There is a mountain of literature and documentation regarding the basic history of the Palestine-Israel conflict, and where scholars may disagree one would need a magnifying glass to examine the dispute. However, the level of “controversy” surrounding the subject in the United States seems to remain steady, if not increase. What allows this, and therefore the conflict, to continue can be viewed as the function of three basic factors: lack of information (on the part of the population), silence (on the part of academics and the media), and intimidation (on the part of supporters of US-Israeli state power). While each of these three frames of reference is symptomatic in nature, they can nevertheless aid us in seeing more clearly why the conflict is so problematic in America. It must be emphasized that Palestine-Israel is not mystical, obscure, or even, one could argue, entirely unique. Quite the contrary, it’s a conflict that can be easily understood — and solved. So why all the contention when there’s little to contest?
In cases such as these there oftentimes isn’t too much of a problem. If we are talking about, say, the subject of China’s involvement in Tibet, we look at the facts, assess those facts, and form some opinions about the situation. The room for opinion, however, is quite narrow because the facts, in essence, speak for themselves. In the US one would have difficulty finding two or more people heatedly arguing about China and Tibet. On the contrary, a solid consensus exists on the matter and with good reason. Moreover, concerts and music festivals are held in an effort to generate awareness on the subject. All the while, no one is accused of being “anti-Chinese”; no one is looked upon with suspicion as being “pro-Tibetan.” These accusations would naturally be viewed as irrational, and the accuser as not being of sound mind. One never hears the retort, “We need to look at both sides of this issue!” This is because the China-Tibet issue doesn’t have two sides, it has one: China occupies and has brutalized Tibet and its culture. The issue is understood with cool detachment and is seen as being a political matter; and the political matter has nothing to do with how we feel about the Chinese and the Tibetans. There’s little to discuss, and as a result, one doesn’t hear much discussion.
The above example is a best-case scenario for confronting a political conflict (if “conflict” is indeed the appropriate word here). As Americans we handle the subject pretty well. There is much we can learn from how it is we approach it, and there is also much we can learn from why it is we remain so composed on the matter. Understanding this is key. If we compiled a list of reasons for our prudence regarding China and Tibet, it might include the following points:
(1) the topic is physically, politically, and culturally remote;
(2) no US clients are involved;
(3) criticizing China is acceptable;
and (4) the Tibetan culture is romanticized and revered. As a result, honest discussion of the subject comes at no expense.
The public discourse can be conducted openly and freely, films can be made, rock concerts can be held, and so on.
While the example of China and Tibet isn’t perfect, the principle obtains. The Palestine-Israel conflict, as mentioned, is clear, well-documented, and the general history is agreed upon by scholars and specialists representing points far and wide on the political spectrum. It is uncontroversial. Yet, controversy and debate abound. Our composure and prudence falter when we move the conversation to the Middle East and consider the US’s involvement in the region. Why then the change in temperament when, for all intents and purposes, the issues are fairly similar and the history is undisputed? Plugging Israel and Palestine into our four points can reveal where American consideration of the conflict has gone awry.
1. The Palestine-Israel conflict, though remote in the above-mentioned aspects, touches home: News coverage of the subject is virtually uninterrupted; it involves Jews, which in turn invites introduction of the Holocaust — a subject many Americans know and feel strongly about; and the Middle East in general is becoming increasingly topical by the day, especially after 9/11 and the current campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.
2. Israel is an ally and client of the US. Washington provides it immense support in the form of cash, loan guarantees, military equipment, and diplomatic protection. As a rule of thumb, clients receive velvet treatment in the press. The human rights abuses of our “friends” fall beneath the radar while those of official enemies are emphasized and reiterated time and again. Saddam Hussein’s crimes received serious attention after he’d fallen from grace. Saudi Arabia, whose human rights record is probably one of the worst in the region, garners thin attention in the media, and usually with respect to business or social “reforms” when it does. The reflexive agreement of the major news outlets with the overarching, big-picture interests of planners in Washington produces skewed media treatment, thus affecting our perceptions and opinions.
3. Criticizing Israel can evoke a range of negative responses. At the lighter end, one can be pigeonholed as a “liberal,” though the meaning of the term in this context (or most others for that matter) is never clear. At the heavier end, charges of antisemitism are not uncommon. First, Israel being a close associate of the US plays a major hand in this. Second, Israel being a Jewish state is a factor; criticism of the Jewish state is (wrongly) construed by some as criticism of the Jewish people. However, any other experiment in this line of thinking nearly elicits laughter, e.g., criticism of Kim Jong Il suggests one’s racist hatred of Koreans — an argument difficult to take seriously. The vocabulary and syntax that have been adopted in talking and writing about the conflict is a third key determinant and is directly related to the first two. Unlike our China-Tibet example, the Palestine-Israel conflict is linguistically polarized: so-and-so is pro-Israeli, such-and-such book is pro-Palestinian, etc. As a result, “objectivity” and “bias” are terms that have been firmly integrated into the rhetoric. Unlike our example again, one is encouraged to step lightly when taking Israel to task for its occupation of the Palestinian territories. However, if the history of the conflict is clear and undisputed, there seems to be little room for polarity and the attendant charges of lack of “balance.” That this kind of language predominates automatically suggests legerdemain and dismissal of the facts.
4. While in the West Bank during November and December 2005, I was out one evening talking to a group of Palestinian boys, most in their late teens and early twenties. I had met with them a couple of times prior and had become friends with all of them. Like most young men anywhere they were energetic, eager to discuss everything under the sun, and quite comical. Any given exchange, however, eventually turned to the conflict and life in the territories. During the evening’s conversation we touched on external perceptions of the Palestinian people, especially American views on account of my citizenship. One of the boys started laughing and, for my amusement, bent over, pointed to his posterior, and announced, “See Gregory, no tail!” The rest of the group erupted into hysterics, myself included. When Palestinians are shown on the evening news, they are typically donning black hoods, toting machine guns, and chanting in the streets. Palestinians don’t eat lunch, they don’t play soccer, they don’t hang out laundry, they don’t get the flu, and they don’t fall in love: they just scream and shoot guns and exhibit animalistic behavior. Again we can inquire as to the factors at work in influencing our assumptions: Knowledge of the Middle East in the US is dismal. Anti-Arab racism, largely a function of that ignorance, is profound in America. Israelis are closer in appearance and culture to white Europeans, remind us of the Holocaust and the sympathy it induces, and as a nation are allied with the US. The Palestinians belong to an ethnicity viewed with fear and contempt, are involved in a conflict with Jews, and, by default, receive negative news attention. American celebrities remain silent on Palestine. There are no concerts raising awareness. Hollywood gives it a wide birth. While certainly worthwhile, taking up the Tibetan cause offers the image of political consciousness at low stakes.
There then seem to be two basic procedures for doing politics and history. One can approach them as a detective or as a public relations agent. The detective follows the trail of facts and documents and allows them to tell their own story. The person doing PR, on the other hand, promotes (and protects) the reputation of a given entity, be it a person, business, country, etc. If we have cultivated an idealized picture of the country we live in, introduction of the actual, less enchanting historical record is less likely to find purchase with us; these unsavory features of our country’s past and present disturb the idyllic construct and therefore our framework of thinking. Yet despite the unpleasant experience, it behooves us to take seriously what the “detective” has unearthed and brought into the light. Naturally, one doing this kind of work is, by virtue of the uncomfortable nature of his or her findings, going to be unpopular in some circles. Heretics must be burned after all. This phenomenon has become a serious problem in academia.
A number of professors have come under attack in recent years, most visibly Norman G. Finkelstein, who this summer was, along with colleague Mehrene Larudee, denied tenure at DePaul University in Chicago. Various writers such as former President Jimmy Carter, Joel Kovel, et al., have also felt the heat of this contrived debate. Intense disagreement over the Israel lobby and the amount of influence it does or does not wield in Washington continues to escalate. Yet, Finkelstein’s work as a scholar is rather uncontroversial. Though the word controversy follows him around now like a shadow, one need only go through his findings and documentation to see the precise and careful nature of his work, along with the validity of what he’s reporting. That his critics tend to use general and abstract characterizations of him — rarely his work — to make their condemnations is revealing. Ad hominem judgments are quick and easy; reading human rights reports and footnotes is less so.
The maelstrom surrounding Carter and his largely conservative and cautious Palestine Peace Not Apartheid is another such example. Kovel’s Overcoming Zionism, while I cannot agree with him to the letter (i.e. his argument for a one-state solution), does offer an informative, eye-opening, and well-reasoned critique of Zionism and Israel’s policies and behavior. Like those against Finkelstein, the criticisms leveled at Kovel are generic renderings bearing no resemblance to what appears in his book. The work of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt on the Israel lobby, also something I don’t agree with one hundred percent, is worth considering as it enhances legitimate debate. But, regardless of where there may be rational disagreement, open and unsuppressed dialogue about US-Israeli relations and Palestine is the singular path to broader understanding and popular active support for a just resolution benefiting both sides.
Nevertheless, the chorus of slander towards those attempting to widen the parameters of discourse on the Palestine-Israel conflict will most likely continue. The tactics work after all: Professors are denied tenure. Pressure is applied to publishers and distributors, in the case of Kovel, his (and my) publisher Pluto Press in London, and University of Michigan Press. (It should be noted that on Oct. 25, UMP decided to continue distributing Pluto’s books in the US despite the uproar over Kovel’s book; a perfect and rare example of defiance against this kind of intolerance.) Lectures are cancelled, and so on.
What allows these tactics such success is the accommodating atmosphere of confusion and fear in which they are employed. Americans must address these concerns — their lack of knowledge, the dearth of good information, and the forces attempting to squelch critical analysis — along the blurry line between one’s susceptibility to one’s circumstances and one’s responsibility for his or her actions. That US involvement in the Middle East is distorted at best and ignored at worst by mainstream news outlets is a reflection of how economic and political power work fist in glove, and how the dominant intellectual culture falls in line; our confusion is proof. Likewise, Israel’s supporters, including lobby groups and academic organizations, are allowed the influence they enjoy owing to their interests running parallel with Washington’s global intrigues. Still and all, we the people cannot control the actions of others. We can, however, impose considerable pressure if we so choose: our lobby has a membership of roughly 300 million people. Providing this pressure is our burden should we find the prevailing circumstances unacceptable. We have a part to play. For the intellectual and academic class, the accountability brought to bear is even greater.
GREGORY HARMS is the author of The Palestine-Israel Conflict: A Basic Introduction (Pluto Press), entering its second edition in spring 2008.