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The Latest Libel: War Critics Blame Israel

By Ronen Mukamel

Over the past year and a half, the Bush administration has tried to rally support around the world for a U.S.-led war against Iraq. Ultimately, the administration’s efforts failed and the U.S. was forced to fight the war largely alone, attacking Iraq with the support of only a handful of nations. The war has seriously strained relations with our European allies, especially France and Germany, and left our relationship with the United Nations even more uncertain than it had previously been. The relative isolation of the United States in the effort allowed critics to accuse Bush of “unilateralism,” of being a bully in foreign affairs, and of catering to the hawks in his cabinet. Because most of them happen to be pro-Israel, some have gone as far as to claim that the administration fought the war for Israel at the behest of powerful Jewish and pro-Israeli forces.

The idea that Zionists control the United States has been popular for some time in the Arab world and among radical Muslims in America. Yet today the claim is not restricted to those who directly support terrorist networks or even to the most eccentric critics of the war: it has now found support even among academics and respected political commentators.

For some time, this conspiracy theory has found visible and vehement expression at pro-Palestinian and antiwar rallies. Allegations connecting Israel and the U.S., combined with a highly charged emotional atmosphere, often lead to overt racism and violence against Jews. In France, slogans like “Bush, Sharon, Hitler—where is the difference?”1 and “Vive Chirac! Stop the Jews”2 are common, and protesters burn Israeli flags and carry images of Stars of David intertwined with Swastikas. Jewish opponents of the war participating in French rallies have themselves been the targets of violence: Noam Levy, a photojournalist covering a French rally in Paris and an opponent to the war, was beaten with an iron bar when he tried to help another protester attacked because he was wearing a kippah. Levy recalls that the protesters were shouting “Death to the Jews” and “You and your kippah have no place here.”3 A human rights committee reported that violence against Jews and Jewish property in France increased six times during 2002, coinciding with the debate about the war on terror in general and the war on Iraq in particular.

Unfortunately, this disturbing trend is not limited to France or Europe, where observers have noted a resurgence of anti-Semitic rhetoric and action since the beginning of America’s war on terrorism. The notion that Jews are controlling the world has gained legitimacy here as well. Last fall, at an antiwar rally in Central Park organized by the group “Not in Our Name,” demonstrators sold copies of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-Semitic text that originated in czarist Russia but is now popular in the Arab world. The Protocols, akin to the worst Nazi propaganda, is responsible for spreading myths like the Jewish blood libels. At a January antiwar rally in San Francisco, protesters held signs that read “Zionism is Ethnic Cleansing” and “Get Israel out of Congress.”4

Despite their tenuous factual basis and their support among racists and anti-Semites, rumors of a widespread Jewish and Zionist conspiracy have found voice at elite American universities. Consider the debate that emerged from Amiri Baraka’s recent speaking engagement at Yale. Baraka is the New Jersey poet laureate and author of “Someone Blew Up America,” a poem claiming that Israeli intelligence services were complicit in the 9-11 terror attacks. The Afro-American Cultural Center invited Baraka to speak this February, igniting controversy after word spread about Baraka’s views. While the invitation itself was unfortunate, the arguments invoked in its defense were appalling. After the Yale Daily News published an editorial criticizing the invitation, columnist Sahm Adrangi responded in Baraka’s defense. After noting that in his “three years at the Yale Daily News, Jewish students have comprised a majority of management positions,” Adrangi asserted that Baraka’s invitation received more criticism than those extended to other controversial speakers because Baraka had criticized Israel and “Israeli sympathizers tend to occupy prominent positions in the American media.”5 Rather than addressing legitimate concerns about Baraka’s anti-Semitic views, Adrangi skirted the issue and once again blamed the Jews.

The Zionist conspiracy theory is by no means limited to antiwar rallies and the pages of college newspapers. Many mainstream journalists, pundits, politicians and academics, some more respected than others, have publicly subscribed to the same ideas. While the rhetoric they use is often less inflammatory, the assumptions and ideas behind it are the same. Consider, for example, recent comments and writings by political commentators Pat Buchanan and Robert Novak. In an article for the American Conservative published in March, Buchanan wrote that only “one nation, one leader, one party”—that is “Israel, Sharon, Likud”—would benefit from the U.S. war against Iraq. Robert Novak, who shares Buchanan’s view, cited private conversations with members of Congress in a piece he wrote in December 2002, arguing that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon “leaves no doubt that the greatest U.S. assistance to Israel would be to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime. That view is widely shared inside the Bush administration, and is a major reason U.S. forces today are assembling for war.”6

While anti-Semitism has long been the province of the provincial right (and it continues to find its expression there, as evidenced by Buchanan and Novak) it now finds widespread support on the anti-American left as well. Several academics and politicians on the left have publicly expressed the idea that Zionists are responsible for the war against Iraq, and that Bush is merely their puppet. University of Chicago Professor Fred Donner, writing in the Chicago Tribune, blamed the “Likudniks” in the Bush administration for dragging us into the war.7 Donner boldly asserts that the war “is mainly in the Likud’s interest and not our own,” rejecting without justification the possibility of security benefits to America as well. Congressional representative James P. Moran (D-Va.), at an antiwar forum in Reston, Virginia this March, similarly asserted: “if it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq, we would not be doing this. The leaders of the Jewish community are influential enough that they could change the direction of where this is going, and I think they should.”8 Moran was criticized across the political spectrum and pressured unsuccessfully to leave Congress for his remarks.

These links between Israel and the war on Iraq have found resonance with mainstream journalists and commentators as well. Tim Russert, interviewing former Chairman of the Defense Advisory Board Richard Perle on Meet the Press, asked: “Can you assure American viewers . . . that we’re in this situation against Saddam Hussein and his removal for American security interests? And what would be the link in terms of Israel?”9 New York Times op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd asserted that the hawks in the Bush administration want merely to create “a [democracy] domino effect to give Israel more security.”10

These insinuations should bother any fair-minded person. Not only do their proponents avoid discussing the actual merits of the war, they use the debate about Iraq to simply blame Israel and Jews more generally. Their choice of argument is particularly bizarre because there are in fact many more convincing anti-war arguments based not on hateful Jewish stereotypes but on legitimate political and moral positions. More important, the vast majority of the 65 percent of Americans who support the war have not been convinced by arguments pointing to the war’s possible benefits to Israel. In fact, none of the administration’s arguments for this war rely on the narrowly defined national interest of Israel. Assertions that the administration is acting on Israel’s behalf fail to address any of the real arguments for war, appealing instead to vague and absurd claims of a Zionist conspiracy to control America. That these theories are gaining popularity among mainstream critics of the war is frightening evidence that the racist assumptions underlying them are spreading too.

Ronen Mukamel, Harvard Class of 2005, is from Rochester, New York.


1. Sarah Wildman, “Iraq Assault Triggers Anti-Semitic Backlash in France,” Christian Science Monitor, April 4, 2003.
2. Kim Willsher, “Jews Attacked in French Anti-War Protests,” Sunday Telegraph (London), April 06, 2003.
3. Wildman.
4. “Anti-Semitism on Display: Marches and Rallies,” Anti-Defamation League, (http://www.adl.org/anti_semitism/arab/as_rallies.asp).
5. Sahm Andrangi, “Not just another conspiracy theory: manipulating anger,” Yale Daily News, February 26, 2003 (http://www.yaledailynews.com/article.asp?AID=21966).
6. David Frum, “Unpatriotic Conservatives,” National Review, April 7, 2003.
7. Fred Donner, “OK, President Bush, what if…?” Chicago Tribune, March 10, 2003 (http://humanities.uchicago.edu/depts/nelc/facultypages/donner/whatif.html).
8. Spencer Hsu, “Moran Said Jews Are Pushing War,” Washington Post, March 11, 2003.
9. Frum.
10. Maureen Dowd, “The Empire Strikes First,” The New York Times, January 29, 2003.

This Issue

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The Costs of U.S. Aid to Israel
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Reviving Religious Zionism
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Hudna-winked: How Hamas Fooled the Media
Adam Levine

HIR Book Review - Illegal Construction: a Legal Deconstruction
Max Davis

Security Fences Make Good Neighbors
Eric Trager

The State of the Jewish State
An Interview with Efraim Karsh