Walt and Mearsheimer critics take aim

Whether a supporter or a detractor, one should read The Israel Lobby with a critical mind. Walt and Mearsheimer should be congratulated for opening up a critical conversation about the Israel Lobby and US policy in the region, a conversation that is long overdue. But the line of critics is long–ranging from outright condemnation to friendly criticism.

At Jewish Voice for Peace, while agreeing with many of W/M’s arguments about the fact of poor US policy in the region and the intimidation of critics, we reject their claim about an Israel Lobby so powerful that it has successfully forced the US to go against its own interests. In fact, far from being an anomaly that can only be blamed on a strong lobby, we believe U.S. policy in the Middle East, including its support of Israel, is entirely consistent with its policies everywhere else in the world, including Haiti, Central America, Colombia, Cuba and, historically, Southeast Asia.

That said, it is deeply telling that many people believe in the overwhelming power of the Lobby. I once heard from someone who asked their Congressman if they thought that Congress votes against US interests when it comes to Israel, and the answer was ” yes, I do.”

Surely the frequent practice of attacking critics of US-Israeli policy simply adds to the disturbing belief that the Lobby, which includes Christians, the arms industry and others but gets its moral cover largely from Jews, is overwhelmingly powerful. (It is powerful, but its powers are greatly exaggerated. The increased frequency of attacks on critics, for example, is a sign of panic, not omnipotence.)
Other critics, however, take issue with different claims made in the book.

In “The big lie about the ‘Great Silencer‘, right-wing columnist Jeff Jacoby vehemently disagrees about claims about silencing of debate and blames the complaints on something more sinister:

The media has neither cold-shouldered them nor deployed the “Great Silencer” to defame them. “Mearsheimer and Walt are not anti-Semites or racists,” David Remnick declared flatly in The New Yorker. “They are serious scholars and there is no reason to doubt their sincerity.” Newsday’s Scott McLemee opened his review by noting that “The Israel Lobby” has something important in common with Israel itself: “It is necessary to affirm its right to exist.” Tim Ruttin, reviewing the book for the L.A. Times, recoiled from its “underlying malice” and pronounced its argument “sinister” – but made no suggestion that the authors are bigots.

This does not mean that no one has read the Mearsheimer/Walt philippic and concluded that it is, in fact, anti-Jewish bigotry dressed up as academic analysis. Gabriel Schoenfeld, writing in Commentary, pronounced the original paper a “meretricious attempt to put a scholarly cap and gown on every hoary calumny ever devised about Jewish influence,” and he wasn’t the only one to think so. His argument can be debated on its own merits.

Jacoby goes on to say:

What is not debatable is that Mearsheimer and Walt have not been silenced in any way. Their views have been widely discussed. A leading publisher invited them to extend those views in a book. Their claim that anyone critical of Israel or its supporters is ruthlessly muzzled is simply a lie. From Jimmy Carter to Noam Chomsky, from the media to academia, from the corridors of the UN to the “realists” of the State Department, Israel’s detractors are loud and legion.

So why the Big Lie about the “Great Silencer?” Perhaps to disguise the fact that hostility for Israel is simply not a flavor most Americans like. Yes, the Mearsheimer/Walt message can sell books and garner lecture bookings. But in the marketplace of ideas, it is weak and unconvincing. If America’s policies are pro-Israel, it is because America’s people are pro-Israel – and they are pro-Israel not because of the machinations of a Zionist lobby, but because they see in Israel a liberal democracy and a loyal ally.

In The Washington Post, evangelical and former Bush speechwriter Michael “axis of evil” Gerson says in Seeds of Anti-Semitism:

First, they have argued that the “Israeli government and pro-Israel groups” have shaped President Bush‘s “grand scheme for reordering the Middle East.”

In fact, Israeli officials have been consistently skeptical about the main policy innovation of the Bush era: the democracy agenda. One senior Bush administration official recently told me, “The Israelis are generally convinced that Arab cultures are particularly resistant to democracy; that democracy is likely to lead to victories by the Muslim Brotherhood.”

A friend recalls visiting a prominent Israeli general in 2003 and making the case for democracy promotion. “What is the alternative?” the American asked. “Propping up the next generation of Mubaraks, Assads and the House of Saud for the next 25 years?” The general responded: “Why not?”

President Bush’s emphasis on democracy has been driven not by outside pressure but by a strategic insight. He is convinced that the status quo of tyranny, stagnation and extremism in the Middle East is not sustainable — that the rage and ideologies it produces will cause increasing carnage in the world. The eventual solution to this problem, in his view, is the proliferation of hopeful, representative societies in the Middle East.

Gerson concludes quite ominously:

Walt and Mearsheimer are careful to say they are not anti-Semitic or conspiracy-minded. But their main inference — that Israel, the Israel lobby and Jewish neoconservatives called the shots for Bush, Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Stephen Hadley, Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld — is not only rubbish, it is dangerous rubbish. As “mainstream” scholars, Walt and Mearsheimer cannot avoid the historical pedigree of this kind of charge. Every generation has seen accusations that Jews have dual loyalties, promote war and secretly control political structures.

These academics may not follow their claims all the way to anti-Semitism. But this is the way it begins. This is the way it always begins.

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