How two activist journalists became the new faces of left-wing anti-Americanism.
On August 18, security officers at London’s Heathrow Airport detained a Brazilian named David Miranda. They did so under the United Kingdom’s Terrorism Act, which allows authorities to hold an individual for up to nine hours if they believe him to be in possession of “information which he knows or believes might be of material assistance” to terrorists. The officers seized Miranda’s cellphone, camera, laptop, encrypted memory sticks, and external hard drive.
Miranda is the partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, who, since June, has broken a series of stories about programs conducted by the National Security Agency and other Western intelligence services, all based upon leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. One such program, Prism, enables the NSA to gather data from Internet companies; Greenwald also revealed the existence of a top-secret court order that gave the agency access to telephone record logs, or “metadata,” from Verizon. Greenwald and others portrayed these legal programs in Orwellian terms, writing cryptically of sinister “mass surveillance,” as if every human being’s phone calls and emails were being overheard and read by analysts.
Miranda had been traveling from Berlin—where he had met with Laura Poitras, an American documentary filmmaker collaborating with Greenwald and Snowden—to Rio de Janeiro, where he lives with Greenwald. Even as the detention was ongoing, Greenwald was furiously depicting it as the workings of an authoritarian state bent on silencing its critics. “This was obviously designed to send a message of intimidation to those of us working journalistically on reporting on the NSA and its British counterpart,” he fumed in a blog post published the following day. Greenwald then went on to compare the British government’s “simply despotic” behavior unfavorably to the Mob, writing that “even the Mafia had ethical rules against targeting the family members of people they felt threatened by. But the UK puppets and their owners in the U.S. national-security state obviously are unconstrained by even those minimal scruples.”
Many other journalists and activists were quick to accept the line that Miranda had been targeted merely by dint of his relationship to Greenwald. Amnesty International released this statement: “There is simply no basis for believing that David Michael Miranda presents any threat whatsoever to the UK government. The only possible intent behind this detention was to harass him and his partner, Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, for his role in analyzing the data released by Edward Snowden.”
Not so, according to Oliver Robbins, Britain’s deputy national-security adviser, who told a court two weeks later that Miranda had been in possession of roughly 58,000 “highly classified UK intelligence documents,” a “large proportion” of which are “either secret or top secret.” The “disclosure of the material could put the lives of British intelligence agents or their families at risk,” Robbins wrote, and “the general public could also be endangered if details about intelligence operations or methods fell into the wrong hands.”
Even if Greenwald and the Guardian had no intention of publishing this information, it is almost a certainty that it has already fallen into the wrong hands. Snowden initially fled to Hong Kong (where he publicly divulged details about Washington’s spying on China), before gaining temporary asylum in Russia; it is reasonable to assume that both Moscow and Beijing are in possession of everything he stole while working for Booz Allen Hamilton, the NSA contractor that employed him for all of three months. Writing in the National Interest, John R. Schindler, a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College and a former NSA intelligence analyst, surmised that “it could take many millions, perhaps billions, of dollars to repair the harm done, and some losses may be irreparable at any cost.”
That Miranda was carrying information about the identities and whereabouts of British undercover agents was nowhere to be found in Greenwald’s angry blog posts and interviews, nor in the distressed complaint issued by Amnesty International. Nor was it mentioned in any of the outraged statements by those media critics and journalists who, ever since the Pentagon Papers case, have developed a theory of “press freedom” that only pays lip service to governmental claims of needing to protect national-security secrets. While the Pentagon Papers dispute set an important precedent in solidifying America’s unparalleled tradition of freedom of the press, it has also left an unfortunate legacy in perpetuating a belief that the government always exaggerates the need for secrecy and that journalists who expose government secrets are never wrong to do so.
Upon the revelation that Miranda was trafficking in stolen secrets, the story peddled by Greenwald, his employer, and his partner began to change. Immediately after having been detained, Miranda told the press: “I don’t look at documents. I don’t even know if it was documents that I was carrying.” Miranda’s lawyers now say that “Mr. Miranda does not accept the assertions [UK authorities] have made,” implying that he did have knowledge of what sort of information he was ferrying. Greenwald tried to mitigate the damage by claiming that no information thus far released has harmed American or British national-security interests. That assertion has been contradicted by the British government, which claims it has redeployed personnel due to Greenwald’s disclosures. Hinting at what motivated his disclosures, Greenwald boasted that “the only thing that has been harmed are the political interests and reputations of UK and U.S. officials around the world.”
In 1975, former Central Intelligence Agency officer Philip Agee published his Inside the Company: CIA Diary, which exposed the identities of some 250 American intelligence assets; he would ultimately reveal the names of more than 2,000. Due to his revelations, several American and British agents were killed. Agee worked closely with the Soviet KGB and Cuban security services, and, as a result of his American passport being revoked, he embarked on a long sojourn through the Communist world, finally ending up in Havana, where he died in 2008.
There is a word for men like Agee and Snowden—men who betray their country, their country’s allies, their comrades, and defect to a hostile state. It is an ancient one: traitor. As Democratic Senate Majority leader Harry Reid described Snowden to the Reno Gazette-Journal: “I think Snowden is a traitor, and I think he has hurt our country, and I hope someday he is brought to justice.” Supporters of Snowden and Bradley Manning (the former Army private who released more than a quarter million classified diplomatic cables to the anarchist web collective WikiLeaks and who was recently sentenced to 35 years in prison after being found guilty of violating the Espionage Act) claim that the men are “whistleblowers.” Far from betraying their country, both men’s backers say, they in fact served it by revealing egregious wrongdoing.
That explanation would have some weight if either man had been discriminating in his leaks, or gone through legal channels to divulge the information, instead of sharing it with less-than-salubrious figures such as Julian Assange and Vladimir Putin. “He has taken an oath,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein said in June on CBS’s Face the Nation with respect to Snowden. “These oaths mean something. If you can’t keep the oath, get out. And then do something about it in a legal way.” Snowden did not begin working at Booz Allen Hamilton until March 2013. It was a job he took with the explicit goal of pilfering sensitive national-security information.
After he sought asylum in Russia, the image of Snowden in the minds of most Americans shifted from that of whistleblower to unsavory character. But Greenwald, who argued that Snowden had no choice but to seek asylum because of America’s totalitarian judicial system, was not among the majority. Were Snowden to return to the United States, Greenwald told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, he would face “the standard whistleblower treatment that the United States government gives to people, which is to put them in a cage for decades and render them incommunicado.” Greenwald repeated this accusation on ABC’s This Week: “Whistleblowers in the United States are put into prison for decades and basically ‘disappeared.’” Greenwald never bothered to specify which “whistleblowers” have “disappeared” or been rendered “incommunicado,” words that evoke Latin American dictatorships throwing people out of helicopters into the ocean. Only one government employee has received jail time under the Obama administration for revealing classified information, and the punishment has been 30 months.
The word traitor may not apply legally to Greenwald, but his role as the privileged publisher rather than thief of such classified information (indeed, Snowden never communicates on his own, but always through an intermediary such as Greenwald, Poitras, or WikiLeaks) does not absolve him of culpability in harming the national-security interests of the United States. Greenwald and other publicizers of Snowden, Manning, and WikiLeaks are engaged in a sinister enterprise that, while purporting to forward a benign agenda of promoting “transparency,” is singularly aimed at exposing the national-security secrets of the United States and its closest allies, all with a view to embarrassing Western governments by portraying them as authoritarian states that have grievously betrayed their purported ideals. They are not traitors themselves, but they serve as public-relations coordinators of treasonous actors. They are working to make traitorous actions seem valiant. Call it “treason chic.”
Writing of Communist fellow travelers in The New Meaning of Treason (1964), British essayist and novelist Rebecca West observed: “Of the other virtues, patriotism, it is to be remarked, was the first to get its dismissal. It was naive for a man to feel any conviction that his own country was the best, or even as good as any other country; just as it was naive to believe that the soldiers of any foreign army committed atrocities or to doubt that any English soldier or sailor or colonial administrator failed to do so.” Such a description perfectly describes Greenwald and other journalists of his ilk, who endlessly bemoan the (highly exaggerated) wrongdoings of the Western democracies, all while ignoring the crimes of their authoritarian adversaries. If patriotism has become passé, “the last refuge of scoundrels” in our post-national, wired world, then treason has become the sign of the truly independent and “brave” thinker who is beholden to no state.
Such figures are, instead, anti-beholden—to the United States. Examine the way, for instance, that Greenwald selectively views the disclosure of classified information, particularly the identities of undercover agents. It was not long ago that Greenwald and many of the same people now praising Snowden as a “whistleblower” were calling for the heads of those individuals they believed had revealed the name of an undercover CIA officer: Valerie Plame. “In disclosing to reporters the classified information of Plame’s CIA employment, what [former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney “Scooter”] Libby did was wrong and almost certainly illegal,” Greenwald wrote in 2005. Ironically, it was Agee’s exposés—cheered wildly at the time by left-wing critics of American foreign policy, Greenwald’s political progenitors—that led Congress to pass the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act. This was the very law invoked to justify a special prosecutor’s investigation into the leaking of Plame’s identity, an investigation Greenwald lustily applauded.
Contrast Greenwald’s contempt for those who leaked the identity of Plame with his reaction to the plight of Raymond Davis, the CIA contractor who sparked a diplomatic crisis with Pakistan in 2011 after shooting two men dead in Lahore. Davis claimed the men had tried to attack him, and that he had acted in self-defense. Washington insisted that Davis was a State Department employee and thus protected by diplomatic immunity, a claim it would later have to retract after the Guardian irresponsibly revealed his true identity. Upon learning that the New York Times had initially heeded a U.S. government request not to disclose the details of Davis’s employment for fear of his safety, Greenwald sneered that the paper was “an active enabler of government propaganda.” Greenwald’s blatant inconsistency on the matter of covert identities suggests that he supports the divulgence of America’s clandestine activities when it can be used to slander his country and endanger its personnel, and opposes it only when it fits his own political agenda.
Another prominent journalist who criticized the American government’s reaction to the Davis episode was Jeremy Scahill, a contributor to the Nation and the radio program “Democracy Now!” Scahill essentially took the side of Pakistan, faulting the United States for deigning to send covert agents there without first informing the Pakistani government, carrying out drone attacks on Pakistani soil (which Davis was presumably aiding through his intelligence work), and for even operating clandestinely in the country at all. “The case highlights the fact that the U.S. is engaged in a covert war in Pakistan—a country it has not declared war against,” he complained to Al Jazeera, thus conflating American attempts to root out terrorists in a country that has been reluctant to do so itself, with waging war “against” the Pakistani state. The U.S. government’s claim that Davis was not a spy, and its attempt to free him from the Pakistani mob, Scahill wrote dismissively, was a “show” with an “ending” that “was carefully choreographed by both governments” (as if American officials should have blown the cover of one of their own spies, in what is perhaps the most anti-American country on earth). In killing Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil without giving Pakistani authorities prior warning, Barack Obama did precisely what he promised to do in a 2008 presidential debate with John McCain. But in the eyes of Scahill, with the use of “drones, cruise missiles, and Special Ops raids, the United States has embarked on a mission to kill its way to victory.”
In the past several years, Scahill has emerged as one of the most outspoken and oft-quoted national-security reporters in the country. Beginning his journalism career as a writer and producer for a variety of hard-left publications and media programs, he has gone on to publish two bestselling books while appearing frequently on popular television and radio programs. The publication of his latest book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, was accompanied by the release of an expensively produced documentary film by the same name. The book and movie establish Scahill as one of the most vocal left-wing critics of the Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategy.
And yet, despite his newfound mainstream acceptance, Scahill has barely disguised the ideologies that have always underpinned his work: a fundamental hostility toward capitalism, the United States, and its democratic allies. It is these passions that, in turn, spawned a career devoted to undermining America’s foreign policy and intelligence operations.
Born in 1974 in suburban Milwaukee, Scahill dropped out of the University of Wisconsin in 1995 because “I thought my time would be better spent by entering the struggle for justice in this country.” That year, he met Philip Berrigan, the radical former priest who was a member of the pacifist trifecta: the Baltimore 4 (whose members poured their own blood over draft records), the Catonsville 9 (which burned draft cards in homemade napalm), and the Harrisburg 7 (charged with attempting to kidnap then–Secretary of State Henry Kissinger). Scahill moved into Berrigan’s Baltimore commune, Jonah House, dedicated to the principles of “nonviolence, resistance, and community.” In 1996, foreshadowing his later work as a champion of Snowden, Scahill joined an attempted break-in of the NSA, the “brains of the military death machine,” as Berrigan described it. That same year, Scahill was arrested (alongside former Chicago 7 member David Dellinger and the son of Abbie Hoffman) for the attempted occupation of a Chicago federal building in support of Native American activist Leonard Peltier, who murdered two FBI agents in 1975. In 1998, Scahill was arrested once again, this time at Andrews Air Force Base, accompanying protesters who poured blood on a B-52.
During that period, Scahill moved into journalism, working as a producer for “Democracy Now!” Though the line of work might have seemed different than “peace” activism, the mission was the same. “I think that being alive in the times that we live in means to be a resister,” he said in 2007. “For me, media is a nonviolent weapon in that struggle.” In 1998, he and host Amy Goodman won a series of journalism prizes for a program alleging that Chevron was responsible for the deaths of two environmental activists who had occupied an oil platform in the Niger Delta. In 2008, an American jury unanimously exonerated Chevron of all charges in the case.
Following a brief stint as a producer on Michael Moore’s short-lived television show, The Awful Truth, Scahill trekked to the Balkans to cover the tail end of Yugoslavia’s bloody break-up for “Democracy Now!” and a variety of socialist magazines and websites. And here he displayed a propensity for siding with whomever the United States opposed, no matter how evil.
In Kosovo, still a province of Serbia, the majority ethnic Albanian population bore the brunt of violent Serb nationalism at the hands of President Slobodan Milosevic. Serb militias regularly carried out massacres of civilians, and by the end of 1998 they had driven some 300,000 Albanians from their homes. When Serbian negotiators refused a demand from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to remove most of their troops from Kosovo and grant the province autonomy, NATO, led by the United States and Great Britain, launched a 78-day bombing campaign.
While Kosovo Albanians no doubt committed offenses against Serbs, particularly after the NATO bombing run left them as victors, what lay at the heart of the Kosovo conflict were the same factors that sparked the Bosnian war years earlier: Serb ethnic chauvinism and territorial expansionism. Yet Scahill saw the situation differently. In addition to frequent condemnations of NATO and Western leaders such as President Bill Clinton, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and U.S. General Wesley Clark, Scahill’s work during the period was focused almost exclusively on isolated incidents of violence committed by ethnic Albanians—to the exclusion of the vast, methodical ethnic-cleansing campaign carried out by the Serbs, whom he portrayed as the true victims.
Scahill’s overriding thesis of the Kosovo conflict is that it was the United States that was the guilty party. “Under his rule, the nation of Yugoslavia was destroyed, dismantled, and chopped into ethnically pure para-states,” Scahill wrote—of Clinton, not Milosevic. What really irked Scahill was not the impending mass genocide of ethnic Albanians, but that NATO had acted without a UN Security Council resolution. Kosovo was “Clinton’s Iraq,” Scahill fumed in 2008. “He bombed Yugoslavia for 78 days with no United Nations mandate.”
During the war itself, Scahill reported from Belgrade, the Serb capital, where he reliably provided the Serb narrative that they were the victims of Western, imperialist aggression. The Rambouillet Agreement, which Serbia rejected (thereby triggering the NATO bombing), was akin to “one of Don Corleone’s famous offers.” While he filed dispatch after sympathetic dispatch from an enemy capital in wartime, Scahill did not report from Kosovo until after the conflict had ended and Albanian reprisals against Serbs began. The province, he wrote in 2000, “has become a living hell for Serbs, Roma people (Gypsies), Slavic Muslims, and other minorities….Washington is giving ethnic cleansing a green light.”
It was curious that, of all the events that took place in the Balkans in the 1990s, it was the postwar expulsion of Serbs from Kosovo that Scahill would label “ethnic cleansing.” During the Kosovo war itself, the Serbs launched Operation Horseshoe, in which they drove out almost the entire Albanian population. The expulsion of 1.3 million people amounted to, in the words of future U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, “the single largest European exodus in a half a century.” Serb militias separated women and children from men, thousands of whom were slaughtered and whose bodies were dumped into mass graves or incinerated. The Serbs’ behavior in Kosovo prompted President Clinton to accuse them of “deliberate, systemic efforts at genocide.” Scahill, meanwhile, dismissed war supporters’ “exaggerations” of Serb atrocities. He is far less judicious when it comes to the United States and Israel. American policy in Iraq “from 1990 to the present,” Scahill claimed, constitutes “one of the greatest mass slaughters in history.” In 2010, during a debate on MSNBC, Scahill accused Israel of perpetrating “extermination campaigns” against Palestinians.
Long after the conflict had ended, Scahill continued to display his sympathies for the Serbian aggressors. Milosevic’s death in 2006 meant the loss of “the only man in the unique position of being able to expose and detail the full extent of the U.S. role in the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s….Sadly, with Milosevic will likely die the last hope the victims of these crimes in Yugoslavia had of getting their day (if it could even be called that) in court—a tragic and unjust reality to begin with that speaks volumes about the twisted state of international justice.” Note here that Scahill was expressing sorrow for the victims of American “crimes,” not Milosevic’s.
Scahill’s big break would come in 2007 thanks to the emerging notoriety of Blackwater, the private security contractor hired to protect American diplomats in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other dangerous locales. That year, Scahill published Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, a breathless exposé of the company and its alleged misdeeds. The firm was a perfect target for Scahill because it married the two things most hated by the left: capitalism and war. Scahill’s thesis was a barely concealed rehash of the old Marxist dictum that the latter is an inevitable result of the former. Blackwater, he wrote, “operates in a demand-based industry where corporate profits are intimately linked to an escalation of violence.”
Not long after the book was published, a firefight involving Blackwater guards erupted at a square in Baghdad in which 17 Iraqis died. The Iraqi government said the guards fired indiscriminately; Blackwater claimed its men had been ambushed. The event, soon dubbed the Nisour Square Massacre by Blackwater critics, led to congressional hearings, a slew of lawsuits against the company, and Scahill’s propulsion into journalistic stardom. The paperback version of Blackwater, which became a bestseller, was blurbed by film star Scarlett Johansson. “It should be mandatory reading,” she gushed. “It’s very interesting—and scary.”
To Scahill, Blackwater was a “mercenary army,” whose founder, former Navy SEAL Erik Prince, is a “committed ideologue.” The protection of American diplomats in hostile environments overseas was just a cover for Blackwater’s true aim: to serve as a “Christian supremacist fighting force” in a grand plot to “eliminate Muslims and destroy Islam globally.” According to Scahill, “the outsourcing of U.S. military operations in Muslim countries and in secular societies to such neo-crusaders reinforces the greatest fears of many in the Arab world and other opponents of the administration’s wars.” Scahill’s evidence of the company’s “neo-crusader” ethos was, to be charitable, thin; he cited the membership of one former Blackwater executive in the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, a lay Catholic service organization, to claim that “some Blackwater executives even boast of their membership” in the group.
Throughout his writings on Blackwater, Scahill ascribed powers to the company it did not have. He refers to Blackwater repeatedly as a “private army” and writes as if the firm’s guards participated regularly in combat operations alongside American soldiers. “If foreign governments are not on board,” Scahill writes, “foreign soldiers—many of whose home countries oppose the U.S. wars—can still be enlisted, at a price.” But the prospect of a private army marching off to fight undeclared, illegal wars at the behest of warmongers in Washington is the stuff of fiction. Neither Blackwater, nor any other contractor, has been hired for combat operations—that is, deploying alongside American or allied soldiers to engage the enemy in the theater of war. (From 2004 to 2009, Blackwater was contracted by the CIA to assist in its campaign of targeting terrorists. The assistance was limited to tasks such as providing security for CIA officers and loading Hellfire missiles.) Private contractors have, of course, found themselves involved in combat, but in the course of protecting diplomats and facilities in war zones.
On the whole, Blackwater guards performed heroically, as in 2004 when a team of eight held off a group of gunmen loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr while defending a Coalition Provisional Authority building in Najaf. In 2007, Blackwater guards saved the Polish ambassador to Iraq after a roadside bomb struck his convoy. Scahill failed to note that the company had a 100 percent success record in keeping American diplomats safe, a stunning accomplishment considering the daily death toll in Iraq at the height of its insurgency. “Blackwater is getting a bad rap,” complained Barack Obama, who was protected by Blackwater guards, when he was a senator in 2008.
In order to exaggerate the extent of private military contractors operating in war zones, Scahill has frequently presented erroneous—and inconsistent—data. The contractor corps, he claimed in a 2009 appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher, “constitutes more than half of the fighting force in Afghanistan.” In a 2007 Salon article he referred to “the second largest force in Iraq” as the “estimated 126,000 private military ‘contractors.’” In another article published that same year he wrote: “The 145,000 active-duty U.S. forces are nearly matched” in numbers by employees of “companies like Blackwater USA and the former Halliburton subsidiary KBR.” In Blackwater, he referred to “tens of thousands of mercenaries” in Iraq. About the four Blackwater employees lynched in Fallujah by an Iraqi mob in March 2004, Scahill wrote: “Those men who died at Fallujah were members of Washington’s largest partner in the coalition of the willing in Iraq—bigger than Britain’s total deployment,” which, at the time, was some 9,000 soldiers.
But not according to a Congressional Budget Office report published in 2008. “As of late 2007,” the report read, “about 40 percent of the approximately 6,700 contractor personnel working for [the Department of State] in Iraq were providing security.” In other words, fewer than 3,000 men working for all “private military contractors” were under arms. That is a far cry from the “tens of thousands” or over 100,000 Scahill would regularly claim. In Afghanistan, while it’s true that, at the time of his statement, there were more contractors there than American soldiers, it is preposterous to allege that a significant number or even a majority of them were part of any “fighting force.” As for Blackwater itself, then–House Oversight Committee Chairman Henry Waxman said in 2007 that “122 Blackwater employees, one-seventh of the company’s current work force in Iraq, have been terminated for improper conduct.” This would mean there were no more than 850 Blackwater employees in Iraq at the time. Indeed, Scahill contradicts himself in his own book, writing that Blackwater has a mere “2,300 private soldiers deployed in nine countries.”
There are legitimate concerns presented by the use of private military contractors, namely relating to oversight of their behavior in war zones (unlike soldiers, they are not bound by the Uniform Code of Military Justice). But Scahill does not concern himself primarily with such questions. Posing as a defender of the prerogatives of the U.S. military in the face of creeping privatization, Scahill seeks to weaken what he sees as a core element of American foreign policy. “Both Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker made clear that without Blackwater and its ilk, the occupation [of Iraq] would not be tenable,” Scahill writes. In other words: no Blackwater, no American presence in Iraq. “It helped keep a draft, which would make the continuation of the war politically untenable, off the table,” he writes. The government just “rented an occupation force” with soldiers who “were used as cheap cannon fodder.” If the government were to punish the “mercenary firms with indictments for war crimes or murder or human rights violations,” it “would make wars like the one in Iraq far more difficult and arguably impossible.” And so Scahill sets out to discredit and disparage Blackwater, evidence be damned.
Not long after Blackwater appeared, the American justice system provided a coda to Scahill’s years-long campaign of hyperbole, innuendo, and fact-free defamation against the company. In 2009, a federal judge threw out the indictment of five Blackwater guards involved in the Nisour Square incident. In 2011, a district judge dismissed Blackwater’s founder, Prince, from a civil lawsuit alleging that he had defrauded the U.S. government. And in February, a three-year federal prosecution of five separate ex-Blackwater officials for a variety of offenses, including weapons violations and making false statements, resulted in charges against three of the men being dismissed and the remaining two pleading guilty to barely related misdemeanors with no jail time.
With the scalp of Blackwater in hand, Scahill moved on to a bigger, juicier target: the Obama administration’s counterterrorism policies. The fruit of this effort is Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield. It mounts what is essentially a 700-page rationalization of Islamist terrorism twinned with a fiery condemnation of American foreign policy right down to its title, a deliberate invocation of the Argentinian military junta’s campaign of repression, torture, and murder against political dissidents in the 1970s.
On 9/11, Scahill argues, the Bush administration grasped its chance to upturn the traditional rules of conflict by converting the entire globe into a theater of combat and anyone it didn’t like into an enemy combatant. “The world is a battlefield and we are at war,” Scahill writes. “Therefore the military can go wherever they please and do whatever it is that they want to do, in order to achieve the national-security objectives of whichever administration happens to be in power.”
Scahill is less wild in tone here than in Blackwater, yet he still manages to slip into hyperbole. For instance, writing about Abu Ghraib, he concedes that the facility was a “prison and torture chamber” under the rule of Saddam Hussein but that America made it worse and turned it into a “gulag.” (Scahill has also written that “the U.S. still runs that gulag in Guantanamo, which one could argue represents the area in Cuba where the most heinous human rights abuses have been perpetrated in recent years.”)
He also continues his theme that the United States is involved in a war against Islam, echoing the propaganda of al-Qaeda. Whereas earlier this “crusade” was attributable mainly to the “Christian Supremacist” Knights of Blackwater, now, in Scahill’s telling, it reaches up to the highest ranks of the American military. Despite the concerted efforts of General Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, to reduce civilian casualties, Scahill alleges that McChrystal “shared the political view that the United States was indeed in a war against Islam.” His source for this grave allegation is “a retired military officer” who tells Scahill that McChrystal was one of several U.S. military figures constituting a group of “fellow travelers in the great crusade against Islam.” (Another source Scahill cites as an expert on American foreign policy is Gareth Porter, a notorious defender of the Khmer Rouge who alleged that the Cambodian genocide was “a myth fostered primarily by the authors of a Readers’ Digest book.”)
Reading Dirty Wars and listening to Scahill speak reveals that he is essentially opposed to the use of force by the United States or its allies. “I found it quite disgusting to see people chanting, like it was some sort of sporting event, outside of the White House,” he said on “Democracy Now!” following the death of Osama bin Laden. “This is a somber day where we should be remembering all of the victims, the 3,000 people that died in the United States and then the hundreds of thousands that died afterwards as a result of a U.S. response to this that should have been a law enforcement response and instead was to declare war on the world,” he said, thus connecting those murdered on 9/11 with those civilians who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Indeed, Scahill seems to have a problem with even the most benign expressions of American patriotism. “I hate when people chant U-S-A. #FalseNationalistCrap,” he opined on Twitter during the 2010 World Cup.)
For all his anger about American declarations of “war on the world,” Scahill never seems to generate any ire over violence perpetrated by non-Westerners. In a section of the book about terrorism in the horn of Africa, he outright defends the rampant piracy that has resulted in several deadly hostage situations on the high seas. To Scahill, it was not the pirates who were villains, but private business. “International corporations and nation-states had taken advantage of the permanent state of instability in Somalia, treating the Somali coast as their private, for-profit fishery, while others polluted it with illegal waste dumping,” he writes in Dirty Wars. In light of this rapacious, capitalist nightmare, “piracy was at times a response to these actions and some pirates viewed themselves as a sort of Somali coast guard.” (If only Scahill were so charitable to Dick Cheney.) He describes the Islamic Courts Union, Somalia’s short-lived version of the Taliban, as a motley coalition of “liberals, moderates, and extremists” united by a desire to “stabiliz[e] the country through Sharia law.” In the brief period that the group ruled much of Somalia, it shut down movie theater and co-ed events and declared jihad on neighboring Ethiopia.
To personalize the cost of America’s “dirty wars,” Scahill chose a curious subject: Anwar al-Awlaki. The firebrand Islamic preacher, who was born in New Mexico, gained notoriety as the first American citizen since the Civil War to be declared a wartime enemy and deliberately killed without trial by the United States government (via drone attack). Over the course of just a few years, Awlaki inspired a dozen terrorist plots. Some (such as the 2009 Christmas Day “underwear bomber”) failed, while others (such as the killing of 13 soldiers at Fort Hood by Nidal Malik Hasan) were monstrously successful. Through the saga of Awlaki and his targeted killing in Yemen, Scahill hopes, we can appreciate not only the wantonness of America’s “dirty wars” abroad, but the “blowback” effect they produce at home.
From the outset, Scahill seeks to humanize the man who declared jihad against his homeland. “In many ways, Awlaki’s story was a classic tale of people from a faraway land seeking a better life in America,” he writes at the outset of Dirty Wars. Awlaki, we learn, was merely a pious Muslim driven to justifiable rage by America’s wicked foreign policy and its post-9/11 backlash against domestic Muslim communities. To be sure, it was not just Scahill who believed that Awlaki was a moderate Muslim who later transformed into something else. In the late 1990s, he had emerged as one of the most prominent imams in the United States, leading a prayer service for congressional staffers and speaking at the Pentagon. But, according to Scahill, “between the global crackdown that followed 9/11 and the U.S. government’s campaign to hunt him down, something in Awlaki shifted, and he was no longer torn between allegiance to the country of his birth and his religion.”
Yet the alleged “shift,” if it can even be labeled as such, is not so easy to decipher. The good reputation Awlaki had earned among credulous non-Muslims was more a testament to their inability to recognize duplicity than it was of his genuine moderation. According to an in-depth New York Times profile, in which two dozen of his former friends and associates were interviewed, Awlaki was awakened to jihad upon visiting Afghanistan at around the time the Soviet-backed government there fell to Islamist forces; in other words, at least a decade before 9/11. Upon returning to the United States, he would “quote Abdullah Azzam, a prominent Palestinian scholar who provided theological justification for the Afghan jihad and was later known as a mentor to Osama bin Laden,” the Times reported. Several years later, ensconced at the Denver Islamic Society, he encouraged a Saudi student to travel to Chechnya and join the jihad against Russia.
Prior to the 9/11 attacks, Awlaki ministered to three of the hijackers, developing a “close relationship” with two of them, according to the 9/11 Commission Report. And although the FBI ultimately decided not to pursue a full-scale investigation of Awlaki after the attacks, the decision was controversial within the agency, with one detective telling the 9/11 Commission that he believed Awlaki “was at the center of the 9/11 story.” Days after the attacks, Awlaki publicly disputed Muslim involvement, writing that the FBI merely blamed passengers with Muslim names. In a sermon the following week, Awlaki read a condolence note from Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has endorsed the practice of female genital mutilation and capital punishment for homosexuals, has referred to suicide bombings as “heroic martyrdom operations,” and has called for Islam to “conquer” America and Europe. Scahill, who never lacks for colorful adjectives when describing people like Erik Prince (“Christian Supremacist”) or Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld (“key leaders of a militant movement”), referred to Qaradawi merely as “the famous, controversial Egyptian theologian.”
But even as the mainstream media was continuing to court him as a “moderate” Islamic voice, Awlaki was showing clear signs of further radicalization. A week after 9/11, he said that the attacks were not “an attack on American freedom, on the American way of life,” but “an attack on U.S. foreign policy.” In words that can be read, at best, as a morally equivocating call for pacifism as a response to 9/11, Awlaki declared: “The fact that the U.S. has administered the death and homicide of over one million civilians in Iraq, the fact that the U.S. is supporting the deaths and killing of thousands of Palestinians doesn’t justify the killing of one U.S. civilian in New York City or Washington D.C. And the deaths of 6,000 civilians in New York and Washington D.C., does not justify the death of one civilian in Afghanistan.” (After his killing, Scahill told NPR’s Terry Gross that Awlaki “actually was saying things that many secular anti-war activists were saying about the sameness of violence.”)
According to Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, “a close analysis of the corpus of Awlaki’s sermons and articles shows a surprising level of consistency throughout,” and “the only significant change has been in the prescriptions for solving the perceived problems faced by the ummah (global Muslim community).” That is, Awlaki was always a radical, but would only explicitly embrace violence against Westerners after 9/11, when he was living in Yemen.
In the wake of 9/11, Awlaki fueled claims that Muslims across America were falling victim to a violent nationwide “backlash,” a slanderous picture of the remarkably restrained American response that Scahill accepts at face value. Soon, Awlaki was spouting the sort of anti-corporate hyperbole popularized by Canadian author (and Scahill’s Nation colleague) Naomi Klein. “Either accept McDonald’s, otherwise McDonnell Douglas will send their F-15s above your head,” Awlaki said in a 2003 London sermon. In one particularly popular Internet diatribe, Awlaki implored his listeners, “Whenever you see the word terrorist, replace it with the word mujahid. Whenever you see the word terrorism, replace it with the word jihad.” In 2005, six months after listening to this sermon on a laptop computer, a group of 18 Muslim men were arrested in Canada’s largest post-9/11 terrorism investigation after attempting to blow up downtown Toronto and various military installations.
According to Scahill, Awlaki never said or did anything that ought to have alarmed the U.S. government, and whatever might have alarmed them was their own fault. “You could make a reasonable case that Anwar Awlaki was a product of U.S. policy,” he told the Kremlin-funded propaganda cable station RT. Citing a 2008 Awlaki blog post, in which the cleric furiously issues a “challenge” for the U.S. to “come up with one such lecture where I encourage ‘terrorist attacks,’” Scahill opines, “But, in the eyes of the U.S. government, Awlaki’s calls for jihad amounted to encouraging such attacks,” as if “calls for jihad” amount to anything but “encouraging” violence.
If Awlaki’s sermons were not yet explicit enough to warrant the accusation that he was “encouraging” terrorism, he would soon discard any subtlety with the release in 2010 of Inspire, al-Qaeda’s English-language magazine, which he co-founded and co-edited. Its premier issue included a “hit list” of artists who had caricatured the prophet Muhammad and an accompanying piece by Awlaki urging Muslims to assassinate them. Scahill brushes the magazine aside, saying that it “played into the U.S. propaganda campaign aimed at presenting AQAP as a grave threat.” His nonchalance about the effect of such propaganda tools on young, disillusioned Muslim minds could not have been more unfortunately timed; the May issue of Inspire devoted nearly all its 40 pages to the “BBB,” or “Blessed Boston bombings,” carried out by two young men who were “inspired by INSPIRE,” as the magazine bragged. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who along with his brother Tamerlan killed three people with a bomb attack at this year’s Boston Marathon, has told investigators that he and his sibling discovered how to build their pressure-cooker bombs from the magazine and were motivated to launch their deadly attack after listening to Awlaki’s sermons.
To be sure, hateful sermons—even those that encourage violence—are not the same thing as violence itself. “There was no hard evidence presented that Awlaki had done anything that was not protected speech under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, or that would not require a major court battle to prove it was unconstitutional,” Scahill writes, employing a strange defense for a man who openly rejected the American Constitution and justice system. Elsewhere in his defense of Awlaki, Scahill claims that “words are not actions.”
Definitive proof of Awlaki’s “operational,” as opposed to simply “inspirational,” role in terrorism came in two court filings released in February. In 2009, a Nigerian graduate student named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab failed to detonate explosive materials sewn into his undergarments while on an Amsterdam jet bound for Detroit. Abdulmutallab, who eventually plead guilty, told investigators that after absorbing Awlaki’s sermons for years, he traveled to Yemen in 2009 to find the preacher and spent three days at Awlaki’s home discussing jihad. Awlaki then sent the young Nigerian to an al-Qaeda bomb-maker, gave his blessing to an attack, and specifically told his disciple to detonate the bomb over U.S. soil, thus ensuring the highest number of possible casualties (unlike a failed 2006 attempt in which the plotters had planned to explode American-bound planes leaving from Britain over the Atlantic Ocean). Directed by Awlaki, Abdulmutallab trained for two weeks at an al-Qaeda camp in Yemen.
And what is Scahill’s analysis of this damning indictment from the attempted underwear bomber himself? He does not even mention it. Granted, this confession did not emerge publicly until 2012, months after Awlaki had been killed. But it appeared over a year before Scahill’s book was released. Instead, Scahill denies the Obama administration’s earlier, fuzzier claims of Awlaki’s involvement in the Christmas Day plot by quoting unnamed “tribal sources” in Yemen who told him that “Awlaki was not involved in the plot.” And Scahill accepts, at face value, Awlaki’s own denial of issuing any “fatwa,” though the cleric stated, after the attempt failed, “I support what Umar Farouk has done.”
Scahill’s main source for his narrative on Awlaki is the late cleric’s father, Nasser, an American-educated agricultural expert. In the acknowledgements to Dirty Wars, Scahill writes of how he stands “in awe” of the Awlaki family’s “quest for justice.” Scahill publishes a 2010 letter the elder Awlaki wrote to Obama, in which he characterized his son’s post-9/11 radicalization as “learning and preaching his religion and nothing else.” The senior Awlaki then pleaded with the president. “I would like to inform you Mr. President Obama that my son is innocent, has nothing to do with violence, and he is only a scholar of Islam.” That Scahill, the supposedly dogged investigative journalist, would convey this fable about Awlaki verbatim without any critical reflection whatsoever reveals where his sympathies lay.
Scahill’s criticism of the blowback allegedly caused by drones would be more credible if he expressed support for some other method of combatting America’s enemies. But unlike some critics, who argue against drones because they believe them to be inefficient and instead favor other methods, Scahill’s opposition is foundational. In his eyes, the U.S. lacks all legitimacy for using force, because the death of one civilian is too much. “Those whose loved ones were killed in drone strikes or cruise missile attacks or night raids will have a legitimate score to settle,” he writes, essentially arguing that relatives of civilians who die unintentionally as a result of U.S. counterterrorism actions ought to wage terrorist attacks in turn.
One of Scahill’s prime targets in Dirty Wars is the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, the military’s most elite fighting force responsible for, among other accomplishments, the assassination of Osama bin Laden. Initially a hostage rescue team formed in the wake of the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran, JSOC transformed over the past three decades into a top-secret counterterrorism force heavily favored by President Obama, who has been averse to large-scale military deployments. JSOC often operates in areas where the United States has not declared war (such as Pakistan or Yemen) and has become a vital element in the American war on terror. Whereas most Americans probably view JSOC with admiration, Scahill sees something nefarious. It is a “global killing machine,” Obama’s embrace of which indicates that he has “doubled down on the Bush-era policy of targeted assassination as a staple of U.S. foreign policy.” As with drone strikes, Scahill’s criticism of JSOC rests on its very existence; he proposes no alternative to dealing with armed radicals who seek to sow destruction against the United States and its allies.
Scahill was bidding to be the most important voice on the far left until Greenwald zoomed past him this summer with the Snowden leaks. Like Scahill, Greenwald ascended rapidly from the precincts of the far left to mainstream acceptance. In the past six years, he has written four books, three of which have been New York Times bestsellers. And also like Scahill, he brings a pugnacious personality and Manichaean worldview to his work. Greenwald grew up near Fort Lauderdale, and his homosexuality appears to have played some role in fomenting his anti-American attitudes. “When you grow up gay, you are not part of the system, it forces you to evaluate: ‘Is it me, or is the system bad?’” he told the New York Times earlier this year. It is understandable how Greenwald, who, until the Supreme Court decided the case of Windsor v. United States earlier this year, would have been unable to bring Miranda to live with him in his native land, might have resented his country for it. Yet America has the capacity to change, as it has in quite a remarkably short period of time on the issue of homosexuality. Moreover, however disagreeable Greenwald might have found his country’s attitudes toward his sexual orientation, it can hardly justify his advocacy on behalf of some of the world’s most repulsive homophobes.
Briefly a litigator for the high-powered firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz before hanging out his own shingle, Greenwald stopped practicing law to take up political writing in 2005. Greenwald claims to have been radicalized by the Bush administration, which he believed had plunged the country into an unprecedented moral darkness. “Over the past five years, a creeping extremism has taken hold of our federal government, and it is threatening to radically alter our system of government and who we are as a nation,” he wrote in the preface to his 2006 book, How Would a Patriot Act?
While Greenwald repudiates any political classification other than that of a committed civil libertarian, he has repeatedly spoken at international socialist conferences, including one this year where he joined Scahill for an “urgent discussion about the attack on civil liberties, U.S. imperialism, and how we can fight back,” in the words of the organizers. “As someone who speaks at all sorts of political gatherings every year, I can say with certainty that no event assembles more passionate activism, genuine expertise, and provocative insights than the Socialism Conference,” Greenwald has said. “This will be my third straight year attending, and what keeps me coming back is how invigorating and inspiring it is to be in the midst of such diverse and impressive activists.”
In 2005, Greenwald started a blog, Unclaimed Territory, which was originally focused on the Valerie Plame case. He soon branched out into covering a variety of topics related to civil liberties and foreign policy, in a manner highly critical of the Bush administration and its defenders in the media, to put it gently. His vituperative writing style (“odious,” to designate someone or something he doesn’t agree with, and “smear,” to describe any criticism, no matter how mild, of something he does agree with, being two of his choice words) mixed with the detailed obsessiveness of a trained litigator, proved popular with a steadily growing number of readers in the left-wing blogosphere. He quickly rose to become one of the country’s most widely read bloggers, repeatedly earning himself a place on lists of the most influential or popular pundits in the United States. In 2007, his blog was picked up by the website Salon, and in 2012, Greenwald catapulted into international stardom when he was hired by the Guardian as a full-time blogger and reporter.
Like Scahill, Greenwald subscribes to a modernized version of the old trope attributing all that is wrong in the world to the behavior of the United States. They maintain that anything unfortunate to befall America is a result of its own behavior, or, in the parlance of left- and right-wing isolationists, blowback. Greenwald never comes out explicitly in favor of terrorist attacks. His defenses of jihad are always couched in language that seeks to justify terrorism as a logical and understandable response to Western imperialism. “As strange as it is, they actually seem to dislike it when foreign militaries bomb, invade, and occupy their countries and kill hundreds of thousands of Muslim children,” Greenwald sarcastically wrote of Muslim terrorism suspects in 2010.
“Terrorism,” Greenwald has written, is “a term of propaganda, a means of justifying one’s own state violence.” Greenwald acknowledges no distinction between the strict rules of engagement followed by Western militaries and the deliberate murder of civilians perpetrated by Islamists. “Anti-American Terrorists,” he writes (sarcastic capitalization being a Greenwaldian trademark meant to impugn his intellectual adversaries as fearmongering, self-important cretins), are motivated by “severe anger over the violence and interference the U.S. brings to their part of the world.” Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-American who was arrested in 2010 for attempting to set off a car bomb in Times Square, had told investigators he wanted to take revenge on America in response to the drone strikes it had launched in his native country’s ungoverned tribal areas. While we in America might view the blowing up of a car bomb in Times Square to be an utterly inappropriate response to such a policy, Greenwald reminded his readers that “a desire to exact vengeance for foreign killings on your soil is hardly a unique attribute of Pashtun culture.” On the contrary, “It’s fairly universal,” Greenwald wrote. “See, for instance, the furious American response to the one-day attack on 9/11—still going strong even after 9 years.” And so the American response to the murder of nearly 3,000 of its citizens (a mere “one-day attack”) is akin to blowing up a Nissan Pathfinder in the country’s busiest commercial plaza.
In addition to justifying the horrific violence regularly perpetrated by Islamists (most often against their fellow Muslims) as perfectly understandable reactions to American behavior, Greenwald portrays attempted terrorists as luckless victims of entrapment by the American government. The series of terrorist attacks thwarted in the United States in the dozen years since 9/11, Greenwald argues, were largely orchestrated by law-enforcement authorities to scare the American people and thereby mentally bludgeon them into supporting tougher and tougher counterterrorism measures and invasions into their privacy. In November 2010, officers from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Portland police arrested 19-year-old Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a Somali-American student, on charges of attempting to detonate a car bomb at a Christmas tree lighting, an attack that would have killed scores of people. Undercover agents approached Mohamud, pretending to be members of an international terrorist organization, and provided him with the fake bomb. “The FBI successfully thwarts its own terrorist plot,” sneered Greenwald on his blog.
Entrapment, of which Greenwald accused the government, hinges on intent. And in each and every one of the post-9/11 terrorism cases, the accused individual demonstrated a clear willingness and desire to kill innocent people; in not one of these cases has a court found a defendant not guilty by reason of entrapment. Throughout the Portland investigation, for instance, according to the government’s affidavit, undercover agents repeatedly told Mohamud that the attack would lead to the death and injury of many people and offered him opportunities to back out of the plan. At every point, Mohamud acknowledged his willingness to kill people and resisted attempts to dissuade his participation. While defending Mohamud as a hapless kid targeted by unscrupulous government officials, Greenwald made time to once again play lawyer for the terrorist’s defense. Citing a video Mohamud made before the attempted attack in which he announced, “Did you think that you could invade a Muslim land, and we would not invade you,” Greenwald wrote that “accused Terrorists” repeatedly explain that “they are attempting to carry out plots in retaliation for past and ongoing American violence against Muslim civilians and deter such future acts” (emphasis in original).
Though Greenwald had already gained a loyal following in the United States, his joining the Guardian—the closest thing to a Bible for the global left—elevated him to new heights. And it was less than a year into working for the London-based paper that he would break what would become the biggest story of 2013: revelations about the extent of spying programs conducted by the National Security Agency. In his original story about the Prism program, Greenwald alleged that the NSA is able “to obtain targeted communications without having to request them from the service providers and without having to obtain individual court orders” and that it can “directly and unilaterally seize the communications off the companies’ servers.” In reality, however, the NSA does not have anything approaching such wide and uninhibited access to the data compiled by Internet companies. Rather, as the Guardian later acknowledged, the agency obtains the information it needs via “drop boxes”—secure computer servers—established by the companies themselves. There, companies can safely deposit legally requested information. The drop boxes are simply a method of complying with subpoenas, which, like any American citizen or business concern, Internet companies are legally obliged to do. This reality is a far cry from the government having access to any and every bit of data compiled by Internet companies.
In his coverage of the NSA programs, Greenwald’s status as an unapologetic polemicist has collided with what ought to have been the news judgment of the Guardian. In his writing and frequent television appearances, he has vastly exaggerated, and at times outright lied about, the programs. For instance, in describing the Prism program on CNN, Greenwald detailed an Orwellian world in which the American government has “only one goal, and that is to destroy privacy and anonymity, not just in the United States but around the world. That is not hyperbole. That is their objective.” On MSNBC, he said that “the objective of this is to enable the NSA to monitor every single conversation and every single form of human behavior.” According to Greenwald, the problem with the NSA’s programs is not that they represent an overzealous approach to combating terrorism, for in his view the NSA actually has no interest in combating terrorism. No, the “only one goal” of the NSA is to spy on innocent American citizens. Here Greenwald did what he always does, which is to impute sinister motives to actors—in this case, the shadowy and amorphous American national-security state—he cannot substantiate with evidence. In publishing wildly sensational stories about the NSA, Greenwald is himself guilty of the very type of fearmongering that he accuses the government of perpetrating against American citizens. And it appears to be working. A July poll conducted by Pew found that 63 percent of Americans believe the government is “gathering information about the content of communications,” and a full 27 percent of Americans believe that the government has “listened to or read their phone calls and emails.”
While actively supporting (in words and materially) the work of American traitors, Greenwald simultaneously accuses American friends of Israel of putting the interests of the Jewish state before their own. “Not even our Constitution’s First Amendment has been a match for the endless exploitation of American policy, law, and resources [by the Israel lobby] to target and punish Israel’s enemies,” he wrote in 2009. Pro-Israel activists and writers, he alleged, exercise a “suffocating control over American debates and American policy.” If one does not “pledge your loyalty to our policies toward Israel and to Israel,” he once wrote, you will “be demonized and have your career ended,” an odd remark coming from a man whose career has gone from strength to strength the more outrageous his attacks on Israel have become.
Greenwald is not just content to slander Israel’s American supporters; he is a full-throated supporter of those who seek its destruction. Following the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident—in which Israeli commandos raided a Turkish flotilla, attempting to break Israel’s blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip—Greenwald published a series of strongly worded posts condemning the Jewish State and praising those who took part in the flotilla. “It hardly seemed possible, for Israel—after its brutal devastation of Gaza and its ongoing blockade—to engage in more heinous and repugnant crimes,” he wrote, with characteristically overwrought language. Greenwald, who trades on his history as a corporate litigator to pose as an expert in international law, asserted that the Israeli blockade of Hamas is “illegal,” despite a ruling by the United Nations to the contrary. He alleged, moreover, that “the initial act of aggression was the Israeli seizing of a ship in international waters which was doing nothing hostile,” choosing here to ignore the stated, pro-Hamas sympathies of those behind the flotilla. Nor did Greenwald ever bother to retract his assertions after a United Nations inspection into the incident found that the Israeli commandos who boarded the main Turkish ship were met with “organized and violent resistance from a group of passengers.”
The most telling aspect of Greenwald’s writings about the flotilla incident, which applies to his oeuvre on Israel more generally, is that he hardly ever mentions Hamas, never mind its racism or genocidal intentions. Grappling with the nature of Hamas would complicate Greenwald’s black-and-white portrayal of the Middle East, so he ignores it completely. And then he went a step further. Noting that the Mavi Marmara incident occurred on Memorial Day, “when the meaning of ‘heroism’ is often discussed,” Greenwald wanted his readers to know that the members of the Mavi Marmara were “pure, unadulterated heroes.”
Greenwald’s temperament is never reasonable, and his writing style borders on the outlandish in its vituperation and tendency to characterize anyone who disagrees with him, even on the slightest point, as evil. He can sometimes veer off into unintentional self-parody, like the time he wrote an entire post endorsing the repeal of “Godwin’s Law,” the assertion made by journalist Mike Godwin that, “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” Devised in 1990, “Godwin’s Law,” seems to have been presciently created just for Greenwald. In 2010, after ridiculing the notion that there had been any positive outcome from the invasion of Iraq, Greenwald received a public invitation from the prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan to visit the region. Greenwald scoffed at the offer, writing, “It’s difficult to find an invasion in history that wasn’t supported by at least some faction of the invaded population and where that same self-justifying script wasn’t used.” He then went on to compare the war in Iraq to the Nazi “invasion” of Austria and the Sudetenland, with the Kurds, in this sickening comparison, akin to Nazi sympathizers.
In his capacity as a legally minded pontificator of the far left, Greenwald might be called the Leonard Boudin of the interactive age. Boudin was the go-to lawyer for America’s most prominent Communists, left-wing radicals, and terrorists, not to mention the post-revolutionary Cuban government of Fidel Castro. Like Boudin, Greenwald can always be relied upon to provide a defense for those who wish to do America and its allies harm. Greenwald has ranked his perverse sense of “anti-imperialism” ahead of any and all other considerations, including what many would expect to be his own self-interest. After all, how else could a gay Jew become the world’s most verbose Western apologist for homophobic, anti-Semitic fanatics and murderers?
In their critiques of the Obama administration, Greenwald and Scahill are right about one important thing, which is the general continuity in counterterrorism policies between the Bush and Obama administrations and the blatant hypocrisy of the latter in claiming it would restore the reputation of an America “tarnished” by the actions of the former. Unlike many on the left, who vigorously defend Obama policies they would surely condemn as war crimes if a Republican were pursuing them, Greenwald and Scahill are at least intellectually consistent in their broad renunciation of American foreign policy. The Obama administration had propagated “the fantasy of a clean war,” Scahill writes, the implication being that all wars are inherently “dirty,” and thus America should disarm and withdraw from the world.
While this righteous condemnation of American liberal hypocrisy is a welcome tonic, one must remember that it originates from a deep and abiding belief that America plays a fundamentally evil role in the world. It is a view that Greenwald and Scahill have repeatedly expressed. “So I say that we call for an end to the death penalty in this country, and we call for an end to the collective death penalty being meted out on the rest of the world by this criminal government,” Scahill pronounced at the Socialism 2007 conference. Raising a similar alarm about the foundational corruption of the American political system, Greenwald declares that “the worst and most tyrannical government actions in Washington are equally supported on a fully bipartisan basis.”
“All men should have a drop of treason in their veins,” Rebecca West wrote in 1964. By this she meant that no citizen should accept everything his political leaders say without question; he should be ready to acknowledge that his government, like anything created by man, is capable of error. This sentiment has been popularized in the less eloquent and more simplistic maxim “dissent is patriotic.” The American practitioners of Treason Chic like to see themselves as dissenters, which they are in the sense that they diverge from the mainstream. But in so doing, they have taken the principle to an unholy extreme. Striking a pose as concerned patriots, far more than a drop of treason courses through their veins.
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Must-Reads from Magazine
Progressives can’t remodel the country through politics—and it’s making them miserable.
The liberal malaise that has followed Trump’s shocking victory is a by-product of the left’s unreasonable expectations. Many liberals and progressives were encouraged to see Barack Obama as messianic and to understand his politics as emancipatory, and they fell for it. But political shifts in America just aren’t that radical, and never have been—even though that’s what the flimflam men who run American politics always promise.
Delusions about what big election victories can achieve are nurtured by the politicians who stand to benefit from the passion of those who are swayed by their portentous prognostications. (“This is the most important election of our lifetime,” says the party that needs to win to come back from defeat.) And they are husbanded by the commercial enterprises—paid consultants, super PACs, single-issue peddlers, cable networks—that profit from them. But the vows they make—primary among them the vanquishing for eternity of the bad guys on the other side—cannot be fulfilled, or cannot be fulfilled enough to satisfy the voters who are seduced by them. This is a problem for both sides of the ideological divide.
At the moment, what we’re living through is disillusion on the part of progressives, and on a grand scale. A consensus has begun to form on the politically engaged left that the day-to-day work of American politics—meaning what happens in government and in public service—is simply unequal to the challenges that plague our country. This follows, in turn, the same sort of consensus that rose among conservative voters in 2015 and 2016 that led to the rise of the insurgent Trump candidacy.
Fewer and fewer Americans see the grinding work of passing legislation and formulating policy as anything other than a sham, an act, a Washington con. This view encourages frustration and, eventually, fatalism. The conviction that the political process cannot address the most relevant issues of the day is paralyzing and radicalizing both parties. It is also wrong.
THE LIBERAL SOUNDTRACK OF DAILY LIFE
People on the american left have reason to be happy these days. Boilerplate liberalism has become the soundtrack to daily American life. But they’re not happy; far from it.
Superstar athletes don’t stand for the National Anthem. Awards shows have become primetime pep rallies where progressive celebrities address the nation on matters of social justice, diversity, and the plague of inequality. This year’s Academy Awards even featured the actress Ashley Judd’s endorsement of “intersectionality,” a once-abstruse pseudo-academic term meant to convey that every kind of prejudice against every victimized minority is connected to every other kind of prejudice against every other victimized minority. These are the outwardly observable signs of a crisis facing the liberal mission. The realization that the promise of the Obama era had failed predated Donald Trump’s election, but it has only recently become a source of palpable trauma across the liberal spectrum.
These high-profile examples are just the most visible signs of a broader trend. At the noncelebrity level, polls confirm a turning away from conservative social mores altogether. In 2017, Gallup’s annual values-and-beliefs survey found a record number of Americans approving of doctor-assisted suicide, same-sex relations, pornography, both sex and childbirth out of wedlock, polygamy, and divorce.
Then there’s the ascension of supposedly advanced attitudes about religion, or rather, the lack of religion. In 2017, Gallup pollsters asked Americans: “How important would you say religion is in your own life?” A record low of 51 percent answered “very important,” while a record high of 25 percent said “not very important.” San Diego State University researcher Jean M. Twenge found that twice as many Americans said they did not believe in God in 2014 than was the case in the early 1980s. And a 2015 Pew poll revealed that “younger Millennials” (those born between 1990 and 1996) were less likely to claim religious affiliation than any previous generation.
Finally, a 2016 Harvard University survey found that, among adults between ages 18 and 29, 51 percent did not support capitalism. Positive views of socialism have been rising almost inexorably, even as a 2016 CBS/New York Times survey found that only 16 percent of Millennials could accurately define socialism.
But today’s progressive activist isn’t content with cultural domination; he’s after something grander. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in a memorandum dated March 2003:
“The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change the culture and save it from itself.”
The election of Obama seemed the moment at which the central liberal truth could finally be given shape and form and body. It didn’t quite work out as progressives hoped.
The first bill President Obama signed into law in 2009, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, was sold to progressives as a visionary effort to root out workplace discrimination. In fact, all it did was relax the statute of limitation on holding firms liable for discriminating on the basis of sex and race—a fine-tuning of one part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Yet the “pay gap” persisted, and Obama and his administration spent the next seven years hectoring the private sector over it. They claimed that the figures showing that women in aggregate earned less than men in aggregate demonstrated that the entire society was somehow in violation of the spirit of the law. But the real source of this gap—as Obama’s own Bureau of Labor Statistics confessed—was individual behavior patterns that led women, on average, to work fewer hours than men over the course of their lives. “Among women and men with similar ‘human capital’ characteristics,” BLS economist Lawrence H. Leith wrote in 2012, “the earnings gap narrows substantially and in some cases nearly disappears.”
Similarly, in 2013, Obama credited his Violence Against Women Act with steep declines in rates of reported sexual assault. “It changed our culture,” he said. “It empowered people to start speaking out.” But this legislation did not change the culture. Many women continued to endure abuse at their places of work, with that abuse treated as just a consequence of doing business. The behaviors revealed by the #MeToo movement in the national outing of abusive men in positions of power had been addressed in law long ago, and long before Obama signed the Violence Against Women Act. The stroke of his pen did nothing to change the culture.
ObamaCare is another example of an exercise in cultural engineering that has failed to take. The Affordable Care Act wasn’t only a health-care law; it was an effort to transform society. The law’s true goal was a “culture of coverage” that would foster a new “norm” in which health coverage was an “expected” part of the social contract, according to California Health Benefit Exchange board member Kim Belshe. But once again, the political process failed to match the transformative ambitions of the progressive activist class. A late 2016 survey conducted by the American College of Emergency Physicians found that tighter doctor networks as well as higher deductibles and co-payments meant people were cutting back on doctor visits—the precise opposite of the law’s philosophical objectives.
Donald Trump and his GOP majorities in Congress could not overturn the ACA (though they did manage to get rid of its mandatory aspect). But ObamaCare’s preservation has not prevented the health-care left from sinking into gloom. This is because the politicians who pursued these reforms set unrealistic expectations for what they could achieve. These are not blinkered ideologues, but they are in thrall to a grandiose idea of what politics should be and out of touch with what politics actually is: a messy, narrow, often unsatisfying project of compromise and incrementalism.
Some left-of-center thinkers have addressed this penchant for overreach and its consequences. “Our belief in ‘progress’ has increased our expectations,” lamented the clinical psychologist Bruce Levine in 2013. “The result is mass disappointment.” He reasoned that social isolation was a product of American institutions because, when those institutions resist reform, “we rebel.” That rebellion, he claimed, manifests itself in depression, aggression, self-medication, suicide, or even homelessness and psychosis. What can you expect when the problem is the system itself?
Progressives have come to believe that America is beset with difficulties that must be addressed if the country is to survive—but they recognize that the difficulties they diagnose are extraordinarily hard to deal with in conventional political terms. Income disparities. Sexual and racial inequities. The privileges and disadvantages associated with accidents of birth. Such matters increasingly dominate the agenda of leftist politicians because they preoccupy the minds of their voters and donors. But what can be done about them? Great Society legislation in the 1960s—the farthest-reaching effort to reorder and reframe our country along social-justice principles—was designed to extirpate these evils. It is clear that today’s progressives are convinced we have not progressed very far from those days, if at all. This can lead to only one devastating conclusion, which is that the United States is a structurally oppressive nation. The system is the problem.
For the left, no problem is more hopelessly systemic than racism. It is powerfully attractive to believe that because some American institutions were forged in racial bias, the country is forever soiled by discrimination and white supremacy. Economics, politics, education, criminal justice—all are soiled by what Harvard professor Derrick Bell has said was an indelible stain on American life. Bell’s theories have been amplified by celebrated literary figures such as Ta-Nehisi Coates. “White supremacy is neither a trick, nor a device, but one of the most powerful shared interests in American history,” he recently wrote. You can understand why exasperated activists might conclude that devoting themselves to a Sisyphean torment is not the best use of their time. “I cannot continue to emotionally exhaust myself,” wrote the British journalist and feminist speaker Reni Eddo-Lodge in 2014. In a 2016 Washington Post op-ed, Zack Linly concurred. “I’ve grown too disillusioned to be relieved and too numb to be frustrated. I’m just tired.”
Violence, too, is seen as systemic. Acts of small-scale and mass violence are the result of many factors in American life. The individual who commits those heinous acts is often a secondary concern to activists on the left. For them, the problem rests in our militaristic national character, which is foremost exemplified by a pathological devotion to guns. As a recent headline at the New Republic put it: “America’s Gun Sickness Goes Way Beyond Guns.”
What about substance abuse? “It became clear to us that there is something systemic going on,” said Steven Woolf, director of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center on Society and Health, on the issue of substance-abuse-related deaths in America. And poverty? “Poverty is systemic, rooted in economics, politics and discrimination,” reads the Southern Poverty Law Center’s guideline for elementary-school teachers. Its lesson plan is explicitly designed to convey to students that “poverty is caused by systemic factors, not individual shortcomings.” Corruption? According to Fordham University Law School professor Zephyr Teachout, when the courts find that corporate entities have much the same free-speech rights as individuals, “corruption becomes democratic responsiveness.” Obesity and diabetes are systemic too, according to TakePart magazine’s Sophia Lepore, because they stem from the industrial world’s “increasingly commercialized food supply.”
When faced with this constellation of systemic challenges, progressives are left with a grim conclusion: We are impotent; change on the scale that is necessary is out of reach. Instead of practicing “the art of the possible,” they have made a totem of the impossible. The activists who are consumed by these phenomena have come (or are coming) to the conclusion that the political process cannot resolve them precisely because the oppression is a feature, not a bug, of the system. It is logical, therefore, for them to determine that engagement in traditional forms of politics is an exercise in naiveté.
Indeed, under this set of beliefs, legislative incrementalism and compromise seem like detestable half measures. Mistaking deep-rooted and immensely complex social and cultural circumstances for problems government can solve blinds participants in the political process to the unambiguous victories they’ve actually secured through compromise. This is a recipe for despair—a despair to which certain segments of the right are not immune.
LIBERAL DESPAIR TRUMPS CONSERVATIVE DESPAIR
By the time Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy sprang to life, dejected voices on the right had concluded that the country’s leftward drift constituted an existential emergency.
In late 2015, the author and radio host Dennis Prager devoted most of his time to mourning the “decay” of absolute moral categories, the blurring of gender distinctions, the corruption of education, and the dissolution of the family, all while blaming these conditions on a wrecker’s program. In the fall of 2016, the Claremont Institute published a piece by Republican speechwriter Michael Anton (under a pseudonym) in which he postulated that the United States was all but doomed. He compared the republic to United Airlines Flight 93, the plane that went down in a Pennsylvania field on 9/11, and its political and bureaucratic leadership to the suicidal Islamist hijackers who killed everyone on board. Four days before the 2016 election, the Heritage Foundation’s Chuck Donovan declared America in decline in almost every way and blamed a “dominant elite who thrive on the dissolution of civil society.” These catastrophists agreed on one thing: The time for modesty and gradualism was over.
The issues that most animate these conservatives are significant, but they are only indirectly related to conventional political matters. Disrespect for authority figures in law enforcement, the accessibility of pornography, assimilation rates among immigrant groups, the bewildering exploits on college campuses, and the ill-defined plague of “cultural Marxism”—these are widespread social trends that resist remedy from the inherently circumspect political process.
Also like those on the left, some conservatives have come to embrace their own forms of fatalism about the American system. “We need a king,” wrote the Hoover Institution’s Michael Auslin in 2014, “or something like one.” Auslin theorized that such a figure would liberate the presidency from weighing in on polarizing social issues, thereby lubricating the gears of government. Reflecting on the disillusionment and pessimism of his big-thinking peers in the middle of the Great Recession, the libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel declared, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” Patrick J. Buchanan devotes at least one column a month to the virtues of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism. Why? Because, as he wrote in January 2018, “Nationalism trumps democratism.”
Intellectuals like Buchanan and Anton have a profound weakness for extremism; it is one of the grave dangers posed by the life of the mind. William Butler Yeats and Ezra Pound found much to admire in how nationalists detested moderation. For Yeats, the “love of force” was a visionary trait. Pound, of course, literally became a fascist and rooted for America’s destruction. These perverse judgments on the right were nothing next to the seductive power of leftist totalitarianism. George Bernard Shaw was a Stalinist convinced of the virtue of eugenics and murderous purges. Theodore Dreiser became infatuated with the Soviets’ brutal adaptation of social Darwinism. Stuart Chase’s 1932 book A New Deal, predating FDR’s governing program of the same name, heaped praise on the nascent Soviet state. The book famously concluded, “Why should the Soviets have all the fun remaking the world?” Chase later became a member of Roosevelt’s inner circle of advisers.
When the political process fails to perform as they would like, activists and ideologues become disillusioned and embittered. They also become convinced not of the unreasonableness of their position but of the incompetence of their representatives. Thus conservative activists hate the Senate majority leader and the speaker of the House, even though both Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan work tirelessly to advance conservative ideas through the bodies they help manage. Leftists have turned on House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who is among the most effective legislative players in recent American history and easily the most progressive Democratic leadership figure of our time. McConnell and Ryan and Pelosi know from bitter experience that the Constitution places obstacles in the path of anyone who wants to use America’s political institutions to remake the culture wholesale. These marvelous obstacles are designed to thwart the human impulse for radical change.
The tragedy here is how this dynamic has convinced tens of millions of Americans that the political system is broken. Pull back from the granular view of events and try to examine America over the past decade and you see something else. You see American voters responding in complex ways to complex events. Obama overreaches and the voters elect a Republican House. Mitt Romney says 47 percent of Americans are losers, and he loses an election. Hillary Clinton says people who don’t care for her are “deplorables,” and she loses an election, too. The GOP appears to be on a path to electoral disaster in November 2018 because Trump may be bringing about a counterattack against the way he does business. Democratic overreach inspires conservative backlash. Republican overreach inspires liberal backlash. The electoral system is responsive to the views of the people. The system works. It works by restraining excessive ambition.
Those restraints annoy people who think change should just happen because they will it. In 2009, for example, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman was so annoyed by Congress’s failure to devise a bipartisan environmental bill that he lamented the fact that America did not have China’s political system. The People’s Republic, he wrote, was demonstrating the great “advantages” of a “one-party autocracy” led by “reasonably enlightened people.” Amazing how Chinese Communism had the ability to circumvent public opinion—the same ability also leads to the construction of well-populated labor camps.
You don’t need a one-party autocracy to effect change. Sometimes, when change is needed and needed urgently, government can rally to address the change—when voters make it clear that it must happen and when the change is preceded by rich experimentation and vital spadework. For example, New York City is no longer the crime-ridden, pornography-addled, graffiti-marred archipelago of needle parks that it once was. There has been a generation now of civil peace in the city, notwithstanding the act of war against it on 9/11.
But the change wasn’t the culmination of a grand governmental scheme. It was in part the product of work done by the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation in the early 1980s, which developed a model followed by the Rockefeller Center Complex, the Grand Central Partnership, and more than 30 other business-improvement districts. These parties engaged in a block-by-block effort to restore streets and relocate the homeless. The NYPD and the transit police could not focus on “quality of life” policing without hyper-local input that shaped what that campaign should entail and without an intellectual framework provided by the “broken windows” theory promulgated by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. The zoning reforms that cleaned up Times Square began as an initiative submitted by the City Council member representing the porn-plagued blocks under the Queensboro Bridge, with input from the Manhattan Institute. By the time Rudolph Giuliani was elected mayor in 1993, a quiet consensus had been building for years about the nature of the problems afflicting New York City and how to solve them.
BETTER THAN WE WERE
Moynihan’s famous quote is usually cut off before the end. After identifying the divergent liberal and conservative truths about the junction of politics and culture, he observed: “Thanks to this interaction, we’re a better society in nearly all respects than we were.”
His insight into the American political equilibrium was not a lamentation or a diagnosis. It was a reflection on why America is forever reinventing and refining itself. But as partisan actors and media outlets confuse the practice of politics with exhilarating bouts of cultural warfare, this equilibrium begins to come apart.
The quotidian, custodial duties that typify public service are neither dramatic nor entertaining. Zoning laws are boring. Police reforms are boring. Business-improvement districts are boring. Functional governance in the United States is unexciting governance.
Unexciting governance is limited governance. And the fatalists are driven mad by the limits our system imposes on them because they don’t want governance to be limited. That is exactly why those limits are so necessary and why, rather than getting dirty fighting inch by inch for the things they believe in, fatalists write themselves out of our political life. The danger the fatalists pose is that they are convincing tens of millions more that our system doesn’t work when it most certainly does, just in a fashion they wish it wouldn’t. In doing so, they are encouraging mass despair—and that is an entirely self-imposed affliction.
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Seventy years after Israel’s founding, we need it more than ever.
Hertzberg understood how helping the Jews over there in the Middle East had helped Jews over here in North America. After decades of American Jewish ambivalence about Jewish nationalism, the Holocaust had created an instant consensus for a Jewish state. The fight to create that state galvanized the community, rousing it from depression—and shielding it from guilt. By doing the right thing in the late 1940s, American Jews atoned for their failure to save more of their doomed brothers and sisters.
Hertzberg’s fear that Zionism was “a movement in search of a program” in 1949 proved wildly premature, because Israel would continue to call on and depend on the support of American Jews for its survival. The nation’s creation was followed by a host of new problems and opportunities that kept the global Jewish community engaged with Israel and kept alive the American Jewish connection to “peoplehood”—even as many American Jews abandoned religious practice entirely.
In 1959, Hertzberg published a seminal anthology, The Zionist Idea, for the purpose of establishing the movement’s intellectual and ideological roots. At the time, Israel was fragile and the Zionist conversation was robust. Today, Israel is robust and the Zionist conversation has turned fragile. Israel’s 70th anniversary offers an opportunity to reframe the Zionist conversation—asking not what American Jews can do for Israel, but what Zionism can do for American Jews. Hertzberg understood that Zionism wasn’t only about saving Jewish bodies but saving Jewish souls. As the celebrations of Israel’s 70th birthday begin, Zionism’s capacity to save our souls remains vital.
Many American Jews in the 1950s helped their fellow Jews settle in the new land. The fundraising short from 1954, “The Big Moment,” featuring Hollywood stars including Donna Reed and Robert Young, celebrated the secular miracle. “When you support the United Jewish Appeal, you make it possible for the United Israel Appeal to help the people of Israel,” the short told its viewers. They could help “rush completion of new settlements, new housing for the homeless, the irrigation of wasteland acres…. Israel’s people who stand for freedom must not stand alone.”
Four years later, Leon Uris mythologized the Zionist revolution in his mammoth bestseller, Exodus. “As a literary work it isn’t much,” David Ben-Gurion admitted. “But as a piece of propaganda, it’s the best thing ever written about Israel.” In Uris’s Zionist paradise, New Jews lived noble ideas and heroic lives. Exodus captured the texture of the Jewish return: the trauma of the Holocaust, the joys of the kibbutz, the thrill of rebuilding, the anguish of the Arab fight, the sweetness of idealism, the wonder of mass migration. In the 1960 movie version, Exodus even tackled serious ideological issues within Zionism. As Ari Ben Canaan escorts his non-Jewish love interest, Kitty Fremont, around Israel, the two look over the Valley of Jezreel. They marvel at seeing the “same paving stones that Joshua walked on when he conquered” the land, along with “every clump of trees” Ari’s father planted.
Thrilled that the valley is becoming Jewish once again, Ari proclaims: “I’m a Jew. This is my country.” Kitty dismisses differences between people as artificial. Ari makes the particularist case against universalism: “People are different. They have a right to be different.” They suspend the debate, Hollywood-style, with their first kiss.
In print, on screen, and in song, Exodus cast Zionism in such glowing terms that it condemned Israel to the inevitable comedown. Decades later, Thomas Friedman, trying to justify his anger at the Jewish state as its popularity flagged, would define this mythic place he missed as “your grandfather’s Israel.” Actually, Israel today—Friedman’s Israel—is more compassionate, just, equitable, and democratic than his grandfather’s.
As Exodus climbed the bestseller lists, Hertzberg’s Zionist Idea showed how a series of abstract debates spawned an actual state in mere decades. The texts, Hertzberg’s editor Emanuel Neumann wrote, illustrate “the internal moral and intellectual forces in Jewish life” that shaped this “idea which galvanized a people, forged a nation, and made history…. Behind the miracle of the Restoration lies more than a century of spiritual and intellectual ferment which produced a crystallized Zionist philosophy and a powerful Zionist movement.”
Recalling this period, Abraham Joshua Heschel would say American Jews took that miracle for granted. We became so used to the Tel Aviv Hilton, he said, that we forgot Tel Hai, where the one-armed Zionist warrior Josef Trumpeldor sacrificed his life for his country. Heschel was chiding American Jews for failing to use Israel to find greater meaning, to revitalize their Jewish identities, to launch “an ongoing spiritual revolution.”
Several political shocks in the 1960s upstaged the cultural and spiritual conversation that Heschel, Hertzberg, and others sought. Having grown up feeling secure as Americans, some Baby Boomers questioned American Jewish silence during the Holocaust. Frustrations at their parents’ passivity “while 6 million died” altered the community’s course—triggering a move toward activism. Cries of “Never again” shaped the Zionist, peoplehood-centered fight that ultimately brought 1.2 million Soviet Jews to Israel even as it nurtured and brought to adulthood two generations of new American Jewish leaders and activists.
The biggest shock was the Six-Day War. Both their fear of losing Israel in May 1967 and their euphoria when Israel won that June surprised American Jews. Many discovered that they were more passionate about Israel than they had realized. This “extraordinary response” led Rabbi Yitz Greenberg and others toward “a strategy of making Israel central in religious and Jewish educational life—if only because thereby we can tap strong loyalties and deep feelings.” The Holocaust and Israel’s founding partially Zionized American Jewry, showing how to live with a Jewish state while living happily ever after; 1967 showed most American Jews that they couldn’t live without the Jewish state.
Zionism became American Jewry’s glue. Israel reinforced a sense of peoplehood and renewed Jewish pride. It inspired the teaching of Hebrew, revitalized summer camps, and invigorated the Conservative and Reform movements. The community learned how to mobilize politically and raise money prodigiously. Indeed, writing in the 1970s, as periodic terrorist massacres kept returning Jews to the traumatic 1973 Yom Kippur War, Hertzberg declared that Zionism had become the only sacred commitment all American Jews shared. “Intermarriage, ignorance in the Jewish heritage, or lack of faith do not keep anyone from leadership in the American Jewish community today.” Hertzberg complained. “Being against Israel or apathetic in its support does.”
But while it was succeeding politically in America, Zionism was failing culturally and spiritually, Hertzberg charged. “Today there is no Zionist education in the U.S., no schools, no teaching seminaries, no commitment by Zionists” to cultivating “a Zionist kind of Jewish personality”—Ben-Gurion’s New Jew. Instead of stirring charges of dual loyalty, instead of adding “to the discomfort of the Jews in the Diaspora,” Hertzberg noted, Zionism contributed to Jews’ “acceptance of themselves and their acceptance by others.”
Today, it seems, personal concerns predominate. Now we wonder how having a Jewish state helps Jews navigate what Birthright Israel calls “their own Jewish journeys” and their quests for meaning. That could seem to be a chaotic souk, an oriental bazaar resulting in a gay Zionism and a Mizrahi Zionism, an Orthodox Zionism and a Reform Zionism, a feminist Zionism and an environmental Zionism. This is not entirely new. Early Zionists also fused their secular, Western agendas with the Jewish agenda—creating the kibbutz and the Histadrut Labor union, among other hybrids of hyphenate Zionism. In fact, a thoughtful Zionism might cure what ails us by focusing on what Israel means “to me, to us.” Which brings us to the greatest contradiction of our age: Succeeding as Americans individually poses a threat to Jews communally. Building careers usually trumps the labor of deepening traditions, morals, or communal commitments. Increasingly, many American Jews are happy being Jew-ish, reducing a profound cultural, intellectual, religious heritage to props, a smattering of superficial symbols to make us stand out just enough to be interesting—and not too much to be threatening.
Academic postmodernism validates that professionally driven Jewish laziness. After slaving away to perfect the CV and GPA, to get into the best college possible, Jewish students arrive on campuses that often caricature Judaism—like all religions—as a repressive system while slamming Zionism as particularly oppressive, privileged, and aggressive. This postmodernist updating of Marxist universalism loathes the kinds of red lines Jews traditionally drew around multiple behaviors and beliefs—among them, intermarrying, denouncing Israel, or indulging in self-indulgent behaviors from tattooing your skin to blowing your mind with drugs or alcohol. But a community cannot exist without any boundaries—it’s as useless as a house with no walls.
More powerful than these ideological issues is the simple fascism of the clock. Few high-achieving American Jews devote much time in their week to being Jewish. The demands of work and the lures of leisure leave little room in the schedule for much else—especially such unhip, pre-modern, and un-postmodern activities.
Then, perhaps most devastating, once American Jews carve out the time and overcome the static, what awaits them in most synagogues is a stale stew of warmed-over nostalgia. Judaism must be more than gefilte fish and lox, more than some colorful Yiddish exclamations and shtetl tales. The superficiality of so many Jewish experiences inside the walls of the large Semitic cathedrals that fill up just three times a year is so dispiriting that it takes most Jews another year to screw up the courage to return.
No comprehensive cures exist, of course. And Zionism, which is in many ways a conservative cultural initiative despite Israel’s liberal democracy, faces a hostile environment. American Jews, whose parents and grandparents were once more culturally conservative than the rest of American society, tend now to be far more liberal. Moreover, the systematic campaign to delegitimize Zionism has done great damage, just as conservative dominance of Israel has tarnished Israel’s luster among America’s passionately liberal Jews.
Nevertheless, Israel and Zionism still have a magic, illustrated by the great counterforce that most lamentations about the Israel-Diaspora relationship overlook: Birthright Israel. Young American Jews on those 10-day trips are thrilled by the experience. The enthusiasm comes from tasting a thick, dynamic, 24/7 Jewish experience that is qualitatively different from their thin, static, fragmented American Judaism. The impact comes from what Jonathan Sacks has aptly called turning Israel into world Jewry’s classroom, its living laboratory demonstrating vibrant, thriving Judaisms in sync with the environment. Seeing Jewish garbage men and police officers normalizes Jewish society, broadening the range of Jewish career paths and class stances, reducing the implicit pressure wherever American Jews look to be the next Zuckerberg, Spielberg, or Sandberg.
Swimming in a pool of Jewish symbols, traditions, values, and stories, Jewish pilgrims to Israel encounter an alternate universe that reveres the past, that seeks meaning beyond the material, that is more communal than individual and is more eternal than last week’s most forwarded YouTube video of cats frolicking. Israel proves Theodor Herzl right: Fitting in, not standing out, because you’re Jewish is liberating.
Even more surprising, unlike the media’s dystopic portrayal, Israelis are happy and fun-loving. Israel’s recent score of 11th on the world happiness index comes on the heels of reports about American mass unhappiness, especially in the upper-middle-class neighborhoods where American Jews live. The findings that half of Yale’s undergraduates at some point in their four years will experience severe psychological distress goes far beyond the anxiety produced by the crazy process of getting in. It suggests a specific sort of soul sickness that an elite life increasingly stripped of community, tradition, nationalism, God, group responsibility, and virtue produces. As the occasionally embattled Jewish state in an old-new land, Israel remains a Republic of Something, even as America risks degenerating into a Republic of Nothing. The shared past, purpose, and principles produce happier, more grounded, people.
Israeli normalcy risks its own laziness. But it’s the laziness of an instinctive, normalized Judaism in all dimensions rather than a Judaism you need to carve out time for, picking and choosing just what to do and when to do it—while often looking over your shoulder because you don’t want to look like a weirdo or a fanatic.
Beyond that, Zionism answers some core ideological conundrums many American Jews don’t even know how to formulate. Zionism resolves the confusion whereby the Judeo-Christian connection in America makes many nonreligious Jews feel Jewish even while calling Judaism their “religion.” Zionism welcomes Jews through the peoplehood portal—remembering that Judaism is this unique mix of nation and religion, of peoplehood and faith. Zionism celebrates nationalism as a force for good, cherishes religion and tradition as valuable anchors, providing meaningful “software” of values and beliefs running on the “hardware” of belonging. And Zionism celebrates the virtues of having red lines to respect, as well as blue-and-white lines to affirm. It “rewards togetherness,” in Anne Roiphe’s lovely phrase, and demands loyalty in many ways—especially considering Israel’s military situation.
With Judaism providing the background music to so much that is Israeli, with Israel instilling a strong sense of belonging in visitors, let alone citizens, American Jews encounter new ways of being Jewish. They see total Judaism, immersive Judaism, public Judaism. And, often without realizing it, they see a startling contrast, even with secular Israeli Jews who have figured out how to keep their kids and grandkids Jewish without being religious.
Finally, Israel helps American Jews shift from Anatevka to Jerusalem, from what Irving Howe called “the world of our fathers” to the lives of our brothers and sisters. Israeli Jewish identity is about speaking Hebrew and eating cheesecake on the holiday, often overlooked in North America, of Shavuot. It’s also, unfortunately, about fighting and defending the state. The need for American Jews as allies in that fight continues to offer nonreligious American Jews a passionate Jewish cause, a defining Jewish mission in their lives. And judging by the fact that AIPAC’s Policy Conference is the rare mass event that parents often attend with their teenage and twenty-something children, Zionism offers something one generation can pass on to the next.
Beyond that, the excitement—and, to be sure, the frustrations—of working out Jewish dilemmas and governing problems in real time with high stakes to keep this grand Jewish national project alive and thriving, is a lot more compelling than humming “Sunrise Sunset” as you enter your synagogue.
When done right and understood properly, Zionism can offer an important clarification to all Americans, especially in the age of Trump. In the 2016 campaign, whenever the word “nationalism” appeared in the media, it often came poisoned by words like “white” or “extremist” or “xenophobic.” The reaction against Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Brexit, neo-Nazis, and other manifestations of populist nationalism has soured too many Americans on any form of nationalism.
At its best, what might be called “liberal nationalism” infuses democratic ideals into the natural tendency for people to clump together with those like them. In the 1950s, Isaiah Berlin described this constructive nationalism as “awareness of oneself as a community possessing certain internal bonds which are neither superior nor inferior but simply different in some respects from similar bonds which unite other nations.” Many Enlightenment thinkers, following the 18th-century philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, compared this communal impulse with other human “desires” for “food, shelter, procreation, and a minimum degree of liberty.”
Today, this nationalist vision goes against the prevailing cultural tide. Amid what the sociologist Robert Bellah calls “radical individualism,” young Americans experience a “negative” process of “giving birth to oneself” by “breaking free from family, community, and inherited ideas.” By contrast, commemoration of the bar and bat mitzvah defines maturation as accepting communal responsibilities rather than shirking them. The Zionist reality demanding that young Israelis enlist in the army also roots them in communal commitments. In this view, national service is the defining step toward adulthood.
A resurrected, refreshed, Zionist conversation, one that focuses on what Israel does for us, might help Jews see liberal nationalism as a neutral tool that can unite a divided community and make us more determined, more purposeful, and more fulfilled than we can be individually—precisely what the young Arthur Hertzberg proposed seven decades ago.
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The last remnant of Oslo crumbles
The whirlwind changes left Clinton unprepared for the meeting. Perhaps that accounts for the momentous mistake he made that day. “Rabin can’t make further concessions until he can prove to his people that the agreement he just made with you can work,” he told Arafat. “So the more quickly we can move on your track, the more quickly we’ll be able to move on the Syrian track.” Clinton thus tipped his hand: The U.S. saw an Israeli–Syrian peace deal as the real goal, and the president needed Arafat to make it happen. “Now that Arafat had used that deal to open up a relationship with Washington, he did not want to let Clinton shift his attention back to Syria,” reports Clinton foreign-policy hand Martin Indyk in his memoir. “And the more he managed to involve us in the details of his agreement with the Israelis, the less we would be able to do that. In his good-hearted innocence, Clinton had revealed his preferences. Arafat would not forget them.”
Indeed he would not. No foreign official would be invited to the Clinton White House more than Arafat. The Israeli–Palestinian peace process would not be a mere sideshow to the wider Arab–Israeli conflict. It would be a tapeworm inside U.S. foreign policy, diverting and consuming resources. Arafat had made the Palestinian Authority the center of the world.
Twenty-five years of violence, corruption, and incompetence later, the PA lies in ruins, with the Palestinian national project right behind it. Arafat controlled the PLO for a half-century before assuming control of the new PA. Thus his death in 2004 was the first moment of serious potential change in the character of Palestinian institutions. Mahmoud Abbas, far less enamored of violence than the blood-soaked Arafat, was his successor. Rather than reform Palestinian institutions, Abbas has presided over their terminal decline. As Abbas’s own health fades and as the world again turns its attention to Gaza, the part of the Palestinian territories not controlled by him, it’s worth wondering if there is a future at all for the Palestinian Authority.
The PLO was created at an Arab League summit in Cairo in 1964 to serve as an umbrella group for Palestinian organizations seeking Israel’s destruction. It was paralyzed by intra-Arab rivalries until various factions figured out how to wag the dog and draw the Arab states into war with Israel. “Palestinian guerrilla action was insufficient to achieve liberation, and so it needed to overturn reactionary Arab governments and assist Arab unity in order to provide the power necessary to attain the ultimate objective of liberation,” writes Palestinian intellectual and historian Yezid Sayigh, describing how some within the PLO saw it. Arafat’s Fatah faction, which delayed in joining the PLO but influenced it from the outside, was more explicit in a 1965 memorandum: Arab national armies would “intervene to decide the conflict, and to bring it to an end after the revolutionary masses had prepared the way for them.”
Palestinian provocations played a part in helping to fan the flames that exploded into the Six-Day War in June 1967. Yet rather than destroy Israel, the Arab armies lost territory to the Jewish state, including the West Bank of the Jordan River. The following year, Fatah—which had by now joined the PLO—provoked a costly battle with Israeli forces in the West Bank town of Karama. Fatah lost nearly 100 fighters, but Arafat’s mad gamble paid off: The Palestinians survived a face-off with the Israeli military and demonstrated their independence from Jordan. Arafat used this failure-as-success to complete Fatah’s takeover of the PLO in 1969 and become the undisputed public face of the Palestinian guerrillas. Documents captured by Israeli forces in southern Lebanon in 1982 showed extensive training and sponsorship of Palestinian guerrillas across the Communist bloc—the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Hungary, Soviet-aligned Pakistan—in addition to PLO support from Arab states. After its expulsion from Lebanon in the wake of the Israeli incursion, the PLO went into exile in Tunisia.
The first intifada broke out in 1987, and even as it publicized Palestinian resistance, it gave the West a chance to consign Arafat and the PLO to irrelevance. Foreign Minister Moshe Arens proposed allowing the major Palestinian cities in the West Bank and Gaza to hold mayoral elections, after which Israel would recognize the winners as official Palestinian interlocutors. Rabin, then the defense minister, opposed the Arens plan, fearing it would undermine Israel Defense Forces’ control of the West Bank. A compromise plan was for the Palestinians in the territories to hold elections for negotiators, not officeholders. In his memoir, Arens explains that the idea “was meant to begin a process of negotiations with the Palestinians while bypassing the Palestine Liberation Organization.”
Before Arens or Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir could present the plan to the George H.W. Bush administration, Bush and Secretary of State James Baker preempted the Israelis by leaking to reporters their preference for the PLO and their belief that talks with Arafat should broach the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state. Shamir’s right-of-center Likud party revolted, and the government eventually collapsed. Bush had succeeded not only in throwing Israeli politics into chaos in the midst of the intifada, but also in effectively legitimizing Arafat as the rightful representative of Palestinian nationalism. This put the PLO and Israel on the glide path to that September 1993 breakthrough and the creation of the Palestinian Authority.
All this history taught Arafat one unmistakable lesson: Violence works. And so, after the signing of the Declaration of Principles in 1993, violence continued. Some of it was ordered by Arafat; some tacitly encouraged by him; some his security services merely allowed to happen. More than 250 people were killed by Palestinian terrorists in the five years after the signing ceremony. Arafat’s political rivals in Hamas pioneered the use of suicide bombings as a regular feature of terrorism. This served Arafat well: He could crack down on Hamas if and when he needed to but could also keep his fingerprints off some of the most heinous violence against Israeli civilians.
A perfect example of this double game occurred in February 1996. The Norwegian diplomat and UN envoy Terje Rod-Larsen met regularly with Arafat at the Palestinian leader’s Gaza home throughout the Oslo period. On February 24, 1996—a Saturday—Arafat asked his guest his plans for the next day. Rod-Larsen said he was thinking about spending the day in Jerusalem. According to the journalist Michael Kelly, Arafat cryptically said: “Why don’t you stay away from Jerusalem on Sunday.” The next day, Hamas blew up a bus in Jerusalem and another in Ashkelon, killing 26. “Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who thought he had persuaded Palestinian radicals to refrain from attacks on Israelis, condemned the bombings, saying they threatened the peace process,” reported CNN that day.
Violence wasn’t the only way Arafat hindered the cause of Palestinian statehood. Corruption tore through nascent Palestinian institutions. The numbers are staggering. After Arafat’s death, David Samuels surveyed the damage for the Atlantic:
The International Monetary Fund has conservatively estimated that from 1995 to 2000 Arafat diverted $900 million from Palestinian Authority coffers, an amount that did not include the money that he and his family siphoned off through such secondary means as no-bid contracts, kickbacks, and rake-offs…. In 1996 alone, $326 million, or 43 percent of the state budget, had been embezzled, and…another $94 million, or 12.5 percent of the budget, went to the president’s office…. A total of $73 million, or 9.5 percent of the budget, [was] spent on the needs of the population of the West Bank and Gaza.… Arafat hid his personal stash, estimated at $1 billion to $3 billion, in more than 200 separate bank accounts around the world, the majority of which have been uncovered since his death.
Why didn’t the creation of the PA result in Arafat’s transition from guerrilla leader to civilian state-builder? Three problems kept cropping up. The first was that his lack of accountability was enabled by both Israel and the United States, out of the naive belief that it didn’t matter how Arafat built his state and abided by agreements just so long as he did so. Arafat exploited this—he never built his state, in part because nobody was willing to make him.
The second problem was that the PA only added a layer of opacity to Arafat’s power structure. As the analyst Jonathan Schanzer notes in State of Failure: “Was he the chairman of the PLO, the president of the PA, or the leader of Fatah? These varying roles made it difficult to firmly establish his accountability.”
The third problem was more fundamental: Arafat shaped the PLO, and thus the Palestinian national movement, for a quarter-century before the PA was established. The only thing that changed was that nothing changed. Arafat’s predilection for violence, secrecy, and authoritarianism would be deeply corrosive to the institutions of an existing state; to a nonstate tasked with creating those institutions, they were fatal.
Not until Arafat died did the full extent of the PA’s failure become clear to all. Arafat’s absence was supposed to be cause for hope; instead, it revealed the bankruptcy of the PA’s model. Mahmoud Abbas inherited not a state but an illusion.
There is no doubt that Abbas was an improvement over Arafat. As Arafat’s deputy, he tried in vain to convince his boss to halt the second intifada (2000–2003), a bloody campaign of violence instigated by Arafat after he turned down Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s offer of a Palestinian state at Camp David in 2000. The intifada sapped Israelis’ faith in the PA as a negotiating partner and delivered Likud’s Ariel Sharon—the godfather of Israel’s settlement movement and a man who, as defense minister, had been instrumental in driving the PLO out of Lebanon two decades earlier—to the prime minister’s office.
Abbas’s ascension left policymakers in Jerusalem and Washington playing Weekend at Bernie’s with the corpse of the Palestinian Authority, waving its arms and propping it up in public. Both wanted to show the Palestinians they could get more with honey than with vinegar. But by 2004, it didn’t really matter. With President George W. Bush’s backing, Sharon went forward with plans to pull Israel completely out of Gaza and parts of the West Bank. The “Disengagement” of 2005 was a political earthquake: Israel’s great champion of the settlers uprooted thousands with no concessions from the Palestinians. More important, perhaps, was the fact that it was unilateral. How much did the PA even matter anymore?
Abbas’s legitimacy was another nagging problem. Though he won a presidential election in 2005, the PA was haunted by the ghosts of Arafat’s corruption. In 2006, Abbas called for legislative elections. Confident of victory, he permitted Hamas to participate in the elections, and the U.S. didn’t object. Had his Fatah party won, its legitimacy would have been undeniable. But in a shock, Hamas won. Fatah was hobbled not only by the perception of Arafat’s venality but also by the consequences of his one-man rule. In their biography of Abbas, Grant Rumley and Amir Tibon write: “Palestinian legislative elections are essentially a local election, in which every ‘district’ chooses its own members of parliament from the different political lists. While Hamas’s candidates ran under one banner, Fatah showed disastrous disunity by having splinter lists in multiple camps, towns, and villages.” Civil war engulfed the Palestinian territories. Hamas took control of Gaza and was booted from the government in the West Bank. Abbas is now in the 14th year of his four-year term.
His legitimacy in tatters, Abbas went about consolidating power and cracking down on dissent. But it wasn’t just the democratic deficit that made Abbas’s reign resemble his predecessor’s. The courts, legislative institutions, education, civil society—Palestinian state-building simply wasn’t happening. In 2010, the Carnegie Endowment’s Nathan Brown studied Palestinian government and society under Abbas’s Western-educated prime minister, Salam Fayyad, and he came to a dispiriting conclusion: “There was far more building of institutions under Yasser Arafat than there has been under Fayyad. It is true that many institutions were built in spite of Arafat and that Fayyad’s behavior suggests a greater respect for rules and institutions. But that is consolation only for those who mistake personalities for politics.”
Yet in one way Abbas is arguably more dangerous even than his predecessor. Arafat was notoriously defensive about possible successors because he had created an entire system centered on his role as the Indispensable Man. Nonetheless, PLO bylaws made Abbas the rightful successor, and he remained the consensus choice.
But to say Abbas has failed to claw back any control over Gaza would be an understatement. With a bevy of foreign benefactors—among them Turkey, Iran, and Qatar—no pretense of democracy, and no easy way in or out, the strip has become a Philadelphia-sized Islamist police state. Every few years, Hamas instigates a war with Israel to remind the world that no degree of physical isolation can make it irrelevant. On March 30, the group organized the first so-called “March of Return,” a day of protest and mischief at the border with Israel in which 20 Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli troops. A top Hamas official said the marches will continue until they succeed in overrunning the border and driving the Jews out of the land. For this, the protests were rewarded with absurd media devotionals; the New York Times hyped a Palestinian analyst’s comparison of the border rushes to the civil-rights protesters trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. Hamas displays the organizational control Abbas can only dream of, and the ability to have its propaganda amplified by the Times, CNN, and other major media across the globe. Abbas is reduced to gritting his teeth, and lately seems ready to just give up, telling Egyptian interlocutors in early April that unless Hamas turns over “everything, all institutions and ministries, including security and weapons,” the Palestinian Authority “will not be responsible for what happens there.”
The 82-year-old Abbas is in deteriorating health—yet he has dragged his feet on succession. He now indicates he’ll designate deputy chairman Mahmoud al-Aloul his next in line. But “anyone who thinks Aloul’s appointment will find smooth sailing within Fatah is wrong,” warns Israeli journalist Shlomi Eldar in Al-Monitor. The largest challenge could come from Mohammed Dahlan, Fatah’s former Gaza security chief, whom Abbas sent into exile in 2011 and who has been cultivating Sunni allies abroad. Jibril Rajoub is the party’s secretary general and believes he’s the rightful heir. Hamas could leap into the vacuum to try to take the West Bank by force, or it could play havoc by supporting someone like Dahlan. If the succession battle becomes a proxy fight among Arab states, it could get bloody fast. The PA as an institution survived Arafat’s death. It may not survive Abbas’s.
There is, of course, one remaining way for Abbas to distinguish himself from Arafat and ensure that he leaves something tangible behind: He could take yes for an answer and actually seek a negotiated settlement. Sadly, his track record here isn’t any better. In 2007, he walked away from a generous Israeli offer by Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert. The 2008 U.S. election briefly appeared to vindicate him—Barack Obama was elected president and proceeded to browbeat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into giving away the store. But Abbas made a fool of Obama, too. At first, he sat back and played for time. Then, seeing how difficult Obama was making life for Netanyahu, he thought he could wait for Netanyahu’s government to crumble. When Obama left office in 2017, Netanyahu was still prime minister. The one time negotiations got anywhere, in 2014, Abbas blew them up by abruptly agreeing to bring Hamas into the government, a move that cannot be countenanced by the U.S. or Israel as long as Hamas remains committed to terrorism and refuses to abide by existing agreements.
Obama did two other things that backfired on the Palestinian Authority. One was the Iran nuclear deal, which gave tacit American support to Tehran’s expansionism in the Middle East, scaring Sunni regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Egypt into strategic alignment with Israel. The other was more subtle but just as consequential: He helped orchestrate the passage of a UN Security Council resolution that deemed East Jerusalem, home to Judaism’s holy sites, occupied Palestinian territory.
The UN resolution at first seemed to be a clear gift to Abbas. But in reality, it was a ham-handed attempt to tie the hands of President-elect Donald Trump, who would be taking office just a month later. Trump wouldn’t have it. In the first year of his presidency, he publicly declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel and announced that his administration would move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. (While a new embassy compound is being built, the White House plans to officially designate the existing consulate in Jerusalem as the embassy in time for Israel’s 70th anniversary celebrations on May 14.)
The Jerusalem moves have been an unmitigated humiliation for the PA. They undid the damage to the U.S.–Israel relationship inflicted by Obama. Worse for the PA, Trump called the Palestinian bluff. Contrary to the fears of Western observers, and the ill-disguised morbid hopes of some in the media, the region did not go up in flames. The “terrorist’s veto” did. And the coordination that such a move required between the United States and its Arab allies made crystal clear just how isolated the Palestinian Authority has become—how vulnerable it is to the politics of the Arab world, and how impervious to Palestinian politics the Arab world has become.
It took four decades, but the dog is once again wagging the tail.
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The covert and overt sins of a celebrated scholar
Kristeva categorically denies the charges. Her critics argue that it is unlikely that the Bulgarian government would fabricate an 80-page dossier for the purpose of embarrassing a 76-year-old academic who is of no particular contemporary political importance. Professor Richard Wolin of the CUNY Graduate Center, who has written extensively about Kristeva, says flatly: “She’s lying.” And he adds that the Bulgarian government’s claims about her did not materialize ex nihilo: Kristeva recently began writing for a Bulgarian journal, and Bulgarian policy is to publish the dossiers of public figures who had served the state intelligence agencies during the Communist era. That policy is carried out by “ComDos,” the Committee for Disclosure of Documents and Announcement of Affiliation of Bulgarian Citizens to the State Security and the Intelligence Services of the Bulgarian National Army.
But what Kristeva did or did not do in secret is if anything less troubling than what she did in public. For decades, she lent her intellectual prestige and her powers as a writer (and propagandist) to some of the most repressive and vicious regimes of the second half of the 20th century. And she did so as someone who had first-person experience with real-world socialism as it was practiced in what was arguably the single most suffocating regime in Eastern Europe.
Once inescapable on college campuses (I was assigned readings from her work in at least four different classes in the 1990s), Kristeva has faded a little: She has authored a number of novels that have not been generally well-regarded, and she has got on the wrong side of her fellow feminists by criticizing the subjection of the individual identity to the demands of identity politics. She belongs, with Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes and a few others of that kidney, to an era of postmodernist excess during which American academics aped the jargon-heavy (and famously unreadable) prose style of their Continental idols, especially the French ones. Discipline and Punish took on the totemic status later enjoyed by Capital in the 21st Century—which is to say, a book with many more owners than readers, A Brief History of Time for Reagan-era graduate students. Revolution in Poetic Language might not have generated quite as much awe as Foucault’s famous lump, but The Kristeva Reader ornamented a great many coffee tables—and who could resist “Experiencing the Phallus as Extraneous”?
Kristeva arrived in France in 1965 on a research fellowship. She soon moved from the École normale to the Sorbonne, and she studied under Claude Lévi-Strauss and Jacques Lacan, taking in the intellectual fashions of her time: psychoanalysis, poststructuralism, semiotics, feminism, and, of course, radical left-wing politics. Indicting midcentury French intellectuals for covert or overt support of Communist dictatorships around the world is like writing speeding tickets at the Daytona 500, but Kristeva’s political history and that of the journal with which she was long affiliated, Tel Quel, is a remarkable testament to the weakness of Western intellectuals for totalitarianism—provided it is dressed in sufficiently exotic trappings—careering from Marxist-Leninist to Stalinist to Maoist. Kristeva was an enthusiastic supporter of the French Communist Party, arguably the most servile of all of the Western European Communist parties, indulging Adolf Hitler when it suited Moscow and later justifying the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 as a necessary prophylactic against “counterrevolution.” There was no Communist outrage too great for Tel Quel, whose editor, Philippe Sollers (Kristeva married him in 1967), declared in the familiar language of the period his opposition to all things “counterrevolutionary” and advertised his allegiance to “Marxist-Leninist theory, the only revolutionary theory of our time.” V. I. Lenin was later displaced from the Tel Quel intellectual pantheon by Mao Zedong. Professor Wolin, an intellectual historian, tells the story in his 2017 book Wind from the East:
As a result of the May  events and their contact with the Maoists, French intellectuals bade adieu to the Jacobin-Leninist authoritarian political model of which they had formerly been so enamored. They ceased behaving like mandarins and internalized the virtues of democratic humility. In May’s aftermath, they attuned themselves to new forms and modes of social struggle. Their post-May awareness concerning the injustices of top-down politics alerted them to the virtues of “society” and political struggle from below. In consequence, French intellectual life was wholly transformed. The Sartrean model of the engaged intellectual was upheld, but its content was totally reconfigured. Insight into the debilities of political vanguardism impelled French writers and thinkers to reevaluate the Dreyfusard legacy of the universal intellectual: the intellectual who shames the holders of power by flaunting timeless moral truth…. The Maoists started out as political dogmatists and true believers. But they soon found it impossible to reconcile their pro-Chinese ideological blinders with the emancipatory spirit of May. Once they ceased deluding themselves with revolutionary slogans, they began to understand politics in an entirely new light. The idea of cultural revolution was thereby wholly transformed. It ceased to be an exclusively Chinese point of reference. Instead it came to stand for an entirely new approach to thinking about politics: an approach that abandoned the goal of seizing political power and instead sought to initiate a democratic revolution in mores, habitudes, sexuality, gender roles, and human sociability in general.
There was a substantial intellectual component to the Maoism of the Kristeva-Sollers set, but there was also a superficial one: Sollers began affecting the Maoist mode of dress, and Kristeva, one of the most important feminist thinkers of her time, dutifully authored articles in defense of Chinese foot-binding, which she described as a form of feminine emancipation. Calling to mind Senator Elizabeth Warren and her fictitious “Cherokee princess” ancestor, Kristeva boasted that she is a woman who “owes my cheekbones to some Asian ancestor.” Despite having almost no facility with the Chinese language and very little knowledge of its culture, she authored a widely read and translated book, About Chinese Women, in which she made unsupported claims about the “matrilineal” character of classical Chinese culture. Tel Quel adopted an editorial line that was uniformly and cravenly pro-Mao, even going so far as to argue that the absence of professional psychiatric practice from China resulted from the fact that Maoism had delivered the Chinese people from “alienation,” the traditional Marxist diagnosis for what ails the capitalist soul, rendering professional mental-health care unnecessary.
“I don’t fault her” for serving the Committee for State Security, Professor Wolin says. “It was the most repressive dictatorship in Eastern Europe.” Signing on to inform for the Bulgarian government might well have been a condition for Kristeva’s being permitted to study in France in the first place, and she had vulnerable family members still living under the Bulgarian police state. “I don’t know why she doesn’t come clean,” he says.
But that is not the end of her story. “What I do fault her for is jumping on the Communist bandwagon,” Wolin adds. First she served the interests of Moscow and then those of Chairman Mao. Unlike most of her French colleagues, the Bulgarian expatriate was in a position to know better from direct experience. Nonetheless, Kristeva and the Tel Quel set undertook a pilgrimage to Maoist China in the middle 1970s, where they saw the usual Potemkin villages and came home to write fulsome encomia to the wisdom and efficacy of the Great Helmsman. “By ’74, everybody knew that the Cultural Revolution was a power play and a debacle on every level,” Wolin says, an excuse for the Chinese authorities to purge their rivals. “People who had been sent down wrote memoirs, and those were published in French in 1971 and 1972…. Kristeva knew how repressive these regimes were. She didn’t have to celebrate Communism. No one compelled her to do that.”
If this were only a question about a Bulgarian-French intellectual who is obscure beyond academic and feminist circles, then it would be of limited interest, one of those French intellectual scandals that give Anglophone writers and academics a twinge of envy. (When was the last time there was a truly national controversy in the United States over a book? The Bell Curve?)
But Kristeva’s advocacy of what was in terms of gross numbers the most murderous regime of the 20th century is only one tessera in the great mosaic of Western intellectuals’ seduction by totalitarian systems, especially those that come wearing exotic costumes. (Jeremy Jennings, writing in Standpoint, describes Kristeva’s Maoism as “part radical chic, part revolutionary tourism, part orientalism.”) Sometimes, that seduction has come from the right, as with Italian Fascism’s ensorcelling of Ezra Pound and F. A. Hayek’s embarrassing admiration for the government of Augusto Pinochet, a political crush that earned him a private rebuke from no less a figure than Margaret Thatcher. But, more often, that seduction has come from the left: Lincoln Steffens returning from the Soviet Union to declare, “I have seen the future, and it works.” Walter Duranty’s embarrassing misreportage in the New York Times, which still proudly displays the Pulitzer prize earned thereby. The moral equivalence and outright giddy enthusiasm with which Western intellectuals ranging from the left-wing to the merely liberal treated Lenin and Stalin. The New Republic’s footsie-playing with Communists under Henry Wallace. Noam Chomsky’s dismissal of the Cambodian genocide as an American propaganda invention. The reverence for Fidel Castro. The embrace of Hugo Chávez by everyone from Hollywood progressives to Democratic elected officials. Chants of “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh / The NLF is going to win!” on the streets of New York in 1968. Ten million Che T-shirts.
“There are Western intellectuals who don’t succumb,” Professor Wolin says. “The George Orwells, Susan Sontags, and others who learn the lesson. Among the French leftists in the late 1960s who swooned for the Cultural Revolution, many of them came to their senses in the ’70s.” But what about those who are seduced? “Often, they’re naive about politics, and they project holistic and idealistic solutions—totalizing solutions—onto events that don’t admit of those kinds of solutions.”
Political ideologies tend to define themselves in two important ways: first, in opposition to the most important and prominent of their direct ideological competitors; second, in an effort to distinguish themselves from immediately adjacent ideologies and factions. In the case of 20th-century radicals such as Julia Kristeva, the enemy was capitalism, and the most prominent alternative to capitalism was Communism. Whether the pursuit of the idealized new man and his utopian new society took the form of old-fashioned bureaucratic Soviet socialism or the more rambunctious and anarchic mode of the Cultural Revolution was a dispute between adjacent factions, something that may seem almost immaterial from the outside but that is the source of all-consuming passions—and rage—inside the radical milieu.
The West is perversely fortunate that its hedonism and materialism have inoculated it against the premier radicalism of the early 21st century—jihadism, which has gained very little purchase in the West outside of poorly assimilated immigrant communities, mostly in Europe. But Islamic radicalism is not the only rival to democratic liberalism on the world stage: As Xi Jinping consolidates his position in Beijing (a project that goes far beyond the recent removal of the term limits that would have ended his rule at the conclusion of his second term), where are the Western intellectuals with the moral authority and political acumen to articulate a meaningful critique of what he represents? The left in Europe and in the English-speaking world has never been obliged to make an accounting—or a reckoning—for its indulgence of a far more dramatically violent expression of Chinese nationalism, and even liberal technocrats such as Thomas Friedman dream of turning America into “China for a day,” begrudgingly admiring the Chinese government’s raw ability to simply act, unencumbered by democratic gridlock.
And if the left and the center-left are ill-equipped to mount an intellectual defense of democratic liberalism, the right is even less prepared, having mired itself deeply in the very kind of authoritarian nationalism practiced by Beijing. Like the 20th-century left, the 21st-century right has gone looking for allies and inspiration abroad, and has settled upon Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, the fascist Le Pen political dynasty in France, Alternative für Deutschland, neo-nationalism, neo-mercantilism, and ethnic-identity politics. The right-wing populists of Europe do not have Mao’s practically unbounded scope of action (or his body count), but they play for intellectuals on the radical right the same role that Maoism once played for intellectuals on the radical left.
It is not clear that Kristeva has learned very much from her political errors, or even indeed that she ever has come to understand them genuinely as errors. Her alleged collaboration with the Bulgarian secret police, tawdry as it might have been, would not constitute the greatest of those errors. But it is that allegation, and not the plain facts of her long career of advocacy on behalf of inhumane political enterprises, that embarrasses her. In that, she is typical of the radical tendency, a spiritual cousin to the Western progressives who once winked at Stalinists as “liberals in a hurry.” But radical chic is not an exclusively progressive fashion. Xi Jinping is in a hurry, and so is Marine Le Pen, and both have their attention set on matters of more consequence than “intersectionality,” the matter of who uses which pronouns, and the other voguish obsessions of our contemporary intellectuals.
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It was Ben-Gurion himself who proposed a compromise: Israel’s Declaration of Independence would conclude by asserting that each signer placed his trust in the “Rock of Israel,” the Tzur Yisrael, a phrase from the Jewish liturgy inspired by the biblical reference to God as tzuri ve-go’ali, my Rock and my Redeemer.
By referring to the “Rock of Israel,” but refraining from any explicit mention of divine redemption, Israel’s declaration was one that both devout and atheistic Zionists could affirm. For believers in the Bible, the phrase could refer to the divine defender of the Jewish people; for the secular socialist signers of the document, the words could instead make reference to the flint-like resolution of the Israeli army. The compromise was accepted, and the modern Jewish state was born by eliding the issue of the existence of God.
For myself, a religious Zionist and American-history aficionado, the story is doubly painful. Thomas Jefferson, the deistic drafter of the Declaration in Philadelphia, produced a first version without any reference to the divine designs of history. The continental Congress, however, representing an America obsessed with the Bible, edited the dramatic closing of the original draft so that it made clear that the revolution was being launched with “a firm reliance on divine providence.”
The irony is difficult to miss. America, inspired by the Israelite commonwealth in the Hebrew Bible, ordered that a reference to a providential God be added to its Declaration of Independence. But in the 20th century, the restored Israelite commonwealth went out of its way to remove any such reference.
For religious Zionists, however, removing God from a document did not do away with God’s role in the divinely directed drama that is Jewish history; in fact, the contrary is true. Sidney Morgenbesser, the kibitzing Columbia philosopher, once inquired of a colleague at the end of his life: “Why is God making me suffer so much? Just because I don’t believe in him?” Morgenbesser’s droll dialectic captures, for people of faith, something profound: It is those agnostic of God’s existence who can at times reify that very same existence. In a much more profound sense, the events that preceded and followed Israel’s declaration of statehood are so staggering that providence alone explains them.
Harry Truman, the former member of the Missouri political machine whom no one had ever expected to become president of the United States, overrode his hero, General George C. Marshall, in supporting and recognizing the birth of a Jewish state. And he did so, in part, because of his relationship with a Jew named Eddie Jacobson, with whom Truman had run a haberdashery business decades before.
Joseph Stalin, whose anti-Semitism rivaled Hitler’s, ordered the Soviet bloc at the United Nations to support partition, and then he allowed Czechoslovakia to sell airplanes and arms to the nascent state. The Jews of the IDF, fighting against overwhelming odds, did indeed illustrate flint-like toughness in their heroic victory; but the honest student of history can see that this is only part of the story.
Seventy years after May 14, 1948, religious Zionists still smart at the words with which Israel came into being. At the same time, they take comfort in the fact that what followed that extraordinary day vindicates their own interpretation of the words Tzur Yisrael. In his memoir, former Israeli Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, the youngest survivor of Buchenwald, describes the moment when the concentration camp was liberated by Patton’s Third Army. Many inmates, having longed for release, ran to the gates—and as they did so, the Nazis, in a final attempt at murdering the prisoners, opened fire from the guard tower. Lau was in the line of fire; suddenly, someone jumped on him and held him down until the shooting had stopped. Having no idea who had saved his life, Lau made his way to Palestine, attended yeshiva, and entered the rabbinate. The first position for which he interviewed was chief rabbi of Netanya. Interviewing for the job with city officials, he encountered hours of question from the mayor of Netanya and his staff. The deputy mayor of Netanya, a man by the name of David Anilevitch, who ought to have been deeply involved in the interview, sat on the side and oddly said nothing. As the interview came to a close, Anilevitch stood up and said:
Friends, honored rabbi, before we disperse, please allow me to say my piece…. I have been reliving 11 April 1945. I was deported from my hometown to Buchenwald. On April 11, American airplanes circled in the skies above the camp. The prisoners, myself among them, were first out of the barracks. As we ran, a hail of bullets passed us. Among those running toward the gate was a little boy.…I jumped on top of him, threw him to the ground, and lay over him to protect him from the bullets. And today I see him before me alive and well. Now I declare this to all of you: I, David Anilevitch, was saved from that horror, fought in the Palmach, and today serve as deputy mayor of an Israeli city.
Anilevitch, Lau concludes, then banged on the table so that all the glasses shook and said: “If I have the merit of seeing this child, whom I protected with my body, become my spiritual leader, then I say to you that there is a God.”
The definition of a miracle is an event that should not naturally have occurred. For us, this tends to mean the splitting of the sea, the stopping of the sun, the opening of the earth. Yet, by the very same definition, it is a miracle that Israel was born, and endured in the way that it did. It is a miracle that after a generation in which many Jewish children grew up without parents, let alone grandparents, we have experienced the fulfillment of Zachariah’s prophecy that grandparents will watch their grandchildren play in the streets of Jerusalem. It is a miracle that after so many civilizations have disappeared, Jewish children continue to be born. It is a miracle that as anti-Semitism continues to haunt the nations of Europe that persecuted the Jews for so long, religious Judaism flourishes in Israel even as a now secular Europe demographically declines.
More than any other event in the last 70 years, the state that was born in avoidance of any explicit affirmation of Israel’s God now stands as the greatest argument for the existence of that very same God. And that is why many Jews, on the 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence, will recite with renewed fervor prayers in the daily traditional liturgy that 70 years ago had been at least partially fulfilled:
O Rock of Israel,
Arise in defense of Israel,
And redeem, as you have promised,
Judah and Israel.
Our redeemer, the Lord of Hosts is your Name, the Sacred One of Israel
Blessed are you, O Lord, Who redeemed Israel.