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Sunday, February 22, 2015

Thoughts on Israel, Iran, Daesh, Antisemitism, Islamophobia, and Racism(Opinion)

To those who pay attention to current events, it should be obvious that there is a widening rift between the United States and Israel.  The rhetoric between the Israel Administration and the US Administration has grown to a fevered pitch as the prospect of a nuclear deal with Iran in March 2015 becomes more possible. Behind all of the rhetoric lies a legitimate policy difference.


Israel rightly perceives Iran and its proxies (Hezbollah, Hamas) to be an existential threat.  Certainly the thought of Iran developing a nuclear warfare capability is frightening to Israel and its partisans.  Such a capability could blunt Israel's strategic military advantage.  It is not hard to imagine a skirmish with Hezbollah leading to nuclear blackmail or worse.  If I were an Israeli citizen, I would be worried about such eventualities.  I am, however, a US Citizen and my only national loyalty is to the United States.

The United States

The interests of the United States are often in concert with those of Israel; so it is no coincidence that the two countries cooperate in a very dangerous neighborhood.  It is possible, however, for those interests to diverge and at this point in time (2015), I believe that they are divergent.  The United States and its allies face a global threat from a loosely affiliated and sometimes competing array of Sunni groups that are either influenced by or closely in agreement with Wahhabism and or Salafism.  These groups include Al Qaida, Daesh (ISIS), Al Shabab, and Boko Haram.  Obviously, these groups also pose a threat to Israeli interests. All of these groups are blatantly Antisemitic.  It is equally obvious that Iran and its proxies are a potential threat to US Interests (Consider the Khobar Towers incident, for example).  I do not mean to make absolutist claims one way or the other.

In the current climate, however, detente between the US and Iran may be possible.  Assuming that my enemy's enemy is my friend is a strategy that can backfire too often, but strategic non-aggression for the short term is very likely to be in US interests in fighting Daesh in Syria and Iraq.  The nuclear negotiations between Iran and world powers must be seen in that light.  While such non-aggression is in the short-term interests of the United States, it is not at all in the interest of Israel.  To the United States, Iran and its proxies are a regional threat.  Israel happens to be in the region, and to Israel, Iran and its proxies are an existential threat.  I suggest that this is a rational policy difference between the two countries, one that can and should be responsibly debated, but unfortunately that debate has taken a darker turn.


The debate has taken the form of criticism of the President's choice of words when describing the threat that the US and the world are currently confronting.  Israel and its partisans want to name the threat "Islamism."  This terminology has the advantage of blurring the distinction between the threat posed by Daesh and that posed by Iranian proxies.  By calling them all Islamist, one does not distinguish between the threats and therefore precludes the possibility of detente with one side to fight the other.

The US Administration for its part argues that one must be very careful of the perception that the West is in a war with Islam.  Although Islamism is not the same as Islam, that distinction is easily lost.  The President insists that the enemy are violent extremists that pervert the true meaning of Islam.  The formulation is philosophically problematic because it implies that there is a correct interpretation of Islam, rather than recognizing that all religions are human institutions that mean nothing less and nothing more than their adherents say they mean.  Yet, it must be acknowledged that not all 1.5 billion Muslims are violent terrorists.

Those who like to fan the flames of hatred and divisiveness, often make arguments that say yes, only a minority of Muslims engage in terrorist acts, but that mainstream Muslim groups never condemn such actions.  "We never hear them protest terrorism," such people claim.  This claim is demonstrably false.  I suspect those who make it filter their news to fit what they want to hear.  They could prove themselves wrong by the simple act of Googling for such a response.

The debate over terminology would almost seem silly when one reflects on the direct military action the current administration is taking against these extremist groups, whatever one chooses to call them.  (I should say that I do differ from the current Administration in that I think the current threat from Daesh warrants an even more aggressive US response to include ground troops, if necessary, but that is another issue).

As the President adamantly defends the right of 1.5 billion to maintain their religious beliefs, his detractors increasingly embrace the rhetoric of Islamaphobes (I am consciously using this controversial word, I hope to explain my views on it in another blog post.) and the fringe in American politics.

Fringe Politics in the USA

Unfortunately, such partisans of Israel have sought out and received support from some of the extremist fringes of the American right.  Ever since the possibility of an Obama Presidency emerged, there have been claims he was not born in the United States (He was born in Hawaii), that he is secretly a Muslim (The President is a Christian), that he did not have a "typical" American upbringing, that he "looks different" from previous Presidents.  In other words, the President is Black, but they cannot say that is the issue they have.

Fringe elements in American society take every act that the President does, scrutinize it, and claim it is un-American, regardless of whether Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton, or Bush 43 did the exact same thing.

Consider President Bush's remarks on Islam.  Do they make President Bush un-American?  Do they mean that President Bush does not love his country the way that you and I do?

One wonders about those who falsely accuse Muslims of not speaking out against terrorism, and yet themselves embrace or at least do not speak out against the rhetoric of racism (Yes, I said it.).

This temporary alliance between partisans of Israel and racists in the United States, is not good for either country.  Rather, we should be having a rational policy debate about the relative risks of Iran and Daesh.  I fear it is too late for that, and I fear for the future of a populace that will not clearly denounce Antisemitism, racism, Islamaphobia, hatred, and terrorism and live up to its ideals.  Terrorism, hatred, and murderous ideology are very real threats, let us stand united, not divided, in confronting them.