Thursday, September 21, 2006

Perspective on the Late Great Jewish Conspiracy

There's a really silly article by Emanuele Ottolenghi on NRO this week. It's in response to "those people" who think that there is an Israel lobby in the US. Since this is a complaint I hear a lot, I think it's worth going through this.

Here's the problem, in Ottolenghi's words:

In the war of words against Israel, one series of charges is frequently made: The Jews close ranks to defend the Jewish state, even when Israel’s conduct is indefensible. In so doing, they put their community allegiance above universal values. To get away with this inexcusable political stance, they silence critics through the powerful arm of their establishment, their lobbies, and their influence, financial and political.

That's certainly true - one of the many conspiracy theories in circulation is that the Jews have some sort of secret boardroom in New York where they get together and dominate the world in sneaky ways. As evidence for this, the people who believe it cite the continued existence of Israel, which to them is some kind of moral abomination and which couldn't possibly continue to exist without generous US backing.

But then, there are also books written about how 9/11 was planned by the Bush Administration, how the FBI killed JFK, how the moon landing was faked, how Japan is secretly buying America, how AIDS was created to kill black people, etc. I don't really see why anyone should take more umbrage at this "the Jews run everything" conspiracy theory than they do at any of these others.

Well, one might counter that more of the public believes in the "Jewish conspiracy theory" than any of these others. And I think that's true too. If we were to take an informal poll where people rated their belief in each of these, I guess the one about JFK, the one about the Jews, and the one about AIDS would score pretty high on the belief scale. Probably not as many believe 9/11 was an inside job or that the moon landing was faked.

Why is that?

Well, I can speculate that there might be a couple of reasons.

First is that the Jews - the ones that came to the US, anyway (the German Jews) - tend to be very successful, and at brain-intensive jobs. Any time one identifiable minority is beating the average (and we often hear that statistically Jews earn more than any other ethnic group in the US, though I have never seen an actual source cited), it breeds a certain amount of resentment. So I would guess that part of the higher-than-average belief in this conspiracy theory comes from racial insecurity on the part of other groups. "We" (replace this with any non-Jewish ethnicity) aren't doing as well as "them" (Jews), and rather than explain this by saying they're smarter, we'll explain it by saying they're stacking the deck.

Second, though, to be perfectly blunt, is that there's a lot of circumstantial evidence for the theory. Israel does somehow manage to get a good chunk of our foreign aid - and it's not too terribly clear what we get in return. Since the US doesn't seem to have any obvious policy advantage from supporting such an unpopular state, we're sort of hard-pressed to explain the policy. Generally speaking, when a relatively unpopular policy manages to stick around, it's because of the presence of some lobby group that trumps the general will. It works like this: the public at large opposes something but doesn't ultimately feel very strongly about it. A noisy and influential lobby group has a different opinion and applies pressure when it doesn't get its way. Clever politicians (and all successful politicians are clever - or at least have people standing near them who are) know how to deal with this: (1) give the annoying lobby what it wants and (2) distract the public with other things it feels more strongly about. I don't think anyone honestly believes that the majority of Americans support the Cuba Embargo, for example. We all know that it's the strength of the Miami Lobby and Big Sugar that keep that policy in place. The reason it gets renewed year after year is because the public doesn't care as much as these groups. (And these groups only care about that one issue, really, so they have a lot of energy to throw at it.) I don't think it's unreasonable to suggest that something similar might be going on with Israel. There's a clear special-interest constituency that supports the policy. The public as a whole doesn't probably care one way or the other, but I would guess the default position is to drop support for Israel, if for no other reason than that it's so expensive. As we would say in Linguistics - the structural description for the "it's an influential lobby" explanation is met - which is a fancy way of saying that conditions are right for it. That doesn't prove the case, of course, which is why I was careful to say the evidence is circumstantial. All I mean by this is that people shouldn't leap to the conclusion that it's automatically a product of irrational Jew-hatred to suggest that there's an Israel lobby that likes to stay out of the public spotlight.

I think if Ottolenghi doesn't want people to believe in this hidden lobby theory, he shouldn't write articles like the one I linked.

The article continues by naming a book promoting this conspiracy theory that was published in the "traditionally anti-Zionist" London Review of Books. Then it procedes - on a totally unrelated note - to tell us that within a month of publication another London newspaper printed a cover story with roughly the same argument to make. As though what two British publications have to say about US politics has ever been much of a concern before. No doubt the authors of the book (who I presume are Americans) really do believe their pet theory - but I think we don't need to read anything more into their claim, cited by Ottolenghi, that their book could never have been published in the US than that they are trying to bait an audience into buying it. It's well known that the self-styled intellectuals in Europe are fond of believing that the US is some kind of totalitarian regime in disguise and that they in Europe have access to better information than their American counterparts. It wouldn't be the first time someone has sold a book in Europe by appealing to this particular vanity. But here's the real clincher:

The cover featured a U.S. flag with Stars of David in lieu of the usual stars; it was reminiscent of neo-Nazi and white-supremacist websites, on which the Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack are routinely juxtaposed with Jewish symbols.

I'm not really sure what we're supposed to make of this. That would seem to me to be a natural sort of attention-grabbing illustration for this kind of article. Sure, it's a bit over the top - but that's often a hallmark of the British press. What's totally irrelevant is the fact that Nazis use similar illustrations. Well, gee, I guess Nazis sometimes use Times New Roman to print their articles too - should Microsoft take it out of MSWord? This is a reductio ad hitlerum - an almost sure sign that we readers are being manipulated.

Sinister references to the “Lobby” are ubiquitous in Western publications. The BBC even devoted a radio program to it. Yet, nobody lost his job; nobody was denied a visa to the U.S.; nobody was jailed for writing those articles. The only response they faced was a torrent of letters to the editors and several articles responding, sometimes in praise and sometimes in condemnation.

And here we have a straw man. No doubt there are extreme versions of this theory under which people lose their jobs for arguing against "The Lobby." But for the most part, the general belief is that the Jews simply have a lot of influence - that the Jews punch above their weight because of the fact that they form a close-knit and materially successful CLOSED community. So again - we're being manipulated. We're being given a picture of completely nutty theories (Jews own all companies and fire anyone who doesn't do their bidding) as though those were the theories that Ottolenghi is arguing against. But again, if it was only these wing nuts that Ottolenghi had to fight, it would hardly be worth his time to put pen to paper. He knows very well that most people who buy this conspiracy theory aren't that extreme. So why the deception?

With all this denouncing of the Jews for congregating and defending Israel no matter what, it may seem surprising that the most vociferous critics of Israel are Jewish. The most vicious anti-Israel articles are penned by Jews.

Another straw man. Now we're asked to believe that everyone who thinks that there is a Jewish conspiracy to prop up Israel is essentially racist. Again, the implication is that the presence of even a single Jew bitterly opposed to Israel somehow disproves the theory that Jews in general "close ranks" and "apply their infuence" to defend it. But only a hardcore anti-Semite could hold the position that each and every Jew is (by virtue of genetic make-up, one presumes) involved in the conspiracy. So Ottolenghi is here slyly suggesting that all people who believe in this conspiracy must be hardcore anti-Semites. But there is nothing in their writings to suggest they are. It is like saying that the existence of "uncle Toms" in the 1950s somehow proves that Jim Crow wasn't real. Or it's as if we said that the fact that there are German critics of Hitler means that Germany as a nation never supported him. Thomas Mann, to name Germany's greatest 20th century literary talent, had his books burned in Hitler's street rallies and ended up making propaganda broadcasts for the BBC during the war. I suppose I can conclude from this that Naziism never happened?

The language of current anti-Semitism is deeply indebted to these Jewish voices and in fact needs them to make its case. Their eagerness to denounce Israel in the most virulent terms and to call for its destruction offers a powerful alibi to the anti-Semites.

No doubt this is true. But so what? Jewish intellectuals who believe they have reason to oppose Israel are supposed to be quiet for fear that some irrational caveman is going to continue hating their race after reading their books? Anti-semites may well use books by Jewish authors to prop up their case - but it's hard to imagine that such people would start loving the Jews if only Jews would...well, close ranks get the picture. When I was in Japan, I remember the fascists would routinely be on TV saying similar things. First they're angry that some commentators in the US seem to think the Japanese take care of their own and could care less about the world. And then they denounce anyone in Japan who doesn't agree with them as a traitor. (!!!) Apparently they're completely unaware that some white people can speak Japanese, and it is, in no small part, tirades like these that fuel the idea that the Japanese are a giant Sicily with a real economy. You can't simultaneously advocate a "correct" view for members of your race and then turn around and expect the public at large to believe there is no "lobby." All Ottolenghi does here is nominate himself as candidate for commisar in these people's conspiracy theories.

The phenomenon of self-hatred among Jews is not new.

Absolutely bloody inevitable. I'm really tired of this. I have never in my life met a self-hating Jew. I'm not saying they don't exist - just that if they do they're certainly extremely rare. But what I really object to here is the juvinile name-calling strategy. You can't simply label anyone who disagrees with you about Israel and happens to be Jewish "self-hating." This doesn't explain anything. Where does this "self-hatred" come from, exactly? What prompts Jewish people to hate Jews? It's anyway a classic ad hominem. Rather than addressing their complaints, you just call them crazy and be done with it.

Despite all the clamor about Jewish lobbies’ silencing of critics of Israel, and about the difficulties faced by true Jewish heroes who break ranks to “tell the truth,” most Jewish detractors of Israel are well-established figures — from MIT professor Noam Chomsky to New York University historian Tony Judt, from Oxford don Avi Shlaim to New Yorker star reporter Seymour Hersh, from Stanford University Talmudic scholar Daniel Boyarin to a plethora of tenured Israeli radicals. These commentators tend to have easy access to publishing houses and to the op-ed sections of prestigious and influential newspapers and magazines. In the literary landscape of op-eds, pamphlets, and academic works, it is the pro-Israel voice that is constantly struggling to be heard.

Give me a break. It's certainly true that anti-Israel publications are abundant, but so are pro-Israel pieces. In fact, the last time I was in Borders I saw this book prominently displayed. And Alan Dershowitz is nothing if not successful.

In effect, their crusade against Israel is less about justice for the Palestinians than about coming to terms with their own tortured Jewish identity. As Jerome Segal — whom Jacob Neusner tears apart in The Jewish Divide — admits, his “engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict turns on an essentially conceptual point: Jewish identity and Jewish history have become hostage to this conflict. Who and what we are will be determined by this conflict and the relationship we bear to it.” He is not involved, in other words, to save the Palestinians and restore justice and dignity to an oppressed people. He is involved because he fears his own self-image as a Jew will be tarnished, unless he can influence the outcome of the conflict in moral ways.

This, it seems to me, gives away the farm by essentially saying that even Jews who seem to "break rank" aren't really "breaking rank," they're just as absorbed in their own Jewishness as all the rest. Remember, the essential charge of the conspiracy theorists here is that the Jews are some kind of incredibly narcisistic racial group that promotes its own interests over what it knows to be morally correct. Now, I suppose what he's going for is the idea that Jews who support Israel are doing so for purely moral reasons, and that it's these other Jews, these "self-hating Jews," who are the real Jewish narcisists. But that's either hugely implausible or itself a racist position. See - we'd be asked to believe, then, that the vast majority of Jews who support Israel somehow suffer from a lack of disunity over the issue that seems to plague the rest of the world. Ottolenghi would, in other words, have to explain why Jews are mysteriously immune (save these few self-absorbed counterexamples) to moral debate over an issue that the rest of the world finds controversial. I'm having a lot of trouble imagining a reason he could give that wouldn't be racist. Now, no doubt Ottolenghi is right that some of these Jews who oppose Zionism are merely obsessed with their own self-image, but the far more plausible explanation for all of this would seem to be that the Jews, like every other racial group on the planet, are a collection of individual people, and that these individuals, being individuals, do not all agree with each other about everything.

Next we go off into la-la land with a list of really militant quotes from the Prophets. Apparently, we're meant to conclude that anyone who cites the Jewish Prophets as an argument against Israel is suffering from delusions about what kind of people the Prophets were. Well, that may be true. But I don't think it's terribly unusual for people to read what they want to hear out of their religious texts. True fundamentalists, for all the talk about them, are conspicuously hard to find. But even so, we'd have to be Biblical scholars to evaluate this argument, so I'm not sure why it's here. It doesn't seem to me to follow from the fact that the Prophets were sometimes violent themselves that Israel is allowed to exist and to resist Palestinian terrorism with any means necessary. The way I understand it, the Rabbinical argument against Israel is that the state is an abomination because the time has not yet come. That doesn't seem to commit anyone to a pacifist position about anything. Presumably when the time is right the Jews will be justified in using violence to recapture Israel, from this point of view. It's just that it so happens that now is not the time.

Anti-Israel Jewish intellectuals are frequently secular and alienated from Jewish tradition. The focus of their wrath is not Israel but a Jewish identity that no longer dwells in their hearts.

So which is it? Are they tortured, narcisistic victims of their own absorption with their Jewish identity, or do they simply not care that they are Jews? Can't have it both ways.

And even as our age celebrates cultural diversity and religious freedom, the Jews are nonetheless barred from defining themselves in national terms.

I have never personally noticed this to be the case. But I'm also not aware that religions in general are allowed to define themselves in national terms. Now, ethnic minorities seem to be, and maybe we've switched here from Judaism as religion to Judaism as minority. Even so, I doubt there would be many takers if the blacks suddenly decided that Alabama was theirs, or if Korea Town seceded from LA. There is a crucial difference between defining one's group in "national terms" and demanding that everyone accept whatever physical "nation" you deicde to set up. There isn't some cosmic right for any group that feels like a nation to go start one somewhere. Now, just for the record, I happen to personally think that the case for Israel is pretty solid. But it's hardly without problems. Israel isn't Iceland. It isn't even Germany (itself not an unproblematic definition of a nation). Any honest defense of Israel is going to have to take into account that the case isn't airtight. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing - few nations, if you comb through their history, have airtight cases for sovereignty. Moral arguments over Israel would seem to be par for the course for nations that (a) are less than 100 years old and (b) have been under threat of violence since their founding by a rival group that also stakes a claim. What would be unusual would be if the whole world simply took Israel as a given without anything more to say on the matter. I don't, to use another prominent example, think that if we took a look at the world press in the 1840s we would find that the US was absolutely uncontroversial. And the two World Wars were mostly motivated, when you think about it, by the fact that Germany(founded in 1880)'s borders were unclear.

And this is highly convenient for the anti-Semites. It is no coincidence that the accusation that Israel was “born in sin” — on account of its responsibility for the birth of the refugee problem — has recently gained much currency in the West. For decades, Palestinian propaganda made that charge, with little success. But once Israeli historian Benny Morris came along and coined that “born in sin” expression, the charge gained credibility: This was an Israeli Jew, after all.

Fine. But I don't see what point is made by this. It's unsurprising that this should be the case. Palestinian historians clearly have ulterior motives (and their scholarship tends to be shoddy on the whole, so there's also that), so it's really not surprising that the world doesn't take them seriously. That Morris happens to be the first non-Palestinian to confirm some of their arguments has nothing whatever to do with his being Jewish. I think all that was really required was that some credible source denounce Israel. Morris is such a source.

Norman Finkelstein provides a blanket cover to Holocaust deniers, as does Noam Chomsky.

I don't know much about Norman Finkelstein, but I have read a bit of what Chomsky has to say about the Holocaust, and he is definitely not providing any kind of cover for them. He merely insists that they be allowed to defend their positions without being thrown in jail (as happened to Faurisson, the man for whose book he wrote a preface, in France). I wholeheartedly agree with Chomksy on this - and I do not consider myself an apologist for Holocaust deniers in the least. Quite the contrary - in addition to believing in free speech as a basic human right, I also think that free speech is infinitely more effective at countering silly opinions than censoring them (and thereby lending them a legitimacy they don't deserve).

And George Steiner popularized the view of the ideal Jew as the wandering Jew — perennially in exile, the only acceptable condition for being authentically Jewish in his view.

Again, so what? Is it such a terrible thing for a Jew to hold this opinion? This would seem to me to be a perfectly valid point of view. After all, the Jews have been in exile for 2000 years. Does Ottolenghi honestly think this has had no effect on their sense of identity? Ottolenghi is free to have whatever view of his Jewish identity he likes, of course, but it strikes me as heavy-handed in the extreme to suggest that this view - from a Jew, no less - is not a valid one.

All these stereotypes are part and parcel of the anti-Semitic arsenal today. And all of them have found the endorsement of a Jew. Is it any wonder that these Jews are so popular in so many Western circles?

Let me get this straight. Jews are only popular because they criticize themselves. But I thought we were arguing that the Jews are not popular, that they are, in fact, unfairly the subject of a widely-held nutty conspiracy theory which held that all Jews were hand-in-glove about their secret plan to keep Israel afloat?

But it is also evidence that they are anything but the antinomian dissenters they purport to be. In fact, they are the expression of a herd instinct and living proof that nobody is immune from anti-Jewish prejudice, not even the Jews themselves.

This is disgusting stuff. Roughly translated: Jews who won't let me tell them what it means to be Jewish are animals following an instinct.

The Jewish Divide exposes this phenomenon and its promoters. At a moment in history when Israel is again fighting for its survival while being vilified as the aggressor and the villain, many Jewish intellectuals have once again sought the spotlight to state that what Israel is doing is “not in my name.”

Here's the real meat of it for me. This could easily apply to the many Americans who aren't in lock-step over the War on Terror. And such charges are also frequently made against people who don't support the Bush Administration's foreign policy. They are somehow "less American" or "America haters" or "anti-patriotic." Well, some of them no doubt are. I believe in the existence of anti-American Americans. But as a blanket label it is grossly unfair. There are plenty of reasons to oppose the policies of the Bush Administraion that leave ample room for patriotism.

I despise this kind of argument. Anyone who bothered to click the link will notice that there is not one shred of actual content. Every name that Ottolenghi mentions as being a "self-hating Jew" has published volumes on the subject of why Israel either shouldn't exist or should follow a different path from the one it is on. Ottolenghi could do something useful by taking their points and refuting them. Instead, he's chosen a long string of ad hominems.

It is the nature of these ad hominems that makes this worth talking about, though. Ottolenghi is specifically accusing each and every one of them of not being "Jewish" enough. And he actually thinks it is a mystery why the conspiracy theory he cites has credence?

I would submit that the plethora of arguments like his are another piece of circumstantial evidence that "the Lobby" is real. Ottolenghi is functioning here exactly in the capacity of a "commisar." He is policing his own people for "correct" views on issues that (he thinks) are important to the race.

And I think there are lots of other pieces of circumstantial evidence as well. I have named two already: continued government support for Israel despite the fact that it doesn't seem to be in the national interest (the structural description of undue lobby influence is met) and the existence of commisars like Ottolenghi who take a seemingly personal offense at Jews who don't play along. But there are others.

The preeminence of the Holocaust in world crimes would seem to fit, for example. The Holocaust was certainly a massive crime against humanity - but it's hardly unique. The Japanese did some pretty horrible things during WWII, but we rarely read about them in school. Pol Pot managed to kill roughly 1/3 of the population of his nation in two short years, but this isn't reported as the same kind of outrage. Stalin put about the same number of people to death that Hitler did, but again, there is no reductio ad Stalinarum phenomenon. Idi Amin killed many more people as a percentage of the victims' population than Hitler managed, but once more, it's not standard textbook fare. Now, granted, all of these things are easily explainable. Germany occupies a greater role in the national consciousness in the US, so it's sort of more shocking to us when these things happen in nominally civilized countries that we admire than when they happen in backwater places like Cambodia or Rwanda. Also there is the fact that the Germans themselves have a massive guilt complex over the issue, and their struggles with their own national identity in its wake elevate it to a higher status than these others. Nevertheless, there is an air of convenience about reporting on the Holocaust (and an insistence on some unique element of evil in the German consciousness that I find personally offensive).

Also, despite what Ottolenghi claims about Jewish intellectuals, I have the impression that most of the Jews I've met are Israel supporters. An issue which is controversial in the population at large doesn't seem to be terribly controversial among Jews. And indeed, many Jews attend Hebrew schools which, in addition to giving language instruction, also teach the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict from a thoroughly Israeli point of view, encourage attendance at summer camps in Israel, etc.

In short, I think it is possible to explain the popularity of the conspiracy theory Ottolenghi cites without resorting to charges of racism. And in general, if we can avoid accusing people of racism when we don't have to, then in fact we should avoid it.

Now, having said all that, let me lay my cards on the table concerning my own opinions about all of this.

Regarding Israel, I happen to be a pretty strong supporter. I don't agree with every policy that the Israeli government pushes (I am in particular opposed to the West Bank settlements, though I support the building of the security perimeter), nor do I think the Jewish population has been blameless throughout the conflict (particularly in the early days, the Jews are clearly guilty of having incited unrest to promote their agenda, and I do not believe for a moment that Ben Gurion's nominally "socialist" pre-partition policy of having Jews employ only other Jews was anything other than naked racism). Nor do I think that the 1948 unrest was entirely on the up and up. Everything that happened is perfectly legal, but it isn't terribly nice, all the same, to issue a blanket denial of the right to return of everyone who fled the conflict when the Israeli government knows good and well (contrary to its official position) that not everyone who left did so because of some giant conspiracy on the part of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem to snatch Jewish lands and redistribute them. That said, I agree that Jews were also unfairly kicked out of their homes in other parts of Arabia, and I do accept that this largely "makes up for it." I won't comment on the Suez incident, but I will say that starting in the early 60s, Israel has been doing nothing other than exercising its legal right to self-defense. The UN has been horribly unfair about all of this, as have a sizeable proportion of the member nations individually. What Israel did this past summer in Lebanon - a case in point - was also self-defense, and I support it completely. I think the strategy employed was half-hearted and flawed: a ground invasion should have been carried out, and Hezbollah should have been simply eliminated. But whatever I think about the way Israel conducted the war, that war was its right, and I'm glad, on the whole, it happened.

As for the idea that there is some "conspiracy" to lobby for Israel on the part of Jews, I think this is probably trivially true, and I say "trivially" here because most ethnic groups I am aware of lobby for things that are important to them whether or not these things are also in the general public interest. If the Israel Lobby is more successful, it's because the Jews themselves are on average more successful than the general population. There isn't, in other words, some network of secret boardrooms from which Jews control America. But there definitely is broad Jewish support for Israel, and this influence is indeed felt in Washington out of proportion to the number of supporters and considerations of national interest.

I myself support US financial backing of Israel in the current international climate. Ideally, however, I am a US isolationist (not economically - I believe in free markets, but politically - I think the US should pull its troops home and stop interfering in the affairs of other nations). I would support completely dropping foreign aid to Israel in concert with a general policy of withdrawing from the world. But as long as we are playing an active role in the world, then I think support for Israel is far from the worst way to spend our money (I would, for example, drop aid to Egypt - the second-biggest recipient - long before I would consider doing so for Israel). To clear up the apparent ambiguity here, in the hypothetical event that I became president, I would pursue a policy of withdrawal that would include, among other things, dropping support for Israel.

This has, I suspect, been the longest post I have made to date. I justify this by the complexity of the issue, its general relevance to present international politics, and my personal annoyance, as someone who considers himself an Israel supporter, at the prevelance of racist diatribes like Ottolenghi's purporting to "explain" anything about any of this. I have mixed feelings about National Review as a publication, and no small part of that is their tendency to regularly publish this garbage. I am very much interested in Israel, though it is something I do not know as much about as I would like, nor do I really have the time to learn more about it. All the same, I am frequently in online debates about it (and was especially over the summer), so I think about it a great deal. It was inevitable that I would post about it - and probably there will be other posts as these issues come up again in the news - which they definitely will in short order.


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