The Israel Lobby

by Milton Viorst, October 4, 2007


About 30 or so years ago, when I first began to write of my concern that Israel was embarked on a course that would lead only to recurring wars, or perhaps worse, I received a letter from Abraham H. Foxman, then as now the voice of the Anti-Defamation League, admonishing me as a Jew not to wash our people's dirty linen in public. I still have it in my files. His point, of course, was not whether the washing should be public or private; he did not offer an alternative laundry. His objective was-and remains-to squelch anyone who is critical of Israel's policies.

In the ensuing years, Foxman and a legion of like-minded leaders, most but not all of them Jewish, have been remarkably successful in suppressing an open and frank debate on Israel's course. In view of Israel's impact on America's place in the world, it is astonishing how little discussion its role has generated. As a practical matter, the subject has been taboo. John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, professors of political science at the University of Chicago and Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, respectively, have challenged this taboo in their new book, "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy." Foxman, in an effort to discredit them, has written a rejoinder in his book "The Deadliest Lies: The Jewish Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control."

The controversy over Mearsheimer and Walt's views has been going on since March of last year, when they first presented their argument in the London Review of Books. In their essay, they contended that support of the magnitude that the United States gives Israel might have been justified during the Cold War but is not defensible, "on either strategic or moral grounds," under the conditions that currently prevail in the Middle East. America's unconditional backing, they argued, is harmful to its own interests and possibly even to Israel's, and it is made possible only by the influence of the Israel lobby over U.S. foreign policy. The article touched a sensitive chord among many of Israel's defenders, generating a furor. Now Mearsheimer and Walt have written a book which, while more comprehensive at nearly 500 pages, recapitulates the original themes. Foxman acknowledges basing his book-length reply on the article, so impatient was he to proclaim its authors guilty of "distortions, omissions and errors."

The late social critic Irving Howe, deeply committed to Israel himself, used to argue that Jewish leaders like Foxman depend for their status on ceaselessly trumpeting the dangers faced by the Jewish people, and particularly by Israel, from a hostile world. These leaders, Howe insisted, exploit the scars which inquisitions, pogroms and the Holocaust have left on the collective Jewish psyche, scars which distort Jewish political judgment. Foxman is no doubt sincere in agonizing over the dangers that Jews have historically faced. But Howe argued that these dangers had become a vested interest for the leaders of Jewish organizations, making an open and honest debate all but impossible in American Jewish circles and in America's political culture generally.

Foxman does not quite accuse Mearsheimer and Walt-though other disapproving critics do-of being anti-Semitic. But he uses intimidating language nonetheless, pointing to a "level of quiet, subtle bigotry-an attitude that may not run to the actual hatred of Jews but that assumes that Jews are somehow different, less respectable, less honorable, more treacherous, more devious than other people. ... [I]t's only natural that people who exhibit this kind of bias against Jews should look a little askance at the special relationship that exists between American Jews and the nation of Israel."

One can admit the legitimacy of Foxman's warnings on anti-Semitism and still ask for the evidence of "subtle bigotry" in the Mearsheimer-Walt text. I found none, unless the reader accepts the premise that anti-Semitism is present in any scrutiny of relations between the U.S. government and American Jews, or the Israel lobby. Foxman says the authors' objective is to make Israel into a "pariah" state, though nothing that they write reveals such a goal. On the contrary, Mearsheimer and Walt recognize lobbies-all lobbies-as a legitimate part of the American political system, existing to shape or shift policy in the interest of the various causes they serve. Foxman, backed by quotes from such dubious authorities as Dennis Ross, an ex-U.S. ambassador and a vigorous defender of official Israeli views, seeks to attribute something sinister to their motives.

Without question, Mearsheimer and Walt have written less a work of political science than a brief for their position. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as they maintain the standards of scholarship incumbent on their craft, which exhaustive footnotes of more than a hundred pages suggest strongly that they do. Some of their critics, ill at ease with the charge of anti-Semitism or "subtle bigotry," have accused them of being "unbalanced," in omitting the sins of "the other side." By their nature, briefs are not balanced, but in this case the accusation seems doubly contrived. Assuming that the Palestinians or radical Muslims are "the other side," the critics can scarcely claim that the literature is not already overflowing with negative evaluations, readily at hand in any library or bookstore. The objective of Mearsheimer and Walt is to break new scholarly ground, which is what academics are supposed to do. Their findings will come as no surprise to those familiar with American political institutions, but, judging by the reverberations of the Foxman line, they have ignited panic by daring to put so much of the available material on the public record.

That is not to say that Mearsheimer and Walt do not leave a great deal of room for disagreement: for example, their contention, presented in a discussion of Israel's role in instigating the invasion of Iraq, that "absent the lobby's influence, there almost certainly would not have been a war." Surely the American decision to invade Iraq, like most of history's grand events, arose out of a confluence of causes, no single one of which would have sufficed to bring it about. Here are just a few of those causes: oil, the rebound to 9/11, President Bush's relations with his father, concern over free navigation in the Persian Gulf, a sense of Christian mission, the Pentagon's hunger for Middle East bases to provide "forward thrust" for American power. Moreover, many in decision-making circles swallowed Bush's claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, and a few may even have believed that we had a moral duty to liberate Iraqis from Saddam's heartless tyranny. Though we know now there were no WMD, much less plans to improve the life of the Iraqis, each of these considerations played a part in generating the momentum to invade. _As for the Israel lobby, no doubt it weighed in during the deliberations. Israel's fears of Iraq, though exaggerated, were surely real. But the lobby's power was only marginal on President Bush and his entourage of neocons who long before had made up their minds. On this matter, the authors overstate their case. The Israel lobby was a player in the discussion on going to war, but there is little evidence to regard its role as decisive.

Indeed, it is not clear whether Mearsheimer and Walt fully understand what the Israel lobby is. At its apex, of course, is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Washington-based organization whose power strikes fear in the executive branch and, even more so, in Congress. AIPAC is complemented by a constellation of satellites, among them the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the American Jewish Committee and Foxman's own Anti-Defamation League. Their agenda seeks not only to assure Israel's survival but to pursue particular partisan policies. They function, in effect, as the U.S. arm of Likud, serving Israel's right wing in rejecting the exchange of land for peace with the Arabs, in standing up for the Jewish settlements that blanket the territories conquered in 1967, in condoning the mistreatment of the Palestinians of the occupied lands, whose life grows more onerous each day.

But Mearsheimer and Walt go on to add to their taxonomic mix such groups as Americans for Peace Now, the Israel Policy Forum and the Tikkun Community, on the grounds that they also support Israel. They do, of course, but their values are precisely the opposite of the AIPAC coalition's. They argue for peace with the Arabs, while casting doubt on the hard-line position-encouraged by the Bush administration-that only military superiority will guarantee Israel's security. Their point of departure, to be sure, is not so much America's strategic interests as Zionism in the old-fashioned sense, i.e. the survival of a humane, secular and democratic Jewish state. But their politics lead them to conclusions about relations with Israel's U.S. patron that are much like those of Mearsheimer and Walt.

These groups are much smaller than the AIPAC coalition, and have far more modest budgets, but most polls suggest their goals are consistent with the vision held by a majority of American Jews. Despite the ceaseless efforts of Foxman and his allies, many Jews who have thought hard about how best to assure Israel's survival have rejected the call to march in lock step with Israel's hard-liners. I would add that Mearsheimer and Walt, by calling the AIPAC alliance the "Israel lobby" or the "pro-Israel lobby," perpetuate a misnomer in all but ignoring the peace groups. It would be more accurate to call AIPAC's coalition the "right-wing Israel lobby," which might at least provoke Israel's friends, Jewish and non-Jewish, to examine whether AIPAC's effort might not actually be harmful to Israel's long-term well-being.

What is impossible to dispute is that the AIPAC coalition, by its own standards, has been hugely successful, starting with imposing a kind of political omerta in the consideration of Israeli policies. Its promotion of silence zeroes in heavily on Congress, whose members seem especially vulnerable to its muscle. A prominent senator once told me he long ago gave up arguing against AIPAC's orthodoxy and now signs on to anything it puts on his desk. Over the decades, AIPAC has used the money at its disposal to influence electoral campaigns that have defeated more than a few senators and congressmen who have had the temerity to break the taboo. Their loss has served as a lesson that intimidates the rest.

But money is not AIPAC's only weapon. Brilliantly organized, AIPAC counts on sympathizers nationwide to deluge Congress, as well as the media, with its messages. It is an adage of democratic politics that intensity of feeling trumps the sentiments of passive majorities, as revealed by polls. In this, AIPAC is not alone. The gun lobby is another example. The producer of an evening news program in which I made a critical remark about Israeli policy informed me that the next morning the station had received a record number of denunciatory e-mails. He has since stopped inviting me on the show.

Today, a campaign is being waged against Rep. James Moran, an anti-war Democrat from Virginia, who has occasionally questioned Israel's course. Moran, said to hold a "safe" seat, dared in a recent interview on Iraq to say that "Jewish Americans as a voting bloc and as an influence on foreign policy are overwhelmingly opposed to the war. ... But AIPAC is the most powerful lobby and has pushed this war from the beginning. ... Their influence is dominant in the Congress." Then, in a zinger, he added that AIPAC's members were often "quite wealthy," a characterization that makes Jews wince. Moran's words elicited attacks by both Republicans and Democrats, demonstrating not that he had conveyed any falsehood but that neither political party, with an eye to the next election, is willing to provoke AIPAC's ire.

Yet, even taking money and organization into account, there remains something of a mystery about the influence that AIPAC and its allies wield. In contrast to AIPAC, the gun lobby is routinely called upon to defend itself. But AIPAC's task, it seems, is easier, because non-Jews, no less than Jews, unquestioningly accept its marching orders. Why, when it comes to AIPAC, do so many Americans abandon the skepticism they apply to other interests within the political spectrum? Europe is much less accommodating to Israel. AIPAC, naturally, blames the difference on Europe's anti-Semitism, though-apart from Europe's Muslims, who start with political grievances against Israel-there is little evidence to support its theory. Mearsheimer and Walt credit AIPAC's skillful manipulation of the system, but the search for an answer needs more.

Perhaps the answer has something to do with America's being the most religious, the most Christian, the most church-going society in the Western world. Once upon a time, deeply held Christian faith could be taken as a measure of hostility to Jews; that certainly is the case no longer. If anything, American Christianity-led by but not exclusive to evangelicals-seems to take the biblical promise of a homeland for the Jews as a test of its beliefs and a commitment of its own. This commitment goes beyond guaranteeing Israel's existence. It provides a body of sympathy for Israel's hard line, and for the economic aid and weaponry that the United States dispatches to support it.

Unfortunately, the pro-peace segment of the American Jewish community does not have a parallel lobby. It has a few organizations, with dedicated adherents. Its members try to persuade the American Jewish community that reaching out to the Arab world, and particularly to the Palestinians, is better for Israel than perpetual war. AIPAC does its best to de-legitimize them, but they hang in stubbornly, though they are barely a whisper in the debate over Israel's course. Despite the polls suggesting that many Jews agree with them, the influence of the peace groups is no threat to AIPAC's pre-eminence. It is ironic that without Foxman and the like-minded critics who echo him, the Mearsheimer-Walt book might well have vanished with barely a ripple. Instead, their shrill voices have propelled it onto best-seller lists. Whether the book's success means, however, that the American people and the politicians who lead them are readier than before to seriously consider the issues that it raises is still far from clear.


Milton Viorst, a former correspondent for The New Yorker, has written six books on the Middle East. His most recent is "Storm from the East: The Struggle between the Arab World and the Christian West."

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