Robert D. Kaplan’s deification of John J. Mearsheimer in The Atlantic last week shows that the authors of The Israel Lobby are winning
When John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt’s The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy was published in 2007, it launched a thousand essays and op-eds, upset many Jewish readers, and sold a very respectable number of copies. What it did not do, to judge by the reviews, was convince anyone of its central argument: that an all-powerful “Israel lobby” had hijacked American foreign policy using illegitimate means, and that a small but committed group of American Jews was steering the country into disaster to satisfy their parochial interests. Yet judging from a recent spate of articles in some of the country’s most respectable mainstream publications, including the Atlantic, the New York Times, and Time, it seems that, while Walt and Mearsheimer lost the policy battle, in the long term they are winning the war, on the most important battleground of all: that of ideas and language.
To look back on The Israel Lobby’s reception today is to see a remarkable unanimity of rejection, from the New York Times (“mostly wrong … dangerously misleading”) and Foreign Affairs (“written in haste, the book will be repented at leisure”) to The Nation (“serious methodological deficiencies … a mess”). There was also a general recognition that in their insinuations about secret Jewish power, Mearsheimer and Walt—professors at the University of Chicago and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, respectively—had given a respectable imprimatur to old and sinister anti-Semitic tropes. Michael Gerson, an evangelical Christian adviser to President George W. Bush, wrote in the Washington Post: “Every generation has seen accusations that Jews have dual loyalties, promote war, and secretly control political structures. These academics might not follow their claims all the way to anti-Semitism. But this is how it begins. This is how it always begins.”
Alert to the same danger, George Shultz, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of State—who should know about how foreign policy is made—went so far as to write the foreword to The Deadliest Lies, a book by Abraham Foxman refuting the Walt-Mearsheimer thesis. “Jewish groups are influential,” Shultz wrote. “But the notion that these groups have anything like a uniform agenda, and that U.S. policy on Israel and the Middle East is the result of their influence, is simply wrong.”
Case closed, it would seem. And looking at the history of the last four years, there is no doubt that Walt and Mearsheimer failed in their stated goal of disrupting America’s close alliance with Israel—or what they call “treating Israel as a normal state.” Their book, published in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, opened with a complaint about how “serious candidates for the highest office in the land will go to considerable lengths to express their deep personal commitment to one foreign country—Israel—as well as their determination to maintain unyielding U.S. support for the Jewish state.”
Fast forward to 2012, and the candidates for the Republican nomination were saying just this: At the Republican Jewish Coalition candidates’ forum last December, Mitt Romney promised that his first foreign trip as president would be to Israel. And for all the Jewish right’s criticism of President Obama’s Israel policy, the fact remains that in 2011 the United States pledged to veto the Palestinian bid for statehood in the United Nations.
But if The Israel Lobby has not changed American politics, it has had an insidious effect on the way people talk and think about Israel, and about the whole question of Jewish power. The first time I had this suspicion was when reading, of all things, a biography of H.G. Wells. In H.G. Wells: Another Kind of Life, published in the U.K. in 2010, Michael Sherborne describes how Wells’ contempt for Nazism went along with a dislike for Judaism and Zionism, which he voiced in deliberately offensive terms even as Nazi persecution of Jews reached its peak. “To take on simultaneously the Nazis … and the Jewish lobby may have been foolhardy,” Sherborne writes apropos of Wells in 1938.
There’s no way to prove that Sherborne’s “Jewish lobby” is the intellectual descendant of Walt and Mearsheimer’s “Israel lobby,” but the inference seems like a strong one. Wells, the term suggests, was not attacking Jews, a group that in the Europe of the 1930s was conspicuous for its absolute powerlessness in the face of the evolving Nazi genocide. Instead, he was bravely standing up to a powerful “lobby,” an organization designed to punish critics of the Jews, and whose influence was on a par somehow with that of the Nazis.
What is disturbing in the Sherborne example is the way Walt and Mearsheimer’s conception of Jewish power is projected into a historical moment when it could not have been less accurate. In France during the Dreyfus Affair, it was common for anti-Semites and anti-Dreyfusards to speak of a Jewish syndicate that secretly ruled the country. Now, in the 21st century, it has once again become possible to speak of a Jewish “lobby” that it would be foolish to cross. One of the central premises of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy is that it takes unusual courage to oppose the Jews, since they use their power to ruthlessly suppress dissent in both the political world and the media. Walt and Mearsheimer place themselves on the side of the angels when they attack the Israel lobby’s “objectionable tactics, such as attempting to silence or smear anyone who challenges the lobby’s role or criticizes Israel’s actions.”
Walt and Mearsheimer, of course, fill their book with denials that they are talking about a secret syndicate: “The Israel lobby is not a cabal or conspiracy,” they write in the introduction. But the book itself, with its lists of Jewish organizations and journalists, and its tone of moral outrage, works to give exactly this impression. In fact, you don’t even have to read the book to get the impression: Looking at the cover is enough. In 2002, when the British magazine the New Statesman ran a cover story titled “The Kosher Conspiracy” with an image of a gold Star of David pressing down on a Union Jack, it was roundly criticized for copying imagery that would have been familiar in the Nazi periodical Der Sturmer. Yet The Israel Lobby, published by America’s most prestigious house, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, bore a cover image of the American flag rendered in the blue and white of the Israeli flag—an unmistakable visual shorthand for Jewish domination. All by itself, this image nullified Walt and Mearsheimer’s repeated insistence that they were not describing the Israel lobby as a cabal.
So the floodgates were opened: What we have witnessed in the five years since is a blithe recuperation of dangerous, vicious imagery and ideas, with no apparent compunction about their origins or consequences. In 2010, Tablet’s Lee Smith investigated the way certain bloggers—including Walt himself—amassed large anti-Semitic readerships through their conspiratorial denunciations of Israel and the Israel Lobby. Quoting the comments sections of such blogs, Smith found them rife with unbridled anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, such as “It seems to me that it is no exaggeration to say roundly that the USA in its entirety is under Jewish control of one variety or another.”
Compare this with Thomas Friedman’s Dec. 14, 2011 column in the New York Times, where he wrote about Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before Congress: “I sure hope that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, understands that the standing ovation he got in Congress this year was not for his politics. That ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.” Criticized for this remark, he replied to New York’s Jewish Week that “In retrospect I probably should have used a more precise term like ‘engineered’ by the Israel lobby—a term that does not suggest grand conspiracy theories that I don’t subscribe to.” But of course, “engineered” suggests exactly the same thing as “bought and paid for.” Decades ago, the right-wing commentator Pat Buchanan was widely denounced for referring to “Israel’s amen corner.” Today, an establishment pundit like Friedman can suggest even more crudely that Congress is bought and paid for by a foreign government with the sense that he is simply voicing conventional wisdom.
Reporter Dara Horn admires Varian Fry, who saved Jewish intellectuals from the Nazis, but she questions his belief that not all lives held equal value