The brouhaha over the dark power of the “Israel Lobby” has flared into a full-scale intellectual prairie war in the past few weeks. And boy, the fireworks couldn’t be more riveting.
The debate, long simmering in dank corners of Paris and London, entered the American mainstream last March with the publication of a paper by two professors from Harvard and the University of Chicago. The professors’ thesis, alert readers recall, is that a sprawling “lobby” of like-minded groups and individuals has distorted America’s Middle East policy, dragged us into war with Iraq and thwarted open, honest debate of our nation’s policies and interests. So powerful is this lobby, the authors wrote, that their own paper couldn’t be published in this country and had to appear in a British journal.
Since then it’s been quoted and defended everywhere from Mother Jones to The New York Times, debated before a packed audience at New York’s revered Cooper Union and lately republished in the respected quarterly Middle East Policy. It’s also landed a prestigious book contract for the professors, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. What better proof of the Lobby’s power to quash dissent?
Pro-Israel activists have given back as good as they’ve got. Stung by the antisemitic undertones in the claim that they stifle debate, they’ve been working overtime to keep those who hold such views from speaking in public. In the past two weeks alone, Jewish protests have helped to cancel appearances in New York by an Australian author at the French mission and by a New York University historian at the Polish consulate and at a Catholic college in the Bronx. (See news story, Page 4.) That ought to stop those rumors about Jews stifling debate.
The NYU historian, Tony Judt, is now a cause celebre in his own right. One of two panelists to take Mearsheimer’s side at Cooper Union last month, his name was already mud in pro-Israel circles, mostly because of his 2003 essay in the New York Review of Books arguing that Israel was an “anachronism” and would probably end up a binational Jewish-Arab state. A quick Web search for his name turns up entries like “Tony Judt’s Jihad Against Israel.” Lately he’s become a dinner-table name, attacked as an enemy by the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and a host of others.
“I find the whole thing, in the end, depressing,” Judt told the Forward this week. “Antisemitism is a real thing, and it’s a serious thing. I’ve written about it and I care about it. So to find myself attacking the ADL for implicitly accusing people of antisemitism — it seems, well, upside down.”
His complaint about the ADL stems from the Polish consulate affair. Press accounts suggest that the ADL and AJC had a hand in the cancellation of his speech. Judt says the ADL was doing precisely what Mearsheimer and Walt claim it does, muzzling dissent.
The ADL replies on its Web site that Judt’s complaint is simply “part and parcel of Judt’s conspiratorial ideas about pro-Israel groups and ‘Jewish control’ of U.S. foreign policy.”
For the record, they’re both wrong. The ADL’s role in the consulate flap was little more than to call and ask what the event was about, according to both ADL and the consulate. Told that a room had been loaned to an outside group, the league said thanks and backed off. The consul-general then Googled Judt to find out what the fuss was about and concluded that the controversial historian was not someone Poland’s New York consulate needed to be associated with, given Poland’s sensitivities about Jewish sensitivities.
On the other hand, ADL indignation over Judt’s “conspiratorial ideas” is wildly misplaced. The only time he has publicly discussed conspiracies or “Jewish control” of American policy was in a 2005 essay in The Nation, in which he flatly condemned such notions as “anti-Semitism.”
His reputation as an Israel-basher rests almost entirely on that one essay in 2003, “Israel: The Alternative.” In it he wrote that the scope of Israel’s West Bank settlements had made the old partition idea of separate Jewish and Arab states in Palestine nearly impossible. Dismantling settlements and separating the two peoples was no longer conceivable. The only alternatives left were mass expulsion of the Palestinians or a single state in all of the land of Israel, which would inevitably be binational. He was not advocating a binational state, he says. It was an observation.
Would he have written the same essay now, after seeing Israel withdraw from Gaza? “I might have written some things differently,” he said. “A lot of my friends still believe that a two-state solution is possible. I’m more pessimistic, I guess.”
He wouldn’t have changed the word “anachronism,” though. “As a historian, I do believe that nation-states based on ethnicity are an anachronism.” But, he added quickly, “you can be an anachronism and still have a perfect right to exist.”
Does he think Israel’s existence is morally wrong? “Good God, no,” he said. “Of course I don’t believe that.”
Judt is a complicated figure. Born in London in 1948, he served as national secretary of the Labor Zionist youth group Dror and spent much of his teens on a kibbutz. He has written extensively about European antisemitism. He served for a time as a judge on the Koret Jewish book awards. Over the years, though, he has become deeply disenchanted with what he calls “Israeli misbehavior” in the West Bank and Gaza. He says he no longer feels close to Israel, as he once did.
Up to a point, that is. “I can’t pretend that it’s not connected to me,” he said of Israel. “I have relatives there. I used to know it well. I feel almost as I would if it were my own country that were misbehaving. I care about it more than I do about other countries.”
What, then, was he doing on the stage at Cooper Union, defending Mearsheimer? Here Judt starts to sound uncomfortable and to pick his words carefully. “I didn’t see myself as defending him,” he said.
Mearsheimer’s critics observe that he has a way of conflating pro-Israel lobbying groups with institutions like The New York Times that happen to accept Israel’s right to exist and happen to look Jewish. Judt doesn’t argue the point. “I saw it as crucial to put some space between myself and his paper,” he said. “The one crucial thing is that this is about forcing open the conversation.”
Judt argues that antisemitism should not be the first objection raised in a debate like this, but the last. “Once you raise the issue of antisemitism, further discussion is silenced. Antisemitism becomes the only question addressed,” he said. “I’m not worried about the fate of Jews in this country. This is not Germany in 1938. What I worry about is the state of conversation in this country.”
The conversation Judt wants brought into the open — the one point that Mearsheimer and Walt may have gotten right — is about America’s proper role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel is one of the important irritants in our relationship with the Muslim world. It’s not the whole problem, but it’s a big part of it. Lowering the heat in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would go a long way toward reducing the growing international conflict between the West and the Muslim world. America could make a big difference, if it would nudge Israel harder toward those “painful concessions” that are the key to a solution. Israel and its advocates, naturally, want Jerusalem left free to make its own decisions.
Which brings Judt to the Lobby. “In the end,” he said, “there are lots of lobbies that use all sorts of tactics to influence policy — the oil lobby, the chemical lobby. The one thing that’s distinctive about the Israel lobby is that part of its agenda is to silence criticism of itself.”
And that is where Tony Judt, for all his protestations, comes closest to conspiracy theory. Like many critics of Israel, he’s been stunned and infuriated by the tsunami of hate mail and formal protest he’s encountered since his infamous 2003 essay. He can’t believe it’s a spontaneous outpouring of rage from angry fellow Jews. Instead, he’s convinced himself it’s orchestrated by big Jewish organizations.
But it isn’t. It’s the grass roots screaming at him. The anti-Judt postings on the Internet aren’t from the ADL but from bloggers and militants. American Jews by the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, live in daily fear for the fate of Israel and of the Jewish people. When they see a threat, or the shadow of a threat, they shout.
Judt used to know that; he wrote about it, with some sympathy, in his 2003 New York Review essay. But, like so many others who’ve run afoul of Jewish militants, he seems bruised these days, too weary to draw distinctions.
There is an important, even urgent conversation to be had about Israel, America and the scary new Middle East. It’s not an easy conversation to begin. It’s not clear that Judt and the bedfellows he’s chosen are making the discussion any easier.
Another long silence on the phone. “Maybe not,” Judt said quietly.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).