POLITICS APRIL 15, 2002
Alexander Cockburn isn't a big fan of Israel. The Irish expat's
column for The Nation, "Beat the Devil," regularly trashes the
Zionist entity. Among his typical criticisms: Israel's American
supporters are "the spiritual soul-mates of those fanatical Cuban
exiles"; Ariel Sharon's "credentials as a war criminal are robust";
the occupation of the Palestinians amounts to genocide. You'd have to
read deep into the pages of The Final Call or Arabic-language papers
to find writers who can match Cockburn's level of anti-Israel
But Cockburn's home, The Nation, has always considered itself a
bastion of cosmopolitanism. Even if it's not exactly the
Anti-Defamation League's house publication, it has long chastised
anti-Semites on the left--proponents of what it calls the "socialism
of fools." (In recent years, for example, it published an attack on
Louis Farrakhan and condemnations of ccny Professor Leonard
Jeffries.) And Cockburn has had his moments too. In the 1980s he
discovered that the conservative writer Joseph Sobran had a history
of publishing boorish pieces about Jews. A few years later he trashed
Lech Walesa for indulging in crude stereotyping of Jews. "Vile
sentiments," he called them.
Anyone who visits Cockburn's left-wing newsletter, CounterPunch,
however, will learn that Cockburn isn't immune from spreading--if not
quite explicitly endorsing--such vile sentiments himself. Take his
March 12 piece (partially reprinted in The Seattle Times) on the
newly released tapes of conversations between Richard Nixon and the
Reverend Billy Graham in which the good reverend gripes about Jewish
control of the media.
At first, Cockburn seems critical of Graham's sentiment, sneering
that it is prevalent at "75 percent of the country clubs in America,
not to mention many a Baptist soiree." But just sentences later,
Cockburn seems to affirm the view himself:
It's supposedly the third rail in journalism even to have a
discussion of how much the Jews do control the media. Since three of
the prime founders of Hollywood, were Polish Jews who grew up within
fifty miles of each other in Galicia, it's reckoned as not so utterly
beyond the bounds of propriety to talk about Jewish power in
Hollywood, though people still stir uneasily. The economic and
political commentator Jude Wanniski remarked last week in his web
newsletter that even if the Jews don't control the media overall, it
is certainly true to say that they control discussion of Israel in
the media here.
Cockburn follows with this:
Certainly, there are a number of stories sloshing around the news now
that have raised discussions of Israel and of the posture of American
Jews to an acrid level. The purveyor of anthrax may have been a
former government scientist, Jewish, with a record of baiting a
colleague of Arab origins, and with the intent to blame the anthrax
on Muslim terrorists. Rocketing around the web and spilling into the
press are many stories about Israeli spies in America at the time of
9/11. On various accounts, they were trailing [Mohammed] Atta and his
associates, knew what was going to happen but did nothing about it,
or were simply spying on US facilities. Some, posing as art students
have been expelled, according to AP.
To be fair, Cockburn doesn't exactly endorse these theories. Rather,
by noting that all of these Jewish conspiracy stories are "sloshing
around the news," Cockburn seems merely to be pointing out that, hey,
anti-Semitic ideas are still out there today--so why the shock that
Graham endorsed them 30 years ago? Indeed, when I reached Cockburn to
ask him about these conspiracies, he insisted he was just reporting
what was already in circulation. "I don't think I said they are true.
I don't know there's enough exterior evidence to determine whether
they are true or not."
But, of course, that last sentence is the giveaway. There most
certainly is enough exterior evidence to determine whether the
stories are true or not. The answer is that they are not. They are
wild rumors circulating, if at all, in some of the least credible
corners of the Internet. No respectable media outlet has given these
stories credence. Merely by stating that these ideas are in
circulation, merely by saying it's impossible to judge their
veracity, Cockburn confers these ideas with legitimacy.
Consider, for example, the story about the mad Jew scientists out to
ruin the Muslims. I searched for it on the Lexis-Nexis news database
but came up with nothing--not one single mention of the story in a
mainstream news outlet. And I only found it on the Web at an obscure,
far-far left site that refers to the United States as "gringoland"
and accuses Daniel Pearl of working for Mossad. (Note the similarity
of the Jewish anthrax rumor to the Nation of Islam creation myth
about the wicked chemist Yacub.)
Then there's Cockburn's talk about Mossad's complicity in 9/11. Of
course, this version of events can also be found in the
self-exculpatory pages of the Arab press. But to my knowledge,
Cockburn is the only prominent Western journalist to give these
slanderous stories any credence.
And what about the Associated Press (AP) story he cites? It quotes
from a 61-page Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) report
suggesting the Israeli art students' travels through the United
States "may well be an organized intelligence-gathering." But the AP
also quotes the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as saying "the
bureau also has investigated and is satisfied that the young people
were not involved in espionage or intelligence gathering." The FBI
insists that the Israelis were deported merely for selling
over-priced paintings door-to-door in violation of their visas. And
even if you accepted the DEA's vague intimations of espionage,
there's nothing to suggest the Israeli connection to 9/11 that
Cockburn posits. The linkage is the product of Cockburn's imagination.
Cockburn's column goes way beyond legitimate criticism of Israel.
It's akin to the rantings of pitchfork Pat Buchanan, whose
anti-Semitism The Nation has condemned. So you would expect the
magazine to take a tough stance on the anti-Semitism in its own
backyard. But when I asked The Nation's editor, Katrina vanden
Heuvel, about Cockburn, she could only lamely distance herself from
the piece: "This didn't appear in The Nation. I don't read
CounterPunch.... It's been our experience that we've had differences
with our writers. It's a strength of the magazine that it
accommodates a range of perspectives." True enough. But there are
some perspectives that shouldn't be accommodated.
Franklin Foer is the editor of The New Republic and the author of How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization.