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Anti-semitism and the Israel lobby

In this extract from his book, If I Am Not for Myself: Journey of an Anti-Zionist Jew, Mike Marqusee says that no one should be deterred from criticising the Israel lobby by charges of anti-semitism

April 3, 2008
12 min read


Mike MarquseeMike Marqusee 1953–2015, wrote a regular column for Red Pepper, 'Contending for the Living', and authored a number of books on the politics of culture, on topics ranging from cricket to Bob Dylan.


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The very existence of a public discussion about the “Israel lobby” has roused cries of “Jewish conspiracy theories”. It is entirely legitimate to examine the political clout, tactics, resources, social composition and system of alliances of the pro-Israel forces in the USA, a conglomeration that includes but reaches beyond the “Israel lobby”. It is entirely legitimate to debate the degree to which US (or British) policy on Israel is driven by domestic political considerations (as long as one also asks what shapes the relevant domestic constituencies and where their power derives from), to argue about who’s wagging whom, the tail or the dog (Israeli and US elites), to identify the facts regarding the wealth of some Jews or the influence of some Jewish social groups and how it is used on behalf of Israel – all of these political realities can and should be specified and analysed.

But it is not possible to engage in this discussion realistically and usefully in the absence of an understanding of the history and role of Jewish stereotypes. It has to be conducted with a vigilant care for precise discriminations: between a Jew, some Jews, many Jews, most Jews, and the Jews; between Judaism, Jewishness, and Zionism; between conspiracies and convergent interests; between degrees and types and contexts of “power”. Failure to make these discriminations concedes vital ground to the Zionists and disarms the Palestine solidarity movement.

In May 2003, Tam Dalyell, the then Labour MP and Father of the House, was reported to have blamed the Iraq war, and specifically British involvement in it, on a “Jewish” or “Zionist” “cabal.” Dalyell’s record as a parliamentary maverick and forensic critic of military adventures was and is an honourable one. And he had not, in fact, used the wretched phrase “cabal”. Nonetheless, the remarks he made in press interviews were redolent with hoary anti-semitic mythology. He roped together a variety of leading government figures on both sides of the Atlantic and declared not only that they were all “Jewish” (though some had never identified themselves as such), but that it was this shared Jewishness that accounted for their hawkish politics. There was an implied warning: a religious minority was exercising an undue, malign influence on British and US foreign policies.

What was disturbing was that someone could lead a public career distinguished by the exercise of logic and still succumb unthinkingly to an “it’s in the blood” pseudo-logic that linked genealogy to religion to politics to national loyalty without pausing for breath. Dalyell insisted he was merely “being candid”. But this was no more than a polished specimen of the “people are afraid to say it, but we all know what they’re like” school of racist apologetics. You can find it in tabloids and phone-ins any day of the week. However, to his credit, Dalyell regretted his remarks and acknowledged his error.

When I published an article criticising what Dalyell had said, I was told by a liberal Zionist that it didn’t really count, didn’t really get the anti-war movement off the hook, because I was a Jew. In fact, non-Jewish antiwar activists, including the leaders of the STWC , also unequivocally rejected Dalyell’s mythologising. However, when along with other Jews I signed a statement condemning Israeli behaviour in Gaza, the same liberal Zionist told me (told all of us) that this time we didn’t count because we were really signing as leftists, not Jews.

“Jewish power”. Years ago, Rabbi Elmer Berger, a long-time victim of Zionist defamation, said he flinched whenever he heard the phrase, and that what was necessary to distinguish between Jewish influence, the influence of particular Jews, and “Jewish power”, which was a metaphysical notion. Today, the “Jewish power” school of thought has made a return. It’s a tragedy, and not only for Jews. Its entire thrust is, of course, an ideological and tactical gift to the Zionists. If we in the anti-war and pro-Palestine movements misidentify our enemies, we will not defeat them.

The term “Jewish lobby” is not only unscientific; it strengthens and legtimises the entity it seeks to expose and weaken. First, both Jews and non-Jews are active in the Zionist movement. Second, though many Jews do take part in pro-Israel activities, the majority do not, and a small but growing minority actively oppose them. Third, the phrase draws a categorical and unqualified equation between being Jewish and being pro-Israeli. The Israeli media routinely refer to the pro-Israel forces in the US as “the Jewish lobby”: they endow a political constituency with an ethnic legitimacy, and thereby hope to place it beyond criticism. Surely the left needs to dispute this sleight-of-hand, not fall for it.

James Petras, a well-regarded leftist analyst of US power in Latin America, argues that in relation to the middle east, the US government has been hijacked by “Zioncons”. US policy in the region is, in effect, controlled by “agents of a foreign power”.

As precise and frank as we have to be about the weight and deleterious influence of “the Israel lobby” we also have to be equally frank and precise about what are referred to as American or British “interests”. And it is here, not in their legitimate anatomising of “The Israel lobby”, that John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt fail. In keeping with the “realist school” of international relations to which they belong, they posit a self-evident, coherent US national interest, note that this interest has been ill-served by the US’s pro-Israel policies, and then seek to explain the “discrepancy” by reference to the power of the Israel lobby.

Traditionally, the left has rejected the idea of coherent “national interests”, seeing them as a mask for conflicting class interests. In the anti-globalisation movement, the national interests, not to mention humanitarian pretensions, proclaimed by western powers are commonly recognised as expressions of corporate priorities. Amazingly, otherwise well informed people vex themselves over the apparent contradiction between the US’s friendship with Israel and its friendship with Saudi Arabia, accepting at face value that what the middle east conflict is about is competing Arab and Jewish interests, and that the US error is merely to keep choosing the wrong side.

The most disturbing part of Petras’ analysis is the appeal to the American public to “take back” US foreign policy from the “foreign agents”, to make it a servant once again of the American people. As surely Petras knows, it has never been any such thing. What would a “re-Americanisation” of US foreign policy in the middle east amount to? Would an American regime freed of the influence of Jews or Zionists, but otherwise unchanged, look with favour on a genuinely independent Palestine? Or tolerate militantly nationalist forces in Iraq, Iran or Egypt? Five years after opposing partition in 1948, Kermit Roosevelt – who spent a lifetime serving both US diplomatic and corporate interests – played a central role in the CIA overthrow of the nationalist government in Iran and the installation in its stead the Shah’s pro-Israel dictatorship.

Petras’ revival of the “dual allegiance” charge betrays an ignorance of the enemy he purports to be fighting. It’s the old error of early anti-Zionists such as Dorothy Thompson and the American Council for Judaism, who wrongly asked Jews to choose between their Jewishness and their Americanism, failing to see that Zionism could be made all too compatible with Americanism. … If you see Zionists as as alien infiltrators who have distorted what would otherwise have been a benign US policy (in a region of the world whose oil reserves made it, long before the birth of the State of Israel, a central strategic concern of US policy-makers) then you have substituted a kind of hermetic meta-history for the real thing.

Petras, like Dalyell, seems unaware of the way postulates about the secret power of a pro-Israel Jewish network echo older themes – of world Jewish conspiracy, of Jewish “clannishness”, of an over-riding masonic-style allegiance among Jews to fellow Jews. That’s a serious gap not only in their understanding of anti-semitism, but of the global politics of racism in general. Marx’s strictures on Jews in his early writings are vile and stupid, but even at his most purblind he would have dismissed ferociously and without hesitation the categories out of which the Petras analysis is fashioned.

In response to Norman Finkelstein’s critique of his thesis, Petras observed sadly, “I am afraid that when it comes to dealing with the predominantly Jewish lobby, he has a certain blind spot, which is understandable.” Petras has made the same charge against Chomsky, whose “analytical virtues are totally absent when it comes to discussing the formulation of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, particularly the role of his own ethnic group, or the Jewish pro-Israel lobby and their Zionist supporters in the government.” For Petras, Finkelstein and Chomsky are examples of “the tragic myopia or perverse refusal of Leftist Jews to face up to the prejudicial role of the major Jewish groups promoting the Israel First policy”.

In effect, Petras accuses Finkelstein and Chomsky of letting the Jews off the hook, or dissolving their particular responsibility in a more diffuse anti-imperialist indictment. But Petras commits an opposite error – of letting Americans off the hook. The real ethno-nationalist myopia here lies with Petras and his fantasy of a US foreign policy purged of “foreign” influence. Neither Finkelstein nor Chomsky need any lectures about the power and ruthlessness of the pro-Israel forces in the USA. Speaking for myself, I have no doubt that Zionism has coursed through the diaspora like a poison. It has twisted Jewry, Judaism, Jewishness, Jewish culture and the minds of many Jews. The blindness of the majority of American and British Jews to the criminality of Israeli behaviour towards the Palestinians beggars belief and is an index of moral, spiritual and intellectual decadence. The money Jews (and others) give to groups that undermine free speech, defame dissidents, deny them jobs in academia, sink political careers is obscene. As Elmer Berger discovered to his shock back in the mid 40s, this is the Zionist modus operandi: character assassination, disinformation, denial, bullying, intimidation. These have for many years become the standard practises of many Jewish organisations and Jewish leaders, in both the USA and Britain, and no one on the left – certainly not Finkelstein or Chomsky – would deny its reality or shamefulness. Nor should anyone be scared off from making that indictment by charges of anti-semitism.

What then are we being asked to concede by Petras et al? Not that the Israel lobby exists and is a perfidious force, but that it is the sole determinant force in US policy on the middle east. Our reluctance to accept that misleading assertion is then attributed to vestigial ethnic loyalty. Our attachment to Jewishness allegedly results in our denial of an actually existing collective Jewish guilt. In other words, Jewish ethnicity really is the story here – just as the Zionists always said it was. And when individual Jews disagree, and do so by offering substantive arguments (as do Chomsky and Finkelstein), they are answered not with arguments of like substance, but with the assertion that they are only saying what they’re saying because they’re Jewish. It’s a circular, inherently racist argument, and the fact that is is taken seriously anywhere on the left is a depressing indication of the renewed acceptance across western societies of an intellectually unexamined ethno-centrism that has become common ground, post Cold War and post- 9/11, among liberals and conservatives – and against which the internationalist left should be standing its ground.

According to Petras, it’s time to “move ahead and decolonize our country, our minds and politics as a first step in reconstituting a democratic republic, free of entangling colonial and neo-imperial alliances.” This is the same evasive, short-cutting “take back America” rhetoric that inverts the global pyramid by seeing the US as the “colonised” country. The alternative to Zionism is not Americanism, but an internationalist humanism. In US popular culture, the real obstacles to Palestinian solidarity remain white and western supremacism, the mantle Zionism wraps itself in. One reason Zionism enjoys such success in this arena is that it goes with that flow.

The Jewish vote is relatively insignificant in Britain, but British policy has been strongly pro-Israeli (sales of arms coupled with support for anti-Hamas sanctions). Other EU governments (including countries where support for Israel is a definite vote-loser) have pursued similar courses, as has the EU as a whole. What’s decisive here is not Jewish power but western power.

The more a movement grows, the more disparate the consciousness of its participants, the more likely simplistic or delusional or conspiratorial analyses are to make themselves felt. In the face of mounting frustration at Israeli aggressiveness, and mounting disbelief at the willingness of Jews to justify it, there will be individuals who find sense in this nonsense. Conspiracies and stereotypes are easier to assimilate intellectually than the complex, long-accumulated realities of an economic, geopolitical, and cultural struggle. Nonetheless, by and large the movement responds negatively to the Dalyell and Petras theories. At their best, such ideas are tactical gifts to the enemies of the Palestinian people. They make it harder to break Jews from Israel and easier to delegitimize the movement as a whole with the British and US public. And they are, at root, perniciously illogical. Like the Zionists, the self-styled exposers of “Jewish power” insist that the racial category of Jewishness is real and politically determinant.

This is an edited extract from If I Am Not for Myself: Journey of an Anti-Zionist Jew, by Mike Marqusee, published by Verso at £15.99

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Mike MarquseeMike Marqusee 1953–2015, wrote a regular column for Red Pepper, 'Contending for the Living', and authored a number of books on the politics of culture, on topics ranging from cricket to Bob Dylan.


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