Americans are constantly told that they have to defend themselves against people who “hate them”, but without understanding why they are hated. Is the cause our secular democracy? Our appetite for oil? There are lots of democracies in the world that are far more secular than the United States (Sweden, France…) and lots of places that want to buy oil at the best possible price (China) without arousing any noticeable hatred in the Middle East.
Of course, it is true that, throughout the Third World, Americans and Europeans are often considered arrogant and are not particularly liked. But the level of hatred that leads a large number of people to applaud an event like September 11 is peculiar to the Middle East. Indeed, the main political significance of September 11 did not derive from the number of people killed or even the spectacular achievement of the attackers, but from the fact that the attack was popular in large parts of the Middle East. That much was understood by Americans leaders and infuriated them. Such a level of hatred calls for explanation.
And there can be only one explanation: United States support for Israel. It is indeed Israel that is the main object of hatred, for reasons we shall describe, but since the United States uncritically supports Israel on almost every issue, constantly praises it as “the only democracy in the Middle East” and provides its main financial backing, the result is a “transfer” of hatred.
Why is Israel so hated? The constant stalling of “peace plans” in favor of more settlements and more war aggravates that hatred, but the basic cause lies in the very principles on which that state is build. There are basically two arguments that have justified establishing the State of Israel in Palestine: one is that God gave that land to the Jews, and the other is the Holocaust. The first one is deeply insulting to people who are profoundly religious, like most Arabs, but of another creed. And, for the second, it amounts to making people pay for a crime that they did not commit.
Both arguments are deeply racist, with their claim that it is right for Jews, and only Jews, to set up a state in a land that would obviously be Arab, like Jordan or Lebanon, if not for the slow Zionist invasion. This is illustrated by the “law of return”: any Jew, anywhere, having no connection with Palestine whatsoever, and not suffering from the slightest persecution, can, if he so wishes, emigrate to Israel and easily become a citizen, while the inhabitants who fled in 1948, or their children, cannot. Add to that the fact that a city claimed to be Holy by three religions has become the “eternal capital of the Jewish people” (and only them) and one should start to understand the rage that all this provokes throughout the Arab and Muslim world.
It is precisely this racist aspect that infuriates most Arabs, even if they do not have any personal connection to Palestine (if they live, say, in the French banlieues). This situation delegitimizes the Arab regimes that are impotent in the face of the Zionist enemy and, after the defeat of the region’s two main secular leaders, Nasser and Saddam Hussein (the latter thanks to the US), leads to the rise of religious fundamentalism.
Now, people often find racism far more unacceptable than “mere” economic exploitation or poverty. Consider South Africa: under apartheid, the living conditions of the Blacks were bad but not necessarily much worse than in other parts of Africa (or even than in South Africa now). But the system was intrinsically racist, and that was felt as an outrage to Blacks everywhere, including in the United States. This is why the conflict over Palestine goes beyond the second class status of Israeli Arabs or even the treatment of the Occupied Territories. Even if a Palestinian state were established on the latter, and even if full equality were granted to Israeli Arabs, the wounds of 1948 would not heal quickly. Arab leaders, even religious ones, can of course sign peace agreements with Israel, but they are fragile so long as the Arab population considers them unjust and does not accept them wholeheartedly. Palestine is the Alsace-Lorraine or the Taiwan of the Arab world and the fact that it is impossible to take it back does not mean that it can be forgotten . (I am not arguing here in favour of « wiping Israel off the map », or in favor of a « one state solution » but simply underlining what seems to me to be the root and the depth of the problem. In fact, I am not arguing for any solution partly because none seems to me to be attainable in the short term, but, more fundamentally, because I do not think that outsiders to the Middle East should propose such solutions.)
There is no sign that any of this is understood in Israel by more than a few individuals; if Arabs hate them, this is just another instance of the fact that everybody hates Jews and it only proves that they have to “defend themselves” (i.e. attack others pre-emptively) by any means necessary. That is bad enough, but why isn’t this understood in the United States either? There are traditionally two answers to that: one is that the population is manipulated into supporting Israel by the government, the arms merchants or the oil industry, because Israel is a strategic U.S. ally; the other answer is that the United States is manipulated by the Israel lobby. The idea that Israel is a strategic ally, if by that one means a useful ally (useful to, say, the oil interests, broadly understood), although widely accepted, specially in the Left, does not survive a critical examination. That may have been the case in 1967 or even during the Cold War period, although one could argue that, even then, the Arab states were attracted by the Soviet Union only because it might support them in their struggle against Israel, albeit ineffectively. But both in 1991 and in 2003, the United States attacked Iraq without any help from Israel, even begging Israel not to intervene in 1991, in order for its Arab coalition not to collapse. Or consider the post-2003 occupation of Iraq, and suppose that the goal of that occupation is control over oil. In what sense does Israel help in that respect? Everything it does (the currents attacks on Gaza and Lebanon for example) further alienates the Arabs, and U.S. support for Israel makes the control of oil harder, not easier. Even the Iraqi parliament, Malaki and Sistani, who are the closest to allies that the United States can find there, condemn Israel’s actions.
Finally, just imagine that the United States would make a 180 turn and suddenly side with the Palestinians, as they did with the Kosovars against the Serbs–who, by the way, were, like the Israelis, richer and more “Western” than their Albanian adversaries . Such a change of policies is by no means impossible : when Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975, the US supported the invasion by providing most of Indonesia’s weapons. Yet, 25 years later, the US supported, or at least did not oppose, East Timor’s accession to independence.
What effect would that have? Can anyone doubt that such a change of policy would facilitate U.S. access to oil fields and help it gain strategic allies (if any were still needed) throughout the Muslim world? In the Middle East, the main charge against the United States is that it is pro-Israel, because it lets itself be “manipulated by the Jews”. Therefore, if Washington switched sides, there would be no more basis for hostility to U.S. presence, including its control over oil. Thus the notion of Israel as “strategic ally” makes no sense.
This leads us to the “Israel lobby” answer, which is closer to the truth, but not the whole truth. To get a complete picture, one has to understand why the lobby works as effectively as it does, and that depends on factors lying outside the actions of the lobby itself. After all, the militant Zionists constituting the lobby are a minority among Jews, who themselves form a small minority of the American population. The Israel lobby does not work like other lobbies, for example, the arms and the oil industry lobbies (which is one of the reasons why it is easy to dismiss it as irrelevant, as long as one does not understand how it really exerts its influence).
Of course, like the latter, the Israel lobby does fund electoral campaigns and its power derives in part from its ability to target people in Congress who deviate from its “line”. But if that was all, it could easily be defeated indeed, there are other sources of electoral funding, the big industrial lobbies for example, and if the pro-Israel candidates could be shown to be paid to serve the interests of another State, their opponents could denounce the people who receive money from the lobby as some sort of agents of a foreign power. Just imagine a pro-French, pro-Chinese or pro-Japanese lobby that would try to significantly influence the US Congress. Certainly, money alone cannot suffice.
What protects the Israel lobby is the fact that anyone who would denounce an opponent funded by the Lobby as a quasi-agent of a foreign power would immediately be accused of anti-Semitism. In fact, imagine that Big Business is unhappy with the current U.S. policies (as it well may be) and wants to change them–how could they do it? Any criticism of Lobby influence on U.S. policy would immediately trigger the anti-Zionism-is-anti-Semitism accusation.
So the strength of the Israel lobby resides in part in this second line of defense, which itself is linked to its influence on the media. But even that could easily be defeated — not all the media are under the lobby’s influence, and, more importantly, the media is not all-powerful: in Venezuela, it is anti-Chavez, but Chavez regularly wins elections. In France, the media were overwhelmingly in favour if the “yes” vote to the referendum on the European Constitution, yet the “no” won. The problem, and that is why the Israel lobby is so effective, is that it expresses a world view that is accepted too easily by too many Americans. After all, nothing could be more ridiculous than accusing someone of anti-Semitism because he wants or claims to put America’s interests above those of Israel. Yet, the accusation is likely to be effective, but only because years of ideological brainwashing have predisposed people to consider U.S. and Israeli interests as identical — although instead of “interests” one speaks of “values”.
Associated with this identification comes a systematically hostile view of the Arab and Muslim world, which both increases the lobby’s effectiveness and is in part the result of its propaganda. Despite all the talk about anti-racism and “political correctness”, there is an almost total lack of understanding of the Arab viewpoint on Palestine, and, in particular, of the racist nature of the problem. It is this triple layer of control (selective funding, the anti-Semitism card, or rather canard, and the interiorization) that gives the lobby its peculiar strength. (And that is also why it is easy to dismiss its strength by saying, for instance, that, obviously, Jews don’t control America. Sure, but direct control is not the way it works.)
People who think that it is the arms or the oil industry that are running the show in Washington as far as foreign policy is concerned, should at least answer the following question: how does it work? There is no evidence whatsoever that the oil industry, for example, pushed for the Iraq war, the threats against Iran or the attack on Lebanon . (There is a lot of evidence that the Israel lobby pushed for the Iraq war; see Jeff Blankfort, A War for Israel.They are supposed to act secretly, of course, but where is the evidence that they do? And if they is no evidence, even no indirect evidence, how does one know? Profits from the war, at least for major corporations, haven’t materialized yet, and there are many indications that the U.S. economy will suffer a lot from war-related expenses and the associated deficits. On the other hand, it is enough to open any mainstream U.S. newspaper or TV and read or hear opinions expressed by Zionists calling for more war. War needs war propaganda and a supporting ideology, and the Zionists provide it, while none of this is offered by Big Business in general or the oil industry in particular.
One may also think of historical precedents, like the China lobby (made of post-1949 Chinese exiles and ex-missionaries, supported by their domestic churches) in the 1950’s and 1960’s. That lobby led the United States to maintain the ridiculous claim that a billion people were represented by a government (Taiwan) that had no control over them whatsoever. It was also very influential in bringing on the Vietnam war. Whose interests were they serving? The ones of the American capitalists? But the latter make huge profits in post-Nixon recognized China. And the same is true in Vietnam.
In fact both countries, as well as most of Asia, were anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist, as well as anti-feudal (partly because the feudal structures did not allow them to resist foreign invasions). But they were anti-capitalist (in the rhetoric, since capitalism barely existed there) mostly because their aggressors –the West–were capitalist. So that the main lesson to be drawn from the tragic history of the China lobby is that it held, during decades, the US policies hostage to revanchist feudal and clerical forces that were alien to mainstream America, and actually harmful to capitalist America. But they worked to the extent that their ideology– mixing fear with racist contempt for the “Asian mind” — was in sync with Western prejudices. Replace the China lobby by the Israel one and the Asian mind by the Arab one and you get a fair picture of what is going on right now in the U.S.-Middle East relation.
What should the Left do? Well, simple: treat Israel as it did South Africa and attack the Lobby. The reason Israel acts as it does is that it feels strong and that, in turn, is for two reasons: one is its “all-powerful army” (currently being tested in Lebanon, not conclusively yet); the other is the almost complete control over Washington policy-making, specially the Congress. Peace in the Middle East can only come when this feeling of Israeli superiority is shattered, and Americans have a great responsibility is doing half of the job, the one concerning kneejerk U.S. support.
Now, there are, in principle, two ways to do that: one is to appeal to American generosity, the other is to appeal to their self-interest. Both ways should be pursued, but the latter is not enough emphasized by the Left . (See Michael Neumann, What is to be said ?, for a discussion of the ethical aspects of that choice.) That’s probably because self-interest does not appear to be “noble” and because the pursuit of the “U.S. national interest” has all too often been interpreted as overthrowing progressive governments, buying elections etc. But, if the alternative to self-interest is a form of religious fanaticism, then self-interest is far preferable: if the Germans had followed self-interested policies in the 1930’s, even imperialist policies, but rational ones, World War II could have been avoided. Also, if the United States were to distance itself from Israel, it would pursue policies opposed to the traditional ones, and far more humane. The other problem is that a large part of the Right (from Buchanan to Brzezinski) correctly sees American interests as being opposed of those of Israel, and the Left (understandably) does not like to make common cause with such people. But if a cause is just (and, in this case, urgent) it does not become less just because unsavory people endorse it (the same argument applies to genuine anti-Semitic hostility to Israel). The worst thing that the Left can do is to leave the monopoly of a just cause to the Right.
The Left cannot expect the American people to change radically overnight, abandon religious fundamentalism, give up oil addiction or embrace socialism. But a change of perspective in the Middle East is possible: the strength of the lobby is also its weakness, namely the naked king effect-everybody fears it, but the only reason to fear it is that everybody around us fears it. Left alone, it is powerless. To change that, one should systematically defend every politician, every columnist, every teacher, who is targeted by the lobby for his or her views or statements, irrespective of their general political outlook (to take an analogy, act as civil libertarians do with respect to free speech).
When people in the antiwar movement divert attention from Israel by blaming Big Oil or Big Business for the wars (specially the one in Lebanon, or the threats against Iran) one should demand that they provide some evidence for their claims. Challenge all the apologists or excuse makers for Israel or its lobby within progressive circles. When politicians and journalists claim that Israel and the United States have common interests, ask what services exactly has Israel rendered to the United States recently. Of course one can always point to some (minor) services; but, then, ask them what a cold-blooded cost-benefit analysis would reveal and why such an analysis is impossible to undertake publicly. If they speak of common values (the fallback position), provide a list of discriminatory Israeli laws for non-Jews.
Rolling back the lobby would necessitate a change of the American mentality with respect to the people of the Middle East, and to Islam, like ending the Vietnam war required a change in the way Asians were looked at. But that alone would have a greatly humanizing effect on American culture.
It is true that a change in the U.S. policy with respect to the Israel-Palestine conflict would change nothing about traditional imperialism– the United States would still support traditional elites everywhere, and press countries to provide a “favorable investment climate”. But the conflict in the Middle East, involving Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, has all the aspects of a religious war-with Islam on one side and Zionism as a secular Western religion on the other. And wars of religion tend to be the most brutal and uncontrollable of all wars. What is at stake in the de-Zionization of the American mind is not only the fate of the unfortunate inhabitants of Palestine but also unspeakable miseries for the people of that region and maybe of the rest of the world. The ultimate irony in all this is that the fate of much of the world depends of the American people exercizing their right to self-determination, which, of course, they should.
Jean Bricmont teaches physics in Belgium. He is a member of the Brussells Tribunal. His new book, Humanitarian Imperialism, will be published by Monthly Review Press.