In the summer of 2010, long before he made headlines worldwide for reporting Edward Snowden’s leaks about the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance program, Glenn Greenwald appeared on TV to deliver a strange condemnation of Israel, relying on its own holey logic. In doing so, he offered an instructive glimpse into a mindset that he shares with many others, on the left and the right alike, that, despite its prevailing tone of outrage, is oddly apolitical, as it offers no real solutions to real world problems and defines itself by what it hates.
The occasion was the Israeli navy’s routing of a Turkish ship attempting to break through the blockade on the Gaza Strip, and Greenwald wasted no time in voicing his outrage. Speaking over a tinny Internet connection, he started off strong, barely allowing the host, Eliot Spitzer, to interject while using bold adjectives like “brutal” and “inhumane.” But then Spitzer turned it around; he asked Greenwald whether or not he considered Hamas a terrorist organization.
“Hamas,” replied the blogger, “is the democratically elected leadership of the people in Gaza.” Then, by way of historical context, he continued: “Have they engaged in terrorism? Yes. Have the Israelis who founded the Israeli state engaged in terrorism? Yes, they have. Turkey says that what Israel just did is an act of terrorism itself. But Hamas is the democratically elected government of the Gaza Strip.”
What did Greenwald mean by his statement? A straight reading is likely to confound. Asked if Hamas was a terrorist group, he replied it was democratically elected; but then so was the government of Israel, whose actions he was so fiercely denouncing. Are we, then, to surmise that terrorism is permissible so long as it is practiced by democratically elected governments? Or is terrorism universally forbidden, especially when attempted by democratically elected governments? Greenwald never bothered to clarify. Instead, he relied on a historical comparison, implying that Hamas is no different than the Israeli paramilitary groups that operated in favor of Israeli independence.
Here, too, it is worth pausing to consider the sophistry of this comparison. Even the Lehi, the most hardcore of all Jewish resistance movements, wanted nothing more than an end to the British mandate in Palestine, while Hamas is nowhere near as rational. In article eight of its covenant, it states its mission crisply: “Allah is its goal, the Prophet its model, the Qur’an its Constitution, Jihad its path and death for the case of Allah its most sublime belief.”
But Greenwald is much more than an inattentive student of history. As he ended his discussion, he once again brought up the argument about Hamas’ democratic legitimacy and once again returned to the same poorly defined terms and elusive syllogisms. No matter how closely you read his comments, they offer but one logical interpretation: Any use of force is forbidden and criminal when applied by Israel but understandable and even commendable when undertaken by its enemies. The same point of view popped up later in the interview, as Spitzer attempted in vain to coax Greenwald to comment on whether he believed Israel had the right to defend itself. Greenwald evaded the question because, for him, it hardly matters. The good guys are good and the bad are bad, and so it doesn’t really matter what they believe, say, or do.
A subtler variation of Greenwald’s cartoonish approach is on display in the work of James Bamford. Heralded as our finest investigative journalist covering the NSA—he is the author of three books about the agency—Bamford has spent the last five years repeating his favorite cautionary tale, the one about how America’s spymasters are secretly powered by Israeli cunning. Last year, for example, Bamford wrote a story in Wired titled “Shady Companies With Ties to Israel Wiretap the U.S. for the NSA,” revealing the role two Israeli technology firms play in making the agency’s surveillance infrastructure possible.
“In a rare and candid admission to Forbes,” Bamford wrote, “Retired Brig. Gen. Hanan Gefen, a former commander of the highly secret Unit 8200, Israel’s NSA, noted his former organization’s influence on Comverse, which owns Verint, as well as other Israeli companies that dominate the U.S. eavesdropping and surveillance market.”
It sounds like pretty damning stuff, unless one realizes two key facts. The first is that Bamford’s “rare and candid admission”—a term crucial to creating an aura of mystery and intrigue around what would have otherwise been just another one of the myriad commercial transactions that occur daily in a globalized economy—was anything but: The Israeli army’s contribution to that country’s technology scene in general, and Unit 8200’s involvement in particular, is widely discussed, including by members of the unit itself, and it formed much of the thesis of Start-Up Nation, the 2009 best-seller by Dan Senor and Saul Singer.
But even those forest-dwellers who may be honestly surprised to learn that Western armies develop and use advanced technologies—such as, to name but one prominent example, the Internet, which owes its existence to the U.S. Department of Defense—would surely not be surprised to learn that nations also sell each other stuff. Last month, for example, a report noted that the U.S. Army will pay $77 million to replace old M4 rifles with shiny, new M4A1s. The latter are produced by FN Herstal, a subsidiary of the Herstal Group, a corporation that is entirely owned by the Walloon Region of Belgium, which is to say, by a foreign government. But don’t expect Bamford et al., to evoke the same ominous hum about the infiltration of the Walloons; foreign military contracts, apparently, are only a terrifying evil that threatens to undermine American democracy when the foreign companies are Israeli.
It would be crass, and largely inaccurate, to chalk up Bamford’s and Greenwald’s obsessive focus on Israel’s supposed role in evil global conspiracies to simple anti-Semitism. Instead, the ideology that drives their tendency to see the NSA and Israel as two heads of the same Satanic beast is more complex and ideologically-driven—an attack on the doctrines of exceptionalism that fueled the rise of both America and Israel. Beginning in the 1960s, this idea that America and Israel were virtuous nations apart began to drive a certain segment of the global left nuts, and so they set off on a search for new heroes. “The native,” Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in the introduction to Frantz Fanon’s explosive The Wretched of the Earth, “has only one choice, between servitude or sovereignty. … Violence, like Achilles’ lance, can heal the wounds that it has inflicted.” Men of the left saw no problem with lending their reputations to terrorist organizations with nationalist aspirations that shared nothing of their humanistic and universalist ideologies, as long as these groups also hated America and Israel. In order for history to progress as it should, the New Chosen People had to displace the old, even if it meant a bizarre redrawing of political coalitions. We see remnants of this ideology still, in the philosopher Judith Butler’s argument that Hamas and Hezbollah are somehow part of the global left, or in the recent movements against “homonationalism,” dedicated to condemning gay Israelis for being proud of their nation’s generally progressive policies regarding gay rights.
Edward Snowden’s recent revelations were a godsend to these segments of the left, because they carried with them a whiff of incipient American totalitarianism—the NSA is spying on us!—while also suggesting that America and Israel were doing sneaky and underhanded things to undermine freedom around the world. That the NSA’s alleged spying extends no further than the reams of data each of us voluntarily provides to major corporations every hour of every day for the explicit purpose of use in advertising—The Onion, as is sadly often the case, was the only news source to actually understand this point—mattered little. Nor did it matter that the government acted with the explicit approval of a bipartisan committee of men and women elected by the people.
From their critique of Israel to their thundering condemnations of American policies, Greenwald and Bamford and others who share their view offer almost nothing by way of concrete policy suggestions, reasoned political stances, or anything else resembling a solution that might be applied to alleviate the suffering of real people. Instead, they trade in spooky-seeming revelations and aspersions. This is even more starkly true of the leakers themselves, Snowden and Bradley Manning, who decided that they had privileged insights that allow them to determine America’s national security—based on the fact that they could log onto government computers. When confronted with information they found troubling, they sought the first partner willing to make it public. They didn’t stop—like Daniel Ellsberg, whose name they often evoke and whose own support for Manning and Snowden is lamentable—to consider the implications of their actions; that is largely because Snowden and Manning share neither Ellsberg’s extensive education nor his actual combat experience and have no real grasp of how systems work or why they’re necessary. What they have is a slogan—information wants to be free!—and the hubris to put it above all else. And so, rather than following Ellsberg’s example and exhausting every conceivable avenue before taking the drastic step or breaking the law and leaking classified documents, they went for the nuclear option right off the bat.
To what end? That, too, is maddeningly unclear. Like Greenwald and Bamford, Manning and Snowden seem to support no concrete ideology applicable to guiding the course of human events. Listening to Snowden’s insipid interviews in particular, with their revelations that the United States spied on foreign nations, one wonders just how he believes governments ought to work. If the United States is not at liberty to clandestinely acquire information pertaining to competing nations—a practice whose ascent closely correlates with the notion of government itself—what might its foreign policy look like? And how might it defend itself against very real threats? Snowden hardly cares. That he would seek refuge in a nation like China—where one still isn’t free to search the Web or voice political opinions online, let alone vote for anyone who isn’t approved by the Communist Party—is a particularly poignant reminder of how sophomoric and senseless this new form of belief has become.
Snowden, Manning, Greenwald, Bamford, et al., do not seek to stir up a public conversation about programs and policies, as is the duty of journalists and whistleblowers alike. Their goal is very different. As Josh Marshall noted in a poignant essay last week:
Snowden is doing more than triggering a debate. I think it’s clear he’s trying to upend, damage—choose your verb—the U.S. intelligence apparatus and policies he opposes. The fact that what he’s doing is against the law speaks for itself. I don’t think anyone doubts that narrow point. But he’s not just opening the thing up for debate. He’s taking it upon himself to make certain things no longer possible, or much harder to do. To me that’s a betrayal.
The betrayal, however, is directed against something much larger than the U.S. government’s policies. It is directed against the concept of government itself. Elsewhere in his essay, Marshall commented that the strangest thing, perhaps, about Greenwald’s recent revelations and the mayhem that followed is how sharply they redrew the lines of political allegiances. It makes little sense to speak of liberals and conservatives when the kooks of both camps—two ever-growing factions—are both giddily prone to conspiracy theories and only too happy to fault the government with the worst intentions.
The new politics of the information age are now being shaped by two emerging camps. One believes in its inherent right to know everything but does not believe in personal responsibility; distrusts states, America in particular, but fashions the freedoms they grant into a banner; and speaks of human rights while caring very little about the lives of actual humans, as Julian Assange did when he recklessly leaked unredacted documents that put the lives of thousands of men and women who collaborated with the U.S. government in jeopardy and then shrugged the whole thing off by saying that anyone who cooperated with the Americans deserved to die. The other camp believes in the common good, and understands that the common good is best preserved not by individuals making personal and erratic decisions but by nation states, which are sometimes corrupt and often in need of shaking up but still, fundamentally, our worst form of government save for all the others. One camp burns with messianic zeal; the other is guided by the flickering light of democracy that requires the active commitment of responsible adults to keep it alight. This is as stark an ideological choice as any of the ones delineated by the great wars of the 20th century; now, as then, there ought to be little doubt which side deserves our allegiance.
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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.