Ferment Over 'The Israel Lobby'
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?