Wednesday, March 17, 2010

What a Strange Hypothetical

DougJ poses the following thought experiment:
Suppose there was a small country in Africa that was deemed vital to American political interests for whatever reasons. Suppose furthermore that it was constantly at war with its non-African neighbors, for whatever reason (maybe the country’s fault to some extent, maybe not). Suppose that African-American families owned the Washington Post, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal and that the heads of the editorial boards of two of the papers were African-American and that the editorial pages of these newspapers consistently expressed support for this small African country, more or less whatever it did (for the sake of accuracy, let’s say the Times was a bit more critical than the others). Suppose further that Ebony and Jet (now owned by an aging Harvard adjunct and someone from Australia) devoted a large part of each issue to describing anyone who criticized this small African country as racist (EDIT: or as a “self-hating African-American”).

People would eventually start to laugh at the “racism” charges, right?

The second thing that hit me upon reading this, which I'm putting first because it's a shorter thought, is the idea that it is particularly suspicious when Black people say things are racist, or Jews say something is anti-Semitic. Doug puts a lot of weight on this, and it is hard to see why -- presumably, if the hypothetical racism allegations regarding this country are so misguided, they should be considered suspect regardless of who was promoting them. I'm not sure what else to take from Doug's hypothetical except that he subscribes wholeheartedly to Professor Bell's rules of racial standing. Or perhaps I should respond with "suppose there was a community widely dominated by non-Jews, that greets every claim that something is anti-Semitic (and some claims that say nothing of the sort) with dismissal and derision. People would eventually start to laugh at the notion that they care about anti-Semitism at all, right?" (The answer, of course, is "wrong").

But what immediately struck me as weird here was this notion that people don't laugh at racism charges in America right now. It's not like we live in an America where, any time someone makes an allegation of racism, everyone immediately takes it seriously and demands accountability from the wrongdoer. Much the opposite -- the standard operating procedure for a significant swath of the American population (including one major political party) is to simply allege the folks are playing the "race card", make jokes about political correctness run amok, and whine about how nobody can say anything that isn't pre-screened for approval by Al Sharpton without being called a racist (cue eyeroll).

What does this tell us? Two things. First, that "ism" charges are considered laughable based on conduct that doesn't even approach Doug's hypothetical. Second, if one asks the purveyors of the "race card card" why they do so, they won't answer "because racism isn't a bad thing". They'll tell you a story very similar to Doug's -- about how the charge of racism has been diluted to non-existence by overuse, how it's important to preserve for "true, serious" cases, how they're merely reacting to aggressive thought-policing by the gatekeepers of acceptable racial discourse.

In other words, the narrative of why racism became laughable is a tale of majoritarian speakers telling themselves a highly distorted story of how "racism" is used as a weapon, so they can justify dismissing it out of hand. Or laugh at it.

One way of exaggerating the prominence of an "ism" charge is to presume that anytime a member of the minority group opposes your position, they are implicitly accusing you of racism/anti-semitism. As Doug laments, "I’ve had it with the fact that every time someone says something that opposes the Israeli far-right that person is labeled as an anti-Semite (EDIT: I forgot about the ones who are labeled self-hating Jews.)"

But if one canvasses the reaction of prominent Jewish organizations, one notices the anti-Semitism charge is pretty absent -- rather mysterious, given its presumed ubiquity. To be sure, many groups are now asking the Obama administration to defuse tensions after having expressed its condemnation. And they might be wrong. But if one looks at those statements -- AIPAC, CPMAJO (no permalink), and the American Jewish Committee -- neither the word, nor anything insinuating it, is present. Indeed, as I noted, a top official at the AJC wrote a furious post in the scandal's aftermath accusing Israel of "taking the US for granted". Those editorials Doug alludes to? Here's the Washington Post, maybe your ctrl-f for anti-Semitism works better than mine. The NYT editorial board hasn't issued a piece on the controversy, but Tom Friedman and Maureen Dowd have, both backing tough action towards Israel. Jeffrey Goldberg called Secretary of State Clinton's chew out "smart and necessary". Even Abe Foxman, the particular villain of Doug's play, was clear that he viewed some American reaction to the Israeli move as entirely appropriate and understandable. And that doesn't even get into J Street.

The fundamental premise behind Doug's story -- of anti-Semitism accusations being pervasive and pervasively abused -- is simply wrong. Not only are important players in the Jewish pro-Israel community openly backing the Obama administration, but even those more circumspect simply haven't been accusing anybody of anti-Semitism. So enough with the victimology, already.


N. Friedman said...

While I agree with you that the accusations about racism/Antisemitism are exaggerated, when you write "important players in the Jewish pro-Israel community openly backing the Obama administration," that is contrary to fact. AIPAC was very critical. As was ADL's Abe Foxman, who stated to Haaretz:

In the short term Israel is, but in the long term - the U.S. This is a flawed policy that we are seeing in the Middle East, that we were very much concerned about in the beginning of this administration, and that is to what extent this linkage will play in the policy and in the strategy of this administration. There are a lot of people in this administration who had advocated linkage - that all you have to do to resolve all the problems in the Arab Middle East is to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. And it's a fantasy and an illusion that has been out there for a long time. But this administration has bought into this concept - even [Vice President Joe] Biden's language, that if we don't resolve this conflict American soldiers will die - that's the worst of that fallacy. When the secretary of state then says that it harms the bilateral relationship - what happens between the Palestinians and Israelis impacts American security. The solution of the problem is in Baghdad, Kabul, Tehran, maybe in Riyadh and Cairo. Not in Jerusalem.

The continuation of the crisis is the fault of the U.S. Whatever happened, the prime minister apologized publicly and privately, issued a statement, the interior minister issued a statement, Israel did an al-het, [Biden] even accepted it. And then to wake up in the morning and to find [State Department spokesman P.J.] Crowley saying these terrible words - and this is not only the secretary of state, this is the president - and what's worse, - with this linkage is also a belief that you can appease the Arabs, that all you must do is to placate them by giving them settlements.

I might add, what the Administration is doing has precedent. It follows the same faulty logic employed by the British in the 1930's. See Elie Kedourie's famous book, Islam in the Modern World and Other Studies, in which he provides a definitive account of how the British lost influence and control in the region by confusing Arab rhetoric about Palestine with Arab political concerns, which were actually very different.

David Schraub said...

It's not "contrary to fact" -- there are plenty of "important players in the Jewish pro-Israel community openly backing the Obama admin". Putting aside the obvious example of J Street, I mentioned the editorial from Mr. Sandler of the American Jewish Committee, as well as the opinions of Tom Friedman and Jeffrey Goldberg, both influential members in good standing as pro-Israel writers. AIPAC and the ADL aren't the totality of mainstream Jewish thought on the subject.

N. Friedman said...


I do not think J Street is one of the "important players in the Jewish pro-Israel community." That is in your head. I think it is, instead, a front group backed by the Anti-Zionist George Soros to divide the Jewish community in support of President Obama's "outreach" policy to appease Arab opinion, most likely in Soros' personal business interest. In any event, with its small membership and little clout, such a new group can hardly be called one of the important players in anything. I think that most actual supporters of Israel either have never heard of J Street or, if they have, dismiss it as a group of stupid ideologues.

Thom Friedman is an important columnist. That does not make him an important player in the pro-Israeli community. Jeffrey Goldberg is a terrific writer with whom I often agree. However, I rather doubt that he can be considered - and I am fairly sure that he does not consider himself to be - an important player in the pro-Israel community.

Mr. Sandler is an actor, not an important person in the AJC. I think you meant Bandler, who is a person of some importance but not among the "major players." In the AJC, the major player would be Mr. Harris. And, whatever Mr. Bandler or Sandler may think, the AJC seems to disagree.

Which is to say, you claim that some unrepresentative people comprise important players. Well, the important players in this field have all lined up against the administration, except regarding the manner in which the Israeli government advanced its policy. That, not what you claim, can be said.

David Schraub said...

The AJC currently has a link to Mr. Bandler's article on its front page, so it clearly isn't too upset about his views.

I think you're artificially limiting the range of who is an important player in the Jewish pro-Israel community to support your hypothesis. I think that Bandler, Friedman, Goldberg, and J Street are more than enough to demonstrate that there are important players in the community supporting this action (you can also add Foreign Relations Committee chair and key pro-Israel Democrat Howard Berman to the list). It's a subjective determination, but I'm quite comfortable labeling all of them important players, and I think they are generally treated that way in the media and popular discourse.

I think that Capital J got it right when it said that nobody in the Jewish community thought Biden was wrong to "take a swipe" at Israel for its provocation -- the only question was for how long and to what degree:
[F]ew Jewish organizations came to bat for Israel after it received a spanking from Vice President Joe Biden. At that point, the feeling in many circles was that the Israelis miscalculated or messed up in embarassing the vice president, and that he was entitled to take a swipe. It didn't hurt that Biden went through with plans to deliver a speech stressing the importance of the U.S.-Israeli relationship and accepted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's apology.

But once the Obama team kept up the criticisms after Biden's departure, then Jewish groups began striking back at the administration.

N. Friedman said...


I do not think I am "artificially limiting the range of who is an important player in the Jewish pro-Israel community to support your hypothesis." If you want to say "Players," that is one thing. Then, I would agree with you about some, if not all, of those you name. If you want to say, as you actually do, "important players," that is quite another thing. On that, you are not even close.

Now, you are correct - and, if you read what I wrote, I said the same thing - that there was support in the pro-Israel community, including the important players, for the view that Israel showed bad timing. The issue is the onslaught on Israel by the Obami that occurred thereafter. On that, Obama quite fortunately has rather little support and certainly none from any party that could reasonably be called "pro-Israel."

The problem I see is that the far more likely possibility is that the event was always an excuse for Obama to bully Israel in service of his adminstration's appeasement agenda - among the stupidest Middle East policies (even dumber than Bush II's policy) since the time that the British tried the same thing in the 1930's and being the primary cause of Britain's influence in the region collapsing.

In any event, what has to be going through the heads of Israel's leadership - from the right to the left - is the view that there will be an ongoing series of explosions from the Obami against Israel over the course of the next number of years in order to appease Arab opinion at Israel's expense. That, I have no doubt the Israelis think, will lead in due course to a very bad relations with the US, no matter how sweet the make-up talk may be just now.

Moreover, any rational Israeli government has to think that what Obama is doing is really not in Israel's short or long term interest and that Israel needs to find a way to undermine Obama and to solve Israel's own problems on terms that Israelis can accept. I see that as a recipe for actual war in the Middle East, since small countries with little International leverage tend to turn to war to solve problems. And, it will be the US which comes out the worst because Iran will end up being top dog, even if Israel achieves its immediate agenda.

Again, to understand why the Obami are making a truly historic political mistake, read Elie Kedourie's famous book, Islam in the Modern World and Other Studies. Kedourie is among the greatest historians, if not the greatest historians, of the modern Middle East. And again, in the Middle East - as in the rest of the world -, local interests are nearly always more important than the common rhetoric that focuses elsewhere. By contrast, the Obami think that the hatred of Israel which is real among Arabs is far more important than it actually is. As a result, we are deferring to Arab rhetoric which, in turn, will mean that our influence will diminish (becoming hostage to Arab demands), just as the British did when they allowed the Arab states to have impact on the Arab uprising, which lead to the British losing permanent control of the situation and losing, in the end, all influence over Arabs who saw that Britain did not have total command of the situation.

I might add that this is more important than who is a major player.

David Schraub said...

You think they're clearly not important. I think they clearly are important. It's a disagreement, and one that is effectively irresolvable, unless I can get on CNN and say "Many important players in the Jewish pro-Israel movement are in support of President Obama here: for example, Jeffrey Goldberg, Tom Friedman, the American Jewish Committee's Kenneth Bandler, Rep. Howard Berman, and J Street," and see if the anchor bats an eyelash at the names I list.

N. Friedman said...


If I understand you correctly, what you are really saying is that words mean what you say they mean, nothing more and nothing less. Alice in Wonderland, in other words.

No, David, this is not a matter of opinion. The important players are those all of us know as being in leadership positions of important pro-Israel groups. Thom Friedman is not. Neither is Jeffrey Goldberg. They are important writers, not important players. J Street, as I said, is a front group for Soros, designed to advance his agenda, not Israel's agenda. Find out, if you want to do so useful homework, how he benefits from J Street's advocacy and you will find out J Street's real agenda.

Be that as it may, J Street is a small group with a small following. Its position seems larger on the Internet than in real life and, since the Obamites want to undermine Israel's friends, they play up J Street, at least for now. When the Obamites' time is over - with a bit of luck, in 2012 (although, before he goes, it would be nice if he does some good for the domestic situation ala healthcare, financial reform and the like, even if he is permanently harming the US abroad) -, J Street will cease having the limited influence it has.

Returning to the world of reality: Please provide sources for claiming that any of your people, other than Berman, are "important players" in the pro-Israel community. You can't because they are not.

One last point: none of this matters one iota. What matters is how incredibly destructive for both Israel and the US Obama's efforts are. He is, in my view, a true disaster, a man who has so little understanding of the world and is so naive (as Nicolas Sarkozy said) and, frankly, visionless that he is permanently harming the US and Israel, worse than anything that even the dumbo Bush II did. And, that says a lot, coming from a life long liberal Democrat and marcher for peace and for civil rights. He is a menace.

David Schraub said...

No, I'm saying "important" is a somewhat subjective assessment, and you have no more right to claim its meaning than I do. This isn't an issue of "sourcing" -- I'm not sure who collects an official list of "important players" in the pro-Israel community aside from anti-Semites -- it's a question of interpretation. And I'd say that your argument forces one into rather counterintuitive notions of what "important" and/or "player" means.

To be frank, it is simply not self-evident that the top foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times, the top foreign affairs writer for The Atlantic, an official at one of the oldest American Jewish umbrella groups in the country (writing for an official blog of the organization, and promoted on the front page of their website), a rather new but increasingly popular liberal pro-Israel organization with significant White House access, and the chairman of the foreign relations committee are not "important players" in the pro-Israel community. To argue that this is so clear that contrary assertions are "contrary to fact" is completely out of touch with reality, not to mention the way language works.

Again, there's no way to rationally dissolve this disagreement, so I suggest we both mutually agree to perceive the other as high on mescaline and call it a thread.

N. Friedman said...


It is not important to win every point in every argument. However, to take your point to its absurd conclusion: by your theory, if you said that you are an important player in the pro-Israel community, that would be your opinion and, as such, supported by your use of the words "important player."

Enough said on that topic.

On an issue about which I care far more that your decision to make reporters into players - and on which you are pretty silent - I am rather concerned about the rationale that says that it is in the interest of the US to beat up on the Israelis. I cannot imagine how our approach helps us any more than it helped the British in the 1930's.

As I noted, the very thing that Obama is doing is the very thing that Britain did and that entirely undermined Britain's influence in the region. Playing the same movie again is unlikely to change the ending. This is akin to the US concluding that while the French, using our weapons, could not subdue the Vietnamese, the US can. The world does not work that way.

And again, in a nutshell, the mistake is to confuse hateful Arab rhetoric about Israel and the US with the reality that Arab countries and people care primarily about their own local situation, not that of Palestinian Arabs. Seeing us fall for rhetoric, we are letting Arab and, since they are in the pocket of Arab countries, European countries stick their noses into our sphere of influence and showing ourselves to be too weak to protect our ally. The British did the same thing with the Arab uprising in the 1930's, turning to the Arab states to quiet it down and acquiescing in demands which helped local Arab interests but did not help the UK but, instead, harmed those interests. The result was to undermine British influence. The same result almost surely awaits the US.

And your view is?

N. Friedman said...

Oh, so that we can judge your "opinion," here are some biographies of your "important players":

Jeffrey Goldberg: "Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. Author of the book Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror, he has reported from the Middle East and Africa. He also writes the magazine's advice column." That is what he claims.

Cousin Thom: "Thomas L. Friedman, a world-renowned author and journalist, joined The New York Times in 1981 as a financial reporter specializing in OPEC- and oil-related news and later served as the chief diplomatic, chief White House, and international economics correspondents. A three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, he has traveled hundreds of thousands of miles reporting the Middle East conflict, the end of the cold war, U.S. domestic politics and foreign policy, international economics, and the worldwide impact of the terrorist threat. His foreign affairs column, which appears twice a week in the Times, is syndicated to one hundred other newspapers worldwide." Actually, he is not my cousin. However, nothing in his biography makes him an important player as opposed to an important journalist. Not even the fact that the Saudis used him to float the Saudi initiative.

Kenneth Bandler is a player, albeit not a major one. He is the "AJC’s Director of Communications." On the other hand, the person who actually communicates - and writes columns and does radio ads - is David Harris, who is a major player, by the ordinary understanding of the word.

J Street has influence with the Obami - or, to be more precise, the Obami use J Street to divide the Jewish and greater pro-Israel community, creating the illusion that there is a great divide among Israel's supporters when, in fact, there are minor differences that the Obami are trying to exploit.

And again, the reality is that J Street is a front group, fronting for Mr. Soros who, for the obvious reason that he is not pro-Israel, does not want his name associated directly with the organization. As J Street's website admits: "George Soros very publicly stated his decision not to be engaged in J Street when it was launched - precisely out of fear that his involvement would be used against the organization."

You may also want to read this article. Despite denials, J Street is a Soros project and, in fact, as the article notes: "Soros has never been at all friendly to Israel, and his involvement might scare off others who are left-leaning but still support Israel." That is a person that J Street would, according to its website, like to fund it. In J Street's words: "J Street's Executive Director has stated many times that he would in fact be very pleased to have funding from Mr. Soros and the offer remains open to him to be a funder should he wish to support the effort."

If that makes J Street an important player, it is certainly not to advance Israel's interest.

joe said...

It's simple really. J Street can't be pro-Israel because there are no important pro-Israel players in its camp. And no member of J Street can be an important pro-Israel player because J Street is not pro-Israel! The logic is airtight.

joe said...

(I think blogger is eating my comments.)

It's simple. J Street is not pro-Israel it's not supported by and important pro-Israel players. And no important pro-Israel player supports J Street because J Street is not pro-Israel.

The logic is airtight!

joe said...

(Never mind, just lag I guess.)

chingona said...

If you enjoyed George Soros as the bogey-man behind the financial crisis, you'll LOVE him as the bogey-man behind the Obama administration's vicious assault on Israel!

David Schraub said...

I personally love that we can talk about shadowy Jewish financiers pulling strings from behind the scenes with their money without feeling abashed about it. That's surely a development that's good for the global Jewish community.

N. Friedman said...


With reference to the involvement of Soros in J Street's creation, the notion that J Street is actually pro-Israel is laughable. Rather, the pro-Israel positions of the organization are those which a person with no concern for Israel's well-being would take - i.e., those which a person like Soros would take.

It is true that its has people associated with it who claim to be pro-Israel and who may believe themselves to be in some difficult to fathom sense, pro-Israel. But, the positions the organization actually takes are precisely in sync with what a person like Mr. Soros, who has no love for or interest in Israel and never has had any, take. And, his agenda is advanced by means of front people who claim to be pro-Israel.

In the early part of the 20th Century, there were front groups claiming to advance the public interest but actually working only to advance the fortune of Mr. Rockefeller. Such is chronicled, among other places, in James Weinstein's famous book, The Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State 1900-1918. That is what rich people do. So, why do you try to ignore that Mr. Soros might want to advance his own, not Israel's, agenda using the cover of being pro-Israel.

In any event, this is not shadowy at all. We have known facts that it was his idea to set up the organization. And, the organization and he, knowing that he is a known not only critic of Israel but known to have no use for the country, have placed some distance between themselves. That is called tactics but it does not alter the fact of what is involved.