J Street: Conservative is the new Moderate
Obama’s Hat Trick
“[Israel] is a stalwart ally of the United States… As the only true democracy of the Middle East it is a source of admiration and inspiration for the American people… [W]hen it comes to my policies towards Israel and the Middle East, [Israel's] security is paramount… It is in U.S. national security interests to assure that Israel's security as an independent Jewish state is maintained.” – President Obama’s press release remarks from the Oval Office, May 18th, 2009.
“President Obama, thank you. Thank you for your friendship to Israel and your friendship to me. [You're] a great friend of Israel, and someone who is acutely cognizant of our security concerns. And the entire people of Israel appreciate it, and I speak on their behalf.” - Prime Minister Netanyahu’s press release remarks from the Oval Office, May 18th, 2009.
“Obama is the most hostile sitting American president in the history of the state of Israel.” - Anne Bayefsky, advisory board member of JINSA (Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs Jerusalem Post), 7/19/2009
Obama’s election and inauguration in 2008/2009 was, for many, one of the most important and joyous events in U. S. political history. His rhetoric on the I/P conflict during the campaign was hopeful, and in the run-up to the election I was a typical progressive in my optimism that he may actually change the direction of our involvement in that area of the world. However, even before he took his oath of office, it was clear that Obama had no real intention of trying to curb Israel’s expansionism and oppression. In terms of his policy and rhetoric toward the I/P conflict while in office, it’s been business as usual. And business as usual means it gets worse for the rights and future of Palestine. Obama may be even worse than previous presidents in his policies toward the conflict because of his perceived “liberal” status by many who consider themselves to be on the left - another example of the ever-present ‘conservative is the new moderate’ slippage.
Relatedly, since the presidential campaigns of 2008, the American public has been subjected to an uninterrupted barrage of exaggerated conservative messages from all directions concerning Barack Obama’s goals and mindset: Obama the “Marxist.” Obama the radical Muslim. Obama the Enemy of Israel. Obama and his “combative relationship w/ Netanyahu.” Obama the supporter of terrorist organizations. Obama is so far to the left, they say, that compared to him, Noam Chomsky looks positively conservative, etc etc…
More to the point, most of the conservative political and media establishment paint the “progressive left” as being “anti-Israel.” So the logic goes: Obama = Lefty = Anti-Israel. And a good many more will go that special extra mile of conflating “anti-Israel” with anti-Semitism. So then we get: Obama = anti-Semite…
Anne Bayefsky, who sits on the advisory board of JINSA (Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs) and is a former senior fellow at the Hudson Institute - both aggressively pro-Israel institutions - stated that “Obama is the most hostile sitting American president in the history of the state of Israel.”[i] Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, says that Obama “may become the most hostile president to Israel ever.”[ii] And former U.N. ambassador and classic conservative blowhard John Bolton wouldn’t want to be left out of the chorus: “[Obama is] the most hostile to Israel of any American president since the state of Israel was formed.”[iii] These statements are representative of more than the mindlessly uncreative and intellectually transparent recitation of cookie cutter talking points. (Imagined pundit prep: “Whatever they ask you, just say he’s the ‘most hostile.’ Yeah. Say it just like that.”) They’re examples of a PR, debate-framing technique that’s used in every media arena of the I/P conflict. It’s a very simple concept and it’s nothing new: During interviews and public statements, state the opinion that gets people to believe what you want them to believe – regardless of the reality of the situation. Related to the I/P conflict, stating the opinion that Israel is in extreme danger pushes people to believe that Israel a victim, needs our help, and thus keeps our endless support flowing into Israel. The logic of the Obama talking point above works toward that goal in this way: If Obama hates Israel [“most hostile ever”], the U.S. will withdraw military support, and then the scary innately savage Arabs will swoop in and kill all the Jews. So folks like Bolton, Klein, and Bayefsky parrot the “most hostile” talking point to gin up support for “protecting” Israel.
The irony is that people are being told that Israel is threatened by the very administration that gives it its protection. The talking point is based on a very simple, and obvious, lie. Obama is not hostile toward Israel and these pundits know it. In simple terms, this PR strategy is essentially the “repeatedly lie and instill fear” strategy. Obama may actually be the opposite of what’s being put across in this talking point. Keep in mind that this “hostile” phrase is just one of many purposefully placed memes throughout the media and culture designed to make people believe Israel is, and has always been, the main victim in the region.
It reminds one of George Lakoff’s book on debate-framing: Don’t Think of an Elephant!. What happens when someone tells you not to think of an elephant? That’s right - you think of an elephant. The elephant may leave your mind somewhat quickly, but it’s going to be nearby for at least a while. Or at least until the next time someone tells you not to think of it. And if the elephant represents the general media talking point of “Israel is the victim and is in extreme danger,” it is mentioned incessantly. You can’t get too far away from it. It’s like Meg Ryan’s Sally telling Billy Crystal’s Harry: “It’s already out there.” It’s the same thing with the neo-conservatives’ framing of the debate around Obama’s policies in the Middle East and on Israel/Palestine specifically. If they state loud and often enough that he’s the “most hostile” president ever toward Israel, it will become difficult to get too far away from that message. It hangs over the discussion like a twisted, self-serving pall. It’s already out there. So even if one succeeds in convincing people that the neo-con/Zionist message about Obama is skewed, the starting point of where one is trying to move away from is so far right, that even if you move a good distance to the left of it, you may still remain on the right end of the spectrum. This is a big part of the “conservative is the new moderate” shift (see more on this in the Anatomy of a Moderate chapter).
Over the decades (and particularly post 9/11) looking unsupportive of Israel has become the kiss of death for American politicians; and academics - just ask Norman Finkelstein. To counter these unfounded, but loud and consistent, accusations of hostility toward Israel, our government bends over backwards to make it look like we would do anything to keep defenseless Israel safe from all the scary Arab World countries into which it decided to insert itself over a century ago. In reality, if the U.S. ever truly withdrew unconditional diplomatic support and military funding, Israel would be more isolated than ever and would lose much of its military edge, forcing it to deal diplomatically with Palestine on the world stage. This is something in which Israel has consistently shown no interest, as evinced by Israeli military analyst Avner Yaniv’s classic description of the PLO’s willingness to engage in diplomacy toward a two-state solution as a “peace offensive” which needed to be neutralized through the brutal invasion of Lebanon in 1982.[iv] U.S. protection allows Israel to put off true diplomacy indefinitely.
The Hat Trick
Early on through Obama’s first term, three major events and his responses to them showed how rigidly pro-Israel he would be and how little he cared about the Palestinian people or their ongoing tragedy and occupation. These three events were: Operation Cast Lead, The Goldstone Report, and the Israeli commando raid of The Mavi Marmara (the ‘Gaza Freedom Flotilla’).
Operation Cast Lead
“[On the first day] Israeli warplanes struck numerous targets simultaneously in the middle of a Saturday morning. Some 200 were killed [and 700 wounded] instantly.” - Noam Chomsky [v]
“[T]he Israeli air corps flew nearly 3,000 sorties over Gaza and dropped 1,000 tons of explosives [in 22 days]…” - Norman G. Finkelstein [vi]
“Israel Defense Forces (IDF) repeatedly exploded white phosphorus munitions in the air over populated areas, killing and injuring civilians… [T]heir use in densely populated neighborhoods… violated international humanitarian law (the laws of war)… The unlawful use of white phosphorus was neither incidental nor accidental… the IDF’s repeated firing of air-burst white phosphorus shells from 155mm artillery into densely populated areas was indiscriminate and indicates the commission of war crimes.” - Human Rights Watch Org. [vii]
“I want aggressiveness – if there’s someone suspicious on the upper floor of a house, we’ll shell it… There will be no hesitation… Nobody will deliberate – let the mistakes be over their lives, not ours.” Amnesty International quoting an Israeli commander [viii]
“1,390 Palestinians were killed. Of these, at least 759 were (including 318 minors under the age of eighteen) were civilians who took no part in the hostilities. Over 5,300 Palestinians were wounded… Israel destroyed over 3,500 homes, leaving approximately 20,000 persons homeless…” - B'Tselem [ix]
“[Gazans] will bring upon themselves a bigger shoah because we will use all our might to defend ourselves.” Israeli Defense Minister Matan Vilnai [x]
“[December] the 27th, 2008, at 11:25 in the morning: what I refer to as… the most shameful day in the history of the Jewish people.” - Miko Peled [xi]
No honest person following the conflict for any period of time before Operation Cast Lead (OCL) could look at how that massacre played out and objectively see Israel’s attack on Gaza as anything but an obvious war crime. If trying to process mainstream news coverage during that “war” was surreal, watching and listening to the U.S. and Israeli spokespeople afterward was positively postmodern.
Particularly troubling was Obama’s cop-out line that there was only “one president at a time” (during OCL he was elected but not yet sworn in) and that expressing his views on the massacre would disturb the “delicate negotiations” that were supposedly taking place[xii]. What was happening in Gaza was anything but delicate, and considering the cooperative nature of the U.S. and Israeli governments and militaries it’s beyond unlikely that both the outgoing Bush administration and the incoming Obama administration were not fully aware of exactly what was happening while it was happening.
Throughout the long campaign for the presidency, candidates can say anything they like about the incumbent’s record and policy. They can talk about any other politician’s actions on any issue and how they would’ve handled it differently. But, apparently, if you actually win the election, there is a magical 2-3 month long period where it’s forbidden to comment on world events. During OCL, Obama’s incoming administration and its spokespersons used their “one president at a time” talking point to avoid having to voice any substantive opinion on the massacre of innocent Palestinian civilians. Within a one-week period during OCL, president-elect Obama, his adviser David Axelrod, incoming national security spokeswoman Brooke Anderson, and his incoming press secretary Robert Gibbs all used the “one president at a time” talking point phrase in lockstep.[xiii]
In fact, the day Obama used this talking point was the day after then President George W. Bush said this:
“I understand Israel's desire to protect itself and that the situation now taking place in Gaza was caused by Hamas… Instead of caring about the people of Gaza, Hamas decided to use Gaza to launch rockets to kill innocent Israelis. And Israel has obviously decided to protect herself and her people.”
Obama’s use of the phrase “one president at a time,” as related to OCL, coming the day after this statement by Bush, was a tacit agreement w/ Bush’s assessment. When Obama copped out to criticizing Israel on such an obviously horrific event as OCL – tacitly agreeing that OCL was merely Israel “defending herself” - I knew Obama would be anything but the “most hostile” president toward Israel.
And a related side-note: in classically self-absorbed Zionist, Israel-First fashion, American Spectator’s Washington correspondent Philip Klein writes about Obama’s relative silence on OCL at his blog (also Jan. 6th, 2009),
“How difficult would it be for Obama to reiterate his proclaimed support for Israel’s right to defend itself and place the blame for the crisis on Hamas, as President Bush has?... This is an early indication that perhaps he doesn’t really believe his campaign’s overtures to the pro-Israel community.”
Apparently turning a blind eye to Israeli perpetrated massacres isn’t enough. For some, pro-active support for these war crimes, and blaming the actual victim, is necessary to prove that you’re not “Anti-Israel.”
The singular event of OCL is so blatantly unforgivable and brutal that it needs no contextualization to be seen as an obvious war crime. Yet it deserves to be pointed out that during the two years leading up to the massacre, Israel had imposed on Gaza what’s become known as “the siege;” in a sense, prepping them for easy annihilation. In addition to the standard Israeli control of “independent/disengaged” Gaza’s borders, air space, and waters, even more stringent controls on what was allowed into Gaza had been put into place: “Eyad al-Sarraj… and Harvard scholar Sara Roy reported in early 2008 that Israel had reduced the number of basic commodities it allows into Gaza from some 9,000 before Hamas’s election victory in 2006 to just 20. [Also,] although Gaza requires 340 tons of flour daily to feed its population, by November 2007 Israel had cut supplies of this staple to 90 tons per day…”[xiv] This strangulation of general commodities stacks on top of all the other results of Israeli’s isolation of Gaza from regular independent interaction with the rest of the world: lack of sufficient water, electricity, inadequate medical care, vast unemployment, etc etc etc… So Israel was well aware that Gaza was in no position to put up any kind of real resistance or fight. They were simply crushing what was already known to be, by their own hand and in their eyes, a thoroughly weakened, uppity and unproductive captive. After Al-Sarraj and Roy reported in 2008 that Israel had cut Gaza’s allowance of flour to a quarter of what it needed to feed its population, it should come as no surprise that during OCL Israel targeted and destroyed the “only one of Gaza’s three flour mills still operating” and “deliberately flattened a large chicken farm that supplied 10 percent of the Gaza egg market,” eliminating 65,000 chickens.[xv] These are the circumstances and actions Obama felt no need to criticize while they were happening; let alone the casualty ratio of approximately 100-1, and a civilian casualty ratio of nearly 250-1. Presto – self-defense. Just keep sayin’ it.
“No side escapes the report’s censure… I have known Justice Goldstone, a fellow South African, for nearly thirty years, and I have admired his integrity and courage even longer… [In] the face of death threats, he did not mince words about the violent history of South Africa’s Apartheid-era government security forces when he chaired the South African Standing Commission of Inquiry Regarding the Prevention of Public Violence and Intimidation. Nor did he shrink from ugly truths when he served as chief prosecutor of the international criminal tribunals in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda. In investigating the Gaza conflict, [Goldstone] has once again brought the same rigorous philosophy to bear: the belief that the truth is the first step toward reconciliation…” - Archbishop Desmond Tutu[xvi]
“[T]here are three primary threats facing us today: the nuclear threat, the missile threat and what I call the Goldstone threat… The [Goldstone] report encourages terrorism.” – Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.[xvii]
After fully supporting Israel’s war crimes during OCL, it shouldn’t have surprised anyone when the Obama administration did nothing but parrot Israel’s unfounded condemnation of the U.N. “Goldstone Report.” It’s possible to argue that Israel was justified in their decision to fully not cooperate, and obstruct, the work of the Goldstone investigators initial mandate which would have investigated Israeli actions during OCL and not necessarily Hamas or the Palestinians. It would be a very bad argument, but one could be made. However, after Justice Goldstone took the job of heading the mission, he stated that he would do the job only if he was allowed to expand the mandate of the mission to investigate possible crimes on both sides of the conflict.
After Goldstone made this announcement, Israel used a tried and true tactic: lie, and then predicate your actions on that same lie. Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Yossi Levy: “There is no formal expansion of the mandate… We will not cooperate with the mission because its duty is not to find the truth, but to find semi-judicial ways to attack Israel.”[xix] The talking point was clear: If anyone looking for answers even suggests the possibility that Israel may have committed a crime, simply state that that person is not interested in the truth and only wants to attack Israel. This talking point would be an excellent example of the type of indoctrinated mindset that many Israeli Jews (and non-Israeli Jews) have where they’re brought up to believe that the world wants to persecute them. But it’s much more cynical and manipulative than that; For this talking point to be an example of the Jewish indoctrinated mindset of persecution, the person speaking it, like an Alan Dershowitz, would have to actually believe that Goldstone wasn’t interested in seeking the truth and was only interested in attacking Israel (ie: the Jews). But that’s not the case. Foreign Affairs spokesperson Levy, and others, who argued that Goldstone was only out to attack Israel, actually knew that he wanted to get at the truth and that’s why they wanted to block him. Calling him “evil” and a “traitor to the Jewish people” were simply willful lies designed to manipulate public opinion on the mission, knowing how easy it is to convince a relatively uninformed public that once again “the Jews” were being unfairly persecuted. Never mind the details…
But of course, as in all matters of justice, the details need the attention: A casualty ratio of approximately 100 to 1; Further, a ratio of approximately 250 to 1 for civilian casualties; Documented use of the chemical weapon white phosphorous; Seemingly countless instances of destruction of Palestinian civilian infrastructure like homes, hospitals, industry, etc etc etc… The Goldstone Report lays these specifics out in detail with many eyewitness accounts included. These are the mainly uncontested specifics that Israeli spokespersons and U.S. officials are desperate to avoid.
While the Goldstone Report’s thoroughness on the 22 days of OCL is damning enough for Israel and the U.S. to desperately quash (Israeli use of white phosphorous, the use of Palestinians as human shields, Israeli claims that Gaza’s police force is indistinguishable from its armed forces[xx], etc…), there’s another aspect to the report that Israel is just as likely to want to hide from the light of day. The report has a chapter titled “Context.” Within this chapter there is a section titled “Overview of Israel’s pattern of policies and conduct relevant to the Occupied Palestinian Territory and links between the situation in Gaza and the West Bank.” Israel does everything it can to de-contextualize its actions and in fact its very existence. Placing events in a thorough, reality-based context is anathema to Israeli myth-making and hence to their hold on power. In fact, throughout the report there is a good deal of important contextualization of actions and policies surrounding the event of OCL: Israeli detention of Palestinian children, events between the “ceasefire” of June 18, 2008 and the beginning of OCL, the blockade (or siege), settler violence and village demolitions in the West Bank, etc… When Netanyahu spoke of Israel facing “the Goldstone threat,” what he meant was the threat of people truly understanding Israel in context.
The details of the blockade (or siege), are particularly important for the context of OCL and really show why Israel and the U.S. would like to silence the report, so I’d like to quote them extensively:
“The military operations of 28 December 2008 to 19 January 2009 and their impact cannot be fully evaluated without taking account of the context and the prevailing living conditions at the time they began. In material respects, the military hostilities were a culmination of the long process of economic and political isolation imposed on the Gaza Strip by Israel… The blockade comprises measures such as the closure of border crossings, sometimes completely for a number of days, for people, goods and services, and for the provision of fuel and electricity. The closure has had severe effects on trade and general business activity, agriculture and industry in the Gaza Strip… Further limits to the fishing area in the sea adjacent to the Gaza Strip were fixed and enforced by Israel, negatively impacting on fishing activities and the livelihood of the fishing community… Israeli control of the [crossings between Israel and the Gaza Strip] has always been restrictive for the Gaza population. Since the beginning of the blockade… not only has the measure of restriction increased, but control has been exercised arbitrarily, resulting in uncertainty of access even for those items purportedly allowed entry by Israel… Movement of people through the Erez crossing to Israel and the Rafah crossing to Egypt has been almost completely blocked… The quantity of goods allowed into the Gaza Strip have not only been insufficient to meet local demands, they also exclude several items essential for the manufacturing of goods and the processing of food products, as well as many other goods that are needed… Neither the list of items allowed into the Gaza Strip nor the criteria for their selection are made known to the public.”[xxi]
Since the Bush and subsequent Obama administrations are the main facilitators of the Gaza Blockade and its results, having the facts of its genesis and effects on the people published by the U.N. to be widely recognized and read was an event to be attacked by those in power.
Ridiculous ad-hominem slander against Judge Goldstone, such as practiced by Alan Dershowitz (‘a traitor to the Jewish people’ UN's ‘token court Jew,’ etc…), was widespread in the staunch pro-Israel community. And since the U.S. government is unconditionally pro-Israel, the report was categorically denounced by Obama administration representatives like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Ambassador Susan Rice. In fact, Susan Rice stated that, “What we want to see is for [the report] to disappear and no longer be a subject of discussion and debate in the Human Rights Council… [The report] should go away and that’s what we’ll work to do.”[xxii] Although it is true that Ambassador Rice’s comments related to Judge Goldstone’s controversial “recantation” of certain aspects of the report (mainly Israel’s intentional targeting of civilians), there’s no way his recanting was justification for blanketly maligning the entire report and “working to make it go away.”
Much has been written about the issues surrounding Goldstone’s recanting: Pressure from Jewish groups, pressure from governments, parsing between intentional killing and reckless disregard of civilian life, Goldstone’s own Jewish identity, etc… But even if you maintain that Goldstone’s recantation was wholly justified, it still only pertains to a small portion of the entire report. And just as significantly, if not more so, the other main authors of the report made no similar recantations and felt moved to respond to Goldstone’s dangerous flip-flop: “[T]he three [co-authors] – the Pakistani human rights lawyer Hina Jilani; Christine Chinkin, professor of international law at the London School of Economics; and former Irish peace-keeper Desmond Travers maintained that the conclusions of the report remain valid despite Goldstone's shift… ‘[N]othing of substance has appeared that would in any way change the context, findings or conclusions of that report… We consider that calls to reconsider or even retract the report, as well as attempts at misrepresenting its nature and purpose, disregard the right of victims, Palestinian and Israeli, to truth and justice,’ they wrote…”[xxiii] History will be on the side of Jilani, Chinkin, and Travers for standing their ground.
Unfortunately, without the proper distancing statements, Obama and his team align themselves on the wrong side of history with the likes of the hysterically dishonest Dershowitz. Just as unfortunate may be the repercussions of Judge Goldstone’s actions. By recanting on part of his U.N. report and making other subsequent submissions to the Israel-first culture, he decided against “plac[ing] his conscience above his career,”[xxiv] as he had bravely done initially with the report. Instead, his seeming attempt to rehabilitate his reputation has done the opposite: damage his standing with those who truly seek justice for those who suffer war crimes. And most ironically, by justifying the demonization of his report, he has turned Netanyahu’s lie, “The [Goldstone] report encourages terrorism,” into the truth.
Certain tragedies and crimes are so large they can be difficult for an individual to process. One just can’t quite wrap his/her mind around it so they simply move on in self-preservation. For some, OCL may have been such an event. The sheer number of Palestinians killed (averaging out to about 63 per day for 22 days) on top of all the other aspects of the massacre (media blackout, illegal chemical weapons, implausible justifications, wild disproportion in casualties, etc…) can combine into an abstraction to be written off as incomprehensible if you don’t have the willpower (and/or time) to slog through the mess of media rubble. That’s why in some ways, even though OCL was much more horrific in scope, the attack on the Flotilla ship Mavi Marmara is a better event to represent Israeli belligerence and criminality. The numbers don’t allow for abstraction and the event itself is comparatively straightforward. Somehow, in a “smaller” event like this one, there seems less room to hide. But of course Israel still did its best to obscure the reality of the event.
The event occurred on May 31, 2010. There were six ships total in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla with the Mavi Maramara originating from Turkey. The Flotilla was an attempt to break through the Israeli blockade of Gaza, bring in humanitarian aid (including rebuilding materials to repair damage incurred from OCL which Israel was blocking), and mainly to call international attention to the situation in Gaza. The Flotilla was well publicized and many in the international community and press were paying close attention. Despite the intense scrutiny these ships were under, the open nature of the intent of the passengers, and many separate checks of the contents of the ships on their way to Gaza, Israel claimed they were smuggling in weapons and labeled the activist passengers “terrorists.”
Five of the six ships taken over by the Israelis were redirected away from their destination of the Israeli controlled shores of Gaza with comparatively no incident. The sixth ship – The Mavi Marmara – was tragically different. Before repelling onto the ship in international waters, in pitch dark at approximately 4am, from an undoubtedly extremely loud and menacing Black Hawk helicopter, Israeli commandos fired live round warning shots and dropped stun grenades onto the ship. In this scenario, it’s entirely unreasonable to believe the unarmed activists would be anything but terrified and worried for their lives; One of the best-equipped and trained armies in the world was repelling onto their ship in the dark, firing live ammo and dropping grenades. This is in addition to knowing the history of this army’s aggressive and brutal tactics against previous activists and protesters who support Palestinians. The Israeli commandos proceeded to board the Mavi Marmara. The passengers, fearing for their lives, did their best to protect themselves. After the fight was over, the heavily armed Israelis had killed 9 activists. Many were shot “execution style” with multiple shots to the head. The youngest activist killed (shot in the head) was Furkan Dogan, a 19 year-old Turkish American citizen.
What did the Obama administration and then Secretary of State Clinton do upon hearing an unarmed, non-combatant American citizen had been shot in the head by a foreign country’s army? Hold an immediate press conference condemning the murderers, demanding an immediate apology and independent investigation? Announce an immediate suspension of diplomatic relations with the government responsible for the military’s actions? Nope. They basically let it slide. Had it been any other entity aside from Israel who committed this mini-massacre, including the American citizen Dogan among the dead, would the Obama administration have reacted in the same dismissive manner? Not a chance.
Not only did the U.S. government let Israel off the hook for killing one of its citizens; they pretty much followed suit with Israel and many in the media who essentially blamed the victims. The Israeli/U.S. reaction to this event gave us a classic example of the perverse manipulation of language in the media to mold public opinion. In this case, it was the seemingly coordinated use of the word “provocative” (or words with similar connotation) throughout the media echo chamber to characterize the Mavi Marmara and the Flotilla:
Q. Sean Hannity: “Why did this group purposely provoke this…?”
A. Sen. John McCain: “They wanted to provoke an international crisis such as they are provoking… They wanted to provoke an international incident.”[xxv]
Congressman Anthony Weiner: “This was about instigating an altercation and they succeeded.”[xxvi]
Former Governor, Presidential candidate, and Foxnews commentator Sarah Palin: “The whole operation was designed to provoke Israel, not to provide supplies to Palestinians held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza.”[xxvii]
Israeli Minister of Justice/Foreign Affairs Tzipi Livni: “Turkey was able to fill a political vacuum by engineering provocations."[xxviii]
Letter from Joel Lion, Consulate General of Israel in NY, to NYTimes: “The act of provocation is meant to create negative publicity for Israel, and nothing more.”[xxix]
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak: “The entire flotilla is a political and media provocation by anti-Israeli activists.”[xxx]
And Secretary of State Clinton, waiting a year for the waters to be safer, joined the “provocative” crowd: “[W]e think that it’s not helpful for there to be flotillas that try to provoke…”[xxxi]
Consistently labeling the Flotilla a “political provocation” or simply “provocative” was intended to somehow show justification for the Israeli response resulting in the death of 9 innocent unarmed peace activists. As if somehow everyone involved should’ve been able to see beforehand that this would be the result and it was the only way it could’ve played out. As if somehow these deaths were the intent of the Flotilla organizers and the IDF had no other option but to shoot these people in the head. This is the bizarre extent to which the Israeli PR machine, and the Israel “right or wrong” crowd will go to avoid accountability. Weekly Standard editor, Foxnews commentator, and classic Israeli apologist Charles Krauthammer showed how powerful, and absurd, neo-conservative indoctrination can be when he asserted, “Israel clearly is a victim here… [The Flotilla] was meant to be a provocation and to create an incident.”(emphasis mine)[xxxii] Nine unarmed peace activists killed (and 30 others injured) in international waters by heavily armed and highly trained Israeli commandos and the Israeli side suffering no casualties – but Israel is the victim. Personally, I can’t come close to imagining the depth of self-delusion a person needs to be suffer to have this make sense in one’s mind. But the condition is widespread.
The use of the word “provocation” being repeated over and over, planting the idea that the Israeli response of murder was inevitable and foreseeable, brings to mind an unsettling, but sadly very similar explanation/justification: The “She was asking for it” blame-the-rape-victim canard. The Mavi Marmara activists shouldn’t have dressed… er… behaved so provocatively: They were asking for it. Saying Israel acted in self-defense on the Mavi Marmara is like saying a 27 year-old 6-foot 4-inch football player who suffered scratches on his neck while raping an 18 year-old girl was protecting himself. Just like the Mavi Marmara shouldn't have been in those particular international waters, that girl shouldn't have been in that football player’s neighborhood wearing that skirt. She should’ve known better.
As bad as the ad nauseam, blame-the-victim “provocation” justification was, even more grotesque was the We Con The World parody video which came out only two days after the incident. It was a “satiric” music video of the passengers aboard the Mavi Marmara based on the famous 80s peacenik/activism music video We Are The World which called for people to play a role in changing the world for the better. Sung to the tune of the original, We Con The World inserts lyrics that paint the Mavi Marmara activists as violent manipulators who enjoy “Islam and terror” and lie about their cause:
WE CON THE WORLD
There comes a time
When we need to make a show
For the world, the Web and CNN.
There’s no people dying,
so the best that we can do
Is create the greatest bluff of all.
We must go on
Pretendin’ day by day
That in Gaza, there’s crisis, hunger and plague.
‘Cause the billion bucks in aid
Won’t buy their basic needs
Like some cheese and missiles for the kids.
We’ll make the world
We’ll make them all believe that the Hamas
Is Momma Theresa.
We are peaceful travelers
With guns and our own knives
The truth will never find its way
To your TV.
Ooooh, we’ll stab them at heart
They are soldiers, no one cares
We are small, and we took some pictures with doves
As Allah showed us,
For facts there’s no demand
So we will always gain the upper hand.
If Islam and terror
Brighten up your mood
But you worry
That it may not look so good
Well well well well don’t you realize
You just gotta call yourself
An activist for peace and human aid?
We con the world
We con the people
We’ll make them all believe the IDF
Is Jack the Ripper.
The Israelis performing in the video feign deep compassion, dress up in traditional Palestinian keffiyehs, and occasionally don lousy affected Arabic accents. There were a few in the media (Max Blumenthal and Eileen Read among them) who called the video racist. Racist? It could be argued (not by me) that it wasn’t. Tasteless, inciteful, infinitely rude and grossly unprofessional? Unquestionably. We Con The World was a supremely ironic and offensive disgrace. It’s also completely unfunny and generally unimaginative; but that’s par for the course when the extreme right goes for the laugh – ½ Hour News Hour anyone?
This video could’ve been written off as an unexceptional example of Israeli xenophobia if not for two facts. The first of the two is its distribution by the Israeli government press. Government spokesman Mark Regev said, "I called my kids in to watch it because I thought it was funny.” Another example of the sophisticated humor among the rigid pro-Israel crowd. This is the same government whose defense forces released:
“an audio clip it had claimed was a conversation between Israeli naval officials and people on the Mavi Marmara, in which an activist told soldiers to ‘go back to Auschwitz…’ [But] the army released a ‘clarification/correction,’ explaining that it had edited the footage and that it was not clear who had made the comment. The Israeli army also backed down last week from an earlier claim that soldiers were attacked by al-Qaida ‘mercenaries’ aboard the Gaza flotilla. An article appearing on the IDF spokesperson's website with the headline: "Attackers of the IDF soldiers found to be al-Qaida mercenaries," was later changed to "Attackers of the IDF Soldiers found without identification papers," with the information about al-Qaida removed from the main article…”[xxxiii]
So not only did the Israeli government distribute and praise a tasteless video mocking the freshly murdered activists, but its army edited radio transmissions to paint these same activists as anti-Semitic when they didn’t know who was speaking in the transmissions, and they also claimed these activists were the most reviled terrorists in the world (al-Qaeda) when they knew no such thing. When you look this stuff in the eye it’s quite unbelievable that it is truly happening.
The 2nd fact that disallows the shrugging off of this video was that it was produced by Caroline Glick. Glick is a Senior Middle East Fellow at the neo-conservative D.C. think-tank Center for Security Policy, has served as assistant foreign policy advisor to Netanyahu, and most importantly is the deputy managing editor for The Jerusalem Post and a journalist for the right-wing Israeli newspaper Makor Rishon whose editor in-chief, Uri Elizur, is a former chief of staff for Netanyahu. Glick and the Israeli government’s press arm felt it was appropriate to mock the massacred while their bodies were nearly still warm. How she still holds any position at The Jerusalem Post or Makor Rishon is a testament to the pervasive stranglehold anti-Palestinian ideology has over Israeli culture and institutions. No journalist would remain in such high profile (and likely very lucrative) positions in the U.S. newspaper establishment after producing such blatantly offensive and partisan trash. Glick remaining the deputy managing editor of The Jerusalem Post is like Pamela Geller becoming the Washington Post’s Jerusalem Bureau Chief. In a word: scary.
To open her speech at the 2013 Jerusalem Post annual conference held at the Marriot Marquis in New York City, Glick again showed off her polished comedic skills by stating through a smirk “I decided not to talk about Iran because I don’t think there’s anything more to say except bombs away.” The crowd response to this quip was a mix of laughter, cheers and applause. This type of ultra-hawk rhetoric grants Glick cache in the U.S. neo-conservative community. Her position as a “fellow” at Washington’s Center for Security Policy also allows her to fundraise for her Israeli satiric video production company LatmaTV: “Latma… is an initiative of the Center for Security Policy in Washington.”[xxxiv] So a major think-tank in Washington, ostensibly devoted to security issues facing the United States, spends some its time and energy initiating and indirectly funding an ultra-right, Islamophobic Israeli satiric video enterprise led by Glick which produces content that mocks murdered activists. I feel safer already.
Here's the Glick/Krauthammer/Israeli line on the Mavi Marmara summarized: The side suffering all of the casualties, the side which had comparatively no weapons or training, the side with widely transparent and publicized objectives which are supported by nearly the entire world, the side which killed not one person during the event: they are the aggressors. While the side which inflicted all nine of the casualties (many by close range shots to the head), the side which was armed with live guns and trained by nearly the most powerful army in the world, the side which itself suffered a total of zero casualties during the event, this is the side which acted in self-defense. This is the logic that was put out for the masses. It’s also the line of reasoning not refuted by the Obama administration. Since all U.S. administrations essentially support Israeli policy and rhetoric by either actively confirming, or simply not refuting it, Obama has tacitly adopted this stance toward the Mavi Marmara.
Three years after the Mavi Marmara, Ali Abunimah writes of the ongoing blockade imposed on Gaza in his article titled simply Yes, Gaza is still under siege. He writes of the daily electricity blackouts through much of Gaza, the severe lack of freedom of movement in and out of Gaza, the unnecessary and inadequate tunnel economy created by the conditions imposed by Israel, the suffocation of academics in Gaza, etc etc etc…[xxxv]
Obama’s inaction, as many previous U.S. presidents, allows the occupation to push forward of its own inertia. And the absurd ongoing free pass he extends to Israel reminds me of a classic piece by the late great Gil Scott-Heron titled We Beg Your Pardon. To borrow a phrase from Scott-Heron, Obama could be seen as the current incarnation of his “Oatmeal Man.” But instead of Scott-Heron’s indictment of Gerald Ford’s pardon of Nixon, Obama is just another U.S. president handing out pardons to Israel:
“We beg your pardon America
because we have an understanding of karma
What goes around, comes around
And we beg your pardon for all of the lies and all of the people who've been ruined and who look forward
to next year because they can't stand to look at this one
We beg your pardon America because
the pardon you gave this time was not yours to give.”[xxxvi]
[iv] Noam Chomsky, World Orders Old And New, pg. 216. Yaniv was also a former IDF National defense College instructor.
[v] Chomsky, Exterminate All The Brutes, January 19, 2009, quoting NYTimes correspondent Ethan Bronner.
[viii] An Israeli company commander in a security briefing to soldiers during Operation Cast Lead, Amnesty International Report Operation ‘Cast Lead’: 22 Days Of Death And Destruction, July, 2009
[ix] From B’Tselem report Human Rights In The Occupied Territories: 1 January 2009 To 30 April 2010.
[x] Tim Butcher, The Telegraph, quoting Matan Vilnai, Israeli Defense Minister Vows Palestinian ‘Holocaust,’ February, 2008
[xiii] David Axelrod quoted from his appearance on Face The Nation in the NYTimes, Dec. 28th, 2008; Brooke Anderson and Robert Gibbs both quoted in the Washington Post, Dec. 31st, 2008.
[xvii] Naomi Klein’s Introduction to Horowitz, Ratner, Weiss: The Goldstone Report, pg. xiii; The Times Of India, Sept. 18th, 2009.
[xviii] Gary Younge from The Guardian, Israel’s Complicity In Apartheid Crimes Undermines Its Attack On Goldstone, May 23rd, 2010.
[xx] Horowitz, Ratner, Weiss: The Goldstone Report, 2011. The report includes a detailed analysis of the killing of hundreds of Gazan police. Israel claims that the Gaza police force is indistinguishable from Hamas’s armed forces, but “[T]he Mission finds that there is insufficient information to conclude that the Gaza police as a whole had been ‘incorporated’ into the armed forces of the Gaza authorities… The Mission could not verify the allegations of membership of armed groups of policemen. In half the cases, moreover, the allegations appear to be based merely on an equation of membership in Hamas (in itself alleged on the basis of unverifiable information) with membership in al-Qassam Brigades, which in the view of the mission is not justified.”
[xxxvi] Gil Scott-Heron, from The First Minute Of A New Day, 1975.
J Street: Conservative is the new Moderate
J Street: Conservative is the new Moderate
On November 28th, 2011, I attended a talk given by the president of J Street and former domestic policy advisor for president Bill Clinton. His name is Jeremy Ben-Ami and the event was at Congregation Gates Of Heaven in Schenectady, NY. As J Street has been publically portrayed as a "liberal/progressive" alternative to more conservative, right-wing thinkers and organizations like Alan Dershowitz and AIPAC, I had hopes of finding a local chapter of an organization I could get behind since I consider myself to be a “progressive/left” American Jew when it comes to views on the Israel/Palestine conflict. But, as I’ve come to understand, and as illustrated by Ben-Ami’s talk to a room at full capacity including Congressman Paul Tonko (Dem-NY), the meaning and usage of political labels like “left/liberal/progressive” is no longer very dependable.
I’ve recently started video recording events of interest. Unfortunately, I was not permitted to document this talk/discussion. Earlier the same month I had attended another event (“Tree Of Life Conference”) on the conflict and was allowed, no questions asked, to film at will. However, an email to the organizer of the J Street event inquiring if the event was open to the public and whether I could record it, was answered with “…you will not be able to video-record the event” [emphasis in original]. In my view, this unwillingness of J Street to allow recording vs. other organizations’ more openness illustrates J Street’s more “closed/conservative” nature, despite their public rhetoric to the contrary. This closed nature is also illustrated by Max Blumenthal’s report earlier this year on Ben-Ami’s statement (as quoted to Blumenthal through Omar Barghouti), “We Want to keep this debate [on BDS] inside the Jewish community. So we won’t participate in a debate with any Palestinians.”
At the talk, Ben-Ami and nearly all who participated in the Q&A used the same “Israel first” posture and phrasing that is consistently used in the U.S. media and from Israel itself. It’s as if J Street wants to cloak itself in a Trojan Horse of seemingly “progressive” or “reformist” language in the media to allow acceptance of essentially the same old conservative policies through congress. Almost all of the questions/comments I heard from the crowd during the Q&A were straight out of the right-wing talking points playbook. Questions like: “What makes you think we can trust Mahmoud Abbas?,” or “How could you possibly think of negotiating with Hamas?,” or “With the rocket fire coming from Gaza, isn’t The Goldstone Report totally unjustified?” This last question was tinged with the usual hints that Richard Goldstone, and the Report itself, was anti-Semitic.
But the most telling question came from a young woman who asked, “Anti-Semitism didn’t start in 1948. It didn’t start in 1967. What if Israel gets everything it wants? What then?” Ben-Ami’s response was to smile, nodding in agreement, and to simply say, “Yes.” Everyone in the room laughed together in a moment of Jewish solidarity. But about what were they in friendly solidarity? The defeatist, and false, acknowledgement that there is no solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict? The wrong notion that, no matter what, we Jews will always be in grave danger simply because we are Jews? That even if Israel “gets everything it wants” it will still have to act the way it does? In my mind, this question and response was an upsetting example of the type of indoctrination, and the institutionalized fixed mindset of persecution. The road to this mindset and its results are shown in Yoav Shamir’s excellent documentary film Defamation. As difficult as it was to watch in the film, it was much more unsettling to experience in person.
Then there was Ben-Ami himself. Much of his talk was devoted to details about his new book A New Voice For Israel (Fighting For The Survival Of The Jewish Nation), with the balance of his remarks mostly devoted to ideas on how to protect the Jewish State in general. My impression is that he’s the type of leader Gil Scott-Heron would’ve called “Oatmeal Man.” That is to say – mushy. In his presumed desire to appeal to everyone, Ben-Ami seems to stand firmly for nothing. It’s certainly possible that he honestly sees himself as “liberal,” but what I saw was anything but. His entire talk was essentially an Israeli pep rally, with a few crumbs of sympathy for the Palestinians thrown in for “balance.” He recounted his family history by speaking proudly of his father’s involvement in the Irgun and consistently peppering his remarks with the need to maintain Israel’s “military edge.” No hint of regret over, or mention of, the Irgun’s violent (many would say terrorist) history was to be found.
J Street literature at the event was also very telling. One flyer containing an advertisement declaring “We, the citizens of Israel, call on the public to support the recognition of a democratic Palestinian state as a condition for ending the conflict…” was ‘balanced’ by another declaring J Street’s “endorsing a U.S. veto of a possible Palestinian application for membership in the United Nations.” Oatmeal Man. While all indications of supporting a two-state stance would lend itself to supporting the Palestinian statehood bid to the United Nations, J Street and Ben-Ami have come out to staunchly oppose the bid.
Another flyer stated “J Street supports President Obama’s continuation of nine previous U.S. administrations’ policy against settlement construction, including East Jerusalem.” That sounds nice on the surface, but what it really means is that since Ben-Ami and J Street know that under these same “nine previous U.S. administrations” settlements have done nothing but expand, in reality they support settlement expansion. An object in motion stays in motion. A clear parallel to this type of “oatmeal” political grandstanding would be U.S. politicians’ lip service to corporate/financial regulations without following through on the enforcement that would give them teeth. It’s mush.
Lastly, there was a flyer with J Street’s policy toward the BDS movement, which stated: “For some, the BDS movement has become a convenient mantle for thinly disguised anti-Semitism.” And with this, J Street and Ben-Ami move into the camp where any criticism of Israel is labeled “anti-Semitic.” Disagreeing with some (or all) of the tactics proposed by BDS is one thing. But from what I’ve read of the BDS movement, publicly calling them anti-Semitic is unfounded, lazy, and utilizes the same slimy name-calling tactics championed by the conservative right.
Disappointingly, my impression from this event is that J Street is simply another example of the prescience found in Chris Hedges’s Death Of The Liberal Class. Hedges’ writes that the true left/liberal class in America - the one that used to fight for universal rights and justice through the beginning of the 20th century – has been diluted to the point of being a useless shadow of the moderate/conservative “center.” Over the last century, true liberal values and activism have been neutralized in this country and replaced with pseudo-liberal organizations like J Street. Progressive ideas live on in diluted rhetoric but not in action. Instead of a sincere emphasis on the need to end the illegal occupation of Gaza and the West Bank (to my memory, the word illegal was never used in reference to the occupied territories during the event), with concrete and specific policies toward that end, J Street and Ben-Ami presented the same old UN bashing, military worshipping, “right to self-defense, right to exist, right to self-determination (for Israel), right of return (for Jews to Israel)” Israeli-centric blather. Truly progressive, liberal attitudes place “Jewish rights” as a subset of “Human rights,” not above them.