Playing Ethnic Politics At Ground Zero
MARCH 2003 "Progressive Review" -- One of the reasons Rep. Jim Moran thinks Jewish leaders are powerful is because the ones he sees are. Jews outside of Washington - like gun-owners, doctors, and Chamber of Commerce members outside of Washington - don't have a strong sense of just how precisely their "community" is being defined daily by their capital lobbyists.
There is no doubt - if one considers the 'Jewish community' as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and various large Jewish campaign contributors - that Rep. Moran was quite correct in saying that they could have had a significant effect on the course of our policy in the Middle East. For example, it took only three days for them to have a significant effect on the course of Rep. Moran's career, getting his cowardly colleagues to force him out of his House leadership position. Earlier, they helped to have a similar effect on Rep Cynthia McKinney, who went down to defeat thanks in part to an influx of pro-Israel money. AIPAC, after all, is a lobby powerful enough that at its most recent conference, one half of the Senate and one-third of the House showed up.
The fact that the Washington leadership may not accurately reflect the diversity of its national constituency is not uniquely a Jewish problem; it is part of the displacement of democracy from the consensus of the many to the will of a select few that is speeding the decline of the Republic. And never have the selected been fewer than under the present Bush.
In talking about the Jewish manifestation of this, politicians and the media use two different approaches. One is the sanitized patois of ethnic sensitivity as when the perpetually clichéd Eleanor Clift wrote: "Moran apologized, but the historical echoes that he awakened are so antithetical to what Democrats claim to stand for that he might as well bid goodbye to his political career."
But in the same article in which he quotes Clift, Greg Pierce of the Washington Times also writes, "One political analyst said he counseled two Democratic presidential campaigns to call for Moran's resignation. 'It would be a cheap way to reassure Jewish voters,' he said. 'I don't understand why they haven't done it yet.'"
In other words, what is considered anti-Semitic when stated at a town meeting, becomes in another context just your standard keen political analysis.
When you look at the facts rather than the Washington rhetoric, you find that Moran was even more right than it appeared at first. A study by Belief Net found that only the Southern Baptist Convention and some Jewish groups supported the military approach and every other listed major denomination opposed it. True, the Southern Baptists were unequivocally in favor of war while the Jewish groups - Orthodox Union, Union Of American Hebrew Congregations (Reform), and United Synagogue Of Conservative Judaism - wanted to exhaust other alternatives first, but every other religion Belief Net checked opposed the war including the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Episcopal Church, Greek Orthodox Church in America, Mormons - Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Presbyterian Church (USA), Quakers - American Friends Service Committee, United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Unitarian Universalist Association. The Catholics weren't included but the Pope took a clear stand against the war.
So why go to such efforts to deliberately conceal and prevaricate concerning the role of key Jewish organizations in supporting the Iraq invasion?
Part of the answer can be found in none other than the hypocritically outraged Washington Post, in an article written by its White House correspondent, Dana Milbank, last November:
A group of U.S. political consultants has sent pro-Israel leaders a memo urging them to keep quiet while the Bush administration pursues a possible war with Iraq. The six-page memo was sent by the Israel Project, a group funded by American Jewish organizations and individual donors. Its authors said the main audience was American Jewish leaders, but much of the memo's language is directed toward Israelis. The memo reflects a concern that involvement by Israel in a U.S.-Iraq confrontation could hurt Israel's standing in American public opinion and undermine international support for a hard line against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. . .
The Iraq memo was issued in the past few weeks and labeled 'confidential property of the Israel Project,' which is led by Democratic consultant Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi with help from Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg and Republican pollsters Neil Newhouse and Frank Luntz. Several of the consultants have advised Israeli politicians, and the group aired a pro-Israel ad earlier this year. 'If your goal is regime change, you must be much more careful with your language because of the potential backlash,' said the memo, titled 'Talking About Iraq.'
"It added: 'You do not want Americans to believe that the war on Iraq is being waged to protect Israel rather than to protect America.' In particular, the memo urged Israelis to pipe down about the possibility of Israel responding to an Iraqi attack. 'Such certainty may be Israeli policy, but asserting it publicly and so overtly will not sit well with a majority of Americans because it suggests a pre-determined outcome rather than a measured approach,' it said."
This is not the first time this strategy has been tried. For example, in January 1991, David Rogers of the Wall Street Journal wrote:
When Congress debated going to war with Iraq, the pro-Israel lobby stayed in the background - but not out of the fight. Leaders of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee now acknowledge it worked in tandem with the Bush administration to win passage of a resolution authorizing the president to commit U.S. troops to combat. The behind-the-scenes campaign avoided AIPAC's customary high profile in the Capitol and relied instead on activists-calling sometimes from Israel itself-to contact lawmakers and build on public endorsements by major Jewish organizations. "Yes, we were active." says AIPAC director Thomas Dine. "These are the great issues of our time, If you sit on the sidelines, you have no voice. . . "
The debate revealed a deep ambivalence among Jewish lawmakers over what course to follow, pitting their generally liberal instincts against their support of Israel. Friends and families were divided. And even as some pro-Israel advocates urged a more aggressive stance, there was concern that the lobby risked damaging Israel's longer term interests if the issue became too identified with Jewish or pro-Israel polities.
. . . AIPAC took pains to disguise its role, and there was quiet relief that the vote showed no solid Jewish bloc in favor of a war so relevant to Israel. "It isn't such a bad idea that we were split," says one Jewish lawmaker. . .
Pro-Israel PACs have poured money into campaigns for Southern Democrats not immediately identified with their cause. For example, the Alabama delegation voted in a bloc with Mr. Bush in both the House and Senate. At first glance, this can be ascribed to the conservative, pro military character of the state. But pro-Israel PACs have also cultivated Democrats there in recent years."
It is hard to imagine such a frank description of ethnic politics today. Thus it is not surprising that few know that the aforementioned Thomas Dines - then executive director of AIPAC and now head of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty - is a member of the advisory committee of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq.
The Post, which didn't mentioned Dines' involvement in plotting the seizure of Iraq, described the new organization as "modeled on a successful lobbying campaign to expand the NATO alliance."
In fact, the last time prior to the war itself that the Post even mentioned AIPAC was back in August before the Iraq invasion plot took full shape. So you had to look elsewhere to find out what the Jewish leadership was up to. For example, the Jerusalem Post reported last October:
After weeks of debate and consideration, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which represents 52 Jewish national groups, announced its support for US military action against Iraq "as a last resort." In a statement released Saturday, the Conference of Presidents announced that all of its member groups "support President [George W.] Bush and the Congress in their efforts to gain unequivocal Iraqi compliance with the obligation to divest itself of weapons of mass destruction and the means to develop such weapons." The statement also endorsed the Bush administration's "efforts to enlist the United Nations and international cooperation to secure Iraqi compliance, including the use of force as a last resort.
The chairman of the group, Mortimer Zuckerman went a bit further, declaring that the failure to attack Iraq would "ruin American credibility in the Muslim world."
Now let us imagine that the 52 Jewish organizations had instead reached a consensus that invading Iraq was illegal, unwise, unconstitutional, and an act of reckless endangerment against the whole world. Would that have influenced American policy? Of course it would.
Here's what happened instead, as described by Nathan Guttmann of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz:
An unusual visitor was invited to address the annual conference held last week in Washington by AIPAC, the pro-Israeli lobby in the United States: the head of the Washington office of the Iraqi National Congress, Intifad Qanbar. The INC is one of the main opposition groups outside Iraq, and its leaders consider themselves natural candidates for leadership positions in the post-Saddam Hussein era. Qanbar's invitation to the conference reflects a first attempt to disclose the links between the American Jewish community and the Iraqi opposition, after years in which the two sides have taken pains to conceal them.
The considerations against openly disclosing the extent of cooperation are obvious - revelation of overly close links with Jews will not serve the interests of the organizations aspiring to lead the Iraqi people. Currently, at the height of rivalry over future leadership of the country among opposition groups abroad, the domestic opposition and Iraqi citizens, it is most certainly undesirable for the Jewish lobby to forge - or flaunt - especially close links with any one of the groups, in a way that would cause its alienation from the others.
"At the current stage, we don't want to be involved in this argument," says a major activist in one of the larger Jewish organizations. In the end, Intifad Qanbar did not attend the AIPAC conference. . .
The Jewish groups maintain quiet contacts with nearly every Iraqi opposition group, and in the past have even met with the most prominent opposition leader, Ahmed Chalabi. The main objective was an exchange of information, but there was also an attempt to persuade the Iraqis of the need for good relations with Israel and with world Jewry. . . .
Aside from the annual AIPAC conference, two other major events in the United States last week underscored the gamut of opinions and perspectives in the American Jewish community on the war. The positioning of the AIPAC people behind the coalition forces and behind those who sent them is not surprising. AIPAC is wont to support whatever is good for Israel, and so long as Israel supports the war, so too do the thousands of the AIPAC lobbyists who convened in the American capital.
There is no such uniformity among the various religious Jewish movements, and indecisiveness is still very much the case. In Los Angeles, members of the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly gathered and tried to clarify their position on the . . . In the end, the issue was submitted to an executive council, which issued a draft resolution that offered support for the war, albeit with reservations. . .
The dilemma is more pronounced among Reform Jews. They also convened last week to formulate a joint position, and they too were careful not to launch any strident criticism of the war itself. . . The only decision relevant to the war was agreement on a prayer for the welfare of the soldiers at the front, and recognition of the fact that there are a variety of opinions on the war. The resolution that was adopted is very far from constituting an expression of support of any kind for the war, but is also far from constituting criticism of it.
The situation is simpler among the Orthodox. Immediately upon the outbreak of the war, the Orthodox Union, the umbrella organization of the community, released a statement that expressed unequivocal support for President Bush and his decision to launch the war on Iraq, which was described as having "noble aims."
Despite the ambivalence within the various religious segments of Judaism, not to mention the split among Jews themselves, AIPAC carried on its aggressive pro-war activity with impunity.
Of course they had some help, as Michael Lind pointed out in the New Statesman:
Most neo-conservative defense intellectuals have their roots on the left, not the right. They are products of the largely Jewish-American Trotskyist movement of the 1930s and 1940s, which morphed into anti-communist liberalism between the 1950s and 1970s and finally into a kind of militaristic and imperial right with no precedents in American culture or political history. Their admiration for the Israeli Likud party's tactics, including preventive warfare such Israel's 1981 raid on Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor, is mixed with odd bursts of ideological enthusiasm for "democracy." They call their revolutionary ideology "Wilsonianism" (after President Woodrow Wilson), but it is really Trotsky's theory of the permanent revolution mingled with the far-right Likud strain of Zionism. Genuine American Wilsonians believe in self-determination for people such as the Palestinians.
The neo-con defense intellectuals, as well as being in or around the actual Pentagon, are at the center of a metaphorical "pentagon" of the Israel lobby and the religious right, plus conservative think-tanks, foundations and media empires. . .
The major link between the conservative think-tanks and the Israel lobby is the Washington-based and Likud-supporting Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, which co-opts many non-Jewish defense experts by sending them on trips to Israel. It flew out the retired General Jay Garner, now slated by Bush to be proconsul of occupied Iraq. In October 2000, he co-signed a JINSA letter that began: "We . . . believe that during the current upheavals in Israel, the Israel Defense Forces have exercised remarkable restraint in the face of lethal violence orchestrated by the leadership of [the] Palestinian Authority."
The Israel lobby itself is divided into Jewish and Christian wings. [Pentagon officials Paul] Wolfowitz and [Douglas] Feith have close ties to the Jewish-American Israel lobby. Wolfowitz, who has relatives in Israel, has served as the Bush administration's liaison to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Feith was given an award by the Zionist Organisation of America, citing him as a "pro-Israel activist". While out of power in the Clinton years, Feith collaborating with Perle, co-authored for Likud a policy paper that advised the Israeli government to end the Oslo peace process, reoccupy the territories and crush Yasser Arafat's government.
Such experts are not typical of Jewish-Americans, who mostly voted for Gore in 2000. The most fervent supporters of Likud in the Republican electorate are southern Protestant fundamentalists. The religious right believes that God gave all of Palestine to the Jews, and fundamentalist congregations spend millions to subsidize Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.
Then, of course, there is Israel itself which has been a huge beneficiary of American aid only to have repeatedly thwarted the better efforts of American presidents and other leaders - including those in Israel - seeking a bit of rationality in the Middle East. Much of this subversion of sanity has been masochistic; de facto, right wing Israelis have been among the world's most effective anti-Semites.
In a recent Counterpunch article, Kathleen and Bill Christison offer an explication of this phenomenon;
[Jeff Halper] is an Israeli anthropologist, until his retirement a year ago a professor at Ben Gurion University, a transplant 30 years ago from Minnesota, a harsh critic of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and, as founder of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, one of the leading peace and anti-occupation activists in Israel. . .
Zionism, he says, "is a very compelling narrative, but it is totally self-contained, a bubble in which Israelis separate themselves from all others." Israelis regard everyone else as irrelevant. When it is suggested that fear motivates this self-absorption, Halper disagrees. "It's not so much fear," he says; Israelis "just don't give a damn. They make everyone else a non-issue. They see themselves as the victim, and if you're the victim, you're not responsible for anything you do."
Anything goes if you are the victim, he explains: you don't care about the consequences of your actions for other people, you need not take any responsibility for the effect of your policies on others, you don't care about how others feel. Israelis always think they're right, he says. They believe everything they do is right because the Jewish nation is "right," because they are only responding to what others do to them, only retaliating. "If you combine three elements: the idea that we are right, with the notion that we're the victim, and with our great military power," he says, you have a lethal combination. . . . Israel can act with brutality, but the responsibility, the fault, lies elsewhere.
To define good Jewishness - or conversely, anti-Semitism - by one's reaction to the Sharon government makes no more sense than to define good Americanism by one's reaction to Bush. Sharon not only blasphemously mocks the lessons supposedly learned from the Holocaust, his policies represent a huge departure from the humanistic and progressive politics that long characterized American Judaism. This tradition, born in European socialism and blended with American populism, helped mightily to form the social democracy our country increasingly enjoyed during the 20th century.
I, in fact, grew up alnost believing that there were three branches of Judiasm: Orthodox, Reform, and Liberal Democratic. And it often seemed that the last was the most powerful. In fact, you couldn't be an urban progressive of my age without becoming part Jewish.
But history doesn't stop, and just as greater America moved sharply right after 1980s, so did this country's Jewish politics. It wasn't alone. Feminism forgot lower class women, labor forgot its own members, the biggest thing the Congressional Black Caucus did anymore was an annual dinner, the environmental movement became embedded in the Washington bureaucracy, and white liberals in general looked the other way as our civil liberties disintegrated.
To sweep this problem under the bed, to fail to discuss the disaster that pro-Israeli politics have become for fear of being called anti-Semitic is both cowardly and dangerous. At a time when the Washington Post is urging its readers to stock up on several days' food and buy gas masks because of the possible consequences of the internationally criminal policies it so vigorously supports, we no longer have time or tolerance for such cynical games. If you want to die for your own faith, fine, but you have no right to take the rest of the world with you.
The danger of the dishonest debate about the Middle East was well described by Joan Didion in a recent New York Review of Books:
[We need to] demystify the question of why we have become unable to discuss our relationship with the current government of Israel. Whether the actions taken by that government constitute self-defense or a particularly inclusive form of self-immolation remains an open question. The question of course has a history.
This open question, and its history, are discussed rationally and with considerable intellectual subtlety in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Where the question is not discussed rationally, where in fact the question is rarely discussed at all, since so few of us are willing to see our evenings turn toxic, is in New York and Washington and in those academic venues where the attitudes and apprehensions of New York and Washington have taken hold. The president of Harvard recently warned that criticisms of the current government of Israel could be construed as 'anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent.'
The very question of the US relationship with Israel, in other words, has come to be seen as unraisable, potentially lethal, the conversational equivalent of an unclaimed bag on a bus. We take cover. We wait for the entire subject to be defused, safely insulated behind baffles of invective and counter-invective. Many opinions are expressed. Few are allowed to develop. Even fewer change."
We are entangled, in major part, in a religious war in which bin Laden, Bush and Sharon comprise a triptych of theological terror that is putting everyone at great risk. They are each involved in a vicious heresy, falsely defining their own myopic, immoral, and sadistic ambitions as their religion's moral faith. This is no time for politeness, politics, or silence. And while Jews are far from alone in needing to call their leadership back to sanity, neither are they exempt.
Copyright: Progressive Review
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