Richard Dawkins walked right into that one, I’m afraid

Richard Dawkins really should know better.

That’s why it’s frustrating to see him put his foot in his mouth in a big way in a recent interview. Indeed, he did it in a way that leaves himself wide open to charges of anti-Semitism:

In an interview with the Guardian, he said: “When you think about how fantastically successful the Jewish lobby has been, though, in fact, they are less numerous I am told – religious Jews anyway – than atheists and [yet they] more or less monopolise American foreign policy as far as many people can see. So if atheists could achieve a small fraction of that influence, the world would be a better place.”


The implication (or outright statement) that Jews somehow control American foreign policy (or have undue power) is a staple of anti-Semitic and Holocaust denial websites everywhere. Now, I in no way believe that Dawkins is an anti-Semite. I’ve never seen any evidence in the form of statements by him that would lead me to wonder whether he is, and the above statement doesn’t really make me wonder. What it does make me wonder is if Dawkins has a tin ear for the effect of his words. Yes, I understand that he is merely using the Israeli lobby as an example showing that it is possible for a relatively small proportion of the population, if they are religious, to have influence disproportionate to their numbers. That being said, the charge that Jews monopolize foreign policy is a bad analogy to have made. Norm Geras was not far from the truth when he said:

‘As far as many people can see’ – nice. Dawkins’s organization is to be called the ‘Out Campaign’. What, not the ‘Association for Propagating Poisonous Myths’?

I wouldn’t go as far as Brad Greenberg, though.

In fact, it’s even worse when you look at Dawkins’ website about the “Out Campaign” for atheists:

What other OUTs might we imagine? Well, suggest your own. Vote OUT representatives who discriminate against the non-religious, the way George Bush Senior is alleged to have done when he described atheists as non-citizens of a nation “under God”. Politicians follow where the votes are. They can only count atheists who are OUT. Some atheists are defeatist in thinking we’ll never be effective simply because we’re not a majority. But it doesn’t matter that we’re not a majority. To be effective, all we have to be is recognizable to legislators as a big enough minority. Atheists are more numerous than religious Jews, yet they wield a tiny fraction of the political power, apparently because they have never got their act together in the way the Jewish lobby so brilliantly has: the famous ‘herding cats’ problem again.

Ugh.

I know what Dawkins is trying to say and can even agree with the intended thrust of his argument, but he says it so poorly. Dawkins ignorantly conflates the Israeli lobby and a mythical “Jewish” lobby. The two are not the same, and the above statement serves only to reveal how utterly clueless Dawkins is about American politics. Equating the two in this manner practically begs for a charge of anti-Semitism, and Dawkins ignorantly or blindly blunders right into the trap. Moreover, he seems utterly oblivious that one reason that many Americans (and American legislators and Presidents) have an affinity for Israel is not so much because of the efforts of pro-Israel Jews themselves, but rather because of fundamentalist Christians who believe that the State of Israel is fulfillment of Biblical prophecy:

As Christian televangelist Jerry Falwell commented during an October interview on 60 Minutes: “I think now we can count on President Bush to do the right thing for Israel every time.

Falwell spoke for a large number of Christian Zionists in the U.S., Christians who believe that the modern state of Israel is the fulfillment of biblical prophecy and so deserves unconditional political, financial and religious support. Christian Zionists work closely with religious and secular Jewish Zionist organizations and the Israeli government, particularly during periods when the more conservative Likud Party is in control of the Israeli Knesset (parliament). Though Falwell claims to be speaking for over 100 million Americans, the number is actually closer to 25 million.

Mainstream evangelicals number between 75 and 100 million; fundamentalist and dispensationalist evangelicals, whom Falwell represents, between 20 and 25 million.

Christian Zionism grows out of a particular theological system called premillennial dispensationalism, which originated in early 19th-century England. The preaching and writings of a renegade Irish clergyman, John Nelson Darby, and a Scottish evangelist, Edward Irving, emphasized the literal and future fulfillment of such teachings as the Rapture, the rise of the Antichrist, the Battle of Armageddon, and the central role that a revived state of Israel would play during the end days. Darby and Irving argued that portions of the books of Daniel, Ezekiel, Zechariah and Revelation predict when Jesus will return and how the final battle of history will take place.

[…]

Christian Zionism has significant support within Protestant fundamentalism, including much of the Southern Baptist Convention and the charismatic, Pentecostal and independent churches. The movement can also be found in the evangelical wings of the mainline Protestant churches (Presbyterian, United Methodist and Lutheran) and to a lesser degree in Roman Catholicism. Its reach is broad, since premillennialist dispensationalist themes are advanced through Christian television, radio and publishing. The National Religious Broadcasters organization, which controls almost 90 percent of religious radio and television in the U.S., is dominated by a Christian Zionist orientation.

The alliance of Christian Zionists and the pro-Israel lobby solidified during the Reagan administration, although it declined somewhat during the first Bush administration and the Clinton years. Clinton’s Israeli ties were with the secular Labor Party, led by Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, not with the conservative Likud Party. Through this alliance Clinton embraced the Oslo peace accords, which were opposed by Likud and the Christian Zionists because the accords called for reductions, however modest, in the expansion of Jewish settlements and asked that Israel withdraw from a significant portion of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

This should point out the huge, gaping hole in Dawkins’ analogy. For the analogy to hold, atheists would have to be able to engage some large voting block in the U.S. with equal passion as AIPAC has been able to engage so many evangelical Christians. Dawkins is also wrong in his implication that Jews are a monolithic block supporting Israel (his “herding cats” comment about atheists presented in contrast to the Israeli lobby); there is a wide variety of Jewish opinion on Zionism and the State of Israel, with some Jews passionately opposed to the policies of the government of Israel. Indeed, the Zionist movement is largely made up of secular Jews, with some religious Jews, particularly the ultra-orthodox Neturei Karta, being passionatedly opposed to the existence of the State of Israel, seeing it as blasphemy. As historian Deborah Lipstadt put it, “Anyone who can call the American Jewish community ‘organized’ shows how little they know about it.”

I’ve defended Dawkins before when it comes to controversial statements, but not this time. Not only is Dawkin’s analogy based on a lack of understanding of American politics and the American Jewish community, but it’s a bad analogy. Worse, it’s phrased in such a manner that left Dawkins wide open to charges of anti-Semitism because of the way it equated the pro-Israel lobby with American Jews in general. Defenders of Dawkins who either failed to notice or don’t see that Dawkins screwed up bigtime when he invoked the ever-dreaded “Jewish lobby” really should reconsider whether this counterproductive analogy is really what they want associated with atheism, and Dawkins needs to drop it–pronto. It’s all too easy for Dawkins’ defenders simply to dismiss criticism such as mine as being “too sensitive” or saying that criticism of statements such as his is nothing more than evidence that criticizing Israel is the “third rail” of American politics as an all-too-human excuse not to look at the ugly implications and downright inaptness of an analogy presented by someone they admire.

Leave it to Stephen Colbert to put things in perspective:

ADDENDUM: Here’s an excellent comment by Joshua Zelinsky over at Effect Measure on Dawkins’ exceedingly poor choice of an example:

Dawkins’ comment even in context isn’t really so great. Note that a) There isn’t some magical unified “Israel lobby” but rather a variety of different groups with different interests and goals. b) The strength of this lobby(even as a loose collection) is simply put, wildly exaggerated. For example, if it were nearly as strong as many people seem to think Egypt wouldn’t be getting nearly as much US military aid as it does. (to the tune of a few billion dollars a year). c) I’d be inclined to argue that the herding cats problem applies about as much to getting Jews to do something in a coordinated problem as it does atheists. d) Many of the people involved in this lobbying effort (such as those involved with AIPAC) are not religious but rather only culturally connected to Israel. Indeed, some of AIPAC’s higher ups are in fact agnostics and atheists. And many of the most religious Jews, the Charedim, generally either don’t support the state of Israel or are actively against it. e) While some groups such as AIPAC have confused the matter by deliberately combining being Jewish with supporting Israel, many actual anti-Semites make the same equation for their own purposes. Moreover, while it is true that anti-Israel sentiments are not the same as anti-Semitism, they are often interconnected.

On the whole, I suspect that Dawkins simply choose a poor example help his basic point across. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen Dawkins do that so I’m much inclined to interpret his remarks in the most favorable light possible.

Spot on, Joshua. In fact, you said it better (and more succinctly) than I did! Dawkins chose a really dumb example to make a valid point.