Down with moral equivalency.

Moral equivalency, rather than whether any Gulf State holds a stand-up record on human rights, is at the heart of the recent kerfuffle, involving a group of Jewish influencers who were invited to visit Qatar by the Emir – and the opponents of their newly hatched enthusiasm for the country.

Most recent controversy began with Professor Alan Dershowitz’s op-ed in The Hill, providing Qatar’s perspective on the Gulf Crisis and its blockade by the Saudi/UAE/Bahrain/Egypt quartet, as well as challenging the criticisms of its support for Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the character of Al Jazeera.  Seth J. Frantzman, JPost journalist and IDC scholar, challenged Qatar’s charm offensive aimed at the influential American Jews in a response article, citing Qatar’s historic record of support for terrorist organizations, and Al Jazeera’s indisputable record of extremism.  The Founder and President of MEMRI Yigal Carmon responded with a long record of unmasking problematic Al Jazeera statements and guests, as well as the record of financing for terrorism. Another respected scholar, writing for BESA and Lobelog, Dr. James Dorsey, questions the tactic of comparing Qatar to Israel in any manner, after analyzing in depth the nature of the Gulf Crisis. And I added my two cents with a brief piece, addressing these issues, as well as the wider geopolitical implications of Qatar’s close alliance with Iran in Israel HaYom.

The response to these rejoinders came, first, from Rabbi Shmully Hecht, who wrote a TOI piece defending Nick Muzin, the lobbyist who connected the Jewish influencers and the government of Qatar (though none of these recent pieces were attacking him), as well as Alan Dershowitz, and attacking their (alleged) detractors. The second response came from Alan Dershowitz himself, reiterating many of the same points made by the first two pieces, and decrying his unfair treatment – and citing a lengthy NY TImes article as evidence in support of his own position.

Because I think that this issue is important for the future of first, honest discussions on any issues, second,  of the American Jewish community already being torn apart by the interests and propaganda efforts of foreign governments, third, Israel and the United States, and fourth,  the Middle East, I think it’s worthwhile to examine the latest arguments and address the problematic issues with the hope of coming to a resolution  of what appears to be either a massive mutual misunderstanding or a deliberate misinterpretation and misrepresentation of their critics’ arguments and intent by the pro-Qatar influencers. I choose to think positively, and hope, that once I address what I find lacking about these pieces, and explain my own position on that matter (which is not all that different from others, who criticized the articles),  we can all take a deep breath and focus on developing a productive position with the opportunities presented to us.Taking increasingly entrenched and close-minded positions only plays into the hands of our detractors.

First,  none of what I had stated previously, nor will state below should be interpreted as a personal attack on anyone I disagree with. I have no doubt of their high character. My problem is first, with their positions, and second, with the way those positions were presented, which was fact-free, poorly crafted, and reliant on a multiplicity of logical fallacies.  The rich tradition of Judaism that we all share encourages vibrant, skeptical, and passionate debate, rather than personal attacks and deflections from the substance of the argument. I hope we can all agree on that.

Second, the arguments in both the original, and in the articles that followed barely touch on the core issue at the center of the controversy:

What exactly is the Jewish community getting out of a relationship with Qatar at the current juncture?

Beyond all the facts that have been rightfully pointed out by the critics (and which neither Rabbi Hecht nor Professor Dershowitz bothered to dispute point by point), the motivation of the critics, no doubt, was to bring to light the very reason the Jewish community has been skeptical of Qatar for quite some time to begin with. It begs the question, then, why does either Professor Dershowitz or his supporters find it a personal insult when members of the community equally concerned about its welfare point out inconvenient realities that makes them less likely to be convinced by the line of argument pursued in the original op-ed? After all, we collectively have not gone to Qatar and have not been privy to the supposedly secretive, elite talks with the Emir.

All we have to rely on is the messaging passed on by the select few who were chosen. And they have, quite, simply failed to convey the very vulgar answer to an equally base question that nevertheless is at the center of the discussion: “What’s in it for us?” We can very well see what’s in it for the people who actually went. In the best case scenario, they were made to feel important from an in-person meeting with the Emir and high level officials. Furthermore, in good faith they entered believing they were doing important public diplomacy work on behalf of the community. The problem is, the community itself did not select them to do this work in this particular instance; the Emir did through the judgment of a professional lobbyist.  By that token, then, these people represent the perspective not of the community that made no such collective decision as to propriety of their actions, but by a foreign government and its agents. (And to reiterate, I lay no blame on NIck Muzin here; he is an intermediary, who was bringing people together – what the people got out of those meetings was up to them).

The angrier the response articles by Rabbi Hecht and Professor Dershowitz got, the more skeptical was my own attitude. Someone with an important message from a foreign government should not have to resort to accusations of bad faith whenever people express natural skepticism at such a mission or the way the message was brought. Indeed, to respond to just one of the many logical fallacies peppering these two pieces, it does not matter whether the people asking the questions are “important” people (i.e. big name in the community) or “:small people”. All that matters is whether their questions are valid or not. And judging by the fact that the two gentlemen felt compelled to respond, there must have been some truth to the facts presented by the critics.

Having said all that, neither Seth Frantzman nor Yigal Carmon are unknown self-promoters, but rather, established, respected, and highly professional  names in the world of journalism and Middle East studies. Dr. Frantzman has unraveled a number of Middle East-oriented disinformation campaigns and raised valid questions about the sources of many rumors about some of the actors in the drama – you can find them in his Jerusalem Post articles. Yigal Carmon’s organization exposes deception by translating the Middle Eastern doublespeak – as well as courageous and upstanding voices – to English. These are not people who need to enter meaningless arguments with other well known people just to score points in the court of public opinion. As for my own credentials, I am not here to defend them, as I think they are irrelevant as to the points I made.

I will only say one thing here. I think anyone who believes that I come from an anti-Qatar attitude due to some special and biased sympathy to the Saudis is completely wrong. In my capacity as a human rights attorney and activist, I have advised Saudi survivors of horrible abuses, minorities who were discriminated by the society, hidden atheists, as well as advised members of the US government on Raif Badawi’s tragic case. I had no warmth for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s predecessor, Prince bin Nayef, whom I hold largely responsible for Raif’s fate, as well as Saudi Arabia’s close alliance with ultraconservative clergy; I hope the government will follow through with releasing Raif Badawi, his brother-in-law and human rights lawyer Walid Abulkhair, and other peaceful dissidents, immediately.

That is all I have to say in terms of my familiarity with Saudi Arabia and her downsides. I am sure that the other critics are no less well informed, and in the cases of the two I have cited above, most likely are deeply knowledgeable on this and other social issues. Indeed, I remain skeptical about Mohammed bin Salman’s commitment to a return to a more moderate form of Islam, as for now, the evidence appears to show that he, while staunchly opposing violent extremism, has been continuing to fund – and even to grow – ultraconservative Salafi mosques in Yemen (presumably to counter the Houthis) and in Brussels. That does not mean he cannot change, but that will take time, raising of awareness, negotiations, pressure, and good advice from trusted people (probably not the ones who are set to immediately attack him as a liar and a bad guy).

What mystifies me in Rabbi Hecht’s article is in his reliance on authority as an argument. He begins with a red herring claim that the critics of the original piece are all somehow unfamiliar with secret negotiations and their importance to the advancement of a breakthrough in tense relationship. Indeed, none of the critics may have been involved in anything of that sort (though I would not make such assumptions), but most likely, all of them are familiar with the Oslo Peace process, particularly after the show that has revealed just how secretive the initial sensitive stages of that dialogue have been. What is rather surprising about the “secret” negotiations with Qatar is that they were quite public from the start, up to and including the sum of money the lobby firm they hired was getting paid for bringing in important Jews to participate in those conversation.

Furthermore, unlike the Oslo process, there appears to be no effort to establish long-term personal relationships with the relevant influencers, but rather, after one meeting, they are sent off on their way to evangelize to the non-believers in the States. Such matter of “negotiations” is puzzling. What does it say about the process when the partners are brought on a paid trip to the government of the country, to meetings, rumors of which are leaked immediately to the press? And how different is that from a process where appointed, however informally, representatives of a group or community, meet on a neutral territory with the representatives of the other side, building up relationships and understanding of each other’s positions and demands until such time as they break down barriers in communication and are ready to engage at a higher level?

The sheer level of publicity of these meetings raises the natural suspicion that the entire idea was a publicity stunt, rather than a good faith effort by the Emir to build a relaitonship with the Jewish community.  Not to bring up the Saudis yet again, but for all their many shortcomings, they have not hired any professional Jewish propagandists to push their case, but rather publicly wrote a letter acknowledging Holocaust to the US Holocaust Museum, a step taken on record by a government entity, rather than in a semi-public innuendo-filled setting. They may not be doing nearly as much as Qatar to build up a relationship with the American Jews, but whatever small steps they are taking, they are public, open, and regardless of ultimate motivation, clear in their meaning. And even still, I would encourage people to continue asking those questions of Saudi Arabia, and to push for a more meaningful engagement.

Getting back to Qatar, it is no less puzzling that the circumstances of these “negotiations” were such that the greatest accomplishment Rabbi Hecht can point to is the fact that Qataris brought in Professor Dershowitz. Based on his description of the events, after some difficult conversations, the Qataris got the Jewish voice of confidence (which is what exactly what they wanted), and loyal allies in the battle not just for reestablishment of relations with Qatar as the new “Israel” of the Gulf, but as a way to draw favorable comparisons against Saudis.  The Jewish counterparts, on the other hand, came away with nothing but pleasant impressions of Doha and the approval of Emir (he likes us, he really, really likes us!”). None of the concerns were addressed, no promises were made, no steps forward by the Qataris were taken.

If none of that were true, Rabbi Hecht, out of respect for “secrecy” would at least have been able to point to the fact of the next step, at least for him personally. Alas, Qataris got exactly what they wanted, so I will be surprised if any additional trips are forthcoming. After all, their target is already fully sold. Rabbi Hecht’s other dubious accomplishment  was apparently getting the Jewish community (in concert with other participants) to shift their view on Qatar. His article ends with baseless assumptions on the critics, who, he claims are all ignorant of Qatar and its motivation and the urge to question the narrative – by which, from the tone of the article, he means, to embrace unquestioningly the Qatari narrative. As a matter of fact, both narratives could be inaccurate and self-serving simultaneously, and to some extent, most likely are. He also fails to address the very obvious points I raised in my Israel HaYom piece, and many other people likely raised elsewhere:

First, Qatar is already closely aligned with Iran – but not because of the blockade. The blockade took place in part because Iran has been arming the very same terrorists Qatar has been financing, and the whole triangle raises the specter of more serious regional issues.

Second, Qatar is not destitute despite the blockade. In fact, it had already been moving in the direction of Iran for quite some time, and had it truly wished to maintain stronger relations with other Gulf States, rather than running to American Jews with the hopes of exacting their lobbying influence, it would have engaged in good faith wither her neighbors, and addressed at least partially at least some of their very legitimate concerns. So far it has not agreed to meet Saudi Arabia even halfway even on a single point. That does not speak to me of good faith, nor of real desperation.

Professor Dershowitz reiterates the questions he raised in his op-ed, ignores entirely the rejoinders to that effect (i.e. why have you not done your own investigation, and why does your demand that people should investigate everything and everybody sound suspiciously like a demand to embrace Qatar at the expense of everyone else?), and cites to  a NY Times Piece, that while pretending to be neutral on the issue, actually immediately takes the side of the presumed underdog, the poor little rich kid Qatar, while despondent on how the vicious Saudi Arabia has treated this plucky little country all over Hamas and Al Jazeera connections – while remaining a bad, bad country with a poor human rights record.

Saudi Arabia’s shortcomings may all be true, but as I said, its grievances appear legitimate, and two countries can be engaging in very damaging activities at the same time. Hold both accountable – but do not use whataboutery to distract from Qatar’s misdeeds. Professor Dershowitz likewise fails to point to any actual facts that would bring into question allegations against Qatar, other than statements made by Emir, which he takes no responsibility for vetting or fact checking. Why would anyone take an interested party’s impeachable and self-serving statement seriously? That would not be an advisable course of action to take in a court of law, and is equally unwise to do in the court of public opinion.

Not to be a nattering nabob of negativism, but if the Jewish community wants to utilize a potential opportunity with Qatar, it should:

* Always negotiate from a position of strength. Qatar needs us a lot more than we need Qatar. Israel has never been in a stronger position and has a growing and solid alliance with other Middle Eastern countries. The Jewish community is strong, prosperous, and successful. The Trump administration has taken an unequivocal stand on terrorism, and Israel and issues of interest to the Jewish community likewise enjoy a broad Congressional support

  • Retain a skeptical mind at all times, and present Emir with well-researched evidence for refutation at every meeting
  • Keep in mind that this distracting maneuver aimed at winning over the administration’s sympathy is taking place even as Qatar is facilitating Turkey’s and Iran’s aggressive expansionism in Africa – stationing Turkey’s troops, financing various deal, supporting Iran’s ambitions even as Iran is arming violent Shi’a militias. It is no innocent bystander, and it is expanding its own reach and influence by aligning with these two states. That is even more dangerous than its facilitation of terrorism.
  • Insist on setting forth base conditions for engaging in serious negotiations: no free trips to Doha, respected neutral territory, a few scholars and skilled negotiators to grow the relationship, no press, clear conditions for negotiations.
  • Have a set of clear goals and expectations. Demand practical steps as evidence of good step efforts (i.e. using existing leverage on Hamas to secure release of abducted Israelis; reform the anti-Semitic Arab language Al Jazeera; put pressure on Iran on particular relevant sets of concessions)/
  • Figure out what the community wants to get out of that relationship, how it sees that relationship in a year, three years, ten years from now, and what path makes sense to get there.
  • Always ask: “How is this step benefiting people I actually care about, rather than merely serving the goals of the foreign government”?
  • Treat this relationship separately from the ongoing and developing relationship with Saudis. If part of the deal with Emir is trashing another country that is taking steps to reaching out to the community, that is a flashing red flag that the country seeks to benefit itself at everyone else’s expense, including the Jewish community’s. A good faith negotiator will not put pressure on new partners to drop their relationships with adversaries, but rather, will focus on maximizing its own advantage. The Jewish community should not be so naive as to fall for obvious propaganda, complete with having to choose sides for nothing in return.
  • Finally, do not play into the hands of the adversary by increasing intercommunal divisions with accusations and bickering. Rather, engage in a thoughtful, deliberative, and friendly discussion about matters of great import to both the community, but also to our friends and allies.

I ultimately agree with Rabbi Hecht’s and Professor Dershowitz’s position that there is more to be gained from reconciling Qatar with the other Gulf States and separating her from Iran before even more damage is done. However, where we differ is what is the more effective path to get there. Engagement with Qatar is certainly possible, but it takes two to tango. If Qatar is taking this outreach to the Jewish community in the United States as anything more than a propaganda opportunity, it should reassure us to that effect by putting up some concrete evidence of good faith and serious interest in a bilateral relationship. We may have what Qatar thinks it wants: what price is it willing to pay?