For years, the subject of Israel has been the biggest third rail subject we have to deal with. Any time we wanted to mention Israel in a post we had to alert the mods to strap on their hazmat suits, because the comments section would invariably turn into a shitstorm. Any criticism of Israel was greeted with catcalls of anti-semitism, which would inevitably draw out the anti-semites. The next thing you know, the mods are tearing their hair out and Bill O’Reilly is calling you a Nazi.
It was extraordinarily difficult to provide a place for free speech and open discussion and yet police racism and hate speech. Most people concluded (quite rightly) that the conditions were not right for a mature discussion of the subject, and just avoided it.
But as the current crisis unfolds in Gaza, all that seems to have reversed itself. Although a lot of bloggers are still obviously gun shy, it looks like readers are ready to take it on, and they are doing so without letting the conversation devolve into an endless flame war. I read closely the comments section of Gregg Mitchell’s top-rated Kos diary on the diversity of opinion about the Gaza situation within the Israeli press, which commenters reflected in their own disparate opinions. But despite the attempts of a couple of trolls to derail the conversation, it remained remarkably civil.
A series of diaries on the subject of Gaza subsequently made their way onto the recommended list, some critical of Israel’s actions and others in support. But one thing is becoming clear — the third rail is cooling off.
Opinions will differ as to why this is happening, and Obama’s November victory certainly sets the stage — people really are eager for change. But I would attribute this turn of events to three things:
1) J-Street: Until the emergence of this remarkable group, hawkish right-wing idealogues had successfully managed to equate support for Israel with support for an aggressive, bellicose foreign policy. When J-Street came along, they courageously led the way in articulating a policy of supporting Israel through supporting peace. They did so in the face of incredible institutional pressure, but in a very short time they managed to enlarge the conversation and make it possible to discuss Israel outside of an extreme right-wing frame. The statement of Jeremy Ben-Ami on the airstrikes in Gaza demonstrates their exemplary leadership and reflects a sober, reasonable assessment of the situation that I think people were really hungry for.
2) Joe Klein: The importance of what Joe Klein did in the face of intimidation tactics from the extreme right cannot be overstated. When Jennifer Rubin of Commentary Magazine called Klein an "anti-semite" for criticizing Israel and the ADL piled on and condemned him, it was pretty much just standard operating procedure for them — tactics that had silenced many critics before. But Klein was totally (and appropriately) enraged by this kind of thuggery, and fought back publicly on the pages of Time.
As Glenn Greenwald wrote:
Klein really became the first person in a venue as establishment-serving as Time Magazine to explicitly criticize neocons for their Israel-centric fixations and, much more importantly, for their disgusting exploitation of "anti-semitism" accusations against anyone and everyone who disagrees with their views on the Israel-Palestinian conflict and, more generally, on the Middle East.
Having someone like Klein, in a place like Time, make those arguments without punishment is highly threatening to the neocons’ ability to continue to intimidate people away from expressing divergent views by wielding "anti-semitism" accusations. And they know that it is threatening, which is why, once Klein began doing it, they engaged in a full-court swarm to attack and demonize Klein and even insinuate that he should and would be fired for his transgressions on the topic of neocons and Israel.
I got a front row seat to the battle at a BBC dinner in New York with Commentary Magazine’s John Podhoretz and Klein:
No sooner had the dinner begun than the two were screaming at each other over the table. "You’re a shithead! You’re a shithead!" screamed The Pod. "Why don’t you just call me an antisemite? That’s what you do!" retorted Klein.
Klein never backed down, and he used his perch at Time to expose the intimidation racket they were running, marginalizing them as right-wing extremists. I applauded him at the time, and continue to think that he made a tremendous contribution to the evolution of the conversation around Israel.
3) Leadership: What Klein did to Commentary Magazine and the ADL, Glenn Greenwald has done to Marty Peretz and the neocon propaganda organ he runs at The New Republic. Likewise Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, Spencer Ackerman, Paul Rosenberg, Siun, Ian Welsh and Stirling Newberry have done a tremendous job of stepping outside the "usual suspect" sources and taking advantage of a new freedom to explore the subject of Israel from a multiplicity of viewpoints with intelligence and integrity.
It really appears to be a remarkable evolution in the discourse surrounding the subject of Israel, one that is long overdue. It will hopefully provide more space for the incoming administration to maneuver within, outside of the belligerent chest-beatings of the Bush Administration in their final days.