Conspiracism American Style: The Daniel Levy Debate

Anyone who has spent considerable time in the Arab Middle East will soon run into the fact that conspiracy theories are part of the currency of communication and social networking. During my trips to the region, I have been dumbfounded and really shocked by some of the stories that are spun about American intentions in the world, or Jewish control of media and finance, or just completely fabricated nonsense that doesn't stand up to reason.

I have been witness to efforts by some in the Middle East to twist and distort comments made by American policymakers, Israeli leaders, and others in order to reify their fantastic but unreal constructs explaining some international event or accident or decision.

The "real" positions expressed by political leaders on all sides of the Middle East mess should be good enough to trigger actual, serious, and ultimately constructive debate without fabricating false stories or assigning motives to people that are demonstrably untrue.

But what is true in the Middle East churning of lies, false stories, and conspiracies is becoming true in America.

Our own debates -- whether about the causes and drivers of global terrorism, or what to do in the Israel-Palestine standoff, or whether China should be blamed or not for America's inattention and mismanagement of its economic interest, or what strategies would be best to either lure or force Iran on an alternative nuclear course, these debates and more -- are increasingly being commandeered by those who want to defame or twist or create guilt by association attacks on earnest, thoughtful commentators on public policy.

The one I see a lot in the press are references to George Soros -- someone I am proud to have a relationship with and a person I think had the markers right for a much smarter economic policy and banking/finance strategy than Lawrence Summers, Timothy Geithner, and President Obama finally elected to embrace. But Soros and all who he knows or funds are subjected to increasing attacks, while the merit or lack thereof of some argument is ignored by these anti-Soros shock squads.

I recently came across a similar kind of attack on Daniel Levy who do-directs the Middle East Task Force for the New America Foundation and who was instrumental in setting up the J Street organization.

In this case, Omri Ceren writes a piece based on a transcript from the 5th Annual Al Jazeera Forum attacking Daniel Levy for a statement roughly stating that the 1948 creation of Israel was wrong. Ceren anticipates someone like me pushing back and saying "out of context don't you think?" by claiming to provide the full paragraph of Levy's statement (actually Ceren edits it in important ways, but I will get to that) but here's the part of the transcript Ceren posted:

One can be a utilitarian two-stater, in other words think that the practical pragmatic way forward is two states. This is my understanding of the current Hamas position. One can be an ideological two-stater, someone who believes in exclusively the Palestinian self-determination and in Zionism; I don't believe that it's impossible to have a progressive Zionism. Or one can be a one-stater. But in either of those outcomes we're going to live next door to each other or in a one state disposition. And that means wrapping one's head around the humanity of both sides. I believe the way Jewish history was in 1948 excused - for me, it was good enough for me - an act that was wrong. I don't expect Palestinians to think that. I have no reason - there's no reason a Palestinian should think there was justice in the creation of Israel.

The transcript is correct in offering a horizontal picture of what Levy said. But like most things of this sort, there's some critical topography missing. I don't fault Ceren at all for reacting to a transcript if that is what he had in hand (he doesn't offer a full transcript or link to one) -- but given Levy's stature on this issue and long standing profile in Israel, I'm surprised he didn't go beyond this.

Having been there, been in the hall, been on the panel, and seen the impact of Levy's remarks, I find the attacks particularly strange and out of place. Levy was principally making a very effective appeal to recognize the humanity of both sides - and in this case, the humanity that was not being recognized was that of the Jews and Israelis, so that was the point he was clearly driving at and he appeared to effectively wrong-foot a particularly unsympathetic and hard-line question.

Reading transcripts is what we all do. I've done the same with Ambassador John Bolton frequently -- but beyond just reading his remarks, I try to listen to Bolton who despite some of his harshness is occasionally being flippant, or humorous, or answering complex questions in a roundabout way -- and that is what I feel Levy did in this case. I was there in the room with Levy and know that he was in no way arguing or suggesting what he is accused of.

What Ceren doesn't report is the question Levy was responding to -- and in my view, it was a loaded, obnoxious question challenging the humanity of Jews.

The question was:

Q: Hi- Mr. Daniel Levy, you spoke about "progressive Zionists"--and my God, that's an astonishing phrase. It's a contradiction in terms and seems to reconcile the irreconcilable, puts opposites together. It's just like putting cat with mouse and wolf with lamb. It's just like saying there are progressive Nazis or progressive fascists. The truth is that Zionism is a racist ideology founded on the theft of another people's land. There can't be progressive Zionists. Zionism can only be racist, regressive and antidemocratic. And by the way the project you endorsed has already failed. It is the project espoused by Mahmoud Abbas and even by Yasser Arafat and the reason is that when it comes to Palestinian issue, the difference between the Israeli right and the Israeli left is one of a few degrees, not one of different nature.

I have also found the Al Jazeera broadcast of the session which is regrettably dubbed in Arabic. (OK -- just found the English language version of the YouTube posted clip). But even watching and listening to Levy's background English in this case, I think it's clear that rather than questioning Israel's essence, founding, right to exist and the humanity of Jews -- Levy is -- though stopping and starting mid-thought too much in his response -- affirming the humanity of both sides.

His full response, provided untopographically by me, was:

DL: I think you have to get your head around the idea that the Jewish community in Israel is not going back to Poland or Germany or Morocco or Iraq. One can be a utilitarian two-stater. In other words think that the practical, pragmatic way forward is two states. This is my understanding of the current Hamas position. One can be an ideological two-stater as someone who believes in exclusively Palestinian self-determination or in Zionism. I don't believe that it's impossible to have a progressive Zionism. Or one can be a one-stater. But in either of those outcomes, we're going to live next-door to each other or in a one state disposition.

And that means wrapping ones head around the humanity of both sides. I believe that where Jewish history was in 1948 excused, for me - it was good enough for me - an act that was wrong. I don't expect Palestinians to think that. I have no reason - there is no reason - that Palestinians should think there was justice in the creation of Israel. But if we're going to live as neighbors or in one state, one has to begin to develop an understanding and a respect for who the other is. And to compare a Zionist to a Nazi doesn't really get you very far down that road.

[*italicized selections above did not make it into the cut that Ceren provided but which are contextually significant.]

I think that Levy's critic, who did not link to a transcript or the video, heard or was directed to a moment in an exchange that was lifted from its context -- and in which Levy not only defended Israel but made a broader claim for the importance of acknowledging the humanity of Israelis to someone whose bias was opposed.

But Levy is a former Israeli government official and a citizen of Israel. He's in love with Israel -- but believes that a two-state arrangement with Palestine is essential to Israel's survival and long term stability and interests. I agree with him.

But Levy is quoted all over the place -- and speaks and writes prolifically -- and yet none of these other comments that are clearly about creating a more just and stable Israel-Palestine situation that avoids the illusion of false choices is mentioned.

In his remarks, Levy says yes, there can be a progressive Zionism and that he supports Israel's creation - that the place the Jews were in in 1948 justified that for him. He also understands why Palestinians would likely not feel the same way, which all seems to me perfectly reasonable and probably a good thing to acknowledge if this conflict is ever going to be resolved.

Levy was not saying that Israel's creation was wrong; he is in fact saying that he supports it, a position I have also heard him espouse consistently over the years we have worked together. I know that he also believes, and have had this confirmed by him, that things that went on during Israel's creation, especially in relation to the creation of the Palestinian refugee community, did include wrongdoing. And that while he thinks it was crucial for Israel to be established, and that he personally identifies with Israel and the need for an Israel in the context of Jewish history, he can understand why Palestinians - including those ready to accept two states, recognize Israel, and live alongside Israel - would still be unable to embrace or legitimize the events of 1948.

In his statement, Levy goes after the question in a withering critique that had a powerful effect in the room, seeing this Jewish, Israeli, Zionist guy telling the audience - deal with it.

Levy ends with a clear call to end the 1967 occupation - for two states. And attempts to establish the two-state option as a common denominator for an audience not particular sympathetic to two states.

Levy's formulation is no different than that I have heard from the very highest levels of the Israeli government and among a wide variety of factions in the Knesset.

But what really gets me -- beyond the misreading of Levy -- is the conspiracism running rampant without challenge. We have lots of other blogs running with the innuendo-intoxicated and false conspiracy framework asserting that since Soros funds J Street and Soros hates Israel (wrong by the way!) that Daniel Levy has finally shown his stripes as an Israel-hater too.

This is just ridiculous -- and diverts attention from the merit of the arguments at hand.

I don't expect this kind of behavior to go away soon. Pamela Geller, who describes herself as a `racist-Islamophobic-anti-Muslim-bigot' got a lot of air time in the New York Times -- and this kind of conspiracist blogging and journalism drives readership and earns rewards at some level.

But there is the challenge of getting policy right -- and Daniel Levy is a key part of that debate, just like John Bolton, or Robert Kagan, or George Mitchell, or Aaron David Miller. And for that debate to happen, those who are key commentators should reach further and deeper to report what is real -- rather than what is contrived, or incomplete.

Middle East conspiracism is here in America now -- but our own political factions are now engaged in many of the same troubling patterns that drive some to unacceptable forms of violence.

-- Steve Clemons publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note. Clemons can be followed on Twitter @SCClemons