December 14, 2007
The Israel lobby-3: The tide turns against the lobby?
In the first post in this series, I looked at the main arguments made by John J. Mearsheimer and Steven M. Walt in their book The Israel Lobby and U. S. Foreign Policy. In the second post, I described how they defined the lobby and how it works. In this last post, I look at how their book has stimulated a closer examination of the work of the lobby and the policies it advocates.
The authors point out that despite the strenuous efforts of the lobby, the US public still generally wants a more even-handed approach to the Middle East but that this wish is ignored by the administration and Congress because of the ability of the lobby to influence actual policymakers. (p. 227)
The authors point out that the lobby does not even represent majority Jewish opinion in the US. Although the lobby played a key role in this country's decision to invade Iraq, surveys show that American Jews are opposed to that plan in even greater numbers than the general population. In 2005, 77% of American Jews were opposed to the Iraq war, compared with 52% of the American public. American Jews play prominent roles in the antiwar movement and in the opposition to the drive to attack Iran, another policy strongly favored by the lobby. In fact, many American Jews have been among those critical of the unconditional support that the US government provides Israel, which they feel has resulted in the Israeli government pursuing policies that are harmful to Israel and unjust towards Palestinians. The authors argue that members of the lobby are influential with the US policy establishment but are out-of-step with the average population of American Jews. (p. 243)
The reason that the lobby seems to be perceived as representing majority Jewish opinion in the US is that alternative Jewish groups that oppose the lobby's politics have had to fight the Israel lobby to make their voices heard. The lobby has been quite successful at silencing dissent within the Jewish community and shutting down even any discussion of the lobby's influence. Thus alternative groups face stiff opposition when they try to organize, often being accused of being anti-Israel, and the lobby strongly canvasses people within the Jewish community to reject those groups and not join them. American Jews who are critical of Israeli government policies are made to feel that they need to keep their criticisms 'inside the family,' that to voice them publicly is to be disloyal to Israel. This has resulted in the Israel lobby being able to give the misleading impression that they speak for most, if not all, American Jews.
For example, the authors point out how Kenneth Roth of the group Human Rights Watch was attacked when his group produced a report critical of Israel's use of cluster bombs in Lebanon. Roth was accused of making a 'blood libel', participating in the 'de-legitimization of Judaism' and employing 'a classic anti-Semitic stereotype about Jews.' This was despite the fact that not only is Roth Jewish but his father was a refugee from Nazi Germany (p. 329).
As Georgetown University law professor Rosa Brooks says "[W]hat's most troubling about the vitriol directed at Roth and his organization isn't that it's savage, unfounded and fantastical. What's most troubling is that it's typical. Typical, that is, of what anyone rash enough to criticize Israel can expect to encounter. In the United States today, it just isn't possible to have a civil debate about Israel, because any serious criticism of its policies is instantly countered with charges of anti-Semitism." (p. 329)
Mearsheimer and Walt argue that the reason for this swift and almost hysterical response to criticisms of the policies advocated by the lobby is because those policies cannot really withstand open scrutiny. The only way those policies can be implemented is if there is no debate at all either of the policies themselves or of the lobby that is agitating for them. This silencing strategy takes the form of alleging that those who raise such issues are either anti-Semitic or resurrecting the Protocols of the Elders of Zion or perpetuating the 'blood libel'. The point of making such allegations is not because they are credible but to shift the debate from the merits of the policies to the motives of the critics of the policy.
But such sweeping broad-brush characterizations of legitimate critics may now be backfiring. This tactic of trying to silence criticism with such rhetorical sledgehammers may have been taken too far. As Mearsheimer and Walt say:
Condemning neo-Nazis or Holocaust deniers is a worthy enterprise, but smearing respected individuals such as Jimmy Carter, Richard Cohen, Tony Kushner, or Tony Judt, or attacking progressive groups like the Union of Concerned Zionists, is something very different and disturbing. The more the lobby's hard-liners attack any and all critics, the more they reveal themselves to be out of step with the broad American commitment to free speech and open discussion. And once virtually any criticism of Israel becomes equated with anti-Semitism, the charge itself threatens to become meaningless. (p. 353)
Times are changing and the role of the lobby has become increasingly scrutinized and alternative voices are springing up. More and more American Jews are getting frustrated at the way the lobby acts as though it speaks for all of them and are looking for ways to voice alternative views. The discussion over the Mearsheimer and Walt book has definitely opened the doors to such a discussion.
For example, Philip Weiss, Tony Karon, Daniel Levy, and M. J. Rosenberg have all called for more open discussions about the role of both the lobby and Israel's policies. Murray Polner in an article titled We Aren’t One: American Jewish Voices for Peace lists a number of writers and groups that are becoming increasingly vocal in their distancing from the activities of the lobby.
It is in Israel that more cogent criticisms of the lobby can be found because the tactics used by the lobby to inhibit debate in the US simply will not work there. Uri Avnery gives a favorable review of the Mearsheimer and Walt book. Akiva Eldar, the chief political columnist and senior analyst for the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz and co-author of a new book critical of Israeli settlement policy called Lords of the Land: The Settlers and the State of Israel says that the lobby is even out of step with the reality on the ground and says that 70 out of 120 Knesset members want a two-state solution behind the 1967 boundaries but the Israel lobby in the US has strongly opposed this plan, favoring instead settlement policies that are becoming a huge stumbling block to any long-term solution.
Mearsheimer and Walt said that one of their main goals in writing their articles and book was to open up the broader debate on the role of the Israel lobby as a means to creating a more open debate on what US foreign policy should be in the volatile Middle East region.
It seems like they have succeeded.
POST SCRIPT: Mearsheimer on Colbert
One measure of whether a person or an idea has entered the broader culture is when it shows up on The Daily Show and/or The Colbert Report. John Mearsheimer appeared on the latter. It is a typically funny Colbert interview but also pretty good at hitting some of the main points raised in the book.