When two eminent US scholars wrote about the ‘Israel lobby’ they were vilified by colleagues and the Washington Post. This week Barack Obama joined the attack. Ed Pilkington hears their story
Saturday September 15, 2007
Given the reception John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt received for their London Review of Books essay last year on what they called the Israel Lobby, it would have been understandable had they crawled away to a dark corner of their respective academic institutions to lick their wounds. Their argument that US foreign policy has been distorted by the stultifying power of pro-Israeli groups and individuals was met with a firestorm of protest that has smouldered ever since.
The authors were assailed with headlines such as the Washington Post’s: “Yes, it’s anti-semitic.” The neocon pundit William Kristol accused them in the Wall Street Journal of “anti-Judaism” while the New York Sun linked them with the white supremacist David Duke.
The row became a focal point of a much wider debate about the limits of permitted criticism of the state of Israel and its American-based supporters that has ensnared several academics and writers, including a former president. Jimmy Carter was castigated earlier this year when he published a plea for a renewed engagement in the Middle-East peace process under the admittedly provocative title, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. He was labelled an anti-semitic “Jew hater” and even a Nazi sympathiser. Meanwhile, a British-born historian at New York University, Tony Judt, has been warned off or disinvited from four academic events in the past year. On one occasion, he was asked to promise not to mention Israel in a speech on the Holocaust. He refused.
For Walt, the explosion of criticism after the LRB publication in March 2006 struck particularly close to home as two members of his own Harvard faculty turned on him. Ruth Wisse, professor of Yiddish literature, compared Walt and his University of Chicago co-author’s work to that of a notorious 19th-century German anti-semite. Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard criminal law professor who represented OJ Simpson, charged them with culling some of their references from neo-Nazi websites.
Given the battering he has taken, Walt is remarkably upbeat. “We were surprised by how nasty it got,” says the Harvard professor. “The David Duke reference, the neo-Nazi websites – these were intended to smear us and swing attention on to us rather than to what we were saying. It wasn’t pleasant, but it never made me doubt what we had written or doubt myself.” Standing tall in the face of attack is one thing; to raise your head above the parapet for a second round is quite another. But that is what the Mearsheimer/Walt double act are doing: they have gone on the offensive with the publication of a book-length version of their original treatise.
As night follows day, the dispute has started anew. The New York Sun has dedicated a section of its website to the controversy; Dershowitz has revved up again, calling the book “a bigoted attack on the American Jewish community”; and Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, has gone to the trouble of writing his own book in riposte – and it’s in the bookshops a week before The Israel Lobby appears.
There is one obvious question to put to Walt: why do it to yourself? Wasn’t one stoning enough? “We did ask ourselves, did we want to go through this again?” he admits, but only to add: “It didn’t take us all that long to figure out we had more to say and it was our job to say it.”
By writing a 496-page book, as opposed to the original article’s mere 13,000 words, the authors hope to present a more nuanced version of their case. They have taken in new examples to support their thesis, notably the second Lebanon war, which broke out in the interim, and have sought to address some of the points raised by critics.
The book follows the structure of the original article fairly faithfully, and its argument can be summarised thus: in recent years the US government has given Israel unconditional support, showering it with $3bn a year irrespective of the human rights violations it inflicts on the Palestinians. It was not always this way – think of the Suez crisis of 1956 when America stepped in to frustrate Israel’s (and Britain’s) ambitions. But from the 1960s onwards the relationship deepened to the extent that today American and Israeli interests are deemed by many Americans to be essentially identical.
The authors ask why this is the case, and argue that strategically there is no reason for it. The end of the cold war removed a central justification for the special relationship, as Israel no longer provided the US with a barrier to communism in the region. Post 9/11, the US and Israel are presented as partners against terrorism, but America’s vulnerability to attack partly stems from its support for Israel, which has provoked hostility in the Muslim world. Nor is there a moral argument for indiscriminately backing Israel – as a towering military presence in the Middle East, Israel is no longer under existential threat.
So what explains this ongoing largesse? The authors conclude that the answer lies with the Israel lobby, a loose coalition of individuals and organisations that wants US leaders to treat Israel as though it were the 51st state. The lobby stifles debate, inhibits criticism of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and maintains the special relationship despite the fact that it has become a liability both for the US and for Israel itself.
In its transition from literary journal essay to stand-alone book, the authors have made a few telling alterations of presentation and emphasis. The most vivid is that in the body of the text they have demoted lobby to lower case: the Israel Lobby has become the Israel lobby. Walt sees that as the most minor of changes, remarking that: “John and I don’t even remember how the capital L got used in the first place.”
More substantially, perhaps, they have used the extra space to make several robust disclaimers, insisting that they have never questioned the right of Israel to exist or the legitimacy of the Israel lobby itself. They have also filed down some of the more jagged edges of their argument, such as their position on the role the lobby played in the build-up to the Iraq war. They still maintain that the war would “almost certainly not have occurred” were it not for the Israel lobby, but they soften the claim by adding that America’s belligerent mood in the aftermath of the attacks on New York and Washington also had much to do with it.
Such nuances make for a more sophisticated read, but they fall far short of the revisions – the authors would say capitulations – that would be needed to satisfy their detractors.
Foxman is one of the most vocal critics. His new book, timed specifically to counteract the arrival on bookshelves of The Israel Lobby, pulls no punches. Its title is representative of the tone of the book: The Deadliest Lies. “This is a big lie that the Jewish people have lived with throughout history,” he tells me from his New York office. “Up to now these anti-semitic canards have been heard on the fringes, but to have two respected academics repeat them legitimises the debate and penetrates the mainstream.”
More measured – though still forceful – criticism of the Mearsheimer and Walt book has come from those titans of US journalism, the New York Times and the New Yorker. The Times’ book critic William Grimes takes a swipe at the authors’ claim that it is time for the US to treat Israel as a normal country: “But it’s not. And America won’t. That’s realism.” David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, suggests none too flatteringly that the book is symptomatic of a polarised era in which Americans are searching for an explanation to the evils of the times.
In the swirl of debate, the squabbling parties keep coming back to the core concept of an Israel lobby, case notwithstanding. The authors have been meticulously careful in the book to stress that they see the lobby as a loose coalition. It is not a single, unified movement and it is certainly not a cabal or conspiracy. Yet no matter how profuse their disclaimers, they have not assuaged those antagonists for whom any lumping together of Jews or Jewish interest groups sets alarm bells ringing. “Visit any anti-semitic website and you’ll hear the same old themes: the Jews have too much power; they exercise political influence not as individual citizens but as a cabal,” writes Foxman. “Walt and Mearsheimer sound all the same notes, with a subtlety and pseudo-scholarly style that makes their poison all the more dangerous.”
In our conversation, Walt accepts the phrase “the lobby” is “an awkward term as many of the groups and people in it don’t operate on Capitol Hill. It’s shorthand – you could call it the pro-Israel movement”. One wonders why he and his co-author have stuck with it, then, when it has allowed their detractors to smear other more credible parts of their argument.
Take the slanging match over the causes of the Iraq war. Walt and Mearsheimer rightly lay a large part of the blame for this disastrous escapade on the neoconservatives within the Bush administration, but they then go on to define those neocons as an integral part of the Israel lobby. Books have been written about the various motivations of the neocons. Sympathy for Israel is one, but there are many others – the desire to spread democracy, a belief in the positive uses of military intervention, denigration of international institutions. To suggest that the neocons and the Israel lobby are one and the same is a conflation too far.
But the authors have brought into the open aspects of American intellectual life that needed airing. They cast light on the overweening activities of specific pro-Israeli groups, most importantly the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Aipac is a self-avowed lobby (it calls itself America’s pro-Israel lobby) and has been ranked the second most powerful such body in the US. With a staff of more than 150 and a budget of $60m, it wields extensive influence among Congressmen, working to ensure criticism of Israel is rarely aired on Capitol Hill. The Guardian invited it to comment, but it declined.
Though Foxman insists the furore is proof that debate is alive and kicking, Walt and Mearsheimer have also put their finger on the limits of acceptable discourse in the US. It is notable that none of the candidates standing for president in 2008 have a word of criticism for Israeli state behaviour; this week Barack Obama pulled an advert for his campaign from the Amazon page selling The Israel Lobby, denouncing the book as “just wrong”.
So what happened to America’s commitment to free speech, the First Amendment? “We knew from De Tocqueville this country is driven by conformity,” Judt says. “The law can’t make people speak out – it can only prevent people from stopping free speech. What’s happened is not censorship, but self-censorship.” Judt believes that a few well-organised groups including Aipac have succeeded in proscribing debate. He recalls a prominent Democratic senator confiding to him that he would never criticise Israel in public. “He told me that if he did so, for the rest of his career he would never be able to get a majority for what he cared about. He would be cut off at the knees.”
In the final chapter of the book, Walt and Mearsheimer make a shopping list of reforms. They call for: a two-state solution to the Middle East crisis; greater separation of US foreign policy from Israel for both nations’ sake; and campaign finance reform to reduce the power of pro-Israeli groups.
Nothing outlandish, or even controversial, there. Coming at the end of such a bumpy ride of claim and counter-claim, the conclusion feels almost disappointingly gentle. That in itself bears eloquent witness to the state of affairs in America today, where thoughts considered unremarkable elsewhere are deemed beyond the pale.