Israel, US, and “the lobby”-2: An old state with an adolescent mentality

(See part 1 here.)

Tony Judt, one of the panelists in the public debate I wrote about earlier, was himself the center of another furor concerning the Israel lobby. Judt had strongly criticized the American intelligentsia (including those who call themselves liberals) and the Bush administration for its failures in Middle East policy.

On October 3, 2006, Judt was scheduled to give a lecture titled “The Israel Lobby & US Foreign Policy” before a public audience at the Polish Consulate offices in New York, which often sponsors such kinds of forums. But according to reports, the event was cancelled after the consulate received a phone call from Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL. This led to many academics protesting at what they perceived as censorship, with over a hundred of them writing an open letter, suggesting that the ADL was trying to silence a critic of its lobbying efforts.

Judt has written before in The country that wouldn’t grow up that he sees part of the problem as that the Israeli political psyche has got stuck in what, for an individual, would be characterized as an adolescent phase.

By the age of 58 a country – like a man – should have achieved a certain maturity. After nearly six decades of existence we know, for good and for bad, who we are, what we have done and how we appear to others, warts and all. We acknowledge, however reluctantly and privately, our mistakes and our shortcomings. And though we still harbor the occasional illusion about ourselves and our prospects, we are wise enough to recognize that these are indeed for the most part just that: illusions. In short, we are adults.

But the State of Israel remains curiously (and among Western-style democracies, uniquely) immature. The social transformations of the country – and its many economic achievements – have not brought the political wisdom that usually accompanies age. Seen from the outside, Israel still comports itself like an adolescent: consumed by a brittle confidence in its own uniqueness; certain that no one “understands” it and everyone is “against” it; full of wounded self-esteem, quick to take offense and quick to give it. Like many adolescents Israel is convinced – and makes a point of aggressively and repeatedly asserting – that it can do as it wishes, that its actions carry no consequences and that it is immortal.

The kind of adolescent political thinking that Judt describes is familiar to me. In Sri Lanka, the Sinhala community comprises 15 million people, a comfortable majority in a country of 20 million. The Tamils are only about 4 million. But a sizable group of the Sinhala people are constantly fearful that the ethnic Tamils of South India (who number about 60 million) will make common cause with their ethnic counterparts in Sri Lanka and march (or presumably swim) across the Palk Strait, the narrow strip of water that separates southern India from Sri Lanka, and take over their country and destroy the Sinhala people. Although this notion is quite preposterous, it is symptomatic of the adolescent sensibilities of this particular body politic that this fearful group of Sinhala people are easy prey for chauvinist politicians and can be easily riled up to take extreme measures against the indigenous Tamils under the flag of ‘saving’ the nation from the Tamil threat, and thus have prevented any meaningful peace moves in Sri Lanka.

Of course, to assume that the AIPAC (or the ADL) speaks for the entire American Jewish community is as false as assuming that the Bush/Cheney administration and their fundamentalist Christian base speaks for the entire American public. The reality is that AIPAC, like all lobbies, seeks first to increase perceptions of its own power and influence because that is what leads to greater fundraising success, while at the same time advancing the interests of a narrow slice of those people in America whose politics aligns with a narrow slice of the Israeli political spectrum, especially that associated with the hard-line politics of people like Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud. But the ability of lobbies like AIPAC to stifle criticisms of Israeli policies may be on the wane as more and more ‘mainstream’ people, like Jimmy Carter, are speaking out.

What the Carter and Mearsheimer and Walt and Judt episodes make increasingly clear is that while the ability of groups like AIPAC to limit debate within Washington and within the mainstream media remains strong, it is losing its ability to do so with the wider audience in the country as a whole. It used to be that the threat of being labeled an “anti-Semite” (if one was not Jewish) or “self-hating” (if one were Jewish) was enough to discourage many people from criticizing the actions of the Israeli government. For example, As Alexander Cockburn writes “Carter has been stigmatised as an anti-Semite, a Holocaust denier, a patron of former concentration camp killers, a Christian madman, a pawn of the Arabs, an advocate of terror.”

But such charges are not gaining much traction anymore. Cockburn thinks that this is due to a changing political landscape in the country, if not in Washington.

The Israel lobby retains its grip inside the Beltway, but it’s starting to lose its hold on the broader public debate. Why? You can’t brutalize the Palestinian people in the full light of day, decade after decade, without claims that Israel is a light among the nations getting more than a few serious dents. In the old days, Mearsheimer and Walt’s tract would have been deep-sixed by the University of Chicago and the Kennedy School long before it reached its final draft, and Farrar, Straus and Giroux wouldn’t have considered offering a six-figure advance for it. Simon & Schuster would have told President Carter that his manuscript had run into insurmountable objections from a distinguished board of internal reviewers. But once a book by a former president with weighty humanitarian credentials makes it into bookstores, it’s hard to shoot it down with volleys of wild abuse.

In this failure to stifle acceptance of Jimmy Carter’s book and the Mearsheimer and Walt paper, AIPAC is experiencing a fate similar to that other lobby that is constantly pushing for more and wider war in the Middle East, first in Iraq and next in Iran and Syria. This other lobby is led by so-called ‘think tanks’ like the American Enterprise Institute and its message is disseminated by ‘opinion journals’ like the Weekly Standard, National Review, and the New Republic, and picked up and amplified by the major news outlets. Although this group exerts a powerful influence on the White House and Congress, it is out of step with broader American public opinion on what to do about the war. This is why there is an increasing disconnect between what the US government and Congress is proposing to do about Iraq and what the general population is demanding. The pro-war lobby, like AIPAC, is finding that its reach is limited to an ever-shrinking circle centered around Washington, DC.

Next: The silence in the US

POST SCRIPT 1: Suffering explained

One of the most troubling questions for believers in a god is how to explain evil and suffering. Now Mr. Deity reveals the reasons. You really must see it. It’s a riot.

Tomorrow: Mr. Deity explains to Jesus the thinking behind that whole ‘dying on the cross’ thing.

POST SCRIPT 2: The Mamas and the Papas again

As another tribute to the late Denny Doherty, here’s The Mamas and the Papas singing the somewhat eccentric and self-referential song Creeque Alley.


  1. says

    The image of Israel as an adolescent does make a certain amount of sense, but I’d argue that much of that description applies to the USA as well. We see the same conviction of uniqueness, the very simplistic understanding of what the older countries expect of them and how they work coupled with a belief that they don’t understand the US, the determination to act alone unconstrained by the society of nations at large, the much greater willingness than other countries to solve problems aggressively even though that tends not to bring long term solutions about….

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