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Washington, DC - March 7, 2014 8AM-5PM at the National Press Club

"..a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils."

-George Washington, Farewell Address

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  What is changing in "permissible" mainstream public debate—and what is not?
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by Philip Weiss is an American journalist who co-edits Mondoweiss, a news website devoted to covering American foreign policy in the Middle East, chiefly from a progressive Jewish perspective.

Weiss has written for the New York Times Magazine, Harper's Magazine, Esquire, and the New York Observer. In 2006 he began writing a daily blog called Mondoweiss on The New York Observer website. In the spring of 2007 he started Mondoweiss as an independent blog because of 9/11, Iraq, Gaza, the Nakba, the struggling people of Israel and Palestine, with the aim of building a diverse community, with posts from many authors.

He co-edited The Goldstone Report: The Legacy of the Landmark Investigation of the Gaza Conflict (2011) with Adam Horowitz and Lizzy Ratner.

Thanks for having me today. I'm a progressive blogger, so I'm going to be a little more superficial than some of the earlier comments you've heard, a little less scholarly. And I'm also going to tell a progress narrative because I believe in progress.

I can remember that day eight years ago when Scott sent me, Scott McConnell sent me "The Israel Lobby" over the internet. It had just been published in the London Review of Books, Steve Walt and John Mearsheimer's paper. And I was just completely stunned that such truths would be expressed, and I remember running around the house saying it's high noon for the Israel lobby. You know, I even had my six-guns out.

And since I'm going to talk about where the media are on Israel, I have to look back at that moment and say that I was really wrong. I thought that the scales were going to fall from American's eyes. I thought that the doors were open, the gates were open. I didn't anticipate the enormous resistance there would be to these ideas. Myself, I hadn't even been to Palestine or Israel, so I didn't understand how much censorship was going on. And so, instead, I realized that, it was probably around 3 in the morning for the Israel lobby, but there was sort of a hint of, the dark before the dawn was sort of coming to an end.

So as someone who monitors the media pretty closely on these issues, I want to relate to you, first, to convey how much the Israel lobby is still entrenched. And when I say Israel lobby here, I mean sort of just a strong partisanship for Israel is still entrenched in the mainstream media.

I want to just relate one day, a week ago actually, three different news accounts that came across my screen that I blogged about. One was that Wolf Blitzer had Michael Oren on CNN and presented Oren as, you know, our new CNN analyst. And Michael Oren is a former ambassador for Israel, and he moved to Israel from, I think, upstate New York and a true believer. I mean, a Zionist zealot really. And here he is presented as an analyst on CNN by Wolf Blitzer, who I think is someone who's waking up on the issue but used to work at AIPAC or for a journal that was associated with AIPAC as a young man.

And Oren was saying, I should emphasize what Oren was saying. He was saying that Palestinians must not go, if the two-state peace process fails, Palestinians must not go to international forums, they must not exercise that. So he was saying these people have no rights in international fora, they should not take any of their powers, and he's saying this to Wolf Blitzer without contradiction. And this is presented as analysis of the two-state solution or the peace process.

The same day, I was sent two links to Hadassah Magazine, which I hadn't really read until that day, I have to say. I think I have to get a subscription. In one of them, Ari Shavit, an Israeli writer who recently had a triumphant book tour to the United States. He was just sort of celebrated everywhere. He was celebrated on Charlie Rose. He was on Fresh Air. He was, the 92nd Street Y. I think his book was excerpted in The New Yorker, and he got these, I think it was on the front page of The New York Times book review, too.

But Shavit is just a unreconstructed, I mean he's a reconstructed Zionist. He acknowledges the Nakba. He acknowledges that Palestinians were dispossessed, but it's all a miraculous narrative. He uses the word "miracle" to describe Israel. Israel is a miracle in Shavit's rendition.

And he said that, he was talking to Hadassah Magazine about this incredible, it was just a joyful month for him here. And he said that this came about because of, in part, because of four menschen. He was using the Hebrew or Yiddish word for man, plural menschen. Four menschen: David Remnick, Leon Wieseltier, Tom Friedman, and Jeffrey Goldberg.

So he was referring to these kind of very powerful journalists who had played such a role in embracing him and celebrating him. And it was a frank description of the degree to which people who have a very positive view of Zionism and of Israel, and, in Wieseltier and Jeffrey Goldberg's case, are really right wing Zionists, the degree to which they play a central role still in our media.

The other piece in Hadassah Magazine was one in which they interviewed Jodi Rudoren of The New York Times, and she talked all about her Jewish background. And she said that she had gone to Israel first with the United Synagogue Youth as a girl and that she has come to this issue with great knowledge of the American Jewish experience and the Israel, the Jewish Israeli side of the conflict, which is really, I mean, it's a tragic kind of admission, from my standpoint, especially as it's borne out by her coverage, because this is not someone who has extended herself to the other narrative. She knows this narrative. She's saying this is the narrative I came with and, as it turns out, if you look at her coverage, she has not really extended herself. She's really operated inside this comfort zone in what I call a sort of culturally-bound fashion.

And she was sort of, the tragedy, from my standpoint, is that The New York Times would send someone over to this area who has this background who just un-interrogated. Everyone has a background, but, in her case, it seems so un-interrogated.

Now, this is all-familiar terrain to you. And I should just emphasize that Rudoren, lately, in describing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, characterized it and said, you know, many are comparing it in Israel to the Nazi boycotts of Jewish businesses. So she was using this highly-inflammatory language to describe this very powerful movement for Palestinian rights, which I thought was biased.

All of you are familiar with this terrain or you would not be here, I think. So I don't need to go over and over it. The thing that I want to, I now want to move to is the kind of more positive developments that we're seeing, even within this -- and I'm focused here on the elites, the mainstream elites, because I think they're significant in the end.

I mean, there are many people from the grassroots here. There are many people from the Washington establishment, sort of a more marginalized Washington establishment. I'm more from the grassroots now, and all these are powerful elements but they're not the sort of mainstream establishment elite.
So three positive statements that indicate the sort of changes that we're beginning to witness. Tom Friedman said in a column, he described the Congress as being bought and paid for by the Israel lobby. He said this last year or so. And to make that type of assertion, you know, ten years ago, eight years ago, you were just branded as anti-Semitic. Now, of course, he has J-positive blood, so he gets a break. But, no, he is making an assertion that was just beyond the pale, I think, a few years ago.

And he's doing it because he's honest. There is an honest component to Tom Friedman, and he knows what's going on. He also made, he was speaking at Oxford last year and he said that when someone was interlocked or, I think, a scholar at Oxford was asking why does the Israel lobby have such power, and he referred to George Bush's loss in 1992 when Bill Clinton ran to his right on settlements. And he said that his son absorbed the lesson of that. You know, you can't go too far right on the Israel question and that's what our politicians understand. He was describing the power of the Israel lobby. It was a very good statement. He hasn't written that up, unfortunately.

Another thing that I would point to is a review of John Judis' book on Truman that's coming out in The New York Times that's very -- and John Judis' book about Truman is all about how Truman was for the separation of church and state and folded on that because of the power of the lobby. And this piece in The Times frankly describes the power of the lobby without any kind of bias. He doesn't share Judis' view, but it's a fair review.

The question what is happening and why are these changes taking place, I think the first thing I'd refer to is, of course, the internet, which has changed everything. It's changed all our lives. I remember ten years ago I was here covering a congressional hearing for a magazine. When I was in the mainstream media, I was making a lot of money for this article. I'd get $10,000 for covering this hearing and doing a piece on the anti-war movement. And at this hearing, there were three bloggers there who were making nothing, and I was just confused by this.

And I met Craig Newmark of Craigslist soon after, and I said, "Craig, there's something wrong with this model. I'm getting $10,000. These three people are getting zero. The money has got to be averaged out. There's something wrong." And he said, "There's nothing wrong with the model," and he said, "These three people are all getting something out of what they're doing." And I really hadn't thought about -- he said, "One is being entrepreneurial. One is having freedom. One is supporting a cause. These people are using the First Amendment and not worrying about how much money they're going to make off of it."

And the surprise to me is that, in the last ten years, I've switched sides. I'm one of those three people now. I've broken out of that sort of elite mind set, and there's been a lot of freedom, and that's happening with many journalists. And many journalists are beginning to understand what great stories there are in covering the Israel lobby.

I'm coming down to the end of my time, so I'll leave out the tribal piece. I was going to get into the whole Jewish piece of this, the degree to which Jewish life is changing. Allen addressed this. But to the extent that Jewish life is changing, it has given other people, because there is an element of deference for many reasons, you know, including the donors and the voters and the hammerlock. There's deference to the Jewish community inside the American establishment. And because that Jewish community is now beginning to fracture openly, that is giving people permission to talk about it. That's one piece.

The other piece I'd mention, though, is -- and I think that journalists are also understanding that these are great stories. I think that any journalist who came here today and listened today will understand what just amazing stories there are if you look back over the history of the Israel lobby, from the silencing of Sobran to the USS Liberty attack to, I think about James Forrestal's death in the 1950s, why he went mad, the Balfour Declaration.

I mean, there's just this very rich history that John Judis has treated in his book but that all journalists who love stories, I think we're going to see more and more of that. And that's when we'll finally see the high noon for the Israel lobby. Thank you.


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