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Alexander Cockburn's Distorting Lens

Dennis Fox
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 their graves.

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 inevitable."

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" and "our":

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 for arguments.

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 conclusion:

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 conduct.

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."

And this:

It's comical to find people like Fox trudging all the way back to Leroi Jones and the '60s to dig up the necessary anti-Semitic jibe.

And this:

So why don't people like Fox write about Armey's appalling remarks, instead of trying to change the subject with nonsense about anti-Semitism?

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 he endorsed.

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. Myths persist."

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 communication.

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.

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