Among the (many) things that John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt get wrong in their controversial book, “The Israel Lobby,” is their characterization of the American Jewish community. According to their understanding, there’s a substantial contrast between the policies “the lobby” espouses and the more dovish views of the community at large. For the most part, as they see it, the lobby opposes a two-state solution to the chronic conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, while most American Jews very much favor such a solution. To make that case, they examine and contrast the statements of leading elements of the lobby and the results of many public opinion surveys of American Jews.
It’s worth noting that their definition of the lobby shifts during the course of their analysis. Mostly, they mean the lobby to refer to those activists who argue for unconditional American support for Israel. But now and then, when their polemic requires it, they mean only those within the lobby who oppose a two-state solution (which they themselves, by the way, endorse). That definitional muddle is made necessary by their insistence that such organizations as Americans for Peace Now, which they include as part of the lobby — even Americans for Peace Now — have always favored a two-state solution but have at the same time opposed linkage of American support to Israeli policy.
What Mearsheimer and Walt miss entirely — and who can blame them? — is the very substantial psychic dissonance with which very many Jews live. On the one hand, the bulk of America’s Jews do indeed hold relatively dovish views. They are uncomfortable with the expansion of Jewish settlement in the West Bank, they favor a two-state solution and they are now and then troubled by some of the specific ways (e.g., targeted assassination) that Israel employs in its effort to enhance its security. At the same time, they cling tightly to any plausible rationalization put forward by the Israeli government or “the lobby” that can explain away Israel’s mistakes, excesses, blunders. And most of all they do not want their private doubts mirrored in the halls of Congress, the conference rooms of the State Department, and the Oval Office itself. So they gleefully accept that Israel “has no partner for peace,” or that “Jerusalem is the eternal and undivided capital of the Jewish state,” or that the death of Palestinians or Lebanese innocents during wartime is the fault of those who do not hesitate to use civilians as “human shields” to protect their fighters.
Once, years ago, I was the third of three keynote speakers at a Jewish meeting. Those who attended the meeting were treated, on the first day, to an eloquent presentation by Abba Eban, among Israel’s most durable and persistent doves. On the second day, the principal speaker was Bibi Netanyahu, ever the hawk. My own talk was not until the third day, and when I arrived it was natural for me to ask the organizers of the event with whom the audience had seemed to agree, Eban or Netanyahu. The reply? Ninety percent of the audience agreed 100% with both.
That curious endorsement of opposites is less a consequence of a muddled understanding than it is of a fervent — and sometimes even desperate — wish to think well, very well, of Israel. So much hope and prayer and blood, too, have gone into the rebirth of the Jewish home that American Jews want to protect Israel not only in the public square but also inside their own heads and hearts. And most surely, when their hearts ache or their heads hurt from all the turmoil, and in particular from the dispiriting recognition that Israel is imperfect, they will both try to find ways to restore their own confidence in the Jewish state, in its wisdom, in its fundamentally pacific intentions, in its exceptionalism — and will assault anyone “out there” who dares to voice the very same criticisms they themselves secretly nurture.
Needless to say, doing conventional survey research on Jewish attitudes is therefore a hazardous undertaking. The assumed linkage between attitude and behavior, the correspondence between private perspective and political preference, is simply absent.
That is why Jews who may wish Israel would behave differently in one regard or another are perfectly satisfied that organizations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee seek to punish any government official whose sin is not in what he or she thinks of Israel’s behavior, but in what he or she says out loud. Even when what gets said out loud is no different from what Jews have felt, what they have even perhaps whispered to one another, there’s no room for it. Pillow talk is one thing; public criticism is seen as giving aid and comfort to Israel’s enemies.
And that is why, with varying degrees of discomfort, many Jews welcome the fervent endorsement of Israel’s most right-wing elements by some members of Congress (Dick Armey, Sam Brownback) and by Christian Zionists.
All this inevitably inhibits American policy. Yeats was both right and wrong: As he wrote, “things fall apart, the center cannot hold.” But then he added, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
Our best do not by any means lack conviction. But their readiness to give voice to their conviction is tempered by their fear. The worst know no such inhibition. And so their voice becomes the voice that’s heard.
It is a mistake to assert that as a people, we suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Our stress disorder is by no means after the trauma. For us, yesterday’s trauma still overwhelms and tomorrow’s trauma is imminent. And whoever does not take all that into account is bound to get it wrong — as Mearsheimer and Walt have.