Putting Israel first

For a while now an argument has been rumbling along about the expression “Israel-firster” — a term that some people regard as bordering on anti-Semitic. Prime culprit — in the eyes of those making the charge — is M.J. Rosenberg at Media Matters.

James Kirchik at The New Republic says use of the term “largely amounts to name-calling.” What he and others who find the term offensive have no intention of doing is actually addressing the question of whether any/many/most of Israel’s most outspoken defenders in the U.S. place their allegiance to Israel ahead of their loyalty to the United States. In other words, whether they do indeed put Israel first.

To treat Israel-firster as a simple pejorative is to imply that its literal meaning can be dismissed. It is to suggest that the accusation that an American would put Israel first is so outrageous and inflammatory that it can simply be rejected as a baseless attack.

If one accepts that position, then there can of course be no debate. But like many other people these days, I don’t approach this on the basis of a suspicion. This has nothing to do with what it means to be Jewish. On the contrary, I see an abundance of evidence that there are Americans who put Israel first and yet — and this is really the curious part — do so while categorically denying that they put Israel first. Israelis might have reason to wonder why the Jewish state has supporters who are so unwilling to express their loyalty without simultaneously disowning it.

A graphic example of the verbal contortions that Israel firsters are prone to is presented in Yoav Shamir’s film, Defamation. He follows a group of Americans on a trip led by the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman. They are visiting Babi Yar, outside Kiev, where the Nazis massacred 33,771 Jews in just two days in 1941.

An American woman in Foxman’s group says she would join the Israeli army if Israel’s existence was under threat. The Israeli filmmaker asks her whether that means she is more loyal to Israel.

Woman: No, of course not.

Shamir: How do these two notions [loyalty to the United States and to Israel] co-exist?

Woman: Easy — you love your children; you love your husband; you love your friends, equally.

Man: You love your children more than you love your husband?

Woman: Of course not. But you might die for your children but you wouldn’t die for your husband.

Shamir: Israel is the husband or the kids?

Woman and others: The kids.

Before Shamir can press his questioning to its logical conclusion the group is whisked away.

These and other American Jews who express a paternal drive to protect Israel are either being disingenuous about their affection for Israel, or about their unwillingness to put Israel first.

I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that when they say they love Israel like their kids, they are like most parents committed to putting their kids first.

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5 thoughts on “Putting Israel first

  1. DE Teodoru

    So much BS and bravado when the odds are so lopsided. But where were Mt & Mrs Foxman in June 1967: safely snuggled in their abdominal fat in NYC!

  2. examinator

    The problem with the ‘debate’ such as it is, is that it’s light on common-sense and big on extremists rhetoric. Those who oppose the term are generally use the ‘debate’ as a distractionary tactic or in denial, being as they are motivated by political ideology.

    In any distribution of people there are demonstrably a wide range of views from one extreme to the other. Common sense dictates that there are no universally applicable absolutes here i.e. being pro Israel doesn’t necessarily equate to being an Israel firster. Logically neither does being an American Jew mean one is automatically an Israel firster. Asserting Mutual exclusivity is simply illogical.
    The notion that a Jew can’t exist as a Jew without the current Israeli government’s policies( i.e. their definition of the state), 2000 years of history tells us this is absurd.

    The crux of the argument boils down to that the three components ( being Jewish , pro Israel, and non accepting/supporting of the Licud Coalition government’s view of Israel and subsequent policies) are independent of each other. Specifically the first two absent of the third doesn’t equal anti Jewish, anti Israel or necessarily Anti Semitic. These terms are readily bandied by the politically right inclined as a distraction technique to avoid examination of the separation of Israel the state from the Party vision of the two being synonymous.
    With out that key belief then all subsequent policies are no longer absolute subject to criticism. And if there’s one thing that the political right can’t abide is refutation to their divine correctness. Their entire philosophy is based on a belief of superiority
    Without either their resistance to a solution of Israel’s continued existence within the pre 67 borders and Palestine getting rest would be show up for what it is.

    On the other hand it is not inconsistent to put any of those three components before the interests of those of the USA (Israel first) ….zealots exist.

    It is arguable and I would , that an American Jew who strives to manipulate USA national policies towards Israel’s interests before that of America, say a war with Iran is both irresponsible and doing USA a grave disservice. Likewise using their financial weight to stifle public comment about Israel is Anti Democracy Said person(s) is/are clearly a Israel firster.
    Objectively I’d point out that if a Muslim American was to attempt the same, to benefit a Muslim country he would be labelled Un(anti) American and finish up on some list or worse.

  3. Joe

    To question the loyalty of American Jews because they support Israel is akin to the historic anti-semetic canards in Europe for hundreds of years solidifying the stereotype as Jews as the outsider, disloyal to …the French, the Germans, the Poles, the English.

    Outsiders they were because they were not allowed to own land or live within the larger, gentile community. They were accused of being clannish. They were no dioyubtr ghetto firsters.

    And here again, the Jew is being questioned about his loyalty to America. About his feelings toeward Apartheid, water Apartheid, no less.

    I wonder are you a nuthouse firster.


  4. Paul Woodward

    Joe — I did not question the loyalty of all American Jews who support Israel.

    No doubt many American Jews who support Israel make it perfectly clear that their support does not mean that they put Israel first. That’s why I cited a group of American Jews whose own characterization of their support for Israel makes it clear that they do put Israel first.

    In other words, not all American Jewish supporters of Israel should be described as Israel firsters. However, many of those who object to the term Israel firster seem to suggest that there are no American Jewish supporters of Israel who fit this description. Moreover some imply — as you do — that the very notion of an Israel firster is purely an antisemitic invention.

    No doubt the history of Jewish persecution is long and brutal but it shouldn’t be used to deflect criticism of Israel or dismiss the idea that some American Jewish supporters of Israel put the interests of Israel above those of the United States. It’s an argument that simply doesn’t wash — it resonates only with those whose bias prevents them from consideration of the evidence.

  5. delia ruhe

    What I can’t understand very well is why Jewish Americans who would die for Israel aren’t in Israel. Demographics make Israel desperate for more Jews to make Alyiah. Israel needs more Jews than they do chequebook Zionists, I think.

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