Is it antisemitic to accuse someone of being an "Israel firster"? For the past few weeks some of the most prominent American liberal commentators and Jeffrey Goldberg have been shouting at each other about this, after former AIPAC-er Josh Block orchestrated a smear campaign against two liberal think-tanks on the basis that writers associated with them had made use of the phrase. The political agenda behind the attacks was transparent: both the targeted organisations – the Center for American Progress (CAP) and Media Matters (MM) – have been prominent in pushing against US support for Israel's occupation and against an attack on Iran. But it provoked a minor split among liberal commentators, some of whom reacted by defending CAP and MM, and some of whom agreed that the phrase 'Israel Firster' is indeed "toxic".
The debate, which has now simmered down, is interesting mainly for what it reveals about where liberal American discourse on Israel is currently at, and where it might be going.
First, it is another indication of Israel's long-term secular decline in popularity among US liberals generally, and American Jews in particular. The fact that the debate is even happening indicates how far the ideological terrain has shifted. Fifteen years ago mainstream columnists would not have criticised Israel, and if they did would not have used the term "Israel Firsters" to do so, and if they had would not have been defended by other mainstream commentators. Times have changed.
The initial reaction to Block's smear further illustrates the point: usual suspects aside, it went nowhere. Even Lanny Davis, Block's business partner and himself a frequent apologist for Israel's occupation, criticised it, while two other prominent Washington think tanks threatened to sever ties with him, and Block was forced to stage a partial climbdown. Glenn Greenwald is right to note that "the only reason this has become such a problem for Block is because he made the over-reaching mistake of targeting an organization that is extremely well-connected". But more significant is that an establishment liberal organisation like CAP took such a critical line on Israel in the first place.
I say 'initial' reaction because, while MM dismissed the smears, CAP does appear to have censored its writers' criticism of Israel in the wake of the incident. This is presumably due mainly to CAP's association with the Democratic Party, which has an eye on the election and on Republican efforts to cast the Obama administration as hostile to Israel and/or Jews. But it also reflects the fact that even if criticism of Israel's occupation can no longer be credibly dismissed as 'antisemitic', "Israel Firster", with its resemblance to the charge of "dual loyalty" that has long dogged Jews, is more difficult to defend. A tactical corollary is that those commentators wishing to push back against attempts to police the discourse on Israel-Palestine ought not, perhaps, make their stand here.
Second, the debate prompts the question: is the spectre of "dual loyalty" being revived? This would be a significant development if so. Jews have historically been haunted by accusations of disloyalty, and American Jews have in the past been particularly careful to proclaim their loyalty to the US rather than Israel. Israel, in claiming to act in the name of Jews worldwide, threatened to give canards about Jewish 'dual loyalty' credibility, and as a result most American Jews for many decades distanced themselves from it. Norman Finkelstein's forthcoming book documents that before Israel became an American 'strategic asset' by crushing Nasser in 1967, most American Jewish elites – including those who advocated most vociferously for a US-Israeli alliance after '67 – were indifferent or actively hostile to it. More generally, "[fearful] of the 'dual loyalty' charge", American Jews have "drawn away from Israel whenever bilateral relations at the state level have been tenuous and drawn closer when they have overlapped".
If the current low-level grumbling among American elites about Israel's service or lack thereof to US interests escalates – and it may not – anti-Israel and anti-occupation sentiment could well be increasingly articulated in the language of 'national interests', and criticism of those who support US backing of Israel's occupation could increasingly take the form of accusations of dual loyalty or disloyalty to the US. This could in turn reinforce the abandonment of Israel by American Jews that is already underway.
On the substantive issue in dispute – the legitimacy of the phrase "Israel Firster" – both sides are wrong. Glenn Greenwald, MJ Rosenberg, Phil Weiss and Andrew Sullivan are correct to argue that there is nothing in principle antisemitic about accusing individuals of placing "Israel's" interests above "American" ones. Nor is it "gross" to point out that the American media's go-to guy on Israel-Palestine, Jeffrey Goldberg, served as a prison guard in the Israeli army. Amusingly, Goldberg now denies he was a prison guard, insisting that he was merely a "military policeman" and "counsellor" who took care of "the culinary, hygiene and medical needs of the prisoners". This is odd because in his memoir Goldberg explicitly says that he wasn't, whatever his formal job title, merely a counsellor:
"I was a 'prisoner counselor,' a job title that did not accurately reflect my duties in the related fields of discipline and punishment..." [Prisoners, p. 28]
Which seems fair enough, since counsellors don't generally assist in the abuse of prisoners, as Goldberg admits he did. Goldberg's strange denial appears to have convinced Ackerman, at least, which is encouraging insofar as it suggests that people who say they like Jeffrey Goldberg haveneverread Jeffrey Goldberg.
More importantly, if it is the case that people increasingly perceive US policy towards Israel to be a decisively shaped by de facto agents of the Israeli state, the issue should be subject to honest and frank debate. Silencing the above-ground conversation is likely to promote the less savoury lines of discussion within it.
All that said, "Israel Firsters" rhetoric is seriously problematic:
- It is not, contra Greenwald and Sullivan, "plainly true" that many prominent apologists for Israel are "Israel Firsters". As noted above, virtually all of these supposedly principled devotees of the Jewish state were completely silent on or else actively critical of Israel before it became a 'strategic asset' of the US establishment. As Finkelstein observes, after '67 Israel also effectively became "a 'strategic asset' of American Jews":
"[joining] the Zionist club was a prudent career move for Jewish communal leaders who could then play the role of key interlocutors between the U.S. and its strategic asset. Israel’s alleged existential vulnerability served as a useful pretext for politically ambitious Jews to champion American military power on which Israel’s survival supposedly hinged."
Charging these "Me Firsters" with principled loyalty to Israel drastically overestimates them. The record suggests that they are, as a rule, in it squarely for themselves. This confusion is significant, for example because a more realistic appreciation of the interests driving the Israel lobby and its sympathisers would draw attention to the ways in which support for Israeli militarism benefits and speaks to elite interests in the US, rather than just in Israel.
- The use of "Israel Firster", while not necessarily antisemitic, is not innocuous either. Accusations of "Israel Firster" do imply some ugly politics. "Israel Firster" is, after all, being opposed implicitly to "US Firster", with the tacit assumption that it is a Bad Thing to support a "foreign" state or people over one's "own". But why should that be so? If I am moved by images of famine in Somalia and decide to vote, in Britain, according to who I think would do the most to alleviate the effects and causes of that famine, am I being "dually loyal"? More to the point, if I am, is that a bad thing? It is particularly strange that liberals, who tend to take very seriously the idea that there are universal moral principles whose value transcends the claims of any particular state, would treat "dual loyalty" as a serious criticism.
I suspect Greenwald would reply that he rarely uses the term "Israel Firster", that his aim in this debate is to defend its legitimacy against accusations of antisemitism rather than to positively endorse it, and that when he does use it, it is either as a rhetorical device to highlight others' hypocrisy or as a normatively neutral description, rather than a criticism. In his case, this is generally true. But if we look at the emerging discourse more broadly, "Israel Firster" is typically used as a pejorative, which implies a set of assumptions that Sullivan, despite his dislike of the phrase, encapsulates quite well:
"[when] an American sides with a foreign government against his own president in a foreign country, what does one call that? Apart, that is, from disgusting."
The use of the term "Israel Firster" reflects a broader trend which chooses to frame opposition to Israeli policies, and US support for them, in terms of defending or protecting US "national interests", and which appears increasingly disposed to criticising apologists for Israeli occupation on the grounds that they are being disloyal to these "national interests", rather than on the grounds that they are enabling a profound injustice. I suspect that this in turn reflects an influx of liberals into the solidarity movement – in this sense the watering down and degeneration of the latter might well be a consequence of its own success – and a desire by some activists to align the movement, in an attempt to gain political influence, with those American elites who are concerned that Israel's occupation is harming US imperial interests (cf. Walt and Mearsheimer).
In either case, the strategy is dangerous. First, it relies on the gap among US elites over the wisdom of support for Israeli occupation widening, which may not happen to a sufficient degree. Second, its effect is to essentially whitewash the former. And third, it risks abandoning a principled opposition to Israel's occupation grounded in broadly appealing progressive values – it is wrong to demolish people's houses; it is wrong to torture children; it is wrong to shell schools and hospitals with white phosphorus; it is wrong to violently prevent a people from exercising self-determination in violation of international law; etc . – in favour of a critique based on parochial, unappealing and potentially quite vicious insinuations about people's – mainly Jews' – "loyalty". This isn't antisemitism. But it isn't the way to win the struggle, and nor should it be how we'd want to win it.
What was distinctive about the social movements that made 2011 the 'year of the protestor'? What links Occupy, the Arab revolts and the British student movement? Was 2011 the year the Hierarchy was defeated by the Network? Will the revolution be retweeted?
If you're interested in any or all of these questions, you're in luck.
Paul, the author of Meltdown and the best thing about BBC Newsnight, spent much of the past two years reporting from Spain, Greece, Wisconsin, London and elsewhere on the surge in popular protest as the effects of the financial crisis, and of the bailouts and austerity measures that followed, made themselves felt. Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere brings that remarkable reportage together and interprets the geographically disparate struggles as locally variant, but in crucial respects similar, responses to a common crisis: the collapse of the pre-2007 model of economic globalisation. If you're interested in thinking further about last year's really quite remarkable developments - the speed at which Occupy spread and its success in changing the political agenda, for example, was surely unprecedented in recent history - this is an excellent place to start.
On Thursday we'll stage two panels, one on Paul's book and the other on the Arab revolts, featuring Paul Mason, Ewa Jasiewicz, Mark Fisher, Dan Hancox, and other assorted luminaries:
Panel 1, 7-8.15pm:
An evening with Paul Mason and guests will start in the Purcell Room with a conversation between Paul, economist Costas Lapavitsas, journalist and union organiser Ewa Jasiewicz and author and theorist Mark Fisher. Katharine Viner, deputy editor of the Guardian, will be chairing this discussion.
This part of the evening has sold out but can be screened into the foyer where Part 2 will take place.
Panel 2, 8.30-9.30pm:
The second session will involve two conversations, one focusing on protest and the other on the Arab Spring and women.
Talking about protest will be journalist Dan Hancox, author of Kettled Youth, writer James Butler and Mark Fisher. Chaired by writer and campaigner Eleanor Mae O'Hagan.
Meanwhile Paul Mason will be in conversation with academic Emma Dowling and journalist Rachel Shabi. Chaired by Bidisha, author of the forthcoming Beyond the Wall: Writing a Path Through Palestine
Note that the second panel is free, and while tickets for the first panel have sold out, you'll be able to watch it live via video link for free in the foyer next door.
To accompany the launch we'll also be running a series of articles and interviews here on NLP that respond to Paul's book, or which expand on some of the issues it raises. We'll kick off this week with a review of the book by NLP co-editor David Wearing and an in-depth interview with Paul himself. So keep your eyes peeled, and follow us on twitter and Facebook for updates.
A guest post by Ross Eventon, responding to this article on openDemocracy.
“The Taliban regime” contend David Held and Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, scholars at the London School of Economics, “harboured Osama bin Laden while he planned and orchestrated the atrocities of 9/11.” The subsequent attack on Afghanistan began “with broad international support,” which “provided the campaign with initial legitimacy that was enshrined through United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1378, 1383, 1386, 1401.” Here ends their “discussion of the legal aspect of the war.”
No source is cited for the claim that Bin Laden orchestrated the September 11 attacks because, however reasonable such suspicions may be, no substantive evidence exists. Held and Ulrichsen see no need to consider why conventional forms of justice – apprehension of the suspect – were shunned, and why Taliban offers to hand over Bin Laden if evidence could be produced were flatly rejected, other than as an, albeit over-zealous, attempt at retribution. “The underpinnings of the ‘War on Terror’” can be explained solely through quotations of the then President Bush: ““we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism.” This is a useful method of ascertaining the underlying determinants of foreign policy decisions, negating the need for any actual research or scholarship; although, given the state of the political sciences, blind acceptance of the proclamations of leadership may be the most fundamental aspect of what is called scholarship.
They authors quote Hew Strachan, who “questioned whether freedom could ever be a strategy in itself,” and warned that “the conflation of words like ‘war’ and ‘terror,’ and of ‘strategy’ and ‘policy’…contributes to the incoherence of the response that followed 9/11.” US foreign policy since 9/11 has been anything but incoherent, following conventional objectives thinly veiled in a familiar ideology.
The source for the claim of “broad international support” is not provided. An International Gallup Poll taken at the end of September 2001 found that respondents “strongly favored diplomatic-judicial measures over military action.” (cited in Noam Chomsky; Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance.) The dates of the Security Council resolutions are also important. All are from at least a month after the initial bombing began on October 7th. Lacking a resolution, the bombing was an act of state terrorism designed, according to British Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, to punish Afghans “until they get their leadership changed.”
The initial strikes involved the use of cluster bombs on one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. Cluster bombs are weapons that disproportionately affect children who tend to pick up the unexploded munitions. In September this year, Afghanistan was applauded by Human Rights Watch for signing the Convention on Cluster Munitions, banning their use in the country, “despite heavy pressure from the US not to.” A month later, the US failed in a bid to push a new protocol through the UN that would sanction the use of cluster munitions made after 1980.
The attacks went ahead despite aid groups warning millions may die as a result of the restricted access for humanitarian supplies. By May 2001, the Guardian reported, “As many as 20,000 Afghans may have lost their lives as an indirect consequence of the US intervention.” None of this, of course, could even slightly tarnish the image of the “Right War,” that picture only being challenged now the US appears to be committing the greatest crime of all: losing.
Curiously, “NATO continues to bomb Afghanistan even after the death of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.” (my emphasis) This may suggest the "War on Terror" has a separate agenda. Declassified documents recently revealed that on September 30 2001, the then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wrote to Bush advising that he attempt to install a new regime in Afghanistan. Of the forthcoming attack, he wrote, "If the war does not significantly change the world's political map, the U.S. will not achieve its aim.” A year earlier, Rumsfeld co-authored a report along with Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, arguing that, “[w]hile the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein.”
It is a “terrible irony,” conclude Held and Ulrichsen that “attempts to resist terrorist violence in the decade after 9/11 have ended up weakening the very structures of law and constraints on the use of force that have formed the cornerstone of the international system and bedrock of global security since 1945.” Aside from the act of international terrorism that laid the foundation for the invasion, “attempts to resist terrorist violence” also include the engagement in wars that, it was understood at the time, would increase the threat to domestic populations as well as the continuation of military aid that “encourages terrorist groups to attack Americans.” Afghans, Palestinians, Iraqis, Colombians and others enduring US backed “use of force” in the decade after 9/11 can testify further to the extent of these terrible ironies.
Ross Eventon is a writer and researcher based in Bogota, Colombia. He was previously the Samuel Rubin Young Fellow at the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam where he focused on Afghanistan
"The key idea in this animated film was this: the pawns revolt against the 'ruling class' pieces, sweep them from the board and then dance an American square dance on the board. In the end, however, they start a new chess game, but this time the pawns are on the back row moving like Kings and bishops and the like, while the old aristocratic pieces occupy the pawn row and move like pawns. The message of the film was that the pawns failed to make a revolution because they thought it was sufficient to depose the old elite. They neglected to remove the board itself. The chessboard, then, was a metaphor for underlying social structure that generates 'the rules of the game'. A revolution, to be sustainable, has to transform that.
Now, this idea is not a uniquely Marxist idea. In a sense it is the foundational idea of much structurally oriented sociology: people fill “locations” in social structures — sometimes called roles — which impose constraints and opportunities on what they can chose to do. This doesn’t mean that human practices or activities are rigidly determined by roles. Intentions and choices still really matter. Agency matters. But such choice occurs in a setting of systematic (rather than haphazard) constraints.
The Marxist form of this general idea is to make a claim — a pretty bold one when you think about it — that the key to understanding this structural level of constraint is the nature of the economic structure in which people live, or even more precisely, the nature of the “mode of production”. In my little film there was no production, no economy. The chessboard was a completely open-ended metaphor for social structure. So it is in that sense that the film was not specifically based on a Marxist framework.
As for its inspiration, I think the film grew out of the concerns for radical, egalitarian social change that were part of the intellectual culture of the student movement, the American civil rights movement and Vietnam War era anti-war movement. I participated in various ways in these social movements of the 1960s and was very much caught up in the utopian aspirations of the times, but I also felt that the task of constructing emancipatory alternatives was more arduous than many people thought. It is not enough to attack the establishment and remove its players. Constructing an alternative is a task in its own right. And that is what the film tried to convey."
You can read my interview with Erik on the Occupy movement here.
There was a certain inevitability to the furore around Diane Abbot’s supposedly racist comment on Twitter – coming as it did in the wake of the conviction of Gary Dobson and David Norris for the murder of Stephen Lawrence. The right has always resented that the concept of ‘institutionalised racism’ was mainstreamed by the Macpherson inquiry. It destabilised the elite consensus that racism can be understood as nothing more than an individual pathology, stripped of any notion of social inequality and racial hierarchy. The denunciations of Diane Abbot as a racist are a reactionary counter-attack seeking to disguise the reality of white privilege.
As Alana Lentin and Gavan Titley note in The Crisis of Multiculturalism: Racism in a Neoliberal Age:
To criticize ‘white European culture’ as imperialist is not the same as claiming that all migrants are wife-beaters, or homophobes. The first contention, however furiously it is debated, makes little impact on the everyday lives of whites occupying hegemonic and relatively privileged social positions. The second... has cumulative political power, requiring everyone ascribed to those groups to negotiate it in some form, and leading to the further demonization of large groups of people already diminished in power vis-à-vis the majority in the societies in which they live.
Only in a public domain debased by decades of neoliberalism, where debate is divorced from any notion of social or historical realities, could the absurd claims made against Abbott be seen as having any intellectual coherence.
There is no Christmas calm in Egypt. The protests and marches continue, as do the attacks and killings by the army. The second wave of revolution continues.
In less than a month, Egypt will celebrate the anniversary of the January 25th uprising. The Supreme Army Council is said to be planning its own festivities that day, something that the revolutionaries cannot accept. Many fear new controversies.
The scenes in Tahrir Square and its neighbouring streets are scary: people getting abused and killed, choking on tear gas, dying from gunshot wounds. The list of martyrs grows longer. It is easy to see pictures of this and wish for an end to the unrest.
And an end to the unrest is precisely what the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies are looking for. They exhort to calm and claim to be looking for a peaceful democratic electoral process. Calm is also what the ruling military council says it wants. In a time of crisis it is easy to play the stability card if you already have institutionalised power and influence.
But for those who dedicated their lives for the revolution, for those who quit their jobs, for those whose friends or sons or daughters have been killed, for those imprisoned - for all of them calm would be devastating. If they surrender their demands for the downfall of the military council in order to gain calm and stability, the struggle will be lost. Even Mubarak offered calm and stability.
"Stability" is something the powerful incessantly call for. Stability means an end to visible violence but nothing when it comes to ending the silent violations of human rights: the starvation of the poor, the murder of the unwanted in police cells, the daily abuse and exploitation. A calm and quiet people who do not collectively organize themselves in protests are a people easy to control. Hence every dictator this year has pointed out the stability and the calm that he can provide as an opposite to the rowdiness of the revolutionaries. Calm and stability is good for business and rich and powerful nations needs calm to plan and guarantee business deals.
But stability is devastating. If this was the goal, no revolutions would have ever occurred, there would be no real political change. Chaos, unrest and instability is necessary in creating a new future. A subdued people know to expect the onward grind of oppression. But a people ruling themselves do not have a clue what the future will bring, the only thing they know is that they are taking power from the powerful.
That is why the revolutionaries of Egypt are continuing to fight. They know that a revolution is more than overthrowing a dictator. They know that it will probably take years of uncertainty and unrest to ensure that their demands of freedom, justice, social equality and bread are met. The Left in Europe needs to follow their lead and listen to their demands, and not fall for media narratives of "successful elections" or "a gradual transition to a new Egypt".
So this is why I hope for a 2012 that follows on from what the Arab Spring started. I hope for a boiling, unstable 2012 that continues to change the world.
*Helena Hagglund is a freelance journalist based in Cairo and Stockholm. The piece was first published in Swedish on www.seglorasmedja.se
George Monbiot has written an article challenging the libertarian notion of freedom - ‘freedom of the powerful to exploit the weak, the rich to exploit the poor.’ He lifts a couple of good quotes from Isaiah Berlin’s influential essay, ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’: ‘Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows’ and ‘If the liberty of myself or my class or nation depends on the misery of a number of other human beings, the system which promotes this is unjust and immoral’.
Corey Robin is particularly strong on this issue. In The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, he writes:
Though it is often claimed that the left stands for equality while the right stands for freedom, this notion misstates the actual disagreement between right and left. Historically, the conservative has favored liberty for the higher orders and constraint for the lower orders. What the conservative sees and dislikes in equality, in other words, is not a threat to freedom but its extension. For in that extension, he sees a loss of his own freedom.
Karl Mannheim makes the point that for the left these two things were originally one and the same. Think about the kind of experiences that produced leftist arguments: feudalism, slavery, patriarchy, work place domination. In all of these forms, slavery being the most obvious one, the lack of freedom and the lack of equality aren’t contradictory or different experiences, they are part and parcel of the same experience. So for the left, historically, freedom and equality go together – I ought to be free because I am equal to you.
What I argue in the book is that if we take seriously this whole question of personal domination, not abstract domination, not commodity fetishism or the market place, but the control of other peoples’ bodies and minds in a very personal and intimate way, then what the left has always stood for is a politics of emancipation in which freedom is central.
 Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin (Oxford University Press, 2011) p.8.
A shortened version of the letter below was published in the Evening Standard today. They don't seem to put their letters online, so I'm here's the original with some added links.
James Fenton is no doubt correct to say that Barack Obama will not "feel indifferent to the judgment of history". However, that judgement may depend on the perspective from which history is written.
Egyptian historians are likely to note that, when asked whether he considered Hosni Mubarak to be an authoritarian given the number of political prisoners held in his jails, Obama said “no, I prefer not to use labels for folks”. Only when it became clear that the dictator’s position had become untenable, as a result of ordinary Egyptians risking life and limb to challenge his regime, did the Obama administration belatedly decide to endorse Mubarak’s departure.
Since then, US support for Egypt’s new military rulers has been maintained even as the junta establishes a record of human rights abuses that rivals that of Mubarak, according to Amnesty International. As security forces murdered and brutalised hundreds of demonstrators in recent weeks, it emerged that shipments of tear gas licensed by the Hilary Clinton’s State Department were still arriving in Egyptian docks. So much for President Obama’s brand of enlightened liberalism.
Fenton notes the dangers of a statesperson’s over-enthusiasm for “the power and dignity of high office”. The point is well understood by the people of the Arab world, whose dignity has long been trampled upon by those occupying high office in Washington, as well as in their local capitals. Obama’s place in their history depends upon his willingness to end his government’s traditional support for authoritarianism in the Arab world.