James Petras, The Power of Israel in the United States
(Atlanta: Clarity Press, 2006)
190 pages, $16.95 paperback.
Widely known as an expert in Latin American history and social movements, and a prolific critic of U.S. imperialism, James Petras has ventured forth in his latest book The Power of Israel in the United States, and several recent essays on the same theme, as a modern-day exorcist eager to take on a cabal currently holding in its grasp the very course and direction of the nation.
According to Petras, it’s the so-called “Zioncons” (his term) at the helm in Washington, along with the coordinated network of pro-Israel political action committees comprising “the Jewish lobby,” and a broad array of “dual loyal” operatives, scads of money in hand, who control the media and public opinion, call the shots in Congress, curtail academic freedom, divert the labor movement, and prevent the antiwar movement and authentic “progressives” from setting a truly democratic domestic and foreign policy agenda.
In his writings on Latin America, Petras has incisively analyzed the material causes and corporate interests behind the U.S. drive for domination. When it comes to the Middle East, it’s a different story: To hear Petras tell it, the reason the United States is in Iraq, and threatening Iran, is that it has been thoroughly infiltrated and “colonized” by the agents, direct and indirect, of a new “hegemon” ascendant on the global scene — the state of Israel — a new superpower that has managed, through well-heeled access and unprecedented political clout, to subvert, bend, and shape public opinion, the political terrain, and the course and direction of the most powerful country in world history.
If corporate power decisively determined policy, Petras argues rather sketchily, the oil industry’s interests would dictate a more balanced if not “pro-Arab” tilt. (What’s really so hard about supporting Israel and the Arab oil kingdoms at the same time?) Thus Petras would have us believe that Israel calls the shots entirely in this country on anything to do whatsoever with U.S. policy in the Middle East. The tail, according to Petras, clearly and undisputedly wags the dog.
There’s a strong undercurrent here of an appeal to a far-from-savory American nationalism, which seems very strange coming from a veteran revolutionary anti-imperialist. Yet the argument is important, because variants of Petras’ argument have had adherents on the Left. And there’s an empirical case to answer: Few who have examined the question would dispute the immense lobbying power of the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and a host of other related and well-coordinated pro-Israel organizations.
Sadly, among many basic errors in this poorly edited book, AIPAC is misidentified as “American Israel Political Action Committee” — AIPAC in fact is not a political action committee per se, but an umbrella funding source for a variety of PACs — and it’s weirdly implied that AIPAC is tax-exempt, which as an overtly political lobby of course it’s not (although the related American Israel Education Fund is).
A number of prominent names are misspelled, most egregiously former CIA director George Tenet who’s rendered as “Tenant”; a nonexistent “Union of Reform Jews” is mentioned, possibly a reference to the Union for Reform Judaism, but it’s impossible to tell for sure.
Such mistakes could be corrected, but the quality of the analysis is hardly better than the editing. This is a real shame, because the poisonous effect of AIPAC is a genuine political problem, and any attempt to confront “The Lobby” or intelligently discuss U.S. Middle East policy brings immediate denunciation and retribution, as witness the vicious recent attacks on Jimmy Carter for his book Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, or professors John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt for their study “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.”
Many, including a sizeable sector of Jews critical of the Zionist project, recognize the disproportionate influence of pro-Israel support within the Democratic and more recently (in alliance with the Christian religious right) the Republican parties, or within organized labor. Some left critics have even made an effort to point out the influence of Israel’s backers in the dominant media, Hollywood, the academy, and elsewhere.
What sets Petras’ work apart, first off, is his dropping or blurring of distinctions. The terms “Jewish lobby,” “Israel lobby,” and “Zionist lobby” are used interchangeably. Others, at least on the Left, have worked to mark the important distinction between Jews, as Jews, regardless of their differing ideologies, and those supporters of Israel, Jew and non-Jew alike, who actively promote and support Israel’s racist and expansionist practices. Petras facilely drops that distinction. (In an apparent attempt to deflect criticism, he states that he is justified in using the term “Jewish lobby” since that is what the Israelis use when discussing political support in the United States — as if adopting the Zionist movement’s cynical appropriation of all things Jewish serves any progressive purpose.)
What makes the use of the term an issue is the fact that Petras then lapses into the well-worn dual-loyalty discourse, using such language as “Israel Firsters,” “colonizers,” and “colons” to describe Israel’s multi-layered and well-situated support system in the United States. To talk about “the Jewish lobby” in one breath and to then speak of strategically-placed Israeli agents, operatives, and Zionist infiltration in another is to suggest that American Jews generally are to be viewed as disloyal, suspect, untrustworthy, not what they seem.
Elements of the far right have always done this kind of thing. Such sloppy use of language lumps makes it seem as if Jewish-American opinion is monolithic in support of Israel, which is precisely one of the falsehoods that the Left needs to demystify.
There are some points of interest in the book. One chapter is devoted largely to the FBI’s purported discovery and quiet post-9/11 dismantling of an Israeli spy network operating in the United States, briefly reported by Fox News and then disappeared from view. Leaving aside Petras’ peculiar affection for the FBI’s patriotic devotion, one would like to know more about this; but the trail seems to have turned cold.
Zioncons in Control?
Petras’ argument is multi-layered. Largely ignoring a lengthy and specific history regarding the U.S. imperial agenda in the Middle East that extends back at least to mid-World War II (originally built around controlling oil and displacing Britain as the leading imperial power), he tells us that support of Israel and Israel alone defines U.S. policy in the region.
He asserts that the invasion and occupation of Iraq had nothing whatsoever to do with oil, and that the oil industry actually stood firmly opposed to Bush administration actions. Sidestepping any discussion of U.S. attempts to gain and maintain strategic control over the region and its resources, he argues that Israel’s strategically placed “Zioncon” operatives in the White House and Pentagon (mostly gone at the time of this writing) took this country to war simply and solely out of a desire to crush Israel’s major regional adversary, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, to advance Israel’s imperial ambitions.
A fair amount of space in the book lays out what Petras describes as the “Zionist power configuration” or ZPC, in the United States — “a complex network of interrelated formal and informal groupings, operating at the international, national, regional and local levels and directly and systematically subordinated to the State of Israel, its power holders and key decision makers.”
Reaching from the “Zioncons” in the Oval Office and Pentagon and through a Congress bought and paid for by “pro-Israeli Jews” (36), and extending throughout most of the dominant media and the major trade unions, this network of “overseas expatriates” and “colonizers” or “colons” reaches right down to “the lawyers’ boardrooms and doctors’ lounges” (37) and “pro-Israel Jews disproportionately represented in the financial, political, professional, academic, real estate, insurance and mass media sectors of the American economy” (40).
Describing the response of those present at an AIPAC conference in Washington in May, 2004, Petras tells us that the pledge of unconditional support to Israel given by Congressional leaders and the two major Presidential candidates “[evoked] the bloodthirsty cheers of investment brokers, dentists, doctors, lawyers — the cream of the cream of American Jewish society” (71).
The book goes after columnist Seymour Hersh, accusing him of covering up the role of the Zioncons in driving U.S. war policy — a particularly absurd argument, given that the most prominent of the Jewish neoconservative militarists, Richard Perle, had to resign as an officer of a military advisory board following Hersh’s exposure of him (to say nothing of Hersh’s authorship of the definitive work on Israel’s super-secret nuclear weapons program).
Petras also spends a whole chapter attacking dissident foreign policy critic Noam Chomsky, asserting that “[Chomsky’s] analytical virtues are totally absent when it comes to discussing the formulation of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, particularly the role of his own ethnic group, or the Jewish pro-Israel lobby and their Zionist supporters in the government” (168). The substance of his critique of Chomsky’s actual argument doesn’t go much beyond this kind of abuse.
At one point, in relation to a passage critical of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s failings in regard to Israel, Petras goes so far as to mention, in a note, that the man’s wife is Jewish!
Seeing them as complicit, Petras also goes after Jews on the Left and in the anti-war movement:
The leaders of the peace movement, both Jews and non-Jews alike, reject any effort to include Israel’s genocidal war against Palestine for fear of alienating the “public” (read the major Jewish organization) and the self-styled progressive Jews, who are ever protective of everything Jewish — even war crimes. Worse still, with few rare exceptions, the “progressive” Jewish critics of the war and Israel are forever and adamantly determined to avoid criticizing the role of powerful Zionist policymakers in the government, their ties to Israel and the significant support they receive from the major Jewish organizations. . . . The tragic myopia or perverse refusal of Leftist Jews to face up to the prejudicial role of the major Jewish groups promoting the Israel First policy . . . substantially undermines their and our efforts to secure peace and justice in the Middle East and to forge a democratic U.S. foreign policy. (56-57)
In short, as Petras would have it, the “progressive” Jews within the antiwar movement are an impediment to peace and an enlightened foreign policy!
False Populist Appeal
If one were to believe James Petras’ explanations for U.S. war and intervention in the Middle East, then all this country might need to set it back on the track and restore it as a force for “freedom” and “justice” in the world would be to have a purge of not only the top layers of our government, now seemingly hijacked and under the sway of a corps of well-placed and influential agents of a foreign power, but virtually every key institution — the media, the academy, the various think tanks, the military, the academy, the medical and law professions. As Petras phrases it in the very last sentence of this insidiously twisted jeremiad, it’s time to “move ahead and decolonize our country, our minds and politics as a first step in reconstituting a democratic republic, free of entangling colonial and neo-imperial alliances.”
Could anything possibly be more worthless than arguing over whether Richard Perle or James Petras is a better American patriot?
If it is hard to imagine a leftwing scholar of Petras’ stature writing this kind of thing, one might also ask why anyone should even bother examining such a work. Partly, it’s important precisely because of the fact that Petras is widely known and read in some quarters. His numerous books and hundreds of articles critical of U.S. imperialism in Latin America and elsewhere, and his critiques of neoliberal globalization, have garnered him a significant audience in the Global South.
Unfortunately, his current book may be taken up there and elsewhere as some seemingly worthwhile analysis of how and why the United States does what it does in the world. It may also be seized upon as documented “proof” of “the anti-Semitism of the Left.” It might conceivably be taken up by elements of the far right, already convinced and not needing to be told, but always receptive to more “proof” of Jewish machinations and conspiracies.
More ominous, perhaps, the book will certainly seem attractive to numbers of unevenly developed and unschooled radicals, disenchanted youth and others already opposed to war and occupation abroad and assaults on civil liberties and increasing authoritarianism at home. It may contribute to miseducating and disorienting a movement that needs a serious, trenchant and materialist critique of imperialism and of Zionism.
To understand what seems to have led Petras into this blind alley, it may be worth looking at the remarkable recent renascence of various forms of populism — left, right, and just plain confused — with its illusory solutions to real problems. Grounded in vague notions of “the people,” joined in opposition to some oligarchy or “plutocracy” of usurpers at the top, populism as an ideology is often backward-looking, filled with demands to regain a declining status and position and calls to “take back our lands/nation/democracy/republic.”
While populism certainly has had its contradictory progressive and democratic edge, typified in our own period by anti-corporate demands of the Green party and other forces in the global justice struggle, populism has also had a reactionary side appealing to social groups bypassed and buffeted by economic forces beyond their control — a nativist, xenophobic and racist side, a penchant for conspiratorial theory and a related quest to exorcize evil cabals, rid the country of outsiders and/or their domestic agents, and reclaim “the republic.” This retrograde side of populism is evidenced above all today in ugly anti-immigrant racism.
In some weird way, however, Petras seems to think that such instincts can be turned in a progressive direction if the “Zionist Lobby” is targeted as an alien force imposed from the outside on American society. The true and ugly reality of The Lobby — fundamentally a home-grown outgrowth of U.S. imperialism, not a foreign body parasitic upon it — is lost.
For the simple reason that it illustrates just how far astray one might go in search of answers in these troubled and dangerous times, The Power of Israel in the United States should be examined as a case study of what happens when even a prominent left intellectual abandons a clear class-based, anti-imperialist understanding of politics.
Allen Ruff, historian and long-time Madison political activist, author, staff member at Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative and radio voice on WORT (89.9fm, Madison), is a founding member of US Out Now, the Madison Area Peace Coalition, Jews for Equal Justice, and a member of Solidarity. This essay also appears in Against the Current 128, May/June 2007.