The extended controversy over a paper by two professors, "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," is prying the lid off a debate that has been bottled up for decades.
Routinely, the American news media have ignored or pilloried any strong criticism of Washington's massive support for Israel. But the paper and an article based on it by respected academics John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt, academic dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, first published March 23 in the London Review of Books, are catalysts for some healthy public discussion of key issues.
The first mainstream media reactions to the paper - often with the customary name-calling - were mostly efforts to shut down debate before it could begin. Early venues for vituperative attacks on the paper included the op-ed pages of the Los Angeles Times ("nutty"), the Boston Herald (headline: "Anti-Semitic Paranoia at Harvard") and The Washington Post (headline: "Yes, It's Anti-Semitic").
But other voices have emerged, on the airwaves and in print, to bypass the facile attacks and address crucial issues. If this keeps up, the uproar over what Mr. Mearsheimer and Mr. Walt had to say could invigorate public discourse about Washington's policies toward a country that consistently has received a bigger U.S. aid package for a longer period than any other nation.
In April, syndicated columnist Molly Ivins put her astute finger on a vital point. "In the United States, we do not have full-throated, full-throttle debate about Israel," she wrote. "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. ... 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. And I wonder if that doesn't produce the same result: giving up on the discussion."
The point rings true, and it's one of the central themes emphasized by Mr. Mearsheimer and Mr. Walt.
If the barriers to democratic discourse can be overcome, the paper's authors say, the results could be highly beneficial: "Open debate will expose the limits of the strategic and moral case for one-sided U.S. support and could move the U.S. to a position more consistent with its own national interest, with the interests of the other states in the region, and with Israel's long-term interests as well."
Outsized support for Israel has been "the centerpiece of U.S. Middle Eastern policy," the professors contend - and the Israel lobby makes that support possible. "Other special-interest groups have managed to skew America's foreign policy, but no lobby has managed to divert it as far from what the national interest would suggest," the paper says. One of the consequences is that "the United States has become the de facto enabler of Israeli expansion in the occupied territories, making it complicit in the crimes perpetrated against the Palestinians."
In the United States, "the lobby's campaign to quash debate about Israel is unhealthy for democracy," Mr. Mearsheimer and Mr. Walt assert. They point to grave effects on the body politic: "The inability of Congress to conduct a genuine debate on these important issues paralyzes the entire process of democratic deliberation."
While their paper overstates the extent to which pro-Israel pressures determine U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, a very powerful lobby for Israel clearly has enormous leverage in Washington. And the professors make a convincing case that the U.S. government has been much too closely aligned with Israel - to the detriment of human rights, democracy and other principles that are supposed to constitute American values.
The failure to make a distinction between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel routinely stifles public debate. When convenient, pro-Israel groups in the United States will concede that it's possible to oppose Israeli policies without being anti-Semitic. Yet many of Israel's boosters reflexively pull out the heavy artillery of charging anti-Semitism when their position is challenged.
Numerous American Jewish groups dedicated to supporting Israel are eager to equate Israel with Judaism. Sometimes they have the arrogance to depict the country and the religion as inseparable. For example, in April 2000, a full-page United Jewish Appeal ad in The New York Times proclaimed: "The seeds of Jewish life and Jewish communities everywhere begin in Israel."
Like many other American Jews who grew up in the 1950s and '60s, I went door to door with blue-and-white UJA cans to raise money for planting trees in Israel. I heard about relatives who had died in concentration camps during the Holocaust two decades earlier and about relatives who had survived and went to Israel. In 1959, my family visited some of them, on a kibbutz and in Tel Aviv.
The 1960 blockbuster movie Exodus dramatized the birth of Israel a dozen years earlier. As I remember, Arabs were portrayed in the picture as cold-blooded killers while the Jews who killed Arabs were presented as heroic fighters engaged in self-defense.
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The film was in sync with frequent media messages that lauded Jews for risking the perilous journey to Palestine and making the desert bloom, as though no one of consequence had been living there before.
The Six-Day War in June 1967 enabled Israel to expand the territory it controlled several times over, in the process suppressing huge numbers of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Their plights and legitimate grievances got little space in the U.S. media.
In 1969, the independent American journalist I. F. Stone expressed hope for "a reconstructed Palestine of Jewish and Arab states in peaceful coexistence." He contended that "to bring it about, Israel and the Jewish communities of the world must be willing to look some unpleasant truths squarely in the face. ... One is to recognize that the Arab guerrillas are doing to us what our terrorists and saboteurs of the Irgun, Stern and Haganah did to the British. Another is to be willing to admit that their motives are as honorable as were ours. As a Jew, even as I felt revulsion against the terrorism, I felt it justified by the homelessness of the surviving Jews from the Nazi camps and the bitter scenes when refugee ships sank, or sank themselves, when refused admission to Palestine.
"The best of Arab youth feels the same way; they cannot forget the atrocities committed by us against villages like Deir Yassin, nor the uprooting of the Palestinian Arabs from their ancient homeland, for which they feel the same deep ties of sentiment as do so many Jews, however assimilated elsewhere."
When I crossed the Allenby Bridge from Jordan into the West Bank 15 years ago, I spoke with a 19-year-old border guard who was carrying a machine gun. He told me that he'd emigrated from Brooklyn, N.Y., a few months earlier. He said the Palestinians should get out of his country.
In East Jerusalem, I saw Israeli soldiers brandishing rifle butts at elderly women in a queue. Some in the line reminded me of my grandmothers, only these women were Arab.
Today, visitors to the Web site of the Israeli human-rights group B'Tselem can find profuse documentation about systematic denial of Palestinian rights and ongoing violence in all directions. Since autumn 2000, in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, according to the latest figures posted, the number of Israelis killed by Palestinians has totaled 998 and the number of Palestinians killed by Israelis has totaled 3,466.
Overall, in the American news media, the horrible killings of Israelis by Palestinian suicide bombers get front-page and prime-time coverage while the horrible killings of Palestinians by Israelis get relatively scant and dispassionate coverage.
If the U.S. news media were to become committed to a single standard of human rights, the shift would transform public discourse about basic Israeli policies - and jeopardize the U.S. government's support for them. It is against just such a single standard that the epithet of "anti-Semitism" is commonly wielded. From the viewpoint of Israel and its supporters, the ongoing threat of using the label helps to prevent U.S. media coverage from getting out of hand. Journalists understand critical words about Israel to be hazardous to their careers.
In the real world, bigotry toward Jews and support for Israel have long been independent variables. For instance, as Oval Office tapes attest, President Richard M. Nixon was anti-Semitic and did not restrain himself from expressing that virulent prejudice in private. Yet he was a big admirer of the Israeli military and a consistent backer of Israel's government.
Now, the neoconservative agenda for the Middle East maintains the U.S. embrace of Israel with great enthusiasm. And defenders of that agenda often resort to timeworn tactics for squelching debate.
Last fall, when I met with editors at a newspaper in the Pacific Northwest, a member of the editorial board responded to my reference to neocons by declaring flatly that "neocon" is an "anti-Semitic" term. The absurd claim would probably amuse the most powerful neocons in the U.S. government's executive branch today, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, neither of whom is Jewish.
Over the past couple of decades, a growing number of American Jews have seen their way clear to oppose Israeli actions. Yet their voices continue to be nearly drowned out in major U.S. media outlets by Israel-right-or-wrong outfits such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee.
As with all forms of bigotry, anti-Semitism should be condemned. At the same time, these days, America's biggest anti-Semitism problem has to do with the misuse of the label as a manipulative tactic to short-circuit debate about Washington's alliance with Israel.