Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Walt and Mearshimer: With Friends Like These, Who Needs Anti-Semites?

Along with about 150 other people, I checked out the Berkeley stop of the Stephen Walt/John Mearshimer book tour last week. For the rabid anti-Zionists, their book "The Israel Lobby" gives Israel-bashing the mainstream academic pseudo-legitimacy that they have desperately sought for years. It was not only correct, but also easy, to dismiss fringe figures such as Noam Chomsky (who somehow parlayed his expertise in linguistics into extreme leftist politics) and Norman Finkelstein (who somehow parlayed professional failure at 3 different universities into becoming the Jew most beloved by anti-Semites). Walt and Mearshimer bring much more gravitas to the debate. However, they bring very little else that is new, and their analysis of history and politics in the Middle East conveniently leaves out much that undermines their thesis. Nonetheless, those of us who stand up for Israel (or, in Walt/Mearshimer terms, are part of "The Lobby") need to know what they say and where they have gone wrong; their work, like Jimmy Carter's recent screed, will be a staple of the other side's repertoire for quite a while.

The first thing I noticed at the Berkeley event, despite the fact that it was co-sponsored by Tikkun and moderated by Michael Lerner, was the presence of several well-known local anti-Zionist activists, one of whom was busy handing out postcards advertising the now-annual protest at the December AIPAC dinner in Oakland. (For those unsure of the nomenclature, "anti-Zionist" describes those opposed to the existence of Israel as a Jewish state-- whether they be virulent Jew-haters, pie-in-the-sky "one state solution" idealists, or Neturei Karta ultra-Orthodox extremists). The table at the event held only copies of the W&M book and a flyer from Gush Shalom describing "millions starving in Gaza" (which, if it were actually occurring, would of course be accompanied by extensive video on the same Hamas TV station that airs the wonderful children's show featuring Farfur the Martyr Mouse and Nahool the Jihad Bee). Lerner introduced the speakers as being "on the cutting edge of a central issue facing our country" and of course touted the new issue of Tikkun magazine which apparently will laud M&W's book and promote the same thesis.

So, what is their thesis anyway? Stephen Walt began by describing two main questions:

1. Is there a powerful pro-Israel lobby and how does it work?
2. Is that lobby good for the US and is it even good for Israel?

Walt comes across as a friendly, articulate academic, someone you'd enjoy having as a professor. He doesn't get mean and he doesn't use words carelessly. He specifically acknowledges the sensitivity of writing and talking about this issue because of the history of anti-Semitism and in particular "bizarre conspiracy theories such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion", and goes on to specifically reject such theories. Yet without batting an eye he then immediately claims that any critic of Israel is labeled an anti-Semite.

He makes several specific points. One is that the dollar amount of US aid to Israel comes to $500 for each Israeli citizen, and that Israel has the 29th largest economy in the world so doesn't need that level of assistance. The other is that the level of US diplomatic support for Israel, and lack of criticism from US politicians, is without parallel. He then attacks the two most commonly cited reasons for these: that Israel is a vital strategic ally and that Israel shares American values of freedom and democracy. Walt admits that Israel might indeed have been a strategic ally during the Cold War , but that not only is this in the past, but also that Israel is one of the reasons that we have a terrorism problem. Again, he is very careful to say "one of the reasons", not "the only" or even "the main" reason. He then goes on to say that no other democracies get the same level of support and that Israel's treatment of its own Arab population (much less its treatment of the West Bank Arabs who are not citizens) doesn't measure up to American values. He does go as far as to say that Israel, in its actions to defend itself, "doesn't act any better" than its adversaries, striking a moral equivalence between the IDF that attempts to avoid civilian casualties and the mass murderers of Hamas and Islamic Jihad who celebrate the deaths of women, children and senior citizens in buses and restaurants. Not a word about the fact that Israel has terrorist gangs on its borders armed with rockets, not a word about the terror war launched by Arafat in 2000, not a word about 60 years of genocidal threats against the Jewish state. Listening to Walt, one would think Israel is located in central Europe surrounded by friendly neighbors but just can't manage to get along with them.

Walt then describes "The Lobby" (somehow, one feels the capitalization even when he is speaking) as a loose coalition of organizations specifically including AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League, the Zionist Organization of America, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs and unnamed Christian Evangelical groups. He talks about AIPAC's work in building support for Israel within Congress and in trying to shape the public discourse about Israel. While he concedes that this is entirely legal and open activity, he also refers to a number of members of the House and the Senate who were "driven from office" by AIPAC; he specifically cites recent elections (Cynthia McKinney, Lincoln Chaffee) as well as more distant ones (Paul Findlay, Charles Percy and Roger Jepson, the latter two targeted because of their vote for Ronald Reagan's sale of AWACS to Saudi Arabia in the 1980's-- a sale which went forward despite strong objections from AIPAC.). He returns to the charge that AIPAC's efforts to stifle debate "almost always" include labeling critics of Israel as anti-Semites, without any supporting references. Apparently, AIPAC's power extends to the opinion pages of America's newspapers, and is the reason why there are no "dissenting voices" such as Robert Fisk in the UK, or Akiva Eldar and Amira Hass from Ha'aretz. Walt must not read the San Francisco Chronicle, where George Bisharat appears so frequently he might as well have his own byline. Walt does acknowlege that most Americans have a favorable view of Israel, but that this doesn't mean that they support it unconditionally.

For those of us who are card carrying members of "The Lobby", the recitation of AIPAC's successes is nothing new; we hear it at the annual membership meetings and we hear it when we talk to our local AIPAC leaders. Whether such open self-celebration of success is helpful or counter-productive should now be a matter of some serious discussion within AIPAC.

Interestingly, Walt explicitly endorsed Israel's existence as a Jewish state and said that the US should come to its aid if its existence is threatened; he didn't see any current existential threat to Israel, however.

Mearshimer took on the second question with a very different style from Walt; he's much more aggressive and attacking. He also is the one to present the arguments that are staples of the far left and the extreme right, that the influence of "The Lobby" is so pervasive that it was one of the main driving forces for the US invasion of Iraq, and that the policies it promotes are a major source of terrorism. He spent a lot of his time tying the 9/11 attacks to US support for Israel as well. Mearshimer acknowledged that the neocons who pushed for the war with Iraq did believe that this would be good for the US, and denies claims that this was a "Jewish" war, citing opinion polls showing that the American Jewish community had less support for the war in 2003 than the public in general. By the same standard, he assigns causality for the war to the Israel lobby because opinion polls showed that most Israelis supported an attack on Saddam Hussein. He got a lot of mileage out of an editorial in the Forward from 2004 which quoted AIPAC's executive director, Howard Kohr, as having taken credit for pushing the use of force against Saddam.

Mearshimer echoed Walt's support of Israel as a Jewish state within the 1967 borders "with minor territorial adjustments" and also stated that the US should come to its aid if its existence is threatened. It wasn't clear what would constitute an existential threat to M&W, since they are very concerned about being drawn into military action against Iran, which is frantically pursuing nuclear weapons and has made no secret of its desire to destroy Israel. His prescription for peace between Israel and the Arabs was simply telling Israel that they "must make peace" with their neighbors and withdraw from most of the West Bank. Not a single mention of Palestinian terror. Not a word about Palestinian refusal to give up on the so-called "right of return". Not any hint that Israel completely withdrew from Gaza and was rewarded with a Hamas terror entity. In Mearshimer's world, the responsibility lies solely with Israel. Interesting how he then, with such a shallow approach to the complexities of the conflict, claims to know that The Lobby has been bad for Israel.

During the question period (and the only challenges to W&M were from those who disagreed with their support for the existence of a Jewish state within any borders at all) they also made note of a detailed response to critics of their original 2006 paper posted on their website. Indeed, this is a 30 page document, half of which is devoted to rebutting Benny Morris's refutation of their misuse of Morris' work in their paper.

Supporters of Israel need to take them seriously. W&M are well-spoken, and they try to pre-empt any charges of anti-Semitism both by their claim that any opponents of The Lobby are tarred with that brush, and by making very clear statements of support for the Jewish state. The fact remains, though, that many of their arguments echo the old canard of "Jews control the media" and "Jews control Congress", just with the more genteel substitution of "Israel Lobby" for "Jews". The argument that Osama bin Laden is motivated by the Palestinian issue falls flat on its face when his "messages" to the American people have barely even paid lip service to the Palestinian cause--but if the argument is repeated enough, imagine the backlash should there be another terror attack on American soil. And despite their credentials, their scholarship IS sloppy. One of many important critical reviews of their work is by Leslie Gelb in this past Sunday's New York Times, which points out that Israel did indeed offer, at Camp David in 2000, exactly the prescription offered by Mearshimer-- and of course Ehud Olmert ran for office on virtually the same platform.

Lerner closed the event by calling upon the audience to join organizations that apparently pass his criteria for acceptability mentioning not only Tikkun of course, but also Americans for Peace Now, B'rit Tzedek v'Shalom, and Jewish Voice for Peace. The irony that JVP stands at anti-Israel demonstrations along with jihadist wannabes flying the Hamas and Hezbollah flags, and features anti-Zionist speakers at their events, is lost on Lerner. And I left the event wondering what W&M really think about the much bigger irony: that while they themselves insist that they are neither anti-Israel nor anti-Semitic, many of their biggest fans are. Stand outside the Oakland AIPAC dinner in December, see the rally which was being promoted at this talk, and look for yourself.


  1. Dr. Mike
    You are so right, I heard them in LA with Standwithus. We were floored at the support and claps they received.....from Jews! Mark Weber from IHR was there, and loved being on the back of the pamphlet that SWU put out. Women in BLack, and anti Zionst rabbi Leonard Beerman were there. It was horrible, some people left crying.

  2. Mike: As usual you are both very comprehensive and perceptive in your recap and critique of W&M. i have no argument with what you say, but wish to add a different perspective.
    Just as with Tony Judt, Jimmy Carter and now these guys, we israel-Jewish activists tend to put a great deal of weight on what we perceive as their impact in the American perception of Israel and the dialog around Israel's value to the US. We are also concerned with the perception of "dual loyalty" because of Jewish support of Israel.
    Yet, surveys over many years consistently indicate that the majority of Americans view Israel as a steadfast ally and are very positive on it as a Jewish state. Indeed, despite great power and money lavished in the same political process Arab-Americans and Arab states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia have not moved the sympathies of most Americans towards their viewpoint.
    So I think that when taken on balance the Bret Stephens and Michael Orens have far greater impact on the decision-makers and influential policy makers than W&M. Bottom line is in the U.S. marketplace of ideas and perception Israel has a very good place among Americans because of shared values and Israel as a reliable ally for security and contribution to US global power.

    Keep up your good work and I look forward to your future posts.

  3. A huge irony here is that Mearshimer-Walt would describe Lerner himself as part of "The Lobby." Learner has advocated for Israel amongst the far left and has strongly criticized groups like ANSWER.

    Recently, Lerner even blasted the groups Jewish Voice for Peace and End The Occupation for not endorsing Israel as a Jewish State.

    When you read the writings of Mearshimer-Walt, this makes Lerner a part of "The Lobby" despite Lerner's hatred of AIPAC.

  4. Lerner's Tikkun will "laud" M&W's book?! I didn't know this. For us in the Bay Area this is something to pay attention to. Lerner has a big mouth out here and many see him as the resident liberal Jew. I've never liked Lerner, but this takes it to new level. Seems there should be a campaign to go after Lerner and Tikkun for this vile betrayal of the Jewish people to make him either change his position or isolate him as an anti-semite.

  5. I have many, most or even more of the same fears you do about Israel somehow falling out of favor with most of the American people. What keeps me from being negative in the face of all these selfhaters and Jews-for-Jewish-Extermination is the very real belief that most of the American public know 'good' from 'evil' instinctively. A human being with a functioning moral compass can see the gulf between Israel and her neighbors.

  6. Emerald: "Seems there should be a campaign to go after Lerner and Tikkun for this vile betrayal of the Jewish people to make him either change his position or isolate him as an anti-semite."

    I don't agree with you, Emerald.

    'If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all." ~Noam Chomsky

    Criticizing Israel does not make someone an anti-Semite,and I can't imagine anyone legitimately accusing Rabbi Lerner of anti-Semitism. You can be an enabler of anti-Semitism, a fellow traveler of anti-Semites...you can give aid and comfort to anti-Semites, and not actually be an anti-Semite.

    Confused, Emerald?
    Try this:
    Natan Sharansky has a litmus test for distinguishing legitimate critism of Israel with anti-Semitism. He calls it the "3 D's"


    The first D is the test of demonization.

    Whether it came in the theological form of a collective accusation of deicide or in the literary depiction of Shakespeare's Shylock, Jews were demonized for centuries as the embodiment of evil. Therefore, today we must be wary of whether the Jewish state is being demonized by having its actions blown out of all sensible proportion.

    For example, the comparisons of Israelis to Nazis and of the Palestinian refugee camps to Auschwitz -- comparisons heard practically every day within the "enlightened" quarters of Europe -- can only be considered anti-Semitic.

    Those who draw such analogies either do not know anything about Nazi Germany or, more plausibly, are deliberately trying to paint modern-day Israel as the embodiment of evil.


    The second D is the test of double standards. For thousands of years a clear sign of anti-Semitism was treating Jews differently than other peoples, from the discriminatory laws many nations enacted against them to the tendency to judge their behavior by a different yardstick.

    Similarly, today we must ask whether criticism of Israel is being applied selectively. In other words, do similar policies by other governments engender the same criticism, or is there a double standard at work?

    It is anti-Semitism, for instance, when Israel is singled out by the United Nations for human rights abuses while tried and true abusers like China, Iran, Cuba, and Syria are ignored.

    Likewise, it is anti-Semitism when Israel's Magen David Adom, alone among the world's ambulance services, is denied admission to the International Red Cross.


    The third D is the test of deligitimization. In the past, anti-Semites tried to deny the legitimacy of the Jewish religion, the Jewish people, or both. Today, they are trying to deny the legitimacy of the Jewish state, presenting it, among other things, as the last vestige of colonialism.

  7. Last month, in an interview, Lawrence Wil- kerson, who was Colin Powell's chief of staff at the State Department, and who is an adversary of administration neo- conservatives, told me that Israel had been consistently warning the administration that Iran was the main threat, not Iraq. "The Israelis tried their best to persuade us that we were focused on the wrong enemy," he said, "and that they were very leery of destroying the balance of power in the Middle East. But once they understood that we were going to war, come hell or high water, they weren't going to get on the wrong side of the president of the United States." (Wilkerson, of course, makes no appearance in this book.)

  8. Thank you for your analytical report on the Mearsheimer and Walt phenomenon.

    It is astonishing that the universities to which the two professors belong, don't blush in shame, not because of the subject, but because of the sloppy research and faulty methodology which reflect badly on the academic standards at these prestigious schools.

    Of course there is no objection to academics expressing unpopular opinions, but it’s scary to realize that some university students are being taught by mentors who, in their public pronouncements and publications, exhibit shockingly low standards of scholarship and even ignorance. Even when they don’t write in the names of their universities, serious readers are entitled to expect a minimum standard of objectivity and intellectual honesty from tenured professors.

    The website of Students for Academic Freedom pinpoints one of the most egregious sins of a growing number of academics in its slogan: "You can’t get a good education if they’re telling you only half the story".

    Too many opinion-makers mislead by telling half the story; deliberately omitting all relevant information that may contradict their preconceived opinions. The much discussed articles, seminars and latest book by Professors Mearsheimer and Walt, attacking the Israel Lobby, are glaring examples of misleading by omission of vital relevant data.

    An article discussing this aspect may be viewed at http://maurice-ostroff.tripod.com/id148.html

  9. Lee Kaplan
    $500 per Israeli ciitzen, eh? And how much per Palestinian Arab since
    Oslo in 1993. I bet the figures are considerably higher and money sent for infratructure to make peace was used to buy guns.