Sunday, April 23, 2006

Forget about the Jews

My long-awaited (or at least long-winded) critique of the Walt-Mearsheimer study on the Zionist lobby.

Every day in my email I get a report called "Today in Palestine." It's compiled by an incredible dedicated guy named Shadi, who combs the Palestinian, Israeli and European press, and also the alternative and the very very alternative press to send out news and rumor that you just can't get anywhere else. It arrives in an extremely readable form: headlines linked to the article, followed by a one-sentence synopsis. (

One day a few weeks ago, I was shocked to see the headline, "Study: Israel Lobby Motivating US foreign policy" nestled in between reports of more Israeli demolitions of Palestinian homes and stories about the challenges facing the new Palestinian government. I clicked on it immediately, and was taken to a new study by Harvard professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt.

"This is going to be trouble," I said to myself after reading through it quickly. And of course it has been. Harvard, under pressure from the very Zionist establishment that is the focus of the study, insisted that its name be removed. It has been attacked non-stop in the mainstream press. Make no mistake, that would probably have happened if the study were absolutely perfect. As the authors point out, any printed piece that is remotely critical of Israel is lambasted as anti-Semitism. Which is why it is all the more unfortunate that this one is far from perfect.

It carefully lays out unimpeachable facts, but the facts don't support the conclusions, unless you add to them assumptions that are faulty.

These assumptions are:

-- That there is a "U.S. national interest." In fact, there is not one interest, there are many. There are elite interests, there are public interests, but within those broad interest groups there are many and competing interests. A construction worker who is a homeowner, for instance, presumably has an interest in high wages for construction workers and low costs of home remodeling. Because of the way that our society is structured, those two interests are seen as incompatible, and she will be forced to choose whether to support outsourcing to nonunion construction companies or high construction costs.

-- That the US government normally acts in "our interests." This seems to be the fundamental premise of the study -- that the US elite is a band of good-hearted people who but for the evil Zionist puppetmasters, would act in the interests of global peace and justice.

Let me ask you: when was the last time the U.S. government did something you really felt was in your interest? I'm pretty sure it was sometime in 1972, when I was 12.

I admit it: as a Jew, it makes me very nervous to read statements like, "Jewish Americans have set up an impressive array of organisations to influence American foreign policy" in scholarly papers. Maybe that's clouding my judgment. But having read this paper closely, and tried to keep my feelings in check, I concluded that it's poor scholarship, which makes it very attackable by those who paint any criticism of Israel, or US policy toward Israel, as anti-Jewish.

The authors are conscious of this potential. They strive for a balanced tone and set out to distance themselves from anti-Semitic groups. "There is nothing improper about American Jews and their Christian allies attempting to sway US policy: the Lobby's activities are not a conspiracy of the sort depicted in tracts like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. For the most part, the individuals and groups that comprise it are only doing what other special interest groups do, but doing it very much better." I do not think the authors are anti-Semites, but they play on anti-Jewish beliefs of white Americans: that "we" are good people so if we're doing something bad, "they" must be making us do it.

The title of the paper is itself misleading, because they do not make the argument that the Israel Lobby drives all US foreign policy, but only our Middle East policy. I maintain that US Middle East policy is just one part of its global policies, and unless the Zionist conspiracy theory explains our policies toward Cuba, Venezuela, Nigeria and China, it can't really explain our Middle East policy. The Zionists' interests intersect neatly with other priorities of US elites, such as controlling Middle East oil fields (Standard Oil and four other US companies acquired control of 23% of Iraq's oil in 1927, when neither Israel nor the Zionist lobby existed) and creating undreamed of wealth for US contractors like Bechtel, Halliburton and Lockheed Martin (none owned by Jews).

The authors seem to accept at face value U.S. government claims to care about democracy and fairness. They also presume that high U.S. decision-makers are seriously interested in ensuring the security of non-wealthy U.S. citizens. So, they say, support for Israel can't be based on shared interest in security, because that support actually makes us more vulnerable to attack. It can't be based on the desire to support a democracy in the Middle East, because Israel -- given its race-based citizenship policies and brutal military occupation of Palestinian land -- is not a democracy.

If the U.S. non-Zionist elite is interested in democracy, what part of democracy is served by concentration camps and "extraordinary rendition"? Okay, the authors would explain that as an offshoot of our policy toward Israel, because the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are being fought for Israel's interest, which is making us stray from the ideals our country's actions have traditionally embodied.

They claim that this situation is without historical precedent, but make no attempt to show how it is different in kind from our support for South Vietnam, El Salvador, Indonesia, Chile, Iran under the Shah, Haiti under the Duvaliers, Iraq under Saddam, Colombia, apartheid South Africa, Noriega before he suddenly became the public enemy in the red underwear, and on and on. Yes, Israel receives more money with fewer strings than any of those regimes did, but is propping up repressive regimes okay for a democracy as long as it doesn't cost too much?

In arguing that our invasion of Iraq was really just a bow to the Israelis, Mearsheimer and Walt act as if the US never invaded other countries and stole land and resources in the name of democracy before AIPAC set up shop in Washington. Was Theodore Herzl, then an unknown playwright, secretly responsible for US colonization of Puerto Rico, Hawaii and the Philippines in 1898?

They completely ignore the importance of racism as a motivator. This is not the first time that the U.S. has supported a white-dominated* colonial power in the Global South because of a shared interest in white domination of the region.

Isn't it possible that the US government supports Israel because it recognizes a kindred spirit? That the idea of a group of people who have been a persecuted minority conquering another land, proclaiming themselves its discoverers, taming the wilderness (making the desert bloom) and annihilating its indigenous people sounds good to us because it worked so well when we did it? That a country where half of Palestinian men have been in prison doesn't look bad to one where one-third of African American men have been in prison?

Do you believe that if it weren't for the Zionists, the Bush administration would have responded quickly and compassionately to the Katrina disaster? You don't if you know that in 1927 (21 years before the State of Israel was created) the Army Corps of Engineers blew up levees in Mississippi and Louisiana, wiping out poor and African American areas to save wealthy neighborhoods and plantations.

Walt and Mearsheimer's first five pages are a cogent statement of all the reasons the US government should curtail its support for Israel. In the middle of page 5, they get to their core argument:

"So if neither strategic nor moral arguments can account for America's support for Israel, how are we to explain it?

"The explanation is the unmatched power of the Israel Lobby. We use 'the Lobby' as shorthand for the loose coalition of individuals and organisations who actively work to steer US foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction. This is not meant to suggest that 'the Lobby' is a unified movement with a central leadership, or that individuals within it do not disagree on certain issues. Not all Jewish Americans are part of the Lobby, because Israel is not a salient issue for many of them. In a 2004 survey, for example, roughly 36 per cent of American Jews said they were either 'not very or 'not at all' emotionally attached to Israel."

So the authors start off talking about the Israel Lobby, and then with no segue, they are talking about Jewish Americans.

The study itself points out that Jews are an insignificant percentage of the population, but discounts that. "Although they make up fewer than 3 per cent of the population, … The Washington Post once estimated that Democratic presidential candidates 'depend on Jewish supporters to supply as much as 60 per cent of the money.' And because Jewish voters have high turn-out rates and are concentrated in key states like California, Florida, Illinois, New York and Pennsylvania, presidential candidates go to great lengths not to antagonise them."

California, Florida, Illinois, New York and Pennsylvania. Those five states account for 155 members of Congress. So 390 of our elected representatives should be free to vote their consciences (on Israel). Okay, but maybe they aspire to be president, and Jews apparently account for 60% of presidential campaign contributions. WHY? Of Fortune 100 CEOs, less than 10% are Jewish. A few years ago, something like 84 of the Forbes 400 were Jews. What are the Christians doing with their money?

Moreover, as the authors themselves point out, at least 40% of Jews don't agree with the Israel Lobby. A 2004 poll found that Jewish voters do not vote according to the Lobby's priorities; 42% of Jews, just like non-Jews, say the economy is their highest priority in deciding who to vote for.

Yes, the Lobby targets Congresspeople it declares enemies of Israel and has succeeded in getting them defeated. In 2002, they mercilessly attacked Cynthia McKinney of Georgia, and she lost. In 2004, McKinney regrouped and was reelected. It is unlikely that the Zionists liked her any better in 2004 than in 2002. Her reelection shows that even the sworn enemies of the Zionist lobby can win, if they have a strategy. So that should embolden any representative who is capable of recognizing that supporting Israel's ethnic cleansing project is counter to anyone's interest. Why hasn't it?

It's easy to blame the Zionists. It's harder to blame ourselves -- whether for our own racist past and present, or for the fact that we in the Palestine solidarity movement have not organized ONE mass protest against the US, European and Canadian governments' decision to literally starve the Palestinians to punish them for exercising their democratic right to elect whom they want.

If we could somehow curtail the influence of the Zionist Lobby, it might help the Palestinians, and G-d knows that would make me happy. But I don't believe it would help the Iraqis, and it certainly wouldn't help the Chinese, Senegalese or Cubans.

Forget about the Jews. Let Jewish Voice for Peace wrestle the so-called mainstream Jewish organizations for the right to represent the Jewish community.

Forget about the Zionists. You're not going to win a fight with them. Why attack the Israel lobby, even if they deserve it? They are not the problem. Their influence is a symptom of the problem. You are just going to set up an opportunity for them to scream about anti-Semitism and some people who never heard them before might hear them this time.

Just go get every non-Zionist Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or atheist you know to give every dollar they can spare to the non-Zionist Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or atheist candidate of their choice. Tell them to send a note with the money, saying, "End US aid to Israel now or I'll never give you another dollar."

What? You don't know enough non-Jewish non-Zionists you can get to do that? What's the matter with you? They're 97% of the population, or at least 93% if you scratch out the Christian Zionists. There's our work. What are we waiting for?

* A majority of Israelis are people of color, with ancestry in Arab or African countries, but political power is controlled by Jews of European ancestry.