May 20, 2002
This past spring, almost two decades after briefly editorializing
against Israeli actions at Sabra and Shatila, I finally resumed
criticisms I'd avoided too long. I also proposed a discussion
forum in my own town to bring together those on all sides of the Israel/Palestinian
divide. The most-predictable responses to my efforts have been hostile
diatribes from those who label any disagreement with Israel anti-Semitic
or self-hating. A cousin tells me our grandparents are rolling over in
Alexander Cockburn is one of several critics from the other direction
who label calls for evenhanded justice insufficiently sensitive to the
urgent needs of Israel's Palestinian victims. Responding to a column
of mine in Salon, Cockburn calls me an apologist for Ariel
Sharon. As it happens, I agree with Cockburn's main point -- it's ludicrous
to call all criticism of Israel anti-Semitic -- and I say so in my essay.
So I suspect he distorts my views because he rejects my concluding line:
"the justice-based left must seek analyses and solutions built on
general principles, and reject those that make new forms of oppression
Some non-Jewish friends tell me, gingerly, that Cockburn's larger point
is worth making. I agree. I'm just not sufficiently generous to let him
build his case at my expense.
One version of Cockburn's column, distributed to websites like Working
for Change, focuses entirely on my Salon piece ("Fox
version"). A similar version, published in Counterpunch and The
Nation, also criticizes Naomi Klein and Frank Rich but targets its venom
at me ("Fox-Klein-Rich").
Except as indicated, I discuss here the Fox version.
Cockburn's first error lies in his first sentence:
Right in the wake of House Majority leader Dick
Armey's explicit call 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.
In my essay, I never accuse "the left" of anything. I say this:
too many activists on the American left, in their
zeal to remedy the Palestinians' plight, don't apply principles evenhandedly.
Throughout, I speak as a member of the left, using words like "we"
Like those who defend every Israeli action, too
often we overgeneralize, present inadequate views of history, fail to
acknowledge the range of perspectives and motives on both sides. Sometimes
we pass along unfounded exaggerations. Repeatedly, we confuse slogans
My criticism is internal, not a blast from outside.
Cockburn soon gets to his main grievance:
Over the past 20 years, I've learned there's
a quick way of figuring just how badly Israel is behaving. There's a
brisk uptick in the number of articles here by Jews 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 in all
likelihood 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...
Eschewing these realities, the author stigmatizes
leftists . . . as anti-Semitic.
Cockburn ignores my consistent criticism of Israeli policy and proposals.
Most relevant, I say:
We're appalled when some Israelis propose to
"transfer" all Palestinians out of the West Bank and Gaza,
a policy that would render accurate the charge of genocidal ethnic cleansing.
We should be equally appalled when Hamas reiterates yet again its intention
to expel from Israel all who reject Islamic rule.
Cockburn points, legitimately, to an inconsistency, but leaps to a mistaken
Here's how Fox begins his article for Salon:
'"Let's move back," my wife insisted when she saw the nearby
banner: "Israel Is a Terrorist State!" We were at the April
20 Boston march opposing Israel's incursion into the West Bank. So drop
back we did, dragging our friends with us to wait for an empty space
we could put between us and the anti-Israel sign.'"
Inference by Fox: Those who say Israel is a terrorist
state are anti-Semitic.
But on the basis of that statement, they're not.
There are plenty of sound arguments that from the Palestinian point
of view Israel is indeed a terrorist state, and anyway, even if it wasn't,
the description would not per se be evidence of anti-Semitism. Only
if the banner read "All Jews are terrorists," would Fox have
a point. The rhetorical trick is to conflate "Israel" or "the
State of Israel" with "Jews," and argue that they are
synonymous. Ergo, to criticize Israel is to be anti-Semitic.
Notwithstanding my wife's insistence that we change position, Cockburn
is right to say it's not necessarily outlandish to call Israel a terrorist
state, and that calling Israel terrorist does not prove anti-Semitism.
However, I don't claim the banner was anti-Semitic, only uncomfortable.
My opening example may have been clumsy, its meaning distorted by the
title Salon gave my piece -- "The shame of the pro-Palestinian
left: Ignorance and anti-Semitism are undercutting the moral legitimacy
of Israel's critics" -- which spins differently than my own: "Cautions
for the Left on Israel and Palestine."
But that paragraph is not the whole story. Cockburn's selective approach
illustrates another of my points:
Because both good and bad arguments for any stance
almost always exist, it's easy to list facts justifying our position
and exposing the other side's outrageous deeds. It's harder to respond
substantively to the other side's list, to struggle with their best
arguments rather than simply shrug off their worst.
It's simply unfair to ignore things I make clear: I march to protest
Israeli policy; Israel has committed massacres in the past as well as
torture and other "unjustifiable acts"; "the plausible
facts" about Israeli West Bank actions "are horrendous enough"
and Israel should have allowed an inquiry into Jenin; "recognition
that Israel's occupation oppresses Palestinians is central"; "the
thirty-five-year occupation must end"; the pro-Israel explanation
of how Palestinians became refugees in 1948 is "demonstrably erroneous";
armed resistance (though not against uninvolved civilians) is legitimate;
a Palestinian call for militant nonviolent resistance is welcome.
Cockburn ignores all this because he cannot possibly reconcile it with
the ending of his Fox-Klein-Rich version:
It's not anti-Semitic to denounce ethnic cleansing....
In this instance the left really has nothing to apologize for, but those
who accuse it of anti-Semitism certainly do. They're apologists for
policies put into practice by racists, ethnic cleansers and in Sharon's
case, an unquestioned war criminal who should be in the dock for his
Cockburn goes further than ignoring what I say. He puts words in my mouth
and thoughts in my head:
Mention the [Jewish] lobby and someone like Fox
will rush into print saying, "Cockburn toys with the old anti-Semitic
canard that the Jews control the press."
It's comical to find people like Fox trudging
all the way back to Leroi Jones and the '60s to dig up the necessary
So why don't people like Fox write about Armey's
appalling remarks, instead of trying to change the subject with nonsense
My essay addresses neither the Jewish lobby nor Leroi Jones. And as noted
above, though I don't mention Armey by name, I criticize the ethnic cleansing
Cockburn also quotes out of context:
Look at the following tricky paragraph by Fox:
"Was Ehud Barak's Camp David offer to Yasser Arafat generous, or
simply a guarantee of continued Palestinian dependence? Let's go even
further back: What did Britain intend in 1917 when it issued the Balfour
Declaration? Did Israeli officials intentionally drive out the Palestinians
in the 1948 war, or was their flight a largely unplanned result of the
fear and destruction inherent in conflict? The position of many who
support Israel -- that Arab governments enticed most Palestinians to
leave -- has been thoroughly discredited by historians across the political
spectrum; its frequent repetition reminds us that even demonstrably
erroneous assumptions persist when they serve other purposes. The claim
by many Middle East Muslims that the Israeli Mossad attacked the World
Trade Center last September may attain similar status. Facts are slippery.
Can you figure out what Fox is really saying
here? My guess is that although Barak's offer was indeed a guarantee
that Palestinians would be imprisoned in tiny, separate Bantustans;
that though Israel did drive out Palestinians deliberately in 1948,
Fox is -- despite his line about "thoroughly discredited by historians"
-- somehow implying that there's no way one can properly make a straightforwardly
factual statement about Israel's motives or historical record.
Cockburn would have less trouble deciphering my meaning if he included
my preceding sentences:
The gulf is vast. Some blame the underlying conflict
on European Jews who arrived more than a century ago and soon displaced
Palestinians. Others blame Arabs who resisted Jewish efforts to escape
European anti-Semitism. Fundamentally different perspectives shape the
way both sides interpret historical events.
Those differences even make it hard to agree
which historic facts are really factual....
As it happens, I mostly agree with Cockburn's view of this history. But
we still have to address the gulf in perception that complicates useful
In working toward a discussion forum here in Brookline, Massachusetts,
it's been difficult to interest strong supporters of Israel. In this heavily
Jewish and heavily liberal town, where the few who openly criticize Israel
get trashed in letters to the editor, the majority has little incentive
to facilitate dialogue. Ironically, Cockburn's absolutist rant might enhance
my credibility among Brookline's mainstream, for all the wrong reasons.
In the long run, though, pieces like Cockburn's make it harder to persuade
Israel's supporters that dialogue with Israel's critics is beneficial,
or even possible. So I hope interchanges like this encourage the many
on the left committed to universal justice to reject one-sided distortions
that hinder, rather than help, our common efforts.