April 20, 2005

Special non-David Brooks edition

Well, it turns out I'm not as busy as I thought this week. Or, to put it another way, it was too hot to work today (M.I.T. doesn't seem to have their air conditioning going yet, though it's hard to blame them since it's only April) and everybody else left early, so I did the same. However, Brooks's latest was pretty reasonable, and I'm getting a little sick of Brooks (that is, sick of reviewing Brooks: I've been sick of Brooks since about two nanoseconds after reading his first Times column). Plus, I read this attack on Juan Cole (Professor of History at the University of Michigan and blogger), by one Ephraim Karsh, which is easily as moronic as anything David Brooks has come out with, so I thought I'd take a crack at it for a change of pace, rather than digging up some old piece of Brooksiana (notwithstanding the fact that Giblets has already covered this topic in far superior fashion).

The basic thesis of this work is that Juan Cole, a highly respected historian and president of the Middle Eastern Studies Association of North America, is purveying Arabist misconceptions and, more importantly, "conspiratorial anti-Semitism" on his blog about Middle Eastern affairs. Skipping lightly over introductory material which serves largely to suggest that Professor Cole has engaged in his blogging at least in part to raise his personal profile, the first real argument of the piece is that Cole subscribes to the "Arabist orthodoxy" that "Many of the problems of contemporary Arab societies are . . . ascribed to the legacy of Western colonialism." Further, "The West is blamed for (allegedly) carving the defunct Ottoman Empire into artificial entities, in accordance with its imperial interests and with complete disregard for the yearning of the indigenous peoples for political unity." Now, I am not an expert in Middle Eastern studies, but this seems to be a quite reasonable contention to me. After all, much the same thing happened in Africa, and even in Europe (surely no one would assert that Czechoslovakia or Yugoslavia were natural countries with sensible boundaries): why should the Middle East be any different? To refute these claims, Karsh asserts that local leaders often played an "active role" in reshaping their regions. This may be the case, but from a strictly common-sense point of view, it would seem that the interests of the imperial powers would be likely to override those of the locals should they come into conflict. And even if this were the case, any local leaders were unlikely to be thinking of the indigenous peoples as a whole, but rather of the prospects for their own gain. Karsh also attempts to refute Cole's claim that "the Middle East suffers from having small countries imposed by Western colonialism" by pointing out that Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq and Egypt are all bigger than Great Britain. Well, you don't have to have a PhD in history to see that this argument is completely ridiculous. The situations of, say, Egypt and Great Britain are in no way analagous. Also, if we examine the context of the quote, we see that Cole is, in fact, referring to countries like Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the U.A.E., etc., which are undeniably quite small. Would it be better for the Middle East if Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Persian Gulf Emirates were all the same country? Would that have made more sense? Perhaps not, but simply asserting that Syria is larger than Great Britain is not an argument that the answers to those questions should be no. And, of course, at the time Britain actually was larger than any of the countries it created, given that it still controlled a vast empire, including India, a fact that seems to have slipped Karsh's mind.

Karsh then asserts that there has been "no real discussion of the veracity of this blame-the-West hypothesis since . . . the mid '30's", and that one Elie Kedourie (who he describes as an eminent historian) was shunned by the "denizens of Middle Eastern studies" for attacking the "blame-the-West hypothesis". All this means exactly nothing, of course. There has been no real discussion of the creationist hypothesis in evolutionary biology for years, and those promoting it are shunned. Does this make them right and indict evolutionary biologists as close-minded? While this is an extreme example, it seems equally extreme to absolve Britain for all responsibility for the problems suffered in a Middle East that Britain largely shaped. According to this (extremely friendly) biography, Kedourie was a big fan of empire in general and the British empire in particular and blames the problems of the Middle East on the "
resurgence of its own despotic tradition". Which is certainly one thesis, and one that my general lack of knowledge on the subject prevents me from dismissing. On the other hand, Karsh makes no real effort to defend it, or, really, to present any sort of alternative to the arguments of Cole and the Arabists (I should note at this point that I have no idea if Cole's arguments are really Arabist, but I assume that Karsh wouldn't keep calling them that if there wasn't a least a strong connection).

This trend of presenting no alternatives continues when Karsh talks of how these Arabist misconceptions prevent "a correct prognosis" of the causes of 9/11. He dismisses the Arabist claim that "September 11 as a response to an arrogant and self-serving U.S. foreign policy by a fringe extremist group whose violent interpretation of Islam has little to do with the actual spirit and teachings of this religion." What is the correct explanation? Well, Karsh doesn't really seem to want to give one, which is not actually too surprising, as judging by the phrase "Ignoring centuries of Islamic jihads against those deemed infidels and the deeply illiberal elements of Islam," Karsh thinks the reason is that Muslims are evil. That may be a slightly simplistic interpretation of what Karsh thinks caused 9/11, but only slightly. After all, we could turn Karsh's argument around and use it to discover that Eric Rudolph committed terrorist attacks because he was Christian and Christians are evil. We could point to a history of Christian holy wars, down to the conflict in Northern Ireland, and the existence of deeply illiberal elements of Christianity. And we would be completely full of shit. Hell, we could probably use the same argument on Jewish terrorists: after all, the Bible glorifies a number of holy wars (against, e.g., the Philistines), and there are decidedly illiberal Jewish elements, such as the settler movement. Actually, this argument is applicable to almost any religion. There may, of course, be more to the argument that Islam makes people terrorists (though I strongly doubt it), but Karsh fails to present it, and really, the fact that there are millions and millions of Muslims who are not and never will be terrorists would seem to be an important argument against this hypothesis.

At this point, we get to the real meat of Karsh's argument: Cole is an anti-Semite. Karsh first claims that Cole's anti-Semitism manifests itself in that Cole is wrong in claiming that anti-Semitism in the Arab world is a response to Israel and in blaming Israel for the Middle East's problems. He constructs his argument on the latter point entirely from two quotes taken from a review of Bernard Lewis's "What Went Wrong" by Cole (wrongly identified as a blog post). The first quote, "
"rather than saddling a small, poor peasant country with 500,000 immigrants hungry to make the place their own," sounds bad, especially as Karsh prefaces it with "it would have been preferable for the British to have simply accepted Jewish refugees", and leaves out Cole's actual words, "While one certainly cheers the British for giving refuge in Palestine to Jews fleeing Hitler, it would have been nobler yet to admit them to the British Isles". Given that the idea of sending the Jews to Palestine -- especially the Balfour declaration, declaring British support for a Jewish homeland -- was at least in part a product of British anti-Semitism, Cole would seem to be at least partly correct here. He may underestimate the extent to which the Jews wanted to go to Palestine, but Karsh probably underestimates the extent to which the formation of Israel was an "ordinary colonialist project". After all, just because many of the settlers wanted to be there doesn't mean that it's not colonialism and the natives are not being oppressed: see, e.g., the early history of the United States. The second quote -- "the rise of Israel put pressure on Arab budgets, when a different sort of neighbour might have allowed them to invest the money in more fruitful areas than the military" -- while more damning, is also taken out of context: it is a small part of an argument that the lack of industrialization in the Arab world is not a direct consequence of Islam. Not a very convincing part of that argument, to be sure, but there is just one sentence discussing this claim. It is certainly not intended to explain Arab militarism.

By contrast, Karsh's claim that Cole is wrong that Israel is solely responsible for Arab anti-Semitism actually has a multitude of facts to back it up, though most of his specific assertions tend to be about fairly recent events and thus do not really refute Cole's claims. Is Karsh correct? Well, I don't know for sure, but Bernard Lewis doesn't think so.
And a brief Google search found no dissenting voices. I wouldn't want to declare an academic controversy finished simply because I can't find anything to support one side on Google, but Bernard Lewis is a fairly well-known voice in the field, and it seems that the case may not be as open-and-shut as Karsh thinks.

After this, Karsh throws all attempts at academic argument to the winds and simply accuses Cole of being anti-Semitic, largely by taking more quotes out of context. He claims Cole asserts that U.S. foreign policy is "
controlled by a ruthless Zionist cabal implanted at the highest echelons of the Bush administration", using, in Cole's words, "sneaky methods of propaganda, disinformation and manipulation of intelligence". But in fact, when he uses those words, Cole is referring to the neocons, who are undeniably controlling American foreign policy. And immediately afterwards, Cole points out that the person most guilty of using these tactics is Dick Cheney, who is not Jewish. Karsh gives a whole paragraph to the fact that Cole despises Ariel Sharon, which is really irrelevant (as is his snark about how this loathing "comes from a historian priding himself on his dispassionate and evenhanded approach": obviously, he would be more evenhanded in an actual paper, but this is a blog, for crying out loud). Then Karsh makes a big deal out of Cole supposedly substituting the term "Likudniks" for "Neoconservatives". Yet a search of Cole's site turns up a mere nine hits for "likudniks", compared to 101 for "neocons". Karsh makes much of Cole's statement that "if Sharon and AIPAC decide that they need the US government to take military action against Iran, it is likely that the US government will do so." According to Karsh, "in Cole's fertile imagination, there are no limits to Sharon's domination of the White House." But once again he has taken Cole out of context. Later in the same paragraph of the piece that quote is taken from, Cole says "So it isn't that AIPAC can snap its fingers and make something happen in Washington. But it can put together powerful coalitions and leverage its influence through policy allies, which does tend to make things happen." And given the strong pro-Israel views among the evangelical community and the likely support from such a venture from major oil interests and neoconservatives, it's hard to disagree with this. Karsh also laughs at Cole for speculating that the attempt to capture Muqtada al-Sadr in April 2004, which sparked two months of violence, was caused by al-Sadr objecting loudly "to Sharon's murder of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the clerical leader of the Hamas Party." But in his actual post, Cole goes on to say that al-Sadr "had promised to be the right hand of Hamas in Iraq, and to open Hamas offices all around the country." So it was more than simply loud denunciations of the assassination. And that "The CPA had been tempted to go after Muqtada on more than one previous occasion, but it appears that cooler heads, like Gen. John Abizaid, had prevailed." So perhaps the idea of al-Sadr becoming closely associated with Hamas prompted the Americans to act. Note further that the killing of the four Blackwater mercenaries in Fallujah were declared to be revenge for the assassination of Yassin. Apparently, that event had more reverberations in Iraq than Karsh is willing to accept.

Karsh's most ludicrous paragraph deserves its own special treatment. Karsh asserts: " Cole provides no proof whatsoever for this conspiratorial thinking--there is none. During Saddam's 25 years in power, Iraq killed not a single Israeli. Nor has a single American soldier ever been sent to fight on Israel's behalf. It is therefore complete nonsense to suggest that the United States would go to war to defend Israel, rather than its own national security." First of all, if Saddam never killed any Israelis, it wasn't for lack of trying. And it's interesting that Karsh doesn't note that Saddam paid the families of suicide bombers, as that was the main tie between Saddam and terrorism. And while it is true that no American soldiers have ever fought on Israel's behalf, that's probably because Israel didn't really need the help. Furthermore, it is possible to help a country win a war in other ways than simply sending soldiers: a country can send money, over $80 billion in the past fifty years, and weapons, about $7 billion worth in the past decade alone. But to state that the United States would never go to war to defend Israel is ridiculous. Of course the United States would go to war to defend Israel, if it felt that it was necessary. In fact, some Israelis have suggested that one of the primary motivations of the Iraq war was to improve Israel's security.

Unsurprisingly, Karsh's argument boils down to this: Cole opposes the right-wing Israelis, their policies and their enablers in the U.S. government, and therefore is anti-Semitic. (Yes, many of those enablers are Jewish, but if we had a Democratic government with a liberal President and Israel had a Labor government, most of the people determining America's Middle East policy at the Feith-Perle-Abrams level would be left-wing Jews.) And this leads us to the real reason Karsh writes this article: to identify modern Judaism with the Likud party, and thus to establish that to criticize Likud and its policies is to be objectively anti-Israel and anti-Semitic. And this makes me angry, because I'm Jewish (well, ethnically Jewish), and I object to Likud's policies and the war in Iraq. There is no sense whatsoever in which Likud and Ariel Sharon can be said to speak for me, and yet by equating Cole's criticism of Likud and its ideological allies with anti-Semitism, Karsh is implying that, in fact, my views are exactly the same as those of Likud's, or should be. This is an insult to me, to my Jewish relatives and friends (all of whom oppose Likud and the Iraq war), and in fact to all Jews, in the United States and even in Israel, who object to Likud policies and to the war in Iraq. And given that American Jews rejected the Republicans, despite the close ties between them and Likud and the Iraq war, by large margins in the last election, I would guess that this group is easily a majority of American Jews. Perhaps Karsh will pause and consider that before he next accuses someone of anti-Semitism for suggesting that ideological allies of Likud control much of America's Middle Eastern policy. Perhaps he'll even apologize. Personally, I'm not holding my breath.