Which will last longer? The Israel lobby debate or the conflict it’s about?
Last week, Steve Walt ran a short item saying that while he was disinclined to respond to my recent post on my enduring problems with the Israel Lobby thesis, he didn’t mind publishing other people’s responses on his behalf. I’m afraid that the response he published is so full of errors and distortions, it really ...
Last week, Steve Walt ran a short item saying that while he was disinclined to respond to my recent post on my enduring problems with the Israel Lobby thesis, he didn't mind publishing other people's responses on his behalf. I'm afraid that the response he published is so full of errors and distortions, it really requires my reaction. If you are as tired of this as I am, just skip over this post. I am addressing specifically a tirade by Jerome Slater, a colleague of Walt's who shares his view that our problems in the Middle East largely flow from being too blindly, inflexibly supportive of Israel.
Last week, Steve Walt ran a short item saying that while he was disinclined to respond to my recent post on my enduring problems with the Israel Lobby thesis, he didn’t mind publishing other people’s responses on his behalf. I’m afraid that the response he published is so full of errors and distortions, it really requires my reaction. If you are as tired of this as I am, just skip over this post. I am addressing specifically a tirade by Jerome Slater, a colleague of Walt’s who shares his view that our problems in the Middle East largely flow from being too blindly, inflexibly supportive of Israel.
Read the full post here.
Slater’s "defense" of Walt begins by saying that since the Chas Freeman incident gave me pause to reconsider my position on the Israel lobby but that in the end I didn’t give it up, meant that I was being inconsistent. No, I was just reassessing my views — as I try to do constantly — based on events and available facts. Freeman was brought down in part by a group of vocal activists who are also vocally pro-Israeli. But in the end I concluded that despite this undeniable fact, I still had problems with Walt and Mearsheimer’s broader theories regarding the Israel lobby that I couldn’t get by. I continue to believe that they overstate the role and influence of the so-called lobby. (There is an influential pro-Israel lobby. However, to my mind, Walt and Mearsheimer are overstating its membership and giving it far too much credit for its role in driving Mideast policy — especially when other powerful lobbies, and there are many that are much more powerful, have countervailing views that often win out. The Oil lobby comes to mind and is certainly responsible for far more of our problems in the Middle East and elsewhere than the Israel lobby.)
Early on, Slater says that based on my "charges" against Walt and Mearsheimer he is forced to conclude that either I didn’t read The Israel Lobby or that I misunderstand its arguments or that I have chosen to misrepresent them. Well, I’ve read it and I’ve also read carefully the article on which it is based. (In fact, we have the same publisher and editor which is one of the reasons I followed it so closely.) As to deliberately misrepresenting arguments, no. So, that leaves misunderstanding which I will leave it to others to judge. Certainly, it is possible. But before we dismiss me as not quite smart enough to get their subtle arguments, let’s take a look at the rest of what Slater has to say.
First, he asserts that "Mearsheimer and Walt" do not attack the motives or the loyalties of the lobby and its supporters. Here’s Walt in his blog at FP describing two of Freeman’s critics:
[Steven Rosen,] a long-time lobbyist for Israel who is now under indictment for espionage is trying to convince us that Freeman — a true patriot — is a bad appointment for an intelligence position. A journalist (Jeffrey Goldberg) whose idea of "public service" was to enlist in the Israeli army is challenging the credentials of a man who devoted decades of his life to service in the U.S. government. Now that’s chutzpah."
Nope, no attacking loyalties there.
He says I assert that Walt and Mearsheimer say the lobby is monolithic when in fact, they deny it is. He is of course, right to note that they observe it contains diverse elements. Nonetheless, they call it a lobby, their title is focused on a lobby, their thesis implies a group that acts in a unified manner to advance common goals. So to me this is semantics. My belief is that there are many subgroups with many agendas some of which align, some of which do not, all of which are offset issue-to-issue by the views of other, often larger, better funded subgroups. The "lobby" thesis is, in short, an oversimplification masked in the book with many qualifiers that are dropped in the treatment of the idea in places like Walt’s blog here at FP. But basically they are seeking a scapegoat to blame for U.S. policies in the Middle East in much the same way they seek to make U.S.-Israel policy a scapegoat for our broader problems in the region.
Slater says Walt and Mearsheimer do not assert that supporters of Israel knowingly give priority to Israel’s interests to those over the United States. See earlier point about Steve Rosen and Jeffrey Goldberg. And isn’t the whole point of "The Israel Lobby" to say this group has maneuvered the U.S. into Israel policies that are not in our interests. So isn’t the implication that they are putting other interests first?
Slater also says W & M don’t assert that the actions of this group are inconsistent with democracy. Perhaps not explicitly. But, regarding just the Freeman case alone, Walt asserted that in expressing their views those he accused of representing the lobby were guilty of "heavy-handed behavior, with…McCarthy-like overtones", that their offering their views in the debate was "intended to deter other people in the foreign policy community from speaking out on these matters," and that the behavior was consistent with a campaign to deprive "valuable public servants" of key posts over the past several decades. Sounds to me like an assertion that when folks whose views don’t jibe with Walt’s express their opinions they are undermining democracy rather than participating in it like any other group. Their main crime to me seems to be successfully advocating views different from those of Walt, Mearsheimer and Slater. To these guys the Israel lobby seldom wins cases on merit, it is always due to political cunning.
Slater is offended that I suggest W & M don’t focus on arguing the merits of U.S. policy toward Israel, but this seems to me to be a disingenuous criticism. Sure they talk in the book about their preferred alternative policies. But the central thrust of the book and most of their arguments is that we have the wrong policies because of this nefarious lobby rather than because the merits may actually dictate-as I believe they do-that we ought to have a "special relationship" with Israel. The book is called "The Israel Lobby" not "Chosen Maybe, But Not By Us: Why the U.S. Shouldn’t Have a Special Relationship with Israel."
As for my cringing while reading Walt’s list of Jewish attackers on Freeman, Slater asks whether it is because I am ashamed to see Jews playing the role of hatchet-men or cringing because I think Walt’s references demonstrate anti-Semitism. No, it’s because there were a lot of non-Jewish attackers, too and he chose not to focus on them. Critics with different agendas (and different sounding last names) weren’t hard to find. Nancy "Not So Jewish" Pelosi, comes to mind. (She wasn’t unimportant here. She is the Speaker of the House. And she has views on China that clashed directly with those ascribed to Freeman.) "Human Rights Watch" doesn’t sound like a Jewish last name to me nor does The Weekly Standard. Michael Moynihan, Matt Welch, a bunch of those Republican Senators who objected to the appointment…the list goes on. Steve could have Googled it, too. The critique against Freeman was not exclusively about his ties to Saudi Arabia or by Jews. Focusing exclusively on that one dimension, well, it still makes me cringe even if Walt’s only reason for selectively editing the list of names he used was to support his own thesis about the lobby. But hey, here we have a thesis scapegoating Jews, implying they have more power than they do, implicitly attributing to them cunning beyond all other groups (thanks in part to all that money they have), asserting that all of our problems in the most dangerous part of the world come from our too close association with a Jewish state…and ok, maybe that’s why I’m cringing, too. (And yes, I know that Chas Freeman came to the same conclusion. As I have said from the outset, I hugely admire and like Chas. But we have different views on this, not so much on the facts but on their interpretation.)
Slater says my assertion that the concept of an Israel Lobby "indicts the motives associated with a whole class of ideas enabling them to be dismissed before they are fairly considered" implies I didn’t think pro-Israel views were getting a good hearing in the United States. Ridiculous. Of course they are. What I meant was that the technique of impugning someone as being part of a lobby is a way for critics of their views to more easily dismiss them and their views.
Apparently, the main point that incites Slater’s indignation is that he is deeply offended that I suggested that Walt and Mearsheimer somehow knew that their book would appeal to, and benefit from, the support of the views of anti-Semites and other reflexive attackers of Israel. He calls my passage asserting this "defamatory, demagogic and irresponsible." Well, my first response is that I have too much respect for the intellects of Walt and Mearsheimer to assume that either a.) They knew they would be playing at least in part to these cheapest of cheap seats and decided to do it despite the distasteful nature of having such odious supporters or b.) They knew it and they didn’t care or welcomed the support. That they did not know that they would be playing into the hands of these people is inconceivable to me given that these are people Slater describes as "two of our most prestigious academicians." What gave their book its sizzle was the controversy they knew that would be created by going after the lobby…even though the idea of the lobby was hardly new. They exploited it. And frankly, given the history around such issues, I think authors should be especially sensitive about exploiting ideas that play to old hatreds and stereotypes even if those are not the personally held views of the authors. Also, he gives me too much credit. I am far from the first to suggest that there is a dimension of anti-Semitism here. (In a Wall Street Journal refutation of Walt and Mearsheimer in 2006, Brett Stephens framed it better: "But as outgoing Harvard President Larry Summers once noted, what may not be anti-Semitic in intent may yet be anti-Semitic in effect.")
A couple other points re: this sorest of sore points, in his quotation of my post in which I write "they may not be anti-Semites themselves" he adds in brackets "meaning: they may be." Thanks, but I don’t need the help. I have no hesitation about calling out anti-Semitism where I see it. But since I can’t speak to their personal beliefs, I can only speak to the actions which I can see.
As to his other assertions, Slater seems to be in the thrall of academia’s own starlit bullshit about itself. He begins his character defense of Walt and Mearsheimer with the "prestigious academicians" language and goes on to cite their rankings in a survey of international relations scholars, and that they are "chaired professors at two of the world’s greatest universities." He also seems to think, without evidence, that I think that these universities are "a preserve of a stuffy Wasp academic aristocracy." Having taught at Columbia and Georgetown (although at the bottom of the food chain as an adjunct professor) and having given lectures or speeches at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and countless other such snooty joints, I neither think they are all waspy nor have I come up with any evidence to support the assertion that occupying an academic chair guarantees one is not a hack.
Regarding assertion that my blog includes many expressions of my own view…well, it’s a blog. That’s the point. No one is actually obligated to read it. Except for some members of my family and frankly, even they haven’t been too dependable on that front. Hi, Mom and Dad.
Finally, as to Slater’s concluding point, that anti-Semitism has waned here in the United States and that what is likely to bring it back are things like my "playing the anti-Semitic card," my view, is that just the opposite is true. Anti-Semitism is on the rise around the world (Russia, Austria, France, Venezuela, and especially in the Middle East where, saliently, most of the governments Walt wants the United States to have better relationships with are or support views that are inherently, deeply, virulently and actively anti-Jewish). It is at play in the United States in many dangerous ways. U.S. politics has become too intermixed with religion and we have seen words like "Christian" come to mean "good" or "I’m one of you" in public discourse despite the dangers such an evolution in the public debate may pose for minorities with different views. The Wall Street vs. Main Street formulation has a worrisome component to it as well, especially for those who remember how this movie has played out in the past. And frankly, I believe that the Israel Lobby critique, while embraced by many smart, well-intentioned individuals, including many Jews, has also been embraced by some whose motives are not so good. History has taught that not calling these often subtle trends out is precisely what allows them to flourish. There have been Jews in the past who thought it best to keep quiet about their concerns for fear of spoiling a good thing. Slater may choose to be one. Not me.
More from Foreign Policy
Can Russia Get Used to Being China’s Little Brother?
The power dynamic between Beijing and Moscow has switched dramatically.
Xi and Putin Have the Most Consequential Undeclared Alliance in the World
It’s become more important than Washington’s official alliances today.
It’s a New Great Game. Again.
Across Central Asia, Russia’s brand is tainted by Ukraine, China’s got challenges, and Washington senses another opening.
Iraqi Kurdistan’s House of Cards Is Collapsing
The region once seemed a bright spot in the disorder unleashed by U.S. regime change. Today, things look bleak.