Ferment Over 'The Israel Lobby'
"We understood there would be a significant price to pay," Mearsheimer says. "We both went into this understanding full well that our chances of ever being appointed to a high-level administrative position at a university or policy-making position in Washington would be greatly damaged." They turned their piece in to The Atlantic two years ago. The magazine sought revisions, and they submitted a new draft in early 2005, which was rejected. "[We] decided not to publish the article they wrote," managing editor Cullen Murphy wrote to me, adding that The Atlantic's policy is not to discuss editorial decisions with people other than the authors.
"I believe they got cold feet," Mearsheimer says. "They said they thought the piece was a terrible--they thought the piece was terribly written. That was their explanation. Beyond that I know nothing. I would be curious to know what really happened." The writing as such can't have been the issue for the magazine; editors are paid to rewrite pieces. The understanding I got from a source close to the magazine is that The Atlantic had wanted a piece of an analytical character. It got the analysis, topped off with a strong argument.
That might have been the end of it. The authors "nosed around," Mearsheimer says, looking for another US publisher, then gave up, concluding that the piece could not be published as an article or book in "a mainstream outlet" in the United States. Half a year passed. Then a scholar Mearsheimer will not identify called to say that a staffer at The Atlantic had passed along the piece, which he found "magisterial." The scholar put the authors in touch with Mary-Kay Wilmers, the London Review of Books editor, and last fall she contracted to publish the piece.
"John, who I think is a little bit more hardheaded politically and intellectually, expected what came," Desch says. "Steve was more confident that facts and logic would carry the day, and from some conversations I've had he was clearly shellshocked. He was in an exposed position at Harvard." Desch adds that when the New York Sun linked the authors to white supremacist David Duke, who praised the article, "it came as a real kick in the stomach." Some measure of Walt's exposure is financial. Bernard Steinberg, director of Harvard's Hillel center, brought this issue up unprompted to me: "I talked to someone in Harvard development and asked what the fallout had been, and he said, 'It's been seismic.'"
Something in Mearsheimer's spirit would seem to be fulfilled in upsetting people by expressing ideas that he deeply believes. "When you write about this subject and you're critical of Israeli policy or critical of the US-Israel relationship, you are invariably going to be called an anti-Semite," he says. When I said he had autonomy as a professor to enjoy "free discourse" in this country, he said, "What free discourse in the United States? What free discourse are you talking about?" Mearsheimer's friend Van Evera criticizes him for allowing his legitimate anger over being shut out of the discourse to affect the tone of the article. But Mearsheimer was expressing his sharp personality; and doesn't passion give life to an argument?
The authors have gotten support from hundreds of e-mails, three-quarters of which congratulate them, Mearsheimer says. Foreign-service officers in Washington who are frightened by the neoconservative program are said to be excitedly passing the article around. The European left has also welcomed the paper, saying that these issues must be discussed. And even in Israel the article has had a respectful reading, with a writer in Ha'aretz saying it was a "wake-up call" to Americans about the relationship.
Many liberals and leftists have signaled their discomfort with the paper. Daniel Fleshler, a longtime board member of Americans for Peace Now, says the issue of Jewish influence is "so incendiary and so complicated that I don't know how anyone can talk about this in the public sphere. I know that's a problem. But there's not enough space in any article you write to do this in a way that doesn't cause more rancor. And so much of this paper was glib and poorly researched." In Salon Michelle Goldberg wrote that the authors had "blundered forth" into the argument in "clumsy and crude" ways, for instance failing to distinguish between Jewish Likudniks and Jewish support of Democrats in Congress. Noam Chomsky wrote that the authors had ignored the structural forces in the American economy pushing for war, what he calls "the tight state-corporate linkage." Norman Finkelstein makes a similar distinction. "I'm glad they did it," he says of the publication, but he argues that while the pro-Israel lobby controls public debate on the issue, and even Congress, the lobby can't be shown to decide the "elite opinion" that creates policy in the Mideast.