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Can Jewish Liberals Transcend the Wiesel Doctrine?

Countering the Israel Lobby’s Dominance

by ALAN NASSER

 “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivitiess become irrelevant.”

Elie Wiesel, From the Kingdom of Memory: Reminiscences

“My loyalty to my people, to our people, and to Israel comes first and prevents me from saying anything critical of Israel outside Israel… As a Jew I see my role as a melitz yosher, a defender of Israel: I defend even her mistakes… I must identify with whatever Israel does – even with her errors.”

Elie Wiesel, Against Silence (AS)

In the end, whether Israel’s penchant for serial atrocities encounters an effective obstacle will hinge on two types of resistance, elicited not from the fictitious “international community”, but from the active opponents of Israel’s ongoing projects, and from the withdrawal of moral and financial support for the ongoing reproduction of Israel as an apartheid Zionist State.

Among the first type of response are the increasingly visible efforts, which gained momentum in the wake of the May 2010 flotilla murders, to promote sanctions, boycott and divestiture. A broad range of individuals and groups  -rock stars Elvis Costello and The Pixies, the actor Meg Ryan, Britain’s largest union, Unite, the United Methodist Church, the cosmetics firm Lush, the University of London Union, Deutsche Bahn, the German railway operator, large supermarket chains in Italy, dockworkers in many cities around the world refusing to unload Israli cargo-  has either actively called for or effectively engaged in actions in support of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel’s occupation and in support of Palestinian resistance. (For an up to date list of such actions see www.bdsmovement.net.)

The second kind of response includes refusals to any longer make excuses for Israeli abominations, willingness finally to speak out in public protest, and the cessation of financial support for the rogue State. An especially powerful development would be the readiness of American Jews to announce loud and clear that Israel does not speak for them, to distance themselves from the agenda of the politically powerful Israel lobby, and to cross over into solidarity with the Palestinian people. None of this, I will suggest below, is as far-fetched as it might have seemed fifteen years ago.

Among the key habits of thought, feeling and action that must be defeated is what we might call the Wiesel Doctrine, as expressed in the second passage at the head of this article, which pledges to “defend even [Israel’s] mistakes… [to] identify with whatever Israel does – even with her errors.” The Doctrine saturates the political consciousness of too many older (an important qualifier)  liberal American Jews. These are the Jews most likely to contribute to AIPAC and for whom their perception of a given Senate, House or presidential candidate’s friendliness to Israeli policy is sufficient to determine support.

The Doctrine’s stalwarts have been marinating in a political-ethnic milieu largely formed since the early 1950s by the self-promotional and political-marketing zeal of Elie Wiesel, the world’s leading holocaust entrepreneur. The man has been adroit in milking Western guilt over the holocaust in the service of making it virtually impossible for soi disant humanitarians to dissent from Israeli propaganda. He has also helped to create an atmosphere in which the likes of Alan Dershowitz can thrive, and the jobs and reputations of both politicians and university professors who challenge the Israeli line can be jeopardized on the spurious grounds that they peddle anti-semitism. Wiesel has contributed hugely to the mystified ideological settlement that invites a well heeled and ardently motivated entity like AIPAC to win enviable gains for Israel on Capitol Hill and to prevent critical issues from being raised in the US media, even as these same issues are put forward and contested in the more democratic Israeli press.

Wiesel and his Doctrine are to the typical American Jewish apologist for Israel as the standard meter is to the meter stick in your workshop. Wiesel is the Platonic Form made flesh in every Zionist apologist. Listen to the argumentss of your Zionist friends. They channel the teachings of St. Elie.

It beehooves us, then, to review what Wiesel is about.

Wiesel as Archetype of the Soul of Zionism 

Elie Wiesel is in a class by himself. Take his word for it. The man promotes himself with unflagging persistence as the living embodiment of Jewish humanitarianism. This makes him, he’d have us believe, the  -not ‘a’, but ‘the’- humble representative and wounded spokesman of the community of holocaust survivors, the preeminent guardian of Jewish memory and witness to Jewish suffering. What this comes to is granting Israel carte blanche to treat Palestinians as it chooses and to habitually lie about its political intentions.

In Wiesel’s stance we find a paradigmatic expression of the apologetics that has become the party line for so many older American Jews for whom nothing  Israel does warrants open opposition.

Wiesel pulls no punches. In the second citation at the head of this article he announces that facts and evidence are irrelevant to his assessment of Israel’s behavior. Thus, Wiesel misled when he remarked, regarding his assessment of Israel’s May 2010 flotilla raid, “I don’t know enough. ..For me to say anything now would be irresponsible.” (June 2, 2010) We are to believe that Wiesel is open to evidence of Israeli wrongdoing. But he has made it clear that he is not. When pushed to the wall on Israeli misbehavior, Wiesel’s tactic is patented: he changes the subject to the holocaust. Moments after the above remark Wiesel whimpered “Holocaust denial today – what it does to the children of survivors,” he said. “I believe Holocaust denial should be illegal.” There followed a philosophical debate on freedom of thought and the limits of censorship. Mission accomplished: the original issue, the assessment of Israel’s murders of noncombatants in international waters, has been forgotten.

It is essential to Wiesel’s agenda that he depict his categorical refusal to criticize Israel as more than a merely individual decision. He is merely acknowledging a moral obligation binding everyone, everywhere, to eternal silence regarding Israel’s abominations. That’s the Wiesel Doctrine: “The nations that kept silent during the Holocaust ought to keep silent now as well. The world that then condemned itself by its silence has lost all rights to judge Israel now.” (AS, 2, 191.)

The holocaust is made into political plastic carrying an unlimited line of exculpatory credit.

In his speech to the United Nations last September Benjamin Netanyahu began by conflating Nazi Germany, contemporary Iran, al Qaeda (a Sunni tendency foreign to Shiite Iran), and global terrorism. The word ‘Nazi’ appeared five times in the first thirty paragraphs. This kind of nonsense is made possible and certified by the Wiesel Doctrine.

The Doctrine also rules out solidarity with the Palestinian people. As a holocaust survivor, Wiesel must accept whatever claims Israel makes about its relation to Palestinians: “Do not ask me, a traumatized Jew, to be pro-Palestinian. I totally identify with Israel and cannot go along with leftist intellectuals who reject it.” ( AS, 1, 223) These two sentences are packed with Israel-serving dogma: the fact of the holocaust permits open season on Palestinians, speaking the truth about Israel is an inherently “leftist” prejudice, and criticizing Israeli policy is the same as “reject”ing Israel, whatever that may mean.

Wiesel As Terrorist and The Requirement of Hypocrisy 

In his essay “To a Young Palestinian Arab” (1979) Wiesel intones “I feel responsible for your sorrow, but not for the way you use it, for in its name you have massacred innocent children, slaughtered children.” (‘sorrow’ is a favorite word of Wiesel’s, which he deploys almost as frequently as you and I use ‘the’) Wiesel’s claim to feel “responsible” for Palestinian “sorrow” (Why not refer to Palestinian deaths? Why not indeed.) is disingenuous. He refuses to acknowledge the death and destruction visited upon Palestinians by Israel except in the context of blaming Palestinians. He acknowledges no responsibility to do anything as an expression of his professed responsibility, nor does he acknowledge that this responsibility stems from wrongdoing by Israel. And he has repeatedly refused to acknowledge the occupation as a political matter, preferring “sorrow” as the required non-political “moral” attitude.

Wiesel goes on to anticipate the young Palestinian’s response that these acts were performed by “extremists”, not typical Palestinians. He rejoins that “they acted on your behalf, with your approval, since you did not raise your voice to reason with them. You will tell me that it is your tragedy which incited them to murder. By murdering, they debased that tragedy, they betrayed it.” Wiesel goes on to contrast Palestinians’ insidious political response to their suffering to holocaust survivors’ humanistic “moral” response to their brutalization. Here we have a typical case of the hypocrisy that is a leitmotif in Wiesel’s repertoire.

Wiesel is surely not ignorant of European Zionists’ response to persecution by pioneering innovations in the art of terrorism. Zionists crusading in Palestine prior to the establishment of Israel created a range of modern terrorist tactics. In 1938 the Zionist terror outfit Irgun executed attacks against Arab civilians, including placing bombs in milk cans in a Haifa market, killing twenty three Arab shoppers.  In 1947 the Zionist group the Stern Gang was the first to use letter bombs, mailed to British Cabinet members. The Gang assassinated high-level British diplomats and the chief UN mediator attempting to negotiate a two-state solution for Palestine. Irgun, then under the leadership of Menachim Begin, planted bombs in Arab East Jerusalem, killing civilians in an effort to drive Palestinians out. As the British mandate was coming to an end in April 1948 and a civil war between Arabs and Zionists was beginning, Irgun and the Stern Gang attacked the village of Deir Yassin, killing over a hundred unarmed villagers, including women and children. The villagers had not been involved in any violence prior to the attack. In 1954 Israel became the first country to hijack an airplane for political purposes, seizing a Syrian civilian plane in a botched effort to trade hostages for Mossad intelligence agents captured by the Syrians.

When the Deir Yassin occurred Wiesel was on the payroll of Irgun’s newspaper Zion in Kampf, having offered his services as a translator in Paris. This makes Wiesel, by his own standards, a terrorist. Accordingly, he has never denounced these massacres. Might not a Deir Yassin survivor charge Wiesel with his own words: “they acted on your behalf, with your approval, since you did not raise your voice to reason with them. You will tell me that it is your tragedy which incited them to murder. By murdering, they debased that tragedy, they betrayed it.”

Zionist terrorist attacks against Palestinians and others, which intensified between 1945 and 1949, including the kidnappings and hanging of British soldiers in 1947, were accomplished for political purposes. But the Wiesel Doctrine requires that Palestine never be understood in political terms. In 2003 Pope John Paul II proposed that “what the Middle East needs is bridges, not walls.” Wiesel’s attack immediately followed: “From the leader of one of the largest and most important religions in the world, I expected something very different, namely a statement condemning terror and the killing of innocents, without mixing in political considerations and above all comparing these things to a work of pure self-defense. To politicize terrorism like that is wrong.” (The New York Times, 11/17/2003) Wiesel no doubt associates the political in this context with the culpable exercise of power by the powerful against the powerless. This kind of thing, Wiesel seems to concur, would require action in resistance, including the exercise of counterpower by the oppressed. But for Wiesel, Isreal must never be blamed, nor must any actions, such as boycott, sanctions and divestment, much less forceful resistance by Palestinians, be taken against Israeli power. Hence, Israeli policy must not be seen as political. At most, Wiesel permits a moral response, typically expressed as “sorrow” and never requiring one to get off his political ass. Consistency was never this gasbag’s forte.

Mirror, Mirror On the Wall, Who is the Zionest of Them All? Wiesel As Co-Recipient of Requited Self Love 

Wiesel moved to New York in 1955, where he continued to work as a correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ah’ronot. In was then that he set upon the task of establishing himself as the self-appointed spokesperson for all holocaust victims and survivors (the latter group treated erroneously by Wiesel as monolithic and homogenous). In 1956 he was struck by a taxi near Times Square. Given to grandiose self-description by nature, he later claimed: “I flew an entire block. I was hit at 45th Street and the ambulance picked me up at 44th. It sounds crazy. But I was totally messed up.”  (NYT, March 5, 1997) The story is preposterous, but Wiesel has covered himself: “Some events do take place but are not true; others are true although they never occurred.” (Legends of Our Time, viii.) Telling a “true lie” in the name of making a legend of oneself is, as one says nowadays, “no problem” for Wiesel.

In this story Wiesel appears to possess superhuman powers, much like a cartoon Superhero. He’s hit by a taxi and bo-o-o-oing! he flies through the air, landing a city block away. Wiesel’s megalomania takes many forms. He has criticized every notable holocaust survivor/commentator, notably the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, as less authentic and profound than he. His case is characteristically self serving. Rival commentators are rejected on the grounds that they are among “the intellectuals”. What’s wrong with that? Intellectuals analyze, they bring intellectual discourse to bear on our comprehension of the holocaust. But Wiesel insists that the holocaust is a sacred and spiritual phenomenon, and hence a mystery. As such it transcends mundane, normal boundaries of language and conceptualization. It’s like A Kantian noumenon – it’s “out there” but none of our human categories are remotely adequate to capturing its reality. The best we can do is to exhibit the kind of doleful, agonized visage Wiesel sports 24/7. If someone points to our countenance and asks “What’s that?”, we just say “sorrow”.

Note that this puts Wiesel beyond challenge. Critical analysis is expressed in language, and is analytical in form. But language and analysis are foreign to the mystical nature of Jewish suffering. As Wittgenstein once remarked, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” That suits Wiesel just fine. Like Israel, Wiesel is unassailable.

The fact is that many Jewish liberals have ingested and digested this political serving. Little wonder that they cannot be counted on to call a Zionist spade a spade. But strong evidence indicates that this may be changing. As Israeli Jews are moving ever rightward, young American Jews are moving in the opposite direction. Let’s have a look at this.

Decline of Nationalist Zionism Among Young American Jews 

There is ample evidence that younger American Jews are decreasingly identifying with the Zionist State. A number of independent studies indicate that younger Jews are less likely to experience criticism of Israel as an assault on their identity. Peter Beinart has recently discussed a number of important studies confirming younger Jews’ indifference to criticism of Israel. His essay and book (2) also issue a call to moral arms to American Jews.

Several surveys have revealed, as Steven Cohen of Hebrew Union College and and Ari Kelman of the University of California at Davis report, that “non-Orthodox younger Jews, on the whole, feel much less attached to Israel than their elders,” with many professing “a near-total absence of positive feelings.” Although the majority of American Jews of all ages continue to identify as “pro-Israel,” those under 35 are less likely to identify as “Zionist.” Over 40% of American Jews under 35 believe that “Israel occupies land belonging to someone else,” and over 30% report sometimes feeling “ashamed” of Israel’s actions. A paradigm case is the 2008 rejection by the student senate at Brandeis University  -the only nonsectarian Jewish sponsored university in America-  of a resolution commemorating the sixtieth anniversity of the Jewish State. (3)

This development has been troubling prominent members of the Jewish establishment since the mid-1990s. In 2003 several of them  commissioned the pollster Frank Luntz to find out what younger Jews thought about Israel. The underlying aim of the poll was to explain why Jewish college students are not on the whole inclined to defend Israel against campus critics.

Luntz’s findings were distressing to his employers. “Six times we have brought Jewish youth together as a group to talk about their Jewishness and connection to Israel,” he reported, and “Six times the topic of Israel did not come up until it was prompted. Six times these Jewish youth used the word ‘they’ rather than ‘us’ to describe the situation.”

The attitudes Luntz found most consistently expressed were a resistance to the kind of “group-think” the young Jews saw as suppressing “open and frank” discussion of Israel, a “desperate” desire for peace and, in some cases, empathy with the plight of the Palestinians. The students come across as broadly “liberal” in the sense in which American Jews have always been perceived as liberal. The “trouble” with these students was that their liberalism is traditionally Jewish, and consistent: if Israeli policy contravenes basic canons of liberalism, then so much the worse for Israeli policy.

Among American Jews there are plenty of liberals and plenty of Zionists. What these studies indicate is that these two groups share fewer and fewer members. Younger Jewish  Zionists are decreasingly likely to be liberal, and younger Jewish liberals decreasingly likely to be Zionists. This portends the American Jewish establishment’s further movement to the right. As Beinart observes, “As secular Jews drift away from America’s Zionist institutions, their orthodox counterparts will likely step into the breach.” Thus, the distance between largely secular American Jews and the Zionist establishment is likely to widen. But this will weaken the political power of the Israel lobby  -inextricably linked, of course, to the Jewish establishment-   only if American Jews as a whole are prepared to announce unambiguously their antipathy to their soi disant representatives. The political and moral responsibility this places on American Jewish liberals cannot be overestimated.

Intensification of Zionist Nationalism in Israel

American Jewish liberals and Zionism in Israel are moving in opposite directions. While the studies mentioned above indicate that a decreasing percentage of American Jews will feel sympathetic attachment to Israeli Zionism, some of the most unsavory forms of Zionism are growing in Israel.

A 2008 survey reported in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ah’ronot found that 40 percent of Jewish Israelis would deny the vote to Arab Israelis. More recent surveys found 56 percent of Jewish Israeli high school students sharing this sentiment. A survey conducted by Professor Camil Fuchs from the Statistics Department of Tel Aviv University found that half of Israeli teens don’t want Arab students in their class. Most Israeli teens aged fifteen to eighteen don’t think Arabs enjoy equal rights in Israel, and most of those don’t think Arabs deserve equal rights. The survey also revealed that 96 percent of the respondents want Israel to be a Jewish and democratic state, but 27 percent believe that those who object should be tried in court, and 41 percent support stripping them of their citizenship. In answer to a question whether they would be willing to learn in a classroom with one or more students with special needs, 32 percent answered in the negative. When the question was asked regarding Arab students, 50 percent of respondents answered in the negative. In addition, 23 percent said that they wouldn’t want gays or lesbians in their class.

These findings are disturbingly consistent with the Netanyahu coalition government’s reflection of the worst elements among contemporary Israelis: the growing extreme-Orthodox population, the increasingly radical settler movement, which has come to occupy an increasing percentage of both the Israeli political establishment and the army, and the conspicuously anti-Arab Russian immigrant community.

Netanyahu himself is a Palestinian-State denier. In his 1993 book A Place Among the Nations he explicitly repudiates the notion of a Palestinian State. Like Golda Meier he denies that there are Palestinians, and he argues that to support Palestinian statehood is equivalent to endorsing…. you guessed it, Nazism! His Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman would revoke the citizenship of Israeli Arabs who refuse to swear loyalty to the Jewish State, deny citizenship to Arab nationals of other countries who marry Arab citizens of Israel, execute Arab Knesset members who meet with Hamas representatives and imprison Arabs who dare to publicly mourn on Israeli Independence Day. Holy Moses.

Beinart’s reflections on these abominations are a lamentation of the refusal of the “leading institutions of American Jewry” to openly challenge Israel’s treatment of its Arab citizens. (The NYR essay was written three weeks before, and published two weeks after, the May 31 attack on the Mavi Marmara.) And Beinart is no one-stater. “Saving liberal Zionism in the United States,” he writes, “so that American Jews can help save liberal Zionism in Israel, is the great American Jewish challenge of our age.”

Bienart sees that as an American Jew he bears a special responsibility to act on the words, hypocritically penned by Elie Wiesel, cited at the head of this article: “We must always take sides…. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.” I say he’s right.

Alan Nasser is professor emeritus of Political Economy at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. His book  The “New Normal”: Persistent Austerity, Declining Democracy and the Globalization of Resistance is forthcoming in 2013. His website/blogsite is www.alannasser.wordpress.com. He can be reached at nassera@evergreen.edu.

(1) AS is a three-volume collection of the most representative of Wiesel’s lectures, articles, op-eds, letters, etc.)

(2) See “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment”, The New York Review, June 10, 2010, further developed in his book The Crisis of Zionism, Henry Holt, 2012.

(3) See Cohen and Kelman’s “Beyond Distancing: Young Adult American Jews and Their Alienation from Israel” at http://www.acbp.net/About/PDF/Beyond%20Distancing.pdf.