Stephen M. Walt

Should you read a book before you attack it?

It is perhaps not surprising that Ruth Wisse, the Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish literature at Harvard, has written a piece in the Wall Street Journal defending — you guessed it — Martin Peretz. She is entitled to her views about her benefactor, of course, but her piece also contains a blatant misrepresentation of my ...

It is perhaps not surprising that Ruth Wisse, the Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish literature at Harvard, has written a piece in the Wall Street Journal defending — you guessed it — Martin Peretz. She is entitled to her views about her benefactor, of course, but her piece also contains a blatant misrepresentation of my own work, one that she has made before. Indeed, her statement is so at odds with what John Mearsheimer and I actually wrote that it makes me think that Ms. Wisse did not bother to read our book before passing judgment on it.

Specifically, she writes:

The first at Harvard to exploit the Peretz case was Stephen Walt of the Kennedy School of Government, who co-authored a book, "The Israel Lobby," which argues that a conspiracy skews American policy in the Middle East in favor of Israel" (emphasis added).

This statement is demonstrably false, as the following quotations from our book will show (emphasis added in each case):

  • Page 5: "[The Israel lobby] is not a single, unified movement with a central leadership, and it is certainly not a cabal or conspiracy that ‘controls’ U.S. foreign policy."
  • Page 13: "The Israel lobby is not a cabal or conspiracy or anything of the sort.  It is engaged in good old-fashioned interest group politics, which is as American as apple pie."
  • Pages 112-13: "The lobby is not a single, unified movement with a central leadership. . .and the individuals and groups that make up this broad coalition sometimes disagree on specific policy issues.  Nor is it some kind of cabal or conspiracy. . . .It would clearly be wrong to think of the lobby as a single-minded monolith, much less portray it as a cabal or conspiracy…"
  • Page 131: (regarding the neoconservatives): "What may seem to some like a shadowy conspiracy (or even a ‘right-wing cabal’) is anything but.  On the contrary, the various think tanks, committees, foundations, and publications that have nurtured the neoconservative movement operate much as other policy networks do.  Far from shunning publicity or engaging in hidden plots, these groups actively court publicity for the explicit purpose of shaping public and elite opinion and thereby moving U.S. foreign policy in the directions they favor."
  • Page 150: "The Israel lobby is the antithesis of a cabal or conspiracy; it operates out in the open and proudly advertises its own clout."

In short, Wisse has accused us of saying the exact opposite of what we actually wrote, even though we said it numerous times and in several different ways. I might add that my co-author and I reiterated these points in virtually every public presentation that we have made about our book, and nowhere have we even hinted that the lobby is a conspiracy or a cabal, simply because it is not.

Given the obvious contradiction between what Wisse says we wrote and what we actually wrote, one wonders what is going on here. It seems to me that there are two possibilities. She either has not read the book and does not know what we wrote, or she has in fact read the book but has deliberately chosen to misrepresent its contents. 

I don’t know which of these explanations is correct, but neither reflects well on Ms. Wisse’s scholarly integrity. She is obviously welcome to disagree with our arguments, but she is not entitled to make up her own facts.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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