In the face of sustained injustice, there is an understandable desire to detect hopeful signs of change, small victories that boost the spirits of those fighting to make things better. But those shimmers of hope can often prove to be mirages in the harsh geopolitical desert of the Middle East, warns Lawrence Davidson.
By Lawrence Davidson
On May 22, I wrote a cautionary analysis entitled “Staying Sober” which recounted two news stories that had drawn hopeful comments from progressives. One story was about the New York-based federal judge who placed an injunction on the U.S. government’s practice of indefinite detention. The other was the momentary success of Palestinian hunger strikers in Israeli prisons at attaining some relief from their intolerable conditions. The hunger strikers were protesting, among other things, Israel’s version of indefinite detention.
In the analysis, I noted that these were battles won and precedents to take heart from. They showed what was possible through determined opposition against unjust state practices. However, I added that winning battles is not equivalent to winning wars, so it would be wise to celebrate soberly, knowing the struggles were not over. As it turned out, that was good advice. The New York judge’s injunction was overturned on appeal and the behavior of the Israelis quickly reverted to the status quo ante.
Today we are in a similar situation. Again we have two news stories that have raised the hopes of progressives. The first is the decision of U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to engage diplomatically, a step which represents a setback for the influence of the Zionist lobby.
The second report is about a poll indicating that a near majority of American Jews think the Israeli government is not serious about peace with the Palestinians. Again, while both developments show movement in the right direction – movement that progressives can help sustain – it would be wise to stay sober.
The most immediately uplifting event was President Obama’s diplomatic approach to Iran. I was quite impressed with the President’s move in this direction and said so in an Oct. 5 analysis. However, others have seen this move as a possible “radical reforging of American foreign policy.” While a delightful thought, I think this is highly unlikely. Consider the following:
–One of the things that makes this move so surprising and welcome to progressives is that it defies very powerful opposition. But, of course, that opposition will not simply give up. The neocons and Zionist devotees are still out there and are working overtime to sabotage this rare act of sanity in foreign policy. What really stands in their way is the publicly recognized popular opposition to another war, particularly in the Middle East. That’s great. However, progressives will have to continue to work hard to keep it that way because the public is fickle and vulnerable to media propaganda.
–It is one thing to get to the negotiating table and another to have the political wherewithal and courage to make the reasonable compromises necessary for a successful settlement. The Iranians want their rights recognized and sanctions lifted. Getting Congress to go along with that will take visible public demand. Progressives will have to find a way to help realize that demand.
American Jewish Attitude Toward Israel
A recent Pew Research Center poll of American Jews found that nearly half (48 percent) “do not think that the current Israeli government is making a sincere effort to bring about a peace settlement.” Forty-four percent agree that “the continued building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank hurts Israel’s security.”
Actually, given the obvious nature of these facts, it is a wonder that the percentages aren’t much higher. Nonetheless, questionable conclusions have been drawn from this poll by both Zionists and those critical of Zionist behavior. Consider the following:
–Abe Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League (an avid Zionist organization), tends to exaggerate the negative message (as he sees it) of the poll. He dismissed this near majority of critical Jews as those who “do not care” about Israel. He declared that they are not his constituency. Only those who “do care” – that is, the Israel-right-or-wrong crowd – are the ones he will pay attention to. Well, that is convenient for Foxman. He will only listen to those who agree with him and, so, he can go blissfully into the future guided by the logical fallacy of confirmation bias.
Of course, this is a gamble on Foxman’s part. The number of American Jews (which, by the way, includes an increasing number of Israeli expatriates) who are more or less alienated from Israeli policy is growing. Groups that seek to co-opt this process, like J Street and Taglit-Birthright, might slow it but they cannot stop it, much less reverse it, as long as Israel remains a racist and expansionist country.
On the other hand, as long as those “who care” have the money to fund the Zionist lobby sufficiently to buy the support of Congress, Foxman’s narrow worldview of Israel uber alles (Israel “more than anything else”) will not wholly collapse.
–Those who see great positive significance in the Pew poll might also be off the mark. For instance, Juan Cole, a Middle East historian and well-known blogger whose opinions are usually very accurate, tends to exaggerate the positive importance of the Pew results. In Cole’s opinion the Zionist-oriented American-Jewish establishment no longer represents most of the country’s Jews.
Here, I think, Cole is correct. However, his conclusion that the Zionist lobby can therefore “most often be safely defied” by politicians and other policy makers is probably incorrect. Cole’s proposition would be true if counting Jewish voters was the sole antidote for fear and trembling induced by the Zionist lobby.
However, those Jewish voters critical of Israel are not organized into a lobby that can compete with the Zionists. There is no indication that they are ready to punish politicians who support racist Israel by denying them their votes. And they are not so rich as to be able to help others compete with the Zionists in buying congressional votes. In other words, the Jewish opinions reflected in the Pew poll offer insufficient cover for those politicians who want to defy Zionist lobby power.
It is only when these critical Jews are joined by millions of non-Jewish voters that the potential of overcoming the Zionist lobby becomes real. That is what happened in the cases of Syria and Iran, when public opposition to hostile action and war gave politicians the cover they needed to defy Zionist political clout.
At the end of my May 2013 analysis, I drew the following conclusion: “On the up side, the news stories analyzed here demonstrate that battles against even the most entrenched and powerful of foes can be won. To win wars, however, is another thing altogether. … It should sober us all to realize that it will take staying power – the sort of staying power that has already kept many other struggles for rights and justice going for decades if not generations.”
The power of special interests and their abilities to turn politicians and government bureaucracies to their own purposes is probably as old as civilization itself. We have to face that and be prepared to fight not just the current battle, but recurrent battles into the indefinite future. We must train our children to fight those battles. The British parliamentarian Barbara Castle put it this way: “I will fight for what I believe in until I drop dead. And that’s what keeps me alive.”
Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.