First version of this post was written after I’d eagerly RSVP’d to the New American Foundation that I’d be attending the launch party next Monday for Peter Beinart’s brave new book The Crisis of Zionism. I’ve been to several recent events at their NYC loft, and was glad I’d be able to make this one too. Turns out, however, the reception will actually be at the NAF offices in D.C. Still, with Peter under assault for reasonable and progressive positions he’s taken that are correctly critical of the American-Jewish establishment and Israeli policy, in the book, in a NY Times Op-Ed, and on his new blog Zion Square, I’m going to keep this post up, to accompany two others I’ve written recently, Netanyahu & the Right Wing vs. President Obama and Iran and Iraq–Deja Vu All Over Again? and send it out via social media as I would for any other post. With Israel perhaps on the verge of an ill-considered attack on Iran, the times are just too charged with peril to do anything less.
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During the extremely weird #GOPDebate last Saturday night, the most intense I-live-on-a-different-planet-from-these-people-moment for me came when Marco Rubio, after Trump’s mostly accurate slam on George W. Bush over 9/11 and Iraq, rallied to Bush’s defense and proclaimed emphatically how GLAD he is that Al Gore was not president on Sept 11, 2001! This happens to be the exact opposite of how I feel about the past 15+ years of our history. Though a counter-factual can’t be proven, I have long believed it possible that if Gore had become president after the 2000 election, with the Clinton administration’s counter-terrorism team still in place headed up by Richard Clarke—whose vigorous but futile efforts to get the new Bush administration focused on Al Qaeda are helpfully reprised by Peter Beinart in an Atlantic column today, headed “Trump is Right”—the country may well have averted the terrible attacks on 9/11, the excessive homeland security apparatus that was installed afterward, the invasion of Iraq, and all that has flowed since from the Al Qaeda plot.
Although I shudder at the thought of Trump becoming president, I do think his critique of the Bush presidency could be a salutary thing for the Republican party, finally persuading some of its rank and file that George W Bush and his administration failed to heed numerous warning about Al Qaeda, and that he does bear a large share of responsibility for failing to prevent the attacks on 9/11. For a good analysis of Trump’s position, unheard within the Republican party until now, I also recommend Paul Waldman’s Washington Post column, “Why Donald Trump’s 9/11 heresy won’t cost him any primary votes.”
Readers here may recall I’ve written and shared about literary scholar and contemporary philosopher Judith Butler, a frequent target of criticism by right-wing conservative Jewish commentators, owing to positions of hers such as support for the boycott/divest/sanction (BDS) movement with regard to Israel. Some people in this debate–like Peter Beinart in his book The Crisis of Zionism–support boycotting only those goods that come from the Occupied Territories, not all of Israel. That’s my position, too. I’m not certain where Butler lands on that point–but regardless, unlike her opponents, I fully support her right to freely express herself and be heard, in all realms–political, critical and aesthetic.
All this comes up again because of a new instance of the Jewish establishment trying to banish her voice from the communal conversation. In the current episode, Philip Weiss writes in a blog post headed, “Jewish community commits intellectual suicide before our eyes,” that Butler had been asked to participate in a March 6 discussion of Franz Kafka at NYC’s Jewish Museum, but the invitation was withdrawn, owing to what Weiss believes was ‘pressure from donors.’ Weiss writes, “One critic said, ‘The hosting of [BDS] advocate Judith Butler by The Jewish Museum is a slap in the face to every Jew,’ Richard Allen, head of JCC Watch, told JNS.org.” This, all about a discussion of Kafka, with no direct relevance to Israel.
In the same vein of craven submission to angry types, the museum also recently canceled a panel that was to discuss John Judis’s important new book Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict. Many Jews on the right are nowadays inflamed by discussions like these, and many organizations, whether or not they share the same conservative ideology, succumb to threats and pressure.
This is all kind of personal to me. Judith Butler and I grew up in the same Jewish community in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, where her father, known to all his patients as “Danny,” was a friendly family dentist. He looked after the teeth of all five Turners. He resembled Jack Paar, but nicer looking. Judith’s sister Diane was in my same year in school, where we knew each other. She moved to NY at around the same time I did, as part of a modern dance company, and we continued to see each other in the city from time to time. I occasionally heard from Diane about her sister, Judith, already then a professor, and a rising star in academia. She is an honorable person and a serious scholar. She should not be castigated or exiled for what I know to be an honest expression of belief, arrived at through careful deliberation and the weighing of difficult moral choices. As an example of her thoughtfulness, I submit this transcript of a talk she gave last February at Brooklyn College. It is well worth reading, and all in her own words.
At his blog MJ Rosenberg has a powerful analysis on why Israeli government officials have been so determined in their efforts to derail last Sunday’s “60 Minutes piece” on the flight of Palestinian Christians from the country. As I watched the segment with longtime CBS correspondent Bob Simon, it struck me that for decades Israel has benefited from the tourism of evangelicals and patronage from the same politically conservative quarters in Congress. If it were to be established that Christians are faring poorly and fleeing the ‘Holy Land,’ and what’s more, faring poorly and fleeing as a result of Israel’s policies, that close relationship could well become endangered, that is if American Christians were to become exercised about the fate of Christians of semitic, i.e., Arab ethnicity. This explains why the Israeli government protested the segment to CBS so vociferously even before it aired. Rosenberg points out this is also why, once it was clear the segment would air anyway, the umbrella organization of Jewish community federations in the U.S. sent an “emergency email to its affiliates and members” that read in part, “We hope that CBS will be flooded with responses through their inboxes, Facebook, Twitter and mail after the program to express discontent if it is as biased as we anticipate.”
Rosenberg writes, “Ever since the Likud party first came to power in 1977, Israeli propagandists have managed to successfully convince conservative American Christians that their counterparts in the Holy Land are Israelis. . . . But this 60 Minutes story revealed to millions of American viewers (it was the 6th highest rated show last week) that, in fact, their counterparts are Palestinian Christians who are being squeezed out by the Israeli authorities and especially by the whole settlement enterprise which is gobbling up their land, homes, and ability to travel from one town to another.”
Rosenberg concedes the “exodus is not the result of an Israeli policy to specifically target Christians and drive them from the place Christianity began. Rather, it is the result of the oppressive policies toward Palestinians in general—policies that do not distinguish between Palestinian Muslims and Palestinian Christians.” The effect is nonetheless much the same as if it were the result of anti-Christian bias, with the figures telling the tale, cited by him in a parenthetical phrase: “(In 1967 Christians constituted 5% of Jerusalem’s population; Christians today constitute just 1.5%. Bethlehem, not long ago an overwhelmingly Christian city, is now hardly Christian at all.).”
In other news regarding Israel and the American Jewish community from last week, I was pleased to see J.J. Goldberg’s commentary in The Forward, What Stirred Hornet’s Nest?, where he questions the weirdly uniform series of attacks disguised as book reviews of Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism, an excellent book that I have also blogged about several times in recent weeks. The pushback was overdue, and I’m glad to see it now emerging. The book deserves the widest possible readership, and the numerous ad hominen attacks on Beinart are shameful.
Blogger Philip Weiss also read the Goldberg column and makes a charge of his own in a blog post titled Why did Washington Post and NYT lend themselves to ‘unglued’ ‘angerfest’ directed at Beinart?: “I believe the New York Times and Washington Post‘s eager participation in this rightwing frenzy can be explained by two trends: the large Jewish presence in the establishment, and the rightwing Zionist character of the Jewish establishment. C.f., the Iraq wardrums in the media. Some day, Jewish and American historians will marvel at this.”
[I believe Weiss should have written “Iran wardrums in the media,” but I haven’t seen a correction yet on his blog Mondoweiss.]
There was a third related episode last week, when the chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, said, according to the Times, that he believes Iran’s leaders are “rational” and that they will not build a nuclear weapon. This remark was greeted approvingly by Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born expert now living in Tel Aviv who with Yossi Melman wrote a book for me in 2006, The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran, and with whom I am a nowadays a Facebook friend.
The Times reported that “Javendanfar told The Guardian newspaper that Mr. Gantz’s comments were ‘a welcome development’ that ‘takes the hysterics out of Israel’s public assessment of the Iranian nuclear program.’ Well, no sooner did the hysterics gets dialed down a drop than Israeli Defense Ehud Barak the next day gave a public slap to Lt. Gen. Gantz, saying, “The truth must be told: The chance that this level of pressures will make Iran respond to the international demand to halt the program in an irreversible manner—the chance of that appears low.” In the midst of this, another Israeli official seemed to side with Gantz, with Javendafar writing on his Facebook timeline: “Gathering momentum like an avalanche: today another former senior Israeli intelligence official voiced his opposition to an attack against Iran. Yuval Diskin, head of Shin Bet (Israeli FBI) until last year” who,”questioned Netanyahu and Barak’s leadership, saying he has no faith in them. ‘I don’t believe in leadership which makes decisions based upon messianic feelings.'”
Now, Saturday’s Times has picked up Diskin’s comments and reported on themin more depth with additional context. Interestingly, Diskin delivered them at a public forum in Israel, not in a liberal redoubt, but in the geopolitically sensitive town of Kfar Saba, where terrorist incidents have occurred over the past decade. From the Times story:
Echoing Meir Dagan, the former head of the Mossad, Israel’s spy agency, Mr. Diskin also said that the government was “misleading the public” about the likely effectiveness of an aerial strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. “A lot of experts have long been saying that one of the results of an Israeli attack on Iran could be a dramatic acceleration of the Iranian nuclear program,” Mr. Diskin said at a community forum in Kfar Saba, a central Israeli city. “What the Iranians prefer to do today slowly and quietly, they would have the legitimacy to do quickly and in a much shorter time.”
Not limiting his comments to Israel’s foreign relations, the Times points out,
Indeed, Mr. Diskin did not limit his critique to the policy on Iran. He said Israel had in recent years become “more and more racist,” and, invoking the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, said there were many extremist Jews today who “would be willing to take up arms against their Jewish brothers.”
The Times asked Javedanfar for his view of Diskin’s remarks, and in an email reply he expanded on his Facebook comments.
“Israel’s citizens would be forgiven for thinking that when it comes to addressing the Iranian nuclear threat, Netanyahu and Barak rely more on their own self-created image as the messiahs than mounting evidence and warnings that such an attack could be counterproductive. The public nature of such warnings by former intelligence officials puts pressure on Netanyahu and Barak,” he added, “because if they attack Iran and it backfires, such warnings could be used against both of them in postwar commissions.”
How to synthesize all this recent news about the American Jewish community, Israel, and the international scene? My takeaway is that in Israel–unlike the U.S.–there is at least some open and candid disagreement among officials and citizens over the country’s correct’s course of action. In the States, American Jews and progressive politicians are subject to attempts by establishment Jewish organizations and right-wing elements to silence people and stifle debate that is unworthy of American democracy. I would add that the split in Israel now seen between defense and intelligence officers on the one hand, and elected leaders on the other is worryingly reminiscent of the debate that prevailed in the U.S. before the Bush administration invaded Iraq in March 2003. As an American, a Jew, a world citizen, I sincerely hope the outcome will be different in this instance, though I’m very concerned it may not be. If you share my hope and concern, please lend a hand by sharing this commentary among your contacts and in your social networks. Also, if you like, the comment field is open below.
#Fridayreads “The Crisis of Zionism,” Peter Beinart’s timely examination of Zionism in the world today, counterposing Barack Obama and Bibi Netanyahu. Eager to hear from Beinart (pictured here) at a @NewAmerica Foundation event next week. Also enjoying the 1927 classic “Circus Parade,” by Jim Tully with a Foreword by the late Harvey Pekar, an unsentimental portrait of big top life. To learn more about Tully, a hobo writer turned Hollywood insider, here’s a blog essay of mine about him.
Trenchant and disturbing analysis by Andrew Sullivan, who sees a disturbing strategy by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in concert with right-wingers in the U.S., to depose President Obama. From Sullivan’s piece, “Obama’s Most Dangerous GOP Opponent.”
I don’t think you can understand the Republican strategy for this election without factoring in a key GOP player, Benjamin Netanyahu. He already has core members of the US Congress siding openly with him against the US president. . . . Netanyahu’s war would be designed to rile up not only his own neo-fascist base, but also encourage American evangelical voters to turn out against Obama, the “anti-Christ”, while other Greater Israel fanatics, like Sheldon Adelson, keep bankrolling as many Greater Israel GOP nominees as they can. A global war which polarizes America and the world is exactly what Netanyahu wants. And it is exactly what the GOP needs to cut through Obama’s foreign policy advantage in this election. Because it is only through war, crisis and polarization that extremists can mobilize the emotions that keep them in power. They need war to win.
It should be noted that Majority Leader Eric Cantor has already made clear he will side with the PM in a confrontation with President Obama. Following the midterm elections, in November 2010, after a one-on-one meeting with Netanyahu, Cantor said “The new Republican majority will serve as a check on the Administration.” About this, veteran correspondent for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency Ron Kampeas wrote, “I can’t remember an opposition leader telling a foreign leader, in a personal meeting, that he would side, as a policy, with that leader against the president.”
So, if Israel attacks Iran, and Cantor and the Republican presidential candidates are all watching Netanyahu’s back, who’s going to be in the President’s corner?
- 19% of Jewish Israelis support a strike against Iran even without the backing of the United States.
- 42% say they support only if there is US support for the move.
- 32% say they don’t support it under any circumstances.
A clear majority, 74%, either don’t support attacking Iran or would do so only with the support of the U.S. Yet, Netanyahu is showing signs of going it alone. His unilateralism is reminiscent of George W. Bush’s prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Meanwhile, as Peter Beinart has reported that Israeli intelligence officials and military officers have urged that their country refrain from attacking Iran, also reminiscent of the stance that prevailed in much of the U.S. intelligence and military community before 2003. Unfortunately, it turned out that even their opposition couldn’t stop Bush’s war. In the current situation with Israel, a dangerous situation is only made worse by members of the U.S. Congress who would enable Netanyahu’s war.
I find that Daily Beast/Newsweek columnist Peter Beinart is writing some of the most incisive commentary on the Middle East these days. His views on Israel, coming from a committed American Jew who is able to see flaws in the current Israeli government policies and rhetoric, is a welcome tonic for this committed American Jew. One column of his last week was especially apt, Experts Say Iran Attack is Irrational, Yet Hawks are Winning Debate. There is a disturbing deja vu in the campaign to attack Iran being mounted by some elected officials and coming from some quarters of the American opinion establishment–whether the attack would be done by Israel or the U.S. Beinart, author of a forthcoming book called The Crisis of Zionism, is determined to slow the momentum toward war. I was especially appreciative of the penultimate paragraph in last Tuesday’s column:
“And who are the hawks who have so far marginalized the defense and intelligence establishments in both Israel and the U.S.? They’re a collection of think-tankers and politicians, most absolutely sincere, in my experience. But from Rick Santorum to John McCain to Elliott Abrams to John Bolton, their defining characteristic is that they were equally apocalyptic about the threat from Iraq, and equally nonchalant about the difficulties of successfully attacking it.The story of the Iraq debate was, in large measure, the story of their triumph over the career military and intelligence officials—folks like Eric Shinseki and Joseph Wilson—whose successors are now warning against attacking Iran.”
To recap, General Eric Shinseki was punished and sidelined by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld after he had the temerity to testify to Congress that stablizing Iraq after Saddam’s fall would take “several hundred thousand soldiers.” And in the case of Ambassador Joseph Wilson, it should be remembered that before his wife’s CIA identity was revealed by multiple members of the Bush Administration, he had published numerous op-eds and given many interviews urging that the U.S. not invade Iraq. His background and experience–which included his key role as the last U.S. diplomat in Baghdad during Operation Desert Shield, before the beginning of the first Gulf War–informed his opposition to the 2003 invasion, not a reluctance to be tough with Saddam. Both Shinseki and Wilson, and it must be said, Valerie Plame, were caught up in the Bush Administration’s mania for war with Iraq, and the whole country, indeed the whole world, has been paying the price ever since. I see that the two situations–the Iraq situation and the one with Iran–are dissimilar in important ways, but I still believe we must ask what costs may an attack on Iran exact from the U.S. and the rest of the world? I’m glad that a well-informed Peter Beinart is asking this question.
**Full disclosure: I edited and published The Politics of Truth–A Diplomat’s Memoir: Inside the War that Led to War and Betrayed My Wife’s CIA Identity by Ambassador Joseph Wilson (Carroll & Graf, 2004)