Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin-Talal speaks at Harvard, 2012
Rob Vincent is back, with a follow-on to his previous piece, “How the heck we got here.” This time he asks the question “how come we don’t know where we are?”
The corruption of public discourse over Israel
By Robert K. Vincent
Ideally, here in the U.S. and also in other Western societies, one would expect a relatively free and open forum of discussion for competing points of view, in what some have called the “marketplace of ideas”. In this realm, the venues for discussion are academic institutions, and for the public at large, national-level print and broadcast media organizations. These venues – which I would collectively term as the “organs of thought control” – define the acceptable parameters of debate on any issue. Points of view that are deemed unacceptable in these realms, rightly or wrongly, are relegated to the fringes of public discourse, and thus have little chance of influencing public opinion or policies where relevant.
Inherent in the concept of being a “marketplace” of ideas, the relative competitiveness between various points of view should be measured in terms of who has the better command of facts, of logic, and pertinent history.
But what if this “marketplace” were corrupted, in a manner analogous to the “fixing” of actual marketplaces? What if, as was the case during the “robber baron” days of 19th century America, a “Standard Oil” could buy out or otherwise shut down any form of competition? From there, a narrative of questionable veracity and authenticity could nonetheless dominate public discourse unopposed, leading to negative policy outcomes.
On the international stage, we have already seen this dynamic play out in at least one successful instance. Consider the course of the Vietnam War. In this conflict, the U.S. had every material advantage as these are normally calculated in warfare. Yet, in unprecedented fashion, despite winning every battle, we lost the war. Though many cite the failure of American will as the primary reason for American defeat, this only tells half the story. American failure of will was brought about as a result of deliberate calculation and tactical genius by our foes.
Without delving too greatly into the specific history here, it can fairly be said that while the U.S. concentrated on a two-dimensional battlefield focused on the clash of arms, Vietnamese leaders recognized the impact that could be brought to bear by a clash of perceptions that were vulnerable to manipulation in the modern media age. This was a revolutionary development, on a par with the groundbreaking historical significance of Nazi Germany’s “blitzkrieg” tactics of WW2.
Indeed, everything of this nature that was done to the U.S. during the Vietnam War is being done to Israel today. Terrorism, combatants routinely disguised as civilians, the deliberate use of civilians as human shields for media impact, child warriors, suicide bombers, and agitation on college campuses, all of these tools which sound so familiar to those of us involved in the defense of Israel were pioneered, in their modern form, by the Vietnamese communists.
That we see these very same tactics used against Israel is no coincidence: Yasser Arafat traveled to Hanoi during the late 1960s in order to glean wisdom from North Vietnamese leaders regarding the methods by which he could defeat a materially superior foe. Here, he was exposed to the techniques North Vietnam used in order to change the terms of the debate regarding the conflict in question, of manipulating public opinion to one’s own advantage. The rest, as they say, is history.
Now, consider the Cold War. During this time, starting most noticeably in the 1970s, the Soviets employed what they called “active measures” aimed at swaying opinion in Western countries so that the threat they posed would be minimized in the minds of Western publics. They admitted to spending some $50 million annually on such efforts. Although the recipients of such funds would not be publicly acknowledged for obvious reasons, as a student at the University of Michigan in the early 1980s, it was easy for me to spot the campus agitators and activists who promoted the Soviet line. In the national media of that era, it was almost as easy to spot the various journalists, syndicated columnists, etc., who reflexively blamed the West in general or the U.S. in particular for every issue of contention between the West and the Soviet Bloc, who opposed every major American weapons program while remaining utterly silent about the Soviet arms industry, and so on. Some of this “noise” might have been arrived at independently and honestly by those who made it, but the Soviets admitted to paying for at least some of it. $50 million might have only bought a squadron of fighter jets in those days (it would buy maybe one today), but it would certainly grease a lot of palms.
With all of the above in mind, let us return to the Arab-Israeli conflict. There could not be an issue for which debate and reportage over the same, in the “organs of thought control”, has become more outrageously one-sided. Finding a professor at a major university who will openly take the side of Israel is harder than finding a bag of pork rinds in the Rabbi’s pantry. With the partial exceptions of FOX and the Wall Street Journal, finding a major national or international-level print or broadcast news organization that does not take the Arab side against Israel in nearly every instance is also next to impossible.
The “marketplace of ideas”, where this issue is concerned, simply does not exist. Here, there is only one “product” for sale and the consumer can either accept it or ignore it, but it is amazingly resistant to any challenge in the form of genuine debate.
This phenomenon is so pervasive and comprehensive, it beggars belief that it could simply come about as mere coincidence. Could so many legions of professors and journalists be so willfully and consistently ignorant to such an enormous degree, on the same issue, all at once?
Remember the Soviet’s “active measures” program: What if a smear campaign aimed at demonizing Israel and promoting the Palestinian narrative, while at the same time, obscuring the true medieval, barbaric nature of Israel’s foes, wasn’t supported by a paltry $50 million per year…but instead by hundreds of millions of dollars every year, year in and year out, for literally decades? That would grease many, many palms, wouldn’t it?
Precise figures are impossible to come by, but we know they are doing this. Reports of multimillion dollar Saudi grants to major universities are legion. In 2005 alone, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal – the nephew of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah and reportedly the fifth richest man in the world today – awarded grants totaling $40 million to Harvard and Georgetown universities in order to “advance Islamic studies and further understanding of the Muslim world”…even as many of his own subjects are mired in poverty and illiteracy. Where media organizations are concerned, it has been reported, this very same Saudi prince owns a 7% stake in NewsCorp, the parent company of both FOX and the Wall Street Journal. This is the second largest share of any investor. This does not tell the whole story; his stake consists of special “preferred” stock that gives him the equivalent of 40% voting rights on their board of directors.
Now, consider what happened to Glenn Beck in 2011. Whatever you may think of him, there was no question but that he was an incredibly staunch and courageous supporter of Israel. His special program on that subject, scheduled to air in early April of that year, was abruptly cancelled for no stated reason. Speculation was rife in many quarters that weekend that he was being taken off the air, and eerily, in classic Stalinist style, columnists such as Dana Milbank, writing in the Washington Post, were already writing his journalistic obituary, incredibly accusing Beck of being an “anti-Semite”! His Israel special aired the following week anyway, but his show was ultimately cancelled in June of that year, even though his contract had him running until December. But he had scheduled his “Restoring Courage” event in Israel for later that summer; some “coincidence”.
Stop and consider the implications of this. What could be so controversial about someone coming out in support of one of America’s most important and staunch allies? Why was this so objectionable, when the solid majority of Americans support Israel in any event?
Academia and the media are not the only places petrodollars are finding their way so as to influence public perceptions of Israel. Churches are also being targeted. For example, in 2012, the Presbyterian Church USA’s General Assembly Mission Committee endorsed a resolution that would require that church to divest from holdings in Caterpillar, Motorola, and Hewlett-Packard due to the relationships these firms have with Israel. What possible interest could a Christian church of any denomination have in punitive actions against Israel, the only Middle Eastern country where Christians can freely practice their faith? Can leaders of these churches be so completely ignorant of the growing violent persecution of Christians throughout much of the Muslim world? In Egypt alone, since the overthrow of Mubarak, Islamist persecution of Coptic Christians there – to include Church burnings and deadly mob violence – has led some 100,000 Coptic Christians to flee that country so far.
Yet, even in the face of this propaganda juggernaut, arguing the case for Israel is not a waste of time. We need to make every effort in this regard for the sake of strengthening the convictions of our friends and enlightening the genuinely curious and uninformed. We have one important advantage: The other side has to convince the public that 2+2=5, whereas we only have to remind people that 2+2=4, a far easier task.
After all, what are Israel’s detractors supporting? Israel does not exist in a vacuum, in isolation. She is engaged in a state of war at one level or another with most of her neighbors, who make no secret of wanting to see her destroyed. By casting Israel as being “bad”, this, by logical extension, by default, casts her adversaries as “good”. Let us take a moment to remind ourselves – and resolve to remind anyone we debate or inform – just who Israel’s adversaries are. I would submit to you that the political and philosophical gulf between the West and Muslim SW Asia is greater than between the West and the Soviet Bloc during the Cold War, or even between the Western allies and Nazi Germany. At least in the USSR or in Nazi Germany, a woman could drive a car or get a job.
Consider Saudi Arabia. This is a society where there is no free press, no freedom of religion, no labor rights, and no women’s rights as we understand these. But it gets much worse than that. In Saudi Arabia, the courts have sentenced women to death – to death – for allegedly casting a spell on their husbands that made them impotent. This is a country where pre-adolescent girls are routinely forced into marriages with grown men in their thirties, forties, or even fifties. Here, 19-year-old rape victims are flogged for the “crime” of being in the company of an unrelated male. And these pathologies are hardly limited to Saudi Arabia; in various forms, they are rampant throughout the region. I sometimes wonder if this entire fantastic charade of demonizing Israel is not really some giant smokescreen intended to distract the rest of the world from the horrific nature of their own societies, to “keep the closet door closed”, so to speak.
Make no mistake, however. The Saudi-led propaganda campaign against Israel is not simply wanton hatred for its own sake. This has a very calculated objective. The Saudis and their friends mean to inflict upon Israel what was carried out against Rhodesia in the 1970s. Unable to defeat Israel on the battlefield, unable to compete with her economically, this is the only effective weapon in their arsenal. Israel is to be branded a pariah state and strangled through political, diplomatic, and economic isolation. The immediate objective in this campaign at the present time is to deprive Israel of her most important major power ally and strategic partner for the past four decades, the U.S.
When American Jews advocate for Israel, some even among our own criticize our efforts as amounting to “single-issue” politics, as if this were somehow unacceptably selfish to engage in. But at this point in history, in view of the very real possibility that we stand to lose the anchor of our claim to people hood, with all the attendant consequences, I would implore you all to ignore such criticisms. We can still care about the disadvantaged, about education, about the rights of those who are discriminated against, as we always have. As a people, we have done so much for so many others outside of our community, that I submit to you that we have earned the right in the present moment to put ourselves first as that is expressed in the defense of Israel.
We must never allow ourselves to be intimidated or silenced. We must do all we can to speak with as loud and unified voice as we can muster as a people.
As daunting as this task may seem, remember that the Soviet Union collapsed anyway, even as the government there had total control of the ‘organs of thought control’. The Vietnamese communists may have won their war, but it turned into a hollow victory. The Maoist ideal of Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnam has never been realized. Their leaders now come begging to their former capitalist, “imperialist” foes for trade and investment. Most ironically, Vietnam today is aggressively courting Israel as a source of such support.
Beyond our own grassroots efforts, my greatest hope is that more will be done to publicly expose the petrodollar propaganda machine. I would compare this enterprise of theirs to “The Wizard of Oz”: An impressive show of noise, light, and power, all based on illusion, all controlled by some little old man hiding behind a curtain, pulling levers and pushing buttons. We must tear that curtain away and expose that little man for the pathetic wretch he is, expose his corrupt friends for what they are, and in this way, ensure our place as a people, in the eyes of all other peoples in the world.
Robert Vincent, a U.S. Army veteran, obtained his BA in Russian and East European Studies from the University of Michigan, his MA in International Relations from the University of Chicago, and his MBA from the University of Findlay. He lives and works in Northwest Ohio.
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