American ‘Moral Bankruptcy’ and Israel Policy

Harvard University Professor Stephen Walt published an essay on 22 July in The Huffington Post titled, “AIPAC Is the Only Explanation for America’s Morally Bankrupt Israel Policy.” The piece focuses on how much the U.S. political leadership supported the recent Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip and its attacks throughout the West Bank. In Walt’s analysis, this support stems exclusively (or at least overwhelmingly) from what he and University of Chicago Professor John Mearsheimer famously call “The Israel Lobby”. The article’s title uses “AIPAC” (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) as shorthand for those organizations working to shape U.S. political discourse on Palestine including a variety of Christian and Jewish Zionist groups like Christians United for Israel, Anti-Defamation League, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and others. These organizations are the “explanation for America’s impotent and morally bankrupt policy,” and are why this policy is “so at odds with [America’s] professed values.” As he and Mearsheimer do in their book, Walt also points to how U.S. policy on Palestine is profoundly against the U.S. national interest.

Walt’s analysis in the article and the Israel Lobby thesis more broadly are fundamentally flawed. Rather than refute specific points in Walt’s article I’ll instead lay out a different framework in which we can read the United States’ Israel policy. First I’ll concede all the facts in Walt’s article and The Israel Lobby, including those that are wrong. They are important but for the purposes of this essay they are largely immaterial. I fully agree that there are well organized lobbying groups and political organizations that are influential in both the details and fervor of the United States’ Israel policy. While their political donations may pale in comparison to, for example, the pharmaceutical and insurance industries or trial lawyers, they are impressive in their ability to mobilize bases for political action including letters to congressschmucks and the media, outreach to public officials and more (including, sometimes, voting). Their mobilizing acumen is matched by few lobbying efforts. All that being said, the basis and broad contours of the U.S. policy were already shaped long before Theodore Herzl was born.

Walter Benjamin wrote in 1940 that, “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘emergency situation’ in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which corresponds to this. […] The astonishment that the things we are experiencing in the 20th century are ‘still’ possible is by no means philosophical. It is not the beginning of knowledge, unless it would be the knowledge that the conception of history on which it rests is untenable.” Gayatri Spivak, Edward Said, bell hooks and others have made the point similarly or better in the time since. Benjamin was writing specifically about European fascism including that of Nazi Germany. One concrete example, though he didn’t use this one himself, is that Nazism can only be astonishing if we refuse to listen to the Nama and Herero people of Namibia against whom the prior German regime genocided in the Südwestafrika settler colony. The “tradition of the oppressed” includes tools of analysis about and histories of resistance against European fascism that predated fascism on the European continent. For this essay, “the tradition of the oppressed” has a lot more to say about the United States’ “morally bankrupt [Israel] policy” than The Israel Lobby and related essays and clarifies what the country’s “professed values” actually mean. Put briefly, the Israel Lobby thesis suffers from the mistaken premise that U.S. history is something other than a horror story. Recontextualizing the Israel lobby and U.S. policy provides not only better understanding, but also more opportunities for transformative change.

Settlers Apart, Settlers Together

Like Israel, the United States is a settler colony. Both simultaneously establish themselves and eliminate indigenous sovereignty along with, in one way or the other, indigenous populations. Reductively put, every five acres of the United States is five acres less of Turtle Island.* The elimination is carried out through physical extermination, expulsion, disarticulating native indigeneity (for example trying to make Palestinians into ‘Israeli Arabs’ or removing indigenous children to raise them in the settler society) and more. In the United States, Canada, Israel, New Zealand and many other settler colonies, combinations of all of the above are used to ends certainly no less ‘morally bankrupt’ than the U.S.’s Israel policy. To the point of this essay, settler colonies recognize each other and use that recognition to build solidarity.

The Myths & Facts website is a project evolved from the Myths and Facts texts AIPAC began publishing in the 1970s. In the website’s “The U.S.-Israel Special Relationship” series, Eli Hertz notes “the affinity between Israel and the United States draws on the fact that both countries are democracies and share a host of other enlightened values, including a similar defining ethos as nations of immigrations,” (After a time, all settler societies call themselves ‘nations of immigrants’ and not ‘nations of settlers’). He continues, “both nations were built by waves of refugees or persecuted immigrants who sought religious, political, or economic freedom.” U.S. President Barack Obama made a similar appeal to U.S.-Australian solidarity during a 2011 address in Darwin, Australia.The bonds between us run deep. In each other’s story we see so much of ourselves. Ancestors who crossed vast oceans – some by choice, some in chains. Settlers who pushed west across sweeping plains. Dreamers who toiled with hearts and hands to lay railroads and to build cities. Generations of immigrants who, with each new arrival, add a new thread to the brilliant tapestry of our nations.” A more crude (honest?) version is that of former Israeli ambassador to Australia Naftali Tamir. In a 2006 interview calling for closer cooperation between Australia and Israel Tamir said, “Asia is basically the continent of the Yellow race. Australia and Israel do not belong to it – we basically belong to the White race.” Further, “Israel and Australia are like sisters in Asia. We are located in Asia but without the characteristics of Asians, our skin is not yellow nor are our eyes slanted.”

In addition to calls for solidarity with other settler societies based on the mere fact of being settlers themselves, settler discourse also points to other settler colonies to determine who will be allowed to join the colony. Walt’s Harvard University colleague George Borjas writes in The Washington Post, “While the United States has proven cautious about addressing [what kind and how many immigrants does it want], several other ‘nations of immigrants’ (including Canada, Australia and New Zealand) have far more proactive approaches to immigration: They have devised systems that are designed to favor people who will contribute economically to the country and who will assimilate quickly.” Borjas’ 2001 article is predated by around a century by the various anti-Asian policies that South Africa, Australia (under the banner of “White Australia”), the United States (especially in California) and Canada (especially in British Columbia) developed to restrict Asian immigration. Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds examine in depth the how the various White settler colonies’ anti-Asian policies influenced each other in their 2008 volume Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the Challenge for Racial Equality. Judd Yadid offers a liberal version in a 2013 Haaretz article about Australian Jewish hostility to South African Jewish immigration. “Those Australian Jews that criticize the influx and eccentricities of their South African brethren should show more empathy, and be mindful of the fact that they themselves are the offspring of immigrants. In fact, the entire non-indigenous population of the great southern land were once newcomers.” Yadid’s examination looks beyond Australian Jewish prejudice against South African Jews to critique Australia’s racist immigration policies. Yet by the article’s end he manages to use a critique of xenophobic racism to declare permanent settler colonialism. Most mainstream and liberal migrant justice discourse in settler colonies does this, again under the banner of ‘nation of immigrants’.

This mutual recognition that ‘they are like us’ amongst White settler colonies breeds frequent solidarity and joint political action. A full accounting of such actions would narrate a significant part of the 20th century but a few examples of this Settler International in action are in order. In numerous United Nations General Assembly votes on the question of Palestine, Israel is nearly alone in voting against the resolutions. Among the very few countries that regularly vote the Israeli side are Australia, Canada and the United States. The United States and Israel were two of the few countries that supported settler rule in South Africa nearly until the end. Both supported the apartheid regime with arms and trade assistance while Israel also contributed troops for combat fighting. John Collins – whose engagement of Benjamin heavily influences mine above – in his book Global Palestine narrates how the famous 1948-49 Berlin Airlift was carried out by “a who’s who of settler colonialism,” (United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the UK, the latter managing settlement in Northern Ireland and Southern Rhodesia). The list goes on.

Settler colonies, apart from the secular far Right-wing, rarely pronounce or conceive of their solidarity in phrasings openly recognizing indigenous removal and doing so is unnecessary. Settler colonialism is an organization of power like capitalism, patriarchy or White supremacy. Its power is not just political and geographic, but also discursive producing a settler normativity – what Elizabeth Povinelli described as the “organization of sociality on the basis of the naturalness of a civilizational displacement.” It need not be spoken or even consciously thought in hegemonic discourse. It is basic to settlers’ understanding of the world, often too basic to notice. A common example in the United States is the popular NFL football team the San Francisco 49ers. The original ‘forty-niners were populist genocidaires. The historical formation of the ‘forty-niner is inextricably tied to genocide and the conquest of California’s indigenous populace. Yet the football team is discursively divorced from the practices of the actual ‘forty-niners.

Indigenous removal is so basic to the settler cosmology that its daily celebrations of the genocidaires – on currency, in street, school and team names, on monuments, in holidays, etc. – pass unnoticed. Settler normativity is as much part of foreign policy as it is domestic as noted above in the appeal to fellow ‘nations of immigrants’. Settler colonialism is a baseline of U.S. policy, whether foreign or domestic. Without the Israel Lobby, it’s still difficult to imagine the United States being predisposed to solidarity with an indigenous people against another White settler colony when it has resisted doing so in every other case, even if eventually taking somewhat critical positions on Southern Rhodesia, Northern Ireland and South Africa.

Last, when settler rule in Palestine does fall, it will be the first modern example of settler rule falling when the settlers formed a majority of the population in the colony for any amount of time. That should be (Beautifully! Wonderfully! Literally!) unsettling to other settler societies, even those where settlers are the vast majority of the population.

Moral Bankruptcy and the American Tradition, or, the U.S. is a Shithole and They Made it That Way

The United States’ “professed values” range from ‘freedom’ to ‘democracy’ to ‘equality’ and similar phrasings. This is sleight of hand. The “morally bankrupt” Israel policy is representative of American policy as the “tradition of the oppressed” indicates.

Since the settler colony broke from its British sponsor in 1776, the United States has averaged just under 1.4 military deployments per year. Most are not large scale invasions and some, like evacuations, are easily or plausibly defensible. But most are not. A great many are bald interventions on behalf of U.S. business operations threatened by local demands for control of resources.

As noted above, the very premise of the United States is Indian Removal, one of two sine qua nons of the settler colony’s existence. And every year more land is colonized for mineral extraction, new housing developments and other reasons. Native children continue to be disarticulated from their indigeneity, abducted by the state to be raised in the settler society. Native political prisoners languish in U.S. prisons while the settler society creates native fetish objects as sports mascots and costumes or celebrates the genocidaires themselves.

The other sine qua non of U.S. history is African slavery, the labor of which built the nation’s wealth. Beyond stolen labor, U.S. tradition imagines Black bodies as infinitely fungible as Jared Sexton, Saidiya Hartmann, and others have described. Slaveowners attempted to turn enslaved Black people into whatever tool they needed followed by nonconsensual medical experiments and forced sterilization. As just one example today, prison labor programs where a wildly disproportionately Black prison population works for menial wages in fields that – by and large – won’t hire a convict upon release. Mass incarceration itself is part of a racial caste system targeting Black people as George Jackson, Angela Davis, Mariam Kaba and others have demonstrated.

One effect of White Supremacy and settler colonialism is a lower life expectancy for Black and indigenous people. For the present population, the 4.3 years average difference in life expectancy amounts to over 167 million total years collectively stolen from Black people. The discrepancy for the much smaller native population still amounts to over 5.7 million years stolen. These are quantities of years normally reserved for geologic or evolutionary discussions. Lest this be thought unintentional, the lack of accountability for the murders of Black people is an affirmation of stolen life. Indigenous dispossession and African slavery are in fact mutually constitutive as Andrea Smith illuminates.

The United States is by law, homophobic and transphobic (some aspects of which are being reformed under the banner of assimilationism).

The United States is officially anti-working class. One conspicuous element is immigration policy where working class people from other nations – especially Black and Brown people – find it nearly impossible to get visas.

U.S. economic policy is designed to facilitate wealth accumulation by those who already have it.

To make an exhaustive list would assume a naivety neither most proponents of the Israel Lobby theory nor other readers possess. The point is that “moral bankruptcy” is the default American position. Even those benefits that do accrue to people of color, the working class and middle class are largely predicated on exploitation abroad or on another group at home. Moral bankruptcy is a didactic and clumsy yet perfectly accurate description for American history.

In addition to settler colonialism, other fundaments of American policy, foreign and domestic, are capitalism, patriarchy and White supremacy. The U.S. prefers Israel to Palestine for reasons of Israeli wealth against Palestinian poverty (capitalist normativity, more about which in the next section). For having a more familiar articulation of patriarchy (often celebrated as gender liberal Israelis vs. gender conservative Palestinians). For Israel being dominated by Ashkenazim (Jews of European ancestry) and thus White, whereas Palestinians are people of color (White supremacist normativity). All of these are in step with American history and U.S. policy towards other nations. Only an untenable conception of American history produces the popular Israel lobby thesis.

American Foreign Policy With and Without The Lobby

The United States has a history of supporting regressive regimes that had no specific lobby of note. As with the previous section, there is no need for an exhaustive list. There are volumes upon volumes filled with critiques of U.S. support for regressive regimes including Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America, Noam Chomsky’s Deterring Democracy and numerous others.

For decades the United States was the prime sponsor of the successive Duvalier regimes in Haiti. The U.S. was a key player in the 1953 anti-Mossadegh coup in Iran and the prime sponsor of the ensuing Shah regime. Before Israel was even a state the United States was sponsoring the brutal Saudi monarchy. The U.S. has supported regressive regimes in Central America for well over a century. The U.S. was a strong supporter of the Mobutu regime in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The U.S. supported the Nicaraguan Somoza regimes right up until the end and then spent the ensuing decade sponsoring the reactionary Contra militia against the Sandinista regime (against which it still intervenes).

In none of these examples was there a specific lobby in Washington comparing in size or scope to the Israel Lobby yet the U.S. still aggressively supports regressive policies. There were capitalist forces pushing for these policies generally, some with a more specific focus than others. For example, Mossadegh’s democratic socialist policies would have reigned in U.S. and British profits, especially in the petroleum industry. Fruit companies lobbied for support to regressive forces Central America in response to labor uprisings in and peasant mobilization against agribusiness. Various capitalist lobbies support Nicaragua policy in response to the Sandinista’s democratic socialist policy platform.

Capitalist interests are key drivers of U.S. foreign policy and always have been. They have been most aggressive in supporting regressive policy when anti-capitalist, or even liberal, regimes and resistance movements seeking to reign in capitalism were present. This fits with with Israel policy too. When the U.S. first began serious intervention in support of Israel the Palestine Liberation Organization was dominated by groups that ranged from democratic socialist to communist.

In the case of the United States belatedly and partially opposing settler rule in South Africa, it did so only under great pressure domestically and internationally. Even then only against the more crudely racist apartheid legislation and settler legislative rule. However capitalism and settler colonialism in South Africa are intertextual. The United States supported only ending settler legislative rule and the settler capitalist class remains a tremendous political force today. Opponents of ending settler rule framed the ANC, Black Conscious Movement and others as communist or socialist revolutionary organizations (with some accuracy!) to couch their opposition in terms other than explicit White supremacy. The PLO too was frequently discussed as socialist, communist or, more commonly, affiliated with or sponsored by China or the U.S.S.R.

Capitalism, like settler colonialism, is a fundamental U.S. political framework and Israel is a neoliberal capitalist state. That is part of their “shared values” and it is a reason the U.S. is partisan to Israel.

Who Defines the National Interest?

U.S. national interests in Southwest Asia aren’t easy to pin down. They vary wildly depending on who is making policy. For example, many political science Realists decried the U.S. invasion of Iraq. They said it would be counterproductive to U.S. interests in the regime. But recall the headline several years back: “Exxon. Biggest. Profit. Ever.” John Dewey said “Politics is the shadow cast on society by big business.” In that light, the war was very much in the national interest as defined by the oil lobbies close to the G.W. Bush Administration. So who is casting the biggest shadow at any given moment? That defines “national interest” as much as anything else.

In the case of Israel we’ve seen the U.S. bring its client state to heel on numerous occasions when the ‘national interest’ as defined by those in power was threatened. The U.S. in 2006 denied Israel Aerospace Industries export licenses for certain systems thereby disqualifying it from a South Korean US$1.5 billion AWACS tender, by default giving Boeing the contract as the only other bidder.

When China sent Harpy unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) it purchased from Israel in 1994 back to the country for upgrading in 2004, the U.S. intervened and prohibited Israel from sending back the UAVs, upgraded or not, despite them not containing U.S. technology and Israel no longer owning the machines. This is particularly notable because Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz – both prominent far Right supporters of Israel – led the campaign of pressure.

Israel Aerospace Industries won a contract in 1998 to sell its Phalcon AWACS system to China in a deal worth over US$1 billion, but under U.S. pressure, not only cancelled the deal but paid China a $350 million cancellation fee.

The Israel Lobby and the Israeli state lobbied vigorously against the Reagan Administration’s decision to sell AWACS systems to Saudi Arabia in what was then the largest – by dollar value – arms export in U.S. history. But Reagan, Secretary of State Alexander Haig and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger all pushed through the sale. In the end, they even took away the ‘pro-Israel’ position by couching the sale of one of the world’s most advanced weapons systems to Saudi Arabia as beneficial to “the security of Israel and peace itself.” Time and time again, especially around the arms trade, the United States disregards Israel’s wishes and even intense efforts by the Israel Lobby.

Broad general support with occasional disciplining is about what we would expect for a client state (this is being admittedly reductive). Examining the successes and failures of of the Israel lobby paints a clearer picture of the U.S. national interest as defined by those who actually enforce it. In the view of those who define the U.S. national interest, Palestinian liberation is simply a secondary or non-issue, hence the Israel Lobby’s near uniform success on anything related to Palestinian liberation.

All of the above is without even considering Israel’s actual role in U.S. empire as a regional heavy, bulwark against progressive Arab nationalism, conduit for U.S. arms sales to unsavory clients, subsidy for the U.S. arms industry and more (a topic for an essay to come). Israel is an important client state and that has a lot to do with U.S. support.

But the Israel Lobby does matter

All of this is to say that, contrary to the Israel Lobby thesis, AIPAC is not the only explanation for America’s morally bankrupt Israel policy. Moral bankruptcy is the U.S. default position and defining policy agenda. The United States historically shows tremendous support for other White settler states, no matter the size of any lobby. The United States historically shows tremendous support for colonizers over the colonized. The United States historically opposes revolutionary social movements whether at home or abroad, especially those led by people of color and indigenous people. The United States historically supports its clients states no matter what they do. The United States historically supports wealthier states over poorer ones (or movements representing working class liberation). There is nothing aberrant about the United States’ Israel policy with the exception of its ferocity.

The lengths the U.S. goes to in order to defend Israeli policy are indeed a little unusual. The ferocity is at a level normally reserved for anti-communist, anti-Black, anti-feminist and other domestic and foreign policies that threaten normative organizations of power. Here, finally, this seems to be the Israel Lobby at work. This is not to minimize the importance of the Israel Lobby. It is directly involved in shaping oppressive policy and discourse even if it is not fundamental to policy direction. Further, it is well-funded and almost competently organized (I won’t belabor the point but significant resources can mask a lot of incompetency. For example see every well funded public or private bureaucracy anywhere on the planet and The Peter Principle.). It is also a consciously ideological colonizing effort making it an important voice in settler colonialism. The Israel Lobby matters and it matters a lot. It is not, however, “the only explanation for America’s morally bankrupt Israel policy.” In my reading, it is not even a main reason. It is just one of several articulations of settler solidarity practiced by the U.S., unusual only in it vociferousness.

AIPAC and related groups cannot and should not be ignored. But addressing AIPAC should be couched in ways that also address the U.S.’s funamentally regressive politics. It’s true that one or more aspects of settler rule did fall in Southern Rhodesia, South West Africa, and South Africa and that, at a very late date, the U.S. did come around to opposing aspects of settler rule in these colonies. Perhaps this can be done with Palestine too. Walt and Mearsheimer’s Israel Lobby advocates for such a course by playing into American exceptionalism and locating the U.S.’s Palestine policy as anomalous.

But there is nothing exceptional about the U.S.’s Israel policy. Recognizing this, coming to a tenable conception of history, opens up possibilities for joint struggle and resistance, coalition building and movement growth in ways that are not possible otherwise (as groups like the United States Palestinian Community Network, INCITE! Women, Trans and Gender Nonconforming People of Color Against Violence, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and others have been doing for some time). A tenable conception of history sharpens our ability to understand and organize against oppressive policies.

* Turtle Island is a term several indigenous nations – especially though not exclusively those in the northeast towards the Atlantic – use for what the settler societies and European geography call North America. I use it as an example of one common name of many, not to privilege the term over other indigenous geographies.

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