We have written several times before about the effort by Jewish Voice for Peace activists in Ithaca, NY, where Cornell is located, to advance a referendum at the GreenStar Food Coop to boycott Israeli products.

The Greenstar Council is considering whether, under its bylaws, there are grounds to reject the referendum petition, or whether it is obligated to let the referendum go to a full membership vote in early November 2015. The GreenStar Council takes no position on the merits of the boycott, and seems aware that the referendum process itself, not to mention if it passes, will do serious damage to GreenStar itself.

Yet the referendum is being pushed hard by the JVP activists, particularly Ariel Gold (who works as an organizer for the anti-Israel Friends of Sabeel – North America) and Beth Harris (a retired Ithaca College professor long active in the boycott movement). Gold and Harris tried hard to and did manage to get themselves arrested at the 2015 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) annual conference as part of a Code Pink-led protest.

The boycott push, though just starting, has been marred by incendiary rhetoric from the pro-Boycott side.

Last fall, the group promoting the boycott (the Central NY Committee for Justice in Palestine – CNYCJP) posted on its Facebook page a horrible photoshop of Nazi concentration camp inmates holding anti-Israel signs. The photoshop was taken down after I called attention to it and people began to complain. CNYCJP claimed it was done by a former member and without group permission, but it refused to identify the person.

Gold then posted, and CNYCJP used, a poster falsely claiming that Sabra Hummus, which is one target of the boycott, was named after the Sabra and Shatilla massacre in Lebanon by Lebanese Christians in 1982. That was taken down after I called attention to the false nature of the accusation.

Since then, CNYCJP has rebranded the GreenStar boycott movement. CNYCJP changed its name to the Ithaca Committee for Justice in Palestine, and a new group (seemingly the same people just under a different name) was formed, Ithaca Food Justice for Palestine Campaign.

There have been a lot of shenanigans in the petition process, plus promotional materials making the usual false accusations of Israeli Apartheid, ethnic cleansing, and so on.

The boycott group has sought to nationalize the referendum process by getting national figures, such as Angela Davis and Medea Benjamin, to pose with signs supporting the boycott referendum:

Angela Davis GreenStar Sign

Medea Benjamin Greenstar Sign

The pro-boycott group also is bringing in another national figure this week to conduct a boycott training session on April 16 on the Cornell campus.

Josh Ruebner, whose father was Israeli but who was born and grew up in the U.S., was one of the founders of the group that eventually became the nationwide Jewish Voice for Peace.

Ruebner now is the policy director for the U.S. Campaign to End the Occupation, whose website provides training materials and advice for anti-Israel boycotts.

Josh Ruebner Al Jazeera

That group is an umbrella group devoted to implementing a full cultural, economic and academic boycott of Israel. In that capacity, Ruebner is one of the leading national figures in the boycott movement, and a frequent speaker on campuses and elsewhere.

Ithaca Food Justice Josh Ruebner Event FB

Ruebner, however, uses terminology that alleges supporters of Israel are not loyal to the United States.

In a column in The Hill in 2013, Ruebner described attendees at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference, as “thousands of ‘Israel-first’ citizen lobbyists…”

More recently, Ruebner called Chuck Schumer, United States Senator from NY, an “Israel-firster.”

Josh Ruebner FB Schumer Israel Firster

Josh Ruebner Twitter Schumer Israel Firster

Ruebner used the same term as to those suspicious of the timing of the criminal charges against Senator Robert Menendez, who opposed Obama’s proposed nuclear “deal” with Iran.

Josh Ruebner FB Menendez Israel Firster

If Ruebner merely were criticizing Schumer or Israel supporters, it wouldn’t be a big deal. Even if he did it aggressively.

But the use o
f the term “Israel-Firster” or similar verbiage has a notorious and shameful history.

The term almost always is used only against Jewish supporters of Israel.  (Though I have seen it used against non-Jewish supporters.) Considering that the clear majority of Americans support Israel, that’s a pretty selective use of the term.

It’s a play on the ages-old anti-Semitic smear that Jews are not loyal to their home countries.

In 2012, Prof. David Bernstein explained the origin of the term in the U.S.:

The “Israel-firster” slur was not used in “mainstream” discourse until the last few years.

Before that, you can find it occasionally in the early 1980s and 1990s in sources such as Wilmot Robertson’s anti-Semitic Instauration journal, a 1988 anti-Semitic book called “The F.O.J. [Fear of Jews] Syndrome, and a 1998 anti-Semitic book “Rise of AntiChrist.” I also found a couple of references to “Israel-firsters” in the extremist anti-Israel publication, The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, and from writers associated with this journal.

By the early 2000s, one can find “Israel-firster” being used by a variety of anti-Semitic “right-wing” sources like DavidDuke.com and the Vanguard News Network. As the decade wore on, the phrase occasionally pops up in far left anti-Israel sites that have ties to the anti-Semitic far-right or are known for playing footsie with anti-Semitism, like Antiwar.com, Norman Finkelstein’s website, and Indymedia.

In 2012, James Kirchik writing in the left-wing Haaretz newspaper, A case of leftist ‘McCarthyism’?, also delved into the history of Israel-Firster accusations:

One of the most notorious newspapers ever published in America was The Spotlight, founded in 1975 by white supremacist Willis Carto…. The Spotlight, which thankfully ceased publication in 2001, wasn’t just concerned with falsifying history. When not questioning the existence of the gas chambers, it focused on the “Jewish lobby.” And its writers had two terms for describing U.S. Jews and their activism on behalf of the Jewish state: “dual loyalists” who were for “Israel first.”

Kirchik noted that Israel-Firster, far from being relegated to fringe Holocaust deniers, was in common use by a handful of left-wing writers:

It isn’t just figures on the medium and lower rungs of think tanks using such foul rhetoric: “Israel-firster” and “Likudnik” are favorites of Time’s Joe Klein, as well as Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, one of America’s most popular liberal bloggers, who refers to “the many Israel-firsters in the U.S. Congress.”

(For our writing about the use of the term by Glenn Greenwald, see here and here and here and here.)

Anti-Israel activist Max Blumenthal‘s response to Kirchik’s article was to call people who complained about the “Israel-Firster” term Israel-firsters:

https://twitter.com/maxblumenthal/status/158368767745859584

Kirchik’s post together with one by Ben Smith (then at Politico) created a firestorm, resulting in the The Center for American Progress forcing out the most prolific user of the term – M. Jay Rosenberg – and scrubbing the term from its website.

A Jerusalem Post editorial exposed the pernicious nature of the term, Debunking the Israel-firster” slur:

Besides the distastefulness of using a term with anti- Semitic roots, naming someone an “Israel-firster” is highly problematic because it tends to completely and utterly delegitimize by issuing a nonnegotiable verdict. Thus, free debate is shut down instead of encouraged. Jews are not the only ones in US history who have been vilified for purported “dual loyalties.” …

Also, “Israel-firster” is, as The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg has pointed out, an inaccurate term because it “precludes the possibility that the person who supports Israel is doing so precisely because he or she feels that it is in America’s best interest to support Israel.”

In the referenced article by Jeffrey Goldberg, he explored Is the Term ‘Israel-Firster’ Anti-Semitic?:

The seemingly most urgent question to emerge from this controversy is whether or not the term “Israel-firster” is anti-Semitic. The term is used by Media Matters, the left-wing advocacy group, to describe American Jews with whom it disagrees on American Middle East policy, and it was also used by staffers of the Center for American Progress, the important liberal think tank, to describe same. CAP has disavowed the language, and apologized on behalf of the staffer who used the term; Media Matters doesn’t seem to care.

So, is “Israel-firster” anti-Semitic? Its origins are certainly anti-Semitic, and the idea that Jews are incapable of being loyal to the country of their citizenship and are only loyal to world Jewry, or the Jewish state, is an age-old anti-Semitic trope. This doesn’t mean that those who use it are anti-Semitic…. Obviously, “Israel-firster” is a term deployed by opponents of Israel, and opponents of a close relationship between the U.S. and Israel, to stoke resentment of Jews they find objectionable (though the two most important scapegoating stokers, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, have been too sophisticated to use the actual term in their public pronouncements — though Mearsheimer has clearly gone off the deep end in other ways).

Progressive writer Spencer Ackerman also noted the unsavory use of the term, Sounding Off: Note to some of my fellow progressives: If we can’t argue about Israel without using anti-Semitic tropes, then the debate is lost before it even begins:

Throughout my career, I’ve been associated with the Jewish left—I was to the left of the New Republic staff when I worked there, moved on to Talking Points Memo, hosted my blog at Firedoglake for years, and so on. I’ve criticized the American Jewish right’s myopic, destructive, tribal conception of what it means to love Israel. But it doesn’t deserve to have its Americanness and patriotism questioned….

Call me a squish or a sellout or a concern troll. Whatever. But if you can’t be forceful without recalling some of the ugliest tropes in American Jewish history, you’re doing it wrong.

After the heavy criticism of the use of the term by the progressive community itself in 2012, usage fell off, in my observation.

Other than at the most extreme anti-Israel websites, from anti-Semitic Twitter accounts, and at Holocaust denial websites like Veterans Today, I don’t see the term much anymore.  “Israel-firster” as a domestic slur has fallen away as a progressive term.

Which is why it was so surprising to see Ruebner so openly hurl the accusation at Schumer and other Israel supporters.

I can’t say I’m surprised to see the GreenStar boycott movement bring Ruebner in to train their members. It’s reflective of a hyper-aggressive pro-boycott movement in which Israel and its supporters are demonized and dehumanized. In the process, GreenStar’s best interests and success are disregarded in favor of the boycotters’ political objectives.

We will continue to follow the GreenStar boycott movement.  If the GreenStar Council lets the referendum go to the membership, the vote will be November 1, and is sure to gather national attention.

UPDATE 4-15-2015: I guess I should not have been surprised by Ruetner’s use of the term “Israel-firster” in light of other rhetoric he uses. In this 2012 speech, he says that Israel studied attack plans of the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto in order to plan the Gaza invasion (he doesn’t say which one). He says it’s in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, go read it.

So I found the Haaretz article. It is from 2002. When Israel still occupied Gaza. So it has nothing to do with Israel planning a Gaza invasion. Also, it doesn’t say that Israel studied the Nazi plans, it quotes some anonymous person saying that Israel needs to study all past military experiences, no matter how horrible, to learn for the future.

In order to prepare properly for the next campaign, one of the Israeli officers in the territories said not long ago, it’s justified and in fact essential to learn from every possible source. If the mission will be to seize a densely populated refugee camp, or take over the casbah in Nablus, and if the commander’s obligation is to try to execute the mission without casualties on either side, then he must first analyze and internalize the lessons of earlier battles – even, however shocking it may sound, even how the German army fought in the Warsaw ghetto.

The officer indeed succeeded in shocking others, not least because he is not alone in taking this approach. Many of his comrades agree that in order to save Israelis now, it is right to make use of knowledge that originated in that terrible war, whose victims were their kin. The Warsaw ghetto serves them only as an extreme example, not linked to the strategic dialogue that the defense establishments of Israel and Germany will hold next month.

So the Haaretz article was totally mischaracterized in order to make an Israeli-Nazi comparison. Moreover, even if the characterization were correct, it would be like saying any U.S. tank commander who studied German tank battle tactics was the equivalent of a Nazi.