The Israel Lobby Revisited

(clockwise from top left: Mearsheimer, Walt, Cole, Fund and Hitchens)


For those of you following the Mearsheimer-Walt love fest on the blogosphere, I'd like to share a minor footnote to this intoxicating episode. A few weeks ago I wrote an op-ed on the now infamous  "Israel Lobby" report for a course I'm taking at the CUNY Graduate Center. In it I lashed out at the writers Stephen Walt of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago for stringing together empirically untenable claims on the pro-Israel lobby in America.

Instead of narrowing the scope of their argument to the influence of the Israel lobby in U.S. politics and backing up claims with strong statistical analysis, the writers I believe overshot. They claimed that the pro-Israel lobby was a primary reason for why the US government went to war with Iraq. I disagreed. In fact, I ended my op-ed by insinuating, in part, that the two may have acted callously in charging a loose band of prominent Jews with subverting U.S. national interests.

Thinking it over I can make 3 statements with strong conviction: (1) The discourse on US aid to Israel must be addressed and the Israel Lobby hopefully will work as a primer in this respect, (2) the writers' arguments remain unconvincing, especially on the issue of the reasons the U.S. invaded Iraq (the influence of the petroleum and lucrative arms lobby were mostly overlooked leaving a disproportionate impression), and (3) I don't believe that the writers are anti-Semitic.

None of their previous books or academic articles suggests so. And from what I hear, Mearsheimer has sharply changed his position on US-Israel relations under the influence of post-Zionist Israeli writers like Benny Morris and Tom Segev. Segev, for one, has subtly diagnosed Israeli history in books like  One Palestine Complete and The Seventh Million.

Walt and Mearsheimer in their Response Letter to The London Review of Books address both their critics and the substance of the report. On the first issue, I think they sufficiently prove that they harbor no ill will towards the Jewish community; on the second, they still don't fully convince me of their argument. For a copy of the Israel Lobby in the London Review of Books, click on this link.

Here they answer the charge of anti-Semitism:

One of the most prominent charges against us is that we see the lobby as a well-organised Jewish conspiracy.  Jeffrey Herf and Andrei Markovits, for example, begin by noting that ‘accusations of powerful Jews behind the scenes are part of the most dangerous traditions of modern anti-semitism’. It is a tradition we deplore and that we explicitly rejected in our article. Instead, we described the lobby as a loose coalition of individuals and organisations without a central headquarters. It includes gentiles as well as Jews, and many Jewish-Americans do not endorse its positions on some or all issues. Most important, the Israel lobby is not a secret, clandestine cabal; on the contrary, it is openly engaged in interest-group politics and there is nothing conspiratorial or illicit about its behaviour. 

As an addendum, you might have noticed another prominent professor, Juan Cole, being raked through the sludge in recent days. I won't get into the spat he's had with both John Fund of the Wall Street Journal and Chris Hitchens of Slate, but I would like to share a short email exchange I had on 4/30 with Cole of Informed Comment about the Walt-Mearsheimer Report. Since he's a supporter of the defamed dynamic duo, I thought it would be interesting to get an answer from the source.

Here's our exchange.

Dear Juan,

John Mearsheimer’s views have shifted over the course of a little more than a year. In an interview with the website American Amnesia in December 2004 he said he considered Bush’s reasons for going to war against Iraq to be based on “hard nosed realist arguments.” He alluded to the threat from WMD and terrorism, but didn’t once mention the pro-Israel lobby. Yet fifteen months later it seems he's found the light. “The overall thrust of US policy in the region,” he and Walt declare triumphantly in the Harvard report, “is due almost entirely to US domestic politics, and especially to the activities of the ‘Israel Lobby’”.

As much as I admire Mearsheimer as a theoretician, I think that the "Israel Lobby" was a shoddy piece of monocausal research. Playing connect the dots with Jewish names and dismissing the oil component in one sentence is unfathomable from a purely empirical standpoint. It is true that Mearsheimer/Walt hardly deserve the vituperative response they've received in the past month from the academic community and I hardly think, after reading the report through, that they're anti-semitic.

The debate over US policy towards Israel is one things. An open forum to discuss aid packages generally, and Israel's specifically, is a good idea. But blaming the Iraq War in good measure on the pro-Israel lobby while neglecting to investigate either the oil angle (Cheney's Energy Task Force) or Chalmers Johnson's criticism of the lucrative military industrial business (700+ permanent military bases overseas) is poorly conducted research.

Is there a middle ground for criticism in this country that disagrees but refuses to invoke ad hominem?

Hope So.

Jason Kropsky

The City University of New York

Juan Cole responds: 

 Hi, Jason.   Thank you for your message.

I had discussions with Mearsheimer and Walt before the war.  They were very much against it, and I think you have misinterpreted the interview you heard.  John's views on this matter have remained pretty consistent.

I think the question is really a matter of the weight one gives to the Israel lobby among motivations for the Iraq War.  As I understand him, John takes W.'s and Cheney's fall 2000 fulminations against foreign adventurism at face value, and thinks that the Neocons turned them around, especially after 9/11– and that they did so most decisively.  As a historian, I guess I would say that this is plausible but that we would need more documentary evidence to be sure. 

But what I don't understand is why this argument can't be had among academics and policy makers without charging that the authors are racist bigots for saying what they said.  That's all I'm protesting.   Let's debate by giving evidence and counter-reasoning. 

It is shameful that decent men like these two were dragged through the sludge in the Washington Post and elsewhere.  I really think that only a few years ago they could have sued and won.

cheers  Juan

For more information on the fight between Hitchens-Cole and Cole-Fund, check these blogs out: The New York Observer, American Thinker, BTC News, Front Page Mag, TruthDig, Human Events Online, The Daily Dish, and Campus Watch.


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