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I have spent the past several years on this blog trying to highlight one thing above all others: that the institutions we were raised to regard as authoritative are undeserving of our blind trust.

It is not just that expert institutions have been captured wholesale by corporate elites over the past 40 years and that, as a result, knowledge, experience and expertise have been sidelined in favour of elite interests – though that is undoubtedly true. The problem runs deeper: these institutions were rarely as competent or as authoritative as we fondly remember them being. They always served elite interests.

What has changed most are our perceptions of institutions that were once beloved or trusted. It is we who have changed more than the institutions. That is because we now have far more sources – good and bad alike – than ever before against which we can judge the assertions of those who claim to speak with authority.

Hanging out together

Here is a personal example. When I started work as an editor at the foreign section of the Guardian newspaper in the early 1990s, there were few ways, from the paper’s London head office, to independently evaluate or scrutinise the presentation of events by any of our correspondents in their far-flung bureaus. All we could do was compare the copy they sent with that from other correspondents, either published in rival newspapers or available from two or three English-language wire services.

Even that safeguard is far less meaningful than it might sound to an outsider.

The correspondents for these various publications – whether based in Bangkok, Amman, Moscow, Havana or Washington – are a small group. Inevitably they each bring to their work a narrow range of mostly unconscious but almost identical biases. They hang out together – like any other expat community – in the same bars, clubs and restaurants. Their children attend the same international schools, and their families socialise together at the weekends.

Similar pasts

Correspondents from these various newspapers also have similar backgrounds. They have received much the same privileged education, at private or grammar schools followed by Oxford or Cambridge, and as a result share largely the same set of values. They have followed almost identical career paths, and their reports are written chiefly to impress their editors and each other. They are appointed by a foreign editor who served a decade or two earlier in one of the same bureaus they now head, and he (for invariably it is a he) selected them because they reminded him of himself at their age.

The “local sources” quoted by these correspondents are drawn from the same small pool of local politicians, academics and policymakers – people the correspondents have agreed are the most authoritative and in a position to speak on behalf of the rest of the local population.

Nowhere in this chain of news selection, gathering, editing and production are there likely to be voices questioning or challenging the correspondents’ shared view of what constitutes “news”, or their shared interpretation and presentation of that news.

Working in the guild

This is not the news business as journalists themselves like to present it. They are not fearless, lone-wolf reporters pursuing exclusives and digging up dirt on the rich and powerful. They comprise something more akin to the guilds of old. Journalists are trained to see the world and write about it in near-identical terms.

The only reason the media “guild” looks far less credible than it did 20 or 30 years ago is because now we can often cut out the middleman – the correspondent himself. We can watch videos on Youtube of local events as they occur, or soon afterwards. We can hear directly from members of the local population who would never be given a platform in corporate media. We can read accounts from different types of journalists, including informed local ones, who would never be allowed to write for a corporate news outlet because they are not drawn from the narrow, carefully selected and trained group known as “foreign correspondents”.

A partial picture

In this regard, let us consider my own area of specialist interest: Israel and Palestine. Jewish settlers in the West Bank have been beating up and shooting at Palestinian farmers trying to work their land or harvest their olives for more than half a century. It is one of the main practical means by which the settlers implement an ethnic cleansing policy designed to drive Palestinians off their farmland.

The settlers have thereby expanded their “municipal jurisdictions” to cover more than 40 per cent of the West Bank, territory under Israeli occupation that was supposed to form the backbone of any future Palestinian state. This settler violence is part of the reason why Palestinian statehood looks impossible today.

But until a decade or so ago – when phone cameras meant that recorded visual evidence became commonplace and irrefutable – you would rarely have had a way to know about those attacks. Correspondents in Jerusalem had decided on your behalf that you did not need to know.

Maybe the correspondents refused to believe the accounts of Palestinians or preferred the explanations from Israeli officials that these were just anti-Israel lies motivated by antisemitism. Or maybe the correspondents thought these attacks were not important enough, or that without corroboration they themselves risked being accused of antisemitism.

Whatever the reason, the fact is they did not tell their readers. This absence of information meant, in turn, that when Palestinians retaliated – in acts that were much more likely to be reported by correspondents – it looked to readers back home as if Palestinian violence was unprovoked and irrational. Western coverage invariably bolstered racist stereotypes suggesting that Palestinians were innately violent or antisemitic, and that Israelis, even violent settlers, were always victims.

Unreliable experts

This problem is far from unique to journalism. There are similar issues with any of the professions – or guilds – that comprise and service today’s corporate establishment, whether it is the judiciary, politicians, the military, academics or non-profits. Those supposedly holding the establishment to account are usually deeply invested, whether it be financially or emotionally, in the establishment’s survival – either because they are part of that establishment or because they benefit from it.

And because these self-selecting “guilds” have long served as the public’s eyes and ears when we try to understand, assess and hold to account the corporate elites that rule over us, we necessarily have access only to partial, self-justifying, establishment-reinforcing information. As a result, we are likely to draw faulty conclusions about both the establishment itself and the guilds that prop up the establishment.

 
• Category: Ideology, Science • Tags: American Media, Coronavirus, vitamin D 

It is probably not a good idea to write while in the grip of anger. But I am struggling to suppress my emotions about a wasted year, during which politicians and many doctors have ignored a growing body of evidence suggesting that Vitamin D can play a critically important role in the prevention and treatment of Covid-19.

It is time to speak out forcefully now that a new, large-scale Spanish study demonstrates not a just a correlation but a causal relationship between high-dose Vitamin D treatment of hospitalised Covid patients and significantly improved outcomes for their health.

The pre-print paper in the Lancet shows there was an 80 per cent reduction in admission to intensive care units among hospitalised patients who were treated with large doses of Vitamin D, and a 64 per cent reduction in death. The possibility of these being chance findings are infinitesimally small, note the researchers. And to boot, the study found no side-effects even when these mega-doses were given short term to the hospitalised patients.

Those are astounding figures that deserve to be on front pages, especially at a time when politicians and doctors are uncertain whether they can ever find a single magic-bullet vaccine against Covid as new variants pop up like spring daffodils.

If Vitamin D can approximate a cure for many of those hospitalised with Covid, one can infer that it should prove even more effective when used as a prophylactic. Most people in northern latitudes ought to be taking Vitamin D through much of the year in significant doses – well above the current, outdated 400IU recommended by governments like the UK’s.

Knee-jerk dismissals

This new study ought to finally silence the naysayers, though doubtless it won’t. So far it has attracted little media attention. What has been most troubling over the past year is that every time I and others have gently drawn attention to each new study that demonstrated the dramatic benefits of Vitamin D, we were greeted with knee-jerk dismissals that the studies showed only a correlation, not a causal link.

That was a deeply irresponsible response, especially in the midst of a global pandemic for which effective treatments are urgently needed. The never-satisfied have engaged in the worst kind of blame-shifting, implicitly maligning medical researchers for the fact that they could only organise small-scale, improvised studies because governments were not supporting and funding the larger-scale research needed to prove conclusively whether Vitamin D was effective.

Further, the naysayers wilfully ignored the fact that all the separate studies showed very similar correlations, as well as the fact that hospitalised patients were invariably deficient, or very deficient, in Vitamin D. The cumulative effect of those studies should have been persuasive in themselves. And more to the point, they should have led to a concerted campaign pressuring governments to fund the necessary research. Instead much of the medical community has wasted valuable time either ignoring the research or nitpicking it into oblivion.

There should have come a point – especially when a treatment like Vitamin D is very cheap and almost entirely safe – at which the precautionary principle kicked in. It was not only foolhardy but criminally negligent to be demanding 100 per cent proof before approving the use of Vitamin D on seriously ill patients. There was no risk in treating them with Vitamin D, unlike most other proposed drugs, and potentially much to gain.

Stuck in old paradigm

Already the usual voices have dismissed the new Barcelona study, saying it has yet to be peer-reviewed. That ignores the fact that it is an expansion on, and confirmation of, an earlier, much smaller study in Cordoba that has been peer-reviewed and that similarly showed dramatic, beneficial outcomes for patients.

In addition to the earlier studies and the new one showing a causal link, there is plenty of circumstantial evidence to bolster the case for using Vitamin D against Covid.

For many years, limited studies – ones that Big Pharma showed no interest in expanding – had indicated that Vitamin D was useful both in warding off respiratory infections and in treating a wide variety of chronic auto-immune diseases such as diabetes and multiple sclerosis by damping down inflammatory responses of the kind that often overwhelm hospitalised Covid patients.

But many doctors and politicians were stuck in an old paradigm – one rooted in the 1950s that viewed Vitamin D exclusively in terms of bone health.

The role of Vitamin D – produced in the skin by sunlight – should have been at the forefront of medical research for Covid anyway, given that the prevalence of the disease, as with other respiratory infections, appears to slump through the sunny, summer months, and spikes in the winter.

And while the media preferred to focus exclusively on poverty and racism as “correlative” explanations for the disproportionate number of deaths among BAME doctors and members of the public, Vitamin D seemed an equally, if not more plausible, candidate. Dark skins in cloud-covered northern latitudes make production of Vitamin D harder and deficiency more likely.

Magic bullet preferred

We should not be surprised that Big Pharma had no interest in promoting a vitamin freely available through much of the year and one they cannot license. They would, of course, rather patent an expensive magic bullet that offers the hope of enriching company directors and shareholders.

But that is why we have governments, isn’t it? They could have stepped in to pick up the bill for the research after profit-motivated firms had refused to do so – if not to safeguard the health of their populations, at least to keep their health budgets under control. Most developed countries, even those with lots of sunshine, have large sections of their population that are Vitamin D deficient, especially among the elderly and housebound, the very groups most affected by Covid.

But governments shirked their responsibility too. Most have not offered supplements beyond measly and largely useless 400IU tablets to the elderly, and they have failed to fortify foods. Those taking small doses are unlikely to significantly and quickly address any deficiency they have or maximise their resistance to Covid.

To give a sense of what was potentially at stake, consider the findings of one of last year’s correlative studies, done by a team in Heidelberg. Their work implied that, had the UK ensured its population was not widely Vitamin D deficient, many tens of thousands of lives might have been saved.

Science not ‘followed’

There are lessons – ones we seem very reluctant to learn – from the catastrophic failures of the past year. And they aren’t just lessons for the politicians.

If doctors and medical organisations had really been “following the science”, they would have led the clamour both for properly funded Vitamin D research and for its early use, if only on the precautionary principle. The reality is that very few did. In the UK it was left to MP David Davis, who trained as a molecular scientist, to take up the cause of Vitamin D and badger a government that has shown no inclination to listen.

 
• Category: Science • Tags: Coronavirus, Disease, Medicine, vitamin D 

The revelation that a leftwing journalist, Nathan J Robinson, has been sacked as a Guardian US columnist for criticising Israel on Twitter – and that he was pressured to keep quiet about it by Guardian editors – should come as no surprise. He is only the latest in a long line of journalists, myself included, who have run foul of the Guardian’s unwritten but tightly policed constraints on what can be said about Israel.

In the tweet below, I have listed a few of the more prominent – and public – examples of journalists who have suffered at the Guardian’s hands over their coverage of Israel. The thread can opened by clicking on the tweet:

The unspoken Guardian rule we broke was to suggest one of the following: that there might be inherent contradictions between Israel’s claim to be a democracy and its self-definition in exclusivist, chauvinist, ethnic terms; or that Israel’s self-declared status as a militaristic, ethnic, rather than civic, state might be connected to its continuing abuses and crimes against Palestinians; or that, because Israel wishes to conceal its ugly, anachronistic ethnic project, it and its defenders might act in bad faith; or that the US might be actively complicit in this ethnically inspired, colonial project to dispossess Palestinians.

Equivocating editorial

Paradoxically, the Guardian is widely seen as the “mainstream” English-language publication most critical of Israel. It has long shored up its reputation with the left by publishing seemingly forthright, uncompromising material on Israeli-Palestinian issues.

Part of that is a historic credit it earnt. There was a time, long ago, when the Guardian’s pages were, for example, the only place in the mainstream to host – if rarely – the late, great Palestinian intellectual Edward Said. The paper even once allowed its former South Africa correspondent, who had transferred to Israel, to compare in detail the two countries’ systems of apartheid. It caused a furore – much of it instigated by the Israeli embassy in London – that made the paper even more shy of taking on the Israel lobby.

That is reflected in the perverse fact that today Israeli human rights groups are far more courageous in speaking plainly about Israel than the Guardian. When B’Tselem recently published a report stating that Israel operated an apartheid system oppressing Palestinians not just in the occupied territories but in the whole area under its rule – including inside Israel where officials falsely claim 1.8 million Palestinian citizens have equal rights with Jewish citizens – the paper published a mealy-mouthed editorial whose equivocations contrasted starkly with B’Tselem’s passionate and clear critique of a racist system of separate rights.

Even then, the Guardian would never have conceded what it reluctantly did in the editorial had B’Tselem not forced its hand.

Low bar on Israel

The other reason why the Guardian looks so good on Israel and Palestine is that the rest of the corporate media is far, far worse. The bar is so low that the Guardian has to do very little to impress. Its unwavering support for Israel – and we will get to the reasons for that in a moment – only becomes clear when someone prominent steps forward to speak as clearly about what’s really wrong with Israel as B’Tselem recently did.

That invisible line on Israel was crossed by Jeremy Corbyn too, of course – one of the many aspects of his socialist-lite platform the corporate Guardian could not abide. That was why the Guardian was only too ready to join – and often lead – the campaign of smears against him and the Labour party under his leadership that conflated trenchant criticism of Israel (anti-Zonism) with antisemitism. One has to be naïve indeed to believe that the Guardian’s treatment of Corbyn – its simplistic regurgitation of the Board of Deputies’ talking points – was done in good faith.

In fact, the Guardian’s relations with Israel and Zionism date back to the founding editor of the modern paper, C P Scott. A staunch Zionist, Scott was critically important in liaising between the British government and the Zionist movement in the drafting of the 1917 Balfour Declaration – the colonial document that effectively committed Britain to dispossessing the native Palestinians, who weren’t even named in it, of their homeland.

The Guardian acted effectively as midwife both to the self-declared Jewish state of Israel and to the Nakba – the mass programme of ethnic cleansing – that was necessarily required to create a Jewish state on the Palestinians’ homeland. And, as documented in the book Disenchantment, the Guardian has indulged Israel ever since, much as a parent would a wayward child. It can be critical, even sharply sometimes, but it is resolutely protective of Israel’s image and the interests Israel has defined for itself as a Jewish state.

And for that reason, the Guardian historically developed close ties to the liberal Jewish community in the UK, much of it in London and Manchester. Many liberal Jewish journalists found the paper a natural home and an ideological fit in contrast to the rest of the UK’s corporate media, which was highly conservative and often openly antisemitic. A culture of critical but unerring support for Israel was always the Guardian’s default position.

Antisemitism smears

But to understand why Robinson became the latest victim of the Guardian’s tough policing of speech around Israel, we need to dig a little deeper.

Robinson is also editor of a small, independent, socialist magazine called Current Affairs. As such, the issues he highlights invariably break with the US corporate media’s craven coverage on a wide range of issues.

His sarcastic, but pointed tweet criticising the billions of dollars the US is sending to Israel so it can buy more weapons to kill Palestinians – and during a pandemic in which Americans are being denied the full promised $2,000 checks – was treated by the Israel lobby, as most criticism of Israel is nowadays, as evidence of “antisemitism”. This was the same kind of antisemitism that Corbyn, Ken Loach and many others on the socialist left have been accused of indulging.

The tweet, which Robinson deleted under Guardian pressure, was only antisemitic if you choose to see it that way – which, of course, is exactly how Israel’s apologists would like you to see it. Understandably, the nearer critics get to the nub of what is wrong with a self-declared Jewish state ruling over Palestinians, or with the US blank cheque for that Jewish state, the more this lobby goes into overdrive.

 

The instinct among parts of the left to cheerlead the right’s war crimes, so long as they are dressed up as liberal “humanitarianism”, is alive and kicking, as Owen Jones reveals in a column today on the plight of the Uighurs at China’s hands.

The “humanitarian war” instinct persists even after two decades of the horror shows that followed the invasion and occupation of Iraq by the US and UK; the western-sponsored butchering of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi that unleashed a new regional trade in slaves and arms; and the west’s covert backing of Islamic jihadists who proceeded to tear Syria apart.

In fact, those weren’t really separate horror shows: they were instalments of one long horror show.

The vacuum left in Iraq by the west – the execution of Saddam Hussein and the destruction of his armed forces – sucked in Islamic extremists from every corner of the Middle East. The US and UK occupations of Iraq served both as fuel to rationalise new, more nihilistic Islamic doctrines that culminated in the emergence of Islamic State, and as a training ground for jihadists to develop better methods of militarised resistance.

That process accelerated in post-Gaddafi Libya, where Islamic extremists were handed an even more lawless country than post-invasion Iraq in which to recruit followers and train them, and trade arms. All of that know-how and weaponry ended up flooding into Syria where the same Islamic extremists hoped to establish the seat of their new caliphate.

Many millions of Arabs across the region were either slaughtered or forced to flee their homes, becoming permanent refugees, because of the supposedly “humanitarian” impulse unleashed by George W Bush and Tony Blair.

No lesson learnt

One might imagine that by this stage liberal humanitarianism was entirely discredited, at least on the left. But you would be wrong. There are still those who have learnt no lessons at all – like the Guardian’s Owen Jones. In his column today he picks up and runs with the latest pretext for global warmongering by the right: the Uighurs, a Muslim minority that has long been oppressed by China.

After acknowledging the bad faith arguments and general unreliability of the right, Jones sallies forth to argue – as if Iraq, Libya and Syria never happened – that the left must not avoid good causes just because bad people support them. We must not, he writes,

sacrifice oppressed Muslims on the altar of geopolitics: and indeed, it is possible to walk and to chew gum; to oppose western militarism and to stand with victims of state violence. It would be perverse to cede a defence of China’s Muslims – however disingenuous – to reactionaries and warmongers.

But this is to entirely miss the point of the anti-war and anti-imperialist politics that are the bedrock of any progressive leftwing movement.

Jones does at least note, even if very cursorily, the bad-faith reasoning of the right when it accuses the left of being all too ready to protest outside a US or Israeli embassy but not a Chinese or Russian one:

Citizens [in the west] have at least some potential leverage over their own governments: whether it be to stop participation in foreign action, or encourage them to confront human rights abusing allies.

But he then ignores this important observation about power and responsibility and repurposes it as stick to beat the left with:

But that doesn’t mean abandoning a commitment to defending the oppressed, whoever their oppressor might be. To speak out against Islamophobia in western societies but to remain silent about the Uighurs is to declare that the security of Muslims only matters in some countries. We need genuine universalists.

That is not only a facile argument, it’s a deeply dangerous one. There are two important additional reasons why the left needs to avoid cheerleading the right’s favoured warmongering causes, based on both its anti-imperialist and anti-war priorities.

Virtue-signalling

Jones misunderstands the goal of the left’s anti-imperialist politics. It is not, as the right so often claims, about leftwing “virtue-signalling”. It is the very opposite of that. It is about carefully selecting our political priorities – priorities necessarily antithetical to the dominant narratives promoted by the west’s warmongering political and media establishments. Our primary goal is to undermine imperialist causes that have led to such great violence and suffering around the world.

Jones forgets that the purpose of the anti-war left is not to back the west’s warmongering establishment for picking a ‘humanitarian’ cause for its wars. It is to discredit the establishment, expose its warmongering and stop its wars.

The best measure – practical and ethical – for the western left to use to determine which causes to expend its limited resources and energies on are those that can help others to wake up to the continuing destructive behaviours of the west’s political establishment, even when that warmongering establishment presents itself in two guises: whether the Republicans and the Democrats in the United States, or the Conservatives and the (non-Corbyn) Labour party in the UK.

We on the left cannot influence China or Russia. But we can try to influence debates in our own societies that discredit the western elite headquartered in the US – the world’s sole military superpower.

Our job is not just to weigh the scales of injustice – in any case, the thumb of the west’s power-elite is far heavier than any of its rivals. It is to highlight the bad faith nature of western foreign policy, and underscore to the wider public that the real aim of the west’s foreign policy elite is either to attack or to intimidate those who refuse to submit to its power or hand over their resources.

Do no harm

That is what modern imperialism looks like. We play with fire, and betray anti-imperialist politics, when we echo the bad faith arguments of a Pompeo, a Blair, an Obama, a Bush or a Trump – even if they briefly adopt a good cause for ignoble reasons. To use a medical analogy, we join them in fixating on one symptom of global injustice while refusing to diagnose the actual disease so that it can be treated.

Requiring, as Jones does, that we prioritise the Uighurs – especially when they are the momentary pet project of the west’s warmongering, anti-China right – does not advance our anti-imperialist goals, it actively harms them. Because the left offers its own credibility, its own stamp of approval, to the right’s warmongering lies.

When the left is weak – when, unlike the right, it has no corporate media to dominate the airwaves with its political concerns and priorities, when it has almost no politicians articulating its worldview – it cannot control how its support for humanitarian causes is presented to the general public. Instead it always finds itself coopted into the drumbeat for war.

That is a lesson Jones should have learnt personally – in fact, a lesson he promised he had learnt – after his cooption by the corporate Guardian to damage the political fortunes of Jeremy Corbyn, the only anti-war, anti-imperialist politician Britain has ever had who was in sight of power.

 

It is a fitting end to four years of Donald Trump in the White House.

On one side, Trump’s endless stoking of political grievances – and claims that November’s presidential election was “stolen” from him – spilled over last week into a mob storming the US Capitol. They did so in the forlorn hope of disrupting the certification process of the electoral college vote, which formally declared his opponent, Joe Biden, the winner.

On the other side, the Democratic party instituted a second, unprecedented impeachment process this week, in the slightly less forlorn hope that Trump leaves office disgraced and humiliated, foreclosing any possibility he can run again in 2024.

Barely concealing its alliance with the incoming Biden administration, Silicon Valley has shut down Trump’s social media megaphone. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has lobbied the joint chiefs of staff to cut an “unhinged” Trump out of the chain of command, in a move that was reportedly rejected out of hand by Pentagon officials because, they told the New York Times, it would amount to a “military coup”.

And Biden, who boasts that he was the author the Patriot Act years before 9/11, has been touting a new “domestic terrorism” bill, as though the US did not already have a plethora of ways to crack down on dissent, of both the legitimate and the illegitimate varieties.

With this as the backdrop, Washington DC is designating the inauguration of Biden next week a “national special security event”.

Authoritarian tribes

All this is not just the latest sign that the US political system has degenerated into tawdry theatre. It is growing evidence that US politics is devolving into a permanent confrontation between two authoritarian tribes. Both are convinced that the other side is un-American, perverting the true republic. Both are unwilling to compromise, believing they share no common ground. And ultimately both are fighting for a rotten cause.

This is not a divide between ethical and unethical politics. This clash is now a bitter grudge match. It is civil war by other means. Not only is the chasm between these rival camps widening, but the real criminals are making off – as they always do – with the loot.

Each tribe has been coalescing for a while now around a centre of gravity. On the Republican side that became clear with the emergence of the Tea Party and the birther movement during Barack Obama’s tenure. But it took Trump’s election as president in 2016 to create a proper oppositional centre of gravity on the other side.

Those in the Democrat tribe who now disdain Trump and his supporters for their desperate refusal to accept November’s result overlook how they greeted Trump’s victory in 2016. They struggled to accept the legitimacy of that outcome too, even if they did not resort to the overt violence of the mob at the Capitol.

It began with arguments that, while Trump might have won the electoral college vote, he lost the popular vote. Four years ago, the electoral college also faced self-serving accusations that it had disenfranchised the majority.

The Democrat tribe took to the streets as well, in protest marches in cities across the US under the banner of the Resistance, denying Trump was their president. That was understandable, given his personal behaviour and the policies he advocated. But it did not end there.

The disavowal of the Trump presidency quickly regressed into a dangerous narrative – one that has never properly gone away, despite the dearth of evidence to support it. The claim was not only that the Russians interfered in the 2016 election to help Trump win, but that Trump himself had actively colluded with Russia to steal the election from his opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Anything that had damaged Clinton – including emails showing that the Democratic leadership rigged its own primaries to make sure she was the party’s candidate rather than Bernie Sanders – got sucked into that vast conspiracy theory. That included the messenger of these bad tidings: Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange.

For years, the Democrat tribe has invested its considerable energies in fruitless efforts to prove its theory, including the first bid to remove Trump through an entirely self-defeating impeachment process.

None of this could be justified politically. It was a Democrat counterpoint to Trump’s MAGA slogan: “Make America Great Again”. Democrats promised the much less catchy SAPD: “Save America from President Deplorable”.

Antagonistic tango

For this tribe, Trump was an illegitimate president from the outset, one whose election to the highest office in the land revealed something unwholesome about their country they preferred to avert their gaze from because it might implicate them too. Removing Trump largely eclipsed the struggle to improve the lives of ordinary Americans.

The obsession with Trump above everything else seemingly rationalised any means – fair or foul – to be rid of him. Few thought about how this would look to his supporters or to those not already safely ensconced in one or other tribe.

Had they wished to understand, they needed only look to the storming of the Capitol last week. How they felt watching the building being ransacked – a Deplorable putting his feet up contemptuously on Pelosi’s desk – was how Trump’s tribe felt watching their president being denounced as a Russian agent and dragged through impeachment proceedings.

This mood is not likely to dissipate. The two political tribes are locked in an antagonistic tango, mirroring each other’s moves, each other’s grudges, each other’s sense of victimhood. Much more unites them than they would ever care to admit.

Festering culture war

This may be the pathology, but what of the cause.

What we see here is the culmination of a festering culture war stoked by an unhealthy investment by both sides in a simple-minded and highly divisive identity politics.

Much has correctly been made of the white supremacism of the most loyal sections of Trump’s tribe, and that was on show again during the invasion of the Capitol. The confederate flag, the neo-Nazi slogans, the T-shirts extolling the Jewish supremacy of Israel are all indicators of a toxic politics of white grievance that may be less articulated but is still felt by a wider swath of Trump’s supporting constituency.

 

Anyone who believes locking President Donald Trump out of his social media accounts will serve as the first step on the path to healing the political divide in the United States is likely to be in for a bitter disappointment.

The flaws in this reasoning need to be peeled away, like the layers of an onion.

Twitter’s decision to permanently ban Trump for, among other things, “incitement of violence” effectively cuts him off from 88 million followers. Facebook has said it will deny Trump access to his account till at least the end of his presidential term.

The act of barring an elected president, even an outgoing one, from the digital equivalent of the public square is bound to be every bit as polarising as allowing him to continue tweeting.

These moves threaten to widen the tribal divide between the Democratic and Republican parties into a chasm, and open up a damaging rift among liberals and the left on the limits of political speech.

Claims of ‘stolen’ election

The proximate cause of Facebook and Twitter’s decision is his encouragement of a protest march on Washington DC last week by his supporters that rapidly turned violent as several thousand stormed the Capitol building, the seat of the US government.

Five people are reported to have died, including a police officer struck on the head with a fire extinguisher and a woman who was shot dead inside the building, apparently by a security guard.

The protesters – and much of the Republican party – believe that Trump’s Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, “stole” November’s presidential election. The storming of the Capitol occurred on the day electoral college votes were being counted, marking the moment when Biden’s win became irreversible.

Since the November election, Trump has cultivated his supporters’ political grievances by implying in regular tweets that the election was “rigged”, that he supposedly won by a “landslide”, and that Biden is an illegitimate president.

The social networks’ immediate fear appears to be that, should he be allowed to continue, there could be a repetition of the turmoil at the Capitol when the inauguration – the formal transfer of power from Trump to Biden – takes place next week.

No simple solutions

Whatever we – or the tech giants who now dominate our lives – might hope, there are no simple solutions to the problems caused by extreme political speech.

To many, banning Trump from Twitter – his main megaphone – sounds like a proportionate response to his incitement and his narcissistic behaviour. It appears to accord with a much-cited restriction on free speech: no one should be allowed to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theatre.

But that comparison serves only to blur important distinctions between ordinary speech and political speech.

The prohibition on shouting “Fire!” reflects a broad social consensus that giving voice to a falsehood of this kind – a lie that can be easily verified as such and one that has indisputably harmful outcomes – is a bad thing.

There is a clear way to calculate the benefits and losses of allowing this type of speech. It is certain to cause a stampede that risks injury and death – and at no gain, apart from possibly to the instigator’s ego.

It is also easy to determine how we should respond to someone who shouts “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. They should be prosecuted according to the law.

Who gets to decide

Banning political speech, by contrast, is a more complicated affair because there is rarely consensus on the legitimacy of such censorship, and – as we shall see – any gains are likely to be outweighed by the losses.

Trump’s ban is just the latest instance in a growing wave of exclusions by Twitter and Facebook of users who espouse political views outside the mainstream, whether on the right or the left. In addition, the tech giants have been tinkering with their algorithms to make it harder to find such content – in what amounts to a kind of pre-censorship.

But the critical issue in a democracy is: who gets to decide if political speech is unreasonable when it falls short of breaching hate and incitement laws?

Few of us want state institutions – the permanent bureaucracy, or the intelligence and security services – wielding that kind of power over our ability to comment and converse. These institutions, which lie at the heart of government and need to be scrutinised as fully as possible, have a vested interest in silencing critics.

There are equally good grounds to object to giving ruling parties the power to censor, precisely because government officials from one side of the political aisle have a strong incentive to gag their opponents. Incitement and protection of public order are perfect pretexts for authoritarianism.

And leaving the democratic majority with the power to arbitrate over political speech has major drawbacks too. In a liberal democracy, the right to criticise the majority and their representatives is an essential freedom, one designed to curb the majority’s tyrranical impulses and ensure minorities are protected.

‘Terms of service’

In this case, however, the ones deciding which users get to speak and which are banned are the globe-spanning tech corporations, the wealthiest companies in human history.

Facebook and Twitter have justified banning Trump, and anyone else, on the grounds that he violated vague business “terms of service” – the small print on agreement forms we all sign before being allowed access to their platforms.

But barring users from the chief means of communication in a modern, digitised world cannot be defended simply on commercial or business grounds, especially when those firms have been allowed to develop their respective monopolies by our governments.

Social media is now at the heart of many people’s political lives. It is how we share and clarify political views, organise political actions, and more generally shape the information universe.

The fact that western societies have agreed to let private hands control what should be essential public utilities – turning them into vastly profitable industries – is a political decision in itself.

Political pressures

Unlike governments, which have to submit to intermittent elections, tech giants are accountable chiefly to their billionaire owners and shareholders – a tiny wealth elite whose interests are tied to greater wealth accumulation, not the public good.

But in addition to these economic imperatives, the tech companies are also increasingly subjected to direct and indirect political pressures.

 

There was a fascinating online panel discussion on Wednesday night on the Julian Assange case that I recommend everyone watch. The video is at the bottom of the page.

But from all the outstanding contributions, I want to highlight a very important point made by Yanis Varoufakis that has significance for understanding current events well beyond the Assange case.

Varoufakis is an academic who was savaged by the western political and media establishments when he served as Greece’s finance minister. Back in 2015 a popular leftwing Greek government was trying to oppose the imposition of severe loan conditions on Greece by European and international financial institutions that risked tipping the Greek economy into deeper bankruptcy and seemed chiefly intended to upend its socialist programme. The government Varoufakis served was effectively crushed into obedience through a campaign of economic intimidation by these institutions.

Varoufakis describes here the way that leftwing dissidents who challenge or disrupt western establishment narratives – whether it be himself, Assange or Jeremy Corbyn – end up not only being subjected to character assassination, as was always the case, but nowadays find themselves being manipulated into colluding in their own character assassination.

Here is a short transcript of Varoufakis’ much fuller comments – about 48 minutes in – highlighting his point about co-option:

The establishment, the Deep State, call it whatever you want, the oligarchy, they’ve become much, much better at it [character assassination] than they used to be. Because back in the 1960s and 1970s, you know, they would accuse you of being a Communist. They would accuse me of being a Marxist. Well, I am a Marxist. I’m really not going to suffer that much if you accuse me of being a left-winger. I am a left-winger!

Now what they do is something far worse. They accuse you of something that really hurts you. Calling somebody like us a racist, a bigot, an antisemite, a rapist. This is what really hurts because if anybody calls me a rapist today, right, even if it’s complete baloney, I feel as a feminist I have the need to give the woman, implied or involved somehow in this accusation, the opportunity to speak against me. Because that is what we left-wingers do.

Varoufakis’ point is that when Assange was accused of being a rapist, as he was before the US made clear the real case against him – by trying to extradite him from the UK for exposing its war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan – he could not defend himself without alienating a significant constituency of his natural supporters, those on the left who identify as feminists. Which is exactly what happened.

Similarly, as Varoufakis notes from earlier conversations he had with Assange, the Wikileaks founder was in no position to properly defend himself against accusations that he colluded with Russia and Donald Trump to help Trump win the 2016 US presidential election against Hillary Clinton and the Democrats.

At the time, Assange’s supporters were able to point out that the leaked emails were true and that they were in the public interest because they showed deep corruption in the Democratic party establishment. But those arguments were drowned out by a narrative confected by the US media and security establishments that Wikileaks’ publication of the emails was political interference because the emails had supposedly been hacked by Russia to sway the election result.

Because Assange was absolutely committed to the principle of non-disclosure of sources, he refused to defend himself in public by confirming that the emails had been leaked to him by a Democratic party insider, not the “Russians”. His silence allowed his vilification to go largely unchallenged. Having already been stripped of support from much of the feminist left, particularly in Europe, Assange now lost the support of a sizeable chunk of the left in the US too.

In these cases, the one who stands accused has to defend themselves with one hand tied behind their back. They cannot hit back without further antagonising a substantial section of their supporters, deepening divisions within the left’s ranks. The victim of this kind of character assassination is caught in the equivalent of reputational quicksand. The more they fight, the deeper they sink.

Which is, of course, exactly what happened to the UK’s former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn when he was accused of being a racist. If he or his supporters tried to challenge the claim that the party had become antisemitic overnight under his leadership – even if only by citing statistics that showed the party hadn’t – they were immediately denounced for supposed “antisemitism denial”, posited as the modern equivalent of Holocaust denial.

Notice Ken Loach, who was also on the panel, nodding in agreement as Varoufakis speaks. Because Loach, the noted leftwing, anti-racist film-maker who came to Corbyn’s defence against the confected media campaign smearing him as an antisemite, soon found himself similarly accused.

Jonathan Freedland, a senior columnist at the liberal Guardian, was among those using precisely the tactic described by Varoufakis. He tried to discredit Loach by accusing him of denying Jews the right to define their own experience of antisemitism.

Freedland sought to manipulate Loach’s anti-racist credentials against him. Either agree with us that Corbyn is an antisemite, and that most of his supporters are too, or you are a hypocrite, disowning your own anti-racist principles – and solely in the case of antisemitism. And that, QED, would prove you too are motivated by antisemitism.

Loach found himself with a terrible binary choice: either he must collude with Freedland and the corporate media in smearing Corbyn, a long-standing political ally, or else he would be forced to collude in his own smearing as an antisemite.

It’s a deeply ugly, deeply illiberal, deeply manipulative, deeply dishonest tactic. But it is also brilliantly effective. Which is why nowadays rightists and centrists use it at every opportunity. The left, given its principles, rarely resorts to this kind of deceit. Which means it can only bring a peashooter to a gun fight.

This is the left’s dilemma. It’s why we struggle to win the argument in a corporate media environment that not only denies us a hearing but also promotes the voices of those like Freedland trying to destroy us from the centre and those supposedly on the left like George Monbiot and Owen Jones who are too often destroying us from within.

As Varoufakis also says, the left needs urgently to go on the offensive.

We need to find ways to turn the tables on the war criminals who have been gaslighting us in demanding that Assange, who exposed their crimes, is the one who needs to be locked up.

We need to make clear that it is those who are so ready to smear anti-racists as antisemites – as Corbyn’s successor, Sir Keir Starmer, has done to swaths of Labour party members – who are the real racists.

And we need to unmask as war hawks those who accuse the anti-war left of serving as apologists for dictators when we try to stop western states conducting more illegal, resource-grab wars with such devastating results for local populations.

 

There was a hope in some quarters after Judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled on Monday against an application to extradite Julian Assange to the US, where he faced being locked away for the rest of his life, that she might finally be changing tack.

Washington has wanted Assange permanently silenced and made an example of – by demonstrating to other journalists its terrifying reach and powers of retaliation – ever since the Wikileaks founder exposed US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan a decade ago.

There were reasons, however, to be suspicious of what Baraitser was really up to even as she made her ruling in Assange’s favour. This district judge has a record of nodding through extradition cases, including several that have recently been overturned on appeal by a higher court.

During the hearings back in September, Baraitser had endlessly indulged lawyers representing the US while showing absolute disdain for Assange’s legal team, obstructing them at every turn. Her contempt for Assange and his political and moral worldview was on show throughout the proceedings. She often arrived in court with a prepared script she read from, barely feigning a pretence that she had listened to the legal arguments presented in court.

Her script always favoured Washington’s line, apart from on those occasions when she took an even more hostile position towards Assange than requested by the US. That included sealing him off from the rest of the court in an impregnable perspex box, treating him more like Hannibal Lecter than a publisher and journalist fighting for press freedom.

Much of the time, Baraitser sounded unnervingly like a prosecution barrister rather than the judge.

First, a dangerous ruling

So it was barely surprising, as I explained in my last post, that, while denying the extradition claim, she supported all the arguments advanced by the US accruing to itself the right to prosecute Assange – and any other journalist – for the crime of doing journalism. She ignored the facts, the expert testimony presented in court and the legal arguments – all of which favoured Assange – and backed instead what amounted to a purely political case made by the US.

She disregarded warnings from Assange’s legal team that acceptance of the political rationale for extradition amounted to an all-out attack on fundamental journalistic freedoms. She established a terrifying legal precedent for the US to seize foreign journalists and prosecute them for “espionage” if they expose Washington’s crimes. Her ruling will inevitably have a profoundly chilling effect on any publication trying to dig out the truth about the US national-security state, with terrifying consequences for us all.

But while she enthusiastically backed the political case for Assange’s extradition and trial, Baraitser at the same time got the Wikileaks founder off the hook by accepting the humanitarian concerns raised by medical and prison experts. They had counselled that extradition to the US could be expected to lead to Assange spending the rest of his life in a barbaric US super-max prison, exacerbating mental health problems and the risk of suicide.

Then, a perverse ruling

Her ruling, while deeply disturbing in its political and legal implications, did at least suggest that Baraitser was ready to take a compassionate approach in regard to Assange’s health, even if not his journalistic exposure of western war crimes. He should have walked free there and then, had the US not immediately said it would appeal her decision.

Given Assange’s discharge by Baraitser, his team hoped that bail – his release from a high-security prison while the lengthy appeals process unfolds – would prove a formality. They hurried to make such an application after the extradition ruling on Monday, assuming that the legal logic of her decision dictated his release. Baraitser demurred, suggesting that they prepare their case and make it to her more fully on Wednesday.

It now seems clear the judge manipulated Assange’s defence team. Apparently like Assange’s lawyers, former British ambassador Craig Murray, who has attended and reported on the hearings in detail, was lulled by Baraitser into assuming that she wanted a cast-iron case from the defence to justify a decision to release Assange on bail.

There were good reasons for their confidence. Any move to prevent his release would look perverse given that she had decided Assange should not be extradited or stand trial in the US.

Suicide danger

They were deceived. Baraitser denied bail, effectively signalling that she thinks her ruling might be wrong and overturned in a higher court. That is extraordinary. It suggests that she has no confidence in her own judgment of the facts of the case. As Murray has noted: “There was little or no precedent for the High Court overturning any ruling against extradition on Section 91 health grounds.”

Any appeal by the US against Baraitser’s ruling to discharge Assange will be hard to win. Its lawyers will have to prove that she was wrong not on her interpretation of the law, but in assessing verifiable facts. They will have to show that she was deceived by prison experts who warned – based on submissions made by the US itself – that Assange would be subjected to permanent, inhuman solitary confinement in a US super-max jail or that she was misled by medical experts who warned that in these conditions Assange would be at significant risk of suicide.

But the perversity of Baraitser’s decision runs deeper still. Her ruling keeps him locked up in Belmarsh, a high-security prison in London that is Britain’s version of a super-max jail. Her refusal to free him, or put him in house arrest with a GPS monitoring tag, flagrantly contradicts the expert assessments she concurred with during Monday’s extradition decision: that Assange is at high risk of suicide. Those expert evaluations are based on his current state – caused by his incarceration in Belmarsh.

Unlike Assange, most of Belmarsh’s inmates have been convicted or charged with major crimes. But while Assange long ago served out his only offence, a minor violation of the UK’s bail regulations, he has been routinely held in even worse conditions than the other prisoners.

If Assange’s mental health is in such poor shape and he is so likely to commit suicide, it is because of the horrifying regime of abuse he has already faced in Belmarsh over the past nearly two years – a regime classified as torture by the UN’s expert on the subject, Nils Melzer. Raising Assange’s hopes of release and then shutting him back in his cell, denying him the chance to see his partner and two young children for the first time since March, risks tipping him over the edge – an edge Baraitser herself is only too aware of and on which she based her decision to deny extradition.

No ‘flight risk’

In fact, the judge was up to something else entirely in delaying the bail hearing till Wednesday, two days later. She wanted – as presumably did those who have been supervising her behind the scenes – to refashion the image of her court, which for months has given every appearance of being entirely beholden to the US administration.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Britain, Julian Assange, Wikileaks 

The unexpected decision by Judge Vanessa Baraitser to deny a US demand to extradite Julian Assange, foiling efforts to send him to a US super-max jail for the rest of his life, is a welcome legal victory, but one swamped by larger lessons that should disturb us deeply.

Those who campaigned so vigorously to keep Assange’s case in the spotlight, even as the US and UK corporate media worked so strenuously to keep it in darkness, are the heroes of the day. They made the price too steep for Baraitser or the British establishment to agree to lock Assange away indefinitely in the US for exposing its war crimes and its crimes against humanity in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But we must not downplay the price being demanded of us for this victory.

A moment of celebration

We have contributed collectively in our various small ways to win back for Assange some degree of freedom, and hopefully a reprieve from what could be a death sentence as his health continues to deteriorate in an overcrowded Belmarsh high-security prison in London that has become a breeding ground for Covid-19.

For this we should allow ourselves a moment of celebration. But Assange is not out of the woods yet. The US has said it will appeal the decision. And it is not yet clear whether Assange will remain jailed in the UK – possibly in Belmarsh – while many months of further legal argument about his future take place.

The US and British establishments do not care where Assange is imprisoned – be it Sweden, the UK or the US. What has been most important to them is that he continues to be locked out of sight in a cell somewhere, where his physical and mental fortitude can be destroyed and where he is effectively silenced, encouraging others to draw the lesson that there is too high a price to pay for dissent.

The personal battle for Assange won’t be over till he is properly free. And even then he will be lucky if the last decade of various forms of incarceration and torture he has been subjected to do not leave him permanently traumatised, emotionally and mentally damaged, a pale shadow of the unapologetic, vigorous transparency champion he was before his ordeal began.

That alone will be a victory for the British and US establishments who were so embarrassed by, and fearful of, Wikileaks’ revelations of their crimes.

Rejected on a technicality

But aside from what is a potential personal victory for Assange, assuming he doesn’t lose on appeal, we should be deeply worried by the legal arguments Baraitser advanced in denying extradition.

The US demand for extradition was rejected on what was effectively a technicality. The US mass incarceration system is so obviously barbaric and depraved that, it was shown conclusively by experts at the hearings back in September, Assange would be at grave risk of committing suicide should he become another victim of its super-max jails.

One should not also discard another of the British establishment’s likely considerations: that in a few days Donald Trump will be gone from the White House and a new US administration will take his place.

There is no reason to be sentimental about president-elect Joe Biden. He is a big fan of mass incarceration too, and he will be no more of a friend to dissident media, whistleblowers and journalism that challenges the national security state than was his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama. Which is no friend at all.

But Biden probably doesn’t need the Assange case hanging over his head, becoming a rallying cry against him, an uncomfortable residue of the Trump administration’s authoritarian instincts that his own officials would be forced to defend.

It would be nice to imagine that the British legal, judicial and political establishments grew a backbone in ruling against extradition. The far more likely truth is that they sounded out the incoming Biden team and received permission to forgo an immediate ruling in favour of extradition – on a technicality.

Keep an eye on whether the new Biden administration decides to drop the appeal case. More likely his officials will let it rumble on, largely below the media’s radar, for many months more.

Journalism as espionage

Significantly, Judge Baraitser backed all the Trump administration’s main legal arguments for extradition, even though they were comprehensively demolished by Assange’s lawyers.

Baraitser accepted the US government’s dangerous new definition of investigative journalism as “espionage”, and implied that Assange had also broken Britain’s draconian Official Secrets Act in exposing government war crimes.

She agreed that the 2007 Extradition Treaty applies in Assange’s case, ignoring the treaty’s actual words that exempt political cases like his. She has thereby opened the door for other journalists to be seized in their home countries and renditioned to the US for embarrassing Washington.

Baraitser accepted that protecting sources in the digital age – as Assange did for whistleblower Chelsea Manning, an essential obligation on journalists in a free society – now amounts to criminal “hacking”. She trashed free speech and press freedom rights, saying they did not provide “unfettered discretion by Mr Assange to decide what he’s going to publish”.

She appeared to approve of the ample evidence showing that the US spied on Assange inside the Ecuadorian embassy, both in violation of international law and his client-lawyer privilege – a breach of his most fundamental legal rights that alone should have halted proceedings.

Baraitser argued that Assange would receive a fair trial in the US, even though it was almost certain to take place in the eastern district of Virginia, where the major US security and intelligence services are headquartered. Any jury there would be dominated by US security personnel and their families, who would have no sympathy for Assange.

So as we celebrate this ruling for Assange, we must also loudly denounce it as an attack on press freedom, as an attack on our hard-won collective freedoms, and as an attack on our efforts to hold the US and UK establishments accountable for riding roughshod over the values, principles and laws they themselves profess to uphold.

Even as we are offered with one hand a small prize in Assange’s current legal victory, the establishment’s other hand seizes much more from us.

Vilification continues

There is a final lesson from the Assange ruling. The last decade has been about discrediting, disgracing and demonising Assange. This ruling should very much be seen as a continuation of that process.

Baraitser has denied extradition only on the grounds of Assange’s mental health and his autism, and the fact that he is a suicide risk. In other words, the principled arguments for freeing Assange have been decisively rejected.

If he regains his freedom, it will be solely because he has been characterised as mentally unsound. That will be used to discredit not just Assange, but the cause for which he fought, the Wikileaks organisation he helped to found, and all wider dissidence from establishment narratives. This idea will settle into popular public discourse unless we challenge such a presentation at every turn.

 

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz has run a fascinating long report this week offering a disturbing snapshot of the political climate rapidly emerging across Europe on the issue of antisemitism. The article documents a kind of cultural, political and intellectual reign of terror in Germany since the parliament passed a resolution last year equating support for non-violent boycotts of Israel – in solidarity with Palestinians oppressed by Israel – with antisemitism.

The article concerns Germany but anyone reading it will see very strong parallels with what is happening in other European countries, especially the UK and France.

The same European leaders who a few years ago marched in Paris shouting “Je suis Charlie” – upholding the inalienable free speech rights of white Europeans to offend Muslims by insulting and ridiculing their Prophet – are now queuing up to outlaw free speech when it is directed against Israel, a state that refuses to end its belligerent occupation of Palestinian land. European leaders have repeatedly shown they are all too ready to crush the free speech of Palestinians, and those in solidarity with them, to avoid offending sections of the Jewish community.

The situation reduces to this: European Muslims have no right to take offence at insults about a religion they identify with, but European Jews have every right to take offence at criticism of an aggressive Middle Eastern state they identify with. Seen another way, the perverse secular priorities of European mainstream culture now place the sanctity of a militarised state, Israel, above the sanctity of a religion with a billion followers.

Guilt by association

This isn’t even a double standard. I can’t find a word in the dictionary that conveys the scale and degree of hypocrisy and bad faith involved.

ORDER IT NOW

If the American Jewish scholar Norman Finkelstein wrote a follow-up to his impassioned book The Holocaust Industry – on the cynical use of the Holocaust to enrich and empower a Jewish organisational establishment at the expense of the Holocaust’s actual survivors – he might be tempted to title it The Antisemitism Industry.

In the current climate in Europe, one that rejects any critical thinking in relation to broad areas of public life, that observation alone would enough to have one denounced as an antisemite. Which is why the Haaretz article – far braver than anything you will read in a UK or US newspaper – makes no bones about what is happening in Germany. It calls it a “witch-hunt”. That is Haaretz’s way of saying that antisemitism has been politicised and weaponised – a self-evident conclusion that will currently get you expelled from the British Labour party, even if you are Jewish.

The Haaretz story highlights two important developments in the way antisemitism has been, in the words of intellectuals and cultural leaders cited by the newspaper, “instrumentalised” in Germany.

Jewish organisations and their allies in Germany, as Haaretz reports, are openly weaponising antisemitism not only to damage the reputation of Israel’s harsher critics, but also to force out of the public and cultural domain – through a kind of “antisemitism guilt by association” – anyone who dares to entertain criticism of Israel.

Cultural associations, festivals, universities, Jewish research centres, political think-tanks, museums and libraries are being forced to scrutinise the past of those they wish to invite in case some minor transgression against Israel can be exploited by local Jewish organisations. That has created a toxic, politically paranoid atmosphere that inevitably kills trust and creativity.

But the psychosis runs deeper still. Israel, and anything related to it, has become such a combustible subject – one that can ruin careers in an instant – that most political, academic and cultural figures in Germany now choose to avoid it entirely. Israel, as its supporters intended, is rapidly becoming untouchable.

A case study noted by Haaretz is Peter Schäfer, a respected professor of ancient Judaism and Christianity studies who was forced to resign as director of Berlin’s Jewish Museum last year. Schäfer’s crime, in the eyes of Germany’s Jewish establishment, was that he staged an exhibition on Jerusalem that recognised the city’s three religious traditions, including a Muslim one.

He was immediately accused of promoting “historical distortions” and denounced as “anti-Israel”. A reporter for Israel’s rightwing Jerusalem Post, which has been actively colluding with the Israeli government to smear critics of Israel, contacted Schäfer with a series of inciteful emails. The questions included “Did you learn the wrong lesson from the Holocaust?” and “Israeli experts told me you disseminate antisemitism – is that true?”

Schäfer observes:

The accusation of antisemitism is a club that allows one to deal a death blow, and political elements who have an interest in this are using it, without a doubt… The museum staff gradually entered a state of panic. Then of course we also started to do background checks. Increasingly it poisoned the atmosphere and our work.

Another prominent victim of these Jewish organisations tells Haaretz:

Sometimes one thinks, “To go to that conference?”, “To invite this colleague?” Afterward it means that for three weeks, I’ll have to cope with a shitstorm, whereas I need the time for other things that I get paid for as a lecturer. There is a type of “anticipatory obedience” or “prior self-censorship”.

Ringing off the hook

There is nothing unusual about what is happening in Germany. Jewish organisations are stirring up these “shitstorms” – designed to paralyse political and cultural life for anyone who engages in even the mildest criticism of Israel – at the highest levels of government. Don’t believe me? Here is Barack Obama explaining in his recent autobiography his efforts as US president to curb Israel’s expansion of its illegal settlements. Early on, he was warned to back off or face the wrath of the Israel lobby:

Members of both parties worried about crossing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Those who criticized Israeli policy too loudly risked being tagged as “anti-Israel” (and possibly anti-Semitic) and confronted with a well-funded opponent in the next election.

When Obama went ahead anyway in 2009 and proposed a modest freeze on Israel’s illegal settlements:

The White House phones started ringing off the hook, as members of my national security team fielded calls from reporters, leaders of American Jewish organizations, prominent supporters, and members of Congress, all wondering why we were picking on Israel … this sort of pressure continued for much of 2009.

He observes further: