One of the consistent deformities in American policy debate has been
challenged by a couple of professors, and the reaction proves their point so
neatly it’s almost funny.
A working paper by John Mearsheimer, professor of political science at the
University of Chicago, and Stephen Walt, professor of international affairs
at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, called “The Israel Lobby”
was printed in the London Review of Books earlier this month. And all hell broke
loose in the more excitable reaches of journalism and academe.
For having the sheer effrontery to point out the painfully obvious—that
there is an Israel lobby in the United States—Mearsheimer and Walt have
been accused of being anti-Semitic, nutty and guilty of “kooky academic
work.” Alan Dershowitz, who seems to be easily upset, went totally ballistic
over the mild, academic, not to suggest pretty boring article by Mearsheimer
and Walt, calling them “liars” and “bigots.”
Of course there is an Israeli lobby in America—its leading working group
is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). It calls itself “America’s
Pro-Israel Lobby,” and it attempts to influence U.S. legislation and policy.
Several national Jewish organizations lobby from time to time. Big deal—why
is anyone pretending this non-news requires falling on the floor and howling?
Because of this weird deformity of debate.
In the United States, we do not have full-throated, full-throttle debate about
Israel. In Israel, they have it as a matter of course, but the truth is that
the accusation of anti-Semitism is far too often raised in this country against
anyone who criticizes the government of Israel.
Being pro-Israel is no defense, as I long ago learned to my cost. Now I’ve
gotten used to it. Jews who criticize Israel are charmingly labeled “self-hating
Jews.” As I have often pointed out, that must mean there are a lot of
self-hating Israelis, because those folks raise hell over their own government’s
policies all the time.
I don’t know that I’ve ever felt intimidated by the knee-jerk “you’re
anti-Semitic” charge leveled at anyone who criticizes Israel, but I do
know I have certainly heard it often enough to become tired of it.
And I wonder if that doesn’t produce the same result: giving up on the
It’s the sheer disproportion and the vehemence of the denunciations of
those perceived as criticizing Israel that make the attacks so odious. Mearsheimer
and Walt are both widely respected political scientists—comparing their
writing to “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” is just silly.
Several critics have pointed out some flaws in the Mearsheimer-Walt paper,
including a too-broad use of the term “Israel lobby”—those
of us who are pro-Israel differ widely—and having perhaps overemphasized
the clout of the Israel lobby by ignoring the energy lobby.
It seems to me the root of the difficulty has been Israel’s inability
first to admit the Palestinians have been treated unfairly and, second, to figure
out what to do about it. Now here goes a big fat generalization, but I think
many Jews are so accustomed (by reality) to thinking of themselves as victims,
it is especially difficult for them to admit they have victimized others.
But the Mearsheimer-Walt paper is not about the basic conflict, but rather
its effect on American foreign policy, and it appears to me the authors’
arguments are unexceptional. Israel is the No. 1 recipient of American foreign
aid, and it seems an easy case can be made that the United States has subjugated
its own interests to those of Israel in the past.
Whether you agree or not, it is a discussion well worth having and one that
should not be shut down before it can start by unfair accusations of “anti-Semitism.”
In a very equal sense, none of this is academic. The Israel lobby was overwhelmingly
in favor of starting the war with Iraq and is now among the leading hawks on
To the extent that our interests do differ from those of Israel, the matter
needs to be discussed calmly and fairly. This is not about conspiracies or plots
or fantasies or anti-Semitism—it’s about rational discussion of
American interests. And, in my case, being pro-Israel. I’m looking forward
to hearing from all you nutjobs again.
To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features
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