Stephen Cohen Disgraces Himself… Again


Vladimir Putin, in happier times.

by Kyle W. Orton

Since the Ukraine crisis began earlier this year, Stephen Cohen has acquired quite the reputation for apologetics for the Putin dictatorship and its aggression against Ukraine. Cohen, a scholar of Russia, especially the Bolshevik Revolution, has printed most of his pieces in support of Vladimir Putin in The Nation, a magazine edited by his wife Katrina vanden Heuvel. Now he has done so again. Credit where it is due: each salvo has been more hysterical than the last. This time it was his prepared remarks for an upcoming speech to the U.S.-Russia Forum in Washington, D.C., organised by the same group who run the Russia World Forum, another annual confab of Putin apologists. For a flavour of the Russia World Forum, I quote from James Kirchick, who had the misfortune to attend the last one:

There was Webster Tarpley, former operative in the Lyndon LaRouche cult, 9/11 Truther, and all-around conspiracy theorist … There was Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst who, when I debated him a few months ago on television, analogized 9/11 to the ‘Reichstag fire’ … There was a representative from an American ‘pro-family’ organization praising Putin’s standing up to his own country on issues like homosexuality and family planning.

Cohen was present here too—and with some of the same script by the sound of it.

Cohen’s article/speech in The Nation this time started so very badly, not only by putting all the blame on America for “escalating sanctions [that] will only deepen and institutionalize [this Second Cold War],” but by making reference to the “mysterious shoot down” of flight MH17. This is especially interesting since even commentators sympathetic to Vladimir Putin had largely conceded the factual matter that Moscow-backed insurgents brought down the Malaysian plane – they just had elaborate excuses why it shouldn’t be blamed on the Kremlin, or not in a way that carried any serious consequences anyway. It was straight downhill from there.

Cohen frames this in the way all of Putin’s apologists do: the no-longer-deniably-Russian-orchestrated mayhem in eastern Ukraine is claimed as a defensive action, stemming initially from NATO’s “expansion”. NATO, of course, is a voluntary association, but in Cohen’s world it is an instrument of Western imperialism, taking over states and forcing itself against Russia’s borders. His evidence for this extraordinary claim? An article in the Washington Post in 2004! (I am not making this up.) Cohen’s summation is that “twenty years of US policy have led to this fateful American-Russian confrontation.”

In this present crisis, Cohen sees the real crime as being a U.S./E.U./NATO coup d’état in Kyiv that drove from power Viktor Yanukovych. In one of the most tortured distortions of the English language on record, Cohen says Brussels and Washington initiated this crisis with their “velvet aggression” against Yanukovych to bring Ukraine into the Western fold. The “reckless provocation” Cohen is able to identify in Ukraine is the E.U. offer of the Association Agreement to Kyiv. Cohen makes reference to the “radicalized Maidan protests, strongly influenced by extreme nationalist and even semi-fascist street forces” who brought down the corrupt, increasingly authoritarian, Moscow-allied Yanukovych government. You perhaps have noticed that Russian propaganda outlets have run with the theme that the new authorities in Kyiv are fascists or Nazis (1,2,3,4,5).

In response to this, with Russia unable to match NATO in conventional terms any longer, poor Putin might be forced to use nuclear weapons, and the “ongoing U.S.-NATO encirclement of Russia with bases, as well as land and sea-based missile defense, only increases this possibility”. This from a self-styled progressive! There was a time when this faction was against nuclear weapons, though more and more it looks as if they were only against NATO’s counter-nukes to the massive Soviet build-up in the 1970s.

It is near-incredible to see Cohen speak of “the surreal demonization of … Vladimir Putin” (“a kind of personal vilification without any real precedent in the past,” indeed). Putin heads one of the most reactionary authoritarian governments on the planet, so this must be especially galling to those progressives who think of Cohen as an ally. But it must be even worse when Cohen cites Henry Kissinger as an authority for this claim.

The most hilarious part of the article is when Cohen’s cup of self-pity runneth over. He bemoans the fact that Moscow fellow-travellers are in such short supply these days. This is actually a lament without very much substance: the Kremlin still does have legions of supporters in the West, the only difference being they tend to come from the extreme-Right this time around. But Cohen should cheer up: with he and his wife around, Moscow will never lack for Left-wing advocates. Acknowledging that the analogy is “imperfect,” Cohen nonetheless compares himself and his co-thinkers, who seek to exculpate Putin for the Ukraine crisis, with the Soviet dissidents in the 1970s and 80s. Cohen worries of the “neo-McCarthyites [who] are trying to stifle democratic debate by stigmatizing us”. This sounds an awful lot like those bigots who demand respect for their views by claiming to just be the other side of a legitimate debate. Cohen then goes clean over the edge:

We should not worry, for example, if our arguments sometimes coincide with what Moscow is saying; doing so is self-censorship.

The bravery of it! If you are tempted to tone down your pro-Putinism: resist the urge!

The reaction keeps on coming. Channelling Barry Goldwater, Cohen says that “moderation for its own sake is no virtue”: moderation “becomes conformism, and conformism becomes complicity.” Again, Cohen self-consciously tries to remove the brakes that might tell decent people that their argument is leading them into disreputable territory.

If Cohen sticks to Moscow’s line on “encirclement” by NATO and “aggression” with the Western-orchestrated “coup” in Kyiv as causes of this crisis, his proposed solutions are even more noticeably drawn from the Kremlin’s playbook.

Cohen’s entire talk is based around the idea that wicked people have engaged in “distortions” to present “any American who seeks to understand Moscow’s perspectives [as] a ‘Putin apologist’,” when in reality Cohen and his allies are the “true American democrats and the real patriots of US national security.” His solutions are thus phrased in terms of national security: “demonizing of Putin is already costing Washington an essential partner in … vital areas of US security—from Iran, Syria and Afghanistan to efforts to counter nuclear proliferation and international terrorism.” Let us put aside the Putin dictatorship’s defence of Bashar al-Assad from even condemnation at the United Nations and the Kremlin’s well-orchestrated defeat of President Obama to prevent military strikes against its client in the Levant for gassing 1,400 civilians to death in a morning. Let us leave aside, too, the Kremlin’s assistance to Iran in building its nuclear weapons facilities and proposal to sell it air defences for these facilities. The destruction of the city of Grozny as Russian counter-terrorism policy can also be set aside.

Cohen first blames “the US-backed regime in Kiev” for inflicting “needless devastation, a humanitarian disaster and possibly war crimes on its own citizens in eastern Ukraine,” and even makes reference to “Kiev’s destruction of Luhansk, Donetsk or other Ukrainian cities,” something the insurgents had seemed to be rather taking the lead at. He then suggests that “[i]f Kiev’s assault ends, Putin probably can compel the rebels to negotiate.” This is ridiculous: the insurgency in eastern Ukraine is an enterprise wholly owned by Russian military intelligence (GRU). But the actual negotiating parameters set forward by Cohen are even more suspect, namely a “federal or sufficiently decentralized state,” which Cohen tells us would make Ukraine into a Federal Republic like Canada or Germany, and: “Ukraine must not be aligned with any military alliance, including NATO”. Moscow’s intention to control Ukraine’s foreign policy is long-standing, and for all Cohen’s talk of securing a “politically independent” Ukraine, he well-knows that this demand that Ukraine not be allowed to choose to join Western institutions is a victory for Moscow. The “Federal” option is really partition by another name, and is Moscow’s fall-back position. If western Ukraine cannot be controlled, the Kremlin can at least hold on to the east and keep it weak and dependent—a Ukrainian version of Transnistria.

Assuming Cohen is not among those who are paid to disseminate a pro-Moscow line, his views are a little confusing. Why would a Western progressive dedicate himself to a regime that persecutes homosexuals, revels in racial incitement, and menaces its neighbours? Perhaps old habits simply die hard. Or maybe, as so often, anti-Americanism simply trumps all.


Not in my name?

This is a cross-post by Hopi Sen from

It is hard to express my feelings about the gulf that has emerged between my views on the terrible, catastrophic situation in the Middle East and most of ‘leftish’ opinion1.

I feel further adrift from my domestic friends than I ever have. Adrift, not just due the divide between what many of my sympathetic elected representatives, newspapers, journalists and erstwhile political allies seem to believe and what I instinctively grasp for2, but adrift in my own ignorance and ineffectiveness.

After all, I sit in sunny London, with opinions that cost me nothing, but could cost others much.

Yet it feels cautious silence is also a way of hiding, because that silence is exploited by the confidently certain. Yes, I am an armchair general, but so is an MP, so is an editor, so is a fashionable columnist who argues for the opposite view to mine3. If Russell Brand dares to share his opinion, perhaps I should too4.

So if what follows offends, or is stupid, or over-generalises, I apologise. I recognise these flaws, have half-choked on them myself, but feel the need to try -somehow- to splutter my ignorance into the world nonetheless.

Today, Stop the War have organised a great demonstration calling for an end to the attack on Gaza.

This is not merely a call for peace; for the end of bloodshed. It cannot be. After all, the cautious truce agreed last week ended not with an attack on Gaza, but an attack on Israel.

Instead, the demonstration is something more than just a call to an end to violence. It is a call for a particular solution.

Fair enough. The roots of this conflict are difficult, and complex, the flaws on all sides apparent. Yet the stated aims of the demonstration would not produce the desired peace.

If Hamas remains committed to the destruction of the entire Israeli state, then to propose an unconditional end to restrictions on Gaza, when Hamas rule Gaza and use imported concrete to build tunnels to attack Israel, imported metal to build rockets to bomb Israel, and at the same time demand a boycott of Israel; then you effectively demand, not unconditional peace, but a tilt in the battle to Hamas. To Hamas, note, not to the Palestinian Legislature, or Fatah, or the people of Gaza, all of whom want an immediate ceasefire, then talks and negotiations and a permanent peace with Israel, but to Hamas, who want no such thing.

Still, I sympathise with those marching, because I think most marchers are not making a cold  calculus of the interests of factions, but instead expressing human sympathy for the victims of violence.

It is the tragedy of Gaza that demands sympathy, and rightly so. It is the dying children of Gaza, the insanity of war that brings people out on the streets in their thousands. If you were at that demonstration, and if that was your aim, I salute and admire you motivation. It is why I donated to the Disaster Emergency Committee appeal today. (For Gaza, and to their three year old appeal for Syria)

Those deaths ask us: Have Israeli forces committed crimes? No supporter of the British Government and troops during the Troubles can deny it is extremely likely, even certain.  Any Crime should outrage us, and we should demand they be investigated and punished, but they do not require assent to a proposed solution that is no peaceful solution at all.

So, today’s marchers, I too want peace and justice.

But I cannot march with you.

Yes, I think the solution the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, and George Galloway, and Stop the War offer for the Middle East is misguided and wrong.

But it goes further than that.

I can’t march with you because I don’t really understand what it means to march for this single peace in the Middle East, when the whole Middle East is engulfed in war. I don’t understand how the principles inter-relate, how the causes link.

For the broader left, too, I don’t really understand how we can, over the last year, oppose military action in Syria, support military action in Iraq, and propose a kind of half-neutrality in Gaza. What is this approach, what is its purpose or aim or strategic justification5?

I understand the motive. I think it’s decent and kind, and well-intentioned of our leaders. I support the motive. It’s just I don’t think it will work, I don’t think it makes sense, and I don’t think it will end well.

Almost a year ago, the same people marching today to demand a halt to Israeli attacks on Gazan civilians marched to halt an attack on Assad’s regime in Syria after it committed one of the worst atrocities imaginable against Syrian civilians.

Almost all the left ended up agreeing with that stance. Almost by accident. We argued for caution. We got inaction. We congratulated ourselves  for ‘preventing a rush to war’.

We had done no such thing. The Syrian war already existed. We simply chose to do almost nothing about it.

Certainly the action proposed last year – limited airstrikes against a regime that had committed chemical weapons attacks- was limited and insufficient to conclude the wider conflict, but we opposed it anyway. So the Syrian regime made a concession on using chemical weapons, switching to barrel bombs and chlorine gas instead, safely certain no consequences would follow.

Those barrel bombs, those chlorine gas attacks, those regime atrocities all came after we ‘stopped the rush to war’.

That war has raged further and faster and wider and wilder, and now many of the same voices that opposed intervention in Syria because the situation was too complex, we had no clear national interest at stake, and action risked making things worse, while there was no clear exit strategy, stand ready to intervene in the consequential conflict in Iraq, a conflict that has mutated and become more malevolent, but is surely no less complex, no less incendiary and offers the west no clearer an exit strategy6.

A year later, military action has become humanitarian. We have to act to prevent atrocity.

Forgive me for wondering, but what have we been standing aside from in Syria, these past three years, but a humanitarian crisis, full of preventable atrocities?

We had alternatives.

We could have done more, militarily to support the civil, more or less secular opposition when they rebelled against Assad. Such action would have had consequences. It would have cheered Hamas, perhaps, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Not that I think demonstrating that the west can defend muslims from murderous regimes should be abandoned for such a small reason. Might even have helped, in some way.

Perhaps our actions would have been presented as imperialist. More seriously, we might have dropped a bomb on a civilian facility and killed innocents. After all, Amnesty international, no less, accused NATO of War Crimes for our attack on a Serbian TV station.

Alternatively, we could, like Russia7 have cynically argued that Assad is a monster, but he is a known monster. Let him slaughter the rebels, as we allowed Saddam to slaughter, and at least Syria will be a peaceful graveyard. That too, would have been a decision. This too would have had consequences. Terrible ones.

Instead, we did effectively nothing. We did nothing for understandable reasons. We had become leary of consequence of our choices in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Somalia and Sudan.

But it turns out that our avoidance of consequence also has consequences. Money flowed to the most extreme, sometimes from our supposed allies. Iran and Hizbollah operated in Syria, even though the west did not. Consciously or not, Assad helped create an enemy that would bring him allies and secure his foreign supporters. That extremist Sunni enemy grew rich and ambitious on an illicit oil trade, perhaps selling energy to the very Syrian regime it intends to destroy. Our policy of inaction had consequences. Genocidal ones. The Islamic State we will attack today grew strong in the brutal chaos of a Syria we were indifferent to.

For me, the same applies in Libya: Here, we acted to prevent an atrocity, theneffectively walked away, fearing the consequences of sustained presence. As we looked away, things fell apart to the extent the Libyan government is now pleading for for greater western commitment, and getting little. Maybe we’ll end up supportinganother strongman, who will murderously solve the problems for us while enriching his cronies, whether directly or through Egypt’s own de facto dictator.

Perhaps then we should have made the decision we made a decade ago, when Libya renounced terrorism – that though Gaddafi was a monster, he was at least agreeing only to be a monster to his own people, and might even stop being that one day? I think not, because standing aside from his 2011 military campaign would have been inhumane. If we hadn’t acted, there would have been a disaster too. Just a different, and probably worse, disaster.

Instead, we intervened, patted ourselves on the back, then stood aside. Is that better or worse than a sustained intervention?

I haven’t even begun to mention the destruction in Congo, which we seem to have just decided was too difficult to worry about.

The truth is I don’t understand what it is to be a progressive in foreign policy these days. I know the mood is against liberal intervention, but I don’t know what it has been replaced with.

I do know what we would like.

We would like the Israelis and Hamas to stop fighting and find a mutually acceptable peace. We would like Assad to reach a diplomatic solution with the Syrian National Congress. We would like the Libyan government to act against Islamists. We would like Egypt to be less intolerant and brutal. We would like Iran to stop supporting Assad, and backing Maliki, and supplying Hamas. We would like Russia to not invade Eastern Ukraine. We would like a broad alliance against the Islamic State. We would like various Arab ruling families to stop funding extremism abroad and repressing human rights at home.

That is a noble and great agenda to advance, but without ever being prepared to accept responsibility for achieving it, or accepting the consequences of acting and falling short, it is also meaningless. A pose, not a policy.

These aims are wonderful aims, but in a multi-polar world, achieving them will be extremely difficult. The consequences of almost all choices will be dangerous and fraught.

Is being a progressive in foreign policy merely to will peace and loathe destruction, but to shrink from any proposed action for achieving this, fearing it will breach peace and promote destruction?

If all we offer is a series of wishes, but no guarantees, no consequences, no commitment for the long-term, then our aims are destined to fail, and we will find ourselves in a world far worse than one we acted in, however imperfectly.

Without the willingness to risk our own standing, or to follow-up on our declared principles, we look ridiculous.

Better to not advance high principles of morality, than to advance them then by constant inaction mock them.

Often not to act will be the right decision, horrifying though this can be. At the extreme, there is no question that military escalation in North Korea would be a terrible mistake, even if that means condemning millions to a terrifying half-existence.

In every case I have mentioned, there is a strong, sensible, rational case for western inaction, as well as a case for action.

Yet I don’t understand  on what basis we are making this calculus today. What weight of regrets do we pile up, assess and say, “sorry, we cannot”.

For the Stop the War leadership, the argument is simple. Whatever the west does is wrong. If it sends ground troops, it is imperialist. If it uses sanctions and no-fly zones, it is cruel. If it does nothing, it is complicit.

For the traditional right, perhaps it is equally simple. Whatever affects our national interest dictates our actions. If Syrians want to slaughter each other, that’s their affair. If Israel and Gaza attack each other, we side with our ally. If Russia attacks Ukraine, we ask how much the City would suffer.

For those of us who do not oppose an expanded global liberal democracy on principle, nor are indifferent to the impact of the  rejection of liberal principles by the brutal or the theocratic, there should be an alternative.

One that says that where we can act to support our principles, we should, and that while we should be cautious of over-confidence and sharply aware of our own conceit, the burden of inaction should weigh just as heavy in our accounting as the burden of action.

If Liberal Intervention overreached, we should say so, and why, and on what basis we will intervene more modestly and humbly.

Yet instead there seems a mere absence. Just marches for peace, when there is already a war. Demands for peace that are not really demands for peace, but posture or platitude. An instinctive opposition to military action, when that may be the only thing that prevents far worse.

It is easy here, in safe, warm London, to say such things and not live with the consequences of saying it. I accept that. The charge is admitted.

But it is just as easy to march against a choice, or to issue a press release against a policy, and not live with the consequences of that marching, or that refusal.


  1. Yes, ‘leftish opinion’ is a terrible generalisation. I suppose I mean the ‘liberal consensus’, the broad estuary of opinion and instinct that takes in the leadership of the Labour party, a large chunk of columnists, broadcasters and journalists, the political leadership of the Trade Union movement, and a whole army of others. Like any estuary, its course and content is ever-changing, its tide low or high, but feel part of it, and you know you are part of something great and supportive and meaningful, while strand yourself on a bank or get caught in some creek or eddy, and you become very aware of your separation, of being -apart-. I sometimes wonder whether the anger of so many progressive recidivists springs from their sudden sharp isolation from this great, mutually supportive, uplifting, immersive, instinctive flow. To be cut off is a strange and terrible thing, especially when you see who is still carried along in the stream – a bigot, say, or a fraud, or a patsy []
  2. Nor is this some internal party point scoring, or a coded critique of the current leadership. A small example: The other day I got into a slight spat with a former Labour cabinet minister who was saying that the only reason he could think of for David Cameron’s policy on Gaza was that Donor influence had been bought to bear on the PM. Challenged on this by me, he argued that other than donor influence, he could conceive of no plausible reason Cameron would not simply echo Obama. Two things troubled me about this. First, that the idea that shadowy, presumably Jewish, donors could buy a British Prime Minister was seen as a perfectly acceptable charge to make against both parties, but also that it was impossible to believe that Cameron simply thought criticising Israel equally to criticising Hamas was a mistake was not even a plausible possibility. No, it had to be the ‘Donors’. This former minister is, and remains a proud Blairite []
  3. And if anyone wants me in Kurdistan, well, they only have to ask. I’ve been asking to go for years []
  4. To put it another way, I don’t hold that my view should have much weight, but it should still be expressed, and tested, and rebuffed []
  5. For the record, my position on outside intervention in Gaza is that I would welcome an outside military presence in Gaza, subject to three conditions. First, the Gazan authorities should desire it, so it is not an ‘occupation’. Second, the role would be both to prevent external military incursions and to prevent attacks being launched on Israel and Egypt from Gaza. Third, to prevent the military presence being sucked into a guerilla war, the same body would have to have control over trade routes into Gaza, at least until there is no prospect of same being used to turn the UN forces themselves into human shields or targets. However, I doubt there would be much enthusiasm for this without a wider peace established first. Without such, an outside force would rapidly become an occupier, at least to someone []
  6. I want to be fair here, because there is an argument I respect that tells me I’m wrong. If the action we proposed was inadequate to preventing the Assad regime attacking civilians, would such attacks have been a mere waste. They might have been, but I think they would have forced greater caution. However, I agree both that this is uncertain and that a wider political solution was needed. I just think we would have been more likely to get one if we had acted more firmly and earlier against Assad. However, the action proposed was so limited and late, perhaps it may indeed have done very little good []
  7. or an eighties Rumsfeld []


Why does Isis hate us so much?

This is a cross-post by James Bloodworth at The Independent

When it comes to the totalitarian rebellions against liberal societies throughout history, sophisticated people have very often failed to grasp what goes on in the minds of the fanatic.

Back in the 1930s, attempts to explain fascism famously tripped up many leading intellectuals of the time. Hitler’s demands to expand the Third Reich were taken by many otherwise sophisticated people as code for something else. Was it not true, after all, that the Treaty of Versailles had imposed punitive and unreasonable conditions on Germany?
As Paul Berman noted in his book, Terror and Liberalism, despite the SS repeatedly reaffirming at its death camps that “here there is no why”, for much of the left there was always a “why”.As he writes: “The anti-war socialists gazed across the Rhine and simply refused to believe that millions of upstanding Germans had enlisted in a political movement whose animating principles were paranoid conspiracy theories, blood-curdling hatreds, medieval superstitions and the lure of murder.”

It wasn’t just the French left that tied itself in mental knots over the rapid growth of militarist fascism. In an edition of the British pacifist newspaper Peace News, the Marquess of Tavistock, who sat on the national council for the Peace Pledge Union, blamed German aggression not on the lunacy of National Socialism, but instead on the “very serious provocation which many Jews have given by their avarice and arrogance when exploiting Germany’s financial difficulties, by their associations with commercialised vice, and by their monopolisation of certain professions”. In a letter written in 1942, the pacifist poet D. S. Savage also famously informed George Orwell that Hitler required “not condemnation, but understanding”

More recently, a good portion of many column inches dedicated to “explaining” the 2001 attacks on New York similarly relied upon a straightforward inability to countenance the existence of al-Qaeda. Thoughtful people instinctively hunted for the so-called “root cause” of jihadist violence in the material world, largely ignoring the seriousness of the ideas held by the perpetrators.

The real spark of fascistic violence must always and everywhere be poverty and hardship, or so it was assumed; hence the multiple attempts to conflate the repression of the Palestinians with 9/11 – despite the fact that al-Qaeda was and remains ideologically opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state.

In reality the sheer irrationality of violent Islamism should have been obvious when in the years following 9/11 young fanatics started (sometimes successfully) trying to blow up nightclubs. The British-born Islamists who plotted in 2004 to murder clubbers in the Ministry of Sound nightclub in London did not after all cite Palestine or imperialism as their Casus belli, but instead gleefully talked about murdering “those slags, dancing around”.

In other words, it was our liberalism that the would-be bombers despised, rather than our inability to be sufficiently liberal.

Indeed, as with almost all fanatical religious movements, an obsession with the way women behave goes right to the heart of Islamism. Sayyid Qutb, the author of the Mein Kampf of Islamism, Milestones, embraced a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam on the back of a visit to the United States, where he found himself appalled at the freedom afforded to American women.Yet all too often, rather than acknowledge the existence of pathological movements that reject the very premise of a free society, the default assumption among liberals has run something like this: fascist violence must be code for something else, probably despair. The fanatic is only fanatical because ‘we’ have driven him to it. If only Britain and America behaved properly, people would not hate us.

And of course, the West has certainly behaved in ways that have helped to swell the ranks of movements like Isis, just as they were atrocities committed by American armies during the previous century that provided ammunition for the communist cause. But let us be clear: the “root cause” of fascism (and what Isis is practicing us clerical fascism) is an absolute rejection of a plural and democratic society. It is our existence, rather than the subtleties of how we behave, that is intolerable to Isis, hence current attempts to exterminate “un-Islamic” religious minorities in Iraq – a genocide-in the making thankfully being thwarted by the United States.

Despite his many flaws, even the the consummate Marxist Leon Trotsky recognised the psychopathic element that underpins fascism, writing of the growth of Nazism in the 1930s that “Today, not only in the peasant homes, but also in the sky-scrapers, there lives alongside the twentieth century the tenth or thirteenth. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic power of signs and exorcism.”

In Iraq and Syria today, alongside the twenty-first century exists the seventh. To look for the “root cause” of Isis is to miss the point. The group represents all the subterranean barbarism that every so often is apt to crawl, blinking into the light, out from the depths of the human subconscious.

Intelligent people enjoy saying that “nothing exists in a vacuum”. In reality things very often do. Some outcomes are no more than the result of people having certain thoughts and as a consequence performing certain actions. Isis would see us all drop dead in an instant. And like their European predecessors, there really is no “why”.


Sunny Hundal: Gaza, Falsehoods, Moral Equivalence

By Jamie Palmer

At a time when the Middle East is convulsed by conflicts in which neither party has much to recommend them, the war in Gaza benefits from a rare moral clarity. A liberal democracy and the world’s only Jewish State came under attack by an openly eliminationist and genocidally anti-Semitic totalitarian terrorist organization. In a saner world, support for the former from democrats of all stripes would be a foregone conclusion. But, alas, we live in this one.

The Left’s deranged hesperophobic tendency has, of course, gone completely berserk. But images of broken Palestinian children being removed from the rubble of Gaza – often presented as if the conflict is about nothing else – have helped to give their hysterical views a veneer of reasonability, and their madness has begun to infect the opinions of otherwise clear-minded people.

One such person is Sunny Hundal. I have many differences with Hundal, but he is not someone who can be readily bracketed with anti-Western head-bangers like Mehdi Hasan and Owen Jones. Hundal supported military intervention in Syria and, domestically, he has been supportive of counter-extremism efforts by organisations such as Quilliam to combat homegrown radical Islam.

The Gaza war, however, has completely screwed up his critical perspective, and he has gone beyond simply condemning Israeli policies and actions, and has endorsed the Tricycle Theatre’s recent refusal to host London’s annual Jewish Film Festival as long as it accepts funding from the Israeli embassy.

His recent Guardian debate with Nick Cohen on the subject opens with a paragraph of anti-Israeli half-truths, canards and falsehoods, and since they form the moral basis of his call to boycott the Festival (to which I’ll return), they should be dealt with.

The issues are complex, and the first of them unfortunately necessitates a stat-heavy response, but I’ll be brief as I can:

“There is a very strong case Israel is systematically abusing human rights by keeping Palestinians under a goods and people blockade.”

The Israelis are not capable of unilaterally enforcing a blockade of Gaza since Egypt controls the Rafah border crossing. Furthermore, a post by Elder of Ziyon has just reminded us of the following:

  • Crossings closed due to their vulnerability to terrorism have no effect on imports because those remaining open are more than capable of meeting Gaza’s needs. Israel invested 80m shekels expanding the Kerem Shalom crossing for this purpose and it is never at maximum capacity.
  • Israel does not impose a limit on Gaza’s exports (although Israel no longer imports them).
  • Besides a small list of “dual use” materials, Israel imposes no restrictions on Gaza imports either, and allows dual-purpose goods to be imported under certain conditions. Israel’s anxiety about such materials has been vindicated by the discovery of the sheer scale of the tunnel network Hamas has been busily constructing.
  • Israel’s naval blockade, like the closure of crossings, is a response to Hamas terrorism not its cause. Incidents like the Karine-A affair have made Israel understandably nervous about arms arriving in Gaza by sea.

The Kerem Shalom crossing, incidentally, remained open throughout the conflict, despite continuous Hamas rocket fire from Gaza, until – in an act of Palestinian incompetence or perversity – it was itself subjected to rocket attack on Sunday August 10.

Before that, according to the Israeli Ministry for Foreign Affairs:

On August 6, 236 trucks carrying 4,196 tons of goods and supplies entered Gaza via Kerem Shalom Crossing. Among the trucks that entered were:

131 trucks carrying 2,526 tons of food

5 trucks carrying 27 tons of medicine and medical supplies

43 trucks carrying 313 tons of humanitarian supplies

6 trucks with 110 tons of equipment to help repair infrastructure.

1 truck carrying 7 tons of agricultural supplies

A team of 22 doctors from the West Bank entered the Gaza Strip in order to assist current medical staff.

Further shipments are detailed on the same site, but overall between the start of Operation Protective Edge on 8 July and the ceasefire on 5 August, Israel transferred 40,550 tons of supplies into Gaza via Kerem Shalom.

Since Israel imposes no restrictions on food, fuel and medicine passing through the crossings, Hundal should be required to explain why he is blaming Israel for Gaza’s terrible hardship and exonerating Hamas and the PA of their own responsibilities to Palestinians.

The medical shortage – according to the PA – is caused by Hamas theft. The fuel shortage is caused by Hamas’s refusal to pay market prices for fuel from Israel or to accept Egyptian fuel through Kerem Shalom. Hamas found it could enrich its officials at Gazans’ expense by imposing exorbitant taxes on fuel and other materials imported illegally through the smuggling tunnels. Which is why it is Hamas and not the Israelis who impose limits on what may enter Gaza legally through the crossings.

As Ynet recently reported, the upshot of all this is that while Gaza languishes in poverty, rampant theft and corruption has allowed Hamas to become “a movement of millionaires”.

As for people:

The IDF acceded to the request of hundreds of Palestinians who hold foreign citizenship to leave the Gaza Strip. The Erez Crossing in northern Gaza also remains open to Palestinian pedestrians for humanitarian cases.

Does Hundal realise that last year, the nation he accuses of being a systematic abuser of human rights treated 180,000 Palestinians in Israeli hospitals? Or that Israel opened a purpose-built field hospital on the Gaza border to treat Palestinians injured in the current conflict?

For good measure, Hundal goes on to claim that Israel “denies Palestinians clean water”. This is also false, not to mention inflammatory. Israel has met and even exceeded its obligations under Oslo with respect to the division and provision of water resources. Hamas, on the other hand, has been in repeated breach, and it is the excessive drilling of ‘pirate wells’ that has caused Gaza’s water supply to become contaminated by seawater.

For a full analysis of the various issues relating to water resources, see this fairly comprehensive article and supporting documentation posted at the Gatestone Institute.

“There is a very strong case Israel is systematically abusing human rights by continually building illegal settlements on their land despite international agreements”

Even if one puts the illegality of the settlements beyond dispute, this is a ridiculous assertion. While I share Hundal’s implied dislike of Israel’s ideologically irredentist strain, the actual construction of settlements beyond the Green Line does not necessarily prejudice a 2 State agreement, still less constitute a “systematic abuse of human rights”.

Many of the largest settlement blocks will be incorporated into Israel anyway under an agreement, and compensated with land swaps from Israeli territory bordering Palestine. Outposts will be dismantled and evacuated, just as they were when Israel withdrew from the Sinai and Gaza. It will be difficult and painful, and the Israeli government needs to do more to prepare public opinion for these concessions, but in the event of an agreement it will get done.

Meanwhile, Hundal may wish to ponder why it is that the settlement of Jews within what will one day be Palestine is such an egregious sin in the first place. Approximately 1.7m Arabs live safely and freely as members of Israeli society, afforded equal rights, protections, and equality before the law. Will Palestinian Jews be permitted to remain in their West Bank homes should they wish to do so? Will it be safe for them to do so? Or will a 2 State agreement necessarily require the removal of all Jews from the territory?

When people agonise about the construction of Jewish settlements, I can’t help noticing that there are very few Jews left in the rest of the Middle East. Ancient Jewish populations have long since fled or been driven out of neighbouring Arab countries, their remaining numbers reduced to triple, double or even single digits. It would seem there are those for whom it is an act of forbearance to hem Jews into the sliver of the Middle East constituting Israel proper.

Hamas, of course, with whom Israel is at war, refuse to grant even that. Israel is often accused of being a racist nation. But the stark contrast between Israel’s imperfect but genuinely pluralist society and those of its neighbours is one worth considering when assessing the moral balance in this conflict.

“There is a very strong case Israel is systematically abusing human rights by ignoring the peace process”

No there isn’t and this allegation reveals an astonishing ignorance both of what actually happened during the most recent round of negotiations, and of the reasons for their failure. Beginning with the second of these, the talks most certainly did not collapse due to Israeli indifference. On the contrary, as The New Republic’s report disclosed, Israel’s chief negotiator Tzipi Livni tried to persuade the Palestinians to return to the table.

Lest it be forgotten, Israel released 78 pre-Oslo Palestinian prisoners, many of whom were serving time for the murder of Israeli citizens. Israel got nothing tangible in return. Only a commitment to temporarily suspend applications to international bodies, which, in any case, the Palestinians violated before the talks had even fully collapsed.

When it became clear that the Palestinians were unprepared to commit to continued negotiations, irrespective of whether the final prisoner release went ahead or not, Israel cancelled it. The announcement of a unity government with Hamas destroyed whatever remained of the process.

But, more to the point, belief in the idea that Israel has ignored the peace process requires a wilful failure to appreciate the commitment and flexibility Bibi Netanyahu and Livni showed on the core issues during negotiations themselves.

For a detailed analysis of the Kerry talks and the reasons for their failure, see this excellent post over at the anonymous mugwump blog (which also addresses the issue of settlements in more depth).

“Last week both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International accused [Israel] of war crimes, and it wasn’t the first time.”

It sure wasn’t! But an accusation made is not an accusation proven, and Hundal would do well to handle Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reports relating to Israel with greater caution.

In 2010, the Gita Sahgal affair revealed the scale of Amnesty’s moral confusion concerning theo-fascist ‘resistance’ movements. A similar confusion can be detected in their credulous coverage of the latest Gaza war. Despite abundant evidence provided by the IDF that Hamas uses human shields to protect military targets, and uses hospitals and ambulances for military purposes, Amnesty reports it is agnostic on these matters, while entertaining no such doubts about allegations of Israel’s egregious wrongdoing.

Both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have played fast and loose with the terms “indiscriminate” and “disproportionate” to describe Israeli military actions during this war, to the point where the seriousness of such language doesn’t appear to merit a second thought.

When the BBC published a report pointing out that a disproportionate number of Gazans killed by Israel during the war were fighting-age males, it appeared to dent HRW’s repeated charge that Israeli shelling of Gaza had been untargeted. Not to be deterred, HRW’s executive director Kenneth Roth responded by carefully balancing the likelihood of Hamas disinformation with the possibility that Israel had simply been targeting young men, irrespective of whether or not they were combatants.

The fact that both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty draw significant numbers of their staff pool from pro-Palestinian activist groups like the International Solidarity Movement and even pro-militant propaganda outlets like the Electronic Intifada, should give the fair-minded pause. As should the uncritical repeating of highly unreliable eyewitness testimony and uncorroborated statements by Hamas officials in their readiness – no, eagerness – to accuse Israel of war crimes before all the facts are in.

In October 2009, Robert Bernstein, the founder of Human Rights Watch and its chairman for 20 years, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times in which he expressed his dismay at the direction Human Rights Watch had taken since his departure, particularly in its approach to the Middle East. Earlier in the year, the organisation had accused Israel of committing war crimes in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead. To which Bernstein objected:

In Gaza and elsewhere where there is no access to the battlefield or to the military and political leaders who make strategic decisions, it is extremely difficult to make definitive judgments about war crimes. Reporting often relies on witnesses whose stories cannot be verified and who may testify for political advantage or because they fear retaliation from their own rulers.

Amnesty and Human Rights Watch reports on Israeli crimes and violations are not to be dismissed outright, by any means. But, regrettably, nor do they have the automatic moral authority in this context that Sunny Hundal appears to assume.

In the opening paragraphs of his article, Bernstein also made a point pertinent, not only to the Middle East conflict in general, but also to the side-show quarrel over the Tricycle boycott:

At Human Rights Watch, we always recognized that open, democratic societies have faults and commit abuses. But we saw that they have the ability to correct them — through vigorous public debate, an adversarial press and many other mechanisms that encourage reform.

That is why we sought to draw a sharp line between the democratic and nondemocratic worlds, in an effort to create clarity in human rights. We wanted to prevent the Soviet Union and its followers from playing a moral equivalence game with the West and to encourage liberalization by focussing on dissidents[.]

One of these self-critical mechanisms is culture. Advocates of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement are attacking Israeli culture and academia, in order to narrow the available platforms on which pro and dissenting Jewish and Israeli voices may meet their opponents. For them, the debate is over.

This leads Hundal to justify his position on the boycott of the Jewish Film Festival with precisely the kind of moral equivalence Robert Berstein cautioned against. Hundal to Nick Cohen:

Britons have very limited options to influence the Israeli government, and boycotting their money is one of their very few tools. You’ve advocated boycotting Press TV and raised concerns about Russia Today in the past, partly because they are state-funded and toe that line. What if people accused you of singling out Persians or Russians? I’m sure you would agree with me in applauding any group that rejected Syrian, Hamas or Russian state money too.

The Tricycle was guilty of this same moral failing when – absurdly – its director protested that she would not hesitate to ban a Hamas-funded film festival on the same grounds.

If Hundal and the Tricycle, in their hurry to be seen as scrupulously even-handed, cannot see an objective difference between the propaganda arm of a totalitarian theocracy and the free forum for ideas represented by the Jewish Film Festival, then I suppose it follows that they should see no particular reason to support a liberal democracy as it defends itself from a fascist foe.

Bernstein’s article is an eloquent reply to this thinking:

Israel, with a population of 7.4 million, is home to at least 80 human rights organizations, a vibrant free press, a democratically elected government, a judiciary that frequently rules against the government, a politically active academia, multiple political parties and, judging by the amount of news coverage, probably more journalists per capita than any other country in the world — many of whom are there expressly to cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Meanwhile, the Arab and Iranian regimes rule over some 350 million people, and most remain brutal, closed and autocratic, permitting little or no internal dissent. The plight of their citizens who would most benefit from the kind of attention a large and well-financed international human rights organization can provide is being ignored as Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division prepares report after report on Israel.

Hamas is not a noble resistance movement and it has no interest in responsible or even competent governance. It is simply another head on the Salafi jihadi hydra currently tearing the Middle East to pieces. These groups are cults of death which will somehow have to be destroyed. When that finally happens it will be a deliverance for all those they terrify and control, including Gazans. If anyone’s skeptical on this point, I recommend spending some time listening to what Hamas actually say. And reading their foundational Charter.

Israel – tragically – is trapped in an occupation from which it has been unable to disentangle itself. Not because it is “ignoring the peace process” but because its government and its people understand the threats they face far better than Sunny Hundal and the deeply unsympathetic NGOs he cites.

As Israel responds to rockets fire and low-level incursions, Hundal prefers to offer tendentious claims about settlements and sanctions, and manages to excuse Hamas any responsibility for the dire state of the polity it governs. All to justify an attack on artistic expression; itself a spiteful proxy attack on the Middle East’s embattled democracy.

A letter to The Tricycle Theatre

from @frangelina and others

By email

Indhu Rubasingham
Tricycle Centre
269 Kilburn High Rd

11 August 2014

Dear Ms Rubasingham

We are writing to you to express our deep disappointment that the Tricycle Theatre has required the UK Jewish Film Festival to return funding to the Israeli Embassy, or to find another venue. This has forced the Festival to seek another home for the first time in eight years.

You say you wish the Tricycle Theatre to be a non-political venue and not to take sides in any conflict. As the UKJFF’s name suggests, it is a celebration of Jewish culture, Israeli or otherwise. Jews around the world have a wide range of views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and many Palestinian-sympathetic films have been screened by the UKJFF in the past.

More fundamentally, we cannot understand your decision to equate the State of Israel with the current Israeli Government. The distinction between state and government is well understood in the arts world: the Tricycle itself has received £761,289 in 2014/15 funding from the Arts Council, a UK state body. We are sure you would confirm this funding has no influence on your programming. Israel, like other liberal democracies, supports cultural endeavour without trying to control its content.

In asking the UKJFF to return funding, far from remaining apolitical, the Tricycle is thus taking a political stand. In effect, it is labelling the State of Israel so beyond the pale, so unacceptable to right-thinking people, that its funding would taint the institution – and that the UKJFF should, on behalf of British Jews, dissociate itself. Whatever the intention, that is the inference which many will draw. Many already have.

You must realise the UKJFF could never have made such a statement of dissociation from Israel. It would be hugely divisive, cut across any attempt to display diversity of views and negate the idea of cultural subsidies as distinct from political advocacy. It is no excuse to say that the Tricycle Theatre offered to replace the funding. However well-intentioned, it could never have been accepted, and the Tricycle has effectively told British Jews that the promotion of Jewish culture is not welcome.

Worse still, the initial request to ‘vet’ the content of the festival’s films amounted to censorship – in the service, presumably, of predetermined political boundaries relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Admittedly, you recognised this when challenged, but the point should never have needed to be explained.

The Tricycle Theatre says it delivers work ‘reflecting the exceptional diversity of its local community.’ We wholeheartedly support that aim. To achieve it, the Tricycle needs to understand the cultural sensitivities of all different groups in society and to respect them wherever possible, subject always to the free expression necessary in any arts venue.

In the case of the Jewish community, you must understand both the unique significance Israel has for most Jews and the deep sensitivity to suggestions of boycott, of delegitimisation and of being made to ‘prove’ their own acceptability. This absolutely does not preclude trenchant and forthright criticism of Israel. It does require a more nuanced approach than equating funding from the embassy of a democratic state with funding from Hamas – a political party designated as a terrorist organisation, with a racist Charter, which explicitly states it wants to ‘drive Jews into the sea’ – as you did in your interview with the Evening Standard.

If the Tricycle had a consistent policy of rejecting projects funded by foreign governments, or even foreign governments involved in ethnic, religious or national conflict, we might have more understanding of its position. But it has been happy to host the Asian Film Festival, part-funded by the Indian Government: it seems that India’s record in Kashmir was not beyond the pale. Israel alone is judged unacceptable. We feel that this is dangerous hypocrisy.

With no distinction drawn between Israel’s state, society and government, no attempt made to understand why this is so hurtful to Jewish people in Britain and, further, with no policy given to suggest anything other than a unique targeting of Israel, we can only see this as an unjustified act. Its effect is discriminatory against Jews, whatever the original reasoning.

This cannot have been the intention of a venue which was founded to be inclusive, and we are very sorry to find ourselves at such a pass. When we see attacks on synagogues in Paris, anti-Semitic chants in Berlin referencing the gas chambers and an Israeli play in Edinburgh being effectively forced off the stage, inclusiveness is more important than ever. Sadly, the Tricycle Theatre has not delivered it.

There is still time for the Tricycle to undo this damage, and reach out to the UKJFF. Mistakes, even serious mistakes, can be undone.

We would welcome a full reply.

Yours sincerely

Francesca O’Neill

Douglas Dowell

Andrew O’Neill

Stephen Lewis

Erica Lewis

Andrew Block

Ann Block

Adrian Lewis

Iancu Pesate

Nelly Pesate

Iain Dowell

Gabby Gold

Gideon Gold

David Graham

Robert Olford

and 11 others

If I Had a Hammer…

by David Paxton (@CanYouFlyBobby)

In case you were unaware, there is currently a theocratic, fascistic, paramilitary force operating in North-West Iraq. In recent days the object of these gentlemen’s endeavours has been to capture, rape, convert, starve or murder an entire religious group. i.e. genocide. And by any proper definition of the word ‘genocide’.  Not like some Spanish actor opining about Israeli operations in Gaza. Actual, scary, nasty, full-blown, hairy-arsed genocide.  The sort we are supposed to have an international and internationalist obligation to prevent.

The group’s propaganda often consists of videos of hacking off heads followed by hi-def  stills of these heads imaginatively arrayed. Other highlights include videos of driving alongside cars and unloading AK 47s into the driver and passengers, pulling over and finishing up at close range. If these are unavailable then shootings of prone prisoners in mass graves often have to do.

They indoctrinate children with the desire to join the ‘jihad’ and ‘kill infidels’ and ‘apostates’. They do this in a clear state of religious exultation, with hearty songs and full cries available on the accompanying audio. Sometimes they can be reduced to tears by the sheer joy and passion of their work.

Last night Owen Jones, the Orwell of Our Generation™, explained why dropping a bomb on such people, in the course of their genocide, is a bad idea. It is a bad idea because it will “fuel them”.

I know, I know, how much more fuel could they require? How much more commitment could they possibly muster? Or even withstand?

But perhaps, to give him the benefit of the doubt, he means ‘fuel’ in the sense of recruitment. That their ranks would swell.

The recruits already come from all over, if they are not Syrian and other Middle Easterners they are from North Africa and the European, Antipodean and American Muslim Diasporas. There is little indication that they are relying on fresh Iraqi Sunnis to survive. So can this really be what ‘fuels’ means? I doubt it. I doubt he knows.

He also said, “the key issue with ISIS is Sunni resentment towards a sectarian government”. Although they currently fight several governments we can surely assume that the government in question, in the fight in Iraq, is the Iraqi one (this government’s existence is clearly the fault of the neoliberal US/West, if this helps understand the choice at all). If one cares to listen to these people they clearly state their aim is to resurrect the Caliphate. And they would now argue that they have achieved this. Such an ambition has previously been expressed by several groups, long before Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki took office. So is it fair to attach such parochial motivation to this internationally recruited group especially when it contradicts their own proclamations? Could it simply be that this motivation would be the one for which the US are most culpable?

As said, this is a genocide going on right now. For the Yazidi the situation is utterly urgent. Hence emergency food and water being dropped on their desolate mountain hideaway as I write. I asked Jones what best case time-frame could be expected to achieve this soothing of Sunni resentment. I received no answer, but contrasting the urgency of the Yazidi situation with any possible answer, we surely arrive at the conclusion that to address ‘Sunni resentment with a sectarian government’ at the exclusion of confronting the combatants, we would be allowing genocide. Accepting genocide. Standing aside in the face of genocide.

This is a severe accusation to be sure. However, today when the US is about the only significant force that actually has a chance of stopping the onslaught, and the worst possible blowback is to ‘fuel’ the responsible group mid-genocide, are we not compelled to make the accusation?

The paucity of logic in the point of view Jones provides, combined with the implications of its outcomes, raises the following question: At what point is it fair to consider this merely the contortions of somebody who simply cannot, under any circumstances, accept the notion that the vast power of the US military can possibly be used in a positive way? That any action by the US is inherently bad. That any actions by local actors are merely the consequences of the only actor ascribed any agency. As David Aaronovitch said in his exchange with him, “it’s a view”. But it’s a view that is simply not morally serious.

This is ad hominem, but the argument under examination doesn’t hold up to any logical justification. When an intelligent person forwards such an argument what other avenue is left but the ad hominem?

If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And unfortunately it seems Owen Jones merely has anti-Americanism as a basis for any thinking about international affairs. Surely a terrible vanity and conceit when so many are faced with such an urgent catastrophe.

Now to a large extent the above is a statement of the obvious. So perhaps not worth the effort. Except Owen Jones is a man of influence. An unserious voice seriously listened to by a great many. Particularly by the young, a young with voting power. His views are very far from an anomaly. If the arguments expressed last night are indeed from the Orwell of Our Generation™, well, then this is very bad. In the pretentious words of a snooty Chicago maître’d, I weep for the future.

Oceania has always been at war with ISIS

by Citizen Sane

Criticising the Stop The War Coalition is like shooting fish in a barrel. That said, it’s also a requirement for those of us on the sensible left/centre to do so, lest their risible nonsense gain any currency. So come, join me as we go in search of piscine creatures trapped in wooden cylindrical containers and blast them with our trusty blunderbusses.

Yesterday our Stalinist friends posted a comment piece about the US air strikes against the monstrous ISIS in northern Iraq, where up to 50,000 Yazidis are stranded in the mountains without food, water or shelter with certain execution awaiting them should they come down. The US have launched strikes against ISIS holdings and dropped emergency supplies to the stranded people.

Given the appalling atrocities committed by ISIS and the desperate plight of the Yazidis, it’s difficult to see how the action taken by the USA could be seen as anything other than A Very Good Thing (and long overdue). But the STWC, unsurprisingly, do not see it that way.

“US intervention is not humanitarian and will not protect the people of of Iraq” says the headline. “Defeating ISIS and the other terrorist groups is vital, but it is also vital that we oppose US intervention in Iraq, which will make matters worse.”

I see, well then let’s look further down the List Of Countries Ready To Help. Oh, this is a short list. Where’s Russia? They don’t seem to be on here…. must be an administrative oversight. Putin is a bit busy elsewhere right now. China? Is China on the list? What? Robustly isolationist you say? Hmmm. This is getting tricky. Well who, exactly, is going to act then? Norway? An army of puffins? Alan Rickman?

Oh wait, there is a recommendation in the STWC article to organise aid through genuine humanitarian organisations and the UN. There you go then, problem solved. It stands to reason that ISIS will have no problem allowing western aid organisations to have free access to the area – they are very reasonable people, after all – and aid charities, as we all know, have huge resources at their disposal and can set themselves up en masse in Iraq within a couple of hours. I’m sure they can have everything sorted out by Monday morning. And the UN has a strong track record of quickly reacting to international emergencies and genocide, unhampered as it is by internal political squabbles over the issue of intervention.

Anyone of a sensible disposition can see that there is only one option available to avert the mass slaughter of unarmed men, women and children and that is military action by the USA. Military action that should have been deployed earlier. Indeed, would ISIS even exist at all if a different approach had been taken to Syria in the last few years? STWC, existing as it does in its own topsy-turvy universe, considers the intervention of the US to be an act of imperialism as opposed to the reluctant action of a president who has shown himself to be highly averse to engaging militarily. It has taken the imminent slaughter of 50,000 people for Obama to finally take action. And why did he do it? Because nobody else can and nobody else will. STWC and their contemptible ilk would be happier to see beheadings, executions and crucifixions on a mass scale by the most savage people on the planet than see the USA intervene.

The Battle of Hastings, part two

by Tom Doran (@portraitinflesh)

Twitter can be a very useful thing. Like many of you, I’ve met all sorts of people I never would have otherwise, and among them is James Vaughan, a fellow Welshman and a historian specializing in the Britain-Israel relationship. He regularly posts fascinating snippets from the archives as his work unearths them, but today, he’s surpassed himself. Found among the private papers of forgotten Labour legend – and passionate Zionist – Peter Shore MP was this clipping of a Max Hastings column, originally published in the Evening Standard on August 6th, 1980. Click the link or image below for the full-sized version, which is quite legible despite its age.

Meet the old Hastings, same as the new Hastings.

Those of you who read my last post should find all this very familiar. So much so, in fact, that my rebuttal to Hastings’ 2014 Israel-bashing applies almost in its entirety to the 1980 version, so I shan’t repeat myself. Suffice it to say that this discovery… complicates Hastings’ claim to be a stalwart ally of the Jewish state, only driven to harsh words by events. In fact, the Hastings of 1980 minces his words much less than his older self. I’d like, in particular, to draw your attention to two phrases that occur in the above clipping.

In the second paragraph, Menachem Begin is already being accused of “play[ing] the Holocaust card”. The problem here, I should stress, is not that Begin’s frequently-made analogies to Nazism, and those of the Israeli right in general, should be unchallenged. Here is Amos Oz eloquently responding to Begin on this point, and here is Leon Wieselter doing the same to his successors, twenty years later. This is all very much within the bounds of permissible debate.

What is not, and never can be, is the phrase “playing the Holocaust card”. Rather than being a critique of any specific invocation of the Nazi era, this instead sweepingly categorizes all such analogies as illegitimate and cheap. Look at those Jews, bringing up the Holocaust again, so typical… But why, on a moment’s reflection, should Israeli statesmen never mention the Shoah? Israel is one nation for which “existential threat” is not an abstract cliche, but simply a memory. It is never far from the minds of Israeli leaders, and with good reason.

This reality leads many observers of Israel to another well-meant but wrongheaded conclusion: that the behaviour they deplore in Israelis is somehow the result of collective Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In this narrative, whose seductive simplicity is warning enough, the battered, beleaguered survivors of genocide find their promised land in 1948, but are so damaged by their experiences that they almost immediately start taking it out on the poor Arabs. “Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return”, as Auden put it, just as wrongly.

Not only is this pop-psychological approach insulting and analytically lazy, it misunderstands Zionism and its history on the most fundamental level. For one thing, the Zionist presence in the Holy Land predates the rise of Hitler by the better part of a century. Rather than spurring the creation of Israel, the Holocaust instead proved all its founders’ worst fears correct in the most horrific way imaginable. The true relevance of the Shoah to the Zionist project is best embodied, I think, by this short video:

Still images of the jets over Auschwitz adorn the office walls of many an Israeli general or politician, I am reliably informed, and the reason has nothing to do with bitterness or revenge. Put simply, Zionism is founded not, as its critics claim, on the embrace of victimhood, but its rejection. Hounded from country to country, expropriated, beaten, humiliated and killed in their thousands and millions, the Jewish people finally said, in as many words, “OK, we get it. You don’t want us, and you won’t protect us. In that case, we’ll simply have to do it ourselves”.

And so they did, and will never be forgiven for it. These are the graves you are skipping on when you throw around pat phrases like “playing the Holocaust card”. Thinking deeply and carefully before engaging in debates about Zionism and the Holocaust is the very least we owe the six million, but to Hastings and too many like him, this engagement is limited to “there they go again”. The Shoah will recede from political debate as soon as Jewish survival is no longer in question, so I shouldn’t hold my breath.

The second, much more shocking phrase occurs in the second paragraph from the end. Here we learn that the American government is “too hypnotised by its own Jewish vote” to act decisively against Israel. Yes, “hypnotised”. Anyone with the faintest knowledge of antisemitism – which apparently doesn’t include Max Hastings – should instinctively recoil from the choice of verb alone. Hypnosis, in one form or another, is precisely what Jews have long been accused of inflicting on the majority, the central indictment of Jew-hatred.

Antisemites, you see, are faced with an obvious problem in making their case: how can it be that “the Jews” so dominate human civilization when they very much appear to be a tiny and despised minority? It’s a tricky one, but resolved easily enough. Jews must somehow possess special powers of deception by which they trick Gentiles into doing their bidding. This is not always put in terms of “hypnosis”, but often has been, the most notorious example being George du Maurier’s 1894 novel Trilby (from which we derive the term “svengali”, not incidentally). My late colleague George Orwell has more on this, if you’re interested.

But the calamitous – at best – wording is only the start. Jews comprise, depending on how you count, between 1 and 3% of the population of the United States. This isn’t to say they never count in elections – just try throwing a brick in Florida without hitting an aspiring presidential candidate with an Israeli-flag pin in their lapel and a hopeful, hungry grin on their face – but this is ordinary, all-American ethnic politics. Not content with accusing the “Jewish vote” – as if that were one, monolithic thing – of hypnosis, Hastings backs it up with the ancient and familiar implication that Jews, once allowed the benefits of citizenship, will always use them to exert an excessive and unsavoury influence.

Once again, it is entirely possible Hastings intends none of this, and is simply woefully ignorant of what his words convey. But he has no excuse to be, not least as a prolific historian in his own right. This was true in 1980 and even more so today. The debate over Israel and its future is one that non-Jews can and should engage in, but not before doing our homework. Tread softly, for you tread on their ashes.

The Battle of Hastings

by Tom Doran

A society of laws: the Supreme Court of Israel, Jerusalem.

People like me know the script when it comes to defending Israel against its outright haters, the people currently attacking synagogues all over Europe in the name of Palestine. They are unhinged, implacable, terrifying… But for this very reason, a known quantity. We’ve been here before, again and again. We have Seen This Movie.

But there is another category of anti-Semitic discourse that is much harder to pin down, in large part because it doesn’t know it’s anti-Semitic. This we might call the MISTIA tendency – “more in sorrow than in anger” – which seems appropriate, since it is an idea swathed in a pseudo-intellectual haze.

It goes roughly like this: “We love Jews, we really do. Christ, Spinoza, Einstein… Ten out of ten all round. But as your friends, we must sorrowfully – nay, ruefully – be brutally honest: you’re not living up to our expectations. The rest of us are counting on you to be nice and enlightened and harmless, but there you go, blowing up innocent Arabs just because you feel like it. It’s a tragedy, I tell you.”

I’ve certainly been guilty of this myself, in the past. I am an unabashed philo-Semite, and this has occasionally led me to moralise excessively, as if I were somehow owed Jewish virtue. But as I’ve spent more and more time learning and thinking and talking about the Middle East, and especially since visiting Israel, I have painstakingly sought to train myself out of it. I don’t always succeed.

But at least, as many a British journalist has sighed in relief, I’m not Max Hastings. Here I should say that I respect the man enormously. His works on military history have been commended to me by people who know, and his breadth of knowledge and intellect are evident in his writing.

But not for nothing did Private Eye dub him – unfairly, but still truthfully – “The World’s Worst Columnist”. When he’s on form, he can be quite astute, but when he gets it wrong, he really gets it wrong. His recent Daily Mail column is a textbook example, and is – if only by implication – one of the most anti-Semitic things I have ever read in a British newspaper, and I read the Guardian.

To be absolutely clear: there’s no doubt in my mind that Hastings is wholly innocent of any conscious anti-Jewish bias. Indeed, it’s apparent from the piece that he sincerely considers himself a friend and ally of the state of Israel, and to a large extent this is probably the case. But this only makes the implications of his argument all the more disturbing.

The central accusation – that Israel is employing wildly excessive force in Gaza to the end of punishing innocent Palestinians – can quickly be dispensed with. The disingenuous “proportionality” argument has already been demolished by better writers than me; I direct you in particular to this pointed rebuttal from Israeli parliamentarian Hilik Bar and this longer meditation by Shany Mor. Suffice it to say, those making the claim simply don’t take into account Israel’s real choices, nor do they care to.

The rest of the column makes an argument, or observation, that I happen to agree with in its broadest outlines. Israeli politics and society have indeed experienced a noticeable – but often exaggerated – extremist drift in the past couple of decades, and it is intensely worrying to many of us.

But you know who else worries about it? Israelis. Constantly. The coarsening, brutalising effects of endless war are, like everything else in the Jewish state, a hotly disputed topic. Even solidly right-wing Israelis will, as a rule, acknowledge the problems posed by the growing strength of the nationalist far-right and the ultra-Orthodox community. A senior aide to Benjamin Netanyahu did so to me in person.

This is because, for all this, Israel is still a modern, self-critical democracy. If you’ve ever spoken to an Israeli soldier or politician – again, an effort very few critics of Israel bother to make – you know that each and every military action they take is agonisingly weighed against its potential consequences to an extent most Western powers barely aspire to. Hastings himself is conscientious enough to quote some of these figures in his column, thus dynamiting a central pillar of his own case.

I should also note, in passing, that the piece abounds in the most basic of factual errors. Barack Obama, to cite a representative example, is called “the only recent US president to try to persuade Jerusalem to moderate its policies”. This would be news to most Israelis, since pleas for Israeli moderation have been made, in public and private, by every American president since Eisenhower.

But all this falls within the bounds of reasonable disagreement and basic incompetence. What does not, and what gives this article an unmistakably sinister dimension, is the sentiment expressed in the following sentence, third paragraph from the top:

[T]he Jewish people have been historic standard-bearers for civilisation.

Hastings, somewhat evasively, puts this in the mouth of “much of the world”, but it’s clear from the rest of the article that this reflects his personal feelings. In a rhetorical tic characteristic of the new anti-Semitism, he keeps citing Jewish people who agree with him as if this somehow bolstered his argument. “A historian friend, himself a Jew”, “a team of Israeli documentary-makers” and “many other Jews” are all conscripted to form a kind of Hebrew phalanx around Hastings’ own words.

For those of us steeped in the Israel/Palestine debate, this itself is an enormous, honking klaxon warning. If your criticism of Israel is legitimate, then why do you feel the need to prove it by stressing the Jewishness of your citations? When criticising the government of, say, Venezuela, does anyone feel the need to keep inserting variations on “…as many Venezuelans will concede”? Of course not, because Venezuelans, unlike Jews, are seen as individuals.

Here we get to the heart of the matter. Look again, and closely, at the sentence extracted above. On its face, it’s a sentiment I share to a large extent: Jews have indeed laid more than their share of asphalt on the road to modernity. But in this context, the implication is unmistakable: Jews, more than any other people, are expected to uphold “civilisation” on behalf of the rest of humanity.

Think about that for a moment. “[S]tandard-bearers for civilisation”; this is a much different claim than “many great historical figures have been Jewish”. Who exactly asked to bear this standard, and in what sense could they have spoken for the Jewish people as a whole? When did they – all 14 or so million of them – apply for this job?

In this way, in the guise of friendship and solidarity, the Jews are collectively made to bear the moral burdens of all humanity. This is not a new demand, to put it mildly. That Jews are uniquely obliged to be paragons is merely a sick inversion of the ancient Christ-killing slander, even if meant benignly.

My country, the United Kingdom, spent 30 years fighting a violent insurgency based in its sovereign territory. Thousands of civilians, in Northern Ireland and the mainland, lost their lives to terrorism. This was a profound test of the British state, and this test was not passed with flying colours. We locked hundreds of people up without charge or trial, shot innocent civil rights protesters and too often allowed brutality to run unchecked among our fighting men.

We should be ashamed of all of this. But when most British people consider our record in Northern Ireland, they do so in cognisance of the full historical context. They acknowledge the toll random attacks on civilians take on a society, the impossible choices asymmetric warfare forces on governments, and that the behaviour of many, even most British officials was exemplary.

When it comes to Israel, this considered approach is jettisoned. If Palestinian children are dying, it must be because Israelis want them dead, or simply don’t care. Defenders of Israel are so bored with saying this we could cry, but one more time: no nation on Earth would tolerate the deliberate targeting of its civilians – however ineffective – with equanimity, and without resorting to decisive force.

To Max Hastings and others who would be critical allies of the Jewish state, I say this: the Jews are not an example, or a lesson, or a tragedy. They do not exist for your moral edification, nor to uphold an abstract thing called “civilisation” on your behalf. They are, in fact, human beings, with all that implies.

This post originally appeared on Tom Doran’s blog at the Independent.