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.

The Israel Lobby.

Forgive me if I forgo the argument over whether The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, the controversial new polemic from John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, should be called anti-Semitic.

Set aside David Duke's enthusiastic endorsement of their thesis as vindication for his ravings. Set aside the fact that the book, in its account of the insidious influence of supporters of Israel, calls to mind the fantastical, string-pulling Jewish conspiracy for world domination one finds in that century-old fraud The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

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And set aside Eliot A. Cohen's powerfully argued case for the use of the word anti-Semitic with regard to Mearsheimer and Walt's argument. (The piece, a Washington Post op-ed published in 2006, was titled, unequivocally, "Yes, It Is Anti-Semitic.")

As the editor of an anthology of essays on the subject ( Those Who Forget the Past: The Question of Anti-Semitism), I've devoted considerable thought to this issue, and in this case I believe the debate about the use of the word anti-Semitism has become a distraction, a red herring. One that devolves into semantics rather than substance. And so, in this instance, I'm anti-semantic.

To me, the real problem is not whether The Israel Lobby pleases this Grand Kleagle or that, or the one-sidedness of its depiction of Israel and its supporters, so much as the profound failure of the moral imagination that the book reflects. A failure to connect with the historical experience of Jews that motivates their support of Israel. A failure to empathize with the real danger the 6 million Jews of Israel face: the threat of a second Holocaust.

It is in this light that I'd like to take up what I regard as an emblematic error in the book that involves its allusion to me and my views on the second Holocaust question, an error that I believe is a window into that failure of the moral imagination.

In fairness, I should say that when I called the error to the attention of the publishers (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and editors of the book, they brought it to the attention of the authors, who responded by examining the evidence, swiftly acknowledging my "legitimate concerns," and agreeing to correct the error in all future printings of the book.

While it doesn't undo the damage of their initial inattentiveness, preserved in the first printing, and it doesn't obviate the many disagreements I still have with the authors, I must say that correcting the error does reflect an ethos of responsibility in scholars and publishers that is all too rare, I've found.

Before getting deeper into my personal perspective on the controversy, let me summarize, for those unfamiliar with it, the thrust of The Israel Lobby.

Mearsheimer and Walt, professors at the University of Chicago and Harvard, respectively, first laid out their thesis in a 2006 essay in the London Review of Books: They accused the "Israel lobby" of having a "stranglehold" on the U.S. Congress, much to the detriment of our foreign policy.

In their just-published book, as Ira Stoll points out in the New York Sun, Mearsheimer and Walt have dropped the word stranglehold. (One wonders why. Is it because they felt it was inaccurate or because it suggested, too obviously, a sinister Protocols of Zion-like mentality?)

But if they've dropped the vampiric word, they haven't dropped the vampiric implication. The new book suggests that the lobby for the Jewish state—unlike the lobby for, say, ethanol—is not just another successful interest group but somehow illegitimate because of its success, and that its influence on American policy has become so powerful and malign that no one dares challenge it (except, well, them, and a good number of Jews).

Despite their many caveats, one comes away from the book feeling that the authors—who subscribe to the "realist" school of foreign policy, which subordinates moral questions in international affairs to considerations of power—believe that the world rightfully dislikes the Israeli regime. They describe Israel as brutally oppressive (unlike, say, our heavily subsidized Arab allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia) and argue that Israel's justified unpopularity makes our support of it—our support of the closest thing to a liberal democracy in the Middle East—a liability our strategic interests can no longer afford.

Why would Americans be so foolish as to act against their own interests? In Mearsheimer and Walt's account, it is the ruthless power of the American Israel lobby—spearheaded by the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee—that has clouded our eyes, shut down debate, and caused us to align ourselves with this unpopular nation.

Eliot A. Cohen characterized the double standard of the Mearsheimer and Walt thesis in this fashion:

"The authors dismiss or ignore past Arab threats to exterminate Israel, as well as the sewer of anti-Semitic literature that pollutes public discourse in the Arab world today. The most recent calls by Iran's fanatical—and nuclear weapons-hungry—president for Israel to be "wiped off the map" they brush aside as insignificant. There is nothing here about the millions of dollars that Saudi Arabia has poured into lobbying and academic institutions. … West Bank settlements get attention; terrorist butchery of civilians on buses or in shopping malls does not. To dispute their view of Israel is not to differ about policy but to act as a foreign agent."