Saturday, 14 November 2015

The Responsible Diaspora

It was unfortunate timing that Jonathan Freedland should publish an article on Friday evening that began with the words: "Diasporas can be trouble". It's too soon to know the identities or backgrounds of the terrorists in Paris, but it's probably a safe bet that they were mostly locals rather than foreign jihadis, even if they had spent time in the Middle East recently. The alacrity with which the French government moved to seal the borders suggests a fear of incursions from abroad, and the more paranoid parts of the media have been only too happy to suggest that Syrian refugees are the conduit, but there is no lack of potential volunteers in the banlieus of Paris. The whole purpose of "radicalisation" is to sow dragon's teeth and thereby divide communities along sectarian lines. The new danger is that these attacks will be used by governments as an excuse to suspend the Schengen Agreement in order to placate national xenophobes.

Freedland's piece is a plea for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to be influenced by Western Jewish liberals. Despairing at the growing intolerance and mendacity of Netanyahu's government, and convinced that there is "no credible Palestinian partner" (there never is, funnily enough), he looks in hope to the Jewish diaspora to exert a positive influence. The precedent he cites is Northern Ireland and specifically how the "responsible diaspora" of Irish-Americans lobbied both republicans and Bill Clinton to pursue a negotiated peace. The adjective "responsible" does not imply consequentiality, i.e being responsible for one's actions, but rather privilege and legitimacy. This discrimination in turn implies illegitimacy, which in the case of the Palestinians appears to extend to pretty much everyone. There is no mention of a responsible Palestinian diaspora.

This dichotomy of the responsible and irresponsible requires Freedland to mangle history: "Whether it was the German-Americans who agitated to keep the United States out of the war against Hitler, the Irish-Americans who bankrolled the IRA’s 'armed struggle', or the Cuban-Americans who lobbied to keep the US shackled to a pointless embargo of the island, √©migr√© communities have a chequered record when it comes to the influencing of foreign policy." The chief opponents of war with Hitler were not German-Americans but Americans, from disappointed Wilsonian liberals to the America First Committee (supporters included Sinclair Lewis, Walt Disney and a young Gerald Ford). Though a significant source of funds, the IRA was not "bankrolled" by Irish-Americans. It raised far more money in the Irish Republic. The US embargo of Cuba was prompted by the nationalisation of US-owned assets, not by the lobbying of Cuban exiles. Its maintenance has been due to the intransigence of capitalists holding out for compensation, not street demos in Miami.

This notion of continuing engagement with "the old country" leads Freedland to claim that "In the US, foreign policy is domestic politics". This obviously flies in the face of the USA's long-standing parochialism, not to mention the more ridiculous examples of politicians who don't know what pyramids were for or who wear their ignorance of world affairs as a badge of honour, but Freedland is engaged in building the image of the irresponsible diaspora, all the better to create a stark contrast with the responsible. The irresponsible diaspora is marked by "a tendency to be more hawkish than those in the old country, to adopt a dogmatic stance unaltered by day-to-day experience on the ground". Right on cue, Mohammed Emwazi (aka "Jihadi John") gets a topical namecheck, suggesting that Muslims are particularly prone to this dogmatic tendency.

The responsible diaspora, for which Freedland turns to research among British Jews, exhibits a more mature and sophisticated understanding: "Jews are eminently capable of holding two views at the same time that are often – wrongly – held to be contradictory. They are capable of supporting Israel’s right to exist, taking pride in its achievements on the one hand – and lambasting Israeli policy on the other". Freedland doesn't stop to note that those who maintain that these positions are mutually exclusive include not only antisemites but philosemites. In recent years, Netanyahu has been at the forefront in claiming that criticism of Israeli government policy is by definition an existential attack on Israel, and that Arab-Israelis are a categorical threat to the state. This latter stance extends the trope of the irresponsible diaspora to those whom the state is reluctant to even acknowledge as native citizens.

Freedland's search for a responsible diaspora is not unlike the old imperial search for the responsible native, whose continued non-appearance inevitably sets back the date of decolonialisation. The desperation of this search can be seen in his willingness to rehabilitate Tony Blair, Mr Good Friday himself, who has apparently decided to go freelance with "a new initiative of his own, predicated on the belief that the way to make Israeli-Palestinian progress is through a wider regional understanding between Israel and its Arab neighbours". It doesn't seem to occur to Freedland that the former PM might be more interested in leveraging the many contacts he made as "Middle East Peace Envoy" for commercial advantage than to advance a wide-ranging political settlement.

Freedland defines the responsible diaspora thus: "They favour compromise, rejecting the suggestion that concessions should wait until the wider region calms down. They are unimpressed by the Palestinian leadership, blaming it for incitement against Israel, and accepting the view that there is 'no credible Palestinian partner', even as majorities still believe in the two-state solution, still maintain that Israel should give up land for peace, and do not shrink from the fact that Israel is 'an occupying power'". The belief that there is no credible Palestinian partner is absolutist: the exact opposite of someone prepared to compromise. Freedland should revisit his own historic parallel. Were Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness noticeably more "credible" than the PLO or Hamas?

That the Palestinian leadership is deemed "unimpressive" is an ironic position to take when you consider the deeply unimpressive behaviour of Netanyahu. And as far as "incitement" is concerned, how do you describe the approval by successive Israeli governments of further settlement building in the West Bank? Of course, this tit-for-tat should be irrelevant if there is a sincere desire to negotiate: you want to focus on the future, not dwell on the past. The belief that there is a narrow range of acceptable interlocutors, like the attempts to bound negotiations by appeals to loaded values or the insistence on particular behaviours, reflects the aristocratic roots of diplomacy. These are matters than gentlemen should discuss without the interventions of the mob or their "unimpressive" leaders.

The persistence of these forms is due to their value in constraining the future by reference to the past, which is why they are always more pronounced on the side that is expected to make the greater concessions. They are structurally conservative. The "Foreign Office" style of the UK was a characteristic of the era of imperial decline, not the years of aggressive expansion. Freedland's construction of a responsible diaspora appears progressive and liberal, but in its refusal to engage with both Israelis and Palestinians as they actually are, it is typical of the aristocratic contempt that still mars British attitudes to international affairs, something that even the notoriously oblivious Americans are sensitive to. The truth is that we should always negotiate, where we can, because talk is cheap and lives shouldn't be. We don't need a responsible diaspora working quietly behind the scenes, we don't need preconditions and qualifications, we just need a table and some chairs.


  1. Herbie Kills Children15 November 2015 at 12:52

    Freeland's argument borders on the idea of a Zionist network, something I think the liberals regard as anti Semitic!

    Freeland is a very typical liberal, the West are the beacons of progress and must therefore be trusted to deliver it. This despite the fact that the West have and are royally screwing up vast parts of the world, particularly the Middle East. The other typical trait of a liberal is that being passive and subservient in the face of oppression is better than struggle and violence. I.e. only the strong are allowed to be violent and the weak must take it. So the responsible (educated and middle class) diaspora accepts the balance of power and the inevitable direction of history. The is called being rational. The irresponsible (who are most hardest hit by oppression, violence, racism etc etc) simply fail the rational test.

    There is also a firm belief in liberal ideology that progress can only come from the top down approach and anything to the contrary is not only doomed to fail but extremely dangerous. The formation of the Islamic state could be viewed as a 'bottom-up' response to the Iraq debacle (though to an extent funded by powerful forces). This experiment is not allowed to take on a life of its own or learn the lessons of its mistakes or be allowed outrages, no those privileges are the preserve of the top down formations.

    Liberals are also selectively critical, they criticise the extreme social practices of societies they have no conception of but do not devote the same energy to the incredible inequality between advanced and developed worlds. They raise the issues but do not see the problem as being with Western values but with lack of development in the developed nations. So in all the talk around inequality the values of the West are not up for discussion. The Islamists are barbaric and we are civilised and if the barbaric don't want to be civilsed then they should be treated like vermin. Nothing more to be said.

    Israel embodies all these liberal ideals, for good or for bad.

    It should be noted that because liberals pretty much follow whatever is in the interests of US imperialism, it sometimes gets them into awkward situations, where in Libya for example they champion the disintegration of a nation by empowering Islamists! Another liberal trait is to move on quickly and then re-write history to somehow blame anti imperialists for the problems.

    Finally, I remember reading Engels response to Irish bombs going off in London. Engles said that this tactic wasn't the best way to get British workers to support your cause. Of course, the Irish revolutionaries were not stupid enough to:

    a) think they would get their support anyway and
    b) think if they had their support it would make a blind bit of difference.

    We could call Engels the first naive idiot of socialism!

  2. It is very tedious to read Freedland, who continual writes articles about how the world would be much better if there were more people like him. While we all have that tendency, it would be rather more sensible, especially in a journalist, and you would have thought to a liberal, to try to understand the world as seen through other eyes, and to realise that actions have consequences.