The world’s most destructive anti-Israel organization isn’t run by Arabs or Europeans. It’s run by Israelis.
When the United Nations released the so-called Goldstone Report in September 2009, Israelis and their supporters around the world were astonished by the blunt words near its conclusion: “There is evidence indicating serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law were committed by Israel during the Gaza conflict, and that Israel committed actions amounting to war crimes, and possibly crimes against humanity.” The report declared that virtually everything Israel had done during Operation Cast Lead—Israel’s attempt in late 2008 and early 2009 to stop Hamas’s rocket war on Israeli civilians—had been a crime. No single written attack on the Jewish state has been as damning, as prominent, or as influential. And yet the South African jurist Richard Goldstone and his team had only a few months to compile a report that runs to nearly 600 pages and makes hundreds of detailed accusations about the Israel Defense Force’s conduct of the war, and Goldstone himself made only a single four-day visit to Gaza. Where did they secure the evidentiary rope with which to hang Israel?
The report was largely compiled from material provided by what is often referred to as Israel’s “human rights community.” This vague euphemism refers to a coterie of groups and individuals that has evolved over the past decade into a highly politicized movement of dozens of nongovernmental organizations that operate in Israel and subject its government, military, laws, and people to relentless scrutiny and accusation. And, as first pointed out by NGO Monitor, the Goldstone Report relied most heavily on the largest and most prominent among them: the group known as B’Tselem. More footnotes in the report, 56 in all, cite B’Tselem as a source than any other. Indeed, as Jessica Montell, B’Tselem’s executive director, has said, B’Tselem “provided extensive assistance to the UN fact-finding mission headed by Justice Goldstone—escorting them to meet victims in Gaza, providing all of our documentation and correspondence, and meeting the mission in Jordan.”
In making such a profound contribution to the Goldstone Report, B’Tselem was performing the task to which it has truly dedicated itself: not the defense of human rights in the West Bank and Gaza, but the delegitimization of Israel and its existence as a Jewish state.
B’Tselem—“The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories”—was founded in 1989 by what the organization refers to as “a group of prominent academics, attorneys, journalists, and Knesset members” whose politics were overwhelmingly on the far left of the political spectrum. Its purpose was to “document and educate the Israeli public and policymakers about human-rights violations in the Occupied Territories,” and during the 1990s it largely focused on that internal mission. Yet with the onset of the Palestinian terror war in 2000 and Israel’s increasingly tough responses to it over the succeeding four years, B’Tselem’s mission shifted from trying to inform and influence the Israeli debate to becoming the primary resource for those journalists, officials, and activists who saw in Israel’s self-defense the full flowering of a new age of Israeli oppression and criminality.
B’Tselem employs Israelis, and there is no doubt that the major reason for its appeal—especially internationally—is due to the perception that it is an Israeli group exposing Israeli crimes in order to achieve a more just Israeli society. Yet almost its entire annual budget is provided by European governments and American foundations, such as the New Israel Fund and the Ford Foundation.
That money pays for 41 staffers who work primarily in two divisions, data and communications. Most of the 19 members of the data division are Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza and supply a constant stream of anecdotes and testimony to the group’s Jerusalem headquarters, where a few researchers compile the information and the 10-person communications department packages and disseminates it to journalists, other NGOs, policymakers, and activists. B’Tselem mounts campaigns on certain issues, such as the supposed illegality of Israeli communities over the armistice lines of 1949 and the supposed illegality of West Bank checkpoints erected to interdict suicide bombers. “B’Tselem,” according to its own materials, “ensures the reliability of information it publishes by conducting its own fieldwork and research, the results of which are thoroughly cross-checked with relevant documents, official government sources, and information from other sources.” These reports have made B’Tselem the most famous and successful Israeli NGO. It is also one of the most ambitious. A list of “advocacy efforts” from its 2009 year-end report, for example, includes
a month-long, high-profile campaign using B’Tselem’s 20-year anniversary to draw attention to the urgency of the human-rights situation in the Occupied Territories; four Internet campaigns on Operation Cast Lead, security force violence, the siege on Gaza, and Road 443, which is barred to Palestinian use; four full-length publications, including Guidelines for Israel’s Investigation of Operation Cast Lead and Without Trial: Administrative Detention of Palestinians by Israel; 22 visual articles and films made available online; and 80 study tours and 176 briefings for policymakers, journalists, diplomats, and international organizations.
Today, B’Tselem conducts itself as though its true purpose is not trying to convince Israelis to change their policies from within, but rather aiding international efforts to pressure Israel to adopt the kind of policies Israelis themselves have repeatedly rejected in elections. To that end, in 2008 B’Tselem opened an office in Washington, which, according to a press release, it “expects to become the central clearinghouse for information about human-rights conditions in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip for Member [sic] of Congress, the State Department, and other policymakers.” Or, as Anat Biletzky told a small campus audience in 2007 just after she stepped down as the group’s chairman of the board, “B’Tselem is now opening an office in D.C. because we think that there are two main targets here. One is American policymakers. The other is the Jewish community. And the two are not unrelated, as we have seen in Walt and Mearsheimer’s book.”
All of this work has certainly paid off. In 2004, as Biletzky told an interviewer, “B’Tselem is trusted by all sides. The Europeans of course. If the American Embassy wants information, they come to us. If Tom Friedman wants information, he comes to us.” The U.S. State Department can be added to the list of those who not only trust B’Tselem, but rely on the group uncritically. State’s annual “human rights report” on Israel reproduces B’Tselem claims and statistics, quite obviously without external verification, to such an extent that sections of the report simply read like a year-end summary of B’Tselem reports. The just-released report on 2010, for example, contains 26 references to B’Tselem and endorses its misleading Gaza casualty figures. And the group’s reports are a regular feature of media coverage of Israel. For example, Lawrence Wright’s lengthy 2009 account in the New Yorker of life in the Gaza Strip cited, entirely without skepticism, B’Tselem’s erroneous casualty statistics from Operation Cast Lead: “B’tselem has documented seven hundred and seventy-three cases in which Israeli forces killed civilians not involved in hostilities.”
What should have been obvious to an intelligent and worldly journalist such as Wright is the conspicuous tension in B’Tselem between the group’s wish to be perceived as an impartial guardian of human rights and its openly stated desire to build a case against virtually every security measure Israel takes, as well as against the Israeli presence, civilian and military, in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. The irreconcilability of these two goals is evident on B’Tselem’s website, where it describes itself as a scrupulously apolitical organization that does “not weigh in on political matters, except to comment on their implications for human rights”—and at the same time also states that it “has worked successfully on both the political and public level to shape Israel’s national debate over policies regarding the Occupied Territories” and that it “acts primarily to change Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories.” Thus a basic question presents itself: Is B’Tselem a human-rights organization or a political group?
B’Tselem, in fact, is consciously trying to have it both ways, using human-rights rhetoric to conceal a radical and indeed anti-Zionist political agenda that would be met with far less sympathy were it honestly expressed. It is not an unintelligent strategy. Biletzky, for one, is proud of her organization’s innovative approach:
In April of 2003, we issued a report called “Landgrab,” which is the most comprehensive report ever on the settlements. It showed how the whole settlement project is a violation of human rights according to international law and the Geneva Convention. . . . It’s amazing because I think that conceptually it’s very creative to think of settlements as being a violation of human rights.
Creative it certainly is, especially because the claim is also based on a false premise, namely that every dunam of the West Bank is sovereign Palestinian territory and therefore any Israeli presence there amounts to illegal occupation. This argument has become the standard claim of those who demand the expulsion of Jews from the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Yet these have never been “Palestinian territory” according to the understanding of sovereignty under international law. For 500 years, the West Bank was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, then by the British Mandate, and then for 18 years by the kingdom of Transjordan. In 1988 Jordan formally renounced any claim to the territory. The West Bank is disputed territory, as both Jews and Arabs have lodged claims to it, and the peace process is supposed to be the forum through which those claims are negotiated and resolved.1 Yet “Landgrab” avoids all of this difficulty through a tautology: because Jewish communities in the West Bank are ipso facto a human-rights crime, “B’Tselem demands that the Israeli government act to vacate all the settlements.”
The fact that Israelis are living anywhere on the West Bank or in Gaza is the original sin for B’Tselem, the wellspring from which all other crimes emerge. Yet B’Tselem goes beyond even that point to argue that efforts made by Israel to defend its citizens against attacks by Palestinians operating in the West Bank and Gaza are in fact criminal acts under international law.
In a 2007 report on Gaza, for example, B’Tselem declared that, due to the restrictions on border crossings to prevent terrorist attacks, “Israel has turned the Gaza Strip into the largest prison on earth.” (Egypt, which also restricted its border to Gaza, was entirely absolved: “Israel controls all routes into and out of the Gaza strip,” B’Tselem improbably claimed. “No one can enter or leave without the army’s permission.”) The Gaza report was plastered with sensational photographs and pullquotes attesting to the horrors of life there, all of which, the group insisted, were Israel’s fault. This, despite the fact that Israel had pulled out of Gaza in 2005, did not interfere when Palestinian elections there gave the terrorist group Hamas the upper hand in 2006, and stayed out of it when Hamas staged a coup in Gaza against the Palestinian Authority and took charge of the strip in 2007. B’Tselem acted as though all that was meaningless. “Whether you call it an occupation or not,” the report says, Israel still “must safeguard the rights and needs of the people there.” Elementary logic would seem to dictate that Hamas, not Israel, was responsible for safeguarding the rights and needs of the people there, and that Hamas, by attacking Israel on a daily basis, bore responsibility for the problems created in Gaza by the state of war it insisted on maintaining.
Not according to B’Tselem. The group absolved Hamas of any responsibility for conditions in Gaza, never mentioned its goal of destroying Israel, blamed Israel entirely for the border restrictions that only followed Hamas’s attacks (many of which targeted the border crossings themselves), and even provided the terrorist group with an important incentive to continue its rocket war. In this war, which Hamas wages intentionally from civilian areas of Gaza, Palestinian civilians are occasionally killed by Israeli return fire. Yet instead of condemning Hamas for employing civilians as cannon fodder, B’Tselem suggested that their deaths were the result of an intentional Israeli strategy: “Targeting civilians is absolutely prohibited, even if the purpose is to protect other civilians.” It is not an exaggeration to say that B’Tselem’s report on Gaza, despite its perfunctory call for Hamas to stop firing rockets, is in substance a long apologetic for both Hamas’s abuse of Gazans and its war on Israel.
Even when Israel acts in ways that seem to accord with B’Tselem’s wishes, the organization declares the state in the wrong. In 2004, as Israel debated whether to carry out a full withdrawal of its civilians and military from Gaza, Montell wrote that “we must applaud any level of disengagement.” The report her organization issued three years later, after disengagement, was stamped on every page with the slogan: “Israel cannot disengage from its responsibility.”
Also in 2007, the group released a 118-page report titled “Ground to a Halt.” It declared every single Israeli checkpoint and road restriction in the West Bank a multifaceted violation of international law. It may be difficult to understand how a checkpoint erected to protect the human rights of Israelis can itself be a human-rights violation, but that is precisely what B’Tselem discovered. The group offered two main arguments. The first had to do with the balance between Israeli security and Palestinian inconvenience:
The state must prove that there is a rational connection between the infringement of freedom of movement and achieving the security objective sought to be achieved, that it is not possible to achieve the security objective by a less harmful means, and that there is a proper relationship between the harm caused to those whose freedom of movement is restricted and the security purpose achieved as a result of the infringement.
Israel failed every aspect of this test, according to B’Tselem. But the test was, in any case, mere window-dressing for the group’s real argument, which is the same one offered in “Landgrab”: Israelis have no right to live anywhere in the West Bank. And not only that, Israel therefore has no right to protect them. Or as B’Tselem stated more artfully:
This consideration [of protecting Israeli civilians from attack] does not exist in a vacuum. It is derived from broad, improper political considerations without which the need to impose the restrictions on Palestinian movement would never have arisen. The main improper political considerations relate to Israel’s desire to perpetuate the settlements. . . . The establishment of the settlements in the West Bank, a long-established policy of the Israeli government, flagrantly contravenes international humanitarian law.
B’Tselem ended with these words: “The conclusion is, therefore, that those restrictions on movement, whose primary justification is ostensibly ‘protection of the lives’ of Israelis in the West Bank, are illegal.”
But surely an organization concerned with the rights of civilians would acknowledge that Israel has a duty to protect its citizens, say, in Tel Aviv, from Palestinian suicide bombers who start their journey in the West Bank? No. When considering these matters, B’Tselem conveniently applied the international-law principle of proportionality, which was originally devised to determine the acceptable level of firepower used in military attacks during war, to West Bank restrictions. Here, too, B’Tselem ruled that Israel was guilty:
Even if the group restrictions have a certain measure of effectiveness in achieving their security objective, it is hard to find a reasonable relationship between the added benefit that the army contends they provide and the unreasonable harm that they cause to the local population.
And so, even if the security measures worked, they were still “unreasonable” and therefore a violation of international law. What would be a “reasonable” security measure, according to B’Tselem? Armored transportation for Jews: “Over the years, the authorities preferred to ignore alternatives that would provide proper protection for the settlers, such as protected, bulletproof vehicles used by settlers or by having them use protected, bulletproof public transportation.”
B’Tselem also claimed that checkpoints and road closures constitute “collective punishment.” That was a startling charge, because the term was devised by the authors of the Geneva Conventions in response to the Nazis’ practice of slaughtering entire villages as punishment for the offenses of individuals. B’Tselem has led the way in transforming that prohibition into one that precludes any Israeli security measure that affects any Palestinian not personally involved in attacking Israelis. Montell, for example, has gone so far as to declare even Israeli air-force flights over Gaza a war crime, writing in 2006
that the clear intention of the practice is to pressure the Palestinian Authority and the armed Palestinian organizations by harming the entire civilian population. It is a form of collective punishment, which is blatantly illegal.
All in all, B’Tselem has been an innovator in manipulating traditional definitions of international law, no matter how concocted and implausible, to suit an assault on whatever Israeli practice B’Tselem wishes to condemn. The group does admit in its reports that Israel has a right to protect its citizens. But it is a right that B’Tselem affirms only in theory, never in practice.
Another of B’Tselem’s major activities is compiling statistical reports that it hopes will demonstrate, with empirical credibility, Israel’s abuses. After Operation Cast Lead, for example, B’Tselem made headlines with a report claiming that a majority of Palestinians killed during the war were civilians, attacking the accuracy of the IDF’s numbers and undermining the perception that the IDF had fought carefully in Gaza.
During the war, B’Tselem reported, 1,387 Palestinians were killed, 773 of whom “did not take part in the hostilities” and only 330 of whom were combatants. This curious phrasing, which was shortened in media coverage simply to “civilians,” was in fact a bit of sophistry employed to conceal B’Tselem’s results-oriented approach to statistics. The IDF’s own investigation, by contrast, counted 1,166 Palestinians deaths, of whom 709 were terrorists and 295 were civilians—a commendable ratio given that much of the war was fought, by Hamas’s design, in civilian areas.
B’Tselem arrived at such a high number of “civilian” deaths by adopting a definition of “combatant” that transformed terrorists into civilians. The group only counted those “who fulfill a continuous combat function” as legitimate targets. Such people include full-time members of the Hamas “armed wing,” and virtually nobody else—not Hamas policemen and not Hamas political and spiritual leaders, financiers, propagandists, recruiters, weapons smugglers, or support personnel. By adhering to this definition, the United States would be barred from killing many members of al-Qaeda.
B’Tselem also claimed that 320 civilian minors were killed. Yet the group’s own statistics on the male–female ratio of those minors strongly suggests that many of the older minors were in fact combatants. As documented by two Israeli researchers who examined B’Tselem’s data, the male–female ratio of those in the 11-and-younger group was nearly 1:1. Yet as the age rose, so did the gender disparity, to the point where the male-female ratio for 17- and 18-year-olds was more than 6:1. If Israel had been indiscriminately attacking civilians, how would it have been possible for such an overwhelming number of them to have been males?
Recently, B’Tselem’s statistics were repudiated by an unlikely source, the “interior minister” of Hamas. In November 2010, he told the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper that between 600 and 700 Hamas militants had been killed during the war—double the number claimed by B’Tselem, and almost exactly the number reported a year earlier by the IDF.
In its 2009 year-end report, B’Tselem proclaimed that “in the past two decades, B’Tselem emerged as the gold standard of human-rights research, serving as an extremely reliable source of information in a contentious and polarized climate.” Yet some of the most polarizing figures in Israel are members of B’Tselem. To understand why B’Tselem acts the way it does, one must understand its members. An organization, after all, is little more than a collection of the people who lead and staff it.
Shortly following its self-proclamation regarding accuracy and moderation, an Israeli columnist discovered that the group’s data-coordination director—one of the most important positions in the organization—had posted a number of curious entries on her personal blog. “Israel is committing Humanity’s worst atrocities,” Lizi Sagie wrote. “Israel is proving its devotion to Nazi values. . . . Israel exploits the Holocaust to reap international benefits.” Israelis, she noted, “don’t erect gas chambers and extermination camps, but if there were any, how many people would actually resist it, and not only in their hearts?” And she admonishes, “In the name of the State of Judaism we have stolen lands, murdered, starved others . . . have created ghettos [for] all kinds of ‘others’ [and] allowed fascists to raise their heads.”
Sagie resigned from B’Tselem following the exposure of these statements. But they are only the most extreme version of a point of view held by B’Tselem’s own leaders. Consider the cases of Jessica Montell, the current executive director; Anat Biletsky, who served on B’Tselem’s board starting in 1995 and was its chair from 2001 to 2006; and Oren Yiftachel, the current co-chair of the board.
Montell was born in Berkeley, California, received a degree in women’s studies at Oberlin, and then a master’s in international relations at Columbia. She immigrated to Israel in 1995 to work for B’Tselem and became its executive director in 2001. In a 2003 interview, Montell claimed that “in some cases, the situation in the West Bank is worse than apartheid in South Africa.”
That same year, Montell appeared at a roundtable discussion at the American Colony Hotel, the favored East Jerusalem hangout of international journalists, UN officials, and the NGO set. There she expressed the opinion that the murder of hundreds of Israeli civilians in suicide bombings was problematic largely because of Israel’s attempts to prevent more carnage. “This current intifada,” she argued, “has greatly exacerbated Israel’s human-rights violations. The current reality is affecting Palestinian human rights in every sphere, and virtually all Palestinians, certainly if we talk about restrictions on freedom of movement. It’s the most insidious form of human-rights violations.” Israel had succumbed, she continued, to a “security hysteria” that created a “lack of any sort of recognition of the humanity and rights of Palestinians.”
Expanding her attack to include almost the entirety of the Israeli population, she elaborated on what has become a standard talking point for those who share B’Tselem’s view of the conflict: Israelis are so consumed by racism and irrational fear that they are willing to engage in essentially limitless abuse of Palestinians in order to protect themselves.
Panelist: The general public is willing to sacrifice most or all of the human rights of Palestinians in exchange for some vain promises of security.
Montell: I agree. Our big challenge is to articulate a human-rights message in the face of this security hysteria, to come forward with the message that not everything is justified in the name of security, that the whole idea of security has to be examined—what we mean by it, what’s justified, what ultimately is going to achieve our security—all those questions that are swept under the carpet in Israeli society.
Montell concluded with a thought that, when stated by non-Jews, is generally viewed as anti-Semitic: “It’s the legacy of Jewish history that our own security concerns are manipulated to act as some sort of blank check for all Israeli government policies.”
The most fascinating part of the discussion, however, unfolded when Montell was encouraged by the moderator to consider “abuses of human rights inside Palestinian society.” Given an opportunity to balance her accusations against Israel, Montell answered instead:
In general, there has been a collapse of rule of law inside Palestinian society. The police stations and jails basically no longer exist and the police force no longer has freedom of movement within the territories. During parts of this intifada, the Palestinian police, or anyone wearing a uniform, were automatically targeted by Israel. Obviously, that is going to have very dramatic repercussions on the society as a whole.
For Montell, then, even Palestinian abuse of other Palestinians is Israel’s fault.
In 2008 Montell wrote a piece for Tikkun in which she explored her discomfort with Israeli Independence Day. “I prefer to think of myself as a citizen of the world,” she wrote, “and, having been born and raised in the United States before moving to Israel fifteen years ago, I ‘know’ and am full of criticism for both. Patriotism doesn’t come so easy to skeptics like me.” Indeed.
Then there is the case of Anat Biletzsky, a philosophy professor at Tel Aviv University. As she told a Brooklyn newspaper in 2004 about the history of her involvement in anti-Zionist activism, which long pre-dates B’Tselem: “The Communist party was not Zionist; it was Jewish and Arab. That was its main plank, which was very important to me. I worked for those parties during elections.” Biletzky—who was chair of the board of B’Tselem and its most prominent public face during a period that included the Palestinian suicide-bombing war, the Gaza disengagement, the Lebanon War, and the beginning of the Hamas rocket war—shaped B’Tselem into the aggressive, activist force that it is today. Her record of activism while serving as the chair of B’Tselem displays astonishing, serial antagonism to the Jewish state.
In 2002, after two years of Palestinian suicide bombings had left hundreds of Israelis dead, the IDF entered the West Bank in order to, among other things, protect the human rights of Israeli civilians to not be maimed and murdered. Biletzky responded by organizing a petition of academics “to express our appreciation and support for those of our students and lecturers who refuse to serve as soldiers in the occupied territories” and to “help students who encounter academic, administrative, or economic difficulties as a result of their refusal to serve.”
Later in 2002, as the United States contemplated invading Iraq, Biletzky signed a bizarre petition that read, “We are deeply worried by indications that the ‘fog of war’ [in Iraq] could be exploited by the Israeli government to commit further crimes against the Palestinian people, up to full-fledged ethnic cleansing.” It concluded by calling on the “International Community” to take “concrete measures” to prevent Israeli “crimes against humanity.”
Biletzky’s activism reached its apogee in 2004, when she helped write what is known as the “Olga Document,” a rambling tract named for the location in Israel where it was written. Israel, the letter says, is a “death trap” and “the biggest ghetto in the entire history of the Jews”; “military operations and wars has [sic] become the life-support drug of Israel’s Jews.” It goes on to state that “we are living in a benighted colonial reality—in the heart of darkness”; and that Israel seems “determined to pulverize the Palestinian people to dust” by subjecting them to “the nightmare of apartheid, the burden of humiliation and the demons of destruction employed by Israel unremittingly, day and night, for 37 years.” Out of “racist arrogance,” the document claims, Israelis across the political spectrum “depict the Palestinians as subhuman.”
The Olga Document continues: “We are united in a critique of Zionism, based as it is on refusal to acknowledge the indigenous people of this country and on denial of their rights, on dispossession of their lands, and on adoption of separation as a fundamental principle and way of life.” Besides adopting the self-evidently racist claim that only Arabs are “indigenous” to the land of Israel, Biletzky also called for the repeal of all laws and the end of all practices that make Israel a Jewish state. This, she said, along with creating an Arab majority in Israel through the Palestinian “right of return,” would finally absolve Jews of the moral stain that is Israel.
Biletzky has also acknowledged that she has been working to end Israel as a Jewish state since the late 1960s. She stated that “Israel [today] is like the Nazis or like Germany in ’34” and that life for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza “is something that I do not hesitate to call a concentration camp.”
Biletzky is not merely an apologist for terrorism. At times, she has given terrorists moral support, as she did in the case of Azmi Bishara. He was a member of the Knesset from the Balad Party, an anti-Zionist Arab faction. In 2006, Bishara fled Israel after coming under investigation for espionage and high treason. When the gag order on the case was lifted in May 2007, it was revealed that Bishara had acted as a paid informant for Hezbollah during the Second Lebanon War, apparently helping the group select targets in Israel for missile attacks. It was also discovered that he had stolen millions of shekels from Arab charities. Biletzky responded to these devastating revelations by publishing a statement of solidarity in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that read, in its entirety, “Azmi Bishara—we are brethren.”
Throughout her history of apologetics for violence and terrorism against Israel’s Jews, as well as her advocacy for the dismantling of the Jewish state, Biletzky has always been called a human-rights activist. For reasons that may be disturbing to contemplate, the journalists who eagerly report her organization’s accusations against Israel have never taken her biases into consideration when assessing the veracity of B’Tselem’s accusations. Most telling of all, perhaps, at no point did members of B’Tselem itself—its board, its employees, or its army of supporters—protest the extremism in its own ranks.
The situation is no better today. In 2006, Biletzsky stepped down as chair and has been replaced by two people: Gilad Barnea, an attorney who avoids political statements, and Oren Yiftachel, a professor of “political geography” at Ben-Gurion University. Yiftachel is one of Israel’s most outspoken anti-Zionists and calls his country “an ethnocratic regime” and a “Judaization project [that] has caused the pervasive dispossession of Palestinian-Arabs.”
His signature has appeared with Biletzky’s on many of the most extreme anti-Israel petitions of the past decade, such as a 2001 letter they signed endorsing Palestinian terrorism and calling for a “peace force” to stop Israel from defending itself: “We regard Palestinian violence as being, on the whole, a legitimate revolt against colonial occupation,” the statement read. “We call for an immediate international intervention to stop the killing and wounding of human beings who are exercising their elementary right to claim political freedom.”
Yiftachel also signed the 2004 Olga Document and a petition dated January 5, 2009, in the midst of Operation Cast Lead, that called on the UN Security Council and the EU to undertake a “massive intervention” to stop “Israel’s atrocities.” After the war, he published an article titled “The Jailer State” in which he argued that Hamas’s rocket war on Israeli civilians should “be perceived as a prison uprising, currently suppressed with terror by the Israeli state.”
Such expressions of furious contempt for Israel contrast sharply with B’Tselem’s rather successful attempt to identify itself as a source of Israel’s democratic strength. As Jessica Montell once told an American audience, her group is “the best evidence [for] the vibrancy of Israeli democracy”; or as B’Tselem’s spokeswoman wrote in the Jerusalem Post, “Israel must remain a strong, vibrant democracy.” That many in B’Tselem view this democracy as racist, belligerent, and illegitimate is an irony apparently lost on its defenders. Indeed, Israel is so open a society that its leading “human-rights” organization has been led for the past decade by two people who are open supporters of terrorism against it.
B’Tselem is merely one player, albeit a leading one, in a political movement that has developed over the past decade that seeks to place the very legitimacy of the Jewish state in question. It is joined by dozens of other groups in Israel and abroad that operate under the pretense of promoting human rights and civil society. The proliferation of these NGOs appears from the outside to be an independent and organic response to the worsening of real problems in Israel, but in fact the groups are closely allied. They have shared goals, shared funders (primarily European governments and the New Israel Fund in the United States), coordinate their work closely, defend each other from criticism, and collaborate on campaigns to promote specific accusations.
The tactics of the ideological war they are waging are unmistakable. The groups relentlessly accuse Israel of committing war crimes, human-rights offenses, and violations of international law. They champion the Palestinian cause and the Palestinian narrative of victimhood and Israeli oppression. They supply the highly massaged “facts” and claims that animate journalistic, diplomatic, and political activism against Israel, such as the Goldstone Report. They advocate for “lawfare” against Israeli officials—that is, prosecuting them for war crimes in European courts. And they argue either openly or by implication that Zionism itself—the existence of a Jewish state—is undemocratic, oppressive, and racist.
This war of delegitimization is so dangerous because it is targeted precisely at the heart of Western support for Israel—the belief in Europe and especially in America that Israel is not only a legitimate nation-state but also an exemplar of Western liberal values, deserving of the free world’s support and its protection in the face of constant attacks. The genius of the NGO movement is its promotion of Israelis themselves to make the case against Israel. Who better to convince Westerners that they are wrong to admire Israel than Jews feigning concern over Israel’s moral standing?
The story of those Israeli Jews who have made careers out of attacking Israel’s right to exist, such as Biletzky and Yiftachel, illustrates the degradation of the once mighty Israeli peace movement. Originally, the movement sought legitimacy and prominence in Israeli politics, and received it for a time—and because it was part of the political process, it was constrained by the need for electoral support and popular legitimacy. Yet the collapse of the Oslo Accords in 2000 and the Palestinian terror war that followed presented the peace movement with an existential crisis: With whom, exactly, were Israelis supposed to make peace? The withdrawals from Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza five years later, and the entrenchment in the vacated territory of Iranian-backed terrorist groups, further disillusioned Israelis and called into question the central proposition of the peace movement: if Israel makes the right concessions, peace will follow. And so, over the past 15 years, the peace movement has fallen from a position of influence in Israeli politics to one, today, of irrelevance, an anachronism that no longer has realistic answers to Israel’s problems.
What remains of the peace movement is a white-hot core of activists who refuse to acknowledge their failure and yet cannot gracefully recede from the political stage. They have discovered an innovative formula for rebuilding their political relevance completely outside the democratic political arena: reconstitute themselves as NGOs and conceal their political agenda in the apolitical rhetoric of human rights and international law. In this guise, the peace movement no longer has any need to win elections or offer a serious platform for governance. The NGOs instead position themselves as a blunt opposition force working against mainstream Israeli society, which is viewed as unsophisticated, provincial, racist, and stricken with “security hysteria.” This “human-rights community” has thus not only opposed every consensus Israeli security measure—Operation Defensive Shield during the
intifada, the security fence to stop suicide bombers, the targeted killings of terror-group leaders, the Lebanon War, and the Gaza War—but has branded them war crimes and human-rights violations for which Israel should be punished.
In these circumstances, where there is no point in trying to succeed at the ballot box, leftist Israeli activism now directs itself internationally in the hopes that fomenting a narrative of Israeli criminality will invite enough sanction and condemnation from Europe, the United Nations, and America to force Israel to accede to the demands of these otherwise powerless radicals.
The policies they support would constitute nothing less than Zionism’s destruction. And they apparently have no compunction about seeking its destruction from without, since they have learned to their disappointment and rage that Israel is too strong a nation to allow itself to be destroyed from within.
1 For a detailed discussion of the status of the West Bank, see “The Illegal-Settlements Myth” by David M. Phillips in the December 2009 issue of COMMENTARY.
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The B’Tselem Witch Trials
Must-Reads from Magazine
Their coming-and-going polka—now you see ’im, now you don’t—consumed the first 10 days of March. One week Cohn was in the driver’s seat of U.S. economic policy, steering his boss into a comprehensive overhaul of the tax code and preparing him for a huge disgorgement of taxpayer money to repair some nebulous entity called “our crumbling infrastructure.” The next week Cohn had disappeared and in his place at the president’s side Navarro suddenly materialized. With Navarro’s encouragement, the president unexpectedly announced hefty, world-wobbling tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. At first the financial markets tumbled, and nobody in Washington, including the president’s friends, seemed happy. Nobody, that is, except Navarro, whose Cheshire-cat grin quickly became unavoidable on the alphabet-soup channels of cable news. It’s the perfect place for him, front and center, trying to disentangle the conflicting strands of the president’s economic policy. Far more than Cohn, the president’s newest and most powerful economic adviser is a suitable poster boy for Trumpism, whatever that might be.
So where, the capital wondered, did this Navarro fellow come from? (The question So where did this Cohn guy go? barely lasted a news cycle.) Insiders and political obsessives dimly remembered Navarro from Trump’s presidential campaign. With Wilbur Ross, now the secretary of commerce, Navarro wrote the most articulate brief for the Trump economic plan in the months before the election, which by my reckoning occurred roughly 277 years ago. (Ross is also Navarro’s co-conspirator in pushing the steel tariffs. They’re an Odd Couple indeed: Navarro is well-coiffed and tidy and as smooth as a California anchorman, while Ross is what Barney Fife might have looked like if he’d given up his job as Mayberry’s deputy sheriff and gotten a degree in mortuary science.) The Navarro-Ross paper drew predictable skepticism from mainstream economists and their proxies in the press, particularly its eye-popping claim that Trump’s “trade policy reforms” would generate an additional $1.7 trillion in government revenue over the next 10 years.
Navarro is nominally a professor at University of California, Irvine. His ideological pedigree, like the president’s, is that of a mongrel. After a decade securing tenure by writing academic papers (“A Critical Comparison of Utility-type Ratemaking Methodologies in Oil Pipeline Regulation”), he set his attention on politics. In the 1990s, he earned the distinction of losing four political races in six years, all in San Diego or its surrounding suburbs—one for mayor, another for county supervisor, another for city council. He was a Democrat in those days, as Trump was; he campaigned against sprawl and for heavy environmental regulation. In 1996, he ran for Congress as “The Democrat Newt Gingrich Fears Most.” The TV actor Ed Asner filmed a commercial for him. This proved less helpful than hoped when his Republican opponent reminded voters that a few years earlier, Asner had been a chief fundraiser for the Communist guerrillas in El Salvador.
After that defeat, Navarro got the message and retired from politics. He returned to teaching, became an off-and-on-again Republican, and set about writing financial potboilers, mostly on investment strategies for a world increasingly unreceptive to American leadership. One of them, Death by China (2011), purported to describe the slow but inexorable sapping of American wealth and spirit through Chinese devilry. As it happened, this was Donald Trump’s favorite theme as well. From the beginning of his 40-year public career, Trump has stuck to his insistence that someone, in geo-economic terms, is bullying this great country of his. The identity of the bully has varied over time: In the 1980s, it was the Soviets who, following their cataclysmic implosion, gave way to Japan, which was replaced, after its own economic collapse, by America’s neighbors to the north and south, who have been joined, since the end of the last decade, by China. In Death by China, the man, the moment, and the message came together with perfect timing. Trump loved it.
It’s not clear that he read it, however. Trump is a visual learner, as the educational theorists used to say. He will retain more from Fox and Friends as he constructs his hair in the morning than from a half day buried in a stack of white papers from the Department of Labor. When Navarro decided to make a movie of the book, directed by himself, Trump attended a screening and lustily endorsed it. You can see why. Navarro’s use of animation is spare but compelling; the most vivid image shows a dagger of Asiatic design plunging (up to the hilt and beyond!) into the heart of a two-dimensional map of the U.S., causing the country’s blood to spray wildly across the screen, then seep in rivulets around the world. It’s Wes Cravenomics.
Most of the movie, however, is taken up by talking heads. Nearly everyone of these heads is attached to a left-wing Democrat, a socialist, or, in a couple of instances, an anarchist from the Occupy movement. Watched today, Death by China is a reminder of how lonely—how marginal—the anti-China obsession has been. This is not to its discredit; yesterday’s fringe often becomes today’s mainstream, just as today’s consensus is often disproved by the events of tomorrow. Not so long ago, for instance, the establishment catechism declared that economic liberalization and the prosperity it created led inexorably to political liberalization; from free markets, we were told, came free societies. In the last generation, China has put this fantasy to rest. Only the willfully ignorant would deny that the behavior of the Chinese government, at home and abroad, is the work of swine. Even so, the past three presidents have seen China only as a subject for scolding, never retaliation.
And this brings us to another mystery of Trumpism, as Navarro embodies it. Retaliation against China and its bullying trade practices is exactly what Trump has promised as both candidate and president. More than a year into his presidency, with his tariffs on steel and aluminum, he has struck against the bullies at last, just as he vowed to do. And the bullies, we discover, are mostly our friends—Germans, Brazilians, South Koreans, and other partners who sell us their aluminum and steel for less than we can make it ourselves. Accounting for 2 percent of U.S. steel imports, the Chinese are barely scratched in the president’s first great foray in protectionism.
In announcing the tariffs, Trump cited Chinese “dumping,” as if out of habit. Yet Navarro himself seems at a loss to explain why he and his boss have chosen to go after our friends instead of our preeminent adversary in world trade. “China is in many ways the root of the problem for all countries of the world in aluminum and steel,” he told CNN the day after the tariffs were announced. Really? How’s that? “The bigger picture is, China has tremendous overcapacity in both aluminum and steel. So what they do is, they flood the world market, and this trickles down to our shores, and to other countries.”
If that wasn’t confusing enough, we had only to wait three days. By then Navarro was telling other interviewers, “This has nothing to do with China, directly or indirectly.”
This is not the first time Trumpism has shown signs of incoherence. With Peter Navarro at the president’s side, and with Gary Cohn a fading memory, it is unlikely to be the last.
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Review of 'Political Tribes' By Amy Chua
Amy Chua has an explanation for what ails us at home and abroad: Elites keep ignoring the primacy of tribalism both in the United States and elsewhere and so are blindsided every time people act in accordance with their group instinct. In Political Tribes, she offers a survey of tribal dynamics around the globe and renders judgments about the ways in which the United States has serially misread us-and-them conflicts. In the book’s final chapters, Chua, a Yale University law professor best known for her parenting polemic Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, focuses on the clashing group instincts that now threaten to sunder the American body politic.
As Chua sees it, “our blindness to political tribalism abroad reflects America at both its best and worst.” Because the United States is a nation made up of diverse immigrant populations—a “supergroup”—Americans can sometimes underestimate how hard it is for people in other countries to set aside their religious or ethnic ties and find common national purpose. That’s American ignorance in its most optimistic and benevolent form. But then there’s the more noxious variety: “In some cases, like Vietnam,” she writes, “ethnically blind racism has been part of our obliviousness.”
During the Vietnam War, Chua notes, the United States failed to distinguish between the ethnically homogeneous Vietnamese majority and the Chinese minority who were targets of mass resentment. In Vietnam, national identity was built largely on historical accounts of the courageous heroes who had been repelling Chinese invaders since 111 b.c.e., when China first conquered its neighbor to the south. This defining antipathy toward the Chinese was exacerbated by the fact that Vietnam’s Chinese minority was on average far wealthier and more politically powerful than the ethnic Vietnamese masses. “Yet astonishingly,” writes Chua, “U.S. foreign policy makers during the Cold War were so oblivious to Vietnamese history that they thought Vietnam was China’s pawn—merely ‘a stalking horse for Beijing in Southeast Asia.’”
Throughout the book, Chua captures tribal conflicts in clear and engrossing prose. But as a guide to foreign policy, one gets the sense that her emphasis on tribal ties might not be able to do all the work she expects of it. The first hint comes in her Vietnam analysis. If American ignorance of Chinese–Vietnam tensions is to blame for our having fought and lost the war, what would a better understanding of such things have yielded? She gets to that, sort of. “Could we have supported Ho [Chi Minh] against the French, capitalizing on Vietnam’s historical hostility toward China to keep the Vietnamese within our sphere of influence?” Chua asks. “We’ll never know. Somehow we never saw or took seriously the enmity between Vietnam and China.” It’s hard to see the U.S.’s backing a mass-murdering Communist against a putatively democratic ally as anything but a surreal thought experiment, let alone a lost opportunity.
On Afghanistan, Chua is correct about a number of things. There are indeed long-simmering tensions between Pashtuns, Punjabs, and other tribes in the region. The U.S. did pay insufficient attention to Afghanistan in the decade leading up to 9/11. The Taliban did play on Pashtun aspirations to fuel their rise. But how, exactly, are we to understand our failures in Afghanistan as resulting from ignorance of tribal relations? The Taliban went on to forge a protective agreement with al-Qaeda that had little if anything to do with tribal ties. And it was that relationship that had tragic consequences for the United States.
Not only was Osama bin Laden not Pashtun; he was an Arab millionaire, and his terrorist organization was made up of jihadists from all around the world. If anything, it was Bin Laden’s trans-tribal movement that the U.S. should have been focused on. The Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance was based on pooling resources against perceived common threats, compatible (but not identical) religious notions, and large cash payments from Bin Laden. No American understanding of tribal relations could have interfered with that.
And while an ambitious tribe-savvy counterinsurgency strategy might have gone a long way in helping the U.S.’s war effort, there has never been broad public support for such a commitment. Ultimately, our problems in Afghanistan have less to do with neglecting tribal politics and more to do with general neglect.
In Chua’s chapter on the Iraq War, however, her paradigm aligns more closely with the facts. “Could we have done better if we hadn’t been so blind to tribal politics in Iraq?” she asks. “There’s very good evidence that the answer is yes.” Here Chua offers a concise account of the U.S.’s successful 2007 troop surge. “While the additional U.S. soldiers—sent primarily to Baghdad and Al Anbar Province—were of course a critical factor,” she writes, “the surge succeeded only because it was accompanied by a 180-degree shift in our approach to the local population.”
Chua goes into colorful detail about then colonel H.R. McMaster’s efforts to educate American troops in local Iraqi customs and his decision to position them among the local population in Tal Afar. This won the trust of Iraqis who were forthcoming with critical intelligence. She also covers the work of Col. Sean MacFarland who forged relationships with Sunni sheikhs. Those sheikhs, in turn, convinced their tribespeople to work with U.S. forces and function as a local police force. Finally, Chua explains how Gen. David Petraeus combined the work of McMaster and MacFarland and achieved the miraculous in pacifying Baghdad. In spite of U.S. gains—and the successful navigation of tribes—there was little American popular will to keep Iraq on course and, over the next few years, the country inevitably unraveled.I n writing about life in the United States, Chua is on firmer ground altogether, and her diagnostic powers are impressive. “It turns out that in America, there’s a chasm between the tribal identities of the country’s haves and have-nots,” she writes, “a chasm of the same kind wreaking political havoc in many developing and non-Western countries.” In the U.S., however, there’s a crucial difference to this dynamic, and Chua puts her finger right on it: “In America, it’s the progressive elites who have taken it upon themselves to expose the American Dream as false. This is their form of tribalism.”
She backs up this contention with statistics. Some of the most interesting revelations have to do with the Occupy movement. In actual fact, those who gathered in cities across the country to protest systemic inequality in 2012 were “disproportionately affluent.” In fact, “more than half had incomes of $75,000 or more.” Occupy faded away, as she notes, because it “attracted so few members from the many disadvantaged groups it purported to be fighting for.” Chua puts things in perspective: “Imagine if the suffragette movement hadn’t included large numbers of women, or if the civil-rights movement included very few African Americans, or if the gay-rights movement included very few gays.” America’s poorer classes, for their part, are “deeply patriotic, even if they feel they’re losing the country to distant elites who know nothing about them.”
Chua is perceptive on both the inhabitants of Trump Country and the elites who disdain them. She takes American attitudes toward professional wrestling as emblematic of the split between those who support Donald Trump and those who detest him. Trump is a bona fide hero in the world of pro wrestling; he has participated in “bouts” and was actually inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013. What WWE fans get from watching wrestling they also get from watching Trump—“showmanship and symbols,” a world held together by enticing false storylines, and, ultimately, “something playfully spectacular.” Those on the academic left, on the other hand, “are fascinated, even obsessed in a horrified way, with the ‘phenomenology’ of watching professional wrestling.” In the book’s most arresting line, Chua writes that “there is now so little interaction, commonality, and intermarriage between rural/heartland/working-class whites and urban/coastal whites that the difference between them is practically what social scientists would consider an ‘ethnic difference.’”
Of course, there’s much today dividing America along racial lines as well. While Americans of color still contend with the legacy of institutional intolerance, “it is simply a fact that ‘diversity’ policies at the most select American universities and in some sectors of the economy have had a disparate adverse impact on whites.” So, both blacks and whites (and most everyone else) feel threatened to some degree. This has sharpened the edge of identity politics on the left and right. In Chua’s reading, these tribal differences will not actually break the country apart. But, she believes, they could fundamentally and irreversibly change “who we are.”
Political Tribes, however, is no doomsday prediction. Despite our clannish resentments, Chua sees, in her daily interactions, people’s willingness to form bonds beyond those of their in-group and a relaxing of tribal ties. What’s needed is for haves and have-nots, whites and blacks, liberals and conservatives to enjoy more meaningful exposure to one another. This pat prescription would come across as criminally sappy if not for the genuinely loving and patriotic way in which Chua writes about our responsibilities as a “supergroup.” “It’s not enough that we view one another as fellow human beings,” she says, “we need to view one another as fellow Americans.” Americans as a higher ontological category than human beings—there’s poetry in that. And a healthy bit of tribalism, too.
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Then again, you know what happens when you assume.
“Here is my prediction,” Kristof wrote. “The new paramount leader, Xi Jinping, will spearhead a resurgence of economic reform, and probably some political easing as well. Mao’s body will be hauled out of Tiananmen Square on his watch, and Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize–winning writer, will be released from prison.”
True, Kristof conceded, “I may be wrong entirely.” But, he went on, “my hunch on this return to China, my old home, is that change is coming.”
Five years later, the Chinese economy, while large, is saddled with debt. Analysts and government officials are worried about its real-estate bubble. Despite harsh controls, capital continues to flee China. Nor has there been “some political easing.” On the contrary, repression has worsened. The Great Firewall blocks freedom of speech and inquiry, human-rights advocates are jailed, and the provinces resemble surveillance states out of a Philip K. Dick novel. Mao rests comfortably in his mausoleum. Not only did Liu Xiaobo remain a prisoner, he was also denied medical treatment when he contracted cancer, and he died in captivity in 2017.
As for Xi Jinping, he turned out not to be a reformer but a dictator. Steadily, under the guise of anti-corruption campaigns, Xi decimated alternative centers of power within the Communist Party. He built up a cult of personality around “Xi Jinping thought” and his “Chinese dream” of economic, cultural, and military strength. His preeminence was highlighted in October 2017 when the Politburo declined to name his successor. Then, in March of this year, the Chinese abolished the term limits that have guaranteed rotation in office since the death of Mao. Xi reigns supreme.
Bizarrely, this latest development seems to have come as a surprise to the American press. The headline of Emily Rauhala’s Washington Post article read: “China proposes removal of two-term limit, potentially paving way for President Xi Jinping to stay on.” Potentially? Xi’s accession to emperor-like status, wrote Julie Bogen of Vox, “could destabilize decades of progress toward democracy and instead move China even further toward authoritarianism.” Could? Bogen did not specify which “decades of progress toward democracy” she was talking about, but that is probably because, since 1989, there haven’t been any.
Xi’s assumption of dictatorial powers should not have shocked anyone who has paid the slightest bit of attention to recent Chinese history. The Chinese government, until last month a collective dictatorship, has exercised despotic control over its people since the very founding of the state in 1949. And yet the insatiable desire among media to incorporate news events into a preestablished storyline led reporters to cover the party announcement as a sudden reversal. Why? Because only then would the latest decision of an increasingly embattled and belligerent Chinese leadership fit into the prefabricated narrative that says we are living in an authoritarian moment.
For example, one article in the February 26, 2018, New York Times was headlined, “With Xi’s Power Grab, China Joins New Era of Strongmen.” CNN’s James Griffiths wrote, “While Chinese politics is not remotely democratic in the traditional sense, there are certain checks and balances within the Party system itself, with reformers and conservatives seeing their power and influence waxing and waning over time.” Checks and balances, reformers and conservatives—why, they are just like us, only within the context of a one-party state that ruthlessly brooks no dissent.
Now, we do happen to live in an era when democracy and autocracy are at odds. But China is not joining the “authoritarian trend.” It helped create and promote the trend. Next year, China’s “era of strongmen” will enter its seventh decade. The fundamental nature of the Communist regime in Beijing has not changed during this time.
My suspicion is that journalists were taken aback by Xi’s revelation of his true nature because they, like most Western elites, have bought into the myth of China’s “peaceful rise.” For decades, Americans have been told that China’s economic development and participation in international organizations and markets would lead inevitably to its political liberalization. What James Mann calls “the China fantasy” manifested itself in the leadership of both major political parties and in the pronouncements of the chattering class across the ideological spectrum.
Indeed, not only was the soothing scenario of China as a “responsible stakeholder” on the glide path to democracy widespread, but media figures also admonished Americans for not living up to Chinese standards. “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks,” Tom Friedman conceded in an infamous 2009 column. “But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages.” For instance, Friedman went on, “it is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power, and wind power.” The following year, during an episode of Meet the Press, Friedman admitted, “I have fantasized—don’t get me wrong—but what if we could just be China for a day?” Just think of all the electric cars the government could force us to buy.
This attitude toward Chinese Communism as a public-policy exemplar became still more pronounced after Donald Trump was elected president on an “America First” agenda. China’s theft of intellectual property, industrial espionage, harassment and exploitation of Western companies, currency manipulation, mercantilist subsidies and tariffs, chronic pollution, military buildup, and interference in democratic politics and university life did not prevent it from proclaiming itself the defender of globalization and environmentalism.
When Xi visited the Davos World Economic Forum last year, the Economist noted the “fawning reception” that greeted him. The speech he delivered, pledging to uphold the international order that had facilitated his nation’s rise as well as his own, received excellent reviews. On January 15, 2017, Fareed Zakaria said, “In an America-first world, China is filling the vacuum.” A few days later, Charlie Rose told his CBS audience, “It’s almost like China is saying, ‘we are the champions of globalization, not the United States.’” And on January 30, 2017, the New York Times quoted a “Berlin-based private equity fund manager,” who said, “We heard a Chinese president becoming leader of the free world.”
The chorus of praise for China grew louder last spring when Trump announced American withdrawal from an international climate accord. In April 2017, Rick Stengel said on cable television that China is becoming “the global leader on the environment.” On June 8, a CBS reporter said that Xi is “now viewed as the world’s leader on climate change.” On June 19, 2017, on Bloomberg news, Dana Hull said, “China is the leader on climate change, especially when it comes to autos.” Also that month, one NBC anchor asked Senator Mike Lee of Utah, “Are you concerned at all that China may be seen as sort of the global leader when it comes to bringing countries together, more so than the United States?”
Last I checked, Xi Jinping’s China has not excelled at “bringing countries together,” unless—like Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam—those countries are allying with the United States to balance against China. What instead should concern Senator Lee, and all of us, is an American media filled with people suckered by foreign propaganda that happens to coincide with their political preferences, and who are unable to make elementary distinctions between tyrannical governments and consensual ones.
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Marx didn’t supplant old ideas about money and commerce; he intensified them
rom the time of antiquity until the Enlightenment, trade and the pursuit of wealth were considered sinful. “In the city that is most finely governed,” Aristotle wrote, “the citizens should not live a vulgar or a merchant’s way of life, for this sort of way of life is ignoble and contrary to virtue.”1 In Plato’s vision of an ideal society (the Republic) the ruling “guardians” would own no property to avoid tearing “the city in pieces by differing about ‘mine’ and ‘not mine.’” He added that “all that relates to retail trade, and merchandise, and the keeping of taverns, is denounced and numbered among dishonourable things.” Only noncitizens would be allowed to indulge in commerce. A citizen who defies the natural order and becomes a merchant should be thrown in jail for “shaming his family.”
At his website humanprogress.org, Marian L. Tupy quotes D.C. Earl of the University of Leeds, who wrote that in Ancient Rome, “all trade was stigmatized as undignified … the word mercator [merchant] appears as almost a term of abuse.” Cicero noted in the first century b.c.e. that retail commerce is sordidus (vile) because merchants “would not make any profit unless they lied constantly.”
Early Christianity expanded this point of view. Jesus himself was clearly hostile to the pursuit of riches. “For where your treasure is,” he proclaimed in his Sermon on the Mount, “there will your heart be also.” And of course he insisted that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
The Catholic Church incorporated this view into its teachings for centuries, holding that economics was zero-sum. “The Fathers of the Church adhered to the classical assumption that since the material wealth of humanity was more or less fixed, the gain of some could only come at a loss to others,” the economic historian Jerry Muller explains in his book The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought. As St. Augustine put it, “Si unus non perdit, alter non acquirit”—“If one does not lose, the other does not gain.”
The most evil form of wealth accumulation was the use of money to make money—usury. Lending money at interest was unnatural, in this view, and therefore invidious. “While expertise in exchange is justly blamed since it is not according to nature but involves taking from others,” Aristotle insisted, “usury is most reasonably hated because one’s possessions derive from money itself and not from that for which it was supplied.” In the Christian tradition, the only noble labor was physical labor, and so earning wealth from the manipulation of money was seen as inherently ignoble.
In the somewhat more prosperous and market-driven medieval period, Thomas Aquinas helped make private property and commerce more acceptable, but he did not fundamentally break with the Aristotelian view that trade was suspect and the pursuit of wealth was sinful. The merchant’s life was in conflict with the teachings of Christianity if it led to pride or avarice. “Echoing Aristotle,” Muller writes, “Aquinas reasserted that justice in the distribution of material goods was fulfilled when someone received in proportion to his status, office, and function within the institutions of an existing, structured community. Hence Aquinas decried as covetousness the accumulation of wealth to improve one’s place in the social order.”
In the medieval mind, Jews were seen as a kind of stand-in for mercantile and usurious sinfulness. Living outside the Christian community, but within the borders of Christendom, they were allowed to commit the sin of usury on the grounds that their souls were already forfeit. Pope Nicholas V insisted that it is much better that “this people should perpetrate usury than that Christians should engage in it with one another.”2 The Jews were used as a commercial caste the way the untouchables of India were used as a sanitation caste. As Montesquieu would later observe in the 16th century, “whenever one prohibits a thing that is naturally permitted or necessary, the people who engage in it are regarded as dishonest.” Thus, as Muller has argued, anti-Semitism has its roots in a kind of primitive anti-capitalism.
Early Protestantism did not reject these views. It amplified them.3 Martin Luther despised commerce. “There is on earth no greater enemy of man, after the Devil, than a gripe-money and usurer, for he wants to be God over all men…. Usury is a great, huge monster, like a werewolf …. And since we break on the wheel and behead highwaymen, murderers, and housebreakers, how much more ought we to break on the wheel and kill … hunt down, curse, and behead all usurers!”4
It should therefore come as no surprise that Luther’s views of Jews, the living manifestation of usury in the medieval mind, were just as immodest. In his 1543 treatise On the Jews and Their Lies, he offers a seven-point plan on how to deal with them:
- “First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools .…This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians …”
- “Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.”
- “Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.”
- “Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb… ”
- “Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. For they have no business in the countryside … ”
- “Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them … ”
- “Seventh, I recommend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow.… But if we are afraid that they might harm us or our wives, children, servants, cattle, etc., … then let us emulate the common sense of other nations such as France, Spain, Bohemia, etc., … then eject them forever from the country … ”
Luther agitated against the Jews throughout Europe, condemning local officials for insufficient anti-Semitism (a word that did not exist at the time and a sentiment that was not necessarily linked to more modern biological racism). His demonization of the Jews was derived from more than anti-capitalism. But his belief that the Jewish spirit of commerce was corrupting of Christianity was nonetheless central to his indictment. He sermonized again and again that it must be cleansed from Christendom, either through conversion, annihilation, or expulsion.
Three centuries later, Karl Marx would blend these ideas together in a noxious stew.
The idea at the center of virtually all of Marx’s economic writing is the labor theory of value. It holds that all of the value of any product can be determined by the number of hours it took for a laborer or laborers to produce it. From the viewpoint of conventional economics—and elementary logic—this is ludicrous. For example, ingenuity, which may not be time-consuming, is nonetheless a major source of value. Surely it cannot be true that someone who works intelligently, and therefore efficiently, provides less value than someone who works stupidly and slowly. (Marx anticipates some of these kinds of critiques with a lot of verbiage about the costs of training and skills.) But the more relevant point is simply this: The determinant of value in an economic sense is not the labor that went into a product but the price the consumer is willing to pay for it. Whether it took an hour or a week to build a mousetrap, the value of the two products is the same to the consumer if the quality is the same.
Marx had philosophical, metaphysical, and tactical reasons for holding fast to the labor theory of value. It was essential to his argument that capitalism—or what we would now call “commerce” plain and simple—was exploitative by its very nature. In Marx, the term “exploitation” takes a number of forms. It is not merely evocative of child laborers working in horrid conditions; it covers virtually all profits. If all value is captured by labor, any “surplus value” collected by the owners of capital is by definition exploitative. The businessman who risks his own money to build and staff an innovative factory is not adding value; rather, he is subtracting value from the workers. Indeed, the money he used to buy the land and the materials is really just “dead labor.” For Marx, there was an essentially fixed amount of “labor-power” in society, and extracting profit from it was akin to strip-mining a natural resource. Slavery and wage-labor were different forms of the same exploitation because both involved extracting the common resource. In fact, while Marx despised slavery, he thought wage-labor was only a tiny improvement because wage-labor reduced costs for capitalists in that they were not required to feed or clothe wage laborers.
Because Marx preached revolution, we are inclined to consider him a revolutionary. He was not. None of this was a radical step forward in economic or political thinking. It was, rather, a reaffirmation of the disdain of commerce that starts with Plato and Aristotle and found new footing in Christianity. As Jerry Muller (to whom I am obviously very indebted) writes:
To a degree rarely appreciated, [Marx] merely recast the traditional Christian stigmatization of moneymaking into a new vocabulary and reiterated the ancient suspicion against those who used money to make money. In his concept of capitalism as “exploitation” Marx returned to the very old idea that money is fundamentally unproductive, that only those who live by the sweat of their brow truly produce, and that therefore not only interest, but profit itself, is always ill-gotten.
In his book Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, Jonathan Sperber suggests that “Marx is more usefully understood as a backward-looking figure, who took the circumstances of the first half of the nineteenth century and projected them into the future, than as a surefooted and foresighted interpreter of historical trends.”5
Marx was a classic bohemian who resented the fact that he spent his whole life living off the generosity of, first, his parents and then his collaborator Friedrich Engels. He loathed the way “the system” required selling out to the demands of the market and a career. The frustrated poet turned to the embryonic language of social science to express his angry barbaric yawp at The Man. “His critique of the stultifying effects of labor in a capitalist society,” Muller writes, “is a direct continuation of the Romantic conception of the self and its place in society.”
In other words, Marx was a romantic, not a scientist. Romanticism emerged as a rebellion against the Enlightenment, taking many forms—from romantic poetry to romantic nationalism. But central to all its forms was the belief that modern, commercial, rational life is inauthentic and alienating, and cuts us off from our true natures.
As Rousseau, widely seen as the first romantic, explained in his Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences, modernity—specifically the culture of commerce and science—was oppressive. The baubles of the Enlightenment were mere “garlands of flowers” that concealed “the chains which weigh [men] down” and led people to “love their own slavery.”
This is a better context for understanding Marx’s and Engels’s hatred of the division of labor and the division of rights and duties. Their baseline assumption, like Rousseau’s, is that primitive man lived a freer and more authentic life before the rise of private property and capitalism. “Within the tribe there is as yet no difference between rights and duties,” Engels writes in Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State. “The question whether participation in public affairs, in blood revenge or atonement, is a right or a duty, does not exist for the Indian; it would seem to him just as absurd as the question whether it was a right or a duty to sleep, eat, or hunt. A division of the tribe or of the gens into different classes was equally impossible.”
For Marx, then, the Jew might as well be the real culprit who told Eve to bite the apple. For the triumph of the Jew and the triumph of money led to the alienation of man. And in truth, the term “alienation” is little more than modern-sounding shorthand for exile from Eden. The division of labor encourages individuality, alienates us from the collective, fosters specialization and egoism, and dethrones the sanctity of the tribe. “Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist,” Marx writes. “Money degrades all the gods of man—and turns them into commodities. Money is the universal self-established value of all things. It has, therefore, robbed the whole world—both the world of men and nature—of its specific value. Money is the estranged essence of man’s work and man’s existence, and this alien essence dominates him, and he worships it.”
Marx’s muse was not analytical reason, but resentment. That is what fueled his false consciousness. To understand this fully, we should look at how that most ancient and eternal resentment—Jew-hatred—informed his worldview.
The atheist son of a Jewish convert to Lutheranism and the grandson of a rabbi, Karl Marx hated capitalism in no small part because he hated Jews. According to Marx and Engels, Jewish values placed the acquisition of money above everything else. Marx writes in his infamous essay “On the Jewish Question”:
Let us consider the actual, worldly Jew—not the Sabbath Jew … but the everyday Jew.
Let us not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion, but let us look for the secret of his religion in the real Jew.
What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money [Emphasis in original]
The spread of capitalism, therefore, represented a kind of conquest for Jewish values. The Jew—at least the one who set up shop in Marx’s head—makes his money from money. He adds no value. Worse, the Jews considered themselves to be outside the organic social order, Marx complained, but then again that is what capitalism encourages—individual independence from the body politic and the selfish (in Marx’s mind) pursuit of individual success or happiness. For Marx, individualism was a kind of heresy because it meant violating the sacred bond of the community. Private property empowered individuals to live as individuals “without regard to other men,” as Marx put it.
This is the essence of Marx’s view of alienation. Marx believed that people were free, creative beings but were chained to their role as laborers in the industrial machine. The division of labor inherent to capitalist society was alienating and inauthentic, pulling us out of the communitarian natural General Will. The Jew was both an emblem of this alienation and a primary author of it:
The Jew has emancipated himself in a Jewish manner, not only because he has acquired financial power, but also because, through him and also apart from him, money has become a world power and the practical Jewish spirit has become the practical spirit of the Christian nations. The Jews have emancipated themselves insofar as the Christians have become Jews. [Emphasis in original]
He adds, “The god of the Jews has become secularized and has become the god of the world. The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew. His god is only an illusory bill of exchange.” And he concludes: “In the final analysis, the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.” [Emphasis in original]
In The Holy Family, written with Engels, he argues that the most pressing imperative is to transcend “the Jewishness of bourgeois society, the inhumanity of present existence, which finds its highest embodiment in the system of money.” [Emphasis in original]
In his “Theories of Surplus Value,” he praises Luther’s indictment of usury. Luther “has really caught the character of old-fashioned usury, and that of capital as a whole.” Marx and Engels insist that the capitalist ruling classes, whether or not they claim to be Jewish, are nonetheless Jewish in spirit. “In their description of the confrontation of capital and labor, Marx and Engels resurrected the traditional critique of usury,” Muller observes. Or, as Deirdre McCloskey notes, “the history that Marx thought he perceived went with his erroneous logic that capitalism—drawing on an anticommercial theme as old as commerce—just is the same thing as greed.”6 Paul Johnson is pithier: Marx’s “explanation of what was wrong with the world was a combination of student-café anti-Semitism and Rousseau.”7
For Marx, capital and the Jew are different faces of the same monster: “The capitalist knows that all commodities—however shabby they may look or bad they may smell—are in faith and in fact money, internally circumcised Jews, and in addition magical means by which to make more money out of money.”
Marx’s writing, particularly on surplus value, is drenched with references to capital as parasitic and vampiric: “Capital is dead labor which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks. The time during which the worker works is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labor-power he has bought from him.” The constant allusions to the eternal wickedness of the Jew combined with his constant references to blood make it hard to avoid concluding that Marx had simply updated the blood libel and applied it to his own atheistic doctrine. His writing is replete with references to the “bloodsucking” nature of capitalism. He likens both Jews and capitalists (the same thing in his mind) to life-draining exploiters of the proletariat.
Marx writes how the extension of the workday into the night “only slightly quenches the vampire thirst for the living blood of labor,” resulting in the fact that “the vampire will not let go ‘while there remains a single muscle, sinew or drop of blood to be exploited.’” As Mark Neocleous of Brunel University documents in his brilliant essay, “The Political Economy of the Dead: Marx’s Vampires,” the images of blood and bloodsucking capital in Das Kapital are even more prominent motifs: “Capital ‘sucks up the worker’s value-creating power’ and is dripping with blood. Lacemaking institutions exploiting children are described as ‘blood-sucking,’ while U.S. capital is said to be financed by the ‘capitalized blood of children.’ The appropriation of labor is described as the ‘life-blood of capitalism,’ while the state is said to have here and there interposed itself ‘as a barrier to the transformation of children’s blood into capital.’”
Marx’s vision of exploitative, Jewish, bloodsucking capital was an expression of romantic superstition and tribal hatred. Borrowing from the medieval tradition of both Catholics as well as Luther himself, not to mention a certain folkloric poetic tradition, Marx invented a modern-sounding “scientific” theory that was in fact reactionary in every sense of the word. “If Marx’s vision was forward-looking, its premises were curiously archaic,” Muller writes. “As in the civic republican and Christian traditions, self-interest is the enemy of social cohesion and of morality. In that sense, Marx’s thought is a reversion to the time before Hegel, Smith, or Voltaire.”
In fairness to Marx, he does not claim that he wants to return to a feudal society marked by inherited social status and aristocracy. He is more reactionary than that. The Marxist final fantasy holds that at the end of history, when the state “withers away,” man is liberated from all exploitation and returns to the tribal state in which there is no division of labor, no dichotomy of rights and duties.
Marx’s “social science” was swept into history’s dustbin long ago. What endured was the romantic appeal of Marxism, because that appeal speaks to our tribal minds in ways we struggle to recognize, even though it never stops whispering in our ears.
It is an old conservative habit—one I’ve been guilty of myself—of looking around society and politics, finding things we don’t like or disagree with, and then running through an old trunk of Marxist bric-a-brac to spruce up our objections. It is undeniably true that the influence of Marx, particularly in the academy, remains staggering. Moreover, his indirect influence is as hard to measure as it is extensive. How many novels, plays, and movies have been shaped by Marx or informed by people shaped by Marx? It’s unknowable.
And yet, this is overdone. The truth is that Marx’s ideas were sticky for several reasons. First, they conformed to older, traditional ways of seeing the world—far more than Marxist zealots have ever realized. The idea that there are malevolent forces above and around us, manipulating our lives and exploiting the fruits of our labors, was hardly invented by him. In a sense, it wasn’t invented by anybody. Conspiracy theories are as old as mankind, stretching back to prehistory.
There’s ample reason—with ample research to back it up—to believe that there is a natural and universal human appetite for conspiracy theories. It is a by-product of our adapted ability to detect patterns, particularly patterns that may help us anticipate a threat—and, as Mark van Vugt has written, “the biggest threat facing humans throughout history has been other people, particularly when they teamed up against you.”8
To a very large extent, this is what Marxism is —an extravagant conspiracy theory in which the ruling classes, the industrialists, and/or the Jews arrange affairs for their own benefit and against the interests of the masses. Marx himself was an avid conspiracy theorist, as so many brilliant bohemian misfits tend to be, believing that the English deliberately orchestrated the Irish potato famine to “carry out the agricultural revolution and to thin the population of Ireland down to the proportion satisfactory to the landlords.” He even argued that the Crimean War was a kind of false-flag operation to hide the true nature of Russian-English collusion.
Contemporary political figures on the left and the right routinely employ the language of exploitation and conspiracy. They do so not because they’ve internalized Marx, but because of their own internal psychological architecture. In Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi, the talented left-wing writer, describes Goldman Sachs (the subject of quite a few conspiracy theories) thus:
The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it’s everywhere. The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money. In fact, the history of the recent financial crisis, which doubles as a history of the rapid decline and fall of the suddenly swindled dry American empire, reads like a Who’s Who of Goldman Sachs graduates.
Marx would be jealous that he didn’t think of the phrase “the great vampire squid.”
Meanwhile, Donald Trump has occasionally traded in the same kind of language, even evoking some ancient anti-Semitic tropes. “Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special-interest friends, and her donors,” Trump said in one campaign speech. “This election will determine if we are a free nation or whether we have only the illusion of democracy, but are in fact controlled by a small handful of global special interests rigging the system, and our system is rigged.” He added: “Our corrupt political establishment, that is the greatest power behind the efforts at radical globalization and the disenfranchisement of working people. Their financial resources are virtually unlimited, their political resources are unlimited, their media resources are unmatched.”
A second reason Marxism is so successful at fixing itself to the human mind is that it offers—to some—a palatable substitute for the lost certainty of religious faith. Marxism helped to restore certainty and meaning for huge numbers of people who, having lost traditional religion, had not lost their religious instinct. One can see evidence of this in the rhetoric used by Marxist and other socialist revolutionaries who promised to deliver a “Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.”
The 20th-century philosopher Eric Voegelin argued that Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire had stripped the transcendent from its central place in human affairs. God had been dethroned and “We the People”—and our things—had taken His place. “When God is invisible behind the world,” Voegelin writes, “the contents of the world will become new gods; when the symbols of transcendent religiosity are banned, new symbols develop from the inner-worldly language of science to take their place.”9
The religious views of the Romantic writers and artists Marx was raised on (and whom he had once hoped to emulate) ran the gamut from atheism to heartfelt devotion, but they shared an anger and frustration with the way the new order had banished the richness of faith from the land. “Now we have got the freedom of believing in public nothing but what can be rationally demonstrated,” the writer Johann Heinrich Merck complained. “They have deprived religion of all its sensuous elements, that is, of all its relish. They have carved it up into its parts and reduced it to a skeleton without color and light…. And now it’s put in a jar and nobody wants to taste it.”10
When God became sidelined as the source of ultimate meaning, “the people” became both the new deity and the new messianic force of the new order. In other words, instead of worshipping some unseen force residing in Heaven, people started worshipping themselves. This is what gave nationalism its spiritual power, as the volksgeist, people’s spirit, replaced the Holy Spirit. The tribal instinct to belong to a sacralized group took over. In this light, we can see how romantic nationalism and “globalist” Marxism are closely related. They are both “re-enchantment creeds,” as the philosopher-historian Ernest Gellner put it. They fill up the holes in our souls and give us a sense of belonging and meaning.
For Marx, the inevitable victory of Communism would arrive when the people, collectively, seized their rightful place on the Throne of History.11 The cult of unity found a new home in countless ideologies, each of which determined, in accord with their own dogma, to, in Voegelin’s words, “build the corpus mysticum of the collectivity and bind the members to form the oneness of the body.” Or, to borrow a phrase from Barack Obama, “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
In practice, Marxist doctrine is more alienating and dehumanizing than capitalism will ever be. But in theory, it conforms to the way our minds wish to see the world. There’s a reason why so many populist movements have been so easily herded into Marxism. It’s not that the mobs in Venezuela or Cuba started reading The Eighteenth Brumaire and suddenly became Marxists. The peasants of North Vietnam did not need to read the Critique of the Gotha Program to become convinced that they were being exploited. The angry populace is always already convinced. The people have usually reached the conclusion long ago. They have the faith; what they need is the dogma. They need experts and authority figures—priests!—with ready-made theories about why the masses’ gut feelings were right all along. They don’t need Marx or anybody else to tell them they feel ripped off, disrespected, exploited. They know that already. The story Marxists tell doesn’t have to be true. It has to be affirming. And it has to have a villain. The villain, then and now, is the Jew.
1 Muller, Jerry Z.. The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought (p. 5). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
2 Muller, Jerry Z. Capitalism and the Jews (pp. 23-24). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
3 Luther’s economic thought, reflected in his “Long Sermon on Usury of 1520” and his tract On Trade and Usury of 1524, was hostile to commerce in general and to international trade in particular, and stricter than the canonists in its condemnation of moneylending. Muller, Jerry Z.. Capitalism and the Jews (p. 26). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
4 Quoted approvingly in Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. “Capitalist Production.” Capital: Critical Analysis of Production, Volume II. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, trans. London: Swan Sonnenschein, Lowrey, & Co. 1887. p. 604
5 Sperber, Jonathan. “Introduction.” Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. New York: Liverwright Publishing Corporation. 2013. xiii.
6 McCloskey, Deirdre. Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 142
7 Johnson, Paul. Intellectuals (Kindle Locations 1325-1326). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
8 See also: Sunstain, Cass R. and Vermeule, Adrian. “Syposium on Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures.” The Journal of Political Philosophy: Volume 17, Number 2, 2009, pp. 202-227. http://www.ask-force.org/web/Discourse/Sunstein-Conspiracy-Theories-2009.pdf
9 Think of the story of the Golden Calf. Moses departs for Mt. Sinai to talk with God and receive the Ten Commandments. No sooner had he left did the Israelites switch their allegiance to false idol, the Golden Calf, treating a worldly inanimate object as their deity. So it is with modern man. Hence, Voegelin’s quip that for the Marxist “Christ the Redeemer is replaced by the steam engine as the promise of the realm to come.”
10 Blanning, Tim. The Romantic Revolution: A History (Modern Library Chronicles Series Book 34) (Kindle Locations 445-450). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
11 Marx: “Along with the constant decrease in the number of capitalist magnates, who usurp and monopolize all the advantages of this process of transformation, the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation and exploitation grows; but with this there also grows the revolt of the working class, a class constantly increasing in numbers, and trained, united and organized by the very mechanism of the capitalist process of production.”
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Review of 'Realism and Democracy' By Elliott Abrams
Then, in 1966, Syrian Baathists—believers in a different transnational unite-all-the-Arabs ideology—overthrew the government in Damascus and lent their support to Palestinian guerrillas in the Jordanian-controlled West Bank to attack Israel. Later that year, a Jordanian-linked counter-coup in Syria failed, and the key figures behind it fled to Jordan. Then, on the eve of the Six-Day War in May 1967, Jordan’s King Hussein signed a mutual-defense pact with Egypt, agreeing to deploy Iraqi troops on Jordanian soil and effectively giving Nasser command and control over Jordan’s own armed forces.
This is just a snapshot of the havoc wreaked on the Middle East by the conceit of pan-Arabism. This history is worth recalling when reading Elliott Abrams’s idealistic yet clearheaded Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy After the Arab Spring. One of the book’s key insights is the importance of legitimacy for regimes that rule “not nation-states” but rather “Sykes-Picot states”—the colonial heirlooms of Britain and France created in the wake of the two world wars. At times, these states barely seem to acknowledge, let alone respect, their own sovereignty.
When the spirit of revolution hit the Arab world in 2010, the states with external legitimacy—monarchies such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait—survived. Regimes that ruled merely by brute force—Egypt, Yemen, Libya—didn’t. The Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria has only held on thanks to the intervention of Iran and Russia, and it is difficult to argue that there is any such thing as “Syria” anymore. What this all proved was that the “stability” of Arab dictatorships, a central conceit of U.S. foreign policy, was in many cases an illusion.
That is the first hard lesson in pan-Arabism from Abrams, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The second is this: The extremists who filled the power vacuums in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and other countries led Western analysts to believe that there was an “Islamic exceptionalism” at play that demonstrated Islam’s incompatibility with democracy. Abrams effectively debunks this by showing that the real culprit stymieing the spread of liberty in the Middle East was not Islam but pan-Arabism, which stems from secular roots. He notes one study showing that, in the 30 years between 1973 and 2003, “a non-Arab Muslim-majority country was almost 20 times more likely to be ‘electorally competitive’ than an Arab-majority Muslim country.”
Abrams is thus an optimist on the subject of Islam and democracy—which is heartening, considering his experience and expertise. He worked for legendary cold-warrior Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson and served as an assistant secretary of state for human rights under Ronald Reagan and later as George W. Bush’s deputy national-security adviser for global democracy strategy. Realism and Democracy is about U.S. policy and the Arab world—but it is also about the nature of participatory politics itself. Its theme is: Ideas have consequences. And what sets Abrams’s book apart is its concrete policy recommendations to put flesh on the bones of those ideas, and bring them to life.
The dreary disintegration of the Arab Spring saw Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood, which after a year was displaced in a military coup. Syria’s civil war has seen about 400,000 killed and millions displaced. Into the vacuum stepped numerous Islamist terror groups. The fall of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya has resulted in total state collapse. Yemen’s civil war bleeds on.
Stability in authoritarian states with little or no legitimacy is a fiction. Communist police states were likely to fall, and the longer they took to do so, the longer the opposition sat in a balled-up rage. That, Abrams notes, is precisely what happened in Egypt. Mubarak’s repression gave the Muslim Brotherhood an advantage once the playing field opened up: The group had decades of organizing under its belt, a coherent raison d’être, and a track record of providing health and education services where the state lagged. No other parties or opposition groups had anything resembling this kind of coordination.
Abrams trenchantly concludes from this that “tyranny in the Arab world is dangerous and should itself be viewed as a form of political extremism that is likely to feed other forms.” Yet even this extremism can be tempered by power, he suggests. In a democracy, Islamist parties will have to compromise and moderate or be voted out. In Tunisia, electorally successful Islamists chose the former, and it stands as a rare success story.
Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood took a different path in Egypt, with parlous results. Its government began pulling up the ladder behind it, closing avenues of political resistance and civic participation. Hamas did the same after winning Palestinian elections in 2006. Abrams thinks that the odds of such a bait-and-switch can be reduced. He quotes the academic Stephen R. Grand, who calls for all political parties “to take an oath of allegiance to the state, to respect the outcome of democratic elections, to abide by the rules of the constitution, and to forswear violence.” If they keep their word, they will open up the political space for non-Islamist parties to get in the game. If they don’t—well, let the Egyptian coup stand as a warning.
Abrams, to his credit, does not avoid the Mesopotamian elephant in the room. The Iraq War has become Exhibit A in the dangers of democracy promotion. This is understandable, but it is misguided. The Bush administration made the decision to decapitate the regime of Saddam Hussein based on national-security calculations, mainly the fear of weapons of mass destruction. Once the decapitation had occurred, the administration could hardly have been expected to replace Saddam with another strongman whose depravities would this time be on America’s conscience. Critics of the war reverse the order here and paint a false portrait.
Here is where Abrams’s book stands out: He provides, in the last two chapters, an accounting of the weaknesses in U.S. policy, including mistakes made by the administration he served, and a series of concrete proposals to show that democracy promotion can be effective without the use of force.
One mistake, according to Abrams, is America’s favoring of civil-society groups over political parties. These groups do much good, generally have strong English-language skills, and are less likely to be tied to the government or ancien régime. But those are also strikes against them. Abrams relates a story told by former U.S. diplomat Princeton Lyman about Nelson Mandela. Nigerian activists asked the South African freedom fighter to support an oil embargo against their own government. Mandela declined because, Lyman says, there was as yet no serious, organized political opposition party: “What Mandela was saying to the Nigerian activists is that, in the absence of political movements dedicated not just to democracy but also to governing when the opportunity arises, social, civic, and economic pressures against tyranny will not suffice.” Without properly focused democracy promotion, other tools to punish repressive regimes will be off the table.
Egypt offers a good example of another principle: Backsliding must be punished. The Bush administration’s pressure on Mubarak over his treatment of opposition figures changed regime behavior in 2005. Yet by the end of Bush’s second term, the pressure had let up and Mubarak’s misbehavior continued, with no consequences from either Bush or his successor, Barack Obama, until it was too late.
That, in turn, leads to another of Abrams’s recommendations: “American diplomacy can be effective only when it is clear that the president and secretary of state are behind whatever diplomatic moves or statements an official in Washington or a U.S. ambassador is making.” This is good advice for the current Oval Office occupant and his advisers. President Trump’s supporters advise critics of his dismissive attitude toward human-rights violations to focus on what the president does, not what he says. But Trump’s refusal to take a hard line against Vladimir Putin and his recent praise of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s move to become president for life undermine lower-level officials’ attempts to encourage reform.
There won’t be democracy without democrats. Pro-democracy education, Abrams advises, can teach freedom-seekers to speak the ennobling language of liberty, which is the crucial first step toward building a culture that prizes it. And in the process, we might do some ennobling ourselves.