Monthly Archives: September 2011

Rick Perry distorted historian, who likened Texans’ “inherent chauvinism,” “belligerence” to Israel (Updated)

Update #1: Perry repeated his mis-citation of Fehrenbach in the Wall Street Journal today.

Update #2: A friend wonders if Doug Feith, who is now advising Perry on foreign policy, was the one who slipped Fehrenbach’s quote in.

Yesterday, Republican presidential candidate and current Texas Governor Rick Perry attacked President Barack Obama and the Palestinian UN statehood bid in a foreign newspaper, the Jerusalem Post. Perry devoted most of the editorial to assailing Obama as anti-Israel. But buried in the op-ed, in a line intended to highlight the shared values of Texas and Israel, Perry quoted the historian T.R. Fehrenbach. “Historian T.R. Fehrenbach once observed that my home state of Texas and Israel share the experience of ‘civilized men and women thrown into new and harsh conditions, beset by enemies,’” Perry wrote.

Fehrenbach published an authoritative book on the ethnic cleansing of the Comanche Indians by the Anglo settlers of Texas. He wrote with deep sympathy for the indigenous population, and though he expressed a strong identification with Texan culture, he was harshly critical of the settlers’ cruely toward the native population. Perry’s quoting of Fehrenbach seemed curious, so I opened up my copy of Fehrenbach’s “Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans” to see if he cited the historian accurately. When I found the passage Perry had pulled from, my suspicions were realized: Perry (or more likely some half-wit speechwriter) had distorted Fehrenbach’s original text and taken it wildly out of context.

The full passage Perry quoted from is on page 257 of Fehrenbach’s “Lone Star:”

The Texan’s attitudes, his inherent chauvinism and the seeds of his belligerence, sprouted from his conscious effort to take and hold his land. It was the reaction of essentially civilized men and women thrown into new and harsh conditions, beset by enemies they despised. The closest 20th-century counterpart is the State of Israel, born in blood in another primordial land.

Fehrenbach would have agreed with Perry that Texas shared values with Israel. But unlike Perry, he thought that those values were all the wrong ones: hatred of the other, a reliance on violence to seize land, and a legacy of ethnic cleansing. According to Fehrenbach, what Israel did to the Palestinians in 1947 and ’48 — and continues to do — is analogous to the Texans’ treatment of the Comanches and Mexicans during the 19th century. The comparison highlights Israel’s distinction as the world’s last settler-colonial state; a country based on an anachronistic system of ethnic exclusivism. It is hard to imagine that Perry would have scored any political points by quoting Fehrenbach accurately. So instead, in the name of his presidential ambitions, he distorted and abused the writing of one of the Lone Star state’s most celebrated historians.

Top media ethics expert: Times’ Ethan Bronner is in “very dicey ethical territory”

Yesterday I reported for the Columbia Journalism Review that New York Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief Ethan Bronner is on the speaker’s bureau of Lone Star Communications, an Israeli public relations firm that pitches him stories. Bronner has provided extensive coverage to several of the firm’s clients, including those involved in major political controversies. What’s more, the firm’s CEO and founder, Charley Levine, is a settler, media advisor to several right-wing government ministers, and a Captain in the Israeli army Spokesman’s Unit. Today, Ali Abunimah reported on Levine’s casually racist attitude towards Arabs. So Levine and his firm — which yesterday removed all mentions of their connection to Bronner — have a clear ideological slant. I have trouble understanding how this relationship does not violate Times ethics guidelines.

The Times has been warned before about Bronner. When the Electronic Intifada reported that Bronner’s son had joined the Israeli army, then-Public Editor Clark Hoyt recommended that Bronner be reassigned. As with his son’s army service, Bronner did not appear to have disclosed to the Times his relationship with Lone Star Communications. When I asked the Times’ Standards Editor Phil Corbett if Bronner’s involvement with the PR firm violated Times ethics policy, he did not request further details or allow me to submit specific questions. Instead, I was informed through an intermediary, Times’ VP for Corporate Communications Eileen Murphy, that the Times viewed Bronner’s emailed response to me as sufficient, and had no doubts about his integrity. It seems fairly clear at this point, after two major conflicts of interest have been exposed, that the Times has afforded Bronner a level of impunity that no reporter should enjoy.

While reporting my story, I spoke to one of the country’s leading experts on journalism ethics, Robert Steele, who directs De Pauw University’s Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics. I described Bronner’s relationship with Lone Star in detail to Steele. His comments did not make into my report for CJR, so I have reproduced them below. In short, Steele concluded “with confidence” that Bronner has waded into “very dicey ethical territory.”

Read Steele’s remarks on Bronner here.

Meet the terror-linked political kingmaker who anointed Anthony Weiner’s likely successor

Bob Turner, the Republican candidate campaigning to replace disgraced Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner, picked up a crucial endorsement last week when Democratic Assemblyman Dov Hikind threw his support to him. Hikind is the former leader of the the Jewish Defense League (JDL), which the FBI lists as a terror organization. He was also a confidant of the fanatical Israeli settler leader Meir Kahane, who called for the “slaughter” of Palestinians. Under Kahane’s direction, Hikind operated a front group with the JDL cadre Victor Vancier (aka Chaim Ben Pesach), who served 10 years in prison for carrying out numerous firebomb attacks on innocent people, and openly contemplated killing the renowned Palestinian professor Edward Said. According to journalists Michael Karpin and Ina Friedman, “Hikind had been suspected [by the FBI] of similar activities” including a string of six bombings against Arab-American targets across the United States.

Read the rest at Al Akhbar English.

My latest in Al-Akhbar English: Israeli politicians, media and intelligence push for more conflict with Turkey

The “Periphery Doctrine” has been a cornerstone of Israel’s strategic approach to the Middle East since the state’s foundation. Devised by David Ben Gurion and Eliahu Sassoon, an Israeli Middle East expert who became Israel’s first diplomatic representative in Turkey, the doctrine was based on maintaining alliances with non-Arab states and ethnic minorities in the region as a counterweight to pan-Arabism. Though three countries — Iran, Ethiopia, and Turkey — became key regional allies of Israel, Ben Gurion was keenly aware that the relationships were temporary, and could not substitute for peace with Israel’s Arab neighbors (something Ben Gurion ironically tried to manufacture through his “activist” foreign policy of unilateral military strikes and disproportionate force). From Turkey’s perspective, the relationship with Israel was never a proper strategic alliance, but rather a means of establishing leverage against nationalistic Arab governments.

This week’s events delivered the death knell to the terminally ill Periphery Doctrine. Following the Palmer/Uribe report’s factually flawed claims about the legality of Israel’s siege on the Gaza Strip and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to apologize for Israel’s execution-style massacre of 9 activists on the deck of the Mavi Marmara — “We need not apologize!” the Prime Minister boomed three times during a recent press conference — the Turkish government significantly downgraded its relations with Israel. Turkey not only expelled Israel’s ambassador from Ankara, it suspended all military relations between the two states. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has suggested further sanctions will follow, exposing Netanyahu’s bravado as empty and self-destructive.

Read the rest here.

How an obscure conservative memo reveals the creeping Islamophobic threat to democracy

The following was originally published in Alternet.

The sudden rise of Islamophobia in the United States is alarming while the movement that advances anti-Muslim resentment seems bizarre and filled with eccentric, even dangerous characters. But when viewed in the context of a new, groundbreaking research document by the Center for American Progress and an obscure, decades-old political memorandum by a long-forgotten former Supreme Court Justice, the Islamophobic crusade raging across the country appears perfectly in line with longstanding goals and methods of conservative organizing, and is aimed at much more than demonizing Muslims.

In 1971, former US Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell submitted a confidential memorandum to his friend, Eugene Sydnor, the chairman of the US Chamber of Commerce, an umbrella group representing American big business. Powell, who was serving on the boards of 11 corporations at the time, warned that America was suffering from a surplus of democratic freedom thanks to the legacy of the New Left and the countercultural revolt of the 1960′s. He declared, “No thoughtful person can question that the American economic system is under broad attack.” Powell warned that “Communists, New Leftists and other revolutionaries” were joining forces with “perfectly respectable elements of society from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians” to bring down American capitalism.

To roll back the surge of democracy that supposedly threatened corporate predominance, Powell urged the Chamber of Commerce to finance the creation of a new political and cultural infrastructure — a “counter-establishment” capable of unraveling the liberal establishment. The infrastructure would consist of pseudo-scholarly journals, “experts” promoted through speakers bureaus, campus pressure groups, publishing houses, lobbyists and partisan idea factories masquerading as think tanks. He wrote that operatives of the network would have to affect a “more aggressive attitude,” leveling relentless personal attacks against the perceived enemies of big business. By the last days of the Nixon administration, Attorney General John Mitchell was boasting that his conservative friends were going to take the country “so far to the right we won’t recognize it.”

Though still obscure, the Powell’ memo is one of the most important documents in recent American history. It was a blueprint for the creation of the American conservative movement, a political contingent that now controls the Republican Party and influences mainstream American opinion in ways Powell could have never imagined. Powell’s vision came to life during the late 1970′s, when neoconservative godfather Irving Kristol and former Treasury Secretary William Simon gathered together a small group of business tycoons concerned willing to lay down millions in seed money necessary to raise up a network of conservative think tanks, talking heads, and magazines capable of flooding the media with right-wing opinions, capturing the courts and taking control of Congress. Chief among the right-wing sugardaddies was Richard Mellon Scaife, a reclusive billionaire from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania who controlled much of the Mellon oil fortune.

Through his various foundations, Mellon Scaife helped finance the creation of the pillars of the conservative movement, from the Federalist Society, which spearheaded the right’s takeover of the federal court system, to the Heritage Foundation, a think tank that functions as the outsourced brain of the congressional Republicans, to the Media Research Center, a right-wing watchdog group that has helped manufacture the concept of “liberal media bias.” The Tea Party, a far-right constellation of pressure groups bankrolled by extraction industry barons like the Koch Brothers, is the latest incarnation of the corporate funded conservative counter-establishment.

Scaife’s name turned up again this month in connection with a familiar cabal of right-wing corporate moneymen financing a small and relatively new political network determined to promote Islamophobia throughout America. According to an authoritative 130-page report by the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank based in Washington, Scaife and other conservative sugardaddies have pumped $42.6 million between 2001 and 2009 into the Islamophobic network. Most of the money has gone to five figures known for bigoted, extremist views on Muslims, Arabs, and people of color. They are: Daniel Pipes, a neoconservative academic who urged Israel to employ methods of terrorism against Palestinian civilians and “raze Palestinian villages;” Frank Gaffney, a rightist national security wonk who has called the practice of Shariah a form of “sedition;” Robert Spencer, a writer and activist who has said that “everyone knows” most or all terrorists are Muslims; Stephen Emerson, a self-styled terror “expert” who blamed Muslims for the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building, which turned out to have been conducted by a right-wing white nationalist terrorist; and David Yerushalmi, a far-right legal activist who has argued that whites are genetically superior to people of color. Behind these figures lies a cadre of equally vitriolic activists like Pamela Geller and Brigitte Gabriel who hype their work. (Read more about the Islamophobic network in my piece, “The Great Fear.”

The Islamophobic network has injected its paranoid vision of a Muslim plot to takeover the United States into the mainstream through the established conservative political apparatus, spreading anti-Muslim hysteria through right-wing radio and heavily trafficked websites like Andrew Breitbart’s Big Peace, which boasts Gaffney as a key contributor. This year’s Republican presidential primary campaign became a platform for Islamophobic conspiracy theories and attacks on Muslim-Americans in general, with candidates suggesting on national television that they might demand loyalty oaths for Muslims who want to serve in the federal government. But the Islamophobic crusade has had practical consequences as well. Mosque burnings are becoming a commonplace phenomenon and anti-Muslim attitudes have reached an all-time high among Americans; The most extreme byproduct of Islamophobic campaigning was, of course, the recent terrorist rampage by the Norwegian right-wing activist Anders Behring Breivik, who quoted Robert Spencer, Daniel Pipes and other Islamophobic ideologues scores of times in his manifesto.

While the anti-Muslim crusaders are fairly new to most observers of American politics, they are no more than cogs in a well-honed conservative political operation that functions in the top-down style that Powell envisioned. And like Powell, behind their empty rhetoric of freedom lies a deep seated contempt for democracy. The words of Yerushalmi, the extremist legal activist, expose the real sensibility and goals of his movement: “While our constitutional republic was specifically designed to insulate our national leaders from the masses, democracy has seeped up through the cracks and corroded everything we once deemed sacred about our political order,” Yerushalmi wrote. “Prior to the Civil War, the electorate, essentially white Christian men, had access to local government. It was here, where men shared an intimacy born of family ties, shared religious beliefs, and common cultural signposts, that representative government was meant to touch our daily lives. With the social and cultural revolution which followed the emancipation, man’s relationship to political order was radically nationalized and democratized. Today, there is simply no basis to resist ‘democracy’ and the ‘open society.’”

The cadre of bigots bankrolled by corporate barons to stir fears of Islam may be focused on stigmatizing Muslims, but they are only a part of a much broader movement whose ultimate target is democracy itself.

J14 and the Calamity of Hope: a response to critics

On August 26, Joseph Dana and I published an article, “Israel’s Exclusive Revolution,” bringing extensive reporting together with an analysis of Israel’s separation principle to describe the July 14 protest movement’s (J14) cognitive dissonance regarding the occupation. So far, no one — not one single person I know of — has responded to our article about the ongoing July 14 protests with facts of their own or anything resembling a reality-based analysis. Instead, our critics have replied with a mixture of personal attacks and emotion-laden, dreamy visions of the way things could be.

Noam Sheizaf wrote in a piece criticizing our article, “The important issue is not where the movement starts but where it leads, and in my view, this is still an open question… So there could, potentially, be mass change. This is the reason for the relative hope I see in this protest.” As with Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, which has left most of his formerly love-struck liberal supporters feeling angry and abandoned, hope was all you needed.

It is true that there could be mass change (I presume Noam was referring to a mass Israeli movement to end the occupation of Palestine and official discrimination against Palestinian citizens and non-Jewish residents of Israel), but Dana and I did not find very much evidence that it was on the way. So we reported what we learned based on our coverage of events and interviews with key players in the J14 movement, including Palestinians. We aimed to portray J14 — and by extension, Israeli society —  as it was and not as it could be.

Sheizaf, who is not only a friend but one of the better  journalists covering Israeli politics, responded to me and Dana’s article by accusing us of “cherry-picking.” He did not produce any reporting or factual analysis to set us straight, however. Most disappointingly, Sheizaf felt compelled to distort our conclusions, claiming that we said “J14 was some sort of right-wing movement.” I challenge Sheizaf to produce any evidence that we wrote or even suggested that. If he can not, he should immediately retract his false claim.

On August 31, the normally insightful Gabriel Ash published a piece that read like a mimeograph of the criticisms that had already been leveled against Dana and I. After completely concurring with the substance of our analysis, writing, “Everything [Blumenthal and Dana] say about the limitations of the protest movement, I agree [with],” Ash lambasted us for not focusing on the supposed “process” of “changing Israeli consciousness.” He pointed to nothing factual to support his claim that such a process was underway and did not attempt to explain what the process was. He did no reporting and offered very little reality-based analysis. In the end, the thrust of his criticism was that we did too much reporting, and not enough dreaming about the way things could be.

When Ash attacked our reporting, he did not do so by engaging with the substance of what our sources told us, but by complaining that we talked to the wrong sources. Never mind that we interviewed some of J14′s original organizers, or that the mainstream of the protest is based on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard. And never mind what anyone actually told us. According to Ash, the people we interviewed were not valid sources because some of them were middle class Ashkenazim. Like other critics, Ash didn’t like what we found, so he attacked us for not looking somewhere else. Then, after proclaiming his distaste for “pop psychology,” Ash accused us without any factual basis of seeking to interview only “people who are like [ourselves].” This was a comical statement considering that we featured long quotes by Palestinian citizens of Israel and based our overarching analysis on countless conversations we had with Palestinians. So was Ash saying that Dana and I are Ashkenazi Palestinians? Or was he just refusing to acknowledge the substance of what our Palestinian sources told us about J14?

For those living in a region consumed with conflict and war, the tendency to cling to irrational hopes and evanescent solutions is completely understandable. But it is also dangerous, especially when utopian aspirations are projected onto a mass movement with deliberately vague politics and clear limitations. Not all social justice movements lead the way to progressive change. In fact, some ultimately produce the reverse effect. Saul Alinsky’s Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, which transformed into a base of support for the segregationist George Wallace’s 1968 presidential campaign, is but one example of a dramatic social movement that turned reactionary. And after just a month and half of demonstrations, some of J14′s liberal-left activists have revealed an ugly, parochial mentality that has brought the movement’s latent ethno-nationalism closer to the surface.

Just weeks after the Israeli government detained scores of international Palestine solidarity activists at Ben Gurion International Airport for declaring their intention to volunteer in the occupied West Bank, the left-wing Israeli writer Yossi Gurvitz authored an uncharacteristically incoherent screed in which he declared that the “the ad hoc alliance” with “international left-wing activists…should end.” Addressing his rant to me, Dana and Ali Abunimah (though he didn’t mention us, we were the only J14 critics he linked to), Gurvitz claimed that “we’re not dealing with leftist [sic], but Palestinian right-winger. [sic]” Gurvitz’s broadside was an extension of his outbursts on Twitter, where he has attacked Abunimah, a Palestinian whose family was expelled from Lifta in 1948, as a “foreigner inciting natives,” bizarrely comparing him to Avigdor Lieberman. When I informed Gurvitz that Abunimah’s family was ethnically cleansed and that he is not allowed to return to their home, Gurvitz gloated, “If you ask Palestinians to reject moderate positions, you should be ready to pay the consequences.” Then, stepping into the role of the New Jew who had demonstrated his authenticity by “redeeming” the land, Gurvitz tweeted at me that my criticisms were not valid because I was a “tourist.” He thus appropriated the condescending talking point that has become a hallmark of Israeli hasbara: “You have to understand, it’s very, very complicated.”

While several other left-wing Israeli activists revealed ignorant, borderline racist views in Twitter exchanges with diaspora Palestinians, Gurvitz’s outbursts were in a class of their own. Gurvitz has covered the conflict for years, garnering a sizable following of readers who enjoyed his trenchant critiques of Israeli politics and military affairs. He seemed enlightened, informed about the history of the conflict and fully aware of the oppression Israel meted out against Palestinians on a daily basis. But once the “process” of J14 began, another side of Gurvitz emerged. As soon as Abunimah and others reminded Gurvitz that a movement that officially ignored Palestinians living under occupation or in refugee camps could not expect their solidarity, Gurvitz lashed out at them with visceral, almost inexplicable loathing. How long had Gurvitz harbored so much resentment for Palestinians? No one besides him really knows. But what is clear — and utterly tragic — is that his feelings were always there, lurking just beneath the surface. And now the mask is off.

While the “process” J14 initiated may have generated positive results in some areas, it has clearly been painful for Israelis like Gurvitz. Through their interaction with activists from the outside world, Gurvitz and others have been reminded that they are not citizens of a normal society, but players in a system that dominates and oppresses millions of people. They can sense through these exchanges that the discriminatory ideology of the state of Israel is a stain on their identity, and it hurts them. But instead of casting it off and redoubling their efforts against it, they hold on to the ideology and deploy it as a weapon against those “foreign” Palestinians and “tourists” who have denied them the sense of normality they yearn for. They want the occupation to go away for a little while so they can wage their “internal” struggle in the city Gabriel Ash once labeled “Colonial Tel Aviv.” But when Rothschild Boulevard empties out and the tents disappear, it will still be there. And then, they are going to have a whole lot of explaining to do.