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Thursday, September 20, 2012

Friends Don’t Let Friends Get Called “Anti-Semite”

I have never met Margaret O’Brien Steinfels in person, but I consider her a friend. I have corresponded some with her, but mostly I have read her work and found in her an intellectual and spiritual mentor. She and her husband Peter have had an enormous influence on one of America’s great magazines, Commonweal, and through that an impact on American religion, politics and culture. It is more than a bit dismaying, therefore, to read at the website of another of America’s magazines, Commentary, the ridiculous charge being made that Steinfels is “antisemetic” and on par with the notoriously anti-Semitic priest of the early 20th-century Fr. Charles Caughlin. She is, according to Jonathan Tobin, one of many associated with Commonweal who are “apologists for the Iranian regime and rabid anti-Zionists”,  and share “Jew-hatred” with the likes of "Pat Buchanan".

What’s going on here? It is simple, really. It is called the “neoconservative way of argument.” In this style of “discourse” every foreign policy moment risks being “another Munich” and every disagreement with the leadership of Israel gets twisted into an expression of anti-Semitism. It is very much in keeping with the Manichean view of the world that so often leads to unnecessary wars and conflicts. And that is really the issue—Margaret Steinfels is a determined critic of Israeli and American momentum towards a new conflict with Iran. She writes with an edge, with satire and with outrage. There is certainly room to disagree with her, to challenge her and to match her sarcasm with biting wit. But the idea that somehow Margaret has written anything that can be construed as anti-Semitic is a sign of intellectual weakness on the part of Tobin and by extension Commentary. It is also a terribly counterproductive action if one is truly outraged by the numerous and disturbing examples of real anti-Semitism in the world today because it cheapens the term when it is used as a bludgeon to discipline one’s ideological opponents.

Margaret Steinfels is concerned that the policies of another country are damaging to the world and that  America is damaging her own position in the world by parroting that country's policies. She might be wrong, she might be short-sighted, or she might be right. But the fact that the country she is speaking of is Israel is in no way a sign that she is a Jew-hater or anti-Semite any more than if than she would be an Orthodoxy hater  if the country in question were Russia. Nothing Tobin writes in his article in anyway justifies his characterization of Steinfels and seems instead to hint at an air of shameful demagoguery in the interest of advancing a specific policy goal towards Iran. Anyone committed to civil, spirited discourse should be alarmed by Tobin’s inflammatory rhetoric. Margaret has written a short response and promises a fuller rejoinder soon. For now, I will close with her closing remarks: "Read my current column on Netanyahu's demand for red lines and consider whether support for the sanctions and opposition to bombing Iran is anti-Semitic. Or just opposed to another U.S. war in the Middle East."


  1. There's something rather odd about Mr. Tobin's attempt to shoehorn Margaret O'Brien into the mold of an anti-Semite, in light of Commentary's past enthusiastic promotion of Pastor John Hagee's Christians United For Israel; Hagee has promoted nearly every sort of anti-Jewish slur, stereotype, and conspiracy theory known to history, including the claim that Jewish bankers are manipulating the world economy (and the U.S. economy too), to the detriment of common folk. That was perhaps Adolf Hitler's favorite type of anti-Jewish conspiracy theory, which Mr. Hagee has distributed a variant of in bestselling books and videos broadcast around the world.

    Attempts to characterize as "anti-Semitic" legitimate criticism, such as Margaret O'Brien's article referenced in this Commentary op-ed, dilute the meaning of anti-Semitism and so make it harder to combat. This, in turn, does a grave injustice to victims of true anti-Jewish prejudice, from any era. - Bruce Wilson

    1. Great point of contrast, Bruce. I had forgotten about their past statements on Hagee. Yet another indication that this is just about support for foreign policy positions, not actual feelings about Judaism.