The Israel Lobby's mistake.

Scrutinizing culture.
Sept. 19 2007 7:00 PM

The Israel Lobby and the Second Holocaust Debate

An emblematic error in a controversial book.

(Continued from Page 2)

Please. It's offensive to impute this view to me and a complete misrepresentation of what I wrote.

Even though they will be correcting it in future printings, most readers will see only the first edition, featuring this utterly distorted version of my work. I don't believe it, nothing close to it, and I didn't write it. And their misleading quotation makes me look fearful, overemotional, and irrational. Jewish stereotypes, anyone?

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In my original essay, I didn't imply a second Holocaust was going to happen the day after tomorrow, but that ignoring the warning signs, ignoring the precedent set by the way the world ignored the warning signs of Hitler's Holocaust (when not actively facilitating it) made it more likely to happen in the future.

Having set up a straw man, Mearsheimer and Walt proceed to use Lucky Leon to beat it to death by seizing on his claim that my (distorted) comment was an instance—or cause—of "ethnic panic" among Jews. (I found the use of ethnic condescending in its implicit contrast of allegedly unsophisticated Jews by contrast with elite Washington cosmopolitans.)

And—here's the crux—it does not seem to occur to Mearsheimer and Walt that American Jews might be fearful not for themselves, but for their imperiled brethren in Israel. It apparently requires too much of a leap for them to make that connection. And that is what the moral imagination is about: the ability to make connections to the souls of other people, to imagine what it might be like for a people who had lost 6 million to be faced with daily threats to their existence—the threat of a second Holocaust—in the place where they sought refuge. Otherwise, without a moral imagination, one construes the Israel lobby as merely about power and self-aggrandizement.

It seems to me there are many Jews and Israelis who have the moral imagination to be distressed by the plight of the Palestinians. However, Mearsheimer and Walt neglect the fact that Israeli Jews and American supporters of Israel might be motivated by historical memory. By the way the world stood by and allowed the slaughter of 6 million Jews by Hitler. And by the way the current climate of demonizing Israel, and delegitimizing it by means of a double standard, sets the stage for the world to stand by once again, with a "well they sort of deserved it" shrug, when a second Holocaust looms.

The inability to understand this, what's been called the "existential threat" Israelis face, makes it seem as if Jews—as the stereotype has it—take malicious delight in imposing onerous restrictions on Palestinians. Restrictions designed to protect themselves against those who shelter and abet the murderers of women and children in marketplaces. This is the double standard at work: Jews are somehow more wicked in their desire—and the means they chose—to survive when it forces them to make unwelcome choices.

It would seem to me that those who are untroubled by the prospect of a second Holocaust, to the point of ridiculing concern about it and demonizing the actions taken to prevent it (and this includes quite a few Jews), are engaging in a morally defective form of denial. To view the words of the Israel lobby as a more pernicious force in the world than the deeds of the exterminationists who target Israel is, I was going to say, beyond belief. But alas, it's not, because it's happened before.

As Omer Bartov, the widely respected historian, wrote in the New Republic (yes, the New Republic) in 2004, speaking of contemporary Jew-haters such as those who wrote the exterminationist language in the Hamas charter: "These are people who mean what they say." And "there are precedents for this."

Precedents: The world's willingness to permit one Holocaust gives cause for concern that it will stand by, if not enable, another.

On the cover of the New Republic—almost as if deliberately counterposing it to Wieseltier's "Hitler Is Dead" piece—the magazine billed Bartov's article: "Hitler is dead, Hitlerism lives on."

Exactly my point in my "second Holocaust" piece. It demonstrates how unbalanced things have become that one has to make an argument in favor of opposing Hitlerism, its goals and potential consequences (i.e., a second Holocaust). That one has to make the point that opposing Hitlerism is not the parochial concern of Jews alone or their allegedly insidious lobby, that opposing Hitlerism may even be more important, in fact, than opposing the Israel lobby, and should be the concern of all moral human beings. Just as preventing Darfur from becoming another Rwanda should be. What's at stake is not just a failure of the moral imagination but of historical memory.

But I have a recommendation for Mearsheimer and Walt—and Wieseltier—indeed for all those who would like another view of the issues they raise: I'd recommend they read carefully Harvard professor Ruth Wisse's recently published Jews and Power, which demonstrates the kind of insights that a brilliant, historically conscious scholar can bring to this question. Wisse's book doesn't treat the idea of Jews having power as something necessarily threatening. She suggests that Jews with power are nothing to panic about and can offer something unique and beneficial to both Jews and the world.