Israel and the nomination of Chuck Hagel

by Joel Kovel, 27 January 2013

(an earlier version of this article appeared January 23, 2013 on Mondoweiss

As I write in January 2013, President Obama has nominated former Senator and decorated infantryman from the Vietnam era, Chuck Hagel, to be Secretary of Defense in his second administration. This has created a considerable commotion in Zionist circles, scarcely news in itself, as Israel is a perpetual commotion machine, but of considerable interest, as it may be signifying a sea change in one of the most vexing disputes on our planet. However the Hagel candidacy may be resolved, it demands a close look at the current situation of the Zionist state of Israel and its chief imperialist patron, the United States.

The Zionist era is typically seen in light of the ancient Jewish narrative of selection by God to be the Chosen People and subsequent exile and suffering, with its dream of redemption located in the building of Israel. Thus Israel becomes Judaism’s destiny, a widely held but quite dubious proposition, for quite a number of reasons, including leaving out the fact that for Israel-the-dream to become Israel-the-reality requires the recruitment of Western imperialism for the redemption of the Jewish People.

This has been a source of endless contradiction, essential for the understanding of Israel. For the Zionist state is all ambivalence. There is no inner integrity to it, no possibility of reconciliation, either in the mind or the external world. From the beginnings of Zionist expansion a dual impulse has existed: to get out of Christendom and the West, the sources of anti-Semitic oppression; and alongside this, a growing realization that the Holy Land would not be attained without the active assistance of empire. This meant drawing power from the very lands the Zionists wanted to flee. It followed that despite utopian claims and goals, Palestine would have to be conquered through settler-colonialism with accompanying violence, racism, ethnic cleansing and exterminist policies toward the indigenous Palestinians. This attained heights of irony inasmuch as many of its Palestinian victims are descendants of the original Jews of Judaea; meanwhile, their conquerors—the Ashkenazi Jews—are of European origin. The irony is compounded by the fact that the Zionists have generally been strident modernists only a small fraction of whom originally were at all religious. Yet, in seeking the path of violent expropriation, they have been driven by Old Testament belief in an angry and jealous God. Thus Zionist modernity sprouts its atavistic Doppelganger. One side takes the form of hip technocracy; the other, of a burgeoning ultra-Orthodox segment that would make the founders of Israel turn over in their grave. They are joined, hatefully, in Zionism; and each works to legitimate the violence essential to Israel’s existence.

There being no hope of resolution, a hostile identification has grown between Zionist Israel and its imperial patrons, chiefly the United States, prime buttress of the Jewish State and the leading external power in the Middle East. It is safe to say that never in history has there been relationship like this, in which the client state masters the master, occupies his precincts, and colonizes the colonizer. It took shape in the first administration of Harry S. Truman, successor to Franklin Roosevelt, who had been no friend to Zionism. Roosevelt tried to work out with England a post-war re-settlement of Jewish refugees, but the idea was shot down by a furious Zionist response. It is safe to say that had FDR lived through his fourth term, Israel as we know it would not exist. Truman’s foreign policy team, Secretary of State George Marshall in the lead, were bitterly opposed to the Zionist state, accurately claiming that it opened a path to endless fanaticism and warfare in a region of extreme strategic importance. But Truman overrode them with the plaintive observation that it was too bad about the Middle East, but that, having come into office essentially on his own, he had been taken in hand by remarkably supportive wealthy Jews whose help was essential for his re-election. Truman recognized the State of Israel like a thief in the night, fifteen minutes after its founding, by personally typing out a short paragraph on POTUS stationery and signing it, to the fury of his foreign policy staff. With this, the long, convoluted and parasitic occupation by Zionism of the National Security State was underway. The Eisenhower administration slowed this down, but Kennedy failed to make much impact on its growth, which became viral under Johnson and after the Six Day War in 1967 despite the single most revealing episode in the whole history of the US/Israeli relationship, Israel’s destruction of the USS Liberty on its fifth day.


“The only thing standing between Israel and national suicide any more is America and its willingness to tell Israel the truth.” (New York Times 25 December 2011)

Thomas Friedman, a superstar of the bourgeois press, has made a remarkably sensible statement about one of the most vexing issues of our time, though he doesn’t grasp its meaning.

Friedman’s main point is that the Israel Lobby should call off its attack dogs who are currently savaging Chuck Hagel. Make no mistake, Hagel has affronted Israel, especially when, as Senator, he made the righteous statement that “The Jewish Lobby intimidates a lot of people up here” [on Capitol Hill, but] “I’m a United States Senator. I’m not an Israeli Senator.” Such usage is a sure route to unpopularity in American political culture. The Zionist watchdogs start baying about anything that implies that Jews might seek power and play rough in doing so. But whether you call it Jewish or Israel, the Lobby’s frank goal is to secure the power of a state explicitly for the Jewish people and open to all Jews simply by birth. To stave off realization of how outrageous this is, the charge of anti-Semitism is reflexively hurled, with remarkably effective stupidity.

Hagel goes further. He has denounced the Iraq War that Israel and its lobbies foisted on the United States through the neoconservatives who serve as Zionism’s chief agents within the United States. He is no less critical of the Iran War the same elements are urging upon us now. And he has gone so far as to say that “The Defense Department, I think in many ways, has been bloated. … So I think the Pentagon needs to be pared down.” Sacre bleu!

Hagel, like Obama, does not stand outside the project of the ruling class. Neither evinces any desire to limit the imperial reach of the United States, or to liquidate the expansion of capital that the empire is put in place to secure. But ruling classes are never homogeneous and different routes to their goals will arise. They can also, so to speak, be bundled as in Hagel’s case, who combines exasperation over Israeli control of the US government, with turning away from the follies of neocon-led military aggression, and the desire to cut bloated military spending to contain unsustainable federal debt without destroying entitlement programs. Hagel does not offer a vision of basic change; but his positions are as good a package as can be expected consonant with ruling class options. He deserves limited support because of the process he has joined.

Hagel now stands in the place of George Marshall, except that where Truman’s Secretary of State warned of fanaticism, now fanaticism has become internal to the US government as well as spreading over the Middle Eastern zones of the empire. Obama, freed from Truman’s burden of facing election, is also free to settle scores, including with his nemesis, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, who was dumb enough to have blatantly favored Mitt Romney for President—or was he rewarding the Republican for reaching new depths of servility when Romney pledged that on any matter involving Israel, he would phone Netanyahu and do whatever the PM told him to?

Friedman is right to conclude that Hagel’s candidacy is a step forward, though it is also a throwback to Marshall’s realist view that the Zionist state is a liability to the United States rather than an asset. This is important, but it remains no more than a step. Friedman goes off the rails if he thinks that the telling of such a truth will in itself save Israel from national suicide. For what determines the self-destructivity of a nation-state is what rots it inwardly, and not what others say from without.

As with everyone I know of in official political culture, Friedman assumes that Israel is a rational actor on the international stage who will obey the calculus of reward and punishment that regulates the conduct of normal states. The presumption is that if you tell it the truth, and even pull back US support, it will get the message, reflect, and change its ways. But Israel is not a normal state, except superficially. It will make adjustments, pulling back here, co-operating there, making nice when necessary, crafting its message using a powerful propaganda apparatus employing the most up-to-date social science. But this is simply tactical and no more predicts or explains the behavior of the Zionist state than an individual sociopath can be explained by the fact that he obeys traffic signals while driving to the scene of his crime.

Israel is no normal state, but one governed by the forging of Zionist system-logic into a Satanic ideology: that an ethnocratic state can be democratic. It is amazing that this gross contradiction is celebrated instead of treated with the derision it deserves. I would venture to speculate that the error stems from a link between what Judaism is supposed to be, namely, the source of the notion of a just God; and what Democracy is supposed to bring, namely, the universalization of a just society. Neither of these propositions can live up to their potential in the present context, which is to say, become realized in practice. God is not a big daddy in the sky, but a process that lives in us as we seek the universal in the here and now. How can a just God be the deity of a very small subset of humanity who have taken power with an aggressive state, and continue, day by day, to seek the extermination of the people it has displaced? How can democracy be authentic so long as it remains under class domination? And how can America tell Israel, or anyone, this truth, when it is at least as great a practitioner of the crimes of empire and the awful injustice of its class society? Itself unwilling and unable to step off the wheel of empire and accumulation, the American state cannot counsel the Israeli state. Its best hope is to disengage from the special relationship with Israel and look inward to its own transgressions.

Many facts on the ground over the last forty years remain to occlude this process: the invasion by Zionism of academia, Christian churches and the cultural and journalistic institutions of civil society; the interpenetration of the two militaries; and a great deal of residual influence by ardently Zionist neoconservatives who came to power in the 1980s. Nonetheless, the “Israel as liability” faction is stronger in the United States than since the Eisenhower administration, and there is no structural reason to expect its retreat, given the appearance of soft-Zionist alternatives to AIPAC and its cohorts.

In fact, there is every reason to expect its advance, driven by the disintegration of Zionism itself. This stems from the fact that Israeli triumphs also break down their legitimations and set into motion an inexorable disintegration. Israel’s success in eliminating and/or weakening regional opposition in Iraq, Syria and Iran, along with its never-ending ethnic cleansing of Palestine, creates chaos, foments resistance and hatred against it, and also against anybody associated with it. This includes, to be sure, US troops in the region. Such was the observation of General David Petraeus in 2011 as he allied himself with the liability faction and tried to tell Zionism some truth. He was swiftly made to eat humble pie by his masters. Who can doubt that Petraeus would hate Israel for his humiliation—or that Obama would feel the same when listening to his demented Congress cheering on the Israeli leader, or indeed, that nine tenths of Congresspersons themselves would inwardly feel hatred for having to bow like so many slaves to the Zionist overlord?

The breakdown of Zionist legitimacy is widespread and I believe it to be irreversible so long as people speak out against Israeli crimes in Palestine and the impunity given the Jewish State by the American security apparatus. Basic change is afoot: beyond hatred, a dialectical negation emerging across much of the world and very widely affecting youth, including, especially, Jewish youth in the United States. It arises as conscientization, it is watered by tears, and grows from pain and agony, and it engenders solidarity. It takes shape through the non-violent Boycott-Divestment-Sanction movement, led by an alliance of Palestinians and a saving remnant of Israeli activists along with their global counterparts; and it means in practice that mighty Israel with its war machine cannot escape the reach of justice no matter how much impunity the superpower offers. Each crime turns to dust, each step down the road to perdition is shadowed by hope, including a painful yet hopeful struggle between old and young Jews. This will fatally weaken the Zionist apparatus in due time. If Israel undergoes a suicidal process, it will have gestated within.

Awaiting the transformation of Israel into a full-fledged apartheid state with the annexation of the West Bank, we might keep in mind the observation of Ehud Olmert, successor to Ariel Sharon two Prime Ministers ago. Once this happens, Olmert noted, the hope of a Palestinian state would vanish. Then, he continued, we will have arrived at a cascading South African situation, and once the reaction to this takes hold, “Israel will be no more.”

Now that will be something.

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