Cutting through the bullshit.

Friday 28 December 2007

Who pays the piper

Much quicker off the mark than me, within a day of the 11 December release of the latest AJC Annual Survey of American Jewish Opinion (conducted 6-25 November 2007), Glenn Greenwald was writing in Salon on ‘How Unrepresentative Neocon Jewish Groups Are’, concluding,

One of the defining traits of war-loving neoconservatives is that their unrelenting and exclusive fixation on the Middle East...often casts the appearance that they are some sort of spokespeople for the “pro-Israel” agenda or the Jewish viewpoint.

Manifestly, they are nothing of the sort. Even among American Jews, they comprise only a small minority, and their generally discredited militarism is widely rejected by most Jews as well. It is always worth underscoring these points, which are so frequently (and deliberately) obscured, and this comprehensive poll provides potent — actually quite conclusive — evidence for doing so.

The same day, Yoshie, citing Greenwald, concurred on his own Critical montages blog, as well as in a guest post on Lenin’s tomb ‘that neo-conservatives are a tiny minority at odds with a great majority of Jewish Americans they claim to represent’, observing further that ‘after all these years, Jewish Americans still largely lean to the Left’.

Eric Alterman remarks in the Nation that

it's news only if you haven't been paying attention. An examination of past AJC surveys as well as a number of other polls of American Jews demonstrates that Jews have remained remarkably faithful to the values of liberal humanism. These views, however, have been obscured in our political discourse by an unholy alliance between conservative-dominated professional Jewish organizations and neoconservative Jewish pundits, aided by pliant and frequently clueless mainstream media that empower these right-wingers to speak for a people with values diametrically opposed to theirs.

These observers are quite emphatic – ‘It is beyond dispute that American Jews overwhelmingly oppose core neoconservative foreign policy principles’, ‘values diametrically opposed’, ‘at odds with a great majority’.

To be sure, only minorities claim to adhere to some of the positions of the Zionist organisations. For example, while the AJC itself appears to be on a campaign to discredit the NIE and keep Americans in fear of the Iranian nukes imminently raining onto Israel, or worse, only 35% of American Jews said that they ‘support the United States taking military action against Iran to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons’, the same as last year, and before release of the new NIE asserting that Iran had a nuclear weapons program but discontinued it in 2003.

When I say, ‘the same as last year’, it is important to bear in mind that in a small sample like this, the ‘margin of error’ is three percentage points. So last year’s estimate of 35% could in fact be anywhere between 32% and 38%, as could this year’s. In other words, the same estimate could conceal either a rise or a fall of up to six percentage points, or more.

It might be worth reiterating that three percentage points is not the same as 3%. If, for example, we had an estimate of 50% of American Jews who claim to be members of synagogues, a margin of error of three points gives us a range of 47% to 53%. If the margin of error were 3%, 3% of 50% is 1.5%, so the range would be 48.5% to 51.5%. Quite a different kettle of fish. Furthermore, you would calculate the latter difference on the basis of the original absolute estimates, although in this case, it shouldn’t matter. The reason that these estimates may be off by more than 3 points either way is that there is a certain level of confidence that that is the margin of error, unstated in this case. It is definitely less than 100% for obvious reasons, and is probably about 85%.

In a 17 December article, ‘American Jews on War and Peace: What Do the Polls Tell Us and Not Tell Us?’, James Petras sets out to answer

How is it that a majority of US Jews who, according to the AJC poll (and several others going back over two decades) differ with the principal American Jewish organizations, have not or do not challenge the position of the dominant Jewish organization, have virtually no impact on the US Congress, the Executive and the mass media in comparison to the Presidents of the Major American Jewish Organizations?

And I think Richard Silverstein has come up with a more plausible explanation than Petras’s.

Petras has a grasp of the organized Jewish community but no grasp at all of unaffiliated Jews, who constitute just under half of the population. The AJC survey includes ALL Jews whether affiliated or unaffiliated. Unaffiliated Jews are much more likely to have views to the left of the "dominant Jewish organizations." The reason that unaffiliated Jews do not challenge the prevailing wisdom in the mainstream community is that doing so does not interest them. That's why they're unaffiliated. It's a vicious circle really. So to blame those who have essentially opted out of the program for the perpetuation of noxious attitudes among those who are still with the program misses the point entirely.

Blaming Jewish peace groups for not moving the Jewish agenda toward the left is wrong-headed. These groups attempt to work with both affiliated and unaffiliated Jews to move the prevailing consensus in a leftward direction. There are many reasons why they have not had more success (lack of funds and powerful leaders, lack of strategic vision, strength of their opponents). And I think that most members and staff of these organizations realize they need to do more. But to denounce them for this lack of success and blame the troubling AJC results on them is mean-spirited and just flat out wrong.

While admitting that ‘it is surprising, and disturbing, that the result is as close as it is’, Silverstein finds comfort in the 46% plurality saying they ‘favor the establishment of a Palesitnian state’, in comparison to the 43% opposed. As it happens, the AJC have asked the same question every year since 2000, and this year’s 46% support is the lowest it’s stood over that period, significantly falling by eight points from last year’s 54%. Similarly, the proportion opposing a Palestinian state has increased from 38% last year and the year before to 43% in 2007, the second highest level recorded over the eight year period. (It was 47% in 2002.) As the margins of error overlap, this may or may not be significant, but the stability of many of the estimates over time suggests that a five point increase could be.

What’s interesting about the question, however, is not the numbers, but the wording, ‘In the current situation, do you favor or oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state?’ Without additional information, the answers to such a question don’t tell us very much. Some respondents may favour establishment of a Palestinian state from the Jordan to the Mediterranean. Others may favour a series of disconnected bantustans whose borders, airspace, port, communications infrastructure, etc. are under Israeli control. Some of those opposed may prefer a single democratic secular state throughout historic Palestine, or the annexation of the West Bank and Gaza to Israel and the expulsion of the remaining non Jewish population. So it is not at all obvious that favouring establishment of a Palestinian state is necessarily a progressive view, or that opposing it is not. In fact, even if it were safe to assume that all respondents understood the question the same way, as something like the Geneva initiative, with a return to more or less the Green Line and a ‘symbolic’ gesture towards justice for the refugees, that is a long way from progressive. As I’ve discussed before, it entails accepting that ethnic cleansing and terrorism are acceptable nation building strategies, that territory can legitimately be acquired by force of arms, that refugees deserve permanent exile and statelessness, that it’s ok to privilege one group over another on the basis of religion or ethnicity, and other positions that are prima facie anti progressive.

To understand what the opinions about the establishment of a Palestinian state mean, I would have liked to see answers to questions about the refugee issue, about Israel’s status as a Jewish state, whether a Jewish state can be democratic, the status of the Israeli Arabs, ‘targetted assassinations’, checkpoints, the boycott of Hamas and the siege of Gaza, the bypass roads, the future of the ‘large settlement blocs’, (In 2005, the last time they asked the question, 36% opposed dismantling any West Bank settlements, the highest ever and up seven points from 29% in 2004.), the construction and route of the wall (In 2006, 73% supported ‘the Israeli government's decision to build the security fence separating Israelis and Palestinians?’, up from 69% the previous year.), among other things. In particular, I’m interested in the proportion of US Jews who subscribe to views that I would define as Zionist, that is, who believe that a state that privileges Jews is acceptable. But I wasn’t really expecting them to ask that. I think it is clear from the phrasing of other questions, the ‘destruction of Israel’ question in particular, that those framing these questions simply assumed that it went without saying that all respondents do hold such views. It would be frightening, but not really surprising, if they are right.

A couple of questions touch on my concerns, if tangentially. When asked,

Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? "Caring about Israel is a very important part of my being a Jew."

69% agreed, 28% disagreed, and 3% weren’t sure. Now you can spin this question so that I could honestly agree. Indeed, caring about what Israel purports to do in my name is the most important part of my being a Jew. But in all likelihood, none of the respondents interpreted it that way. If not, then it may be of interest that the proportion agreeing is the lowest in the eight years for which data are available on the AJC site, falling five points from 74% last year.

The other,

How close do you feel to Israel?

is the nearest thing they ask to a measure of Zionist sentiment, as I define it. Still, without knowing respondents’ motivations – without asking why – we don’t know whether those who feel ‘very distant’ from Israel oppose any discussion of dismantling settlements and favour immediate forcible transfer of all Palestinians from ‘Eretz Yisra’el’, or object to the existence of a Jewish ethnocracy. I think we can, however, interpret those 70% who say they do feel close to Israel as among those who unequivocally do feel comfortable with a state that privileges Jews. It is mildly encouraging that the proportion who said they felt ‘slightly close’ or ‘very close’ has fallen six percentage points since 2006 to it’s lowest recorded level.

Returning to the issue of the Palestinian state, what we do know from the survey is how respondents answered

In the framework of a permanent peace with the Palestinians, should Israel be willing to compromise on the status of Jerusalem as a united city under Israeli jurisdiction?

Like most of the questions in the AJC survey, there are problems with the wording. To begin with, it rests on the assumption that ‘a permanent peace with the Palestinians’ is conceivable without a capital of the Palestinian state, whatever its configuration, in al Quds. And that already betrays further assumptions – that ‘the Palestinians’ means the PA; that anyone purporting to represent ‘the Palestinians’ could negotiate sovereignty over Jerusalem, that ‘peace’ means simply the end of all resistance. Furthermore, the question assumes that it would be a compromise for Israel to relinquish sovereignty, when not even the US recognises Israel’s annexation of Jerusalem. Anyway, the answers to this question do shed a little light on the Palestinian state question.

A majority of 58% said that Israel should not be willing to make this compromise. On the face of it, therefore, that would mean that at least 4% of the sample favour a Palestinian state with no sovereignty over Jerusalem. It could be, and probably is, much higher than that, but that is the extent of the overlap between the two proportions, so it’s all we can be sure of. Taking the three point margin of error into consideration, however, it is possible that the populations would not overlap at all, if both estimates were high, that is, if, say, the proportion that favoured the Palestinian state was actually as low as 43% and only 55% wanted Israel to keep Jerusalem.

At one level, it would be nice to have access to the raw data and run some cross tabulations. Then we could have estimates of the proportion, for example, who both favour a Palestinian state and think Israel should compromise over Jerusalem, in other words, the population close to a standard two state position. But that type of analysis effectively looks at smaller sub populations, so the sampling error would be much higher and the estimates less reliable. That said, the AJC itself has announced that 70% of those identifying as Democrats support Hillary Clinton. It’s a large enough proportion that it is probably meaningful, but the margin of error would be much higher than three points. Somewhat more suspect is Rebecca Spence’s report in this week’s Forward that

According to the AJCommittee survey for 2007, 42% of Orthodox respondents identified themselves as Democrats, while 30% identified as Republicans.

Since only 8% of the AJC sample identified as Orthodox, that is, between 75 and 84 of the 1000 respondents, the margin of error would be very high, or what amounts to the same thing, the confidence that the margin of error is three percentage points would be much lower than 85%, or whatever it is for proportions of the entire sample. The figures do, however, appear to coincide with those asserted by the Orthodox Union, however they were collected.

Notwithstanding the small consolation Silverstein finds in the possible plurality favouring a Palestinian state,

The remaining answers are flat out unnerving and make me realize how much work remains to be done if there is ever to be a realistic understanding of the IP conflict among American Jews. As a group we have swallowed hook, line and sinker some of the worst prejudices and ignorant attitudes toward Palestinians and the Arab world as a whole.

Most of the questions that concern him resemble the ‘How close’ question in that an affirmative response is more meaningful than a negative. For example,

Do you think that negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas can or cannot lead to peace in the foreseeable future?

The 55% who answered ‘Cannot’ may comprise those who don’t think there will ever be peace under any circumstances; those who think there will be peace, but not in the foreseeable future; those who think there will be peace in the foreseeable future, but not as a result of the negotiations; those who don’t agree that those two parties are negotiating; etc. Those who said, ‘Can’, on the other hand probably all share at least a desire to appear optimistic, and may actually believe that Olmert and abu Mazen both enjoy sufficient credibility among their purported constituencies and with each other to be able to negotiate in good faith, that their common objective is peace in the foreseeable future, and the other profoundly implausible assumptions that would make sense of an affirimative response.

What is rather alarming is the 82% majority agreeing

...with the following statement? "The goal of the Arabs is not the return of occupied territories but rather the destruction of Israel."

What this question does above all else is invite the respondent to buy into racism. By refusing to specify whether ‘the Arabs’ are ‘the moderate Arab states’, the PA, the Palestinians in general, Arabs in general, or whatever, the question’s framers force the respondent to accept the racist presupposition that ‘the Arabs’ are of one mind. They are duplicitous in pretending to demand the return of the territories occupied in 1967, but in reality, they are bent on Israel’s destruction, a second Holocaust. Again, we can’t really tell much about those who disagreed without knowing why they did so. But it’s pretty clear that those who agreed were prepared to accept those assumptions.

Several of those writing about the poll have made much of the high proportion of American Jews identifying as ‘liberal’ and Democrat. On this, Petras is spot on.

Progressive analysts who cite overwhelming Jewish support for the Democratic Party, its top three Presidential candidates and their preference for the liberal label as differentiating them from the leaders of the major organizations, commit an elementary logical and substantive fallacy. Liberals, like the Clintons, supported the wars against Iraq and are among the driving forces promoting a military attack on Iran. The Democratic majority in Congress has backed every military appropriation demanded by the Republicans and the White House. Being Democrat and ‘liberal’ is no indicator of being ‘progressive’ using any foreign policy indicator, from the Middle East wars to destabilizations efforts in Venezuela.

The question asked is,

I’m going to read you a list of political views that people might hold. They are arranged from extremely liberal to extremely conservative. Where would you place yourself on this scale?

Extremely liberal


Slightly liberal

Moderate, middle of the road

Slightly conservative


Extremely conservative

Not sure

When designing a question like this with a number of response categories among which the respondent must select just one, it is imperative to ensure that the response categories exhaust all the possible responses. This is easily accomplished by incorporating a residual ‘Other’ response, or, if you’re really interested, ‘Other, please specify’. In the US context, of course, liberal can only mean ‘small ‘l’ liberal’, vaguely progressive, perhaps, or ‘left of centre’. I would guess that ‘Extremely liberal’ corresponds to something along the lines of social democrat. It’s hard to imagine anyone to the left of that identifying as any kind of liberal, even in America. Another problem with this question, apart from omitting a category to accommodate revolutionary Marxists, is that the inclusion of a ‘Moderate’ category is likely to contaminate everything. After all, the only thing this question is testing is the rather unreliable measure of political self perception, and many people prefer to perceive themselves as moderate. ‘Moderation in all things’... Mhden agan ‘Nothing in excess’ – the Oracle’s wisdom.

Some of the other questions may shed some light on just how liberal American Jews really are. This year, 43% claimed to be either ‘Extremely liberal’(4%), ‘Liberal’(23%), or ‘Slightly liberal’ (16%), a little above the average for 2000-2008.

It’s true that 57% opposed ‘...the United States taking military action against Iran to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons?’, so clearly at least some of the Moderates and/or Conservatives must have been among those opposed, suggesting that it’s not necessarily such a progressive position. In 2006, 54% were opposed, and only 46% the year before. Interestingly, however, when asked last year, with 42% saying they were liberal, 57% supported, ‘...Israel taking military action against Iran to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons’. Also in 2006, 55% approved ‘...of the way the Israeli government has handled the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon’, and 53% of how the United States government handled it.

‘Looking back,’ 67% said they thought the U.S. ‘should have have stayed out’ of Iraq. But since we don’t know why they think that, or what they think the US should do now, it is ambiguous whether they answered as they did because they oppose US imperialism, because they supported Hussein’s Ba’ath regime in Baghdad, because they were disappointed that US troops weren’t greeted with candy and flowers, or any one or more of numerous other reasons. In a CBS News/New York Times Poll conducted a couple of weeks after the AJC poll, only 54% said they thought the U.S. ‘should have have stayed out’ of Iraq. So insofar as this question is an indicator of progressive attitudes on US foreign policy issues, it would appear that the proportion of Jews with such attitudes is significantly higher than the proportion in the population at large.

This year, 59% said they were ‘very concerned’, and another 33% ‘somewhat concerned’, ‘about the prospect of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons’. So even while they reject some neocon positions, at least some self identified liberals are prepared to accept their propaganda. One of the more interesting findings of the poll is that even if everyone who was not concerned about Iranian nukes opposed a US attack, there is still a significant proportion who opposed the attack even though they were concerned.

In 2002, when 37% said they were liberal – not necessarily different from this year’s 43%, taking the margin of error into account – 57% approved ‘...of the United States taking military action against Iraq to try and remove Saddam Hussein from power?’

In 2001, with 42% claiming to be liberal, 91% favoured ‘...the United States taking direct military action in Afghanistan?’. Even if every one of the 58% of moderates and conservatives favoured attacking Afghanistan, that still leaves 33 of the 42% who were claimed to be liberal, that is, nearly four fifths of them, also supporting Bush’s imperialist rampage. And 85% approved ‘of the way President George W. Bush is handling the U.S. campaign against terrorism’. It is mildly encouraging that this proportion has fallen quite significantly, with only 31% approving ‘...of the way the United States government is handling the war against terrorism’ (the successor question asked since 2004). But to answer the question at all requires acceptance of the presupposition that the US is in fact engaged in a ‘war/campaign against terrorism’.

On domestic issues, I agree with Petras that identification with the Democratic Party is not an indicator of liberalism. But a couple of questions may touch on the matter. When asked how serious a problem illegal immigration was, 79% said it was ‘somewhat serious’ or ‘very serious’, a probably insignificant one point higher than in 2006; 95% said it was a problem both years. In answer to the question about policy, 15% said they should all be deported, one point more than last year, and 67% said they should be allowed to stay if they meet certain unspecified requirements. None of the response categories seems to accommodate the population who prefer open borders and the free movement of labour.

On the whole, the AJC Annual Survey of American Jewish Opinion is a disappointment. Professional survey development involves study of focus group responses to the questions and runs pilot tests to determine whether the questions collect the intended concepts. I would like to give Synovate the benefit of the doubt, but it’s frankly hard to imagine that questions as conceputally suspect as these would have survived rigorous testing. Through carelessness or cynicism, Synovate (formerly Market Facts), ‘a leading survey-research organization’, has framed questions that beg other questions and delivered results that are in many cases ambiguous.

Assuming that neither Synovate nor the AJC has actually tampered with the results – and I do assume that, what they seem to indicate is that a plurality of American Jews like to think of themselves as liberal. On the question of whether the US should have invaded Iraq, whatever it may mean, more of them seem skeptical than the population at large. Large proportions are susceptible to panic at propaganda about a terrorist threat or a rogue state, but this appears to dissipate over a couple of years. On a range of foreign policy issues, significant minorities or even majorities – up to 67% in the case of the Iraq war – depart from positions advocated by AIPAC and other neocon organisations. When it comes to Israel, however, larger proportions take such positions. More than four out of every five American Jews were prepared to buy into the anti Arab racism measured by the ‘destruction of Israel’ question.

Alterman nails the reason for the apparent disconnect between mainstream Jewish opinion and the organisations that purport to speak for American Jewry.

In large part the trouble lies with the antidemocratic structures of these organizations and the apathy of most Jews with regard to organized Jewish life. Major Jewish groups respond to the demands of their top funders and best-organized constituencies. Most American Jews, however, have little or nothing to do with these groups. [my emphasis]

In other words, who pays the piper calls the tune. AIPAC and the other principal pro Israel lobby groups articulate the positions that suit their constituency – those with money to spare to make significant contributions to organisations to prosecute their interests, not as Jews, but as capitalists. They believe, rightly or wrongly, that it is in their current financial interests for Israel to carry out the policies it does with impunity.

Saturday 15 December 2007

The greatest beneficiary

Pakistan’s new civilian president, retired General Pervez Musharraf has announced a parcel of measures to lift the state of emergency he decreed on 3 November, just in time to ensure that next month’s general election will be seen as ‘free and fair’. The five presidential orders, according to Dawn’s Nasir Iqbal, are:

Revocation of Proclamation of Emergency Order 2007, Repeal of Provisional Constitution Order, Revival of Constitutional Order, Establishment of Islamabad High Court and grant of pension benefits to judges who had either refused or had not been invited by the government to take the oath under the PCO.

Talking to media personnel at the Supreme Court, he [Musharraf] said that with the lifting of the emergency and the repeal of the PCO, all fundamental rights would stand restored and the media would be the greatest beneficiary.

What Musharraf doesn’t mention is that, as Keith Jones reports on WSWS,

On Tuesday, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) issued a warning to the country’s private television stations, most of which only recently resumed broadcasting, threatening them with heavy fines and their personnel, including journalists, with jail sentences of up to three years if they violate a ban on live broadcasts or violate new regulations imposed during the emergency that forbid airing “anything which defames or brings into ridicule the head of state.”…The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists called the Pemra order “an attempt to silence the free media” and emasculate coverage of the election campaign.

With a Damoclean sword dangling precariously above them like that, Pakistani journalists will doutless derive great benefit from the sense of responsibility it imparts.

Although ‘deposed judges, including Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, would be granted pension benefits’,

“All judges of the superior courts who were not invited by the government to take oath under the PCO, or those who had declined to do so, will not be restored at all,” the attorney general said.

So there is no further danger of unruly activist judges finding that Musharraf was in fact not eligible to stand for election while in the employ of the state as the constitution provides. Under the circumstances, you can understand why

Pakistanis also do not accept Musharraf’s stated rationale for the state of emergency declaration. When given a choice between two options, 25 percent said that they thought Musharraf declared the emergency in order to better fight terrorists, while 66 percent said that it was to prevent the Supreme Court from overturning his re-election to another term as president.

Those figures come from a survey of ‘3,520 adult men and women from 223 rural and 127 urban locations in 51 districts in all four provinces of Pakistan’ conducted 19-28 November by the International Republican Institute (IRI), ‘A nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing democracy worldwide’. In reality, the IRI is the Republican Party’s branch of the US National Endowment for Democracy, funded by the US government to advance its global war on democracy. Ordinarily, I am sceptical of surveys that don’t publish the questions asked and the other metadata that make the numbers intelligible. But in this case, the report of results seems fairly explicit and more importantly, the IRI favours the Musharraf regime, so I would expect any bias they might introduce to minimise opposition to Musharraf. And yet, they also found

When asked if they supported the recent re-election of Musharraf to another term as president, voters were overwhelmingly opposed; 26 percent said they supported his reelection and 72 percent said that they did not; 61 percent said that they strongly opposed Musharraf’s re-election.

A majority of Pakistanis want Musharraf to resign from office, with 67 percent wanting his resignation and 25 percent opposed.

To recap, the reason Musharraf could be elected with 72% opposed is that in Pakistan, it is not the electorate at large, but the National and Provincial Assemblies, who elect the president. Since Musharraf scheduled the presidential election before the parliamentary elections, and since the opposition boycotted the election and Benazir Bhutto’s PPP abstained, it was his tame legislators who voted for him.

Just to make sure that everything is aboveboard, Attorney-General

Mr [Mohammad] Qayyum said former prime minister Nawaz Sharif stood disqualified for the January 8 election. Shahbaz Sharif, he added, had not appealed against the rejection of his candidature during the stipulated time, so he also stood disqualified.

Furthermore, ‘The constitutional bar on a person to become prime minister for the third time would stay, he said.’ If correct, that means that in the unlikely case that the PPP should win enough seats to form government, Benazir will not be eligible to be PM. True to form, she and Nawaz have decided not to boycott the parliamentary election, even though

74 percent of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the party of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, voters said they would support the boycott, as did the same percentage of Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) voters, the party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

So, while six weeks of martial law may not have succeeded in eradicating terrorism in Pakistan, it has certainly served Musharraf’s interests very well indeed. Maybe two thirds of Pakistanis were right about that.

Tuesday 4 December 2007


As a confidence building measure, Israel has released 429 Palestinian political prisoners...and is incarcerating up to 42 new ones daily.
[Hat tip to Sol Salbe]