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AIPAC Mindset?

June 20, 2007

Today an email came from an old friend, like many I knew, he used to live in Colorado but moved on. Colorado is that kind of place. People pass through but for a variety of reasons, few, at least few of my good friends, stay. I’ve long ago gotten over being `lonely’ about it, although I am not sure why. On a human level, with a few notable exceptions, the best of the bunch have long gone.

In any case, after looking at the blog, he asked the following:
“Something that I want you, myself and others to think about is “how in the world can AIPAC exert so much influence if it does not represent the opinions of the overwhelming majority of US jews as the surveys you cited show?”. Is it thru fraud and misrepresentation of their mission as protectors of the Jewish homeland? Is it through the inordinate financial backing by rich Isreali and non-Israeli warmongers and weapons dealers? How do they get the power that compels all presidential hopefuls of both parties to come and prostrate themselves on the altar of the AIPAC convention?”

To assume that these questions are somehow anti-semitic, the knee-jerk reaction of many Jews when such questions are posed, is to both to avoid an obvious fact (that AIPAC does have considerable clout) and to dismiss the profoundly reactionary influence that it and like organizations have on US Middle East policy in the blind defence of Israel.

Besides, many of those following the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ask more or less the same questions. Others have written me about AIPAC in Colorado:

1. A friend wrote a few weeks ago of how one of his acquaintances returned from the big AIPAC shindig in Washington DC `foaming at the mouth about wanting to attack Iran’.

2. Among email mentioning AIPAC came from a Jewish graduate student who attended AIPAC’s meeting in Colorado a few months ago who wrote the following:

“I attended my first AIPAC reception at the Convention Center a couple of months ago. I was stunned by the audience’s response to Paul Begala’s rant against Bush [note: Begala is a critic of the Bush Administration – RP] and the neoconservative agenda. No one was applauding Mr. Begala’s speech, except for a few of us in the back. Part of my motivation for attending the AIPAC function was to get more involved with Jews in the Denver area; but instead, I felt even more distanced. How could I support a lobbying group whose members have completely different views on the world than me? So I refused to contribute a donation that was so aggressively forced on me during the event”

Interesting – and one might say hopeful – commentary.

I don’t intend to address the issue of AIPAC here and now all at once – too long – but will return to my understanding of the subject probably with some frequency in blogs that follow.

For starters though I suggest people might look at the lead editorial of the most recent (May 2007) Colorado Progressive Jewish News which addresses some of the issue. It was the result of a lengthy discussion with my friend and co-collaborator (on a graduate level course at DU-GSIS – Energy, Development and Democracy), Aurelia Mâne Estrada from Barcelona.

So consider this just a beginning, an intro to the subject.

I have a certain image in my mind about the mindset of many people I know who are supporters of AIPAC. It might appear a little unusual, but I can’t help comparing some of Israel’s more zealous supporters with old school Communists either those who used to worship either the Soviet Union or China. Of course, many would immediately point out, there are obvious differences between the first Communist state and the first -( at least in a couple of millenia) – Jewish state. Yet there is a mindset that appears similar – a belief in a kind of absolute truth – and I can’t help noting the parallels. Such as?

1. For starters, there is the belief in a national utopia that will address and solve a series of profound profound problems, be it class oppression in the case of Communism, or Anti-semitism in terms of Zionism. Actually if one looks at Jewish history from the end of the 19th through the 20th century, one notices a profound structural identity crisis, characterized by the rise of Industrial Capitalism where Jews are struggling to find their place – along with everyone else – in the new order. Jews had a number of options – radical assimilation (the program of my parents) was quite common. Others, especially in Russia, saw the elimination of class oppression as `the key’ and they joined left (communist and socialist) movements in great numbers. Nazi Germany was seen as the complete failure for Jewish assimilation with some validity (although there are some profound exceptions to this – France, the USA, UK, Canada – all come to mind) and the uneven and often oppressive treatment of Soviet Jews (overstated by Zionists but still true to a certain extent), the purging of Jews from the Polish Communist party on a number of occasions discredited the left alternative in the minds of many. That left Zionism – the notion of a Jewish State. Now there is a growing cynicism about the latter. All these solutions addressed a part of the problem, all have been less than satisfying in the end albeit for different reasons.

2. Currently the attachment to the idea of a Jewish State permeates Judaism to such a degree that there is not much room for criticism or skepticism – either of its actions towards – perhaps against would be a better term – the Palestinians, or for the concept itself. Both the more secular and more religious threads of Zionism have embraced the project with a zeal and commitment that any red would recognize. Like other utopias, Zionism must answer to the same questions? At what price and at whose expense are you creating your dream? These are becoming more and more difficult questions to answer for Jews both in Israel and the USA.

3. As with supporters of the former Soviet Union, the fact that much of the rest of the world sees the Israeli Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza as dysfunctional at best and as profoundly immoral and unjust matters little to Israel’s defenders (AIPAC and the like). Like good ideologues they cannot see the forest through the trees. They defend Israel’s actions regardless of the inhumane facts on the ground. Indeed, the facts – the brutality of occupation bounces off their consciousness as if it didn’t exist and in their mind it doesn’t exist. It is not an occupation. The level of denial knows few bounds and they live in a self perpetuating bubble.

4. A key mechanism for perpetuating their belief system is the continual use of selective memory. Often history itself is re-written, if not fabricated. The chosen narrative is highly selective. Admirers of both the former USSR and contemporary Israel did that. Although the actual origins (of both Communism and Zionism) are violent, the `mythology of righteous origins’ remains powerful. Zionist explanations for the founding of Israel have lost much of their historical legitimacy in recent decades. Communists always had excuses – those outside forces – for Stalin’s crash industrialization policy and the repression that followed. The short comings of the adversary – be it Arab Nationalism or US Imperialism – are always accentuated and provide an excuse for the movements’ own shortcomings. Magnifying the shortcomings of the adversary, minimizing their own is a constant part of the process to a degree that all objectivity is lost and reality is turned on its head. Thus for decades Zionism savaged Arafat (deserving of criticism, obviously – but comparing him to Hitler and the PLO to the Nazis goes mor than one toke over the line) as it now savages Hamas or Hezbollah are examples of a loss of objectivity – and preparing the ideological groundwork for war. For where the `Hitler analogy’ is raised, Cruise Missiles and Apache helicopters are not far behind. The result of selective memory: the victims – the Palestinians – are reshaped into oppressors, crimes of state are let off the hook or rationalized.

5. A part of selective memory is to deal with virtually everything and anything going on in the world except the Occupation. Even the term occupation is not used. The West Bank and Gaza are referred to – in the language of AIPAC – as `disputed territories’ – giving a very different sense of the conflict, stripping it of its immorality. Another theme is to talk about anything but what Israel is doing to the Palestinians. Focus public attention on Dhafur, on the tragedy in the Congo, on the status of women in Saudi Arabia. Use human rights to deflect attention from Israeli denial of human rights in the Occupied Territories.

6. Both movements have a strong grass roots components – they both have a keen sense of winning over social forces, organizing among them to influence them. Indeed, Zionists in the US have done this far more effectively than US Communists – but the organizing model – from the ground up but ultimately finding ways to influence power – is quite similar. Indeed my take is that American Zionists use – and to an extraordinary degree – organizing strategies that come out of the left. This is not surprising as in the 20s and 30s – many Jews in the US were a part of left movements. They have taken those skills with them and applied them defending Israel.

7. Finally ( – actually it is not `finally’ – as I write there are many other themes which emerge – so it is `finally for today’)…squelch, discredit or try to manage public criticism. Public criticism is understood to be extremely dangerous to the project. Yes, criticisms can be made, but quietly in a most controlled environment with AIPAC or ADL determining the parameters of what is permissable `fair’ criticism and what is not. Communism worked in more or less the same manner. Self-critical communists didn’t have much of a future in the movement. In the 1930s they would be called to Moscow for `the final consultation’, by the 1960s they were simply discredited as CIA operatives or the like. Critics of Zionism – be they Jewish or other – are savaged – written off and discredited. The amount of political and emotional energy that goes into this – with intellectual thugs like Alan Deshowitz and David Horowitz leading the charge – is considerable. That said I would still like to remind readers that no social movement or institution take open criticism particularly well.

8 . Finally one cannot helping noting the obvious double standard in people who find it easy to criticize everyone else’s shortcomings but their own. It is a common enough phenomenon. A measure of the moral integrity of people is how honestly or dishonestly they deal with the problems and crises closest to them.

This is getting long so I’ll cut it off in a moment but there is a writer who has helped me understand much of this, Albert Memmi. He is a Tunisian Jew, was close to Sartre and produced a little volume 40 odd years ago entitled `Colonizer and the Colonized that deals with the mindset of both colonizer and colonized. He was referring mostly to French North Africa – Tunisian and Algeria in particular…but I believe the themes he develops have broader application. More on this later.

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