Anti-Semitism of useful idiots
We need a principled defence of free speech and a firm grasp of geo-strategic realities. Mike Macnair discusses the case of David Miller
On March 23 the House Armed Forces Committee of the US Congress received testimony on the “United States’ military posture and the national security challenges in the Greater Middle East and Africa”. General Michael ‘Erik’ Kurilla, commander of the US Central Command (Centcom, covering the Middle East), remarked that the extent of Chinese reliance on Middle-Eastern oil and gas means that “God forbid there’s ever a conflict with China, but we could end up holding a lot of their economy at risk in the Centcom region.”1
Made in a public hearing, general Kurilla’s statement clearly had at least two purposes. One was to emphasise the importance of Centcom in relation to the military budget issues that the committee was clearly discussing. The second is a threat to China.
But it is more significant as a pretty naked statement of the US’s strategic interest in the Middle East: not to achieve ‘cheap oil’, but rather to control the oil taps and thereby hold potential commercial rivals in military subordination to the US.
This military subordination in turn allows the enforcement of US economic interests. Thus the rest of the world was hit by the 1973 ‘oil price shock’ after the Nixon administration first part-defaulted on US debts to foreign holders by floating the dollar in 1971, then backed Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Thus Japan was forced to reduce exports to the US in the 1985 Plaza Accord, triggering the country’s ‘lost decades’.
Kurilla’s open avowal of US geostrategic interests reflects a more general shift towards another open avowal - that of American nationalism - as distinct from US national interests being masked in ‘world order’ and other ‘moral’ claims. This began under George W Bush, was slightly rolled back under Barack Obama, and accelerated under Donald Trump - with Joe Biden continuing Trump’s nationalism rather than drawing back from it.
The US geo-strategic military interest in having veto control of the oil taps, which Kurilla avowed, was the real reason why the Kennedy administration decided to introduce large-scale US military aid to Israel, and why ever since then US policy has been governed by maintaining Israel’s “qualitative military edge” over its neighbours.2 Eisenhower, in contrast, had threatened Israel with UN sanctions to force its withdrawal from the Suez in 1957.
This turn in US policy took place before anti-Semitism in the US had seriously declined: it was only in the early 1960s that Ivy League universities got rid of caps on the number of Jewish students, and in the mid-1960s that polls began to report a decline in anti-Semitic prejudice. Jews ‘became white folks’ because the Kennedy administration chose to make Israel a specially favoured vassal, in order to promote US geostrategic control of the Middle East. It was not the other way round.
But - as I have just said - the US was unwilling until recently to openly avow the geostrategic interests which led it to commit to Israel’s “qualitative military edge”. Instead, the explanation offered had to be about the sufferings of the Jews. Hence the rise of the ‘holocaust industry’3 - though the US also often pretended in its diplomatic statements to act as an ‘honest broker’ for peace between Israel and the Arabs.
It was the natural and probable consequence of this duplicity of US public statements that there should be a rise of a variant of the classical anti-Semitism originally pioneered by the later 19th century papacy, under which the Jews are to be seen as a privileged class. In the new variant, this privileged class is responsible for US support for the Israeli settler-state and its crimes. For the US, of course, this was a bonus. Since the ostensible ground of US policy towards Israel was the threat of anti-Semitism, the fact that the policy produced anti-Semitism was a positive feedback loop: the more anti-Semitism the US could point to, the more it could win support for its Middle East policy. The small quantity of real actual argument from ‘Jewish privilege’ lends a spurious plausibility to these US and US-sponsored allegations.
Meanwhile, the ‘oil price shock’ poured money into the coffers of the US’s second-rank vassal in the region, namely Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states. That, in turn, enabled the large-scale funding of Islamist political parties and charities across the region, able to deliver forms of welfare withdrawn by states thanks to the impact of the ‘oil price shock’ and International Monetary Fund ‘structural adjustment’ programmes. Since the Islamist political movements continue to depend for their mass bases on welfare provision ultimately founded on oil revenue, they are not and cannot be more than verbal opponents of US Middle East policy. They are merely one arm of the dilemma offered by the US to the region: ‘the only alternative’ to Israel is to be … the indirect instruments of another US vassal state, Saudi Arabia.
In consequence, people who actually put forward ‘Jewish privilege’ arguments serve as useful idiots for the benefit of US Middle East policy.
This is the background to the recent left controversy about David Miller’s August 6 tweet - though it is a background participants in the debate do not really grasp. On August 6 Miller tweeted:
- Jews are not discriminated against.
- They are over-represented in Europe, North America and Latin America in positions of cultural, economic and political power.
- They are therefore, in a position to discriminate against actually marginalised groups.
It is not possible to get clear the context (what this tweet responded to); it seems to have been taken down.4 But Miller had previously (March 13) made the argument on the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Press TV channel that Palestinian claims cannot get a hearing in Britain because of the wealth and social status of British Jews; so the August 6 tweet is not a wholly unexpected novelty on his part.5
David Miller is an academic by background, who has worked extensively on issues of media and ‘spin’. His earlier books and other writings on this issue have something of a ‘liberal enragé’ character: that is, they assume that the regime we live in would be a ‘democracy’ (undefined) but for media manipulations, and then go on to expose these manipulations.6 In 2017, he co-edited with Narzanin Massoumi and Tom Mills What is Islamophobia? - a collection which reads ‘Islamophobia’ as ‘racism against Muslims as Muslims’ and sees it as the product of the state and “social movements from above” - the latter of which are taken to include leftists critical of political Islamism, who were by a classic Moscow-trials-prosecutor ‘amalgam’ made responsible for the narrower pro-Iraq war ‘lefts’. The methodology of What is Islamophobia? was already a long step towards this year’s ‘Jewish privilege’ tweets.7
While teaching at Bristol University, Miller was targeted by complaints of ‘anti-Semitism’ and in the end victimised by the university.8 This is a signal example of ‘cancel culture’, and the government’s open support for Miller’s victimisation is a clear demonstration of the utter hypocrisy of its stance against ‘cancel culture’ around trans issues, and so on. Defending freedom of speech, if it is to mean anything, has to mean freedom of speech for all - including people who for whatever reasons use really anti-Semitic arguments, as Miller did.9
Hence Jewish Voice for Labour’s official statement on August 9 is a betrayal of the principle of free speech, when it says that “Many were distressed by some of Miller’s statements in the past which seemed to exaggerate Israeli power, but we believed they fell within the terrain of academic freedom. This recent tweet, focusing on Jews, is of a different order and has crossed a line”.10 The statement here, that ‘Jewish privilege’ arguments “cross a line” so as not to be “within the terrain of academic freedom” is a concession to official cancel culture, which will inevitably be used against JVL itself. A much better line was taken by the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine on August 18, which made clear, before condemning the tweet, that Millar’s sacking “constitutes one of the clearest breaches of academic freedom for many years. BRICUP was right to support Miller against dismissal, and continues to do so.”
Socialist Worker offers good grounds to suppose that the tweet was anti-Semitic: eg, his words “lump together all Jews without any recognition of class or other differences. Miller targets Jews, not the actual ruling class, and plays on the idea of Jews as ultra-rich and manipulative.” But it follows JVL in failing to make a clear defence of freedom of speech and claiming that Miller “crossed a line”:
Bristol University sacked Miller in 2021 after some students attacked the content of his teaching.
Socialist Worker, while even then not agreeing with all of Miller’s views, defended him against the attack. A university investigation by a leading lawyer found there was no evidence that he was guilty of anti-Semitism or “unlawful speech”.
But he has crossed a line with these tweets.
This is even more clearly than JVL’s statement a retreat from their 2021 defence of Miller. The Socialist Workers Party is unable unequivocally to defend freedom of speech, because it practises cancel culture against ‘racists’, ‘transphobes’ and so on, providing the Tories and their press with an indefensible target for their cancel culture and their ‘free speech’ frauds.
There is a larger background. Miller’s political evolution down to What is Islamophobia? is entirely consistent with the line of the SWP at the high period of Stop the War Coalition and Respect: that is, of prettifying the SWP’s Islamist allies, and making an amalgam between criticism of the Islamists and pro-war politics. If Miller has become a useful idiot for the US’s imposition of a dilemma between Israel and Saudi-financed Islamism, the SWP’s Gyorgi Dimitrov version of the ‘united front’, in which unity required cessation of criticism, set him on this road.
Analogous issues affect Tony Greenstein’s defence of Miller against JVL and the SWP.11 This is, to be frank, somewhat tortured. It begins with the legitimate point that the JVL statement came out “on the eve of Miller’s employment tribunal against Bristol University”. But rather than defend Miller’s right to free speech, even if what he says is crap, comrade Greenstein goes on to argue with the highest degree of artificiality that Miller’s tweet’s focus on Jews being “over-represented in Europe, North America and Latin America in positions of cultural, economic and political power” is not anti-Semitic because it is statistically true. Well, yes. But would you make the same complaint about Jews being “over-represented” in post-revolutionary Soviet government or the Red Army? The “over-represented” claim is classically anti-Semitic.
Greenstein’s problem is that, like the SWP, he is basically committed both to no-platforming and to the illusion that there is a ‘virtuous’ nationalism of the oppressed to be upheld, while only the ‘vicious’ nationalism of the oppressor is to be rejected. Hence he cannot take a clear line either for free speech or against people (like Miller) blaming the Jews for the crimes of US imperialism.
armedservices.house.gov/hearings/full-committee-hearing-us-military-posture-and-national-security-challenges-greater-middle. The video exchange with Congressman Khanna (California) is at 2:51:17. Also: fpif.org/in-the-middle-east-u-s-holds-china-at-risk (May 16).↩︎
References in cosmonautmag.com/2022/02/anti-postone-introduction/, note 19.↩︎
N Finkelstein The holocaust industry London 2003.↩︎
It is imaged on Tony Greenstein’s blog post (discussed below).↩︎
Eg, his contributions in W Dinan and D Miller (eds) Thinker, faker, spinner, spy (London 2007), and the co-authored book, D Miller and W Dinan A century of spin (London 2008).↩︎
I have argued before against using ‘phobia’ as a characterisation of opposed political views: see ‘Clearing the ground’ Weekly Worker February 9: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1429/clearing-the-ground.↩︎
Cf ‘Knavery and folly’ Weekly Worker June 8: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1446/knavery-and-folly.↩︎