Tikkun and the Gulf War

Against the Current, No. 31, March/April 1991

Justin Schwartz

IS TIKKUN, the self-styled organ of progressive Judaism, retracing Commentary’s path to the militarist right?

Support for Israeli “toughness” led Commentary to abandon progressive politics and become the neoconservative organ it is today. A similar slide is the disturbing prospect raised by Tlkkun editor Michael Lerner’s bizarre advocacy, in the November-December 1990 issue, before the war, of a U.S. air blitz against Iraq.

In the January-February 1991 issue, Lerner explains that he opposes large-scale land war but would support ”surgical” air strikes in the event of the failure of hypothetical “real negotiations,” which he admits were not on the agenda.

Even more alarmingly, Lerner throws his moral authority behind U.S. strikes against Iraq, or whomever he thinks menaces Israel, ‘every decade” or as often as necessary. No wonder he receives the congratulations of the ex-radical Reaganite David Horowitz, who wonders when Lerner will come to support all U.S. military escalation and intervention everywhere and in all circumstances. I wonder too.

Anti-interventionism must be “situational,” Lerner says, restricted by the causes which Washington might support Citing U.S. participation in World War II, he buys into Bush’s preposterous analogy of Saddam Hussein as the “new Hitler,” specifically in planning genocide against the Jews.

The analogy is absurd. Iraq’s capabilities are small compared to Nazi Germany’s. Hitler led the strongest nation in Europe on a path of world conquest, while Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was economically devastated after its eight-year war with Iran and was hardly in a position to take on any adversary much stronger than Kuwait.

Hitler threatened human civilization. Saddam Hussein threatened only to hike oil prices. However strong Saddam Hussein’s anti-Semitism, Iraq has historically not been much of a menace to Israel. Partly for reasons of geography, Iraq’s contribution to the Arab-Israeli wars have been “nil (1956) or purely token (1948, 1967, [1973]),” as Samir al-Khalil writes in Republic of Fear (21).

The slight results of the scattering of Iraqi rocket attacks on Israeli cities since the start of the Gulf war reinforces the point And even were Iraq a greater threat to Israel, Lerner would still owe us a better explanation of why a U.S. military “solutions’ is justified or advisable.

A Friend of the Oppressed?

In the real world, it matters who is using force and how they have used it in the past Here the U.S. record is not good.

I set aside Daniel Ellsberg’s correct but technical point that the “precise, surgical air strikes” are Pentagon mythology. The main issue is that the U.S. cannot be trusted to act, with or without force, on behalf of justice and decency. Much less can it be trusted to act on behalf of the oppressed and exploited of the world, whose interests both the Hebrew prophetic and the left traditions demand that progressive Jews defend.

In the Middle East alone, the U.S. has been the reliable ally of patriarchal feudal monarchies like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, whose “legitimacy” administration policy supports. Washington has been the supporter and sometimes installer of barbaric dictatorships like the Shah of Iran’s and, until August 2, 1990, Sad-dam Hussein’s in Iraq.

With the militarist governments of Israel, Washington has stood alone against the world on self-determination for the Palestinians.

In the wider world, the U.S. government’s displays of force since World War II have directed awesome firepower against national liberation movements worldwide, from Vietnam to Nicaragua. If some of these movements have been less than admirable in their own right, their defects have neither warranted U. S. attack nor been outweighed by the virtues, generally entirely absent, of the regimes the U.S. defended against them.

Saddam Hussein’s attack on Kuwait of course cannot be construed as an act of “national liberation”; it is regional imperial predation, plain and simple. But we should treat the claim that a superpower with a record like that of the United States has “in this case done the right thing” with the same suspicion we would regard a claim by Al Capone to have acted, just once, to defend the widow and the orphan.

Lerner (today) would properly heap derision on a claim from the left that some Soviet intervention, in Afghanistan or repression in the Baltic republics, was just, unlike all the others. And the USSR too fought on the right side in World War II.

Doing the Wrong Thing

The fact is that in the Gulf crisis, the U.S. is not doing the right thing. In the five months from August 2 until January, the Bush administration failed to articulate a single persuasive U.S. rationale for involvement, never mind war. As many on the neo-isolationist right have observed, even in imperial terms there appears to be no distinctive U.S. interest in the Gulf (see my “This Gun’s for Hire,” this journal, January-February, 1991).

As far as the interests of poor and working people in America and worldwide are concerned, they will not benefit from the diversion of the peace dividend into a renewed arsenal of the United States acting as global policeman on behalf of the rich nations.

Among the flurry of justifications offered for the war, Lerner’s favorite, the potential Iraqi nuclear capability, is singularly unpersuasive. Iraq’s very real interest in nuclear arms failed to bother Washington to the point, say, of sanctions, which Bush opposed until the invasion of Kuwait, before polls showed that story played best at home.

Moreover, Bush’s belated alarmism and Saddam Hussein’s boasts aside, the International Atomic Energy Commission has found no evidence (as of November 1990) that the Iraqis have a nuclear weapons program at all.

But even if Iraq had such a program, Washington’s unconcern was probably in order. Should the U.S. attack every nation that might get the bomb? Would Lerner support preemptive war on Brazil, Argentina, or Pakistan to keep them from a nuclear weapons capability? (He might, alarmingly, in the latter case.) Moreover, so long as the United States relies on nuclear weapons for deterrence and other policy goals, and tolerates such reliance by its allies, like Israel, why indeed shouldn’t deterrence be right for all if it is right for some?

Ban the Bomb for All

For those of us who deny that possession and use of nuclear weapons, even for deterrence, is right for anyone, it is doubtful whether the U.S. military is an appropriate vehicle for enforcement of nuclear nonproliferation, either from a technical point of view or, given Washington’s unwillingness to renounce its own nuclear weapons, from a moral one.

It would be better if Iraq were not to get the bomb; best if Israel and Washington were to practice nuclear disarmament. But preventing the spread of nuclear weapons is best promoted by diplomatic and regulatory means, not “surgical strikes.”

Lerner, though, seems to adopt the Israeli government’s (unstated but clear) view that the United States should sacrifice its own interests, its resources, and the lives of its young men and women to protect the narrow interests of the Israeli state. But as Lerner himself has argued in other contexts, those interests are distinct from, and often opposed to, the interests of both ordinary Israeli Jews and Arabs.

How Aggression Is Rewarded

Moreover, the hostility to Israel of the Arab states and the Palestinians would be undermined were Israel to negotiate peace with the PLO. This hope has been dealt a damaging blow by the U.S. agreement to defer till 2000 any talks on the issue, in return for Israeli restraint in retaliating against Iraqi rocket attacks—which would not have occurred had the U.S. not attacked Iraq to begin with.

So there is “linkage,” and aggression is rewarded, although, in this case, it is Israeli aggression against Palestinians rather than Iraqi aggression against Kuwait.

Setting these truisms aside, Lerner urges in effect, if, as is probable, “surgical air strikes” will escalate to major land war, and that poor African-Americans, Latinos and whites be sent to die for the intransigence of the Shamir government of Israel and its Labor Party predecessors and accomplices.
Justice and decency aside, this proposal is a match to the tinder of American anti-Semitism, which is (to speak frankly) too pervasive among precisely the groups that will disproportionately suffer the casualties and consequences of a desert land war.

The case of Tikkun is disturbing in its implications for the politics of Jewish progressives: It’s not just Lerner, because Tlkkun is widely influential among Jews who cannot stomach Commentary or the militarism of the leadership of the “official” U.S. Jewish community.

Will American and Israeli Jews continue the policy of allying with imperial powers against the world’s oppressed for their own perceived, short-term, shortsighted interests?

This is a policy that extends back to the earlier days of mainstream Zionism, from Theodore Herzl’s conception of Zionism as a colonial project to Chaim Weizmann’s deal with the British resulting in the Balfour Proclamation. The American Jewish right and the Zionist revisionists who rule Israel may accept this. But Jewish progressives must ask where this policy has led us.

Since Lerner, disturbingly, limits his concern to “what’s good for the Jews,” we can ask: Is war good for the Jews? The answer is no. Not for the workers, not for the poor, not for the Americans, not for the Arabs, not for the Jews.

March-April 1991, ATC 31