On August 1, an email went out to friends of the America-Israel Friendship League (AIFL). Its content: a reprinted editorial from U.S. News Weekly, written by Mortimer Zuckerman, AIFL Honorary President and publisher of the New York Daily News. I am torn about how to respond to Mr. Zuckerman’s editorial. It is an article worth returning to because it puts all the arguments the Israel Lobby regurgitates in one convenient text; it is also a miserable excuse for a piece of factual journalism and undeserving of any additional attention. Perhaps the best way to go about responding is to tackle the five most egregious (and increasingly accepted) lies Mr. Zuckerman trumpets.
Excerpts from the article are in italics; my response is in normal font:
Let us remember that Israel withdrew all of its citizens, uprooted its settlements, and completely disengaged from Gaza in 2005…And how did the Palestinians respond? They demolished the greenhouses, elected Hamas, and…’spent most of the last decade turning Gaza into a massive military base brimming with weapons to make endless war on Israel.’
Here, Mr. Zuckerman is not alone: the line “Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005” is now so common among pro-Israel talking heads that it has come dangerously close to seeping its way into American political discourse as fact. Israel has occupied Gaza since 2007, the year after Hamas was democratically elected by a small margin; the occupation has not stopped. A withdrawal of troops does not equate to an end of an occupation: Israel still controls and regulates Gazan borders, trading, ports, water supply, electricity, and airspace. If Canada had the same kind of control over the US, to take a ridiculous but perhaps clearer example, would we in consider ourselves unoccupied? Would it seem like Canada “wanted this new state to succeed”? When Mr. Zuckerman says that Israel “completely disengaged from Gaza,” he is either aware of the incredible lie he is telling or blissfully unaware of the situation about which he is talking: I don’t know which is better.
It [Hamas] places missile batteries next to its playgrounds, private homes, and mosques – inviting retaliation. It uses United Nations Relief and Works Agency facilities as weapons depots. Israel uses its arms to protect its civilians. Hamas uses its civilians to protect its weapons… senior Hamas officials deliberately shelter among civilians and in hospitals.
There has been limited evidence, but evidence nonetheless, that Hamas does do this. It uses mosques, homes, and public areas to store some weaponry. Doing this even to the smallest extent is wrong and a cruel, barbaric strategy. But here Israel shoots itself in the foot. The attacks on UN schools in this round of fighting that have killed so many innocent Palestinian civilians (and have finally garnered international attention) are not new. In 2009, during Operation Cast Lead, Israel hit 11 UN relief agencies, most based in Palestinian schools-turned-disaster-areas. A UN report, the summary of which was drafted by an Israeli delegation in conjunction with the UN, identified Israel as the belligerent party at fault for the bombings in 9 of the 11 cases. Hamas was blamed for one attack because it had clearly and provocatively placed weapons below the civilian relief center. Blame for the final attack was inconclusive. Even an Israeli-approved summary of the report could not whittle down the report’s findings any further than this: it is clear who is at fault. Israel also paid the UN $10.5 million in reparations, which is unheard of in cases where the UN has faulted Israel for attacking its relief centers. This is clear evidence, then, that even the Israeli government knows it is at fault when it bombs schools and shelters.
In this round of fighting, the final attack on the three Hamas motorcyclists that hit a UN relief station provoked harsh language from – God forbid – the US, and a call from President Obama to Prime Minister Netanyahu demanding Israel accept a ceasefire. That the US would be so quick to condemn an Israeli “retaliation” ought to say it all. This is of course not to say that Israeli deliberately seeks to kill Palestinian civilians. But it is clear that, when it comes to a cost-benefit analysis about a shelling, Israeli generals assign Palestinian lives a very, very low value. Israel can say whatever it wants after the fact, but it hit three UN schools in just under two weeks: it has no interest in the lives of Palestinian citizens. None.
We have done the same when we have been at war. In World War II, some 378,000 German civilians were killed in British air raids, compared to only 62,000 British civilians that were killed in German air raids. In the Pacific theater, over 2.6 million Japanese were killed, including 580,000 civilians … Of course, just having more dead on your side does not make you right. It didn’t make Japan or Germany right. But the minute Israel responds to the rocket fire from Gaza, radicals in the West take to the streets and scream about Israeli bloodletting.
This analogy takes down a straw man. The reason people are up in arms about Israel’s actions is not because they have lost fewer men than Palestinians have. It is because Israel is committing war crimes that they will, in all likelihood, get away with. No, of course the Germans do not become “right” when the Brits and Americans firebomb Dresden to the ground. But the Brits and the Americans do become wrong as well. To the same extent as the Germans? Of course not. But the firebombings in World War II by the allies remain some of the least recognized war crimes of all time. One US general, Curtis LeMay, said that he was certain that, if the war went the other way, he would be convicted – rightly – for crimes against humanity. In this sense Mr. Zuckerman’s analogy is more right than he knows: Israel’s war crimes, too, will go unrecognized and, unless much changes in the coming months, unaddressed. Mr. Zuckerman forgets that both sides can commit war crimes and be wrong in a war. It doesn’t work to say that because Hamas does wrong, Israel does right; because Japan does wrong, the US does right. Both can do wrong.
Briefly, a point on the “radical” demonstrations in Europe: many of them are anti-semitic and blind to Hamas doing any wrong. This is worrying and hugely problematic; chants of “Hitler was right” should obviously be condemned. I shouldn’t even have to say this. But the problem now becomes people like Mr. Zuckerman, who cannot see criticism of Israel as anything but anti-Semitic. One can criticize a Jew’s actions without criticizing the fact that he or she is a Jew. This is not hard to understand, unless you would much rather not understand it.
The controllers of Gaza have had the undivided land for nine years, and we’ve seen what they’ve done with it. The excuse, espoused by Hamas apologists in Europe and notably The Guardian newspaper, is that they have not been able to build a flourishing Gaza because of Israel’s restrictions. That is hypocrisy on stilts and deserves to have 600,000 tons of cement dropped on it, the amount that Hamas diverted into tunnels instead of building roads, hospitals, and homes. The perpetual warfare by Hamas has renewed Israeli fears that withdrawal from the West Bank would have the same result as the withdrawal from Gaza.
This is the scariest paragraph of Mr. Zuckerman’s spiel. It is not just another suggestion that “Hamas is terrible, Israel is great.” Forget the fact that The Guardian, to take Zuckerman’s “Hamas apologist” of choice, makes a very good point, since Israeli blockades and trade restrictions have indeed made infrastructure materials hard to come by in Gaza. Look instead at Mr. Zuckerman’s implication: he is making as close to a blatant argument for colonialism as he can without sounding like 19th century Britain. He is saying that the citizens of Gaza, when left alone (which they were not), elect a terrorist government and cannot govern themselves. He is saying that we gave them their fair shot and they screwed up, so it looks like all we can do is govern them ourselves. The final sentence of his paragraph makes this dangerously clear: we won’t withdraw from the West Bank because when we did from Gaza, you misbehaved. Now you have given us no choice but to babysit you, govern you, hold your hand, keep you down. We really don’t want to, but you made us. So when we colonize you, don’t blame us. You were the irresponsible ones here. Mr. Zuckerman wants his colony and his liberal state, his beacon of Middle Eastern democracy and freedom. The hypocrisy on stilts is his own, and it corrodes every mildly legitimate argument he might make.
The American public is on tricky ground judging Israel on how it treats Palestinians, because we don’t have Palestinians threatening us. We can’t possibly know how we would cope with rockets, kidnappings and neighbors preaching annihilation. You cannot be harried, critiqued, disowned, attacked by radicals, boycotted, slammed and cajoled without it having an effect as it does in Israel. Yet Israel at heart remains a liberal nation, and we must ask ourselves what we would do under a situation like this, living in a very small territory and with the constant threat of annihilation.
Of course, Mr. Zuckerman cannot write this article without throwing in the red card that disqualifies all anti-Israel arguments in the US: “What would you do if Hamas fired rockets at you?!” When he follows up by saying that we “can’t possibly know how we would cope” with such an attack, he means nothing of the sort. What he is saying is, “We would react exactly as Israel has.” And, realistically, he is right. But, as Peter Beinart nicely points out, this does not indicate that Israel’s actions are justified; all it does is show that we in the US have a “depressingly low standard…when responding to threats in the Middle East.”
Articles like this, and people like Mr. Zuckerman, do a great disservice to Israel. They do not strengthen it or its base: their extremism and refusal to admit that Israel might do wrong, might commit war crimes, is an offense against Israeli democracy, against international law, and against anyone willing to stand up and dissent in the face of Likud. His arguments make people like me more sympathetic to an organization, Hamas, that deserves no sympathy. And his media strategy is savvy: in disregarding fact, he forces people like me to get angry at him, and at Israel. Then, he can take our criticisms, hold them up, and call us Hamas sympathizers. Neat.
But, just as Israel can counter Hamas’ media campaign by recognizing them as a political entity, aggressively pursuing diplomacy and peace, and making it clear that they will not do wrong and turn extreme, so can we dismantle Mr. Zuckerman. If we continue to stick to the facts –to acknowledge that Hamas is wrong, a terrorist organization committing war crimes, and to make clear that Israeli is guilty in spades of those same violations –then we might actually get somewhere. Mr. Zuckerman is of no help to us or to himself.