For a window on the future of America, look to Israel

For a window on the future of America, look to Israel
Comment: American politics is starting to look disturbingly like Israeli hasbara-style politics, writes Wilson Dizard.
8 min read
25 Oct, 2018
'Patterns of political violence in Israel are becoming more routine in the US' [AFP]
Wednesday's attempted assassinations by mail bomb illustrate how the characteristics of political dysfunction in the United States and Israel have started to reflect each other. 

This transformation is no accident, but rather a right-wing plan put in motion before Trump's election, mutating American politics into a deformed simulation of Israel's.

Volatile isotopes of post-truth, accepting lies as truth and truth as lies, are poisoning American political life, as they have for decades in Israel.

President Donald Trump is asking Americans to accept the same kind of national mythology that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presents to Israelis. It's a mythology that rejects all forms of apology as leftist collaboration with an invading enemy, a sign of weakness. Trump never apologises, and neither does Bibi.

Israeli propaganda tactics, also called "hasbara", or "explanation", never apologise for Israel. Even when Israel sins, its crimes are justified by the existential stakes at hand. And this is the crux of white supremacy, too. Any violation of a non-white person or group is either righteous or excusable, as those people are an existential threat.

What we see in American politics today is a kind of "hasbaraism," an American variation on an Israeli invention, and it's dissolving American society as it dissolved Israel's.

There are differences between Israeli hasbara and American "hasbaraism". 

Israeli hasbara works to deflect attention from Israel's violations of human rights, especially among American lawmakers and liberal publications and institutions, and demonise anyone who would defy it. It affects not only the United States but also Israel itself.

As in Jerusalem, a solid alliance in Washington of nationalists and religious extremists determine the course of the country

American hasbaraism is a kind of mutated version of the original, distorting reality in a similar way that denies the existence of white supremacy and casts Trump's right wing radicalism as blameless, even in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence.

In the wake of Wednesday's attempted bombings, the instinctive response of American hasbaraists was to blame Trump's opponents, who obviously sent the bombs to themselves to elicit sympathy before the midterm elections. A lack of evidence doesn't matter to people living in a kind of parallel universe that sees common sense as a kind of fanciful conspiracy.

At a rally Trump held in Wisconsin on Wednesday, one of his supporters had already fashioned a sign that read "Fake Bombs/Fake News." The American hasbaraist reflex to cast Trump as beyond reproach and his opponents as the dishonest villains follows a pattern that pervades Israeli hasbara.

Yakov Hirsch is an American journalist who covers Israeli hasbara, told me in an interview that its appeal comes with its presentation of unapologetic absolutes, in a world where so many moral decisions seem to drift in a fog of fear and confusion. But it does so by denying the humanity of Palestinians and launching accusations of anti-semitism at critics of Israel.

"They are so good at representing moral clarity," he said. To do this, they don't consider individual human beings as being flesh and blood, but rather avatars for enormous, manichean ideas in a kind of "alternative reality" where Israel's innocence must be defended at all costs.

The result for Jews, Hirsch said, is a kind of perpetual civil war between those who view Palestinians as human beings, and those who see them as hostile concepts. And the hostility isn't limited to Palestinians, but noncompliant Israelis, too.

Hirsch mentioned the recent instance of Israel's United Nations ambassador Danny Danon denouncing the head of Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, Hagai El-Ad, as aiding Israel's enemies. El-Ad had presented the UN with a report detailing the plight of Palestinians trapped in Gaza.

"Shame on you! You are a collaborator!" Dannon declared, in Hebrew.

Dannon's statements were echoed by other members of the Israeli right, including Netanyahu.

Just like Israel, we're becoming a country where politics revolves around toxic, atavistic and misogynistic interpretations of identity

"Everyone in the government will call this guy a traitor when he's speaking at the United Nations," Hirsch said. "How do you think the rest of the world looks at you when you call this guy fighting for the Palestinians a stab-in-the-back traitor? They don't care. They have totally brainwashed themselves."

One part of that brainwashing is never having to say they're sorry for the degradation of the Palestinians, as the Palestinians brought this on themselves. Whether this has a parallel yet for white America, Hirsch isn't so sure.

"Thankfully, I don't think we're at that point in white culture," he added.

Read more: For racist Israel, Ethiopian Jews are 'ruining the Zionist dream'

But I'd argue white American culture, hijacked by Trump, is on a path to this kind of perpetual state of civil war Hirsch identifies in Jewish culture, as American hasbaraism offers the illusion of moral clarity and reduces human beings, like migrants or leftist dissidents, to dangerous concepts. An absolute refusal to apologise burns at the core of American hasbaraism, and Trump delivers it at every rally.

After Wednesday's foiled bomb plots, Trump ignored calls to apologise for his own rhetoric against the press and political rivals. Rather, he accused the "fake news" of being responsible for an epidemic of anger in America.

Similarly, Netanyahu has never taken responsibility for his own party's rhetoric as contributing to attacks by settlers, although this is certainly a factor. Bibi, like Trump, can condemn political violence while his more openly racist and radical deputies stoke it.

White nationalists practice this kind of hasbarism by "redpilling" or self-brainwashing themselves on the blameless superiority of Europeans, under constant threat of invasion by cultural and genetic inferiors, abetted by treacherous multiculturalist "cucks", globalists or communists.

This American hasbaraist narrative presents the same kind of existential conundrum for Americans, especially white Americans, that rightist Zionism does for Israeli Jews: Accept a story of victimhood that over rules any contradiction as an attempt at annihilation, or else.

The GOP's quickening transformation into a white nationalist party was the alt-right's goal. Richard Spencer, who coined the term alt-right, told me this in 2016, as he expressed an admiration for Israel's attempt to establish a Jewish ethnostate, although he seemed not to grasp the kind of misery that entailed for everyone involved.

My first thought was that he wanted to turn the United States into a kind of prison, as Israel is, bitterly divided along lines of ethnic loyalty, ruled by sadism, fear and suspicion. It sounded like a kind of waking nightmare to me, but someone else's idea of a dream.

Spencer's star in conservative circles has faded, his National Policy Institute's postmodern intellectual pose replaced instead by roving street gangs like the Proud Boys, who pledge allegiance to "Western culture", loyalty to Trump and nationalism, their president's latest favourite word.

Spencer getting humiliated by a punch in the face at Trump's inauguration didn't help him, and neither did his subsequent rout at Charlottesville. Now, the Proud Boys are Trump's volunteer enforcers, simultaneously denying explicit racism but worshipping its American idol.

American hasbaraism offers the illusion of moral clarity and reduces human beings, like migrants or leftist dissidents, to dangerous concepts

It's either a lie or a delusion, but squabbling over which seems almost pointless, like arguing with Netanyahu about whether Israel's illegal occupation and settlement of Palestinian land exists or not.

Neither Spencer nor the Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes are in the business of apologising, but McInnes won out by not hesitating to punch first. Right wing politics is unapologetically Darwinian, a sentiment Netanyahu himself endorsed this summer.

"The weak crumble, are slaughtered and are erased from history while the strong, for good or for ill, survive. The strong are respected, and alliances are made with the strong, and in the end peace is made with the strong," he said at a speech in August.

The same sentiment translated into American hasbaraism - as oft-articulated by Trump - would simply be: "Get tough!"

Just like Israel, we're becoming a country where politics revolves around toxic, atavistic and misogynistic interpretations of identity, where there are multiple tiers of citizenship, and even humanity.

As in Jerusalem, a solid alliance in Washington of nationalists and religious extremists determine the course of the country, and defame multiculturalists as deluded, dangerous enemy collaborators.

The right wields fear and falsehoods as psychic weaponry, overruling the concerns of a divided political left they keep cornered. Corruption scandals hum in the background, as they have for years for Netanyahu, but fail to arrest the spiraling cycles of cruelty and vengeance.

This sounds like Israeli political culture, which is to say, extremely unhealthy. Gangs of "ultra-right" Israeli youth running around Jerusalem beating up migrants or Palestinians is a regular occurrence. Settlers and soldiers can show a violent disdain for curious journalists, including Israeli ones, just as Trump supporters heckle and threaten them here.

The same patterns of violence in politics that are routine in Israel are becoming more and more routine in the United States.

Hasbaraism, the unapologetic explanation of brutality as innocence and dismissal of dissent as treason, is opening a thriving franchise in American political life.

There are different items on the American menu, but many of them are exactly the same: the creation of a fortress state where lethal force against threats is a first resort, the jailing of children is appropriate and the expulsion of foreigners is a national mission.

An absolute refusal to apologise burns at the core of American hasbaraism, and Trump delivers it at every rally

The parallels outlined here haven't touched on the ways the Americans are attempting to confront rightist habaraism, for this is meant more as a warning. As the Israeli left has been squeezed out of the country's politics by a vocal, violent minority, so too is the American left in danger of losing relevance to the cynical, unanswerable riddles American hasbaraism presents.

There is a permanent wound Trump is leaving on the United States, just as Netanyahu has done to Israel, making an already bad situation worse.

There is no way for Robert Mueller to slap handcuffs on hasbaraism, nor venue to prosecute it. Defeating it requires individual and collective resolve to reject it at every turn, or else we'll end up living in the nightmare it calls a dream.  

Wilson Dizard is a reporter and photojournalist covering politics, media and culture. He enjoys bicycling. 

Follow him on Twitter: @willdizard

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.