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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Mearsheimer and Walt: an Anglican footnote

Coming upon a stack of Mearsheimer and Walts (in English) in Berlin's top bookshop, I wanted to check whether a particular passage in their London Review of Books article had made it into the book. It had, and thanks to it I am able to save myself a lot of time and expense. It seems reasonable to say that if you find you can't trust what a book says about a subject you know something about, you've no reason to trust what it says about anything else. So I have made up my mind about The Israel Lobby. It stinks.

Here is the offending passage from the article; I did not notice any significant alteration in the book:-

'Israel’s advocates, when pressed to go beyond mere assertion, claim that there is a ‘new anti-semitism’, which they equate with criticism of Israel. In other words, criticise Israeli policy and you are by definition an anti-semite. When the synod of the Church of England recently voted to divest from Caterpillar Inc on the grounds that it manufactures the bulldozers used by the Israelis to demolish Palestinian homes, the Chief Rabbi complained that this would ‘have the most adverse repercussions on . . . Jewish-Christian relations in Britain’, while Rabbi Tony Bayfield, the head of the Reform movement, said: ‘There is a clear problem of anti-Zionist – verging on anti-semitic – attitudes emerging in the grass-roots, and even in the middle ranks of the Church.’ But the Church was guilty merely of protesting against Israeli government policy.'

So: a church takes a perfectly innocent stand on a human rights issue, and a couple of rabbis make wild accusations of anti-Semitism in a transparent attempt to morally blackmail non-Jews into silence over Israel's crimes. Should we not applaud Mearsheimer and Walt for their courage in exposing this for the racket that it is?

As a member of the Church of England who took a close interest in these events when they happened, the only thing I feel like applauding is the authors' skill in cramming so many half truths and misrepresentations into four sentences. Apologies to readers pushed for time for my inability to produce an equally concise refutation, but I must crave your patience...

Critics of critics of critics

The claim that there is a new anti-Semitism abroad may indeed be made by some people who treat all criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic; it is certainly made by a great many people who do nothing of the kind. If you doubt this, spend some time at the Engage website; to represent Engage's position as 'criticise Israeli policy and you are by definition an anti-semite' would be a straightforward lie.

The smear against those sincerely concerned about the new anti-Semitism is followed by the sentence quoting the two rabbis' warnings of anti-Semitism in response to a particular campaign against Israel. The unwary reader is being invited to assume that the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, and Rabbi Tony Bayfield take the 'criticise Israeli policy and you are by definition an anti-semite' line. In both gentlemen's cases this is, once again, totally untrue.1

Who's complaining?

A further assumption to which our unwary reader is implicitly invited: since it was just a couple of rabbis who attacked the Synod resolution, Zionist special pleading must have been the only possible grounds for making such a criticism. Why do the authors not see fit to mention that (among other non-Jewish critical voices) the resolution was also sharply condemned by no less an Anglican than the former Archbishop of Canterbury? Lord Carey said it made him 'ashamed to be an Anglican'. Should we ascribe this omission (which has certainly not been corrected in the book) to sloppy research, or deliberate misrepresentation?

Criticism versus demonization

So why did a disparate coalition of Jewish and non-Jewish voices speak out against the resolution? 'But the Church was guilty merely of protesting against Israeli government policy', the authors tell us with affected artlessness, as if that was enough to dispose conclusively of any possibility of anti-Semitism. It wasn't about Jews, it was 'merely' about a state which 'merely' happens to be the only Jewish one in the world.

This is not about analysis or persuasion, but about playing to the gallery - a gallery where 'it isn't anti-Semitic to criticize Israel' is a mantra for keeping minds closed and terminating debate.

And it won't do. It really, really won't. Criticism of Israel can be fair and justified. It can also demonize Israel and in demonizing Israel demonize the Jewish people. It does this when it applies double standards - as General Synod did with a 'protest' which was certainly anything but 'mere'. I distinguish two types of double standard; one might describe them as local and global.

The local double standard: telling one side of the story

Mearsheimer and Walt themselves apply the first category of double standard in exactly the same way that General Synod did. Caterpillar bulldozers were 'used by the Israelis to demolish Palestinian homes'. Well, any particular homes? Any particular Palestinians? Any particular reason? Or just randomly, for the sheer hell of it?

The answer is, of course, that the Israeli government had a policy of demolishing the homes of suicide bombers who had attacked Israel. Call it illegal, call it vindictive, call it counterproductive - fine, so long as you acknowledge that a terrorism which demolishes not just real estate but lives is part of the equation. That simple acknowledgement is too much for Mearsheimer and Walt, just as it was for General Synod.

The global double standard: singling out

It so happens that the demand for divestment from Caterpillar displayed the second category of double standard with a particularly stark clarity. General Synod met in February 2006. During 2005 the government of Zimbabwe had carried out a demolition programme which, according to UN estimates, left some 700,000 people homeless - people whose crime was, essentially, being poor.

As I wrote at the time, Synod failed to show '[a]ny interest in finding out who provided Robert Mugabe with technical backup for a house demolition campaign which dwarfed all the Israelis’ efforts.' Well, I can now answer my own question thanks (ironically, given my views about the magazine's Middle East coverage) to Christian Aid News, which published a photo of a bulldozer demolishing a shack which had been a family's home. The bulldozer was bright yellow, and the maker's logo was somewhat blurred but clearly began with a 'C'.

Has there been a campaign within the Church of England to persuade Caterpillar that it should not sell its products to Zimbabwe? No, there has not - let alone a divestment campaign.2

A historical thought experiment

If it's still not clear what this has to do with anti-Semitism, let me offer an analogy from - surprise, surprise - Germany. Under the 1918-33 Weimar Republic there were a number of financial scandals in which wealthy Jews were implicated. Let's imagine how different newspapers might have covered these stories.

A paper of the radical Left might have used them as illustrations of the rottenness of the capitalist system. So long as it gave equal prominence and similar treatment to scandals where no Jews were involved, it would have had no case to answer if anyone accused it of anti-Semitism.

A Nazi paper, on the other hand, would obviously have highlighted just those scandals involving Jews, and made sure its readers couldn't overlook the fact that they were Jewish. There would be no room for doubt as to what its agenda was.

But what would we make of a paper which consistently highlighted only the scandals involving Jews, but which, if taken to task over this, insisted that it was just a critique of the excesses of capitalism and nothing whatever to do with anti-Semitism? Would we not be forced to see this either a peculiar form of moral blindness or simple bad faith? Would we want to defend the editors indignantly against any suggestion that they were not perfectly good socialists, good liberals or good Christians?

In search of real anti-Semitism

But I'm not sure that it's much use arguing this point with Mearsheimer and Walt. As regards their attitude to anti-Semitism, there's a sentence from the previous paragraph in the article which gives the game away in glorious Technicolor. I certainly won't be the first fisker whose attention this has attracted:-

'No one would deny that there is anti-semitism among European Muslims, some of it provoked by Israel’s conduct towards the Palestinians and some of it straightforwardly racist.'

So there you have it: there are two kinds of anti-Semitism, and one is racist, but the other has been provoked. Any Jew in London, Berlin or Paris who gets beaten up by Muslims infuriated by Israel's conduct towards the Palestinians can take comfort in the knowledge that his/her assailants were not straightforward racists.

If authentic, 'racist' anti-Semitism has to involve a complete absence of provocation, we can pretty much say that it has rarely, if ever, existed. Jews have provoked Gentiles by being responsible for capitalism, communism, anarchism, Germany's defeat in the First World War, the Black Death and the killing of Christ... The list goes on. And now Israel. If only they would behave themselves!

Imagine that Mearsheimer and Walt had suggested that hatred of black people in general, or Arabs, or Muslims, is sometimes 'provoked' and therefore not 'straightforwardly' racist. Can you also imagine them being able to make a triumphal progress round Britain's universities, propounding these views to adoring audiences of left-wing students and academics?

Lobby (UK section) exposed?

Let's come back to the Synod resolution. What is the relevance of this story to Mearsheimer and Walt's central thesis? The Chief Rabbi had a spat with the Church of England over Israel - what's that got to do with the price of fish? It's pretty clear that the authors would like very much to include Britain in the picture they paint of America - a Britain under the thumb of the Lobby, in which would-be critics of Israel are silenced by the wielding of the 'anti-Semitism club' (as some people in Germany see fit to call it). But it's equally clear that to offer the case of the Synod resolution as evidence for this is absurd. For the resolution was indeed easily carried. Those voting for it were evidently not deterred by the fear of accusations of anti-Semitism, and I know of no evidence that any of them has since been cowed by the Chief Rabbi's strictures.

Perhaps we are meant to think that this was a bold, maverick action on the part of General Synod. But that's plainly nonsense, too. For a start, it's just not the C of E's style, and never has been. These days the established church is about as cosy in its relationship with the left-liberal establishment as it used to be with the landed gentry (only the ever-infuriating Evangelicals disturb the harmony).

No, as I hardly need to inform British readers, the vote reflects a media environment, both secular and Christian, in which hostile coverage of Israel is routine and pervasive. You'd be safe in guessing that among the Synod members who voted for the resolution there was a healthy majority of Guardian and Independent readers. Neither paper displays the slightest reluctance to criticize Israel. Most will also have been exposed to Christian Aid's persistent propaganda campaign against Israel. And practically all of them will have been consumers of the not exactly Israel-friendly BBC's news and current affairs programming.

Tony Blair and the logic of the Lobby thesis

My impression, then, is that Mearsheimer and Walt are not particularly well-informed about Britain. That's fair enough - I certainly don't know as much as I could know about the USA. But Britain is nevertheless crucial to their thesis. They need Britain to be, like America, firmly in the grip of the Lobby. For how, otherwise, is the Blair government's decision to join in the invasion of Iraq to be explained? On the principle of Occam's Razor, the explanatory force of the Lobby thesis depends on the assumption that Bush's decision to go to war was so perverse, irrational and immoral that only the malign influence of the Lobby can satisfactorily account for it. And if Blair's choice - irrespective of whether it was right or wrong - was truly his own, then that assumption falls. So he, no less than Bush, must be a pliant creature of the Lobby.

And that, I think, is why the General Synod of the Church of England makes its brief appearance as a heroic resistance movement against the intellectual reign of terror exercised by Jonathan Sacks and Tony Bayfield. Conclusion of my footnote: this book is toxic.

Footnotes to the footnote

1. From the Chief Rabbi's Address to the Board of Deputies of British Jews, 21 September 2003:-

'Is criticism of Israel anti-Semitism? No. Are false accusations against Israel anti-Semitism? No. Is Britain an anti-Semitic country? No and no again. This is a good, decent and tolerant country, a society of chessed which we love and to which we have loyally contributed for 350 years.

'But we say to every responsible citizen of Europe - Zakhor, remember. Remember how one thing leads to another. Remember how centuries of prejudice against Jews were captured and turned to evil by evil men for evil ends. Remember that the road to hell begins with a single step. For the love of G-d, or for the love of humanity, stand up and say "No".

'You do not have to support the current or any other Government of Israel in order to protest the demonisation of Zion and the Jewish people. You do not have to take sides in the current conflict in order to be able to say to people, "You are stirring up hatred which is wrong, dangerous and unacceptable."'

Rabbi Tony Bayfield, writing in Comment is Free on 26 June 2007:-

'I am a moderate when it comes to Israel but not, I hope, vacuous. It is an uncomfortable position with traffic coming at me from both sides. I am a Zionist and define Zionism as a non-negotiable commitment to the right of the state of Israel to exist and an equal commitment to the pursuit of peace as the highest value, to democracy and human rights. That exposes me to the rage of Israel's critics on the one side and to the Jewish "realists" and cynics on the other.'

2. The C of E's brand of anti-colonialist anti-racism evidently makes it less reluctant to vilify the Jewish state than to take a stand against a black African despot - even though his victims are also black Africans.

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