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False Prophecy and Real History in the Mideast | The Nation

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False Prophecy and Real History in the Mideast

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Kabuki theater, with its extremely stylized dramaturgy, and the Yiddish stage, with its lachrymose realism, are rarely joined. The Democratic National Convention succeeded, however, in fusing the two. A platform insertion terming Jerusalem the undivided capital of Israel was gaveled through by a visibly unhappy mayor of Los Angeles, reportedly at the insistence of the White House, which sought to silence Republican charges that the administration is disloyal to our unruly client state.

About the Author

Norman Birnbaum
Norman Birnbaum is professor emeritus at the Georgetown University Law Center. He was on the founding editorial board...

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Their recent publication tells us nothing we didn’t already know, or could easily have inferred, from his biography.

Tony Benn died at age 88 last week—and was immediately and fulsomely praised by many well able to restrain their enthusiasm for him in his lifetime.

Perhaps we should think instead of the Theater of the Absurd. The administration’s policy is like that of the governments that preceded it. The final status of Jerusalem is to be decided by Israel and Palestine if they conclude a peace treaty. It is almost certain, whoever wins the election, that our embassy will remain in Tel Aviv. Meanwhile, the audible anger of many of the convention delegates nullified the reassuring effect the resolution was supposed to have on those voters for whom Israel’s delusions of omnipotence are their commands. Most are Republican biblical literalists, who believe that the coming of Israel portends the Last Judgment, the conversion of some Jews and the extirpation of the rest. The leaders of the Jewish organizations are remarkably tolerant of the theology of their fundamentalist allies. They are sure, after all, of their unconditional support for Israel—something that an increasing number of American Jews refuse. The Jewish organizations and their leaders become all the louder as their constituency shrinks. A majority of American Jews will vote as Americans, and some of the most self-consciously Jewish of them will do so for the sake of biblical values of social justice—which they find increasingly challenged in Israel. Meanwhile, events in the world reduce the political theater at the convention to its true dimensions, exceedingly small.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his defense minister, Ehud Barak, are beleaguered. Many in Israel’s military and political elite have questioned their judgment, indeed, their competence. In a calculated indiscretion, our senior military commander, Gen. Martin Dempsey, declared himself unwilling to be “complicit” in an Israeli attack on Iran. To Netanyahu’s demand that the United States pledge to attack Iran if Tehran refuses to renounce the capability to develop nuclear weapons, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has declared that there is still time for negotiations and pressure to work. Netanyahu will not get his pledge, and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, in a surprising if temporary bout of responsibility, was for a couple of days loudly silent about giving one himself.

There followed Netanyahu’s apoplectic denunciation of US restraint. The Israel prime minister’s temper cannot have been improved by a reported visit from senior British officials warning against unilateral Israeli action, and by a supposed telephoned admonition from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the same effect. We do not know if these reports are true, although it is clear that at the highest levels of the Israeli national security apparatus, the weapon of choice is not a nuclear missile or an airborne strike force but a sieve. Perhaps the warnings against allowing fanatical mullahs to acquire nuclear weapons require a footnote. The bellowing Israeli prime minister did not convey reassurance that Israel’s nuclear weaponry is in entirely sober hands. The footnote, indeed, demands large print.

Then came the attacks on the US embassy in Cairo and a devastating episode in Benghazi, where the US ambassador and three colleagues were killed. The Cairo attackers and a speaker for the Muslim Brotherhood demanded official apologies for a crude propaganda film deriding the Prophet Muhammad. One “Sam Bacile,” initially described in slovenly done media reports as an Israeli immigrant, claimed authorship of the film. It was shown and praised by notorious Florida Pastor Terry Jones, whose threats to burn the Koran in recent years had already incited hostility in Muslim nations. Now it increasingly appears that Bacile may be the invention of the film’s Coptic Christian producer, one Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, who pleaded no contest to bank fraud charges in 2010 and was sentenced to twenty-one months in federal prison. Perhaps Israeli intelligence sources could tell the FBI what it knows about the origins of the film.

Meanwhile, four American public servants have perished in Benghazi. Some have claimed that the attack was revenge for the killing by US drone of a Libyan Al Qaeda leader elsewhere, but this is not confirmed. Military units are being readied for emergency deployment to our diplomatic posts around the world. Romney has stuttered a message of condemnation of the president for allowing the Cairo embassy to condemn the film. He has been seconded by Representative Paul Ryan, who in his movements and speech gives the impression of being a marionette unhinged. The Cairo embassy message, not cleared with Washington, was obviously an attempt by the embassy staff to calm tensions—and thus perhaps to save themselves from lynching. The Egyptians guarding the embassy, despite decades of American subventions of the Egyptian military, did nothing. A candidate worthy of the presidency might have asked if our policy of global intervention exceeds our capacities. Romney and Ryan have their version of American “exceptionalism,” their fusion of ignorance and stupidity with (vicarious) aggression.

An attack on Iran to preclude its developing weapons which it does not yet have and which it may not be developing would violate international law. It would also have catastrophic economic, military and political consequences. Consider the increasing havoc caused by the civil war in Syria. An attack on Iran would reproduce that on a very much larger scale. The effort led by the United States to isolate Iran has failed. China and Russia have refused to join. They have the means to pressure any American government by threatening to provide Iran with arms. Both the UN Secretary General and the new Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, have just visited Iran. Each has made pronouncements displeasing to their hosts. The Secretary General criticized the violent anti-Israel rhetoric of the Iranian president. President Morsi, criticizing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has undermined an Iranian ally. The 120 nations of the Non-Aligned Movement, which met recently in Tehran, did not endorse the regime, but they also made it clear that they preferred multilateral discussion to unilateral ultimatums. The United States cannot count indefinitely on total support from the European Union against Iran. The Europeans know the history of the region—and why they were expelled from it. Their ambassadors were attentive to the Democratic convention proceedings in Charlotte; perhaps they recalled, in the absence of a convention debate on Jerusalem, that the Holy City has changed hands some seventy times since the fall of the Temple.

Benjamin Netanyahnu’s father was a historian, intent on demonstrating the perpetual and total hostility of the gentile world to Jewry. The prime minister’s own historical thought is exquisitely simple: For 2,000 years, Jewry was defenseless. The allies of the Jews in the modern epoch, the parties of the philosophical Enlightenment and of civic and human rights, failed to prevent the Holocaust. Now, though, the Jewish people can rely on the state of Israel. But had Israel existed in the 1930s, it could hardly have contributed much to defeating Hitler militarily, even if it could have provided refuge for many more Jews than the British allowed to enter Palestine, which they then controlled. It took the armies of the Soviet Union, the United States and Britain, along with the European resistance movement, to defeat Nazi Germany. There is a lesson in this that Netanyahu is careful not to mention: A small ethnic group with a small state will always be dependent upon the good will of other peoples and larger nations. The frenetic tone of Netanyahu’s verbal defiance of the present US administration is in effect an admission that he knows how dependent Israel really is.

Netanyahu’s triumphalism contrasts with his other pronouncements. In these, Israel is depicted as totally threatened—by Palestinians, by Arab and Muslim nations, by Iran and its (hypothetical) nuclear weaponry, by the indifference and hostility of a gentile world. The original promise of Zionism was that a Jewish state would provide security not only for its citizens, but for Jews everywhere else. After the wars of 1956, 1967, 1973 and 1982, the risings of the Palestinians, the recent invasions of Lebanon and Gaza, and with the prospect of war with Iran, it is difficult to assert that Israel is a safe place. The Israelis are debating whether their civil defense is ready for the next war. The connection of the Diaspora to Israel is the source of inner and outer difficulties for Jews who do not live in the Holy Land.

The occasion for Netanyahu’s claim was the arrival in Israel of some 120 American volunteers for the Israel army. There are at least 5 million Jews in the United States, and minimally, hundreds of thousands are in age cohorts eligible for military service. One hundred and twenty recruits is not an overwhelming number. Programs like Birthright Israel, which provide free trips to Israel for younger Jewish Americans, are widely subscribed. The prospect of combat with determined enemies does not attract them. Given the recent mixed performance of the Israeli armed forces, the public quarrels of its generals and the constant arguments among Israeli officials and politicians, one understands why.

The ultra-Orthodox in Israel have not until now done military service. In February, though, the Israeli Supreme Court declared their exemption unconstitutional. The Israeli army is now struggling with how to integrate the ultra-Orthodox, with their obsessive sexism, into a military in which women have long played a significant role. (Of course, those who spend all their time studying Holy Scripture are not the only ones who have avoided military service.) The American Jewish media, rather like Netanyahu, alternate vertiginously between boasting of Israel’s strength and anguished depictions of its perilous situation. Its editors think, apparently, that its readers are unable to deal with Israel’s complexities—and are rather discreet about the severe strains permeating Israeli culture and society. 

*  *  *

The American Jewish community is much more useful to Netanyahu as a source of political support than as a reserve of manpower. Do the Israel government and political elite fully grasp the American situation? The present ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, presumably responsible for accurate reporting, expends a great deal of energy repeating explanations for Israel’s behavior that go back at least to 1967. One trusts that in his communication with his government he is rather more nuanced. Netanyahu’s recent outbursts demonstrate an astonishing lack of tact, but it may also reflect a severely deformed view of the country in which he once lived. (On Meet the Press on September 16, he appeared severely depressed, evaded questions about his interference in our presidential campaign and commented on the Mideast in terms approximating the profundity we might expect from the president of a Jewish congregation in one of our duller suburbs.)

Unconditional support for Israel among American Jews is a substitute for the faith of our fathers. Generally, that support is strongest among those who live in a predominantly Jewish milieu. Those who are out and about in American society tend to have more differentiated views. Many, no doubt, nodded appreciatively at the ritualized denunciations by the Jewish organizations of the late Tony Judt, of Noam Chomsky, of professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. But the attacks unintendedly obliged the Jewish public to confront arguments that the occupation of Palestine is both immoral and unsustainable, that Israel must put its relationship with the Muslim nations on a very different basis, that the militarization of Israeli culture and politics has to be reversed. That debate has moved from the margins to near the center of American Jewish consciousness. The fervid supporters of Israel continue to embarrass the rest of us, as in the attempt to ban criticism of Israel in our colleges and universities as ipso facto “anti-Semitic.” Opinion polling, and every other sort of inquiry, suggest that a majority of American Jews are so rooted in this country that Israel’s fate does not determine or dominate their entire being, including their politics. 

Some of the most vocal of the Jewish organizations (the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League) compensate in decibels for their numbers, rather small relative to the size of the Jewish community. American Jews have made very large contributions to our nation in the arts, culture, business, education, finance, politics, the professions and science. The others become community leaders. Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban, among others, have certainly bought attention by throwing their money around, but no amount of money can erase the grossness of their ethnocentrism. 

Groups and individuals espousing critical views of Israel’s policies have always been part of the American Jewish landscape. In Israel’s early years, the American Jewish Committee and any number of publicists, rabbis and scholars insisted that their primary loyalty was to the United States, and they warned the Israelis not to seek total support from American Jewry or to interfere in American affairs. At present, J Street is the most audible of American Jewish groups critical of Israel’s policies, but it limps behind events. It espouses a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, a solution that is blocked by Jewish settlements. Indeed, few in the Jewish community are prepared to acknowledge the obvious: Unless some hundreds of thousands of Jewish inhabitants of Palestine move back to Israel, the two peoples, Arab and Jewish, will remain joined—but not forever. 

There may be a successful Palestinian rising, or a solution may be imposed on Israel by the United Nations with Israel’s American and European allies. There may be a chain of events we cannot now envisage, perhaps beginning with a severe Israeli military defeat. At some point, the Palestinians will achieve self-governance, whether as citizens of a binational state or in an independent state from which Israel will have withdrawn, voluntarily or otherwise. In the process, Israel may be rent by civil conflict. It may lose by emigration the most educated and entrepreneurial of its citizens. It may have to endure a change to the status of a nation supervised by international trustees and itself be occupied by a UN force. Even some of the more critical American Jewish supporters of Israel are reluctant to examine these problematic aspects of Israel’s future.

*  *  *   

American support for Israel has three components. The first entails the beliefs and activities of the Jewish community itself—which is culturally and politically divided, on any number of issues, including relations to Israel. Recently the largest single Jewish group in the United States, Reform Judaism, did not participate in meetings of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, since the Reform movement’s views were ignored. The plea of Peter Beinart for an Israel that would be democratic and Jewish is certainly noble, but the present Israeli majority is not in revolt against a good deal of official and unofficial cultural and political repressiveness. And Beinart’s liberal principles are not shared by all his American ethnic brethren. Some would prefer to travel on gender-segregated buses in New York, to match those in Israel. 

Publications like the Forward express the acuity of what may be termed the ivied part of the Jewish public, but the more widely read Jewish community papers are written in a much less sophisticated language. A great many Jews, perhaps a majority, carry on their lives at a distance from the controversies on Israel. The debate about Israel is a continuation, or a revival, of older debates on assimilation and ethnic separateness. Many of the present participants do not discuss their choices but act them out. 

The leaders of the American Jewish organizations understand American public life as a system of group bargaining. What will they do when more and more of their gentile interlocutors (a movement already well advanced in some of the mainline Protestant churches) declare that American values require criticism of Israel? No amount of funding of not exceptionally gifted legislators (think of Senators Jon Kyl and Mark Kirk) can replace dealing with fundamental conflicts of political value. 

The relationship of Israel to the United States would be very different but for American Protestantism, the second major pillar of support for Israel. Old Testament roots, millennial concerns, a sense of social justice and the Calvinist work ethos combined in the past to make the Protestant churches allies of American Jewry in a large range of cultural and social struggles. In recent decades, however, there has been a reversal of alliances. The most engaged Protestant partisans of Israel are found in the more fundamentalist sects, which profess biblical literalism and an apocalyptic view of history. Their enthusiasm for Israel lies in their belief that the rebirth of a Jewish state is evidence of the nearing of the Last Judgment, during which Jewry will be converted or destroyed. On many economic and social issues (women’s rights, the separation of church and state, the American welfare state), Israel’s most enthusiastic US gentile supporters disagree very sharply with a majority of American Jews. The domestic alliance between the Jewish organizations and the Christian fundamentalists has lasted because Jews were willing to discount the fundamentalists’ wish to see us disappear. A future American social crisis might persuade the fundamentalists that the Last Judgment is imminent and revive the anti-Semitism they openly voiced two generations ago. That is not so difficult to imagine; the Islamophobia they now profess is but a step away from anti-Semitism.

Many Americans in the modern and liberal parts of the political spectrum are troubled by the continuation of the occupation of Palestine and the tenor of much of Israeli public life. Uncritical support for Israel among the more ethnocentric segments of the Jewish community and among the most culturally closed groups in gentile America is no compensation for the increasing readiness of much of American Protestantism to take its distance. 

*  *  *

Despite the changes sometimes attempted by new presidents, there is a permanent government in our country. It consists of the officials in our foreign policy agencies, military officers and Congressional staffs. They live not for but from our empire. They are joined by academics and professionals in the universities, business and finance, in foundations and centers of research, and in the media. Few are conspicuous for reasoned dissent from consensual notions of the nation’s place in the world. It makes some, but not a great deal, of difference to these groups who is president under them. They are responsible for the continuity of US foreign policy, and they take the responsibility seriously. At times, to be sure, their behavior is reminiscent of the symptomatology described by Freud as the “repetition compulsion.” Despite the disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan, some of them seek intervention in Syria.

The permanent government constructed a close alliance with Israel in the Kennedy-Johnson years. The alliance endured severe strains under Republican Secretaries of State George Shultz and James Baker, but it remained an indispensable element in our Mideast policy. The Democrats, the party of a large majority of American Jews, have attempted (particularly under Bill Clinton) to move Israelis and Palestinians toward a final peace agreement, without success. Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—who as a former senator from New York and a possible presidential candidate in 2016, is exceedingly attentive to American Jewish opinion—have conducted a low-intensity war with an ostensible ally, Pakistan; have mobilized an international coalition against Iran; and have sent American forces to battle Islamist movements from the Philippines to West Africa. Our Egyptian clients, Hosni Mubarak along with many of his generals, are gone; the Saudi ruling house and the Gulf monarchies will not last forever; and Turkey is hardly the obedient state it once was. The extraction of US forces from Afghanistan will leave that nation as ungovernable as ever, and the occupation of Iraq has severely damaged its economy, divided its society and increased Iran’s influence on its politics. 

In the circumstances, many in the permanent government do not think the alliance with Israel should be maintained in its current form. They support Obama and Clinton in their refusal to be pushed into war with Iran. Should Obama be re-elected, they may well assist him in devising ways and means to coexist with a nuclear Iran. In his recent New York Times op-ed, Bill Keller, as former executive editor of the paper, surely spoke not only for himself in his analysis of the rationality of that course. In the event of a victory by Romney, the permanent government could find ways, as it did under Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan and the first Bush, to restrain the imperial unilateralists now speaking so loudly for him. Israel has been a preferred ally of figures like Dick Cheney—but on instrumental and not sentimental grounds. Candidate Romney regards the world beyond our borders with the views he brought to his missionary tour in France more than forty years ago. He cannot quite understand why foreigners are not more pliable. The domestic turmoil that would follow a Romney victory might compel an intensification of the process of imperial rationalization begun by Obama. In that situation, Israel could find itself rather more expendable than not. 

Netanyahu’s exceedingly undiplomatic diplomacy will strengthen those in the permanent government who have long been angered by the supporters of Israel. Some have paid for their dissent from total alignment of US policy with that of Israel with difficulties in their careers. Those who have chosen discretion are not, on that account, devoid of resentment. The historically reflective among them argue that a general re-evaluation of our policy in the Middle East cannot be effective without a serious reconsideration of the alliance. They favor not its termination but the gradual development of distance. That would require refusing Israel a free hand in the occupied territories. The supporters of Israel themselves, in their frenetic demand that there be “no daylight” between US and Israeli policies, seem to think the possibility of alteration real enough.

The permanent government is many times larger than the preponderantly Anglo-Saxon foreign service of the years before World War II. The expansion of American interests abroad—and ethnic and religious and later racial mobility in the United States—opened it to those who had not attended elite colleges, to Catholics and Jews, later to African-Americans and Latinos. A number of Jewish Americans have had outstanding careers in its ranks. Jewish members of Congress (twenty-six of 435) and senators (thirteen of 100) are quite prominent, and most represent electorates in which Jewish citizens are a distinct minority. Along with a considerable Jewish presence in the media, in the universities and among large donors to political campaigns, this has led to simplified notions of an Israel lobby acting surreptitiously. The opposite is the case, since no group active in foreign and military policy is more inclined to publicize its successes. 

What we have had is a case of elective affinity. Israel, for all the difficulties caused by the occupation of Palestine, was an effective ally in the Middle East precisely because it was joined to authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey in accepting American dominance of the Middle East. Future historians will deal with the question of whether by its acceptance of the Israeli occupation and its support for regimes both corrupt and repressive, the United States encouraged Iran and the very mixed spectrum of groups termed “Islamist” to form a self-defined anti-imperial coalition. At present, the US-sponsored coalition is disintegrating—Algeria may be the next state to experience regime change. Within the permanent government, those who were responsible for the attack on Iraq are very audible in their call for war on Iran and the Islamists everywhere that can be found or conjured into existence. They have been excluded from the inner councils of the Obama government, and it is not certain that a President Romney would give them a free hand, although they now people his foreign policy advisory groups. A wise Romney, if elected, would ask the elder Bush and Powell, Scowcroft and Kissinger for advice. Perhaps the best we can say at this point is, sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. 

The retirement of Dennis Ross, who served as Middle East adviser under several presidents, Democratic and Republican, is evidence for the loss of influence of the more egregious of Israel’s American agents. Netanyahu appears to have ignored the significance of his departure. It was tactless of Netanyahu to use Romney’s visit to Israel to ask—yet again—for the release of Jonathan Pollard, who was convicted of espionage in 1987 and sentenced to life in prison for passing secrets to Israel while serving as a US intelligence analyst. There may be a humanitarian case for his release, but those asking for it are not humanitarians. They seek to legitimize the notion that the identity of interests between the United States and Israel is so great that Pollard’s transgressions can be forgiven. Many in the permanent government contest that. By raising the matter of Pollard, Netanyahu has also raised the question of double loyalties—not a simple matter for American Jewry, but one that is inevitably entailed in any serious discussion of the relations of the Diaspora to Israel. What would our lives be like if every Jewish applicant for a post in government, or in the academy or media, was suspected of considering it an obligation to serve Israel? 

Successive waves of immigration in the history of our republic have invariably evoked xenophobic responses on the part of those whose ancestors arrived earlier. Henry James was so disturbed by the Eastern European Jewish immigrants who crowded into the Lower East Side of Manhattan that he pronounced them utterly incapable of assimilation. What would he say about the innumerable dissertations submitted to English departments on his work by Jewish candidates for a PhD? Every ethnic group has maintained ties with homelands—and frequently, these were not only cultural and familial but political. Much of the “isolationism” of the years between the two world wars was ethnic, the rejection by Americans of German and Irish descent of a permanent alliance with Britain.

The Jewish Americans most committed to assisting Israel argue that it is unfair to charge them with a conflict of loyalties. As precedent, they point to the long domination of the permanent government by immigrants of British descent. The “Anglo-Saxon” character of the long ties between the United States and Britain was evoked by Romney (who apparently is unable to discern Irish, Scots and Welsh in British history). The long and tortuous relationship of the United States to Britain began with the Revolution and continued with the War of 1812, any number of subsequent confrontations (near wars on Canada and British support for the Confederates) and has recently encompassed the supersession of the British Empire by our own. Recall the demand of Israel’s supporters that there be “no daylight” between American and Israeli policies. There was, in effect, rather a lot of daylight between the nation created by descendants of British immigration and the United Kingdom. 

Impelled by a diverse set of motives, including recollections of the inability of the American Jewish community to come to the assistance of European Jewry in the years 1933–45, the American supporters of Israel have used their cultural and economic success to pursue Israel’s interests in the United States. It is for the Israelis to say whether in the long run military and political dependence upon the United States is the most effective path to their national security. What will they do if Washington should decide, in the coming decades, that present engagements in the Middle East are too expensive and politically risky to be maintained? Israel may not be the first advanced position to be evacuated, but the evacuation will take place: ask Mubarak and the descendants of the Shah of Iran.

Insofar as American Jewry wishes to continue to live in the United States, we are obliged to consider where our true interests lie. They cannot be found in the false prophecy of Benjamin Netanyahu, with his grotesque interpretation of Jewish history. American Jews have achieved security and the respect of our fellow citizens because of the openness of our national institutions and the contributions we have made to national life. It ill becomes us to devalue these by assigning priority to agreement with Israel’s agenda, formed in a society not ours. We will find, shortly, that we have little choice in the matter. An increasing number of our fellow citizens, especially in the more influential segments of the nation, are reconsidering America’s alignment with Israel. As Jews and Americans, we have something to contribute to the discussion—but we do not require advice from an Israeli politician increasingly distrusted by significant parts of his own citizenry. Should the reckless arrogance that Netanyahu reflects actually endanger the existence of Israel, we might wish to have some credit established with our fellow American citizens, the better to assist the Israelis. That is not, unfortunately, as remote a situation as some might think.

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