I watched with interest the J Street debate between Matt Yglesias and The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait over the question “what it means to be pro-Israel.” Matt’s a very efficient thinker, and Chait’s a particularly sharp debater. I witnessed him slug it out at length in a debate with David Boaz a while back, not something I’d like to do.
Chait made a straightforward argument: to be pro-Israel, someone has to accept two premises. First, one has to believe that historically, Israel is the more sympathetic party in the Middle East. Second, one has to believe that the U.S. should not be even-handed in the Middle East, but rather should be on Israel’s side.
But what was most interesting about his argument was his accusation of guilt by association against J Street. It was a problem, Chait argued, that J Street had been embraced by people who did not meet his definition of pro-Israel. Chait rang the alarum that “The American Conservative magazine, which was founded by Pat Buchanan, …has been saying nice things about J Street.” In addition, “the famous Walt and Mearsheimer have been saying extremely nice things about J Street — embracing J Street.”
This is a pretty straightforward guilt-by-association argument: The American Conservative doesn’t meet Chait’s definition of pro-Israel, therefore, for that magazine to praise J Street tarnishes its pro-Israel bona fides. Same story with John Mearsheimer and Steve Walt.
First, the person at TAC who’s been praising J Street has a name: Scott McConnell. Scott has a PhD in history from Columbia, and is the current editor-at-large (previously the editor) of the magazine. I don’t know in great detail Scott’s views on Israel, but I think it’s fair to say that he thinks it’s very important for America, for Israel, and for the Palestinians to get a two-state solution set up, and sooner rather than later. He also believes, I think, that in order for this to happen, Washington will have to put pressure on both Israel and the Palestinians to give up things they don’t want to give up. The same view is held by Mearsheimer and Walt. So the allegedly guilty parties' view is certainly less zero-sum than Chait’s (would Chait characterize himself as "anti-Palestinian," I wonder?), maybe even positive-sum. But I don’t think that receiving praise from a person with such views on the matter necessarily should serve to taint J Street’s pro-Israel bona fides.
But beyond this, is guilt-by-association really something that Chait wants to engage in at all? For instance, Chait’s boss at The New Republic, Martin Peretz, wrote last March that Mexican people suffer from “congenital corruption” and possess “near-tropical work habits.” (The piece is no longer available on TNR'swebsite, but the passage in question can be found here.) Should we be asking what Chait’s views on Mexicans are, since he is a writer at TNR under Mr. Peretz? When Peretz suggested two days ago that President Obama’s views on foreign policy are infused with an ideological narrative, and “Obama's narrative is assumedly third world, maybe just by dint of his skin complexion,” should we be asking Chait to clarify his views on African-Americans? Finally, although I’m no expert on Mr. Peretz’s views on Arab people, those who’ve paid closer attention make a good case that he has said some reasonably provocative things about them, as well. Should Chait be brought in for questioning on these matters?
If people only wrote for magazines every word of which they agreed with, few people would write for magazines. Even if people took the much more modest step of steering clear of writing for magazines that regularly publish offensive material like the above, consumers of magazines like The New Republic would suffer. But the fact that Chait doesn’t feel the need to distance himself from Mr. Peretz’s various racial foibles ought to raise either questions about his views on Mexicans, blacks, and Arabs, or else questions about his standing to level charges of guilt by association.