Time to Dump "Pro-Israel"

There have been a lot of angry debates recently about Israel, complete with the requisite accusations of anti-Semitism hurled at just about anyone whose opinions about the country's history and policies contain any complexity whatsoever. Which means that this month is pretty much like any other. So let me make a proposal: Isn't it about time we just banished the very ideas of "pro-Israel" and "anti-Israel" once and for all?

Think about it this way: When was the last time you heard the designation "pro-Israel" or "anti-Israel" and found it a useful distinction that added to rather than subtracted from the discussion at hand? Ever? Instead, the terms are used almost exclusively as ad hominem, a way of shutting down debate by proclaiming that someone's intentions are sinister and therefore their arguments can be dismissed out of hand without addressing their substance.

There's no other country in the world we talk about in this way. No one asks if you're "pro-Canada" or "anti-Costa Rica." Even countries with which we have sometimes adversarial relationships, we don't use those terms. For instance, The Atlantic's James Fallows lived in China for a few years and has written a couple of books about the country. If someone asked, "Is James Fallows pro-China or anti-China?" you'd immediately say that person is an idiot, because the question is meaningless. Framing things that way does nothing but obscure and distract from any actually interesting question we might have.

I thought of this while reading frequent Prospect contributor Sarah Posner's piece on the retirement of Anti-Defamation League head Abe Foxman, who has spent much of the last half-century proclaiming who is and who isn't anti-Semitic and pro-Israel:

Foxman has long been the go-to guy for every reporter (including this one) to pass judgment on whether a politician or celebrity has crossed the line into anti-Semitism. Over the years, he has also become a de facto arbiter for many on what is or isn't "pro-Israel." But this is a growing problem at a time when the views of many American Jews are diverging from the positions held by major Jewish organizations—including the ADL.

The Pew Research Center's major survey of American Jews last year brought the problem into focus. It showed declining attachment to Israel and greater opposition among younger Jews to Israel's occupation of the West Bank. These younger Jews were more skeptical than their elders about the ongoing building of settlements, as well as the sincerity of Israeli government in pursuing peace with the Palestinians. The survey also found that older Jews were more likely than younger ones to say that "caring about Israel" was an essential part of being Jewish.

Asked about these results, Foxman told The Jewish Daily Forward, "You know who the Jewish establishment represents? Those who care." Of the views expressed in the survey, he added, "I'm not going to follow this."

If younger Jews are no longer sure whether they're really "pro-Israel," it's in no small part because for so long they've been told by so many that unless they take what is essentially the Likud line on any issue that comes up, then they're "anti-Israel" and probably self-hating Jews to boot. Is there any topic in public debate where discussions are so completely dominated by accusations of bad faith? Nothing else even comes close. And it's the people who claim to be the most concerned about anti-Semitism who so regularly debase the very idea, by saying that even the most factual and careful critiques of Israeli policy can only be motivated by hatred of Jews and a desire to see every Israeli driven into the sea.

Take, for instance, the recent conflict over New Republic writer John Judis's new book on Israel's founding. In case you missed it, Judis discusses some things that make those who will brook not an ounce of criticism of Israel uncomfortable. In response, Leon Wieseltier, the magazine's literary editor, penned a rancid little note essentially accusing his colleague of not only being a self-hating Jew, but of hating all Jews (there's a summary of the affair here). This surprised absolutely no one, because that's how things always go.

I'll admit that despite a long family and personal history with the state of Israel and no shortage of opinions, I seldom write about it, not so much because the inevitable self-hating Jew accusation will actually wound me (I have a pretty thick skin when it comes to people insulting me over what I write), but because entering into any debate about Israel just ends up being so distasteful.

So if nothing else, can we at least all agree that there is nothing to be gained by arguing about whether someone is "pro-Israel" or "anti-Israel"? If that's the case you're making, it's because you're unwilling to engage them on their actual ideas.

Speaking of actual ideas, if you'd like to see a genuine discussion about Israel where nobody accuses anybody else of being an anti-Semite, read our recent forum on the movement to boycott and divest from Israel. See, it is possible.

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