Homegrown jihadis and the limits of the Israel lobby

While ISIS continues to dominate public discourse as the newest raison d’être for the global War on Terror and the war in Syria drags on, Western governments have recently raised the specter of another threat: homegrown “jihadis” who abandon civilization to fight and train with radical groups, and then return determined to commit terrorist acts at home.

Despite the contention that these fears are an overblown pretext to justify racial profiling and mass surveillance, governments are clamoring to respond. The Danish have taken a soft approach with an “innovative rehabilitation program,” offering “treatment for shrapnel and gunshot wounds and psychological trauma to returning fighters and humanitarian volunteers as well as assisting them with finding work or resuming their education.”

On the other end of the spectrum, the UK has an open-secret policy of stripping citizenship from dual-nationals confirmed to be fighting in Syria. Recently, former shadow Home Secretary David Davis has called for extending this practice to citizens fighting for the Islamic State, even if they hold no other passport. Prime Minister David Cameron endorsed the plan on September 1st. Such a policy would defy international law by making fighters effectively stateless and trapped overseas, though neither Cameron nor Davis seem particularly concerned.

For its part, Australia is in the midst of passing legislation that would include:

Double Standards

Throughout the debate on these policies’ efficacy, many observers have commented on what they see as unfair targeting of the Muslim community, and more importantly a double standard regarding how the West sees Muslims vs Jews. Hizb-at-Tahrir activist Uthman Badr asked on Australian television:

Why does it only apply to Muslims? Jews go abroad in large numbers annually, they train and fight with the IDF. We’ve seen what the IDF is capable of doing right now in Gaza, you know, killing little boys as they play on the beach, killing – killing – bombing people as they sleep in the room – hospitals. So on and so forth. So it’d be very easy to come up with a narrative of saying there’s a massive threat from Jews returning to Australia, but would that be real?

Journalist Corinne Purtill makes a similar argument regarding the UK’s objection to British fighters in Syria and Iraq:

Syria is not the only overseas battleground where Brits have voluntarily taken up arms. Nor is the phenomenon of Brits joining conflicts abroad new. In the 1930s, thousands of Brits went to Spain to volunteer with the leftist republicans fighting General Francisco Franco’s fascists.

More recently, Brits have joined fights in Israel, Lebanon and Iraq.

The dozens of British citizens currently fighting with the Israel Defense Forces have not encountered legal obstacles to their service. Neither did Brits who traveled to Libya in 2011 to join the rebellion against Muammar Gaddafi.

The Israeli army does indeed possess at least 4,600 foreign fighters, known as “Lone Soldiers.” More than 1,500 are American, while there are at least 100 Brits and a similar number of Australians. The IDF boasts of conscripts from over 40 countries.

Yet while Purtill is certainly right to point out the inconsistencies within governments’ prohibition on serving in a foreign military, a larger point looms. There is an undeniable difference between Muslim and Jewish fighters returning home– namely, one fits into the global discourse on terrorism, and one does not.

Consequently, this fact undermines the thesis of an all-powerful Israel Lobby as it exposes the deeper connections fueling the West-Israel love affair.

The Israel Lobby and Imperialism

As the argument commonly goes, Western governments and especially the US ally with Israel not out of national interest but because of the concerted influence of the Israel Lobby, a term meant to identify countless organizations, committees, and pressure groups of various religious and political persuasions coordinating to push foreign policy in Israel’s favor. Following this logic, the marginalization of Zionist forces within the government would produce fairer foreign policy outcomes. The reality, of course, is more complicated.

As Walt and Mearsheimer point out in their seminal work The Israel Lobby, these groups undoubtedly exist and affect national discourse. What they fail to understand, however, is the coalition of interests that results in support for Israel, and how groups like AIPAC and its regional equivalents are only a small, though significant, part of it.

Energy companies, arms manufacturers, investment banks, intelligence services, et cetera (in other words, the military-industrial complex in all its racist and imperialist grandeur) are in a much more powerful position than pro-Israel groups to determine policy decisions. Noam Chomsky explains, their “lobbying influence and campaign contributions far surpass that of the much-vaunted Zionist lobby and its allied donors to congressional races.” In most cases support for Israel fits into already established discourses, or works with them symbiotically, rather than driving them forward alone. This is why support for Israel by countries which typify the military-industrial complex, and have their own racist discourses or histories, is so uniform even in the absence of the Lobby, or where its prevalence is not as dramatic as in the US. Beyond monetary interests, examples include India, with its Hindu nationalist Islamophobia, France and the UK with their histories of imperialism and violent relationship with Islam, and the US and Australia with their settler-colonial pasts.

Essentially, countries produce pro-Israel foreign policy when Zionism fits well with pre-existing discourses, and when considerations such as regional power, world reputation, and preserving the flow of resources and capital conflate in support of Israel. When those considerations vacillate, we see crises in the Special Relationship.

The Foreign Fighter Connection

So why do these Western governments condone service in the IDF but not ISIS? Why aren’t they worried about Jewish radicalization? And what does any of this have to do with the Israel Lobby?

Bluntly put, Jewish recruits returning to their countries of origin would not participate in the kind of terrorism their governments find particularly objectionable, if any at all. That is, if they ever were to engage in terrorism, it would not be targeted at institutions of power. How come? Because, as much as some would like to pretend otherwise, America and other countries with racist/colonial legacies do share values with Israel –none of them positive.

Militant political Islam deplores the West for its moral decay, undoubtedly, but more so for its foreign policy and maligning of its Muslim citizens at home. Zionism does not face these problems. Jews are not politically targeted, foreign policy strongly tilts toward Israel, and Israel’s calculation of “Liberalism for us, oppression for our enemies” mirrors Western attitudes.  Thus the only targets left for radicalized IDF soldiers would be those who oppose Zionism, the undesirables already suppressed by the state.

Simply put, it isn’t the Lobby strong-arming governments to produce bill after bill to deal with foreign fighters. In its absence this legislation would still exist, because it is a reflection of established Western ideas and goals. The Lobby is not as powerful as some would like to believe. There are larger forces at work.

Maggie Sager is a student at the University of California Berkeley currently living in Amman, Jordan. You can follow her on twitter @MaggieSager