My Life as an “Anti-Semite”

by Alexander Cockburn

CounterPunch Newsletter
September 1-15, 2003
VOL. 10, NO. 15

Right in the wake of then-House majority leader Dick Armey’s explicit call in mid-2002 for two million Palestinians to be booted out of the West Bank, and East Jerusalem and Gaza as well, came yet one more of those earnest articles accusing a vague entity called “the left” of anti-Semitism. This one was in Salon, by a man called Dennis Fox, identified as an associate professor of legal studies and psychology at the University of Illinois. Salon titled Fox’s contribution, “The shame of the pro-Palestinian left: Ignorance and anti-Semitism are undercutting the moral legitimacy of Israel’s critics”.

Over the past 20 years I’ve learned there’s a quick way of figuring out just how badly Israel is behaving. You see a brisk uptick in the number of articles here accusing the left of anti-Semitism. These articles adopt varying strategies, but the most obvious one is that nowhere in them is there much sign that the author feels it necessary to concede that Israel is a racist state whose obvious and provable intent is to continue to steal Palestinian land, oppress Palestinians, herd them into smaller and smaller enclaves and ultimately drive them into the sea or Lebanon or Jordan or Dearborn or the space in Dallas-Fort Worth airport between the third and fourth runways (the bold Armey plan).

Eschewing these realities, the author feels entirely at liberty to stigmatize the left as stained with anti-Semitism. The real problem is most Jews here just don’t like hearing bad things said about Israel, same way they don’t like reading articles about the Jewish lobby here. Mention the lobby and someone will rush into print saying “Cockburn toys with the old anti-Semitic canard that the Jews control the press”.

Back in the 1970s when muteness on the topic of how Israel was treating Palestinians was near total in the United States, I’d get the “anti-Semite” slur hurled at me once in a while for writing about such nono stuff as Begin’s fascist roots in Betar, or the torture of Palestinians by Israel’s security forces. I minded then, as I mind now, but overuse has drained the term of much clout. The other day I even got accused of anti-Semitism for mentioning that the Jews founded Hollywood, which they most certainly did, as Neil Gabler recently recounted in a very funny, pro-Semitic book.

The encouraging fact is that despite the best efforts of the Southern Poverty Law Center to prove that the Nazis are about to march down Main Street, there’s remarkably little anti-Semitism in the US, and none that I’ve ever been able to detect on the American left, which is of course amply stocked with Jews. It’s comical to find people like Fox trudging all the way back to the 60s to dig up the necessary anti-Semitic jibe.

Being called an anti-Semite these days isn’t what it once was. The term has been relentlessly cheapened. As Michael Neumann writes in his piece in The Politics of Anti-Semitism, anti-Semitism is “action or propaganda designed to hurt Jews not because of anything they could avoid doing but because they are what they are”.

But nowadays people don’t flourish the charge of anti-Semitism because they’ve heard someone quoting the Protocols or saying that the Jews kill Christian babies. “Anti-Semitism” has become like a flit gun to squirt at every inconvenient fly on the window pane.

I saw 2002 as a year when the Israel lobby was worrying that the grip of the gag rule might be loosening a trifle. Now, the original gag rule was adopted by the US House of Representatives in 1836, resolving that “all petitions, memorials, resolutions, propositions, or papers, relating in any way, or to any extent whatsoever, to the subject of slavery, shall, without being either printed or referred, be laid on the table, and that no further action whatever shall be had thereon”.

The parallel gag rule these days concerns Israel, a collective agreement by our legislators and the larger political community that any discussion of the conduct of any government of Israel, of the relationship of the United States to Israel, of the power of the pro-Israel lobby in the United States, be kept as near to zero as is possible.

In the 1970s and early 1980s when I began writing on these issues, the gag rule was riding high, amid general agreement in respectable circles that Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir was on the money when she declared flatly that there was no such thing as a Palestinian. Back then Joan Peters got an enthusiastic reception for her book From Time Immemorial, which advanced the mad thesis that Palestinians in Israel were all relatively recent immigrants from adjacent Arab countries.

Things have improved since then, though not for the Palestinians, who in those days had UN Resolution 242 to comfort them, instead of the mini-Bantustans promised them in George Bush’s “road map”. Here in the US there’s general agreement that there are people who can be fairly called Palestinians, though beyond this concession there’s no agreement about anything.

By 2002 it was getting harder and harder to foster the impression that General Sharon was a man of peace, imbued with a constructive vision of communal relations in the Holy Land. As the dust rose above demolished homes on the West Bank and the enduring terror of the occupation provoked retaliatory terror in the form of the ghastly, futile suicide bombings, the predictable warnings against anti- Semitism began to appear in the liberal and left press. Then, it’s clear, the Israel lobby decided to enforce the gag rule, by working successfully for the ouster of two members of Congress who had defied it.

A torrent of money from out of state American Jewish organizations smashed Earl Hilliard, the first elected black congressperson in Alabama since Reconstruction, and you could have heard a mouse cough. Hilliard had made the fatal error of calling for some measure of evenhandedness in the Middle East. So he was targeted by AIPAC and the others. Down he went, defeated in the Democratic primary by Artur Davis, a black lawyer who obediently sang for his supper on the topic of Israel.

Then it was Cynthia McKinney’s turn. An excellent liberal black congresswoman, McKinney hadn’t been cowed by the Israel-right-or-wrong lobby and had called for a proper debate on the Middle East, and for a real examination of the lead-up to 9/11. The sky duly fell in on her. American Jewish money showered upon her opponent, Denise Majette. Buckets of sewage were poured over McKinney’s head in the Washington Post, and Cynthia Tucker, the black editorial inhouse pundit at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, declared McKinney to be “a fringe lunatic, well outside the congressional mainstream”.

Tucker asserted McKinney is “incapable of aiding any cause” and had the final pious effrontery to declare: “The plight of the Palestinians and their desire for an independent homeland is a serious cause deserving of thoughtful, mainstream advocates. Hilliard wasn’t one and neither is McKinney.”

McKinney’s opponent in the primary, Denise Majette, was a former judge best known for her ardent support of Alan Keyes, a black aspirant for the Republican nomination whose prime plank was opposition to abortion. Normally a foe of choice would have brought the women’s movement racing to the rescue. Not in McKinney’s case.

McKinney saw what happened to Hilliard, and that American Jewish money was pumping up Majette’s challenge. So she went to Arab-American groups to try to raise money to fight back. This allowed Tom Edsall to attack her in the Washington Post as being in receipt of money from pro-terror Muslims. Lots of nasty looking Arab/Muslim names suddenly filled Edsall’s stories. Down went McKinney.

Then it was Rep. James Moran’s turn, in hot water over his head for having remarked in a March 3 town hall session last spring with his constituents that, as quoted in the Virginia-area newspapers, “if it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq, we would not be doing this”.

The House and Senate Democratic leaders, Nancy Pelosi and Tom Daschle, hastened to denounce Moran’s remarks, and six Jewish House Democrats took it upon themselves to advise Moran not to run for re-election in 2004. Should he do so, “we cannot and will not support his candidacy”. Moran was forced to give up on his positions as Democratic Party leader in the mid-Atlantic region. The game plan is clearly what it was with Hilliard of Alabama and McKinney of Georgia: breathe a word about justice for Palestinians, and you’ll lose your seat. Moran is running for reelection. And the decision will belong to the voters.

One reason Moran got attacked so hysterically is that Jewish nerves were raw on precisely the point he raised, the role of Jewish opinion here in pressing for the attack on Iraq. It was one thing for Pat Buchanan to raise the issue of dual loyalty in the American Conservative, but when Tim Russert started to press Richard Perle to assure the American people, or at least the audience of “Meet the Press” (by no means the same), that he was advocating an attack on Iraq in the interests of the United States, not some other power, we knew the gag rule had most definitely slackened, if only for a moment.

Suddenly researchers from Nightline (one called me on the matter) and other mainstream outfits rushed for copies of A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm, the 1996 briefing plan for Benjamin Netanyahu prepared by such pro-Israel hawks as Perle, Douglas Feith and others high in the Bush Administration, advocating attack on Iraq. It was now okay for reporters (Robert Kaiser in the Washington Post, for example) to describe the Jewish neocon lobby for war, starting with Perle, Wolfowitz and Feith, and heading on down the list to Elliott Abrams, running the Israel-Palestine portfolio at the National Security Council.

The op-ed pages duly began to vibrate with predictable charges from people like Lawrence Kaplan of The New Republic that all this talk of dual loyalty and Israel’s agenda was nothing but rank anti- Semitism. To his credit, Michael Kinsley, editor of Slate, ran a piece saying that uproar raised by American Jews was probably evidence that Moran was on the money, and that when it came to testimonies to the power of the Jewish lobby, none was more publicly boastful on the matter than AIPAC.

Moran himself was plummeting, whirling in the familiar downward spiral of contrition and self-abasement. But did his remark about “strong support” for attack on Iraq in the Jewish community have any basis in reality? What about American Jewish organizations? In the fall of 2002 the Forward reported that some Jewish groups, such as the Workmen’s Circle, were angry at the way the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations had been hijacked by the prowar faction and by its mad-dog president, Mort Zuckerman, who was openly howling for war in his own publication, U.S. News ∓ World Report, as “the only appropriate and acceptable course”.

In mid-September 2002, Michelle Goldberg began a piece on this topic in Salon with “Once a pillar of the American peace movement, mainstream Jewish groups and leaders are now among the strongest supporters of an American invasion of Baghdad.” On October 11 the Forward reported that a draft resolution of the 52-member Conference supported “measures necessary to ensure Iraqi disarmament”. Jack Rosen, president of the American Jewish Congress, was quoted by the Forward as saying “the final statement ought to be crystal clear in backing the President having to take unilateral action if necessary against Iraq to eliminate weapons of mass destruction”.

Abe Foxman of the ADL called the resolution “a consensus document”, and the Forward cited him as saying he would support a position that backs the President in “whatever he decides he needs to do”.

Of course there were Jewish groups, not least in the big peace coalitions, that were strongly and effectively antiwar. In January the American Jewish Committee released a poll claiming that a majority of American Jews—59 percent—approved of US military action against Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Thirty-six percent opposed such action. These findings, the AJC also emphasized, were comparable to the attitudes of the general American population. It’s at the elite level that the Jewish voices one heard were overwhelmingly pressing for war.

Back once more to Moran. What was the precise nature of his supposedly “anti- Israel” record that the rabbis in his district were now seeking to avenge? In a speech to the American Muslim Council, Moran, who has traveled extensively in the Middle East, said Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was coming to Washington “probably seeking a warrant from President Bush to kill at will with weapons we have paid for”. True enough. In a 1996 Jerusalem Post op-ed, Moran described an Israeli border policeman beating an unarmed Palestinian. “The unarmed youth was held on the ground while police officers armed with guns and clubs climbed over each other’s backs to land their own blows on his body”, Moran wrote. “Most of the witnesses to this scene said it happens all the time. When Israeli police and Palestinians are concerned there is no justice or fair play. Might makes right. I witnessed the police laughing and making self-congratulatory gestures after the beating.”

How encouraging to know that an elected US representative had the sinew to describe such a scene, sinew lacking in most US reporters deployed in Israel. But, alas, such indignation, in Nancy Pelosi’s words about Moran’s remarks in Virginia, has “no place in the Democratic Party”— or, given the broader Christian evangelical alliance with Sharon, in the Republican Party either.

It’s supposedly the third rail in political and cultural life here even to have a discussion of Zionist influence in the media. Obviously, Jews don’t “control” the media. All the same, Jewish families are proprietors of some of the most powerful newspapers in the country. Is it likely that this has no bearing on their coverage of the Middle East? So, it’s reasonable to point out that Jewish families control the New York Times and Washington Post and to put up for discussion whether this affects the editorial stance of both newspapers. But it is also true that the most rabid of all papers in its Israel-right-or-wrong stance is the Wall Street Journal, which is not Jewish owned and whose most influential editor was Robert Bartley, a midwestern Christian.

The economic and political commentator (and former denizen of The Wall Street Journal editorial page) Jude Wanniski remarked in his web newsletter at the time of the Billy Graham uproar that even if Jews don’t control the media overall, it is certainly true to say that they control discussion of Israel in the media here.

Some time in the spring of 2002 I wrote an item for a column I was doing at the time for New York Press. Later, the column went up on our CounterPunch website (counterpunch.org), which has around 50,000 regular visitors a day.

“There are a number of stories sloshing around the news now”, I wrote, “that have raised discussion of Israel and of the posture of American Jews to an acrid level. The purveyor of anthrax may have been a former government scientist of Jewish ethnic extraction with a record of baiting a colleague of Arab origins, acting with the intent to blame the anthrax on Muslim terrorists.

“Rocketing around the web and spilling into the press are many stories about Israeli spies in America at the time of 9/ 11. On various accounts of unknown reliability, they were trailing Atta and his as-sociates, knew what was going to happen but did nothing or were simply spying on US facilities. Some posing as art students have been expelled, according to the AP. Finally, there’s Sharon’s bloody repression of the Palestinians, and Israel’s apparently powerful role in Bush’s foreign policy.”

You’d have thought I’d urged America’s youth to immerse themselves in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. People wrote in demanding that I acknowledge the Israeli spy ring story had been “discredited”. I declined to do so, citing some very good columns by Justin Raimondo on the antiwar.com site, also the work of reporter John Sugg of the Atlanta-based Creative Loafing alternative weekly chain, and Jane’s Intelligence Digest. I could also have mentioned Carl Cameron’s four-part series on Fox News, altogether the single most comprehensive overview of Israel’s secret war, and Le Monde, as well as Insight, the magazine supplement of the Washington Times.

Jane’s put it well, remarking in a March 15 dispatch: “It is rather strange that the US media, with one notable exception, seems to be ignoring what may well prove to be the most explosive story since the September 11 attacks—the alleged breakup of a major Israeli espionage operation in the United States which aimed to infiltrate both the Justice and Defence departments and which may also have been tracking Al-Qaeda terrorists before the aircraft hijackings took place.”

At the time I was driving a 1985 Ford Escort (diesel wagon) across the country from South Carolina. As I headed off down the road from Greenville, SC, towards Birmingham, AL, my cellphone rang. It was a fellow from The New Republic called Frank something or other, who said he wanted to quiz me about some recent remarks of mine about the Internet being awash with anti-Israel material. Amid the crackle and hiss of the ether and the roar of the interstate it was hard to hear Frank through the no-hands speaker on my dashboard, but eventually I caught his purpose and asked him flatly, in more-or-less these words, “Frank, is your purpose to accuse me of disseminating anti-Semitic libels, under the guise of relaying rumors on the Internet?” Frank allowed jovially as how that was indeed his intent.

I told him that in my opinion the stories about Israeli spies, as categorized in a US inter-agency report, as discussed on Fox News, by the French site Intelligence Online and various other news sources including the British Jane’s, were legitimate topics of comment, as were the stories about anthrax dissemination involving an anti-Arab researcher.

We went back and forth on such issues until the static got too bad. Later I retrieved a magnanimous message from Frank Foer, as his name turned out to be, saying that he was conferring with associates about whether to deal with me in The New Republic. So I assumed that at some point Cockburn would be stigmatized yet again as the purveyor of anti-Semitic filth.

Eventually Foer’s piece, for the online New Republic, tumbled into my inbox, where I read it after enjoying some spectacular barbecue at Dreamland in Birmingham, AL. After a pro forma linking of my name with that of Louis Farrakhan, Foer conceded that I had in the past denounced expressions of anti-Semitism but that was now moot given the fact that in an allusion to Gabler’s book on Hollywood I had pointed out that Sam Goldwyn, Bill Fox and another mogul had all grown up within 50 miles of each other in Galicia. In Foer’s view this was not the mere relaying by me of an interesting fact but a culpable demonstration of anti-Semitism.

Then he got down to business, focussing on the paragraph quoted above, where I’d brought up the Israeli spy story and the anthrax conundrum. “To be fair”, he wrote, “Cockburn doesn’t exactly endorse these theories. Indeed, when I reached Cockburn to ask him about these conspiracies, he insisted he was just reporting what was already in circulation. ‘I don’t think I said they are true. I don’t know there’s enough exterior evidence to determine whether they are true or not.’”

“But, of course,” Foer crowed, “that last sentence is the giveaway. There most certainly is enough exterior evidence to determine whether the stories are true or not. The answer is that they are not. They are wild rumors circulating, if at all, in some of the least credible corners of the Internet. No respectable media outlet has given these stories credence. Merely by stating that these ideas are in circulation, merely by saying it’s impossible to judge their veracity, Cockburn confers these ideas with legitimacy.” Case proved.

But … “some of the least credible corners of the Internet”? No one from The New Republic likes antiwar.com and Justin Raimondo, and maybe he was throwing in Fox News but surely not Le Monde and Jane’s Intelligence Digest.

“Consider, for example,” Foer went on, “the story about the mad Jew scientists out to ruin the Muslims. I searched for it on the Lexis-Nexis news database but came up with nothing—not one single mention of the story in a mainstream news outlet.” Foer hadn’t tried very hard. A quick punch-through on Google brought four rather lengthy and detailed stories in the “mainstream” media on the harassment of Dr. Ayaad Assaad, a former Fort Detrick scientist, who was driven out of his job by people whose hatred of Arabs seemed to verge on the psychotic. The Hartford Courant ran two long stories: one report on how many samples of deadly anthrax and other bioterror toxins had gone missing from the Army’s Fort Detrick facility, and another on the campaign against Dr. Assaad— the connecting tissue being another Fort Detrick scientist, Dr. Philip Zack, who was videotaped going into the lab at night after hours, and who was at the center of the anti-Assaad clique.

According to the Courant, “Assaad said he was working on the Saturday before Easter 1991, just after the Persian Gulf War had ended, when he discovered an eight-page poem in his mailbox. The poem, which became a court exhibit, is 47 stanzas—235 lines in all, many of them lewd, mocking Assaad. The poem also refers to another creation of the scientists who wrote it—a rubber camel outfitted with all manner of sexually explicit appendages. The poem reads: ‘In [Assaad’s] honor we created this beast; it represents life lower than yeast.’ The camel, it notes, each week will be given ‘to who did the least’. The poem also doubles as an ode to each of the participants who adorned the camel, who number at least six and referred to themselves as ‘the camel club’. Two—Dr. Philip M. Zack and Dr. Marian K. Rippy—voluntarily left Fort Detrick soon after Assaad brought the poem to the attention of supervisors.”

Foer also missed the complete account on the anthrax investigation posted on Salon.com, in a story dated January 26, 2002. Not to mention the Philadelphia Inquirer story, dated February 28, 2002. He also blithely ignored major media coverage of the Israeli spy story. Why should he dally with fact when he was hurrying to issue judgement: “Cockburn’s column goes way beyond legitimate criticism of Israel. It’s akin to the rantings of pitchfork Pat Buchanan, whose anti-Semitism The Nation has condemned. So you would expect the magazine to take a tough stance on the anti-Semitism in its own backyard. But when I asked The Nation’s editor, Katrina vanden Heuvel, about Cockburn, she could only lamely distance herself from the piece: ‘This didn’t appear in The Nation. I don’t read CounterPunch… It’s been our experience that we’ve had differences with our writers. It’s a strength of the magazine that it accommodates a range of perspectives.’”

Isn’t it great to have an editor whose first instinct is to stand up for a 20-year veteran of The Nation’s columns!

“There are some perspectives that shouldn’t be accommodated”, Foer concluded.

So you should know that these days it’s clear evidence of anti-Semitism to have written an item that pisses off someone at The New Republic, with which I have had combative relations for the past 30 years, as would anyone with a moral fiber in his body. Could anyone sink lower than Foer? Yes! Eric Alterman adduced as a proof of my anti-Semitism the fact that I had been rude, more than once, about Irving Howe. Puts me up there with the Cossacks, doesn’t it?

You’ll find this piece along with essays by Jeffrey St Clair, Edward Said, Michael Neumann, Jeffrey Blankfort, Yury Avnery and others, in The Politics of Anti- Semitism, published by CounterPunch/ AK Press October l. Order your copy now from CounterPunch’s Becky Grant at the discounted rate of $10.50, S/H included. Call l-800-840-3683 with credit card in hand, or send cheque to CounterPunch, po box 228, Petrolia, Ca 95558. CP