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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

A leftist denounces Walt and Mearsheimer

In a lengthy review in The New Republic, Jeffrey Goldberg denounces the blatant anti-Semitism in Walt and Mearsheimer's The Israel Lobby. Here are some highlights of the review:
After baldly declaring, in the manner of conspiracy theorists, and over and over again, also in the manner of conspiracy theorists, that AIPAC dominates Congress (at the same time claiming, risibly, that "we do not believe the lobby ... controls important institutions in the United States"), Mearsheimer and Walt then proceed to catalog all the mistakes and the crimes for which AIPAC and the many other groups that make up the pro-Israel lobby are, in their omnipotence, responsible. Mearsheimer and Walt are not alleging the existence of a secret Jewish plot to control American foreign policy; they are alleging the existence of an open Jewish plot to control American foreign policy. The most remarkable of their allegations--this one is actually quite breathtaking--is that the pro-Israel lobby is causally related to the attacks of September 11. They claim that AIPAC's control of Congress forced America into an unnaturally close alliance with Israel, and that this alliance infuriated bin Laden, as well as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the operation, who acted against America in large part because of its support for Israel.

This is not quite the view, commonly heard in the Arab world, that Israel had a direct hand in the destruction of the World Trade Center; but still it is heinous. The unmistakable message of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy is that the destruction on September 11 was caused in significant measure by the Jews. "The United States has a terrorism problem in good part because it has long been so supportive of Israel," Mearsheimer and Walt write. "Many people may not realize how much America's one-sided policies have cost it over the years. Not only have these policies helped inspire al-Qaeda, but they have also facilitated its recruitment efforts and contributed to growing anti-Americanism throughout the region." At Politics and Prose, Walt called America's support for Israel "one of the key causes" of "America's terrorist problem." He went on to say that "American policy gives some individuals in the Arab and Islamic world cause to attack the United States as happened on 9/11." Cause! Ponder that word.

Never mind that Mearsheimer and Walt exaggerate the centrality of the Jews in bin Laden's worldview. (The transcript of his September video makes this clear.) Al Qaeda's war on America is only one of three wars that Mearsheimer and Walt blame on Israel and its mainly Jewish supporters. They argue that pro- Israel Jews in America were "the principal driving force behind the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq in 2003"; and they argue that it is only Jewish organizations, and their patrons in the Jewish state, that are now fomenting a war against Iran.

To support their preference for an American-Iranian d├ętente, Mearsheimer and Walt present a spectacularly partial rendering of the pertinent history--they do not even consider that one barrier to better relations with the theocratic dictators in Tehran might be our inconvenient but painful memories of the hostage crisis. And in making their case that it is only Jews who oppose reconciliation with Iran, they neglect to mention, among other things, European opposition to the Iranian nuclear program. Their Judeo- centric interpretation of the Iran hawks does not consider the possibility that Nicolas Sarkozy, the president of France, might have been motivated only by French national security interests when he recently said that Iran's obstinacy on the nuclear question would have "catastrophic consequences." Or has AIPAC gotten to him, too? But wait--Sarkozy is one-quarter Jewish. No wonder he is militant about Iran! (Mearsheimer and Walt like to explain the pro-Israel attitudes of American politicians in gross tribal terms. Howard Dean's "unabashed" pro-Israel stance, for example, is explicable when you grasp that "Dean's wife is Jewish and his children were raised Jewish as well.")

Mearsheimer and Walt stretch their Iran argument to the snapping point. They contend that Israeli politicians and their supporters in America exaggerate the existential threat to Israel posed by Iran, because Iranian radicals have not actually called for the elimination of Israel. They assert that "Ahmadinejad's call for Israel to vanish from the page of time' (or to be erased from the pages of history') is often mistranslated as a call for Israel's physical destruction (i.e. to wipe Israel off the map')." Often mistranslated? I wonder how good their own Farsi is. But Al Jazeera--no known Jewish control there--reported in 2005 that at the "World Without Zionism" conference in Tehran, Ahmadinejad declared that "Israel must be wiped off the map." Ahmadinejad's own website described the speech this way: "He further expressed his firm belief that the new wave of confrontations generated in Palestine and the growing turmoil in the Islamic world would in no time wipe Israel away." The official Iranian broadcast service reported that "Iran's President ... on Wednesday called for Israel to be wiped off the map.'" Surely there are clearer ways to express a desire for coexistence.


The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy is a book of continuous astonishments. Each chapter contains assertions of Jewish misbehavior, or criminality. The history of the Arab- Israeli conflict recounted here is comically one-sided, even by the standards of Israel's revisionist historians. In Mearsheimer and Walt's telling, Israel is perpetually the aggressor; it has never made a serious move toward peace and compromise; and its existence has never been threatened by the Arabs, who are portrayed as out-numbered, out-funded, and under-armed victims of Zionist aggression. The Israel of Mearsheimer and Walt is simply unrecognizable to anyone who is halfway fair and halfway learned about the Middle East. Various scholars have already demolished their recounting of Israeli history, most notably Benny Morris in the pages of this magazine. Morris's research into the origins of the war for Israeli independence in 1948 was put to perverse use by Mearsheimer and Walt, and he reclaimed it with authority. I will not dwell here on their many mistakes and distortions, except to point out two of the most obvious ones: their claim that Israel's Arab neighbors did not hope to destroy the Jewish state in 1967, and their claim that Israel, under the leadership of Ehud Barak, did not offer Yasir Arafat anything fair or interesting at Camp David and Taba in 2000. Both are easily refuted. (An obscure little volume called My Life, by Bill Clinton, makes a quick hash of their account of the peace process.)


The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy is premised on many such nasty and false ideas, but underpinning them all is the belief that America supports Israel only because the pro-Israel lobby forces it to do so. Mearsheimer and Walt contend--we have heard this contention many times before--that Israel has no strategic or moral value to America, and that a proper foreign policy would cut Israel adrift. What is unfathomable to them is that many Americans, Jewish and otherwise, admire Israel. Forty years of polling has consistently shown that Americans support Israel in its conflict with the Arabs. Why? There are a multitude of plausible reasons. Both Israel and America were founded by refugees from European religious intolerance; both are rooted in a common religious tradition; Israel is a lively democracy in a part of the world that lacks democracy; Israelis seem self-reliant in the manner of American pioneers; and Israel's enemies, in many cases, seem to be Amer- ica's enemies as well. And perhaps some obstreperous Americans side with Israel simply because the radical Islamists demand that they stop.

None of these possible explanations has penetrated the minds of Mearsheimer and Walt. There is only one cause for America's support for Israel, they say: the lobby, its money, its muscle, its effectiveness at suppressing dissent about its activities and about the depth of Israel's crimes and strategic uselessness. (More about dissent in a moment.) The ultimate lesson of this book is that America must free itself from the shackles of the pro-Israel lobby. It is this message, more than any other, that makes Mearsheimer and Walt the heirs of a certain American current. In 1940, Joseph P. Kennedy went to Hollywood to address its mostly Jewish studio chiefs. As recounted in Neal Gabler's An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, Kennedy told his lunch audience to "stop making anti-Nazi pictures or using the film medium to promote or show sympathy to the cause of the democracies' versus the dictators.'" He told the executives that the Jews were already being blamed for the war. His bullying was effective: the studio chiefs, uneasy about their ethnic heritage and therefore susceptible to the call of assimilation, were frightened into compliance by his message, until America entered the war a year later. Mearsheimer and Walt have set themselves a similar goal: to convince non-Jews that their Jewish fellow citizens do not have their best interests at heart, and, further, to harass or to rattle or to embarrass American Jews into silence. Their book is not an act of scholarship, but an act of intimidation.

But wait. Isn't AIPAC the one that is in the business of intimidation? "The lobby has gone to considerable lengths to shape public discourse about Israel by putting pressure on the media and academia and by establishing a tangible presence in influential foreign policy think tanks," Mearsheimer and Walt insist. "Efforts to shape public perceptions often include charging critics of Israel with anti-Semitism." The publication of their article in the London Review of Books certainly provoked controversy. It was designed to provoke controversy. But our heroes' skin proved too thin for controversy. Though they were extensively praised in Europe, where everybody is of course much saner because they are beyond AIPAC's reach, Mearsheimer and Walt experienced a good deal of withering criticism in America. (And also some fair, even generous coverage here, including a credulous Washington Post Magazine cover story about their work.) And yet their ideas have been widely debated and discussed. And yet they received a dizzying advance to turn their essay into this book. And yet their book is already a best-seller.

They claim that they themselves are victims of the pro-Israel lobby, but the existence of their book, and the sensation that attends it, rather negates their self-pity. I mean, somehow The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy slipped past the lobby. When I visited Amazon.com to check the book's ranking a few weeks ago--it was at number thirty- five--I learned that customers who bought it also purchased The Power of Israel in the United States; Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History; They Dare Speak Out: People and Institutions Confront Israel's Lobby; and of course Jimmy Carter's Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. So there is a literature of this sort, and a market for it. And yet in their own minds--this is the comic dimension of this sad story-- Mearsheimer and Walt are dissidents. They portray themselves, and the many American critics of the pro-Israel lobby, as free-speech martyrs. In this way the fellows at number thirty-five resemble their idol Jimmy Carter, who complained about being muzzled even as his book was climbing the best-seller lists. They seem to think that anybody who disagrees with what they say is deny- ing their right to say it. The truth is that most of Mearsheimer and Walt's critics do not want to suppress their ideas. They merely want to refute them.
I did call Goldberg a leftist. I suppose I should back that up:
There is an interesting book to be written about the power of AIPAC, and other pro-Israel lobbying groups, in Washington. There is also a book to be written about the moral failings of Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands. I myself wrote a version of that latter book. But my recoil from Israel's settlement policy was not a recoil from Israel itself: I remain a believer in the legitimacy and the necessity of a national home for the Jewish people. I regard territorial compromise, and the establishment of the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel, as the only solution to this savage conflict. And I am not much of a believer in AIPAC.

I have three reasons for my distaste for AIPAC. The first is a matter of style: AIPAC's leaders tend toward glibness and certitude, when the Middle East is a dense and ambiguous place. The second is that I dislike single-issue lobbies and single-issue politics--the duties of American citizenship require more than that; and I worry about the distorting impact of money in political campaigns. The third is that AIPAC has leaned rightward in recent years, and today seeks to drum up support for policies that do not seem to me to be in Israel's best interests. On the issue of aid to Israel, AIPAC reflexively seeks from Congress generous grants that also do not seem to me to be in Israel's best interests. It is true that economic aid is being phased out, but military assistance is being increased--Israel receives about $3 billion a year in direct aid, although it has become a well-off country (even if the numbers of its poor are scandalously high). As an American taxpayer, I would rather see some of that money go to poorer countries. And I tend to think that Israel would be better off--more independent, more responsible with its own money--if it paid for American weaponry out of its own treasury, rather than with American aid money. I believe Israel should slowly wean itself from American aid, but AIPAC first has to agree to this.

Now, none of these criticisms requires any courage on my part. Indeed, these opinions are all widely held and widely debated within the exceedingly unmonolithic Jewish community, and they betray no particular animus toward the Jewish state. (Mearsheimer and Walt have no grasp whatsoever of the diversity of American Jewish life. In a single sentence, they identify the Zionist Organization of America, which is run by the revanchist Morton Klein, and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, which is run by the progressive David Saperstein, as interchangeable cogs of the pro-Israeli machine.) Mearsheimer and Walt are for the two-state solution, which is banal but fine. Yet when did support for the two-state solution require support for a Jewish conspiracy theory? Why couldn't these formerly credible scholars have made their criticisms of AIPAC and of Israel without demonizing Jews and demonizing Israel? And do they know anything, anything at all, about lobbies in the nation's capital?
Read it all. And don't waste your money buying the book.


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