. They’re speaking out because the prime minister has forbidden any such U.S.-Israeli dialogue, lest he be misunderstood as acquiescing in the face of the deal, and the ban on negotiating leaves Israel weaker, not stronger.

My July column quoted only a half-dozen security figures. Since then, though, close to 50 have signed an open letter calling for Israel to accept the deal as an “accomplished fact,” stop battling the administration and start cooperating to make the deal as air-tight as possible. And how many support the prime minister’s strategy? I know of only three — Yaakov Amidror, Yossi Kuperwasser and former chief of staff (and current defense minister) Moshe Yaalon — who have publicly taken the prime minister’s side. If there were strong sentiment in favor of the prime minister’s position, we’d be hearing it. It’s not there.

In part the objections to Netanyahu’s actions are based on the extremity of his and his allies’ language. Comparing Israel’s current situation to Czechoslovakia circa 1938, likening President Obama to Neville Chamberlain — or worse, to the Nazis — creates a dangerously incendiary situation. Israel’s defense community generally rejects the idea that the situation warrants that sort of extreme response. The threat level, Israel’s vulnerability, is simply not that grave. And the extremity of language creates new dangers of its own.

In Israel, such rhetoric, taken to extremes, has been known to end up in political violence. Palestinian leaders aren’t the only ones whose loose attacks on the malign intentions of their enemies may incite hotheads to acts of murder.

We’ve been in this movie before. We’ll soon be marking the 20th anniversary of the assassination of an Israeli prime minister by a hothead incited inflammatory talk of apocalyptic destruction. Coincidentally or not, the right-wing leader most severely criticized at the time for the incitement that preceded Yitzhak Rabin’s murder was the leader of the Likud at the time, the future prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Feelings were so raw that Leah Rabin, the prime minister’s widow, publicly refused to accept his condolences.

Now an American ambassador in Israel is being threatened. It seems we never learn.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

Author

J.J. Goldberg

J.J. Goldberg

Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).

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