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.