Sloppy charges of anti-Semitism

Politico should be more careful.

I could never present myself as a fitting representative of the Jewish religion or the Jewish people. I very rarely blog about Israel because I don’t have a lot to add that more knowledgeable people can’t express with greater authority. I do take great pride in the Jewish community and my heritage, and I feel a deep affection for Israel. I worry deeply about the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon. I worry about whether Egypt will abrogate its peace treaty with Israel. I worry more generally about some frightening trends in the Middle East. I’m offended by some fundamental attacks on Zionism and Israel, including those pursued by my University of Chicago colleague John Mearsheimer, who recently endorsed a disgraceful book on these matters. 

I also hold other views. Many of Israel’s present policies towards the Palestinians are morally and strategically disastrous. The Netanyahu government needs to be a better ally with the United States. Over time, Israel is fostering great resentment across the American military and diplomatic establishment with its occupation policies and, at times, its heavy-handed meddling in American domestic politics. Millions of American and Israeli Jews agree with me about these basic points.

President Obama is now trying to lead a coalition to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon. It’s a tough challenge, made tougher by eight years of disastrous Bush-era diplomacy, by eroding American influence in the region, and by the simple lesson imparted by our nation’s toppling of two non-nuclear regimes in Libya and Iraq, even as we have been forced to nervously coexist with North Korea. If an Iranian bomb is indeed the existential threat many Israelis fear it to be, friends such as Thomas Friedman note that this would be an especially good time for Israel to pursue actual diplomacy that would be helpful to the coalition of countries trying to prevent Iran from taking that step. Israel could help by mending fences with Turkey, by curbing settlement activities, by working more effectively with former and potential allies in the region.

There is no contradiction between feeling a deep concern and connection with Israel, and feeling deep dismay over current Israeli government policies in several areas. Many Israelis certainly share these sentiments. To take one example among many, Gershom Gorenberg’s most recent book expresses similar views with particular erudition and eloquence.

I thought of this as I read a pretty sloppy Politico article this morning, in which the Progressive Policy Institute’s Josh Block, is quoted to slam Eric Alterman’s journalism as “borderline anti-Semitic stuff.” That’s weird, since my main journalistic exposure to Alterman came through his columns in Moment, a magazine that focuses on Jewish concerns. This shouldn’t matter. But the simple fact is that Alterman is a knowledgeable and practicing Jew and self-proclaimed supporter of Zionism, too.

The idea that one might want what is best for Israel and believe some of its current policies set it on a morally and strategically disastrous course seemed beyond Mr. Block’s comprehension. Alterman deserves better. Many non-Jews deserve better, too. There’s enough real anti-Semitism in the world these days, borderline and otherwise. We shouldn’t throw charges around unless they’re warranted.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

14 thoughts on “Sloppy charges of anti-Semitism”

  1. Josh Block is a weasel. “Borderline anti-Semitic”? So he can say “ah, I didn’t say it WAS anti-Semitic, I said it was ‘borderline.'” But the adjective is doing the work.

    Let’s everyone call Josh Block a “borderline Nazi.” See? I didn’t say he WAS a Nazi ….

  2. AIPAC calls anyone who fails to agree with their Israel-right-or-wrong agenda an anti-semite or self-hating Jew. Josh Block may not be there any more, but he was their spokesthing for a reason.

  3. I’m sorry, but that Politico piece is too much inside baseball for me. Lost interest two-thirds of the way in. I am sorry though if people feel bullied so easily.

    I hope though that people realize that trying to have a war with Iran might be a big mistake. What makes anyone think we could actually take out a nuclear weapons program, if they even have one? I know it is scary, but I think we have to hope that the Iranian people will finally overthrow their government. I think a big chunk of them want to, they’re just not ready yet. But the Arab Spring must be making *some* impression. It can be done. I don’t get the feeling that the average Iranian really hates Israel that much, though I could be wrong. I am just so tired of wars that kill people and don’t accomplish much.

  4. Far be it for me to point out that this is exactly the same sort of tactic that the Tea Party and US-based “social conservative” movement engage in, particularly when labelling someone like Professor Kleiman’s undoubtedly conservative UCLA colleague Professor Bainbridge* as a “RINO” and “not a conservative.” To which I give a very rhinoceros-like snort and wonder in what universe Professor Bainbridge would not be a conservative… even if a humane one.

    Or that it’s the political equivalent of Sir James Frazer’s “rule of names” as part of magic systems in so-called “primitive” religions.

    Or that tests for “authenticity” of this nature strongly resemble the Spanish Inquisition’s method of forcing Portuguese moriscos to eat roasted chicken stuffed with bacon to show that they really had renounced their Judiaism…

    * Despite our political differences, we’re friends.

  5. The term has been almost totally devalued. The boy cries wolf too often. This is pretty simple.

  6. There is a lot of borderline antisemitism floating around.

    Rootless cosmopolitans who don’t share our values? Check.
    Glib manipulators of symbols who don’t do real work? Check.
    Socialist communists? Check.
    Israel is fine as long as it bashes wogs without apologies and paves the way for Armageddon? Check. Netanyahu, after all, is not a liberal.

  7. Note also the fact that the Berkeley Jewish Student Union has banned J Street. (

    I’m only half Jewish, with upbringing in the religion, no religion at all these days, and no claim to Judaism on account of my paternal descent as the orthodox proselytizers are quick to point out, so I suppose my opinions on these matters will be taken as irrelevant. But I do wonder what the people at Politico and at Berkeley make of the large numbers of Israelis whose opinions fail to fit theirs. Are they also anti-semites? Is anyone to the left of Bibi a cross between Arafat and Hitler?

  8. In wingnut America, the real racists are those who identify and criticize racism; the real anti-Semites are those who identify and criticize the dehumanization of Palestinians.

    It’s always the same with these shitheads.

  9. I was once branded a racist for recounting a story of an Oakland police officer who (repeatedly, though gently) rammed my car with his when I failed to move out of his way (his lights and sirens were on, but traffic was heavy and there was literally no place to move), and for commenting, “Gee, I wonder what he would have done had I been black.” So I have first-hand experience of being called a racist because I had the poor taste to point out that racism exists in America. It’s not fun.

  10. I’m beginning to wonder (as with Scrooge above) to what degree all of these “borderline antisemitism” attacks against people who think that the Israeli government shouldn’t cement a reputation as bad actors serves to displace anxiety about the actual antisemitism of some of the people the attackers have chosen as allies. (And yes, supporting a jewish state because there has to be one for it to get obliterated as part of the apocalypse is antisemitism.)

    (Of course, my opinion doesn’t count either, because I’m not jewish except to a nazi.)

  11. I’m offended by some fundamental attacks on Zionism and Israel, including those pursued by my University of Chicago colleague John Mearsheimer, who recently endorsed a disgraceful book on these matters.

    Weaksauce like this doesn’t help. The author of the book in question vomits out stuff like this:

    Jewish texts tend to glaze over the fact that Hitler’s March 28 1933, ordering a boycott against Jewish stores and goods, was an escalation in direct response to the declaration of war on Germany by the worldwide Jewish leadership.

    He also says “Jewish political strategies” and Greenspan (who he identifies “not exactly a Rasta”) “caused” “the sub-prime mortgage”:

    I don’t think it was a credit crunch, I think it was a Zionist punch.–Atzmon-No-Choice-But-To-Speak-Out.php

    Would it be too much to call stuff like this antisemitic?

  12. Professor Mearsheimer has been right about so many things over such a long period of time that to quibble over some book he endorsed seems inane. I was fortunate to be in one of his classes, and he was a truly wonderful man. He’s no “anti-Semite” – that’s for sure.

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