Anti-Israel Bias at ‘The Nation’

Anti-Israel Bias at ‘The Nation’

This is a new and improved version of what was posted Sunday at the ‘Engage’ online Forum:

It is not my contention that The Nation, the premier magazine of left-liberalism in the United States, is an antisemitic institution or that it is knowingly spreading antisemitism. Its publisher, Victor Navasky, does not hide his Jewish identity, and many of its staffers and regular contributors are Jews. I also don’t believe that it is anti-Israel in principle, but I do see a clear and consistent anti-Israel bias.

This bias unfairly simplifies the vexing and complex issues of the ongoing conflict between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East. The Nation’s one-sided coverage promotes dangerous assumptions among its readers, and goes beyond its readership to reinforce prejudices against Jews and Israel that potentially places an historically persecuted people, and its very small homeland, at risk.

Nearly two years ago, two representatives of Meretz USA (Charney Bromberg and myself) accompanied Yael Dayan to address interns and staff at The Nation’s headquarters in New York. The writer-politician daughter of the iconic Moshe Dayan, a veteran dovish Labor Member of the Knesset and currently deputy mayor of Tel Aviv (elected on the left-Zionist Meretz party ticket) was received warmly at a meeting chaired by The Nation’s editor for Middle East issues, Roane Carey. An antisemitic or inherently anti-Israel environment would not have been so respectful. Yet the fact that Dayan is an outspoken dove and stands for progressive social policies as well, made it easy for this audience to warm toward her.

Still, The Nation’s drumbeat of negativity on Israel seems to indicate that Roane Carey has a prejudice (in the literal sense of “pre-judging”). Take the edition dated October 30, 2006. It has two articles relating to Israel. Roane Carey’s review of Sandy Tolan’s “The Lemon Tree” (“My Friend, The Enemy”) was not terrible, but it would have benefitted from historical contextualization. Having seen the author speak on C-Span 2, the book probably needs it as well. That is, the dispossession of Palestinian Arabs needs to be understood as a reaction to the very serious Palestinian effort to destroy the Yishuv in 1947-48. At least Carey’s piece was not gratuitously mean or inaccurate.

The “Comment” piece by Arno Mayer, “Israel’s Cassandra,” was another matter. He needed contextualization big time. Mayer builds up the humanitarian preachments of Martin Buber – supplemented with the visionary warnings of Judah Magnes, Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt and the left-socialist binationalism of Hashomer Hatzair. The extent to which they were all dissenters from mainstream Zionism is far from clear. For example, I’ve seen at least one published piece by Einstein in which he counters (in rather conventional terms) anti-Zionist arguments.

Mayer’s major flaw is that he contrasts the most progressive elements of Zionist thought with …, well, nothing on the Palestinian-Arab side. Apparently, the Palestinians are a victimized cipher in Mayer’s view. He includes nothing about their political leadership. True, it was not nearly as well organized as that of the Jews in Palestine, but it existed. And their top political leader was the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin Al-Husseini, who became an active ally of Hitler.

He doesn’t even mention their most reasonable and progressive element, forerunners of the Communist parties of Palestine, Israel and Jordan. Hashomer Hatzair had some difficult discussions with this group; the fact that even they could not agree upon an effective common program, despite their closeness in world view, underscores how difficult – virtually impossible – it was, to achieve a peaceful and humane solution.

Mayer’s a talented polemical writer, but he’s also shockingly callous in writing disdainfully of “a self-righteousness nourished by the Holocaust [by] Israel’s governors and, by and large, its Jewish citizenry….” He heaps blame on Israel and the “Zionist project” for diverse events throughout their history. Was it Israel’s “political-military caste” that “began, precipitated, or all but invited five cross-border wars”? (One can make such a case with regard to the 1956 Sinai campaign and the Lebanon invasion of 1982, but as a general satement it’s grossly unfair reductionism.) Is it “irresponsibly said by Tel Aviv” that Hamas and Hezbollah are “inspired and masterminded by Tehran and Damascus”? Clearly, Hezbollah is inspired if not masterminded by Tehran and it is supplied via Damascus, where the latter also houses and encourages the most uncompromising and violent tendencies within Hamas.

With Mayer and other such contributors on Israel over the years, The Nation is cultivating an unmistakable and simplistic sense among its readers that Israel is “bad” or always in the wrong. Mayer is probably not the worst in this. There is a notorious incident of an article by the blue-blood lefty curmudgeon, Gore Vidal, that many readers regarded as antisemitic. There are also vitriolic articles by the consistent Israel-bashing commentator Alexander Cockburn. There are probably numerous other examples that a devoted reader of The Nation (which I am not) could readily recall.

What The Nation generally fails to do is to relate the moral complexities of a conflict that pits a small state associated with an historically persecuted people against another small, grievously suffering people, struggling but not yet succeeding in finding an effective, peace-oriented national leadership. A reasonable end to this conflict is possible, but not obvious. Liberal analyses that do not polemicize are very much in order.

By | 2006-10-24T04:24:00-04:00 October 24th, 2006|Blog|2 Comments


  1. Neil in Chicago October 25, 2006 at 1:38 am - Reply

    Sorry. Despite your careful disclaimers, The Nation is anti-Israel. Read through a stack of issues of the magazine — the only issue which doesn’t have two sides is Israel-Palestinians.

    I re-subscribed to The Nation when Bush was elected, because I knew I’d need it, but after having been a loyal reader in the 70’s and 80’s, I finally gave up when they convinced me that they would never give Israel an even break.

    My own final straw was an essay by Edward Said, identified as a music professor, rather than an meber of the Palestinian National Council!

  2. Ralph Seliger October 25, 2006 at 2:06 pm - Reply

    Thanks Neil, I appreciate your comment. Still, what is my “careful disclaimer”? That The Nation is NOT “anti-Israel in principle, but I do see a clear and consistent anti-Israel bias.” There is but a micron of difference between you and me on this matter. If I weren’t disturbed by its anti-Israel bias, I would not have written my piece. Largely because of this bias, I have never subscribed to The Nation.

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