David Rothkopf

Mearsheimer picks a winner: Finally, a revealing book jacket blurb

Mearsheimer picks a winner: Finally, a revealing book jacket blurb

This should have been a good week for John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. Few events have better illustrated their well-known assertions about the coordinated power of an Israel lobby in the United States than the effective pressure exerted on President Barack Obama that resulted in his opposition to Palestine’s statehood bid in the United Nations.

Unfortunately, as in almost all matters that have to do with the Middle East, all the players — even academic commentators chattering away at the margins — end up being undermined by their prejudices, affiliations, old habits and darker impulses.

It happens all the time. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas undercut what should have been his most notable hour with comments to supporters that revealed his deep opposition to granting Israel the same rights and recognition he seeks for his own people. Prime Minister Netanyahu scored a diplomatic victory but at a moment that called for magnanimity he offered condescension and then a promise of new settlements.

Meanwhile, on the periphery of this enduring issue, there are those like Mearsheimer and Walt who perhaps with good, sound academic intentions seek to parse the politics of U.S. foreign policy but who regularly undercut their authority with their methods, tenor and alliances. Their book, "The Israel Lobby" is now a landmark, though arguably less one of scholarship than of opportunism. They seized a moment and capitalized on the existence of an audience that they must have known did not share their self-proclaimed objective, unbiased academic interest in the issue. I have written elsewhere about my views on the book and need not go into again here.

Now, during this week when some of the core ideas of their book were at least brought to life by events, they find themselves fending off a new wave of attacks that are linked to the less savory underbelly of their intellectual enterprise. The genesis of the problem has to do with a comment Mearsheimer provided for the cover a jacket of a book called "The Wandering Who? A Study of Jewish Identity Politics."

The problem with the blurb was not its contents, but rather with the book and the author Mearsheimer was endorsing. It turns out that author, Gilad Atzmon, is according to Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic, "a Hitler Apologist and a Holocaust Revisionist." Goldberg makes the assertions based on both the contents of the book that Atzmon wrote and that Mearsheimer alleges he read and on other writings by Atzmon. He has detailed these assertions in a series of his posts which themselves quote from other web commentators who substantiate his position including Walter Russell Mead, Jon Chait, Adam Holland, and a site called Harry’s Place.

You can easily go to the links and see for yourself the facts.  It’s not a pretty picture. Atzmon has suggested that the Jews were collectively responsible for everything from the death of Jesus to the Holocaust and that today they again need to be saved from themselves by gentiles. He refers to Jews as a "sinister ideological collective." He offers up fictional Jews like Fagin and Shylock as part of an "endless hellish continuum" of Jewish abuse of other members of society. He blames recent financial crises on the Jews. In short, he is nothing more than an old school bigot.

And not only does Mearsheimer endorse his book, link himself to this author and thus give credence to all the critiques of "The Israel Lobby" that suggest that while some of its facts may be right, its authors’ biases debase the enterprise and call into question its objectivity or value as anything more than a piece of propaganda. Like most propaganda there’s truth in there somewhere-there is after all a pro-Israel lobby-but also like most propaganda it is twisted (other lobbies are downplayed, the influence of this lobby is overplayed, the Jewishness of the lobbying is misrepresented, etc.).  

Mearsheimer was given a chance by Walt on this website to "defend" himself against the "smears" of Goldberg. Walt thus associated himself with Mearsheimer’s choice to back Atzmon. He also asserted Goldberg was more inclined to make ad hominem attacks than to address the substance of U.S.-Israel relations. This is of course, absurd as, agree with him or not, no one can deny that Goldberg has written extensively on the subject and, to his credit, comparatively little about the two professors.

Mearsheimer’s defense is stunningly lame. He begins with an attack on Goldberg. He then quotes the blurb and edges slightly away from the book by saying he doesn’t agree with everything in it. He then repeats his admonition that Jews and non-Jews should read the book … although I can hardly imagine how many Jews will be moved to buy a book on the recommendation of John Mearsheimer.

That said, he goes on to say that he has taught courses about the Holocaust and is therefore not a Holocaust denier. That said, Goldberg never said he was a Holocaust denier. He said he had endorsed one.  Goldberg’s assertion, based on Atzmon’s writings, is that Atzmon has sought to both minimize the event and to explain away its origins as something at least in large part provoked by the Jews. What is this if not revisionism and there is no disputing that by blaming the Jews in part for their fate, Atzmon is, in fact, as accused a full-fledged apologist for Hitler.

Mearsheimer suggests Goldberg does not rely on anything in the book to make his assertions. As others have noted this is not true. It is also not really relevant. Mearsheimer seems to think it is ok for him to casually endorse views without understanding who is offering those views. This is clearly a sloppy practice…unless the indifference is caused by something else, we can only speculate as to what. In any event, my guess is that Mearsheimer will not be so casual about scribbling blurbs in the future.

Neither Walt nor Mearsheimer should be blaming Goldberg or any of their other critics. Mearsheimer either showed bad judgment, employed bad practices or knowingly embraced a bad guy. It is no more surprising that his critics are inclined to draw attention to what appears to be the confirmation of their theories about him than it would be for the two professors to tout evidence of their theories about the effectiveness of special interest groups in the United States.