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‘The canary in the coal mine’: the Israeli Lobby in San Francisco

By Binoy Kampmark - posted Thursday, 1 July 2010


“I was the child of the survivors of the Holocaust.” With that, Roz Rothstein of the activist group Stand With Us that hopes to transform the image of Israel on US campuses sets the moral authority before a small audience at an office on Howard Street, San Francisco. One can, she explains, disagree with Israel, but there are “limits” to such doubting behaviour. Exceeding those limits constitutes the gravest sort of anti-Semitism.

As people devour the food and drink put on by the associates of Blumberg Capital, serious politics is being discussed. “We are being demonised,” she insists. Whether she means Israel, Jews or Jews in the US is hard to tell. Presumably, no true distinction is intended.

The gathering teams with Republicans, many of them competing with each other for various posts in upcoming elections. Candidates who are going to be competing for House positions are also there including John Dennis who hopes to undermine Nancy Pelosi. The room smells of political hustling and over-eager libidos.

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All are, however, there for one reason: defending Israel. Israel is besieged, the David in a sea of overly keen Goliaths. A good deal of agitprop is necessary to convince the audience, and perhaps the speakers, of this bizarre scenario. Pro-Palestinian groups are swarming across American campuses attacking Jews and pro-Israeli students alike. The UN is “obsessed” with Israel and prefers, we are told, not to look at the stain of character on other states. One must be on the look out for the “Three Ds” suggested by Natan Sharansky. (The speakers intone this in irritating fashion - we are in a kindergarten of ideological instruction. Remember “demonisation”, “double standards” and “delegitimisation”, for one.)

The language merchants are busy attempting to find the right good to sell. “We must be out there to counter our enemies.” Evidently, the Gaza dead, with their galvanic properties must be astonishingly good at public relations - they are, it would seem, the ignoble savages who dare speak from their status as the deceased.

The campaign being waged is yet another indication of how the Israeli lobby, so peevishly dismissed by Israeli supporters as non-existent, arises with effective force when fear is packaged and retailed in this faux salon manner. These are the first people who would insist that such a thing is anathema, only to then gather their forces and funds to effectively provide assistance to a foreign power. Young, well-groomed men listening intently will be doing service at some point with the Israeli Army, a problematic situation given mixed allegiances. The framers of the US constitution would have had something to say about that.

What is most striking in this display is the rehearsed language of doom. (We are “besieged”, a “well planned tsunami” is being put into place, argues Rothstein.) The Palestinians do not exist except in the negative, a dark eminence with satanic overtones. Hamas, a body once supported by Israel for Machiavellian purposes, is not a force that can or should be dealt with other than through force. Beware their Charter.

It all comes down to “information”. “They do not know the information,” explains Dr Michael Harris, who was a founder of San Francisco Voice for Israel before it became the San Francisco chapter for Stand With Us. So, with this in mind, a packet is distributed, bulging with fascinating “facts” rendered on glossy paper. How far it will go is not something these agitprop peddlers make clear.

A brief summary of what is on show then. A booklet entitled Middle East: Apartheid Today is designed to focus on Arab and Muslim prejudice (murderous “gender apartheid” is practiced among the Palestinians). “We don’t do apartheid in the Holy Land”. South African apartheid is also singled out as spectacular, singular and totally different from Israeli policies. And besides, many want to leave Islam - they want to assimilate, to become like “us”.

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There are pictures of hanged men from Iran reproduced in distributed booklets showing homosexuality to be a capital offence in that benighted part of the world. (Would Orthodox Jews disagree with such treatment, one wonders.) In short, the apartheid fiends, the promoters of segregation, sexually motivated crimes, honour killings and institutionalised racism, lie outside Israel’s sacred, threatened borders. Instead, focus is directed on such things as “Israel’s gift to the world” on a card that speaks about its “Intel laptops” and “mobile phone technology” among other things.

On the coat tails of doom is that of self-praise. No one would hate us if they knew how humanitarian we really were. An example is adduced: the hospital in Haiti, emphasised in the publication Israeli Heroes in Haiti. This gesture, it seems, rinses guilt and cheers the consciences. Far better to build hospitals in Haiti than Gaza, where a humanitarian crisis is all too real. The mantras are almost hypnotic, and said with repeated, mechanical hollowness: “We are the glowing light in the Middle East”. This is the Winthrop covenant of the Holy Land, Americans who have confused Israel with the “light on the hill” and a puritan assertion of exceptionality, and would prefer to be there than in San Francisco. (Dare one ask?)

The questions posed by the anesthetised audience are variously comical and absurd in their businesslike approach. A political candidate for the twelfth district in San Francisco suggests a screenwriter for an appropriate film to display Israel on American campuses in a good light. Another suggests “feel good” images that re-enforce notions of the genteel Jew. “Cuddly, yes, cuddly and warm.” Things are getting rather slippery here, and the hold on reality, if was ever there, is now being lost. Another suggests that Israel is “the canary in the coal mine”.

An announcement of thanks is made to the speakers: an anonymous donor has just penned a cheque for an undisclosed sum running into the thousands. Money for jam. This place, presumably a refuge from the coalmine, is an asylum of unreality. And one is simply happy to leave it.

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First published in Scoop on June 30, 2010.



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About the Author

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and blogs at Oz Moses.

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