Bullshit Philosophy

Half-assed political and religious commentary from a cynical left-winger

Progressive excuses for Democratic complicity in Israeli brutality

Posted by Kevin on January 19, 2009

I have to say that so far I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the American mainstream media’s handling of the Israel/Gaza conflict. It’s nowhere near perfect, of course, but there’s still a slightly greater willingness to question Israeli claims than in past conflicts. It’s too bad that that new found openness doesn’t extend to our political system, where overwhelming majorities of both parties in Congress still express lockstep support for Israel no matter what it does, and only peripheral actors like Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul are willing to speak out for the people of Gaza. Meanwhile Obama continues to hide behind his “only one President at a time” bullshit (as many others have noted, why doesn’t this extend to economic policy?).

[I was particularly disappointed by the silent complicity of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) on the issue, as he’s one of my Senators and he’s supposed to be this great progressive crusader. Not one Senator, not even Bernie, was willing to publicly oppose the resolution supporting Israel’s attack.]

So lately I’ve been trying to figure out why the Democratic Party keeps granting knee-jerk support to Israeli war crimes and ethnic cleansing, and why the party rank and file, which overwhelmingly opposes the attack on Gaza, is largely unwilling to challenge them on the issue, often choosing instead to rationalize their party’s continuing attachment to the Israeli far right. The answers to both of these questions are closely linked, so forgive me for segueing back and forth between the two.

The primary response of many progressives when faced with Democratic intransigence on Israel/Palestine is a collective throwing up of the hands, claiming “There’s nothing we can do about it; AIPAC is just too powerful. Might as well live with it.” But the so-called “Israel lobby” isn’t some unstoppable force of nature. Groups like AIPAC are so disproportionately influential for a reason.

The main reason in this case is because, as Glenn Greenwald notes, “one side of the debate (the AIPAC faction) is strong and aggressive in its criticisms and pressure tactics and the other side (the faction wanting an even-handed U.S. approach) is not.” I highly recommend reading his post in full, as well as this one from Juan Cole on roughly the same subject.

Democratic politicians have everything to gain and nothing to lose by supporting the attack on Gaza as well as the broader Israeli occupation: they get the support of and contributions from AIPAC and its followers, knowing that the vast majority of the people on the other side might grumble about it but won’t turn against them. From Greenwald again:

Just as Congressional Democrats have known for the last eight years, Obama will know that there is only a price to pay when he acts contrary to the Republican and Beltway “centrist” agenda, but no price to pay when he acts contrary to the agenda of his most ardent supporters (because they won’t criticize him, because to do is to “tear him down,” “help Republicans,” act like a Naderite purist, etc. etc. etc.). That meek and deferential attitude — aside from being a wildly inappropriate and even dangerous way to treat a political leader — also ensures that one is irrelevant and taken for granted and one’s views easily ignored.

The solution, as he notes and as should be patently obvious, is to be willing to apply pressure to Democrats when their actions warrant it. We’ve already seen several instances in the transition where Obama was pulled to the left by progressive criticism. And, in my opinion, it involves a willingness to deny them our votes if they continue to support Israeli brutality.

But, all too many progressives are unwilling to do either of those things. Instead, they find some bullshit way to explain how the party had no other choice, or even how it’s really not so bad that the party frequently aligns itself with the Israeli far right.

A great article on this subject is “The Pragmatism of Ethnic Cleansing” by Steven Salaita. From the article:

I have seen countless times on the Internet and have heard even more frequently some variation of the following argument: “Obama had to court the Israel lobby in order to be elected; it’s part of presidential politics in the United States.” Bolder commentators suggest that it would be foolish to expect otherwise… Other liberals smugly accuse Obama’s skeptics of purism, which they say has no business in serious political conversations.

For one reason or another, many progressives see the Palestinian cause as a reasonable sacrifice in order to have a Democratic president. But as Salaita argues, “This concession may be something they’re prepared to live with, but we should remember that the Afghans and Palestinians have no choice.” American progressives aren’t the ones who have to live with the consequences of the Israeli occupation (not directly, anyway), which might explain why they are often unwilling to make much of a fuss over Democratic complicity in it. (Salaita again: “I doubt Obama’s pragmatists would have been such staunch advocates of electoral realism if they, like the Palestinians, were being removed from their homes and confined to bounded ghettos.”)

In the case of Obama, whenever the issue came up during the campaign I would hear from his supporters some variation of “He doesn’t really believe that, he’s just saying it because he has to to get elected,” and/or “Once he’s in office he’ll be fair to the Palestinians.” I certainly hope that’s true, but I don’t know what they’re basing those statements on, other than faith. Some who make this argument, like Lisa Gans at the Huffington Post, claim that the reason the Israelis invaded Gaza when they did was because they wanted to get it out of the way before Obama took office, presumably because they were worried about how he might react. I’ll admit this does look slightly more plausible in light of the fact that it was announced today that Israeli troops will be out of Gaza by the time Obama’s inaugurated, but I ultimately find this argument unpersuasive. At best it’s a minor factor in Israel’s reasoning. Much more important is the upcoming Israeli elections, with both Kadima and Labor depending on the invasion to bump up their sagging poll numbers.

In any case, even if Obama doesn’t really believe what he’s plainly saying on the issue, I’d say that makes it worse, not better. As Arthur Silber points out, by making this argument his supporters are admitting that he’s a liar who isn’t willing to take a stand for what he believes in. Either that, or he’s a borderline sociopath who just doesn’t give a shit about Palestinian lives.

Given that, why should I believe he’ll be a good president? And why is it so hard for progressives to accept that maybe Obama just doesn’t care, that he’s not a closet progressive, and that perhaps he’s just another politician whose only concern is getting and holding onto power?

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2 Responses to “Progressive excuses for Democratic complicity in Israeli brutality”

  1. Great post, and good call on the “Only one president at a time” bullshit that Obama employed, and his fans actually …believed.

    I have to say, I get pissed off though when I see former sycophantic Obama supports like Gleenwood (I could be wrong with him) and the Huffington post only after he gets elected to start criticizing him, and to shit completly on the prospect of any third party support.

    Am I alone in that one?

  2. Very interesting post I must say, and I do not normally read blogs.

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