One of the consistent deformities in American policy debate has been challenged by a couple of professors, and the reaction proves their point so neatly it's almost funny.
A working paper by John Mearsheimer, professor of political science at the University of Chicago, and Stephen Walt, professor of international affairs at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, called "The Israel Lobby" was printed in the London Review of Books earlier this month. And all hell broke loose in the more excitable reaches of journalism and academe.
For having the sheer effrontery to point out the painfully obvious -- that there is an Israel lobby in the United States -- Mearsheimer and Walt have been accused of being anti-Semitic, nutty and guilty of "kooky academic work." Alan Dershowitz, who seems to be easily upset, went totally ballistic over the mild, academic, not to suggest pretty boring article by Mearsheimer and Walt, calling them "liars" and "bigots."
Of course there is an Israeli lobby in America -- its leading working group is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). It calls itself "America's Pro-Israel Lobby," and it attempts to influence U.S. legislation and policy.
Several national Jewish organizations lobby from time to time. Big deal -- why is anyone pretending this non-news requires falling on the floor and howling? Because of this weird deformity of debate.
In the United States, we do not have full-throated, full-throttle debate about Israel. In Israel, they have it as a matter of course, but the truth is that the accusation of anti-Semitism is far too often raised in this country against anyone who criticizes the government of Israel.
Being pro-Israel is no defense, as I long ago learned to my cost. Now I've gotten used to it. Jews who criticize Israel are charmingly labeled "self-hating Jews." As I have often pointed out, that must mean there are a lot of self-hating Israelis, because those folks raise hell over their own government's policies all the time.
I don't know that I've ever felt intimidated by the knee-jerk "you're anti-Semitic" charge leveled at anyone who criticizes Israel, but I do know I have certainly heard it often enough to become tired of it.
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And I wonder if that doesn't produce the same result: giving up on the discussion.
It's the sheer disproportion and the vehemence of the denunciations of those perceived as criticizing Israel that make the attacks so odious. Mearsheimer and Walt are both widely respected political scientists -- comparing their writing to "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion' is just silly.
Several critics have pointed out some flaws in the Mearsheimer-Walt paper, including a too-broad use of the term "Israel lobby" -- those of us who are pro-Israel differ widely -- and having perhaps overemphasized the clout of the Israel lobby by ignoring the energy lobby.
It seems to me the root of the difficulty has been Israel's inability first to admit the Palestinians have been treated unfairly and, second, to figure out what to do about it. Now here goes a big fat generalization, but I think many Jews are so accustomed (by reality) to thinking of themselves as victims, it is especially difficult for them to admit they have victimized others.
But the Mearsheimer-Walt paper is not about the basic conflict, but rather its effect on American foreign policy, and it appears to me the authors' arguments are unexceptional. Israel is the No. 1 recipient of American foreign aid, and it seems an easy case can be made that the United States has subjugated its own interests to those of Israel in the past.
Whether you agree or not, it is a discussion well worth having and one that should not be shut down before it can start by unfair accusations of "anti-Semitism." In a very equal sense, none of this is academic. The Israel lobby was overwhelmingly in favor of starting the war with Iraq and is now among the leading hawks on Iran.
To the extent that our interests do differ from those of Israel, the matter needs to be discussed calmly and fairly. This is not about conspiracies or plots or fantasies or anti-Semitism -- it's about rational discussion of American interests. And, in my case, being pro-Israel. I'm looking forward to hearing from all you nutjobs again.