In a January op-ed for the Tablet, Spencer Ackerman rebuked MJ Rosenberg at Media Matters and others for their use of the phrase Israel Firster:
“Israel Firster” has a nasty anti-Semitic pedigree, one that many Jews will intuitively understand without knowing its specific history. It turns out white supremacist Willis Carto was reportedly the first to use it, and David Duke popularized it through his propaganda network. And yet Rosenberg and others actually claim they’re using it to stimulate “debate,” rather than effectively mirroring the tactics of some of the people they criticize.
Philip Weiss then pointed out that Ackerman was wrong about the origin of the phrase. It had first been used by the late Abram Leon Sachar, the leading American historian of Jews and president of Brandeis University.
Sachar, like many other diaspora Jews, took offense at a view promoted by Israeli Zionists that a Jew can only live a fully Jewish life inside Israel. He referred to those imposing this restrictive view of Jewishness as Israel Firsters.
Language evolves and the phrase now has a more obvious meaning — obvious that is to those of us who do not closely follow the internal struggles of Jewish identity. Israel Firsters are primarily American Jews whose first concern is Israel. They put Israel first. It’s not an antisemitic slur. It’s a literal, plain-as-daylight, description.
The campaign to drag the United States into a war against Iran on behalf of Israel is an Israel Firster campaign. It sure as hell is not being promoted by people who put the interests of the United States first.
The Emergency Committee for Israel ran a full-page ad in the New York Times yesterday promoting their Israel Firster agenda in a thinly veiled attack on the Obama administration and those Democrats who have yet to offer full-blooded support for an attack on Iran. The explicit targets of the ad were the Center for American Progress and Media Matters, but timed to appear just before Benjamin Netanyahu’s arrival in Washington for this year’s AIPAC conference, ECI clearly wanted to give the White House a rap on the shins before the boss comes into town.
But as ThinkProgress notes, ECI has already been roundly condemned inside the American Jewish community.
Last September, the American Jewish Committee’s director David Harris slammed ECI for turning Israel into a partisan wedge issue and exhibiting behavior “counterproductive to its stated aim of supporting Israel.” The head of the National Jewish Democratic Council said, “ECI’s behavior made it crystal clear that the organization is nothing more than a Republican front group bent on turning Israel into a partisan wedge issue.” And today, the Jewish Daily Forward says of the ECI ad: “[It’s] one of the most virulent anti-Jewish advertisements I’ve ever seen. And it came from other Jews.”
While the ECI is quick to casually throw around divisive language, it is much slower to condemn its own ties to ethnic and religious intolerance. In October, ECI board member Rachel Abrams raised eyebrows for calling Palestinian militants “savages,” “unmanned animals,” and “food for sharks,” in a blog post.
What’s strange about most Israel Firsters is that while they do very little to conceal their primary allegiance, they refuse to actually declare that they put Israel first. For instance, a couple of years ago when Sheldon Adelson said, “the uniform that I wore in the military unfortunately was not an Israeli uniform, it was an American uniform,” I don’t think he was making a fashion statement. He was talking about the country dearest to his heart — the one he most passionately wants to defend. So why do he and others recoil when their affinity is given a name? Maybe Israel Firster needs an extra nuance added — in-the-closet Israel Firster is perhaps more accurate.