Yesterday we ran an anonymous journalist's account of how the Israel lobby flexed its muscle to destroy the New Jersey freeholder candidacy of a Lebanese-American politician. The article had never run before. Where could it appear? In exchanges, the journalist said that it had taken him a long time to get to this political understanding. We asked what that meant, and he sent us this piece describing his path to understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the influence of the Israel lobby over his own work.
I still remember the day I realized that two of my friends were anti-Semitic. It was in the summer of 2006, a hot weekend afternoon in July. Both of them, one from an Indian background, the other Egyptian, were sitting on adjoining couches in the living room of my apartment. When I walked downstairs to join them, they were in the midst of an intense discussion.
At first, I just sat down and listened, trying to discern the subject matter. Before I could, one of them turned to me, looking for support. “They control the whole foreign policy, don’t they?” he asked.
“Who?” I replied.
“AIPAC. The Israel lobby.”
I was secretly glad he’d added that second part, because I was only vaguely familiar with AIPAC – even though I reported on politics for a living. In part because I like to argue but mostly because the term “Israel lobby” smacked of the kind of conspiratorial anti-Semitic thinking that I’d been conditioned to reject, I threw him a disapprovingly skeptical look.
He persisted, telling me that the reason we’d gone to war with Iraq was because AIPAC wanted it. (At this point I surmised that AIPAC was a political action committee or a lobbying organization.) Suddenly, I realized what I was dealing with: my friend was just like my crazy great-uncle, the old coot who would rail against “the Jews” at family functions and with whom my liberal-minded mother would get in heated arguments. And here was my friend, spouting the same kind of blame-the-Jews conspiracy nonsense.
My other friend chimed in. He was less exercised and absolute, more willing to see nuance and gray, but the heart of his argument was no different: He didn’t like “the Jews” either.
I pushed back intensely. We’d gone to war because of oil, I said, and most Jews I knew hadn’t even supported it. And anyway, it’s not like there are that many Jews in the Senate or House. Back and forth we then went for at least an hour, and not just about Iraq. They brought up a host of issues relating to the lobby and Israel itself. They had a deep grasp of names, dates, history and geography. Most of it meant little to me. But I wouldn’t give an inch. When they mentioned the Palestinians, I mentioned suicide bombers. It felt right to me: I was the liberal Westerner standing up for tolerance and multicultural values to these two guys who came from places where anti-Semitism was the norm. Good for me.
We resolved nothing, obviously, and somehow remained friends, never bringing it up again. This was actually pretty easy for me, since I generally devoted zero minutes and zero seconds of every day to thinking about Israel and the Middle East. (In fact, it was only in hindsight that I realized why they were having that discussion on that July day in the first place: Israel had just launched its war on Lebanon, and it was on their minds; at the time, I only knew that Israel was engaged in some kind of war with Lebanon, but it’s not like I’d been following it at all.) So we just went back to talking about sports and domestic politics. But I still believed their instincts were anti-Semitic.
Believe it or not, I’m not (and I wasn’t) as intentionally ignorant as this makes me sound. My upbringing was fairly typical for an upper middle-class American. I grew up in a quiet suburb, the kind of town where everyone was proud of their tolerance, even though there were basically no blacks, Hispanics, Asians or Jews around. My public school curriculum heavily emphasized diversity and multiculturalism; I took it very seriously, and at home my parents reinforced it. There was no uglier sin, I was raised to understand, than being a racist or an anti-Semite (something my mother would try to demonstrate when she’d argue with racist and anti-Semitic older generation members of my father’s family).
My grades in school were good, I was never in trouble, and teachers told me I’d go far in life. In high school and college, I developed an interest in politics, mainly in its personality and campaign aspects – not policy. I considered myself more of a Democrat, mainly on cultural grounds; the Republican Party was for intolerant people, and I wasn’t one of them. I was forced to take a basic international relations course in college, but only skimmed the required reading. I remember one chapter was about the Iranian revolution of 1979; I was surprised to learn how much the U.S.’s support of the Shah had led it. For the next few years, this became my default observation if foreign policy ever came up in conversation and I needed to say something.
After school, I found my way into journalism, covering politics – again, campaigns and strategy, not policy. Except for once instance, the significance of which I didn’t appreciate or understand at the time, Middle East issues never intruded on my work, and I never thought or read about them. Other than following the run-up to the Iraq war (which I told people I opposed), I simply tuned out news stories about foreign policy.
I did know that it was fashionable among some on the left, particularly in academic circles, to criticize Israel from a human rights perspective – mainly because one of my best friends from high school had become one of those left-wing academics. I listened to her once, sensed there was something to what she was saying, but ended up mostly dismissing it – every message I heard in the media told me that hers was a fringe view. Whatever Israel might have done wrong, I figured, there had to be a reason. They were the good guys over there, the ones who were most “like us.” Then I went back to not thinking about it.
If at any time prior to my 27th birthday you’d asked me to tell you the difference between the West Bank and Israel, I wouldn’t have been able to answer. I’d occasionally hear the term “right of return” in the news; had no clue what it meant. Ditto for “settlements.” I had no idea when the Six Day war had been, or what it had accomplished. If someone mentioned Yasser Arafat, I’d repeat the only thing I’d heard in the media: Why the hell did he turn down the offer for his own state – it’s the best deal he’ll ever get! When I saw Benjamin Netanyahu on television, my instinct was to like him, because he looked and sounded so “American.” If compelled to discuss it, my position on Israel was this: They are our ally and they are surrounded by crazy backward fanatics who hate Jews and like to blow themselves up.
That was the attitude I carried with me into the living room on that summer day when I found my two friends fuming about “the Israel lobby.” I conceded nothing that day, and raised my voice often. But something bothered me in the weeks that followed: From a factual standpoint, I really had had no idea what I was talking about. I had faked it well, bringing their detailed arguments back to my basic points (Israel is threatened by terrorists and talking about the “Israel lobby” is for quacks who subscribe to Lyndon LaRouche newsletters) and still believed I’d been on the right side, but I wanted to know more. There was no excuse for being 27 and not being able to find Lebanon on a map.
So finally, some time late in 2006, I found myself in Barnes and Noble, seeking a not-too-intimidating-looking book that could serve as an introductory course in Middle East issues. I found a copy of Tom Friedman’s “From Beirut to Jerusalem.” I picked up the New York Times every day, but had probably read his column three or four times – ever. But I’d seen him on television and heard him described as an authority, and the book was billed as an excellent Middle East primer. It was a little dated, but history is history, so I picked it up.
It really was an extraordinary volume: thorough, personal, balanced, comprehensive. Nowadays I’m stunned that the Friedman I read on the NYT op-ed page is the same guy who wrote that book. For the first time, I understood the basic contours of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I no longer wondered what the right of return was, or what the term “West Bank” referred to. I found myself stunned at the basic injustice that the Palestinians had experienced; their story was not quite what I’d imagined.
I wanted to know more, and I went back to B&N again and again. Gradually, the various titles and jacket descriptions started to make sense to me. I went from not knowing what the settlements were to wanting to know all about the British Mandate period. I read from different perspectives: Bernard Lewis’ “The Crisis of Islam” one day, a collection of essays by Edward Said the next; Alan Dershowitz’s “The Case for Israel” before going to bed, Karl Sabbagh’s “Palestine: A Personal History,” on the subway the next morning. And so on. I sought out more objective voices, too: Margaret MacMillan’s “Paris 1919,” for instance, vividly brought to life the arrogance and ignorance that ruled the Paris Peace Conference and set the Palestinians on a three-decade course to lose their land for good.
The essential tragedy of the Palestinian narrative became undeniable. So did the utter phoniness of the American media’s coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The cliché about converts making the best preachers began to make sense. How could I have ignored all of this for so long? How could so many Americans do the same thing?
In late 2007, I read John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s “The Israel Lobby.” The old me would have heard of the controversy surrounding the book and dismissed it as a collection of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. The new me read it. It resonated deeply with me, helping me to connect every practical lesson I’d learned about the campaign side of politics with the Israel/Palestine issue. Yes, there most certainly was an Israel lobby; it was hard to define precisely and my friend had painted it in too simplistic terms that day back in 2006, but it was certainly there – and that it had been the whole time I’d been reporting on politics.
I knew I was a full-fledged believer in the Palestinian cause when, a year or so ago, I heard someone casually mention that Arafat had turned down his own state in 2001 and then turned around and launched the second intifada. The old me would have just nodded and agreed, or made some benign observation about how “tragic” the whole situation was. The new me pointed out that Arafat was actually offered a state in name only and that second intifada was triggered by Ariel Sharon’s intentionally provocative appearance at the Temple Mount.
I continue to read all I can about the Middle East, and not just Israel and Palestine. Recently, I finished Ali Ansari’s “Confronting Iran,” an eye opener about the frustrating history and missed opportunities that have plagued America’s relationship with Iran. I’m perfectly comfortable with my new perspective; it’s a natural fit with my upbringing, which stressed tolerance and compassion for the least fortunate among us.
That said, it can be awkward. I worry that articulating these views could hurt my career, a concern that some of my media-savvy friends have impressed on me. There have been times, too, when it’s complicated friendships. One of my best friends is Jewish, raised in a predominantly Jewish town. He has one of the quickest and funniest minds I’ve ever known, and he shares my love of contrarian thinking.
One day, I brought up my new thinking on Israel to him. I probably shouldn’t have. It didn’t get ugly and I backed off quickly and apologetically, but he clearly regarded my words the same way I’d regarded my Indian and Egyptian friends’ words in 2006. He still gives me a hard time about it – jokingly, I think – from time to time. Recently, when I received some good career news, he relayed a touching email to me from his mother, who had written to tell him how proud she was of me and the fact that I was friends with her son. In forwarding the message to me, he (jokingly, I think) wrote that “This is from the woman whose people you hate.” I was so touched by his mother’s note, and felt terrible that my friend might ever think that I’m anti-Semitic in any way.
It bothers me, as well, that my position is shared by some people who are truly anti-Semitics – who actually embody the Larouche-ish stereotype I used to associate with Israel lobby talk. I don’t want anything to do with these people and the fact that we share a common viewpoint has given me pause – many times. Then again, I’ve heard many vile and hateful words directed at Arabs and Muslims from Jews and Israelis (and their supporters). And it helps to remember this: For all of his whining about “the Jews,” I’ve never met a more fervent supporter of Israel than my great-uncle. The world is a lot more complicated than I used to think it was.