Pssst: The power of the Israel lobby in the US

Late in March 2006 the London Review of Books published a 12,700-word article entitled ‘The Israel Lobby’ by two distinguished American academics: John Mearsheimer, Wendell Harrison Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt, Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.  The article demonstrates, with a wealth of specific detail, the extraordinary power of the pro-Israel lobby in the United States to influence both public opinion and government policy, noting that the lobby is able to stifle much criticism of Israel and of US policies over-tilted towards Israel by accusing critics of anti-semitism.  The lobby draws its support and resources from a much wider range of feeds than just American Jews (many of whom indeed disapprove of it and dissociate themselves from it), including also many Christian fundamentalists and Zionists, senior and highly placed neo-conservatives in and around President George W Bush’s circle, and influential Israeli party and government leaders, journalists and academics.  The article describes, with chapter and verse, the lobby’s role in pushing for the attack on Iraq and in raising the temperature over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and argues that the extraordinary and unique power and influence of the lobby serve the interests of neither the United States nor Israel, not least because it disables Washington’s capacity for acting as an even-handed mediator and peace-maker between Israel and Palestine.  The authors also point to the negative effects of many lobby-inspired policies on the standing of the US in the Arab and Muslim worlds and on America’s freedom of manoeuvre in the effort to dig up the roots of international terrorism.

Perhaps the most striking and saddening thing about this manifestly important contribution to the debate on a major area of international affairs is that it has never been published in any organ of the American media.  It is still available in its original form as an 80-page academic paper and on the website of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, but not in the pages of any American newspaper or periodical.  It fell to the UK’s London Review of Books to publish a revised and edited version of it.  As the professors themselves wryly write in the article itself, "It is hard to imagine any mainstream media outlet in the United States publishing a piece like this one."  To such a condition of virtual censorship and timidity has the political debate been reduced in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

But the two professors have not been protected by having published their provocations overseas from a storm of abuse.  The Chicago Tribune has published a useful summary of the controversy following the publication of the article in the LRB, including —

When Walt recently stepped down as dean of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, some speculated he was forced out because the university was taking heat for their essay, "The Israel Lobby."   Harvard published a news release saying the change long had been in the works.   Both Harvard and the University of Chicago have argued universities must be a forum for controversial ideas like those discussed in the essay.

As former US Ambassador Edward Peck wrote in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette,

The expected tsunami of rabid responses condemned the report, vilified its authors, and denied there is such a lobby—validating both the lobby’s existence and aggressive, pervasive presence and obliging Harvard to remove its name. 

Mearsheimer and Walt have been vigorously attacked in the American media and by US academics: by, among others, the Jewish Press, the New York Daily News (‘“There Is No Israel ‘Lobby’”'[!]), written, astonishingly, by David Gergen, professor of public service at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and director of its Center for Public Leadership, former White House adviser to Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton; the ‘Weekly Standard’  ("no point in feeding these gentlemen’s paranoia"), ‘IsraPundit’ (‘Eliot Cohen on the Post’s op-ed page has an excellent comeback “Yes. It’s antisemitic”’), the Washington Post,  the New Republic ("two political scientists, [Mearsheimer and Walt], have recently sallied forth with a paper that puts The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to shame"),  and many more. It’s sad to have to record that Melanie Phillips in her online diary and David Clark in the Guardian’s new Comment Is Free rolling blog have joined this melancholy chorus.  Such attacks go far to confirm the authors’ claim that would-be critics of Israeli influence on US middle east policies are constantly intimidated into silence, or at best into pulling their punches, by the knowledge that any breath of criticism will be denounced as evidence of anti-semitism. 

The article should be required reading by the doughty warriors of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, ever ready to leap to the defence of Israel, right or wrong, with the wholly unjustified implication that they speak for all British Jews.  I’m one of them[1], and they rarely seem to speak for me.  So far as I can tell, the Board has so far maintained a dignified silence on the subject of the LRB article.  Long may it continue.

[1] On my father’s side only, so strictly speaking I’m not, although I’m glad that I didn’t have to rely on Heinrich Himmler and his merry men to recognise the distinction.