The Debate on the Israel Lobby

Sometimes I wonder if Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby lives on the same planet that I do. Today he counters one of the major themes of the Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer's latest version of The Israel lobby—namely that the charge of anti-Semitism is thrown around recklessly and needlessly by far-right supporters of Israel and serves to stifle reasonable debate. Now I should note that I do not agree with every point that Walt and Mearsheimer make. I think they blame too much on the Israel lobby, while ignoring the geopolitical goals, both militarily and economically, of the United States in deciding which foreign policy initiatives to pursue. But the element of their thesis that Jacoby weakly tries to refute, I believe, stands up to scrutiny. Jacoby writes:

This accusation they label the "Great Silencer," one that has proven "a potent way to make sure that criticisms of Israel or the lobby were rarely spoken and were either ignored or disparaged when they were." Accordingly, Mearsheimer and Walt weren't surprised when leading booksellers refused to carry the "The Israel Lobby" and when attendance at their public appearances was suppressed. As they predicted, media outlets either refused to review their book, or published reviews that tarred them as anti-Semites. Such censorship and defamation are the price paid by anyone foolhardy enough to challenge Israel and, to coin a phrase, its amen corner in the United States. In another universe, that is.In this one, nothing could be further from the truth.

Jacoby then goes on to give, what he seems to believe is evidence to refute this notion.

He notes that the book is on sale and finding an audience, and that they are invited to speak at public forums and college campuses: "The Israel Lobby" is on sale everywhere. It debuted at Number 12 on The New York Times Best Sellers list, and Number 6 in the Los Angeles Times. Far from being stifled or ignored, Mearsheimer and Walt have had invitations aplenty to air their views, in venues as varied as NPR's "Fresh Air" and "On Point," the Los Angeles Times editorial board, and a standing-room-only crowd at Politics & Prose, the noted Washington bookstore.”

2. He notes that some writers are not calling them anti-Semites: “The media has neither cold-shouldered them nor deployed the "Great Silencer" to defame them. "Mearsheimer and Walt are not anti-Semites or racists," David Remnick declared flatly in The New Yorker. "They are serious scholars and there is no reason to doubt their sincerity

3.) He alleges, contrary to the claims by Walt/Mearsheimer and others, that there is a huge platform for critics of Israel in the US. “From Jimmy Carter to Noam Chomsky, from the media to academia, from the corridors of the UN to the "realists" of the State Department, Israel's detractors are loud and legion.”

There are several problems with Jacoby’s analysis here, not the least of which is the fact that the examples he provides do not at all counter the claim of Walt/Mearsheimer and others that critics of Israel are generally silenced or smeared.

Regarding point number 1): Jacoby argues that sales of their book is evidence against their claim that they are silenced. When, in fact, the sales of their books are totally irrelevant. For starters, one could easily make the case that high book sales helps to prove their thesis—that is to say because public criticism of Israel is so rare in the US media, that a book like The Israel lobby, serves to fill a vacuum. And if the sales were lackluster, Jacoby would no doubt attribute that to, as he writes, his belief that “in the marketplace of ideas, [the Israel lobby] is weak and unconvincing …. Mearsheimer and Walt are more than welcome to peddle their anti-Israel message. But when all is said and done, most Americans just don't buy it.” In the same paragraph, Jacoby notes that Walt and Mearsheimer have been invited to speak all over the country. This is true. But it is also true that there have been massive, very public efforts to silence them, and Jacoby does not even bother to address this. Richard Drake has written about a vicious smear campaign against the academics at the University of Montana, that was an attempt to keep the authors from speaking. Students at Harvard are chattering about similar campaigns at Harvard, where Alan Dershowitz (who predictably compared the authors to David Duke in an absurd retort to the original Israel lobby paper) has been stifling honest debate for years. Again, Jacoby’s omissions here are quite damning to his argument.

In point number 2), Jacoby does nothing but point out that three or four journalists did not explicitly call the authors anti-Semites (though tellingly, they felt compelled to deny that they were anti-Semites, which would not be needed if the accusation wasn't so often recklessly used). Again, this is true, but proves nothing. Jacoby, however, could have easily noted the other reviews on the original piece, which resorted to unsubstantiated and ridiculous accusations of bigotry. Abe Foxman called said their piece consisted of the “deadliest lies”; Marvin Kalb called them “classic conspiracy theorists” ; Christopher Hitchens strongly implied Antisemitism when he called the work “unmistakably smelly”; Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D- NY) said the authors were "entitled to their stupidity" and called the authors "anti-Semites,”a charge repeated in the Washington Post op-ed page by Elliot A Cohen. (To read the professors responses to their critics, click here)

Further, Jacoby does not mention the smears that have come to others who have been critical of Israeli policy. When Human Rights Watch issued a report that condemned Israel for violations of international law last summer, the organization and its executive director Ken Roth were smeared mercilessly. The New York Sun accused Roth of having a “clear pro-Hezbollah and anti-Israel bias.” the Jerusalem Post published an op-ed by Gerald Steinberg titled "Ken Roth's Blood Libel"; Rabbi Aryeh Spero compared Roth to “Nazis” and Foxman accused HRW of "immorality at the highest level. " Likewise, when Jimmy Carter released a book he was called an anti-Semite by many including Foxman. Of course, these critics are entitled to their opinion, no matter how cartoonish and misinformed, but without examples of similar instances of a campaign of vitriolic attacks waged at scholars on a different issue, Jacoby’s op-ed is woefully unconvincing.

Regarding the third point, Jacoby writes: “From Jimmy Carter to Noam Chomsky, from the media to academia, from the corridors of the UN to the "realists" of the State Department, Israel's detractors are loud and legion.”

The point here seems to be that criticism of Israel is indeed welcome in public discourse. So it is interesting that he would mention Noam Chomsky who, despite being the most quoted living author in the social sciences, cannot get published in an American newspaper. Nor can Robert Fisk, or any other dissident writer who is pointedly critical of Israel’s policies. Just look at Lexis-Nexis. Moreover, Walt and Mearsheimer could not find an American publication to print their paper. According to the Nation, it was accepted then rejected by the Atlantic, and they had to look to the UK for publication. If Israel’s detractors are loud and legion, it is in spite of efforts to marginalize them.

Of course, Jacoby can point to occasional instance of praise for Walt and Mearsheimer, or of criticism of Israel. The media in the US works within a narrow framework of acceptable debate, but it is not monolithic. But the pattern is clear: critics of Israel are largely shut out of the mainstream media and when they are not totally ignored—as HRW was earlier this month— they are attacked viciously. Jacoby can look at his own profession for evidence. I am sure any avid follower of the news could name five to ten columnists in mainstream papers that are staunch defenders of Israel foreign policy. How many columnists can he name that are equally sympathetic with the plight of the Palestinians?