Three years ago, as the pungent odor of what was left of the World Trade Center slowly pervaded my neighborhood, I wrote a piece called “We’re all Israelis Now.” I didn’t invent the idea; in the hours since the attacks I had heard several commentators say essentially the same thing, although our meanings were in fact diametrically opposed. For them, the September 11 attacks had constituted a tragic wake up call to America about the mortal threat posed by Muslim terrorism, which Israel had been living through for decades and whose methods the US would now have to copy if it wanted to “win the war on terror.”
For me, however, the attacks suggested a more troubling scenario: That like Israelis, Americans would never face the causes of the extreme violence perpetrated against us by those whose oppression we have supported and even enforced, and engage in the honest introspection of what our role has been in generating the kind of hatred that turns commuter jets into cruise missiles. Instead, my gut told me that we’d acquiesce to President Bush’s use of the war to realize the long-held imperial, even apocalyptic visions of the neoliberal Right, ones that find great sympathy with its Israeli counterpart.
As I watch George W. Bush celebrate his reelection I realize I never could have imagined just how much like Israelis we would become. Think about it: in Israel, the majority of Jewish citizens support the policies of Ariel Sharon despite the large-scale, systematic (and according to international law, criminal) violence his government deploys against Palestinian society, despite the worsening economic situation for the lower middle class religious voters who constitute his main base of support, despite rising international opprobrium and isolation. Sound familiar?
As for the country’s “liberal” opposition, it’s in a shambles, politically and morally bankrupt because in fact it was a willing participant in creating and preserving the system that is now eating away at the heart of Israeli society. Aside from occasional plaintive op-ed pieces by members of its progressive wing, the Labor Party can and will do nothing fundamentally to challenge Sharon’s policies. Why? Because they reflect an impulse, nurtured by the Labor movement during its decades in power, that is buried deep in the heart of Zionism: to build an exclusively Jewish society on as much of the ancient homeland as possible, with little regard for the fate of the country’s native inhabitants.
As any native American will remind us, America was built on a similar holy quest. So it shouldn’t surprise us that the parallels between Israel’s mini-empire and America’s Iraq adventure are striking.
It’s not just that America’s occupation is faring as terribly as Israel’s. In the last week--with more than enough time to influence the election--doctors from America’s leading research hospitals published a study demonstrating that US forces have killed upwards of 100,000 Iraqis, the majority of them women and children killed by American bombs. Yet before November 2 Americans could at least say they weren’t directly responsible for the disaster that has unfolded there in Iraq, since an unelected President had taken the country to war under false pretenses. No more. As of today, American society has declared its support for the invasion, and as such is morally and politically culpable for every single one of those 100,000 dead, and every single one of the tens of thousands of deaths that are sure to follow.
To put it bluntly, Americans have chosen to return a man to the White House who has supervised the killing of more civilians than Slobodan Milosevic. We have signed onto a President who sanctions torture, who wantonly rejects any international treaty--Kyoto, the ABM and the International Criminal Court--that doesn’t suit his messianic agenda. Who truly believes “God Almighty” is on his side.
America, in short, has become a criminal nation, and it must be stopped. (Yes, there are many other criminal nations, but aside from Israel how many even have the pretense of democracy? Russia? The Sudan? China? India is perhaps one; and given its sordid occupation of Kashmir it shouldn’t surprise that a US-India-Israel axis of occupation and Islamophobia is one of the most prominent features of the world’s geo-strategic post-9/11 landscape.)
In Israel most citizens know full well the realities of their occupation; even right-wing newspapers routinely publish articles that describe its details with enough clarity to make any ignorance willful. This dynamic is in fact why Israelis have responded to the civil war with Palestinians by increasing the dehumanization of the occupation, accompanied by a fervent practice of getting on with life no matter what’s happening ten or fifteen miles away in “the Territories.” The alternative, actually working to stop the insanity of the occupation, would lead to much more hatred and violence within Israel and between Jews than Palestinians could ever hope to inflict on Israeli society from the outside.
The situation is almost identical vis-à-vis the American perspective on Iraq. Abu Ghraib? Mass civilian casualties caused by a war launched on demonstrably false pretenses? The erosion of civil liberties? The transfer of hundreds of billions of dollars of tax payer money (not to mention Iraqi resources and capital) by the US government to its corporate allies? To more than 70% of America’s eligible votes--that is, the approximately thirty percent that voted for Bush and the forty percent that didn’t feel this situation was compelling enough to warrant their taking the time to vote--none of it really matters. America is great and strong and can do what it wants, and to hell with anyone who gets in our way, especially if they fight back.
The numbing acceptance of large scale and systematic violence perpetrated by the state as a normal part of its exercise of power and the willingness of a plurality of the electorate to support parties and policies which are manifestly against their economic and social interests (as demonstrated by the increase in poverty and economic insecurity across the board in Israel and the US produced by the last two decades of neoliberalism) sadly characterize both societies today. This is why I never shared the optimism friends who thought this situation would help elect Kerry. Like Israel’s Barak or Peres, in the context of a post-9/11 militant globalization, John Kerry offered Americans little more than Bush lite on the most crucial issue of the day. In America’s increasingly obese culture, is there any wonder we chose SuperSize over Nutrasweet?
So here we are, three years after the tragic day of 9/11. The smell of charred metal, fuel and flesh no longer pervades the five boroughs of New York; instead it wafts across the major cities of Iraq (where most Americans don’t have to smell it, but I can attest from personal experience that the odor in Baghdad is as pungent as in Queens). The Bush Administration is free to proceed with a violently imperialist foreign policy with little fear of repercussion or political cost at home--who cares about abroad?--the Left is stupefied at its own political and moral incompetence, and the people at large are increasingly split between a fundamentalist religious-nationalist camp, and a yuppie-liberal camp that has no real legs to stand on and has little hope of engaging the millions of poor and working class who have moved to the right because of “social issues.” Indeed, it is clear that they don’t care if the rich are getting richer and the environment is going to Hell, as long as they’re on the road to Heaven--or at least the Second Coming.
This situation reveals something dark, even frightening about America’s collective character. Making the situation worse are the reasons why people voted for President Bush: the belief that he better represents America’s “moral values,” along with the faith that he, not Kerry, will fight a “better and more efficient war on terror.” What kind of moral values the occupation of Iraq represents no one dares say. What kind of terror the US military has wrought in Iraq most American don’t want to know.
Better to “stay the course” and pray for the safe return of the troops. Leave the troubling moral lessons of Iraq to be exorcised by Hollywood’s or Nintendo’s latest version of Rambo, helicoptering across the sands of Iraq blasting away yet more hapless Iraqi soldiers (as if enough weren’t killed in the real war) and rescuing whatever is left of America’s honor once the reality of a determined anti-colonial resistance drives America out of Iraq--the common fate of occupying powers across history.
Until such time, however, unimagined damage will likely be done to the world and America’s standing in it. What are progressives to do about it? Whether in Israel or the US the liberal opposition--the Labor Party in Israel, the Democrats in the US--have proven themselves to be politically and morally bankrupt. They are dying parties and should be abandoned as quickly as possible in favor of the hard work of slowly building truly populist progressive parties that can reach out to, engage and challenge their more conservative and often religions compatriots who today look Right, not Left, to address their most basic needs.
In the meantime, the international community, especially the EU, most assert a defiant tone against US and Israeli militarism and perform the novel but fundamental role acting as a counterweight and alternative to America’s imperial vision (at the same time, however, they must move beyond a narrow anti-American and anti-Zionist anti-imperialism to a broader critique of the larger system of Middle Eastern autocracy and violence, whose victims are no less deserving of our concern than Palestinians or Iraqis). But this will not happen on its own; it’s up to citizens across the continent to ensure that their governments don’t take the easy road of adopting a pragmatic approach of supporting the status quo and “working” with the Bush administration, while waiting for America to bleed itself dry in Iraq and other imperial adventures.
One thing is for sure. Bush and his millenarian policies can’t be defeated by the kind of violence and hatred that guides his worldview. As Antonio Gramsci warned us seventy years ago, a “war of maneuver” or frontal assault on an advanced capitalist state by the Left cannot be won. Instead we need to dust off our copies of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks and buy a copy of Subcomandante Marcos’s dispatches from the Lacondan jungle. Then perhaps we can find clues on how to fight a better and more efficient “war of position” against the terrifying prospect of four more years of George W. Bush.
While the Left has often turned to Gramsci for guidance, most commentators have ignored one of his most important insights: that however negative a role religion played in Italian society, it constituted the most important social force in the struggle against capitalism and fascism, without which the Left could never hope to achieve social hegemony against the bourgeoisie. This is because religion contains the kernel of “common sense” of the masses whose natural instinct is to rebel against the domination of the capitalist elite. But because it is largely unformed or articulated, it is easily manipulated by that elite -- as Thomas Frank has so eloquently shown in his recent What’s the Matter with Kansas? -- and needs to be joined to the “good sense” of radically progressive intellectuals in order to shape the kind of ideology and political program that could attract the majority of the poor and middle class. But in this dialog the secular intellectuals would be transformed as much as the religious masses, creating the kind of organic unity that helped propel the religious Right from the margins of their party to the center of power.
It’s sad but telling that a sickly political prisoner in fascist Italy writing from memory on scraps of paper could anticipate the struggle facing America today better than most contemporary leaders of the so-called Left. But never fear, if John Ashcroft has his way many of us will soon have a similar opportunity to learn the benefits of solitary confinement for producing innovative social theory. In the meantime if progressives don’t figure out how to reach working class conservative Christians, before to long we will all be living through Bush’s dreams of apocalypse.
Mark Levine is Associate Professor of History in the Department
of History at the University of California, Irvine. This article first
www.juancole.com. Thanks to Robert Leverant.