By Bryan Newbury
June 11, 2008
Just a day after clinching the Democratic nomination for the presidency, Senator Barack Obama received helpful words from his erstwhile (so Democrats hope) adversary, Senator Hillary Clinton. It was at an AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) convention, where she assured the audience that Obama would be a friend to Israel. The elephant sitting at table three could have pointed out that this goes without saying. In the United States, support for Israel is a requirement, whether running for state senate, the House of Representatives, or county clerk, let alone president.
It is understood by anyone who even casually follows politics, yet it retains elephant in the room status. This is one of the many “whys” regarding the influence of the Israel lobby, one that – like most of the others – will likely never be discussed in our media, and certainly not in our legislature.
Dutch public broadcaster VPRO presents a balanced and knowledgeable look at the question, and it is vexing to contemplate why our PBS avoids the issue. As with so many things dealing with Israel or the Jewish Diaspora, it is tricky footing for any commentator. The dual nature of the Jewish people, that Janus face of perseverance and victimhood, opens any interrogation to a host of charges, along with observations that can tread easily into the realm of conspiracy theory. The deftest minds of the ages have fallen prey, and the current state of affairs hardly makes it any easier. Thus, the host of “whys,” such as: Why does the United States give more money to Israel than any other nation, though it is a comparatively wealthy nation state?; Why do we consistently veto any United Nations resolution that is infinitesimally critical of Israeli policy or action?; Why is it that the truism, as stated by Eric Hobsbawm, that “(t)he default position of any state is to pursue its interests,” seems to belie our relationship to this small Near Eastern nation?; fall into a dead zone of inquiry here.
It would be simple to dismiss these questions, and others, as the stuff of conspiracy theory… as wild-eyed Anti-Semitic claptrap… were it not for the fact that a documentary such as this is virtually impossible to make or distribute in the United States. The findings and opinions contained therein would be rightly condemned as Illuminatiesque soothsaying, were it not for the palpable intimidation and atmosphere of silence cultivated by allies of the Israel lobby, the same kind of silencing that serves as primordial breeding ground for over-reaches and conspiracies. The only cure for hatred and darkness, to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, is love and light.
Just why these tactics are employed, in academia, international affairs, and even domestic issues, isn’t addressed directly by the film, nor is it the subject. In quite objective fashion, The Israel Lobby chooses to poke the elephant by pointing out that these tactics do exist, and that the aforementioned groups are subject to the sort of chilling effect that they portend.
In a scant fifty minutes, we are treated to interviews from across the board. Luminaries such as Tony Judt, Michael Massing, Kenneth Roth and Daniel Levy have their say, alongside Richard Perle, Earl Hilliard, Stephen Walt, and Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson. Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s chief of staff, delivers pithy and powerful commentary, and could easily carry an hour all his own. In fact, he sums up the issue as best anyone could, when discussing Walt and Mearsheimer’s findings in their controversial 23 March 2006 article about the Israel lobby’s influence. They are factually correct, he says, but they’re wrong. While Israel was an asset in the Cold War, they are, strategically speaking, no longer that. “(W)e don’t debate this issue… Israel is a strategic burden on the United States. That’s a big difference from Cold War days. At the same time, the fuller, more comprehensive, strategist in me says, ‘That doesn’t matter.’” True enough.
Wilkerson would be the best advertisement for the film. A strategic mind who isn’t afraid to (quite literally) call “bullshit” on certain facets of the debate, he has the ability to straddle the seeming cognitive dissonance that permeates the United States-Israeli relationship. In short, it is not in our national interest to be in lockstep alliance with Israel, but there isn’t anything that is going to change the relationship.
Judt, an NYU historian, sees the complexities in a slightly different way, though virtually everyone interviewed in the film appreciates the I-IV-V pattern everyone’s mind is free to improvise upon. While Wilkerson (and Perle, albeit in a much more priggish fashion) approaches the topic in a one hundred year sweep, Judt, himself a former soldier in the Israeli military, takes the very long view. “There’s always a relationship between collective past sufferings and present individual actions,” Judt points out, following with the almost counterintuitive notion that many groups – among them, the Palestinians – might make equal claim. Further, Judt, along with Mr. Levy, sees a danger to the state of Israel if the pattern continues. As Levy intimates, the vast majority of Jewish people are well to the left of, and quite more pacific than, the lobbying interests that toil in their name. This may be only slightly unfortunate for the archetypal east coast Jewish thinker, but, as Judt warns, it may cause damage in ways that transcend the psyche. Remember the Roman Empire, he apprises the audience. Judea, at one time, was just an annoyance. Once it went beyond that, the Romans ran roughshod over the colony and sacked the temple. When America decides that oil is no longer the raison d’être for her existence, or that economic and international factors behoove her to distance herself from a state many consider a pariah, where does Israel turn?
VPRO deserves great credit for thoughtful filmmaking. Nothing resembling a Poundian screed turns up, and while cautious deliberation is evident, it does not fall victim to the sort of Jeremiads to which American audiences have become woefully accustomed.
There is precious little evidence to support the concept that, in the years to come, our lot in the Middle East will be any less tense, bloody, or shameful. What role AIPAC plays in that, as opposed to, say, Exxon-Mobil, may remain a mystery to those outside the halls of power. This should not excuse Americans, who are, in the end, the subject of this documentary, from having a reasoned discussion on the issue.
We may come to the verdict, as Mr. Perle might have it, that all is as it should be. On the other hand, the exhortations of Messrs Levy and Judt could find footing. Possibly Walt and Mearsheimer’s calculus is the one we should be listening to. Still yet, Colonel Wilkerson’s pragmatic assessment that, though it is nonsense that two countries ever coincidentally share eternal common interests, we are joined at the hip nonetheless, might win the day.
Whatever the conclusion, it is to our shame that the conversation remains a non-starter, one which the Dutch feel comfortable dealing with, while we play our fiddle with the chinrest in the sand.
The Israel Lobby
produced by Marije Meerman for VPRO public broadcasting, The Netherlands
2007, Color, 50 minutes
English & Dutch with English subtitles