Don Quixote devoted himself to tilting at windmills: In his imagination he viewed them as a menacing, monstrous enemy that must be destroyed. He is considered a romantic figure, a hero willing to sacrifice his life for the sake of his love and ideas. Yet with all this romance, people sometimes forget that Don Quixote did not fight real monsters, but rather, figments of his imagination. He was a hero, but a pathetic one.
In mid December, Ron Dermer, a senior advisor to Israel’s prime minister, sent a letter to one of the New York Times’ editors. The letter was polite and bordered on flattery, yet it was meant to serve as a declaration of war.
The New York Times offered Netanyahu the opportunity to write an opinion piece. Dermer declined the offer on Netanyahu’s behalf. The explanation given: Last May, the newspaper published, without qualifications, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas’ distorted version regarding the historical events that preceded the State of Israel’s inception.
Dermer was also unpleased by the positions expressed by some New York Times columnists. He looked into it and discovered that out of 20 columns written about Israel in recent months, 19 criticized Netanyahu and his government, and only one (written by Richard Goldstone) was positive. “We wouldn't want to be seen as ‘Bibiwashing’ the op-ed page of the New York Times,” Dermer wrote.
The letter was not meant only for the eyes of the recipient, of course. The Prime Minister’s Office quickly leaked it to the Jerusalem Post, a newspaper whose website is read by many US Jews. The objective was to silence criticism of Netanyahu in the American media, and mostly criticism leveled by Jews.
The means to do so was to delegitimize media outlets that publish such criticism. Those who dare write against Netanyahu are anti-Semites. A Jew who dares write against Netanyahu is a Jewish anti-Semite. Every loyal Jew must shut up.
The New York Times is without a doubt the world’s most prominent newspaper. Any head of state given the opportunity to share his thoughts with the paper’s readers would jump at it: There is no global platform that is more important or influential. Yet Netanyahu prefers boycotts.
Leaking the letter was merely the first step in the campaign. The second step was an article published shortly thereafter by the Weekly Standard, a rightist weekly. It was written by Eliot Abrams, who held senior posts in the National Security Agency during George W. Bush’s term in office.
Abrams is Jewish. His neoconservative views place him in the Republican Party’s rightist wing. Above all, he is a great friend of Israel. I met him several times, during his tenure and later on. He is a very intelligent, well reasoned man. An impressive man. The article I quote here is not one of his proudest moments.
Abrams leveled the gravest accusation against two prominent columnists, Thomas Friedman from the New York Times and Joe Klein from Time Magazine. He accused both of being Jewish anti-Semites. Friedman is guilty because in one of his columns he wrote that the applause that received Netanyahu at Congress did not attest to agreement with his policy. The applause were bought and paid for by the Israel lobby, Friedman wrote.
Meanwhile, Joe Klein is guilty because he wrote that America’s neoconservatives wish to send young Americans to war for the sake of Israel’s national security.
Friedman could have chosen a different wording, but his claim has a grain of truth to it: The pro-Israel lobby, just like other lobbies, buys the support of Congress members. I was there, during Netanyahu’s Congress speech. I reported the enthused welcome he received. Yet I also saw the major Jewish donors closely watching the elected officials who received their support to make sure they are sufficiently enthusiastic.
Yet let’s assume Friedman is wrong. Why does criticism leveled at one Jewish organization immediately turn into anti-Semitism? Why is criticism leveled at the neoconservatives, who entangled America in the wrong war in Iraq, a war that only benefited Iran, labeled as anti-Semitism? It’s true that many of these writers are Jewish. So what?
Many of Wall Street’s moguls are Jewish as well. The greatest of conmen, Bernie Madoff, was also Jewish. Is any criticism leveled at him, including criticism voiced by his Jewish victims, tainted by anti-Semitism?
One of the great bonuses in the State of Israel’s existence is that here Jews are finally allowed to criticize other Jews without being condemned as anti-Semites. Here we have no guilty feelings that can be manipulated. Freedom reigns supreme.
Yet our American colleagues have this freedom too. There was no particular commotion this week in the New York Times’ corridors in the face of the Israeli prime minister’s boycott. Don Quixote can rest: Without or without him, the windmills will continue to grind.