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Milton Viorst on ‘The Israel Lobby’
Posted on Oct 4, 2007
About 30 or so years ago, when I first began to write of my concern that Israel was embarked on a course that would lead only to recurring wars, or perhaps worse, I received a letter from Abraham H. Foxman, then as now the voice of the Anti-Defamation League, admonishing me as a Jew not to wash our people’s dirty linen in public. I still have it in my files. His point, of course, was not whether the washing should be public or private; he did not offer an alternative laundry. His objective was—and remains—to squelch anyone who is critical of Israel’s policies.
In the ensuing years, Foxman and a legion of like-minded leaders, most but not all of them Jewish, have been remarkably successful in suppressing an open and frank debate on Israel’s course. In view of Israel’s impact on America’s place in the world, it is astonishing how little discussion its role has generated. As a practical matter, the subject has been taboo. John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, professors of political science at the University of Chicago and Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, respectively, have challenged this taboo in their new book, “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.” Foxman, in an effort to discredit them, has written a rejoinder in his book “The Deadliest Lies: The Jewish Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control.”
The Israel Lobby
By John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 496 pages
The Deadliest Lies
By Abraham H. Foxman
Palgrave Macmillanm, 256 pages
The controversy over Mearsheimer and Walt’s views has been going on since March of last year, when they first presented their argument in the London Review of Books. In their essay, they contended that support of the magnitude that the United States gives Israel might have been justified during the Cold War but is not defensible, “on either strategic or moral grounds,” under the conditions that currently prevail in the Middle East. America’s unconditional backing, they argued, is harmful to its own interests and possibly even to Israel’s, and it is made possible only by the influence of the Israel lobby over U.S. foreign policy. The article touched a sensitive chord among many of Israel’s defenders, generating a furor. Now Mearsheimer and Walt have written a book which, while more comprehensive at nearly 500 pages, recapitulates the original themes. Foxman acknowledges basing his book-length reply on the article, so impatient was he to proclaim its authors guilty of “distortions, omissions and errors.”
The late social critic Irving Howe, deeply committed to Israel himself, used to argue that Jewish leaders like Foxman depend for their status on ceaselessly trumpeting the dangers faced by the Jewish people, and particularly by Israel, from a hostile world. These leaders, Howe insisted, exploit the scars which inquisitions, pogroms and the Holocaust have left on the collective Jewish psyche, scars which distort Jewish political judgment. Foxman is no doubt sincere in agonizing over the dangers that Jews have historically faced. But Howe argued that these dangers had become a vested interest for the leaders of Jewish organizations, making an open and honest debate all but impossible in American Jewish circles and in America’s political culture generally.
Foxman does not quite accuse Mearsheimer and Walt—though other disapproving critics do—of being anti-Semitic. But he uses intimidating language nonetheless, pointing to a “level of quiet, subtle bigotry—an attitude that may not run to the actual hatred of Jews but that assumes that Jews are somehow different, less respectable, less honorable, more treacherous, more devious than other people. ... [I]t’s only natural that people who exhibit this kind of bias against Jews should look a little askance at the special relationship that exists between American Jews and the nation of Israel.”
One can admit the legitimacy of Foxman’s warnings on anti-Semitism and still ask for the evidence of “subtle bigotry” in the Mearsheimer-Walt text. I found none, unless the reader accepts the premise that anti-Semitism is present in any scrutiny of relations between the U.S. government and American Jews, or the Israel lobby. Foxman says the authors’ objective is to make Israel into a “pariah” state, though nothing that they write reveals such a goal. On the contrary, Mearsheimer and Walt recognize lobbies—all lobbies—as a legitimate part of the American political system, existing to shape or shift policy in the interest of the various causes they serve. Foxman, backed by quotes from such dubious authorities as Dennis Ross, an ex-U.S. ambassador and a vigorous defender of official Israeli views, seeks to attribute something sinister to their motives.
Without question, Mearsheimer and Walt have written less a work of political science than a brief for their position. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as they maintain the standards of scholarship incumbent on their craft, which exhaustive footnotes of more than a hundred pages suggest strongly that they do. Some of their critics, ill at ease with the charge of anti-Semitism or “subtle bigotry,” have accused them of being “unbalanced,” in omitting the sins of “the other side.” By their nature, briefs are not balanced, but in this case the accusation seems doubly contrived. Assuming that the Palestinians or radical Muslims are “the other side,” the critics can scarcely claim that the literature is not already overflowing with negative evaluations, readily at hand in any library or bookstore. The objective of Mearsheimer and Walt is to break new scholarly ground, which is what academics are supposed to do. Their findings will come as no surprise to those familiar with American political institutions, but, judging by the reverberations of the Foxman line, they have ignited panic by daring to put so much of the available material on the public record.
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