What’s missing in ‘How to Talk about Israel’

‘The Jewish Problem’, Ian Buruma wrote, ‘pops up in the strangest places.’ It was an interesting start to Buruma’s New York Times Magazine article, published on August 31, titled, "How to Talk About Israel".

I experienced a ‘Jewish Problem’ last Thursday night in the strangest of places, as far as having a ‘Jewish Problem’ goes, at dinner in an Indian restaurant with my wife’s friend, a left-wing Jewish Zionist. So Buruma’s so-called ‘Jewish Problem’ appealed to me at face value. I started reading Buruma’s article, expecting it to address my ‘Jewish problem’ perfectly: my wife’s friend and I simply cannot talk about Israel!

My wife’s friend and I have very similar political views except where Israel is concerned. We could spend hours discussing politics, taxes, and society, as long as we didn’t mention the ‘I’ word. Without knowing how she interprets my views on Israel, I invariably witness a good, intelligent, and articulate woman hit a brick wall whenever I mention Israel. This phenomenon, however, is not limited to my friend’s wife, as I have avoided discussing Israel with another of my Jewish friends or risk losing his friendship. He and I always have thought-provoking and interesting discussions, as long as we don’t mention that country. Since Israel is not worth any of my friendships, I reluctantly avoid the subject under such circumstances.

So I started reading Buruma, expecting an answer to how I can discuss Israel with some of my Jewish friends; but all I got was obfuscation and misdirection. Starting with the first three words, ‘the Jewish Problem’, Buruma exploits the symbols of historically European Jewish persecution to confuse the Palestinian grievances. Like a magician’s, Buruma’s misdirection of focus on ‘anti-Semitism’ blurs a reader’s understanding. The remaining text suffers from contradictions, omissions, and false comparisons.

First, the misdirection sets the tone for the rest of the long article.

‘The Jewish Problem’, as Buruma clarified, carries the heavy baggage of a murderous European history, evoking the memory of Japan’s alliance with Nazi Germany, which dangerously confuses the issue of Israel, in the same way Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Prime Minister Sharon had done, with false analogies to the Holocaust. Buruma ironically noted: ‘Such false analogies serve only to invite equally odious comparisons from Israel’s critics.’

If not to the Holocaust, then the relevance of Japan’s right-wing politician was not clarified. Buruma wrote a long article on ‘How to Talk About Israel’! Israel’s conflicts are in the Middle East.

One can argue that the omission of Palestinians from the talk about Israel, as in Buruma’s focus around the right-wing Japanese politician, was aimed at conveying consistency with the historical dispossession of Palestinians, as Buruma seems to also deny the existence of Palestinian anti-Jewish statements. Having introduced the reader to ‘the Jewish Problem’, ‘Jewish interests’, and ‘Jewish conspiracies’, as contextually confused in the Palestinian reality as Japan is separated from the Middle East, it is more likely that Buruma aimed to implicitly weave the Jewish Holocaust into his subsequent allusions. ‘The Jewish Community’, ‘a "cabal" of Jews’, ‘Jewish family connections’, ‘Jewish conspiracy’, ‘Arab Hitler’, and ‘Auschwitz’ etc., were used by Buruma to convey anti-Semitic buzzwords reminiscent of Nazi Germany; but, noting the contradiction, I point out that Buruma did criticize Begin and Sharon for ‘confusing issues.’ Hello!

Since the Palestinians lack the requisite evocation, even indirectly, of the Jewish Holocaust, I perceive Buruma’s liberal use of Japan (and Europe) as deliberate, as Japan was Nazi Germany’s ally and its ‘anti-Semitic’ politicians pay dividends in obfuscating allusions.

As it turns out, Buruma’s ‘Jewish Problem’ didn’t even pop up in a particularly strange place, considering that a ‘right-wing Japanese politician’ was attributed to having the problem. One somehow expects such sentiments from right-wing factions and so shouldn’t be surprised by them. (Interestingly, Buruma dropped the ‘right-wing’ label when he referred to the politician later.)

I’m not particularly interested in conspiracy theorists who claim ‘Roosevelt was a Jew, Churchill was a Jew, Rockefeller was a Jew, etc.’, but Buruma continued his writing on the premise that discussions about Israel only take place between such yahoos and the more reasonable supporters of Israel. The implications, of course, are dubiously contradictory to Buruma’s objective.

Buruma also cites ”The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” later in his piece as an inspiration for the yahoos, connecting the dots back to his ‘right-wing’ Japanese politician. So in effect readers of ‘How to Talk About Israel’ are presented with two sides of the Israel debate: the side promoted by conspiracy theorists (i.e. those who read the ‘protocols’, who perceive the Jews as the problem afflicting the world, and who generally harbor ‘sinister motives’) and the Zionists (i.e. those who are combating anti-Semitism through Israel’s survival.)

Thus after setting the tone, introducing the conflict, and limiting the discussion to the absurd, Buruma indulges the reader with an abridged propagandized history of the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
The omissions are no less evident.

Though Buruma rightly argues against the false and irrational view of how the Jews control the world, the canard about Jews controlling the world, however, obviously constitutes a red herring in the context of this article. After all, Buruma wrote about how to discuss Israel. Though Buruma listed the foundations for a more legitimate view of Jewish dominance, he, for obvious reasons, failed to explain how such a fact cannot be discounted in the discussion about Israel. So one shouldn’t be surprised by such an omission, considering Buruma laid the foundation for his article on a discussion between yahoos (anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists, right-wing anti-Zionists) and Judeo-Christians, albeit also criticizing the right-wing Christian motives.

Buruma brushed aside a discussion of the quite accurate dominant Jewish influence over US Middle East policy, as deceitfully as the title of his article: ‘There is no doubt that Israeli lobby groups are well organized and well financed and have considerable clout in Washington. But then so do other lobbies.’

Remember, this ‘how to’ article is about ‘How to Talk About Israel.’ And Israel’s conflicts are in the Middle East. So while it is fine for Buruma to list all the Jews that influence President Bush’s Middle Eastern policy (‘Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz; an under secretary of defense, Douglas Feith; Richard Perle, a member of the Defense Policy Board; Elliott Abrams, director of Middle East Affairs in the White House; and the former presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer’), while it is fine for Buruma to refer to AIPAC, one of the most influential US political action committees, without naming it, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, isn’t it quite peculiar that Buruma insists on throwing the red herrings about Jewish conspiracies to rule the world in the mix?

It is also peculiar how many of the Jews who control the US discourse over the Middle East policy, like the celebrated Islamophobe, Daniel Pipes, elaborate freely about how Islam poses a threat to international [1] peace and security.

To recap: Buruma wrote an article about how to discuss Israel, Zionists, mostly Jewish, dominate the US Middle East policy, but Buruma decides to hook his readers with red herrings that implicitly connect Palestinians and Arabs to international ‘anti-Semitism’.

One shouldn’t be surprised that Buruma’s historical accounts suffer from the same failings: as if US recognition of Israel in 1948, for example, is an insignificant historical milestone, Buruma explained that the depth and age of America’s blind support of Israel started in 1967. Chaim Weizmann must have rolled in his grave at Buruma’s denial of the historical US support for Zionism. Perhaps Buruma doesn’t recognize American Jews as part of the US. Perhaps Buruma deems the Zionist movement as insignificant to Israel’s history.

But since Buruma brought the subject up, what other lobby influences the US’s Middle Eastern policy as AIPAC does? Can Buruma list how many Jews and other Zionists actually preside over the US’s Middle Eastern policy then deny the Zionist, Jewish and Christian, monopoly over US Middle East policy? Do the names Cynthia McKinney and Earl Hilliard have no significance to the perception of Jewish influence on US Middle East policy?

It is also not surprising that Buruma would use false comparisons to describe the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. Besides the implied false equation between the Jewish domination of the world and the Jewish domination of the US Middle Eastern dialogue, Buruma’s explicitly false comparisons also omit some salient facts.

Buruma, for example, states ‘The Six-Day War of 1967 was launched by Israel in self-protection, admittedly in the face of far greater provocation than Iraq ever gave the United States.’ Either Buruma must not be aware that Israel’s Defense Minister in 1967, Moshe Dayan, outrightly contradicted this statement, which I believe is doubtful, or this is another example of Buruma’s obfuscation, for the benefit of another false comparison. At first reading, doesn’t ‘self-protection’ convey the illusion of ‘self-defense’, hiding the noxiousness of pre-emptive aggression in deceptive wording?

More damnable, Buruma explains Sharon’s rejection of the two-state solution thus: ‘Whether he will comply with American pressure to stop building a barrier to keep the Palestinians more or less imprisoned inside the occupied territories is doubtful, especially when Palestinian suicide bombers continue to blow up buses — and the Israeli government continues to kill Hamas leaders.’ In effect, Buruma appeals to the image of poor Israelis who have to negotiate with a murderous people, comparing Palestinian suicide bombers with Israeli assassins!

Western media consistently focuses on statements made by Hammas and other Palestinians that conveniently buttress the impression of a cynical organization bent on destroying the Jewish state. Even though Israel had recently assassinated a Hammas leader who had been outspoken about his support for a two-state solution, the Western media, including Buruma, would have no qualms about describing the political leader as a terrorist. But the false comparisons, as between Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli assassination of Palestinian leaders, do not excuse Buruma and his ilk from excluding the fact that suicide bombers, though cynically manipulated for political ends, are Palestinians who have witnessed the daily abuse of Israeli occupation; they have watched their loved ones suffer as Israeli human right violations and crimes against humanity have been committed with impunity.

Buruma conveniently omits the fact that Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestine not only kills, humiliates, dispossesses, and disenfranchises Palestinians, but also it does so daily. Both condemnable and abhorrent, suicide bombings and the occupation, in its multiple embodiments, form the equation, balancing the discussion of Israel.

Even the fact that over 2,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israel during the latest intifada escapes Buruma’s notice, as if the Palestinian children killed by Israel after the recent hudna was declared by militant Palestinian factions were not worthy of mention. Well, such a fact does not benefit the Zionist propaganda.

What’s missing from Buruma’s ‘How to Talk About Israel’ is honesty, not complete honesty, as there are a few honest expository nuggets, though meaningless in the general dishonest context Buruma presented them; what’s missing is simple honesty. The courage and honesty required in dealing with Jew haters, which seems to be the subject of Buruma’s article, is also required in discussing the Palestinians and their victimization at the hands of Jews. Yes, there are Jew haters who are exploiting the Palestinian tragedy for depraved ends, but theirs is not the overriding influence that poisons reasonable peoples’ ability to talk about Israel, and Buruma’s failure in addressing this issue can only be deliberate.

In short, Buruma’s contribution to the discourse on Israel widens the gap between my Jewish friends and me, as he provides no equitable guidelines on how reasonable people can talk about Israel and the Palestinians honestly.

Constructively speaking, I suggest that Buruma analyze how he extrapolated, using the myths he considered in this important topic, to create more myths about who is actually discussing Israel and the Jews in the Middle Eastern context. While a right-wing Japanese politician’s opinion on the subject is important, I’m at a loss to understand how such a politician influences the events and perceptions afflicting the region. On the contrary, it is the events in the Middle East that influences the world’s current perceptions.


[1] Read US and Israel, as affirmed by Buruma: ‘But the Jews among them — Perle, Wolfowitz, William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, et al. — are more likely to speak about freedom and democracy than about Halakha (Jewish law)[another red herring]. What unites this alliance of convenience is a shared vision of American destiny and the conviction that American force and a tough Israeli line on the Arabs are the best ways to make the United States strong, Israel safe and the world [evidently the US and Israel] a better place.’