In a controversial interview, Harvard University professor Alan Dershowitz has called not only for the White House to sever ties with Media Matters, but has called upon Media Matters to fire staff member M.J. Rosenberg for this criticism of supporters of Israel. Clearly, this is not a first amendment issue that arises when the government is asked to engage in censorship or coercion with regard to critics. However, the demand for Rosenberg’s termination does raise serious concerns over the freedom for writers to raise often controversial topics and positions. Rosenberg was voicing a common objection over Israeli policy and the demands for his termination sends a chilling message for anyone who voices such positions.
For the record, Dershowitz and I often agree, though we have diverged on subjects like torture. However, Dershowitz has previously been criticized for his comments against other academics and students for their views of Israel or the Jewish community. The issue of criticism of Israel on campus has produced a number of intense academic fights in the last couple of years, here and here and here.
Dershowitz insisted that Media Matters “crossed the line into anti-semitism” by not firing Rosenberg over his alleged “bigotry.” Rosenberg has questioned the basis for military action against Iran and used the term “Israel firster” to describe American leaders and advocate who put the interests of Israel before the United States.
However, Dershowitz insists that this term is anti-Semitic when applied to Jews. In addition to calling for him to be fired, he has campaigned to discourage donors of Media Matters over Rosenberg’s views.
Rosenberg is a critic of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and, in a column last month, asserted that “Israel firster” is an “accurate” term for “those people (of whatever ethnic background) who invariably support Israel’s policies over those of the United States.”
Dershowitz insisted that “[t]he tent is not big enough to include people who have engaged in bigotry against the Jewish people.”
Rosenberg has also criticized the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) as having a name “giving it credit for one more loyalty than it holds.” Notably, Rosenberg was editor of AIPACs weekly newsletter Near East Report and was, from 1998-2009, the director of policy at Israel Policy Forum.
As both an academic and columnist, I have a serious problem with this type of campaign against a writer. I believe Dershowitz and others have every right to denounce the term “Israel firster” in their own writings and to denounce Rosenberg for what they view as irresponsible rhetoric if that is what they believe. However, to campaign for his firing runs against the grain for those of us who live under the guarantees of either academic freedom or freedom of the press, or both. It is no way to win such an argument to demand the silencing of a critic. Instead, it leaves the impression of an effort to create a chilling effect for any writers who are considering voicing similar views.
I cannot claim much exposure to the writings of Rosenberg. However, these comments are not enough to make such a case for me. I do not believe that you should ascribe racist or anti-Semitic motives when there are other explanations for an argument. In this case, Rosenberg was arguing that there are some leaders who put Israel first — leaders of various backgrounds and religions. The same argument has been made against some Irish politicians over support for the IRA and other groups. The point that he is making is that the current policies vis-a-vis Israel are harmful to U.S. interests and fueling global instability. There are plenty of good points to be made on either side of that debate.
In a column, Dershowitz detailing past positions of Rosenberg. Dershowitz notably has also claimed that Obama is the Neville Chamberlain of the 21st Century — comparing him to a weak man who tried to appease Hitler because of his attempts at appeasement. Of course, that compares those on the other side as akin to Nazis.
Rosenberg is known for super-heated rhetoric — which is present by writers on both sides including (as noted above) Dershowitz. His critics (and this debate) would be better served by addressing the underlying point on why our current policies are in the best interests of the U.S. rather than attacking those expressing such views.