What's Left

December 9, 2002

Israel's "left" apologists

By Stephen Gowans

Now that we've heard from such self-proclaimed "leftists" as Tod Gitlin and David Corn declaring the budding antiwar movement to be "dead on arrival" and captive of apologists for "evil monsters" like Saddam Hussein, it's time to turn to Israel, another front in which disillusioned "leftists" are attacking their political confreres as a discredited force.

Philip Berger (a physician), Jeff Rose (a trade unionist) and Clayton Ruby (a lawyer), who say they've established solid credentials as progressives over the years, insist the left is anti-Semitic, and must confront its ugly anti-Jewish racism. This they've done on the pages of The Globe and Mail, Canada's establishment newspaper, which has never been fond of the left, though it has always been fond of put-downs of the left, especially by "leftists."

So what led the three to make such a sweeping charge against the left? Was an anti-Jewish obloquy hurled at Berger at a socialist meeting? Has Rose been taunted by anti-Jewish slurs at a meeting of his union local? And Ruby -- did he overhear Noam Chomksy declaiming on a Jewish conspiracy to rule the world?

Well, not really. But the three "are being asked to choose between [their] support for Israel and [their] credentials as leftists," which, it seems, is another way of saying they're taking some heat for defending Israel's crimes.

And that's made the three a tad uncomfortable. So, they've gone on the offensive, calling Israel's critics on the political left "anti-Semites." It's a hackneyed ploy, and one the three have come to late, but that hasn't lessened their ardor for the calumny.

Criticism of Israel, says the trio, "provides for no nuance, little context, relative silence on the historic persecution of Jews and insufficient recognition of Israel's right to protect its citizens from deadly attacks," which seems close to saying the Holocaust, and Israel's self-defense, permits Tel Aviv to commit as many atrocities as it likes (and anyone who says otherwise is a Jew-hater.)

"Despite Israel's functioning democracy and independent judiciary (which frequently finds in favour of Palestinian appellants), despite its freedom of elections, religion, speech and press and the protection of labour, homosexual and women's rights, Israel has been cast as one of the world's most evil nations," the aggrieved troika observe.

This sounds like a lawyer defending a murderer by pointing to the accused's exemplary conduct as a husband, father, and citizen. Treating family well and giving generously to charity doesn't excuse murder, even if you were abused as a child, anymore than Israel being a democracy justifies assassination, war crimes and military conquest. That Israel's multiparty elections and civil and political liberties have no relevance to the country's conduct outside its borders is clear, but Rose and his colleagues, like lawyers seeking to defend a client whose misdeeds are beyond question,  want to obscure the point.

While it's clear the threesome bristle at criticism of Israel,  there is much that is murky about their accusation. The three claim that "criticism of Israeli policies obviously does not, in itself, constitute anti-Semitism," but go on to argue that, "For the vast majority of Jews...Israel, Jews, Zionism and Judaism are inextricably bound."  The first statement, invariably uttered by those who charge critics of Israel with anti-Semitism, is at odds with the second, since if Israel, Zionism, Jews, and Judaism are inextricably bound, then criticizing one must imply criticism of the other. So is criticism of Israel anti-Semitic, or not? The claimed identity between Jews and Israel, Zionism and Judaism, is one that numberless Jews would vigorously dispute, and for good reason -- it doesn't exist.

What's more, isn't the question irrelevant of whether Zionism and Judaism are seen by Jews to be inseparable, since what should really matter if we're making assertions about the motivations of the left is whether the left, not Jews, sees the two as intimately bound? If the left regards Israel and the Jews as separate (which the threesome acknowledge) then how can the left's criticism of Israel be said to be motivated by hatred of Jews? Only if the left shared Rose et al's view that Zionism equals Judaism could the claim of anti-Semitism be made legitimately.

And how can such a sweeping claim be made about as large and diverse a group as the left? Isn't this like saying, all Jews are greedy, or cunning, or...supporters of Israel?

"Israel should be held accountable, but no more accountable than other nations, including Palestine," the three say. This is the "Israel is being held to a higher standard" argument, one--that in the words of those not as deft with obfuscatory language--often takes the form of something like, "What nerve North Americans have for criticizing Israel for ethnic cleansing. I mean, these guys were the original ethnic cleansers. Just ask the North American Indians."

It is of course true that Israel is hardly unique in its conduct, but that others have committed similar crimes is not justification for one's own crimes (a fairly obvious point that should be evident to anyone with a grade school level morality.) Rose and his colleagues might concede the point, but just as likely might rejoin that focusing on Israel, at the expense of other countries, evidences an ugly anti-Semitism. By the same reasoning, those who fought Apartheid, but said nothing of Israel's maltreatment of Palestinians, must have been motivated by anti-Afrikaner racism.

Israel, the trio alleges, is being asked to answer for crimes that other countries get away with scot-free. But far from being held to a higher standard, Israel has managed to escape meaningful censure by the international community for audacious violations of international law, including illegal occupation, the building of settlements on conquered territory, the commission of war crimes, and refusal to allow refugees to return to their homes. And Israel has been able to get away with this by virtue of the UN Security Council veto wielded by its protector, the United States. No other country could do the same with impunity unless (a) it was the United States or (b) it was under Washington's aegis. No other country has done the same with impunity.

Take, by comparison, the case of Iraq. It invades Kuwait, is bombed repeatedly, is crippled by an embargo spanning more than a decade that kills over one million, is subjected to illegal overflights by US and UK warplanes, and is forced to destroy its weapons of mass destruction.

Israel, on the other hand, expands its borders by military conquest, refuses to abide by international law, has (in its collection of 200 nuclear weapons) the region's largest arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, brutally violates the human rights of Palestinians, and faces no penalty stronger than censure by the left. Even a measure as mild as stationing UN observers in Palestinian territory is blocked by Israel and its US protector, and yet the trio of harriers claims Israel is held to a higher standard.

Sadly, Rose, Berger and Ruby are practising a kind of Gresham's Law of anti-racist analysis. Gresham, it will be recalled, argued that bad money chases out good. Likewise, mischievous, and politically inspired, use of "anti-Semitism" inevitably drives out legitimate uses of the term. This is bad news for anyone genuinely committed to ending racism, though good news for anyone trying to carve out a space for Israel to continue its intolerable ethnic cleansing.

Who writes these editorials?

An editorial in Canada's viciously right-wing The National Post, titled "Prove Saddam a liar," begins with a bold and unsubstantiated claim: "The 12,000 page declaration of banned weapons submitted by Iraq on Saturday is a pack of lies." The evidence for this assertion is based solely on Washington's and London's say-so.  "The United States and Britain have evidence that contradict" Iraq's declaration, the newspaper points out.

Of course, a question arises: How is it known the United States and Britain aren't lying? While they claim to have evidence, they've never put it on the public record, and so far, have refused to do so.

Last week, a reporter asked White House spokesman Ari Fleischer whether the president, George W. Bush, would disclose the intelligence he says proves Iraq is hiding weapons of mass destruction.

Fleischer said, no, the evidence wouldn't be brought forward because "the onus" is on Iraq, although he never made clear what Iraq has an onus to do. Prove it doesn't have weapons of mass destruction? Prove it does?

Pushed further, Fleischer got testy, replying, "President Bush has said Iraq has weapons of mass destruction; Tony Blair has said Iraq has weapons of mass destruction; Donald Rumsfeld has said Iraq has weapons of mass destruction...Iraq says they don't. You can choose who you want to believe."

This was roughly the kind of response that greeted those who quite reasonably asked the White House to disclose the evidence it said it had that Osama bin Laden had perpetrated the Sept. 11 attacks. At the time, Fleischer said there was no reason to release the evidence "because the whole world knows bin Laden did it."

But then, the only reason the whole world knew bin Laden did it was because the White House said so -- proffering no evidence.

Tony Blair, it might be added, is in the midst of a scandal surrounding his wife and her association with a man convicted of fraud. Blair at first denied the association, but later had to come clean when the press got hold of e-mail correspondence in which the man boasted of his connection to the Blairs.  "Every journalist in London knows New Labour has a tenuous relationship with the truth," one journalist observed. What's truly astonishing about this epiphany is that it comes on the heels of this scandal, yet anyone who has followed what Blair has said about the bombing of Yugoslavia, the bombing of Afghanistan, and past, current and planned bombings of Iraq, knows that there's even less than a tenuous connection between New Labour and the truth -- there's no connection whatever.

So why, without a shred of evidence, would The National Post conclude that Washington is telling the truth, when everything -- from the White House's refusal to disclose its supposed evidence, to Blair's notoriety as a liar -- points to the contrary?

The reflexive pro-Americanism that pervades the paper's editorials (columnist David Frum, reputed to be author of the "axis of evil" phrase was, until recently, a Bush speech-writer) could lead one to wonder who's producing its copy -- the White House press office itself?


You may re-post this article, providing the text remains unchanged.

Join our e-mail list. Send an e-mail to sr.gowans@sympatico.ca and write "subscribe" in the subject line.

What's Left