Anti-semitism and the Iraq inquiry

Submitted by AWL on 3 February, 2010 - 4:16 Author: Sacha Ismail

One startling aspect of the Iraq war inquiry which interviewed Tony Blair on 29 January is the furore which developed around two of its five members, Martin Gilbert and Lawrence Freedman. (Both are ‘Sirs’, but they’ll have to do without for the duration of this article.)

Both Gilbert and Freedman are Jewish, a fact not missed by former British ambassador to Libya Oliver Miles. On 22 November Miles wrote in the Independent on Sunday:

“The Prime Minister's choice of the members of the committee has been criticised. None is a military man… Rather less attention has been paid to the curious appointment of two historians (which seems a lot, out of a total of five), both strong supporters of Tony Blair and/or the Iraq war… Both Gilbert and Freedman are Jewish, and Gilbert at least has a record of active support for Zionism.”

Were Miles’ comments anti-semitic? Not according to Richard Ingrams, who used the 28 November edition of the Independent to hurl himself in – in an article entitled ‘Will Zionists’ links to Iraq invasion be brushed aside?’ (Miles’ title was about Blair’s war crimes).

“The ambassador's comments and the attention paid to them by The Times may be helpful in the long run, if only by drawing attention to the Israeli dimension in the Anglo-US invasion of Iraq in 2003, a dimension that hitherto has scarcely been mentioned. Yet it is a fact that the campaign to overthrow Saddam Hussein was initiated, well before 9/11, by a group of influential American neocons, notably Perle, Feith and Wolfowitz (once described by Time magazine as “the godfather of the Iraq war”) nearly all of whom were ardent Zionists, in many cases more concerned with preserving the security of Israel than that of the US.

“Given that undeniable fact, the pro-Israeli bias of Sir Martin Gilbert and Sir Lawrence Freedman, both of them supporters of the 2003 invasion, is a perfectly respectable point to raise. It is equally legitimate to ask if at any point the panel will investigate or even refer to the US neocons and their links to Israel. Call me snide if you like, but I very much doubt they will.”

Both Miles and Ingrams make a big deal about a phone call made by George Bush to French president Jacques Chirac, in which he apparently said that “God and Magog are at work in the Middle East… The biblical prophecies are being fulfilled… This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase his people’s enemies before a New Age begins.” In the Old Testament book of Ezekiel, Gog and Magog were sinister, mysterious forces threatening… Israel.

The logic of Miles’ and Ingrams’ comments, if you take them seriously, seems to me to be as follows:

1. That Israel and an international Zionist campaign linked to it have a decisive influence on US, and by extension British, foreign policy.
2. That this is why the US went to war on Iraq.
3. That this is closely connected with, and proved by, George Bush’s religious proclivities, which were a decisive factor in the war.
4. That Gilbert’s Zionism makes him particularly unfit to sit on the Iraq inquiry.
5. That Freedman’s Jewishness also makes him suspect.
6. That it is reasonable to discuss Jewish control over US, and by extension British, foreign policy.

The left – which, if it is really left, opposed the Iraq war, condemns Bush and Blair and stands opposed to the foreign policy of the Israeli government – must also, if it is really left, categorically reject this nonsense.

US foreign policy, like that of all capitalists states, is driven by the interests, needs and desires of its ruling class – mediated through a complex system of institutions in which rival proposals, projects and factions struggle for hegemony. This is much more so in a liberal parliamentary system like the US or Britain than a totalitarian state like Iran or Nazi Germany, where ideological factors may take on greater autonomy. In a state as powerful as the US, foreign policy is not driven by other states, particular not one as small as Israel. Israel is one of many US allies – including in the Middle East – not the tail wagging the dog.

The Iraq war became possible because shifts in the tectonics of US bourgeois politics – primarily the surprise election of Bush in 2000 – and then the realigning shock of the 9/11 attacks allowed the neo-cons such as Perle and Wolfowitz to move the centre of elite opinion on what should be done about Saddam Hussein. Their idea of what constituted US interests in the Middle East became hegemonic; obviously they made reference to Israel, but their Zionism is not even secondary here. To regard them as agents of the Israeli government is laughable – except in so far as it fits the conspiracy theory.

The same goes in spades for Bush’s messianic nuttiness. That the man who massaged Angela Merkel’s shoulders at a formal dinner should say such a thing is not a surprise, even if it is slightly shocking. But does anyone seriously believe that the foreign policy of the most powerful regime on earth is decided by such considerations? Almost certainly Bush’s advisers berated him as soon as he got off the phone with Chirac. Such raving would have been (another) good reason for US voters to throw him out in 2004, but it did not determine the invasion of Iraq. (Which isn’t to say that the inquiry should not have raised it.)

More significant is the way that Miles and Ingrams’ use ‘Zionism’. It is a usage familiar from the far left.

For them, Zionism seems to be a homogenous, determined, malign movement, shaping things according to a nefarious plan. In contrast to other nationalisms (for instance that of “sensible, pragmatic Frenchmen”, as Ingram patronisingly describes Chirac), to label someone a Zionist is to condemn them in advance. But in fact, like many other nationalisms, Zionism is a variegated and diffuse set of movements and ideas. The Israeli generals call themselves Zionists, but so do some of the soldiers they imprison for refusing to fight the Palestinians, and the activists who protest against them on the streets.

That is no reason for socialists to adopt the label, but it is a reason to reject its misuse by what have been called ‘absolute anti-Zionists’.

Lastly, back to Martin Gilbert and Lawrence Freedman. Is this not a different case? Both it seems, were strongly supportive of the Iraq invasion; they are not ‘Zionists’ of the same kind as the Israeli refusers. The issue here is why Gilbert and Freedman are singled out.

The entire inquiry is staffed by bourgeois establishment figures. All are rich; all ennobled; all engaged in the upper echelons of various aspects of British society. All come originally from a prosperous enough background to have attended private schools. Is it surprising that there are at least two supporters of the Iraq war among them? Shouldn’t the left advocate that we have no trust whatsoever in the farcical proceedings of this elite cabal? And what does the ethnic background of two of the panel members have to do with it?

Of course this is not the criticism Miles and Ingrams were making – unsurprisingly, since they are from the same background, and come from the same basic view point themselves. (Perhaps they would have liked to be chosen to sit on the inquiry?) The difference is that rather than coming from what they regard as the ‘Zionist’ wing of the ruling class, they come from it more old-fashioned Arabist wing. In promoting these politics they have predictably slipped into the familiar postures of unthinking anti-semitism. Socialists should have none of it.

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