Category Archives: Communism

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

The Language of Hate: 1. Animal Attribution

This series of postings will look at some rhetorical devices used in extremist propaganda. In this first installment, we will look at the use of animal imagery (“animal attribution”) to characterize enemies. But first some introductory remarks.

Introductory Comments on the Language of Hate

Why do people hate ? Why do they hate so much ? Why do they seem to hate everywhere ? Why do they kill for this hatred ? I have no answer and will not attempt one. But first, I must call attention to a disturbing article by Jared Diamond of UCLA in the New Yorker of April 21, 2008, “Vengeance is Ours,” which tells of the deeply-rooted tradition of deadly revenge killings in a non-literate culture in New Guinea. It is a story with which we are familiar, in its manifold variations, from Nazi Germany, from Ireland, from Bosnia, from all over Africa. But Diamond’s account from a culture that has no connection to the familiar racial, religious, and ethnic hatreds of Europe and Africa gives a jolt. Does it point to some sort of universal human propensity ? I will not speculate.

Back to Europe and its hatreds.

In this occasional series of postings, I hope to discuss some of the peculiarities of the language that is used by those who incite hatred. I do not know enough about the Bible, or the Greek and Roman Classics, although I have been told that hatred can be found there. At some future time I may have something to say about the hate texts of Martin Luther, say his 1543 opus On the Jews and their Lies, but this is not for now. For some postings, at least, I intend to take a look at some of the details of the Communist and Nazi propaganda of the twentieth century.

The rhetorical devices of hate of these two movements differed in important ways, but had even more important similarities. Overall, there is the remarkable violence in this propaganda: the enemy is seen as being evil in all possible ways, with the implied and often express message that he should be physically eliminated. This is perhaps the most important distinction between these extremist movements and moderate opinion. The latter can muster respect, no matter how grudging, for a common humanity of the opponent while the former will make no such allowance.

Among the devices of hate used by both Communists and Nazis in the twentieth century, there is only one that I will describe today:

Animal Attribution

It is common in our colloquial language to express disapproval by way of attributing animal characteristics or even animal identities: ‘he is a pig,’ ‘she is a bitch,’ ‘a louse,’ ‘a swine,’ and so forth. But such expressions are generally taboo is formal discourse. Not so in the propaganda of extremist movements. Here is a recent statement by Hamas about Condoleeza Rice:

With the arrival of that black scorpion with a cobra’s head, Condoleezza, I began to worry that she would use her venomous fangs and hiss to kill this initiative and new spirit that we should protect.

Both Nazi and Communist propaganda used the idea that an enemy is not at all human, that he is, in fact, a vicious or dangerous, or sometimes merely ridiculous animal. On the Communist side, the speeches by the prosecutor of the Moscow show trials of the 1930’s, Andrey Y. Vyshinsky, form a handy source of Stalin-era Communist hate rhetoric. In particular, I have used Vyshinsky’s 1936 and 1938 court summaries, to which I happened to have easy access.

In the so-called Moscow Trials of 1936, 1937, and 1938, the Stalin government accused high-ranking members of the Communist Party of treason and disloyalty to the Soviet government. Almost the entire top level Bolshevist leadership was eventually killed by Stalin and his collaborators. Vyshinsky was the chief prosecutor at these trials (later he would represent the Soviet government at the Nuremberg trials). No serious historian today gives credence to Vyshinsky’s wild accusations against his erstwhile comrades.

The trial of 1936 had Zinoviev and Kamenev as the chief defendants. Both had been top Communist leaders under Stalin. All sixteen defendants were sentenced to death and executed. Vyshinsky’s prosecution summary , in English translation, is available on line.

The trial of 1937 had seventeen defendants, including the old Bolshevik Karl Radek. Thirteen of the defendants were shot, but Radek escaped with imprisonment in a labor camp.

The trial of 1938 had twenty-one defendants, all of whom were eventually killed by the Stalin government. I happen to own the 1938 English-language, official Soviet publication “Anti-Soviet ‘Bloc of Rights [sic] and Trotskyites’,” which contains Vyshinsky’s summation for the prosecution.

Vyshinsky’s conclusion in the 1936 trial was as follows:

“I demand that dogs gone mad should be shot — everyone of them !”

As we have seen, the court obliged, and, indeed, all sixteen defendants were executed. Rarely does hate speech have such immediate effect.

Here are some other excerpts from the 1936 document:

“These mad dogs of capitalism tried to tear limb from limb the best of our Soviet land.”

“Liars and clowns, insignificant pigmies, little dogs snarling at an elephant, this is what this gang represents !”

“All their bestial rage and hatred were directed against the leaders of our Party…against Comrade Stalin, against his glorious comrades-in-arms.”

“We will now pass to Kamenev, the second pillar of the so-called Zinovievite group, this hypocrite ‘in an ass’s skin,’ as he himself expressed it …”

Here are excerpts from the 1938 document:

“And Bukharin — that damnable cross of a fox and a swine — …”

“Our whole country, from young to old, is awaiting and demanding one thing: the traitors and spies who were selling our country to the enemy must be shot like dirty dogs !

Our people are demanding one thing: crush the accursed reptile”

I will seek to demonstrate the Nazi use of animal attribution in a future posting.

Comrades !

Robert Service

“Comrades ! A History of World Communism,” by Robert Service, Harvard U.P., 2007

Here is a book that, at first blush, has it all: an overall treatment of Communism, written by a professor at one of the world’s great universities (Oxford), published by the press of another great university (Harvard), and having an overall point of view that I share (anti-Communism).

So, what went wrong ? In a word, Professor Service’s work is superficial and riddled with errors.

I enjoyed Professor Service’s taking-down of the likes of Beatrice and Sidney Webb, and other fellow-travelers. In retrospect, and not only in retrospect, these cultured products of the West were more harmful to liberty than regiments of Soviet troops. But even when Professor Service is so obviously right, he goes wrong. “What inspired [the Webbs] to speak for Stalin ? …. They believed in central and state planning….” (P. 207) If only things were that simple !

I assume that the author’s treatment of the Soviet Union is competent, but this cannot be said of what he has to say of the Communist parties in Western Europe and America. A seemingly small error is indicative of much that went wrong with this book.

Speaking of the famous African-American baritone Paul Robeson, Professor Service tells us (p. 278), without benefit of footnotes of any kind: “He never joined the Communist Party of the USA. (Not that this saved him from investigation by Joe McCarthy.)”

The first thing that is curious here is that Professor Service gives a nod to those — unlike himself — who think that the late Senator McCarthy was a far greater threat to humanity than the late Joseph Stalin. Coming from a staunch anti-Communist like Professor Service, this is a false note.

But what about the substance of the claim that Robeson never was a Party member ? How does Professor Service know that this is so ? True, Robeson always claimed, throughout his life, that he was not a member. But those who know about the American CP — this is the main point — also know that there always were secret members in addition to the open ones. Robeson’s unfailing support of every twist of the Party line, including his support of the Stalin-Hitler pact, always led to the strong suspicion, among those who understood the Party, that he most probably was under Party discipline, i.e. that he was a member. If Professor Service has no such suspicion, I would say that he knows little about American communism.

Of course, in the case of Robeson, we can go beyond suspicion. We have evidence, from the very mouth of one of the horses, that he was a Party member: “My own most precious moments with Paul were when I met with him to accept his dues and renew his yearly membership in the CPUSA. I and other Communist leaders like Henry Winston, the Party’s late, beloved national chair, met with Paul to brief him on politics and Party policies and to discuss his work and struggles.” (Gus Hall, “Paul Robeson: An American Communist,” published by CPUSA, 1988.)

The Robeson matter by itself is a detail. But Professor Service’s complete misunderstanding of the political alignments of the 1930’s is more than a detail: “But undoubtedly it was the socialists in Europe and North America who bowed lowest in their admiration of Stalin.” This goes with Professor Service’s ignoring of the profound anti-Stalinism of the Weimar-era SPD in Germany, of the inter-war SFIO of France (think Leon Blum !), of the anti-Bolshevism of British Labour, of the anti-Communist struggles of the CCF in Canada and the Socialist Party of the US (think Norman Thomas !).

A reader looking for further reading about, say, the French or German Communist parties will find no help at all in Professor Service’s sparse footnotes. Take the rich historiography on the French CP. It seems that Professor Service is completely innocent of any knowledge here. The important “Histoire” by Courteois and Lazar is not on the bibliography. There is no title by Annie Kriegel. There is no mention of Robrieux. And, as far as Professor Service is concerned, the German scholars who spent so many years studying the KPD (Ossip Flechtheim, Hermann Weber, etc.) might as well have saved their trouble.

In short, no, this book is simply not good enough.