Posted by: sean | April 19, 2006

A lobby, not a conspiracy

Tony Judt weighs in on the Israel lobby in today’s Times. He reminds us that criticizing Israel is not synonymous with being an anti-semite and that there is a debate to be had on the topic that Americans seem afraid of.

The damage that is done by America’s fear of anti-Semitism when discussing Israel is threefold. It is bad for Jews: anti-Semitism is real enough (I know something about it, growing up Jewish in 1950’s Britain), but for just that reason it should not be confused with political criticisms of Israel or its American supporters. It is bad for Israel: by guaranteeing it unconditional support, Americans encourage Israel to act heedless of consequences. The Israeli journalist Tom Segev described the Mearsheimer-Walt essay as “arrogant” but also acknowledged ruefully: “They are right. Had the United States saved Israel from itself, life today would be better …the Israel Lobby in the United States harms Israel’s true interests.”

BUT above all, self-censorship is bad for the United States itself. Americans are denying themselves participation in a fast-moving international conversation. Daniel Levy (a former Israeli peace negotiator) wrote in Haaretz that the Mearsheimer-Walt essay should be a wake-up call, a reminder of the damage the Israel lobby is doing to both nations. But I would go further. I think this essay, by two “realist” political scientists with no interest whatsoever in the Palestinians, is a straw in the wind.

…the terms of strategic debate are shifting. East Asia grows daily in importance. Meanwhile our clumsy failure to re-cast the Middle East ? and its enduring implications for our standing there ? has come into sharp focus. American influence in that part of the world now rests almost exclusively on our power to make war: which means in the end that it is no influence at all. Above all, perhaps, the Holocaust is passing beyond living memory. In the eyes of a watching world, the fact that an Israeli soldier’s great-grandmother died in Treblinka will not excuse his own misbehavior.

Thus it will not be self-evident to future generations of Americans why the imperial might and international reputation of the United States are so closely aligned with one small, controversial Mediterranean client state. It is already not at all self-evident to Europeans, Latin Americans, Africans or Asians. Why, they ask, has America chosen to lose touch with the rest of the international community on this issue? Americans may not like the implications of this question. But it is pressing. It bears directly on our international standing and influence; and it has nothing to do with anti-Semitism. We cannot ignore it.

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