Alterman on the warpath

Over at Altercation, Eric Alterman's knickers are still in a twist over being "slandered" in my recent column in the Boston Globe about Jewish writers using essentially anti-Semitic rhetoric. He is particularly upset that The Boston Globe did not run his letter in its entirety (for some reason, however, he omits a link to his full letter and my response at Hit & Run) and did not issue the apology and retraction he demanded. After his declaration of war, Alterman has encouraged his loyal fans to express their displeasure to my Globe editor, Nick King, posting not only his email address but also his office phone number.

So, let's recap.

Alterman writes a blog post in which he taunts Andrew Sullivan, the journalist and blogger, for criticizing the British Muslim Council's boycott of Holocaust commemorations. In this post, he explains that Arab resentment against Israeli policies makes the boycott perfectly understandable, and one should no more expect Muslims to honor the suffering of murdered Jews than one should expect gays to honor the suffering of "gay-bashing bigots." Also in the process, he takes a gratuitous slam at Sullivan, a gay man and a leading champion of gay equality, for colluding with "gay-bashing bigots." Finally, he slams (justly, in my opinion) a prominent Orthodox rabbi, Daniel Lapin, for an article basically endorsing the right-wing variety of anti-Semitism that rails against secular Jews in Hollywood.

(By the way, I would like, very belatedly, to thank Jeff Jarvis for the pointer to Alterman's little screed.)

I write a column giving Alterman a taste of his own medicine and pointing out that his defense of the British Muslim Council's boycott amounts, effectively, to endorsing anti-Semitism.

Alterman goes into a tailspin in which he has remained for over a week.

His basic argument (echoed by his minions) seems to be that I called him an anti-Semite and a self-hating Jew because he has dared criticize Israeli policies and speak in favor of suffering Palestinians. Puh-leeze. I think there's plenty of reasonable criticism that can be made of Israeli policies, and I don't even think that all unreasonable criticism of Israeli policies is ipso facto anti-Semitic. What I found (and still find) utterly appalling is Alterman's assertion that anger at Israeli policies is a moral justification for refusing to honor the memory of Holocaust victims. Is that really so difficult to understand?

Alterman's rant also includes a bizarre insinuation that I have a vendetta against him because of his writings about my former boyfriend, Wall Street Journal editor John Fund. This is based on a blog item in which John Tabin reports a conversation he had with me at a Reason party in 2003. The only problem is, what I told Tabin was that while I think Alterman is a jerk (an assessment based on this incident, and one that his latest antics have not changed), I was impressed by his defense of John Fund when Fund was falsely accused of domestic violence and much of the left-wing media picked up the smear. So I'm really not sure what Alterman's point is.

Finally: do I think Alterman is an anti-Semite? No, of course not. (For the record, I did not write the Globe headline, "When Jews wax anti-Semitic.") Neither, I'm sure, is Rabbi Lapin. I do think that both of them are willing to endorse and abet anti-Semitism when it comes from those with whom they sympathize politically: in Alterman's case, Palestinians (and by extension, Arabs and Muslims in general); in Lapin's, conservative Christians.

Any more questions?

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  • James B.||

    You dated John Fund?

  • ||

    Try an analogy: "What Alterman is trying to do is tantamount to not honoring MLK Day because of the policies of Robert Mugabe." Because it sounds to me like he supports thrashing victims of any race-based slaughter because of the racial affinity of leaders of any particular government with questionable policy.

  • ||

    Any more questions?

    Yeah. How long has this been going on?

    June 27, 2003

    Would it be unseemly to brag that I made Cathy Young laugh out loud? My laugh line: "It's Eric Alterman's Zionist white whale!" Young told me that, though Alterman is a jerk, she was impressed with his defense of John Fund. (Fund is Young's "no hard feelings" ex-boyfriend.) A conspiracy-minded friend of hers (I can't remember the name and wouldn't share it if I could) began speculating on what ulterior motives Alterman might have for acting decent in this instance.

    John Tabin

  • ||

    Erm.... and your point is?

  • gaius marius||

    What I found (and still find) utterly appalling is Alterman's assertion that anger at Israeli policies is a moral justification for refusing to honor the memory of Holocaust victims.

    why isn't it, ms young? why are they wrong to refuse to explicitly honor jewish suffering when israel under likud refuses to halt palestinian suffering? and are you certain alterman made their refusal to attend out to be a moral issue -- or did he empathize with it as a tactical issue?

    imo, creating a "self-loathing jew" to explain the discrepency between your vision of what jews should believe and what a jew like alterman actually thinks is fundamentally an intellectual copout. you're refusing to do the heavy-lifting.

    there is a lot of room for israelis and jews to claim not only empathy but solidarity with palestinians -- one that would best be served, i hope we agree, by the opposite quid pro quo of today's mutual denial of sufferings. i tend to agree with marc ellis that judaism has undergone a massive transformation since 1947 that has resulted in a militant, oppressive state that rejects the rabbinic tradition and is, by many jews' definition, unjewish -- indeed, that a state of israel may be incompatible with judaism -- and that ethical jews can confront modern israel only by opposing it.

    that is not self-loathing a priori, nor is it anti-semitic a priori. it is a critical evaluation of what nationalism and nietzschean will to power have done to establishment judaism and an impassioned call for imperative reform to restore ethics to the primary place it held in judaism for centuries.

    i don't purport to know that this is alterman's thinking. but i am saying that you seem (on this one issue) to be misrepresenting of the complexity of being jewish and the multitude of views that one can hold and still be jewish without hating oneself.

  • ||

    Any more questions?

    Yeah - who cares?

  • Phil||

    Why are they wrong to refuse to explicitly honor jewish suffering when israel under likud refuses to halt palestinian suffering?

    Because by definition none of the people murdered in the Holocaust could possibly be considered responsible for the actions of Israel vis a vis the Palestinians.

  • gaius marius||

    surely that exculpates the dead as individuals, mr phil. but why must they be explicitly honored?

  • fyodor||

    Thank you, Phil. I was about to say because Jews do not equal Israel, which is what this all boils down to.

    That said, I'm not one to criticize Arabs for skipping the Holocaust commemorations. I kinda figure that's their business, not mine. I'll go so far as to say I think I they're missing a golden opportunity to demonstrate that their problems with Israel are not based on anti-Semitism. But again, that's their problem.

    But I do take issue with this excuse offered up by Alterman and gaius marius and, on the previous thread on this issue, joe that you can't blame Arabs/Muslims for feeling this way because of the suffering visited on Palestinians by Israel. Now, sometimes when people are mad they become irrational, and up to a point I sympathize with the BMC's position just because of that. But anyone who sympathizes with the BMC's stated reason for their position is being likewise irrational. Because that equation does not computer and any rationally thinking person should recognize it.

  • ||

    Are you really asking why Holocaust victims should be honored?

    Anyway, I think it's best to ignore Alterman when he has one of these little hissy-fits. It just brings you down to his level.

    Alterman has an ugly history of making himself seem more important by picking fights with writers who are far more talented than he is. First, there's Sullivan -- Alterman mentions him almost daily, but I don't think I've ever seen Sullivan mention Alterman. Politics aside (I disagree with both of them most of the time), Sullivan's prose is infinitely better than Alterman's.

    Alterman also had a totally inexplicable hatred of Michael Kelly, the late editor of Atlantic Monthly. Compared to Mike Kelly, Alterman is a moral, intellectual, and journalistic midget.

    Hitchens, too. Way better writer than Alterman, and Alterman hates him.

    So Cathy, count yourself fortunate to be in good company.

  • fyodor||

    Er..."Because that equation does not compute..."

  • ||

    why are they wrong to refuse to explicitly honor jewish suffering when israel under likud refuses to halt palestinian suffering?

    It's not so much wrong as counterproductive. It serves likud interests to equate jews with Israelis.

    judaism has undergone a massive transformation since 1947

    Again, it doesn't serve the Palestinians to gloss over in one fell swoop the vocal and growing liberal voices in judaism that are trying to right past wrongs.

  • ||

    While I don't agree with Alterman's point, I can see his and the BMC's point regarding the Holocaust. Had it not been for guilt about the Holocaust, the state of Israel would likely not have been founded. The victims of the Holocaust were not involved to Israel's founding, but their relatives were. Not to mention their memory was used as the justification for its founding.

    His anaology sucks. A better one would be the survivors of Dresden and their children refusing to honor the American dead at Pearl Harbor. It's a tragedy that they died, but their death led to their tragedy (yes, yes Hitler was the main reason, but no analogy is perfect).

  • ||

    Plus, there's the fact that Alterman's entire original post is one big embrace of the concept of collective guilt based on race/religiion. This is an evil, evil idea that must be confronted at every opportunity.

  • ||

    PS Count my tepid defense as one for the BMC rather than Alterman. I think that the BMC is being dumb and would look really good if they honored the dead without mentioning Israel. Of course, I think Islamic organizations are contractually bound to bitch about Israel once a week or they lose their merit badge.

  • Phil||

    but why must they be explicitly honored?

    Why must anybody be explicitly honored? The question isn't "Why should they be honored?" but rather "Why should the British Muslim Council be allowed to get away un-called-out with trying to hijack their honoring with an irrelevant political grievance?" They don't want to go, don't go. But trying to make a ceremony for Holocaust victims be even partly about Palestine? No.

    NB: Given my historical druthers, the state of Israel would have been located right in between France and Poland. I realize how destabilizing such a thing would have been, and how much worse it would have made the postwar situation, but it would have been just.

  • gaius marius||

    it doesn't serve the Palestinians

    i might agree, mr pavel. but that does nothing to address the issue of morality as ms young has framed it.

    Are you really asking why Holocaust victims should be honored?

    no, mr steve -- i'm asking why these people must honor them explicitly and now.

    Jews do not equal Israel

    it would seem so to me, mr fyodor -- but can anyone deny that israel and the holocaust are inextricably linked? and that israel has worked hard to link them?

    in the end, the militant nationalism of what ellis calls "constantinian judaism" is what the palestinians oppose -- where, as the name is meant to evoke, the judaic religious establishment has been purposefully conflated with israeli national destiny, and has been modified greatly in being so. ellis:

    Constantinian Christianity transformed its ethical and spiritual witness into a set of policies that legitimated the state and elevated its own respectability. Though the texts of the Christian spiritual tradition and the symbolism of its deepest impulses remained, in fact a new religion evolved that used the subversive message of its early years as a cover for the development of a theocratic orthodoxy that would have scandalized the early followers of Jesus.

    Is not this what has happened to Judaism in our time, the initiation of a Constantinian Judaism in service to the state and to power?

    establishment judaism is purposefully made inseparable from the israeli state -- such that examinations of the state's utility, for example, are seen not as politically critical but as religiously hateful.

    under such circumstances, is judaism actually seen as separate from israel by establishment judaism? and would not BMC be sharing their view in not differentiating between the two?

  • ||

    You know those dreams where you're at work naked? That's kind of how I feel even entering these powderkeg conversationgs. But I like it here, so....

    1) Cathy Young: You are such a surpassingly excellent writer etc., it really was painful to see you rely on the wretched 'puh-leeze' in even the slightest way. If only I could take that away, you'd remain the super-being you've established yourself to be in my imagination. :)

    2) Mo's quip about the Islamic merit badge is a goodie. And really any organization or individual anywhere gets a hat with a big 'L' on it for failing to do the obvious and toe the line re: the Holocaust, be it by officially boycotting a commemoration or whatever.

    But my discomfort comes from the concept of "criticizing the British Muslim Council's boycott of Holocaust commemorations." Granted, again, it's a PR skid mark on their collective undies. But (and here I glance around nervously like Yosemite Sam lighting a match in order see while in the dynamite storage closet) is it that crucial that *any* given organization do anything in particular about the Holocaust that a comparitively big wheel like Sullivan would criticize them? If he's just simply saying that they are PR oafs because of the inevitable disgruntlement their unwise boycott will cause, fine. But if he's going anywhere else with it I can't (yet) see why.

    A little help?

  • fyodor||

    under such circumstances, is judaism actually seen as separate from israel by establishment judaism? and would not BMC be sharing their view in not differentiating between the two?

    So because one group confuses this issue, it justifies another group doing so?

    The political agenda of Israel and its supporters is propped up by the claim that Israel is somehow representative of all Jews. Thus your point only demonstrates yet another reason why it would behoove the BMC to participate while offering an explanation that said participatipon demonstrates their belief that Israel does not represent world Judaism.

  • fyodor||


    I essentially agree with what (I think) you're saying. I already stated that I wouldn't criticize the BMC per se, and I'll add now that rolled eyes and pity are probably preferred reactions to any sort of outright condemnation. I believe Pavel has made an argument around the same lines and Mo's position is more or less consistent, too. So perhaps (as others still have suggested) this is all a tempest in a teapot and we should let the BMC go on their silly and counterproductive way. I guess the only time it becomes relevant is when westerners start backing the BMC's position with tortured logic. Just because anyone else conflates Israel with Jews doesn't mean anyone else should. That's the point I'd like to make. All the rest seems like posturing.

  • fyodor||

    Make that: "Just because someone conflates Israel with Jews doesn't mean anyone else should."

  • ||

    Gotcha, fyodor. Thanks.

  • ||

    Erm.... and your point is?

    If I'm Erm then the point is that this antagonism is of the duration of a feud.

  • J. Goard||

    Since we are at least nominally talking about spirituality: seeds of violence may be present in the very notion of 'honoring' or 'commemmorating' a particular group of dead or suffering individuals. This great gash in human history should be a call to love one another, and to be wary of Great Symbols capable of putting evil into our hearts. Yet, in this instance, both sides have made it into its own Great Symbol.

  • J. Goard||

    ...and yes, I do recognize the paradoxical quality of my position.

  • gaius marius||

    it would behoove the BMC to participate while offering an explanation that said participatipon demonstrates their belief that Israel does not represent world Judaism.

    and be called antisemitic by the israeli judaic establishment for saying so. so you can see their bind.

  • ||

    Is anyone keeping in mind here that it was a Muslim organization, rather than a Palestinian one, that decided to boycott? I wonder how many of these guys ever set foot inside the West Bank or Gaza, or have a family member that's been affected by what's gone on there.

    On controversies like these, I'm inclined to take the view espoused by Eddie Murphy in Coming to America: the first reaction is usually the right one. My first thought upon reading about the boycott was that it was clearly driven by anti-semitism, with a hatred of Israel having boiled over into feelings of antipathy towards Jews. Everything that follows likely amounts to over-rationalization.

  • ||

    Gads, shall we never see the end of this e-pissing contest? It's clear from your counter-counter-counter-volley that you no longer even care about the Wallowpalooza known as the Auschwitz Anniversary Commemoration, or who attended it, or whatever. You're concerned about the length of your own dick, at this point. Ms. Young, be a libertarian for crying out loud, and allow that Eric Alterman's opinion damaged neither you nor anyone else. And get on with it, as they say on Monty Python.

  • ||

    What fyodor said, which was:

    Just because someone conflates Israel with Jews doesn't mean anyone else should.

    When a bigot criticizes Israel as a way to get at Jews, it's the same type of logical mistake as when a Jew becomes reflexively defensive when Israel is criticized. The Israeli government is guilty of many thing. Jews in general cannot be blamed for any of them. Judaism may be called to account, especially fundamentalist Judaism with regard to the faults of the Israeli government, but certainly not Jews in general.

  • ||

    I call bullsh$t.

    The full text of his letter to The Globe was published at both his site and linked to by numerous other sites at least two days ago.

    What took you so long?

    How does it feel to be bought and paid for?

    Damn, what a disappointment.


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