A Debate on the Israel Lobby

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
on 20 Comments

I’m trying to have more dialogues with Richard Witty because he’s a smart guy who disagrees with me, also I’m grateful that he’s come to this site overcoming his objection to a lot of stuff said here. (On a personal note, we knew each other when we were kids; I’ve remet him twice in the last couple years; we are family friends.) Not sure what will come of these dialogues. I can’t imagine convincing him of my point of view. But when I say there has to be soul-searching among Jews over the Iraq war, maybe this is what I’m talking about….

What follows is an exchange over the Israel Lobby, a term Richard disputes. It begins with my challenge, then his response, then my counter-response. I’m sure there will be more later. One thing I promise is I’ll give him the last word. Only seems fair.

Let ‘er rip!

WEISS: I have a challenge to you, Richard. you apparently object
to the very words Israel Lobby. My impression is that you feel it is non
specific, imprecise. I feel that you are depriving journalists and thinkers of
an important rhetorical and analytical tool: generalization. We generalize
about the Christian evangelical movement in politics being anti gay rights and
anti abortion though I imagine there are a good # of evangelicals who dissent
on those views.

Or here is a damning generalization about the Catholic
church, one I share, in a blurb for a filmmaker exposing the pedophilia:

This unsettling Oscar-nominated documentary from
filmmaker Amy Berg investigates the life of 30-year pedophile Father Oliver
O’Grady and exposes the corruption inside the Catholic Church that allowed him
to abuse countless children.

Damning words. A terrible shadow over all the good
priests, the great majority I’m sure. Well here we are dealing with a true
movement inside the Jewish church of today, to support Israel vigorously in
politics and the discourse, with money, letters, etc. This is in my view a
lobby, a very fair journalistic generalization. It seems to me you establish a
code of sensitivity in the media re our group, Jews, that the media would never
uphold (and I suspect you wouldnt either) w/ respect to any other group. 

WITTY: I think generalization is at best a first stab at
understanding. Beyond that, someone that sincerely wants to know and convey
what occurred, or is occurring, must be more specific in one’s thinking and in
characterization.

Even among AIPAC, there is support for respectful peace
efforts, so even to name AIPAC is NOT specific enough. I remember reading about
six months to a year ago, when prospective candidates were lining up to mingle
and make presentations at a national conference, on one day Dick Cheney showed
up and articulated the “we stand with you in your courageous defense against
Islamo-fascism. We will never hinder your efforts in any way.” (my
representation of his comments, not a quote). He got a standing ovation.

The next day, Barak Obama showed up and stated again in
very rough paraphrase, maybe even wishful thinking “We will stand with you in
your efforts to make a just peace for mutual security and well-being. We will
never hinder your efforts in any way. Anything that the US can do to enhance
the prospects of peace, my administration will do.” And, also received a
standing ovation, though probably from different members of AIPAC.

There are only a couple common commitments that AIPAC
members share, and on the issue of security that is the general unwillingness
to expose Israeli civilians to terror currently, and indefinitely. I share that
view. If that makes me complicit, then I am complicit.

There obviously are other organizations that make up a
loose coalition (even coordinated probably occasionally) that emphasize the
conservative viewpoints (also not monolithic).

When you speak of the Israel Lobby do you mean to lump in
BritZedek, or Meretz USA ? That is what Walt/Mearsheimer do, and you do, in
your choice of language. It was dramatic once, and achieved some questioning.
Now, that period is passed, and it doesn’t achieve inquiry but only
polarization and insult to those that are engaged within the system to
accomplish a peace.

I am in the civil middle. I reject the radical
approaches, the “throw them out” approaches, either of them (throw the Israelis
out, or throw the Palestinians out).

And, to present that emphasis, I need to be more specific
than the particular generalization, “THE Israel Lobby”.

I actively SUPPORT the “Healthy and Kind Israel Lobby”. I
oppose the “Expansionistic and Suppressive Israel Lobby”.

Even supporting or rejecting a person, I find inaccurate
to the point of qualms of conscience. People, groups, can change their
conclusions and strategy. I recently met a friend of the Olmert family, who
described that Olmert had a personal change in perspective from very
conservative (regarding the city of Jerusalem as Jewish when mayor) to
committed to peace. The individual I met cited that Olmert’s children had
encouraged him to meet with Israeli and Palestinian peace activists, that he
had an incomplete understanding of the community(s) that he had responsibility
for. I don’t know exactly where he settled his views, but the point is that
people, even organizations change. The people change and the conditions by
which they act out their decision structures change.

Generalization hinders that transformation.
Knowledge enhances it.

Another criticism of the use of the term is that it
doesn’t give room to “not know”. I don’t know what any other individual is
thinking. I don’t know what the collective consciousness of a group is. I don’t
know what occurred accurately. I don’t know what or how the relationship of individuals’
perspectives compare with “what really happened” (actually I accept that
history itself is a construction of objective and subjective, subjective
experience distinct from propaganda though).

In a generalization, is there any room for “I don’t
know”. In practice, it appears not.

I think Walt/Mearsheimer’s coining of the term, even
after they experienced criticism for that and for the polemic character of much
of the LRB article, indicates a parallel stubbornness to not learn from both
prior mistakes and intelligent criticisms. (They got yelled at by some, but
respectfully even fundamentally criticized by others. They adjusted to the
respectful criticisms of imprecise documentation, but not the fundamental
criticism of the “unrealist” generalization of the thesis as a whole.)

[Second email]

“we generalize about the christian evangelical movement
in politics being anti gay rights and anti abortion though i imagine there are
a good # of evangelicals who dissent on those views.”

I don’t, having met some committed fundamentalist
that regard the fundamentals of “love thy neighbor as thyself” as more
compelling and clearer, than “sodomy is an abomination”.

Similarly, for Jewish fundamentalists, ala the particular
yeshiva of the Jerusalem massacre. I’ve been to orthodox yeshiva when I was in
Israel in 1986, and got “thrown out” for not adopting the view that Torah was
literally given to Moses complete and identical at Sinai. Somehow including
details of his death, following the revelation, and somehow also including the
“complete” and “identical” oral tradition.

I emphasize, without sufficient study, that the purpose
of Jewish identity is described in Torah as to serve as a “nation of priests”
which I interpret in the revised understanding of the term tikkun olam, to be
comprehensive growth/transformation (deep individual, deep primary
relationships, deep community relationships, respectful inter-community
relationships, egalitarian, universally empowering).

And, that Torah (comprehensively understood, including
nature, including testable wisdom from all sources) is given to us to support
our effort to be capable of serving God and reality effectively in that manner.

Fundamental.

WEISS:

I’m not entirely sure how to respond. A lot of your
commentary here has a spiritual character, which I agree with. I believe in
personal development and in ideas about community. Then there’s the world of policy. And people are bombing innocents or sanctioning them because they are in the wrong place, not showing sensitivity to the fact that they might not subscribe to their country’s political position.

 

The overall objection I have to your statements is that
they seem to me to reflect the views of a Jewish community that goes from
America to Israel and includes many diverse components, from peace camp to
hardliners, and you are on the liberal end. My definition of community is
different from yours; it is very American. This gives me much less sympathy to
Israelis, in fact I am not that interested in Olmert’s personal transformation.
I don’t really have time for it. I’m interested in Barak Obama’s
transformation, and yours and mine and Dick Cheney’s. This is my country, it’s
hard enough to keep up on the personalities and strains here without worrying
about Israel too. So when I hear about Olmert, my big question is, Has he stopped the racist settlements I observed when I visited his country and Palestine? 

You offer the varying responses to Cheney and Obama at
AIPAC as illustrative of a real range of opinion within the organization. I
don’t buy it. I would return you to a simple issue: the failure of Obama’s
Jewish congressional surrogate lately to reject the settlements in a debate
before a Jewish
audience in Ohio. I find this morally horrifying, having been to the
occupied territories. My moral urgency on this blog comes out of one central
drive—I do not want my country tied to the racism and apartheid that I saw in
Hebron and the West Bank. Simple.

Many Jews share my point of view, but again I
say when Obama’s spokesman goes to a Jewish audience in a political venue, he cannot even go near my
point of view. And even more staggering, he cannot approach the language of the
Road Map, our country’s official policy, which years ago said that settlements
must stop
. They don’t stop, in large part because of the politics of this.  

If there are a lot of sensitive thoughtful people in that audience, I don’t really care. For me, the generalization that The Political Jewish Community of
the U.S. supports the colonization policy of the Israeli government is a
true one. Yes it is a generalization, yes there is some nuance. But until a
leftleaning politician can even open up some dissent on this question, you
can’t challenge that generalization.

If I merge Brit Tzedek and APN, I do so because the peace
camp has been feckless with respect to the lobby. They have never challenged
the lobby effectively. A moment very much like the horrifying failure of Obama’s surrogate
to take a stand was the moment 4 years ago when Howard Dean backed down from
his position that there should be an evenhanded policy in the Middle East. This
horrified Dan Fleshler, a guy I have great respect for. He has bravely
described a meeting
of liberal Israel advocates after Dean’s collapse who failed to come out
on Dean’s side. He has spoken of the need for an alternative to the lobby.

I
believe such an alternative will emerge, thru IPF and Fleshler and MJ Rosenberg and others. But
we live in the real world, and so far it has not emerged. The peace camp could have
quit AIPAC over the settlements issue. I believe it should have quit AIPAC over
this issue. It refuses to do so.

The reason it doesn’t is that like you they are concerned
with Israeli security, the right of Jews to live in peace in Israel. I was with
Dan at a BBC radio event nearly 2 years ago at which he spoke about the latest
crisis in Israel. And he said then that Israel faced “existential” threat. I
challenged him after the radio talk about whether this was true, and he said he
had immediately regretted saying the word. My point in bringing this up is that a natural concern
for Jewish lives seems to morph into an “existential” concern that I believe
was born of the Holocaust. And I know too that at one key moment Dan actually spoke up for the lobby, concerned that if the lobby fractured, Israel could be pushed into the
sea….

In this sense I think Jews are being too ethnocentric. At the Ohio debate we see the concern of Jewish politicians with an "existential" threat from Iran that I believe is exaggerated, over any concern at all for the destruction of hope to Palestinian children now. We
are seeing a kind of holocaust in Iraq right now. Yet Jews only seem to see the Jewish lives lost, and rationalize this limited vision by saying that No one else cared about us during the Holocaust. I
see those Israeli lives lost, but the answers that Israel has come up with are
essentially violent ones. I want nothing to do with them.

I don’t understand what is wrong with Walt and
Mearsheimer’s argument. I see nothing wrong with it. I think it was brave,
important and earthshaking. You are a religious person and you see everyone as
different and special, I sense. You are not statistical in your point of view.
I am more political in my focus and see things statistically. And again I say
that there is this powerful force in American politics that is kneecapping
anyone who says the settlements are a bad thing. I am morally outraged by this,
and will work against it. I am not sure who’s driving the train, if it is conservative Jews, leadership
Jews, neocon Jews, establishment Jews, older Jews; or if it blends elements of
all of these, which is my own experience of Jewish life; still it is there and
must be identified and opposed. As I opposed the religious right.

The generalizations of the media about the religious right
were often crude. I met some of those religious people as you have and as a religious person myself (with a far less evolved practice than yours) empathized with
them. But how do you explain the movement of voters in Ohio in ’04 who helped
defeat Kerry over gay marriage? They were religious right. I don’t know if they
were 10 percent or 90 percent of the Christian community, but it seems utterly
fair of the media to use the generalization, evangelical Christian, when trying to understand their power; and then go
in and see if there are distinctions to be made.

You seem angry that we have not been specific enough
about the lobby. I wish I understood it better myself. But note that when a
well-known journalist gives a talk to the lobby on how to help Israel in the
upcoming elections, Peter Beinart the other day, AIPAC won’t let me attend; and
Beinart doesn’t write about it. I attended Middle East Forum and CAMERA events
by paying $50 a shot, and then I reported on how those organizations work. Two years ago
when the New York Theatre Workshop cancelled a scheduled production of the Rachel
Corrie play because of pressure from the community or board members, I covered
that story for the Nation and couldn’t get a straight answer about why this censorship
took place. The chairman of the NYTW is a former college roommate of mine,
Stephen Graham, a son of the late Katharine and Philip Graham. He did not return my
phone call. Was that the lobby? Yes, it was: it was some kind of campaign
against the right of Rachel Corrie even in death to free speech. And it would
not identify itself; or those who saw it in action wouldn’t say how it worked.

The same sort of campaign which you
dignify as criticism was launched against Walt and Mearsheimer. I think part of
what you object to is an earnest journalistic effort on the part of a few
people, including lately Aaron David Miller on his website, to open this
process up and describe what goes on, so far a piecemeal effort involving a very complex political process that has been going on for more than 60 years and, according to Abba Eban, involves American Jews applying "pressure and influence" on American presidents. Until
Fleshler’s people actually take a stand, or the Times starts investigating the
lobby earnestly, or politicians come out against it, our efforts will be like the nine blind guys who go into a room
with an elephant and come out describing it in very different ways. This is the
nature of intellectual inquiry. 

One more point. I have been to a few Muslim countries. My
observation is that they are generally struggling with women’s rights issues
and freedom of speech. They are backward in this respect. I share the conventional prejudice on this score; these are generalizations that I feel are true and
important, inasmuch as these issues are affecting world politics. Do they
reflect every Muslim individual? No. Still I pray for reform of these backward
values in the Arab world. As I work for reform of my American Jewry, which has capitulated to racist policies half a world away.

I hope I was listening to you! Back to you…

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