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Robert D. Kaplan’s deification of John J. Mearsheimer in The Atlantic last week shows that the authors of The Israel Lobby are winning

Adam Kirsch
January 18, 2012
(Illustration from Google Image Search for "israel lobby")
(Illustration from Google Image Search for "israel lobby")

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.

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.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.