Ferment Over The 'Israel Lobby'

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This column was written by Phillip Weiss.
Intellectuals can only dream of having the impact that John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have had this spring. Within hours of their publishing a critique of the Israel lobby in The London Review of Books for March 23, the article was zinging around the world, soon to show up on the front pages of newspapers and stir heated discussion on cable-TV shows. Virtually overnight, two balding professors in their 50s had become public intellectuals, ducking hundreds of e-mails, phone messages and challenges to debate.

Titled "The Israel Lobby," the piece argued that a wide-ranging coalition that includes neoconservatives, Christian Zionists, leading journalists and of course the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, exerts a "stranglehold" on Middle East policy and public debate on the issue. While supporting the moral cause for the existence of Israel, the authors said there was neither a strategic nor a moral interest in America's siding so strongly with post-occupation Israel. Many Americans thought the Iraq War was about oil, but "the war was motivated in good part by a desire to make Israel more secure."

The shock waves from the article continue to resonate. The initial response was outrage from Israel supporters, some likening the authors to neo-Nazis. The Anti-Defamation League called the paper "a classical conspiratorial anti-Semitic analysis invoking the canards of Jewish power and Jewish control." University of Chicago Professor Daniel Drezner called it "piss-poor, monocausal social science." Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz said the men had "destroyed their professional reputations." Even left-leaning critics dismissed the piece as inflammatory and wrong. As time passed (and the Ku Klux Klan remained dormant), a more rational debate began. The New York Times, having first downplayed the article, printed a long op-ed by historian Tony Judt saying that out of fear, the mainstream media were failing to face important ideas the article had put forward. And Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell's former chief of staff, praised it at the Middle East Institute for conveying "blinding flashes of the obvious," ideas "that were whispered in corners rather than said out loud at cocktail parties where someone else could hear you."

While criticisms of the lobby have circulated widely for years and been published at the periphery, the Mearsheimer-Walt paper stands out because it was so frontal and pointed, and because it was published online by Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, where Walt is a professor and outgoing academic dean. "It was inevitably going to take someone from Harvard [to get this discussed]," says Phyllis Bennis, a writer on Middle East issues at the Institute for Policy Studies.

What's more, the article appeared when public pessimism over the Iraq War was reaching new highs. "The paper was important as a political intervention because the authors are squarely in the mainstream of academic life," says Norman Finkelstein, a professor of political science at DePaul University dedicated to bringing the issue of Palestinian suffering under the occupation to Americans' attention. "The reason they're getting a hearing now is because of the Iraq debacle." Bennis and Finkelstein, both left-wing critics of Israel, have criticisms of the paper's findings. Partly this reflects the paper's origins: Though it was printed in a left-leaning English journal, it was written by theorists of a school associated with the center/right: realism, which holds that the world is a dangerous neighborhood, that good intentions don't mean very much and that the key to order is a balance of power among armed states. For realists, issues like human rights and how states treat minorities are so much idealistic fluff.

Given the paper's parentage, the ferment over it raises political questions. How did these ideas get to center stage? And what do they suggest about the character of the antiwar intelligentsia?

Let's begin with the personalities. The more forceful member of the duo (and the one who would talk to me), Mearsheimer, 58, is by nature an outsider. Though he spent ten years of his youth in the military, graduating from West Point, he wasn't much for tents and guns even as he latched on to David Halberstam's book The Best and the Brightest because it explained a horrible war. Out of pure intellectual curiosity Mearsheimer, who had become an officer in the Air Force, enrolled in graduate school classes at the University of Southern California. Today he is a realist powerhouse at the University of Chicago, publishing such titles as "Conventional Deterrence." Like Mearsheimer, Walt, 50, grew up in privilege, but he is a courtly and soft-spoken achiever. Stanford, Berkeley and Princeton figured in his progress to Harvard. "I think Steve enjoyed moving into institutional roles," says one academic. "Steve likes a good argument, but unlike John he can be polite. John enjoys the image of the bomb thrower."

Mearsheimer was hawkish about Israel until the 1990s, when he began to read Israel's "New Historians," a group of Israeli scholars and journalists (among them Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim and Tom Segev) who showed that Israel's founders had been at times ruthless toward Palestinians. Mearsheimer's former student Michael Desch, a professor at Texas A&M, recalls the epiphany: "For a lot of us, who didn't know a lot about the Israel/Palestine conflict beyond the conventional wisdom and Leon Uris's "Exodus," we saw a cold war ally; and the moral issue and the common democracy reinforced a strong pro-Israel bent." Then Desch rode to a conference with two left-wing Jewish academics familiar with the New Historians. "My initial reaction was the same as John's: This is crazy. [They argued that] the Israelis weren't the victims of the '48 war to destroy the country. Ben-Gurion had real doubts about partition. Jordan and Israel talked about dividing up the West Bank together. All those things were heretical. They seemed to be coming from way, way out in left field. Then we started reading [them], and it completely changed the way we looked at these things." Mearsheimer says he had been blinded by Uris's novel. "The New Historians' work was a great revelation to me. Not only do they provide an abundance of evidence to back up their stories about how Israel was really created, but their stories make perfect sense. There is no way that waves of European Jews moving into a land filled with Palestinians are going to create a Jewish state without breaking a lot of Palestinian heads.... It's just not possible."

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