I often look around the political rabbithole I went down a few years ago and wonder what I’m doing here and whether I’ll ever get out. I think of all the associations and even interests I had earlier in life that I’ve cut myself off from. I wonder if I'm not bonkers or if I’ve had a temperamental breakdown in midlife that unsuited me for the world. Though generally I end up saying, What the hell, my wife’s ok with it, I’ve got a good life, you gotta do what you gotta do.
In the last couple days I’ve had conversations with three American military officers in Jordan that left me feeling good about my choice. In each case it was the officers who brought up the tremendous strategic liability that Israel represents for the U.S., and two of them used the words “Jewish lobby” without prompting.
I’m not going to give away details because these were two chance meetings; the individuals had no idea what use I’d make of their comments. All three work in the Arab world. One is retired, the other two were passing through. Now let me tell you what they said.
My first meeting was with the retired officer, and it was a little shocking, for while he seemed goodnatured, he twice used the word Nazis to describe Israeli political culture.
We got talking about what we were doing out here and when he told me about Palestinians he knows, I brought up the conflict. He said Americans have no idea how closely intertwined the Israeli military is with our military. He trained on a Cobra helicopter flight simulator back home, and he and every other American had to clear out of the building when the Israelis wanted to use the place. They were control freaks, on American soil. They flew around in F-15s and were refueled by American planes. The officer later visited Israel and was surprised to find out that the society is overwhelmingly right wing; and his military counterparts reminded him of what he’d read about Nazis. They were all in a permanent war mind-set he said, and with who? The Palestinians! Who are they kidding?
“The abused becomes the abuser,” he said. He tried to visit the Palestinian territories and was not allowed because he is American military and retired officers aren’t allowed in there for a period of years. Again; control. During the fierce questioning at the border, he began questioning the Israelis back, he was so angered by them.
This is a man who is pulling for the P.A. and the Israelis to make a deal to establish a two-state solution. But he brought up the “Jewish lobby” to explain our policy here. When it came to the whole Mideast, he was more Chomskyian. “Who weaponized religion?” he asked; "we did," in Afghanistan in the 80s, to fight the Russians.
I didn’t respond-- I think religions are pretty good at weaponizing themselves.
I asked him what generals think of the Israeli presence in our institutional life. All the generals know the story, he said, but they won’t say anything. To get to be a general, you have to be political; and once you’ve become a general, you know that it’s easy to make $1 million in corporate contracts upon retirement. You don’t want to screw that up.
My next run-in was with two officers who are younger and more idealistic. Once again the subject of the conflict came up naturally during a conversation about what we're doing out here. The first officer was blunt about the special relationship's damage to American interests, and he also used the phrase “Jewish lobby,” and mentioned AIPAC, to explain a miserable policy.
He was accompanied by a female officer. She told me of a friend she has back home running for a state legislature, and a supporter of Israel came up to him at an event and gave him $1000 and said, We know you’re strong on Israel. The friend confessed to her that he took the money because he needs it if he’s going to win, so he’s now bought on an issue that he's never said anything aboout and that means nothing to his district. Yes and what happens when he runs for Congress? I told her about all the folks at AIPAC bragging about building relationships with budding politicians, and even cultivating student government presidents.
The two officers have traveled widely here. It cannot surprise any regular reader of this site to hear their view that the issue is turning off the entire Arab world and “fueling extremists.” Ordinary Arabs are far better informed than any American, the officers said. They can quote verbatim portions of Obama’s speeches, they take him at his word. If nothing comes of the latest initiative, there will be rage across the Arab world.
The female officer complained about American ignorance of the situation. Americans have no idea what is going on in Palestine, she said. I argued with her about this a little (and cited the Time Magazine cover Adam blogged about—which turns out to be no great revelation).
She took the conversation further. When she was training in Arabic she had one teacher who told her that Truman’s whole State Department was against Partition and against recognizing the Jewish state. She was shocked to learn this, and then she came out here and understood why. Another of her teachers was a Palestinian American woman. Her mother was dying and she couldn’t get into the territories. The Israelis kept her from going back to the place she was born. Finally she got in, but her mother had died. “And she’s an American citizen!”
The female officer had found it a heartbreaking story that showed that our policy was wrong at two levels, strategic and moral. She sounded like Walt and Mearsheimer!
I won’t soon forget her last words to me, for they resonated in my own experience, and in the experience of many of my friends. “I’ve never thought of being an activist in life. I’m not that type. But on this issue, I am tempted to become an activist. I don’t see any other way that things will change.”
The conversation gave me hope that we are building a movement with new materials at the edges of American political life. We are fighting a political conspiracy in the very sense that Lincoln used that word when he ran for the new Republican party against slave power Democrats and Whigs in 1858 and then 1860. The existing political parties were corrupted by slavery, the Supreme Court was corrupted, the business class, and the main newspapers. They were all going along with slavery, overturning the old agreements to expand slavery in the territories. Taking on the establishment had required activism—building a grassroots movement. Lincoln was a moderate outsider. Remember that he was tolerant of slavery for a time.
And these officers are also moderates, they are all pulling for the two state solution. When it fails, I have little doubt where that female officer will go. Down the rabbithole.
Update: I wish when I published this piece yesterday that I had injected a note of greater sympathy for Jews. It was published on Rosh Hashanah, after all. I should have mentioned that in my second encounter with two officers, I told them that I'm Jewish and that an important movement has begun inside Jewish life to challenge the ethnocratic character of Israel. So when one of them spoke of the "Jewish lobby," the term is actually, finally, imprecise.