Two academics who recently discussed the power of the so-called Israel lobby have come under intense fire. This episode threatens free speech—and not just on campuses.
Harvard Professor and Academic Dean (no less) Stephen Walt and University of Chicago Professor John Mearsheimer co-wrote a paper (republished in a shorter version in the London Review of Books ) that expressed concern over the influence of the pro-Israel lobby over U.S. foreign policy, and its detrimental impact on the global image of the United States.
“The combination of unwavering support for Israel and the related effort to spread ‘democracy’ throughout the region has inflamed Arab and Islamic opinion and jeopardized not only U.S. security but that of much of the rest of the world,” they state. “This situation has no equal in American political history.”
And the professors have no qualms about pointing fingers.
“The thrust of US policy in the region derives almost entirely from domestic politics, and especially the activities of the ‘Israel Lobby,’ ”they assert. “Other special-interest groups have managed to skew foreign policy, but no lobby has managed to divert it as far from what the national interest would suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that US interests and those of the other country—in this case, Israel—are essentially identical.”
I’ve read through both the London Review of Books piece and the actual academic paper. As the above excerpts show, the professors’ analysis is a tad hyperbolic and has a conspiratorial whiff about it. The main problem with their thesis is that they take the actions of disparate supporters of Israeli policy and make their actions seem much more well coordinated than they actually are. They also overlook the fact that very often the reason that the United States pursues certain policies in the Middle East is because its aims are congruent with that of Israel and not necessarily due to the influence of AIPAC and other such organizations. Besides, there are other powerful lobbies at play in the Middle East that Mearsheimer and Walt ignore. “The oil companies, the arms industry and other special interests” possess “lobbying influence and campaign contributions [that] far surpass that of the much-vaunted Zionist lobby and its allied donors to congressional races,” Professor Stephen Zunes of the University of San Francisco has pointed out.
Mearsheimer and Walt also sometimes overstate their arguments. For instance, their assertion that the Palestinian issue is central to bin Laden’s obsessions is extremely debatable, as is their contention that
the so-called Israel lobby was the critical factor behind the Iraq War.
However, their main points are not invalid: AIPAC and other unblinking backers of Israeli policy have a lot of influence, and their muscle-flexing has helped push the U.S. government into an unwise stance of almost unconditional support for Israel.
But from the reaction in certain quarters, you would think that Mearsheimer and Walt are completely out of line. Congressman Eliot Engel of New York (who is cited as a supporter of Israel by the authors) has actually called them “anti-Semites.” That’s ironic, since a part of their essay describes how the charge of anti-Semitism effectively gags critics. The conservative daily New York Sun has published six articles on the piece and has compared the analysis to the “rantings” of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Harvard itself has come under attack. Ardent Israel defenders such as Harvard Professor Alan Dershowitz and New Republic Editor-in-Chief and Harvard lecturer Martin Peretz have harshly criticized the institution. Several donors have called the university to express their displeasure.
One of them has been Robert Belfer, a former Enron executive who has financed the professorship that Walt holds. In response, Harvard has asked that its logo be removed from the paper on the website, and that a disclaimer stating that Harvard had nothing to do with the analysis be made stronger and more prominent.
The problem with such attacks is that it drives the discussion of a perfectly legitimate issue underground, and leads to a situation where the only conversation about such an issue is among racists and anti-Semites. (One point that critics of Walt and Mearsheimer have seized on is that David Duke has endorsed the professors’ analysis. Talk about guilt by association.)
Such episodes also tend to strengthen views abroad that U.S. foreign policy is controlled by Jewish Americans. The story has gotten a lot of play overseas, especially in the Muslim and Arab world, with a number of publications almost gleefully covering the issue and pointing out the condemnation that Walt and Mearsheimer have suffered.
The negative experience of Mearsheimer and Walt will probably deter other people from exploring the U.S.-Israel alliance. But discussion of this subject should not be off-limits. Any attempts to squelch
discussion of this issue does free speech—and the U.S. itself—a disservice.