12 April, 2007

Discussion on the Israel Lobby: Jeff Blankfort and Matan Kaminer

Matan Kaminer refers to himself as an Israeli left activist. He is probably better known for his position as a Refusnik who was jailed for his conscientious objection. He recently wrote an article called The Colonial Drama of Israel and Palestine in Political Affairs, which Jeff Blankfort, activist, writer, photographer and radio speaker, forwarded to his mailing list. The article itself stimulated an epistolary exchange between Jeff and Matan, which they have permitted me to reprint here. A condensed version is available on peacepalestine

Jeff Blankfort:

The following article, The Colonial Drama of Israel and Palestine, I came across today in my email box and is quite interesting in that it represents a view of Israel's traditional Marxist Jewish "left." The author, I assume is the son of a Jewish American, Reuven Kaminer, a Marxist who emigrated to Israel decades ago and whom I met and interviewed there in 1983 when a son, Noam, was a member of Yesh G'vul, the refusenik Israeli reservists who refused to serve in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon,. The journal, Political Affairs, is a venerable publication which used to be close to the US Communist Party. I think the article is worth reading but did not want to send it without some critical comments.-JB

Dear Matan,

I have just read your interesting article in Political Affairs in which you asked for responses. There are a number of problems I have with it, but one in particular, is of immediate concern.. In dealing with one of the most serious issues that has enabled the current situation in Israel/Palestine to continue and worsen by the day, i.e., the role and influence of what in Israel is described as the American "Jewish Lobby," you end up with the same mistaken conclusion and make the spurious accusation or implication of "anti-semitism" that have blocked the arteries of the Palestine solidarity movement and contributed to its utter failure in the US and elsewhere. Frankly, they are only dissimilar in tone and length from the ravings of Alan Dershowitz and the ADL's Abe Foxman but carry the same message..

You write:

"On both sides of the Atlantic, demands to stop preferential treatment for Israel have treated this treatment as a kind of irrational gift, instead of as the self-interested maneuver it obviously is [5]. This stance comes within spitting distance of the various conspiracy theories surrounding the "Jewish lobby", and the road leading from these to blatant anti-Semitism is quite short."

To say that Israel is supported because two-thirds of its military aid is used to subsidize the US arms industry, a pittance when compared, for example, with the outright sales of the industry to Saudi Arabia, does not begin to account for the total hold that the lobby has held over both houses for Congress and both political parties for at least the past four decades, over the White House with the exceptions of Ford, Carter, and Bush Sr., or the well documented Zionist and philo-zionist domination of the mainstream media.

Only those who are ideologically blinded can fail to see that the lobby, that is the organized American Jewish establishment, has hijacked the America political system and has done so for Israel's benefit. (It is not the only culprit in the field, but the only one with total "bi-partisan" support) It is not a secret that all the presidential candidates are whoring after Jewish money and pledging their allegiance to Israel, something that they have, in fact, been doing for years, as have members of Congress, and that virtually ever big donor mentioned in the media is Jewish. Is this of no consequence or is even raising the issue and asking the question, "anti-semitic" in your eyes'

Similarly, you do not explain why "in Europe the economic and political profit accrued by the European bourgeoisie through its support of Israel is not usually an issue." While I am aware that the EU is Israel's largest trading partner, it hardly a significant one from the EU's standpoint and it is not clear what you mean by "political profit" unless you are referring to the monetary and political support that Judeophallic European leaders receive from Jewish organizational lobbies in their respective countries, such as the neo-fascist Sarkozy in France, Merkel in Germany or Blair in the UK.

What I have found disturbing, but after some years amusing and predictable, is that the only two sectors of US and Western society that view Israel as a "strategic asset" of the US and use this argument to explain the massive economic and critical support that the US has given Israel over the years is the organized world-wide Jewish establishment and what passes for "the left." It is not surprising that the former continues to show signs of ever increasing power, as we have most recently seen in the West's groveling response to Israel's most recent war on Lebanon while the latter, in the US, Europe, or for that matter, Israel, is barely able to draw a breath. It is something to think about.

I have copied this message to my entire mailing list along with your original article. You are quite likely to get responses from some of them. In any case, I will be happy to pass whatever comments you wish to make on to them.

Jeff Blankfort

From: Matan Kaminer
To: Jeffrey Blankfort

Hi Jeff,

Thanks for your reply. I am Reuven's grandson and Noam's son, by the way. I don't know how well I can respond to your criticism, as I am really not versed in the facts and figures of the "Israel lobby" debate. This is why the points I make briefly below will not be empirically based, but rather points of principle. Let me start by saying that if I came across as insinuating that any attempt to understand the question of the Israel lobby's power is anti-Semitic, then I apologize. Such smearing would indeed place me in the same ranks as Dershowitz and the others you mention, but it was certainly not my intention.

That said, there are several ways of approaching the question. The one undeniable empirical fact is that for three decades and more American government policy and the Israel lobby's demands have been very close. Not always identical - there have been crises - but certainly very close, in an almost unprecedented way. So the question must be addressed.

But there are a few pitfalls along the way. One is the conflation of the terms "Jewish", "Israeli" and "Zionist", which I think you are not being careful enough to avoid. The fact that many wealthy political donors are Jewish and may or may not belong to AIPAC does not mean that they represent the American Jewish community in any way (most American Jews are not wealthy); similarly, it does not mean that they represent the interest either of the state of Israel or of its citizens; neither does their Jewishness make their support of Zionism a question not worth trying to answer (not all wealthy Jews throughout history have been right-wing Zionists). In reality, the only generalization one can make about wealthy donors is that they are wealthy; this is where we should look for the connection, not in their Jewishness.

It is true that the Zionists conflate Jew, Israeli and Zionist. They are hypocritical in the extreme when they then turn around and label others who fall into that trap as "anti-Semitic" . However, this does not mean that "it is okay" to do as they do. In fact, this is one of the main points where leftists need to fight against Zionist propaganda, and this is what I tried to contribute to in my article. The footnote in the article, where I mention that most of the American funding for Israel goes right back to America, was not meant to suggest that the profit the US arms industry makes from this funding is necessarily the main explanation for the aid. The point was that this money should not be seen as just an irrational gift, and I stand by that.

I think that any real understanding of the support the US extends to Israel must take into consideration the US empire's own reasons for this support. I am not clear on whether you disagree with me on this. Do you think supporting Israel is bad for US imperialism? Do you feel that it doesn't make any difference, and that these are separate issues? Or do you disagree with the assumption I have made, up to now implicitly, that US foreign policy is, and always has been, imperialistic, and that progressive people all over the world should join the fight against it? Thanks again for your reply. Please feel free to send copies of our correspondence to anyone you like.
In solidarity,

Jeff Blankfort:

Thanks for the prompt reply and the family update.

One of the most critical failings in your analysis and of those who downplay the influence of the lobby, most notably Noam Chomsky, was expressed when you wrote:

"The one undeniable empirical fact is that for three decades and more American government policy and the Israel lobby's demands have been very close. Not always identical - there have been crises - but certainly very close, in an almost unprecedented way."

Chomsky and others have postulated this as proof that the lobby only appears to be powerful because its interests are in line with Washington's imperial interests whereas the lobby's critics, among them myself, question whether support for Israel has, in fact, been in keeping with the US global interests and take the position advanced by Stephen Green in "Taking Sides," that Israel and its supporters in the US define the limits of action that a US president may take in issues relating to Israel and it is left to the president to set policy within those limits. Any honest examination of the history of US-Israel relations shows this to have been the case.

What is not generally known since Chomsky and those who agree with him tend to ignore it, is that as Uri Avnery pointed out more than 20 years ago, every US president beginning with Nixon has attempted to get Israel to withdraw from lands it occupied in 1967 and with the exception of Carter forcing a withdrawal from the Sinai, they have been forced to pull back when Israel called on its US lobby to rally Congress on its behalf. Neither Israel nor its US lobby have ever forgiven Carter for Camp David despite it having removed Egypt as a military threat since, as I am sure you aware, as Ben-Gurion pointed out (in Sharett's diary), Israel requires external enemies in order to maintain a sufficiently high state of vigilance, not to mention diaspora support. These presidents were not seeking an end to Israeli occupation to benefit the Palestinians or the Syrians, but to eliminate an ongoing source of friction with the Arab and Muslim world which brings no strategic benefits to the United States.

Moreover, I have yet to see any argument of substance that demonstrates what strategic benefits the US gains from Israel's occupation and continuing theft of Palestinian land, while it should be obvious that a truncated Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza would not only be of no threat to the US, it would most likely and quickly, out of economic necessity, fall right into the US orbit along with Jordan or face economic strangulation as it is experiencing today. Arafat certainly made it clear that he was ready to jump into the lap of any US president and Abbas and his pathetic spokesperson Erekat are even more eager to do so.

It was the late general Matti Peled who pointed out that the explanation that Israel receives support from the US because it is a "strategic asset" was invented to justify the continuing support of Israel by the US after Begin's election thirty years ago and the recirculation in the US press of the accusations made by Einstein, Arendt, and other prominent Jews in 1948 that Begin was a fascist in the Nazi mould.
This is not to say that in the absence of Israel that the US would be any less imperialistic, but its activities in the Middle East would have been markedly different. It would, I am sure, not have launched or have been able to launch the current war against Iraq without the public and hidden orchestration of a score of mostly Jewish neocons and the support of the lobby (of which the neocons are a key part !) that even as Madeline Albright recently admitted, is the greatest foreign policy disaster in US history and which was opposed from the start by the old line US establishment represented by the senior George Bush, by his former Sec of State, James Baker and their National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, none of whom were considered friendly to either Israel or American Jewry, and all of whom have far greater connections to the oil industry than anyone in the current administration, including Dick Cheney. And those divisions in the US ruling class over America's unconditional support for Israel run quite deep, a reality of which the ideologically encapsulated American left is totally ignorant and apparently wishes to remain so. I am not one to quote Lenin, but he is alleged to have said, or written, "Be as real as reality." I have yet to meet a self-styled Leninist today who meets that standard nor a Trotskyist, for that matter.

Now, I can well understand that given the censorship that is exists within the international left on the subject, that you would know very little about the lobby's history and its role in making Israel a country to which American politicians of both political parties routinely pledge their allegiance (more often than they do to the US) and why many of these same politicians who have no problem criticizing the president of the United States, or the head of state of any other country (but one), on the floor of Congress are literally afraid to criticize a prime minister of Israel, any prime minister, knowing that to do so would be a career threatening, if not career ending decision.

Whether or not the lobby represents the majority of American Jews is irrelevant when one considers that that it is made up of the entire organized Jewish establishment which includes more than 60 organizations, 150 community relations councils and federations, thousands of synagogues, and Washington's major think tanks.

If there is a single thread that holds them all together it is their support of continued US political, military and economic assistance to Israel and their universal opposition to the Palestinian right of return. I am not aware of a single organization of any significance among American Jews that does not subscribe to these positions and I have studied the subject quite thoroughly for a number of years.
As a group, moreover, Jews have long dominated the major donor list of the Democratic Party and by giving sums to key players in the Republican Party, assured their compliance with the lobby's wishes long before the Christian Zionists appeared on the scene. To pretend that their being Jewish is less significant than the fact that they are also wealthy capitalists may be comforting but will fool no one, least of all the politicians who are on the receiving end of their largesse.

To get an understanding of how the lobby works and how it shapes US Middle East policy, I recommend that you purchase over the internet the following books: Edward Tivnan's "The Lobby," Stephen Green's "Talking Sides: America's Secret Relations with a Militant Israel," former Congressman Paul Findley's "They Dare to Speak Out," JJ Goldberg's (the editor of the Jewish weekly Forward) "Jewish Power" and most recently, Jim Petras's "The Power of Israel in the US."

Also, you may be interested in three articles of mine: Damage Control: Noam Chomsky and the Israel-Palestine Conflict: http://www.leftcurve.org/LC29WebPages/Chomsky.htmlhttp://www.leftcurve.org/LC29WebPages/Chomsky.html
A War for Israel: http://www.leftcurve.org/LC28WebPages/WarForIsrael.html

Matan Kaminer’s response:

An article I wrote entitled "The Colonial Drama of Israel and Palestine" has ignited an intense online debate. The thesis of my article was that the Israeli-Palestinian struggle must be seen as a colonial conflict with a strong anomaly, that anomaly being the Jewish-Israeli colonialists, who differ in many respects from other populations of colonialists we know from history.

However, the virtual debate around the article has not been on this topic, but rather on a seemingly tangential subject, the power of the " Israel lobby" in the US. Now, this is a subject on which much debate has already raged. I doubt that I have anything of substance to add to it, as I have not done any empirical research in this rather complicated field. My article certainly did not attempt to address this issue. At the time it seemed to me that my reference to it was of little consequence. Of course, I now realize I was wrong about that.

As I wrote to Jeff Blankfort, I think that no reasonable person would deny the close correspondence between the demands of the "Israel lobby" and US foreign policy in the Middle East in the last thirty years. This correspondence, while meriting further investigation, does not imply any simple causal relationship. Mr. Blankfort's explanation, that the Israel lobby directly controls US foreign policy in this field, is certainly the simplest possible such explanation, but it does raise a host of other questions. Let me outline some of these.

First, what does the "Israel lobby" advocate, and on whose behalf? Blankfort approvingly quotes Edward Said, who characterized the lobby's views "as in some ways more extreme than those of Likud itself"
[1], that is, far to the right of the views of the majority of Israelis. That in the terms of Israeli politics the Bush administration has been more "right-wing" than the Olmert government is well-known, at least in Israel; pressure from Washington is widely recognized as the reason for Israel's total rejection of Syrian peace overtures in the past year. How does the "Israel lobby" fit in here? Also, how do we explain the confusion that overtook this lobby as regards Ariel Sharon's "disengagement" project in 2005?

Second, in what sense is this group, which is often termed the "Jewish lobby", at all Jewish? An undeniably important component of it – the Christian fundamentalist movement – is not Jewish at all. Indeed, its ideology has a strong anti-Semitic flavor. On the other hand, the lobby does not answer to any representative body of American Jewry. Opinion polls of American Jews suggest that the views of the majority among them tend to left-wing Zionism; while being far from desirable, this is certainly not reflected in the politics of the lobby.

Third, how else can we characterize the lobby, other than in terms of its Jewishness? Well, like all lobbies, it is rich; that is one characteristic. In addition, as Mr. Blankfort has not failed to mention, it is interested in the furtherance of American imperial designs in the wider Middle East and the entire world. That "Israel" or "the Jews" have a vested interest in this imperial expansion may strike some readers as obvious and in need of no explanation; I certainly do not agree.

There are many other possible questions. I will not go into them here, as I think the ones I have raised are enough to look for additional explanations, other than the most simple one. However, I would like to clarify that I do not subscribe to the opposite, similarly simple explanation, which sees the lobby as nothing but an empty front, an excuse or a scapegoat for US politicians who do not dare own up to their own true affiliations. I do not want to make any outright claims here; but I strongly suspect that the truth must be more complicated than either of these polar opposites. Social life is full of complex relations between groups, real and imagined. One example (of no immediate concern to the issue at hand) of a worthy debate that has not yet been settled is that over the true actors behind the new, globalized imperialism. What is the role of the US? Of Europe? Of the new third world "superpowers"? Of the hypothetical post-national Empire proposed by Hardt and Negri in their influential book of that name?

As I mentioned above, I have no intention of solving any of these problems in this ad-hoc essay. But I would like to emphasize the importance of the perspective through which we address the problem of the Israeli lobby and other similar ones. This perspective is in large part determined by our vision of the future. It is one thing if we can only envision the creation of a Palestinian state which will be immediately subsumed under the imperialist-capitalist heel, as East Timor has been since its independence was gained. If we do so that means the best we can hope for Palestine is a grinding subservience and poverty like that suffered by the rest of the global South. We do not see any necessary connection between the liberation of Palestinians from occupation and apartheid and the liberation of the world from imperialism and capitalism.

This kind of perspective, as far as the Palestine solidarity movement is concerned, disconnects the movement from the burgeoning global anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist movement. Once this happens, it is only logical to begin looking for a rapprochement with those circles inside the imperialist elite which may find it useful to create a Palestinian state. We begin to make strange bedfellows; while we ourselves are not anti-Semitic, it becomes legitimate to hook up with Ivy League paleo-conservatives whose anti-Zionism may have such a tinge.

The alternative perspective, which is my perspective, is an anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist stance. In this vision, Palestinian freedom is at once much harder to achieve and much more meaningful: it is a vision of Palestinians returning to their homeland to live together with Jews and others as part of a Middle East free of capitalist exploitation.

For this vision we will find no partners in the ruling elites, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim. No powerful corporations or lobbies will stand by our side - the elite will close ranks against us. Whatever its exact ethnic and religious composition, the "Israel lobby" is an organic part of this elite. If we remember this, and the fact that this lobby does not represent the interests of Israeli citizens or of American Jewry, than the question of the exact relations between the lobby and the rest of the American establishment will become somewhat academic.

For a Palestine solidarity movement that is firmly aligned to anti-imperialism (as it indeed has been throughout its history) the important question is not who our enemies are – this is rather clear – but who our potential allies are. We should look for these not in oil corporation headquarters or on the Beltway but in the fields, factories, tenements and refugee camps of the global South, which is of course also present in the countries of the North, and even in Israel.

Matan Kaminer

[1]Quoted here: http://www.leftcurve.org/LC29WebPages/Chomsky.html

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