Section: Middle East|
14 August 2005
Fuming for Israel: the Case of Alan Dershowitz
12. Divestment and Dissidence
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Divestment and protest
Here is where the febrile prose gets turned up a few degrees: apparently Israel - the state indulged by US taxpayers to the tune of $3bn a year - is now targeted for 'economic capital punishment' by the movement to divest. It's easy to see why an academic like Dershowitz would take such fright at the divestment campaign: the shock waves of Israeli state brutality have reverberated around the world so strongly that they are now finally washing up on the shoreline of the academy. (A divestment petition was even submitted to Harvard, where Dershowitz teaches.) The irruption of reality into the Halls of Ivy is always an unpleasant experience for an academic: how does Dershowitz cope? With an unreasoning philippic, apparently:
These campaigns to single out Israel for demonization are immoral, bigoted, and based on misinformation.The only specific example of 'singling out' which Dershowitz supplies comes from within his own quadrangle. We're told that Harvard lecturer Paul Hanson signed a petition which, in Dershowitz's words, 'singled out only Israel - not Libya, Sudan, Iraq, China, Iran, Cuba or North Korea - for the severe sanction of divestiture'. Three things to note about this crie de coeur. Firstly, I'll just hazard a guess that the good Professor Hanson was not simultaneously presented with eight separate petitions condemning all eight countries and signed only the one on Israel, while refusing to condemn the others. If that's not the case, it seems that Dershowitz is simply trying to conjure hypocrisy from thin air. Secondly, nearly all of these countries have already laboured under sanctions imposed by the US, and some are still doing so. The obvious reason why there are fewer petitions to condemn these regimes is that nobody campaigns to win recognition of what is already a consensus. Not only is condemnation of these countries near-universal and undisputed (and, for the most part, correctly so), but it has already been given practical expression by the American government at the diplomatic and aid level. Israel, however, remains morally immune. Thirdly, in the context of all of these countries bar China, a simple question has to be asked: divest from what?
The 'singling out' accusation forms the core argument of chapter thirty. It is part of Dershowitz's broader thesis that Israel is, as he puts it, 'the Jew among nations' - constantly and hypocritically upbraided by the international community when in reality it is an endangered victim. Since Dershowitz knows that he cannot beat the demonstrators on the merits of what they are protesting, he has to attack them for what they are not protesting - specifically, other countries who also have dreadful human rights records.
It requires barely a moment of mature thought to realise that the argument that 'other countries are doing it' or even 'other countries are doing it, and on a greater scale' is completely irrelevant to the moral issue, and has no exculpatory power over the accusation against any one of those countries, even if supplemented by the argument that 'other countries are not as frequently condemned'. Think of a guilty man in a murder trial who defends himself by an appeal to all unsolved or even unpursued murder cases: would their existence excuse his crime? Plainly, Dershowitz's argument against the divestment campaign amounts, at most, to an accidental plea for a more equitable distribution of protest against tyranny. There is no reason why protest against one dreadful regime should stop while we are obliged by an apologist for that nation to embark on a quixotic and unimplementable quest to ensure that all protest is proportionate. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu remarked: '[d]ivestment from apartheid South Africa was certainly no less justified because there was repression elsewhere on the African continent.' I also suspect that it might be an instructive exercise to examine just how frequently or copiously Dershowitz himself has been critical of all the despotic regimes which he accuses the protestors of ignoring. As far as I can tell, Dershowitz has only raised the issue of the Tibetans, the Kurds and other oppressed peoples in the context of a defense of Israel: therefore it's a little rich of him to accuse the demonstrators of hypocrisy when he only shines a light on the plight of such people as a diversion from the ravages carried out by his favoured nation.
To take a sample quotation: Dershowitz plaintively wonders why UN condemnation is lacking with regard to the plight of the Tibetans, along with 'the Kurds, the Armenians in Turkey, the Chechens, the Basques, and dozens of other stateless groups.' Permit me to dry these crocodile tears. In the years 1894-96, Kurdish warriors, at the behest of the Turkish Sultan Abdul Hamid, partook enthusiastically in the massacre of up to 200,000 Christian Armenians in eastern Anatolia. These same Kurds' homicidal skills later came in handy during the subsequent genocide of over one million Armenians carried out by the Young Turk government during World War I. Recall that Dershowitz spent all of chapter seven downgrading Palestinian grievances and denigrating their claims of being wronged by attempting to demonstrate that the Palestinian leadership (ipso facto, one man) supported the Nazi genocide. Here we have a Kurdish population, large numbers of whom actively took part in both phases of a genocidal programme that wiped out three quarters of the population of Armenia, and we find Dershowitz clamouring about their rights. There's no need, of course, to dwell on the bad taste involved in expressing - in the same breath - concern for both the Armenians and the people who slaughtered them. (With that in mind, Dershowitz's ham-fisted juxtaposition of Tibetan grievances alongside Kurdish grievances also works against him by cheapening the moral validity of the former.) Having started down this path, however, Professor Dershowitz simply can't help himself. Shortly thereafter, sympathizers with the plight of the Palestinians are informed that '[b]y any objective standard of morality, the claims of the Tibetans and Kurds - to focus on only two stateless groups - are far more compelling than the claims of the Palestinians.' So it's really rather elementary, apparently: if, like the Kurds, you help to wipe out a people in their homeland (the Armenians, whose nation was founded in 301 AD), you have superior moral claims over a people whose homeland was itself wiped out (the Palestinians, whose history stretches back to roughly the same era).
As for the Basques, there's just no comparison. They are not suffering under a brutal military occupation; they in fact already enjoy a kind of civil autonomy within Spain. The only Basques complaining about their 'stateless' situation are the ETA extremists who will accept nothing less than full secession and who have the support of only a small (and now dwindling) section of their own people. With respect to Chechnya: the brutality of Putin's security forces notwithstanding, the most conspicuous expressions of Chechen independence thus far have been the hijacking of the Moscow theatre and the slaughter of the schoolchildren in Beslan. Thus Dershowitz has accidentally (one would hope) bemoaned the lack of international attention given to the causes of three violent, even genocidal groups while simultaneously insinuating that the violence of the Palestinians should exclude them from the nugatory degree of international sympathy which they receive.
But let us return to the central question: why do people in the western world protest against Israel? And not more frequently against despotic Arab or other regimes? The answer lies not in any putative 'anti-Semitism' or 'bigotry', but in the nature of grass-roots protest movements themselves: demonstrators always focus on the establishment, and the wrongs therein. In the United States, the establishment is staunchly pro-Israel in its two most important organs: (I) the government; and (II) the media. The latter is the chief body that has a chance of facilitating the public in changing the policies of the former, but as we shall see, its coverage of Israel in the United States (and elsewhere) is largely consonant with the position of the administration. No other nation in the world receives anything like the degree of political, military, or diplomatic aid from the US government enjoyed by Israel since 1967, while it continues to build more settlements, violate more international laws, compile an appalling human rights record, and further tighten its stranglehold over a defenseless civilian population. Yet it does not seem to have occurred to Dershowitz that American protestors might feel some measure of revulsion at what is being done in their name and with their taxpayer dollars, and might have the right to express some dissent on the matter. Or, to cite Archbishop Tutu again: '[t]he United States has a distinct responsibility to intervene in atrocities committed by its client states, and since Israel is the single largest recipient of US arms and foreign aid, an end to the occupation should be a top concern of all Americans.' So let's examine what characterizes (I) the government and (II) the media's perspective on Israel.
Support for Israel thoroughly permeates both the Democratic and Republican parties in the United States: it therefore completely dominates both the executive and legislative branches of the government. An American journalist once quipped that if Israel ever became a state of the Union, it would have to content itself with having just two senators, instead of the fifty who currently represent it. Since 1967, no US administration has uttered as much as a bleat protesting the ongoing military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The hypocrisy reached its apogee during the 1990 Iraqi occupation of Kuwait when, as John Pilger put it: 'an Unacceptable Aggressor will be given until high noon to get out of town, while an Acceptable Aggressor - Israel - will be given twenty-four years to think it over.' Any critical remarks about Israel emanating from official sources have generally been uttered only in embarrassment at atrocities or human rights violations too conspicuous to remain silent on, and even then are purely pro forma. The closest America comes to giving its partner a slap on the wrist is occasionally withholding the flow of aid, which it then promptly restarts (Nixon in 1971, Reagan in 1982).
Israel is the world's largest recipient of US aid (primarily military), amounting to some $3bn annually, an estimated $77bn from 1967-1991 or $91-92bn by the year 2000. The US continues to supply Israel with arms and matériel in full knowledge of the use it will put them to in the occupied territories. (Against this backdrop, and noting - inter alia - that 'IDF helicopters are US helicopters with Israeli pilots', Chomsky has remarked that '[i]t is highly misleading to use the phrase "Israel-Palestine conflict" ... it should be termed the "US/Israel-Palestine" conflict'.) By now Israel is the established regional superpower, spending proportionally more on defense than any other nation on Earth, and is ranked as the second most technologically sophisticated fighting force in the world. Since it is also armed with an estimated 200 nuclear warheads while none of its enemies possess even one, it is essentially unassailable on the premise of Non-Mutual Assured Destruction (which was almost given practical expression in 1973).
One of the most powerful lobbies influencing the government of the most powerful nation in the world is the Israel lobby in Washington. The influence of American Jewry goes all the way back to 1948 when the pro-Zionist Abraham Feinberg bankrolled Harry Truman's successful bid for the White House. John F. Kennedy, it seems, also received emoluments from Feinberg which the latter threatened to withdraw if Kennedy continued to insist on a full inspection of Israel's nuclear facility at Dimona. Today, 'American Jews contribute 60 percent of funding for the Democratic Party and 40 percent for the Republicans.' Any dissent from the Congressional consensus on America's Levantine foreign policy is swiftly and emphatically dealt with. Congress members Earl Hillard and Cynthia McKinney, for example, who had both called for a more even-handed policy in the middle east, both lost their seats when AIPAC money was showered on Hilliard's opponent, and a campaign of vituperation against McKinney was launched in the press. Former Illinois senator Paul Findley has observed that 'on Capitol Hill, criticism of Israel, even in private conversation, is all but forbidden, as downright unpatriotic, if not anti-Semitic.' 'Arabs' as Daniel Pipes has drily understated, 'lack an effective counterpunch to the pro-Israel lobby in Washington' and it appears now that the influence of their only significant representatives - the Saudis, hardly the Nasserite heart of Arabism - is arguably on the wane in the wake of September 11. Is it any wonder, therefore, that shortly before his May 2003 trip to the US, Sharon was able to tell the Jerusalem Post that 'we are not traveling to a place where there are pressures'?
Diplomatic aid is hardly lacking either. The US (with the help of John Bolton) was the driving force behind the rescinding of the 1975 UN resolution defining Zionism as 'a form of racism and racial discrimination' - while studiously avoiding an explanation of why this is not so. And from September 1972 to October 2004, the United States has vetoed no less than 39 UN Security Council resolutions condemning Israel. The most extraordinary fact concerning this is that in all 39 instances, the US has been the sole contrary vote. Other nations have at most abstained, but none have ever voted in support of Israel following an act of brutality or injustice. Throughout Dershowitz's book, there is much bleating about the UN 'singling out' Israel. There is, however, no discussion of the violations of human rights and international law which have induced the condemning motions; no mention of the fact that Israel has by now compiled the world record for violating UN resolutions; and that all of these resolutions from 1972 onwards have been rendered a dead letter by the 'no' votes issued without exception from Israel's ally in Washington. Perhaps the most appalling obstructionism directed at the UN concerned the investigative team which Kofi Annan was to send to the West Bank to determine what took place during the April 2002 assault on Jenin. Israel somehow found fault with the selection of some members of the fact-finding team; then it insisted on the precondition of immunity for the Israeli military; and then finally
Sharon announced that Israel was not going to cooperate with the team, a position it maintained despite Annan's attempts at some compromise. The U.S. backed Israel, first silently, and later explicitly. On May 21, 2002, the Security Council decided to disband the fact-finding committee, and under the threat of a U.S. veto, proposals to pursue the investigation in other ways were dropped.This, in toto, is what the wretched, stateless Palestinians are up against: the actions and policies of the regional overlord fully endorsed by the world's sole superpower and its supine legislature. In this context, Dershowitz's comparison with the plight of the Tibetans and the Kurds is utterly spurious: their cause is not blocked by the machinations of a hegemonic lobby. For Dershowitz to cast Israel as a vulnerable victim in the light of its military domination, its insuperable lobbying power, and its US-enforced diplomatic immunity is plainly outlandish. Instead, he would do well to heed the judicious words of Israeli writer Jacobo Timerman, written during the 1982 Lebanon invasion, at a time when Menachem Begin's constant and demagogic invocation of the Holocaust and equation of Arafat with Hitler was used to justify the destruction rained down on Tyre, Sidon and Damour:
They delude us when they tell us that we are trapped, that Israel is the Jew among nations, that nobody accepts us. They arouse in us the fear they need to make us obey orders and ask no questions. They never told us of our real power, of our military capacity, of our battlefield superiority. They have terrorized us. When we finally discover our defensive possibilities, it is already too late to allow ourselves the luxury of a long political debate because we're involved in a war.
And what of the media? Consider just the reporting that appears in America's largest and most influential newspaper, the New York Times. Recently Alison Weir, executive director of If Americans Knew, presented Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent with a powerpoint presentation outlining her organisation's findings of the paper's coverage of the recent violence in Israel and the occupied territories. 'For example', she explains:
we found that in 2004, at a time when 8 Israeli children and 176 Palestinian children were killed - a ratio of 1 to 22 - Times headlines and lead paragraphs reported on Israeli children's deaths at a rate almost seven times greater than Palestinian children's deaths.A similar pattern was observed in Britain by a media research team from Glasgow University. In a comprehensive and well-received survey on perceptions of the Israel/Palestine conflict and how they are influenced by televisual media, the study noted the following:
In the period of our analysis the Palestinians had a casualty rate which was in fact much higher than that of the Israelis, (with a ratio of 2-3:1 in terms of deaths). Yet, if we look at the sample of British students from 2002, just 35 per cent knew that the Palestinians had significantly more casualties, while 43 per cent stated that there were more Israeli casualties or that the figures were the same for each side (for the German students the figures were respectively 24 per cent and 51 per cent, and for the US students, 18 per cent and 47 per cent).This is just one observation among many which the study makes about how the media has contributed to a distorted public perception of the middle east conflict, and thus to the inability to conduct a meaningful public debate on the matter. At the conclusion, the authors flatly state the following:
Overall, the results of our study suggest that it was Israeli perspectives which predominated in TV news and this is in part the result of a very well developed system of lobbying and public relations. Another key factor affecting media coverage is the very close political and communication links which exist between the US and Britain.'No people' as Thomas Jefferson observed, 'can be both ignorant and free.' The public - especially in the US - cannot act on information they are not receiving. If a more enlightened US foreign policy in the middle east is to be effected, it has to come from the ground up, not from a war of lobby against lobby. Given that both government and media organs exhibit a profound doctrinal tilt in favour of a nation oppressing millions of Palestinians, it is hardly surprising to find that grass-roots demonstrators might be shouting that much louder in order to make unheard cries for justice from Palestine a little more audible. Bear in mind that these demonstrators have no lobbying power; exercise no control or influence over media apparati; and in expressing their views, risk being unfairly stigmatized with what must be regarded as the most opprobrious slur that can be hurled at a citizen of the western world. Yet, commendably, they have not opted for a quiet life. Who, given the demonstrable bias in favour of Israel that suffuses through American political and intellectual life, would begrudge them their right to protest?
In what may well be the locus classicus on the necessity of allowing dissent from the regnant orthodoxy, John Stuart Mill once wrote:
No sober judge of human affairs will feel bound to be indignant because those who have forced on our notice truths which we should otherwise have overlooked, overlook some of those which we see. Rather, he will think that so long as popular truth is one-sided, it is more desirable than otherwise that unpopular truth should have one-sided assertors, too, such being usually the most energetic and the most likely to compel reluctant attention to the fragment of wisdom which they proclaim as if it were the whole.David Hirst, one of the more polite critics of Israel, was doing no less than this when he wrote The Gun and the Olive Branch in 1977, commenting in retrospect that:
I certainly had set out to 'tell the other side of the story', for the simple reason that, as it seemed to me, it had not been properly told, or won anything like the attention it deserved; I wanted to help redress a balance that was strongly, if not outrageously, tipped in the opposite direction.For sheer concision of moral clarity, however, few articles I have read match the pedigree of Desmond Tutu and Ian Urbina's appraisal of the divestment campaign:
Divestment from apartheid South Africa was fought by ordinary people at the grassroots. Faith-based leaders informed their followers, union members pressured their companies' stockholders and consumers questioned their store owners. Students played an especially important role by compelling universities to change their portfolios. Eventually, institutions pulled the financial plug, and the South African government thought twice about its policies.Note that Tutu and Urbina in the same article pay tribute to what they see as an inveterate Jewish sympathy for the victims, and state that '[t]o criticize the occupation is not to overlook Israel's unique strengths ... Israel is certainly more democratic than its neighbours.' I absolutely agree, and this simple fact should never be used as bulwark against criticism of any Israeli oppression which vitiates the quality of democracy.
Yet in Dershowitz's world, 'the disproportionate, sometimes even exclusive, focus on Israel's imperfections [my italics]' is not to be indulged because it 'encourages those who deliberately engage in violence in order to provoke an Israeli reaction that they know will result in disproportionate and excessive criticism of Israel.' Not a thought is spared for the possibility that Israel's military reaction might itself be disproportionate and excessive, not criticism of it.
Dissidence within Jewry
The tone of chapter thirty-two of Dershowitz's book affirms Dennis Bernstein's observation that 'Israel's defenders have a special vengeance for Jews who don't fall in line because they give the lie to the charge that Israel's critics are simply anti-Semite.' How does Dershowitz cope with criticism of Israel emanating from Jews and Israelis? He begins by mysteriously asserting that '[t]here is absolutely no comparison between the free flow of information among Jews and Israelis on the one hand, and among Palestinians, Muslims and Arabs on the other hand.' Two paragraphs later, he is telling us that 'more than a million Muslims and Arabs are citizens of Israel and have complete freedom of information and expression.' In the same chapter, Dershowitz even manages to compress another self-refuting argument into one sentence, to wit: '[t]he media tend to emphasize dissenting rather than mainstream views' - which, if true, would mean that views emphasized in the mainstream were largely dissenting ones.
The question which this chapter purports to address is 'why do so many Jews and even Israelis side with the Palestinians?' I'm going to presume that Dershowitz is not implying that there are any people from that quarter who 'side' with such Palestinians as the members of Islamic Jihad or Hamas, but rather with the plight of a helpless civilian population under a brutal military occupation. Applying Ockham's razor, could the answer simply be that Jewish/Israeli criticism of Israel is motivated by good conscience and the general loathing of oppression that is common to the rest of humanity? According to Dershowitz, no. And from this starting point, it is a slippery slope: since the slur of anti-Semitism cannot be hurled at a Jew, the next best hackneyed smear will have to do - the stereotype of the 'self-hating' Jew. Dershowitz hovers tendentiously around this issue for a while:
There has always been a small element within the Jewish community that for largely inexplicable reasons has been hypercritical of everything associated with Judaism, Jews, or the Jewish states [sic]. Karl Marx, Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein come easily to mind. The reasons for this lie more in the realm of Sigmund Freud and Jean-Paul Sartre than in the realm of political or media discourse. But it has been a sad reality over time.Now for the throat-clearing: 'I do not mean to suggest by this observation that all anti-Zionists and Israel-bashers are self-hating Jews. People can be wrong on the merits without requiring any psychological explanation.' But having spent this long patting the tar baby, Dershowitz realises he has been made so grubby that he might as well just throw his arms around it: 'But the reality is that there are some Jews who despise anything Jewish, ranging from their religion, to the Jewish state, to individuals who are "too Jewish".'
Having lived nearly my entire life in Ireland, I have on many an occasion found myself in the company of people who deeply resented having to learn the Irish language; believed that Gaelic sports were for ruffians; and shuddered at the putatively cheesy 'Celtic twilight' of Riverdance. But I can safely say that if anyone had stood up at the debating society I frequently attended in university and suggested that condemnation of the latest IRA atrocity was driven solely by the twisted mindset of a 'west Brit', their argument would have been swiftly recognised as fallacious nonsense.
The rest of Dershowitz's argument trails off with a reference to Phyllis Chesler's fashionably silly thesis of the 'erotic' nature of Jewish Israel-bashing, before adding the following: 'It is a fundamental fallacy to conclude that one side of a dispute must be right if some people who are ethnically identified with that side support the other side.' Again, I wholeheartedly agree: and the concomitant argument that oppression is still oppression whether it is condemned or silently approved of by ethnic members of the oppressing group applies with equal force.
The one critic of Israel who comes in for the most frequent attack in Dershowitz's book is the world-renowned linguist and political analyst Noam Chomsky. Dershowitz cites Chomsky seventeen times in the course of the book, often as an opening quote from an 'accuser'. Certainly there's no shortage of material to work with here. Chomsky is a prolific writer: author of scores of books and hundreds of articles on politics, he also gives regular talks. Anyone seeking to explore his arguments on the Arab-Israeli conflict would find that Middle East Illusions, Towards a New Cold War, The Culture of Terrorism and, most especially, his exhaustively researched Fateful Triangle are required reading.
Not Dershowitz. He produces just one quote from Middle East Illusions. All the other books are ignored. Fully eleven of the seventeen quotations from Chomsky are taken from a single lecture delivered at Harvard University (where Dershowitz teaches), recorded on a videotape which, as far as I can tell, is not even publicly available. This is from the man who instructed us that '[i]t is always important to check the sources quoted by Chomsky, especially when he is discussing Israel.' Yet precious little Chomsky-checking is on display in this book. So what's going on? There seem to be just two alternatives: Dershowitz either read Chomsky's books and found the hard evidence and arguments therein just too mountainous to climb; or he never read them at all. If the former is true, it is a poor case for Israel that fixates on one of its leading critics yet finds him unanswerable. If the latter is true, it is a poor case for Israel that spends a lot of time excoriating such a critic while almost entirely avoiding the substantive issues raised in his writings. Towards the end of the book, the best swipe Dershowitz can take at Chomsky involves exhuming the canard about Chomsky and the Holocaust deniers. There is no serious attempt made to rebut the sweeping array of evidence of Israeli war crimes, human rights abuses and UN obstructionism which is copiously documented in Chomsky's work (and drawn upon within this essay, incidentally). Dershowitz's critique of Chomsky seems to be a case of the mouse that roared.
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