Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Israel's war on academics

Stephen M. Walt and John J. Mearsheimer’s The Israel Lobby is an extremely important and cannily argued exposition of the war that has been waged against academics in the US and elsewhere — including, to name a few, the late Edward Said, Ilan Pappe, Tony Judt, Norman Finkelstein, Robert Fisk and Michael Scheuer — who have dared question the uncritical support that Western governments have given Israel as it continues its oppression of Palestinians (and Lebanese). While some of the individuals mentioned above (Pappe, Finkelstein) have seen their careers affected because of their views, Said, Scheuer, Fisk, Walt and Mearsheimer, for their part, have been accused of being ant-Semitic, in what often was more an emotional response that precluded rational thinking than a well-formulated counterargument.

Finkelstein’s recent brush with Israeli authorities, which resulted in about 24 hours of interrogation by Shin Bet at Ben Gurion Airport and his deportation from Israel — and barred entry for 10 years — serves as the epitome of the treatment reserved academics who tell truth to power. Finkelstein, a Jewish-American born to a Holocaust survivor and known for his books The Holocaust Industry and Beyond Chutzpah, has repeatedly accused Israel of exploiting memories of the Holocaust and the stigma of anti-Semitism to conduct its own widespread repression of a people. Far from being anti-Israel, Finkelstein has long been a proponent of a two-state solution respecting the 1967 borders. More recently, he has come in contact with the Lebanese Hezbollah, partly out of sympathy and partly to better understand the organization and the people it represents — in other words, her did so out of academic interest. Still, Shin Bet used his meetings with Hezbollah to tag him as a security risk and deny him entry.

As the Ha’aretz newspaper put it in a strong editorial on May 17: “True, the right to enter Israel is not guaranteed to noncitizens, but the right of Israeli citizens to hear unusual views is one that should be fought for. It is not for the government to decide which views should be heard here and which ones should not.” It continued: “… the decision is all the more surprising when one recalls the ease with which right-wing activists from the Meir Kahane camp — the kind whose activities pose a security threat that no longer requires further proof — are able to enter the country.” In other words, Finkelstein was being punished for his views and surely the repercussion will be felt back in the US. What is Ironic is that by punishing academics for wanting to learn more about its enemies, Israel is shooting itself in the foot and denying itself intelligence of the kind that its overrated intelligence agencies will never be able to gather.

In Canada, immediately after Liberal Party leader Stéphane Dion had announced the appointment, in federal by-elections in 2007, of Jocelyn Coulon, a former columnist for the La Presse and Le Devoir newspapers in Montreal, to represent the party in the Outremont riding, B’Nai Brith, a Jewish lobby group, attacked Coulon (former director of the Lester B. Pearson Peacekeeping Center in Montreal, where I took a course in 2001 and got to know him very well), for his alleged “anti-Israel” and “anti-US” views as well as calls for an end to the isolation of Hamas. Although the riding is only 10 percent Jewish, the Liberal Party has a long history of reliance on this powerful bloc, and B’Nai Brith’s calls that his nomination be revoked — added to the bad publicity that this generated — cannot but have had an impact on the election results, in which Mr. Coulon was defeated by the New Democrat candidate.

My own experience, as a Canadian who worked in security intelligence and now as a writer/academic, has been similar. At the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), where I worked as an analyst from 2003-2005, my views on Israel and Canada’s unquestioning support for its policies often went against the organizational paradigm, and on more than one occasion I was told, in no uncertain terms, that my career as an intelligence officer would suffer if I continued to criticize that support. The callousness of some Israeli agents I met in the course of my work, or the manner in which they completely overestimated the Palestinian or Hezbollah threat, was nothing less than shocking. As such, the official and tacit Israeli lobby is also very much alive in Canada, a subject I touch on in my book Smokescreen.

Since I moved to Taiwan, I have published some articles on Israel, which for some reason many like to see as facing a threat similar to Taiwan’s — a false analogy that I have sought to dispel on a number of occasions. There, too, far away from Western circles, the attacks came, more often than not in the form of character assassination rather than arguments worthy of the name.

It took great courage, I am sure, for Messrs. Walt and Mearsheimer to write their article, and then turn it into a book. But it is a worthy polemic which, if heeded not only in the US but elsewhere, would ironically help ensure that Israel faces the prospects of a better, safer future, which its people certainly deserve — only not at the expense of Palestinians, Lebanese and academic freedom.


fiLi - 安斐理 said...

Good point. Authors around the world fear and respect the Jewish world control of media and academia through their unjustified gain of most of the world's financial and political influences. Anyone opposing or criticizing Israel or the support given to it would be severely punished for his behavior, no doubt. You really need to be courageous to go against Israel...


I honestly don't know how you came to see the world this way but I think what you suggest here - and I will take the risk of being accused of exploiting this issue - is in the essence of anti-Semitism.
I honestly believe that few countries around the world are being criticized as much as Israel is, especially from inside Israel and by its own people. I find the notion that Israelis are controlling expressions of opinion within Israel or anybody elsewhere in the world absolutely ridiculous.

I think nowadays, saying something positive about Israel requires courage and developed sense of political responsibility. It is a world wide trend to accuse Israel or the Jewish lobby of ...

Oh well... never mind. :P

MikeinTaipei said...

Thanks for your comments, Fili.

A few clarifications, if I may. I do not believe that my criticism of Israel in any way, shape or form constitutes anti-Semitism. In fact, I couldn’t care less about which religion people practice; what matters, rather, is actions. If you are a frequent reader of this site, you will note that I have spared no one in my criticism — certainly not the obvious targets, such as the US and China, or even the others, such as Canada (a frequent object of interest, given my origins, about whose actions in the “war” on terrorism I have written a full, unsparing book), Germany, Iran and yes, even Taiwan, on freedom of speech, or when it mulled introducing more intrusive anti-terrorism laws.

While dissent within Israel is often admirable (and I often quote from the pages of Ha'aretz), I have found that similar criticism outside has been stifled with more ease, a situation for which the governments involved are at least equally as guilty as is the Israeli lobby. As such, when one criticizes a lobby, similar criticism is inherently made against governments, as they could choose to ignore it, but many don’t.

Why Israel, as you claim, is among the most criticized countries in the world (not so sure about that, if one looks at the literature on Iran, the US, Russia and China), could ironically be the result of the image it seeks to give — one of a mature, advanced, Westernized democracy. That it fails to meet those standards in the conduct of its foreign and domestic policy makes the contrast between reality and fiction all the more stark, which invites criticism. The fact that it does what it does with full support, or at minimum tacit backing, of the world’s only superpower also means that the criticism will be harsher.

fiLi - 安斐理 said...

Your criticism towards others is a bit different. Read your post again about how you describe the "Jewish lobby" and what is vague describe as general forces manipulating criticism over Israel and its supporters. Edlers of Zion indeed.

I follow your blog often, especially those in regard to the Taiwan-Israel comparisons, and while I find your views extreme, I wouldn't call it racism or anti-sem... (although you've suggested this is Israeli policy towards others in the region).

Referring to freedom of speech, I believe Israel is a remarkable example for the expression of that right for its citizens (Arab-Israelis and their politicians especially), which allows for a constant in-depth discussion of highly sensitive political and social subjects that might be taboo or banned in other "mature" "western" "modern" democracies. Sure, nothing's perfect, still work to be done, but I've never seen a country accept such a wide array of extreme opinions from its citizens.

I've referred to that before, but what you see as total support for Israeli policy, Israelis see differently. Plainly, external world politics interfering with domestic affairs is only acceptable within our region (you know what - Taiwan too). Why? The blunt American influence on the region's policy, far from being supportive, has resulted in numerous political problems (the forced pseudo-elections bringing Hamas and Palestinian split between Gaza and West Bank as the dominant example). Every step Israel makes, more restrained than most other world responses regarding far lesser issues is being focused on and criticized. I do not suggest that this shouldn't be discussed, it should. A public discussion regarding Israeli policies should take place and I would be there to say my opinion against many of them, and you're right - all countries are to be measure according to the same values, but say to an Israeli that the world/US is behind Israel on everything it does and most Israelis would laugh. Everybody here keeps telling me America is Israel's best friend, and I disagree. Same with American policy regarding Taiwan. With such friends...

Long, maybe endless discussion. All I suggest is to take things into perspective, all perspectives.

MikeinTaipei said...

Valid arguments all; taken.

I fully agree that Washington's friendship can at times be a poisonous one, as it has been for Israel and yes, Taiwan. I fully agree, too, that US policy in the Middle East has caused Jerusalem many a headache, as I fear US actions in East Asia can only spell trouble for Taipei, especially if Beijing lashes out at what it perceives to be an attempt to encircle, or contain, it.

Still, if tomorrow Taipei decided to launch a preemptive strike against China, or use its military to assassinate Chinese officials who call for a military takeover of Taiwan, I'm convinced the slap on the wrist would be far more consequential than the criticism that Washington has reserved Israel when it embarks on such policies.

It would, indeed, be wrong to call US support for Israel "full"; yet, it would be irresponsible, I think, to deny the existence of exceptionalism in how Washington deals with Jerusalem.