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Social Text 21.2 (2003) 125-139

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The Israelization of American Middle East Policy Discourse

Joel Beinin

It is dimly possible to imagine that the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon could have provided an occasion

to begin a serious national conversation about why some Muslims— relatively few to be sure—hate the United States enough to kill themselves to harm our country and its people. Instead, September 11 further consolidated an understanding of the world drawing sharp oppositions between "us" and "them," and positing Islam as the "new enemy for a new world order." 1

President Bush declared, "Islam is not the enemy." Nonetheless, the administration and its allies—neoconservatives, the Christian Right, and pro-Israel hawks—encouraged this understanding by promoting a vision of the world divided into the forces of freedom and "the evil ones." The proposition articulated in the president's January 2002 state of the union address that North Korea, Iran, and Iraq constitute an "axis of evil" may well be the most flawed and unsophisticated understanding of international affairs to have been offered by any head of state since the end of World War II.

Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon quickly identified with the Bush administration's post-September 11 worldview and sought to turn it to Israel's advantage. Announcing a day of mourning in Israel and appropriating rhetoric from the era of the Cold War, Sharon declared, "The fight against terror is an international struggle of the free world against the forces of darkness who seek to destroy our liberty and way of life. Together we can defeat these forces of evil." 2 After September 11, Sharon repeatedly equated Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda with those he regarded as Israel's more direct enemies: Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, Lebanese Hizbollah, Iraq, and Iran. 3 The Bush administration, with only minimal reservations, embraced this proposition. The consequence was to give Sharon a nearly free hand in repressing the second Palestinian Intifada, which erupted a year before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) attempted to give a patina of intellectual legitimacy to the Bush administration's simplistic world outlook in a report entitled "Defending Civilization" released in November 2001. 4 According to ACTA, criticism of the Bush administration's [End Page 125] response to the September 11 attacks on campuses across the country is tantamount to negligence in "defending civilization" and proof that "our universities are failing America." ACTA alleges that American universities have been brought to this sorry state by inadequate teaching of Western culture and American history. Consequently, students and faculty do not understand what is at stake in the fight against terrorism and are undermining the defense of civilization by asking too many questions.

ACTA was founded by Lynne Cheney, wife of Vice President Dick Cheney. Former Democratic vice presidential candidate Senator Joseph Lieberman is a member of its national council. Lieberman criticized the report, though not too aggressively, after it appeared. Although she is no longer officially active in ACTA, a lengthy quote by Ms. Cheney appears on the cover of the report, suggesting that she supports its contents and giving the document the appearance of a quasi-official statement of government policy.

The original version of "Defending Civilization" named and quoted comments by 117 university faculty members and students in reaction to the September 11 attacks. ACTA's ire was aroused by my statement: "If Osama bin Laden is confirmed to be behind the attacks, the United States should bring him before an international tribunal on charges of crimes against humanity." Other remarks in the report's list of unacceptable speech included "Ignorance breeds hate" and "There needs to be an understanding of why this kind of suicidal violence could be undertaken against our country." After receiving considerable criticism, ACTA removed the appendix to the report containing the names and quotes.

Of course, ACTA's attack on American universities in the name of "defending civilization" was a ruse for...


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pp. 125-139
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Archived 2005
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