It is raining and overcast here in Athens (Koukaki), so I am inside this morning and thought I would check in. As I’m on vacation, I won’t be writing much over the next couple of weeks, but I did see something that I wanted to address. Philip Klein complained that National Security Advisor Jim Jones (Gen., U.S. Army-Ret.) was going to speak at an “anti-Israel conference.” I thought that sounded odd, so I read on and found that he will be addressing J Street. J Street, Klein informs us, is “a liberal organization actively campaigning against Israel’s right to defend itself.” The second part of this is absolutely false, and it is one of the most tired tropes in the book. The first part is less debatable, since it is largely true that the place where you are most likely to find anything like a remotely sane view of Israel-Palestine, among other Near Eastern matters, is among American liberals and progressives. If J Street is overwhelmingly liberal, this is a result of how ideologically committed most Americans have become to dead-end, counterproductive and harmful policies that work against the long-term interests of Israel. These policies also work against U.S. interests in the region and the world to the extent that our government is tied to the enabling of the policies. I don’t think these policies are the source of most of our troubles in the Near East, and I don’t think those troubles would end even if these policies were changed for the better, but the perception and reality that our government tacitly permits them are aggravating factors that make things harder for the U.S. around the region than they need to be.
There is one reliable thing about the label “anti-Israel” when it is used to refer to other Americans in debate: the people being so described are almost guaranteed to believe that Israel has a right to defend itself, a right to exist and, more often than not, a right to constitute itself as an officially Jewish state. In other words, they accept all of the basic assumptions that every “pro-Israel” person accepts. For what it’s worth, I don’t really disagree with any of those propositions, either, but that won’t keep me from being labeled “anti-Israel.” What makes J Street “anti-Israel” in Klein’s view is that they believe that the Israeli government cannot simply do whatever it pleases to its neighbors and to the people under its
occupation benevolent protection, and they might even suggest that continuing to violate every agreement Israel has ever made on settlements is not necessarily ideal. If one is ideologically driven to define support for Israel in such a self-defeating way, anything outside those exceedingly narrow boundaries has to be counted as “anti-Israel.”
This is what I find so irritating about these labels: they are used deliberately to avoid discussing the merits of the respective policy views, because there is clearly a fear among hawks that their policy preferences cannot withstand scrutiny and have to be pushed through debate with this sort of browbeating. Klein could reasonably argue that he thinks J Street’s recommendations are misguided, wrong and bad for the U.S. and Israel, and I assume he thinks this, but he isn’t satisfied unless he has completely delegitimized and insultewd his opposition by saying that they are “anti-Israel” as such.
On the other side, J Street et al. make plain that they regard the recommendations of Israel hawks to be disastrous, but to the best of my knowledge they refrain from accusing their opponents of being “anti-Israel.” They do challenge the idea that hawks have some monopoly on real support for Israel, and they point out how damaging to Israeli security their preferred policies have proved to be, but even when they do this they take for granted that hawks believe themselves to be working in the best interests of America and Israel. The issue, of course, is whether they actually are working in the best interests of both countries, but even if they are mistaken their positions cannot be written off as inherently “anti-Israel.” Likewise, those who advance aggressive and hawkish policies for the U.S. are not therefore “anti-American” despite the very real damage their policies have done to the United States. They are in error, but they are not opposed to the existence and security of their country. Of course, it seems to be in the nature of being a hawk that the same respect must never be extended to the other side.
P.S. Klein also finds it obnoxious that the conference will also include Salam al-Maryati, who made a statement immediately following September 11 which he regretted making and for which he quickly apologized. Typically, Maryati’s one mistake made at a time when feelings were running exceptionally high is enough to make him politically radioactive forever in the estimation of many “pro-Israel” advocates, which is one of the many reasons why fewer and fewer people listen to what such advocates have to say and why organizations such as J Street are gaining a hearing.