May 21, 2018

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Fisking Rob Bryan on Bassem Eid: A Glimpse inside the “Pre-Occupied Mind”

I recently had coffee with Bassem Eid, and he mentioned the following article by Rob Bryan that denounces him as a suck-up, a token Palestinian, pandering to right-wing Jewish audiences. It struck me as so classic an expression of what one might call the “preoccupied mind” (or the mindset of members of the “Cult of the Occupation,” that it seemed worth a fisking.

Meet Bassem Eid, the Former Palestinian Human Rights Activist Who’s Sucking Up to the Israel Lobby

Eid once monitored Israeli human rights abuses. Now he defends them before right-wing audiences.
Here’s the pitch, elaborated below. Caveat emptor, this is not about to give you an honest appraisal of either information or opinion.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia

Bassem Eid, a stocky 58-year-old Palestinian political analyst, stood in front of an audience of about 30 people this June 22 in the law offices of Duval & Stachenfeld in midtown Manhattan. The crowd snacked on stuffed grape leaves and drank red wine from the Northern Galilee region of Israel, eager to hear an exuberant man hold court on the plight of his people.

The Israeli-American Council (IAC), a lobbying organization explicitly dedicated to strengthening theing a st of questions sent to his personal email regarding his speaking fees. Yet the depth of Eid’s hostility towards the very notion of justice for Palestinians was genuinely surprising, as was the total fealty he showed towards the state whose abuses are well-documented.

Good illustration of the cult of the Preoccupation: justice is defined only in terms of denouncing Israel. The slogan “No peace without justice,” along with “Palestine will be free from the river to the sea!” means “No peace with Israel.”

The “abuses” are “well documented” by organizations like Btselem, which Eid left because they refused to document any abuses of Palestinian rights by their thuggish leaders, who reflect an Arab political culture that alleged “human rights” groups like HRW treat with great delicacy while reaching out to the for funding to “document” Israeli “abuses.”

“Friends,” said Eid, spreading his arms wide, “if you will look today to the Middle East map and the growing Islamic terror in the Middle East, in my opinion, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict became the most safe place in the Middle East.” Not once did he criticize the occupation of the West Bank, the blockade of Gaza, or the discriminatory laws passed against Arab citizens of Israel. To him, these were minor details.

Well, when you’re faced with someone with a light wound, and someone who’s at death’s door, it may make sense to shift the attention to the latter, the no cost target, Israel. Bryan will have none of this. Israel’s abuses, which have somehow produced one of the Arab world’s higher-ranking HDI (Israel’s Arabs and oil-rich countries excluded).

Here’s Eid’s way of putting it.

His animated diatribes sounded like the inner monologue of a right-wing member of Israel’s Knesset, inveighing against the “thugs and gangsters of the so-called BDS” and decrying Students of Justice in Palestine as a “bullshit group.”

He was being nice. SJP is one of the nastiest groups out there, and its founder, Hatem Bazian, one of the most aggressive purveyors of a definition of Islamophobia that strangles any criticism of Islam, and surely made Said proud.

His claim that the Arab League is “a rehabilitation center for handicapped people” drew big laughs. (Eid’s preferred rhetorical device is the one-liner, much to the delight of a middle-aged man sitting next to me who responded as though he was witnessing the second coming of Jackie Mason).

It’s so hard to realize that one (or one’s ally) has made oneself into a parody. The Arab League is indeed a big and bad joke. Here’s their ambassador to the UN explaining why Hamas can’t stop bombing Israel even though it means that their own people get bombed back.

Unpacked, this means, “it’s a no brainer (for us) that if we’re getting the stuffings kicked out of us, we have to keep hitting back (to show we’re men).” As the proverb goes: “Fighting an enemy who is stronger is not honor, it’s pride, often the opposite of honor.” Self-preservation, concern for the well-being of their own people? Not high on the Arab League’s priority list.

Eid’s point exactly.

The blistering denunciations sometimes gave way to outright misinformation. Attempting to give a veneer of Palestinian legitimacy to the anti-BDS argument, Eid said, “We don’t have, by the way, any BDS member neither in the West Bank nor in the Gaza strip.” In fact, the Palestinian Human Rights Organizations Council (PHROC) Statement on BDS Movement explicitly supports BDS and represents organizations like Palestinian Center for Human Rights (based in Gaza) and Al-Haq (based in the West Bank).

This may or may not be what Eid said. What he certainly meant is that outside of the Palestinian “civil-society” “human-rights” groups pushing BDS, there are not many Palestinians who favor it, since it means harming their economic prospects.

Eid’s politics have certainly changed over the years. Raised in a refugee camp, he once monitored Israeli human rights for B’Tselem before sprinting to the right with the gusto of a Reagan-era neocon.

What this cute rhetorical ploy (Jackie Mason does it better) disguises, is the key issue. Eid left B’tselem because in his mind the violence against Palestinians, and the infringement on their human rights (rights no Arab commoners enjoy anywhere in the Arab world – ie where Arabs rule) comes at least as much from Palestinians in power, than from Israelis. His now defunct Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group represented one of the only Palestinian human rights groups that actually criticized the Palestinian “authorities.” But since it didn’t fit the Israeli-Goliath/Palestinian-David story line, de rigueur for the preoccupied, it did not get any of the bounty heaped by European governments on Palestinian “civil-society” groups.

At certain points he sounded less like a former activist than a drunken Mossad official. “The activity of these people should have to be monitored and should have to be controlled,” he said of BDS supporters, “because these people are going to be the terrorists of the future.”

Don’t know if I agree with “controlled” – depends on what Eid means by that – maybe a better term, “contained.” Certainly the behavior of the BDS, especially its Arab membership – SJP, MSA – indicates that it shows classic fascist tendencies, with no internal brakes to slow their slippery slope from the openly desired intifada to the admired terror. Alone the close attention of outsiders to their thuggish behavior can offer any brakes on these tendencies (which, of course, preoccupied minds like Bryan’s cannot abide).

He alluded to being detained by the PLO, an event that may have set him on the path that led him to the florescent-lit conference room of a Madison Avenue law firm specializing in “acquiring assets out of bankruptcy, as well as addressing the fraudulent conduct of debtors.”

This was not the wishy-washy “gotta hear both sides” equivocation I was was used to hearing at pro-Israel events, but full-throated Orientalism that cast Eid’s own people as incompetent, selfish ingrates rather than subjects of a brutally repressive Israeli regime.

And that’s precisely what any serious person who hopes for peace needs to understand: 1) that Said did the West an enormous disservice by pushing his “don’t you dare criticize Arabs” diatribe on the very eve of the launching of global Jihad. 2) that the inability to see the incompetent, corrupt, and vindictive Arab leadership, astonishing for its inability to self-criticize, and for its exploitation of the kindness of others to pursue its murderous agenda, means that no peace plan – not even Trump’s – based on Western notions of positive-sum reciprocity, can succeed.

But no, for the preoccupied there can only be one cause of Palestinian misery – the designated scapegoat, Israel.

Eid spoke as if he believed Palestinians were directly responsible for their own torment and that the physical reality of Israeli occupation (beatings, bulldozers, administrative detention) was a paranoid hallucination.

Preoccupation is puzzled by another view. Who could believe that the Palestinians were responsible for their own torment? Only a cruel person. Only someone who “blames the victim.”

Eid’s point is that there are two main players on the “Palestinian” side (something any good Marxist or social historian should be familiar with), the leaders/elite/power-holders on the one side, and the “masses” (including the middle class) on the other. He’s not saying the Palestinian people are responsible for their own torment, he’s saying the Palestinian leadership is responsible for their people’s torment. They are doing quite well, like elites throughout the Arab political culture.

They are the ones who put their civilians in the line of fire in order to increase their casualties, counting on the news media to spread their lethal narrative of Israeli-caused Palestinian casualties. They are the ones who say “no” to peace offers and start vicious wars they cannot win. They are the ones who beat up, and torture, and  kill anyone – including civilians – who criticizes them for their murderous policies. They are the ones who promote a hatred and terrorism against Israel that forces her into countermeasure.

In the preoccupied mind, Israel must be the aggressor whose unexplained malevolence accounts for Palestinian hatred and “resistance.” Carts before horses. No wonder peace efforts fail.

The function that the Bassem Eids of the world serve is to assuage the guilt of Zionists.

Actually he assuages, justifiably, their shame at having Israel paraded around the world as the greatest villain, as unser Unglück, by preoccupied, lethal journalists who compulsively depict her as the Goliath. He tells them that the real villain in this conflict is not the nation of autonomous Jews, Israel, but a far darker, malevolent, actor, the Palestinian and Arab elites, in the words of Khaled abu Toameh, the Palestinians real enemy.

No wonder Jews like to hear this. It makes them feel good. Wonder, instead, how so few non-Jews find this message of relevance. It could vastly improve their ability to make their civil societies vibrant, rather than listless in the face of steadily increasing aggression.

It’s not the stereotypical Jewish guilt, but a guilt born of the knowledge of a colonial domination that has always been intrinsic to the Zionist project.

LOL. Here’s the post-colonial paradigm, thickly applied. In the preoccupied mind, “everyone agrees” this is true, it’s “knowledge.” The Jews’ guilt is inherent to the Zionist project and the Jews know it. Shades of original sin!

“Muslims engage in colonialism, imperialism?!? Heaven forfend. If we acknowledged that aspect of Muslim political culture, we might have to recognize it at work in Europe today.”

For some, this guilt can only be remedied by the presence of a token Palestinian assuring them that it is the occupied, not the occupier, who is ultimately to blame.

Some Jews do indeed feel much better about themselves when they hear, at long last, a self-critical Palestinian voice that is not preoccupied with blaming them.

Just as the not-so-hidden subtext of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Islamophobic arguments is that backwards Muslim countries must be bombed and invaded for their own good,

Huh? This is what passes for reporting? Where exactly did she say that?

the implication of Eid’s speech was that Palestinians cannot be trusted with their own freedom.

Are there people who cannot be trusted – to adjust to civil society – when granted modern freedom? Are their political cultures in which democracy gets “naturalized” into the “rule-or-be-ruled” game-set that democratic freedom was created to transcend. Are there cases of Palestinians getting their “freedom” and immediately turning to ruthless war and dominion? Do you give the keys to the tank to a teenager high on alcohol and drugs?

Massimo d’Azeglio, one of the more acute observers of the failed revolutions of 1848, wrote about freedom and the larger citizenry:

“The gift of liberty is like a horse, handsome, strong, and high-spirited. In some it arouses a wish to ride; in many others, on the contrary, it increases the desire to walk.”

Bassem Eid represents one of those Palestinian brave enough to ride the stallion of liberty in any future, civil, Palestinian state – a free-thinker, self-critical, willing to speak truth to ugly power. But he is, alas, an extremely rare bird.

Even his brushes with insight were delivered in bad faith. “96% of the Palestinians believe that their leaders are corrupt,” he said, joking that the remaining 4% must be members of the Palestinian Authority. By decontextualizing this statistic, Eid meant to suggest that this (admittedly real) corruption is related to the PA’s supposedly irrational hatred of Israel,

The link is as follows: Palestinian (more broadly Arab) political culture is rampant with corruption, even (especially?) among the “anti-corruption” parties (like Hamas). In order to keep the population from growing restive at the disparities that corruption creates (far worse than market forces because, being zero-sum, they at once enrich the elites and impoverish the commoners), need a scapegoat. Arab elites, including Palestinian ones, have consistently made the Israeli enemy the cause of the masses’ suffering. Even the lack of democracy is Israel’s fault. As Irshad Manji put it, “Anti-Zionism is a weapon of mass distraction.

yet the truth is that this popular frustration with the PA has far more to do with Abbas’ willingness to serve as a servile puppet of the Israeli government.

Here’s the Orientalism. He thinks that the Palestinians are so obsessed with their national honor, that they’ll live under occupation and in (relative) misery just so their government can defy the “enemy.” Here preoccupied Bryan, compulsively pushes the very scapegoating narrative that Palestinian leaders use to exploit their people. Where would they be without the dogged support of the preoccupied mind?

By placing blame largely at the feet of Palestinian leaders, particularly Arafat and Abbas, Eid was able to falsely position himself as a man of the people standing up against corrupt bureaucrats.

Falsely? not even a wee bit of truth? Is this a catechism?

Journalist Ali Abunimah debated Eid at the 2007 Doha Debates and engaged in a contentious email exchange with him afterwards.

It strikes me as an interesting exchange, in which Abunimah uses the same, dogmatic, post-colonial (and zero-sum) brush as Bryan, and Eid responds with constructive criticism and serious ways to move forward (which would, alas, not destroy Israel).

In a phone conversation, Abunimah pointed out that IAC, the organization that sponsored the event, is funded by Chairman of the Board Adam Milstein, a Israeli real estate investor who was convicted of felony tax evasion in 2009.

Ah yes, How substantive of him.

Milstein is “one of the most Islamophobic pro-Israel funders, deeply involved in the anti-Palestinian and anti-BDS movement,” said Abunimah, “so it really has to make you wonder why somebody would be sponsored by such groups and apparently only by such groups—it’s not as if this person has any credibility with any other communities, or certainly with Palestinian communities.”

The bully pulpit.” I’m in. He’s out.” High School, anyone?

Arguing against the right of return at the Doha debates, for example, is a position which “really has no support” among the population Eid claims to speak for.

Actually, maybe not for the educated elite attending the debate, but among the Palestinians in refugee camps (where Bassem lives, not Abunimah or Bryan), maybe yes. After all, according to Eid, they [the refugees] are the sacrificial lambs, and the ideologues of preoccupation (eg the folks at Al Jazeera and their post-colonial allies) are the ones sacrificing them.

The majority of Palestinians now support abandoning the Oslo accords for offering too many concessions to Israel while receiving virtually nothing in return.

This is more of the scapegoating narrative so amplified in the preoccupied echo chamber. Oslo concessions by Israel were not enough, risible bantustans. Better to wage war for more, than to take what you can get and get on with your life (Eid’s position). “Virtually nothing” here, means not enough to salve the pride of the leadership.

For Eid, however, the problem with Oslo is that it didn’t lead to jobs. “So why is the international community keeping a blind eye on the economic prosperity for the Palestinians and everybody is focusing on the politics?” he asked. This assessment only makes sense if one ignores the fact the Israeli government has destroyed billions of dollars of Palestinian infrastructure including roads, waterways, seaports, and airports (not to mention the economic impact of endless checkpoints and roadblocks).

Preoccupation means obsessing on the Israeli negatives (some, like eliminating seaports (in Gaza) and checkpoints, a direct response to Palestinian aggression. It means failing to see Eid’s point, that the commoner Palestinians, for all their difficulties, both internal and external, are better off than most other Arab commoners. For the preoccupied mind, however it means “if left to their own devices, without any help from Israelis, the Palestinians would have a great economy”… something belied by both Arab economies throughout the region, and by their own behavior.

It makes sense that Eid’s “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality would gain traction among American audiences. When Eid chalks up underdevelopment to lack of innovation he sounds like Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist who called on Gaza’s residents to build “a Dubai on the Mediterranean.”


Eid may not reap the same rewards as Friedman, who was publishing apologia for IDF soldiers back when Eid still viewed them with a critical eye. But he’s making up for all those youthful humanitarian mistakes by embracing Israel with the passion of a young Avigdor Lieberman, even if it means fully alienating himself from the community he claims to represent.

Or, more precisely, from the community of elites he claims, correctly, to challenge.

Unpacked: “Eid is a Jew-lover. Horrors!”

Cornel West’s book Race Matters includes a blistering critique of Clarence Thomas in which he decries the “racial reasoning” that relies on a “deceptive cloak of racial consensus.” West asserts that Thomas “claims black authenticity for self-promotion, to gain power and prestige.” This “racial reasoning” is the only way to make sense of Eid’s insistence that he was speaking on behalf of the people (the people, the refugees) he spent so much energy maligning (their exploitative leaders); Eid plays the same token role to the IAC as Thomas does to the Republican Party.

Intersectionality at all costs.

The “ordinary Palestinian in the West Bank,” doesn’t care much about politics, according to Eid: “Nobody’s talking about settlements, nobody’s talking about the war, nobody’s talking about the foundation of the Palestinian state.” Instead, this typical Palestinian wants “a job to survive, to secure the education system and the health system.” But when it comes to who, exactly, is making this person’s life impossible, who is denying them jobs and segregating their schools and bombing their hospitals, Eid will not point fingers.

Yes he does. He just doesn’t point them at the people Bryan and his preoccupied cohort insist must be exclusively guilty for Palestinian suffering. Shame on him for not marching in the parade behind the emperor and his new (hate-mongering) clothes.

Rob Bryan is a journalist who has written for Jacobin and Mondoweiss among other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @rbryan86



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