Israel’s Fatal Over-Reach

Palestinians have an only slightly greater chance of recovering all, or even most, of the land they lost to Zionist colonization than the indigenous peoples of the Americas, Australia and New Zealand have of recovering their lands.

The difference is that, in the Palestinian case, some semblance of justice may still be within reach; one, moreover, that would benefit both Palestinians and Israelis.

This could happen if Palestinians succeed in establishing a viable state in the 22% of historical Palestine that lies beyond the so-called Green Line that marks Israel’s internationally recognized borders.

Justice would be even better served were a normal liberal democracy — a state that accorded equal political rights to all of its citizens — established throughout the entirety of historical Palestine.

There has long been an international consensus supporting the former, “two state” solution.  Since the 1993 Oslo Accords, even Israel has been nominally on board.

Arguably, though, from Day One — and certainly since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 — Israeli governments, with American support, have done everything in their power to thwart that prospect.

By now, there are so many Jewish settlements in Occupied Palestine that a two state solution may no longer be feasible.

It is telling that a “one state” solution is widely understood to mean that Israel would annex the entirety of the territory it occupies, expelling as many Palestinians as possible, and imposing a full-fledged Apartheid regime (or worse) on the rest.

The other “one state” solution – in which all of historical Palestine is governed by a state of its citizens, regardless of nationality – has always seemed a non-starter because it implies the end of Israel as a “Jewish state.”  Israeli Jews and Zionists abroad would never go along.

Ultimately, though, it may be their best option – especially if someone somehow can figure out how to confederate the two communities in a way that would both respect liberal democratic norms and also accord collective rights to the two national groups.

Bi-national and multi-national states sometimes do work out satisfactorily, especially when – as in Canada or Switzerland or Belgium – there is general prosperity, and where, historical grievances notwithstanding, the several national communities are more or less equally well-off.

Plainly, though, at this point, nothing like these conditions obtains between Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Arabs.  There is too much inequality, and too much bad blood.

And so, for now, we are left with an indefinite perpetuation of an unjust and oppressive status quo.

What makes this possible is the all but unconditional support of the American government.

Other Western governments support Israel too, and so do other nations in thrall to American power.  But American support is the linchpin.   Without it, Israel’s other enablers would have fallen by the wayside long ago.

From the time of the Six Day War in 1967 until the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, the United States had powerful geopolitical reasons for backing Israel unequivocally.   It still does, to a diminished extent.

However, in recent decades, on balance, the U.S.-Israel “special relationship” has probably done the United States more harm than good geopolitically.

Now that the consequences of America’s clueless, post-9/11 interventions into Middle Eastern politics are falling due, this is likely to remain the case for some time to come; though what it means that Israel and Al Qaeda now effectively share a border (in the Golan Heights) remains to be seen.

In any case, for explaining the nature and extent of American support for whatever Israel does, American domestic politics is the principal factor now; perhaps it has been all along.

In recent decades, several interconnected, well-financed and well-organized lobbying agencies – AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee is the best known and most important – have led the effort.

They have been extraordinarily successful.  For all practical purposes, they own Congress and their hold over the White House, no matter whom the President may be, is legendary.

Inevitably, this level of political clout spills over into other areas – especially into major media.  Our media are remarkably subservient to power in any case.

When two of America’s most distinguished political scientists, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, published their celebrated account of the Israel lobby in The London Review of Books in 2006, it broke a longstanding taboo.  Everyone knew about the Israel lobby, but, for fear of being branded anti-Semitic, few dared speak of it.

It is telling that the Mearscheimer-Walt piece had to be published abroad, and that it attracted a firestorm of criticism.   Fortunately, their case was compelling enough, and the two authors were eminent enough, to withstand the criticism.

By now, though, the case that Mearscheimer and Walt dared advance a decade ago has become part of the common sense of our political culture.  AIPAC and the others even boast about how powerful they are.  It is a sign of how brazen they have become.

Or desperate – inasmuch as they realize, at some level, that they are on the way to becoming a Paper Tiger.

Over the past few years, the idea that Israel can do no wrong is beginning to fall out of favor in American public opinion.   And it has become painfully obvious that AIPAC and the others are remarkably out of touch with much of the American-Jewish community.

There seems to be nothing that Zionists can do about these attitudinal changes.  After decades of brutal occupation and countless war crimes and crimes against humanity, the truth is out.  No matter how it is spun or “explained,” people are catching on.

However it will be a while still before most Americans are willing to treat Israel like a normal country.  Therefore, our politicians can still afford not to take notice.

For American Jews especially, breaking free from Zionism’s grip is not just a matter of facing the reality of Israel squarely.  Issues of identity are also involved.

This is why many, probably most, American Jews are still at least passively Zionist in the sense that if asked they would say that they support the existence of a Jewish state in Palestine.  The reality, though, for the vast majority, is that they don’t much care.

What they do care about is maintaining a sense of Jewish identity.  This is hard to do in a welcoming culture that invites assimilation, and in the absence of genuine institutional or attitudinal anti-Semitism.

Judaism could serve the purpose, but, for most American Jews, the Jewish religion is of little interest.  It is the same with Christianity for many other Americans.  Only the truly benighted care.

To be sure, America is full of benighted souls; and, in recent decades, they have not been shy about throwing their weight around.  Nevertheless, indifference is on the rise in America just as it is in other developed countries with generally educated populations and secular traditions.

If it sometimes seems otherwise, it is because religion in America today has more to do with identity politics than with faith.  This is certainly the case in Jewish circles.  Notwithstanding some conspicuously retrograde examples – the Chabad movement most notably – when it comes to waning faith, the Jewish community is ahead of the curve.

In any case, Zionists long ago effectively hijacked most strains of Judaism.

And so, for American Jews intent on maintaining a Jewish identity, Israel is, in most cases, all there is.  It is a slender reed – not just because Israeli society is becoming increasingly unappealing, but also because Zionism, in its current form, is at odds with what most American Jews otherwise believe.

On political matters generally, most American Jews still stand to the left, sometimes far to the left, of most Americans.  For the most part, therefore, the Zionism most American Jews profess, such as it is, reflects this orientation; it is liberal Zionism.

Meanwhile, the Zionism of AIPAC and the other pillars of the Israel lobby is robustly rightwing – with respect both to Israeli and American politics.

And so, the worry, endemic in the political class, that whoever would defy AIPAC risks losing the support of the majority of American Jews is exaggerated at best.

The greater worry is that the geriatric Zionists who fund AIPAC and its sister organizations will support rival candidates should anyone defy their wishes on Israel; that they will do whatever it takes – financially – to ruin them.

They have done it before in a few well-remembered cases, so the fear the Israel lobby generates is understandable, especially in an electoral system as fundamentally undemocratic and money-driven as ours.

But it is not nearly as determinative as is widely supposed.

This would be obvious, were anyone prominent enough to call them on it, to put the point to a test.  But, so far, no one will.   Elizabeth Warren’s recent espousal of Israeli talking points on Gaza is a case in point.

Along with the even more compromised Bernie Sanders, Warren is the liberal’s last best hope for staving off a Hillary Clinton presidency.  Like Sanders, she is far better than Obama et. al., or Clinton, on domestic political issues.  On foreign policy issues, she was, and still largely remains, an unknown.

Most conspicuously, until last week, she would run away (literally, in one famous incident) from answering questions about Israel and Palestine.  But, no longer.

There had been some question, until now, about whether she would actually go up against the Clinton juggernaut.  Officially, this is still an open question.

But her parroting the Israeli line last week is a dead giveaway.  As much as any other spineless mainstream pol, Warren lives in fear of the vaunted lobby – enough, anyway, to calculate that there is no percentage in taking them on.

When someone finally does, it will be almost like in the Hans Christian Andersen story in which an emperor parades about showing off what he and his subject believe to be new and magnificent regalia — until a little boy cries out from the crowd that the emperor has no clothes.  Before he broke the silence, no one dared admit – indeed, no one dared see – the obvious.

The Israel lobby illusion might not shatter as quickly or as thoroughly as the illusion in the Andersen story.   AIPAC can still harm political careers, perhaps fatally.  Warren’s self-serving calculations are not unreasonable.

But perhaps not.   Because presidential contests draw obsessive media attention, were AIPAC to go after her, it would be in plain public view.  Were she to play it right, all the spin-doctors in the world would be unable to hide the overreaching.  Who can say what would then happen, when the public takes notice.

All it would take is for someone to get the process going.  Once it is, it would not be long before all but the willfully blind would see that AIPAC’s power exists – or can be made to exist – only in the minds of the politicians that fear it.begging slogans2

AIPAC and the others are vulnerable because Israel’s hold over American public opinion, and over American Jews, is slipping.

This would be happening even if Israel’s government were less noxious than the one now headed by Benjamin Netanyahu.  But with Netanyahu and his minions overreaching so egregiously – and with the Israel lobby pressing their case so disingenuously — the process of disillusionment is now proceeding more quickly than it otherwise would.

The problem isn’t that, under Netanyahu, Israel’s depredations have become qualitatively – or quantitatively – worse.  The most recent massacre of Gazans probably was more devastating than the two that preceded it, but the difference is only of degree.

It is the same in the West Bank.

To be sure, the recently announced expropriation of roughly a thousand acres of land from five West Bank villages, in retaliation for the kidnapping and killing of the three settler teens that Netanyahu had used to stir up war fever before his latest assault on Gaza, was more than usually over the top.  But even this is of a piece with what has come to be the new normal in Occupied Palestine.

The difference from the immediate past is that Israel now acts with utter brazenness.  It killed kids before, but not while they were playing on the beach with international journalists nearby; it destroyed Palestinian infrastructure before and with wanton abandon, but not hospitals in full view of the press.

And, in the past, the Israelis would at least make more of an effort not to assault UN shelters full of women and children.

Of course, for these and other transgressions of the rules of war and of international humanitarian law, the Israelis propaganda machine has  “explanations” ready.

The gist is that, allowing for some minor errors on the part of the Israeli Defense Forces, it is always the Palestinians’ fault – for using children and the elderly as “human shields” or for shooting off rockets from locations close to hospitals and vital infrastructure or whatever.

American politicians echo their confabulations, and so do corporate media.  Nominally non-corporate National Public Radio is the worst of all.

The disingenuousness and hypocrisy is breathtaking.  But the number of people who are regularly fooled is rapidly diminishing.

A tipping point is already on the horizon.  It is by no means a sure thing, but it is not just wishful thinking to suppose that, sooner than anyone now dares to imagine, public attitudes will turn against Israel just as surely as they turned against Apartheid South Africa.

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It is not impossible that the Salaita affair will either be that tipping point, or will be remembered as a harbinger of it.

Thanks more to social media and alternative news sources than to the mainstream media, the broad contours of the case are, by now widely known.

Steven Salaita, an English professor of Palestinian descent, was hired to be an Associate Professor (with tenure) in the American Indian Studies program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC).  Then, at the last minute, months after Salaita had resigned from a tenured position at Virginia Tech, the UIUC Chancellor, Phyllis Wise, came under intense pressure from Zionist donors to block the hire – by not forwarding his appointment to the university’s trustees for pro forma approval.

She caved; and, as opposition began to mount, the trustees gratuitously concurred.

The UIUC administration’s line is that Wise acted as she did because Salaita had posted  “profanity laden” tweets about the latest Israeli attack on Gaza.   Wise claimed that the university could not maintain a comfortable atmosphere for all UIUC students – presumably, she meant pro-Israel students – with Salaita teaching on the UI campus.

She came to this conclusion only after he had passed all the hiring and tenure stages with flying colors, and in the absence of any inkling of supporting evidence; Salaita’s teaching at Virginia Tech was universally praised and there was never any indication that anybody had ever been made to feel uncomfortable by it (insofar as that matters).   Clearly, there was something rotten in Urbana-Champaign.

In one sense, this is just another case of later-day Zionist overreaching; one of many.  But this time it touched a nerve that appears to be drawing otherwise passive or apolitical opinion-makers into the fray.

Like the Sophists of ancient Greece, lawyers are trained “to make the lesser argument appear the stronger,” and American Constitutional law is flexible enough to accommodate almost any political agenda.

The constraints are so plastic and indeterminate that determined rightwing jurists can even undermine democratic governance and promote political corruption – by straight-facedly identifying effectively unregulated campaign contributions with free speech.

Therefore, when issues like those raised in the Salaita case are litigated, anything is possible.

But, as many expert commentators have noted, the merits of Salaita’s case are about as solid as can be, and not just on First Amendment grounds.

There is also, it seems, a strong case to be made that appeals, in general and familiar ways, to the law of contracts.   And there are a host of precedents pertaining specifically to academic tenure, all of which strengthen Salaita’s case.

Norman Finkelstein famously ran afoul of some particularly scurrilous Zionist apologists, Alan Dershowitz especially, and paid dearly for it when, in 2007, DePaul University, under intense pressure, denied him tenure.

Some transparently phony justifications were put forward in the controversy that followed, but the reasons were plain:  Finkelstein had demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt how weak and, indeed, fraudulent the arguments of some prominent Zionists are.

Finkelstein’s writings were footnote, not profanity, “laden,” and there was no doubt whatsoever that he met the standards for tenure many times over.

Still, his case, which was settled out of court on terms that have never been revealed, was weaker than Salaita’s – because universities can legally withhold tenure for any of a variety of vaguely-specified reasons, but can only take away tenure for cause.   And should they try, as they almost never do, there are due process requirements that were never followed in Salaita’s case.

It could be argued, of course, that, since the UIUC trustees had not yet officially approved Salaita’s appointment, he didn’t actually have tenure.  But most experts think otherwise, and their reasons seem compelling.

This is why an academic boycott of UIUC was quickly organized and is already showing impressive results.  Moreover, some UIUC departments have voted no confidence in Wise and her administration, and more are piling on each day.

Additionally, several academic associations, including the the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), have voiced grave concern or issued outright condemnations.

The AAUP’s position, which seems both compelling and authoritative, is that Salaita has tenure, notwithstanding the lack of pro forma approval by the university’s trustees, and that, if the UIUC administration is determined to press its case, he should be suspended with pay, pending a “hearing on his fitness to continue.”

Needless to say, in any fair and reasonable hearing, the UIUC administration would have a hard time finding Salaita unfit to continue his employment.  Tweeting, even “profanity laden” tweeting, is plainly Constitutionally protected speech.  And Salaita could hardly already have given administrators cause to dismiss him based on his work performance, since he has yet to begin work.

Wise’s reaction to donors’ complaints may be business as usual, but it is plain that, in this instance, business as usual just won’t cut it.  Her pusillanimity has not served her university well, no matter what the financial consequences turn out to be.

The times, they are ‘a changing.

And, in this matter, it can only get better as the academic year gets underway, and the spirit of Occupy Wall Street – or, better still, of 1968 — revives on the UIUC campus.

Teach-Ins on Israel and Palestine – in Urbana-Champagne and elsewhere — would be especially salutary.  There is no way donors could squelch that without outright offending genuine free speech rights along with each and every norm associated with the ideals to which universities are supposed to be committed.

There are already indications that this may be dawning on UI muckety-mucks, perhaps even on Wise herself, and that they will try to reach an out of court settlement with Salaita in the hope that the issue will blow over.

Whatever happens, the Salaita case has already exposed an important – and portentous – weakness in the Israel lobby’s power.

It has exposed the lobby’s weakness in academic quarters.  From now on, the idea that the emperor has no clothes can only gain traction there.

And if it can happen there, it can happen anywhere — in due course.

It is happening already, slowly and almost imperceptibly, in formerly impermeable media precincts.

Non- or anti-Zionist views are hardly more welcome now than a few years ago, but there are already a few venues – among others, The New YorkerHarpers, and even, on a good day, The New York Times or CNN – where liberal Zionists can and do express their views.

This is a phenomenon that deserves encouragement.  Now is not the time for purists to draw lines of demarcation.

The political class will be the last to break free from reflexive Zionist attitudes, but it can happen even there.  The proof will come when someone has the courage to test the waters.

Public opinion will not change overnight.  And, even if it did, on matters pertaining to Israel and Palestine, as in so much else, our representatives don’t much care what the people they represent think; they follow the money.

But, in the end, even bought and paid for legislators need the votes of the people they officially represent.  Therefore, they cannot defy their will too blatantly.

This is why a welcome outcome in the protracted struggle ahead is not out of the question.  If and when it comes, the Salaita affair will be part of the story.

By itself, it will not, indeed it cannot, be the whole story the way that the little boy’s crying out that the emperor has no clothes was.   It will take more than clear, unbiased vision to shake Congress to its foundations, and to keep the White House from doing yet more harm.

But the time may come when the on-going events in Urbana-Champagne will be seen to have marked the moment when the tide definitively turned, when overreaching began to pose a fatal challenge – an “existential threat,” as it were – to the conditions that make America’s unequivocal support for whatever Israel does to Palestinians possible.

In other words, it may become obvious, in retrospect, that the Salaita affair is a game changer; and that we are now living in the midst of a breakthrough moment.

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. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. 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 (AK Press).


ANDREW LEVINE is 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. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. 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 (AK Press).