Back in 2004, George W. Bush, full of “political capital” and hell bent on besting his predecessors in beating back the twentieth century, discovered that Social Security was still a “third rail” in American politics. But that was before Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008, and before Barack Obama. Social Security along with other so-called entitlements are now on the chopping block again, and it remains to be seen whether they can survive the up-coming “bipartisan” assault.
Meanwhile, another third rail seems more robust: the blank check the American government gives Israel – in the form of subsidies, military cooperation, and unstinting diplomatic support.
Fortunately, in our politics, as in Newton’s laws of motion, for every action, there is ultimately an equal and opposite reaction. And so it is that ruling class (not just Republican) overreach has finally awakened the vast majority of the 99% or more of the American people for who have suffered through decades of unremitting neoliberal rule.
Although the Occupy Wall Street movement expressly rejects vanguardist political styles, it is fair to say that the people who have been living in tents, and who now bear the brunt of police repression (called in mainly by Democratic mayors!), are the vanguard of this rising discontent.
Who knows what will come of their efforts as the movement evolves and as the repression intensifies. What is clear for now is just that a whole lot of what used to be called consciousness raising has taken place. As recently as this summer, there was little reason not to despair for the Land of the Free. No longer. Consciousness may even now be raised enough to turn the juice back on in the old third rail — by defeating the coming “bipartisan” drive for austerity and against the few socially useful things our government still does.
Another question is what the consequences will be for that other third rail. As of now, U.S. support for the Israeli settler state seems infrangible. And while it is a good bet that few, if any, militants in the Occupy movement support the Israeli occupation of Palestine, taking back America’s blank check has so far not been an issue for them, much less a priority.
Could that change? I would venture that the answer is Yes, unlikely as that may seem. Occupy AIPAC – the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the linchpin of the Israel lobby – could be on the agenda, if not literally, then in effect. Consciousness raising could spill over even there.
To be sure, the immediate causes that brought Occupy Wall Street and many hundreds of similar occupations into being do not imply the necessity of moving on to Occupy AIPAC; Israeli ethnocrats are not part of our 1%. But consciousness raising has its own dynamic. Fighting back, even if only for self-interested reasons, leads, almost inevitably, to solidarity with other victims of the system in place. It suffices only to bring the morally compelling and urgent grievances of others into public consciousness. The grievances of Palestinians are nothing if not urgent and morally compelling.
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So far, the Occupy movement has focused mainly on fighting back against finance capitalists on and off Wall Street. This is fitting: in today’s world, their machinations are the most immediate reasons for the misfortunes afflicting 99% or more of the population. But it has never been just about that, if only because the interests of banksters are intertwined with those of other capitalists whose power and wealth depend more directly on imperial predations — especially on the perpetual war machine and its archipelago of overseas bases, and on the institutions that comprise our ever-expanding national security state. Occupy militants have always been aware of this; it is why the grievances they voice spill over into matters of foreign and military affairs, and to the lawlessness and general disregard of traditional (small-r) republican freedoms that Barack Obama his ther latest in a long line to superintend.
But it is one thing to fight back against a regime that turns economic conscripts into cannon fodder and purveyors of murder and mayhem, and something else to take aim at the oppression of a far away people. What the Israeli settler state does to Palestinians scarcely affects most Americans at the level of lived experience. And then there is the fact that the institutions that shape opinion in the United States have been inculcating Zionist ideas for decades. These factors militate against the prospect of an Occupy AIPAC consciousness coalescing any time soon.
Of course, the subsidies American taxpayers send to Israel could be put to use in ways that would the benefit the 99%, and subservience to the dictates of right-wing Israeli governments is a source of potentially dangerous blowback. However, in the larger scheme of things, these are drops in the bucket compared to more immediate targets of indignation and resistance. The reasons to Occupy AIPAC have more to do with justice than self-interest, and, as the Bush-Obama recession grinds on, questions of justice naturally give way to more pressing concerns.
Or maybe not – because, in this instance, there is a countervailing consideration: the fact that support for “Israel right or wrong” is increasingly detrimental not only to the interests of the 99%, but arguably to (almost) everybody. It is therefore unlikely that the political representatives of the 1% would fight back as hard in this case as when the bottom lines of their paymasters are directly threatened.
But for there to be any chance of that, it would first have to become plain that the Israel lobby is not nearly as powerful as it seems; that it is a Paper Tiger. I would venture that, for that to happen, it would suffice only to call its bluff; that AIPAC’s power is like the emperor’s new clothes in the Hans Christian Andersen fable, awaiting only a child’s voice to call out the obvious.
I must say that I find the concept “national interest” hard to reconcile with what I take to be obviously true: that class divisions are of fundamental importance for explaining many social phenomena, including relations between states, and that the intra-national interests these divisions sustain are generally at odds. My inclination, therefore, is to regard appeals to national interests as disingenuous efforts to rally popular support for (ruling) class interests that popular social strata ought to oppose. But even I must concede that, in the world today (though perhaps not the world of recent memory), America’s blank check to Israel is emphatically not in the American national interest.
This is why it has become harder to deny than it used to be that it is the Israel lobby, not the demands of empire, which explains American policy on Israel and Palestine. The lobby’s hold over Congress and over successive administrations is demonstrable, even if it has not always been decisive. But its power, I think, is at least in part a consequence of irrationally sustained illusions that would not survive for long if challenged.
The power a lobby wields in Washington depends ultimately on the support or at least the indifference of much of the population. Most Americans don’t care all that much about Israel, and could be easily turned against the idea that the United States must do its bidding. I would conjecture too that many American Jews feel the same way. Of course, most American Jews will say that they support Israel. But, despite the best efforts of Zionists over the years, that support is shallow and therefore easier to dislodge than is widely assumed.
These are conjectures about matters of fact, and therefore cannot be settled by speculation alone. But pertinent empirical evidence is, for the most part, missing, and the extant survey data is equivocal. Even so, the idea that support for “Israel right or wrong” is shallow, even among American Jews, is very plausible.
Among America Jews, there are, of course, many dedicated Zionists. Because they control the self-described “major” Jewish organizations, it is easy to exaggerate how representative they are. Also because many Israelis have emigrated to North America and Europe, there are now many American Jews with Israeli family ties. By no means are they all hard core Zionists. But unlike the majority of American Jews, they do harbor loyalties to friends and family in Israel and often to the state itself. The ties may be more personal than ideological, but the consequences are similar.
On the other hand, there are secular and progressive Jews who are among the most stalwart critics of a settler state run by and for ethnocrats. There are probably not so many of these as there are hard core Zionists, but the number of principled non- and anti-Zionist Jews is not insignificant.
For millennia, shared religious beliefs and practices, familial ties and commercial associations fostered a sense of Jewish peoplehood. But Jewish ethnicity, like other ethnicities in the world today, has been imagined for less than two centuries. And the idea of a real world Jewish state, as distinct from a Messianic fiction inscribed in an otherworldly theology, is an even more recent concoction.
This is why, before the end of the Second World War, when the extent of the Nazi Judeocide became widely known, Judaism and Zionism were often at odds. In the United States, both the Orthodox and Reform movements were in varying degrees opposed to the Zionist enterprise; and there are orthodox sects that still are. Conservative Judaism has always been more Zionist-friendly, but not always as fervently as it now is. Indeed, it was not until the 1967 war, when the Jewish state had already existed for some two decades, that Zionists, backed by an emerging “national religious” movement in Israel itself, effectively highjacked American Judaism.
Unlike many Western European Jews before the Second World War, most American Jews in the post-War period were determined to resist assimilation. But they were also well beyond traditional religiosity. For all but a few recalcitrants, Judaism, like much of Christianity, has been effectively dead – along with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – for a long time. Therefore even if the Zionist enterprise did not exist, its functional equivalent would have had to be invented for a Jewish identity to be maintained — especially in an America effectively free of anti-Semitism, where full-fledged assimilation has become easy.
However the Zionist enterprise did exist, and so it was all but inevitable that Judaism would take a Zionist turn. But a Jewish identity based on Zionism is voluntarily assumed, not ascribed; and chosen identities, unlike identities that a benighted world imposes, are precarious. An identity politics grounded on Zionist practice is especially so.
Zionism is a nationalism launched by assimilated Western European Jews that soon took on the form and fervor of contemporaneous Eastern European nationalisms. Why would American Jews, especially those with few if any ties to Israel, be attracted to that?
National identities are socially constructed. As Ernest Renan famously put it long ago, in order for a nation to exist, it is necessary that its members forget a great deal. Otherwise they could hardly comprise what Benedict Anderson called “imaginary communities.” Karl Deutsch’s definition of a nation as “a group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbors” is even more on point. Shlomo Sand and a few other Israeli writers have lately shown how these characterizations apply to Jewish nationalism and to Zionism, its political expression.
But the news has yet to reach most American Jews, though it plainly describes our situation. Most of us have no connection to Jews from non-European countries, now the majority within Israel itself. And our ancestors came to North America even before the ancestors of most Israeli Jews set foot in Palestine. Most of us therefore know little if anything of distant relatives living in Israel; we don’t even know that they exist. This is why Zionism is a slender reed upon which to ground a sense of American Jewish identity, no matter how hard Jewish educational and cultural institutions try; and why, as well-publicized surveys suggest, hard core support for Israel among American Jews is now confined mostly to the elderly – in other words, to people for whom memories of the Judeocide in Europe are more vivid than theoretical.
It is also likely that, as Israeli and American interests increasingly diverge, and as the government of Israel continues to flaunt its contempt for international public opinion and for widely accepted norms of conduct towards a subjugated population, the efforts of Zionists to turn support for Israel into a basis for Jewish identity politics will be even less successful than they now are.
Should Palestinians continue to mount a sustained, non-violent resistance to the Israeli occupation, Zionism’s appeal to American Jews is likely to diminish even further. Many Jews may not yet be ready to side against their own imaginary community, even if they ultimately care little about Israel itself. But younger Jews especially do not want to be on the wrong side of a moral struggle replete with overtones of the American civil rights movement or the struggle against South African apartheid. This is why Palestinian freedom rides and similar act of non-violent resistance are a stroke of genius. Identity politics be damned if it comes down to siding with Bull Connor over Martin Luther King.
Perhaps it was because they realized that the day would come when American Jewish support for Zionism would wane that the Israeli Right, soon to be joined by the entire Israeli political class, began courting American Evangelicals. They did a fine job, enlisting gaggles of snake oil salesmen to their cause. Their pandering to believers in an imminent Apocalypse in which Jews who do not accept Jesus will be cast into the fires of hell for all eternity has brought the Republican base into the Zionist fold, shoring up Israel’s stranglehold over Washington. But the unholy alliance that makes this possible is as fragile as it is contemptible.
Christian Zionism draws on formerly obscure strains of (very) low Church Anglo-Protestant theology and, of course, on anti-Muslim hysteria. That hysteria may not soon go away, though there is no reason why Islamophobes need Israeli help to prosper. As for the theology, it is telling that before Israeli politicians launched their charm offensive – in other words, for more than four centuries — evangelicals took no interest in the politics of the Middle East. Their enthusiasm for a Jewish state is a very recent phenomenon; and however fervent it may be, it is shallow.
Of course, as long as the Zionist tide rides high in American public opinion, Christian Zionism will continue to appeal to the Michele Bachmanns among us. But how long will that last once it is revealed that the emperor has no clothes? If and when an Occupy AIPAC consciousness takes hold among those who still have the sense they were born with, the rest, the Republic base, will surely follow suit. Then Evangelicals will revert back to their longstanding indifference to Middle Eastern affairs, and the world will be a better place for it.
The Israel lobby, with AIPAC at its lead, has put together a bipartisan consensus beyond Obama’s wildest dreams. But, like the corporate predators and financiers who made Occupy Wall Street both necessary and possible, AIPAC may soon find itself the victim of its own success. The tide is turning, and there is no telling what it will sweep away.
ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press.
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