In view of Israels impact on Americas place in the world, it is astonishing how little discussion its role has generated. As a practical matter, the subject has been taboo. John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, professors of political science at the University of Chicago and Harvards John F. Kennedy School of Government, respectively, have challenged this taboo in their new book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.
Foxman, in an effort to discredit them, has written a rejoinder in his book The Deadliest Lies: The Jewish Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control. …
Foxman is no doubt sincere in agonizing over the dangers that Jews have historically faced. But Howe argued that these dangers had become a vested interest for the leaders of Jewish organizations, making an open and honest debate all but impossible in American Jewish circles and in Americas political culture generally.
Foxman does not quite accuse Mearsheimer and Waltthough other disapproving critics doof being anti-Semitic. But he uses intimidating language nonetheless, pointing to a level of quiet, subtle bigotryan attitude that may not run to the actual hatred of Jews but that assumes that Jews are somehow different, less respectable, less honorable, more treacherous, more devious than other people. … Its only natural that people who exhibit this kind of bias against Jews should look a little askance at the special relationship that exists between American Jews and the nation of Israel.
One can admit the legitimacy of Foxmans warnings on anti-Semitism and still ask for the evidence of subtle bigotry in the Mearsheimer-Walt text. I found none, unless the reader accepts the premise that anti-Semitism is present in any scrutiny of relations between the U.S. government and American Jews, or the Israel lobby….
The producer of an evening news program in which I made a critical remark about Israeli policy informed me that the next morning the station had received a record number of denunciatory e-mails. He has since stopped inviting me on the show. …
Why, when it comes to AIPAC, do so many Americans abandon the skepticism they apply to other interests within the political spectrum? Europe is much less accommodating to Israel. AIPAC, naturally, blames the difference on Europes anti-Semitism, thoughapart from Europes Muslims, who start with political grievances against Israelthere is little evidence to support its theory. Mearsheimer and Walt credit AIPACs skillful manipulation of the system, but the search for an answer needs more.
Perhaps the answer has something to do with Americas being the most religious, the most Christian, the most church-going society in the Western world. Once upon a time, deeply held Christian faith could be taken as a measure of hostility to Jews; that certainly is the case no longer. If anything, American Christianityled by but not exclusive to evangelicalsseems to take the biblical promise of a homeland for the Jews as a test of its beliefs and a commitment of its own. This commitment goes beyond guaranteeing Israels existence. It provides a body of sympathy for Israels hard line, and for the economic aid and weaponry that the United States dispatches to support it….
Unfortunately, the pro-peace segment of the American Jewish community does not have a parallel lobby. It has a few organizations, with dedicated adherents. Its members try to persuade the American Jewish community that reaching out to the Arab world, and particularly to the Palestinians, is better for Israel than perpetual war.
AIPAC does its best to de-legitimize them, but they hang in stubbornly, though they are barely a whisper in the debate over Israels course. Despite the polls suggesting that many Jews agree with them, the influence of the peace groups is no threat to AIPACs pre-eminence. It is ironic that without Foxman and the like-minded critics who echo him, the Mearsheimer-Walt book might well have vanished with barely a ripple. Instead, their shrill voices have propelled it onto best-seller lists. Whether the books success means, however, that the American people and the politicians who lead them are readier than before to seriously consider the issues that it raises is still far from clear.
Milton Viorst, a former correspondent for The New Yorker, has written six books on the Middle East. His most recent is Storm from the East: The Struggle between the Arab World and the Christian West.
Eric Chinski, the editor of John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walts provocative new bestseller, asks the authors whether their book is good for the Jews and good for America. This interview originally appeared on the Web site of the publishing house Farrar, Straus and Giroux….
The book also addresses the widespread beliefas illustrated by Michael Moores documentary Fahrenheit 9/11that oil companies are the real driving force behind Americas Middle East policy, and explains why this view is incorrect…
Israel is not the strategic asset to the United States that many claim. Israel may have been a strategic asset during the Cold War, but it has become a growing liability now that the Cold War is over. Unconditional support for Israel has reinforced anti-Americanism around the world, helped fuel Americas terrorism problem, and strained relations with other key allies in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. The United States derives some tangible strategic benefits from its close security partnership with Israel, but it pays a high price for them. On balance, it is more of a liability than an asset.
Similarly, the moral case for unconditional U.S. support is not compelling. Israel is a democracy, but no other democracy gets the same level of support that Israel doesand so unconditionally. There is a strong moral case for Israels existence, which is why we support a Jewish state in Palestine and believe the U.S. should come to its aid if its survival is jeopardized. But many of Israels policiesespecially the continued occupation of the West Bank and its refusal to allow the Palestinians a viable state of their ownare at odds with key U.S. values. Viewed objectively, the early Zionists behavior during the founding of the Jewish state and Israels later behavior toward the Palestinians and its Arab neighbors undermine the myth of Israel as victim and the Arabs as aggressors.
The strategic and moral rationales for unconditional U.S. support have grown weaker since the end of the Cold War, yet U.S. support has continued to increase. This anomaly suggests that some other factor is at work…
Do you think the Israel lobbys tactics sometimes go beyond acceptable interest-group politics?
Unfortunately, yes. Although most of the lobbys tactics are legitimate forms of political participation, some groups and individuals in the lobby also try to silence or marginalize opponents and critics by smearing them as anti-Semites or self-hating Jews. This sort of response was evident in the personal attacks directed at Jimmy Carter for writing a controversial book about Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories, and in the efforts of the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League to prevent the historian Tony Judt from giving a lecture on the Israel lobby to a group in New York City. True anti-Semitism is loathsome and should be firmly opposed, but using this sort of accusation to silence or marginalize critics is antithetical to the principles of free speech and open debate on which democracy depends.
Why is it so difficult to talk about the role of the Israel lobby?
Primarily because of the many centuries of anti-Semitism in the Christian West, which culminated in the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust. Given this long history of sometimes violent persecution, Jewish Americans (and many gentiles) are understandably sensitive to any argument that is critical of Israel or of the political influence of groups in which Jews are central participants….
Do you think the upcoming 2008 presidential campaign will provide a chance for the Israel lobbys influence to be discussed?
Regrettably, no. The candidates will undoubtedly disagree on a wide array of domestic and foreign-policy issues: health care, education, taxes, the environment, what to do in Iraq, how to deal with a rising China, etc. But the one issue on which there will be virtually no debate is the question of whether the United States should continue to give Israel unconditional backing. Even though almost everyone recognizes that U.S Middle East policy is a disaster, no serious candidate is going to suggest anything other than steadfast and largely unconditional support for Israel. Indeed, all the major candidates (Clinton, Edwards, McCain, Obama, Romney, etc.) have already expressed their strong and uncritical backing for Israel, even though the campaign is just getting underway. Not only is this situation bad for the United States, it is also not good for Israel. The United States would be a better ally if its leaders could make support for Israel more conditional and if they could give their Israeli counterparts more candid and critical advice without facing a backlash from the Israel lobby.
What in your view should the U.S.-Israel relationship look like? What should the lobbys role be?
The United States has three strategic interests in the Middle East: maintaining the flow of Persian Gulf oil to world markets, discouraging the spread of WMD, and reducing anti-American terrorism from this region. It is also committed to Israels survival, but on moral rather than strategic grounds. Instead of garrisoning the region with its own troops or attempting to transform the entire region, the United States should act as an offshore balancer. The United States does not need to control the Middle East itself; it merely needs to prevent any hostile power(s) from controlling the region. To do that, Washington should strive to maintain a balance of power in the region and intervene with its own forces only when local actors cannot uphold the balance themselves, as it did when it liberated Kuwait in 1991.
As part of this strategy, the United States would begin to treat Israel like a normal state, rather than as the 51st state. Israel is nearly 60 years old, increasingly prosperous, and now officially recognized by the vast majority of the worlds nations. The United States should deal with it as it does with other democracies: backing Israel when its policies are consistent with U.S. interests, but opposing it when they are not. And the United States should use its considerable leverage to fashion a durable two-state solution, as it is the only outcome that is consistent with U.S. values and with the long-term interests of both America and Israel.
Achieving this shift will require overcoming the opposition from the most powerful groups in the lobby, like AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents. This goal can be achieved if there is a more open debate about the lobbys role in shaping U.S. policy, more widespread awareness of Israels history and behavior, and a candid discussion within Americas pro-Israel community. Instead of trying to weaken or counter the lobby, one may hope that moderate pro-Israel organizations will become more influential, and that the leading organizations realize that the hard-line positions they have espoused in the past have been counterproductive. If these groups can bring their impressive influence to bear in more constructive ways, U.S. policy will be more in line with its national interests, and better for Israel too.