As we passed through late summer and Bibi Netanyahu endured a summit in London, the distinguished British journalist and broadcaster Melanie Phillips — known as “Mad Mel” to the left — took on Alan Dershowitz in a debate on Obama in the pages of FrontPageMag.com. I do not intend to go into a protracted discourse about the argument but will put the cat among the pigeons right here at the start: I think Dersho is right-on.
The debate began when Melanie, a staunch anti-Obamaite, launched a challenge to Dershowitz after he had published a piece in the Wall Street Journal voicing his unease over the suggestion by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel that tackling a nuclear Iran was linked to a cessation of Israeli settlement expansion. Dershowitz made it clear from the outset that he had supported Obama. Needless to say I find it amusing that anti-Israel activists who confront me lump Dershowitz with Phillips as promoters of Zionism. (He tells us that he has gotten used to being called a “Ziofascist,” “Zionazi,” and “right-wing fanatic,” which of course Melanie has also been called.) Four years ago I attended the electrically charged appearance by Dershowitz at the hotbed of anti-Zionist activism, the London School of Oriental and African Studies, watching him defend Israel to the hilt in front of the most hostile audience anyone could organize this side of the English Channel.
So here we are in late summer 2009, with Barack Obama about to announce his “Middle East peace initiative,” and two brilliant advocates of Israel are squaring off in a protracted debate held on the columns of FrontPage. Why is it important to make note of this confrontation? The content of the long discourse is in itself a meticulous exposition of the issues all of us must learn how to express with care when we are confronted by Israel-haters. Phillips implies that this may be the last time the world has a chance to stand up for the survival of Israel. In essence, Dershowitz and those she calls “Jews with stars in their eyes” are so blinded by Obamania that the little Zionist state may disappear before those very starry eyes if its defenders do not make a strong public stand against appeasement of the Ahmadinejads of this world.
The Dershowitz-Phillips debate is historic because it exposes the wide range of argument spilling out into every aspect of society at present. The Gaza incursion of December 2008-January 2009 created a new wave of Israel-hatred that appears at dinner parties, in the office, at universities, and at school, to the point that many British parents I know have decided to move their children to Jewish schools rather than subject their progeny to the abuse heaped upon them by non-Jewish pupils this past spring.
Notwithstanding the anger Dershowitz and Phillips evince in their stunning, epic argument — he calls her a “strident, right-wing ideologue” and “paranoid and hateful” while she accuses him of “character assassination” and of promulgating “ignorant and absurd bluster about Britain” — the points they raise are crucial if we are to understand the path Obama is destined to take and the relationship Britain and Europe will have with the new administration vis-à-vis Israel.
First, Dershowitz argues that he, like Israeli intellectuals Amos Oz, Aharon Barak, and others, has been critical of Israel’s settler policies. He feels that expansion of the settlements will make it harder to implement the two-state solution. Later, however, he repudiates Rahm Emanuel’s “disturbing linkage” between Jewish settlements and tackling the Iranian nuke program. He concludes “you can be a strong supporter of Israel and yet oppose the settlements and favor a two-state solution.” Dershowitz adds that Phillips is a strident, right-wing ideologue because she vehemently opposes the concept of liberals supporting Israel. He wryly observes that Melanie is allying herself with Noam Chomsky when she refuses to accept that liberals can also be Zionists.
Phillips, in turn, goes ballistic. She points out that Dershowitz would likely abandon Israel if it did not support stem cell research, gay rights, and abortion, and observes that “such support is shallow, meretricious, and narcissistic.” Even more pointedly she accuses Dershowitz of endorsing “libertinism or brutal and anti-human totalitarianism,” but to be honest I cannot find any evidence of this in the huge screed. Does she mean his support for Obama is “anti-human totalitarianism”? Maybe so.
Melanie Phillips then offers a powerful defense of a Jewish presence in the West Bank: “Israel is being demonized on the false claim that the settlements … are illegal.”
She continues: “If Israel were to leave the West Bank, it would turn Islamist overnight and become an Iranian proxy on Israel’s doorstep. That is why I cannot support a state of Palestine.”
This, to me, is the most important part of the lengthy Dershowitz-Phillips battle of words. Like a growing number of Jews — and Christians — around the world, she cannot see a Palestinian state as a solution for peace in the region. The rage I have been encountering in recent months from people who believe Obama and his team intend to “put Israel in its place” is formidable and can be quite scary. (The posters proliferating across Israel depicting the president as a Jew-hating Nazi in a keffiyah remind me of similar posters before the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.)
Now on to the second issue of Obama himself. This is where I part company with my esteemed colleague Melanie Phillips. She has been a stern critic of the new president but does not grasp the significance of his rise to prominence. In 2004, when I was still a staunch Bushite, I saw Obama speak in Philadelphia and was moved to tears. He related the story of campaign workers tirelessly distributing buttons; as he watched them canvass, a local man told him they had been Klansmen in their youth but were now staunch liberals. This story stirred me as I stood in the square where my late mother had worked so hard for recognition of African-American rights seventy years before. In the preface to my play, A Room at Camp Pickett, at the London Africa Centre in 2004, I mentioned Barack Obama as “the one.” So that puts me in the Dershowitz camp.
Here’s why: Many British and European friends have been berating me about the stupidity of American Jewry in their overwhelming support for the Obama-Biden ticket in 2008. Otherwise enlightened and informed individuals tell me Obama is a “fifth columnist,” “the Manchurian candidate,” and “an agent of Ahmadinejad.” Like Dershowitz I am prepared to give the president the benefit of the doubt and defend the deeply held liberal beliefs of my parents and grandparents if those beliefs help America keep the cornucopia of ideas and freedoms harvested by the Founding Fathers. Yes, many Jewish anti-apartheid fighters in South Africa like Ronnie Kasrils have ended up being haters of Israel, but Dershowitz, like me, feels Obama’s core beliefs match and reflect those of the very best in American aspirations.
There is something else that Phillips misses in her many editorials about the dangers of Obama’s ideology. Dershowitz goes so far as to posit in the FrontPage debate that “Phillips understands nothing about how the American political system works.” He asserts that the left and right in America are not the same species as their British counterparts: the left in the U.S. can also support Israel whereas the left in Britain does not. He concludes that Phillips condemns him because he does not accept her “malicious evil words” about the dangers of the Obama regime.
Phillips ends the long debate with her warning to self-immolating Jews with stars in their eyes, while Dershowitz continues to condemn her rhetoric about the president: “vile,” “appalling,” “reckless,” and “lethal for both Israel and the free world.” He reminds us that it is the defense secretary, Bob Gates, the Republican holdover from the Bush administration, who endorses engagement with Iran and Israel pulling back from attacking Iran’s nuclear targets. He fumes about being called “blind,” “obsessive,” and “irrational” and passionately eschews her declaration of war against Obama. He says in his final statement that she does not understand the American political system.
On this I agree. In my previous PJM article I elaborate on my family’s staunch devotion to civil rights. My parents would be kvelling over the election of Obama. Melanie Phillips, as brilliant as she is, does not understand that the ascension of Barack Obama symbolizes a dream fulfilled to a generation of Jewish Americans who were at the forefront of black liberation and to younger voters who saw him as a symbol of total change for a nation nearing financial meltdown.
Virtually all of my British friends consider Obama a “sleeper” who will turn on America and bring it and Israel down as his beloved Islam rises, bails out bankrupt America and Europe, and envelops the world in Sharia law. Their hatred of him is palpable and unlike anything I have witnessed in my lifetime. They believe he is working behind the scenes to establish the new caliphate and let Israel be overrun by its enemies. I think this is bunkum. No sooner had he been inaugurated than Obama offered $20 million to Gazans under the 1962 Migration and Refugee Assistance Act and this was interpreted by many observers as opening the floodgates to immigration. In fact, if he has managed to get Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to agree to facilitate Palestinian immigration to the U.S., is this not a coup that establishes that the PA has finally rejected the “right of return” to Israel?
I applaud Alan Dershowitz for clarifying the aspirations of the vast majority of the American Jewish community. They are willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt. I end this editorial with the same three words as I ended my previous piece: time will tell.