By Elise Hendrick
Opportunism makes strange bedfellows. How else can Jeff Blankfort’s prominence in what is supposedly a Palestinian solidarity movement be explained?
The Lobby Hypothesis
Blankfort’s basic claim is that a Jewish Lobby has absolute control over US policy in the Middle East. This is hardly a novel claim – it’s been advanced by various congressional Republicans and mainstream hawks like Walt and Mearsheimer, who claim that The Lobby is the reason that the US deviate from their general foreign policy of support for “democracy” when it comes to the Middle East, and that the Lobby is harming “national interests”.
There are, however, some obvious problems with this theory, which I will outline only briefly, as they have been discussed in great detail elsewhere. If we are to assume that The Lobby is the driving force behind US Mid-East policy, in particular of US support for the occupation and ethnic cleansing of Palestine, it is useful to ask a few basic questions:
- Does US policy in the Middle East differ in any fundamental, qualitative way from US policy anywhere else in the world (i.e., is US policy towards Israel, Palestine, and the rest of the region unique in the annals of US foreign policy)?
- Are there any other interests within the US that might benefit from US support for Israeli militarism?
- What happens when Israeli policies conflict with US strategic interests?
- Based on the overall US record, could we reasonably expect the US to pursue a policy of supporting the human rights of Palestinians if it were not for The Lobby?
One might further ask how one defines “national interests”, and whether a discourse of “national interests” is necessarily a good thing for Palestinian rights.
The answer to the first question is a resounding NO. The essentials of US Middle East policy – supporting murderous dictators, racist regimes, illegal military occupations, rampant violations of human rights and international law, and acts of aggression and genocide – characterise not only US policy in the Middle East, but US policy virtually everywhere else. The US installed and decisively supported the genocidal Suharto regime in Indonesia, which celebrated its inauguration by slaughtering between half a million and a million Indonesian peasants (often based on US-supplied hit lists), and went on to invade and occupy East Timor, carrying out a decades-long bloodbath (politely ignored in the US corporate media) that killed as much as one fifth of the population of that small, defenceless country. US support for genocidal regimes includes decisive support for Saddam Hussein’s slaughter of Iraqi Kurds in the 1980s, Turkey’s ethnic cleansing of Kurds in the 1980s and 1990s, the mass slaughter of the indigenous people of Guatemala (lasting almost half a century), and its own genocidal warfare against Indochina, from which that region has yet to recover. Clearly, then, US policy towards Israel and Palestine is best characterised as highly consistent with US policy elsewhere. It is hard to sustain the idea that the dark machinations of an all-powerful lobby are the driving force behind a policy of doing basically the same thing everywhere in the world.
The answer to the second question is an obvious YES. Certainly, the US has an interest – going beyond the obvious commercial benefits – in controlling the Middle East’s oil reserves, which have been deemed by US planners to be the key to world domination going back to the end of the Second World War. Obviously, US oil corporations aren’t exactly hurting from this arrangement, either. Additionally, US military aid to Israel – 75% of which ends up in the pockets of US arms manufacturers – helps spur on a regional arms race, ensuring constant demand, and thus constant profits. Moreover, Israel is virtually the only state in the region that has little to no danger of being “infected” by “radical [i.e., independent] Arab nationalism”. Mubbarak & Co. might be overthrown tomorrow, but there’s no chance of Israel being a base for resurgent Nasserism.
As for the third question, when US interests conflict with Israeli policies, US interests consistently prevail. It is first important to remember that US interests do not include “ideological slogans about human rights”, as George Kennan put it half a century ago. From a strategic standpoint, the US couldn’t really care less what happens to the Palestinians. However, the US does care – to name just one example – about whether the Chinese government get their hands on classified US technology, and when Israel tried to make a deal to do just that, the US put a stop to it with a few phone calls and a well-timed snubbing. A deal like this is not a small matter for Israel. Israeli strategists have long been ambivalent about the exclusivity of the US-Israeli “special relationship”, and Israel certainly has a long-term interest in reducing its dependency on US armaments in order to ensure maximum manoeuvring room on policy. Losing the China deal, thus, was a real blow. One might have expected The Lobby to attack the US government for doing such harm to Israeli interests. One would have been wrong.
If The Lobby is truly the driving force behind US support for the oppression and dispossession of Palestinians, the answer to the fourth question – whether the US would truly support Palestinian human rights if it weren’t for The Lobby – would have to be YES. This does not rise to the level of a bad joke, as even a cursory glance at US policy elsewhere demonstrates. The US has enthusiastically supported and engaged in genocide and ethnic cleansing all over the world, from the Kurds in Turkey and Iraq, to the Timorese, to the Mayas of Guatemala, to the indigenous peoples of Paraguay, to the people of Indochina, and, last but not least, the genocide by which ‘The West [not to mention the East, South, North, and Midwest] Was Won’. Proponents of the Lobby Hypothesis do not even attempt to explain why the US would care more about Palestinians than about the millions of others whose slaughter they have supported.
As for “national interests”, the first problem is conceptual. Can we really claim, with any validity, that all people within “the nation” have the same interests, that unemployed auto workers have the same interests as the owners of auto companies, that the working class base of the US military has the same interests as the CEO of Halliburton? Of course not. “National interests” is a meaningless, obfuscatory concept. However, even if it were not, a discourse of “national interests” would be of little help to the Palestinians. What benefit do they confer on “the nation”? Moreover, if we accept “national interests” as the basis of the Palestinian solidarity movement, the movement would, by definition, have to end if it were ever conclusively proven that “national interests” are harmed by enforcing the human rights of Palestinians. Clearly, the Palestinians cannot hope to find reliable friends amongst those who base their advocacy on imagined “national interests”.
In other words, in order to sustain the Lobby Hypothesis, we must essentially forget all we know about US history and foreign policy. This sort of willful ignorance, while not particularly helpful to the Palestinians, is quite useful for those who simply want to improve the effectiveness of US imperialism. By placing all of the blame on an all-powerful lobby, they give US planners a ready-made alibi for their crimes against the Palestinian people: “The lobby made me do it!” Moreover, this hypothesis ensures that activism will miss one of the most important targets: the US government, and focus instead narrowly on Israel. This would be a serious tactical error – if activism is aimed solely at increasing the cost of the occupation for Israel, the US can easily find ways of counteracting those costs through extensive aid. Only by targeting not only Israel, but also the US government – without which none of these crimes would be possible – and US institutions that profit directly from the oppression of Palestinians can we hope to be effective in our work for Palestinian rights.
Blankfort’s contribution to this rather dubious theory – though even it is hardly original – is to respond to those who take issue with his claims by suggesting that they are of Jewish ancestry.
And yet, Blankfort is given a forum by blogs that otherwise seem to have some degree of quality control. MondoWeiss, for example, which often publishes quality material on the Israel-Palestine conflict (apart from Weiss’ obsession with “dual loyalty” and the Lobby Hypothesis) even went so far as to suggest that an interview between Ali Abunimah and Blankfort signified “a sense of a torch being passed here, or of the older left not being suited for the new conversation about Israel/Palestine.”
It is perhaps worthwhile to ask to whom this metaphorical torch is being passed.
Blankfort has made attacking Chomsky his life’s work. By this, I do not mean criticising Chomsky’s views, but actively, consistently, and knowingly misrepresenting them. In the torch-passing interview, for example, Blankfort claimed that Chomsky had never written about the role of US trade unions in calling for US support for Israeli militarism. This claim, as anyone who has read up to page 30 of The Fateful Triangle will know, is patently false. In that 1983 book, Chomsky discusses the role of trade unions at some length, and points out the flaws in the Lobby Hypothesis, which Blankfort also claimed Chomsky hasn’t written about. In other words, there are only two possibilities: Either Blankfort makes claims despite being ignorant of the facts, or he makes claims knowing full well that they contradict the facts.
Since this was my first encounter with Blankfort, I became curious, and discovered that his misrepresentations in the Abunimah interview were not isolated. Jeremy Hammond – whose masochism in delving into the Blankfort Bog greatly outstrips my own – has documented extensive distortions of Chomsky’s actual record that Blankfort demonstrably knows to be false. For example, that Blankfort has distorted Chomsky’s statements about Salam Fayyad’s pursuit of “sound and sensible policies” that seek to lay the groundwork for a de facto Palestinian state (something Chomsky describes, using a popular Zionist expression, as “creating facts on the ground”) to claim that Fayyad is “a favorite of both Washington and Israel and, it would appear, Chomsky”.
What is the proof that Blankfort knew that he was misrepresenting Chomsky’s statement in the interview? ‘Blankfort himself participated [in the interview in question] as well, having called in to the live program.’
In order to support his claims that Chomsky is involved in ‘damage control’ for Israel, Blankfort has quoted that statement by Chomsky in an interview on Israeli TV that ‘I don’t regard myself as a critic of Israel. I regard myself as a supporter of Israel.’ When Hammond noted in comments to a piece defending Blankfort on Dissident Voice that “Chomsky means he is opposed to Israeli crimes against Palestinians when he says he is “a supporter of Israel”, Blankfort’s terse response, in its entirety, was:
“DON’T AGREE. HE DID NOT QUALIFY HIS STATEMENT TO THE ISRAELI INTERVIWER [sic] BY SAYING THAT WHEN HE COULD HAVE.”
The problem is that Chomsky did qualify it, in the very next sentence:
“The people who are harming Israel, in my opinion, it’s what I’ve said many times, are those who claim to be supporting it. They are helping [to] drive Israel towards moral degeneration and possible ultimate destruction. I think support for Israel should be support for policies which are for its benefit.”
This distinction, of which Blankfort must certainly be aware if he is as familiar with Chomsky’s work as he claims to be, dates back at least to a passage in the first chapter of The Fateful Triangle (p. 4 of the 1999 updated edition), which merits quoting in full:
These remarks will be critical of Israel’s policies: its consistent rejection of any political settlement that accommodates the national rights of the indigenous population; its repression and state terrorism over many years; its propaganda efforts, which have been remarkably successful – much to Israel’s detriment in my view – in the United States. But this presentation may be misleading, in two respects. In the first place, this is not an attempt at a general history; the focus is on what I think is and has been wrong and what should be changed, not on what I think has been right. Secondly, the focus on Israeli actions and initiatives may obscure the fact that my real concern is the policies that have been pursued by the U.S. government and our responsibility in shaping or tolerating these policies. To a remarkable extent, articulate opinion and attitudes in the U.S. have been dominated by people who describe themselves as “supporters of Israel,” a term that I will also adopt, though with much reluctance, since I think they should more properly be called “supporters of the moral degeneration and ultimate destruction of Israel,” and not Israel alone. Given this ideological climate and the concrete U.S. actions that it has helped to engender, it is natural enough that Israeli policies have evolved in their predictable way. Perpetuation of these tendencies within the U.S. and in U.S.-Israel relations portends a rather gloomy future, in my view, for reasons that I hope will become clearer as we proceed. If so, a large measure of responsibility lies right here, as in the recent past.
(emphasis supplied, footnote omitted).
In other words, Chomsky’s distinction between what he considers real supporters of Israel (i.e., critics of criminal Israeli policies) and those who “should more properly be called ‘supporters of the moral degeneration and ultimate destruction of Israel’ is not a new point. Just to hammer this home, Chomsky puts the phrases ‘support for/supporters of Israel’ in inverted commas throughout the book.
Now, it is certainly possible that Blankfort is simply not as familiar with Chomsky’s writings as he holds himself out to be, and that he was just unaware of Chomsky’s deconstruction of the notion of ‘support for Israel’ at the very beginning of his best-known book on the subject, but the fact remains that Chomsky made the very same point, albeit more briefly, in the very next sentence in the very interview that Blankfort quotes. Thus, Blankfort’s claim that Chomsky “DID NOT QUALIFY HIS STATEMENT” can only be characterised as a lie.
Why, then, to return to the initial question, do people who otherwise show some discernment in their editorial decisions, associate themselves with the likes of Blankfort? Blankfort’s writings contain nothing novel, original, unique, or even intellectually honest. He has an irrational vendetta against Chomsky for reasons unknown, and is willing to lie outright in order to discredit him. One of Blankfort’s most common responses to criticism is to make insinuations about his critics’ ancestry, deflecting, for example, from Jeremy Hammond’s questions about obvious contradictions in Blankfort’s claims with the following remarks:
You know how it is with names. Hammond could be Protestant, Quaker, Methodist, Catholic, or, in this case, I suspect Jewish. And why? It seems that only Jews, thus far, have become hysterical over my critique of Chomsky which will come back to haunt them when they wish people to take them seriously.
Blankfort is, to be blunt, an asshole, and arguably a racist one at that. The only explanation why an unoriginal, dishonest, racist asshole like Blankfort is allowed to bring discredit on the Palestinian solidarity movement is that the movement (or at least some segments of it) has developed something of a habit of embracing assholes. When you’re already embracing imperialists like Walt and Mearsheimer, as well as racists like Pat Buchanan (who regularly excoriated opponents of original-flavour apartheid), Gilad Atzmon, and Paul Craig Roberts, what’s one more addition to the list? The response one invariably gets when this issue is raised is that “We may not agree on everything, but [whoever it is] opposes the occupation, and that’s all that matters”.
No, it bloody well isn’t. It’s one thing to encourage a healthy pluralism within a movement; it’s quite another to align oneself with people whose goals and ideologies (one hopes, anyway!) are diametrically opposed to one’s own, just because of an agreement-in-principle on one part of an overall issue. While this is quite beneficial to people like Blankfort and Buchanan, who would much prefer to be thought of as supporters of human rights than as proto-fascist reactionaries, it is toxic to a movement that is based on human rights and opposition to racism. While Buchanan, Roberts, Blankfort et al. get a reputation upgrade by association with the movement for Palestinian human rights, the movement itself can only be harmed by association with people like Buchanan, Blankfort, and Roberts. Assholes get legitimised, the movement gets delegitimised, everybody – especially the Palestinians – loses. That is the danger of opportunism.
Élise Hendrick is a translator, writer, and editor based in Cincinnati, OH, US.