Ron Radosh

"The Nation" magazine's Eric Alterman: Bad for Our Nation, Bad for Liberalism, and Bad for the Jews

At the time of Israel’s 60th anniversary, The Nation magazine published what was for its readers an unusually positive article about the Jewish State from one of its regular writers. The columnist who traveled to Israel and reported on it was none other than Eric Alterman.  He went there for the first time after twenty years, and what he turned out was, especially for Nation readers, too much to handle.  Israel, he wrote, was in the midst of a “economic and cultural renaissance,” although, he accurately reported, it was “experiencing a profound crisis of leadership.”

I found his article to be thoughtful and nuanced, not the Nation’s usual one-sided and rather vicious anti-Israeli position. He noted that he spoke with Israelis representing all points of view, including discussion of the “settlements and the occupation.” All those he spoke with  opposed the bi-national state favored by Tony Judt, and indeed, by many of the contributors to his own magazine.  He wrote, for example, that “The increasing strength of Hamas, the weakness and corruption of Fatah, a rash of suicide bombings, the shelling of Israeli cities from Lebanon and hateful rhetoric emanating from so much of the Arab world have all but drained Israelis of their compassion and patience for the Palestinian ‘other.’”  

Alterman spoke to former peace activists and left-wing Israelis who, like Ruth Gavison, “finds herself less and less in sympathy with her former self.”  He acknowledged that for all practical purposes, the Israeli peace movement was all but dead. Shlomo Avineri told him that  “‘the Palestinians have not produced a political leadership that has proven both responsive and responsible.’” In many years, Avineri  had met only one Palestinian who was willing to recognize Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish State.

And worst of all, I suspect for his regular readers, was that he interviewed Benny Morris, the brilliant Israeli historian who writes regularly now for The New Republic, and whom he called a “respected historian” who over lunch walked him “through the terrifying scenario that he believed would occur were the United States to fail to bomb Tehran….” And he added that Morris’  “shocking conclusion” was seconded by participants in a panel taking place in the pages of the left/liberal Jewish magazine Moment. One of its writers noted that an Israeli attack on Iran “‘was far more likely should Barack Obama be elected President, as Israel felt it could rely on McCain but not Obama to undertake a sustained conventional attack.’”

A few weeks later, the Nation was inundated with letters to the editor, all of which condemned Alterman for being a closet neo-con, for writing the kind of article they would expect in The New Republic but not in The Nation, etc.  I was hardly surprised. Indeed, having criticized Alterman over the years (and being a fairly regular recipient of his nasty and often ad hominem attacks) I phoned him to tell him that I liked his piece, despite disagreements on some points. He then told me that he thought the article my wife and I had in World Affairs Journal, on the early pro-Israel record of The Nation under the helm of Freda Kirchwey, had led his editors to give him a good deal of space for his piece, since they wanted to show that indeed they were still even-handed.

I’m sorry to say, that since Alterman wrote his article, he has reverted to the usual fare expected by his audience. The latest example of his apparent mea culpa is the column he wrote in the December 7th issue of the Nation, “The New Republic:Bad for the Jews.” Apparently, he has forgotten what he learned on his trip, and had reverted to using  crude ad hominem attacks in the place of argument and analysis.

Alterman  simply asserts that Marty Peretz, Editor in Chief of The New Republic engages in “inarguably racist rants directed toward Arabs and other adherents of Islam.” But there is plenty to argue about in Alterman’s “inarguable” claim about Peretz’s racism.  Alterman  quotes him as saying that he thinks “Arabs are feigning outrage when they duly protest what they call American (or Israeli) ‘atrocities.’” Let us decipher that sentence.  Have we seen any Arab protests of Arab attacks on those other Arabs with whom they disagree? The Hamas-Fatah propaganda machine went ballistic a few years ago about the supposed Israeli “massacre” at Jenin.  We long ago learned that the charges were all false, and pure propaganda. So why are we supposed to take Arab outrage about these events seriously?

We know that there are indeed nations that have backwards cultures; that shun modernity and revel in their backwardness. Radical Islamists want to return to centuries past, and run regimes that oppress women on religious grounds, and that outlaw alcohol, music and social equality between sexes. Why is it “racist” to simply point this out?

But the heart of Alterman’s argument is that Peretz attacks American Jews “who believe that the best way to protect Israel’s long-term future would be to commit itself to finding a common ground with peace with the Palestinians.”  Any regular reader of Peretz’s columns, as I am, knows that in fact Peretz believes in a two-state solution, but will not countenance the continual phony and never-ending peace process and the refusal of the Palestinian leadership to accept Israeli genuine offers that would lead to two states in which the Palestinian one would agree to finally accept Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish State.

So Alterman goes on to condemn TNR for “doing damage to the cause of Israel.” With friends like Alterman, as the saying goes….His answer:  “Withdrawal from the West Bank is the only solution to this painful quandary” of Israel becoming either an apartheid state or sacrificing its Jewish character to remain a democracy. He claims that “all of Israel’s true friends understand” this.

Israel, of course, has had a good test about what can happen with a policy of unilateral withdrawal from what occurred in Gaza. If it simply left the West Bank, without any agreement or acceptance of Israel by the Palestinian Authority, Israel could face missiles on its border that would easily hit Tel Aviv, Ben-Gurion airport, and all of its major centers. It could face a West Bank populated and run by Hamas terrorists, devoted to pushing the Jews to the sea, and realizing their old dream of an all Arab Palestine.  Is there something wrong with Eric Alterman that he does not understand this?

And of course, he chastises Peretz for attacking Hillary Clinton’s attempt to allow continuation of what he calls “Israel’s illegal settlements on Palestinian land.” I suggest that first Alterman read a contribution in the new issue of Commentary, which contains an important article by David M. Phillips, a Professor of International Law at Northeastern University.  (Yes, I know in advance that since he has such an open mind, Alterman will respond by condemning any article in Commentary as neo-con drivel, and will not even bother to read it and evaluate the author’s arguments.)

Whether or not settlements are right or wrong, Phillips persuasively challenges the conventional wisdom that they are illegal. He concludes: “The willingness of Israel’s critics to assert that these communities are not merely wrong-headed but a violation of international law escalates the debate over their existence from a dispute about policy into one in which the Jewish state itself can be labeled as an international outlaw.” Using international law as a reason to delegitimize the settlements, he argues, “is the same argument used by Israel’s enemies to delegitimize the Jewish state entirely.”

In a concluding passage that directly addresses Alterman’s argument, Phillips writes: “Those who consider themselves friends of Israel but opponents of the settlement policy should carefully consider whether, in advancing these illegitimate and specious arguments, they will eventually be unable to resist the logic of the argument that says—falsely and without a shred of supporting evidence from international law itself—that Israel is illegitimate.”  So the question to ask Alterman is this: if he persists in making just such an argument, how long will it take him to join his other colleagues on The Nation, like Neve Gordon and others, who already are making the case for Israel’s illegitimacy? And who, precisely, is the real friend of Israel—Marty Peretz or Eric Alterman?

As for J-Street, a group whose bona fides  as pro-Israel have been successfully challenged by many writers in various venues, Alterman’s support of them as the really pro-Israel group simply indicates how far he has drifted from the position he enunciated at the time of Israel’s 60th anniversary. So if anyone should take a “long, restful vacation,” it is not Marty Peretz, but Eric Alterman himself. That would indeed be good not only for the Jews, but for the state of American journalism, and yes- American liberalism.