Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Jennifer Rubin's confusion has consequences

Conflating opposition to Israeli policy with anti-Semitism is a very big error

Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin, hired to fill a gap in the paper's outreach to young, "hip" conservatives, never gets much more than a 300 word space on the Post's print edition op-ed page. This is a virtue, since that limit appears to be congruent with the limit of her ability to sustain a written rationale for her opinions. Rubin's little bits also provide a certain amount of insight into whatever issue might be exercising young conservatives these days. Overall, it's not much of anything that might be helpful to the Republic.

Now, Rubin has put us on notice that Chuck Hagel, President Obama's nominee for Secretary of Defense, is an anti-Semite. This, Rubin tells us in "The Hagel litmus test," is because Hagel uses phrases like "the Jewish lobby," and has declared "that he is not 'the senator from Israel.'" Such statements by Hagel, Rubin adds, amount to the "embrace [of] the world's oldest hatred."

Actually, I agree with one likely implication of Rubin's comments: that Hagel shouldn't have used the phrase "Jewish lobby" when he was referring to those who lobby on behalf of Israel. To call them the Israel lobby is no less descriptive than "Jewish lobby," and it has the added advantage of being focused on policy.

I have a one-time friend, Henry Herskovitz, born and raised Jewish, who spends most of his waking hours making whatever argument he can on behalf of self-determination for Palestinians to whatever audience is available to him. In the past I have counseled him against referring to the "Jewish lobby." But he has been, and is, adamant that the phrase captures the truth: it is American Jews who are the bulwark against any shift in U.S. policy that would include an acknowledgement of the continuing injustices suffered by Palestinians during and after the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel.

I don't disagree with that point. But my argument is that it is not enough to be right. It is just as important to be heard and to take a position that does not drop the nuances. And there are plenty of those.

Israel is by far the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, historically. Current aid, over $3 billion annually, is mostly military aid (go here, to read a discussion of then larger cost to the U.S. of more than a half-century of support for Israel). And, unlike other recipients of military aid, who must use the whole amount to buy weapons systems and other war materials from American military contractors, Israel has the right to use a portion of that aid to buy from its own weapons manufacturers, a gift that has allowed Israel to build a military export industry of its own.

Such American generosity to Israel is a constant, and could be delayed or withheld to force Israel to stop building settlements on Palestinian territory and, even, dismantle some of the settlements that have become "facts on the ground" and are, themselves, huge obstacles to peace negotiations. Despite the obvious nature of the leverage the U.S. could apply to change Israeli policy, a little research could turn up plenty of editorials arguing that the U.S. has no ability to force the Netanyahu administration to bargain.

American aid to Israel also comes under less political fire than did, say, foreign aid to the now-deposed Mubarak regime in Egypt or to the current regime, headed by the Islamic Brotherhood; these governments, the argument goes, are undemocratic and/or fundamentalist, and not worthy of American aid. But the truth is that Israel, too, is a theological state, albeit a Jewish one, and provides far more privileges, both de jure and de facto, to its Jewish citizens than to its Arab citizens.

Indeed, it is AIPAC (American-Israel Political Action Committee) and other Jewish organizations that seem to wield the most clout in support of such an unbalanced policy toward Israel and the Palestinians. At least in that respect, Herskovitz's position on the Jewish lobby makes sense. Further, he has argued, it is the use of the Holocaust by Jews to justify the creation of Israel and to shield Israel from criticism that has silenced non-Jews in the U.S. who might otherwise oppose Israeli policy.

But this position ignores two very important factors. One is that apocalyptic Christians in this country, and there are far more of them than there are Jews, are themselves quite keen on the return of the Jews to Palestine. That, after all, is a necessary prerequisite to the return of the Messiah. These Christians may not care what actually happens to Israel and the Jews in the final reckoning, but it is important to them that some Jews be where they are now, in their biblical homeland, regardless of what their presence might mean to Palestinians. Some such Christians are elected members of Congress. The exclusive focus on the activity of Jewish lobbyists is a strategic error--it allows others who support the Jewish state to completely evade responsibility for policies they wholeheartedly support.

The second factor is that a large number of American Jews, perhaps a majority, do not support Israeli policy without regard to the consequences. Many Jews, this one, for example, even recognize that the creation of the state of Israel, in absolute violation of international law, is the original sin that poisons Palestinian-Israeli relations.

But when the Chuck Hagel's of this world use "Jewish lobby" instead of blander, but equally precise, language, the Jennifer Rubin's of this world get to shift the discussion from Israel's aggressions against Palestine to contemplation of anti-Semitism. That's when justice for Palestinians gets gaveled off the agenda.

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