Commentary and Jonathan Tobin call me an anti-Semite for worrying about another war in Gaza

One can reliably count on Commentary magazine for a daily dose of paranoia, bile and deeply unhealthy Jewish tribalism, if you have a need for this kind of toxin with your morning cornflakes. But the reaction of its executive editor, Jonathan S. Tobin, to my latest article in Foreign Policy is both stupid and dishonest, and demands a response here on the Ibishblog. Tobin either needs a dictionary, a new pair of glasses or a credibility transplant given his misreading of my words and arguments. The main thrust of his response is to accuse me of trying to “blame Israel for the potential failure of the Arab Spring." This is so wrong, one hardly knows where to begin. I was writing about the drift towards another conflict in Gaza that is being driven both by Israel and Hamas, and I did not put the blame particularly on either side, and in fact said clearly that it wouldn't be in either of their interests.

Obviously I do worry, as any sensible person should, about the effect of another war in Gaza on the political landscape of the Middle East, but my final sentence was extremely clear in dismissing the prospect that such a conflict, let alone simply “Israel,” could be responsible for "the failure of the Arab Spring.” I wrote, “there's almost no chance a resurgence of the Israel-Hamas conflict can stop the reform movement dead in its tracks.” Maybe Tobin didn't bother to read the piece to the end, or maybe he just doesn't care about what I actually wrote, preferring to seize the opportunity, however disingenuous and fake, to stoke the tribalist Jewish fears of some Commentary readers by suggesting that here is another Arab pointing the finger at Israel unfairly and in an irrational manner. One has to ask the inverse question: does Tobin imagine that a major Hamas-Israel conflict, an Operation Cast Lead redux, would have no impact on the political and strategic landscape in the Middle East? Would it be irrelevant? Anyone who thinks that is simply clueless, as I'm afraid he seems to be.

Tobin thinks my arguments “infantalizes Arabs to assert that they are incapable of understanding that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has nothing to do with attempts to overthrow their own dictators.” In fact, on the Ibishblog, in a recent article in Book Forum, on the Riz Khan show on Al Jazeera English yesterday, and on countless other occasions I have made precisely the opposite argument: that the two issues are in fact not connected and that Arabs are capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time. In other words they can rise up for their rights as citizens against autocracy and unaccountable dictatorship and nonetheless continue to support the cause of Palestinian independence and the campaign to end the occupation that began in 1967. If he wants to point that finger at somebody, he'd better pick somebody else. I said no such thing in my Foreign Policy article, and I didn't imply it either. And since I've been saying exactly the contrary in almost all my writings since the Egyptian uprising began, it's really a preposterous accusation. Sadly, Commentary is filled with articles and blog postings that make the opposite and even more ridiculous case: that because Arabs are capable of focusing on asserting their own rights as citizens and demanding accountability and good governance, that means the Palestinian issue has been a red herring all along and that they don't really care about Palestinian human or national rights. So what we're dealing with here is actually a form of projection in which the kind of brain-dead de-linkage of the two issues typically promoted in Commentary is falsely twisted into a direct linkage to which I do not subscribe and which I have not argued for in my Foreign Policy article. My point is so obvious as to be virtually irrefutable: that Palestine and Israel are a powerful regional political factor that, if it erupted again into wide scale violent confrontation in Gaza would have important implications throughout the region, but that it would not be enough to derail the Arab uprisings and the movement towards reform and good governance. Why Tobin can't grasp this, I'm not sure, but it seems to me probably closer to a neurotic symptom than anything else.

Tobin's basic attitude towards Palestine and the Palestinians is summed up in this little aside: "neither the moderates of Fatah nor the extremists of Hamas want peace." This means he doesn't understand Palestinian politics at all, and he probably doesn't care to understand them either. If he doesn't get that the PLO has doubled, tripled and quadrupled down on achieving a negotiated two-state peace agreement with Israel and that if they do not succeed in this goal they will vanish as a potent political force in the foreseeable future then he simply does not understand the Palestinian political landscape. I'm sure it's a comforting thought for someone who seems to be all in favor of the occupation and a greater Israel to believe that no one on the other side, whether moderate or extreme, really wants peace. Trust me: there is a huge body of Palestinian and Arab opinion which holds that no significant faction in Israel wants peace either and that the overwhelming majority share the same vision of permanent control of all of the occupied territories. Again, it's a neurotic symptom to see all of “the other side” whether “moderate or extreme” as essentially the implacable enemy bent on total victory. This must be an enormous relief, liberating one from the difficult task of trying to understand the complexities of the real political situation in the other society and, even more challengingly, becoming part of the solution by looking for points of convergence with the ethnic and national other. So much simpler, and more comforting, to dismiss them all as enemies of peace.

Again, this tribalist fantasy comes through in Tobin's analysis of the drift towards broader conflict between Israel and Hamas in recent weeks. According to him, what everyone else readily identifies as a tit-for-tat exchange of vicious attacks, is not at all “another 'cycle of violence' in which sides are complicit but rather yet another expression of a Palestinian nationalism that appears incapable of renouncing violence.” So again we come back to the most comforting of all tribal myths: this isn't really a conflict between competing nationalisms over land and power that needs to be negotiated: it simply an expression of the pathological nature of the culture and nationalism on the other side. And, for Tobin, it isn't just a problem of Hamas, it's all of “Palestinian nationalism” which is “incapable of renouncing violence,” a position that willfully, and again probably neurotically, denies the radical transformation in the West Bank due to the almost universally lauded performance of the new Palestinian security services and their cooperation with the Israeli occupation forces in suppressing terrorism and other forms of violence. That mainstream Palestinian leaders like Pres. Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad have very clearly not only renounced violence rhetorically but have acted against it vigorously simply doesn't fit Tobin's worldview and therefore can't be processed. And then of course there is the other side of the coin: Israel's violence in Gaza especially and also to some extent in the West Bank which has cost the lives of numerous children and elderly in the past few weeks alone. Nor does he stop to consider the increasing phenomenon of settler violence. Or the violence inherent in the occupation itself. No, it's just that Palestinian nationalism is steeped in violence, and that's the problem. The murder of the settler family in Itamar was angrily rejected by the overwhelming bulk of Palestinian political and civil society, and the culprits are not yet known. That Hamas and Israel have been engaging in what obviously is a cycle of tit-for-tat violence that has taken the lives of innocents on both sides is simply beyond question. To look at the situation and see a normal, healthy, reasonable society on the one side (in spite of the occupation and all that goes with it), and a pathological, violent, irrational and anti-peace society on the other can only be described as chauvinistic tribalism run amok. And that's what we get, as usual, from Tobin and, sad to say, from Commentary.

Tobin accuses me of "foisting the blame for Hamas terrorism on Israel,” though how on earth he came to this conclusion or could possibly justify such a characterization I cannot imagine. I've rarely seen my words so brutally tortured beyond recognition. And in a final parting shot, Tobin pulls out all the paranoid and chauvinist ethnic stops, declaring about me that "some people can never resist blaming the Jews for anything that happens in the world." Well. I guess the alternative is to never mention Israel or the occupation at all, ignore the exchange of violence between Hamas and Israel, pretend that a new war in Gaza would have no effect on the political landscape in the Middle East, neurotically deny that the Palestinian plight is a major factor in Arab political thought, and proceed as if everything Israel ever does is not only justified but forced on it and will have no negative effect on anything except insofar as people are unfairly blaming it or it has been forced to do things it loathes and spared no effort to avoid.

Any deviation from that model, apparently, threatens to have Commentary put you in that category of persons who “can never resist blaming the Jews for everything” bad. In other words, because I decry the cycle of violence between Hamas and Israel, warn against another war, and worry about its effect on the Arab Spring, therefore I'm an anti-Semite. It's as simple as that. There's really no other way to read his ridiculous article, which is not only totally misrepresentative of my arguments but which also, without using the term "anti-Semite," accuses me of being exactly that. It's probably pointless to note that this extreme level of paranoia, this shameless dishonesty, and this casual and unjustifiable tossing out of an extremely serious accusation is degrading to Tobin and his unfortunate readership, and trivializes some very serious problems such as the really-existing tendency on the part of some people to blame Israel for everything (which certainly doesn't apply to me) and even more seriously the actual existence of real anti-Semitism. But people who use this accusation as a casual cudgel to beat back any argument they don't understand or don't like (I'm not sure which applies to Tobin here) are stripping these terms and ideas of all of their meaning and rendering them completely irrelevant. This deeply irresponsible conduct is something that ought to make anyone who cares about Israel and Jews extremely angry.