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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

JStreet: the Gentle Facade and What's Behind it

Not since the days of the Communist Party -- the quarter century that began about 1930 -- has there been a comparable spectacle of methodical disingenuousness in American political life. The communists, smack in the days of Stalin and the Moscow Trials, proclaimed to one at all: Communism is the most American doctrine of them all; it is, in fact, "twentieth Century Americanism." The American communist contingent to the Spanish Civil War was dubbed the "Abraham Lincoln Brigade." The Communist night school on 16th Street and Sixth Avenue in New York, where the works of Marx and Stalin were taught, was called the "Jefferson School." And certain secret members of the Party, like Paul Robeson, denied to the end of their lives that they even were communists. Robeson was corrected on this after his death by the comrades themselves. (I have told this story here and here).

But all the time that the communists were explicit in their lip-service to democratic values, they strictly averted their eyes from the Gulag. Their facade of being gentle democrats ("peace" was a major slogan, until the Soviet Union was attacked in 1941) hid an ugly engagement for Stalinism.

As was the case of the Daily Worker, circa 1940, you can read the "policy statements" of JStreet and find little on the surface that is amiss; things are, by and large, American as apple pie, Jewish as chicken soup. There is talk of being "pro-Israel, pro peace," and, indeed, much of what is said seems unexceptional. Yes, Israel has a right to defend itself. Yes, Hamas is violent, and must be criticized. What is really bad, so JStreet, are the "occupation" and the "settlements." Even here there is no hateful language, and the sentiments, by themselves, are not far from mine. Nobody likes the occupation, and there is general Israeli and Jewish consensus that much of the Jewish settlement in the West Bank is dispensable. We do not need JStreet to tell us that. What is exceptional, and exceptionable, is JStreet's essential one-sidedness, portraying Israel as the major barrier to peace. JStreet's scattershot agitation -- relentless but not always explicit -- goes as follows: 1) failure to achieve peace has been the fault of Israel, essentially only of Israel; 2) dismantling all West Bank settlements will bring lasting peace. (I will not here dwell on what happened each time that Israel unilaterally did withdraw its army and its settlements, in Gaza, for instance). It is in these unilateral demands by JStreet on Israel -- radical, mindless -- that the facade of cheerful peacefulness becomes pierced.

Take the punitive campaign for boycotting Israel that we hear from left and right-wing fringe groups. What does JStreet say ? There is an official answer: we do not participate in that. But there is also an unofficial answer, expressed more in action than in explicit words. At the last JStreet conference in Washington, one session was devoted to the question: shall we participate in boycotts of Israel ? The session was off record, but according to bloggers who attended ( see here and here), it seems that much of the membership is in favor; one observation was that the membership is to the "left" of the leadership. At the very least, the punitive boycott of Israel is an option very much alive in the corridors of JStreet. Moreover, five rabbinic supporters of the boycott organization  are members of JStreet's "Rabbinic Cabinet": Rebecca Alpert, Michael David, Lynn Gottlieb, David Mivasair, and Bryan Wall. In short, the boycott movement is in fact supported, or at least partly supported, or at least supported by many who are active in JStreet. And this does not even take account of Michael Lerner, another adornment of JStreet's Rabbinic Cabinet.

Speaking of this Cabinet: what exactly is it ? The term suggests a leadership or policy-making or "spiritual guidance" function. None of this seems applicable. As I read the invitation to join, it would appear that anyone who says he or she is a rabbi or a cantor can sign up and be in the "cabinet." In at least several instances in what is claimed to be a membership of 600, individuals appear to be self-ordained. In any case, the "cabinet" is far from being representative of American rabbis. Of the first ten names in the list, seven are women, only three are men; eight appear to be graduates of a Reform seminary, one is Reconstructionist, and one, well, let us say she is "other." There are no Orthodox rabbis in this small sample of the "cabinet," although there may well be a sprinkling in the whole group.

In a word, the "Rabbinic Cabinet" is a piece of puffery. It seems to be almost exclusively Reform and Reconstructionist, largely female, in an American rabbinate that is overwhelmingly Conservative and Orthodox and male. Like the old-time functionaries of the Communist International, JStreet here presents a facade of benign normalcy, seeking to hide a reality that is much more marginal.

The financing of JStreet seems to flow largely from a number of billionaires, not all of whom are Jewish. The secret contributions from George Soros were at first denied by the group but were then shamefacedly admitted when a leaked document surfaced. The story has been widely-reported; one article about it can be found in the Washington Post. It does not seem likely that JStreet could at all exist -- certainly not in its present lavish form -- without these millions pumped into it by wealthy "angels." It is a glaring example of how the ultra-wealthy in this country, if possessed with enough will to impose their views, can distort ordinary democratic process.

One of the most striking aspects of JStreet's propaganda is its regular and repeated dismissal of criticism as "right wing." Here are some instances, from its website:
Since our founding, accusations about J Street and our leadership have morphed from whispered lies to stated fact in attacks on J Street in various right-leaning publications, organizations, and blogs. Right-wing bloggers continue to assert J Street is somehow “tied” to Saudi Arabia...

Some right-wing bloggers and opposition researchers engaged in a fear-and-smear campaign attempt to tarnish J Street because – among its thousands of donors are a small handful who have worked in some capacity with Arab countries or are themselves Arab Americans....

Far right-wing blogs have accused “J Street co-founder” of saying Israel’s creation was an “act that was wrong”...

Right-wing blog claims that Daniel said that “Israel really ain’t a very good idea” are debunked here by Jonathan Chait...

Despite a false report in the right-wing Washington Times, J Street did not set up meetings for Judge Goldstone on Capitol Hill, as JTA reports....
If and when critics are wrong about JStreet, of course they need to be answered. But why this persistent label of "right wing" ? How does JStreet, in its wisdom, determine who is right wing and who is not ? Or does disagreement with JStreet, by itself, make a critic right-wing ? And even if all the critics of JStreet were right-wingers in some sense, would that make their arguments wrong ? Here again, by its persistent use of argument by vilification, JStreet resembles the CP operatives of former years. And, if I may say so, it doesn't sit well for a group whose constant complaint is that it is being "smeared" by nasties on the "right."

Finally, there is an issue that I find particularly galling. JStreet publishes polls of American Jews, which, it says, prove that American Jews have opinions similar to those of itself. Briefly put, these polls are essentially fraudulent.

Noah Pollak of Commentary magazine has pointed out that the ostensible JStreet independent pollster, Jim Gerstein, is actually JStreet's vice president, thus suggesting that the polling results are slanted to suit the organization. But since the technical sampling faults in these polls are so glaring, it hardly matters whether the questions were deliberately worded so as to yield a biased response.

In response to Pollak, JStreet has stated that, whatever Gerstein's affiliation, his scholarship is exemplary and beyond criticism, and that, moreover, he has fully disclosed the methodology of his study. And indeed, there is a disclosure from Gerstein of sorts, which reads as follows:

Gerstein | Agne Strategic Communications designed the questionnaire for this survey of 803 self-identified adult American Jews, conducted March 17-19, 2010. The survey has a margin of error of +/- 3.5 percent; the margin of error in the split samples is +/- 4.9 percent. Gerstein | Agne contracted the research company Mountain West Research Center and Opinion Outpost to administer the survey by email invitation to its web-based panel, which is regularly updated and consists of nearly 900,000 Americans. 

For anyone interested in polling, this disclosure is worse than useless. The problem of adequate sampling in polling research includes the following issues, at the least:

a) What is the operational definition of the universe, in this case the whole of the American Jewish community ? Ideally a universe is a list of names that can be sampled. Since there is not and cannot be a total list of all the Jews in America, some reasonable facsimile needs to be fashioned. This is not easy, and certainly not cheap. But responsible polling scholars, for instance the National Jewish Population Survey, have successfully grappled with this problem. A perusal of the NJPS methodological discussion makes it clear that JStreet-Gerstein is totally innocent of any scientific approach to the problem of the Jewish universe, at least insofar as Gerstein has deigned to disclose his methods.

b) Once we have defined the universe, we need to find a scientific, i.e. a random way of sampling it. Again, this is not easy, and certainly not cheap. Again, according to Gerstein's descriptions, it is obvious that the JStreet surveys fall far short of scientific standards. Moreover, Gerstein's talk about "margin of error" is worthless because no such statistic can be calculated for non-scientific samples.

Regarding a), the problem of universe, it appears that JStreet has employed some definition of the total American population, rather than of the Jewish population. As I have shown elsewhere, this procedure is much cheaper and is used by some news organizations, but it leads to gross distortions of Jewish opinion. In particular, it under-represents Jews who live in relatively dense Jewish population centers, and it over-represents Jews who live in relative isolation from other Jews. It cannot give a valid picture of American Jewish opinion as such.

Regarding b), the sampling problem, it appears that there were "email invitations to a web-based panel." So those who accepted such "invitations" were asked questions by the good folks of JStreet. How were people chosen to be invited ? And of those invited to serve on these "panels," how many accepted ? And how do we know that those who accepted are typical of all those who were invited, let alone of the universe from which they were ostensibly drawn ? We do not know, not from Gerstein's explanations. What we end up with is a group of essentially self-chosen respondents, drawn from a list that is biased in favor of individuals who live outside of major Jewish population centers.

All this is a text-book example of polling malfeasance. It is an insult to an intelligent reader to be told that he is presented with a valid report on Jewish public opinion. The New York Times has published its own (useful) standards concerning public opinion polls. JS's Mr. Gerstein violates just about every one of these.

To sum up. JStreet's facade is one of a gentle, peace-loving, rational, honest, intelligent bunch that wishes to make the world a little better. Behind the facade there is a determined propaganda to endanger Israel, using techniques that include misrepresentation, secret money, vilification of opponents, puffery, and, in the case of its opinion polling, something akin to outright fraud.

Read also Ron Radosh, on how JStreet's David Saperstein teaches his followers to speak with a forked tongue.

UPDATE June 5:

The closer one examines JS's "Rabbinic Cabinet," the more curious this body seems. The Rabbi David Mivasair who is listed as resident of State College, Pa., is listed in other online sites, many of them anti-Israel, as having a congregation in Vancouver, Canada, and another one in Seattle, Wash. But he also is pleased to list himself not only as a rabbi of these congregations but also as a clergyman of the (Christian) First United Church of Vancouver. Well, after all, why can't this person be part of a Rabbinic Cabinet ? In the reign of Tammany Hall, lists of eligible voters included dogs, children, and the dead. As for State College, Pa., the congregation there tells us that Mivasair left them in 1996.

Concerning the opinion polling, so-called, conducted for JS by their vice president and ostensible polling expert Jim Gerstein -- I sent him my analysis of what I consider his faulty polling methods (see above). Who knows -- perhaps I was mistaken in my take on his work ? I wrote to him some days ago, requesting his comments. If I was in error, either of fact or interpretation, I would certainly like to make amends. Well, Mr. Gerstein has not responded at all. Does this mean that he is happy with what I had to say ?

A JStreet "rabbi" supports Hamas bombings of Sderot

More than eighty of JStreet's rabbis are active against Israel

Read Alana Goodman's revealing reportage of the 2011 JStreet meeting

Also read, on related subjects:
Eli Lake on Soros funding for JStreet
Israel Matsav on off-shore, non-Jewish funding of JStreet

Sunday, May 15, 2011

How Smart Is Noam Chomsky ? The Art of Special Pleading

Just how smart are Chomsky's pronouncements ? Just how smart is Noam Chomsky ?

Chomsky's name is rarely absent from the mass media, but he has lately drawn even more than usual attention to himself for his opinion on Bin Laden's death. In brief: 1) Chomsky condemns the US government action as "violating elementary norms of international law" ("elementary norms" is a favorite expression of his, especially in areas in which he has not background); and 2) he opines that, in any case, George W. Bush committed far greater crimes,"uncontroversially," than the ones Bin Laden is alleged to have committed. Christopher Hitchens judges Chomsky's statements to be "stupid and ignorant," a judgement that's hard to fault. Alan Dershowitz chides those who continue to give any credence whatsoever to this alleged sage of MIT.

Here is an excerpt from Chomsky's piece on the Bin Laden affair:
... Obama was simply lying when he said, in his White House statement, that “we quickly learned that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by al Qaeda.”

Nothing serious has been provided since. There is much talk of bin Laden’s “confession,” but that is rather like my confession that I won the Boston Marathon. He boasted of what he regarded as a great achievement.
Chomsky's argument here is one of analogy. Bin Laden's believable, actual boast that he directed the 9/11 attack is like ... what ? According to Chomsky, it is like a hypothetical, unbelievable boast by Chomsky, one he never made, that he won the Boston Marathon. So, Chomsky argues, since he himself could not have won the Boston Marathon, Bin Laden could not have carried out 9/11. Q.E.D. Is this a valid analogy ? Is it a smart argument ? Is it likely to influence an intelligent person ?

Chomsky oeuvre is replete with what we must consider, using Chomskyan terminology, violations of elementary logic. A very egregious example is his use of special pleading in claiming that the movement for Holocaust denial is free of anti-Semitism. His pronouncements here go back thirty years, but, despite numerous criticisms from others, he has never seen fit to modify his arguments.

The world's major Holocaust-denying organizations, both of which, by the way, sell Chomsky's books and routinely use his various endorsements of their work, are also blatantly anti-Semitic; they blame world Jewry for the "lie" of the Holocaust and for genocide of the Palestinian people. They are the Institute for Historical Review in California, and AAARGH in Paris. Robert Faurisson (associated with Chomsky for the last forty years) is a featured speaker at the events of both of these groups. Both organizations routinely praise Hitler and promote the most extreme anti-Semitic literature of the last 150 years, including the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. But Chomsky denies any "anti-Semitic implications" in this propaganda.

Here is Chomsky's original statement on the topic:
I see no anti-Semitic implications in denial of the existence of gas chambers, or even denial of the holocaust. Nor would there be anti-Semitic implications, per se, in the claim that the holocaust (whether one believes it took place or not) is being exploited, viciously so, by apologists for Israeli repression and violence. I see no hint of anti-Semitic implications in Faurisson's work ... (letter to W.D. Rubinstein, reported by the latter in Quadrant, October 1981, pp. 8-14. Discussed by me in my pamphlet on Chomsky)
Some time after writing to Rubenstein, Chomsky elucidated in a statement to Lawrence L. Kolodney that is now posted on the "official" Chomsky website:
In that context, I made a further point: even denial of the Holocaust would not prove that a person is an anti-Semite. I presume that that point too is not subject to contention. Thus if a person ignorant of modern history were told of the Holocaust and refused to believe that humans are capable of such monstrous acts, we would not conclude that he is an anti-Semite. That suffices to establish the point at issue.
"That," for Chomsky, "suffices to establish the point at issue."
Need I say that Chomsky here employs the fallacy "special pleading" ? This is the fallacy in which non-relevant, or, as in this case, non-existent special circumstances are posited to argue against the generality of a proposition. The general proposition -- viz. that Holocaust-deniers are motivated by anti-Semitism -- is here countered, in Chomsky's logic, by an assertion that a "person ignorant of modern history" could deny the Holocaust without being an anti-Semite. Of course Robert Faurisson, the person at issue, was a university professor at the time, and could surely not have been so "ignorant of modern history." Chomsky's argument here is so puerile and ignorant that it is embarrassing to have to react to it. Is this an intelligent person speaking here ? Would an intelligent person be persuaded by this primitive special pleading ?

Like Chomsky, I too have had contact with M. Faurisson. Some time after my pamphlet on Chomsky appeared, Faurisson was visiting Canada and contacted me by telephone. I owed some money to his organization, he insisted, for the pamphlets that they had sent to me. I had never ordered this material, and I therefore felt under no obligation to pay for it. But since I had him on the phone, I did tell him that I had lost uncles and aunts and cousins and a grandmother in the Holocaust, which, I said, surely happened. At this M. Faurisson turned sour and sarcastic. He wanted to know why I hadn't reported the loss of my relatives to the International Red Cross. Furthermore, he promised that he would pay for the postage stamps. Not an anti-Semite, Professor Chomsky, this friend of yours ?
I should also mention that in his letter to Kolodney (see the link above) Chomsky accuses me of "total fabrication and absurdity" because I described his various acts of collaboration with the Holocaust deniers. He claims that I "never dared to respond to him" on these matters. He may have originally written that before he saw my reply, but these foolish accusations remain on his site as of today. In any case, my reply, with all the documents, has been on the web for ten years now.
Now, to come back to the question of Chomsky's smarts. As these examples show, he often argues like an ignorant, petulant child. Who can listen to him without laughing out loud ? Nevertheless, we do know that there is a Chomsky claque of considerable noise, and I would assume that it will no doubt continue to be with us. The judgement that Chomsky is "arguably the most important living intellectual," while of uncertain provenance, is repeated often enough, even in places where sense should prevail. One could speculate on why this should be so. But given the extraordinary power of hateful nonsense in the history of mankind, including its universities, can we be surprised ?


1. Paul Bogdanor,  The Top 200 Chomsky Lies
2. My later take on the subject of Chomsky's genius.

3. Nicholas Evans and Stephen Levinson: The Myth of Language Universals
(a thorough debunking of Chomskyan linguistics)

4. Alan Dershowitz on Chomsky's wisdom