There are few topics as sensitive in American foreign policy debates as the relationship between Israel and the United States. So it should come as no surprise that two academic heavyweights of the realist school, John Mearsheimer, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, and Stephen Walt, a professor and outgoing academic dean at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, aroused a furor when they published an article alleging that US Middle East policy “is due almost entirely…to the activities of the ‘Israel Lobby,'” and that this lobby has damaged US national security. Such arguments have been made before, of course, but never by such key luminaries of the foreign policy brain trust. In addition, the article carries the imprimatur of the Kennedy School’s Faculty Research Working Papers Series (a shorter version was originally published in The London Review of Books after it was rejected by a US magazine).

The professors deserve credit for addressing such a controversial topic, especially at a time when dissent is being challenged as unpatriotic. Unfortunately, too much of the initial response to “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy” has been characterized by reckless, ad hominem denunciation; notable in this regard are the Likud-flavored New York Sun, Harvard lawyer and Zionist pit bull Alan Dershowitz and New York Representative Eliot Engel, who called the authors anti-Semites. These attacks, some bordering on the hysterical, are designed to shut off debate and intimidate the professors and anyone else who asks hard questions about the US-Israel relationship. In an astute editorial in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, Daniel Levy, a former policy adviser for prime minister Ehud Barak, deplored such “bullying tactics” and “the McCarthyite policing of academia” as “deeply un-Jewish. It would in fact serve Israel if the open and critical debate that takes place over here were exported over there.”

An open debate, after all, isn’t the same thing as approval. Although Mearsheimer and Walt are correct in their claim that a powerful Israel lobby often bullies critics and has extraordinary influence on Capitol Hill, they never clearly define US national interests in the region, and thus the claim that Israel undermines them–and that the tail wags the dog rather than serving those interests–remains an undemonstrated assertion, as is their argument that the Iraq War “was due in large part to the Lobby’s influence.” This last plank in their thesis is a particularly startling one coming from representatives of the realist school, given the overwhelming strategic prize that conquest of the Iraqi oilfields would represent in an era of rapidly growing worldwide competition for declining natural resources. Startling too, when one considers the close connection of the Bush Administration to the oil lobby.

The key point, though, is that these questions can only be constructively argued in an atmosphere that encourages open discussion. We thus commend Kennedy School dean David Ellwood for standing behind Mearsheimer and Walt and for supporting the cause of “academic freedom and vigorous open debate” in the face of intimidation.