Happy New Year! Or not.
On the first full day of Rosh Hashanah, unmasked CIA officer Valerie Plame tweeted out an article entitled, “America’s Jews are driving America’s wars.” As if the headline weren’t bad enough, the essay appeared on a website featuring such pieces as “It’s time to re-think David Duke.” Its argument mirrored a classic anti-Semitic conspiracy theory: Jews run everything in America, and because of their irrational love for Israel they’re running us into foreign conflicts, too.
It is nigh impossible to argue that the article was anything but vile. It called for identifying Jewish Americans as such when they appear on television (much as, it said, one might affix a warning label to a bottle of rat poison). That didn’t stop Plame from trying, at first — protesting that “many neocon hawks ARE Jewish.” Finally, she progressed to the last of the all-too-predictable stages of post-Twitter meltdown grief and issued a full-throated mea culpa. She has since deleted her initial tweet.
It’s also pretty clear that Plame’s apology was insufficient. Perhaps, as she said, she simply “skimmed” the piece before posting it. But did she make the same mistake with the other anti-Semitic musings she has shared over the past few months? “I never heard this story about 9/11: The Dancing Israelis,” reads one.
More interesting than the painfully obvious, though, is how the second Plame affair played into a broader debate about anti-Semitism in the United States. Conservatives crowed over Plame’s fall from grace because her unmasking in the 2000s and her antiwar advocacy in the years since have made her a hero in the eyes of many liberals. In their eyes, the left’s favorite member of the CIA had outed herself this time — as a bigot.
And to them that proved a point they’ve long been harping on: When it comes to Jews, liberals are just as “racist” as their neo-Nazi brethren. It didn’t matter that the piece Plame shared was written by a right-winger. What mattered was that she shared it. And by sharing it, she fit neatly into the narrative of the intolerant left.
Even in her apology, Plame claimed she had “zeroed in on the neocon criticism.” This criticism, though Plame does not spell it out, centers on the idea that Israel plays an outsize role in American foreign policy. Our devotion to Israel, some antiwar advocates argue, is dragging us into wars in the Middle East. It started with Iraq, and today we risk making the same mistake with Iran.
Imaginary Jewish cabal aside, it’s an argument worth having. There’s a powerful lobby for Israeli interests in the United States. It backed the Iraq War in 2003, and it backs an unforgiving stance toward Iran today. Sure, there are other reasons that the United States mires itself in Middle Eastern conflicts, and there are other countries pulling strings with Congress and the White House. There are also plenty of Americans who are uncompromisingly pro-Israel and have never had a conversation with a card-carrying AIPAC member. But when it comes down to it, the vast majority of U.S. politicians will take Israel’s side in a fight — and that has ripple effects throughout the Middle East.
Tweets like Plame’s do a disservice to those who want to have a wider discussion about Israel’s influence on American foreign policy. There’s a difference between well-founded criticisms of that influence and misplaced attacks on the people Israel was established to protect, but the two can often become muddled. Plame didn’t so much muddle as come down hard on the anti-Semitic side of the line. Others, whether they mean to or not, hover at the center. Plame made it easier for the neoconservative right to say there’s no center at all.
Plame’s missive on Thursday was upsetting not just because of the hatefulness of the screed she endorsed. It was upsetting because it was an extreme example of people seizing on casual, careless anti-Semitism in the service of critiques that might otherwise hold merit. That cavalier behavior only makes it easier for people on both sides of the issue to toss around nasty names and end the conversation there. Avoiding that tendency would be a worthy New Year’s resolution for all of us.