It’s common knowledge that the Israeli occupation, and Israel in general, are Third Rails in US public discourse — touch them and die (politically, anyway). Through a peculiar combination of (1) commemoration (some would say exploitation) of the Nazi epoch, (2) down-n-dirty realpolitik in DC, and (3) the strong Biblical literalist strain in American culture (which lends Israel and Israeli place-names tremendous resonance in the hearts/minds of many Americans), Israel has become not merely a satrapy, a costly base from which to project US power in the Middle East, but a powerful emotive icon. It has joined a list of sacralised memes such as The Flag, The Troops, The Founding Fathers — which cannot be criticised w/o branding the critic a heretic, subversive, and (in this case) a suspected antisemite. The staggering fact of $2B or more in annual subsidy from the US to its client state is camouflaged by layer upon layer of Biblical mystique and Hollywood sentimentality.
The situation is only made more vexed by the genuine antisemitic, anti-Jewish strain in the vulgar US ultraright (mirrored by the British BNP and various skinhead/neoNazi groups in Germany, Switzerland, France etc). As long as a rabble of useful idiots continues to “discover” the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (that moldy oldie) and publish the same old wild rants about Jewish Bankers Controlling the World, it is easy for the AIPAC/ADL coterie to paint the picture of a dangerous world full of frothing antisemites, with Israel the only safe haven for world Jewry. Anyone who names the Israeli Occupation for what it is — a classic colonial land grab and the establishment of an Apartheid state — is immediately and conveniently lumped with the Jewish Bankers fantasists. You’re either with Israel, or against Jews. Unlike the Anglo-Christian US neocons who whined and fretted, “Why do they hate us?”, the Israel lobby has the answer already prepared and well documented by history: They hate us because we are Jews — just like they always have.
This leaves critics of Israeli policy ironically more vocal, free, and radical within Israel itself than in the US: articles are routinely published in Ha’aretz that would never be allowed past the editor of any reputable US daily. In the US, Israel and Israeli policy are lost in a kind of time warp or Moebius strip; the $2B/year goes on being approved, year after year, the US continues to abstain from any UN resolution criticising Israel’s invasion of Palestine and the resulting human rights abuses, US politicians go on making the ritual Israel visit and photo-op. And anyone who complains about this state of affairs is branded either a Jew-hater or a Self-Hating Jew, isolated and ostracised.
This state of affairs has obtained at least since the Six Day War; as N Finkelstein pointed out, the beatification of Israel in the US public mind did not really begin until the nouveau state had “made its bones” and proved its muscle by soundly defeating its opponents back in 1967. But Finkelstein of course is persona non grata to the majority of American Jews. I have personal friends who refuse even to read his book The Holocaust Industry because they “know it is anti-Semitic”. Ironically, Raul Hilberg (revered by Holocaust historians for his monumental and magisterial study of the Nazi era) thought Finkelstein’s work on “The Holocaust Industry” was sound; but this has not prevented the AIPAC/ADL echo chamber from declaring Finkelstein a non-person — or a “self-hating Jew”.
I was also struck by the fact that Finkelstein was being attacked over and over. And granted, his style is a little different from mine, but I was saying the same thing, and I had published my results in that three-volume work, published in 2003 by Yale University Press, and I did not hear from anybody a critical word about what I said, even though it was the same substantive conclusion that Finkelstein had offered. So that’s the gist of the matter right then and there. [...] Well, Finkelstein — I believe Finkelstein was criticized mainly for the style that he employed. And he was vulnerable. And it was clear to me already years ago that some campaigns were launched — from what sector, I didn’t know — to remove him from the academic world. Years ago, I got a phone call from someone who was in charge of a survivors’ group in California who told me that Finkelstein had been ousted from a job in New York City at a university — actually, a college there — and this was done under pressure.
(Raul Hilberg, pbuh, died in August of this year; this quote is from a radio interview with Democracy Now!) A longer interview by Hilberg with a Brazilian journo is available at NF’s own web site — well worth a read.
Israel’s special status as Caesar’s Wife — and as a money laundry for the US arms industry — has been part of our political landscape for so long now that it is hard to imagine things could be different. It is one of the hot-button topics, right up there with abortion and gun control: friendships have ended and marriages foundered on the issue of excessive (or insufficient) empathy with the Palestinians. The successes of the “Israel Lobby” in DC are legendary; it seems that no US politician who hopes to remain in office can challenge the official mythology of Plucky, Embattled Little Israel, Menaced on All Sides by Swarthy Savages. The US is even now making noises about inviting Israel into NATO — which presumably will entail some awkward acronymic revision as NASMRSTO, the North Atlantic and Southern Mediterranean/Red Sea Treaty Organisation.
But in the last year or so there are signs, surprisingly, of a possible thaw in the frozen terrain of discourse in the US. Norman Finkelstein’s tenure denial, largely inflicted by external lobbying by AIPAC and allies (including a particularly personal and unpleasant attack campaign by the notorious Dershowitz), was not accomplished quietly and swept under the rug. Finkelstein — known for his grit and stubbornness if not for his delicate tact — fought it doggedly and won a Pyrrhic victory:
In exchange for his immediate resignation from DePaul’s faculty, DePaul would essentially admit that Finkelstein had met the University’s tenure and promotion requirements (“Professor Finkelstein is a prolific scholar and an outstanding teacher”), while also providing Finkelstein with an undisclosed amount of money, along with a backhanded acknowledgment of the public outrage that had been generated in response to the tenure denial (“We understand that Professor Finkelstein and his supporters disagree with the University Board on Promotion and Tenure’s conclusion that he did not meet the requirements for tenure.”) Well, the obvious reason Finkelstein and many of his supporters disagreed with the University Board on Promotion and Tenure’s conclusions is because Finkelstein consistently earned among the highest, if not the highest, teaching evaluations in the political science department for six years in a row. Coupled that with the five books which he has published to international acclaim, the most recent being his Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History with the University of California Press, which Dershowitz’s campaign of abuse and vilification could not censor, one might naturally understand why Finkelstein and his supporters have drawn the logical inference that something else-other than the usual DePaul standards-might have been in play.
(the rest of this article by Matthew Abraham is well worth a read as it goes into the specific irregularities of De Paul’s tenure denial, Dershowitz’ personal war with Finkelstein — who shredded Dershowitz’ book The Case For Israel with vindictive accuracy — and the rest of the back story).
In the United States there are fewer and fewer spaces where truth-telling is possible. Electoral politics has become a poll-driven, sound-bite enterprise. Mass media specialize in the superficial and shallow. Universities, though dominated by corporate money and the corporate mentality, still provide one of the few remaining spaces for open and honest engagement. Protecting that space is important not only for those of us in the privileged position of faculty, but for the society more generally.
If Norman Finkelstein is denied tenure by DePaul, it won’t be because he was irresponsible but because he took his responsibility too seriously. If he is denied tenure, the loss will be not only Finkelstein’s and DePaul’s but also the larger project of real academic freedom and responsibility.
We could regard De Paul’s settlement and Finkelstein’s departure as a sad day for academic freedom, and in a sense it is. But the terms of his departure — the private settlement, the non-disclosure agreement — suggest that the institution had to climb down, “pay damages” or the equivalent, and admit that the tenure denial was unjust. I cannot offhand recall another case involving an outspoken critic of Israel and AIPAC at a major academic institution, in which the institution had to suffer the embarrassment of (effectively) bribing the wronged party to leave quietly. It would be far more satisfactory if the upper management of De Paul had stuck to fundamental principles of academic freedom and refrained from interfering with the tenure process; but it is something (and something new, I think) that they experienced bad publicity, embarrassment, and financial loss as a result of their misconduct.
During the same eventful period of the last 2 years, another surprise was sprung: two inoffensive academics, Mearsheimer and Walt, wrote an article which after causing quite a ruckus by its appearance in the LRB, became a book; Philip Weiss had this to say about it:
Walt and Mearsheimer’s book on the Israel Lobby is being published today. I finished it last night. I said before that it was historic, but I did not realize quite what it was till I put it down: a great work of American muckraking in the tradition of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (the meatpacking industry), Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (pesticides), and Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed (Detroit). An overkill moral beauty aimed at an outrage, some day this book will be legendary and dated. Young people will ask, What was all the fuss about? Were politicians really blacklisted for criticizing the settlements? You will tell them yes. Then they’ll pull down a yellowed copy of this book from your shelf and find it mechanical and dated.
The reason it will seem dated is, it will have done its job. Ralph Nader once feared for his life; today carmakers advertise the safety of their cars, and Mike Kinsley calls Ralph “Saint Ralph.” With this book, two great foreign-policy scholars have thrown their bodies down. What you see here is their life work. They are willing to sacrifice reputation and future-career-arc for this study, and by book’s end, there is a tremendous sense of calm and achievement, when having made their case they restate their intellectual goal: to restore American foreign policy in the Middle East to its senses.
For more detail and backstory, consult the Wikipedia Summary of the Mearsheimer/Walt Controversy
The furore over Mearsheimer and Walt’s analysis of the pro-Israel lobby in US politics continues. But regardless of the outcome, or of history’s judgment on their work, the very existence and openness of the furore — and the publication of their book by a reputable press — are signs of changing times. Confirming this notion we find Tony Karon, writing at TomDispatch: Is a Jewish Glasnost Coming to America?:
First, a confession: It may tell me that I hate myself, but I can’t help loving Masada2000, the website maintained by militant right-wing Zionist followers of Rabbi Meir Kahane. The reason I love it is its D.I.R.T. list — that’s “Dense anti-Israel Repugnant Traitors” (also published as the S.H.I.T. list of “Self-Hating and Israel-Threatening” Jews). And that’s not because I get a bigger entry than — staying in the Ks — Henry Kissinger, Michael Kinsley, Naomi Klein, or Ted Koppel. The Kahanists are a pretty flaky lot, counting everyone from Woody Allen to present Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on their list of Jewish traitors. But the habit of branding Jewish dissidents — those of us who reject the nationalist notion that as Jews, our fate is tied to that of Israel, or the idea that our people’s historic suffering somehow exempts Israel from moral reproach for its abuses against others — as “self-haters” is not unfamiliar to me.
What I like about the S.H.I.T. list’s approach to the job — other than the “Dangerous Minds” theme music that plays as you read it — is the way it embraces literally thousands of names, including many of my favorite Jews. Memo to the sages at Masada2000: If you’re trying to paint dissenters as demented traitors, you really have to keep the numbers down. Instead, Masada2000′s inadvertent message is: “Think critically about Israel and you’ll join Woody Allen and a cast of thousands…”
Karon goes on to dissect one of the most popular tropes:
I’d agree that the Nazi analogy is specious — not only wrong but offensive in its intent, although not “racist”. But the logic of suggesting it is “racist” to compare Israel to apartheid South Africa is simply bizarre. What if Israel objectively behaves like apartheid South Africa? What then?
Actually, Mr. Shepherd, I’d be more inclined to pin the racist label on anyone who conflates the world’s 13 million Jews with a country in which 8.2 million of them — almost two thirds — have chosen not to live.
Although you wouldn’t know it — not if you followed Jewish life simply through the activities of such major Jewish communal bodies as the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations and the Anti-Defamation League — the extent to which the eight million Jews of the Diaspora identify with Israel is increasingly open to question (much to the horror of the Zionist-oriented Jewish establishment). In a recent study funded by the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies (an important donor to Jewish communal organizations), Professors Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman revealed that their survey data had yielded some extraordinary findings: In order to measure the depth of attachment of American Jews to Israel, the researchers asked whether respondents would consider the destruction of the State of Israel a “personal tragedy.” Less than half of those aged under 35 answered “yes” and only 54% percent of those aged 35-50 agreed (compared with 78% of those over 65). The study found that only 54% of those under 35 felt comfortable with the very idea of a Jewish state.
And only a few years ago, in the summer of 2001, rabbinical scholar Marc Ellis could stand before a convocation of progressive and liberal rabbis and say openly:
It is a strange feeling to stand before a gathering of rabbis and speak of my vision for the future of the Jewish people, especially during a time when helicopter gunships are more and more defining the trajectory of Jewish life. In my youth, my own rabbis, first at an Orthodox synagogue and then within the conservative movement, did not have to warn us against such abuse of power. Like most Jews in America, using tanks and aerial bombardment to quiet resistance in villages, towns and cities was reminiscent of the horrors of World War II; the assault on a weak defenseless people gathered in ghettos and surrounded by superior power reminded Jews in America of the fate of European Jews in what later became known as the Holocaust.
Presumably Dr Ellis has long ago been placed on the S.H.I.T. list by the lunatic fringe. But as far as I know he was not booed off the stage, and is still a respected professor at Baylor — in fact, when last Googled he was Director of the Centre for Jewish Studies at that institution.
These are small signs, to be sure. There is little indication that the trajectory of Occupation will change, that the government of Israel can escape from the ratchet effect of its own policies, or that the massive annual subsidy and weapons sale from the US to Israel will stop this year or next year. But there does seem to be a thaw of sorts, a kind of “Prague Spring” moment which could lead to a saner and more open public discourse on the Special Relationship between the US and its Middle Eastern client.
Further reading on Jewish dissent, both Diasporic and Israeli
See also the anthologies The Other Israel and Wrestling with Zion.
Another interesting test case is coming up even as I complete this article: Lawmakers threaten to withdraw funding from Columbia University for permitting Iranian president Ahmadinejad to speak. Glenn Greenwald opines at Salon.com:
All of the hysteria over Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speaking at Columbia University is so tiresome for so many reasons, beginning with the fact that it is all rather transparently motivated by exactly what Juan Cole says: “The real reason his visit is controversial is that the American right has decided the United States needs to go to war against Iran. Ahmadinejad is therefore being configured as an enemy head of state.”
But what is new, and what most certainly is worth commenting upon, is this extremely disturbing report from The New York Sun regarding the threats made by Democratic State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to use state power to punish Columbia for inviting a speaker whom Silver dislikes. Silver — who, among other things, has long been a leader in efforts to free convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard from prison — did not even bother to disguise the threats he was making[...]
Silver sounds like two-bit hooligan making not-so-veiled threats to Columbia (“Obviously, there’s some degree of capital support that has been provided to Columbia in the past. These are things people might take a different view of”) for committing the crime of inviting a speaker whom Silver finds offensive. Is there anyone who fails to see how dangerous and improper this is — not to mention unconstitutional — that government officials threaten and punish universities for hosting speakers whom the officials dislike? Do we want our universities to be able to provide speaking venues only to individuals who are approved by the likes of Sheldon Silver and Dov Hikind?
What Greenwald touches on only tangentially and inferentially is Silver’s connection to AIPAC, ADL, and JDL (Likudist formations in the US). Instead of stating openly that Silver’s remarks adhere to a Likudist line, Greenwald implies it by bracketing him with the notorious Hikind — a weaselly tactic which I have to deplore, as it brings back a bad taste of the wicked old McCarthyist guilt-by-association slander campaigns. But in the frozen atmosphere to which I refer above, it is next-to-impossible for a reputable journalist to say: this politician is a known Likudnik and in my opinion his public stance in this matter reflects Israeli state policy more than the interests of his borough, city, or state. Despite Mearsheimer and Walt’s best efforts, pointing out even the obvious daily workings of the Lobby (which should be as matter-of-fact a feature of political commentary as pointing out the workings of the oil lobby, the gun lobby, the pharmaceutical lobby, the Christian Right lobby) is not yet polite dinner table conversation. The thaw hasn’t progressed that far yet. It will be interesting to watch the Columbia case, and see if the Lobby can get away with punishing a public institution for upholding academic freedom in an allegedly open society. Even GW Bush distanced himself from the threats, making an official statement on Fox News that America “is confident enough to let a person express his views.” Stay tuned to find out how Columbia responds to the threats and how the US media cover the story.