The Power of The Israel Lobby: Two Viewpoints
A debate between Prof. Stephen Zunes and Jeffrey Blankfort
Broadcast on KPFA's Voices of the Middle East and North Africa, in two parts, June 1 and June 8 2005. Recorded at KPFA, Berkeley, California, on May 25, 2005. Moderated by Khalil Bendib. Transcribed by Stephanie Bodene
Khalil Bendib (Moderator): The American left is deeply divided over the question of Palestine, many leading progressives being at the same time supporters of Israel. How does one reconcile progressive values, such as true commitment to human rights for the Palestinians and support for the right of Israel to continue to exist as a racist, colonialist state, even within the pre-1967 borders? Is it possible to be both a progressive and a Zionist at the same time, or are we talking here about an oxymoron?
Stephen Zunes: It depends on how you define Zionism. I mean certainly, Zionism as it's manifested itself … it would be very hard to be a progressive and a Zionist. Certainly, if you see Zionism as an exclusive kind of state, An expansionist kind of state, no way. If you take a more generic definition of Zionism as a form simply of Jewish nationalism, one could make the argument that Jewish nationalism, like any nationalism, has its progressive and reactionary currents, and yes, the reactionary ones have dominated even in the so-called left-of-labor governments, but nevertheless, it is not inherently racist or inherently colonialist.
Another argument one can make, perhaps, is that – to look at Zionism as a kind of global affirmative action, that any kind of … normally a state that identifies a particular ethnicity or religion by its very nature could be considered exclusivist or racist. But as long as there's anti-Semitism in the world, that the … having a state that is Jewish-identified and a place where Jews around the world could go in safety and security and be a majority, have their own self-determination, is a principle that I think progressives could identify with, but of course with the proviso that the discrimination against the Palestinians within Israel ends, and, of course, the occupation and the repression and the other activities of the Israeli government end.
But I think one – it can be a good intellectual argument, but the reality is, for better or worse, Israel exists as a Jewish state, and it will probably continue to exist as a Jewish state, at least for another generation or two, and my own goal would be to see a binational state or a democratic secular state eventually. At this point, the key is to end the occupation, and that would require recognizing Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state, and then hopefully, over time, with peace, we can, you know, get to a situation where they'll no longer have to be this kind of separate national Jewish entity.
Moderator: Jeff, would you like to respond to that, please?
Jeff Blankfort: Yes. Well, Stephen ignores the fact that this Jewish nationalism was created not on the soil where these people were born, but on the soil of someone else's homeland. And there's no other national liberation movement – and this has been called a national liberation movement, or he has described this as a “global affirmative action” – in which a people have had their national liberation on someone else's soil. So their national liberation required – the establishment of the Jewish state required the expulsion, the ethnic cleansing, of 750,000 Palestinians, and the refusal to allow them to return. So the general thinking on this issue among progressives outside of the so-called Zionist community and defenders of Israel in the progressive community is, this is a colonial settler state, much like the United States is a colonial settler state, Australia, South Africa, and so on.
But the notion that it should be a Jewish state in which I, for example, as an American Jew, have more right to live in Palestine, historic Palestine, than somebody born there, I find to be immoral. I stood once years ago on the Lebanese-Israeli border, looking down at -it was in 1970 – into an Israeli village with two Palestinians who were born there, and I realized myself, as an American Jew with an American passport, who has never been oppressed in my life as a Jew, had more right to live in that land than the people born there. It was immoral then, and the number of years going by has not changed the morality of it. I think the idea of a state in which Jews can live, wherever they come from, wherever they were … whether oppressed or not, and Palestinians born there cannot go back there, is immoral.
M: Stephen, do you have any response to this dilemma of having a country for the Jews who have been oppressed historically, and yet in a place where they end up discriminating against the natives?
SZ: It's a great historical tragedy, and it was part of the manipulation of western imperialists who set up that very conflict, and it's a … the creation of Israel following the Holocaust has been described as the Jews jumping out of a burning building and landing on top, on the backs of the Palestinians. And some Israelis are picking up the Palestinians, dusting them off, you know, “sorry about that,” other Israelis are jumping up and down on top of the Palestinians and making their situation worse. And one can both see Israel as a kind of restorative justice for an historically oppressed people, but again, there's no denying that the result was oppressing another.
But I think it's also important to underscore that most modern nation states were created on the backs on the indigenous populations, not just America and Australia, South Africa, etc., but, you know, if you look at what the Anglo-Saxons did to the Celts, and other, you know, European nations, or for that matter, Arabs and some of the indigenous Middle Eastern populations when Islam exploded out of the Arabian peninsula in the 7th century. But again, th e fact, the reality that we're working from at this point is that Israel does exist, and we need to work from there, and the sooner we can work from there and end the occupation, again, the more likely that a just resolution can come about.
JB: Stephen makes some points there, but what's important to mention is that when these other settler colonial states were set up, imperialism – even before imperialism became a word – but imperialism and colonialism were actually good words until the post-World War II period. And so what we have happened, you had a period of decolonialization following World War II. Israel was an anachronism. We had a colonization, when the concepts of human justice and human rights had become codified following the Holocaust of World War II.
But in fact, it was not the Holocaust that really set Israel up as a state. The British, unlike the Israelis, allowed the Jewish settlement to create all the mechanisms of a state, an economic state, allowed the Histadrut, the Labor Federation, to create all sorts of businesses, so as an Israeli historian wrote, “All Israel had to do, or the Histadrut – which was the Israeli Labor Federation – had to do when the British left, was to flip a switch and they had a state.” Israel has made sure that the Palestinians could not develop an economic infrastructure. In '67, for example, Moshe Dayan had this plan that they would not let a Palestinian economy develop, but to keep the Palestinians under control, they would force them to come and work inside Israel, and that would be a safety valve that they could turn off, and that worked for 20 years. A generation of Palestinians grew up under the boot of Israeli oppression, however, and that was the first Intifada.
Also, one thing: occupation also is not the correct term, although it's commonly used. Occupation gives the idea, implies a static situation. What Israel has is what Ilan Pappe has called “a creeping ethnic cleansing,” or creeping dispossession. So the occupation is not static. Israel is continuing to confiscate more land, even … every day, even as we speak.
M: It is generally taken as a truism that domestic politics are the overwhelming determining factor in designing U.S.-Israel policy, not some grand strategy, where Israel is first and foremost a means to an end for American imperialism. Many politicians privately speak of their absolute terror of the Zionist lobby in this country, and I'm not talking about the Christian right, either. And they say that faced with the fierce commitment and the financial wherewithal of Zionist groups, they have no choice as career politicians but to toe the most extreme Zionist line, time and again, when it comes to any Israel-related vote in Congress.
That kind of direct testimony from the front lines, where policy is being made, would seem to contradict Noam Chomsky's and Stephen Zunes' otherwise elegant academic theory, according to which Israel and its American supporters are not the most determining factor in U.S.-Israel policy. Stephen?
SZ: Of course, the politician's going to say that. It's very convenient to say, “Oh, it's not my fault, it's these rich Jews behind the scenes that are really running things.” And this is the classic anti-Semitic scapegoating we've had in one form or another going back centuries. And it's interesting to note that among the strongest supporters of Israel in Congress are members from very safe districts, where they have to face virtually no opposition, or similarly, people from states or districts with very, very small Jewish populations. I think we find that – I remember Senator Brock Adams' chief aide saying to me, “Oh, he's got to do this because he needs this Jewish money to be reelected.” But when he announced he would not be reelected following the sex scandal 15 years ago, he kept on voting just the same way he had before. It seems more of a convenient argument so people will get off their backs than anything real.
In fact, you'll notice that … the point – I've made this a number of times before – we do not need an Indonesian-American lobby to support years of Indonesia's occupation of East Timor, which is even more brutal than Israel's occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. We continue to support Morocco in its occupation of Western Sahara, which also involves violations of the UN Charter, the UN Security Council resolution, violation of the World Court decision, and even includes a wall. And, you know, we don't need a Moroccan-American lobby to somehow force our hand. Unfortunately, the United States is quite capable of supporting right-wing allied governments in violation of international legal norms and human rights violations without an ethnic minority somehow forcing us to do it.
And finally, I think it's important to point out that Congress really doesn't make foreign policy. It's largely reactive, implementing … the only real influence Congress can have is if there is a mass movement, such as the anti-Vietnam War movement, the nuclear freeze campaign, and the like. But, you know, you saw what happened to the so-called vaunted China lobby, you know, which, once Kissinger and Nixon and the National Security establishment decided it wanted to do something, they were able to recognize Beijing, you know. People screamed, but they couldn't stop it. Indeed, if you look at the four times U.S. Presidents have really wanted [Israel] to toe the line – Eisenhower in ’56 in the Suez crisis, Carter in ’78 on the first Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Reagan in ’81 on the AWAC's sales, Bush in ’92 on delaying the loan guarantees until after the Israeli election, the President has always won, when it comes to a standoff with Congress.
JB: I would like to actually raise a number of issues. First of all, one of the articles that I first was impressed by when reading about the lobby, one that you wrote in 1989, Stephen, in The Progressive magazine, in which you quote a local Congressperson, Ron Dellums, saying, “If I stuck my neck out on this, I would be taken out.” And it's interesting – Ron Dellums, when he became head of the Armed Services Committee, without telling the anti-apartheid organizations, pulled a plank out of the anti-apartheid legislation that would have penalized Israel for selling arms to South Africa. And why he did this, he explained at a conference when I asked him about it here in Berkeley, it was generally unknown, he said one Democrat after another came to him and said, “Ron, if you don't pull that plank out on Israel, you have to take my name off the bill.” Now, in terms of Stephen saying that many of these Congresspeople support Israel even where there are no Jewish voters, Jewish voters are important in certain key cities, but it's not Jewish voters that's key – it's Israeli … it's Jewish money. And also, but even in terms of someone in a non-Jewish-dominated area, a pro-Israel Congressman is quoted by Morton Kondraki in The New Republic back in 1989, he said, “If there were a secret ballot, aid to Israel would be cut severely. It's not out of affection anymore that Israel gets $3 billion a year. It's from a fear that you'll wake up one morning and find that an opponent has a half a million dollars to run against you.” Now that half a million was 1989, it's gone up from that.
It's interesting – during the first Gulf War, where Congress was divided, Larry Kohler in the Washington Jewish Week, hardly a PLO publication, wrote how the Israel lobby decided that they did not want it to appear that this is a war for Israel, so they would have Jewish Congresspeople vote against the war, but have Republicans who they give a lot of money to – Mitch McConnell doesn't have a Jewish constituency, he's had a huge amount of money – to vote for the war. And still it was very close until Tom Lantos, who is a U.S. Congressman but who represents … according to the Jerusalem Post, he represents Israel in foreign countries where Israel does not have any formal diplomacy, and he brought over, or participated in bringing over … supposedly brought over a young woman in Kuwait who had been a nurse, and she talked in Congress how she'd seen all these babies thrown out of incubators. And this was a totally false story, but this was so convincing that Amnesty International criticized Iraq, and this was how the Israel lobby, with Lantos a part of it, gave us the first Gulf War.
The second Gulf War was even more open. Not only do we have the neocons calling for it, but when AIPAC had a conference before the war began, they had all these exhibits about the threats of weapons of mass destruction on the part of Iraq, and a number of Americans, Jewish Americans included, like Robert Zelikow, chair of the 9/11 Commission, said at a panel a year after 9/11, “This war in Iraq was for Israel's security, but we couldn't sell that to the American people.”
M: Stephen, the left is usually focused like a laser beam on the money trail, following the money to explain breakdowns in our democratic process, and it's very good at documenting how special interest groups such as private corporations directly affect policy behind the scenes in their respective fields. It's simple, intuitive, cause-and-effect reasoning. Money equals power. Yet when it comes to the issue of Palestine-Israel, all of a sudden that clarity of cause and effect gives way to a much more elaborate reasoning, and fingers are pointed at all the usual suspects: big oil, defense contractors, and U.S. imperialism, even the Christian right, except for one: the incredible impact of Zionist money and influence in this country, which you acknowledge but you tend to downplay, you and Chomsky and others. Would you explain again to our listeners why you feel that Zionist influence for the past 60 years has not been a major factor in deciding U.S.-Israel policy?
SZ: Again, I want to emphasize that U.S. foreign policy is usually driven by the Executive branch, and if you look at the two Presidents that shifted U.S. policy most to the right in terms of supporting Israeli governments and their occupation policies, it was Richard Nixon and George W. Bush, who were least dependent on Jewish money and Jewish votes of any modern Presidents. And similarly, I think if you look at … the aerospace industry association alone has a bigger lobbying budget and bigger PAC money than AIPAC and their allied political action committees, and of course, they have a real bonanza in stoking the arms race in the Middle East and including money to Israel.
To give just one example – when things were looking extra hopeful in the peace process around 1994 or so, over ¾ of the members of the Senate wrote a letter to President Clinton saying, we needed to actually increase military aid to Israel. And the only reason they gave in this two-page letter was this massive procurement of arms by Arab states. Nowhere did it mention that 80% of these arms to Arab states were also coming from the United States. If they were concerned about Israel's security, they would have supported an arms moratorium. In fact, Israel itself accepted the idea of an arms moratorium into the Middle East, of course, because Israel had … by far had the largest armed forces already, and they had by far the largest domestic arms industry. But these, you know, these 76 Senators weren't interested in protecting Israel; they were interested in protecting Lockheed-Martin. They were interested in protecting the military … military industry.
And similarly, looking at the Gulf War in Iraq, we've had interest in the Gulf long before Israel even existed. This is about oil, this is about control over this natural resources, this is not about Israel, because remember, Iraq was no more a threat to Israel in 2003 than it was to the United States. And the Israelis were bound to have known that. So I really don't see why they had much of a stake in dealing with … in going after Saddam Hussein. After all, the radical Islamic movements that have grown as a result of the U.S. invasion are far greater a threat in the longer term to Israel's security than a defanged and isolated and surrounded Saddam Hussein. So I think the invasion of Iraq was very much of a setback to Israel's security. So that doesn't seem to make much sense to me, either. And finally, just a clarification in terms of Ron Dellums. I did not want to imply that Dellums himself was intimidated, but the fact was that he was pushed by other members of Congress to drop that provision because these members of Congress did not want to support the limitations on diamond exports from South Africa, which would impact upon the Israeli economy.
JB: Actually, that had nothing to do with the diamond imports. It was – it would have subtracted the $800,000,000 that Israeli business was supposedly doing.
SZ: Primarily in the diamond industry.
JB: No, this was in terms of arms trade. It had nothing to do with diamonds – arms industry. I want to go back over a few issues. First, I want to get back to the issue of anti-Semitism in U.S.-Israel relations. This is a very difficult situation. Stephen has said that when George Bush the first called a press conference in Washington, and said that “there are a thousand Jewish lobbyists on Capitol Hill against little old me,” that was anti-Semitic. Why did George Bush – it's only anti-Semitic if the truth is anti-Semitic. There were a thousand lobbyists on the Hill, Capitol Hill. Any why did he have this press conference – unprecedented press conference? Because he had learned that Congress had enough votes to overrule, override a veto of the loan guarantees. Already about 240 Congresspeople had sent him a letter saying, “Give Israel the loan guarantees.”
Significantly, Maxine Waters in LA, who was a kind of naïve African-American Congresswoman, had tried to get a petition for loan guarantees for American cities. And she quit after 34 Congresspeople had signed the letter. And I found this out because I was actually a member of AIPAC at this point, and I got their mailing. And I called her office to find out why she had dropped this letter, and they didn't want to talk about it. Now, these Congressmen obviously had more concern for Israel's benefit than for American cities.
Getting to the issue of policy, it's interesting – Stephen and Noam Chomsky in particular take this position that the Congress doesn't make policy. But what's interesting is, over the years, you have a number of people of both political parties, from Senator William Fulbright, who is certainly no Republican, Paul Findley, James Abourezk, former Arab-American Senator, you had Steven Green, who worked in the State Department, who said, since 1954, that Israel and its friends in America have set the parameters for which an American President can function and make Middle East policy. And this has been repeated by Cheryl Rubenberg. Here's Edward Said: “What explains this present state of affairs?” he wrote. “The answer lies in the power of Zionist organizations in American politics whose role throughout the peace process has never been sufficiently addressed, a neglect that is absolutely astonishing.” And then he said, “AIPAC has for years been the most powerful single lobby in Washington, drawing on a well-organized, well-connected, highly visible, wealthy Jewish population. It inspires awe, fear and respect across the political spectrum.”
But it's not just AIPAC. The lobby is composed, actually, of Jewish federations and community relations councils all across the country, and they give a grass roots, a mass movement – maybe it's a third of the Jews in America. The China lobby never had any grass roots activists. Two lobbies have that: the gun lobby, and the big gun lobby, which is AIPAC.
And one more thing in terms of the money – Stephen brings up AIPAC and the politician action committees. The amount of money that American Jews give to American politicians dwarfs that of everyone else. In the year 2000, of the top ten donors on the Mother Jones 400 List, seven or eight were Jewish. Thirteen of the top 20, 125 out of the top 250 in the whole United States. And this is Jews in American Politics by Stephen Isaacs, back in '68, and he said, in '68: “Of the 21 persons who loaned $100,000 or more to Humphrey's campaign – $100,000 was a lot more then – 15 were Jewish, ranging from $100,000 loans from Ed Weisel and so on, and as one non-Jewish strategist told this writer, 'You can't hope to go anywhere in national politics if you're a Democrat, without Jewish money.'”
Now, the political action committees, there used to be about 110 of those, and they had stealth names; they were called, like, Desert Caucus and Northern Californians for Good Government. As they became exposed, now more money is given by individuals. So, for example, in 2002, an Israeli-American named Chaim Saban gave $12.3 million to the Democratic Party. The total money for the arms PAC's, to both parties, was $14.3 million. So you see, one American, actually an Israeli, gave almost as much money to the Democratic Party as the arms PAC's had to both political parties. And it's continued. If you go on the Center for Responsible Politics and look at the top donors to American politics, you have the AFL-CIO, which is part of the Israel lobby, it has been … it has been manipulated; it's been a cornerstone of the lobby even before there was a state.
SZ: Let me follow up on this. First of all, remember that the majority of American Jews, according to public opinion polls, have opinions much closer to the Israeli peace camp than they do the right-wing Israeli government. Now, even if you assume that the richer Jews, like richer people in other communities, seem to be more to the right, more conservative, ignores, I think, a really important point. And that is, it's where the progressive community has failed to counter it. Let me just give an example. The most right-wing Democrats, and vis a vis Israel-Palestine … in the last few competitive Democratic primaries for President. In '92 it was … in '84 it was Alan Cranston, in '88 it was Paul Simon, in '92 it was Tom Harkin. Who got the most support from the American peace movement, you know, from the liberals? It was the same three candidates. Now, if these same three candidates had taken just as right-wing a position on Central America as they did on Israel-Palestine, I don't think the progressive community would have supported them. I think it shows – I'm talking about the more liberal mainstream progressives – no way they would have gotten there.
Why is it that groups like the Coalition for a New Foreign Policy, Mobilzation for Democracy, and MoveOn, seem to exempt people who support right-wing policies on Israel and Palestine, whereas they make human rights and arms trading, these kinds of issues, criteria for their endorsements and their lobbyings? Why is Nancy Pelosi a big Likudnik who’s rashly attacked Amnesty International and the International Court of Justice and all these around Israel-Palestine? Why does Mother Jones in these times laud her “consistent human rights record,” like Arabs don't have human rights? So in other words, I think it's at least as much the racism, anti-Arab racism, of the peace and human rights community that does not hold these politicians accountable, than it is the power of AIPAC and their allied political action committees. Because you don't have to have an all-powerful lobby if you don't have a counter-lobby, if the people who care about human rights, arms control and that kind of thing absent themselves because they don't think the lives of Arabs are that important.
And it's also rather striking that some of these, you know, very liberals who have taken such awful positions on Israel-Palestine are also the liberals who are supporting the continued U.S. occupation of Iraq. And when you think about it, I mean, as horrible as the war crimes Israel did in Jenin, they pale in comparison to the war crimes in the siege of Fallujah. The torture of Palestinian prisoners by Israel pales in comparison with the torture of Iraqi prisoners by the United States. The violations of the UN Charter and the Geneva Conventions by the Israelis, as horrible as they are, pale in comparison to what the United States is doing in Iraq. And these same, you know, erstwhile liberal politicians are defending these kinds of policies.
And this is not about AIPAC. I think it has a lot to do with anti-Arab racism and anti-Muslim bigotry, and the failure of the peace and human rights community – and I'm speaking as someone who has been on the board of directors of Sane Freeze, now Peace Action, and a number of national peace groups – who have been totally wimpy when it comes to challenging this. So I think we really need to – even if one were to assume that the lobby has that kind of clout, I think the reason they have that kind of clout is not because they are all-powerful, but because of the failure for … of liberals and progressives to get their act together, with a few notable exceptions, of course, to really challenge politicians, to hold them accountable, for taking these right-wing positions. They've got to know that until they know they're going to be hurt just as much for taking a right-wing position as taking a progressive position, they're not going to change.
So I think the impetus really is more … I don't think we should run this kind of thing, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We say, oh, AIPAC, all those people are so powerful, because it takes human rights activists and peace activists off the hook. But it's our responsibility for challenging these policies, and holding these politicians accountable.
JB: Well, I would say I agree with that, but one of the things that has prevented the movement from … or an excuse for a movement, such as it is, from dealing with these issues is because Professor Chomsky and Professor Zunes have put it out there that the lobby is not the problem. It's the Executive and the elites. So here he's saying to us that we haven't challenged, and this is true, no question about that, and there is anti-Arab racism, obviously. People say, you can't make … you can't have everything you want when it comes to the Palestinians. But if Tom Ammiano, who went to Israel two years ago and said “the queer struggle and the Israeli struggle are the same thing.” and was not challenged, if he had gone to South Africa and supported apartheid, he would have been finished in local politics. But you can say things against the Palestinians.
So the real problem is, and this is interesting, because this debate taking place is kind of historic. I have been unable to get a debate with anybody for a number of years, going back 14 years with Professor Chomsky, who said “it wouldn't be useful.” Several other people have also said “it wouldn't be useful.” The question is, to whom? AIPAC. By not dealing with the lobby, by not talking about its real power and the amount of money, what you're doing is allowing them to have the entire playing field.
And the issue of money, for example. When $15 million was going to the Contras, there was a national Call Your Congress campaign. And they stopped $15 million for a year going to the Contras, and Iran-Contra to go behind it. At that time, $15 million a day was going to Israel, and you couldn't talk about it. And what people talk about – the two-state solution and end the occupation – for the American people, the real issue is going to be money. If they knew that since 1988, Israel has received close to $25 billion in taxpayer-guaranteed loans and bonds, they would be outraged, particularly with the cutbacks that are coming in all over American society. And here's the Washington Post, today's Washington Post: “Right now, AIPAC is having its all-time biggest conference in Washington, despite the fact that its main player [who] had to be fired because he may be under indictment for passing secrets to Israel.” But this is the Washington Post today: “During the pro-Israel lobby's annual conference yesterday, a fleet of police cars, sirens wailing, blocked intersections and formed a motorcade in Washington DC to escort buses carrying its conventioneers to lunch.” What kind of power … and we have Pelosi, who has been given a free ride by all the peace groups and the antiwar groups, saying, in her speech “In the words of Isaiah, we will make ourselves to Israel,” quote, “as hiding places from the winds, and shelters from the tempests, as rivers of water in dry places, as shadows of a great rock in a weary land.” “The United States,” she said, “will stand with Israel now and forever, now and forever.” That is – I don't know, it may border on treason.
SZ: Had Nancy Pelosi had an identical position on Central America as she does on the Middle East, you'd have people sitting in her office every day.
JB: That's right.
SZ: And the failure to do that, again, is not because AIPAC is somehow preventing people in her district from doing so. It's because again, the underlying racism, it isn't the money stuff. Remember, we have – Congress allocated more money, just a couple of weeks ago, to the U.S. occupation in Iraq than for – almost as much money – as for 30 years, or more, of Israeli occupation. And so, again, I don't even think it's just the money issue. I think it is… I think it's the fact that we really need to mobilize on this, and I think we need to stop this idea, and I think that overemphasizing AIPAC not only distracts from the issues, which are human rights, international law, the right of self-determination – they're all basic kinds of things that people, you know, need to listen to. And I think that's – because I don't think frankly people care, people care less about where or why, as they do what the actual policy is. And the policy is immoral, the policy is a violation of U.S. law and international law, and it is contrary, not just to the Palestinians, of course, who are the immediate victims, but I think many people could argue, to the contrary and in the longer term, to American and even Israeli interests.
JB: Well, one of the problems – I still see this contradiction. If people are going to challenge Congress, and if you diminish the role of AIPAC, and say the lobby is not really important, how do you explain why Congresspeople, even black Congresspeople, during the time of apartheid in South Africa, were afraid to speak out against Israel selling arms to South Africa? And – or when Israel was providing – not, as you say, they weren't a conduit for U.S. arms. Israel after ’73 – and this is an interesting point – Israel in 1973, when they had the surprise attack in October, from Egypt and Syria, really was scared, and Moshe Dayan actually threatened to use nuclear weapons, and told Henry Kissinger that 'we might use them unless the U.S. sends a major arms shipment to Israel,’ which is what happened. And so, under the circumstances, Israel decided that they could not depend on the United States, and started building an arms industry, which is now one of the – provides 10% of the arms being sold in the world. They have a – $10 billion dollars – $4.5 billion in sales this year, and $10 billion waiting in the wings.
They were not selling U.S. weapons; they were selling their own weapons. The weapon, in Guatemala, the rifle was called the Galil. That was their weapon. We give them M16's, they sell Galils and Uzis around the world. So the idea that Israel somehow was acting as our surrogate, it was mutually beneficial, and we did not give them aid for that reason. And the idea that Congresspeople who opposed U.S. actions in Central America and support of apartheid would be silent when Israel did it means there's some kind of a pressure on them.
Tom Harkin, you mentioned, is an interesting case. Tom Harkin, Senator from Iowa, as a Congressman was on the board of directors of the Palestine Human Rights Campaign. One afternoon, a member of the AIPAC and the Anti-Defamation League came to his office. He told his employees to leave for the day, and from that moment on, Tom Harkin has been strongly in the pro-Israel camp, which suggests that blackmail was used.
The reason I was spied on by the ADL – I had a long case against them. I'm nothing, and yet they spent a lot of money, and their law case – at least $8 million in the case, paying their lawyers against me. I'm nothing compared to a U.S. Congressman or a U.S. Senator.
So there are a lot of reasons perhaps that we don't even think about, why some Congressmen support Israel. But the fact is, it is true. We have movements here, we have Tom Lantos, whom I mentioned before, and Pelosi, two of the most important Democrats, and yet we have major demonstrations here, and they're hardly ever mentioned. And when I organized a demonstration back in … just after the Durban Conference on Racism, just before 9/11, against Tom Lantos and the Jewish National Fund, none of the major groups came out to support it. We had a number of people there, but they came there as individuals. So we have a real problem in dealing with our local politicians, and if politicians did feel the heat, if people did sit in their offices, it might change things.
But we have to recognize that we're up against a lobby, and the lobby is not just in Washington, it's a San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council. They “terrorized” – that's the word of the workers of the Rainbow Grocery, two Jewish workers, by the way, who were trying to organize a boycott there [of Israeli products]. They terrorize mostly the Third World workers, a lot of Mexican-American and Latino workers. They were so afraid that they were going to be boycotted, even Michael Lerner, Rabbi Michael Lerner, was going to picket the Rainbow Grocery, if they put the boycott in, that they voted against the boycott and didn't want to talk about it afterwards. It was an example of the lobby on a local level.
When the movement is ready to deal with Jewish institutions that are part of the lobby, and not worry about this bogeyman, “anti-Semitism” – to me, that's the first refuge of scoundrels. To me, we have to go beyond that, and one of the problems we have is that people who are not Jewish have been led to believe, to feel that if they speak out against Israel, they'll be called “anti-Semitic,” and that's nonsense. If they are speaking the truth, that's all that counts.
M: That's a good question to end with. I would like to ask you, Stephen Zunes, as Jeff Blankfort was just talking about, is there, in your opinion, any room at all for denouncing disproportionate pro-Zionist power, without automatically, reflexively being suspected of being an anti-Semite, self-hating Jew, or worse?
SZ: I think it's fine to raise these concerns. I mean, if you look at some of these right-wing Zionist websites, I'm right up there with Rashid Khalidi and the late Edward Said and all sorts of other academics, and I've certainly – I've had, I've gotten threatening phone calls, the president's office, the University of San Francisco, gets all sorts of things. I mean, obviously, they're out there. Obviously, they have an impact, and I don't think it's anything at all anti-Semitic to point that out.
I think the problem, though, is … I think there are a number of people, including Mr. Blankfort, I believe, who exaggerate it. And I think exaggerating it is not in itself … I think it's a mistake in analysis. I don't think it's anti-Semitic, it's a mistake in analysis. But does historic anti-Semitism in certain ways. So I – it's something that concerns me, you know, particularly that it could inadvertently encourage anti-Semitism. But I don't see anything wrong with pointing it out. The problem, though, is that we over-emphasize this factor. This is what the imperialists want us to do. They want us to do this kind of “divide and rule.” Blame it all or primarily on an ethnic minority instead of the people who really have the power.
If there was no pro-Israel lobby, you know, our policy would essentially be the same, I believe. The lobby certainly makes it worse in certain areas, but I think it would essentially be the same. I mean, the United States has never supported human rights or international law in a consistent fashion. We'd still have our strategic interests there, and again, I'll use the parallel of Indonesia and East Timor, and Morocco and Western Sahara, this sort of thing, our policy in Central America, South Africa, you know, whatever. We don't need an ethnic lobby; the problems are much more structural, and support for Israel is much more what Israel does for us – sending U.S. arms to third countries, you know, like apartheid South Africa, the Iranian mullahs, the Nicaraguan Contras, the Guatemalan juntas; the way the CIA and the Mossad collaborate in intelligence gathering, covert operations; the way the military-industrial complexes of the two countries are intertwined; the way that Israel does the dirty work for the United States. They crush radical movements, not just among the Palestinians, but in Jordan and Lebanon; and, of course, the very real and direct counter-insurgency assistance they're giving to U.S. occupation forces in Iraq.
I mean, this is far more important than an ethnic lobby. And I think if we over-emphasize it, it's not necessarily being anti-Semitic, but it's certainly missing the boat, in terms of understanding where real power is in this country. And I think if we, you know, ignore where that real power is, we allow the power brokers to get away with this kind of policy, and we get in this divisive kind of politics that simply divide these Semitic peoples from each other for the benefit of imperialists and of the U.S. hegemony in the region where we are seeking Israel as a compliant junior partner.
M: Jeff, I'll give you the last word.
JB: Okay. Well, first of all, again, the arms that went to South Africa were Israeli arms, not U.S. arms. It's really a mistake, a very important mistake, to say that Israel was acting as a surrogate and a conduit. Israel was doing it for its own interests, and there even are quotes where they volunteered to go and do it. Actually, we see in China, where the United States is now very unhappy, because Israel is sending … selling arms with American technology to China. Israel will sell to anybody as long as they can get away with it. It has nothing to do with U.S. policy.
Another thing that's interesting – where the power is. It's interesting, so many Congressmen over the years, Republicans and Democrats, have said “it's the lobby,” and some of them are out of politics because of it. And here is Professor Zunes, and Professor Chomsky, who are really not in Washington, they don't know what's going on in the halls of Congress, and yet here we go again, trying to deny the power of the lobby.
Now, it's interesting. Here we have Barbara Lee, in Berkeley, and Barbara Lee is one of the best people in the U.S. Congress. She was the lone person in Congress to vote against the war in Iraq. And yet twice she has voted to congratulate Ariel Sharon, first on his election to the prime ministership, and his re-election. Why? Because is she was not to do it, and would take a position critical of Sharon, she would be finished in Berkeley. This is another occupied territory. Most of American cities are occupied territories. Politicians are afraid to speak out on every level.
And one thing I should say about AIPAC. What AIPAC does … AIPAC at the moment, they have members sit in on committee meetings, of committees that deal with Middle East policy, and they write the legislation. They also volunteer interns who work at Congresspeoples' office. And no Congressperson could turn down a young, intelligent, personable intern, who happens to be Jewish and a Zionist, coming from AIPAC. So they have a spy in all these offices.
At their luncheons, at dinners which they have around the country – and I went to one because I was a member, to see what was happening – you had city councilmen, supervisors, mayors, police chiefs from all over Northern California there, as guests at the luncheon. And it's from the ranks of these people come the next members of Congress. So then what happens is, the local federations send them over on all-expense-paid trips to Israel, where they meet the prime minister, whoever it is, the defense minister, and all the important politicians of both political parties. And they come back, and it isn't even the money anymore. They now know they have a very important, influential, wealthy Jewish backer in that community. So it isn't even a matter of the money. It's – these people are ambitious. They want to be political, they know where the power lies. And this is going on all over the United States, and this explains why there's no grass roots campaigns coming from among the politicians. They know what will happen to them if they make a decision or make a statement critical of Israel. It will be career-ending. Harry Britt found that out some years back.
M: Yes, many – quite a few, not many, I wish many – quite a few U.S. politicians have come to the end of their careers that way. I want to thank you both. I wish we could go on and on, but this thing was very important, it was very … I will ask you both if you have any last comments, to give you one last chance.
JB: Why don't I go give Stephen the last comment.
SZ: I think basically that Jeff and I … the most important is what we agree on, that U.S. support, you know, for the occupation must end, and that the American people, people of conscience, need to mobilize to hold our politicians accountable.
I'll never forget what the former district director of Nancy Pelosi's office said, was that – this was like, oh, I think, six or seven years ago – he said that they had gotten ten times as many phone calls on East Timor as they had on Palestine. And I think it's both a credit to the East Timor solidarity movement, which I was part of myself, but I think it also shows the failure of the activist community to take the issue of Palestine more seriously. And I think it underscores why we need to mobilize on this issue more. Because remember – Pelosi's in one of the safest districts in the country. She doesn't need a dime of money from pro-Israel groups. But she does need to be held accountable, just like she needs to be held accountable for her ongoing support for the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
M: I'll conclude with my own comment. You know, when you say she doesn't need a dime of support, that depends on what her ambitions are. Governor Schwarzenegger, the day he became governor, the first trip to a foreign country that he took – I'll give you a guess. Of course, it had to be Israel. It tells me people who are really ambitious as politicians in this country really, in my opinion, have to toe this line. And I do think there's more to the lobby, the Israel lobby, than appears.
I want to thank you both very much for accepting to do this debate tonight. I've been speaking with Stephen Zunes, professor at the University of San Francisco and author of, among other books, Tinder Box: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Roots of Terrorism; and Jeff Blankfort, whose most recent article, “Damage Control: Noam Chomsky and the Israel-Palestine Conflict,” was published in the current issue of Left Curve magazine.
JB: It's also up on the Dissident Voice website: “Damage Control: Noam Chomsky and the Israel-Palestine Conflict,” and I suggest you read that. The website – there's two websites you can find it on: the Left Curve, go to Issue No. 29; in Issues 28 and 27 I have articles as well.
SZ: And you can find my analysis of U.S.-Israeli relations, and what motivates U.S. foreign policy toward the region, on the Foreign Policy in Focus website.