Robert D. Kaplan’s deification of John J. Mearsheimer in The Atlantic last week shows that the authors of The Israel Lobby are winning
Similarly, Joe Klein of Time recently wrote apropos of a possible American conflict with Iran: “It’s another thing entirely to send American kids off to war, yet again, to fight for Israel’s national security.” After being challenged by Jeffrey Goldberg to name a single instance when American troops have fought for Israeli security, Klein went on to apologize for his misuse of commas—it was the sending off to war that was “yet again,” not the fighting for Israel. But if this was a misreading, it was a natural one, given Klein’s earlier writing and, especially, given the way it aligns with the words of Walt and Mearsheimer, who wrote that “Israel’s enemies get weakened or overthrown … and the United States does most of the fighting, dying, rebuilding, and paying.” Once a far-left conspiracy theory, the idea that the Iraq War was fought at the behest of Jews for Israel’s interest had drifted so far to the center that it could appear under the aegis of Time.
It’s impossible to measure, of course, how much influence any single book has on public opinion and discourse. Certainly, many of the insinuations in The Israel Lobby could be heard in various forms in the years after Sept. 11. What Walt and Mearsheimer write about neoconservatives, for instance, was echoed in various ways on the left and in Europe during the Bush years. The Israel Lobby assembles lists of Jews whose “connections would delight a network theorist” (and for “network” you could substitute a less polite word); this practice was already common in attacks on the Bush Administration, when the names of Wolfowitz, Perle, and Feith were invoked more often than those of their superiors, Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Rice.
The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy was also far from unique in expressing a post-Sept. 11 hope that, by cutting Israel adrift, the United States could avert the wrath of Islamic terrorists and avoid further embroilments in the Middle East. Putting aside the moral calculus here—nicely compared by Gerson to the idea that “Britain had a Nazi problem in the 1930s because it was so closely allied with Czechoslovakia”—it is obviously unsound in the most primitive “realist” terms. Sacrificing an ally to an enemy is a good way to embolden the enemy; it is not the conduct of a confident power. Still more basic, however, it is a fallacy to think that America’s interests and problems in the Islamic world will be resolved even if and when a Palestinian state is created. How exactly will peace in the West Bank lead to peace in Kashmir and the Strait of Hormuz?
Unable to frame a convincing or politically attractive argument for how their version of “realism” might work in practice, Walt and Mearsheimer ascribe the failure of that argument to the machinations of illegitimate, shadowy forces—the Israel Lobby. This kind of self-pity and conspiratorialism has only grown more evident in their writings and public appearances since 2007. The need to paint the Israel Lobby in ever-darker colors, to heighten the moral stakes of an argument whose grounding in reality was tenuous at best, explains rhetoric such as Mearsheimer’s notorious April 2010 address to the Washington think tank the Jerusalem Fund. In that speech, he called Israelis “the new Afrikaaners” and predicted the rise of a “Greater Israel” that would bear “a marked resemblance to white-ruled South Africa” and would very soon become a “full-fledged apartheid state.”
Mearsheimer then proceeded to divide American Jews into those who back these purported developments, and the “righteous Jews” like Norman Finkelstein who bravely oppose them. The use of the phrase “righteous Jews” was meant to remind listeners of the “righteous Gentiles” who rescued Jews from the Holocaust. It further suggested that—on a moral plane, at least—Israel’s behavior toward the Palestinians was reminiscent of Nazi Germany’s behavior toward the Jews.
It would be easy to dismiss these statements as an isolated outburst—except that they have proven to be anything but isolated. Take for example Mearsheimer’s recent endorsement of The Wandering Who?, a book by a psychotically anti-Semitic ex-Israeli named Gilad Atzmon. As reported by Goldberg among others, Mearsheimer lent his academic prestige to Atzmon’s poisonous ravings, praising the book for unveiling, yes, unscrupulous Jewish power: “Panicked Jewish leaders, [Atzmon] argues, have turned to Zionism (blind loyalty to Israel) and scaremongering (the threat of another Holocaust) to keep the tribe united and distinct from the surrounding goyim.” (Whenever a non-Jew uses the word “goyim” to describe Jewish attitudes to Gentiles, look out.)
In the current Atlantic, a profile of Mearsheimer by Robert D. Kaplan casts the Atzmon episode, and the Israel Lobby debate generally, as unfortunate distractions from the achievements of a great foreign-policy thinker. “The real tragedy of such controversies, as lamentable as they are, is that they threaten to obscure the urgent and enduring message of Mearsheimer’s life’s work, which topples conventional foreign-policy shibboleths and provides an unblinking guide to the course the United States should follow in the coming decades,” Kaplan writes.
As Tablet Magazine’s Marc Tracy pointed out, this is not quite adequate to the situation. Indeed, the more one accepts Kaplan’s premise that Mearsheimer is a great sage, the more disturbing it becomes that the foreign-policy expert has lent his name to the legitimization of anti-Semitic discourse. In his article, Kaplan continues to bolster Mearsheimer’s self-image as a brave heretic paying a price for crossing the Jews. “Within media ranks, The Israel Lobby has delegitimized Mearsheimer,” Kaplan writes. Here is the neat rhetorical power of the Israel Lobby idea, which it shares with anti-Semitism in general: If you are taken to task for attacking the Jews, you become a martyr to the very Jewish power you denounced.
“Say what you will about The Israel Lobby,” Kaplan writes, but—in the words of an expert he quotes—“It changed the debate on Israel, even if it did not change the policy.” Indeed, I give the book even more credit: It is possible today to see the publication of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy as an intellectual landmark, one of those rare books that succeed in altering the intellectual climate. Without it, it is hard to imagine Friedman and Klein and others casually writing as they did.
In this sense, Walt and Mearsheimer offer a case study in the old truth that ideas have consequences. Language is the most intangible of things, yet the language we use determines the boundaries of the thinkable and, ultimately, the shape of the world we live in. Now we live in a world where it is possible to say in leading publications, without fear of censure, that Jews buy and pay for the U.S. Congress and American troops are sent to die in Israel’s wars. For that, Walt and Mearsheimer deserve their fair share of credit.
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