The fight, for Peretz, has always been about Israel first, and it has become particularly wrenching recently. As the Palestinian Authority began its first halting steps toward modernization, Israeli politics and society have pivoted to the right. The country’s refusal to stop construction of new settlements; its growing hostility toward the international community and the Obama administration; its storming of an aid flotilla off the Gaza Strip in May—these postures and incidents have led some of the liberal intellectuals who have historically defended Israel to begin to edge away. This summer, Peter Beinart—once a protégé of Peretz’s—published an influential essay in The New York Review of Books arguing that liberalism and Zionism were becoming incompatible and noting that fewer and fewer secular, progressive American Jews feel a stake in Israel at all.
Throughout, Peretz has seemed to grow only more resolute, his constitutional truculence more evident. In September, writing on his New Republic blog The Spine, Peretz homed in on a familiar villain: Islamic terrorists who target other Muslims. “Frankly,” he wrote, “Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims.” He got himself wound up: “I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment, which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.” Nicholas Kristof began his Sunday New York Times column by denouncing the post; Peretz’s sentiments, he wrote, showed how “venomous and debased the discourse about Islam has become.” The Atlantic’s James Fallows, arguably the most reasonable man in liberal American letters, reviewed the evidence and concluded that Peretz is “broadly considered … a bigot.” Peretz had published many similar slanders in the past, but suddenly there were protests bent on a reckoning: a loud demonstration at Harvard, public letters demanding his condemnation, profound indignation across the left. The day after Kristof’s column, Peretz apologized for suggesting First Amendment privileges be revoked for Muslims. It was “a stupid sentence,” he now says. The rest he defended; it was what he believed.