Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s otherwise-unremarkable Defence Secretary, generated maverick-sized waves during his confirmation process when he remarked on the existence of a pro-Israel lobby, and had the temerity to suggest that this lobby attempts to intimidate people.
What utter nonsense! was the general response from the Republicans and Democrats alike who raised the hue and cry over Hagel’s remarks which, some suggested, might border on the treasonous. The fury of our elected representatives (Hagel had once suggested, in a moment of absentmindedness, that he was a U.S. Senator rather than an Israeli Senator) knew no boundaries, and right-wing groups ran ads against Hagel at the same time that high-powered Democratic senators met quietly with the nominee in backrooms to ensure that his support for Israel was nothing less than ironclad.
No Israeli lobby indeed. And if there was one, it certainly wouldn’t seek to intimidate!
Let’s take the latter point first. Generally speaking, the point of a lobby is to persuade, and if persuasion fails, to intimidate. This intimidation can take any number of guises. It can be a show of force in the form of a petition. It can involve giving or cutting off funding. It can comprise an election challenge, or the endorsement of an electoral opponent. It can involve demonstrations, protests, letter-writing and the like. Environmental groups do this. The financial lobby does this. The NRA and other elements in the criminal armaments lobby do this. Grassroots groups do this. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in bringing pressure to bear on elected representatives. So denying that there is intimidation involved probably says more about the shameful character of the purpose behind the lobbying, which is why defence contractors, the financial services, and oil companies all prefer to operate in the shadows, and strenuously resiste efforts to throw light on their activities.
But now back to the existence of the lobby.
Some of the Defence Secretary’s more disingenuous critics suggested that their problem was that he slipped up and characterised the Israel lobby as a “Jewish” lobby. But I recently received, for reasons unbeknownst to me, an e-mail from J-Street, ostensibly amongst the less rabid and more critical mouthpieces of the Israeli state. Therein, the group described the urgent need to “secure Israel’s Jewish character”. So it seems that to at least some even in the more liberal elements of the broader lobby, Israel is defined by its Jewish character. Inadvertently, Hagel was right.
But back to my e-mail. The purpose of the cagily-phrased message was to bring pressure to bear on California’s junior senator, Barbara Boxer, who was apparently showing insufficient reverence for Israel’s security by getting her to sign Dianne Feinstein’s letter to the President on the eve of his recent Middle East trip.
The letter began promisingly, noting the need for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It then proceeded to outline the various ways in which the United States is wholeheartedly committed to backing Israel to the hilt whatever might happen, with nary a word for the importance of the other party—Palestinians.
It contained this gem: “Just as the United States is unwavering in its support for Israel during these difficult times, we should also be clear about our commitment to a permanent, two-state peace agreement”.
I submit that those two statements are incompatible. The point of negotiations is that two parties, each of which has a different ideal outcome, must agree upon some outcome. The U.S. cannot be an honest broker to this settlement if on the one hand it is committed to backing one of these two parties in whatever it does when that party (Israel) possesses grossly disproportionate power, the legitimacy conferred by the statehood the U.S. has denied the third party (Palestine), and acts to undermine negotiations at every stage. It is impossible for the U.S. to reconcile its commitment to Israel with its desire for peace when that peace is predicated on justice and Israel continues to behave like a colonial power, flouting international law, expanding settlements, and creating a subordinate, de-citizenised underclass.
Which makes a nonsense of the letter’s other claim, namely that the relationship between the U.S. and Israel is “based on shared values of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law”.
Let’s take democracy. Now you could conceivably choose to argue (only dishonestly, I think) that what exists in Israel is a democracy for one class of person. But this ignores the fact that there is a second class of person in that country and in its colonies, and that these people are subject to the whims of a colonial-style police state governed by people who are possessed of the same kind of barking paranoia and genius for self-destruction that characterised the apartheid state in South Africa.
What about human rights and the rule of law? That’s tricky. It depends on which laws and whose rights. Neither the U.S. nor Israel has any time for international law, which might hold our leaders accountable for their crimes. And just as Israel’s government has little respect for the rights of Palestinians, the U.S. government has no respect for the rights of people who it abducts and disappears. Our government has no respect for the rights of those whom it imprisons without accusation or trial, or for people who it tortures or renditions to other countries who do our dirty work for us. We kill people using missiles fired from drones based on “profiles” of what terrorist activity looks like, and we’re very often wrong.
But enough of the inconsistency in Feinstein’s brainless cheerleading. Let’s turn back to the subject of earlier lobbying, Senator Barbara Boxer. Boxer is now co-sponsoring a bill which waives visa requirements for Israeli citizens without requiring that the Israeli government do the same for U.S. citizens (the basis for every other “visa waiver” the U.S. has signed up to), even knowing as it does that Israel’s visa practises discriminate against freedom of thought, speech, and conscience, in all the best traditions of authoritarian police states. You can read much more about Boxer’s worthy work at the Guardian, given that reporting on this issue is unlikely to be replicated in U.S. media, which generally observes a studious silence out of respect for Israeli sensibilities.
Feinstein and Boxer aren’t the only California-based lawmakers to turn their efforts towards securing the position of the Israeli state. In California, lawmakers in the Assembly passed HR 35, a resolution which urged universities to stamp out anti-Semitism on their campuses. Sounds fine, right?
The problem is that the resolution equates stating that Israel has committed crimes against humanity (undeniably true) and engages in ethnic cleansing (also true) with anti-Semitism (ironic when, as evidenced by the attacks on Hagel, Israel’s supporters are keen to point out that theirs is an Israeli rather than a Jewish lobby). It also condemns “student- and faculty-sponsored boycott, divestment, and saction campaigns against Israel that are a means of demonizing Israel and seek to harm the Jewish state”. This is an incredible statement which equates political criticism of a regime which has an undeniably violent and discriminatory basis with anti-Semitism.
The resolution also condemns “actions of students that encourage support for terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah”. Berkeley has a proud tradition of advocating for divestment from nasty regimes. Nelson Mandela’s ANC was once labelled a terrorist organisation by the Reagan government, which supported apartheid in South Africa. Hamas and Hezbollah (and Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC in its day) certainly use tools of terror, and perhaps that does indeed make them “terrorist organizations”. But so does the Israeli Defence Force. And the U.S. military. And the C.I.A. All of which are, by this definition and on the basis of their inexcusable and unforgivable behaviour, terrorist organisations.
It is stunning to me that the same people who can’t be bothered to enact legislation to shore up our public institutions, to back consumer protection, or to take action to protect working people from predation here in the United States are willing to expend so much effort restricting freedom of speech on our university campuses, catering to the security of an antique colonial regime, and supporting active discrimination against U.S. citizens by a foreign state.
It boggles my mind that the same federal government which cannot be bothered to prosecute the economic gangsters who robbed the citizens of our country blind during the financial crisis, and who continue to abuse the power that wealth gives them in the context of our plutocratic political system, is willing to spend so much time arming the Israeli government and running what amounts to an assisted suicide programme in the Middle East (more commonly known as the provision of unconditional aid to a crumbling and undemocratic colonial regime) in view of Israel’s enormous capacity for generating self-inflicted harm and damaging the interests of U.S. citizens.
And it is incredible to me that people are able to claim (and be believed by a gullible public) that all of these solicitous actions on behalf of a foreign government emerge organically from our legislative chambers, un-shepherded by any special interest, unmotivated by any intimidation, and certainly (the narrative goes) without any prompting by the Israel lobby...which, of course, does not exist.