That’s no reason why they can’t be friends

That’s no reason why they can’t be friends

With me it’s all er nuthin’.
Is it all er nuthin’ with you?
It cain’t be “in between”
It cain’t be “now and then”
No half and half romance will do!

— Oscar Hammerstein

I suppose it’s a sign of my political naivete that I can still be disappointed by the language and tone of political ads. Tut-tutting over modern attack ads is a little like watching a Lady Gaga video and asking why nobody today writes songs like, well, Rodgers and Hammerstein.

But “disappointed” is a mild way to describe my reaction to an ad by the “Emergency Committee for Israel” asking, “What does Congressman Rush Holt have against Israel?” Founded by the neoconservative pundit and strategist William Kristol, the ECI is targeting Democrats around the country “for signing anti-Israel letters or doing anything else to undermine the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

The Holt ad is typical of their approach, which is to hang a billboard of dire accusations on fairly thin strands of fact. Holt did sign the infamous “Gaza 54” letter, although it’s a distortion to say that the letter “criticiz[ed] Israel for defending itself against the terrorist group Hamas.” Holt is indeed a favorite of the dovish J Street, yet the group is “anti-Israel” only to those who insist there is no room to debate Israeli or U.S. Mideast policies.

And while Holt’s name appears on a list of pols who earned a “100 percent rating from the Council on American-Islamic Relations,” the rating was based on a single vote: Holt’s “nay” on the REAL ID Act of 2005, an immigration measure which would have created a de facto national identification card. As Salon pointed out, other REAL ID opponents included Mike Huckabee and the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

You can no more fact-check an attack ad than you can debate a mannequin: Both bear some resemblance to reality, but no one expects them to be the thing itself. Ads like ECI’s are meant to reduce a candidate to a single idea — in this case, to peg Holt as anti-Israel. In politics, you’re either for us or against us. It’s all er nuthin’.

What concerns me is when attack ad rhetoric leaches into the everyday attitudes of those who support Israel, and we start dividing the world into “friends” and “enemies.” It’s not enough that I disagree with you on Israeli policy — the fact that you have a different point of view suggests you are anti-Israel, an antagonist. We can’t agree to disagree on the settlements — one of us must be right and the other must represent an existential threat to Israel.

Holt took a risk when, in January, he signed the letter, backed by J Street, urging Israel to ease the blockade of Gaza in order to allow in more humanitarian aid.  The Israeli embassy rejected the letter. The pro-Israel organizational mainstream, represented by the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee and the largest Jewish groups, view J Street with suspicion. Although Holt could point to pro-Israel progressives here and in Israel who felt the blockade was too strict and arbitrary and that the Middle East debate needed more “nuance,” that was a minority view among Israelis and their most vocal supporters here.

On these and other issues, It’s fair to disagree with him, and, if you feel strongly enough about the issue, to punish him come November. But to suggest Holt has something “against Israel” flies in the face of his voting record, his strong statements in support of Israel, and the relationships he has built among his Jewish constituents.

Similarly, Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-Dist. 8) is being challenged by Roland Straten, who insists the incumbent is “anti-Israel” and “pro-Arab”. Pascrell also signed the “Gaza 54” letter and has had to balance the concerns of his Jewish constituents with those of Paterson’s sizable Arab-American community. It’s a balancing act that has earned him praise (and criticism) on both sides, but in his rhetoric and the vast majority of his actions he has been solidly supportive of Israel.

When politicians buck AIPAC or any other influential interest group, it can cost them votes. That’s democracy. But if a few votes or actions are all it takes for us to put an otherwise friendly official into herem, then we confirm all the worst things said by Israel’s real enemies.

This isn’t a right-wing or left-wing imperative. On the left you hear “pro-Israel” used as a pejorative, as if asserting Israel’s legitimate security needs makes one an enemy of peace or a hopeless revanchist. Again, it’s all er nuthin’.

We need a language that allows us to disagree over Israel without the character assassination. I doubt we’re going to find it on the campaign trail.

UPDATE: In a previous version of this article, I erroneously asserted that the "Gaza 54" letter was issued in the wake of the Gaza flotilla incident in May, when in fact the letter was issued the previous January.

I've changed the article to correct this, and regret the error.

Based on my mistaken chronology, I left the impression that at a time when other members of Congress were lining up to defend Israel in the wake of the flotilla incident, the signers of the letter were instead urging that Israel ease its blockade. In fact, as a Holt spokesperson points out, Holt delivered a speech on the floor of the House after the flotilla incident defending Israel’s actions in the face of a “brutal assault” and describing the actions of the flotilla leaders as “needlessly provocative.”

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