Looks like adbusters has landed in the soup again - not with its corporate targets, alas, but with its own friends and allies. The latest eyebrow-raiser has to do with an article published in the March/April edition under the headline "Why won't anyone say they are Jewish?" The piece, written by Kalle Lasn, the magazine's founder and editor-in-chief, "draws attention" to powerful American neo-cons who are supporters of Israel's Likud government and suggests they are counselling the U.S. administration to favour foreign policy friendly to Israel. While these ideas are hardly controversial, the real shocker is that Lasn goes out of his way to identify these right-wing policy wonks as "Jewish."
Purporting to be courageous by tackling "the issue head on," Lasn provides a list of 50 of the most influential neo-cons in the U.S. - and emphatically points out that "half of them are Jewish."
This scary confusion of political leanings with ethnic and religious identity has generated a strong reaction from Adbusters' readers. Klaus Jahn, an anti-WTO activist and philosophy of history professor at U of T, finds the piece and the list that goes with it very alarming. "Whether listing physicians who perform abortions in pro-life tracts, gays and lesbians in office memos, Communists in government and the entertainment industry under McCarthy, Jews in Central Europe under Nazism and so on," he says, "such list-making has always produced pernicious consequences." And he points out that it "will only heighten the not-wholly-illegitimate hyper-sensitivities of defenders of Israel and make it that much easier for them to defend Israeli practices that are indefensible."
Equally alarmed, Meredith Warren, a religious scholar and member of McGill Students Against War, says the article dangerously disguises the real dynamics of the Middle East situation. "The U.S. government has only an economic interest in having control over that region. It wants oil and stability - it has nothing to do with Jews or Judaism. Pointing out the various religious stances of those in power totally misses the point of the U.S. government's interest in Israel."
So what was the point behind Lasn's piece? Lasn insists he isn't being anti-Semitic. "I suspect I have some Jewish blood," he tells me. Rather, he says his aim is to examine those in power. He is frustrated by the mainstream media's "avoidance of the issue," he explains, and believes it is important to put the issue up for debate.
Up until Tuesday night, this debate took the form of an unmoderated free-for-all on an Adbusters' message board. The board and all the messages on it have since been taken down, to make way for, as Lasn puts it, a "more focused" and better controlled debate. But this was not the first change that Adbusters made to the message board. Initially the message board's topic read "Is this another Jewish conspiracy, or a truth people deny for fear of being labelled anti-Semitic?" It was then changed to "Read debate comments."
Before it was shut down, the old message board was filled with outrage against the article plus a sprinkling of comments from people who would not fit the profile of the traditional Adbusters reader.
"I don't usually agree with your magazine, but I'm glad that you are not afraid to show the Jews for what they really are. It's good to know that more people are speaking out against the Jews and the Negroes," wrote one man from New York. Another message from a woman in Budapest read: "Jews have always had a knack for turning the world against them.... During World War II, Jews got a serious (maybe too serious) warning to reconsider their [sic] way of life, to make themselves more acceptable for the rest of the world. Did they reconsider? No."
When asked about the existence of messages like these on his message board, Lasn expresses surprise and says that in the new forum similar messages will be censored.
Despite his call for debate, Lasn seems to have already made up his mind regarding the "Jewish influence" in American foreign policy, and says that if Palestinians were in the White House, there likely would have been no war in Iraq. Similarly, he sees no problem with conflating right-wing Zionism and Judaism. "There's a certain upbringing, a certain education, a certain set of values that comes with being Jewish," he says. "There's a lot of baggage that comes with it."
Many who have followed the magazine say the Jewish neo-con piece is indicative of much larger changes at Adbusters, as its anti-consumerism and culture jamming mandate gives way to a focus on anti-imperialism. And many were startled and confused when the publication announced late last year that it was manufacturing its own brand of sneaker, the blackSPOT, in a factory in China.
"Some of their positions are becoming increasingly problematic," says anti-consumerism activist Greg Dube of the Ontario Public Interest Research Group at York University. "I think this [article] is completely incompatible with the values of Adbusters' readership." Lasn himself says some stores carrying his magazine have been picketed since the article's release.
However, Paul Rutherford, a history of advertising professor at U of T and author of Endless Propaganda: The Advertising Of Public Goods, says the real problem is less about anti-Semitism than bad journalism. "Adbusters has always been about sloppy journalism," he says. "Today the nice pictures are gone, the humour is gone, and the journalism is still sloppy. You'd think something would improve over time, but Adbusters hasn't."
With files from Meredith Warren and David Fono