Jews may be the People of the Book, but this book?
That was a question on some minds when Stephen Walt, co-author of a controversial paper criticizing the role of the “Israel Lobby” in American foreign policy, made a presentation at this year’s 9th Annual Jewish Book Network conference. The event, which is run by the Jewish Book Council, connects authors with directors at the nearly 100 sites that host Jewish book programs, including JCCs, synagogues, Hillels, Jewish federations, synagogues and other related organizations.
Walt — who penned the paper with co-author John Mearsheimer — had come to hawk the book-length version of their findings to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, in September.
“Both I and my co-author are pro-Israel,” he said on Tuesday evening, in front of the audience gathered at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. “Our book does not question Israel’s right to exist, and we make clear that lobbying for Israel is as American as apple pie. But we also argue that some organizations advocate policies out of step with the broader community for which they claim to speak.”
Walt made his remarks at the Jewish Book Council’s “Meet the Authors” program, a sort of speed-dating for the literary set, in which each presenter is given two minutes to expound on his or her book before an audience of event coordinators from around the country. After the conference, coordinators put in requests for those authors deemed most suitable for their particular communities. According to the council’s Web site, in order to participate in the “Meet the Author” event, writers must complete an application process, which includes a participation fee and the submission of approximately 85 copies of his or her book.
At a time when publishing houses no longer devote adequate resources to marketing their authors, the council has stepped in to fill the void — and, in the process, has become a commanding force in the world of letters. Inside broad parameters of propriety, the council does not screen authors for participation, said Executive Director Carolyn Hessel, but derives its power instead by offering authors an unprecedented networking opportunity.
“We cannot act as judge and jury for these diverse Jewish communities—many of which are west of the Hudson River,” Hessel said. “We would be undemocratic if we did. We try to bring them a plethora of titles with a wide array of topics, and to let them decide who they want to bring it in.”
Walt and Mearsheimer first published their paper in the March 23 edition of the London Review of Books. The paper — which argues that America’s “unwavering support for Israel… has inflamed Arab and Islamic opinion and jeopardised not only U.S. security but that of much of the rest of the world” — has sparked a wide range of responses among scholars, pundits and former diplomats. Some have called it the stuff of conspiracy theory and antisemitism, while others have praised it as a welcome foray into a subject often thought to be taboo.
For their part, many of the coordinators at Tuesday’s event seemed unfamiliar with the controversy — a fact that could work in the scholars’ favor.
“We definitely think it’s a good market for the book,” said Laurel Cook, assistant director for publicity at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, in an interview with the Forward. “The JCCs are such great places for any author to go to.”
Cook said that the council had invited Walt to attend the conference, but Hessel and others dismissed this version, arguing that authors and their publishers ask — and pay —to attend.
“Our audience knows that the Jewish Book Council is not making a statement by presenting any of these authors,” said Miryam Pomerantz, program director at the Jewish Book Council. “We are merely giving them a forum for them to choose.”
Event coordinators agreed, arguing that it was their right to choose what worked best for their own audiences.
“Each of the communities look for different things,” said Staci Weininger, director of the book festival at the Marcus JCC in Atlanta. “What works in one might not work in another.”
Marilyn Hassid, arts and culture program director of the JCC of Houston, recalled the time she hosted left-wing Israeli historian Tom Segev. The event was a success — it brought in a crowd of 700 people — though Hassid added that it was also the only time in her history as a book fair coordinator that she was almost physically assaulted.
“We are seeking books of interest to Jewish community,” Hassid said. “We don’t go looking to stir the pot, but sometimes things do.”
“This is a discussion we have every year on regular basis with our lay leaders,” said Andrea Miller, director of the Rochester Jewish Film Festival. “At what point are we editing what community will see? Does this book or film go too far? Is it information worthwhile for the community to have?”
After his presentation, Walt stayed to mingle with coordinators over dinner. But whether he’s convinced any of them to invite him to their venues this fall is still up in the air.
“They are told very explicitly that they are not to make any requests until mid-June,” Pomerantz said. “He was definitely engaged in conversations, but all of the authors were.”