On the Left, the Sound of Silence

Why are liberal bloggers generally staying away from writing about the conflict between Israel and Lebanon?

An article in last week’s issue of the Forward, the prominent New York Jewish paper, made the point that “major players in the liberal blogosphere were keeping, by their own admission, decidedly quiet” on the question of Israel’s actions in the current conflagration with Hezbollah.

Josh Marshall of TalkingPointsMemo.com was quoted in the piece, saying that when it comes to Israel the “venom … is just, from my personal experience, just a whole order of magnitude greater than with garden variety political topics.” He said he “touched off the fireworks” when he suggested that “Israel has a right to respond strongly when they have a border incursion over the Lebanese border … Some readers think that because I’m critical of our policy in Iraq … I’m going to be reflexively critical of what’s going on now, which I’m not.”

But is it true that other liberal bloggers are staying away from this most divisive of issues for fear of sparking venomous responses? Kevin Drum wrote last week that there’s more to it than just bloggers trying to stay clear of long threads composed mainly of spittle, bile and nastiness. His theory: it’s all just too damned complicated. Not only does the conflict seem intractable but, Drum writes, it “is fantastically complex, and the partisans on both sides are mostly people who have been following events with fanatical attention to detail for many decades. Ordinary observers can hardly compete in this atmosphere — do you know the detailed history and long-accepted norms of behavior that have developed in the conflict over the Shebaa Farms since 1967? — and this has produced an almost codelike language of its own over the years. One misuses this code at one’s peril.”

Drum concludes with this point, which comes the closest to answering the question: “I’d add that liberals have a bigger problem here than conservatives. As near as I can tell, most conservatives simply take the uncomplicated stance that Palestinians are terrorists and that Israel should always respond to provocation in the maximal possible way. The fact that this hasn’t worked very well in the past doesn’t deter them. Liberals don’t really have a similarly undemanding position that’s suitable for the quick-hit nature of blogging.”

But David Adesnik of Oxblog thinks complexity doesn’t cut it as an excuse. “[A]fter all,” he writes, “there is no issue more complicated or more written-about than Iraq. Clearly, something else besides complexity is preventing liberal bloggers from writing about Israel. I would suggest that there is a part of the online left which is so viciously anti-Israel that moderates have been intimidated into silence. Let’s hope that this kind of viciousness never migrates off line, where it might threaten bipartisan support for Israel.”

Matthew Yglesias chimes in about why the rabid left has fallen silent on this issue. He reminds us that “a lot of the liberal blogosphere is primarily interested in partisanship rather than robust ideological conflict. Support for Israel isn’t a partisan issue in American politics, and liberals (like me) who criticize America’s Israel policy are ginning up trouble for the Democratic coalition.” Yglesias thinks there is some intimidation at work here. He wrties that “there’s nothing especially intimidating about a group of powerless and marginal email-senders and comment-writers” on the left, “whereas Israel’s hard-core supporters in the United States, by contrast, are extremely powerful and in the habit of mounting broad-brush smear campaigns against people they dislike.”

Daily Kos, for one, certainly seems intimidated. Or perhaps bored. His muted response might best be categorized as an apathy born of fatalism.

“Me? I grew up in a war zone. And there was one clear lesson I learned — there will never be peace unless both sides get tired of the fighting and start seeking an alternative,” writes Kos. Because no one in the Middle East is “getting over” their conflict, “It doesn’t matter what we bloggers say. It doesn’t matter what the President of the United States says. Or the United Nations. Or the usual bloviating gasbag pundits. … When two sides are this dead-set on killing each other, very little can get in the way. And I, for one, sure as heck have no desire to get sucked into that no-win situation. I just hope that war fatigue sets in at some point.”

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.