Tuesday, August 27, 2013

State Of Emergency - State Of Confusion, State Of Denial: Israel as the Jewish State

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In solidarity,

John Dworkin

Introduction to State Of Emergency:

Author’s Note:

While criticism of Israeli policies and actions is still widely met with immediate ridicule, it is becoming increasingly clear to many worldwide that Israel’s methods of control and expansionism (much like the U.S. methods) are not only illegal and immoral, but also unsustainable. It is most important for American Jews in particular to speak out on this for two reasons: 1) The “special relationship” between the U.S. and Israel is the primary enabler to the situation being perpetuated; 2) Israel’s injustices and crimes are being committed in our name. Just as honest American peace activists know that “supporting our troops” means being critical of how they’re used in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc…, true supporters of peace and justice know that the only way Israel can survive in any reasonable form is for it to be fundamentally changed. And equally important, and more to the heart of the matter, it is the only way any reasonable form of Palestine can survive.

This is a maid speaking, by the way.[i]     


I don’t remember exactly when I first noticed. It was similar to seeing a picture on the wall of a break room at work that’d been there since the beginning but never really noticed: “How could I have worked here for 8 years without ever really noticing that picture?!” You shrug it off as an oddity – a fluke of imperfect, selective human perception - but from then on you notice the picture regularly. It registers. As much as we might want to be able to completely “un-notice” something, the technology of Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind has not yet been discovered. It was sometime around the year 2000 that I started noticing the “pictures” of the Israel-Palestine (I/P) conflict on the wall. After the initial awakening to the issues and reality of the conflict, it’s been a slow and steady build of interest – and to be honest, frustration and anger.

In 2012, twelve years after my initial interest had begun, I saw Miko Peled give a talk on the I/P conflict in New York City. More than any other speaker I’d seen to that point, Peled gave confirmation to an idea I’d been turning over in my mind for years and had written on briefly nearly a year prior. The confirmation came right at the top of his talk and, like the rest of his talk, was very direct:

“This is not a balanced presentation... I don’t think a balanced presentation is possible on this issue. If anybody thinks their opinion is balanced they’re either lying to themselves or lying to their audience… This is really not a balanced issue. A lot of times people compare this [conflict] to children fighting in the playground [and say], ‘Grownups need to stay away because the kids need to work it out.’ A more accurate [analogy] would be a bully with a loaded gun in the playground. And of course that is not balanced.”[ii]

In Peled’s analogy, the bully with the loaded gun is Israel. I took his analogy as confirmation of what I’d written a year prior in response to an article on Israel by Thomas Friedman: “When a dangerous situation is out of balance and you treat the sides involved as if they’re equal, it favors the side that has more power. An object in motion stays in motion.”

Peled was born into a firmly Zionist family in Jerusalem in 1961. His father, Matti Peled, was a prominent military figure in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) during the wars of 1948 and 1967, and his grandfather was a signatory of the Israeli Declaration of Independence. Despite this atmosphere early in life, and despite his niece Smadar being killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber in Jerusalem in 1997, Miko has been able to transcend the emotional trappings of the narrow, jingoistic, and racist attitudes many experts say are so common in Israel and American Jewry today. I agree with Peled’s view that the basic, current circumstances of the I/P conflict are completely out of balance; similar to Israel’s consistently unbalanced and disproportionate use of force. To speak on this imbalance and point it out is not biased or anti-Semitic – it is simply accurate.

Introduction – The Marginalized Majority

Americans, Africans, Men, Women, Muslims, Jews, Atheists, Christians, Republicans, Democrats, Capitalists, Communists. Most every adult in the world today has some kind of opinion, informed or otherwise, about the I/P conflict. Within this crowd of people and attitudes I believe myself to be fairly average. For the sake of context, a brief understanding of this author’s background is appropriate - if not totally necessary. I was born in Rochester, NY in 1965 into a Jewish family and am now what many (myself included) would call a “non-practicing Jew.” My family was not uncommon in that, while my two older sisters and I were growing up, our household was neither particularly political nor religious. Yet we still casually observed Passover, Hanukkah, and Yom Kippur without going to Temple. There were occasional reminiscences of our recent ancestors’ time in Poland and the annual holiday stories of the miraculous ever-lasting oil, or the marking of the doors with the blood of the lamb, candles in the menorah, etc… But we had no deep religious bible study or discussion. There was no Hebrew School for myself or my sisters. Though we still, of course, felt Jewish. Whatever that feeling was. It could be referred to as having been a generically “liberal/left” household but certainly not particularly progressive or radical.
Ironically, if there is a defining trait (possibly the only defining trait…) of this book it will be its author’s unexceptional life combined with his average American “Jewiness.”[iii] It is this very averageness - adrift a literary sea of accomplished and acclaimed scholars, pundits, activists, politicians and muckrakers - that I hope gives the book a relative uniqueness of character, strength, and universality. To explain: The average tends toward the center. Nearer the center lies the majority. So it follows that my attitudes, and possibly style of expression, will likely be similar to the majority and that the book may be, at least somewhat, representative of that majority.

This is in no way meant to suggest that only the majority view has value or legitimacy. Only that in the case of issues relating to Jewish identity and I/P politics (among other issues), it feels that commonality and true majority attitudes have been obscured or marginalized to the point of oblivion. Yes – a marginalized majority view is not an oxymoron. The existence of this seeming contradiction stems from most of today’s consumed media being more concerned with generating higher ratings/sales through sensationalistic “lowest common denominator” programming than it is with informing the public through in-depth, contextualized stories about issues that effect people directly. This programming and publishing tends either toward extremes or misleading simplifications, and comes in essentially two forms:

Form #1: Transparently shrill, bullying hysteria filled with divisively shallow and repetitive talking points and buzzwords. The obvious and most egregious abusers of this extremist style of editorialist “infotainment” journalism are various opportunistic talk radio blowhards like Michael Savage, Mark Levin, Rush Limbaugh, and to a somewhat lesser extent Fox News attentionists like Michelle Malkin, Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter, and Laura Ingraham. Increasingly, it seems with many of the most important and polarizing socio-political issues, the loudest voice is often mistakenly perceived as the majority voice. This media phenomenon of regularly presenting the loudest voice instead of the majority voice is what creates this “marginalized majority.”

Form #2: Simplistic, longish sound bites posing as investigative news stories. One or two-minute long de-contextualized reports about the I/P “peace process,” Operation Cast Lead, or “clashes” between Israeli soldiers/settlers and West Bank Palestinians do nothing to inform the general public about what’s actually happening. These reports actually obfuscate rather than illuminate when presented in such a diluted and simplistic manner. The obvious practitioners of this form of news are all the major television networks, CNN, and NPR. These networks have the additional problem of being generally touted and perceived as the best sources of information available. Embracing this perception reinforces one’s acceptance of their drastically incomplete (or overtly incorrect) explanations of world events as being thorough and balanced. Most of the reports these networks and stations produce merely show the public what the issue/event is without informing about the issue. And when it comes to the I/P conflict, even their what of the conflict is often incorrect. It’s like a game of show and tell – without the tell. Watching these news programs for an understanding of the I/P conflict is like skimming the preface to Grey’s Anatomy for a thorough understanding of the workings of the human body.

These two media forms above are the news equivalents to McDonalds or porn. The consumer is tricked into thinking they’ve gotten the real thing for cheap and fast. These news forms are as mind numbing, unhealthy, lazy, and easy to consume as a Big Mac. They’re also comparatively just as lazy, cynical, and simplistic to produce - making them similarly profitable.

If the past is any indication, and I’m fortunate enough to have people read this book, many accusations against me and this book will be personal, “ideological,” mean-spirited, un-related to the actual text and all too predictable. Many scholars, politicians and journalists, much more knowledgeable and accomplished than myself, have written books on similar subjects and have suffered the most severe and relentless criticisms. But the most popular criticisms of Jewish “self-hatred” and anti-Semitism are also the laziest and most spurious. Obvious and well-known targets of this type of thoughtless and damaging slander would be people like Noam Chomsky, Norman G. Finkelstein, Max Blumenthal, Naomi Klein, Anna Baltzer, Robert Fisk, Sara Roy, Lamis Deek, and Jimmy Carter. But there are countless others who have put their reputations (or lives) on the line and they all have my admiration and respect. But unlike them, I have little position or reputation to lose.

Opposed to the authors mentioned above (and many others like them), there is another aspect to my averageness that may shield my contribution from some of the more common, and lazy, criticisms: I am neither a published scholar nor an elected public official. Nor am I an experienced journalist from a paper of record or a highly regarded member among any religious community. I have no Ivy League pedigree to give my ideas or attitudes a veneer of credibility. And I’m not a well-known artist. I am more like a ‘Joe The Plummer’ of the American Jewish community. In this house-of-mirrors, media echo chamber culture we live in such credentials as listed above are often used as billy clubs to beat someone over the head: People with degrees from famous institutions of higher learning are reduced to “living in elitist, out of touch ivory towers of academe”; Professional journalists are accused of merely being “paid lackeys of the corrupted corporate media”; Elected Senators and Congressmen are ridiculed for being “career politicians” (or if that pejorative doesn’t yet fit, they’ll be criticized for being the opposite of that: “inexperienced.” There’s nowhere to hide…). While there can be truth to these accusations, they’re often the only criticisms of someone’s work or viewpoint. By themselves they’re hollow, ad-hominem attacks posing as substantive argument. They are empty envelopes pretending to deliver non-existent messages.

What’s happened is that the ad-hominem finger pointing and name-calling has become so pervasive across the spectrum (It’s profitable!) that nearly all efforts to produce journalism or literature on the I/P conflict are stigmatized with the label ‘biased’ or ‘ideological’ before they’re even published or broadcast. Over the last few decades in the U.S., people have been manipulated or encouraged into having pre-conceived biases (not always unfounded…) toward certain information sources. These ingrained pre-conceptions cloud real understanding of content. So, effectively, most news content has been through the “spin zone” before it’s even produced or consumed. The art of manipulating the public’s attitudes toward certain institutions and organizations, and even certain issues generally, is what I would call the “pre-spin” zone. When the public is told repeatedly by authority figures (media, politicians, well-known artists, etc…) that such and such news organization, think-tank, issue, or political party is biased to either the “left” or “right,” they begin to pay more attention to that accusation of bias in and of itself (legitimate or not) than to an individual report’s actual content, or even to an entire issue itself. The inability of any individual or institution (political, academic, journalistic) to claim that I am “owned” or “associated with” an established organization or group will hopefully mitigate the common pre-conceptions many carry as “pre-spin” baggage toward myself and this book. A na├»ve thought/hope? Undoubtedly.

This clouding of the nature and reliability of sources, and the general erosion of any faith in the integrity of media and politics, creates an environment where seemingly no information can be trusted. Add to this the increasing polarization of the political “right/left” narrative within the media, publishing worlds, and throughout the culture. This polarization mirrors, and widens, the same gap of attitudes within the Jewish community toward Israel (not to mention the polarization between the rich and the poor). Publishing houses and news organizations put out increasingly conflicting content. So conflicting now that it’s to the point of complete opposites. This is certainly true of content relating to the I/P conflict, but maybe the more obvious example of this phenomenon familiar to all Americans would be the case of the Bush II administration. We have thousands of books and reports on their war crimes, impeachable offences, intentional deceptions of the public, improper justice department firings, legalization and acceptance of torture (not unlike Israel), corporate welfare, etc… We also have a huge amount of publications praising this same administration’s moral authority, the legality of their tactics in their “war on terror” and their necessity to the world’s safety, their fair and honest tax policies that allow businesses to grow and hard-working people to reap the fruits of their labor, etc… Leaving aside the validity of either side’s argument, there can be no debate that they are essentially opposites. And like the physical acoustical properties of opposite signal waves, they cancel each other out. When people are confronted with so much wildly conflicting information, the natural impulse can be to shut it all out. Trying too hard to make sense of so much polar opposite information could literally drive some to experience serious, prolonged, and unresolved cognitive dissonance. This could lead to major behavioral problems and ignoring this information can be a survival mechanism. But when people decide (or are led) to ignore information, they become susceptible to being manipulated solely through their emotions. This opens up the floodgates to mass manipulation. The inability to trust the media and publishing houses, coupled with the reflex of shutting out conflicting reports with polar opposite spins on the same realities of major issues, is the end of information. The “Information Age” has imploded and has left us with its evil twin: The Age of Disinformation. In 21st century technology-speak, it’s as if the whole of our news/media/mass information system is one large corrupted file.  

[i] Quote from Cameron Crowe’s film Almost Famous.
[ii] Miko Peled Talk at Revolution Books, NYC, June 18, 2012
[iii] Thank you, Sarah Silverman, for bringing that word to my attention…