Categories
The Political Animal

Discrediting Arguments on the Iran Deal

Argument and persuasion are not the same thing. An argument is a series of statements, or premises, arranged and propounded to entail a conclusion – to support a claim. Persuasion is the attempt to influence and change minds. Ideally, the former plays the major role in the latter, but in politics and policy, as in life, this is not always so. Armed robbery is an act of persuasion. The barrel of a gun makes a weak argument that its holder is entitled to your wallet, but it makes strong case that you should hand it over. At the point of a gun, one is persuaded to give up the goods.

Negotiations are persuasion, not argument. Around the negotiating table, people may seem endlessly to argue, in order to prove the justness or necessity of their positions: people need to justify themselves and they sometimes play to a public. What negotiators really do is attempt to develop in the minds of their opponents the conviction that failure to accede to demands will produce in the opponents the state of being sorry. When a negotiated settlement is reached, both sides will have, to a degree, formed this conviction with regard to the other side’s demands, traded off against their own. In this conviction, and to justify their efforts and the end result, they will present the agreement to their constituencies in just this way. No negotiating team returns to those it represents with the report that a better deal was possible, but that the team decided to settle for less.

Sometimes constituencies accept this claim, sometimes they do not. Negotiated agreements are sometimes rejected, both for good and for ill. The proof is in the further pressure applied to the other side, succumbed to in time or not, and what is lost in the process.

A negotiating team needs to persuade its voting constituency to accept the deal. It makes an argument for the agreement it reached with the other side. This argument may, and should, consist of propositions regarding the detailed substance of the agreement and how it reasonably meets the demands and needs addressed in the negotiations, all things considered. To the degree that the constituency is satisfied with the agreement, and arguments in support, on its face, there will be need for little more.

Opposition to the agreement changes everything. In the real world, opposition degrades argument. It may degrade argument in two senses, both of them manners of discrediting the argument. In one sense, argument is literally degraded in quality, as the various vested interests turn from argument proper to naked persuasion. Common to this persuasion is the effort to discredit the argument by discrediting the opponent. Poisoning the well and ad hominem attack are both fallacious forms of argument that pretend to discredit the position by attempting deceptively to discredit the person instead. There can be legitimate arguments to the person, and we see them in the debate over the Iran deal when the expertise and authority of individuals to evaluate various technical areas of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is challenged. However, mere argument to expertise is superficial, and ultimate authority is to be found in the intellectual substance of the argument.

The basest attempts to discredit the person in the arguments over the Iran deal can be seen in charges that President Obama is an appeaser or even, most vilely, antisemitc. The President and those supporting the JCPOA have been no less base in tarring opponents as war mongers, neocons, or dual-loyalist Jews. Just as supporters of President Bush, in advance of the invasion of Iraq, challenged the patriotism of those who opposed the war, supporters of President Obama, in putting forth the JCPOA, are attacking opponents’ honesty and patriotism.

Currently, New York Senator Chuck Schumer is being subjected to the lowest kinds of disreputable sliming, including from the most well-known voices for President Obama. An even lower example actually appeared in Foreign Policy, penned by Jeffrey Lewis, resorting to attacks on Schumer’s dignity as a human being.

There is another, legitimate way to discredit an argument – the actual argument, and not those offering it – and that is to discredit a fundamental premise of the argument. Next, I will attempt to discredit the single most prominent defense of the Iran deal, made by every supporter of it.

AJA

Categories
The Political Animal

Arguments in Defense of the Iran Deal and Their Implications

There are many areas on which to focus one’s attention in the Iran deal. My own has been consistently drawn to the administration’s arguments in defense of the deal. Attended to, they are remarkably revealing in their implications about administration thinking, while not, in fact, actually being much remarked upon.

It is a tediously if necessarily repeated truism that negotiation requires compromise in positions about which the parties were previously uncompromising. Thus there will always be opportunity for absolutists not at the table to carp and condemn. Negotiators are charged with perfidy by those they represent only a little less often than battlefield turncoats. However, when the very subject of negotiation is a matter of life and death, and previously stated demands were presented as the conditions of life and death, against a foe more than hyperbolically and otherwise rhetorically malevolent, talking back concessions is a harder sell.

The administration has confidently affirmed without discomfort that the deal will protect the world from a nuclear Iran for somewhere between 10 and 15 years. As Leon Wieseltier wrote, “15 years is just a young person’s idea of a long time.” For many humanities Ph.D.s 10-15 years is about the time between that first seminar and the final granting of the degree. It is about three World Cups from now, the middle of a third presidential term after Obama leaves office, the start, looking backwards, of George W. Bush’s second term. Seem like a very long time?

Feels like a long time to junior; for mom and dad – where did the time go? For nations in geo-political historical time? Blink.

When the eyelid opens to see again, what does it see? Iran as a changed nation, no longer the active state sponsor of terrorism it remains today? If it is not changed, will an economic sanctions regime will be re-imposed, from scratch, all over again? Based upon what international will to challenge Iran to the ultimate end result that did not extend the length of the agreement this time around, when all was at last in place in an arrangement of pieces not likely to be duplicated?

Some other president will do what is necessary? What is that? Are we witnessing at the end of this long negotiation, unacknowledged, the most elaborately primed kick of the can down the road ever attempted?

The contention over a nuclear Iran has always been founded in the insistence that there be none, certainly not militarily, and this has always been the stance of President Obama. It is a position grounded only in a credible military threat. There was no such credible threat towards North Korea – a lot of bluster, but no brawn – and there is now a nuclear North Korea. The delicate balance for a leader so situated and genuinely open to, but not invested in, negotiations is how to extend the one open hand while withholding in the rear the other cocked fist. There is little doubt for other than the most uncritically devoted that Obama has not maintained this balance. For all of the drone-driven anti-terrorist mini wars he has maintained, his wise determination not to do “stupid stuff” abroad has also revealed what turned out to be the unwise bluster he would not, as in Syria, back up. It does not matter what the truth is, Obama came to be perceived by his critics and his enemies as fatally invested in the negotiations, offering just a lot of talk about “options” and “tables.”

Too often, when challenged about concessions in Geneva, the Obama-Kerry response essentially has been “you’re a fool to think you could have done better.” Sometimes that response is the knowledge of the negotiating table; other times, it is the revelation of a hand weakly played. Outside the room, we can only judge by the terms and general conditions.

When it became known that the terms of the IAEA investigations into the possible military dimensions (PMD) of Iran’s program were contained in separates agreements between the IAEA and Iran, on which the U.S. was briefed, but to which it was not privy and has no access, Secretary Moniz told the Senate committee, ‘“These kinds of technical arrangements with the IAEA are as a matter of standard practice not released publicly or to other states.”

It is, said Moniz, a matter of ““customary confidentiality.”

Members of the committee were as startled by the explanation as Kerry, alongside Moniz, was stumbling in offering it. Is a negotiated nuclear containment agreement with an internationally aspirant, totalitarian theocratic state “standard practice” and a “customary” matter?

“This is the way the agency works with countries,” Moniz also said. “If countries choose to make the documents public, then the IAEA of course can do so.”

Which is it, then, that we are to understand?

That the U.S. did not demand as a condition of the agreement that Iran authorize the IAEA to make the documents, not public, but available to the P-5?

Or that the U.S. did make the demand, Iran rejected it, and the U.S. accepted that rejection?

Would Iran have scuttled the deal over the issue? Would it not have been telling had they been so willing?

There are multiple such puzzlements over life and death matters. There is the transformation of the “anytime, anywhere” inspections that Kerry now says he never heard of into a supposed “24” days that turn out to be many more, and the embarrassing confusions over it (see the update near the bottom).  Yet despite the array of problematic elements, the administration, which argued, then, for everyone to wait to see the agreement before challenging it, argues now that we must accept this deal or have war.

“If we walk away, we walk away alone,” Kerry said.

Our partners are not going to be with us. Instead, they will walk away from the tough multilateral sanctions that brought Iran to the table to begin with. Instead, we will have squandered the best chance we have to solve the problem through peaceful means.

As the administration constructed the context in which the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has been presented, the following might be argued now by Kerry about any less than satisfactory agreement:

If Congress rejects this, Iran goes back to its enrichment. The Ayatollah will not come back to the table … the sanctions regime completely falls apart.

We will have set ourselves back. I don’t know how I go out to another country if that happens and say: ‘Hey, you ought to negotiate with us,’ because they will say: ‘Well, you have 535 secretaries of state in the United States. We don’t know who we are negotiating with. Whatever deal we make always risks being overturned.

If this is so, we may ask, how has it come to be so?

But first, let us note that it was a determined, controversial course set by the White House not to treat an Iran deal as a treaty. The Senate has a constitutional, democratic role in the approval of treaties and it has nearly as long a history of rejecting them. The constitutional requirement of a two thirds vote tells us that the framers intended the treaty to require overwhelming support. It is not without precedent even for a potentially presidency-defining treaty to be rejected by the Senate. (See Woodrow Wilson and the Treaty of Versailles.) In this history, and in this constitutional requirement, the nation and its founders have anticipated the critique of “you have 535 secretaries of state in the United States. We don’t know who we are negotiating with. Whatever deal we make always risks being overturned.” We have still managed to negotiate treaties.

President Obama did not want to meet Woodrow Wilson’s fate. John Kerry was clear about the motivation in his testimony to congress. The choice to frame the Iran deal as an executive agreement rather than a treaty was not academic.

“I spent quite a few years trying to get treaties through the US Senate, and frankly, it’s become physically impossible,” Kerry said. “You can’t pass a treaty anymore.”

So the administration, first, constructed a process aimed at easing the prospects of approval over the opposition of congressional opponents, then argued that skeptics should hold their comments until the deal the process intended to achieve was reached, and now that is has been reached, argues that it was the only possible deal and that the only alternative to it – the consequence of rejecting the deal – is war. It is a kind of rhetorical blackmail. It is a blackmail that utilizes, too, as its key pressure point – that threat of war – the very details it has all along diminished and even mocked coming from Benjamin Netanyahu.

Time to Breakout

In September 2012 at the United Nations, with the aid of his ball bomb and fuse chart, and calling for the establishment of “red line,” Netanyahu famously claimed,

By next spring, at most by next summer at current enrichment rates, they will have finished the medium enrichment and move on to the final stage.

From there, it’s only a few months, possibly a few weeks before they get enough enriched uranium for the first bomb. [Emphasis added]

Netanyahu was mocked for the cartoon diagram, but as usual, too, was derided, in the later words of the Guardian, for his “alarmist tone” as someone, “who has long presented the Iranian nuclear programme as an existential threat to Israel and a huge risk to world security.”

The Guardian would then, early this year, with a Wikileaks release, headline that “Leaked cables show Netanyahu’s Iran bomb claim contradicted by Mossad.” A closer reading of the cables told a different story, but that is not the point here. A few months later, the White House offered its own, visual jab at the Israeli prime minister by sending out a tweet that used the bomb graphic.

WH mocks BN

Note that the consequences of “Without the Deal” are bad, but unspecific. Now, however, at the White House’s Iran Deal website, while sparing us a repeat of that particular graphic (maybe with good reason), the White House claims the following:

As it stands today, Iran has a large stockpile of enriched uranium and nearly 20,000 centrifuges, enough to create 8 to 10 bombs. If Iran decided to rush to make a bomb without the deal in place, it would take them 2 to 3 months until they had enough weapon-ready uranium (or highly enriched uranium) to build their first nuclear weapon.

Putting it together, to clarify, in September 2012 Netanyahu projected as late as the summer of 2013 for the completion of medium enrichment, with perhaps a few months more before the development of sufficient enriched uranium for a bomb. As a reminder, the interim agreement between the P5-1 and Iran was reached in November 2013. That is a few months after the summer of that year. According to the interim agreement, all progress in Iran’s nuclear enrichment was halted for the period of negotiations toward a more lasting agreement. Now, at the conclusion of the current negotiations, the Obama administration is warning, in rather alarmist tones, that failure to accept the JCPOA will leave the world confronting the almost immediate threat of a nuclear Iran. The timelines match, with a “few months” wiggle room, and the administration is, in other words, setting a “red line,” in the agreement itself, by warning that the consequences of a failure to accept it could be war.

The only difference in this between Netanyahu then and Obama now are the terms of the agreement and the willingness to demonize the one and lionize the other.

Declares the President:

Instead of chest-beating that rejects the idea of even talking to our adversaries, which sometimes sounds good in sound bites but accomplishes nothing, we’re seeing that strong and principled diplomacy can give hope of actually resolving a problem peacefully. Instead of rushing into another conflict, I believe that sending our sons and daughters into harm’s way must always be a last resort, and that before we put their lives on the line we should exhaust every alternative. [Emphasis added]

This disappointing distortion is more characteristic of the President’s conservative political enemies than his own customary reasoned argumentation. We do see, of course, the usual-suspect neocon chest beaters, but there are also many others, open to talk, offering good, reasoned criticisms of the deal – as well as those alternatives that the President and the Secretary of State habitually assert are absent from the critiques, but which, rather, they simply do not wish to credit.

Far from fitting the stale, auto-rhetorical charge of “rushing” to war, American policy toward Iran has involved a multi-decade effort, over three presidencies constructively to engage the Iranian government. It has included a formal acknowledgement of the CIA role in the 1953 coup that overthrew Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and the easing of a previous regime of economic sanctions. It has also consisted of an earlier offer from the George W. Bush administration that Iran rejected.

The open hand of the Clinton administration was spurned. The more generous offer of the Bush administration, when Iran was not sufficiently hurting, was spurned. There is no doubt that the current sanctions drove Iran to negotiate. The matter now in dispute is how well the U.S. played its hand at the table. The trump card in that hand was always the prospect of American, or an American-Israeli, use of force. The ideal play of a trump lies in its effective force when not used, activated by the credible threat of use. That effective force is some product of a genuine willingness to use the trump and the opponent’s belief in such willingness. What have been the presiding conditions for that belief among the Iranians? What are they now?

The former Massachusetts senator also dismissed the idea that military strikes were a realistic way of containing Iran’s nuclear potential.

“Iran has already mastered the fuel cycle,” [Kerry] said. “They have mastered the ability to produce significant amounts of fissile material. You can’t bomb away that knowledge any more than you can sanction it away.”

The tone of the administration’s pitch to Congress appears to have shifted in recent weeks from actively selling the merits of the deal to stressing the lack of viable alternatives….

Imagine the conversations this kind of talk stimulates in the covert corridors of Tehran.

So desperate is the administration in defense of its deal that is actively undermining Israel’s international position and legitimizing Iranian arguments

Said Kerry of a potential Israeli strike, “Iran would then have a reason to say, ‘Well, this is why we need the bomb.’”

Rather than defend any Israeli preemptive act as a response to the constant threat of Iranian annihilation of Israel, Kerry has framed such an act as a justification for the development of an Iranian nuclear capability.

In light of this flaccid posture, continuing pro forma declarations that “all options remain on the table” are met now by Iranian leaders with disbelief:

Kerry and other US officials “have repeatedly admitted that these threats have no effect on the will of the people of Iran and that it will change the situation to their disadvantage,” Zarif claimed.

They are even met with derision:

“The US should know that it has no other option but respecting Iran and showing modesty towards the country and saying the right thing,” Rouhani told a crowd in the western Iranian city of Sanandij on Sunday.

….

“The table they are talking about has broken legs.”

There is even reason to believe that this administration is willing, in the end, to accept a nuclear Iraq. Argued Vice President Biden,

“Imagine stopping them now in the Gulf of Aden” — referring to Iran’s backing for the Houthi insurgency in Yemen — “and stopping them if they had a nuclear weapon,” Biden said. “As bad, as much of a threat as the Iranians are now to destabilizing the conventional force capability in the region, imagine what a threat would be if we had walked away from this tight deal.”

The U.S. has not stopped Iran in the Gulf of Aden. Now it acknowledges how further disarmed it would feel before a nuclear armed Iran. And Biden here predicates that nuclear Iran as the alternative to acceptance of the current Iran deal.

Given the arguments of government officials and of many supporters in general, it is not unreasonable to question, with Iran, as it was with North Korea in a far less combustible area of the world, whether the will is actually there to prevent a nuclear Iran.

That administration officials are swinging wildly in this fight is obvious. They are throwing whatever argumentative punches they think will land, including roundhouse swings that hit their friends and hooks they launch from the knees that end on their own noses. If, in the end, they do win this fight, and the deal passes, and Iran cheats, or develops its bomb in thirteen years, the best chance to play the trump without actually slamming it on the table will have been squandered.

AJA

Categories
Israel

Practicing Anti-Semitism, in Theory

Just over a week ago, on August 17, the Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB) published a review of Deconstructing Zionism: a Critique of Political Metaphysics, a collection of essays edited by Gianni Vattimo and Michael Marder. Vattimo is the Italian philosopher who, during the current Israel-Hamas conflict, has made clear once again his sympathy for Hamas and expressed his desire to “shoot those bastard Zionists,” who he considers “worse than Nazis.” His anti-Semitic tendencies are on record (a reevaluation of the claims of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion). The collection brings together the less and the more well-known voices who theorize anti-Zionism and make of the Jew, among all ethnic, racial, and religious groups a generic and cultural category of thought, so that one may speak of them, in contrast to Estonians or Hindus, let’s say, in terms not of what they empirically are or choose to be, but what, symbolically and thematically, some collection of philosophers and professors of literature theorize they should be.

LARB has become, since it’s inception two years ago, a varied and vibrant addition to the American literary scene. Among all of the review’s riches, I had hoped to see in any coverage of Israel-Palestine something different from the standard Israel-centric critique found at the New York Review of Books. This has not turned out be the case, and when LARB assigned its review of Deconstructing Zionism to David Lloyd, a leading member of the organizing collective for the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, I felt compelled to comment. What follows below is the full exchange (as of this writing) between me and Jonathan Hahn, LARB’s executive editor, and Tom Lutz, LARB’s editor-in-chief. For a very different kind of review of Deconstructing Zionism, see the review by Gabriel Noah Brahm at fathom journal.

***

the sad red earth • 5 days ago

How unfortunate that LARB, which conceives itself an alternative point of departure from that of NYRB, follows now the same backslapping intellectual fashion, travels irresponsibly the same facile political current, not of anti-nationalism, but of irredeemably racist anti-Zionism. Faced with the job of reviewing a collection of essays that attack the very legitimacy of Israeli nationalism among all others, LARB’s editors choose for the task not some critic who might challenge the foundations of the book’s agonistic ideology, but one of the few people who might actually find the volume wanting in its efforts to deconstruct Zionism, judging them both – Zionism and deconstruction, as it were – too Jewish, the collection, in the end, insufficiently Palestinian. Who criticizes the book for mimicking the “creative contortions” of “liberal Zionist critiques.” (If Lenin did not actually say, after Dick the butcher, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the liberals,” he surely did it.) Who bemoans the editors’ perceived “anxiety” – despite their “robust anticipation” of them – over charges of anti-Semitism. Who thinks the editors, therefore, too apprehensive before the prospect of truly essentializing Jewish racism, in what is “a singularly Jewish political philosophy and enterprise.” Who finds of the marker “Jews of Conscience” (“good Jews”) only that it is “somewhat polemic.”

Not enough that LARB should consider this production an expression of its mission, but that it should offer it, too, without any acknowledgement of its provenance – that its primary editor champions and wishes militarily to support an expressly, by covenant, anti-Semitic and genocidal organization. That he has wished publically for the deaths of Israelis, and that he has professed to change his mind about the truth of the notoriously fraudulent and anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The reviewer thinks these realities, no doubt, too genuinely praximatic to include informatively amid the theorizing. LARB’S editors find it unnecessary to append.

Instead, we find entertained and performed the usual diffuse, vatic logorrhea by which, through persistent metaphorical fallacy, a body made a bomb is thought to enact freedom and a person sitting at a bus stop is conceived as committing violence. (Imagine here a parenthetical reference to Adorno or Gramsci, a neologism scraped and dusted out of etymology, a new obscure infinitive.)

  • JonathanHahn Mod  the sad red earth • 4 days ago

    Dear Sad Red Earth,

    We appreciate you posting your concerns, and understand that Dr. Lloyd’s views as expressed here are controversial. We are committed to airing the important debates of our time, and they cannot be aired without allowing people on very different sides of the debate to have their say. The views Dr. Lloyd expresses here do not represent our magazine, nor do the views of any of the many writers we have published on the Middle East, whether they be controversial or not. Our mission is to engage our readers in conversation, and this essay is one part of that effort. We are glad you took the time and effort to share your views.

    Sincerely,
    Jonathan Hahn, Executive Editor, Los Angeles Review of Books

    • the sad red earth  JonathanHahn • 3 days ago

      Dear Mr. Hahn,

      Thank you for your reply. Of course, one should not presume the views of individual writers to represent those of the journal publishing them. However, publications make editorial decisions. These individual decisions are choices among multiple possible alternative decisions, all of which, compiled, may or may not offer evidence of a perspective on the part of the journal, a shaping inclination toward a subject. What does available evidence seem to show about LARB?

      An unscientific but not, algorithmically, random survey by Google search of “Los Angeles Review of Books” and “Israel” turns up the following among the first three pages of results. Foremost, we find the March forum entitled “Academic Activism: Israelis, Palestinians, and the Ethics of Boycott,” in which eight participants, four pro and four con, offered their views on an academic boycott of Israel. As your introduction attested, “We facilitated this forum at the urging of David Palumbo-Liu, a supporter of the BDS movement, in the hopes that it would engender a more informed understanding on these and many related questions.” Why did Palumbo-Liu urge such a forum? What was the “more informed understanding” he sought? Only he knows his mind and motivation, but as a leading academic activist against the State of Israel, and in support of an academic boycott, he could hardly have hoped that such a forum would lower the profile of his cause. In a nation overwhelmingly supportive of Israel, in its origins and struggles, any broader publication of anti-Zionist argument, even against opposing voices, could only, rather, raise the profile of the boycott cause. LARB provided that opportunity. As it turned out, too, only one of the eight participants availed himself of a rebuttal, a last word – Palumbo-Liu.

      Of the nine additional results clearly identifiable as political in nature, three – unflattering depictions of Israel all – are among a series of essays by professed anti-Zionist Ben Ehrenreich. One is by Alex Kane, an assistant editor of the rabidly anti-Zionist and profoundly anti-Semitic website Mondoweiss. One is a review of Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land : The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, written by Omri Boehm, who has charged the IDF, among the world’s militaries, with immorality and who attacks Israel on the basis of reinterpreting the seminal Jewish myth of Abraham’s binding of Isaac for sacrifice. One is a Marginalia Channel essay opposing the Presbyterian Church USA’s divestment vote against Israel for no better reason than the author’s Jewish identification with Israel – and while nonetheless expressing sympathy for the Church’s complaints against the country. A second Marginalia Channel essay offers that it was Israel’s founding – and not, say, to choose two relatively modern examples, the genocidal anti-Semitism of Haj Amin al-Husseini or Sayyid Qutb – that “increasingly turned the concepts ‘Arab’ and ‘Jew’ into fundamental and irreconcilable opposites.” Then, to close, the one objective piece on Israel related matters, serving only to report, without favor to Israeli or Arab, is an account of – the MLA debate on an anti-Israel measure.

      Needless to point out that among these entries one will find no evidence of “very different sides of the debate” or of a “conversation.” What is normatively controversial and what is prejudicially beyond the pale of respectable debate – such as, one might wish, the singling out of one only among the world’s peoples, in their existing nation-state, as undeserving of self-determination – is a status to be mediated by innumerable human decisions and indecisions, such as the invisibility of any writing presenting an alternative view of the Arab-Israeli conflict. And then there was the choice of David Lloyd to review a collection of essays on deconstructing Zionism.

      A. Jay Adler
      Adjunct Professor of English; California State University, Dominguez Hills
      Lecturer in English, El Camino College
      Professor of English, Emeritus; Los Angeles Southwest College.

      • JonathanHahn Mod  the sad red earth • 3 days ago

        Dear Prof. Adler,

        We have published over 75 pieces, or an average of one every two weeks since founding LARB three years ago, related to Israel. The simplified algorithmic research you’ve relied on here of course does not reflect the scope of what we have published, but the pieces we’ve published that have caused the most talk — those that were pushed up in the Google ratings by the amount of readership, comment, reposting, citation, etc. It is entirely unsurprising that those pieces are the most hot-button ones, the ones that extreme partisans either champion or decry.

        We are always looking for subtle and nuanced analyses, and these are the kind of pieces that don’t tend to shoot up in the Google rankings: pieces that approach these issues in less direct ways — as in reviews of novels, for instance, or interviews with poets — that again, we feel are important, and yet you will not find these in the first three pages of Google results for your search. In fact, the first three pages that result from that search only include 4 pieces from LARB — the rest are posts (from The Jerusalem Post, for example, or sites called holylandprinciples, worldpoliticsreview, etc) where people are reacting to a small selection of our pieces. Using Google the way you do doesn’t prove our bias, it shows the bias of internet chatter.

        Your moniker in your first post — “the sad red earth” — references the blood spilled on that ground, and it is the history of violence and the ongoing violence that compels our attention, of course. As we all know too well, the loudest voices speak past each other, and we have attempted in various ways — as in our special series in which Jewish and Arab, Israeli and Palestinian poets spoke to each other, and in the forum on the academic boycott — to engage as many sides as possible in dialogue. In most cases these attempts fail, but we continue to try.

        You ask why David Palumbo-Liu urged a forum on the boycott. He is an activist, and obviously he wanted to argue for his position to our audience. But he did not choose the other participants or exercise any editorial control. And there is not a single publication that has brought together four such powerful voices against the boycott as we did. We also had four voices in favor. It is a shame, we think, too, that only Palumbo-Liu availed himself of our invitation to all participants (and to others) to respond to the other participants. But as a movement that has made large strides in institutional validation in a short time, we thought it was worthy of sustained attention.

        One of the reasons, of course, that people don’t always respond to arguments like those made in the forum — that is, one of the reasons the other participants didn’t respond further — is because the very language different sides use seems to make discussion impossible. For instance, to call Mondoweiss a “profoundly anti-Semitic” website as you do here — how can one respond to this? Founded by Jews, edited from “a progressive Jewish perspective,” with an emphasis on “Jewish American identity” — whatever one thinks of its politics, to call it profoundly anti-Semitic is simply to use the kind of rhetorical overkill that makes true conversation impossible. Does saying that imply agreement with Mondoweiss’s politics? No. Anti-Zionism, too, takes many different forms, in some cases based on a desire to eliminate Israel, yes. But for none of the writers you mention in your note is this the case: for Ben Ehrenreich, Alex Kane, Omri Boehm, and many other writers in our pages, it is based on a desire to stop the killing, or a desire to find a lasting resolution — a desire, in other words, for peace. Your charge that there is “an invisibility of any writing presenting an alternative view of the Arab-Israeli conflict” is, in fact, true only in that the majority of voices we have published on Israel are, in fact, Israeli and Jewish, and we have not published any piece by representatives of neo-Nazi parties, of Golden Dawn, of the Muslim Brotherhood, or other such parties that are anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist, and dedicated to the destruction of Israel. This is true of absolutely none of our writers.

        To that end the argument you are making here is a real disservice to the 75 writers we have published whose work revolves in some way around Israel, and who are not interested in hitting hot buttons, not trying to forward a particular political agenda, but instead are offering pieces of considered scholarship on the Middle East and its ancillary issues, pieces of engaged literary criticism, and personal, essayistic reflections. Your calculus of our bias takes a huge rolling pin and drags it over these writers, all of whom have worked with their full hearts and minds to produce the best work they can. While flattening out that work into a simplistic pro- or anti-Israel rubric may be exciting to some, it is not of interest to us: it does not represent our writers, nor our magazine, with any accuracy, nor is it informative to any reader who wants a true picture of the kind of magazine we’ve been, still are, and will continue to be.

        We say this knowing full well — we can read the argument in your comments here and in many pieces we have published in our pages — that for certain people to critique the idea of Zionism (or to critique Israel’s defense forces or government, or to support the right of the people of Gaza to self-determination) is akin to arguing for the destruction of Israel. We have pieces critiquing ideas of American exceptionalism, American foreign policy, American war policy, and American racism and yet we do not, by doing so, suggest the destruction of America. We treat none of this lightly; we enter this fray with our eyes open, and know very well, as we edit political debates, that we are editing the words of people who have buried their own parents and children, killed at the hands of others. We never forget this as we let writers have their say, and make their arguments. And perhaps we are naïve, holding to the belief that writing can have some force in human affairs, that the conversation, as we too easily call it, can make a difference — but we do.

        Sincerely,

        Tom Lutz, Editor in Chief, Los Angeles Review of Books
        Jonathan Hahn, Executive Editor, Los Angeles Review of Books

        • the sad red earth  JonathanHahn • a day ago

          Gentlemen,

          I am content to leave your properly fuller presentation of LARB’s engagement with the subject of Israel to answer my own, and to have the two provide together the picture that others might regard. Except.

          Except you endeavor to fill out the picture I paint with reference to “pieces that approach these issues in less direct ways — as in reviews of novels, for instance, or interviews with poets.” Herein lies a distinction I sought to make in culling from my search only those articles I thought clearly political, or what turned out to be, as you described them, hot button in nature. It is the heat that concerns us here – Zionism’s deconstructors and the BDS advocates, and those, like me, who seek to fight the fire they fan. For a life well lived, or at least examined, you and I fully agree on the value of reviews of novels and interviews with poets, and discussions about and among them. However, what these approaches represent on such a subject as Israel – political and hot button in itself to those roiled by the very fact of its existence, and because of how it has had to exist thus far – is, to appropriate a term from Foucault, a kind of soft humanism. The humanizing transformations of literature, when they come, are long in realization; the political coup, in contrast, may be swift and brutal, as would be, for instance, the advent of Hamas, on Israelis and all Jews, upon its being released from its containment. Poetry makes nothing happen, Auden told us in praise of Yeats, with some measure of irony, thought not enough irony to stop an Iranian missile smuggled through the Rafah crossing from being fired. One may bemoan in soulful outreach with one’s nominal enemy, in that soft human way, as writers and other artists may do, our common afflicted humanity and still, politically, seek “solutions” that entail the end of a nation-state for Jews. Soft humanism often accommodates that disjunction from politics in practice. Or if not, the prisons and the unmarked graves of history have been filled aplenty with literary folk who conceived it enough to raise themselves up alone above the strife of peoples and nations.

          There is a different frame for soft humanism, one probably closer to what Foucault had in mind in identifying exemplars in Stalinism and Christian democratic hegemony. One may find it here in Lloyd’s review and the tendency it represents. On the one hand, this tendency critiques through a postcolonial analysis that is focused on the operations of power and the conditions of oppressed marginality. On the other hand, it draws, in its appeals and sanctions, from the same Judeo-Christian originated humanistic well of moral righteousness as do many other ideas of human organization. So near the end, we have Lloyd citing favorably Judith Butler about “undoing sovereignty” and invoking, in Lloyd’s words, “the parameters of living with and in difference that Butler describes as cohabitation.” This represents the culmination of a strenuously theorized evangelical mush that spoons up a stupefying banality – that in seeking to rise above “the post-Westphalian formation of territorial states and sanctioned violence” we all need (who’d a thunk it) to love one another and treat each other as we would wish to be treated. And not to put too fine a point on it, but in that risky leap of faerie faith, Jews go first.

          Yet what more pernicious operation in its own right underlies this prophetic injunction to dwell all together in cohabitation? The sacrifice of the Jews. The sacrifice of the Jews in which “the effect of Zionism’s destruction of Judaism is to make of the Palestinians the Jews of the present, dispossessed, forced into exile… subjects of a continuing diaspora…. The singularity of the Jew transfers to the Palestinians…[.] in the ‘privileged’ critical position, that is, once occupied by the European Jew.” Whereas the more common contemporary anti-Semitic gesture is to shame Jews with the Holocaust by likening Israel and Zionism to Nazi Germany, applying the language of ghettos and concentration camps and genocidal holocaust and racialist supremacy to Israel and Jews – so that some presumed moral authority gained by suffering the ultimate historical victimization is bluntly used as a cudgel with which to beat – the anti-Zionist BDSing deconstructors will rather refine through theory so much special recognition of historical identity away, and deliver it over, even, to the Palestinians. What is left for the Jews? Butler will give them the supreme honor of enacting the moral high ground of eternal exile, as, in Zizek’s words, “the immediate embodiment of universality,” so as to symbolize the undoing of sovereignty.

          And it is all so highfalutin that one can persuade oneself of a disjunction between it and all the singling out that went historically before it for the Jews.

          In this light, the “engaged literary criticism, and personal, essayistic reflections” LARB publishes, of deep human value, are not a counterweight to the political warfare, disguised as intellectual critique, currently underway to undo a nation-state and a people’s self-determination. You believe you read in my comments here perspectives that do not, in fact, apply to me. I will not belabor this further comment by addressing that issue. This is not about me, but about what the true range of widely held and still compelling perspectives is on these issues. You do use the phrase to “critique the idea of Zionism,” which is vague enough in its application and import, and which does raise the question of special treatment of Jewish nationalism only. You appear to believe that anti-Zionism may be understood as not to entail the elimination of Israel – a phrase that in itself should strike the conscience terribly. That is a peculiar understanding. You aver that such a desire does not inhabit those writers I referenced last time. But at least as long ago as 2009 Ehrenreich published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times entitled, “Zionism is the problem.” In it Ehrenreich quotes supportively Lessing J. Rosenwald, when the latter declared Zionism “the concept of a racial state — the Hitlerian concept.” The society Ehrenreich conjures in the piece is clearly not a Jewish state – not Israel. And as recently as March 20 of this year, Philip Weiss, founder of Mondoweiss, declared in a post at that site, “Israel is a blot on civilization.”

          About Mondoweiss, here we may well focus our disagreement best of all. You charge of my labeling it “profoundly anti-Semitic” that the label is “the kind of rhetorical overkill that makes true conversation impossible.” I think you read some overkill just above. I have been observing Mondoweiss for five years. I have written about it at my blog, the sad red earth (also my Twitter handle). I and other active defenders of Israel against the campaign of vilification against it know it well. You appear to think that because it is operated by, now, three Jews, and that it labels itself “progressive,” this is defense against declaring it what it manifestly is. Its closely moderated comments section, with which the principals engage, is profuse with demonization of Israel – of Zio-Nazi’s and Zio-supremacists – and of Judaism. Many of its published comments are indistinguishable from what may be found at Veteran’s Today or Stormfront. Its editorial direction is not ill represented by the words of Weiss above. Further, particularly in its early days, its founder was prone to revelatory posts evincing psychodramas of maternal, familial, and ethno-cultural discomfort and rejection. He is almost as interested in what he deems excesses of Jewish power in the United States as he is the blot on civilization.

          That Mondoweiss has been mainstreamed in some so-called progressive circles is as indicative of the problem that drew my initial comments as was the choice to assign David Lloyd to review Deconstructing Zionism. In an era in which every other kind of racism is being analyzed at degrees of depth and in ranges of complexity far beyond a simple slur or stereotype, institutionally and intersectionally, it is the very problem itself that only anti-Semitism is regularly reduced in the same quarters to nothing more than the time-honored tropes and preposterous libels, in a concerted refusal to recognize its modern and sophisticated mutations. One of the great embarrassments of the modern civilized world was the 1975 U.N. resolution declaring Zionism a form of racism – a resolution promoted by totalitarians states and supported by a slew of the world’s common dictatorships and overtly anti-Semitic Arab governments. So embarrassing was this stinking rose in the garden of human rights that in 1991, the U.N. was compelled to remove it. Now, in academic and progressive circles throughout the Western World, it is the height of intellectual fashion to make the same claim in theoretically abstruse prose or in cant political terminology and to dismiss charges of anti-Semitism with the same disdain for reaction to their racism as once emitted by bulbous sheriffs on torn Mississippi streets. When Daniel Patrick Moynihan delivered his grand and justly famous denunciation of U.N. resolution 3379, he scorned the “obscenity” of the U.N. declaration in part by the reductio ad absurdum of tracing the U.N.’s own faulty attempts to define racism, including as a form of Nazism, thereby providing grounds to call Zionism a form of Nazism. This is a claim that would fail to trouble many of Israel’s hyperbolic critics today, and it filters through the interstices of meaning from all the fancy critiques of Zionism that denounce it as racialist. See Ben Ehrenreich quoting Lessing J. Rosenwald.

          Quite simply, it should have been obvious that there was a whole world of true conversational challenge – different sides of the debate – that might have been brought to bear in a review of Deconstructing Zionism other than assigning the book to a shades of gray treatment over the genuineness of its deconstructive mode.

          Finally, a last word about the sad red earth. You extended the blog title and Twitter handle’s reference metaphorically in a direction I certainly find fitting. I found it so as well during my travels in Indian Country when people thought the name called our attention to that sad ground we walk upon. In fact, the phrase is from Kerouac’s On the Road. Sal Paradise walks the streets of Denver one dusk after a futile effort by Dean Moriarity to find his father. Says Paradise of his walk, “I felt like a speck on the surface of the sad red earth.” As are we all. That is the focus I try always to maintain in my own humanism and in the tension between it and the often monstrously grinding wheels of history and ideology.

          Sincerely,

          A. Jay Adler

Categories
Israel

The Third Narrative: Not So Third, Not a Narrative, Not New

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(This essay originally appeared in the Algemeiner on April 3, 2014.)

I regret to say that a fair number of people I respect (and some not so much) have signed on to a statement about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that, evince as it may the best of intentions, is nonetheless, in truth, very considerable twaddle. I speak of the statement of principles of the Third Narrative Academic Advisory Council. The council, we are told,

[w]ill function as an advisory body to The Third Narrative (TTN), facilitated by Ameinu.  The Council will seek to create a unique, middle ground, organizing space at TTN for progressive academics and will engage academics from across North America.

The statement goes on to list varied activities all of which relate to the promotion of academic freedom. This focus suggests that a pivotal organizing impetus for the formation of the council, perhaps even the conception of a “third narrative,” has been the recent and growing movement toward academic boycotts directed at Israel. That is a vital concern, and along with that concern the council promotes, essentially, empathetic evenhandedness (the “third” narrative) and the two-state solution. Plenty of people have made claims to the latter beliefs, so, again, it seems apparent that the particular motivation for the formation of this council of academics is the current growing threat to academic freedom by the BDS movement, which, not by the way, the council statement never mentions by name. Thus, since the statement of principles begins its introduction averring that

[s]cholars and academics should play a positive role in asking difficult questions, and promoting critical thinking, about the Israel-Palestinian conflict,

I am going to offer a little of that difficult question asking and critical thinking promotion.

The opening sentence of the introduction states,

We are progressive scholars and academics who reject the notion that one has to be either pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian.

Well, no, one does not have to be either of these two given alternatives, but such a formulation suggests that in order to be pro one an individual must by logical entailment be anti the other, as ifpro-Palestinian were the conceptual complement of anti-Israel instead of a historically contingent pairing that is the consequence of political choices. To put a fine point on it, one may well be, as many people long have been, pro-Israel and still be a supporter of the two-state solution – and thus feel “empathy for the suffering and aspirations” of Palestinians and be not anti-Palestinian – as well as an opponent of academic boycotts, as most everyone also has long been. In other words, this is not a new position to take.

Still, the founders and members of this council felt prompted to form it and to frame what they chose to call a “third narrative.”

The listed principles (a-g) are seven. They are on their face unobjectionable to reasonable people, though the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one, historically, that has seen, even until today, very large numbers of unreasonable people. The principles are almost all couched in the evenhanded vocabulary of “both sides.” Almost all.

Principle c) avows,

We believe the Israeli occupation of the West Bank not only deprives Palestinians of their fundamental rights, but is also corrosive to Israeli society and is incompatible with the democratic principles upon which the State of Israel was founded.

Now, certainly the framers of this principle know that elements of it are disputed. Some people – one will presume among them those signing onto the statement – might call any dispute over the wording of “occupation” to be disingenuous caviling. Others will call it the making of meaningful distinctions. But the council does here take a clear position that it is not. Okay. Fine. Being evenhanded and balanced and all that, with “empathy for the suffering and aspirations of both peoples” does not mean not having any point of view at all, and here, obviously, on this point, it goes against Israel. Being evenhanded and balanced and all that, one presumes that elsewhere among the principles or in the statement one will find articulated some expression of specifically blameworthy Palestinian behavior – not because one should make some up, so to speak, just to pretend to be fair, but because there is actually blameworthy specifically Palestinian behavior to perceive?

Apparently not.

Principle f) asserts,

We reject the all-too-common binary approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict that seeks to justify one side or the other as all right or all wrong, and sets out to marshal supposed evidence to prove a case of complete guilt or total exoneration. Scholarship and fairness require a more difficult and thoughtful approach.  As academics we recognize the subjective perspectives of individuals and peoples, but strive to apply rigorous standards to research and analysis rather than to subsume academic discipline to political expediency.

Yet, those  rigorous standards of research and analysis, when applied in principle e), to “rhetoric used by both sides [emphasis added] offer no specific acknowledgement, as with Israeli “occupation,” to the institutionalization of anti-Semitic rhetoric within organizations and concerns run or funded by Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. In principle d), where the council “cannot condone the use of violence targeting civilians,” but names no national names, its rigorous standards fail to detect over the organizational, terrorist history of the PLO and its constituent members, and in the onslaught of the second Intifada, and in Hamas missile and rocket attacks on Israel a purposeful policy of violence targeting citizens of which there is not the remotest like on the part of Israel.

The call, in the interests of peace, is that one show to both peoples a balanced “respect for their national narratives.” This is not to say – it does not say – intellectual recognition of a narrative. It does not say, as part of the reality of negotiating some resolution to conflict with foes,accommodation in an acceptable way of a foe’s narrative. It says “respect” for it. The anti-Semitic narrative, the “settler-colonial” interloper with no ancient history on the land narrative. The rejectionist narrative. Respect for it. And this would be “to apply rigorous standards to research and analysis rather than to subsume academic discipline to political expediency”?

While I know specifically that it is not so for many of the individuals who have signed the Third Narrative Advisory Council Statement, the statement, as a joint product, does give off a whiff of something. It has the odor of sweaty discomfort to it. The rotten BDS movement has made unnerving advances into academic terrain, and these scholars recognize how awful and frightening that is. Yet, though BDS is clearly opposed elsewhere on the Third Narrative website, omission of any direct reference to it in the advisory council statement, and to BDS’s provenance, is glaring. The unwillingness, despite all the conspicuous rhetoric of balance, to specifically cite Palestinians for wrongful behavior in any instance, while showing no such reserve about Israel, feels telling.

The Third Narrative has the odor of offering people a way to take a stand, in the current moment, seemingly supportive of Israel, but while holding their noses. If you want to oppose academic boycotts, but you don’t want to call yourself pro-Israel or specifically criticize Palestinians for anything, you now have a statement you can endorse or even sign, and when you do sign it, you may notice something about all the other names of people supporting a “third” narrative and its “unique, middle ground”: they are almost all Jewish names, without a recognizably Arab name among them.

AJA

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Israel The Political Animal

A Misguided Argument About Anti-Semitism

This is not class warfare.
This is not class warfare.

(This essay originally appeared in the Algemeiner on February 11, 2014.)

In the Wall Street Journal of February 3, Harvard’s Ruth R. Wisse published an Op-Ed titled “The Dark Side of the War on ‘the One Percent.” In the article, Wisse argues for a “structural” connection between “anti-Semitism and American class conflict.” First tracing the rise of nineteenth century European anti-Semitism in the accusation that Jews took “unfair advantage of the emerging democratic order in Europe, with its promise of individual rights and competition, in order to dominate the fields of finance, culture and social ideas,” Wisse proceeds to find like grounds for potential anti-Semitic outbreak in President Obama’s and American progressives’ “sallies against Wall Street and the ‘one percent.’” She warns, therefore, against “[s]toking class envy” in a “politics of grievance directed against ‘the rich’” for fear of igniting a “politics of blame directed specifically at Jews.”

Wisse’s argument is both grievously mistaken and dangerously misguided. It is mistaken because it mischaracterizes the connection between anti-Semitism and class conflict, and it is misguided because the argument is, contrary to its concern, actually detrimental to Jewish interests.

First, when Wisse speaks of a “structural connection between a politics of blame directed specifically at Jews and a politics of grievance directed against “the rich,” she is mistaken in her use of the word “structural.” What is structural isinherent, part of the makeup of a thing. To claim that aggrieved attention to any perceived excess accumulation of wealth in a society will inevitably lead to Jews and an outbreak of anti-Semitism is oddly, inadvertently, actually to accept the anti-Semitic formulation of Jews and wealth. In any contemporary Western society, attention to wealth will at least as likely, in far greater numbers, lead the attentive to Christians, atheists and many other groups. The choice of the anti-Semitic to focus on Jews only or particularly is thus selective, not structural, a development contingent on the genuine social and psychological causes of anti-Semitism, not on a true measure of Jewish wealth and power.

Ironically, Wisse is herself selective, seemingly constructing a necessary entailment of reasons and conclusions, leading from progressive concern with gross income and wealth inequality to the incitement of anti-Semitism. Yet, just as Wisse shapes her argument by her choice of the word “structural,” so does she by her use of phraseology such as “class envy,” a “war on the one percent,” and a “politics of grievance.” The problem might well be otherwise expressed and the argument, then, otherwise viewed. Ever did those people with consider any peep of objection from those people without to be an unseemly display of envy and resentment. The Bourbons of France and the Romanovs of Russia also thought themselves set upon and, like Tom Perkins, the victims of “class warfare.”

The Bourbons and the Romanovs themselves, however, were engaged in no class warfare: they were just a feature of nature, like the course of the sun, the divine-right hand of God, or the invisible hand of the free market. (See for this last the recently passed Farm Bill.) It is not “class warfare” or envy that is stoked when state governors, like that of Wisconsin, funded by two of the wealthiest brothers in the United States, campaign (to invoke more military vocabulary) to revoke the labor rights of public employees and to set private employees with their dwindling 401k’s enviously against public-sector employees, who often enjoy the genuine pensions the resentful should wish for themselves and not seek to take from their fellows in a “politics of grievance.”

The language shapes everything. It molds the argument the writer develops. It directs the understanding of the reader to whom the argument is made. If we speak, with less bile, as I did, not of envy and grievance but of “concern with gross income and wealth inequality,” perhaps we invoke less frightening ill will. If we recall James Madison, from Federalist No. 10, who advised that “the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property” and that the “regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation,” then perhaps we sound less alarmingly revolutionary, or at least revolutionary in a reassuring and founding American way.

Yet while Wisse is mistaken in the language she employs, and her argument misshapen by that language, she is also misguided in the implications to which she leads by this argument.

The force of Wisse’s argument is to drive American Jews self-interestedly away from “progressivism.” This would be, to echo Wisse, a “dangerous” development. To clarify how, we must briefly attend to language again.

The term “progressive” like so much political nomenclature, opens a broad umbrella. It may, depending on individual usage, cover everyone on the left from moderate Democrats to full-out liberals to socialists to postcolonial culture warriors to recalcitrant Marxists. The farthest left of these, like the far right, have ugly histories with Jews. In the anti-Zionism of some today, they are no friends to Jews now. But among those who was also called progressive was the Republican President Teddy Roosevelt.

Roosevelt was the trust busting conservationist who dramatically expanded the national parks and signed into law the first federal food and drug legislation. In that spirit, it is American progressivism that gave birth over the twentieth century to the full range of labor and economic and social safety net protections on which Americans have come to rely almost as if they are – to choose a word – structural features of reality, though, of course, they are not. They are social enlightenments born not of envy and grievance, but of the progressive belief that the quality of a life – the inherent value of it – should not be measured by the quantification only of what that one life can earn for itself in the free market. It is American progressivism that brought us the civil rights era, with its continuing and expanding benefit in access and human dignity to so many different minorities, including Jews, for it is only that era that brought to a close, for instance, the Jewish quota at Wisse’s Harvard, and ensured, similarly, that I might be admitted to graduate school at Columbia University on merit and not denied entry by reason of my Jewish birth because of longstanding quotas there.

Progressivism made the America in which Jews may feel so secure. To think that American Jews should fear progressive interest in economic justice, progressive belief in what Madison gave us as the proper “regulation of these various and interfering interests” that arise from and expand “the various and unequal distribution of property” is to counsel Jews most unwisely against their own interests. For an America committed in belief and in policy to serving equity and justice will remain for Jews a secure home.

More strategically, with regard to the profound American-Jewish interest in Israel, Wisse’s misidentification would only exacerbate a problem that has indeed developed in the farther left reaches of Western progressivism. It is visible for all to see that Marxist-inspired post-nationalism has joined with postcolonial analyses of culture and power to fixate perversely on Israel and Jewish nationalism as the exemplars of what they oppose. The true current danger is that this irrational, though fashionable misunderstanding is leaking toward more moderate quarters of progressivism. We see this in the growing attention in academia, for instance, to the BDS campaign.

This growing tendency requires a response. It needs to be combated. One way to do that is to clarify both what true progressivism is and what Israel is, which is, in the latter case, despite the pressures of seven decades of conflict and of internal theocratic forces, a nation that has been from the start and remains, socially, astonishingly progressive. Israel’s enemies are enemies of all that is progressive. They are among the most retrograde and increasingly regressive societies in the world, and true progressives should be among Israel’s most natural allies.

But it is true, too, that the political desire to moderate, rather than amplify, systematically arising economic inequities will remain a defining feature of progressive political philosophy. Grossly mistaking and mischaracterizing that profoundly moral commitment as a danger to Jews would work to drive a wedge where one already needs to be removed. Israel and Jews need to work to maintain and recover allies whose sympathies should naturally be theirs, not to sever those ties by declaring those allies’ highest ideals a danger to Jewish interests.

That misguidance would be the danger to Jews.

AJA

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Indian Country Israel The Political Animal

Academic Boycotts and Re-Colonization by Theory

(The full text of the following essay was published by Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.)

from “Academic Boycotts and Recolonization by Theory” 

As a matter of international justice, however, conceptually distinguishing and crucial in consideration of what constitutes an indigenous people have been the following characteristics, developed for the Working Paper on the Concept of “Indigenous People” prepared for the U.N.’s Working Group on Indigenous Populations:

  • Priority in time, with respect to the occupation and use of a specific territory;
  • The voluntary perpetuation of cultural distinctiveness, which may include the aspects of language, social organization, religion and spiritual values, modes of production, laws and institutions;
  • An experience of subjugation, marginalization, dispossession, exclusion or discrimination, whether or not these conditions persist; and
  • Self-identification, as well as recognition by other groups, or by State authorities, as a distinct collectivity.

It is obvious that Jews wholly match the distinguishing characteristics.  They do so no less or more so in any one respect than another, yet one may say that in the historically outstanding nature of Jewish survival during an unparalleled, near two-millennium Diaspora, “voluntary perpetuation of cultural distinctiveness” and “self-identification” have played especially important roles. I note this to emphasize the self-identification component offered by the international community in thoughtful respect to the self-determination of indigenous peoples.

It is the case, given the politics of indigeneity among host nations, that nations will often challenge the indigenous claims of their internal populations. Most notable in recent times, four nations – Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States – did not originally vote in favor of adopting the 2007 U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The reasons for this reluctance were not difficult to fathom. All four nations had profound histories of conquest and significant indigenous populations whose claims – original, political, and economic – are supported by the Declaration. Ratification might also entail a difficult social and political coming-to-terms with disturbing historical truths, a process still not advanced in the United States. (Australia, by contrast, in 2008 issued a public apology to its indigenous population, delivered by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in a nationally televised address before the Australian parliament, with all but one living former prime minister present.) In the United States, Native American claims of territorial and sovereign rights are regularly resisted. The Pamunkey Tribe of Virginia, for instance, of such history as to be famed for Pocahantas and its contact with John Smith and the Jamestown colony, and occupying, still, the oldest reservation in the country, predating the country, does not enjoy the benefits of federally recognized status. The Lakota actually won a 1980, 8-1 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court over the theft, in violation of two Fort Laramie treaties, of the Black Hills of South Dakota. Still, while the Court offered the Lakota financial compensation – which the tribe did not want and has refused – it did not offer the Lakota what it is they do want and still demand,  the return of their sacred Hills.

In contrast to these national challenges to indigenous claims, what one will not find is the international community – that is to say, the international legal regime and the left social justice movements that are so much that regime’s support – challenging those indigenous claims by aboriginal populations.

One will not find challenges to these claims, that is, except in the case of Jews.

Anti-Semitism and the Denial of Jewish Indigeneity

Fundamental now to the radical left assault on Israel’s legitimacy are fierce anti-historical falsehoods denying the indigeneity of Jews to the ancient land of Israel. Palestinians and their left Western supporters, as part of the campaign to delegitimize Israel, regularly challenge and even deny the historical origin of Jews in Israel. This is their challenge to the distinguishing criterion of “priority in time.”

The variations on these delegitimizing tactics are many, from genetic denial (Ashkenazi Jews are really converted Khazars) and misidentification (Jews are Europeans), to differing counterfactual claims: ignoring the unbroken presence of Jews in Palestine (the Old Yeshuv) and ignoring in the European claim that the majority of current Israeli Jews are actually Mizrahi and Sepharidic Jews.

Only for Jews, then, is the sensitive and respectful “fundamental criterion” of self-identification attacked by every kind of scientific, historical, and rhetorical fraudulence. With respect to Jews only does the ideological left challenge the integral identity in difference of an indigenous people. Whereas, according to the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples, “in almost all indigenous languages, the name of a group simply refers to ‘people,’ ‘man’ or ‘us,’” often with some indicator of place, such as “here” – thus distinguishing “the people” from those who are outsiders, those who are not “the people” – only with respect to Jews is the otherwise respected self-separation in “cultural distinctiveness” and difference misrepresented and traduced by some who would call themselves “progressive” as an ideology of racist superiority. In this gesture of disdain and, indeed, cultural superiority, does a so-called progressive dominant world view mimic the condescension with which European peoples conducted a genocidal assault on the resistant cultural and religious otherness of the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere and Oceania.

Only now it is against Jews that such a campaign of cultural genocide is waged, not this time on the basis of a Christian slander of deicide or of Nazi physical extermination, but of a selectively post-nationalist secular religion and by a blind progressivism that begins to mirror its opposite.

It is now “theory,” the most highfalutin conceptualizing and rhetoricizing of the intellectual left, that moves this third great movement of Western anti-Semitism. It is NAISA’s own purported professionalism in indigenous studies that constructs the irony of this campaign against the Jewish state, and, as an exploitative by-product, the re-colonization by theory of other indigenous peoples.

Re-Colonization by Theory

The ILO’s and U.N. Working Group’s criteria include as one of those distinguishing characteristics of indigeneity the “experience of subjugation, marginalization, dispossession, exclusion or discrimination, whether or not these conditions persist.” Of course, now, for Jews, in the establishment of, and in a Jewish state, those conditions do not primarily any longer persist. Yet in this qualifier – offered, clearly, against any distinction – postcolonial and culture theorists working from counter-constructs of power and the ethical standing of powerlessness nonetheless find  excuse to recast Jews as oppressors based on their recovery from powerlessness.

Still, we might pause to wonder, as any clear thinker would be driven by obvious questioning to wonder – but why, for NAISA, Israel and Jews?

Where are the NAISA resolutions in support of boycotting Brazilian universities, in protest of the destruction of the Amazon homelands of the smallest and most powerless of all indigenous tribes? Where is the resolution against Indonesia for the 1963 conquest and subjugation of the 250 indigenous tribes of West Papua, New Guinea, which those people still resist today? Where was the resolution, closer to home, to boycott Yale University prior to 2010, during the near century that it reneged on the deal with Peru to return the Quechua artifacts of Machu Picchu? Closer still, where were the resolutions against American universities in protest of the fourteen-year Individual Indian Trust Fund lawsuit, and of the Tribal Trust Fund suit, litigations against the U.S. Department of the Interior over the misappropriation of hundreds of billions of dollars held in trust for scores of tribes and hundreds of thousands of individual American Indians since 1887? Where are the resolutions in protest of the inadequacies of the Indian Health Service, of state and local violations of the tribal sovereignty offered by the federal government? Where is the resolution to boycott any law school that does not call for the Supreme Court of the United States to overturn Johnson v. M’Intosh, the 1823 decision by which the Court legally enshrined the conquest of Native America by right of European discovery?

We will not find them.

What we find instead, driven by the fashions of academia, the prevailing winds of cultural theory, and the shape shifting of anti-Semitism is the exploitation of the indigenous cause, and one more time, of indigenous peoples, only for the purpose of expropriating the terms of those peoples’ histories to be used not in the interests of the indigenous, but as rhetorical weapons against Jews. The political fashionistas of the Middle East and Orientalist theorizing – in support of Palestinian rejectionism, which is in order to oppose Jewish empowerment in Israel –  do not care about indigenous peoples. They merely use them, adopting the modern history of indigenous victimization as a banner to fly in the campaign against Israel. Worse, in this abuse, they attempt, in ideological solidarity, to draw in to a conflict not their own the very indigenous peoples these progressives pretend to champion as allies. Think of the French and Indian War in North America. How the British made promises to the Iroquois to protect the Ohio River Valley from European settlement. How the French must have whispered the music of mutual alliance into Algonquian  ears. How Omar Barghouti and some Americanist from a state university protesting settler-colonialism in Palestine play, by the mere utterance of a verbal truth-to-power badge, as if they stand in solidarity with West Papuans.

In 1988, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak published a landmark essay in postcolonial studies entitled “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Its status was established by the nature of its insights, variously welcome and unwelcome by its intended audience, and by the extent of its influence on the field. That influence has been, all depending on one’s perspective, both profoundly positive and negative. Among Spivak’s important insights and warnings (Spivak’s Marxist and deconstructionist theorizing is the kind that seeks to problematize a field, to interrupt a discourse) was the caution against first-world political radicals producing “essentialist” conceptions of the third-world subaltern powerless, i.e. conceiving of them as if they are all, from their varied cultures and histories, the same in their difference – representing them as possessing an essential, common otherness from those Western Subjects who make objects of them through study. This might mean, very simply, constructing homogenous postcolonial others out of Cherokees and Palestinians.

Another of Spivak’s warnings, significantly unheeded in practice, was against perpetuating in the radical postcolonial critique of imperialism the same Western power structures – the hegemony of Western modes of knowledge and discourse – that upheld imperialism. That is to say that Western theorists and radicals speaking on behalf of the subaltern is not the subaltern speaking. Rather it is a substitution of the same dominating institutional and historical discourse for – and here Spivak quotes Foucault – “a whole set of knowledges that have been disqualified as inadequate to their task or insufficiently elaborated: naive knowledges, located low down on the hierarchy, beneath the required level of cognition or scientificity.”

What is the history of Western colonialism for indigenous peoples, beyond the physical onslaught, if not a history of the West’s disqualifying as inadequate “naive knowledges, located low down on the hierarchy, beneath the required level of cognition or scientificity”? How do we not see, even more than in the theory and its jargon, in the postcolonial activism itself – by exploiting the jargon in an effort to refashion reality from it, through vague verbal posturings in boycott resolutions by professional intellectuals – Western radicals this time, imposing, again, their own, alien historical discourse and conceptions, their own positive and negative self-regard, their own agenda on indigenous peoples?

Read more at: http://spme.org/spme-research/academic-boycotts-re-colonization-theory/16769/ | SPME

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Israel

Wrong on Both Counts: Academic Boycotts and Israel

boycott(An earlier version of this essay first appeared in the Algemeiner on December 30, 2013.)

Now that the American Studies Association has passed its resolution calling for an  academic boycott of Israel, universities and fellow academics all over the country are denouncing it. These and other critics of an academic boycott of Israel generally resort fully only to one of the two arguments that can and should be made in response to these calls. The first argument is principled, the second substantive, and one argument offered in the absence of the other deprives Israel of the ethical force of the full condemnation that those who traduce Israel in this way deserve.

There are those who restrict the anti academic boycott argument to addressing, in Stanley Fish’s words, “a limited, guild notion of academic freedom … the freedom to pursue scholarly inquiry, not the freedom to advance justice and equality on university time.” Fish begins in the right place, in citing “the freedom to pursue scholarly inquiry.” That freedom, like so many in so free a nation as the United States, is often taken for granted, its significance and origins lost, in this case, to the non-scholarly, the unscientific, or the anti-intellectual. Yet history’s most famous attack on intellectual freedom – the conviction by the Roman Catholic Church of Galileo Galilei for heresy, for propounding heliocentrism – should serve for all time as the sole necessary reminder of the importance of the principal. The freedom of scholarly and all intellectual inquiry is instrumental to the advance of civilization and was critical to the advent of the Enlightenment. It is basic to the intellectual activity that developed into academic guild work, into that merely, it might seem, professional work of the academic.

But Fish’s “limited guild notion” is just the workaday action of a more profound and, indeed, political idea.

Fish observed that his own critics, often in defense of academic boycott, were emphasizing the element of “freedom” over that of the “academic.” The latter does name the professional parameter, and that is where Fish wants to contain the argument. “Freedom” accentuated, on the other hand, is the leverage boycotters and activists use to bring the weight of their academic work to bear, as through a boycott, on political matters external to their actual scholarly fields. However, it is academic freedom, the two words emphasized equally together, that names neither the professional nor a possibly shifting political interest, but the greater political ideal instead, of individual freedom exemplified by mental freedom, of freedom of speech at the intellectual apex of thought and speech, and of independence from authority and authoritarianism.

To claim, then, that academic freedom is best conceived as a non-political freedom is fundamentally wrong. No advocacy of freedom can be non-political. To advocate freedom, as liberty, is to promote a political idea. The question is what are those politics? What do they fully stand for? What ends do they pursue? What methods do they use? With whom are they aligned, against whom opposed?

Conceiving academic freedom in this way, it will be difficult ever to defend an academic boycott. In the most closed and repressive conditions, the free mind, in sight of an opening, will seek its freedom. As no body is freed by imprisonment, no mind can be opened separated from other minds. Yet the American Studies Association has argued in its statement proclaiming the boycott that it “represents a principle of solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and an aspiration to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians.” That is to say, as a political tactic to achieve a social end, the ASA advocates the restriction of a right (now, among some people) in advancement of the ideal goal of its greater enlargement (among others in the future). Restricting the academic freedom of some will expand the academic freedom of others.

This represents, of course, as a belief and a methodology, the purifying utopianism of twentieth century totalitarianism, in which dictatorships of the proletariat now would lead to human liberation later, terror in the present would found the stateless, classless society of the future. Such a concordance of practice is not surprising, as many of those driving the ASA’s activism, both from without and within the association, do think out of just that tradition of theoretical critique elevated above actuality, and of restrictive tactics in the name of a liberating ideal. Advocates of boycotts and the more general BDS effort have consistently manipulated the process and limited access during organizational efforts to pass anti-Israeli resolutions, they limit the notice of and the time for debate and voting, and they make available to potential voters information promoting only anti-Israel, pro-boycott arguments. These practices were pursued in the ASA effort, too. They are practices themselves that violate the spirit of intellectual freedom inherent in the idea of academic freedom.

Academic freedom thus understood, like all intellectual freedom, is not narrowly apolitical – it is the essence of the political. It is not a mere procedural norm, stripped of the history of intellectual striving that produced it; it is the representation in practice of that striving and of the history and values that gave rise to the principle.

The question, thus, as always, is not whether those values are political in nature, but whether they are the right politics – free thinking, egalitarian, just, and socially progressive politics. It was, indeed, the desire to promote just such values that directed the one boycott now raised regularly as our ethical exemplar, that against apartheid South Africa.

In truth, however, the boycott of South Africa, both economic and academic, was always controversial, if not, among most people and nations, regarding the justness of its intent, then for its effectiveness and potential for greater harm. We have the example of Cuba for how futile even the longest-term economic sanctions can be in opening a society to the free intercourse of people and ideas. We have the example of North Korea for how a nation may turn itself into a virtual prison for its own population and survive for decades as a closed society.

Still, not every act, we may sometimes feel, need be productive of an end. Some acts are properly symbolic. We stand for and against some things, and we will be known to do so, even if we see no reason to hope we can soon change them. So many people came to feel this way about South Africa.

We may usefully ask, though, why – why South Africa and not, for instance, the Soviet Union or China?

Certainly both nations oppressed and destroyed the lives of many more people. In sheer numbers of deaths and the magnitude of the inhumanity, those two nations far exceeded South Africa. Why were they not the objects of a now historic organized and global demonstration of worldwide opprobrium? The explanation is clear. Whatever their true tyrannical and totalitarian natures, both the Soviet Union and China professed principles of social equality and justness. They claimed to seek a new, greater human freedom of mind and body. They lied, of course, (as do lie all the decades-long Arab foes of Israel, including the Palestinian Authority, in invoking the vocabulary of human and civil rights in their political campaigning against Israel) but in the manner observed by Oscar Wilde, their hypocrisy was  the homage vice paid to virtue. The difference in South Africa’s was that its white, Afrikaner regime was avowedly racist. Institutionalized apartheid professed and enacted a belief and a policy of dehumanization against a discrete group within its population. By doing so, it openly declared South Africa a moral outlier among nations, fit thereby to be outcast.

For this reason, South Africa became the target of the contemporary world’s one great global boycott. While the USSR and China long had their allies, and defenders of their communist vision, no one defended South African apartheid.

In all these considerations we find the grounds for opposition in principle – with one clear and circumscribed exception – to academic boycotts. If one has no great interest in Israel, is even highly critical of Israel as a political actor, but retains a clear understanding of what academic freedom most profoundly means, then the argument in principle will serve and satisfy. But from the perspective of all who recognize the historicity of the Jewish people in Israel, who know the full history of Jewish willingness to compromise and accommodate competing claims to the land, and who know, too, the contrary history of Arab rejectionism and rank anti-Semitism, who are not blinded by animus to Israel’s vibrant democracy, in contrast to the utter illiberalism surrounding it – for all such people, an argument in principle cannot be sufficient, and is even a dereliction.

A boycott against Israeli academics and institutions is wrong not just because academic boycotts are very nearly always wrong, but because the argument for such a boycott applied to Israel is a moral outrage. While none actually argued in defense of South African apartheid – supported the philosophy or policy and upheld the moral character of the regime – free, good, and honest peoples all over the world recognize the free and democratic nature of the Israeli state. The know the historical background of its creation, and they offer moral support against its foes.

It is in the nature now of those swept along by the kinds of political currents that so often rush over the intellectually fashionable not to recognize what it must mean that Israel, even beleaguered, and so far from a South Africa or any of the true repressive states of the world, has its true defenders among the democratic and free.

It is no matter of happenstance that Israel’s traducers have adopted, among a variety of slanderously false epithets, that of  “apartheid state.” They seek with characteristic dishonesty to tie Israel linguistically to that sole justifying historical precedent. Among the many deceptions embedded in the lie is the analogously false suggestion of any institutional nature to the separate treatment of Palestinians that boycott advocates claim. It is, to the contrary, otherwise well known that the twenty percent minority Arab population of Israel is the freest Arab population in the Middle East, as free as any people in the world – free, too, to emigrate were it truly so that they find themselves persecuted.  In contrast, in the years after Israel’s recreation, nearly eight hundred thousand Jews fled Arab lands, leaving them now nearly absent of Jews; on the other hand, it is the expressed intention of Palestinian Authority leadership – in contradistinction to another great lie, demographically refutable, of ethnic cleansing by Israel – that a Palestinian state would be, as the Nazi’s called it, Judenfrei.

The boldness of these lies, the magnitude of their deception, stuns the imagination not only of Israelis and Jews, but of all honest and informed people, and what follows are only more lies and deceptions, without limit. The deception, for instance, that where Palestinians do confront impediments to full autonomy, it is not within Israel, as an institutionally separated and oppressed population as was present in South Africa, but on disputed territories captured in war, as a belligerent foreign population that has refused, amid a near century of massacres, wars, and campaigns of terror, ever to make peace. The deception aht the organized campaign for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel, with whose U.S. arm the ASA now allies in mutual support, has as its most well known founder Omar Barghouti, who is equally well known, in full academic freedom, to have earned a masters degree in philosophy from Tel Aviv University.

That Barghouti, far from seeking resolution to conflict, opposes any negotiated settlement to it and supports the elimination of Israel as a state.

The campaign of lies to which the American Studies Association has now allied itself only begins with these examples. As the world’s current prevailing example of the infamous “big lie,” this iteration’s provenance is the same, and now three American academic associations, of which the ASA is the largest, serve as purveyors of it. Influenced, in part, by theoretical constructs that have become, in application, completely untethered from reality, these academics add now not their scholarly contributions, but their measure of ill to the world. To counter this foolish contribution, this signal misguidance, it is no longer adequate to argue only from principle, however great we think that principle to be, that academic boycotts are wrong. It is necessary to argue firmly and clearly that an academic boycott of Israel is wrong. It is important to know and to state, without faltering, why it is wrong.

AJA

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Israel The Political Animal

A Second Look: Thinking Through the Iranian Dilemma

I posted the following on March 19 of last year. Nothing that has transpired since, not even the recently achieved, yet still not implemented short-term deal – which I think a basis for justified future military action just as it is, more hopefully, a foundation for peaceful resolution – has changed the balance of views contained within.

Thinking Through the Iranian Dilemma

Attempting to think through a dilemma like the threat of a nuclear Iran is like trying to make one’s way through a windstorm. For most people, who have none of the inside information of those in various official roles, or the view from the doorway of the analysts with access, all of the details that leak, and the incidental events – the assassinations, the computer viruses, the IAEA visits – are like gusts kicked up by the local geography and spiraling across the street. Not much they can tell the casual observer about stormy origins or where things are blowing. And then there are, behind the gusts, the true, prevailing winds. Each aims to sweep you away. Each blows with the intent to catch you up in its forward motion, kick up and blind you with dust as it rushes to its predestination. But the prevailing winds, with a little meteorology, are identifiable. They can be measured and accounted for.

The most notable wind is the concern of Israel and the threat it feels. A countercurrent is the suspicion of those ideologically committed to construe Israeli interests and military affairs as malevolent. A third current comes from the U.S. right. There we have those, like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, for whom every U.S. opportunity for significance in the world is best expressed through military action; valor, for them, has never met its better part.

Closely aligned are those on the right for whom American Exceptionalism is a bluster in adversarial relations that will huff and puff and blow your house down. More generally, there is the right’s determination to cast any approach but bombs away by Barack Obama – the most militarily adroit and successful President in a generation, surpassing in those terms any Democratic president since Truman – as weak-willed appeasement.

There are other winds still. There are those, for instance, who warn against the catastrophe of war. There are always those who warn against the catastrophe of war. They are always right. War is a catastrophe. The greatest war ever fought, in size and greatness of purpose – the Second World War – is also the greatest catastrophe the world has ever known. But to warn against war because one wisely foresees the special catastrophe of a coming war, against the conditions that would prevail in the absence of it, is a wisdom different in kind from the unvarying warning against war because what it will bring is always more easily foreseen than what will come in its absence. There will always be the Neville Chamberlains. There will always be a Cyrus Vance, not just warning with caution, but actually resigning, regardless of success or failure, because of a constitutional opposition to acting forcefully in defense of one’s interests.

There are those for whom caution is a cover for Iranian apologetics. As blustery conservatives will label Obama a naïve appeaser for having sought negotiations and not committing to war, the apologists for theocratic tyranny will claim Obama never really tried negotiations. This is a crosswind that has to smell crisp and clean, whatever the fury.

How to stand amid all these winds? How to think with a little clarity within the howling? Let’s direct an instrument.

One confusion is that of American interests and Israeli interests. Let it be reasonable to argue that they need not be identical or contrary, even while similar. Both the U.S. and Israel have reasons to oppose a nuclear Iran. How much imagination does it take to assess the concerns of Israel – so much smaller, so much closer to Iran, already set sail amid a sea of enemies – as more pressing and critical than those of the U.S.? There are many vital reasons – among them the chances of ultimate success – to wish the course and final actions of the two to be completely aligned. This reasonably leads Israel to prod the U.S. to a greater sense of urgency. Just as reasonably, the U.S. seeks to calm Israel and slow it to an American pace. Neither is wrong to do so. Their interests are similar, not identical, and this is not mathematics. If Israel, in its own assessment of its security needs, were to act unilaterally, it would not be a betrayal of U.S. alliance and support, but an independent state’s independent act in defense of its interests. Whatever the results, the U.S. would rightfully assess and respond to them in its own interests, and among those interests is the U.S.’s natural alliance with Israel and the varied reasons for it. One response is predicted by retired Air Force colonel Sam Gardiner, a specialst in war-gaming at the National War College and elsewhere, who agrees with everyone else that despite Israel’s military mastery, it does not have the capability for a truly devastating attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

I don’t believe it possible for the US not to be pulled into finishing the job even if Iran does not choose to respond immediately.  I’ve also written a paper on the logic.

No nation is likely to be pleased to be pulled into a course of action because of the actions of another state, and it would be natural to expect a wide range of responses and for those responses to align with those prevailing winds.

What of the U.S. acting on its own, or in consort, finally, with Israel? One war gamer, the Carnegie Endowment’s Karim Sadjadpour, reported on this exchange with an Iranian dissident.

I asked a longtime aide to Karroubi about the plausibility of the above scenario. He said that an Israeli strike on Iran would be “10 times worse” — in terms of eliciting popular anger — than a U.S. strike and agreed that it would likely bring recognized opposition figures in concert with the government, strengthening the state’s capacity to respond.

This observation is telling in an unexpected way. Why an Israeli strike would be “10 times worse” is not just an estimation of the consequences of a strike; it is significantly an expression of the conditions of the potential cause of it. Other than a few presumed recent assassinations, Israel has no historical record comparable to that of the U.S. as an adversary and imperial power that that has harmfully interfered in Iranian life and politics. That Israel might nonetheless, in one person’s judgment, produce so much greater present enmity than even the “Great Satan” itself is an expression of just the virulent religious and cultural hatred that leads Israel to fear the threat of a nuclear Iran to begin.

But this presupposes an American willingness to perform a military strike. There are the currents that oppose it. If we leave aside Israel’s ideological and racial enemies and the Iran apologists, and we focus only on the warnings against war itself and its potential consequences, what is the meaning – what is the consequence – of accepting a nuclear Iran? It is as imaginable yet unpredictable as the course of a war that might follow from a strike. One argument is, in reality, to work from just that condition of imaginable consequences – the full range of complication, multilateral involvement, and material and economic harm – yet unpredictability: how much worse and uncontrollable the consequences could be than we can even imagine.

This is a fascinating ground for thought. The fiasco of Iraq and the long misdirection of Afghanistan after initial success fully support it. But it is always so. We never know what will come. That sounds banal. But imagine, since we are imagining, that we could have foreseen all the ends of the Second World War – the tens of millions dead, the incomparable physical destruction, with many fates only transferred from one tyranny, Nazi Germany’s, to another, that of Soviet communism. Were we able to foresee that awful price, how forcefully might so many more than just the Chamberlains have argued against the Churchills that an accommodation to circumstance – the implacability of a malevolent force – was the wiser, less awful choice. Unlike the unvarying knowledge of war’s dreadful cost, the course of accommodation, with the future always, in our imaginations, holding the possibility of better choices, is invariably less vivid and awful to that imagination.

Some argue from the example of the Cold War for the success of containment. But what is that example, truly? First, that one does not know the true meaning of unimaginable if one posits the U.S. fighting a war  – after the long second world one – against the Soviet Union, and after the Chinese entry into Korea, against China too, as MacArthur pursued. We contained the Soviet Union and China because we had no genuine choice under the circumstances to do otherwise.

Second, and in practice, that for roughly forty years only, two great adversaries held each other in a terror of mutually assured destruction, and managed by that terror not to destroy each other. For only forty years. How often might the balance of that terror easily have been thrown off? We know of instances – Cuba most notably – when this example might well have become less exemplary. Is the Cold War, a single instance only of this strategy, a lesson in the reliability of containment or the world having managed four decades of good luck – a reason to sigh in relief? How likely it all might have gone another way.

So the idea of containment rests, perhaps, on no great bedrock. More, what will the choice of it assert in practice? There is no denying what it will say, more, proclaim: that the idea of nonproliferation is dead. Of the four nations known or believed to be nuclear non-signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, two, India and Israel, may be viewed as special, democratic cases, and Pakistan and North Korea as two nations the world has good reason to wish without the weapons, but that for strategic reasons went unopposed. All four pose a threat to the NPT regime. Now Iran stands, and has stood for some time as the prime strategic and highly publicized challenge to non-proliferation.

Iran is also not a new challenge, as some now state, regularly remarking on a “rush to war.” Undoubtedly there are older discussions, than this one – also of war gaming – by James Fallows in the Atlantic, back in December, 2004.

 Throughout this summer and fall, barely mentioned in America’s presidential campaign, Iran moved steadily closer to a showdown with the United States (and other countries) over its nuclear plans.

In June the International Atomic Energy Agency said that Iran had not been forthcoming about the extent of its nuclear programs. In July, Iran indicated that it would not ratify a protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty giving inspectors greater liberty within its borders. In August the Iranian Defense Minister warned that if Iran suspected a foreign power—specifically the United States or Israel—of preparing to strike its emerging nuclear facilities, it might launch a pre-emptive strike of its own, of which one target could be the U.S. forces next door in Iraq. In September, Iran announced that it was preparing thirty-seven tons of uranium for enrichment, supposedly for power plants, and it took an even tougher line against the IAEA. In October it announced that it had missiles capable of hitting targets 1,250 miles away—as far as southeastern Europe to the west and India to the east. Also, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman rejected a proposal by Senator John Kerry that if the United States promised to supply all the nuclear fuel Iran needed for peaceful power-generating purposes, Iran would stop developing enrichment facilities (which could also help it build weapons). Meanwhile, the government of Israel kept sending subtle and not-so-subtle warnings that if Iran went too far with its plans, Israel would act first to protect itself, as it had in 1981 by bombing the Iraqi nuclear facility at Osirak.

That’s over seven years ago.

What might be the effects of speaking openly of containment, of a policy that openly acknowledges an unwillingness to bear the burden of enforcing nonproliferation? One well publicized Iranian war game exercise was conducted at Harvard in December 2009. Well publicized was how bad the outcomes were. Less publicized was the policy pursued by the war gamers who played the U.S. roles. Wrote David Ignatius,

My scorecard had Team Iran as the winner and Team America as the loser. The U.S. team — unable to stop the Iranian nuclear program and unwilling to go to war — concluded the game by embracing a strategy of containment and deterrence.

From another perspective,

“We started out thinking we were playing a weak hand, but by the end, everyone was negotiating for us,” said the leader of the Iranian team, Columbia University professor Gary Sick. By the December 2010 hypothetical endpoint, Iran had doubled its supply of low-enriched uranium and was pushing ahead with weaponization.

Reports Sadjadpour of his war game,

We didn’t limit our reaction to just the Middle East. Via proxy, we hit European civilian and military outposts in Afghanistan and Iraq, confident that if past is precedent, Europe would take the high road and not retaliate. We also activated terrorist cells in Europe — bombing public transportation and killing several civilians — in the belief that European citizens and governments would likely come down hard on Israel for destabilizing the region.

He offers this further account of calculation based on perception.

But, appreciating the logic of power, we stopped just short of provoking the United States. Before the simulation, I’d often heard it said that it wouldn’t make much difference whether Israel actually got a green light from the United States to strike Iran, for Tehran would never believe otherwise.

This assessment wasn’t borne out in the simulation. The U.S. secretary of state sent us a private note telling us that the Americans did not approve the Israeli strike, and vowed to restrain Israel from attacking further — if we also exercised restraint. They tried on multiple occasions to meet with us or speak by phone, but we refused. While Washington believed that its overtures would have a calming effect on us, we interpreted them to mean that we could strike back hard against Israel — not to mention European targets — without risking U.S. retaliation, at least not immediately.

A Tel Aviv war simulation around the same time, also based on threats and sanctions, achieved similar negative results. A third war game, at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, had Israel conduct a strike.

[O]ne of the Brookings war game’s major conclusions is that Israel could pay dearly for an attack on Iran.

Still,

Some members of the “Israeli” team nonetheless felt that setting back Iran’s nuclear program “was worth it, even given what was a pretty robust response,” said one participant.

Sadjadpour makes the same point.

Not unlike wars themselves, different actors drew different lessons. Those, like myself, who thought that the costs of an Israeli attack significantly outweighed the benefits, felt the results of the simulation validated their position. In the span of just a few days, our simulation had the Middle East aflame. But those who, prior to the exercise, believed that attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities was a necessary risk weren’t convinced otherwise.

President Obama has well argued that the only way to ensure a lasting end to an Iranian nuclear weapons program is if the Iranians choose to give it up themselves. Regime change could increase that likelihood, but that is not foreseeable. If we accept that the Israelis are the eighty pound gorilla in this debate, they clearly accept that there is still some unspecified amount of time left to see if that end can be achieved. Every effort should be made. Suzanne Maloney of Brookings offers a complex calculus in consideration of this end. But if it fails?

Amid all the arguments pro and con, the weakest by far are any individual’s assertions, however ostensibly expert the source, of what is “unbelievable” or “irrational” as prospective action by any party or of how any party is, on the contrary, a rational actor despite supposed caricatures otherwise. The history of civilization is littered with the debris of national acts and policies no rational and moral person would have anticipated before they were committed and pursued, and the world and some peoples the loser for them. To argue, from such casual and personally held inductions about how Israel’s enemies might rationally behave, that Israeli leaders and the Jewish people, in light of both their long and recent history, should risk their very existence – again – before the nuclear power of a religiously inspired and anti-Semitic enemy is to make an argument careless of history and without moral seriousness.

Who dares cry not seventy years later of the Jew’s hysteria, and what scent is it on that wind?

That is the Israeli view. From the U.S. perspective, to commit to a nuclear Iran by confessing an unwillingness to prevent it will be to offer the most toothless face ever to grin submissively at the post-war nuclear world. The advocate of this position needs to simulate across the world the outcome of widespread nuclear proliferation at the end of any credible regime to prevent it. Or offer a credible argument for why that would not be the outcome.

AJA

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The Political Animal

A Second Look: the End (of History, War, the Enlightenment, and Western Civilization) Or Not

My recent posts on Syria were argued against a more global backdrop: considerations of war and how it is entered into, with what achievable (or other) ends in mind, and, more specifically again, how the United States engages in it. In focus were questions of American empire and the nature of victory and whether it can be achieved. Syria, like all the Middle East, offering up so much tyranny, appealing to so much humanitarian feeling, calling on so many instincts toward real politique – and with the ever present wild card Joker of Israel in the deck – seems to roil all settled understanding of right and left in politics.

The following post from 2010, in response to an essay by Andrew Bacevich, addresses all these issues, with the addition of the always fundamental matter of definition: in addition to wonder about the effects of our (warring) actions, there is the question of how we define victory, a pivot around which we assess past and plan future policy. There are, too, the distinct elements of the quality of our analysis and the quality of our inferences from it. From July 30, 2010:

This Is the End (of History, War, the Enlightenment, and Western Civilization) Or Not

Andrew Bacevich is appropriately critical of the American impetus to hegemonic empire that grew out of its post World War Two ascendency and the commitment to communist containment. That was the subject of his 2008 The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. Essential to any continuing practicability of this American role, he argues in yesterday’s HuffPo was a belief in the possibility of definitive victory in war. His post is entitled “The End of (Military) History? The United States, Israel, and the Failure of the Western Way of War.” The ostensible reasoning behind the connection of Israel to the U.S.in this regard is the shared belief, still, in the possibility of military victories. The differences – American hegemony versus Israeli existential concern – make the connection more problematic, but the meaning of the making of connections, real and imagined, between the U.S. and Israel, while a continuing interest of this blog, is not the subject today.

Bacevich begins,

“In watching the flow of events over the past decade or so, it is hard to avoid the feeling that something very fundamental has happened in world history.”  This sentiment, introducing the essay that made Francis Fukuyama a household name, commands renewed attention today, albeit from a different perspective.

Developments during the 1980s, above all the winding down of the Cold War, had convinced Fukuyama that the “end of history” was at hand.  “The triumph of the West, of the Western idea,” he wrote in 1989, “is evident… in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism.”

Today the West no longer looks quite so triumphant.  Yet events during the first decade of the present century have delivered history to another endpoint of sorts.  Although Western liberalism may retain considerable appeal, the Western way of war has run its course.

Now, we want a critique that has correctly identified its problem to successfully analyze it, but the introduction is a curiously self-refuting start. Although the communist era ended, socialist critiques of Western capital domination continue in various forms, Islam has reemerged as a starkly countervailing force to the Western idea, and the liberal idea, in relation to the first two forces, is strikingly challenged by among some of its own product. Notice that Bacevich himself felt reason to write “Western liberalism may retain considerable appeal.” Fukuyama was clearly wrong. It is on this parallel foundation then that Bacevich wishes to rhetorically support the claim that the curiously attributed “Western way of war has run its course”?

Certainly, the Second World War left many with the idea that military conflicts, even grandly scaled wars, can be fought to definitive and just conclusions. I think Bacevich is right to attribute to this consequent overconfidence the American military misadventures in the post war period, but he seems, in his critique, similarly shortsighted as well as selective in his vision. There were in this period American military actions, however relatively small in scale, that achieved their clear aims: Panama, the Dominican Republic, the Gulf War – and one rightly hesitates to add Granada. And however emblematic of indeterminacy Korea has been for nearly sixty years, it did achieve its original aim.

More significantly, though, if one excludes World War Two, from what historical evidence does Bacevich draw his claim of a particular way of war and the running of its course, upon which to predicate an accurate vision of the future? He confines himself to the twentieth century.

All of this furious activity, whether undertaken by France or Great Britain, Russia or Germany, Japan or the United States, derived from a common belief in the plausibility of victory.

Victory may have been the common belief, but what was ever the historical justification for it? And how was and is victory defined? In total conquest? That surrenders were offered? An armistice signed? An immediate pressure released? An international tension long or forever resolved? Bacevich isn’t clear beyond suggesting the Second World War model.

Campaigns of terror – e.g. nineteenth century anarchist movements – are not new, though possible now on a scale that requires strategic consideration and developed doctrine, not dismissal in simplistic oppositions of war and peace. History is replete with successful guerilla wars, depending, of course, on how success is defined and the duration of the achieved goal – wars in which great powers were perpetually harassed by smaller or insurgent armies. Wars badly fought or that ended in apparent victories only to set up over decades or even centuries the conditions of future war – the Thirty Years War, the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War, the Franco-Prussian war, almost the whole history of European warfare – are not a new development in war, only a departure from the dominant U.S. expectation. There is, too, if the subject is going to be explored meaningfully, no reason to limit the historical and developmental review to the West.

If the U.S. had withdrawn from Afghanistan after routing the Taliban, and if, rather than embarking on nation-building, it had pursued the kind of counter-terror strategy it will probably pursue after a now likely withdrawal without a nation built, could the U.S. have rightly claimed victory – not the end of all Islamic terror, but the thwarting of Al-Qaeda’s access to a national base? Had Saddam Hussein actually possessed WMD, they would have been found and destroyed, his regime toppled, as it was, and with a relatively quick withdrawal after, the purported goal of the war – a Victory – achieved. These are complex and to some degree hypothetical considerations, but my point is that there does not seem anything structural in the historical development of war that precludes the possibility of victory, as long as one does not define victory so far up that one makes it almost by definition unachievable.

Alter these factors, and the narrative of a stumbling, crumbling U.S. giant is not as easily written. Writes Bacevich,

Politically motivated violence will persist and may in specific instances even retain marginal utility.  Yet the prospect of Big Wars solving Big Problems is probably gone for good

This qualifier is significant. Is Afghanistan a big war? By what measure? Are Israel’s wars big wars? Is it accurate to say that Israel these days perceives itself as fighting to solve big problems, or does it fight to maintain a safe power balance in a developmental holding action?

Bacevich observes,

Nearly 20 years ago, a querulous Madeleine Albright demanded to know: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”  Today, an altogether different question deserves our attention: What’s the point of constantly using our superb military if doing so doesn’t actually work?

It’s a neat antithesis, but weakly and unnecessarily argued. American leaders and commanders do not have the luxury to argumentatively pretend that the Taliban-supported Al-Qaeda base in Afghanistan could have been left to function. Israeli leaders lack a similar luxury to ignore the ideological and military threats of Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas. That the expansive hegemonic reach of the U.S., an outgrowth of the Cold War, is now destructive of U.S. interests can be well argued. The claim does not require an overreaching corollary that is actually a bit suspect in its formation and application. It isn’t that humans have developmentally overcome their inclinations toward war – war has ceased, essentially, to work, and it has ceased to do so, when, according to Bacevich, only the United States and Israel, as he defines it, still engage in it.

Hmn.

AJA

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Culture Clash Israel The Political Animal

Helen Thomas and Oedipus

tech3On the CNN’s Reliable Sources this morning, new host David Folkenflik hosted three female journalists, including Judy Woodruff and Candy Crowley in considering the career and legacy of Helen Thomas. The entire discussion addressed Thomas’s groundbreaking career and generous influence on young women journalists like Woodruff and Crowley. Just before the end of the discussion, Folkenflick asked one question about Thomas’s career ending anti-Semitic comments. Woodruff characterized these comments as Thomas letting her views slip into her work. Thomas’s work over the last thirteen years of her career was, in fact, commentary, so the letting slip was not of her views, but of a kind of view.

That was all. That was the coverage of the rank anti-Semitism that Thomas propounded and ignorance she demonstrated on multiple occasions after the initial videotaped comments that brought her career crashing down.

CNN bills Reliable Sources as “one of television’s only regular programs to examine how journalists do their jobs and how the media affect the stories they cover.”

Utter nonsense in this case. There was no examination of journalism here, only journalists praising their own and themselves. There was no consideration of “how the media affect the stories they cover,” only the media affecting the story by gross and conscious negligence of a crucial human element of the story.

On ABC’s This Week and NBC’s Meet the Press the story was no different. Journalists allowed their personal relationships to the subject to distort their obituary coverage, which they turned into inside clubhouse praise of a teammate. George Stephanopoloous made reference in a phrase to “controversy.” David Gregory actually quoted President Obama stating of Thomas that she would “ask tough questions and hold our leaders to account.” Gregory actually, embarrassingly followed that comment with an “Amen.”

Would these be like the tough questions that Gregory and others asked about Thomas’s anti-Semitism, like their holding her to account? What if she had been an office holder expressing the views she did?  Rank anti-Semitism covered up by rank cronyism.

In a month in which Yahoo tech reporter Virginia Heffernan brought low the literary mind by comparing it, as she confessed her lightheaded creationism, to mystical flakiness ungripped by reason, it serves as a tonic to recall the lesson of Oedipus and of all Greek tragedy, about the full accounting of a human life, about the significance of endings and of what, in classical tragedy, are known as hamartia and hubris.

Hamartia is an error in judgment. It is the hero’s tragic flaw. Hubris is the overweening pride that compounds the flaw. Oedipus did more of estimation in his life than even Helen Thomas: he saved Thebes by solving the riddle of the Sphinx and freeing the city from the Sphinx’s curse, for which he was rewarded with its kingship and the hand in marriage of Jocasta, its dowager queen. But Oeidpus was blind to his rash and proud nature and willfully refused the counsel of the differently blind seer Tiresias. He brought about this own demise and more tragically than might otherwise have needed to be the case.

Helen Thomas did not make one error, which sometimes may even justly be enough. On multiple occasions she denied the Jewish heritage in Israel, greater, actually than that of most other peoples in their homelands, and told them to “go back” to the European nations that had committed genocide against them. She spoke of Jewish control of finance, of Hollywood, of government – all the classic anti-Semitic demonization. Judy Woodruff sought to minimize, even disappear these sins by characterizing them, unspoken, as the product of Thomas’s Lebanese heritage, another one of those disingenuous maskings of anti-Semitism as only Mideast anti-Israel politics.

Oedipus was a king. He did great things. He ruled a great city. We do not remember him without remembering his end. He is as defined by his tragic end as anything. It is actually the value of his life, that it reminds us that we are accountable to the end.

As the closing chorus tells us:

You residents of Thebes, our native land,
look on this man, this Oedipus, the one
who understood that celebrated riddle.
He was the most powerful of men.
All citizens who witnessed this man’s wealth
were envious. Now what a surging tide                                     1810
of terrible disaster sweeps around him.
So while we wait to see that final day,
we cannot call a mortal being happy
before he’s passed beyond life free from pain.

That is unless you have friends in the media to cover for you.

AJA

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Israel The Political Animal

A Second Look: The Uncanny John Mearsheimer

tech3The weekend found me in my cyber perambulations encountering greater than the usual concentration of anti-Semitic eruptions from the maw of the uncivilizing world. We withdraw from the end of history. It produced my own ironic rants in twitter eruption, first on Saturday, again on Sunday. Some meditation on the nature of that ur-hatred that is anti-Semitism has to follow. This put me in mind to republish a post from near a couple of years ago in which John Mearsheimer was just the carrier of the moment of that contagion that, if not literally airborne, seems always in the air. There seems something uncanny in the nature of its eruption, like a parasitic alien, I write below, its head bursting finally out of the host body. Here, then:

The Uncanny John Mearsheimer

Popularly understood as something eerie, strange, and supernatural, the uncanny in Freud retains that sense of the strange, yet adds to it the contrary feeling of the familiar. This clash of contrarieties is profoundly unsettling.

[T]his uncanny element is actually nothing new or strange, but something that was long familiar to the psyche and was estranged from it only through being repressed.  The link with repression now illuminates Shelling’s definition of the uncanny as ‘something that should have remained hidden that has come into the open’.

In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, we should recall of the novel, in contrast to the movies, Frankenstein is Dr. Frankenstein, the creator of the monster, and not the monster himself, who is a nameless dread, like a repressed element seeking to break through to the surface. In the novel, the monster and his creator are alternately in pursuit of, and flight from, each other, seeking in that exchange of positions both to know and to deny, to destroy, themselves.

I am not performing a psycho-blog-analysis of John Mearsheimer, anymore than Shelley analyzed the doctor. I merely note Mearsheimer’s creation, with Stephen Walt, of the past few years, and the emergence of the “something that should have remained hidden that has come into the open.”

Adam Holland brought to our attention Mearsheimer’s back-cover blurb-endorsement of the latest book by the notorious Jewish anti-Semite Gilad Atzmon. (We might think Jewish anti-Semitism, like the light-skinned “black” passing for “white,” a kind of ur-form of the uncanny – “something that was long familiar to the psyche and was estranged from it only through being repressed.”) Jeffrey Goldberg drew further attention over several posts to this latest development from the co-author of The Israel Lobby, and so did, Walter Russell MeadHarry’s Place over several posts, and others. Mearsheimer offered an unyielding defense of himself at Walt’s blog at Foreign Affairs. The defense, like the blurb, is a curious creature, an Alien bursting from the chest of John Hurt, strange and horribly disturbing, yet looking like very much like our own intestines, now headed, and headed somewhere, ultimately for us.

Mearsheimer’s first Maginot line of defense is that his blurb was for the one book only and not an endorsement of Atzmon’s anti-Semitic ideas in general. This is the argument of a country ready for conquest.

I am only endorsing this one work by (Vlad the Impaler, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Robert Mugabe, David Duke, Ratko Mladić), not what he stands for in life altogether, and the fact that I feel no discomfort associating myself with him, linking our names together in the indelible record of history, has no import to any understanding of who I am as person, and nothing should or can be made of it.

This is a most flimsy argument to make. Perhaps recognizing, while not acknowledging, this position’s bursting seams – perhaps feeling, even as he writes, his own entrails busting like an inner demon through the shell of his skin – Mearsheimer proceeds to do a most curious thing. Despite claiming that his blurbed endorsement was limited only to the current book, he proceeds to defend Atzmon against the most devastating charges against him, and of which there is abundant and damning evidence – that Atzmon is a Holocaust denier and a trafficker in the vilest anti-Semitic tropes and traditions. It is like watching a Jekyll become Hyde before one’s eyes.

Let me now turn to the specific claim that Atzmon is an “apologist for Hitler.” Again, I am somewhat reluctant to do this, because this charge forces me to defend what Atzmon said in one of his blog posts.

Are there no mirrors in Mearsheimer’s home? It wasn’t Goldberg’s charge that forced him to defend anything. It was his own careless disregard for the entailments of that for which he has come to stand, and extend through Atzmon, that apparently compelled him to further bring into the open what should have remained hidden.

One of the characteristics we see in a certain kind of modern critic of Israel – the kind who is not merely critical of settlement policy, let us say, but who is clearly unsympathetic to the state itself, and to the historical record and truth of its travails – is a defensive belligerence against the counter charges to the critic’s claims. The critique of these individuals seems inevitably to extend beyond Israel to a whole nexus of Jewish power and influence that is said to sustain Israel against what should be, these critics argue, the more natural opposition to what Israel really is, and how it has come to be harmful, along with its network of Jewish support, to host nations of that dangerous element with separate loyalties.

No entry into contemporary intellectual life more characteristically has represented this kind of criticism than Mearsheimer’s and Walt’s The Israel Lobby. The two have since demonstrated all of that characteristic defensive belligerence to their own critics. This is not an unusual response to criticism, one might say. Nothing necessarily telling in that. Except…except…some of these critics are drawn by the fury of the debate – to employ a term of current domestic politics – to double down on their position. They become – compelled, it does seem – to poke the beast of anti-Semitism, to see how far they can disturb the animal while still claiming they were just out for a walk in the woods meaning no harm to any Jew.

It is almost too perfect that an author of The Israel Lobby has associated himself with Gilad Atzmon, and now even defended him. It confirms all his critics have claimed, while he has locked himself in the laboratory determined to create bastard life from spare parts and electricity. What remains to be seen is whether he will pursue, in belated recognition, the monster all the way to the Arctic reaches, and if he too will die on the ship, the monster come for him.

AJA

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Israel The Political Animal

“It goes without saying”: the Further Rhetoric of Terrorist Apologia

When the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, then with Salon,interviewed Rene Brulin in 2010, the purpose of the conversation was to discuss Brulin’s research into the origins of the contemporary usage of the term “terrorism.” According to Brulin it has two origins. One is in the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In the late 70s, President Carter frequently used the word to apply to the Iranian hostage-taking of U.S. embassy employees. This, Brulin says, was a specific usage. It had not yet evolved into a discourse. By discourse Brulin means the organized consideration of a subject via use of an identifiable vocabulary particular to it. The discourse, then, becomes expressive of a point of view about the subject, a way of seeing it, a perspective on it, and, as such a lens, also then helps determine how users of the vocabulary will see and think about the subject, just through their determinative use of the language of that particular discourse.

Brulin says that U.S. terrorism discourse developed out of the Reagan-era application of the term to Central American insurgencies. He also claims – and Greenwald pointedly leads him in this direction – that this discourse was purposely merged at the time with an earlier developmental strain: Israel’s use of the term to characterize the violent activities of its Arab enemies. According to Brulin, this merger was the goal of conferences held by Israel’s Jonathan Institute.

The objective, the official objective is – I have the transcripts of the conference – it says that the objective is “to focus public attention on the real nature of international terrorism, on the threat that it poses to all democratic societies, and on the measures necessary for defeating the forces of terror.” And everything in [Brulin’s] book is about the fact that terrorism is not something that, is not a threat that Israel only is facing, but it’s a threat to all democracies, the whole Western world.

Then there’s this idea that terrorism and totalitarianism, meaning the Soviet Union and its allies, are linked, that the terrorists are also the totalitarians. And then there is the focus on state support or state sponsoring of international terrorism, which are issues that were absolutely not in the American discourse on terrorism until then….

….

…so you have a clear link between the American discourse, suddenly, and the Israeli discourse, and from that moment on, in America, people are going to be starting to talk about terrorism in ways similar to how Israel had been talking about it for 10 or 15 years.

This account provides the Rosetta stone to understanding the rhetoric of terrorist apologia. In hisfinal column for Salon, Greenwald wrote of this history by Brulin,

From the start, the central challenge was how to define the term so as to include the violence used by the enemies of the U.S. and Israel, while excluding the violence the U.S., Israel and their allies used, both historically and presently. That still has not been figured out, which is why there is no fixed, accepted definition of the term, and certainly no consistent application.

I addressed last time the crucial claim, arising out of this argument, that there is no effectively applicable meaning to the term “terrorism.” Here also, though, Greenwald performs the reflexive mirroring that is the key to understanding terrorist apologia rhetoric. Greenwald expressly means to join the United States and Israel as politico-cultural allies and international forces and to claim an intent on their part to frame their enemies as terrorists and to excuse their own acts in contrast.

The mirror claim to be made on behalf of the U.S. and Israel – and derived from a more complex historical analysis than that in which Greenwald engages – is that totalitarian states and forces similarly oppose the U.S. and Israel and came to act against them out of the same kinds of ideological tendencies, if not for the same geo-historical reasons. Thus emerged, for this and other reasons, a natural circumstantial alliance between the two in combatting terrorist activities and sources.

The real challenge, then – in contrast to the conspiratorial challenge Greenwald asserts – is how to look at the mirror and not see only mirrorings. How can we observe circumstances and not find in them only inverted, contesting mirror images, but identify instead the substance of an actual object outside the mirror, distinguished from its inverted mirror image? For the rhetoric of terrorist apologia is purposely constructed of just these indistinguishable reflections – as in “one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.” It is just a matter, you see, according to the rhetoric, of which side of the mirror you stand on.

The fundamental rhetorical tools used to create these mirror illusions, deceptions, and confusions (like the hall of mirrors shoot out at the end of Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghaiwith every form an illusion until a bullet finds its mark) are what are called, in sentence stylistics,parataxis and hypotaxis. Parataxis offers semantic units that are, as the prefix tells us, apparently equal to each other in import and relation. Hypotaxis constructs subordinate relationships, as in the basic complex sentence, of an independent, main clause and a dependent, subordinate clause.

Apologia rhetoric begins with the relativizing structures of parataxis, as in the parallelism of one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. But as in the attempt to first neutralize the word terrorism by rendering it meaningless, yet also contradictorily then attach it to different objects, in the U.S. and Israel, terrorist apologia frequently grounds its arguments in the pretense of hypotaxis, explored under the guise of balanced parataxis, but only effectively to reverse which ideas are subordinate to which. Argumentatively, we may begin with this emphasis, for example.

While insulting a man to his face is wrong, beating a man to the ground in response is completely unacceptable.

Effectively, however, we may end with this.

While beating a man  to the ground is completely unacceptable, it is wrong to insult a man to his face.

We alter the subordination, thus which idea we express more emphatically, here by transferring the subordinating conjunction to the opposing clause and even by reversing the order of the clauses: climatic ordering tends to place emphasis on a concluding thought. We could further the change in balance by removing the “completely” in the subordinate clause and adding an intensifier like “simply” before “wrong” in the main clause.

A disingenuous interlocutor can clam in either case that he has expressed disapproval of both acts, yet it is obvious that in each instance, one behavior has received the greater disapproving attention. What terror apologists regularly do, on both the sentence and broader level, is claim to condemn (and thus, supposedly, reject) terror, while proceeding to argue for a more balanced view of interests, and of cause and effect, that functionally, like the complex sentences above, excuses Islamist and Arab terrorism by explaining their roots in American and Israeli acts. The United States and Israel are effectively assigned the responsibility for the terror against them and even, as the word is criticized as meaningless, covertly and overtly charged with terrorism themselves.

Terror apologists pretend that the argument is conceptual. It is an ongoing disagreement over and search for clarity about the meaning of words: terrorism, democracy, justice, freedom. What can gay rights really mean in an “apartheid” state? They must not be rights or an expression of liberty at all; they must be covertly something else, for which the apologists make up new words: pinkwashing,homonationalism. Faced with these common human and political contradictions, pretending that the contest is rhetorical rather than ideological, the apologists, rather than critically examine their principles, thus expand the vocabulary of their own formative discourse, from which they cannot escape.

Rather than directly state, in many cases, that at this point in the moral millhouse of human history terror apologists judge the West to be the world’s foremost malevolent and politically destructive agent, they pretend that clearer moral insight can be produced if we just rhetorically re-envision it. One rhetorical device the apologists use to mask this avoidance is

It goes without saying.

This is a common place figure. It is used to introduce a long defense of the grievances behind a violent terrorist attack, as, when writing about the brutal murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in “Was the London killing of a British soldier ‘terrorism’?” Glenn Greenwald offered,

That this was a barbaric and horrendous act goes without sayingbut given the legal, military, cultural and political significance of the term “terrorism”, it is vital to ask: is that term really applicable to this act of violence? [Emphasis added]

Sometimes terror apologists do literally believe that “it goes without saying” blah, blah, blah, and do not say it at all. Most of the time, however, they do, as a sop to humane sensibilities and as a cover for the true balance of their antipathies and sympathies, make this offering of what, in rhetoric is called a performative: a statement that performs the very act, just in the speaking, that it articulates. To saythat it goes “without saying” is, in fact, nonetheless actually to say it – and in this figure, since it purports not to be saying it (“goes without saying that”), we might call it an anti-peformative performative. (I’m just sayin’.)

It goes without saying can take different forms, in different words. For instance, on October 18, 2001, Noam Chomsky gave a talk at MIT in the aftermath of 9/11. Titled “The New War Against Terror,” it provided, even in those circumstances, the usual anti-American presentation from Chomsky, during the course of which he accused the United States of perpetrating in Afghanistan, and so quickly, “some sort of silent genocide.” Before all that, though, Chomsky said,

I’m going to assume 2 conditions for this talk. The first one is just what I assume to be recognition of fact. That is that the events of September 11 were a horrendous atrocity probably the most devastating instant human toll of any crime in history, outside of war.

That was Chomsky’s “it goes without saying” saying figure, after which it did, as is always so, further go without ever saying again.

The “it goes without saying” formulation has an additional purpose. We might call it the foundation for  plausible refutation. Greenwald’s piece on Rigby’s murder earned him a spat with Andrew Sullivan, who was enraged by Greenwald’s – I think the term would be apologia. This enabled Greenwald to respond with the a follow up figure of speech.

I expressly stated

Greenwald replied to Sullivan thus:

That I “legitimated” the London attack or argued it was a “legitimate protest” is as obvious a fabrication as it gets. Not only did I argue no such thing, and not only did I say the exact opposite of what Sullivan and others falsely attribute to me, but I expressly repudiated – in advance – the very claims they try to impose on me. [Emphasis added]

It is a wonder so many people keep getting Greenwald so wrong when he so expressly states his positions so clearly: “the exact opposite of what Sullivan and others falsely attribute to me.”

How can this be? Would not those who until now, according to Greenwald, grievously mistake him, happily accept a commonality in condemnation of this awful violence, whatever continuing disagreements there may be? What can possibly be the source of such misunderstanding?

Here is Noam Chomsky, again, in the Monthly Review of November 2001.

We should not forget that the U.S. itself is a leading terrorist state.

Here is Chomsky being questioned by Deborah Solomon of The New York Times on November 2, 2003.

Have you considered leaving the United States permanently?

No. This is the best country in the world.

Why would anyone be confused?

There is on the basis of these two sentences, actually, greater legitimate cause for confusion than there is in Greenwald. Juxtaposed as I have offered them, the sentences are paratactic. Neither one primary or subordinate to the other, they are unmistakably contradictory. In broader contexts, however, both Chomsky and Greenwald, and many like them, are quite clearly hypotactic in their rhetorical structures. They may offer expressions critical of violent political acts against the U.S. Israel, the United Kingdom, and other Western nations, but those judgments are unmistakably subordinate to the analysis that follows and which is intended to clarify a basis for understanding the violence, for rooting it in acts by the West that are original and, at the very least, worse, because originating in greater power.

Whether this understanding rises to the status of justification for terrorist violence – apologia – is yet another area of dispute and rhetorical dissimulation.

(Next time: Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner.)

AJA

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The Political Animal

Notes Toward a Terror Apologist’s Rhetoric (Abridged but Unexpurgated)

This commentary first appeared in the Algemeiner on June 3, 2013.

Apologia in the rhetorical tradition is not a common apology, in the simple sense of “sorry,” though it may fulfill that purpose. It may decidedly not. Apologia is a defense against accusation. Plato gave us Socrates’sApology, which was not. In the religious tradition, apologia is known as apologetics. Apologetics are a defense of doctrine, certainly not an apology for it. One of the features of apologia as a rhetorical form is its variety of type, from outright apology to outright rejection of any need for one. In between we may see explanation or justification, evasion of responsibility, minimization of the offense, and more. One tactic of the apologia seeks to draw convoluting distinctions, or conversely, to eliminate clarifying distinctions, in order to redefine the terms of the offense so as to rationalize it away.

The post 9/11 era has been a veritable golden age of terrorist apologia. Of course, we have always had it. “Let them eat cake,” in the context in which it was purportedly said, even before the French Revolution, is a form of terrorist apologia: it seeks, as one type, to reduce the offense. And today’s golden age stands on the shoulders of the classical age of Marxist-Leninist apologia. Got a problem with dictatorship as a form of terror? How about bourgeois dictatorship to justify the supposed proletarian replacement for it?

“The most democratic bourgeois republic is no more than a machine for the suppression of the working class,” said Lenin at the First Communist International.

It is the “no more” that is really rich. One tactic of terror apologia, the muddying of distinctions, attempts to turn the solid ground of complexity into the swamp of confusion. Terror apologia does this in order to erase the useful meanings of the words that can be used against the source of the terror. So Marxists attacked the meaning of democracy. They defanged the threat of dictatorship. Slavoj Zizek authors a book entitled Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? in defense of – guess. Now, whereas Marxists in their revolutionary ascendance championed revolutionary terror, terror apologists frequently argue that the word, used these days against the interests they defend, has no meaning.

Events of recent weeks – the Boston bombings and the savage murder of British soldier Lee Rigby in London – have delivered a new round of rank and ill-reasoned apologias for terrorism, offered in the same low and recognizable style that took shape immediately after 9/11. They provide a source for some rough notes toward a rhetoric of terror apologia. As it happens one source readily serves to provide much of these early notes. England’s Guardian, apparently intent on establishing not only that it has hit the bottom of the barrel in its political commentary, but is determinedly scraping it, hired away from Salon Glenn Greenwald. Greenwald is that terror apologist who has yet to encounter the hackneyed thought he will not think or the trite articulation he will not utter. A former civil liberties attorney, he refers to himself these days as a writer, but surely that is only in the mechanical sense.

Any nascent rhetoric of terrorist apologia has to begin with the key term itself.

“Terrorism” is a meaningless term

Greenwald and his confreres assert this regularly. Last year, in his final column for Salon, Greenwald wrote,

That is what Terrorism is: a term of propaganda, a means of justifying one’s own state violence — not some objective field of discipline in which one develops “expertise.”

He concluded by affirming,

It is a telling paradox indeed that this central, all-justifying word is simultaneously the most meaningless and therefore the most manipulated.

Greenwald was writing there about what he and others refer to as a “terrorism expert industry.” He was drawing on the work of his favorite scholar on the subject, Remi Brulin, who has studied the use of the word terrorism post World War II and particularly beginning with U.S. counter-insurgency efforts in Central America in the 1980s under Reagan. Brulin also ties this development to Israeli adoption of the term after the Six-Day War to refer to Arab – well, excuse me, but I cannot find a more accurate word – terrorism against it.

As recently as last week, as part of a back and forth with Andrew Sullivan over the murder of Rigby,Greenwald claimed that

it is difficult to devise a definition of “terrorism” that encompasses this attack while excluding large numbers of recent acts by the US, the UK and many of their allies and partners.

Later in the same piece, Greenwald referred to the work of another scholar, Harvard’s Lisa Stampnitzky, whose book

makes the argument indicated by its title: “Disciplining Terror: How Experts Invented ‘Terrorism’”. The functional meaninglessness of the term “terrorism” and its highly manipulative exploitation are vital to several political agendas.

We see in these quotations, two of the primary tactics of terror apologia. The first is to muddy the waters so as to render the term terrorism ineffective in designating the barbarisms of contemporary Islamists and of other movements, such as the Iraqi and Taliban insurgencies and the Second Palestinian Intifada, that utilized for instance, the tactic of suicide bombing and, in some cases, beheading. By asserting that the term is misapplied, even purposely misused, and by repeating programmatically that it is thus meaningless, the intent is to render it just that.

At the same time, a covert counter effort is being pursued. When Greenwald says that “it is difficult to devise a definition of ‘terrorism’ that encompasses this attack while excluding large numbers of recent acts by the US, the UK and many of their allies and partners,” such a declaration aims at multiple effects. One is that terrorism is effectively disempowered as a meaningful designation of the automobile, hacking and beheading attack on Rigby. A contrary effect is that the referenced U.S., U.K. and allied war activities now become stuck with the term.

What are they talking about? the not unsympathetic reader of Greenwald thinks – look at those invaded countries, those dead children from Western air attacks. They’re the terrorists.

(Greenwald accompanied this commentary with, of course, a photograph of dead Afghan children. A whole other, visual rhetoric is developing around the use of dead children images.)

A third possible effect, no less possible because self-contradictory, is that the pure sense of the terrorizing nature of such acts as those by Islamists is diminished, the force of moral censure lessened – aided, additionally, by that claim that Islamist acts are “blowback” – even as the conviction grows that Western acts are themselves terroristic, and original, in nature. The definitional challenge, then, is actually quite a clever stratagem: to employ a chess metaphor, it is a move that sacrifices a rook (any claim to meaning for the word terrorism) with the prospect not only of capturing the Queen (loosening the connection to Islamist acts) but of checkmating the King as well (strengthening the connection to Western actions).

These are rhetorical strategies. Can we sight a true field of contest behind the screen of maneuvers? Yes, we can. Despite the efforts to obfuscate understanding of a concept and the distinctions among actual events to which a concept might apply, we can distinguish a clear concept – a meaningful definition – from faulty application.

Note, for instance this curious self-refutation. Greenwald’s go-to scholarly sources on the corrupted nature of terrorism as a concept aim their critiques specifically at expert “invention” and maintenance of the idea. Stampnitzky’s book is subtitled “How Experts Invented ‘Terrorism.’” Brulin, too, has focused his research on the role of experts in the modern development and promulgation of the idea. Greenwald titled that last post at Salon, “The sham ‘terrorism expert’ industry.

Now, what has Greenwald done in response? He has called in his own “experts” to offer a counter history and narrative.  Well, fine, that is what intellectual discourse involves, in addition to the quality of the arguments and the raw evidence – the testimony, and its quality, of experts in a field. The deciding factors in any intellectual debate will not be derisory quotation marks around a word or the sham character of the experts, but the sham character – if that it be – of the arguments.

Experts that Greenwald and his sources disapprove make one set of arguments. Greenwald and his own experts make theirs. What we want to consider, particularly with respect to argument over a word and its meaning, is the coherence of the concept being considered. One of Brulin’s particular areas of focus, and his very special objection, is to the disqualification, as part of the meaning of terror, of  state terror in application by those he believes manipulate its use today. He pays pointed attention to that U.S. support in the 80s for the regime in El Salvador, with its death squads, to which I add the U.S.’s material support for the Guatemalan government’s genocidal program against Mayan peasants during a similar period. Brulin argues that the one-sided application of the concept of terrorism only to non-state actors, in favor of the state institutions of power, diminishes the credibility of those who work with so slanted an application.

I agree. To the degree that anyone’s definition or application has been so slanted, it does diminish – fatally, I aver – that person’s credibility on the issue. Terror is terror, whoever inflicts it. “Terrorism is terrorism,” Brulin himself declared in Foreign Policy.

Ah, but according to Greenwald, that word “is simultaneously the most meaningless and therefore the most manipulated.” Notice, too, that Greenwald, crawling very far out on the phantom limb to which he is regularly drawn, does not say that the word is meaningless because it is manipulated – the common critique from his quarters – but manipulated because it is meaningless. The word, according to Greenwald, simply has no meaning. Yet even Brulin does not claim that.

In a 2010 interview with Greenwald, Brulin commented on the historical significance, in developing the contemporary understanding of terrorism as a concept, of the Israeli Jonathan Institute, named after Jonathan Netanyahu. In response to a question from Greenwald, Brulin offered,

Actually, it’s interesting, because they did come up with a definition which is more or less similar to one that you mentioned earlier in one of your pieces, meaning the one from the State Department, and it’s a very basic definition – I’m trying to find it here, yeah, it’s right here – “terrorism is the deliberate systematic murder, maiming and menacing of innocents to inspire fear in order to gain political ends.” So there is nothing that is controversial about that definition; it is very broad. It is nonspecific.

What Brulin means – what he should be meaning – when he says this definition is not controversial is that it is not political. It is not at all, as he claims, broad and nonspecific: it is clearly distinguishing of behavior and purpose, without ideological tendency, a characteristic of the definition with which both he and Greenwald should be pleased. Somehow, they are not. The distinguishing terms “deliberate,” “systematic,” and “innocents” are nonetheless vital to this definition.

Brulin then goes on to speak about how the term was politicized at the 1979 conference of which he speaks, and at a second in 1984. However, this raises the distinction once again, which Greenwald is always at pains to smear, between definition and application. It is not a distinction that, Noam Chomsky, for instance, in so many respects in sympathy with Greenwald and Brulin, fails to recognize. Well before 9/11, in 1991, Chomsky contributed to a collection, Western State Terrorism, the essay “International Terrorism: Image and Reality,” in which he began by observing, in different words, this distinction.

There are two ways to approach the study of terrorism. One may adopt a literal approach, taking the topic seriously, or a propagandistic approach, construing the concept of terrorism as a weapon to be exploited in the service of some system of power.

The “literal” approach is toward a clear, accurate, and unbiased elucidation of a concept.  The “propagandistic” approach is political, in the determination to corrupt the definition by restricted application. Chomsky’s further, explanatory “exploited in the service of some system of power” is entirely gratuitous. Exploitation of a concept in service of a biased end requires no system of power, merely an exploitative actor of any kind, like a columnist for a British daily. That addition is Chomsky’s own ideological bias irresistibly distorting his pretense of explanatory clarity. Still, the  point is made again: misapplication of a concept, distortion or manipulation of a concept, is distinct from the absence of a meaningful concept. To misuse a word by restricted application is not to rob the word of meaning, unless, that is, some people will grasp at the opportunity to achieve that end, for their own purposes.

Brulin’s purpose, in part, joined by Greenwald, was well summed by the latter in that final Salon post.

From the start, the central challenge was how to define the term so as to include the violence used by the enemies of the U.S. and Israel, while excluding the violence the U.S., Israel and their allies used, both historically and presently. That still has not been figured out, which is why there is no fixed, accepted definition of the term, and certainly no consistent application.

This description serves several ends. Again, though the distinguishing language of “definition” and “application” appear, Greenwald is incapable of holding them in his mind in clear and distinct relation to each other. More, since the purpose of this exposition is to establish the role of Israel and of “neocons,” in creating the current ideologized understanding of terrorism, there is also the subtle contribution of asserting of this role that it “still has not been figured out” – a clear call to those inclined to nefarious conspiracy mongering, which, of course, inevitably leads to this

Most importantly for this consideration, the description returns us yet once more to that apparent effort to render the word and the notion of terrorism meaningless. There is, Greenwald will repeatedly declare in differing formulations, “no fixed, accepted definition of the term.”

Is there, then, one wonders – just to choose a comparative example – a fixed and accepted definition of so profoundly important a word as “justice,” which is not yet to address any “consistent application of the concept? Just try attaching the word “social” to the notion of justice and see the arguments that ensue.

Yet the 1979 conference organized by the Jonathan Institute did arrive at a clear definition – a definition, I assert, that is the one most people, encountering or using the term, more or less have in mind. Has such a definition not been fairly applied in some quarters, and by institutions of power, to all the various manifestations of terrorism in the world? Fair and trenchant criticism. But, then, what is the goal of this criticism? To perform a balanced corrective or to, in actual effect, reverse the charge?

If we review that answer Brulin gave Greenwald on the definition of terrorism devised at the ’79 Jontahan Institute conference, we see that Brulin claimed that it “is more or less similar to … the one from the State Department.” However, this is the U.S. State Department definition:

premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.

Note that the State Department definition does, in the manner objected to by Brulin, Greenwald, and many others, restrict the understanding of terrorism to violence perpetrated by non-state actors. By this definition, the Stalinist purges (“The Great ‘Terror’”), China’s Cultural Revolution, the Argentine and Chilean disappearance campaigns of the 1970s and 80s under the Generals and Pinochet, the Killing Fields campaign of slaughter by the Cambodian Khmer Rouge, the wide array of genocidal campaigns against the world’s indigenous populations could none of them be labeled terrorism. The State Department’s definition is clearly formulated to focus attention on one kind of terrorism and away from state terror. Noam Chomsky’s description, we saw, was pointedly directed in an opposing manner, toward (“systems of power”) state terror only. The Jonathan Institute conference definition erred in neither of these directions. Yet Brulin and Greenwald quickly dismissed it.

Recall that Glenn Greenwald, in sympathy with many like him, wrote just days ago that

it is difficult to devise a definition of “terrorism” that encompasses this attack while excluding large numbers of recent acts by the US, the UK and many of their allies and partners.

How little Greenwald pays attention, even to himself. The Jonathan Institute definition referred to “the deliberate systematic murder, maiming and menacing of innocents.” However much some may think the U.S. and others screwed the pooch in Iraq or misapplied themselves at some point or other in Afghanistan, do they truly wish to argue that just as Al Qeada and its varied Islamist affiliates and sympathizers, and just as the Iraqi insurgency and the Taliban today, these Western nations engaged or are engaging in “deliberate,” in “systematic” attack on innocents? (Does Glenn Greenwald wish to claim that the images of dead children he exploits for the purpose of ideological contest in a daily newspaper were the victims of “deliberate, systematic murder”?) Well actually, some people do. We know that. Some people do argue that.

In which case, well and clear. We can argue that instead and for real, or, in some cases not – standing, we recognize, at uncorrectably cross purposes to one another. But let us not pretend, then, that the difference is over the meaning of the word terrorism. Let us not pretend that the disagreement is fundamentally definitional, linguistic, or rhetorical. There is, indeed, a rhetorical war in progress. But to reverse Clausewitz, as politics can be the continuation of war by other means, rhetoric is a continuation of politics by other means. Among its varied uses, it can smoke the battlefield and screen our movements. Some people blow a lot of smoke.

Let us be clear, instead, about where we stand, who we stand with, or against, and what we stand for.

AJA

(Next time: more notes, more rhetoric, more nonsense.)

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A Second Look: What About Chas Freeman?

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Whenever they become topically relevant, I am going to offer a scond look at some older pieces still worth reading. Yesterday, the anti-semitic Mondoweiss blog reposted a recent speech by Chas Freeman at A National Interest discussion about “Israel’s fraying image.” I do not link to Mondoweiss, but you can find Freeman’s comments at his own site, here. My interest is less in these particular comments of Freeman, of a piece with longstanding attitudes toward Israel, than in his decision to permit them to be published on Mondoweiss. The fact that Mondoweiss has an inexcusable respectability in some left quarters diminishes not at all its true and readily apparent nature or the disgrace of affording it that respectability. No doubt, however, it is that cover that comforts Freeman in emerging that much further out of the dark recesses, in the manner of “The Uncanny John Mearsheimer.” In this context, I think it worth revisiting how Chas Freeman, long a foreign policy establishment hand, first came brightly into the public view, and how, and the many ways, he revealed himself, not just on Israel, but in the context of the Arab world and, very significantly, China. This post first appeared on May 16, 2009.

What About Chas Freeman?

Maybe the most bitter inside Washington fight of the year was little known to the general public because it received scant attention from the mainstream media. However, while newspapers and television news nearly ignored ex ambassador to Saudi Arabia and China hand Charles Freeman – put forward by Dennis Blair, Director of National Intelligence as President Obama’s choice for Director of the National Intelligence Council – Washington insiders and the blogosphere fought another Mid-East war over him.

Supporters were many, in government and also in the  journalistic ranks, including The Atlantic’s James Fallows, Time Magazine’s Joe Klein (Jewish, as were some other supporters) freeman-chas-saudi-arabiaand top blogger Andrew Sullivan. The primary argument in favor of Freeman was that he is a “contrarian” – an outspoken proponent of ideas that challenge those of the foreign policy establishment, including, most prominently, wouldn’t you know, those of the “Jewish lobby” and its supporters. It is crucial, the argument went, in moving past the Bush years, that the U.S. break free of its “lock-step support” of Israeli policy and “return” to a position of “even handedness” that it is purported the U.S. held prior to the Bush years and the ascension of the neo-conservatives.

Opponents were many, too, perhaps most prominently Senator Charles Schumer of New York, but also Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and a range of human rights supporters – supporters of Israel and the NGO Human Rights Watch as well. Supporters of Israel pointed to Freeman’s cozy relationship with Arab despots, his one-sided view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and his suggestions – against all evidence – that 9/11 had been a response to U.S. support of Israel. Pelosi, Human Rights Watch and others focused on comments about the Tiananmen Square massacre that were critical of the protesters and strikingly sympathetic to China’s rulers.

However, many supporters – Sullivan for instance – were determined to make the issue the always subterranean influence of the “Jewish lobby,” and they scoffed at any argument against Freeman that, in their view, pretended that the “campaign” against Freeman was anything other than an attempt to maintain Jewish influence over American foreign policy judgments. Sullivan, who won this past year’s Weblog award as the Web’s top blogger – and previously generally sympathetic to Israel – has chosen, post Gaza, to beat his drum of pernicious Jewish influence over U.S. foreign policy like a new toy, and would see nothing but that influence in the Freeman controversy.

freeman-email-1

Ultimately, Freeman withdrew from consideration for the post, but not without releasing a broadside demonstrating the kind of reckless extremity of view that worried his opponents from the start. “The tactics of the Israel Lobby,” he charged, “plumb the depths of dishonor and indecency and include character assassination, selective misquotation, the willful distortion of the record, the fabrication of falsehoods, and an utter disregard for the truth.” He went on to further lambaste “a Lobby intent on enforcing the will and interests of a foreign government” rather than those of the United States, raising the specter of a Fifth Column.

wrote briefly about the imbroglio at the time and was spurred to some further comment yesterday by the surprising news of former Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang’s smuggled memoir of Tiananmen and his fall from power. Zhao’s perspective offered such a striking contrast to that of Freeman. A reader replied (see the comments section at right) suggesting I didn’t know what I was talking about: “You might want to be a little more inquisitive about the quotes attributed to Charles Freeman about Tiananmen.” He also offered the standard defense of all those who explore their mouths with their feet (but never of those whose words have been praised) that they are the victim of misquotation and “inaccuracies.”

This is all part of the divergent post-mortems of the affair competing with each other to survive and evolve into history. Some points, then, about Freeman are worth making. First, if a major part of the opposition to Freeman came from supporters of Israel, nothing about his exit from the scene gave the lie to their concerns. It is one thing to disagree with Israeli policies, as I have always opposed Israel’s settlement policy; it is another to evince obvious hostility of the kind that those who rail against the “Jewish Lobby” almost always do. It is another, also, to express sentiments so peculiarly deranged that the radar of anyone about whose people the words were spoken is bound to blare “Danger, Will Robinson!” while supporters of the vocalist are compelled to contort themselves in order to achieve a position of defense.

In my April 6 post I cited Freeman’s Jewish Daily Forward phone interview of March 25, 2009 in which he said of Israel:

It’s a foreign country, and while maybe 40 years ago many of its values were convergent with ours, I think there’s been a divergence of values.

How very bizarre. I mean – aren’t they all foreign countries? Why apply this adjective particularly to Israel? Yet here “foreign” does seem to suggest something more fundamentally “gut” in nature for Freeman, as in something “alien,” something to which one uncomfortably cannot relate. More foreign than Saudi Arabia? Than China? Than Iran? Israel, whatever its flaws, is a democracy, a nation governed by the constitutional rule of law, with universal suffrage, equal rights for women and, like the U.S., expanding gay rights. It is fully a product – politically, culturally, and socially – of Western civilization, just as is the United States. But somehow in contrast to those nations just mentioned, and score of others, it is from Israel that we have experienced a “divergence of values”? Asked in the clearest and most direct way possible – What the fuck is Charles Freeman talking about?

A careful reader can’t help but wonder – what or who over the history of Western civilization has been so much of that civilization, yet cast repeatedly as somehow antithetically alien to it, “foreign” in it, divergent in values? Really. Again.

freeman-email-2

Nonetheless, and despite the desire of Freeman supporters to make the matter all about Israel, the other criticisms of Freeman – and an essential one fundamentally ignored – are just as cogent.

Supporters everywhere praised the “contrarian” in Freeman, which, once the range of his views and expression became known, felt a little bit like grasping for the warm milk to help the castor oil of crackpot loose cannon go down. However, when you get past the contrarian veneer and the anti-Israeli bias in almost every sentence that, for many, the “contrarian” garb was meant to dress up (yes, so he credits the remarkable talents of the “European” founders of Israel – and Shaquille O’Neal is very tall), what you find, in truth, is a man temperamentally aligned to the preservation and exercise of state power. It is one thing to possess the practical virtue of being able to see circumstances through the eyes of a contestant or adversary – a quality for which Freeman was much praised; it is another, Stockholm-style, to begin to see things, in fact, as does the adversary.

In Freeman’s much discussed 2006 US-Arab Policymakers Conference speech, the Palestinians are barely mentioned. Israel, alone, for good or ill, always ill, is considered the determining actor in events. Who else, we might ask, sees the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in that way? And in the same speech, Freeman uses, with apparent naturalness and ease, the word “rulers” when referring to the heads of the GCC states rather than “leaders” or “heads of state” or some other, republican or democratic nomenclature that might come more readily to the tongue were these individuals anything other than, in fact, despotic rulers. But this fact does not restrain Freeman’s encomiums or the intimacy of his wise counsel, as the essential democratic nature of Israeli society, in contrast to the nature of the Arab states or the Palestinian parties, shows no influence on his judgment making.

The equally much discussed remarks about the Tiananmen Square massacre reveal the same temperamental affiliation with state control and order. The “unforgiveable mistake” of the Chinese rulers was that they had been too cautious. This phrase is couched in terms of a description of the “dominant view” in China, but it is clear that Freeman agrees with it and he terms it a “very plausible” view. (Read the entire email for yourself here.) However, “For myself, I side on this — if not on numerous other issues — with Gen. Douglas MacArthur. I do not believe it is acceptable for any country to allow the heart of its national capital to be occupied by dissidents intent on disrupting the normal functions of government, however appealing to foreigners their propaganda may be” [emphasis added].

To be clear, it is Freeman’s historical judgment that the Hoover-MacArthur directed attack on the 1932 “Bonus Army” – hardly the U.S. government’s proudest hour – was correct, and a model for future government action by a democratic government toward aggrieved and protesting citizens. The Chinese leadership, he says, had engaged in “dilatory tactics of appeasement” with the protesters. The protesters’ aspiration to liberty he characterizes as “propaganda.” And, to the point, it is not “acceptable for any country to allow the heart of its national capital to be occupied by dissidents intent on disrupting the normal functions of government” – that is, Freeman makes no distinctions as to a government’s inherent right to rule. The United States in 1932, China in 1989, a democracy, monarchy, authoritarian regime – it makes no difference in the consideration of a government’s legitimacy in opposing and crushing the incipient popular will of its people.

“I cannot conceive of any American government behaving with the ill-conceived restraint that the Zhao Ziyang administration did in China.” Note that it is Freemancharacterizing  Ziyang’s restraint as “ill-conceived.”

What Freeman pretends is a “realist’s” descriptive analysis of events is easily detected as a belief in the state’s – any state’s – imperative and right to maintain civil order, i.e. the condition for its continuance in power, regardless of the nature of the state or its rule and without any consideration to the political program of those who might oppose that state. The protesters at Tiananmen are reduced to, and belittled as, “exuberantly rebellious kids,” and Freeman is “aware of no evidence that Chinese currently consider their government less ‘legitimate’ or worthy of support than Americans do ours.” (Read this full email here.) This claim about general popular acquiescence to the rule of the existing government undoubtedly applied at the time of every native rebellion against the British Crown, as well as that by the American colonists, and the uprising against Louis VI. By Freeman’s “realist” and “contrarian” lights there would have been no Magna Carta and no American and French Revolutions.

Given this political alignment to power and “realist” disregard for the apparatus of democracy, it is no wonder that Freeman so easily operates without consideration to the essential difference in political nature between Israel and its enemies. “Even-handedness” that willfully ignores the differences between the adversarial parties has become again a fashion of the day – as in the foolish argumentative cry heard far too often after 9/11 that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter – and this is a fashion that suits Freeman’s amorality perfectly. But contrarian perspectives are one matter; consistently unsound judgment contrary to the spirit of democracy is another.

AJA

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The Political Animal

Drones and the Human Agency of War

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This commentary previously appeared in the Algemeiner on May 17, 2013.

Joshua Foust has written at Foreign Policy a misleadingly essay titled  “A Liberal Case for Drones.” I think there is such a case, but this it not it and a case for drones is not even truly the subject of the piece. The actual subject is raised very early by Foust’s question, “Could autonomous drones actually better safeguard human rights?” Not drones, but autonomous drones and their relation to human rights protections in war is the the actual subject of Foust’s considerations.  Why the title misleads you will have to ask Foust and Foreign Policy. That is not my interest here. Neither is the debate in the comments to Foust’s essay about whether there truly are or are likely to be any time soon autonomous drones. My interest is in Foust’s arguments and how they mistake the human problem of war.

Foust tells us that Human Rights Watch

argues that autonomous weapons take humanity out of conflict, creating a future of immoral killing and increased hardship to civilians. HRW calls for a categorical ban on all development of lethal autonomy in robotics. HRW is also spearheading a new global campaign to forbid the development of lethal autonomy.

To narrow the focus still more, then, the issue is lethally autonomous drones. (Or weapons of any kind; the focus on drones here is purely topical.)

“Offensive systems, which actively seek out targets to kill,” Foust quotes Armin Krishnan, a political scientist at the University of Texas at El Paso, “are a different moral category.”

Foust then makes the major both practical and moral focus of his essay the relative accuracy and reliability of human versus automated agency in offensive military strikes and killing. He acknowledges moral concerns – not with drones, per se, but with lethal autonomy – but he mistakes them.

Noel Sharkey, a high-profile critic of drones and a professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield, argued forcefully that machines cannot “distinguish between civilians and combatants,” apply the Geneva Conventions, or determine proportionate use of force.

It is a curious complaint: A human being did not distinguish between civilians and combatants, apply the Geneva Convention, or determine an appropriate use of force during the infamous 2007 “Collateral Murder” incident in Iraq, when American helicopter pilots mistook a Reuters camera crew for insurgents and fired on them and a civilian van that came to offer medical assistance.

Humans get tired, they miss important information, or they just have a bad day. Without machines making any decisions to fire weapons, humans are shooting missiles into crowds of people they cannot identify in so-called signature strikes.

Thus, for Foust, the morality of lethal autonomy in weapons systems is tied essentially to accuracy and reliability.

“If a drones system is sophisticated enough, it could be less emotional, more selective, and able to provide force in a way that achieves a tactical objective with the least harm,” Liles says. “A lethal autonomous robot can aim better, target better, select better, and in general be a better asset with the linked ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] packages it can run.”

In other words, a lethal autonomous drone could actually result in fewer casualties and less harm to civilians.

Implied by all Foust argues is that human moral advancement in the conduct of war – a problematic, though nonetheless genuine notion acknowledged by just war, among other, theories – is exemplified by diminished numbers of casualties, especially civilian and what would amount to more effective winning. This is a seductively appealing argument on the face of it. If we must sometimes fight wars (well, really, we must admit, it is far more often than sometimes) let us at least do it by killing as few people as possible, certainly as few women and children, in the classic formulation, and as few innocent civilians.

These are certainly goals to pursue, and the militarizes of liberal democracies do most of the time pursue them. But I do not think this goal is the essence of human moral advancement in war. First, effectiveness in winning war has never been a problem. Since wars began, whenever exactly that was – two clans fighting over a cave and a fire? – most of the time one side has managed some kind of victory. Warring groups have always been effective at winning.

On the score of diminished civilian casualties, whatever increased human concern with laws of war, through the mid twentieth century it can hardly be argued that humanity had achieved any form of advancement. More effectively lethal weapons produced, in fact, more killing, and more civilian death, on a scale previously unimaginable. Since the the second half of the twentieth century a pronounced characteristic of war, in the lethality of weaponry, has been that of profound technological disparity between warring parties. This has been so in all of the conflicts of the United States, of Israel over the past more than thirty years, of the Soviet Union and of Russia in Chechnya, for example. This has produced markedly lower comparative casualties on one side (not always a clear winner, as in the U.S. in Vietnam or Israel in Lebanon in 2006), though sometimes still comparatively massive casualties, even mostly civilian, as in Vietnam and the Iraq War, on the other. This disparity may be a happy development for the side with low numbers – not necessarily a winner, and not by any inherent necessity deserving of the benefit – but it cannot easily be argued that such a development is an advancement in the protection of human rights in war.

Foust touches on the heart of the matter only at the very end.

The issue of blame is the trickiest one in the autonomy debate. Rather than throwing one’s hands in the air and demanding a ban, as rights groups have done, why not simply point blame at those who employ them? If an autonomous Reaper fires at a group of civilians, then the blame should start with the policymaker who ordered it deployed and end with the programmer who encoded the rules of engagement.

This is far too facile in its moral acknowledgement and in its practical recognitions. In the latter regard, the very first product of technological autonomy will be a flight from responsibility-blame. A coder programming an autonomous offensive weapon according to approved selection criteria, under guidance of established military procedure and national law would be and should be no easy target for the assignment of moral responsibility. Such a chain of abstracted and decontextualized decisions is the very scenario of plausible deniability of responsible agency all around.

Responsible agency, the assumption of moral agency – not mere assignment of blame – is the heart of the matter. While earlier approaching the point, Foust misses it.

[T]he concern seems rooted in a moral objection to the use of machines per se: that when a machine uses force, it is somehow more horrible, less legitimate, and less ethical than when a human uses force. It isn’t a complaint fully grounded in how machines, computers, and robots actually function.

This is, indeed, essential to the more general debate over the use of drones; in the current consideration, though, the matter is not machines using force (really being used for), but machines using force autonomously. Autonomous weaponry removes the human moral agency of killing in war, could remove it, ultimately, from war altogether. Yet if anything can redeem the essential human crime of war, enact justice in the waging of it, it is precisely the complementary human moral agency of it.

Yes, if we must wage war, kill as few people as possible; yes, if we must, kill as few innocents as possible (on both sides). But it is, as Human Rights Watch and others assert, human beings who must take on the burden of that responsibility even if they might exercise it less perfectly than machines. War is the greatest crime against life we commit. It destroys the humanity of the dead and diminishes it of the living who wage and survive it. To reduce the numbers killed by passing off the complete task of killing to machines will not redeem a greater store of our humanity in a just cause, but instead sacrifice the remainder of the humanity we sought to save. To wage war and remain fully, tragically human, we must keep our own fingers poised, we must sight, however remotely, the people we have accepted as our enemies, and we must, with full recognition of what we do, accepting ourselves the burden of what we do, choose to pull the trigger ourselves. Automating war to greater perfection will not protect our human rights; it would diminish our human being. The crime of war is human. The morality in it can only be human too.

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The Political Animal

A Campaign of Willful Blindness on Terrorism

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This article first appeared in the Algemeiner on May 2, 2013.  

On April 15, 2013 at 2:49 p.m. two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Most of us know the details, more or less – the three dead, 264 wounded and maimed, the days of fear, of investigation and pursuit, the two Chechen brothers, one a radicalized Muslim now dead, the other apprehended.

The very next day, time unknown, Tim Wise, “anti-racist essayist, activist and educator,” posted to his website “Terrorism and Privilege: Understanding the Power of Whiteness.” Fewer than twenty-four hours after the bombs went off, Wise had written 1002 words stating three lessons of the event.

That violence is unacceptable stands out as one, sure. That hatred — for humanity, for life, or whatever else might have animated the bomber or bombers — is never the source of constructive human action seems like a reasonably close second.

The third lesson was “a lesson about race, about whiteness, and specifically, about white privilege.”

Wise included 53 links to details of deadly “terrorist” attacks by white people over the past seven decades. That was a lot of research over the twenty-four hours, the very immediate aftermath of first events, or the names and links had already been collected. Either way, it is a lot of concentration, too, a lot of focus, on a theme without much knowledge of events.

The same day, within the same twenty-four hour period – at 1:24 EDT to be exact, so only 21.5 hours after the explosions, David Sirota published at Salon.com “Let’s hope the Boston Marathon bomber is a white American .” Sirota’s general theme was the same as Wise’s. In fact, he quotes Wise’s essay of the same day, which means that Wise published even earlier than 21.5 hours after events, or that the two were in communication about their publishing intentions.

Wise and Sirota were not even first off the line. Salon.com had actually published, by Alex Seitz-Wald, Salon’s political reporter, on the very day, “After Boston explosions, a scapegoat emerges on the right.” The subhead read,

Following the New York Post’s lead, a belief is affirmed: The Boston explosions must have been done by Muslims.

The piece is even time stamped 4:36 PDT, which would be an hour and thirteen minutes before the explosions. Hildy Johnson’s got nothin’ on Alex Seitz-Wald.

It is clear that nearly instantaneous with the Boston bombings, there was a segment of the political spectrum invested in the idea that among the lessons to be learned, “[t]hat violence is unacceptable stands out as one, sure,” but that even if the attack was perpetrated by Muslims, the greater lesson to be learned would be about white people.

Coincidentally (?) that same day as Wise and Sirota published, the Huffington Post published, by Egyptian-Belgian writer Khaled Diab, “A Brief History of Western ‘Jihadists.” Also that day fromHuffington Post and Sonny Singh, “musician & social justice educator,” we got, only twenty-one hours after the attack, “Prayers for Boston and for an End to Racist [sic] Backlash.” From “neuroscience researcher, blogger, atheist” Vlad Chituc at Huffington Post, we had on April 17, “Even if It Was a Muslim, So What?” We had moved in fewer than forty-eight hours, during which it was almost immediately claimed a racist, scapegoating backlash had swept over the country, from let’s hope it’s a white man, whose whiteness is rich with meaning, to so what if it was a Muslim – that means nothing.

By two days later, anti-Semitic website Mondoweiss was publishing “Boston Marathon bombings unleash a new wave of Islamophobia.”

In what should make for discomforting symmetry, two days later still, on her Sunday MSNBC program, Tulane Professor Melissa Harris-Perry opined,

Given that they’re Chechen, given that they are literally Caucasian, our very sense of connection to them is this framed up notion of, like, Islam making them into something that is non-white.

Added Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson, “We want to demonize the other. We have to distance it from the dominant culture.”

Again, the impetus behind this concerted flipping of the script on the Boston bombing was to deflect attention away from Islamic beliefs, behaviors or radical ideology as any kind of particularly identifiable source of indiscriminate, terrorizing violence in the modern world, and to draw it instead – even when the violence can, in fact, be directly tied to Islam’s role in the lives of the perpetrators – to white, Western, even Christian culture, which, in remarkable contrast to the proposed non sequitur (“so what?”) of Islam, according to these arguments, can be readily invested with all kinds of connective meaning.

As we see, this effort to deny the implications of violence originating from individuals or groups espousing radical Islamic beliefs was pursued both in anticipation of and after discovery of the bombers’ motivations. This was actually the second part of a two-part effort. The first part involved hyping any indications of prejudicial backlash against American Muslims.

All over the internet and other forms of media, participants in the creation of this preemptive narrative drew attentions to the same handful of public incidents, instances of yellow journalism, and inflammatory public comments.

Singh, who was already “praying” for the end to an already existent “racist backlash” – wrote,

We have to worry about being attacked because of the color of skins, the turbans or hijabs on our heads, the beards on our faces. I pray that people in the United States and beyond have learned something in the last 11 and a half years. I pray that the collective response to yesterday will be drastically different from the knee-jerk racism that pervaded the days, weeks, months, and years after 9/11/01.

From Singh to Chituc to Mondoweiss to UK Progressive to the anonymous Islamophobia Todayonline news aggregator to Chloe Patton at openDemocracy, we read about the New York Post’ssensational and erroneous tabloid reportage. We read of the Murdoch empire’s further fear mongering on Fox News. We read of comments by the predictable crack pots, such as Alex Jones and Erik Rush, and by the usual suspects of incitement, from Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer and Glenn Beck to Laura Ingraham, Steve Emerson and the always bizarrely quotable Dana Rohrhacher. The same two incidents – attacks on a hijab-wearing Palestinian woman in Massachusetts and on a Bangladeshi man in the Bronx – were reported in account after account as evidence of a “wave of Islamophobia.” From a left perspective, politically misguided and even hateful counter programming can be expected from these sources on any issue. Yet this strikingly miniscule selection of examples has been used to manufacture, in its own right, the sensationally fabricated storyline of anti-Islamic fervor and activity in the United States after the Boston Marathon bombings.

From a counter foundation of fear mongering, that of some impending or already actual wave of “racist” Islamophobic attack,  was then offered the argument in demonstration, repeatedly, that while no relation between Islam and terrorist acts committed in its name could be meaningful ascribed, almost any group characterization related to the West, the U.S., Christianity, or Jews is empirically justifiable.

An outstanding example not on American media radar was the April 25 Patton diatribe atopenDemocracy. In contrast to the insular nature of American media and policy discussion, openDemocracy is well reflective of a cosmopolitan and internationalist left engaged in a broader discourse. In the aftermath of Boston, Patton’s piece warned in its title to “beware the multi-million dollar Islamophobia industry.” The article went on to hit many of the markers noted above, claiming that

the US Islamophobia industry has seized on the bombing to bolster its campaign of misinformation and fear-mongering, and we would do well to pay careful attention.

The evidence is abundant, however, that a counter force of apologists “seized” on the Boston bombings beginning on the very day of their occurrence “to bolster its campaign of misinformation and fear-mongering.” Seeking to expose the “Islamophobia industry,” Patton wrote,

A Centre for American Progress report found that between 2001 and 2009, [Steve] Emerson’s Investigative Project on Terrorism organisation, along with Daniel Pipes’s Middle East Forum, Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy, the David Horowitz Freedom Centre, the Clarion Fund, Robert Spencer’s Jihad Watch, the American Congress for Truth, and the Counterterrorism and Security Education and Research Foundation received over US $42 million from just seven major foundations.

Who knows how readers responded to this account of supposedly massive funding of extremist anti-Islamic organizations, but it is unlikely they knew that amidst the rich and rich panoply of American public policy and political organizations of every leaning, the progressive Center for American Progress itself, in 2010 alone, had a budget of US$36 million.

In the course of paying special attention to Emerson, Patton informs that he is “warmly received by the Christian Right and the pro-Israel lobby.” She later notes that “the threat that cashed-up conservatives pose to democracy cannot be ignored.” In marked contrast, the threat that ordnance-bearing Islamist fanatics pose to democracy, and to every humane Enlightenment liberal value, should not be articulated.

Diab, in his diversionary Huffington Post blog, and much in the embarrassing form of Brian Levin, director of the Center for Study of Hate and Extremism, during his appearance on Bill Maher’s Real Time, sought to deflect attention from Islamists in the twenty first century by citing “Western Jihadists” in any other century. If you hadn’t yet read modern Islamism excused by resort to the example of the famously obscure Guy Fawkes, and the Gun Powder Plot of 1605 to blow up the English Houses of Parliament, you know of it now.

The post Boston effort to erase from memory the record of contemporary Islamic terrorism, and the meaning of the beliefs that give rise to it, and to replace it with a narrative of typical and defining white, Western “racial” prejudice against Muslims has actually been long underway. Characteristic was Murtaza Hussain in Al-Jazeera last December warning of “Anti-Muslim violence spiralling out of control in America.”

What is the actual record of such violence?

According to the FBI compilation of hate crime statistics in the U.S., drawn from between eleven and fifteen thousand participating federal, state, and local agencies, since and including 2001, hate crimes against Muslims in the United States have averaged about 2% of all reported hate crimes each year. In contrast, hate crimes against Jews have averaged about 12.5%. Typically over those years, hate crimes against Jews have constituted 65-70% of all crimes with a religious basis. The total of all hate crimes against Muslims beginning with the recent peak year of 2001 through 2010 is 1608. During the same period, the total against Jews is 9470. Even when adjusted proportionately, the U.S. Muslim population being today about 40% of the Jewish, hate crimes against Jews are far more than double. In 2001, hate crimes against Muslims reached a height of 481. If we believe that these crimes are concentrated in a regrettable aftermath of prejudice post 9/11, then they were concentrated in a less than four month period. Yet that sad record quickly altered, for as soon as 2002 there was a drop to 155 reported crimes, and that number steadily declined to just over 100 until a 60% uptick in 2010. In that year offenses against Muslims rose to 160. Against Jews in that year the number was 897.

The point here is not for Jews or any other group to be in competition for most offended against and criminally attacked. The point is what the empirical realities are and what the narrative is being spun around those realities, for Muslims and for Jews, who as common and particular targets of Islamic anti-Semitism and Islamist genocidal threat and terror attack should have special interest in honest acknowledgement of international and local currents and the policies devised to cope with them.

Before 9/11, given the small size and recency of an American Muslim population, few Americans had had much experience of Muslims or knew or thought much about Islam, which is outside the historic experience of the nation and its culture. In contrast to the long black-white experience in the United States, originating in slavery, there is no long history to, or historical inherence of, anti-Muslim bigotry. Yet the effort is clearly afoot in some leftist ranks to incorporate purported culturally natural bias against Muslims into a general practice of white, dominant discrimination, even very pointedly to the point of spreading like a rash the misnomer of anti-Muslim racism. Thus, when thoughts arise of Islamist agency on the occasion of a terror attack, the urgent counter-claim is made within twenty-four hours that those very thoughts give expression to “racism.” They are a by-product of “white privilege.”

The sad slander of white privilege as a concept is its origination in, yet departure from, a profound truth – that, generally speaking, Westernness and whiteness in the world, like being American at this time in history or speaking English, or being tall or good looking, well rather than poorly educated, rich rather than poor, a smooth, easy talker instead of slow and halting are all natural or historically contingent bases for advantage in life. Some advantages, like the rewards of education, may seem eminently reasonable and fair, others, like those of good looks and height self-evidently not. To be a white male of the Western world, ah, there’s a long tale out of history, but it doesn’t tell very much the story of the coal miner or the cabbie, or the son of a cabbie who earned or learned his own way to an elevation in life that others may wish – judging just by appearance – to attribute to privilege.

An advantage may land in a roll of the dice; a privilege is in the power that loads them. The lord who preserves the manor lives a long way from the journeyman whose mother once dropped him near the verdure. The choice of white privilege as the denominator in this idea is a decision to accuse, not just of advantage or even immunity, but also of the due expectation of prerogative, and thus to charge with complicity, to impugn the natural moral consciousness, against proof to the contrary, of those so designated, simply by the color of their skin. Inviting resentment and ill feeling, the term generalizes, confronts, and makes defensive merely on the basis of skin color and it is, quite simply, on that basis alone, racist itself.

The resort to this sinking moral high ground is made by people properly concerned with the human ill of racism, but so preemptively concerned with it that they now layer that racial consciousness over the evidence of other features of reality. There may now be a contemporary world-historical crisis in the relationship between Islam and the liberal democratic legacy of the Enlightenment, but since that clash is between the inheritors of an historically tainted white European civilization and cultures readily otherized – orientalized – in multiple ways, western liberal democracy need be literally disarmed of aggressive defense by being intellectually neutered of any justification for it. Despite, then, the extensive record of the deep roots and long tracks of Islamist extremism, from Sayyid Qutb through the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda and onward, from pre-9/11 terrorism to post-9/11 terrorism, elements on the American left, like those internationally, believe they can rhetorically erase weak public memories of the source and nature of Islamic terror much as similar tendencies attempt to obscure the historical record of Arab rejectionism of Israel and the reasons for Palestinian statelessness.

They reduce the mere suggestion of it to racist ignorance of white privilege.

Even the rare complex and subtle consideration, such as that by Wilson Brissett and Patton Dodd at the Atlantic (online), follows the trend. Drawing from a well of reference on religion as a personal psychological and cultural phenomenon, including William James and his Varieties of Religious Experience they tell us,

Fanaticism is not religion pushed too far. It is tribalism without a tribe. And it can be a particular risk with the geographical and cultural dislocation attending the American experience of immigration, whether for the Wielands of Saxony or the Tsarnaevs of Dagestan.

But of course, with the increase of migratory movement throughout the world, we see these stresses elsewhere, particularly now in Europe, which has less experience of it than the U.S. Still, the authors or Atlantic editors choose to title their article “The Boston Bombing: Made in the U.S.A.”

“Piety is the mask,” James, wrote, “the inner force is tribal instinct.”

Brissett and Dodd conclude,

For most of American history, this ressentiment has hidden behind a Christian mask of piety. The new mask of piety for the American fanatical killer is Islam.

Well, not only, or even much, actually, the American fanatical killer. Mostly Islam is the mask for the non-American fanatical killer. But the one question so many otherwise thoughtful people no longer care to ask, among the so many others they entertain, is why Islam.

That is the most astonishing characteristic of this movement – its willingness, the active effort, to intellectually disable itself, even as it seeks to disable the arguments of those who might critique Islam by finding in it, and not the West, a source of contemporary intolerance. Recall Chituc’s “Even if It Was a Muslim, So What?”

So what. There is the disarmament. In feigned intellectual apathy and dumbness, contrary to the most fundamental human developments of empirical and rational thought, to evidentiary detail, which is the very rightful charge made by the left against rightwing antiscience extremism. Yet as recently as May 1, this drift was evinced on the left, on this subject, on the Rachel Maddow Show, as Maddow reported on the charges brought that day against three friends of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

I admire Rachel Maddow. I declare this not to offer polite respect to excuse abashed criticism, but actually to emphasize the critique. Amid the minimal quotient of entertainment snark, she offers on her program some of the finest left – good – broadcast journalism. Not a straight news broadcast, her program presents what are really journalistic essays with a clear point of view, loaded with the evidence of good reporting and the insights of Maddow and her producers into the pretexts and subtexts of the conservative agenda and its policies. Maddow thinks, she perceives, she sees into things.

After Jared Lee Loughner shot Rep. Gabby Giffords and 18 others, for instance, killing six, there was much angry contention between gun control and gun rights advocates over whether politics and culture might fairly be ascribed any responsibility for the shooting, given Loughner’s mental illness. Many conservatives were outraged at the suggestion that culture might bear any of the burden of the products of it. Maddow argued otherwise on her program, running through a history of mass shootings just during Loughner’s lifetime. She said,

Given that, each new American gun massacre is both singularly horrific in its own way and it is insane not to acknowledge that it is part of a very clear, very frequently repeating pattern.  Every time this happens, we look for answers and explanations and lessons in the specifics of the particular case.

In this case, the potential mental illness of the alleged shooter, the effort to try to find some political coherence, and what appeared to be his beliefs, the effort to find out whether it was his beliefs that note investigated the shooting, what exactly this killer was armed with, how exactly he was stopped, whether this could have been foretold by anything in his life—we look to these details.

That was then.

Now, apparently, Maddow has decided not to see into things, she has decided that making connections is, well… so what.

If one was attentive throughout the Boston arrests segment, a segment purporting to deliver rather straight news, one could pick up, from the very start, not Maddow’s clear point of view on the story, but her own subtext. The subtext rose closest to the main floor lobby during her interview of ex CIA and FBI terrorism expert Philip Mudd.

you have talked about the difference between an ideological association with a group like al qaeda and an operational association. an operational association would be the sort of thing we think about with them being kind of activated as a cell, them being directed to do something, trained to do something, and then they follow through. an aspirational or inspirational link would just be what they had in their heads when they were acting on their own accord. is that division between those two different kinds of relationships important in terms of whether or not we think about this as a terrorist attack versus a crime? should we care all that much about what these guys were thinking about if nobody told them to do this, if nobody trained them to do this, they worked it out on their own? [Emphasis added]

“Should we care all that much about what these guys were thinking?” So what. Don’t think, don’t make connections, abjure insight.

Like Brissett and Dodd, Maddow is advancing a new argument. Wrote the first two,

Tamerlan and Dzhokhar may have sought ties to other Islamic militants, but their actions do not appear to have been a centrally planned statement from a larger organization.

Maddow noted to Mudd, above,

you have talked about the difference between an ideological association with a group like al qaeda and an operational association. an operational association.

And a mere ideological association, “what these guys were thinking,” now that is something that we, in contrast, should not be thinking about.

Now, the champions of Galileo against the closed Christian mind, the inheritors of Darwin, the advocates of the scientific method that studies anthropogenic global warming have become the epiphenomenalists of terrorism: there are the hateful ideas and the violent acts. Make no connection between them, (unless it is to American culture, white people, “cashed-up conservatives” or the “Israel lobby”) and certainly do not think that the ideas produce the acts.

Do not even care. If one does not care, one doesn’t have to see. One can choose not to see.

There’s a term for that.

AJA

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Creative Culture Clash Indian Country Israel On The Road The Political Animal

Taking Stock, Taking a Leave

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The first post on this blog is dated December 2, 2008, so I have been blogging as of the date of this post, four years, three months and two days. I began when Julia and I hit the road during a sabbatical year, traveling the country in our motor home researching Native American life. In those early days, blogging was about our experiences in Indian Country and the deep, moving joy of road travel. If you feel the strike of an interest, you can go back in the monthly archives or click “On the Road” on the horizontal menu bar and read what it was like when this blog traveled a different path from the one of recent years.

Before that original mission, I had never imagined any interest or conceived an intention to blog. So it was a gradual startlement, of a kind most bloggers experience, at how, as Wallace Stevens once wrote, of a jar upon a hill in Tennessee, “It took dominion every where.” Major events have happened in my life while I blogged, acknowledged and transformed by the blog, as writing transfigures everything. As with other marked experiences in life, there is for me now life before the blog and life since the blog.

I learned over time, again like many other bloggers, that blogs generally cannot be all things to all readers. I tried to mix the original focus with a broader political interest and with rough drafts of some creative work, too. That did not work in building readership, and since I was not treating the blog as a personal journal, I did want it to be read. Political writing drew more readers more quickly, and it was easier to produce, so the sad red earth became, with occasional forays into locales my fancy still would take me, what it has become.

Beyond even those broad political interests, the sad red earth gave increasing attention to Israel. That was never my intention with the blog, either, but while unintentional, it was not accidental. In the area of international affairs, where my political interests predominate, Israel is the focus of many other people’s attention too, exceedingly beyond what its relative circumstances warrant. My concern with that fact might seem obviously based in my being Jewish, and it would be silly of me to deny that element of personal import, but were my concerns based in that personal relation alone, I would be hard pressed to make the case that Israel should matter to everyone. It should matter to everyone not because it matters to Jews, but because its misguided critics and it enemies, masked and outright, have placed it at the very fault line of a civilizational crisis that affects all liberal democracies, and the fissures extending from that fault lead in every political direction. Why Israel matters is a topic about which I will continue to write, with even greater focus and, I hope, clarity.

Now, though, after mostly long periods of daily blogging, or of blogging several times a week during these four plus years, over recent weeks, the frequency of my posts has diminished. I always tended to write not the usual brief or mid-length post, but extended essays, and even knocked out pretty quickly, they consumed a lot of time. This writing has had many benefits. I am a writer, and the past four years have been enormously productive of words, beyond even what is reflected on the sad red earth. But there is much else I want to write, of book length and in other genres, that cannot stand the drain of attention to the blog. I need the time to do that writing. There is, too, life stuff that needs to be unstuffed. The pressure to produce for the blog is not one I wish to accommodate anymore, not for now, anyway.

It is not my thought to give up blogging completely or for good. I have made for myself, if not a megaphone, at least, then, a little bottle for my message, and I plan to float it when the spirit moves: excerpts of and links to what I will publish elsewhere, as well as original posts whenever inspiration and opportunity are cooperative. In not too many days, there will be the spring issue of West and my column on poetry there. Other works in other genres are in other pipelines.

It is time for change. For half my life I didn’t know that I liked it as I do. In the second half of my life, I learned that I need it, feel a calling for it, like the undiscovered country that looms up speeding by through the window of a car, or a motor home or a train, any vehicle that can make a movie of the journey from where you are to where you have never been.

I wish to focus more on my creative work again, including that mix, or that meeting, of the personal with the world-historical forces that both produce and ignore the personal. I want to write some of that parchment that Aureliano II is reading at the end of One Hundred Years of Solitude, when the great hurricane begins to blow – the lived and unlived history of Macondo and its people leading to that moment.

Aureliano skipped eleven pages so as not to lose time with facts he knew only too well, and he began to decipher the instant that he was living, deciphering it as he lived it, prophesying himself in the act of deciphering the last page of the parchments, as if he were looking into a speaking mirror. Then he skipped again to anticipate the predictions and ascertain the date and circumstances of his death. Before reading the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.

AJA

Susana Baca & Javier Lazo

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Israel

Lessons from Brooklyn College BDS, Barghouti, and Butler

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This commentary originally appeared in the Algemeiner on February 22, 2013.

Reader and correspondent David Lurie has directed me to some not well-publicized revelations about the Brooklyn College BDS event. To begin, the campus BDS chapter defended itselfagainst various accusations of selective and prejudicial admission to the event and other claims, including the discriminatory eviction of four Jewish students. On the face of it, the account of circumstances surrounding admission is conceivable. One can easily imagine the organizers having become overwhelmed by the notoriety and numbers drawn by the event. One can imagine, but since there is no video record of events, we have only the current claims and counter claims.

Why is there no video record of events, which would help clarify the circumstances of the eviction of the four students, confirming or disconfirming different accounts?

Initially, BC-SJP decided not to allow the event to be videotaped by media, at the request of one of the speakers whose remarks were to be published online in The Nation magazine the same day.

While Brooklyn BDS curiously declines to name the speaker who requested the videotape ban, we know that this was Judith Butler, since they were her remarks that were published in The Nation. This is the Butler who opened her remarks by praising the idea of academic freedom and its preservation (!) in the successful holding of the BDS event.

It is not difficult to see why Butler sought the ban on videotaping. It was just last summer, during the controversy over her award of the Adorno Prize, whenvideotape of a 2006 UC Berkeley event revealed her praise of Hamas and Hezbollah as progressive organizations and her advocacy of engagement with them. During the summer controversy, she sought to misrepresent by the written word only what she had actually said, but the videotape exposed the truth. This time, Butler ensured there would be only her official statement. Without a videotape of her delivered remarks, we cannot even know for sure that what The Nation printed is even a completely accurate account of what Butler actually said.

Next, in a telephone interview with The Jewish Week, Carlos Guzman, one of the BDS event organizers, provided an account of the student evictions that contradicts public statements even by Brooklyn College.

The organizer of this month’s controversial forum at Brooklyn College who ordered four pro-Israel students ousted from the event said he acted because the students “didn’t belong” in the room, despite having been escorted there by a vice president of the school.

In an interview with The Jewish Week, Carlos Guzman said he also acted because it seemed to him that the students “were preparing” to circulate flyers to others in the room — not because they were doing so, as a college spokesman previously alleged.

….

Guzman later told The Jewish Week that college administrators “broke the rules. … They basically snuck them in without our knowledge, into the room.”

Amid the declarations of commitment to academic freedom and free inquiry, we see a contradictory pattern. Butler closed her remarks with a moral imperative.

We can or, rather, must start with how we speak, and how we listen, with the right to education, and to dwell critically, fractiously, and freely in political discourse together.

This is a characteristic, though unusually lucid example of the mystico-poetic theory-talk that emerged from the influence of Martin Heidegger. The notion of “dwelling” is particularly Heideggerian. Heidegger, in his profound considerations of the nature and function of language, distinguished between the practical use of language, in order to do things, and language that seeks deeper meaning, which gives rise to the poetic. Heidegger, we came to learn, failed drastically himself at managing the intersection of these two roles. Many of his linguistic children actually use a version of the poetic – specialized language like “dwell” – united with more generally impenetrable prose to obscure what they advocate doing (what they might call praxis) in the high fashion garb of intellectual mere rumination: I come to consider, not to act. Or in the reverse rhetorical ploy, seeking the same obscurity of action behind the act of speech, “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.”

Butler could more simply have said, in order to promote model democratic behavior, “We need to listen and speak freely and openly with each other, even when we disagree.” Instead, promoting a kind of realm of transformed being, she declares we must “dwell critically, fractiously, and freely in political discourse together.” In such a formulation strong disagreement is not merely a democratic difficulty we need to accommodate; it is fractiousness itself that is as much a feature as a bug of this elevated state of dwelling in free inquiry.

That’s the talk. What’s the praxis?

Butler bans cameras and publishes an official statement, which may or may not represent what she actually said, in a house organ – just as would any common polwho has placed into the Congressional “Record” remarks he later amends, or never actually delivered on a congressional floor. Or some Commissar erecting a verbal Potemkin Village of an occurrence. She does not, by any account, speak up to protest when the Brooklyn BDS modus operandi, according to one of the event’s own organizers was clearly not to “dwellcriticallyfractiously, and freely in political discourse together.”

It is a phenomenon always to be observed how a certain kind of missionary critic will become, by backward projection, that which she, or he, critiques. Witness Julian Assange’s efforts to protect his own secrets.

A truth about BDS that it seeks to obscure, and about many fervid opponents of Israel, is that much like the verbal show of intellectual liberty belied by performance above, they mask their fuller intentions under a cloak of civil rights or, here, academic freedom. In the West today, there are many Islamic fundamentalists who will decry any apparent violation of their rights – which in a democracy they should indeed be entitled to do – while, as advocates of Sharia, they do actually believe in those rights at all. During the McCarthy era, those who appeared resistantly before congressional committees commonly stood on either their Fifth or First Amendment rights. They did have rights to do either, but which choice they made – to refuse to disclose their beliefs in self-protection or to assert freely their right to those beliefs – could reveal much about the integrity of the person’s acts and position.

Fundamental to Brooklyn College and its political science department’s defense in sponsoring the BDS event was the claim that sponsorship did not signal endorsement of BDS as a policy. I have already discussed the greater complexity of implication in the sponsorship than such simple disclaimers acknowledge. It appears that every other academic department on the Brooklyn College campus recognized this complexity, too, when all 33 that political science chair Paisley Currah contacted amid the controversy, that they might ratify the political science department in co-sponsorship, declined to do so. Brooklyn College English professor and well-known progressive voice Eric Altermanexplained this refusal.

No doubt many if not most of the supporters of BDS are the naïve, idealistic types of people who were attracted to Communism in the thirties, the Black Panthers in the sixtiess, the Nader campaign in 2000 and who knows what will comes next. In certain respects, once upon a time, I was this kind of person myself. But their innocence—and the abuse that results from opposing them—does not excuse our responsibility to condemn the intellectual masquerade in which BDS engages and the destructive consequences it supports.

BDS leader Omar Barghouti has openly, yet disingenuously stated,

While I firmly advocate nonviolent forms of struggle such as boycott, divestment, and sanctions to attain Palestinian goals, I just as decisively, though on a separate track, support a unitary state based on freedom, justice, and comprehensive equality as the solution to the Palestinian-Israeli colonial conflict.

This is an intellectually preposterous notion, tapping into both the deceitful and self-deceptive etymology of the fallacious. BDS promotes the most aggressively delegitimizing view of Israel’s position, policies, and practices in response to over sixty years of rejection and aggression against it from the Arab world. To advocate for the moral imperative of BDS is to reject Israel’s claims to its history, both ancient and modern, and the legitimacy of its efforts to survive as a Jewish state. Barghouti, in fact, advocates the demise of Israel as a Jewish state. These are not different tracks: the perspective on Israel and the effective goal are the same. The claim of a “separate track” is a declarative shell game so poor and detectable that one can see the ball rolling on the table as it shifts from shell to shell.

More openly, Judith Butler, without the aid of rhetorical railroad switches, openly opposes the existence of Israel.

Despite its claims, what the Brooklyn College political science department sponsored was more than an educational exercise in academic freedom, a demonstration of the free inquiry that is the defining activity of a university. If what the department did was no more than place its imprimatur on the BDS event as one presenting an idea worthy of intellectual consideration and debate, then what the department so offered moral standing to is the idea that Israel, in its historic self-defense, is an outlaw state, an idea promoted by two people who believe that Israel should cease to exist and who are committed to promoting that end. The wild and ludicrous arrogance of all those involved in fulfilling this role lies in the smug sense of entitlement to so threaten the legitimacy and future of a whole nation, the fulfillment of a people’s millennial dream of deliverance, and receive no strong and assertive reaction in response. The burlesque of this academic variety review is to pretend that BDS is mere formulas on a chalkboard, the oscillating multi-verse versus a terminal Big Bang, a symposium on Adam Smith and Karl Marx – when instead it is an activist political campaign against one party to an intractable and existential conflict. And supporters of that party, Israel, are supposed to light their pipes and polish their elbow patches and admire the scholarship.

One truth may be that some academics are so accustomed to the flatulent stink of their own quickly dissipating rhetoric – like Butler’s commitment to dwelling in something or other – that they believe they can engage in political activism in the guise of academic inquiry and receive a free pass from those they act against. They think they get to play pied piper, then claim that all they are doing is putting on a concert. A marked case in point is CUNY doctoral student Kristofer Petersen-Overton, the focus of controversy at Brooklyn College himself two years ago, when he was hired, then unhired, then rehired to teach a grad course on the Middle East.

Writing in the Huffington Post to criticize those who opposed the Brooklyn College BDS event, Petersen-Overton offered the standard disingenuous deceptions, claiming of opponents that they had

managed to transform a standard panel discussion on a controversial issue into a cause for pious outrage.

standard panel discussion of two, not discussants, but advocates. But why quibble over nomenclature. It’s just talk, right?

Petersen-Overton also took issue with Alan Dershowitz, whom he termed a

longtime scourge and chief prosecutor of insufficiently pro-Israel academics everywhere.

Yes, that is it, isn’t it – one draws interest from Dershowitz by being “insufficiently pro.”

Curiously, Paisley Currah, in his defense of his political science department – the department that did, ultimately, by unanimous vote rehire Petersen-Overton to teach – a defense that offered that familiar refrain about the non-meaning of the BDS event sponsorship (also conveyed unanimously – not veryfractious that Poly Sci department, are they), not only vigorously contested Dershowitz’s arguments, but characterized him, in his objections, to start, as one of “the usual suspects.”

Interesting phrase. Usual suspects? In what?

Currah specializes in queer and transgender issues, but Dershowitz is a full-throated advocate of gay rights, so he can’t be suspect in that area. Dershowitz is also a noted advocate of civil liberties, so in that cannot reside the suspicion.

Is it Israel? Is Dershowitz a “usual suspect” in regard to Israel? In what? In his ardent defense of the nation? Suspect?

What leanings does this glib phrase betray? Oh, and Petersen-Overton, about whom the issue of contention two years ago was his capacity for academic objectivity, against his record of Palestinianadvocacy, and a similar body of published work? Writing about BDS just this past October, he said,

In this essay, I take it for granted that Israel’s behavior in the occupied Palestinian territories is characterized by extreme violence and racism, defining qualities of all military occupations. We may or not agree as to the particular details of a desirable settlement, but for those of us uninfluenced by either dogmatic messianism or unrepentant sadism, the occupation must come to an end sooner or later. As activists and scholars who take an interest in human rights, we should be willing to consider the ethical and strategic desirability of all forms of resistance. No discussion should be off-limits.

Here’s to the academic life. And its freedoms.

AJA

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Response to Judith Butler at Brooklyn College

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This commentary first appeared in the Algemeiner on February 15. 

Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti

The ironic and the disingenuous are kin. Their commonality resides in a gap, which is the distance between what is said and something else. With the ironic, the distance is between what one says and what one means. With the disingenuous, the distance is between what one says and what one has reason to recognize as true.

Judith Butler is not an ironist – not intentionally so, or perhaps only once, when she opened her remarks at Brooklyn College by referring to the controversy surrounding her appearance with Omar Barghouti at the Students for Justice in Palestine BDS event as a Megillah: “What a Megillah!” By these words Butler sought to wrap her appearance and the destructive impetus of BDS in the comfort of traditional Jewish experience – a tedium, like the tedium of all that Jewish disputation over the millennia, but by that fact merely a part of Jewish experience, just oystaynenzikh over coffee and some rugelach, and not thereby an outlier, something to fear or be rejected. No more than a variation on the time-honored tendency to hakn a tshaynik among the mishpucha.

Butler knew, however,that what she is about is not a comfort, that it would unravel the wrap, and that the arguments against her are so far from a tedium that she would spend all her words to misrepresent and seek to counter them.

Butler closed her remarks – it is the next to last sentence – so:

We can or, rather, must start with how we speak, and how we listen, with the right to education, and to dwell critically, fractiously, and freely in political discourse together.

She had opened her remarks by saying,

I would like personally to thank all those who took this opportunity to reaffirm the fundamental principles of academic freedom.

This of an event that was closed to the general public, to which the press was barred, and from which voices presumed to be dissenting were ejected.

What an ironist. How disingenuous.

Academic Freedom: What We’re Talking About

The Brooklyn College political science department claimed that to sponsor the event was not necessarily to endorse it. Much of the controversy surrounding the event has hung on this point even while missing it. It is a fine point still lacking – from the Brooklyn College political science department and anyone else who has written on the matter – an effective distinction.

To sponsor is to take responsibility for or to financially underwrite. To endorse is to express support or approval. To take responsibility for is one form of support. To financially underwrite is also a form of support. When the campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine sought co “sponsorship”of the event by the political science department, SJP did not, according to department chair Paisley Currah, seek and receive financial support for the event. Financial support raises other issues, but since there was none, they need not in this instance be addressed. Without funding from the department, what could the meaning of “sponsorship” be? Other than the college’s stating what it claims sponsorship is not – endorsement – what is it?

With no other practical purpose, sponsorship can only signal some form of endorsement.

But endorsement of what?

A university can stand in three relations to an idea. One is to agree with and promote it. Most people would argue that this is not the role of a university, but obviously, when one considers it, universities do agree with and promote the idea of free inquiry – academic freedom – and, arguably, a liberal education.

A university may represent ideas as worthy of intellectual regard. This is its primary role. In political philosophy, students learn of utilitarianism, Marxism, liberal democracy, anarcho-syndicalism, Plato’s enlightened autocracy. The university will serve as advocate for none of them, but moderate, instead, students’ encounter and engagement with these ideas.

A university will not represent all ideas as worthy of intellectual regard. It will not so represent Nazism or racism (not just the behavior, but a belief in racial superiority) or pederasty as an acceptable model of adolescent development. It is the precise role of the university, however, to acknowledge, in the appropriate context, all ideas and clarify them for educational purposes. In the appropriate classes, students will and should learn about Nazism, what it advocated and what it was. One can imagine the wavering commitment of many, though, were a branch of the Ku Klux Klan to establish a student group on the Brooklyn College Campus and invite David Duke (both a racist and anti-Semite) to speak, while also seeking the “sponsorship” of the political science department.

If Brooklyn College’s sponsorship was not fully of BDS as a position, an advocacy of it, the sponsorship was at least, then, of BDS as a morally respectable idea, so that a university would be fulfilling its proper role not only in acknowledging the idea’s existence and clarifying it for educational purposes, but actually in promoting the idea as worthy of our consideration and our moral intellectual regard and not beyond the pale.

However, when one rejects bias and discrimination and corrupt historical revisionism, such as Holocaust denial, one does not only reject them as supportable practices, but as ideas worthy of our serious engagement. The role of the university is to permit students who are led to engage an objectionable idea to so engage it, even, where appropriate, to educate them in its nature. In that is the academic freedom. Academic freedom does not require that the institution place an imprimatur of sponsorship upon an extra-mural event, an imprimatur that has no other, practical meaning but the symbolism of the sponsorship. The choice to provide such an imprimatur can only reasonably be interpreted as a signal that the ideas to be presented at the event are worthy of consideration. This Brooklyn College, in mischaracterizing the nature and responsibilities of academic freedom, disingenuously fails to acknowledge, as does Judith Butler, who actually does endorse BDS.

An Unreliable Narrator

“That there is no final or adequate narrative reconstruction of the prehistory of the speaking ‘I’ does not mean we cannot narrate it; it only means that at the moment when we narrate we become speculative philosophers or fiction writers.”

Judith Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself

Still prefatory to her actual attention to Israel, Butler felt compelled to acknowledge the Brooklyn College event’s most vocal and high profile critic, stating that it had been asserted that

no one can have a conversation on this issue in the US that does not include a certain Harvard professor, but that spectacular argument was so self-inflationary and self-indicting, that I could only respond with astonishment.

No doubt, the audience was amused by this deflationary poke. Of course the gibe was at Alan Dershowitz, who it is my understanding is capable of offering his own defenses, but we learn something from the specific claim of the criticism. Here is what Dershowitiz actually said to this point:

The event shouldn’t be cancelled, but the political science department should withdraw it’s [sic] support, or alternatively the political science department should invite me or someone else that represents an opposing point of view and give equal endorsement.

Dershowitz’s focus, we see, was on the political science department’s sponsorship of the event, and he considered it sufficient merely for the sponsorship to be withdrawn. Alternatively, he offered himself or anyone else who could represent the opposing view to participate in the sponsored event.

If Butler cannot accurately represent in a single sentence the content and the rather simple alternative proposal of one single other sentence, how may she be trusted to offer an account of matters so complex and profound as the history and nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

In the same paragraph, Butler had asserted,

If BDS is hate speech, then it is surely not protected speech, and it would surely not be appropriate for any institution of higher learning to sponsor or make room for such speech.

She attempts to refute the two proposed claims – Dershowitiz must speak and BDS is hate speech – by presenting them as contradictory.

So in the [case of hate speech], it is not a viewpoint (and so not protected as extra-mural speech), but in the [other] instance, it is a viewpoint, presumably singular, but cannot be allowed to be heard without an immediate refutation. The contradiction is clear, but when people engage in a quick succession of contradictory claims such as these, it is usually because they are looking for whatever artillery they have at their disposal to stop something from happening.

In the two quotations above, Butler makes three additional misstatements. First, it may be that in the rhetoric department at U.C. Berkeley hate speech is not protected speech, but in the United States of America, it is protected. It is also, wherever it may direct its hate, a viewpoint. It may be an ugly, emotion laden viewpoint, but it takes a view, and it has a point, and not infrequently in our contentious activist world, movements are constructed around those points.

A ” quick succession of contradictory claims” is surely inimical to informed discussion and debate. So, too, is the inability to accurately describe reality in even a single sentence.

Butler sets next on refuting claims that the BDS movement is anti-Semitic. She asks,

[W]hy would a non-violent movement to achieve basic political rights for Palestinians be understood as anti-Semitic?… [W]hy would a collective struggle to use economic and cultural forms of power to compel the enforcement of international laws be considered anti-Semitic?

She introduces her summation of this rhetorical display, with

For those who say that exercising internationally recognized rights is anti-Semitic….

The level of disingenuousness in these loaded questions and distorted characterization is truly remarkable. It is the first demonstration of a fair and critical mind, capable of stepping outside the frame of its own narrative, to be able to represent its interlocutor’s argument in the opponent’s own terms. The challenge then is to refute the terms of the opponent’s argument and offer one’s one own terms in rebuttal. Yet when Butler, a believer in narratives, calls in her closing for us all to “dwell critically, fractiously, and freely in political discourse together,” she is so opaque to herself that even when she assumes the rhetorical stance of stating her opponent’s position, she cannot, even to the level of a lone introductory phrase, represent it honestly, so as to attempt the refutation honestly.

All the preceding is sufficient to demonstrate Butler’s level of reliability as an interlocutor in debate. (There is far more of this kind of inaccuracy and mischaracterization in her five thousand words than is accounted for here.) At Brooklyn College she had two major points to make about Jews, and the first continued this pattern of misrepresentation, but at this stage, in the critical matter of Butler’s own special concerns, more subtly.

Only if we accept the proposition that the state of Israel is the exclusive and legitimate representative of the Jewish people would a movement calling for divestment, sanctions and boycott against that state be understood as directed against the Jewish people as a whole. Israel would then be understood as co-extensive with the Jewish people.

….

The second point, to repeat, is that the Jewish people extend beyond the state of Israel and the ideology of political Zionism. The two cannot be equated

This argument is both obtuse and a straw man. No significant party, if any, claims that Israel is “the exclusive and legitimate representative of the Jewish people” that Israel is “co-extensive with the Jewish people,” or rejects the manifest reality that the “Jewish people extend beyond the state of Israel and … Zionism.” No more than is France the exclusive representative of the French people or Russia of the Russian people. People of French ethnic origin, like any other, may, and do, live in other nations, may engage French cultural practice, may feel a sense of French identification even while preferring to live elsewhere, may criticize French society or government, may even give up their citizenship for another, while remaining ethnically and even recognizably “French.”

Of course, Jewishness, serving as both ethnicity and religious faith offers conceptual complications for nationality. So does all of human history. The French pied-noir of colonial North Africa found themselves after Algerian independence no longer acceptably Algerian and not comfortably French. Unlike most other nations, nationality in the United States has nothing to do with ethnicity. In contrast, no one expatriating to Russia and gaining Russian citizenship would ever, nonetheless, be considered “Russian.” Those of Irish descent in the U.S. frequently feel very strong identification with Ireland, as during the long conflict in Northern Ireland. Nonetheless, they remained American in citizenship and in equally strong identification. They criticized one side or another in Ireland, yet if a grandparent was born in Ireland, are automatically eligible for Irish citizenship. These complexities of social organization are the rule. The question is whether we generously accommodate them – in honor of the impulse toward affective association that leads all peoples, Palestinians, too, to wish to dwell together in commonality –  or we choose one anomaly among others as the reason for prejudicial exception against Israel and Jews, under the pretense that there is any kind of categorical consistency to nationality.

One atypical feature that Butler exploits regarding Israel is the apparent lexical distinction, in English, between the words “Israel” and “Jew.” This is unlike the obvious relation of “France” to “French” and “Russia” to ”Russian.” The apparent verbal separation seems to provide an opening for making just that argument of separation between Israel and Jews. On the contrary of course, etymologically, Israel, or Yisrael in Hebrew are the descendents of Jacob, who have struggled with God, the Hebrew people – Jews.

Why are not citizens of the United States called United Statesians? What crisis of authority in representation– if voluntarily accepted – does this present? Would the likeness to other national identifications be easier to recognize if Israel changed its name, to suit the modern lingua franca, to Jewland?

Or would such an alteration only highlight all the more the true issue at the core – the objection by Butler that there be a land for the Jews?

Before Butler got to that central conviction, however – her objection to the existence of a land for the Jews – there was one more logical stumble to make on the way to her lurching conclusion. It is easier to dispense with Israel if one can argue that Israel deserves to be dispensed with.

If Israel is to be considered a democracy, the non-Jewish population deserves equal rights under the law.

Now certainly all true democrats will acknowledge that every proclaimed democracy faces the moral compulsion to pursue complete and perfect democracy. The United States pursues that so far elusive goal too. But the “if/(then)” conditional Butler puts forward commits the “all or nothing” variation on the fallacy of false dilemma. In full context, she is claiming that Israel is discriminatory toward its non-Jewish citizens. (Butler chooses to say “population” rather than citizens, perhaps because that in itself would speak well of Israel and would raise the inevitable contrast with Lebanon and Jordan, where Palestinians citizenship and rights have been dramatically and increasingly problematic.) Her all or nothing claim is that if Israel has deficiencies in its equal extension of rights to all of its citizens, then, by dint of that imperfection, it is not a democracy at all, and is clearly a deserving target of its critics. We would find by this fallacious logic that probably nary a democracy in the world is actually a democracy, including certainly the United States during the long period of African slavery, the longer period of female and Indian disenfranchisement, and even until today, when LGBT Americans do not enjoy fully equal rights.

Butler’s continuous forays into illogic are not ultimately a difficulty in her arguments against Israel, though, since Israel should not exist to begin.

The Exile of the Jews

The essential argument against BDS that Butler sought to refute is that it is discriminatory, hateful, anti-Semitic, even destructive.

I am only seeking to make the case that BDS is not a destructive or hateful movement.

Butler claimed that she does not agree with all expressions of the BDS movement, yet she chose to appear with Omar Barghouti. Omar Barghouti expressly seeks the end – the destruction – of  Israel and of a Jewish state.

While I firmly advocate nonviolent forms of struggle such as boycott, divestment, and sanctions to attain Palestinian goals, I just as decisively, though on a separate track, support a unitary state based on freedom, justice, and comprehensive equality as the solution to the Palestinian-Israeli colonial conflict.

Butler also offered a risible protest against the abuse of Holocaust and Nazi analogies by defenders of Israel, when anyone conversant with the contemporary contours of this debate knows that such comparisons, of Israel to Nazi Germany, in word and in image, have become a nearly daily commonplace from foes of Israel – even from Omar Barghouti.

Avishai D. Don, writing for the Harvard Crimson almost exactly a year ago on the subject of BDS and Barghouti’s book Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, said,

But the BDS movement hides its ultimate goal of dismantling the Jewish state behind its public rhetoric.

….

Utilizing the vocabulary of international norms, the movement actually systematically attempts to undermine the international consensus that recognizes Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

This is what Butler did disingenuously at Brooklyn College, first, by appearing with Bhargouti, and second, by failing to acknowledge at that college, that educational setting, that she, too, does not merely seek to correct Israeli policy, but actively opposes the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. She did hint at her position, though.

When Zionism becomes co-extensive with Jewishness, Jewishness is pitted against the diversity that defines democracy, and if I may say so, betrays one of the most important ethical dimensions of the diasporic Jewish tradition, namely, the obligation of co-habitation with those different from ourselves.

Butler does not explain why the Frenchness of France or the Japaneseness of Japan are not so “pitted against the diversity that defines democracy” that the existence of their states, too, need be opposed. However, she does manage to misrepresent the truth in yet another sentence. Butler refers to one of the “ethical dimensions of the diasporic Jewish tradition, namely, the obligation of co-habitation with those different from ourselves.” What shall we say of thinking that characterizes as an ethical obligation what was actually an existential necessity, a necessity that met its ultimate failure in the Holocaust – a failure that should have served irrefutably for all as the irresistible historical peroration of the necessity of the Jewish state? But Butler has stated on more than one occasion that she does not, in her public utterance and advocacy, feel compelled to seek accordance with reality.

It may be that binationalism is an impossibility, but that mere fact does not suffice as a reason to be against it.

Butler wrote those words in Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism, and it is in that work that she fully makes the case for the “ethical dimensions of the diasporic Jewish tradition.” Alan Johnson sums the argument in his Fathom review of the book.

Dispersion, for Butler, must be thought ‘not only as a geographical situation but also as an ethical modality.’ By returning to the diasporic experience we find a ‘Jewish route to the insight that equality must be secured for a population regardless of religious affiliation’ and a means to effect ‘a displacement of the nation as the exclusive framework of ethical relations.’

Words on a page, their reception by the eyes, the scanned processing in rapid succession, for immediate comprehension, of the ideas of a text may not always deliver their full effect. Sometimes what has been said needs to settle, to descend deeper into comprehension with the full weight of meaning and implication, and in some cases, the effrontery of its claim upon the world. Butler argues not only that Jews drew from the Diaspora, their long exile in often and ultimately almost always hostile foreign lands, the experience and insights of an expanded and deeper moral nature. Butler is arguing, too, that this exilic nature has finally actually become the Jews: consigned to exile, Jews should now be condemned to it, for clearly there are millions of Jews who do not wish it. This is of no concern to Butler, for whom impossibility is no bar to reason, like labeling as a “solution” the kind of proposal that millions would fight and even die to prevent.

Jews, for Judith Butler, are to become the symbolic sacrifice on the ideational alter of post-nationalism, for their renewed exile will represent “a displacement of the nation as the exclusive framework of ethical relations.” The God of Abraham and of Moses would let his people go. Cyrus the Great would release the Jews from captivity in Babylon. But Judith Butler will exile them forever.

Who today would theorize that the African Diaspora, having been stolen from their homes and submerged in the depths of servitude had actually – look at the riches of culture they have produced out of their pain and endurance in so many nations – found their true and greater natures in an ethic of selfless service, to which perhaps they should return? Who would philosophize that the indigenous populations of the world – those whom Butler and her allies continue to abuse by co-opting the vocabulary of their cause as a weapon against not Israel, but Jews – who would argue that in their centuries of conquest, abuse, and loss, their alienation from spiritual relation to their lands, indigenous peoples have been transformed by history into a moral exemplar, and that only through their continued disconnection and their yearning for reconnection can they serve to lead us away from materialism and back to a purer relation to the earth?

But Jews should be returned to exile from the land that was, and is again, their own in order to model “a displacement of the nation as the exclusive framework of ethical relations.”

Butler  finds difficulty with the term ant-Semitic. She argued repeatedly at Brooklyn College against its use and applicability to the selective and discriminatory policies she promotes. It has become, to her mind, a term subject to “radical misuse.” Here is another term, then, to describe her convolution of Jewishness, perhaps fresher and more forceful to her mind. It is an obscenity.

AJA

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The Israeli-Palestinian Textbook Study Fraud

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This commentary first appeared in the Algemeiner on February 8. 

Palestinian children march during the 39th anniversary celebration of the founding of Fatah.

You think you’re a person of good will and fair minded. You are a strong and aggressive advocate for Israel against its many and varied enemies, malicious or misguided, but you are not single-minded: you support two states for two peoples – Jews and Palestinians – both with ancient historic claims to their presence on the land, and have always opposed the settlement project. Even more, however, you have committed yourself to opposing, wherever it reveals itself, the vile and unyielding hatred and rejection of Jews that disfigures Arab societies and humanity. Still you wish always to be fair and intellectually honest: this six decades long dance of aggression and defense, of control and resistance has been unavoidably a test of everyone’s empathy. Even those on your side – those of whom you are one, the Jews, those whom you support and whose greater justice and openness to resolution of the conflict is recorded on every page of the historical record – even they, for they are human, will err, will convince themselves of a falsehood, will stand defensively resistant to the evidence that disproves some dearly held conviction.

When, then, you read of a scholarly study – “Victims of our own Narratives?” it is called – the results of which appear to disprove just such a crucial conviction, that Palestinian educational materials incite hatred of Jews, you brace yourself. You have seen the videos of very young Palestinian children inculcated through song and pageantry in the murderous glorification of suicidal “martyrdom.” You have seen the parades and dedication ceremonies with the speeches in honor of people who fought no armies, but have blown up, instead, buses with civilians and children on them. (If torture of Al-Qaeda leaders was a stain on American moral distinction, what corruption of the soul is it to stand in celebration of the dismembered bodies in pizza parlors?) You could go on and on.

Still, you tell yourself, you could be deluded – the victim of a comforting, but false narrative – about the totality of this demonization. Who can ever be immune? How many stories of the past, repeated in chorus after chorus, become a substitute for actual memory? Prepare yourself, you say. Be honest. Judge the evidence as it reveals itself. The truth is great and complex. It needs no lies to champion its ascendance.

You read of the study’s supervisor, Bruce Wexler, emeritus professor of psychiatry at Yale. You read of the balance of nationalities of those who work on the study, and of the advisory board of distinguished figures. There is the balance, too, and the distinction, of the lead researchers, Palestinian scholar Sami Adwan of Bethlehem University, and Israeli Daniel Bar-Tal from Tel Aviv University. The study was commissioned by the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land and even financially underwritten by the U.S. State Department. It all shapes an impressive imprimatur.

The results?

Academic Study Weakens Israeli Claim That Palestinian School Texts Teach Hate,” headlines The New York Times.

Textbook Study Debunks Myth of Palestinian Incitement,” asserts Al-Monitor, the sexy new voice of Middle East reportage.

Textbooks show both sides to blame for enmity,” reports The Jerusalem Post.

Textbook study faults Israelis and Palestinians,” the Associated Press informs with balance.

Both Israeli and Palestinian schoolbooks largely present one-sided narratives of the conflict between the two peoples and tend to ignore the existence of the other side, but rarely resort to demonization, a U.S. State Department-funded study released Monday said.

Even, already, the story – to speak of narratives – is told on Wikipedia.

A comprehensive three year study (2009-2012), regarded by its researchers as ‘ the most definitive and balanced study to date on the topic,’[4][5] found that incitement, demonization or negative depictions of the other in children’s education was “extremely rare” in both Israeli and Palestinian school texts, with only 6 instances discovered in over 9,964 pages of Palestinian textbooks, none of which consisted of “general dehumanising characterisations of personal traits of Jews or Israelis”.[4]

Oh, dear, you think.

Be a man, you tell yourself.

You continue to read, whatever you can. Maybe you seek an escape hatch. Let us be honest about that. Because we are all being honest in all we do here, are we not? But you also know that in this matter – in all matters, of course, but especially in this matter of Israel and of Jews – it is wise always to read a little more, learn a little more, know something more. You learn that Israel’s Minister of Education Gideon Sa’ar has rejected the study out of hand. That is troubling. Such a reputable academic study, simply dismissed. This will look bad, and rightly so.

And then you read of Bruce Wexler’s response to the rejection.

“That man cannot see beyond the blinders that have come into his mind by developing as a product of a national narrative that can’t understand the types of things we’re talking about here, and by the way, national leaders who have those blind spots, like he does, make for poor and dangerous national leaders.”

You pause. You think, something is not right about that comment, its tone and its condemnation. Where is the scholarly temperament? Where is the neutrality? Surely, Wexler, a professor of psychiatry who is seeking accurate descriptions of reality, whatever they may be, committed to the tale told by the evidence and not invested in the climax – surely he would understand that an outcome upending the firm beliefs of only one party under study would be disturbing. He would anticipate that. And his role, his neutral and scholarly role, would be, surely, to defend and advocate for the integrity of his study, in the long term interest of advancing knowledge, but not to attack those under study for failing to acquiesce in the study’s conclusion. How often do researchers treat the subjects of their study with contempt?

Something not right.

And you wonder about “blinders that have come into his mind by developing as a product of a national narrative that can’t understand the types of things we’re talking about here.” You wonder, is that a response merely to Sa’ar’s dismissal of the study? Because it does seems to reveal an already existing perspective.

Let’s read some more, you tell yourself. Let’s see if this leads anywhere.

You begin to read from varied sources widely varying reports on the number of textbooks studied, from “3,000 texts, illustrations and maps,” in the notoriously biased Guardian, by the notoriously biased Harriet Sherwood, to various reports of four hundred plus Israeli textbooks to only one hundred plus Palestinian. The account apparently most familiar with the contents of the study puts the number at 74 Israeli books and 94 Palestinian. Already we see wildly imprecise or misreporting. Perhaps there were various levels of more focused scrutiny? By what process of selection?

ABC News reports,

The study analyzed 74 Israeli and 94 Palestinian books, covering grades 1-12 and teaching social sciences, geography, literature, religion, Arabic and Hebrew. The Israeli books were from state-run secular and religious schools, as well as independent ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools. The vast majority of the Palestinian books were used in government schools, and only six in private Islamic schools.

All accounts tell us the same: that the Israeli textbooks were selected both from public schools and “ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools,” presumably with the expectation, reportedly borne out, that a higher level of religio-ethnocentric characterization would appear in the Orthodox books.  ABC notes above that only six textbooks were from private Islamic schools and no account you read even addresses whether any textbooks were drawn from Hamas controlled Gaza. If it seemed important to select – and announce the selection – textbooks from ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools, anticipating some extremity of representation, or at least thinking it a distinct segment of society requiring discrete inclusion, then why would there not be the same call with Hamas? You read in the Guardian, too, that Israel’s Arabic texts for Israeli Arab schools were not included in the study. You think to yourself that somehow – really having no idea how – such an inclusion might be very instructive. You think you are detecting a number of questionable omissions.

Then you read that the study, its authors claim,

employs a new methodology to produce a transparent, simultaneous, comprehensive and scientifically rigorous analysis.

Central to this methodology was to identify and count “negative” portrayals of “the other.” You think that there is a fair degree of subjective and not “scientifically rigorous” evaluation involved in consideration of what constitutes “negative,” but you go on. When you go on, you discover, for instance, that statements of fact such as, teaching about Iraqi pogroms,

[o]n the holiday of Shavuot, Arabs attacked Jews and murdered them, including women and children

are evaluated as negative. As is

[t]error struck again and again, and reached a climax in the period after the war with the murders of 13 students and teachers from Moshav Avivim on their way to school (May 1970) and 11 athletes at the Munich Olympics (September 1972).

Just as is the judgmental (and factually incorrect)

Zionism is “a colonialist political movement founded by the Jews of Europe in the second half of the 19th century… [intent on] displacing the Palestinian people in Palestine from their land.”

Or would be “Jews are the descendants of pigs and apes.”

You begin to realize that this new “transparent” and “comprehensive” methodology is actually not very new and now very common. Though, yes, it is transparent. As can frequently be found in a similar misconception of objective reporting, this methodology counts only occurrences and claims, but does not interpret their meanings or assess their truth. Simply, Mr. Churchill claims and Mr. Hitler denies the claim. Were such an objective and “scientifically rigorous” approach taken to the analysis of current or historical events, both Mein Kampf and all of Winston Churchill’s various speeches over the course of the 1930’s warning of the dangerous militaristic rise of Germany would simply be counted, with no further assessment, as “negative” depictions of “the other.”

Of course, the details of the study are many and much greater, but confidence in its quality is crumbling. But how can this be, from such highly qualified people? So you seek to educate yourself about the figures behind the study.

Bruce Wexler, you discover, is the founder of A Different Future, an NGO committed (as are we all?) to seeking peace in the Middle East. Fundamental to its vision is the equalizing belief that

Extremist minorities perpetuate the conflict in pursuit of their own agendas.… Acts of cooperation that humanize the “other” and build trust get little exposure while extremist groups receive free media coverage worth millions of dollars. [Emphasis in the original]

Wexler has written Brain and Culture: Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social ChangeAccording to MIT Press,

In Brain and Culture, Bruce Wexler explores the social implications of the close and changing neurobiological relationship between the individual and the environment, with particular attention to the difficulties individuals face in adulthood when the environment changes beyond their ability to maintain the fit between existing internal structure and external reality. These difficulties are evident in …the meeting of different cultures…and the phenomenon of interethnic violence.

You begin to understand better now Wexler’s response to Sa’ar. If one is party to conflict, if one believes in one’s position in the conflict and rejects attempts to make disappear through “scientific” study the human reality you live in that conflict, then you are ipso facto determined not by your critical analysis of your circumstances, but by neurobiological disability “to maintain the fit between existing internal structure and external reality.” You protest, the psychiatrist tells you, too much.

What about those co-leaders of the study, you wonder, Adwan and Bar-Tal? Like Wexler, they are academics of impressive certification and residence. What you discover, though, is that Adwan is co-directors of PRIME – the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East – the prime project of which is the “Dual-Narrative History Project” the proposal of which is “’Learning Each Other’s Historical Narrative’ in Israeli and Palestinian Schools.”

Adwan and the late Dan Bar-On, an Israeli who was co-director of PRIME and who was strikingly unsympathetic to the Israeli view of the conflict, co-authored a book, Side by Side: Parallel Histories of Israel-Palestine.

Adwan’s co-director of the textbook study, Bar-Tal, is author of book reminiscent of Wexler’s:Intractable Conflicts: Socio-Psychological Foundations and Dynamics.

A commonality begins to come into view: researchers in the field of peace and conflict resolution studies who conceive of conflict as misunderstanding that has been locked into neurobiological and socio-psychological dynamics. It is the project, you begin to see clearly, of Wexler’s work and of Adwan’s and Bar-Tal’s to erase distinction and difference, to establish parity between Israeli and Palestinian narratives, so that neither can claim the high ground of greater truth. Working from the belief that conflict is the product of misunderstanding, the researchers reduce the historical record and the current ideas of antagonists to hardened circuitry and narratives mistaken for reality. Everyone is the same in misunderstanding, and if we can let go of all the pain and the grievance (here – here’s a tissue – have a good cry), then all that stands between Israelis and Palestinians is the land.

You understand now that Wexler, Adwan, and Bar-Tal have their own narrative of the world, and of the world of Israel-Palestine, and not very remarkably they have written that narrative into their study.

But it is worse.

You realize this is all a dead end. You realize it is an intellectual boondoggle, a scientific research Goldstone Report. The researchers, biased to begin, not just against Israel’s position in the conflict, but against the conceptual ground of Israel’s position – that conflict can be the product of intention, and not simply of misunderstanding – produced results through highly questionable and even absurd procedures that confirmed what they already believe and that shape a lens through which they already see the conflict. Yet as always, such an account is self-contradictory

The researchers’ motivating conception is that conflict, rather than intentional and contentious, is the product of parallel and dueling narratives that cannot read each other. The conclusion of the textbook study –  which based on all you have now learned about the intellectual drives of the researchers, is believed, if not even intended, to apply not just to education, but all Israeli claims of Palestinian incitement – is that Israeli claims about Palestinian educational practice constitute a false narrative that Israelis have become habituated to read and recite. Israeli claims of an objective record of rejection and offense are a chimera. But when Bruce Wexler feels antagonized by Gideon Sa’ar’s rejection of Wexler’s study, that is no chimera or false narrative, no hardening of the neurobiological circuitry, but an actual offense that Wexler will objectify as the “blinders” in Sa’ar’s mind, blinders that make Sa’ar, in Wexler’s doubtless judgment “dangerous.” But Israelis have no ground upon which to call Palestinians a danger to them. That is just a story.

Another story, related by Palestinian advocates, is that the power imbalance between the two parties obviates the normal expectation of equality of action and reaction between them. This is even the rationale of so many for the obsessive concentration on Israel and what it does and does not do to advance the cause of peace, with little consideration of Palestinian behavior. Israel’s greater power, according to this argument, its military might and control, is already a kind of precondition to negotiation and resolution that Palestinians must meet, so the Palestinian side, excused in its passivity, is entitled as well to demand some other, more common and particular, equalizing precondition, such as a halt to settlement construction. Viewed through this lens, Palestinian preconditions are not one-sided and unequal demands at all, but equalizers of human and political dynamics.

However, there is a different lens through which to view what is actually a contrary truth. For while in this peace-promoting vision of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict what the two sides want is the same – self-determination for their people in lands of their own – what they have to barter with in the negotiation of their futures is far from the same. What the Israelis have, that the Palestinians want and bargain for, is land and control over it. What the Palestinians have and Israel bargains not to gain, but eliminate, is hatred, rejection, and violence without limits. But the concrete concession of land and authority, once given, are not easily regained, not without great cost, while the surcease of hatred is an achievement poorly measured, and rejection and the violence easily resumed.

Israelis can see Gaza from where they live, you think. Can Bruce Wexler?

In this Palestinian power of negation – a six decade commitment to privation, and to withholding from Israel, at whatever cost, fulfillment of Israel’s dream of an end to enmity, of the accomplishment of normalcy and the elimination of the existential question – it is, through a different window on the world, Palestinians, actually, who hold the power: “The Al-Qassam Brigades love death more than you love life.”

You conclude that this latest  “peace and justice charade” is part of the ever expanding campaign to delegitimize not just Israel today, but the ancient and modern history of Israel, and the truth of the unprecedented enmity against Israel, and of the six decades of conflict forced upon it. It is the “scientific” arm of a widening campaign. The campaign seeks to test, through also political and international organization, linguistic and conceptual manipulation, reimagination of old caricature and stereotype, legal warfare, groupthink and more whether through sheer force of ideological will, reality can be inverted, the history of a people and a nation perverted, and the day be made the night.

It is not, you think, as if it has not been done before.

AJA

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Israel

More on the Israeli-Palestinian School Book Project

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At the Algemeiner today, I address the just released Israeli-Palestinian School Book Project. Since posting I have gained further clarity and focus on problematic features of the project and the information about it released to the press.

About the number of books and items “analyzed,”

The official list of books included those approved by the Israeli and Palestinian Ministries of Education for 2011. The study examined school books used in the Israeli State secular and Religious tracts and from independent ultra-Orthodox schools. Palestinian books were the Ministry of Education’s textbooks used in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and a small number of books from the few independent religious schools (Al-Shariah) when relevant to study themes. A total of 640 school books (492 Israeli books and 148 Palestinian books) were reviewed for relevancy to study themes, and content in the 74 Israeli books and 94 Palestinian books with most relevance was analyzed in detail. The researchers analyzed more than 3,100 text passages, poems, maps and illustrations from the books.

So, indeed, as I raise to question at the Algemeiner, why was there purposeful selection of textbooks from ” independent ultra-Orthodox schools,” but apparently – there is no reference – no comparable selection from Hamas-controlled schools? Why was the original selection of books weighted 3 to 1 toward Israeli books? What were the specific terms of the basis, determined by whom, of “most relevance” what constituted “relevance” that determined the choice of the final 74 Israeli and 94 Palestinian books?

The analysis examined 2,188 literary pieces from Israeli books and 960 from Palestinian books.

Why is there a more than 2 to 1 preponderance of Israeli literary pieces? Would this not provide a more than double opportunity for the detection of passages that might be “analyzed” as “negative”? What rationale is there for not working from equal databases?

Why, apparently, were no Arabic textbooks from Israeli Arabic schools included in the study? (What might it reflect on Israeli society and education if these books were notably free of “negative” depictions of the “other,” however the “other” might complexly be conceived in this circumstance?

A total of 670 literary pieces were analyzed independently by two different research assistants. Statistical analysis demonstrated high inter-rater reliability, meaning that two different raters independently evaluated the same poem, passage of map in highly similar ways.

How were these 670 pieces selected from the 3148 noted above? What was the reason and basis for this further selection?

I have placed in quotation marks around my own use, referencing the report’s use, of the word “analyze” or “analysis.” The report makes significant claims to scientific rigor. However, the analysis of a chemical compound is not the same as the analysis of a text, even if one attempts to subtract human subjectivity from the text by disregarding its truth value. (And was it a stipulated criterion to disregard truth value in determinations of negativity? As, I argue at the Algemeiner, this is indefensible and produces unavoidable and potentially dramatic distortion of the results.) And we are told above that “two” – only two – different research assistants analyzed the 670 pieces. Two analysts of negativity unrelated to truth. Did the study provide them with a list of specific verbs, adjectives, figures of speech and idioms the use of which were automatically to be designated negative? Was there no subjective, critical allowance for judgment beyond such a list? From what environment did the research assistants come? Were they already employed by, students or teaching assistants of the lead researchers who shared, perhaps, their predisposition toward the study’s outcome?

The press release states,

The study engaged a Scientific Advisory Panel that resulted in the worldwide collaboration of 19 experts, including textbook scholars, social scientists and educators from across the political spectrum of both Israeli and Palestinian communities. The advisory panel includes textbook researchers from Germany who led Germany’s self-examination of their textbooks in the decades after World War II, and U.S. scholars who have themselves analyzed school books in Israel, the Arab world, and the former Yugoslavia. The advisory panel reviewed every aspect of the study and agreed on the findings.

However, departing from this account, Eetta Prince-Gibson at Tablet reports,

Several Israeli members of the SAP dissented. According to a memo provided by the Education Ministry spokeswoman, Professor Elihu Richter of the Hebrew University said that “questions remain concerning definitions of the variables, how they are classified and measured and counted and what materials are included and excluded.” Richter warned that some of the comparisons may be “sliding down the slippery slope to moral equivalence.” SAP member Dr. Arnon Groiss, author of a separate study on Middle Eastern textbooks, wrote that he has severe reservations about the methodology and that some 40 significant items, which attest to incitement on the part of Palestinians, were not included.

Further, Groiss has now released this lengthy and instructive analysis and commentary on the report. He states,

Again, we, the SAP members, were not involved in the research activity.

Moreover, it was only a few days before the February 4 release of the report that I was first given the 522 Palestinian quotes for perusal. Having compared them to the quotations appearing in other research projects, I realized that some forty meaningful quotations, which other researchers in former projects, including myself[1], incorporated in the material and used them in forming their conclusions, were missing. [Emphasis in the original]

….

I have found deficiencies on both levels of definition and actual use. On the first level, categorization was restricted to very general themes, leaving out important issues such as open advocacy of peace/war with the “other,” legitimacy of the “other,” etc.

….

There is no attempt to study the quotes more deeply and draw conclusions. All items were treated equally, with no one being evaluated and given a more significant status that the other. It seems that they were simply lumped together, counted and then the numbers spoke. It might be statistically correct, but, as we all know, statistics not always reveal the actual complex picture. This kind of analysis has produced a “flat” survey of the quotes, without any reference to their deeper significance (for example, looking at a demonizing text with no specific enemy as if it were a “neutral” literary piece). Also, all quotes were treated as separate items with no attempt to make a connection between two quotes or more in order to reveal an accumulated message (for example, concluding from the connected recurrent mentioning of the need to liberate Palestine, and the similarly recurring theme that Israel in its pre-1967 borders is “occupied Palestine”, that the liberation of Palestine actually means the liquidation of Israel).

A full reading of Groiss will be instructive for the non-specialist. Its education is two-fold and contrary. First, one recognizes how complex is the activity of attempting to bring something approaching objective scientific rigor to the non-literary analysis of texts. The kinds and range of issues to consider is impressive in variety and complexity. But a mirror principle automatically arises from that condition – that all this complexity in conceiving and formulating the field and terms of analysis bespeaks just that subjectivity of which Groiss offers so many dissenting views, a subjectivity that should give pause on the level of a foot-pedal brake before one reaches with too grasping hands for the label of science.

AJA

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