The Naked Emperor

December 3, 2007

Several commentators have noted that the rise of Jewish intellectual and political influence was necessarily accompanied by a crisis of confidence in the older order. The culture of critique that resulted from this influence called into question the fundamental moral, political, and economic foundations of Western society. The pillars of the older Protestant intellectual and cultural establishment gave way to variety of complementary and overlapping utopian visions of America, including especially the vision of a multicultural America that has energized the pro-immigration movement from the beginning.  

But because utopian visions sooner or later must clash with real-world realities, it was perhaps inevitable that this newer intellectual ethos would itself be subjected to the same scrutiny previously reserved for pre-1965 America and its 21st-century remnants. The Achilles’ heel of the new establishment is Israel and the influence of its supporters in America, particularly the organized Jewish community. Some of the very same organizations, such as the ADL, that have been at the forefront of enforcing and extending the cultural revolution of the 1960s—the revolution that views the eclipse of white America as a moral imperative—have also been at the forefront of promoting Israel and defending it against criticism. But it’s becoming apparent to quite a few observers that the emperor has no clothes.

The crisis of the new order has been precipitated by the publication of Jimmy Carter’s Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, and especially by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. Their success is largely because they share two traits that have also characterized successful Jewish intellectual and political movements: First, they originated as an aspect of elite culture—Carter as a former president and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Mearsheimer and Walt as professors of foreign affairs at elite universities. And secondly, at the heart of their critique is a moral indictment. Carter describes “the abominable oppression and persecution in the occupied Palestinian territories, with a rigid system of required passes and strict segregation between Palestine’s citizens and Jewish settlers in the West Bank.” He characterizes the Occupied Territories as an apartheid system, calling attention to the “enormous imprisonment wall … now under construction, snaking through what is left of Palestine to encompass more and more land for Israeli settlers.”

Mearsheimer and Walt devote an entire chapter to the “dwindling moral case” for Israel. They excuse the crimes against the Palestinians that occurred as a result of the 1948 war that established Israel—a more or less normal consequence of state formation. But Israel’s brutality toward the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and its behavior in last year’s war in Lebanon have undermined the moral case for Israel: “In fact, a good case can be made that current U.S. policy conflicts with basic American values and that if the United States were to choose sides on the basis of moral considerations alone, it would back the Palestinians” (p. 80). They call attention to the importance of biological kinship in determining Israeli citizenship and to the refusal of Israel to grant de jure equality to Arabs. They also point out that Israel’s Arab citizens “are de facto treated as second-class citizens,” including having to endure marriage laws that prevent Palestinians who marry Israeli citizens from becoming Israeli citizens or living in Israel. (See "Marriage Wall Pains New Israelis".) They also note that some Israeli leaders and a substantial proportion of the Israeli public have “racist” attitudes toward Palestinians, including a deep concern about Arab fertility. A clear majority favor encouraging Palestinians to emigrate. A prominent politician, Avigdor Lieberman, is quoted as advocating expulsion “so as to make Israel ‘as much as possible’ a homogeneous state” (p. 90).

At the heart of this critique is a rather glaring double standard: “Imagine the outcry that would arise here if a U.S. cabinet official spoke of the benefits of a policy that had reduced the birthrates of African Americans and Hispanics, thereby preserving a white majority” (p. 89). Or, one might suggest, imagine the outcry that would greet a similar comment on immigration policy.  

Confronted with the moral critique of America emanating from elite universities and the media, the old Protestant intellectual establishment quickly yielded the high ground. Many of them became avid cheerleaders of the new multicultural zeitgeist that rejected the America and even the Americanism of their ancestors, to the point that the new zeitgeist has become a consensus among elites of all stripes. They accepted their own demographic decline and they gave up their pretensions as cultural leaders and trend setters. And they implicitly paved the way for the eventual loss of political power to other groups, some of which have historically conditioned grudges against them—a dangerous situation to say the least. In doing so, they became the pallbearers for their own people.

One might suppose that the fact that the emperor has been found to be clothed in a massive ethnocentrism of his own while nevertheless working zealously to utterly squelch any murmur of ethnocentrism by American and European majorities would lead to a crisis of confidence among the elites. After all, people who insist on double-standards naturally antagonize other people because they thus repudiate the principle of reciprocity that underlies all enduring moral arrangements in a civil society. But there are several reasons to think that won’t happen.

The lobby still exerts massive influence over the political process. Even after Mearsheimer and Walt cogently presented the case within the mainstream media that the lobby was a necessary condition for the war in Iraq, Rep. Jim Moran (Dem., VA) was accused of bigotry and anti-Semitism for saying that the Israel lobby “pushed the war from the beginning.” House Republican Chief Deputy Whip Eric Cantor couldn’t resist invoking history’s arch-anti-Semite: "Unfortunately, Jim Moran has made it a habit now to lash out to the American Jewish community. I think his remarks are reprehensible, I think his remarks are anachronistic, and hearken back to the day of Adolph Hitler, of the others, Mein Kampf, of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.…”  

Despite the high level of critique and the reputations of its authors, there doesn’t seem to be any lessening of Jewish self-confidence or willingness to defend Israel and the lobby. Reviews of Mearsheimer and Walt in the elite mainstream media in the United States (but not Europe) have been uniformly negative. These reviews have mainly been by Jews, prompting Philip Weiss to askDo the Goyim Get to Register an Opinion Re Walt/Mearsheimer?” There are the obligatory dark (and intimidating) charges of anti-Semitism. Perhaps the most extreme reaction, presumably aimed at a Jewish audience and intended to keep the funds flowing, is by ADL National Director Abraham Foxman: The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control.

Charges of shoddy scholarship abound, as in Leslie Gelb’s review in The  New York Times Book Review. Some of Gelb’s charges might even seem reasonable—if you haven’t read the book. For example, Gelb fails to do justice to Mearsheimer and Walt’s case on the power of the Israel lobby, dwelling only on their quoting various sources attesting to that power, but ignoring long sections of the book recounting numerous actual instances where the lobby has used its power to control Congress, presidents, and American public opinion on Mideast policy. Nor does he adequately portray Mearsheimer and Walt’s exhaustive account of the role of the lobby, the government of Israel, and administration neoconservatives with their strong Jewish identities and powerful ties to Israel in the build-up to the war in Iraq. Gelb states that, contra Mearsheimer and Walt, “Washington has quietly sided with the Palestinians [on the issues of the settlements and a Palestinian state] for a long time” It has indeed been a very quiet support because, as Mearsheimer and Walt show, the lobby has effectively prevented U.S. administrations from pushing Israel in that direction. There is also a complete disconnect between what Gelb says about the influence of the oil lobby and what Mearsheimer and Walt actually write. The same goes for Gelb’s comments on how U.S. arms sales to the Saudis illustrates the weakness of the lobby.

Gelb also subscribes to two of the central pro-Israel myths of the Mideast.  He unabashedly claims that “(i)n the closing days of the Clinton administration, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak met almost all Palestinian demands for a negotiated solution and was effectively turned down” without even bothering to cite Mearsheimer and Walt’s refutation of that argument.

Gelb also tries to resurrect the moral case for Israel, noting that “the United States is helping to protect one of the few nations in the world that share American values and interests, a true democracy,” again without bothering to tell his readers that Mearsheimer and Walt devote an entire chapter to the dwindling moral case for Israel. As Philip Weiss notes, if reviewers like Gelb are “right and America, i.e., non-Jews, actually love Israel because of shared interests and democratic values, shouldn’t the editors of America put reviewers to the test [by having non-Jews review the book]?  

In making charges of shoddy scholarship, Gelb should look in the mirror.

Some of Gelb’s arguments go beyond shoddy scholarship. For example, he states that “instinctively and without being lobbied, American presidents don’t want to gang up on Israel, since virtually every other state does so.”

When an argument is so silly that even a child could see through it and yet it is put forward by a Harvard Ph.D. in the elite media, you have to ask yourself what is really going on. Mearsheimer and Walt’s mistake may have been to think that they remained in a rational universe of rational actors when in fact they had entered a parallel universe of rationalization, self-deception, and talking points.

Unlike their Protestant forebears, there will be no crisis of confidence among the Jewish proponents of Israel and they will never feel cognitive dissonance for supporting an apartheid ethnostate in Israel while simultaneously being a pillar of support for a utopian vision of a multicultural U.S. Nor should one expect twinges of guilt for the role of the neoconservatives and the organized Jewish community in promoting the war in Iraq, with its thousands of dead and maimed American soldiers, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead, typically dismissed as “collateral damage,” and the hundreds of billions of dollars better spent elsewhere.

One of the things that struck me in reading Jewish history was a pattern, stretching back to the ancient world, in which Jews consistently created rationalizations and apologia intended to present themselves in a positive light and their enemies in a negative light. There was a great deal of evidence that at least some of this involved self-deception. A great many commentators have noticed this pattern, but one of the most accurate and succinct is John Murray Cuddihy’s comment that Jewish apologists developed a theory of their own history

emphasizing Gentile persecution as the root cause of Jewish “degradation.” This ideology . . . was shared in one form or another, by all the ideologists of nineteenth-century Jewry: Reform Jews and Zionists, assimilationists and socialists, Bundists and Communists—all became virtuosos of ethnic suffering. . . . The point is that these Diaspora groups were uninterested in actual history; they were apologists, ideologists, prefabricating a past in order to answer embarrassing questions, to outfit a new identity, and to ground a claim to equal treatment in the modern world.

Social psychologists have long known that powerful commitment to an ingroup results in a variety of cognitive distortions, especially glorifying the ingroup and pathologizing the outgroup. So we can’t expect a real dialog or objective analysis here. The deeply committed Jews who form the backbone of the organized Jewish community in America are simply unable to see Israel as morally flawed and a massive strategic burden to the United States.

Those who question the intensity of ethnic commitment among Jews would do well to watch Christiane Amanpour’s God’s Jewish Warriors. This work has typically been criticized by Jewish activists as not depicting a representative sample of Jews. But the question is not how representative these Jews are of Israeli Jews or their American supporters. The question is how much influence they have had. As I have argued, the settlement movement and the organized Jewish community in America that supports them represent the most psychologically committed and most deeply ethnocentric Jews. From the Maccabees (who led a rebellion against Greek influence in the second century B.C.) down to the present, they are the vanguard of Judaism, and Jews who actively oppose this state of affairs are eventually marginalized. If Jewish history shows anything, it's that the radicals eventually come to dominate the Jewish community. In this case, the radicals and their supporters in the Israeli government and among American Jews have created facts on the ground that make a reasonable settlement to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict a virtual impossibility.

If indeed a majority of Americans and their leaders realize that Israel is fundamentally an expression of the deep wellsprings of Jewish ethnocentrism and that American support for Israel is not at all in the national interest and has resulted in enormous costs and suffering, the predicted reaction is that committed Jews will retreat into a psychological world where once again they will see themselves as victims of irrational hatred—a theme that is already the central response to Mearsheimer and Walt.

For example, Eliot A. Cohen, a prominent neocon writing in the Washington Post on the London Review of Books paper by Mearsheimer and Walt that started the controversy: "Inept, even kooky academic work, ... but is it anti-Semitic? If by anti-Semitism one means obsessive and irrationally hostile beliefs about Jews; if one accuses them of disloyalty, subversion or treachery, of having occult powers and of participating in secret combinations that manipulate institutions and governments; if one systematically selects everything unfair, ugly or wrong about Jews as individuals or a group and equally systematically suppresses any exculpatory information — why, yes, this paper is anti-Semitic."

Or consider the ADL's blurb for Abe Foxman's book, The Deadliest Lies: "In a post-9/11 era of international tension and heightened suspicion, the American Jewish community has found itself having to respond to charges that it stifles free speech, has divided loyalties, and is responsible for pushing the United States into the war in Iraq. The essay by John J. Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen M. Walt of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard on “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy” and the 2006 book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid by former President Jimmy Carter have lent an alarming veneer of credibility to these accusations, which are little more than paranoid fantasies that reinforce persistent, anti-Semitic myths."

The whole lachrymose history of Jews as a persecuted but morally superior light unto the nations stretching from the Pharaoh to the Crusaders to the Czar, to Hitler to Ahmadinejad will once again be summoned to confer a sense of psychological affirmation. Only this time, with Israel already a formidable nuclear power, the stakes are raised for the entire planet.

This retreat into a psychological world of ethnic pride and pathologizing their opponents was not an option for the Protestant intellectual and cultural elite displaced by the rise of the culture of critique. Their commitment to individualism and their fragile sense of peoplehood and ethnic identification made them vulnerable to charges of moral failings. It was a vulnerability that was well recognized by Jewish activists: In the debate over the 1924 immigration restriction law, Israel Zangwill noted that “You must make a fight against this bill; tell them they are destroying American ideals. Most fortifications are of cardboard, and if you press against them, they give way.”

But arguments that the Israel lobby is destroying American ideals will fall on deaf ears among Jewish activists. Instead of producing a lack of confidence and a sense of guilt, the result of America turning against the Israel lobby will be the erection of a parallel universe of rationalization and self-deception among the most strongly identified segments of the Jewish community—the backbone of the organized Jewish community.

Turning against the lobby would also produce a political crisis in the United States. Another very clear message of Mearsheimer and Walt is that American political culture is utterly corrupt. The vast majority of American politicians have been only too willing to conform to the wishes of the lobby, and often compete to go beyond what the lobby desires. The good news, perhaps, is that a political crisis over Jewish influence is exactly what the United States needs.