I frequently criticize Brian Lehrer because he is an intelligent/progressive/influential public-radio host in New York City and also a reflexive defender of Israel. He’s what I’m up against in liberal Jewish establishment opinion.
Well, the other day Lehrer interviewed neoconservative Elliott Abrams (who is due to speak at Brooklyn College’s Political Science Department soon) and– impelled by the Saturday Night Live skit that never made it to air about Would you fellate a donkey for Israel?– Lehrer repeatedly questioned Abrams about the countries’ different interests: Why Americans should care about Israel, what does Israel do for America, etc.
And then in questioning Abrams about his smear of Chuck Hagel as an anti-Semite, Lehrer went on to assert that there’s a difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli-ism, or anti-Israel-lobbyism.
Notwithstanding the fact that Lehrer said that Palestinians rejected a generous offer at Camp David in 2000, it was a superb interview. Extended excerpts follow, with my comments. (Thanks to Phil Shea).
Abrams: The one sentence summary of [the peace process] is that the most that Israel is willing to offer right now is less than the least that Palestinians are able to accept right now. I think that’s still true.
This is a pithy, helpful statement. One-staters on the left surely agree with one-staters on the right in this regard; though the former understand why Palestinians don’t accept the deals, and recommend democracy; while the latter seem to regard Palestinians as clannish primitives unfit ever to determine their future, and seek to consolidate apartheid.
After that, Lehrer launches on his skepticism about Israel being in the American interest. “Why by the way is Israel an important ally of the United States?” What about all our client states and military bases in Arab countries?
Abrams has a weak answer. Because it’s a “democratic state” and “a firm US ally.” We are not dependent on “a straw man or dictator or king, whose views can change,” but can count on the people of the country there to stand by us.
But, Lehrer persists, “Some Americans think the United States does and does for Israel… Maybe you heard about that Saturday Night Live routine that didn’t make it to air.” And though it may be “politically necessary to support Israel” — Lehrer is daring to address the Israel lobby, which in the SNL skit asks a politician to fellate a donkey — but what does it do for us?
Abrams has more weak answers. That it has contributed to the stability of Jordan and Egypt, that it eliminated the Syrian nuclear weapons program, which was “quite a boon for us.” Lehrer responds that Egypt had stability under a dictator. A heck of a price to pay. And this kind of support often comes back to haunt the U.S. Abrams responds that the U.S. had “other military, security, financial, trade interests” with Egypt even under a dictator.
(A counterfeit conversation. Lehrer should have asked Abrams about his reasons for supporting Israel: he’s a Zionist, he believes in the need for a Jewish state. Then these two empowered Americans could discuss the wisdom of that position.)
Lehrer than battens on to Abrams for seeing “so few shortcomings on the Israeli right. [In your new book] you repeatedly dismiss the expansion of settlements.”
Excellent question. Abrams goes on about Yair Lapid’s centrist surge, praising it, but won’t say a word against settlements. Lehrer: Will you say anything critical of Netanyahu policy in the occupied territories? Abrams refuses to say a word against settlements, though he deprecates checkpoints, suspensions of international payments, “too many raids” in the West Bank.
On to Chuck Hagel. Lehrer quotes Abrams’s smear on public radio of Hagel as an anti-Semite.
Lehrer: “Do you wish you had chosen different words in characterizing Chuck Hagel?”
Abrams: “No. I think the problem here is that the organized pressure of the organized Jewish community in support of Israel is either legitimate or not fully legitimate, and his words over many years have given I think the strong impression that he views that organized community pressure as not legitimate, and I think that’s terrible.”
Ah, so it’s about the Israel lobby. Hagel had criticized the Israel lobby for intimidating legislators, and called it the Jewish lobby.
Lehrer asks, where do you get the impression that he sees organized Jewish pressure as illegitimate– “as opposed to [his] saying… they have too much influence, or they’re wrong on the issues… to say that he feels that fundamentally the idea of a pro-Israel lobby is an illegitimate thing.”
Abrams fumbles and bumbles. Because in the end, his view that Hagel is an anti-Semite is based on impressions. So he cites Hagel’s “famous” statement that he was a US senator, not an Israeli senator. Then cites criticisms from Nebraska Jews of Hagel. And the fact that Hagel never criticized the “organized efforts” of the Greek, Cuban, or Armenian communities.
“It seems to be this one group, and I think that’s very unfortunate.”
Lehrer then cites reporting by Ali Gharib and Nathan Guttman undermining the Nebraska claim. “Does that refute your argument about Nebraska?”
Abrams: No, it refutes the argument that there is no rabbi or single Jew in Nebraska who doesn’t likes Chuck Hagel. but this is not a question about individual Jews or about Judaism, it’s about the organized Jewish community…
[Then this vagueness:]
Look, I think everyone understands there’s a problem here, in the relationship between Senator Hagel and the Jewish community. It’s very unfortunate.
The interview ends with a bang. Lehrer permits criticism of the Israel lobby, Abrams accuses Lehrer of leveling an “accusation” against the beloved AIPAC.
Lehrer: If he’s criticizing AIPAC or the organized rightwing Jewish community, that’s different than being anti-Semitic?
Abrams: Of course it is. First of all, I reject your accusation which I think you just made that that AIPAC is rightwing. AIPAC is the largest pro-Israel lobby in the American Jewish community, and it is firmly bipartisan, and it has said nothing about the Hagel nomination. So first of all, that’s unfair to AIPAC. This is not about whether you think policy a or policy b is the correct policy. It’s about whether this kind of organized lobbying activity is fully legitimate, I think that’s the question.
Great interview by Lehrer; and it leads to an inevitable sequel. Why is Abrams so passionate about the need for American Jews to protect Israel? Why shouldn’t American Jews be pushing for democracy that protects minority rights over there, like the system we have flourished under here? It’s time for Lehrer to discuss Zionism. He knows that’s what’s at the heart of this, an assessment of Jewish safety in the west, and the resultant error, Jewish nationalism.
P.S. Abrams’s critique of Hagel re the lobby is, I believe, the reason that people like Michael Walzer and Leon Wieseltier refused to debate Mearsheimer and Walt: they regarded Mearsheimer and Walt as anti-Semites for daring to criticized organized Jewish community efforts. And in staking out a position tolerating such criticism, Lehrer implicitly and repeatedly echoed Mearsheimer and Walt– whose views, like that SNL skit, were initially suppressed in the US.