Scarcely a month ago, New Republic editor Marty Peretz was chortling about how John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt “had a two-week run in the prints and blogs … and then, poof, they disappeared.” How desperately Peretz, whose magazine last spring published no less than four articles maligning the pair’s essay on the Israel lobby, must have wished this to be true. And how shaken he would have been to see the line snaking around the block outside Cooper Union’s Great Hall, pressing for scarce tickets. For not only had John Mearsheimer not disappeared, he was appearing on a great New York stage with NYU professor Tony Judt and Middle East scholar Rashid Khalidi, debating the Israel lobby with former Clinton aides Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk and the Israeli Shlomo Ben Ami.
There wasn’t a TV crew in sight, and inside the ambiance was middle-aged, those with the tedious foresight to book tickets early. My friend Philip Weiss (whose blog, mondoweiss.observer.com, has the most lucid commentary in America on matters related to the debate topic) pointed out New York publishing superstars within the buzzing crowd. We had, so it seemed, been magically transported to a pre-cable era when essays or books were the ignition wires of ideological politics—except the debate can be viewed at the London Review of Books website, where even a computer semiliterate like myself can manage to see it.
The most common tactic of opponents of Walt and Mearsheimer is to falsify or oversimplify their argument, knowing that the time and effort required to correct the falsehood leaves little room to advance the discussion. The pair are regularly said to accuse “Jews” of being involved in a “cabal” (or, as Marty Peretz put it, they “purported to prove that US foreign policy was run by the Jews for the interests of Israel and Israel alone”). Such was the general tenor of Indyk’s attacks during the debate, and he impressed no one. But M&W’s detractors did score occasionally. Ross argued that while the pair claimed the lobby had helped push the United States into the Iraq War, everyone knows the Democratic Party is more in thrall to AIPAC and its fundraising than the GOP. But, Ross noted triumphantly, if Gore had been elected there would have been no Iraq War. This was clever: to answer it would require a complicated unpacking of the lobby’s influence on Republicans through neocons and evangelical Zionists as opposed to Democrats—and one feels that Dennis Ross doesn’t really deserve to be lumped in with the likes of Doug Feith and David Frum. But most of the blows were glancing, and Mearsheimer and his supporters got to make effective and subtle points.
Judging by audience reaction, the best lines belonged to Tony Judt, a European history professor of British (and Jewish) origin at the top of his field, who has burst from an academic cocoon to become one of the country’s most important essayists in the realm where culture intersects foreign policy. Early on Judt quoted Arthur Koestler in support of the idea that the proper measurement of an argument is in its truth, and that it matters not at all whether bigots might make the same case for their own reasons. Koestler, some 50-plus years ago, had been explaining to American intellectuals that just because there were demagogic and ignorant anti-communists didn’t mean that communism wasn’t a real and evil force. Judt also let drop the bombshell that a major publication (most knew it was the New York Times) had asked him if he was Jewish while considering an article from him last spring on the Walt-Mearsheimer essay—his point being that the editors only felt it safe to allow criticism of the Israel lobby in their august pages if his answer were affirmative. He further related that he was told by Amos Elon, the Israeli author, that when Elon had asked an Israeli ambassador of the 1960s what had been his greatest accomplishment, the emissary replied, “I have convinced the Americans that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.”
Rashid Khalidi reminded the audience of the general vastness of the subject, which is hardly touched by examination of more discrete matters such as the lobby’s role in spurring high levels of aid to Israel or sparking the decision to attack Saddam. America’s entire Mideast conversation is tilted in one direction, shaping what legislation is written, how it is interpreted, how experts are credentialed or marginalized, how candidates run their campaigns. On any other political question—abortion, guns, health care—it is understood that there are two sides, but in the United States (and only in the United States), where Israel is concerned there is only one position. One need only note last summer’s 410-8 House vote in support of Israel’s campaign against Lebanon to realize that Khalidi is correct. Judt put a point on the argument: the “dual loyalty” charge is essentially meaningless in that many Americans—not just Jews, of course—so thoroughly identify Israel’s interests with America’s that there is really a single loyalty at work, so that skepticism about Israel’s policies is thus largely conceived of as un-American and explicable only by reference to dark impulses.
Shortly after the debate, I read that Walt and Mearsheimer have contracted to do a book expanding on the subject with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, a top publisher. This is welcome and surprising news. Last May, a friend well placed in the book industry told me he thought it extremely unlikely that a mainstream house would “take the risk” of signing a Walt-Mearsheimer book; their subject was simply too dangerous.
Of course, the lobby is still trying to suppress discussion. Several days after the debate, Tony Judt was scheduled to talk to a group called Network 20/20, which regularly meets at the Polish consulate in New York. Abe Foxman of the ADL got on the phone to the consulate, reminded the Poles how much damage he could do to them if he and his friends were to brandish the “anti-Semitism” club against Poland, and “poof” (to quote Marty Peretz again), the consulate called off Judt’s event.
There will surely be more of this in the months and years to come. But the cat is now out of the bag, and despite the lobby’s best effort to suppress it, there will be a more freewheeling debate about whether America’s Mideast policy should be so completely Israel-centric. The subject has simply become too important to ignore. During the Cold War, hawks like myself usually deferred to the Norman Podhoretzes on the Mideast—they obviously cared so much about it—and doves mostly limited their own campaigns to Central America and nuclear weapons. It was always easier to suppress doubts, if one had them, about Israel’s brutal treatment of the Palestinians since nothing good for one’s career or ability to influence any other cause could come from being labeled “anti-Israel.”
But with the Mideast now on the front burner, as even Bush administration officials acknowledge, America will have no allies whatsoever in the war against terrorists unless progress is made towards a fair settlement of the Palestine question; it is shameful to remain silent. Walt and Mearsheimer have opened the door, and others of great eminence have joined them. The Iraq War highlights the price of continued indifference or silence, and the price can only grow steeper.