Somerville Divestment Revisited – Conspiracy

This next set of essays were written during the second year of campaigning against BDS in Somerville, MA (2005) when divestment proponents tried to get a divestment measure they failed to get past the legislature onto the city-wide ballot.

A description of how that issue played out can be found here.

An old joke describes a Jewish train traveler in 1930s Germany who is flabbergasted when he sees his friend Moshe reading a Nazi newspaper.  “Moshe, have you lost your mind?!” he cries out.  “Why are you reading that hateful rag?”

“I used to read the Jewish newspaper,” replied Moshe, “but it was too depressing.  When I read this paper, the Jews own all the banks, they control the media, we’re rich and powerful, we run the world!  This news is so much better.”

While I would never compare those pushing divestment with the “you-know-whos” (and certainly hope they will one day return the favor), this joke did came to mind the more I read about how divestment’s backers explain their overwhelming defeat during last year’s Somerville Alderman’s debate.

The So-Called Somerville Divestment Project (SC-SDP) hinted at their planned storyline, with quotes like:

“Last year, the SDP pressured the city council to pass a resolution for divestment that nearly passed, but was ultimately defeated due to pressure from the local pro-Israel lobby.”

Soon, however, this “local pro-Israel lobby” had morphed into something much larger.  In their most popular write up of last year’s events, divestment’s backers described the reasons behind their defeat as follows:

“Several factors converged to facilitate the defeat of the Somerville Divestment Resolution not the least of which was media combined with the full weight of the Jewish establishment.”

From “a local pro-Israel lobby” to “the full weight of the Jewish establishment” (not to mention the media), it was just a short step to this characterization from a recent issue of the Somerville Journal:

“The letters to the editor supporting Somerville divestment from Israel are words from citizens telling the other side of the story we hear from the powerful Israel lobby, consisting of more than 50 organizations, AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) being one of the most influential. The Israel lobby is considered by many to be the most powerful lobby in Washington and seems to be in Somerville, too.”

The chuckling you hear is only partly from the notion that divestment represents humble “citizens” speaking truth to power.  For those of us who fought successfully against divestment last year, the question we have to ask the vast, all-pervasive and all-powerful Jewish lobby was: so where are you guys anyway?

This is not a slight on the many Jewish community and political groups who have helped battle anti-Israel activities in the past.  It’s just that with barely a month to defeat divestment, we critics of the resolution barely had time to organize ourselves, much less recruit the vast Zionist conspiracy to our side.  In fact, it was only months after last year’s debate ended that any of us found ourselves in the same room, much less coordinating our activities.

The SC-SDP just has to face the fact that their defeat came as the result of a group of Somerville citizens, acting largely independently, combined with the might of common sense among Somerville’s leaders and the citizens at large.  If we are more organized this year to defeat the drive to get divestment on the November ballot that is only because we could not possibly be less organized than we were in 2004.

Certainly, it sooths the fragile ego to believe that defeat came as the result of an all-mighty, mystical enemy, rather than at the hands of the citizens in whose name one professes to speak.  Yet there is also a darker side to what Pulitzer Prize winning essayist Richard Hofstadter described as “The Paranoid Style of American Politics.”

In that groundbreaking work on America’s radical right, Hofstadter describes how a conspirator’s worldview is not just a product of his or her frightened fantasy, but actually describes the world in which a conspiracy theorist lives or most wishes to dwell.

An organized cabal, trying to manipulate the levers of power, with as little input of the citizens as possible.  Does that sound more like the Divestment Project that almost succeeded in deceiving Somerville’s Aldermen into voting “Yes” for divestment, or those of us who – in the full light of public debate – helped defeat their activities?

I’m tempted to ask those who see the all-powerful Jewish lobby behind every keyhole what color the sky is in their world.  Yet their own paranoid fictions best describe the planet in which they inhabit, a world I hope we have all helped defer coming into existence


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