Last week John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt came here to Vienna, as well as to Frankfurt and Berlin, to promote the German-language version of their controversial book “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.” The two American academics had reason to expect a warmer reception than they had received back home, and true to expectations they filled lecture halls in all three cities, and bookshops are reporting brisk sales of their oeuvre.
But it may surprise some to hear that the reception Mearsheimer and Walt received was far from uniformly sympathetic. Indeed, more than a few book reviewers were nearly as harsh on the strange academic couple and their conspiratorial thesis as their American counterparts were when the book first came out.
Israel’s low reputation in Europe is well-known fact. While only a minority would actually endorse the destruction of the Jewish state, Israel is widely seen by many as the rogue state in the region. An infamous 2003 poll commissioned by the European Union showed that more than half of all Europeans regard Israel as the biggest threat to world peace.
As a consequence, most Europeans see the United States as being far too supportive of misguided Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, and of Israel itself. On a continent where antisemitic conspiracy theories have a long tradition in both rightist and leftist circles, Mearsheimer and Walt’s argument that a mostly Jewish lobby is behind American support for Israel would be expected to resonate.
However, while it is acceptable even in the highest political echelons to be somewhat anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian, open antisemitism is a strict taboo in post-Holocaust Europe. Critics of Israel have to constantly spell out that their target is the Jewish state itself, and not the Jewish people. Even so, they are often charged with crossing the line into old-fashioned anti-Jewish prejudice.
Mearsheimer and Walt’s book is not about Israel. It is about American politics, specifically about the allegedly nefarious role played by a mostly Jewish circle of people and organizations in the politics of a predominantly Christian nation. The charge that Jews manipulate non-Jews to further their own interests is so much part of antisemitic lore here in Europe that discussing such a thesis almost immediately requires addressing the issue of antisemitism.
That is what happened to Mearsheimer and Walt. In what seemed to be every interview and panel discussion, they were forced to address the charge that they were themselves antisemites, or at least giving ammunition to antiemites. In the interview I conducted with them in Vienna for my newspaper, Der Standard, the two authors themselves constantly returned to the theme of antisemitism, sounding defensive and at times snivelling.
They repeated their argument that their book was not about Jews, but about the workings of political lobbies in American politics. But that argument will ring false in New York, let alone in places like Austria and Germany where the obsession with Jewish power has a long and terrible history.
While there are plenty of people who will use the book to reaffirm their belief that, to quote Mel Gibson, “Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world,” mainstream readers of political non-fiction will at least be concerned that they might be seen as antisemites if they identify too closely with Mearsheimer and Walt’s thesis.
Even when it came to the issue of the Iraq war, the academics’ Jewish spin has tended to dampen the impact of their message in Europe. There is a near consensus here on the view that the Bush administration’s decision to go to war was at a minimum foolish and perhaps even criminal, and that the neoconservatives are largely to blame for that decision. But once you equate that group with the Israel Lobby, as Mearsheimer and Walt have done, the Iraq war gets tied up with the darkest sides of Europe’s own history.
Take what happened to Austria’s leading news magazine, Profil, when it published a cover story on Mearsheimer and Walt a few weeks before the launch of the book’s German-language version. The magazine’s attempts to seriously discuss the influence of the pro-Israeli lobby in Washington on American policy in the Middle East were overshadowed by their provocative headline: “Why is Israel so powerful?”, with the subtitle, “Or is it already antisemitic to ask?”
Yes it is, came the answer — even from more than a few people who rarely rise in defence of Israel.
If Mearsheimer and Walt would have written a more balanced and better-researched book, it possibly could have had a bigger impact on European mainstream thinking. The way it looks now, though, is that “The Israel Lobbby” will climb up the bestseller lists — its current ranking on Amazon.de is good, but not spectacular — but will then go the way of those freaky September 11 conspiracy books that blamed the terrorist attacks on the White House or on the CIA.
Perhaps a third of the European public is susceptible to covert antisemitic propaganda, and some of them will see their views confirmed by two respected American political scientists. But the rest will not be impressed.
Eric Frey is managing editor of the Vienna daily Der Standard.