It seems that everybody is talking about Leon Wieseltier’s long screed against Andrew Sullivan, in which the New Republic literary editor insinuates at great length that his former colleague is an anti-Semite, while — in cowardly fashion — attempting to maintain deniability by refusing to make the allegation explicit. Any number of commentators from across the political spectrum have demolished Wieseltier’s piece, and I won’t link to them all; Glenn Greenwald’s is especially good, however, and well worth reading in full. Sullivan has also rebutted his ex-friend’s charges at great length, although I tend to agree with Greenwald that it would have been better not to dignify Wieseltier’s rather pathetic rant with a response.

It is clear from every sentence that Wieseltier writes that the man considers himself a Great Intellectual, and I am told that his writings from twenty years ago (and his book about his father’s death) are worth reading. I will have to take this on faith, because I certainly can’t remember ever reading anything particularly interesting by the man. His articles tend to be compendiums of liberal hawk cliches, made notable only by the fact that they are delivered in the most pompous prose style this side of the New Criterion. He tends to rely on superficial displays of erudition to draw attention away from the weaknesses of his argument; note the long and rather gratuitous disquisition on Auden that opens the Sullivan piece. And frankly, one wonders what would happen if others applied to his writing the remarkable oversensitivity he applies to Sullivan’s. Consider Wieseltier’s account of his celebration upon learning that Barack Obama had been elected president:

I woke up the next morning still under the spell of solidarity and love. I decided to make the spell last. I gave away my tickets to a performance of some late Shostakovich quartets, because for once I was not interested in the despair. Instead I spent the day listening to the Ebonys and the Chi-Lites and the Isley Brothers. For lunch I went to Georgia Brown’s for fried green tomatoes.

Of course, the fact that Wieseltier believes that the election of an African-American president calls for soul food rather than classical music does not make him a racist. Still, it is easy to imagine how he would react if he caught Sullivan (or anyone else) making a comparable statement about a Jewish politician.

I am less interested in what the whole affair says about Wieseltier, however, than in what it says about the changing politics of anti-Semitism.

As Greenwald notes, the reaction to Wieseltier’s attack demonstrates how badly the pro-Israel hardliners have overplayed their hand when it comes to allegations of anti-Semitism. For a long time, such accusations were a political death sentence for those on the receiving end of them. Even in recent years, they have remained damaging when directed at figures who were not known personally by many people in Washington journalistic circles (e.g. Walt and Mearsheimer, Chas Freeman).

However, the hardliners badly blundered by casually and frivolously leveling the anti-Semitism charge against people who were widely known — and widely known not to be anti-Semites — in Washington. Joe Klein, an anti-Semite? Andrew Sullivan, an anti-Semite? The obviously absurdity of these charges has caused many observers to go back and reevaluate the entire way that the charge has been used in the past — and has only confirmed the impression that it is all-too-frequently used to stifle all dissent from Israeli policies.

The result is that the tacit framework governing “responsible” criticism of Israel is breaking down. For members of what we might call the liberal wing of the New Republic crowd (as opposed to the outright neocons who also populate its pages), some mild criticism of Israel is permitted so long as it is strictly confined within narrow limits. One may allude to unidentified “mistakes” made during the Gaza war, but not suggest that these constituted war crimes. One may offer tepid support for the hypothetical goal of ending settlement construction, but not offer clear-cut support for the Obama administration when it actually tries to implement this goal. One may criticize the occupation as imprudent, but not condemn it as immoral; one may argue against it on the grounds that it is bad for Israel, but not on the grounds that it is bad for the Palestinians.

Above all, any such criticism must be uttered only by Jews, and even Jews must display their Zionist credentials at all times while doing so. In this way, criticism of Israel is permitted only provided it be so emasculated that it is guaranteed to be ineffectual.

Wieseltier’s attack on Sullivan appears motivated not by any actual belief that the latter is an anti-Semite, but by rage that he has violated these tacit rules — that a gentile dares offer unapologetic criticism of Israeli policies. More than that, we can detect in Wieseltier’s piece a deep sense of panic that this framework of “responsible” criticism is breaking down. The attack is quite obviously an attempt to intimidate Sullivan into ceasing all criticism; I join many others in hoping that Sullivan sticks to his guns.

Finally, it’s worth noting how radically the debate about the role of the Israel lobby (or Likud lobby, or status quo lobby, or whatever one wishes to call it) has shifted in recent years. For proof, see the New Republic‘s Jonathan Chait, in a post titled “Andrew Sullivan Is Not An Anti-Semite”. While Chait’s views on these issues are certainly to the right of mine, he is smart and generally reasonable in his views; for that reason, he frequently ends up engaging in damage control for his intemperate bosses. His discussion of the politics of the Israel lobby is interesting:

Leon agrees that the pro-Israel lobby wields significant power in U.S. policymaking, and determining this level of power is also a legitimate topic of inquiry. At one point on the spectrum of thought you have what Leon and I would consider a realistic assessment of the power of the Israel lobby. As you move further along the spectrum, you eventually approach Osama bin Laden’s view of the power of the Israel lobby. Clearly, bin Laden qualifies as an anti-Semite. But the judgment can’t be that as soon as you go just a little further along the line from my view, then you’re an anti-Semite. There has to be some room on this question to be merely wrong — to harbor an exaggerated view of the power of the Israel lobby without being an anti-Semite. Otherwise debate becomes impossible.

This echoes an earlier point that Chait made in the wake of the Chas Freeman affair (in which he was one of Freeman’s chief antagonists):

Of course I recognize that the Israel lobby is powerful, and was a key element in the pushback against Freeman, and that it is not always a force for good. I just don’t ascribe to it the singular, Manichean, different-category-than-any-other-lobby status that its more fevered critics imagine.

Similarly, the Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg (another exemplar of the “TNR liberal” type described above) wrote a 2008 New York Times op-ed in which he endorsed the bulk of the Mearsheimer/Walt thesis — while insisting, of course, that his views bore no resemblance at all to theirs.

Thus we can see how deeply discussion of the Israel lobby has shifted. The TNR liberals now insist that of course the Israel lobby is extremely powerful, and of course it exerts an influence on U.S. foreign policy that is frequently (or even generally) pernicious. To conceal the fact that they are conceding the truth of the basic Israel lobby thesis, they tend to contrast their views with some caricatured position that they attribute to Mearsheimer and Walt (the Israel lobby is the only interest group with any influence in Washington, The Jews call all the shots in U.S. foreign policy, or something to that effect). Of course, only a few years ago many of the same parties alleged that it was an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory even to claim that there is such a thing as an “Israel lobby” and that it exerts a powerful (although not all-powerful) influence on U.S. foreign policy. However, they seem to expect the public to forget all this.

In short, the Wieseltier-Sullivan affair demonstrates that things are changing in Washington. And, I might add, not a moment too soon.