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The Wrong Guys

Critics of Israel often complain that when they try to speak out on the Middle East, they are effectively silenced: Jewish organizations and individual Jewish activists target them for public scorn and blacklisting, denying them an audience and delegitimizing them. The message put out is that those who fail to toe the official pro-Israel line are labeled as enemies and cast out.

These folks have a case. Major Jewish organizations, including centrist as well as hard-line groups, regularly use their clout to narrow the scope of acceptable public debate on Israel. They cast their net wide, indiscriminately targeting independent-minded allies of Israel along with its sworn enemies. Many pro-Israel dissenters have walked away feeling deeply bruised and disillusioned.

Lately, however, some of Israel’s critics have started learning a few tricks themselves — and rather than enriching the conversation, they are choosing to further muddy it. There are substantial numbers of true moderates in this country who believe deeply in the need for Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. They struggle to make their voices heard in a hostile political and communal environment, and they naturally look for spokesmen who can capture the public’s attention and help unite and mobilize the peace camp — including, most recently, scholars Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer. We are sympathetic to this quest for leadership, but after firsthand experience of these scholars’ definition of “opening the debate,” we feel compelled to speak up: They’re the wrong guys.

The trick follows a typical pattern. Step one: Publish your views in as provocative a manner as possible. Use words like “apartheid,” as Jimmy Carter did in his book, or paint Jewish lobbying efforts in darkly conspiratorial terms, as Walt and Mearsheimer did in a paper published last year. Step two: Dare the Jewish community to lash out at you, then whine about being victimized by bullies. Step three: Implore fair-minded liberals to line up behind you, forcing them to choose between endorsing your vision — however skewed — or becoming part of the censorship juggernaut.

It’s been a pattern with these two since the beginning. When their original paper, “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” first appeared, they claimed that it couldn’t be published in the United States, and so they were forced to release it in a British journal, the London Review of Books (and simultaneously on the Harvard Web site, by the way). “Couldn’t be published here,” as it turned out, meant that they had been commissioned by one magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, but when the 16,000-word manuscript was turned in, it was rejected. And so they gave up on America.

After the paper appeared in London and on the Harvard site, the Los Angeles Times offered to publish a shortened version. The professors turned that down, apparently fearful of jeopardizing their martyr status. Once they’d milked the furor to the limit, they had it published in the respected Washington-based Middle East Policy. Then Farrar, Straus and Giroux, one of the country’s most prestigious publishing houses, came calling. The book is due out September 4, rounding out a campaign of “censorship” that would make most authors green with envy.

We ourselves didn’t realize there was a Step Four — until this past week, when the two ratcheted up their efforts. As part of the advance marketing campaign, the scholars asked to appear before a variety of Jewish audiences, including synagogues and a Jewish community center. They were, predictably, turned down.

Then the Forward was approached. We were asked to sponsor a program at which the professors would present their views, unopposed. Noting that we hadn’t thought much of the paper when it came out, we were assured that the authors had now incorporated last year’s criticisms. We asked to see a copy of the book, but we found it as sloppy as the original paper and decided not to endorse it. All of which played right into their hands, enabling them to argue that the Lobby is still working to suppress their views — with the Forward as Exhibit A.

The Forward’s opinion of their work could not have come as a surprise to them. We published our critique last year in a front-page editorial, the longest editorial in the newspaper’s history.

The professors’ basic argument is that America’s support for Israel is an anomaly. Israel’s origins and behavior are so reprehensible, they wrote, that “neither strategic nor moral arguments can account for America’s support for Israel.” No, it’s all because of the influence of the “Israel Lobby.” There is, they cautioned, nothing illicit about lobbying. Lobbying is part of American democracy. But the Israel Lobby has “a stranglehold on the U.S. Congress,” controls key access to the executive branch and suppresses dissent throughout society. Its “not surprising” goal, they wrote, is to weaken Israel’s enemies to the point that “Israel gets a free hand with the Palestinians, and the United States does most of the fighting, dying, rebuilding, and paying.”

More shocking, considering the professors’ distinguished resumes — Walt was academic dean of the Kennedy School at Harvard, Mearsheimer a leading foreign policy expert at the University of Chicago — was their shoddy research. They invented historical facts. They twisted quotes. David Ben-Gurion was cited as having stated in 1937 that he opposed the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states — drawn from a famous speech in which he went on to say that, nonetheless, partition was the best that Zionism could hope for and should be seized with open arms. Paul Wolfowitz was said to have been described by the Forward as “the most hawkishly pro-Israel neocon in the administration — this from a 2002 article citing the “hawkishly pro-Israel” image as conventional Washington wisdom that was proved wrong that week, when Wolfowitz was booed by a pro-Israel crowd for defending Palestinian rights.

Most of the paper’s flaws survive in the book, but the longer format allowed the introduction of whole new stretches of substandard work. To take but one example, a new section had been added, detailing Israel’s supposed efforts to push America into confrontation with various Muslim states. One whole chapter is devoted to Syria, which is supposedly quarantined by Washington because Israel wants it so. In fact, as the Israeli press has reported extensively, Israel’s military, intelligence and political leadership has endorsed peace talks with Syria almost unanimously for more than a year, but the Bush administration has vetoed the idea because of Washington’s hostility toward Syria. But Mearsheimer and Walt deliberately chose to ignore these details, evincing the same sort of tunnel vision they claim to deplore.

“The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy” is not a good book, and it does no service to those who truly crave a more robust debate in this country. Still, if the Forward had been asked to participate in a debate with the professors, we would have done so happily. Helping them to market their book was a different story. But that’s the genius of the victimhood game: If you’ve been rejected, you’ve won in the court of public opinion.

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