Stephen M. Walt

The problem with judging a blog by its commenters (updated)

Even though I am on vacation with my family this week, I was planning to blog today about the Washington Post‘s stunning series on the extraordinary expansion of America’s intelligence apparatus since 9/11. It is outstanding investigative journalism, and its authors — Dana Priest and William Arkin — deserve enormous kudos. I’ll share my thoughts ...

Even though I am on vacation with my family this week, I was planning to blog today about the Washington Post‘s stunning series on the extraordinary expansion of America’s intelligence apparatus since 9/11. It is outstanding investigative journalism, and its authors — Dana Priest and William Arkin — deserve enormous kudos. I’ll share my thoughts on this matter later this week.

Instead of writing today about quality journalism, I unfortunately have to write about an article that fits squarely at the other end of the journalism spectrum. I refer here to the nasty column in Tablet magazine by Lee Smith, denouncing Glenn Greenwald, Andrew Sullivan, Philip Weiss, Jim Lobe and me for being "career Jew-baiters" and serving as facilitators of anti-Semitism.

As one might expect, the piece is long on invective and innuendo but almost completely devoid of meaningful evidence. Its only real value is to once again demonstrate the usual tactics that many of the so-called defenders of Israel employ against anyone who is critical either of Israel’s actions or of America’s special relationship with Israel.

The first thing to observe about Smith’s screed is that even though he accuses me and my fellow bloggers of being anti-Semites and "Jew-baiters," his article contains not a scintilla of evidence that Sullivan, Greenwald, Weiss, or I have written or said anything that is remotely anti-Semitic, much less that involves "Jew-baiting." There’s an obvious reason for this omission: None of us has ever written or said anything that supports Smith’s outrageous charges.

Smith therefore has to resort to a new and bizarre form of "guilt-by-association." He attacks the four of us-and me in particular-by looking at some of the anonymous reader comments that appear in response to some of our posts. He finds that a few of those individuals who comment make some extreme statements, which he uses to argue that we are deliberately fostering anti-Semitism on our blogs. In other words, we must be anti-Semites because a handful of people whom we don’t even know — because their identities are secret — are commenting on our posts. (It’s not clear how this applies to Sullivan, by the way, because his blog doesn’t have a comments thread.)

The problems with this line of argument should be obvious. First, people of all persuasions write in to disagree — sometimes vehemently — with my views on Middle East policy, and that includes individuals who defend Israel down the line. So, one could just as easily use the comments thread to argue that I am providing a platform for pro-Israel hasbara. Second, any website that deals with Middle East subjects, especially Israel, will inevitably attract some wing-nuts. Just take a look at the comments on New York Times or Washington Post pieces dealing with Israel, or even better, check out the "talk-backs" in the Jerusalem Post or Ha’aretz. There is virtually no difference between what you will find at those sites and what you will find on the Greenwald, Weiss, and Walt sites. Does Smith also believe that Ha’aretz and the Jerusalem Post are "mainstreaming hate?" Third, if we judge bloggers not by what they write but by what some of their readers write in response, we would be giving opponents of those bloggers an easy way to discredit them. If you don’t like what a particular blogger says, write an anonymous comment praising him or her, add some bigoted statements of your own, and then send Smith an anonymous email and tell him to check out the comments thread. Voila! Lastly, if we take freedom-of-speech seriously (and I do) we have to be tolerant of discourse that we personally find offensive and sometimes even hateful. I am confident that the vast majority of people who read my blog can tell the difference between what I write under my own name and what anyone else says about what I have written, even if Smith cannot.

Smith’s other source of "evidence" against me and my fellow bloggers is a handful of outlandish quotations from the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, who has made some of those same bogus charges against me in the past. Goldberg, in case you didn’t know, is a journalist whose intense passion for Israel led him to emigrate there and enlist in the IDF, where he served as a prison guard. I have no problem with that, as Americans are allowed to hold dual citizenship; but it does help you understand why he is quick to attack anyone who criticizes Israel. Objectivity about the Middle East is not his strong suit.

He was also a vocal advocate of invading Iraq in 2003, and wrote a long-since discredited article about Saddam Hussein’s supposed links to al Qaeda. This embarrassing error gives you some idea of the reliability of his expertise about the Middle East. He also wrote a comically overwrought review of my book with John Mearsheimer on the Israel lobby in the New Republic that began by comparing us to Osama bin Laden, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Father Coughlin, and managed to misrepresent our views on nearly every page. I seem to have become a favorite punching bag of his, given that he has repeatedly accused me on his own blog of being a "Jew-baiter." Of course, he never offers a shred of evidence to support that ludicrous (and truth be told, obscene) charge.

The fact that Goldberg’s ravings are the best ammunition Smith has shows you that he has no case.

What is really going on here? Smith’s article is just another illustration of what has become a familiar and depressing story here in the United States. Anyone who writes or says something that is critical of Israeli policy, who questions the wisdom of the special relationship, or who talks about the negative influence of the Israel lobby, is almost certain to smeared, usually by being labeled either an anti-Semite or a self-hating Jew. It is as predictable as the sun rising in the east each morning.

It doesn’t matter how often you remind people that lobbying on behalf of a foreign country is a legitimate political activity in the American political system, how often you emphasize that you support Israel’s existence, or how often you denounce genuine anti-Semitism. Nor does it matter how carefully you document your claims.

People like Smith (and Goldberg) will simply ignore all of that and instead come up with bizarre arguments designed to portray you as a virulent and dangerous bigot. Of course, the purpose of this smearing is two-fold: to deter others from speaking out in public, and to discourage those who have spoken out from doing so again. And when someone cannot be silenced, the goal is to marginalize them so that they cannot influence the discourse about Israel and Middle East politics in meaningful ways.

Why do they use such ugly tactics? The answer is simple: the case they are defending is so weak that they cannot rely on facts, logic, and claims of justice to win the day. To be perfectly clear, I am not talking about the case for Israel’s existence inside its pre-1967 borders, which I wholeheartedly support. Rather, I am talking about the case for defending many of Israel’s policies, including its actions in the Occupied Territories, and its recent wars against Lebanon (2006) and Gaza (2008-2009). I am talking about the case for giving Israel unconditional and uncritical backing no matter what it does, which is not in either America’s or Israel’s interest. Those cases cannot stand up to scrutiny, which is why Smith and Goldberg have to rely on name-calling and character assassination instead of facts, logic, and rational discussion.

One final point is in order about the lobby’s efforts to marginalize individuals who criticize Israel. Smith’s attack is obviously designed to try to convince the people who run Foreign Policy to drop me from its site. Why else would Smith make a pointed reference to the "owners of the Washington Post" and to the "advertising staff" there?

The fact is that the blogosphere has succeeded in opening up a freewheeling and informative discourse about Israel and Middle East politics that is still largely absent from the mainstream media. Subjects relating to Israel that were taboo not too long ago are now being openly discussed on the internet, and by writers who have a large audience. This is a major headache for the lobby, which is used to the relatively easy task of policing the mainstream media. But rest assured that "pro-Israel" forces are hard at work trying to figure out how to silence the likes of Greenwald, Sullivan, Weiss, and me. Smith and Goldberg are part of that effort.

In any case, I am flattered to be included with Messrs. Weiss, Sullivan, Greenwald and Lobe.  I don’t agree with everything they write and I’m sure that’s their view of my work as well, but they are courageous and intelligent writers who have done much to expand our understanding of a range of vital issues, which is more than one can say of our attacker. To be smeared by the likes of Mr. Smith is a badge of honor, and it tells me that I must be doing something right.

 UPDATE:  In my original post on this topic, I neglected to include Jim Lobe and his associates, who were also targeted in Smith’s hatchet job.  Jim is a terrific journalist who has done important work on the neoconservative movement (among other topics), and I am pleased to be his friend.   I’ve corrected the omission in the above post, and I recommend the work that he and his associates put up at LobeLog.  My apologies to them for the omission.  


Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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