Monday, May 4, 2009


Glenn Greenwald seems not to like Israel much. It's not a major theme for him, at least not in the month or two since I started watching him, but it slips through from time to time. The other day he posted some comments which are useful for the insights they offer into his own Weltanschauung, even while not saying much about Israel or America's Jews. His title was The need of the most powerful to turn themselves into victims, and it was a critique of, in this order, Jeffery Goldberg, AIPAC, Israel, Republicans in general, and AIPAC.

His post purports to be about the dropping of criminal charges against two former AIPAC employees, but it's actually about a much more fundamental subject, which is why it's interesting. First, he sets up his argument by quoting Jeffry Goldberg's post on the matter:
The Justice Department is asking a federal judge to dismiss all charges against Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman in the AIPAC leak case. It's about time. It was an idiotic case to begin with; the men were being prosecuted (under an ancient, seldom-used law) for receiving classified information passed orally -- not even on paper -- from a government stooge, and then passing it on to a reporter and to an official from the Israeli embassy. I'll gather up some reaction later, but suffice it to say that this day was long overdue. Rosen and Weissman did what a thousand reporters in Washington do everyday, hear about information that's technically classified. The only difference is that these two worked for a demonized lobby.

It's a sad day for the Walts and Mearsheimers of the world, who believe that AIPAC is a treasonous organization, and it's a sad day for AIPAC too, because it abandoned the two men to the fates when it should have stood by them. More to come.
The italics are Greenwalds', and straightaway he launches into Goldberg (another one of his pet dislikes):
The idea that AIPAC is a "demonized lobby" that is treated unfairly in the United States generally -- or by the Bush administration specifically, which commenced the prosecutions -- has to be one of the biggest jokes ever to appear in anything having to do with The Atlantic. What other lobbying organization can boast of summoning to its Conference half of the U.S. Congress -- as bipartisan a cast as possible -- along with the Vice President, following the visit last year by Obama, who read faithfully from the organization's script? With rare exception, Congressional action that AIPAC demands -- even on as controversial matter as the Israeli attack on Gaza -- not only passes the Congress, but often with virtual unanimity. Is there anyone who disputes that AIPAC is one of the most influential and powerful lobbying groups in the U.S., if not the most influential and powerful?
It's easy to point out two problems with Greenwald's argumentation. First, the assumption that being powerful contradicts being demonized, which is of course tosh. Logically there is no necessary connection one way or the other; factually, the powerful are often also demonized. Someday Greenwald might wish to learn a European language - German, say, or French, or British - and travel incognito through a land where it's spoken, and experience the extent to which his extremely powerful country is demonized irrespective of who its president is. The second is that being demonized can be objectively measured. I don't have the time patience or motivation, but it would be easy to pick a definition of demonization, and then use it to test if AIPAC is or isn't, if Israel is or isn't. (The former is easy, the latter is a no-brainer). Meryl Yourish sometimes does little research projects like that: be my guest if you wish, Meryl.

Greenwald continues:
Just ponder the depths of irrationality and pathological persecution complex -- the desperate need to self-victimize -- necessary to claim that AIPAC, of all entities, is "demonized" and treated unfairly by the U.S. Government. AIPAC. But that's the self-pitying, self-absorbed syndrome that drives so much of our political discourse (an amazingly high percentage of right-wing political dialogue in particular adheres to this formula: "I am X and X is treated so very unfairly" -- where X is virtually always among the groups wielding the most power: American, white, Christian, Republican, male, etc. etc.). It's the same mentality that leads people to insist that the true victim in the Middle East is the same country that, by far, possesses the greatest military might and uses it most often. It's a bizarre process of inversion where those who are most powerful insist on claiming that they are the weakest, most vulnerable and most oppressed.
Again, two comments. The first is that he seems to have his causes and effects reversed and his chronology backwards. I can't say about his vaguely described Republicans, but the Jews, who eventually invented both Israel and later also AIPAC, did so only after millennia of well documented persecution and demonization, and as a response to them. The real question is why it took them so long, far longer than most nations have existed, to decide that a bulwark against persecution might be to have power. First came the demonization, then the persecution, and only much much later the power to combat them.

The real reason I'm writing this post, however, is to comment on his extremely illuminating formulation "Just ponder the depths of irrationality and pathological persecution complex -- the desperate need to self-victimize". This is one of the more powerful themes of our age: the weak are victimized, victimhood commands the moral high ground, so everyone competes to have it, while pushing aside everyone else in their mad charge for its throne.

The response to which is that victimhood is not a moral category. Morality is a function of the decisions we make, which is why being perpetrators of crimes is evil, and choosing to be inactive bystanders can also be, but being a victim doesn't automatically convey anything. The only way being a victim can carry moral weight is when the victims can choose how to respond - and the ones who choose wrong are... wrong. Not right.

In Greenwald's Weltanschauung, however, choice isn't the issue; one's identity is; the group one belongs to; and the degree of blame that can be apportioned to it. Victims are right by virtue of belonging to the correct group. Moreover, since he sees the world this way, he assumes we all do. Since being victims is so positive, he's convinced we're all striving for the victim's mantle.

We're not. I can't speak for all Israelis nor all AIPACians, but I think most of them would agree with me that Israel is indeed powerful and will remain so, while facing diverse enemies some of whom are obscenely evil because of their decisions. We're not victims, we're at war, and what makes us right isn't our status on some non-existent scale of victimhood, but rather the decisions we make.

In Hebrew we've got a saying that al rosh haganav boer hakova, which can be roughly translated to mean that too much protesting indicates a bad conscience. When Greenwald and his ideological comrades protest loudly about our striving for victimhood, they tell nothing about us, but speak volumes about themselves and their understanding of morality.


Andrew said...

Greenwald's excellent when he's in his comfort zone. I think his posts on the Constitution, rule of law and other legal issues are top-notch. His media criticism usually contains legitimate insight but shrouds them in so much repetitive hyperbole that it's hard to take. I don't like the Washington Press Corps either. And I don't know how many times you can refer to them as "court heralds" before it grows annoying. But I do know Greenwald's surpassed it.

But when he writes about foreign policy, and especially when he writes about Israel, he's simultaneously superficial and convinced of the depth of his own insight. It's an unfortunate combination.

Anonymous said...

"Victimhood is not a moral category." Perfectly stated.


David Boxenhorn said...


There's a third problem with Greenwald's argumentation: correlation does not equal causation. It could be that AIPAC's successes come about, at least in part, not because of its demonic power, but because - gasp! - people agree with them.

Geoff M said...

It seems to be that Greenwald just spent several hundred words proving Jeffrey Goldberg's point.

Philo-Semite said...

"It could be that AIPAC's successes come about, at least in part, not because of its demonic power, but because - gasp! - people agree with them."I agree. In fact, I argue that AIPAC's mythical "power" comes about not because of anything AIPAC does or does not do, but because a consistent 55% to 70% of the American electorate supports Israel.

With respect to AIPAC and the "Israel lobby", two points are important:

1. Technically, AIPAC is not a lobby. That is, it is not a Political Action Committee (PAC). Its name is "American Israel Public Affairs Committee". Political Action Committees (like J-Street) give monies directly to candidates and for that reason are heavily regulated. AIPAC doesn't give monies directly to candidates, is non-partisan, isn't a formally-regulated PAC, and so is more an interest group than a lobby.

2. Total pro-Israeli monies per American election cycle are far down the list - from memory, I believe about number 20 - well below the oil industry and other pro-Arab interest groups.

Anonymous said...

I read the Greenwald piece and believe there is a more fundamental flaw. Greenwald's rant is directed at Goldberg's statement that Rosen and Weissman "worked for a demonized lobby." Obviously, Goldberg was not saying that AIPAC or more generally the "Israel Lobby" is demonized or persecuted by the US government. Given the historic success of pro-Israel lobbying groups, and particularly their enormous influence in the Bush administration, only a fool would make such a statement, and Goldberg is no fool. Goldberg was instead referring to the "demonization" of the so-called "Israel Lobby" among the anti-Israel left in the US - as evidenced by the opening sentence of the next graph that it is a sad day for the Walts and Mearsheimers of the world.

Greenwald's entire argument is directed at a straw man of his own making. It would, of course, be absurd to claim that AIPAC is demonized by the federal government. Goldberg said no such thing, as any sensible reading of his post makes clear.

Meryl Yourish said...

Oh, sure, give me a suggestion for even more depressing posts...

I'm too busy at the moment.

Anonymous said...

This is an excellent post, Yaacov. You're absolutely right; being a victim is not an indication of morality. Morality is determined by our actions.

Thank you. Well said!

Roddy Frankel said...

The whole issue of victimhood is a distraction. Greenwald seems to use victimhood as a cynical means of reducing sympathy for Israel. I can speak for many Israelis whose parents survived the Nazi camps when I say: "I could claim victimhood, but I don't ask for anything from anyone. I just want to be left alone." Is that too much to ask of Mr. Greenwald? Can't he just leave Israel alone?