20 April 2009
"The Israel lobby and US foreign policy" by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt was published in 2007. I believe it should be read by all British Muslims.
Unqualified US support for Israel has been such a fixture for several decades that we often fail to question it. Indeed most Americans never ask whether supporting Israel benefits or harms the USA.
After first reviewing the extent of US financial and non-financial support for Israel, the authors ask whether Israel is a strategic asset or liability for the USA. They consider a number of arguments:
Helping contain the Soviet bear - relevant during the Cold War but not after the collapse of the Soviet Union. They give the example of the first Gulf War where any Israeli involvement would have been seriously damaging to US interests.
Partners against terror - the authors point out that US support for Israel is itself a prime cause for terrorism directed against US interests.
Confronting rogue states - they remind us that the states usually mentioned present no direct threat to the USA and that US support for Israel makes it harder to deal with rogue states.
A dubious ally - the authors demonstrate that Israel acts in its own interests, even where such action damages US interests. It also regularly spies upon the USA.
Overall, the authors conclude that Israel is not a strategic asset for the USA but rather a strategic liability. Accordingly, supporting Israel is detrimental to US interests rather than advancing them.
Having decided that supporting Israel damages the USA, the authors evaluate whether moral considerations require American support for Israel notwithstanding. After doing so, they conclude that the moral case for the USA to support Israel is not currently justified, regardless of the arguments either way in 1947.
One is left with the paradox that the most powerful nation on Earth consistently damages its own interests by supporting Israel. It would be easy to believe that US support for Israel is achieved by a conspiracy, with secret arrangements made in darkened rooms. The authors demonstrate that exactly the opposite is true. The Israel lobby operates in the full glare of publicity; there is no conspiracy.
The book shows how American supporters of Israel organise their campaigning efforts, raise money, lobby politicians and also dominate debate in the media and amongst think tanks. This is achieved by many people dedicating their time and money to promoting the cause of Israel. The authors point out that in a democracy a narrowly focused interest group can often get its way; a small number of Americans are passionate about Israel while the overwhelming majority are relatively indifferent either way. Accordingly, politicians find it helpful to appease the Israel lobby; safe in the knowledge that their doing so will not result in any meaningful loss of support from the rest of the population.
The book examines in detail how the lobby operates. This is best understood by reading the book itself rather than me seeking to summarise it. However one statistic stands out. Between 1990 and 2004, pro-Israel groups contributed nearly $57 million to candidates and parties while Arab American and Muslim Political Action Committees contributed slightly less than $800,000. This information is referenced to a story "Taming Leviathan" in the Economist's Lexington column of 15 March 2007.
Regardless of one's personal views about the Middle East, it should be recognised that the activities of the Israel lobby are perfectly lawful. A free society requires that people be free to campaign for their views within the law. They are also free to give money for political campaigning as they wish consistent with applicable legislation governing campaign contributions.
Learning from the Israel lobby
Britain's Muslim citizens have views on a wide range of issues, just as other citizens do. On some issues, such as taxation policy, there will be no obvious commonality between Muslims; a British Muslim selected at random may believe in a comprehensive state funded by high levels of taxation, or believe in a small state with correspondingly low levels of taxation.
On other issues, a common (though not universal) Muslim viewpoint is much more likely to exist. I would expect most Muslims to be much more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than the UK Government has historically been, and few Muslims would regard the Balfour Declaration with favour. Similarly, I expect most Muslims to believe in halal slaughter despite the desire of some non-Muslims to ban it on alleged animal welfare grounds, to approve of state funded religious schools etc.
What the Israel lobby teaches us is how much can be achieved by focused participation in the political process in its widest sense; voting, lobbying, donating, writing and speaking. I have no complaints about anyone campaigning within the law to have the American or indeed the British government support Israel. My complaint is with British Muslims who often say that they are powerless in this country, but fail to learn from the Israel lobby and apply the same levels of organisation and dedication themselves.
I believe there are many areas where British Muslims let themselves down:
Voter registration - every British Muslim who is entitled to be on the electoral roll needs to ensure that they are registered. Britain as a whole does not achieve 100% enrolment; my guess (in the absence of research) would be that Muslim enrolment is no better than average for the population as a whole and probably worse.
Actual voting - voter turnout rates generally have been falling over time and are particularly low amongst younger people. Again I suspect that Muslims have a lower turnout rate than the average. Conversely, I would expect passionate supporters of Israel to have an almost 100% voter turnout rate.
Membership of political parties - membership of political parties is currently quite low in Britain. This gives disproportionate influence to those who actually do join a party and take part in its affairs. I believe that Muslims are underrepresented compared to their population. If they care about how Britain is run their goal should be to be overrepresented. Just consider what an impact it would have if a hundred thousand Muslims joined each of the three main parties!
Political donations - Give money to political parties and support political parties with practical measures like delivering leaflets.
Overall, people who live in a democracy but refuse to participate in politics, perhaps not even bothering to vote, have no grounds for complaining if their country follows policies that they do not like.
It's up to you
A few months ago I had a conversation with a highly educated middle-class British Muslim about the need for political engagement. He strongly agreed that Muslims need to get involved in British political life. However when I asked him if he himself was a member of any political party, he looked rather embarrassed and then confessed that he wasn't!
We all want others to act and it can be discouraging when they don't. Instead, focus on what you personally can do. How much you can do depends upon practical factors, including available time, money and education. However each of us can do something; the responsibility is to do what you can.
The list above is a good start, subject to your available time and money. Being a member of a political party costs only 10pounds - 38pounds per year (depending on party) so almost everyone can afford it. In addition, I suggest some more specifics:
Get to know your MP Invite him to functions in the constituency or visit his constituency offices even when you don't need something from him. Write to him when you feel strongly about an issue.
Be clear about what you want and be realistic Your MP is bound by party policy on many votes and cannot change government policy by himself. However, he can be encouraged to sign Parliamentary motions; the goal is to gradually winning round to your cause so that he sympathises with it. As a party member, you can help to select its national leader and its Parliamentary and local candidates but you have to wait for the opportunities.
Work with allies The book explains how American Jewish supporters of Israel are helped by Christian Zionists. Similarly on almost all issues that Muslims care about, support is available from non-Muslims. As a simple illustration, British Muslims and Jews have consistently collaborated on issues concerning halal and kosher food. When Ed Balls wanted to limit the freedom of faith schools, the most eloquent opposition came not from the Muslim community but the Jewish community.
We live in a free country where any citizen can campaign within the law without fear of retribution. When I write to the Prime Minister saying I disagree with something the government is doing, I do not need to worry about being locked up as a result. Each of us needs to do what we can on every issue that we care about.
On the authority of Abu Saeed Al-Khurdari, who said: I heard the messenger of Allah say: "Whosoever of you sees an evil action, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart; and that is the weakest of faith." Related by Muslim. Hadith 34 from "An Nawawwi's Forty Hadith."