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5 - 11 October 2000
Issue No. 502
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More on American Zionism (2)

By Edward Said

Edward Said A small, potentially embarrassing episode has occurred since I wrote my last article on this subject two weeks ago. Martin Indyk, US ambassador (for the second time during the Clinton administration) to Israel, has abruptly been stripped of his diplomatic security clearance by the State Department. The story put about is that he used his laptop computer without using proper security measures, and therefore may have disclosed information or released it to unauthorised persons. As a result, he now cannot enter or leave the State Department without an escort, cannot remain in Israel, and must now submit to a full investigation.

We may never find out what really happened. But what is public knowledge and has nevertheless not been discussed in the media is the scandal of Indyk's appointment in the first place. On the very eve of Clinton's inauguration in January 1993, it was announced that Martin Indyk, born in London, and an Australian citizen, had been sworn in as an American citizen at the president-elect's express wishes. Proper procedures were not followed: it was an act of peremptory executive privilege, so that, after having gained US citizenship, Indyk could immediately thereafter become a member of the National Security Council staff responsible for the Middle East. All this, I believe, was the real scandal, not Indyk's subsequent carelessness or indiscretion or even his complicity in ignoring official codes of conduct. For before he came to the very heart of the US government in a top and largely secretly run position, Indyk was the head of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a quasi-intellectual thinktank that engaged in active advocacy on the part of Israel, and coordinated its work with that of AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee), the most powerful and feared lobby in Washington. It is worth noting that before he came to the Bush administration Dennis Ross, the State Department consultant who has been leading the American peace process, was also the head of the Washington Institute, so the traffic between Israeli lobbying and US Middle East policy is extremely regular, and yes, regulated.

AIPAC has for years been so powerful not only because it draws on a well-organised, well-connected, highly visible, successful, and wealthy Jewish population but because for the most part there has been very little resistance to it. There is a healthy fear and respect for AIPAC all over the country, but especially in Washington, where in a matter of hours almost the entire Senate can be marshaled into signing a letter to the president on Israel's behalf. Who is going to oppose AIPAC and continue to have a career in Congress, or to stand up to it on behalf of, say, the Palestinian cause when nothing concrete can be offered by that cause to anyone who stands up to AIPAC? In the past one or two members of Congress have resisted AIPAC openly but soon after their re-election was blocked by the many political action committees controlled by AIPAC, and that was that. The only senator who had anything remotely like an oppositional stand to AIPAC was James AbuRezk, but he did not want to be re-elected and, for his own reasons, resigned after his single six-year term ended.

There is now no political commentator who is absolutely clear and open in his/her resistance to Israel in the US. A few liberal columnists like Anthony Lewis of the New York Times do occasionally write in criticism of Israeli occupation practices, but nothing is ever said about 1948 and the whole issue of the original Palestinian dispossession that is at the root of Israel's existence and subsequent behaviour. In a recent article, the former State Department official Henry Pracht has noted the staggering unanimity of opinion in all sectors of the American media, from film, to television, radio, newspapers, weeklies, monthlies, quarterlies and dailies: everyone more or less toes the official Israeli line, which has also become the official American line. This is the coincidence American Zionism has achieved in the years since 1967, and which it has exploited in most public discourse about the Middle East. Thus US policy equals Israeli policy, except on the very rare occasions (ie, the Pollard case) where Israel oversteps the limit and assumes that it has a right to help itself to what it wishes.

Criticism of Israel's practices is therefore strictly limited to occasional sorties that are so infrequent as to be almost literally invisible. The overall consensus is virtually impregnable and is so powerful as to be enforceable everywhere within the accepted mainstream. This consensus is made up of unassailable truths concerning Israel as a democracy, its basic virtue, the modernity and reasonableness of its people and its decisions. Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, a respected American liberal cleric, once said that Zionism was the secular religion of the American Jewish community. This is supported visibly by various American organisations whose role it is to police the public realm for infractions, even as many other Jewish organisations run hospitals, museums, research institutes for the good of the whole country. This duality is like an unresolved paradox in which noble public enterprises coexist with the meanest and most inhumane ones. Thus, to take a recent example, the Zionist Organisation of America (ZOA), a small but very vociferous group of zealots, paid for an advertisement in the New York Times on 10 September that addressed Ehud Barak as if he was an employee of American Jews, reminding him that six million of them outnumber the five million Israelis who had decided to negotiate on Jerusalem. The language of the advertisement was not only admonitory, it was almost threatening, saying that Israel's prime minister had undemocratically decided to undertake what was anathema to American Jews, who were displeased with his behaviour. It's not at all clear who mandated this small and pugnacious group of zealots to lecture the Israeli prime minister in these tones, but ZOA feels it has the right to intervene in everybody's business. They routinely write or telephone the president of my university to ask him to dismiss or censure me for something I said, as if universities were like kindergartens and professors to be treated as under-age delinquents. Last year they mounted a campaign to get me fired from my elected post as president of the Modern Language Association, whose 30,000 members were lectured by ZOA as so many morons. This is the worst sort of Stalinist bullying, but is typical of organised American Zionism at its worst and most zealous.

Similarly for the past few months various right-wing Jewish writers and editors (for example, Norman Podhoretz, Charles Krauthammer and William Kristol, to mention only a few of the more strident propagandists) have been critical of Israel for essentially displeasing them, as if they had more title to it than anyone else. Their tone in these and other articles is dreadful, an unappetising combination of brazen arrogance, moral preachiness, and the ugliest form of hypocrisy, all of it done with an air of complete confidence. They assume that because of the power of the Zionist organisations that back and support their reprehensible rantings they can get away with their appalling verbal excesses, but it is mostly because most Americans are either ignorant of what they are saying or cowed into silence that they can get away with this sort of nonsense, very little of it having much to do with the real political actualities of the Middle East. Most sensible Israelis regard them with distaste.

American Zionism has now reached the level of almost pure fantasy in which what is good for American Zionists in their fiefdom and their mostly fictional discourse is good for America and Israel, and certainly for the Arabs, Muslims and Palestinians, who seem to be little more than a collection of negligible nuisances. Anyone who defies or dares to challenge them (especially if he/she is either an Arab or a Jew critical of Zionism) is subject to the most awful abuse and vituperation, all of it personal, racist and ideological. They are relentless, totally without generosity or genuine human understanding. To say that their diatribes and analyses are Old Testament-like in manner is to insult the Old Testament.

In other words, an alliance with them, such as the Arab states and the PLO have tried to forge since the Gulf War, is the stupidest kind of ignorance. They are unalterably opposed to everything the Arabs, Muslims and, most especially, Palestinians stand for and would sooner blow things up than make peace with us. Yet it is also true that most ordinary citizens are often puzzled by the vehemence of their tone, but unaware really of what is behind it. Whenever you speak to Americans who are not Jewish or Arab, and who have no expertise on the Middle East, there is routinely a sense of wonder and exasperation at the relentlessly hectoring attitude, as if the whole Middle East was theirs for the taking. Zionism in America, I have concluded, is not only a fantasy built on very shaky foundations, it is impossible to make an alliance or to expect rational exchange with it. But it can be outflanked and defeated.

Ever since the mid-1980s I had proposed to the PLO leadership and to every Palestinian and Arab I met that the PLO quest for the president's ear was a total illusion since all recent presidents have been devoted Zionists, and that the only way to change US policy and achieve self-determination was through a mass campaign on behalf of Palestinian human rights, which would have the effect of out-flanking Zionists and going straight to the American people. Uninformed and yet open to appeals for justice as they are, Americans would have reacted as they did to the ANC campaign against apartheid, which finally changed the balance inside South Africa. In fairness here, I should mention that James Zogby, then an energetic human rights activist (before he threw in his lot with Arafat, the US government and the Democratic Party), was one of the originators of the idea. That he abandoned it totally is a sign of how he changed, rather than a nullification of the idea itself.

But it also became very clear to me that the PLO would never do it for several reasons. It would require work and dedication. Second, it would mean espousing a political philosophy that was really based on democratic grass-roots organisation. Third, it would have to be a movement rather than a personal initiative on behalf of the present leaders. And lastly, it required a real, as opposed to a superficial, knowledge of US society. Besides, I felt that the conventional cast of mind that kept getting us in one bad position after another was very difficult to change, and time proved me right. The Oslo accords were the unimaginative acceptance by the Palestinians of Israeli-US supremacy rather than an attempt to change it.

In any case, any alliance or compromise with Israel in the present circumstances, where US policy is totally dominated by American Zionism, is doomed to roughly the same results for Arabs generally and Palestinians in particular. Israel must dominate, Israel's concerns are primary, and Israeli systemic injustice will be prolonged. Unless American Zionism is taken on and made to change -- not a very difficult task, as I shall try to show in my next article -- the results will be the same: dismal and discrediting for us as Arabs.


See:
American Zionism -- the real problem (1) 21 - 27 September 2000

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