Australia/Israel Review


Scribblings: The “Intimidation” Implication

Jan 23, 2013 | Tzvi Fleischer

Scribblings: The "Intimidation" Implication
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Tzvi Fleischer

 

One of the issues that has been raised in the US controversy over the nomination of former Senator Chuck Hagel as US Defence Secretary is some comments he made in an interview in 2006 that “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here [in Washington].”

Now in fact, the opposition to Hagel’s appointment is related to many more issues than his stances on either Israel or the so-called “Jewish Lobby” – not that you’d know it from most of the coverage of the controversy in Australia. Other sources of opposition include the general disdain and dislike for Hagel among most of his former Republican colleagues, a preference of many Democrats for a Democrat to get the job, remarks about gays which have led to accusations of homophobia, complaints about his temperament, conservative views on abortion, and a generally idiosyncratic approach to most foreign policy issues, including his consistent past opposition to even sanctions on Iran. Nonetheless, the debate over his “lobby” comments has brought out some important issues regarding the way the “Jewish” or “Israel” lobby is discussed.

Even virtually all of Hagel’s mainstream supporters admit that it was undesirable and unwise of him to refer to the “Jewish Lobby”, in contrast to the pro-Israel lobbies, which actually contains many Christians and others as well as Jews, in the above quote. For instance, former US Secretary of State Colin Powell, who has strongly endorsed Hagel for the role, said that while pro-Israel Senators “shouldn’t be that concerned. That term slips out from time to time… Chuck [Hagel] should have said ‘Israeli lobby’ and not ‘Jewish lobby,’ and perhaps he needs to write on a blackboard a hundred times ‘It is the Israeli lobby.'” Some Australian journalists, especially at the ABC, need to pay similar attention to this distinction.

But it is actually another part of Hagel’s statement that has the most to say about what is wrong with so much of the debate about the supposed power of the “Jewish Lobby”, the “Israeli Lobby” or whatever you may wish to call it. And this is the use of the word “intimidates”.

Unfortunately it is becoming increasingly common, both in Australia and overseas, for even mainstream reporters, politicians and commentators to immediately want to talk about the supposed power of the “Israel” or “Jewish” Lobby whenever issues related to US, Australian or other nations’ foreign policy vis à vis Israel and the Palestinians arise. This seems odd, as it is rarely the case that a focus on domestic lobby groups becomes important in public debates about most other contentious issues, especially with respect to foreign policy.

However, those who want to focus attention on the “Israel lobby” typically note, correctly, that it exists – in the sense that groups that lobby for pro-Israel positions exist – these groups have influence and therefore, like any public actor, the actions and influence of these groups can be scrutinised, debated and criticised.

However, Brett Stephens of the Wall Street Journal has pointed out that there is a gross double-standard in the way the “Israel lobby” is discussed compared to other lobby groups, and it has to do with the word “intimidates” used by Hagel [also frequently seen is the even more negative word “bullies.”]

As Stephens notes regarding Powell’s defence of Hagel:

Consider the following hypothetical sentence: “The African-American lobby intimidates a lot of people up here.” Would this pass Mr. Powell’s smell test?…

One of the arguments I’ve come across recently is that there’s nothing unwarranted about using the word ‘intimidate’ and that it’s something all lobbies do. Remarkably, however, a Google search yields zero results for the phrases “the farm lobby intimidates,” “the African-American lobby intimidates,” or “the Hispanic lobby intimidates.” Only the Jewish lobby does that, apparently.

Stephens is right. The vast majority of the discussion of the “Israel Lobby” (much less the “Jewish Lobby”) I have seen, both in Australia and overseas, relies on a double standard compared to other lobbies which implies that this lobby alone, whenever it achieves its objective, has engaged in “intimidation”, or worse “bullying”, to do so. And little significant evidence of either intimidation or bullying is ever offered to support such claims.

There is little doubt that this language of “intimidation” is a narrative that those who want to constantly invoke this lobby in public debates have absorbed and want to use to further their case. I think one reason this narrative developed is that many of those who invoke the ‘Israel Lobby” like to claim or feel or represent that they are “speaking truth to power” – not simply engaging in debate with others who disagree, but bravely crusading for truth and justice in the face of nefarious and overpowering forces aligned against them.

However, I also have little doubt that this narrative has also been influenced to some degree and in some individuals by traditional anti-Jewish beliefs that are widespread in many Arab and Palestinian circles, and picked up from them by Western supporters of the Palestinian “cause”. These beliefs include that Jews control the world through a domination of politics and the media achieved via financial power. I will leave it to readers to judge how significant this latter influence is on the tendency of some commentators to focus obsessively on how the “Israel Lobby” and only the “Israel Lobby”, supposedly “intimidates” politicians and other opinion leaders.

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