Foreign meddling

“America’s Pro-Israel Lobby,” AIPAC, has long sponsored legislation to stifle the American public’s right to discuss or protest Israel’s abuses. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement’s founder Omar Barghouti, is prohibited from entering the US, while Israel’s lobbyists have successfully sponsored legislation in roughly 30 states and in both the US House and Senate to make BDS boycotts illegal. Amazingly, these lobbyists are not required to register as foreign agents under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). At the federal level, with AIPAC’s legislation opposed by numerous civil liberties groups, AIPAC is still trying to keep their foot in the door. Senate Resolution S.Res.120 and House resolution H.Res.246 still support criminalizing boycotts of Israel.

Perhaps the only silver lining in all this is that AIPAC just made it easier to decide the fitness of Democratic candidates in the coming election. Representatives Tim Ryan and Eric Swalwell, and Senators Michael Bennet, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Amy Klobuchar are all co-sponsors of the AIPAC-written resolution. For me, human rights, foreign policy, and free speech are all litmus test issues. These candidates apparently have no respect for any of these concerns. Other Democratic presidential candidates have had their flirtations with AIPAC as well. Only Bernie Sanders — ironically the only Jewish candidate in the bunch — has refused to attend AIPAC conventions.

In Massachusetts, half the Democratic delegation support AIPAC’s assault on free speech. No surprise from the usual Blue Dogs — Representatives Bill Keating, Joe Kennedy III, Richard Neal, and Lori Trahan — but a shock to see Senator Ed Markey joining them — by supporting the AIPAC resolution, all just displayed their contempt for both human rights for Palestinians and Americans’ right to do something about it peacefully.

Regardless of what some Republicans think, Israel is a secular nation like any other. As such, it has all the usual warts — traffic jams, corruption, poverty, and pollution. But Israel also imposes martial law and has occupied Palestinian territory for generations, closely resembling South Africa’s Apartheid system — separate courts, separate roads, the original Trumpian wall, imprisonment without charges for parents and children alike, and Israel has enacted ugly race laws that determine who is a citizen. Naturally, not everyone thinks this is such a great thing. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is a non-violent protest against Israel’s policies. AIPAC, which serves as Israel’s attack dog on BDS, does not even remotely represent any  shared value with the United States. But it certainly is an effective, unregulated foreign agent for Israel.

While the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) may be the best-known of BDS opponents, there are dozens of organizations that lobby for Israeli interests, foreign, military and economic aid — including changes to American laws. There are about three dozen pro-Israel political action committees that funnel millions of dollars to politicians of both parties. The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (CoP) consists of over fifty organizations that advocate on behalf of Israel, all of whom sit on AIPAC’s executive committee.

The American Israel Education Foundation (AIEF) is a branch of AIPAC that runs free junkets for congressmen to Israel to hear from Israel’s Foreign Ministry and provides funding to AIPAC. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) pushes hard-line, anti-Arab, anti-Iranian Middle Eastern policies. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) used to be a civil rights organization, but now primarily attacks critics of Israel and promotes Likudnik foreign policy. The Israel Project disseminates Israeli propaganda, while the Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces (FIDF) raises funds for a foreign military [!!] and brings Israeli soldiers to the US as good-will “ambassadors.”

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) links 125 Zionist organizations to 17 umbrella groups for 4 main Jewish religious currents in the US. The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) receives much of its funding from Sheldon Adelson and has embraced the American Far Right. The American Jewish Committee (AJC) describes its mission as “advocating for Israel and the Jewish people.” The Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) — like many of the others — conflates Jewish life with Israeli interests and functions primarily as an extension of Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

The Jewish People Policy Insitute (JPPI) is dedicated to “strengthening the attachment of young American Jews to Israel.” Its board of directors includes former US Ambassadors Dennis Ross and Stuart Eizenstat, Iran hawk Elliot Abrams, and other leading lights of US Zionist organizations such as Michael Steinhardt (Birthright Israel) and Steve Hoffman (Cleveland Jewish Federation). Interestingly, JPPI is critical of far-right politics — In Israel — but grateful for the help from the American far right.

And then there are the media watchdogs, which attack journalists critical of Israel. These include: the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which at times has provided questionable translations of news from the Middle East; the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA) which often targets specific news sources as “antisemitic”; the Middle East Forum (MEF); and the Haym Salomon Center, which disseminates pro-Israel spin and Islamophobic content “in order to defend Western civilization.”

Campus organizations like Hillel used to provide a friendly place for Jewish students to come together. But, as right-wing benefactors have politicized and weaponized Jewish institutions, Hillel has now become a means of silencing Israel’s campus critics, including faculty. Hillel’s FAQ describes its mission: “Israel is at the heart of Hillel’s work. Our goal is to inspire every Jewish college student to develop a meaningful and enduring relationship to Israel and to Israelis.” Stand With Us and Israel on Campus Coalition likewise promote pro-Israel messaging on American college campuses.

In Congress itself we have the Republican Jewish Coalition — which, despite the word Jewish, does not study Torah but instead promotes pro-Israel policy. There is also the National Jewish Democratic Council, which “educates Democratic elected officials and candidates to increase support for Jewish domestic and foreign policy priorities” — as if all American Jews supported the Israeli occupation or its far right governments. American lawmakers frequently participate in all-expenses-paid economic missions to Israel courtesy of the Association of America-Israel Chambers of Commerce. Who, after all, would fault a politician for trying to drum up a little business back home?

Then there are the Christian Zionist groups — the Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI) and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFC) — “be an advocate for Israel.” Christians United for Israel (CUFI) is run by Evangelical minister John Hagee, who is eagerly waiting for the Middle East to blow up to bring on the End Times. Passages “offers Christian college students with leadership potential a fresh and innovative approach to experiencing the Holy Land to make them “voices for Israel.” The Israel Allies Foundation (IAF) promotes “Judeo-Christian values” and, once again, is nothing but an unregulated foreign lobbying group.

In 2006. foreign policy scholars John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt were commissioned by the Atlantic to write about the Israel lobby — and they covered many of the groups mentioned above. But the Atlantic refused to publish their article and it was left to the London Review of Books instead, a foreign publication, to give the essay an audience. The essay was later fleshed out in a much-maligned book that was savaged by most liberal newspapers and magazines.

A decade later the tide is turning on the acceptability of criticizing Israel’s occupation and treatment of Palestinians, Bedouins, and Druze. And some Israelis themselves are doing the same. As Americans come to terms with their own White Supremacy, many of the similarities between Israel and the United States have come into focus. After years of lying to ourselves about the meaning of words, some have refused to use “alt-Right” and instead write ‘fascist.” Journalists have begun to criticize their own timid use of “racially charged” and some opt for the more honest word “racist.”

Courageous legislators have become disgusted by the Orwellian term “detention facilities” and now simply call them what they really are — “concentration camps.” The freedom to use honest language has had a liberating effect on young Jews, who recently committed acts of civil disobedience in front of ICE facilities all over the country.

So it is long overdue that we had a long, hard look at Israel’s aggressive, unregulated “lobbying.” It’s time we confronted Israel’s relentless efforts to alter American law for its own benefit that it conducts in coordination with a sprawling network of American groups with ties to the American far right.

Let’s call it what it really is — foreign meddling.

Orwell hadn’t even heard of Facebook

This week Donald Trump tweeted that his administration was “looking into” the “banning” of conservatives on “liberal” social media. With a conservative stranglehold on talk radio and powerful news outlets like FOX and Sinclair effectively functioning as mouthpieces for Trump’s policies, on the face of it Trump’s charges seem ridiculous. But Trump’s criticism hit an unexpected nerve with friends of free speech. Censorship in social media may not exclusively target conservatives, but it’s a very real thing.

A while ago I taught a citizenship class. If you read though the one hundred official U.S. citizenship questions, only one amendment — the First — gets any love. Not one question mentions any of the other amendments to the Constitution — and for good reason. It would be tough to explain school prayer, bowing to Evangelicals on abortion and adoption, stop and frisk, illegal wiretapping, blanket surveillance, cruel prison punishments including death by mystery cocktail, violations of habeus corpus, excessive bail, the lack of speedy trials, voter suppression, systemic racism, Constitution-free borders, limited “free speech zones,” and prosecutorial practices that effectively deny an accused person the right to a jury trial.

And what would be the point? Many of my students came from places where American “democracy” has propped up dictators and taught genocide and torture to their militaries. Or maybe these prospective Americans just looked around and noticed that, around here, civil liberties don’t really apply to immigrants or people of color.

Nevertheless, the citizenship questions give star billing to the First Amendment, which “guarantees” freedoms of speech, religion, assembly, and the right to petition the government. The First Amendment is clearly the beating heart of American democracy — for the writers of the citizenship test — and it’s almost an article of their faith that it grants us rights found nowhere else on earth.

But in truth the First Amendment is a completely toothless piece of text that does little to stop abuses arising from telling people what you think.

Read the fine print. The Constitution promises that the government won’t go after you for your views or interests — although it certainly has and does. Donald Trump, for example, tried to go after 1.3 million people who may have clicked on a website dedicated to disrupting his low-attendance inauguration. But besides attacking the First Amendment, the president’s sweeping demand for ISP data was also a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Reporters sans Frontieres ranks the United States 43rd in press freedom, a sign it’s pretty much on life support. And when Trump began targeting the Black Lives Matter movement, it was only the most recent example of a government that has always done expressly what the First Amendment forbids.

Now while the First Amendment theoretically keeps the government from silencing you, there’s absolutely nothing to stop an employer, a social or political organization, a business, or a school from censoring, expelling or punishing you. Adjunct professor Lisa Durden found this out when she was fired for defending Black Lives Matter on FOX News — not because the popular teacher had done anything wrong at her community college. White supremacist Richard Spencer lost his gym membership because of his views — not because of any specific behavior at the gym. Juli Briskman was canned by her employer for a third party photo showing her giving Donald Trump the middle finger as his motorcade sped past her while she was bicycling. The excuse given by Akima, a federal contractor — Briskman “violated” the company’s social media policy.

Americans regard China’s Great Firewall — which censors what Chinese citizens can view online — as a significant feature of authoritarian rule in that country. Yet the only difference between Chinese and American censorship is that here in the United States it’s been outsourced to corporations and employers — and, increasingly, internet service companies.

Twitter censored Politwoops, a group exposing backtracking and lying by politicians who delete or alter their ill-considered Twitter posts. Facebook censors content for both China and for the United States. When activist Mary Canty Merrill penned an open letter, “Dear White People,” she was censored by Facebook. Conservative Google employee James Damore wrote an internal memo criticizing his company’s diversity programs and was immediately terminated.

Some think the Internet is open and free. But remember — the Internet began its life as a defense industry (DARPA) project, and U.S., European, Chinese, Saudi, and other laws actually compel service providers to monitor and censor content while also delivering personal data (either lawfully or under secret programs like PRISM) to spy agencies. The U.S. government even forces ISPs to lie about it after the fact.

The internet, also as a consequence of the many lunatics who post on it, has become a gratuitously censored place. Social networks go out of their way to sanitize “offensive” or “upsetting” content. Google, Facebook, and Twitter — for all the hate speech they manage to monetize — feel obliged to protect us from beheadings, nursing mothers, the aftermath of terror attacks, radical manifestos, and “harmful” or “dangerous” hyperbole from both right and left. Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning are both sitting in jail now because they posted proof of U.S. war crimes, including a video of the 2007 murder of two Reuters reporters by the U.S. military.

A dangerous consequence of overt censorship is self-censorship. With enough positive or negative reinforcement people simply stop telling you what they really think. Or, if they persist, someone will censor them for simple lack of “civility.” In the aftermath of the 2016 election I observed this phenomenon as Bernie and Hillary people duked it out. One moderator of an Indivisible group decided to shut down debate by insisting on acceptable views, acceptable discussion, acceptable tone, and acceptable news sources.

In the preface to one edition of Animal Farm, George Orwell noted that popular opinion is often a greater threat to freedom of thought and expression than authoritarian government, and that anyone who chafes against prevailing orthodoxy often “finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness” by his own friends.

… the chief danger to freedom of thought and speech at this moment is not the direct interference of the [Ministry of Information] or any official body. If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face, and that fact does not seem to me to have had the discussion it deserves

Any fairminded person with journalistic experience will admit that during this war official censorship has not been particularly irksome. We have not been subjected to the kind of totalitarian ‘co-ordination’ that it might have been reasonable to expect. The press has some justified grievances, but on the whole the Government has behaved well and has been surprisingly tolerant of minority opinions. The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary.

Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news — things which on their own merits would get the big headlines – being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact. So far as the daily newspapers go, this is easy to understand. The British press is extremely centralised, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.

And Orwell hadn’t even heard of Facebook.

Better Angels

The other day I noticed that the liberal-ish press had suddenly become obsessed with civility and had begun hectoring us to listen to our better angels — to “play nice” with the Deplorables. Someone denied a cheeseburger to a White House spokeswoman who lies for a living, defending the cruelest of policies. And you’d have thought the end of civilization was near.

On the importance of maintaining “good form” both CNN and FOX News were in total agreement: “Fox Business host Trish Regan defended CNN’s Jim Acosta on Tuesday, calling verbal attacks on the reporter at a Trump rally are ‘not only bad manners, it’s bad form,’ while calling out both sides for a total lack of civility.”

Lots of people noticed the break from reality and bizarre lack of perspective. Philosopher Robert Paul Wolff (author of “The Poverty of Liberalism”) wrote, “The norms of public political discourse vary considerably from country to country, and even from neighborhood to neighborhood within a country. The British Parliament is much more raucous than the American Congress, and I will not even talk about the Israeli Knesset. Only in the world of the Washington elite does being denied service at a restaurant appear to be a violation of sacred norms calling for serious discussion of the foundations of democratic society. […] But whatever the local norms of civility may be, it can always be asked under what conditions it is right, even required, to violate them as part of a political protest.”

On December 12th, 1964 Malcom X spoke at the Oxford Union Club in England and, with a sly wink to Barry Goldwater, talked about “the necessity, sometimes, of extremism, in defense of liberty, why it is no vice, and why moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue. […] I doubt that anyone will deny that extremism, in defense of liberty, the liberty of any human being, is a value. Anytime anyone is enslaved, or in any way deprived of his liberty, if that person is a human being, as far as I am concerned he is justified to resort to whatever methods necessary to bring about his liberty again.” Earlier that year Malcom X gave his Ballot or the Bullet speech at King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit, reminding listeners of the incivility and extremism of the American Revolution. Turns out, for much of American history dissent usually trumps decorum.

Media Matters observed that the “right-wing media are criticizing Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) after she encouraged people to publicly protest Trump administration officials who are complicit in the atrocious family separation policy at the U.S border. But the ‘civility’ these outlets are touting has been absent in their many vicious past attacks on Waters.”

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting took the liberal-ish press to task for its preoccupation with manners and distaste for speaking truth to power. FAIR pointed out that the Washington Post had run “three articles between Sunday, June 24, and Monday, June 25, calling for ‘civility’ and criticizing those who interfered with the dining experiences of Trump administration officials.”

In a Bloomberg News editorial, Jonathan Bernstein wrote, “Civility Is Important in a Democracy. So Is Dissent.” Bernstein observed: “In these times, however, it’s a joke to focus on incivility by Democrats even as the Republican president routinely says things that are as bad as or worse than the attacks of the most irresponsible Democratic no-name precinct chair.” In an unusual footnote, Bernstein reminded readers that when it comes to civility in a democracy, “of course incivility wasn’t the most important problem with U.S. democracy; indeed, restrictions on the franchise and full citizenship were so severe that there’s a good case to be made that it wasn’t a real democracy until at least 1965.” Whatever temporary gains we’ve made were made in the street.

Finally, Nation writer Sarah Leonard spoke my mind with her article, “Against Civility: You can’t fight injustice with decorum.” Among Leonard’s excellent points: “Throughout history, activists have seldom won battles against injustice by asking politely. […] The people being targeted [for protest] are adults living and working in a democratic society; facing consequences for their actions, as conservatives would agree, is what grown-ups should all do. […] To cling to civility is to allow the powerful to commit crimes, as long as they do so with a smile and a handshake.”

If we are truly listening to our better angels, they’ve been whispering — “#resist.”