Posted by: sean | March 31, 2006

The Israel Lobby

The London Review recently published an article on the Israel Lobby by John Mearsheimer, a University of Chicago political scientist, and Stephen Walt, a Harvard government professor. (An unabridged version is available here.)

There has been a lot of talk about the paper, most of it pretty inane, like this piece from the Wall Street Journal, which seems to try to give the anti-semitism defense a veneer of resectability by slightly nuancing it:

The authors are at pains to note that the Israel Lobby is by no means exclusively Jewish, and that not every American Jew is a part of it. Fair enough. But has there ever been an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that does not share its basic features? Dual loyalty, disloyalty, manipulation of the media, financial manipulation of the political system, duping the goyim (gentiles) and getting them to fight their wars, sponsoring and covering up acts of gratuitous cruelty against an innocent people — every canard ever alleged of the Jews is here made about the Israel Lobby and its cause. No wonder former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke was quick to endorse the article, calling it a “great step forward.”

I do not mean to suggest that Messrs. Mearsheimer and Walt are themselves anti-Semitic. But as outgoing Harvard President Larry Summers once noted, what may not be anti-Semitic in intent may yet be anti-Semitic in effect. By giving aid and comfort to people who have no trouble substituting the word “Jews” for “Israel Lobby,” the Mearsheimer-Walt article is anti-Semitic in effect.

Not all of the criticisms, however, stoop to such non-arguments. This piece by the University of Chicago’s Daniel Drezner focuses on what he sees as the empirical problems of the piece:

Walt and Mearsheimer should not be criticized as anti-Semites, because that’s patently false. They should be criticized for doing piss-poor, monocausal social science.

To repeat, the main empirical problems with the article are that:

A) They fail to demonstrate that Israel is a net strategic liability;
B) They ascribe U.S. foreign policy behavior almost exclusively to the activities of the “Israel Lobby”; and
C) They omit consderation of contradictory policies and countervailing foreign policy lobbies.

At the end of the day, however, the piece that I found to be the most interesting came from Ha’aretz:

It sometimes takes AIPAC omnipotence too much at face value and disregards key moments – such as the Bush senior/Baker loan guarantees episode and Clinton’s showdown with Netanyahu over the Wye River Agreement. The study largely ignores AIPAC run-ins with more dovish Israeli administrations, most notably when it undermined Yitzhak Rabin, and how excessive hawkishness is often out of step with mainstream American Jewish opinion, turning many, especially young American Jews, away from taking any interest in Israel.

Yet their case is a potent one: that identification of American with Israeli interests can be principally explained via the impact of the Lobby in Washington, and in limiting the parameters of public debate, rather than by virtue of Israel being a vital strategic asset or having a uniquely compelling moral case for support (beyond, as the authors point out, the right to exist, which is anyway not in jeopardy). The study is at its most devastating when it describes how the Lobby “stifles debate by intimidation” and at its most current when it details how America’s interests (and ultimately Israel’s, too) are ill-served by following the Lobby’s agenda.

I tend to agree that the Israel lobby is pushing a foreign policy agenda that is often detrimental to American national interest and usually gives the opposite appearance of being the fair broker that the US tries to sell itself as in the Middle East. And while idiots like David Duke might use articles like this to push their elementary racism, we know that there is a lobby and that it is effective, and that we should not let bigots like him dictate what is acceptable and what is off limits for reasonable discussion. Like Mearsheimer and Walt say in their paper:

In its basic operations, the Israel Lobby is no different from the farm lobby, steel or textile workers’ unions, or other ethnic lobbies. There is nothing improper about American Jews and their Christian allies attempting to sway US policy: the Lobby’s activities are not a conspiracy of the sort depicted in tracts like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. For the most part, the individuals and groups that comprise it are only doing what other special interest groups do, but doing it very much better. By contrast, pro-Arab interest groups, in so far as they exist at all, are weak, which makes the Israel Lobby?s task even easier.

Another fair account of the paper appears in an Op-Ed aricle by Nicholas Goldberg in the LA Times:

The idea of a powerful “Jewish lobby” that has its gnarled fingers in the machinery of the government is an old and repugnant canard. Along with the Jews who supposedly own the media and those who reputedly control the banks, the cabal of sinister, third-column Hebrews who whisper into the ears of our leaders is a classic in the traditional checklist of anti-Semitic fulminations.

So it’s no surprise that in the modern era, even to broach the idea of a “Jewish lobby” is unacceptable. It’s just not done in polite society — even in situations in which there’s some truth to it. Few would deny, after all, that there are people who lobby for various Jewish issues, including, of course, Israel (just as there are a lot of Jews working in Hollywood and just as Jews do own the New York Times). But even though we know these things, we generally don’t talk about them.

…So what are we to make of [the article]? Is it anti-Semitism or honesty? Propaganda cloaked in academic respectability — or a courageous willingness to identify the elephant in the room?

…It seems silly to deny that a powerful lobby on behalf of Israel exists. The real question is how pernicious it is. Does it, in fact, persuade us to act counter to our national interest — or is it a positive thing, as publisher Mortimer Zuckerman suggests?

His answer to this question is to read the article yourself. I couldn’t agree more.

UPDATE: The London Review speaks out against charges of anti-semitism.

Also, Noam Chomsky weighs in.



  1. Of course such a lobby exists and why shouldn’t it? The reaction this piece is getting is the best proof of its existence…

    Signed: another “anti-Semite”.

  2. Hi!

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    I prefer to do not leave any comment, because it is not your new post.
    Please look my blog over: My Old Home

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