November 11, 2007
The livre de scandale of John J Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, The Israeli Lobby and US Foreign Policy, was for me a mostly disappointing read. Having seen the earlier article by these two illustrious academics, one at Chicago and the other at Harvard, “The Israel Lobby,” in the London Review of Books (May 2006), I found nothing particularly original about the expanded version. Their 500-page book is noticeably repetitious and by the time one reaches the conclusion, one has heard it all before. The ecstatic reaction by Michael Massing in that Pravda of East Coast Jewish liberalism, The New York Review of Books, is full of overstatement. What “detonates with force” for the Eastern establishment, reacted on me far less dramatically. Unlike the hysteria at the New York Review occasioned by a real iconoclast, Norman Finkelstein, who pulls no punches when going after the German-haters and the Holocaust-exploiters, the explications of Mearsheimer and Walt are so soporific that it may be hard for anyone but an AIPAC fanatic to get really mad at them. “Respectable” critics of the Israeli lobby are, for the authors, certifiable leftists such as Jimmy Carter, the homosexual activist playwright Tony Kushner, and the ultraliberal leaders of American Reform Judaism. To their credit, Walt and Mearsheimer do make respectful references to Pat Buchanan, Robert Novak, and Georgie Ann Geyer as critics of the first Iraqi War, who pointed the finger at AIPAC for fomenting the invasion of Kuwait.
But the illustrious authors, both pillars of the foreign policy journalistic establishment, have conspicuous liberal blind-spots. For example they seem to believe that support for the Iraqi War comes entirely from “the very extreme Right,” as I heard Professor Mearsheimer emphasize in a panel discussion at Swarthmore in 2005. Moreover, there is insufficient recognition in the book that some of the strongest criticism of the Israeli lobby has emanated from the paleo Right. This is one reason that liberal commentators, most recently in the New Statesman, have presented paleos as “anti-Semitic,” a charge that is also habitually made by the same sources in noting the Old Right’s opposition to the neoconservative-inspired war in Iraq.
The authors’ knowledge about religious matters is so embarrassingly limited that one has to blush whenever they touch on things ecclesiastical. “Christian Zionists” is for them a synonym for “Dispensationalists,” who are imagined to be a Svengalian presence hovering over our otherwise progressive land. But many “Christian Zionists” are not people fixed on a peculiar reading of the Book of Revelations but garden-variety, misguided Philosemites. Moreover, Evangelical is not synonymous with Dispensationalist or Fundamentalist, as the authors might have learned from reading Daryl Hart, George Marsden, Mark Shibley, or anyone of a few hundred other American religious historians. Unlike the Fundamentalists, the Evangelicals, who make up much of Rudolph Giuliani’s support base, have been sliding leftward on theological and social issues for decades. But like George W. Bush, Michael Gerson, Cal Thomas, and Ralph Reed, they are embattled Zionists and advocates of an American mission to spread “human rights,” even at the point of a bayonet.
The authors also take an overly optimistic view of both normal American international relations and the possibility for ending Middle Eastern tensions by showing the Israeli government tough love. On this last point I am closer to Harvey Sicherman and Jim Kurth of the Foreign Policy Research Institute than I am to my friends on the paleo Right. The religious and cultural hatreds that inflame the Muslim world would likely be there even if the Israelis managed to cut a deal with the Palestinians. And significantly, the Israeli “new historians,” whom the authors quote for recognizing the obvious fact that Zionists engaged in ethnic cleansing against Palestinians, typically do not come down on the Mearsheimer-Walt side in terms of how to deal with the Palestinians at the present time. While one might readily concede that American Indians were expelled from their tribal territories in the nineteenth century, why would anyone but a self-hating white Christian call for allowing Indian tribes to take back sizable chunks of the U.S.? And it would seem even more foolhardy to welcome back into one’s land those who have repeatedly called for killing or expelling the present settlers. Mearsheimer and Walt note that Israelis seem willing to create a separate state for West Bankers, while continuing to treat as citizens the one million plus Palestinians living in Israel proper. But Israelis polled on these matters would not try to absorb hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees, many of them from camps in Lebanon and Jordan, into their already multinational and Palestinian-laden population.
It might also be asked why the Israelis, who run a Western-type constitutional government, should trust the Palestinians politically—even if admittedly Israeli military forces have sometimes taken brutal revenge on the Palestinians after Hamas-incited terror-bombings. There is nothing in the Palestinian, or for that matter the Arab Muslim, past that would suggest the likelihood that they would honor and enforce treaties or control violent minorities that might seek to wipe out the Israelis. I am always amazed when my friends on the right who, although justly skeptical of the belief that Arabs Muslims could develop Western-type regimes, express every confidence that the Palestinians are closet-moderates. All that is needed for the unexpected to happen is for the Israelis to give the West Bankers a chance by clearing out of the West Bank and by giving the Arabs control of East Jerusalem.
If I were an Israeli, I would not support these concessions, and certainly not at this time, even if the American government cut its 6 billion dollars in annual direct aid. Nor has the special relation with Israel always been as one-sided as the authors suggest. It is highly unlikely that certain delicate missions, e.g., bombing Iraqi nuclear installations in 1978 or the Israeli strike on Syrian territory last month to test its radar system, took place without bi-national cooperation.
Mearsheimer and Walt are correct to stress that the American government, as in the Pollard Affair, has put up with outrageous behavior from the Israelis which it would not likely have accepted from most other (Western) countries. Moreover, the amount of money that is transferred each year from the U.S. to Israel, in private Zionist donations and military equipment as well as public aid, is in the tens of billions of dollars—and this payoff cannot be fully explained in terms of “American national interest.” But what can be questioned is whether the U.S. has come out of this relation entirely empty-handed. And despite the long chapter about how AIPAC mucks up our dealings with Iran, I am not convinced that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his mullah advisors would not be bulls in the china shop of international relations even without the disinformation provided by the Israeli lobby. The Iranian government would remain for us a problem, even if Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in a speech on May 24, 2006, had not tried to goad the US Congress into taking military action against Ahmadinejad.
Equally challengeable is the unstated but strongly suggested notion that our relation with Israel has derailed what might otherwise be a rational foreign policy. Pace the authors, our ties to Israel are characteristic of how American foreign policy is conducted, on the basis of internal ideological and ethnic pressures. AIPAC is simply better at doing what the Black Caucus, gay and feminist groups, Armenian and Greek Americans, American supporters of the IRA and other special pleaders have tried to achieve for many decades—influencing American foreign policy. The problem is that in a mass, pluralistic democracy this situation is all too normal. It would be happening even if the Israeli lobby were not around.
But what makes this lobby especially obnoxious, and this is the one valuable series of revelations in the book, is not only its money and power. It is also the lobby’s arrogance and sheer viciousness, which extends to issues going beyond Israeli security, and which is manifested in its close ties to such shrieking gentile-haters as Abe Foxman and Alan Dershowitz. AIPAC enjoys and cultivates the support of some very unpleasant types, who specialize in maligning those they disagree with. On page after page, the authors document AIPAC’s defaming of politicians such as Charles Percy and Paul Findlay (both from Illinois) who dared to question our “special relation” with Israel. These and other politicians were routinely smeared as “anti-Semites,” and most of them were brought down by the charge. Incidentally, the authors, to their credit, don’t bother to distinguish between AIPAC and its numerous slanderous front organizations, such as the Anti-Defamation League. These groups act in unison not only by backing what the Israeli government, and especially the Israeli nationalist Right, wants but also by wielding what Pat Buchanan has called “the branding iron of the charge of anti-Semitism.”
What is frequently omitted from the larger picture, but something that the authors notice, is that such charges as Jew-baiting or being a “self-hating Jew” are often leveled at unlikely targets. For example, the Anti-Defamation League in 1998 tried very hard to keep Metropolitan Books from publishing Norman Finkelstein’s and Ruth Bettina Birn’s A Nation on Trial. A closely researched refutation of Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners the work has nothing to do with endangering Israeli security. It simply discredits Goldhagen’s preposterous thesis, that “the Holocaust was not simply the product of Nazi beliefs and Hitler’s own madness but was rooted in a pervasive ‘eliminationist ideology’ rooted in German society that predated the Nazi period.” AIPAC and its affiliates, and the Central Committee for Jews in Germany, worked overtime trying to keep this refutation, by honorable Jewish authors, from being published and circulated. The reason for this zeal was not that Finkelstein and Birn were defending Israel’s interests but that their would-be censors hated Germans.
My tribulations ten years earlier when I was trying to obtain a graduate professorship at Catholic University of America indicated the same thought patterns among my enemies as those of Finkelstein’s. Those who blocked my appointment complained to administrators that I was “not entirely reliable on Israel.” But at the time I had expressed no views about Israel that were different from those of my accusers. What made them attack me at least in one demonstrable case was that my writings had questioned Germany’s “sole responsibility” for the origins of World War One. The subject had nothing to do with Israel but everything to do with certain tribal prejudices that those associated with AIPAC hoped to keep alive.
In the end it didn’t matter whether my accusers were the employees of AIPAC, of the ADA or of the American Jewish Committee, or in this case merely misguided Zionistic neoconservatives. Making such distinctions among all of these interlocking groups is about as useful as trying to distinguish in the 1940s between the Lawyers’ Guild or the Soviet-American Friendship League and the American Communist Party. Further, as Peter Novick has shown in a book on the reactions to the Holocaust in America, American (and even more opportunistically European) Zionists have been eager to highlight the collective guilt of Christians for the killing of European Jewry because the resulting guilt feelings are thought to help the Israeli cause. Although obviously true, another reason for this invidious focus is that those who apply it are expressing a gut reaction to Christians. This may be even more critical for their behavior than the desire to exploit Christian guilt for Zionist ends. The blown-up charges against Christianity as the fons et origo of Nazi anti-Semitism and the generally meek reactions that these accusations elicit, as my book Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt suggests, illustrate a quintessential sadomasochistic relation, which AIPAC has not hesitated to exploit.
This brings me to a final observation, which much of the material in the Mearsheimer-Walt volume can be cited to underscore. For many Americans, and particularly those on the Old Right, it is difficult to distinguish the Israelis from their partisans in this country. The fault is not entirely that of the Israelis. Being a vulnerable, beleaguered small country, they will take aid where can, and particularly from generous overseas patrons who have the ear of politicians. And these patrons have come through time and again, shutting up Israel’s critics and making sure that the foreign aid and military equipment keep rolling in. But this has been achieved at a high price—part of which in this country has been allowing the neoconservatives to lord it over a cowardly and fearful American Right, whose members live in fear of being called “racists” or “anti-Semites.”
But even within the existing sadomasochistic relation that the Israeli lobby has heretofore milked, there are other possible developments that may not favor the Israelis in the long run. Weakening Christian institutions, while opening the Western world to Islamic and other Third World influences, does not help the Jews here or in Israel. It might also be helpful for the Israelis if the U.S. had a more deeply Christian character and more secure borders. Admittedly, pushing for a less Western West may satisfy particular inveterate hates—which cause their bearers to exaggerate Christian anti-Semitism and to encourage the resettling of Western countries by non-Western populations (a policy that in Europe means Moslems). But such policies destroy what remains of the substance of the only civilization that is likely to assist the Israelis out of genuine affection.
Moreover, the victimized pets of the guilt-ridden, often culturally illiterate Christians do not have to remain Jewish victims. In Europe the victim card is already going over to the Muslim immigrants, who usually dislike Jews even more than they do Christians. No matter how strenuously European Zionists may blame Christians for Muslim vandalism against Jewish targets, the truth might be more important than the pleasures of goy-bashing. These are facts that the Israelis themselves should take into consideration. Their supporters in other lands show defective long-term political judgment because their heads are not screwed on straight. And if the gentiles ever awaken from their stupefying, self-inflicted politics of guilt, God help those who have tried to use it!
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