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Professors’ Critique of Pro-Israel Lobby Stirs Widespread Discussion

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
May - June 2006

The role of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and other elements of the pro-Israel lobby in shaping U.S. Middle East policy is being widely debated as a result of a paper written on the subject by Professor John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Their article first appeared in the London Review of Books (March 23, 2006) and an unedited version is available at the Kennedy School’s website.  
The article asserts that U.S. support of Israel has been unwavering and has jeopardized American security and has been driven by “the unmatched power of the Israel lobby,” which the authors describe as a loose coalition of American Jews and their allies, including evangelical Christians and neoconservatives.  
Among other things, the authors argue that the U.S. was singled out by Al Qaeda in large part because of American support for Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and that a significant motivation for the invasion of Iraq, was to improve Israel’s security.  
“No lobby has managed to divert U.S. foreign policy as far from what the American national interest would otherwise suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that U.S. and Israeli interests are essentially the same,” the authors declare. “The U.S. has a terrorism problem in good part because it is so closely allied with Israel, not the other way around.”  
Last fall, Professor Walt spoke of the chilling effect of the Israel lobby on a University of California, Berkeley, television show called “Conversations With History.” He said: “Right now, this has become a subject that you can barely talk about without people immediately trying to silence you, immediately trying to discredit you in various ways, such that no American politicians will touch this, which is quite remarkable when you consider how much Americans argue about every other controversial political issue. To me, this is a national security priority for us, and we ought to be having an open debate on it, not one where only one side is being heard from.”  
The debate unleashed by Mearsheimer and Walt has been heated. Some critics, while generally sympathetic with the arguments being made, fault the authors’ scholarship. Daniel Fleshier, a longtime board member of Americans for Peace Now, says the issue of Jewish influence is “so incendiary and so complicated that I don’t know how anyone can talk about this in the public sphere. I know that’s a problem. But there’s not enough space in any article you write to do this in a way that doesn’t cause more rancor. And so much of this paper was glib and poorly researched.” In Salon, Michelle Goldberg wrote that the authors had “blundered forth” into the argument in “clumsy and crude ways,” for instance failing to distinguish between different streams of Jewish opinion. Professor Noam Chomsky of M.I.T. wrote that the authors had ignored the structural forces in the American economy pushing for war, what he calls “the tight state-corporate linkage.”  
University of Maryland professor Shibley Telhami, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, describes the professors as “incredibly bold” at stirring policy and theoretical debates. But, although Telhami is a critic of the war in Iraq, he does not believe that Jewish neoconservatives and their Christian supporters forced the U.S. into the war. “There’s no doubt that neocons long wanted a war,” Telhami said. “But in the end it was the decision of a president who was super-empowered after 9/11 and who could have ignored them.”  
Some critics have charged the professors with anti-Semitism. Writing in The Washington Post (April 5, 2006), Professor Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, titled his article, “Yes, it’s Anti-Semitic.” He wrote: “If by anti-Semitism one means obsessive and irrationally hostile beliefs about Jews; if one accuses them of disloyalty, subversion or treachery, of having occult powers and of participating in secret combinations that manipulate institutions and governments; if one systematically selects everything unfair, ugly or wrong about Jews as individuals or a group and equally systematically suppresses any exculpatory information — why, yes, this paper is anti-Semitic.”  
The Anti-Defamation League called the paper “a classical conspiratorial anti-Semitic analysis invoking the canards of Jewish power and Jewish control.” Writing in The New Republic, German newspaper editor Josef Joffe declared that the paper “puts ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ to shame.”  
Many Jewish voices were sharply critical of the charge of “anti-Semitism.” In an editorial in the Israeli newspaper Ha’Aretz, Danie1 Levy, a former policy adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak, deplored such “bullying tactics” and “the McCarthyite policing of academies” as “deeply un-Jewish. It would in fact serve Israel if the open and critical debate that takes place here were exported over there.”  
Writing in The New York Times (April 19, 2006), Professor Tony Judt, director of the Remarque Institute at New York University, declares that, “This somewhat hysterical response is regrettable. In spite of its provocative title, the essay draws on a wide variety of standard sources and is mostly uncontentious. But it makes two distinct and important claims. The first is that uncritical support for Israel across the decades has not served America’s best interests. This is an assertion that can be debated on its merits. The authors’ second claim is more controversial: American foreign policy choices, they write, have for years been distorted by one domestic pressure group, the ‘Israel lobby.’ Some would prefer, when explaining American actions overseas, to point a finger at the domestic ‘energy lobby.’ Others might blame the influence of Wilsonian idealism, or imperial practices left over from the cold war. But that a powerful Israel lobby exists could hardly be denied by anyone who knows how Washington works. Its core is AIPAC, its penumbra a variety of national Jewish organizations.”  
Whatever the merits of the arguments set forth by Mearsheimer and Walt, the charges of “anti-Semitism” are, in Judt’s view, deplorable on a number of levels: “The damage that is done by America’s fear of anti-Semitism when discussing Israel is threefold. It is bad for Jews; anti-Semitism is real enough (I know something about it, growing up Jewish in 1950s Britain), but for just that reason it should not be confused with political criticism of Israel or its American supporters. It is bad for Israel, by guaranteeing it unconditional support, Americans encourage Israel to act heedless of consequences ... But above all, self-censorship is bad for the U.S. itself. Americans are denying themselves participation in a fast-moving international conversation ... It will not be self-evident to future generations of Americans why the imperial might and international reputation of the U.S. are so clearly aligned with one small, controversial Mediterranean client state ... It bears directly on our international standing and influence; and it has nothing to do with anti-Semitism. We cannot ignore it.”  
Columnist Richard Cohen, writing in The Washington Post (April 25, 2006) noted that, “There is hardly a stronger, more odious accusation than anti-Semitism. It comes freighted with more than a thousand years of tragic history, culminating in the Holocaust. The mere suggestion of it is enough for any sane person to hold its tongue ... My own reading of the Mearsheimer-Walt paper found it unremarkable, a bit sloppy and one-sided (nothing here about the Arab oil lobby) but nothing that even a casual newspaper reader does not know. Its basic point — that Israel’s American supporters have immense influence over U.S. foreign policy — is inarguable. ... Their (Mearsheimer and Walt) argument is hardly rebutted by purple denunciations and smear tactics. Rather than being persuasive, Mearsheimer and Walt’s more hysterical critics suggest by their extreme reactions that the duo is on to something. These tactics by Israel’s friends sully Israel’s good name more than Mearsheimer and Walt ever could.”  
Israeli journalist Tom Segev described the Mearsheimer-Walt essay as “arrogant” but also acknowledged: “They are right. Had the U.S. saved Israel from itself, life today would be better ... the Israel lobby in the U.S. harms Israel’s true interests.”  
Editorially, The Forward (March 24, 2006) in a piece entitled “In Dark Times, Blame The Jews,” declared: “Some of Israel’s more overheated defenders were trying ... to diagnose the problem as a character flaw in the authors. Their solution is to counter- attack. That’s a mistake. Leaving aside the folly of trying to answer a claim that Israel is a bully by bullying the messenger, the response misses the point. Mearsheimer and Walt are products of their time. These are dark poisonous days we live in, and the poison is spreading. In Iraq, America has stumbled into a quagmire of historic proportions, with global consequences that are proving nothing short of catastrophic, if that weren’t enough, our nation is nearly bankrupt ... and the Arctic is melting. The miscalculations seem inexplicable. There must be someone to blame. We shouldn’t be surprised then, at the sight of respected professors, and not only professors, coming unhinged ... Mearsheimer and Walt join a long line of critics who dislike Israel so deeply that they cannot fathom the support it enjoys in America, and so they search for some malign power capable of perverting America’s good sense. They find it, as others have before, in the Jews.”  
Washington Times editor-at-large Arnaud de Borchgrave points to the fact that, “Over the years AIPAC has maneuvered to make Israel the third rail of American foreign policy. The handful of members of Congress who have been critical of Israel over the last 40 years have been publicly chastised with the figurative dunce cap, or, worse, lost their seats to AIPAC-based opponents.”  
Editorially, The Nation (April 24, 2006) argues that, “An open debate, after all, isn’t the same thing as approval. Although Mearsheimer and Walt are correct in their claim that a powerful Israel lobby often bullies critics and has extraordinary influence on Capitol Hill, they never clearly define U.S. national interests in the region, and thus the claim that Israel undermines them — and that the tail wags the dog rather than serving those interests — remains an undemonstrated assertion, as is their argument that the Iraq War was due in large part to the Lobby’s influence.’ This last plank in their thesis is a particularly startling one coming from representatives of the realist school, given the overwhelming strategic prize that conquest of the Iraqi oilfields would represent ... Startling too, when one considers the close relationship of the Bush administration to the oil lobby. The key point, though, is that these questions can only be constructively argued in an atmosphere that encourages open discussion.”

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