The Abrams Attack on Kerry
By Ali Gharib December 2, 2015
Elliott Abrams is a liar and, it turns out, a coward. Abrams penned the latest installment in a string of articles by right-wing pro-Israel hacks calling Secretary of State John Kerry an anti-Semite. Abrams’s headline was entirely appropriate: “Unspeakable Kerry.” What turned out to be unspeakable, however, was Abrams’s accusation. And yet it is there, just beneath the surface, ready for the most delicate of scratches to bring it forth. I challenge anyone to read the piece and proffer an understanding of it that differs substantially from the obvious takeaway that Kerry hates Jews.
As Jim Lobe has noted, the Abrams piece comes on the heels of an advertisement taken out in The New York Times where another right-wing hack, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, is much more forthright. Say what you will about Boteach, at least he doesn’t dance around his slanders. Abrams, on the other hand, cannot just out and say what he means.
Maybe Abrams was chastened by having accused defense secretary designate Chuck Hagel an anti-Semite, only to have virtually all of his talking points rebutted. In case you don’t recall that kerfuffle, Abrams said that Hagel was an anti-Semite because a right-wing Jewish newspaper had said so, citing local Nebraska Jewish opposition to Hagel’s candidacy for the post. Abrams went on to say that none of Nebraska’s Jewish community had come out to defend Hagel against this charge. It turned out that some Nebraskan Jews were willing to rebut the slander—and even the Nebraskan cited by the right-wing Jewish paper disagreed with Abrams’s interpretation of his opposition to Hagel becoming defense secretary.
In other words, Abrams’s accusations against Hagel weren’t the product of the Nebraska Jewish community that he claimed to speak for, but his own fevered fantasies. This is a pattern: Abrams loves to speak for American Jewish communities in such a way that it bolsters his neoconservative worldview, but his claims never hold up to scrutiny.
Next Target: Kerry
So now we have the Kerry episode. Let’s recap that one: John Kerry made some comments comparing the recent attacks in Paris by the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) to the Charlie Hebdo attack in January. The crux of Kerry’s comments were these words:
There’s something different about what happened from Charlie Hebdo, and I think everybody would feel that. There was a sort of particularized focus and perhaps even a legitimacy in terms of—not a legitimacy, but a rationale that you could attach yourself to somehow and say, okay, they’re really angry because of this and that. This Friday was absolutely indiscriminate. It wasn’t to aggrieve one particular sense of wrong. It was to terrorize people.
Now I happen to agree somewhat with Kerry: the Charlie Hebdo attack, for all its condemnable horror, at least had some kind of rationale. By the twisted worldview of the extremists, Charlie Hebdo’s mocking portrayals of the prophet Mohammed warranted a bloody attack. It goes without saying that this is a ridiculous perspective—one that, as a believer in non-violence, I totally abhor—but a perspective nonetheless. One need not justify the attacks to point this out. That such a risk was inherent in what Charlie Hebdo was doing must have been obvious to the staff: the magazine had been firebombed in 2011 in response to its Mohammed cartoons. The attackers reportedly called out the names of the particular staffers they sought during the assault.
The attacks in Paris last month, on the other hand, were of a completely indiscriminate nature. They targeted a football stadium, cafes and restaurants, and a concert hall. None of the victims—either at an institutional or individual level—had made any discernible affront to Islam, even in the eyes of the vile extremists of IS.
I, too, had same reaction as Kerry to the latest Paris attacks. They were more frightening because, like many of the mass shootings we have here in the US, it’s obvious that this could happen anywhere. (An apt comparison might be between movie theater shootings and the Planned Parenthood attack last week.) The reaction seems natural. Growing up in Washington and living in New York, I don’t find the notion that some places make for more likely targets at all strange: you see heavier security all the time at particular places. But having heavy security everywhere is anathema to our way of life—and that’s why these latest attacks stung so bad. That, to me, was Kerry’s message.
This is a point on which reasonable people can differ. I had a discussion with a friend who thought Kerry’s comments were inappropriate. He felt the “rationale” for the two attacks were equally difficult to understand, and the distinction was bogus: both attacks were intended to terrorize people. That last point is indisputably correct, and Kerry should perhaps have not said what he did on that topic. In fact, Kerry should probably have avoided the comparison entirely: there’s just not much to gain from making the nuanced points that he so inartfutly made, because the comparison just doesn’t matter that much. The attacks were more similar than different. They were distinct mostly in the scale of the killings, not in the subtle differences between the motivations and the intended and actual effects of the killings.
What Abrams does, however, goes beyond disagreeing, or even criticizing and pointing out problems with Kerry’s remarks. Instead, Abrams goes for the low blow. Watch the misdirection here, in Abrams’s Weekly Standard piece:
The more shocking message he delivered was that the November killings in Paris are more terrible than those of January. Why? Because the earlier killings, of cartoonists and Jews, were .??.??. were what? First he said the previous attacks “had a legitimacy in terms of” and then stopped himself. Even Kerry realized that what he was about to say was indefensible: that they had a legitimacy in terms of the beliefs of the attackers, who were offended after all by nasty cartoons of Muhammad. And as to the Jews, well, perhaps the attackers were offended by the mere existence of Jews, or perhaps in Kerry’s misguided view they were deeply moved by the real or imagined plight of Palestinians.
Kerry didn’t quite say that the attacks last month were “more terrible” than Charlie Hebdo. He said that they were different, that the attackers targeted the broader society, seemingly at random, not a particular target that had drawn their ire. As for attacking Jews, Kerry didn’t mention the attack on the Hypercacher kosher market, where Amedy Coulibaly murdered four French Jews. (After the attacks, Kerry laid a wreath at the Hyper Cacher.) That anti-Semitic follow-up to the Charlie Hebdo attack, of course, was less indiscriminate than last month’s Paris attacks as well, so the dynamic Kerry was speaking about still applies. (Again, that Jewish institutions make for more reasonable targets comes as no surprise to Jewish Europeans, who have come under targeted attack several times in recent years and beefed up security, though not across the board, in response.)
I was struck by Abrams’s line that “perhaps in Kerry’s misguided view [the attackers] were deeply moved by the real or imagined plight of Palestinians.” One doesn’t need to look to Kerry’s view at all in this case: the assailants were very clear. Coulibaly had called into a French television station and told them so: “[H]e explained also why he did this: to defend oppressed Muslims, he said, notably in Palestine,” a journalist at the television station recounted. “And finally he explained that he’d chosen the kosher store “because he was targeting Jews.” The logic there is terribly anti-Semitic and reprehensible to its core, but that was indeed the logic. To entirely ignore how the gunmen themselves described the attacks in order to make nasty imputations about a politician with whom he disagrees on a reasonable rhetorical point, even if many of us might find that point incorrect, is misguided to say the least.
Ultimate Target: Islam
There’s one more point worth making about Abrams’s piece that shows his true intent. Consider this paragraph, and forgive the long quote (the emphasis is in the original):
Before getting to the major problem with what Kerry said, note that he repeated the ludicrous line that what ISIS is doing “has nothing to do with Islam.” We are dealing with a group that calls itself the Islamic State and recruits Sunnis from Muslim communities across the world. The group then imposes its version of sharia on territory it conquers. Its every statement and its entire raison d’être are permeated with its view of what true Islam requires. So Kerry’s statement that this “has nothing to do with Islam” is devoid of meaning. Presumably he is trying to say that their version is not “real” Islam, but of course he has absolutely no authority, as an American politician and a Christian, to make such a judgment. Those who have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS are obviously motivated in whole or in part by their understanding of their religion, Islam. Unless Kerry understands that all this terror does have something to do with Islam, the policies he advocates and implements are doomed from the start.
It’s hilarious that Abrams thinks Kerry has no standing to make a judgment of whether IS practices “‘real’ Islam,” because he is “an American politician and a Christian.” But Abrams himself does have this standing, as a neoconservative sometime government official? The utter lack of self-awareness of a man looking to score a point knows no bounds. But then, Abrams’s ideological and political allies are quite fond of making just such a point.
However, there are good reasons for sitting government officials not to use this language. Moreover, as Brian Beutler has astutely noted, the right wing has embraced the idea that calling Islamic terrorism by that name is a “strategic prerequisite to vanquishing” Islamic terrorists “without a shred of evidence.” Kerry’s policies, in other words, aren’t “doomed from the start,” as Abrams says (Abrams’s service in government should serve as the best indication that he’s not the best judge of which polices are and aren’t doomed). Instead, he’s making an ideological and political point.
Ultimately Abrams’s rant is far from an exercise in scholarship or policy-making critique. It’s just an attack, pure and simple, and a scurrilous one at that. Abrams’s history in the Hagel affair makes this abundantly clear. No one should be fooled by his rants or take his allegations seriously, especially when he won’t even come out and make them beyond thinly veiled innuendo. He’s not speaking truth to power, just shouting lies into the wind, hoping that someone catches his gist and latches on to his own misguided view.