This is an astonishing video. Two nights ago, on February 20, Congressman Howard Berman, the soon-to-be-chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, visited the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association in his Los Angeles district. During the Q-and-A, a couple of audience members submitted written questions about the Israel relationship. The moderator lumped the questions and asked Berman how he would rate the presidential candidates on Israel.
Berman first offered an astute insight: "I cannot recall a Presidential election where less time has been spent by any of the presidential candidates discussing this issue."
(Absolutely true, and doesn't it prove that our politics are broken? The issue has never been so important, and never so verboten in the public square...)
Berman then assumed he was talking to a friendly crowd. He said Israel "is why I went on the Foreign Affairs Committee--" he corrected himself-- "it's part of why I went on the Foreign Affairs committee in the first place. I'm a great supporter of Israel." He hastened to add he was also a supporter of a "sensible" peace process that takes into account "Israel's longtime security needs."
(Not a word about Palestinians, or occupation.)
Yes, Obama, McCain and Hillary are all good on this issue. Berman feels "comfortable that all three of them are deeply committed to Israel." [my emphasis] But as president, that could change. In his shrewd way, Berman said that you can never be completely sure where a president might want to go on this issue. "And on this particular issue, the single most important thing is to maintain the high level of Congressional support because they become a brake on-- they become a force on what the Administration does."
At this point, the tireless and ferocious James Morris rose in the audience, breaking the rules. He pointed out that the moderator mentioned his name when he offered the question to Berman, but that this was not his question. His question was about the Israel lobby and the Iraq war and Walt and Mearsheimer. The moderator had chosen to mingle his question with others, misrepresenting it.
Berman answered with a near-tirade about Walt and Mearsheimer. He said the "notion that the U.S. Congress is voting because of the Israel lobby" goes back to "the old scapegoat theory." Who do we blame for our problems? "It's those people." The idea that he voted for the Iraq war because Israel wanted him to is a "total canard," he says; and he rejects this out of hand. As though he were "bought and paid for by some nefarious interest." Etc. Israel is supported in the U.S. for a "variety of historical and political reasons and because of the nature of that democracy."
The dialogue is fascinating for a number of reasons. Berman is the post-'67-war Jewish generation: he began in politics as a Vietnam dove, and as the Almanac of American Politics states, more than that "as a backer of Israel." In the beginning of his answer in Sherman Oaks he was very direct about how his concern for Israel motivated his political engagement. Not once did he mention Israel's wretched record in human rights or its denial of democracy to Palestinians under its governance. (It is this moral bankruptcy that is making the establishment Jews increasingly suspect to young aware Jews). Then in a page from the playbook of the Israel lobby, Berman said that the most important thing is to keep up the pressure through Congress, as a "brake" on the inevitable Arab/global pressures that will come to bear on a president. The Israel lobby in Congress.
Then he was challenged by Morris, and Berman began speaking in highblown Holocaust-shadowed rhetoric-- scapegoating, nefarious, canard, and all the historical connections between us and Israel.
This is not helpful language. When I say Israel lobby, I include the natural inclinations of empowered Jews like Berman, who see Israel as a democracy at existential risk because of the threat of its Arab and Muslim neighbors. This is his natural concern, and it motivated him to seek an important position in Congress, and to cluck over his love of Israel to his constituents. Fine; that is how faction works. These people genuinely believe this and are engaged on that basis.
Can you imagine what journalists would do if an evangelical Christian took the chairmanship of a committee that controlled funding for abortion, or stem-cell research? The papers would be all over it. They would laugh when that congressmen said that the issue of a religious agenda re stem cells is a "total canard." Yet here we have a genuine religious interest, genuinely engaged (until Berman has to throw up all his defensive denials), on issues that today have far more consequences for Americans than the (fading) social conservatives' agenda; and the press is silent. I don't blame Berman here so much as the press. Berman is the Religious Left in American life, an important component of our politics, our foreign policy, and the distorted thinking behind the Iraq debacle. And so far the Religious Left has successfully silenced scrutiny of its actions by saying that even to bring it up is to be antisemitic. America is better than that.
(And so are Jews. If there was a true debate of these issues, Jews like Leon Hadar and M.J. Rosenberg would tower in the media as moral voices--Jews who in the midst of sectarian war, still think of the Other.)
P.S. A word on the political stakes here. Berman says that the U.S. supports Israel for a "variety" of historical and political reasons. I.e., the average American loves our democratic ally in the Middle East. John Mearsheimer disagrees. At a speech last fall, here in audio, he said, "contrary to the claims of Israel’s strongest backers, support for that [U.S.-Israel] relationship among the American people is not wide and not deep.... If there was an open and free-wheeling discussion of Israeli history, Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories, and the US relationship with Israel, it would probably lead many Americans to pressure their leaders in Washington to abandon the special relationship and treat Israel like a normal country."
Who is right, Berman or Mearsheimer?