Scholars’ Attack on Pro-Israel Lobby Met With Silence

By Ori Nir

Published March 24, 2006, issue of March 24, 2006.
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WASHINGTON — In the face of one of the harshest reports on the pro-Israel lobby to emerge from academia, Jewish organizations are holding fire in order to avoid generating publicity for their critics.

Officials at Jewish organizations are furious over “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” a new paper by John Mearsheimer, a top international relations theorists based at the University of Chicago, and Stephen Walt, the academic dean of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. In their report — versions of which appear on the Kennedy School Web site and in the March 26 issue of the London Review of Books — the scholars depict “the Israel lobby” as a “loose coalition” of politicians, media outlets, research institutions, Jewish groups and Evangelical Christians that steers America’s Middle East policy in directions beneficial to Israel, even if it requires harming American interests.

Despite their anger, Jewish organizations are avoiding a frontal debate with the two scholars, while at the same time seeking indirect ways to rebut and discredit the scholars’ arguments. Officials with pro-Israel organizations say that given the limited public attention generated by the new study — as of Tuesday most major print outlets had ignored it — they prefer not to draw attention to the paper by taking issue with it head on. As of Wednesday morning, none of the largest Jewish organizations had issued a press release on the report.

“The key here is to not do what they probably want, which is to have this become a battle between us and them, or for them to say that they are being silenced,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “It’s much better to let others respond.”

Pro-Israel activists were planning a briefing for congressional staffers to be held Thursday. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are considering releasing a letter in response to the new paper, congressional staffers said.

Some of the arguments made in the new paper are reminiscent — both in content and style — of ones routinely found on virulently anti-Israeli Web sites, both on the extreme right and on the extreme left, pro-Israel activists said. For example, Mearsheimer and Walt argue that “the main driving force behind the [Iraq] war was a small band of neo-conservatives, many with ties to Likud”; Israel “is becoming a strategic burden” on the United States and “does not behave like a loyal ally”; “the U.S. has a terrorism problem in good part because it is so closely allied with Israel, not the other way around,” and that in Israel, “citizenship is based on the principle of blood kinship.” The paper argues that “thanks to the lobby, 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.”

Like no other lobby, Mearsheimer and Walt argue, pro-Israel forces have “managed to divert U.S. foreign policy as far from what the American national interest would otherwise suggest.” The tentacles of that lobby, the paper argues, reach far into Washington think tanks from the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution to the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute. It argues that pro-Israel views pervade the editorial boards of the liberal New York Times and the conservative Wall Street Journal.

The study left pro-Israel activists fuming, albeit behind the scenes. “The truth is that this really wouldn’t be worth spending any time discussing if not for the fact of where these people are located and what their reputations are,” said Ken Jacobson, associate national director of the Anti-Defamation League. He pointed out that the paper contains no new revelations or insights, is riddled with factual errors and makes arguments that the ADL is accustomed to dealing with from extremists on the margins of America’s political arena. Jacobson said that he had prepared a rebuttal to the study, but for the time being it is only being used for internal ADL purposes.

“In these kinds of things you’re always trying to debate how important will it be in terms of the impact, if you give it more attention,” he said. “The amount of attention we will give it will depend on how it plays out” in the public domain.

At least one leading pro-Israel luminary, Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz, author of “The Case for Israel,” is attempting to confront Walt and Mearsheimer. He has challenged the scholars to a debate; the two, prodded by Harvard’s campus newspaper The Crimson, accepted, “under the appropriate circumstances.”

Mearsheimer and Walt also seem to be resisting further publicity.

“I don’t have an agenda in the sense of viewing myself as proselytizing or trying to sell this,” Mearsheimer told the Forward. “I am a scholar, not an activist, and I am reticent to take questions from the media because I do believe that this is a subject that has to be approached very carefully. You don’t want to say the wrong thing. The potential for saying the wrong thing is very great here.”

Mearsheimer was hosted on National Public Radio Tuesday for a full hour, to talk about Iraq, but did not make any mention of the controversial paper he co-authored. “To have a throwaway line or two on public radio to promote yourself is a bad idea,” he told the Forward, following his NPR appearance. “I prefer to take the high road, although that is not always easy.” Since publication, Mearsheimeradded, he and Walt also turned down offers from major newspapers, radio and television networks to lay out their thesis.

The abstract of the report posted on the Kennedy School Web site appears to soft-pedal Mearsheimer and Walt’s argument. It states that the authors argue that America’s commitment to Israel is “often justified as reflecting shared strategic interests or compelling moral imperatives,” though in fact the report works to undercut the notion of Israel as a dependable ally that shares the values of the United States.

While the paper has generated little attention in the mainstream media or policymaking circles, it has produced a buzz within the academic community and among advocates on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Palestinian activists and Arab affairs scholars sent the article to many people by email, but the controversy rarely strayed beyond the realm of Internet blogs.

Several editors, foreign affairs reporters and columnists for major American newspapers contacted by the Forward did not know about the study. They didn’t sound especially interested when told about the report’s findings.

“We might take a look at it, to see if there is any interest from a lobbying point of view,” said David Meyers, managing editor of Roll Call, a Washington-based publication that covers Capitol Hill. A senior editor with one of America’s largest daily newspapers, who asked not to be quoted by name, said: “We don’t get excited about academic papers unless they tell us something new, and this one doesn’t.”

Given the relatively low publicity, pro-Israel activists said they are not worried about the short-term impact of the study. The main concern voiced by pro-Israel advocates was that the study would become a major archival resource on the role that American supporters of Israel play in shaping the government’s Middle East policy.

“We live in a Google age,” said Jennifer Laszlo-Mizrahi, a public relations expert who heads The Israel Project, an organization devoted to improving Israel’s image in the media, “and in this age things like this can take a life of their own.”

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