Reader comment on: Hezbollah
Submitted by Abraham H. Miller (Israel), Jul 22, 2007 12:57
Augustus Richard Norton's defense of Hezbollah reminds one of the tragic notion so prevalent among the academic far left, i.e., a just cause (or at least one that is perceived as just) more than permits moral license. Of course, what true believer does not embrace the sanctity of his cause?
(Now, by way of disclosure, let me quickly point out that I knew Professor Norton during his days at West Point.)
Norton does identify with the Shi'ia of Lebanon, but Norton is neither an anti-Semite, as some have alleged, nor the intellectual buffoon that he has been caricatured as by a number of distinguished Middle East experts.
Norton has used his academic credentials to become an apologist for terrorists, as Jonathan Schanzer has so aptly documented in his review of "Hezbollah: A Short History." In this, however, Norton's writing is indistinguishable from what generally goes on in so called "Middle East Studies," and explains why he has become another darling of both "progressive" and Palestinian bloggers.
In the academic world, Norton's apologia for Hezbollah and his inability to find a Middle East crisis for which Israel is not responsible are mainstream to the point of being conspicuously trite and repetitively imitative.
Although Norton pretentiously asserts that he is providing a balanced account of Hezbollah, his assertion pales when compared to real scholarship, such as J. K. Zawodny's brilliant history of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, "Nothing But Honour." "Jake" Zawodny was a true scholar who knew the difference between resistance and terrorism, and also knew how to stand back objectively, as an historian, from a bloody battle in which he himself was a participant.
The American Historical Review described Jake's work this way, "Zawodny has taken pains to be objective in his study, even at the expense of Polish reputations." Except for his ideological cronies, no one would describe Norton as being objective, let alone to the point of sullying reputations in which he had a vested interest.
Norton is not Jimmy Carter, a man who cavalierly distorts facts and plagiarizes maps and defends both actions in the interest of benign intent. Instead, Norton's sins are more frequently those of omission, what he doesn't say. If Carter is a fraud, Norton engages in theft by deception.
In his Talk of the Nation interview, Norton repeatedly refers to the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, but without the least bit characterizing the circumstances that led to the invasion. I was in Northern Israel and Southern Lebanon in the winter of 1982-83.
I sat in a kindergarten classroom in Kiryat Shmona, a town that is a pebble's throw from the Lebanese border. In the ceiling of the classroom was a gaping hole from a Katushya rocket that the PLO had launched from just over the border. Fortunately it had been a dud.
I remember the day well as sheets of wind-driven rain poured down on us, and I recall standing under an overhang at the school talking to parents who condemned the government for waiting so long to go into Lebanon to stem the rocket attacks. The residents of Kiryat Shmona were largely Mizrachi Jews, Jews from Arab lands, and they spoke disparagingly of being sacrificed by the Ahkenazi Jews who lived in the safety and comfort of Tel Aviv.
To listen to Norton on Talk of the Nation, you would think the Israelis awoke one day and arbitrarily decided to go into Lebanon in 1982. And while Norton always has a statistic for Lebanese property destroyed or Lebanese children killed, I have yet to see or hear a similar graphic detail for dead Israeli children.
In Norton's objective world, Israel bombs, Lebanese children die, and the ensuing body count is exactingly detailed. The entire other side of the equation, of graphic and detailed violence against Israel, is all too conspicuous by its absence. In Norton's myopic and insular world, this is objectivity; this is scholarship.
In Norton's earlier book, "Amal and the Shi'ia," he delineates the internal forces and political contradictions in Lebanon that gave rise to the Amal militia, from which Hezballah later sprung. Yet, it is the Israeli occupation of Lebanon that Norton now parades as being the "stepfather" of Hezballah.
To support this, he repeatedly cites statements by Ehud Barak. This has all the intellectual validity of assessing America's role in Iraq by citing Hillary Clinton's campaign-trail sound bites.
Ehud Barak had to defend Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon amid the escalating violence of Hezballah, as the Israeli right had predicted. Barak's statements were a politician's rationale for a policy decision that appeared to go awry.
Confronted by a Talk of the Nation caller who himself had been a member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard sent to Lebanon to create Hezballah, Norton reached back into Barak's statements. The caller's personal history and experience were dismissed as trivial.
Norton, and his sometime co-author Sara Roy, are mindlessly predictable. Roy can exquisitely delineate the misery in Gaza and then blame it all on Israel's not permitting Gazan labor to cross into the Jewish state. The security issue of suicide bombing escapes her fantasy. Now, I find this especially laughable as I live in the San Francisco Bay Area where years ago members of our ultra-liberal, Jewish community actually built apartment buildings in Gaza to alleviate the overcrowding there, diverting tens of millions of dollars that would have been better spent in our own community.
After the apartments were built, Yassir Arafat announced that since Jews built the buildings, anyone who occupied them would be shot. The buildings symbolically stood vacant for a short while and subsequently were occupied, with Arafat's blessings, by Fatah insiders.
At what point would Sara Roy hold Palestinians responsible for their own misery?
The theme of Arab victim and Israeli oppressor similarly permeates Norton's work. He goes to great lengths to give legitimacy to Hezballah and Hamas at Israel's expense, while constantly invoking a discourse about empirical realities, confusing empiricism with personal whimsy. Norton's statement, "The Hamas diplomatic position is actually closer to that of Israel," must strike even the casually informed layperson as one of the most fantastic observations ever made.
At a personal level, the most outrageous thing Norton ever told me was that the Mizrachi and Sephardic Jews left their homes because the Zionists created fear and panic causing these people to flee ancestral homes surrounded by tolerant Islamic communities.
When my youngest son decided to become Jewish, a few years ago, I joined a congregation and met Jewish refugees from the Arab world. Each family had a personal horror story of oppression, exploitation, and terror, while barely escaping their ancestral homes with the clothes on their back. Joseph Wahed, an Egyptian Jewish refugee, introduced me to the people at JIMENA, Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, an organization that is working to have this story told, an uphill battle.
I wrote to Norton about this experience and reminded him of our conversations in the past on this issue.
He avoided any comment on the subject. In retrospect, his characterization of the situation of the Jews of the Middle East was simply another piece of Arab propaganda he had absorbed, even years ago, when his views were far and away more temperate and balanced.
Those who seek to complain to Norton's university are, in my judgment, misguided. Norton is an effective propagandist, but being a propagandist is part and parcel of what Middle East Studies, dominated by Arab money, has become. Norton with his myopic and excessively predictable interpretation of the world (America has subordinated its interests to Israel's) is best challenged in the free market place of ideas as Jonathan Schanzer has so effectively done in the Jerusalem Post.
In becoming a propagandist, however artful, Norton has given up any real claim to being a scholar.
Intellectual light years separate Augustus Richard Norton from the likes of J.K. Zawodny. Norton might be feted as a distinguished scholar in Cairo, and sought after for interviews by National Public Radio, but at the end of the day, all of us who are academicians, know the difference between being a propagandist and being a scholar.
Norton knows that he has not advanced the state of our understanding of the Middle East since his early work on the Amal militia. And that is the great tragedy of this career, for by training, inclination, experience, and intelligence, Norton had the capacity to make a difference. In the end, he has become indistinguishable from the suburban housewives of the Middle East Children's Alliance (MECA) who stand on the streets of San Francisco and incessantly scream the most outrageous Arab propaganda themes lifted unquestiongly straight from the Internet.
Abraham H. Miller is emeritus professor of political science, University of Cincinnati and a specialist on the uses of violence in politics. His forthcoming novel, "Vorshavsky: A Chicago Story," is scheduled for publication in late 2007.
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