Category Archives: Opinion Articles

A Distorted Understanding of Anti-Semitism

[Originally posted on this blog]

Okay, for the umpteenth time: it is by no shape or form valid to describe any speech or action that is meant to criticize Israel’s illegal actions as anti-Semitism. Oh and guess what else, it is equally invalid and even more ridiculous to describe Jews that take a social justice stance against the occupation as self-hating Jews.

If you ask me, the Jews that actually take a stance on this issue are the ones that care the most about their reputation as Jews and the actions being taken in their name by the supposedly ‘Jewish State’.

This is not to say that anti-Semitism doesn’t exist – no it’s definitely out there.  But there is a line – a very clear one I would argue – between comments meant to serve as criticism of Israel’s overly-agressive behaviour towards Palestine and Palestinians or criticism of Israel’s clear violation of international law and comments meant to offend Jews indiscriminately.  Therefore it is not legitimate to use the guise of being defenders against anti-semitism to shut down anyone that criticizes Israel. Of course no one wants to be likened to a Nazi – but its not okay to use that against people that simply seek to improve human rights conditions in the occupied territories or end the occupation.

Last week, the Tom Lantos Foundation – in remembrance of the late Congressman’s commitment to anti-Semitism and Holocaust remembrance, hosted a briefing to talk about the Lantos Archives on Anti-Semitism and Holocaust Denial.  The archives are a result of a partnership between the foundation and The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). At this briefing, they distributed a publication which they claim to include a variety of example of ” anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial in every form of media throughout the Middle East [which to them includes Pakistan] and all its manifestations in political, educational, cultural and religious spheres”. So here is what I take issue with: the publication, which comes with a CD including video footage, is made up of some distinctly racist depictions of the Jewish people – which cannot be justified – alongside with legitimate political criticisms or perspectives on Israel’s policies or those of influential Jewish American lobbies. Some examples include a cartoon in a Sudanese newspaper which depicts Secretary Clinton as a hand puppet controlled by a Jewish ‘arm’, a cartoon in a Jordanian paper depicting Secretary Clinton and German politician Angela Merkel in an Israeli soldiers pocket, a cartoon in a Qatari paper depicting Israel as an octopus grasping the Al-Aqsa mosque – all side by side with cartoons depicting Jews as pigs, nazis, snakes and blood-thirsty evil-mongerers.

Here is my problem with this collection [which is a reflection of this problem as a whole in the public’s understanding of anti-Semitism]:  why put political cartoons that criticise or express a point of view on Israel’s or the Jewish [“Pro-Israel”, read as: AIPAC, Zionist Organization of America, etc. ] lobby’s influence on American policy side by side racist depictions of Jews? And yes, there is a difference – a major one. Depicting the two side by side only serves to silence the debate on the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

For the record: it is neither a myth nor a rumor that the Israel American lobby has the capabilities and the resources to influence American policy – that is not a racist statement, it is a fact that is easily observable for anyone that has spent any time working in the American Congress. There is a lot of money, effort and organization put in place to assure that pro-Israel groups have a say on the Hill and that it is heard. And no, that is not an anti-semitic comment implying that Jews control the world. Just like there is a significantly influential Armenian-American lobby and a large Cuban-American lobby – there is Zionist one- just bigger and better organized in my opinion.  Why else would there be such a strong knee-jerk reaction against the Goldstone report in the House of Representatives that is based on no kind of investigation, knowledge or understanding of what happened during the December (2008)-January (2009) attack on the Gaza Strip?

And you know what? I have no problem with the existence of such a lobby. Hell – if there was an equally organized lobby advocating for Palestinian issues I’d support that. My problem is that there are strong forces in this lobby and behind it silencing any reasonable debate on the occupation by pointing the anti-semitic finger in every single direction. And oh, to anyone that dares to even challenge this – or to imply that the lobby exists or has a significant influence on policy – he/she gets the honor of being berated publicly as the anti-Semite of the week. Even worse – if you are a public figure then you can bet your ass that your next run for office will be challenged and that those exact comments will be used against you and to depict you as a jew-hater or as being Anti-Israel [eg: Jim Moran of VA in 2004].

So why does all of this matter? Because as long as the likes of Alan Dershowitz, MEMRI and AIPAC do not change their rhetoric and tactics of intimidation when it comes to allowing a lively debate on Israel’s polices to develop in the United States, and as long as they continue to blur the lines between anti-Semitism and criticism, the United States administration, the UN, the EU and the ICJ cannot effectively use their influence to advise Israel against any actions that could negatively affect its own security in the long-term by feeding genuine anti-semitic and anti-Israeli sentiments with justifications [read as: yes, the murder of 1,385 human beings in 22 days may exacerbate anti-semitic and anti-Israeli sentiment – surprise surprise].

Dilemmas about the Armenian Genocide

On March 4, 2010 the Foreign Affairs Committee of the US House of Representatives passed House Resolution 252, recognizing the Armenian genocide. This non-binding piece of legislation was adopted by 23 votes against 22. H.R. 252 is still of great relevance since debates continue about whether to bring it to the full House for a vote or not.

This resolution is far from being one that divides Members of Congress among partisan lines. Certainly, the markup held on March 4 in the Foreign Affairs Committee hearing room was one that provoked a lot of tension and emotion within the Committee, the most that I have seen since my fellowship in Congress started. High-ranking Turkish officials, including the Ambassador himself were present, whereas Armenian constituents brought Armenian women in wheelchairs, more than 90 years old and born in the Ottoman Empire at the time of the Genocide. Constituents of Armenian and Turkish origin were waiting in long snaking lines in front of the hearing room, well before the markup started. It was clear that both sides tried to put as much pressure on the representatives as possible.

It is not the members of congress who do the sophisticated historical research on this issue. What they rely on is the work of historians on the one hand and the recognition by other states on the other. With regards to the work of historians, as Chairman Howard Berman said, “the vast majority of experts – the vast majority – academics, authorities in international law, and others who have looked at this issue for years, agree that the tragic massacres of the Armenians constitute genocide”. So far, 22 countries have recognized the Armenian genocide, so did the European Parliament and 42 states out of 50 in the United States.

While listening to the arguments of the Members, I tried to reconstruct in my mind the same chain of thought that a Representative might wade him/herself through before making such a decision. First of all, a Member has to decide whether he or she personally believes that the Turkish crimes against Armenians constitute a genocide. In fact, this is not where the point of disagreement lies. Most Republicans and Democrats seemed to recognize the fact.

From an idealistic point of view, the issue could be perceived in the following way: Will one of the most tragic events of the 20th century be sacrificed on the altar of pragmatism and national security interests? “History has to be acknowledged” as many of them say

On the other hand pragmatists argue that the recognition might derail the process of rapprochement between Armenia and Turkey. Approximately 1,5 years ago a process of rapprochement began between Armenia and Turkey that seemed to bring an end to a conflict that started in 1991 with the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis. On 10 October 2009, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Duvatoglu and Armenian Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandyan signed official protocols on the establishment of diplomatic relations and agreed to “implement a dialogue on the historical dimension with the aim to restore mutual confidence between the two nations”.

In my opinion, the rapprochement process was already somewhat put on a side-track when the Armenian parliament refused to ratify the protocols and when Ankara set the Armenian withdrawal from Nagorno-Karabakh as a pre-condition to the Turkish ratification process. I would further argue that the reconciliation process is the result of a growing international (and mostly European) pressure on the Turkish government: even the most prominent allies of Turkey in the European Union have recognized the Genocide, including Sweden, Poland and the Germany. France, having a significant Turkish population similarly to Germany, also did. The Turkish Genocide diplomacy was about to fail – this is most probably what Ankara itself recognized as well before it signed the protocols. Otherwise it could have normalized the relations earlier at any point in the last two decades – there has been no specific development in the Nagorno-Karabakh issue in the last couple of years.

According to another commonly heard pragmatic argument, H.R. 252 might put at risk U.S. national security interests by jeopardizing the use of U.S. military bases in Turkey and Turkish military assistance in those two wars that the United States is fighting. I differ from his points for a pragmatic and a more idealistic reason:

  1. I share the views of Howard L. Berman, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who believes that Turkey has just as much interest in maintaining military cooperation since the U.S. intelligence services share crucial information with their Turkish colleagues about Kurdish separatist movements in Northern Iraq since 2007.
  2. I acknowledge that the United States, like every other country, has legitimate national security interests. But arguing with national military interests can be counterproductive: What would distinguish then the United States from China that so far has been trying to prevent the adoption of UN sanctions against Iran due to its economic interests? I do not intend to draw a parallel between Iran and Turkey or China and the United States but I do believe that the U.S. and the EU should continue to act as “normative powers” and remain committed to their shared values. It is these values, this soft power that made America and its ideals attractive to so many people for so many decades.

In general, I am not a proponent of pieces of legislation recognizing such genocides. There are many other acts of genocide that legislative bodies do not recognize.

I am not entirely convinced either that Congress is the most appropriate body to judge upon such issues. As the quoting attributed to Winston Churchill says, “history is written by the victors”. Although I do believe that by careful historical analysis we can get closer to the ultimate truth but instead of looking at the past, I would rather focus on the present and the future. In current days, imprisonment of Turkish journalists raising the Genocide issue in the media is an accepted practice. Freedom of expression is one of the fundamental rights that a healthy democracy should acknowledge. There is even less reason to violate such a right if Ankara and Turkish scholars honestly believe that the Armenian Genocide is a biased and untruthful story.

– Tamas Medovarszki

Propaganda and the Marketplace of Ideas

Depiction of the "pure Aryan" family, 1938

Last Monday our Lantos group went on an interesting and challenging tour of the Holocaust Memorial Museum’s special exhibit, State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda. The exhibit takes visitors through the evolution of Nazi propaganda and offers poignant examples of its use during the years leading up to and during the Second World War. A recurring question for me was: how should democratic societies, which cherish free speech, guard against the stifling effect that propaganda has on the marketplace of ideas? Should propaganda be banned outright?

Interestingly enough, the images that were the most thought provoking for me were the ones authored by American propagandists. Some of the first pictures that visitors encounter in the exhibit hail from the United States, during the time of the First World War, when propaganda was employed to vilify Germans and encourage Americans to purchase Liberty Bonds that financed the allied war effort. In retrospect, Hitler regarded Germany’s inability to effectively use propaganda, as the American’s had done, as a primary cause of his country’s defeat during the First World War. The example of American propaganda convinced him of its power and the role it might play in the winning the war of ideas waged in Germany during the tumultuous years following the Treaty of Versailles. Ultimately, Nazi propaganda successfully out-competed the political platforms of other parties in Germany, gained a monopoly over the marketplace of ideas, and then halted the free flow of ideas completely.

As an American, my first thought was: should Americans be troubled that their country’s effective use of propaganda inspired Hitler to implement it is a tool of the Nazi party? Yikes! We touched on this topic during our group discussion and looked at instances in which propaganda has been used for good and for ill — on the bright side: public health campaigns have used propaganda-like materials to dissuade kids from using drugs or to promote the use of contraceptives in places with high HIV/AIDS prevalence rates. On the dark side: propaganda has been used to dehumanize others and instigate mass violence.

The entire exhibit brought me back to the question of free speech. In light of its risks, should we allow propaganda to be used at all? Is it possible to regulate propaganda in a democratic society that upholds the right to fee speech? This is an enormously challenging question and one that I suspect our Lantos group will continue to discuss over the next couple of months. From my vantage point, a group’s propaganda becomes dangerous when it tries to create a monopoly in the marketplace of ideas. Once propaganda eliminates the ability of other ideas to compete, the gates are opened wide for dangerous ideologies to take root and metastasize. Ultimately, a free marketplace of ideas is our greatest defense against the pernicious effects of propaganda, even though it paradoxically defends propaganda’s right to exist. That’s my two cents. In any case, the State of Deception exhibit is thought provoking and is definitely worth checking out.

On a side note: one of the final images in the exhibit is a portrait of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which was included to show a contemporary political figure who may one day face prosecution before an international tribunal, similar to the Nuremburg trials. The consensus in our group was that featuring his picture distracted from the exhibit’s overall theme and purpose.

— David Peyton

How broken is the government that is proclaimed to be broken?

In an early attempt to understand some of the impressions of the first two weeks of the fellowship, I want to focus on an apparent contradiction that has struck me: how can it be that Americans seem to be so political, while at the same time have such aversion to their politicians and their political system?

In my eyes, the United States is arguably the most democratic society in the world. Every six years, each of the fifty states sends two senators to Washington. Every two years, the 435 seats in the House of Representatives, each directly representing approximately 650.000 constituents, are up for election. Although I am probably looking with Washington biased eyes, it seems that American society is breathing with politics. I have already seen pro-life marchers come to Washington to speak to their members of Congress, voters petition their representatives about issues ranging from animal cruelty to the right to bear arms and lobbyists for every possible kind of social group walking the corridors of the House Office Buildings. Almost everything that concerns political activity in Washington is publicly accessible: constituents can meet their representatives, look up the status of bills and voting records, and investigate flight tickets and office supply expenses. Politics is also omnipresent in the media: A quick round of TV zapping leads you to discussions on BBC, CNN, Fox News, C-Span, a channel entirely dedicated to broadcasting politics 24/7, and a whole range of politically engaged talk-tv and comedy, from the right-wing Bill O’Reilly on Fox News to left-wing Rachel Maddow on MSNBC.

At the same time, however, there is a strong and deeply rooted suspicion among Americans towards government and politics, which has a clear, quantifiable presence: I was struck when reading about a famous opinion poll in 2000, in which the ethical standards of politicians received a lower rating than those of bankers, journalists, lawyers and professionals in fifteen other fields. In fact, only prostitutes got a lower score. A recent Gallup poll shows that the United States Congress receives an approval rating of approximately 25%, indicating that a clear majority of the American people feel unhappy about the work of Congress that they have sent off to represent them in Washington. Moreover, overall voter turnouts are generally much lower than in most European countries.

What makes the paradox even more puzzling is that unlike their bad reputation, a large majority of representatives are actually reelected time and again. While in my own country, the Netherlands, having served for two 4-year terms already gives ‘seniority’ status, in the United States Congress it is no exception to serve for a couple of decades. Currently, there are ten members of Congress who have even served for more than 35 years. It was, therefore, maybe not such a big surprise to learn that when pollsters, in a follow up question on the approval rate of Congress, ask voters how they think about the work of their own representative, the answers are often much more positive.

I did not have to dig deep into academic literature or thoroughly analyse my impressions. In fact, worries about ‘political sclerosis’ and ‘broken government’ are widespread and even more widely discussed. A saying goes that the American political system is “designed by geniuses [the revered founding fathers] so it could be run by idiots [the current politicians]”. The statement might be rhetorical, but I guess that most people would agree that the process of policy making in Washington is slow and inefficient. More than being a powerful decision making institution, the Congress seems to be a marketplace of many local interests that Members have to sell if they want to serve their voters well (and thus be reelected), in the parallel process of legislative proposals having to go through the Senate and the House of Representatives a clear majority of proposals die.

Some say the system was meant this way, others argue that America needs reform if it wants to retain its position in the world. If Washington is a tax slurping monster that does more harm than good, or a bringer of direly needed health reform, probably remains to be argued for a long time. The partisan politics that result from this disagreement are all over the place and, for a society that seems so political in nature, is a source of widespread and often entertaining discussion, but it must also be very frustrating. Is American government really broken? With a vocal Tea Party Movement, a President that keeps raising the stakes for health care reform and a fragile economy, I am curious to see what the coming months are going to bring and hoping to get a little bit closer to the answer.